THE LAND OF THREE HOUSES
A Damsel with a Dulcimer
Context: William Sterner’s ship was captured by a French privateer as it neared Livorno. He was wounded when the tops of the masts were shot away during the capture. William is sent to Leonardo d’Losada’s villa to receive medical care.
…By the end of the week he felt considerably better. After bathing, shaving, and breakfast, William was directed by Filippo to the parlor downstairs where Rebekah sat waiting.
“Are you feeling better today?” she asked.
“Considerably. The bath did wonders.” He eased himself into a leather armchair.
“Two of my friends from Switzerland are staying in town and I have invited them to see a few of the sights. If you feel up to it, you are welcome to come.”
“I’d like that.”
A few minutes later an open carriage drawn by two horses pulled up to the front door. He and Rebekah sat in the back. She gave the driver instructions to take them to the Hotel Gran Ducca. Two blocks down they passed the Monumento dei Quattro Mori, a marble statue of Ferdinando de’Medici standing triumphant over four Moorish pirates in chains on the pedestal.
“This statue was commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando I to celebrate his victory over piracy,” said Rebekah. “The hotel where my friends are staying is down the street near the harbor.”
Rebekah hailed a young woman and an older gentleman wearing a beaver top hat lounging on a marble bench outside the entrance. The driver stopped the carriage and got out to help them climb inside. William stood and tipped his hat as they entered. Rebekah told the driver to take them to the Piazza Grande. She introduced her friends as Madame Germaine de Staël and Monsieur Edouard Churchod.
Germaine de Staël was in her early twenties, sensual, with short curly locks, and dressed in an expensive traveling suit. She took the seat opposite William.
“What brings you to Livorno?” William asked.
“I’m gathering material for a novel that takes place in Italy. Uncle Edouard asked me to keep him company on his business trip.” She studied William with her large, almond shaped eyes. “My husband and I have separated, so I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.”
“I’m glad you came,” William replied, smiling.
“The Baron’s such an old pooh, he was just after her dowry,” remarked Edouard.
“It was an arrangement that didn’t work out. In all fairness, my salon was a political embarrassment for him. The Baron was a decent man. I don’t know how he succeeded in tolerating me for so many years. He deserves credit for that. With King Louis gone, he had no place in the new order of things. I am grateful it was amiable.”
“What sort of business are you in, Monsieur Churchod?” asked William.
“I’m a financier with Necker and Company. Now that the Austrians are out, there is a lot of money changing hands and I’m here to help. The English aren’t the only ones who are leaving Livorno; the old wealth is being evacuated, too. The British shipped a lot of their goods to Corsica, but the financial reserves of Tuscany are going to Switzerland and Rome. There’s a good profit to be made in the exchange rates when money is moved. With change, there is opportunity.”
“I’m all for profit,” William replied bitterly, “but my ship and crew were impounded by the new empire. Everything I have is tied up in them. I’m ruined.”
“Rebekah told me what happened. I’m not surprised you are bitter,” said Madame de Staël. “Napoleon took Italy so quickly, who would have thought it could happen so fast? I am afraid of the future. His brain is not as big as his head; he’ll never be content.”
“Napoleon forced Germaine to leave Paris and exiled her to Coppet,” said Rebekah. “She’ll be in danger if his spies find out she is here and not in Switzerland.”
“If Germaine behaves and keeps a low profile, we’ll be back before they notice she’s been gone,” said Edouard.
Germaine made a pouting face.
“You say you are ruined, Mr. Sterner,” said Edouard, “but don’t give up hope. France would be hurting itself if it seized your ship and all the assets in Livorno. If word got out, no one would come to trade any more. A long term approach to solving its financial woes would better serve its interests instead of plundering.”
William’s knuckles whitened on the head of his cane. “I haven’t given up hope, but I’m not clear on what options are open to me. Hopefully Signore d’Losada can help me reclaim my ship. Perhaps some bargain can be struck.”
“Bargaining is your best recourse. It’s always about the money in the end. France is in a financial predicament and Napoleon has been sent to forage for money, but they are too hasty. If Livorno is closed down and trade comes to a halt, a great asset will be lost and it will lose its place in the world, hardly worth the price of its capture. But if France imposes tax and tariffs instead, a steady stream of revenue will be generated. It’s far more intelligent than looting ships and art.”
“Leave the problems of the world for later,” Rebekah admonished. “I promised William a tour of the town.”
“Where are the soldiers?” asked Edouard.
“I heard they were sent to Mantua. They’ve been gone about two weeks,” said Rebekah. “I thought we could drive up the Via Grande to the Piazza to see the Cattedrale di San Fansesco. The cathedral has some beautiful paintings.” 133
The carriage made its way up the Via Grande, lined with jewelers, haberdasheries, and publishing houses. Loggias overhung the street to provide pedestrians shade from the bright Tuscan sun, but as they continued, it was apparent the usual crowds were missing. The furniture shops, apothecaries, bistros and cafes were half deserted.
“They say Philadelphia is the Athens of the new world, William. What do you think of Livorno?” Rebekah asked.
“Philadelphia is a fine city, very clean and new. Here everything is old. It has a history. There aren’t many people out, though.”
Rebekah nodded. “It usually is very crowded. Things aren’t back to normal yet.”
“At least they aren’t hiding from the plague,” said William.
“This was once a small fishing village, then the Medicis started to build it up when Pisa clogged with silt,” she explained as they drew near the cathedral. “It was new in the Renaissance. This is The Duomo.”
It took the foursome a few moments to adjust to the dim light and coolness inside the cathedral, better known by the Livornese as The Duomo. It was not the grandest of all cathedrals, but was elegant in its simplicity and coffered ceilings. Several marble altars graced the lengthy sides. They gazed from a respectful distance at Ligozzi’s painting, Triumph of Saint Julia, hanging above the main altar.
“The one on the left is The Assumption of the Virgin by Passignano, and the other is Saint Francis of Assisi by Jacopo Chimenti da Empoli,” said Germaine, pointing. “But of all the Renaissance painters, Michelangelo is my favorite, especially his Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. It was in the Renaissance that man realized God put him in charge of his own life; things weren’t just going to be done for him anymore. The spirit, the divine spark, was given to him by the Creator. You can see it arcing from the hand of God into the waiting outstretched hand of Adam. The active divine force is passed like a baton to mankind. Now man must shape the world as the instrument of that force. But if it were up to me, I think Eve would have been a better choice than Adam. Woman is the one who creates life. Man comes from the woman, not woman from the rib of man. We have all been told a great fairy tale, and in that incredible introduction to the beginning, have been lured to swallow the rest of the story, lock, stock and barrel.”
Edouard put a finger to his lips. “Watch what you are saying, Germaine. The priest over there may be listening.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t speak English.”
“You said you would behave.”
“Come over here,” said Rebekah. She led them to one of the side altars with a reredos of marble angels and columns. “Where is the painting? It’s gone! The Christ Crowned with Thorns is gone.”
“Germaine read aloud the inscription from beneath where the painting had hung: ‘Vincenti dabo manna absconditum.’”
“To him that overcometh I will give the hidden manna,” said the priest standing behind them. “And a new name. It’s from Revelations,” he added, smiling at Germaine.
“Your English is quite good, Father, I apologize for my rudeness.”
“No offense is taken, you were speaking your mind openly, and that is your privilege. I have attended some of your talks, Madame de Staël. You have a mind that is not confined by convention – you are an artist. I, on the other hand, believe only the scriptures reveal the truth.”
Germaine returned his smile. “Thank you, I am not offended either.”
“Can you tell us what happened to the painting?” asked Rebekah.
“It is in a safe place, signorina. The Bonaparte sent some men here on a looting expedition. They told us it would ease the terms of our surrender if we supplied the Fra Angelico. That will never happen. They are in a safe place.”
“To steal the art of a culture is to steal its soul, it is the worst kind of plunder,” said Germaine.
“Sì, è il peggiore, the worst,” the priest replied.
Edouard dropped a silver coin in the alms box as they left The Duomo.