Sunlight spilled in through billowing curtains to frame the lord of Verona and his honored guests in the arched loggia. The open side of the long covered balcony faced east, providing a magnificent view of the Adige River.
It was not, however, the view one first noticed upon entering. Cangrande della Scala would stand out in any gathering. His chestnut hair was sun-bleached a dark gold and hung to frame his muscular jaw. Well over six feet tall, practically a giant, and the posessor of enormous energy, even in repose his movements were crisp and economical. As much hawk as hound, thought Pietro, seeing both kinds of animals scattered among the crowd. A fraction of Cangrande’s hawk collection was here, at ease on wooden stands that bore the marks of their pounces. Several guests were attempting to feed the blindfolded birds without losing fingers.
At the Capitano’s feet were a pair of wolf-hounds. Huge, with long narrow faces, they looked the most feral of creatures until Cangrande reached out a hand, whereupon they became puppies, craving attention from their master.
One dog lay before them in the position of dominance. This was a fine, wiry greyhound with the characteristic long face and curved teeth. Cangrande tossed him a little something, and he fetched it back quick as a wink. As he settled in again to gnaw at it at his master’s feet, Pietro saw his back-cloth was embroidered with the silver ladder and imperial eagle – the della Scala family crest. Under the cloth the beast’s fur was long and slightly matted, showing it was one of the tougher breed of that dog known as the veltro – a term that was also synonymous with bastard. For those who called Cangrande ‘Il Veltro’, there was always that extra, amusing, connotation.
Seated in the place of honor to the Capitano’s left was Pietro’s father. Born Durante Alighieri di Fiorenza, he was now known to the cultured world as the poet Dante. A head and a half shorter than the young lord of Verona, he suffered mightily in comparison. His movements were jerky and incomplete, and his breathing audible. His frame was mostly hidden beneath a gonella, the comfortable long gown favored by scholars, and his head was covered by the hooded cappuccio. Both garments were of black and scarlet, expensively dour colors. Like Pietro, Dante possessed a patrician face with an aquiline nose and large eyes. His jaw was large too, and the lower lip protruded a bit past the upper. But unlike his brown-haired son, his hair and beard were thick, black, and shiny.
As Mariotto and Pietro stood in the doorway of the loggia, servants rushed over to wash their hands. Watching them approach Pietro saw the need for the slippers. The palace floor was not covered in the usual straw rushes, but bare marble. Great care was taken to keep mud and filth outside. The dogs must drive the servants insane, Pietro thought.
As the servants tended to them, Mariotto whispered. “There, in the deep green, that's Passerino Bonaccolsi, Podestà of Mantua – it’s said he’s Cangrande’s best friend, but there’s politics there, so you never know. Next to him, in the fur, that's Guglielmo da Castelbarco-Stick-In-The-Mud. He recently became the armorer for our army, and makes a nice bit of money from it. The one playing with the bread-knife is Federigo della Scala – a remote cousin. He’s a little quiet, but he defended the city brilliantly this summer. And there, standing just behind the Capitano, is Nicolo da Lozzo, but Cangrande calls him Nico. He’s young, only a little older than the Capitano, and he’s the army's second-in-command. The post was given to him as a reward for deserting Padua, and he’s doing very well with it…” Mariotto continued naming all the powerful men gathered in this room. Pietro took in each one with interest, though he doubt he’d remember many names. Bonaccolsi he’d heard of, and da Lozzo. For the rest, some of the surnames were familiar. Those denied the regal daybeds either stood or sat on cushioned boxes and stools.
Mariotto paused, looking at a broad-shouldered man with long hair braided at the back of his head. The deep blue of the ribbon that held the braid distracted the eye from the traces of silver and white that were mixed with the black and deep brown. Pointing to him, Mari said, “I don’t know who that is.”
Pietro said, “That’s Uguccione della Faggiuola, my father’s current patron. He brought us here to renew father’s introduction to the Scaliger – though I think he wants to use us to impress Cangrande. He needs an ally in the north.”
Looking wise, Mariotto nodded. “Ah.”
“He also bought me my old hat.”
Mariotto grinned. Uguccione looked up and gave Dante’s son a cheerful nod. Pietro was in the midst of waving back when a prickling sensation crept up his spine. His eyes traveling a few feet beyond the Pisan lord, he saw his father's gaze fixed upon him. A muscle below the poet's left eye twitched as his eyes flickered up a fraction to take in the new hat. Pietro felt his blood drain to his knees.
Pietro strained to filter out the several conversations along the loggia to hear what his father and Cangrande were discussing. They were debating with a young abbot, a bishop whose aged gonella swept the floor, and a midget with a wide nose and dark skin. This last was dressed extravagantly, with bells on his cuffs in an outlandish parody of style.
“Clement is dead,” said the elder clergyman. “The Church should move to reclaim the papacy from Philip!”
“What does the nationality of your pope matter?” asked the garish midget, tone innocuous.
Pietro’s father and the old man both responded with varying degrees of heat, yet their sentiment was the same. Dante just expressed it better. “My dear misguided juggler – through converting the noble pagans of ancient Roma to Christianity, God chose Italy to be the seat right royal of his faith. Rome is the true home of the papacy, and the office belongs to an Italian! You are a Jew. Compare the exile of the papacy in France to the Babylonian Captivity, and you will perhaps grasp the significance.”
“Italy is a myth,” said the motley fool. “An intellectual’s conceit. A philospoher’s fancy. Or a poet’s.”
“A dream of truth is no fancy, fool.”
“Yet the last Italian Pope was no friend to you, poet.”
“True, fool, but a French pope is friend to no one.”
Mariotto tugged Pietro’s sleeve and together they drifted towards the raucous sounds of those nearer their own age, talking war. The bridegroom was at their center, answering questions put to him by a large, well-muscled fellow with a thatch of unruly sand-colored hair. But the majority of the groom’s friends were only interested in plying him with liquid courage and eliciting love poetry from him. “Ah, Constanza!” he sighed, earning a chorus of catcalls. Pietro and Mariotto joined in.
“I should be so lucky,” groused a man in his twenties, muscular and broad-shouldered, handsomely bearded. Absentmindedly tricking with a scrap of rope, he smiled even as he complained, “I'll never get married!”
The groom cried, “Of course you won't, Bonaventura! You've managed to get on the wrong side of every father in Verona!”
“I know it!” growled the grouser, hunching forward, the rope suddenly lifeless.
Someone else joined in. “Ever since your father – God rest his blessed soul – kicked off, you've been on a rampage! Wine, women and song!
“Not too many songs, I think,” said the groom. “Mainly wine and women.”
“Don't forget his hundred falcons!”
Bonaventura said, “If I don't marry soon, I won't have any money left!”
The groom said, “Well, you better start looking outside Verona’s walls.”
“There’s a world outside Verona’s walls?”
“You better hope so. If not, you'll die a bachelor.” The groom's eyes were taking on the sly look drunks get. “Maybe we'll win this war with Padua soon. Then you can go there and steal a wealthy Paduan heiress.”
The rope began to dance again as Bonaventura grew thoughtful. “A Paduan heiress...”
“Oh, yeah, the women there have the biggest...” The groom sighed. “But I’m married now! Ah, Costanza!” The jeers began anew.
A hand descended on Mariotto’s shoulder. “Son. A moment.” Lord Montecchio spoke softly to his son in a manner that young Alaghieri knew all too well. Pietro decided perhaps he ought to join his father's conversation. Just to be safe.
As he shuffled through the circle of adults he could hear the abbot speaking vehemently. He had evidently departed from the topic of the papacy, for the object of the abbot’s ire was now Dante himself.
“There cannot be more than one Heaven! Even the pagan heretic Aristotle affirms that this cannot be so. The very first lines of his ninth chapter on the heavens states it irrefutably.”
“Thank you.” The poet’s lagubrious lips formed a sinister, lop-sided smile that Pietro knew well. Dante Alaghieri did not suffer fools gladly. “You have just made my point. There cannot be more than one Heaven, you say. But you then refer to the plurality – the heavens. How are we to reconcile this?”
The Abbot, who bore a vague resemblance to the Scaliger, sputtered. “A figure of speech – the heavens refer to the skies, not the greater Heaven above!”
The little man with the bells spoke. “I am surprised, lord Abbot, that you are so public with your confessions.”
The little man flipped over to stand on his head. “Reading the Greek is heresy, and punishable by death. You must have friends in high places.” The Abbot blushed and sputtered. “But I will join you on the pyre, for I too have read his works – worse, I’ve read The Destruction. As I recall, dear Abbot, Aristotle had a numerical fixation not unlike our infernal friend's here. But whereas monsignore,” he nodded to Dante, “obsesses in noveni, the Greek was more economical. Did he not say there were three ‘heavens?’”
“Bait someone else, jester,” replied the abbot. “He was acknowledging the common uses of the word. Aristotle then goes on to insist that there is only one Heaven, for nothing can exist outside of Heaven.”
Cangrande sat forward, perfect teeth flashing in a grin. “Now I’m ashamed I haven’t read Aristotle. Does that mean we are now in Heaven? Doesn't seem we have much to look forward to.” The low ripple of amusement in the crowd was mostly genuine. The Scaliger leaned forward, running a hand over the shoulders of a hound. His eyes narrowed. “I am interested, though, in the idea of three in one. Was it an early prophecy of the Trinity? Should we count Aristotle among the Prophets?”
The Abbot snorted. “No doubt Monsignor Alighieri would agree. He certainly made a saint of that pagan scribbler Virgil. So many pagan poets and philosophers got fine treatment, while good churchmen were lambasted. But you missed one, Alighieri! I didn't notice the Greek philosopher Zeno in your journey through Hell.”
The aquiline lips curled beneath the black beard. “That doesn't mean he isn't there. There are so many souls, I did not have time to name them all. If there was anyone you are particularly curious about, I'll inquire on my next visit.”
The crowd erupted. Only Pietro knew how hard Dante had to work to maintain his composure. Embedded in his many fine qualities, Pietro’s father was uncomfortable in crowds. Over the years he’d learned to mask his discomfort with an acerbic wit.
Over the noise the Abbot levelled an accusing finger. “You, sir, are a pagan, posing as a Christian.”
“Better that than an ass posing as a lamb of God.” Beneath a fresh spate of laughter Dante’s head turned and his eyes fixed on Pietro. Oh no, thought Pietro. Recusing himself, Dante crooked a finger to beckon him forward. “My lords, this is my elder son. Pietro, remind our host, what were the three types of heaven Aristotle named?”
Pietro wanted to hide himself in the fluttering drapes. So here it is, he thought, the punishment for being late. And for the hat. First the Abbot is put down for calling Virgil a scribbler. Now it’s my turn. He spied his little brother’s large grin in the crowd. Shut up, twerp. Endeavoring to recall his lessons, he took a breath. “The first he uses is closest to what we mean by Heaven. It is the seat of all that is Divine.”
“Correct. And the Second?”
“Next, he uses heaven to encompass the stars, the moon, and the sun. The heavens of astrology.”
Pietro hoped his father would expound and expand, but all he was rewarded with was a curt nod. “And the third?”
“The third... it's… well, ah –”
Pietro took a chance. “It’s – it’s everything. The whole universe. It's the totality of the world, everything in and around us. Just as all the pagan gods were only aspects of Jupiter, or Zeus, so all living beings are – are aspects of heaven.”
Dante gazed at his son. “Crudely put. But not inaccurate.”
Thank God Antonia isn't here. Pietro’s sister would have quoted it, exactly. In Greek.
Cangrande’s voice was rich and deep. “Sounds like Bolognese rhetoric. The body, the body, the body is all. So, Abbot, it seems Heaven is all around us. Is that your argument? Are we indeed inside Heaven without our knowing it?”
Before the Abbot could answer, the fool in silk raised his head. “I don't know about your faith – I try not to learn more than I have to of the divine Carpenter – but mine says that man was created outside Heaven. And that Lucifer was cast out of Heaven for warring against Jehovah. How can you be cast out of the infinite?”
“God logic!” sneered the Abbot. “We need no theology here, however fashionable. What is, is!”
Dante said, “The fool raises an interesting question. Aristotle was, of course, discussing more the nature of Physics than that of Astrology. But we have strayed. I did not say that there was more than one Heaven. I said that the heavens were written, and must be read. I apologize for my use of the word ‘heavens'. I should have said ‘the stars'.”
The Abbot stamped his foot. “I object to the idea that the – that Heaven is a book! No doubt you think it is written in the vernacular as well?” Pietro’s father had written L’Inferno in the tongue the churchmen called vulgare, eschewing the Latin of the scholars. He maintained that vulgare was what the Romans had spoken a thousand years before, while the Church Latin was far removed from the common speech of all Italians, past and present. Ironically enough, he’d written his treatise praising the common tongue in Latin.
In place of defending vulgare, Dante said, “The Book of Heaven is written in a universal language, for it is our universe. It is the language spoken by all the world before the Tower of Babel. When God created the planets and stars, he gave us a map of our Fate. By reading the stars, we create ourselves. It takes a willful act upon the part of the reader to interpret that Fate. You would know that if you were a true pastor.”
Before the abbot could reply Cangrande leaned forward, radiating intensity. “You're saying that how a man interprets the stars affects how his life will run?”
Nearby, the Bishop shook his head. “That seems to mean there is a fixed path to man’s journey. That is predestination, and clearly contrary to church doctrine.” At his elbow the Abbot stamped his foot for emphasis.
Dante smiled. “Imagine you are reading a book – any book. The author has written a lovely poem, with a picture clear in his mind. He describes a cloud-laden sky. When you read over his words, an entirely different picture comes to your mind's eye. Where for him the skies are full of puffy white clouds, you imagine them to be grey and full of evil portents. You are not wrong, the picture is your own. It is not, however, what the author intended. The act of reading changes both the poem, and the reader.
“Thus it is with the stars. Astrology is a science as much about man as about the celestial spheres. It is not enough to observe them. They must be interpreted actively. On those interpretations rest our Fates, individual and collective.”
Cangrande’s interest was palpable. “So, the Lord has given us the song of each life, but it is up to us to sing it well?”
One bored man shifted his legs and said, “It's a shame, then, O great Capitano, that your own singing makes your dogs run and hide.”
“Truth from Passerino!” cried someone else.
Cangrande was the first to laugh, and the loudest, but his eyes remained on Dante. “Well, poet?”
An audition. Or a challenge. Or acknowledgement of a test already passed? “It is well put, my lord. It takes an act of will on both the part of the Divine Author and the humble mortal reader to create a destiny. God has made his will known – but are we intelligent enough to read it in his stars?”