Saturday, 26 November 1328
Verona’s enduring war with Padua ended not with a clash of steel, but a peal of bells. Wedding bells. The leading families of each city were sealing their recent bond of peace in matrimonial bliss, a double ceremony tying the kindred of Cangrande della Scala, Capitano da Verona, to that of Marsilio da Carrara, Capitano da Padua.
But whatever talk there was of union and partnership, one family would clearly dominate. Just as it was women marrying Cangrande’s male relations, so Padua was vowing to love, honour, and obey Verona. After fifteen years of war, punctuated by brief periods of truce, one city had achieved a decisive victory by wedding the other.
The blessed date was set for the 26th of November, and the two months prior were a frantic rush unparralled in the history of either city.
To start, Carrara surprised everyone by recalling all the Paduan exiles save two. Padua’s internal strife had been far more destabilizing than the war itself, rising to such a crescendo of violence and betrayal that it was preferable for Carrara to hand the city to the enemy than to trust his own family. Thus his cousin Niccolo did not receive a pardon.
Nor did the poet Albertino Mussato, who’d savaged Marsilio’s disastrous rule and even this recent salvation. Mussato’s continued exile entirely suited Cangrande, who had never quite forgiven the poet for the literary tongue-lashing he’d delivered the Scaliger in the play Ecerinis.
The double wedding promised to be the grandest event in Veronese history – quite a statement, as Cangrande kept a lavish court. But for this, no expense was spared. Delightfully, many needs were supplied by gifts from other cities. Verona’s allies – Mantua, Bergamo, Cremona, and Vizenza – all sent presents of food, drink, and expensive wedding trinkets, while Lucca donated huge rolls of their famous cloth. The most surprising gift came from the Venitians. In the place of the traditional gold cup for the bride, they sent two heavy goblets of flawless blue glass, one for each couple. One might even think they approved.
These signs of respect were evidence of Cangrande’s growing pre-eminence. By conquering Padua, the Scaliger had arguably become the most powerful man in Italy, and the way it had been done – peacefully, reasonably – only enhanced his stature. Cangrande was now the undisputed leader of the Ghibbelline party, controlling all the Feltro – almost. There was no gift from the Trevisans. They were too occupied in fortifying their walls.
But the certainty of war with Treviso was overshadowed by the incredible goings-on inside Verona. Men from the guilds capered in the streets as if it were Carne Vale, dressed in silks and linens dyed every colour the rainbow could offer. Entertainers of every stripe descended on the city in droves, housed at the Scaliger’s expense. Actors, musicians, painters, poets, magicians, dancers, riders, and jugglers were put to work at once, with impromptu plays, shows, and concerts at all hours, in every square.
Verona already owned a reputation for games, races, and contests. The hunts during the late Cecchino della Scala’s wedding were fabled in song and story, the annual twin races known as the Palio were legendary, and the tourney two years past had been as exciting as the ancient bouts in Rome’s Colosseum. But these wedding celebrations promised to show them all up as cheap and tawdry masques.
Cangrande had always been praised for his open-handed ways, but now florins and ducats flowed as if carried down the Alps along the Adige River. Not that he spent his own money, or even much of the city’s. As the bride, Padua was forced to offer a substantial dowry to defray the cost of these nuptual extravagences.
After weeks of revels and sport, the promised day arrived. The private stages of the marriage, the impalmamento and sponsalia, had already been performed. Today was matrimonium, the ring-day, a ceremony that was particularly Italian. Germans and Frenchmen exchanged rings upon betrothal, but in Italy the ring set the seal on the marriage.
Verona was packed to bursting. Nobles from France, Germany, Brabant, Burgundy, Aragon, Sicily, Zeeland, Denmark and other nearby nations flocked for the event, only to find the city already teeming with citizens from all over the Italian peninsula. Even the Emperor had overlooked his festering discontent with the Scaliger to send some of his favoured knights and courtiers. One of the bridegrooms had been his personal page for over a year, and Ludwig da Bayer still held out hope to woo the young man to his court permenantly.
Excitement rippled through the air even before the breaking of day. All men knew that Manuel the Jew, Cangrande’s aged Master of Revels, meant this to be his swan song, the pinnacle of his career. This caused a vibrating anticipation for a day planned to the smallest detail.
It began, as all weddings should, with music. At first it was simply a select band of strings to greet the pre-dawn light. The musicians were placed on balconies and rooftops across the city, filling the air overhead with their sustained airy notes. After an hour the fifes joined in, livening the jostle and bustle of the eager crowd. More wind instruments followed and finally, scant minutes before the procession began, drums. But these drums were not situated in the open air. Rather, they were placed below the earth, in the excavated Roman ruins beneath the Piazza della Signoria and the Piazza della Erbe. Thus the throbbing pulse seemed to rise from the very earth itself.
The streets were packed, ripe targets for the various low thieves and rascals who knew how to cut a purse, steal a ring from a finger, or strip a man of his best knife without giving the slightest sign. For practical reasons, only knights were allowed to go armed. Knights, and the city guards, resplendent in their bright yellow and blue garb. On their striped tabards each bore the seal of the great Scaligeri house, the ladder with the two-headed eagle at the top and the snarling hound at the base. Their halberds were bedecked in garlands, demonstrating the victory of peace over war that these marriages symbolized.
Suddenly the drums stopped, and the air shuddered in a blare of trumpets. The doors to Cangrande’s new palace were flung wide and twenty small, angelic children issued forth, strewing rose-petals in their wake, followed by the most skilled acrobats and jugglers the city could offer. Next came the priests and monks, holy men without family to elevate them to notoriety. Solomn as they could manage, some could not help smiling, their joy mirroring that of the souls under their care.
Then the gentry appeared, the mounted knights and nobles from both cities. They rode in matched pairs, one Paduan riding to the left of one Veronese. This was no traditional parade, with the most important at the head, but more in the mode of an ancient Roman Triumph, building man after man to the most illustrious.
Yet they started strong. Leading the way were Baptista Minola, whose son-in-law was Veronese, and Gugliermo del Castelbarco, Cangrande’s most valued senior statesman. They were followed by Nico da Lozza, who long ago had traded Padua’s colours for Cangrande’s, and his cousin Schinelli, who had refused to change sides. Blood enemies, they now smiled for all the world.
More famous Veronese faces, paired with their Paduan opposites. Some of the loudest cheers were for Petruchio da Bonaventura, he of the mad Paduan wife. Bonaventura rode beside his lifelong friend, Hortensio Alvarotti, namesake of Bonaventura’s second son. They chatted and waved, clearly well-pleased that they could now live in public as well as private amity.
Some men had no link, were placed together only to honour their status. Others were more awkward, as the pairing of Antonio Capulletto with Ubertino da Carrara. Capulletto had once been betrothed to Ubertino’s cousin, only to have her run off with his best friend. It was an eternally-festering sore, causing a quietly simmering feud. But Antony, no one’s fool, put on a brave face for the crowd.
Not far behind Capulletto rode that same former friend. As Mariotto Montecchio was wed to a Paduan noblewoman, he was among the last duos to issue forth from the Scaligeri palace. His partner for the ride was a relation by marriage, Tiso da Camposampiero, though they had never met outside a battlefield.
Nearing the ultimate set of riders came four of Scaligeri sympathy, tied by blood and marriage. Antonio and Bailardino da Nogarola, along with Bail’s two sons Bailardetto and Valentino. They were paired with four of the Papafava clan, who were tied to the Carrarese much the same way the Nogaola family was to the Scalageri.
It was well known that young Detto had ridden to secure one bride of today’s brides. Dressed in purple and gold, a sign of great honour ahead, his head should have been high. Yet he looked utterly sad. He did not wave or smile, but kept his eyes fixed rigidly upon his father’s back, as though drawing strength from his sire’s gregarious, warlike bulk.
Next came the only rider without a mate. The rumoured architect of this grand peace, Ser Pietro Alaghieri had been given the great honour of riding in solitary prominence. Known as a knight of scrupulous honour, and recently returned to the light of God, he was said to be the Scaliger’s most trusted confidant. Hadn’t he been given the care of raising Cangrande’s secret heir? Hadn’t he gone to Avignon to plead the Scaliger’s reinstatement by the Pope? Hadn’t he been wounded fighting the Paduans, and yet devised this victorious, glorious peace? Moreover, was he not the son of the great poet Dante, who had braved Hell in order to achieve Heaven?
Certainly his son looked as though he’d shared his father’s journey, so grim and tired and sad all at once. Like Detto before him, he looked braced more for a funeral than a wedding.
Ah, but the next pair bore smiles that angels would have envied. Cangrande della Scala and Marsilio da Carrara rode side by side, dressed in the colours of their cities, but reversed – the Paduan wore Verona’s gold and azure, while Cangrande was draped in the crimson and white of Padua. Both were handsome, and Cangrande had shed some of the weight he had gained in recent years, making him look even younger than his modest thirty-eight years. Just three years younger, Carrara was dark of hair and of eye. Handsome, he still paled in comparison to the great man beside him.
It was not years that gave the Scaliger such a dominance, nor was it his position as the victor. There was something innate in the man, something grand and eternal, that drew every eye. It did not hurt that his flawless smile was famous the across the known world, or that his chestnut hair frames orbs of such unearthly blue that women had made fools of themselves just to be seen by those eyes. Decisive, cunning, foresighted, generous, forgiving, proud, able, and charming, Cangrande was such a man as to come along one in a generation, a dozen generations. With this victory, the world had begun to recognize that fact. And fear it.
Both lords were hung with so much gold as to dazzle the eye – even the stitching of their gloves seemed to be of gold. Neither was armed in the slightest, not even a knife at their belts, so secure in the peace they had made. A peace that would be forever signified by the mingling of their kindred.
Lastly came the two bridegrooms, dressed in perfectly matched embroidered farsettos and capes. Not gold but silver, head to spurs, with the deepest and most expensive black to accent their luster.
The elder by six years, Mastino della Scala was now twenty and had all the handsomeness that youthful vigour endowed. Moreover, his dark hair was cut short, making him look both Romanesque and quite martial. One might have mistaken Mastino for the son of Carrara, not the nephew of Cangrande. Mastino was mounted on a pure white stallion that even the horse-loving Montecchio had been forced to admire.
Beside him, on an equally white steed, rode Francesco di Cangrande, the bastard heir of Verona. Cesco’s curling chestnut hair was grown on the longish side, nearly long enough to tie back. He had a more crooked smile than Cangrande, curling up on the left side and pressed tight on the right. It was a wry smile of amusement, not of joy, and would have looked out of place on any other fourteen year-old. But Cesco owned something of the Scaliger’s presence, and already his daring was renowned.
Since his dramatic re-entry into Verona three years earlier, the city had watched him grow, until just this last summer he had guided the city through the aftermath of a terrifying earthquake with remarkable ability and assurance. Better still, the feud between Cangrande and his bastard heir seemed to have ended. For the first time, Verona’s future seemed not only bright, but repleat with promise. There lacked only a victory over Treviso. Then, with the Feltro united, with the support of the Emperor and respect of the Pope, with control of the Alps, with an experienced and eager army, with Cangrande to lead and with Cesco as the promised future, Verona’s possibilities were limited only by imagination. The city so beloved of Charlemagne could easily become the new Paris, the new Rome, the new Athens. Verona would become the center of the world.
If no one that day recalled the words uttered by an oracle thirteen years before, could they be blamed? Indeed, was there ever blame for what the stars had ordained?
* * *
“I really must thank you again, cos,” said Mastino over his shoulder as he waved to his half the crowd.
“I rather think you should practice restraint,” replied Cesco without a break in his own smiling cheer. “You have an expectant bride who doubtless will already be disappointed in her wedding night. Restraint might keep you from ruining it entirely.”
Mastino laughed off the insult. “But that’s just what I must thank you for! Taddea is a lovely girl. Ripe, noble. Rich too. And of the purest lineage! All you have to do is look and know whose daughter she is. Yes, pure Carrara from hair to heel. Who could ask for more?”
“Who indeed?” queried Cesco lightly.
“And it was you that brought us together. I will forever be in your debt.”
At that Cesco turned away from the crowd to look upon his cousin. With a joyful smile and wide eyes, he shook with laughter. “O no, cos! Trust me, it is I who am in your debt.”
Mastino frowned. Wasn’t this just the response he’d been angling for, needling the younger man one last time before the vows? Yet Cesco’s laughter did not seem feigned, nor did it force its way through gritted teeth, as it might from any normal man in his position. No, Cesco’s laughter was wild, untethered, free from care. And that was somehow more frightening than the threat the words themselves promised.
Mastino now regretted that he had not been here in Verona for most of the last two months. He had no way of knowing what was in the little bastard’s head now. For the first time, he worried what form Cesco’s revenge might take.
The brat needn’t have gone through with the wedding at all. That was none of Mastino’s doing! All he’d done was drag a hidden truth to light. That he’d meant to wield it as a weapon of his vengance – for his dead friend Fuchs, for the usurpation of Mastino’s rightful place as Verona’s heir, for a hundred slights both public and private, for simply living at all – none of that meant anything. What did motives matter?
And with the truth out, why the devil had Cesco forced himself to partake of this mad, laughable, shameful marriage? Cangrande would have been perfectly pleased to call it off. Mastino, too, would have preferred to have this wedding day all to himself. What had possessed the boy to go through with it?
That was the most fearful thing about the bastard. He could not be predicted.
As Cesco’s amused eyes lingered upon him a fraction longer, Mastino felt an involuntary shudder, and a light sweat crept across his shoulders and neck. Well, I have one more weapon at my disposal. If you come after me, little cos, I will make you wish you had never been born.
* * *
As the distance from the palace to the cathedral was not long enough for a proper spectacle, the triumphal procession took a round-about track, looping west to the Arena, then north to the river’s edge. From here, cheered by crowds lining both banks of the river, they followed the water west until they reached Verona’s Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Matricular.
Like the fabled entryway to San Zeno, Verona’s Duomo was designed by the architect Maestro Nicholò. While not as famous as that of Verona’s patron saint, the century and a half old cathedral was an austerely beautiful structure.
Like most great churches, the Duomo had a roofed porch in front of the main entrance called a protiro. The roof was supported by two massive pillars rising from the backs of two winged griffons. Between the pillars and above the door was a painted Madonna and child with the Magi and shepherds, as well as images of hunting scenes and prophets. Just below the painted holy scene were three stone medallions bearing the virtures of Faith, Charity, and Hope.
Behind the pillars, finely worked blind arches cascaded out from the doors. Each arch bore its own prophet, making ten in all. The church was also symbolically protected by two painted paladins, Roland and Oliver, from traditional Charlemagne chivalric cycles.
The beaming Bishop was waiting, with the whole Franciscan Order on hand to witness the rites. There were Dominicans as well, most notably the sisters of Santa Maria in Organa. At their fore, standing beside the Abbess, was Suor Beatrice. Before beginning her cloistered life, she had been Antonia Alaghieri, combination mother, aunt, and big sister to Cesco della Scala. The brisk autumnal air was sharp enough to bite her in the throat and sting her eyes. A good excuse to let fall the tears welling behind them. And why should she not cry? Didn’t people cry at weddings?
But her tears wouldn’t be for joy. They would be for a broken heart.
What made it worse is that Cesco had been avoiding Antonia in all but the most public settings. Whenever she called, he contrived to be absent or asleep or busy with some new hawk, or sword, or horse. She thought she knew why, and was as gnawed by guilt as he.
Two years before, Antonia had been violently and repeatedly raped in an attempt to hurt Cesco, separate him from those that cared for him. Whenever she gave the boy comfort, she was punished in the most violating way. Worse, she had never known who had done it to her. But she had remained silent, choosing to keep that horrible knowledge from Cesco.
She had thought that, through confessing to her Abbess and Fra Lorenzo, she had made peace with the event. Then, just two months ago, as he had returned from the Venice meeting where the peace had been brokered, Cesco had sent her a curt message saying only that the man responsible was dead – Fuchs, Mastino’s erstwhile companion. He had kidnapped Cesco and tried to sell the fourteen year-old into slavery. Cesco had escaped, but not before ending Fuchs’ life.
Antonia’s rage at the revelation of who had done this to her was dwarfed by her failure to protect Cesco from this terrible secret. Why had she endured it, if he knew? He now avoided her, unwilling or unable to hear her words of thanks, of regret, of sorrow. She knew him well enough to understand that he was taking the responsibility upon himself, blaming himself for her plight. And to say truth, she was secretly grateful for his avoidance, for she did not know what she could possibly say to salve his guilt.
But she wished they could agree to let the past lie, so that she could comfort his present. Her brother Pietro had confided the truth about what had happened in Padua, the disastrous secret about Cesco’s proposed bride. Antonia wanted to hold the boy in her arms as she had when he was small, absorb his pain and rage. But he was no more willing to share his pain than she had been to share hers. In the end, Fuchs had won – he’d driven her little boy away from her.
Not that he was so little anymore. As if adversity had thrown a lever within him, over the past two months he had grown a full two inches. He’d always lamented his lack of height. But now his Scaligeri heritage, always present in his face, was beginning to show in his stature. It had also made him even thinner than his usual wiry frame. His face looked longer. Even the scar above his eye seemed to have stretched. But the thinness didn’t make him look weaker. It made him seem harder, stronger.
He truly is the Greyhound, thought Antonia with real sadness.
It was the prophecy at the heart of all the strife in their lives. Attributed to the British wizard Merlin, so popular in French songs, it carried an awesome prediction:
To Italy there will come The Greyhound.
The Leopard and the Lion, who feast on our Fear,
He will vanquish with cunning and strength.
The She-Wolf, who triumphs in our Fragility,
He will chase through all the great Cities
And slay Her in Her Lair, and thus to Hell.
He will unite the land with Wit, Wisdom, and Courage,
And bring to Italy, the home of men,
A Power unknown since before the Fall of Man.
These very lines were the inspiration for Antonia’s father, creating the opening scene in the first book of his Commedia, entitled L’Inferno. In it, the character of Dante had started his journey through Hell because he was frightened by the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf, the last of whom was said to mate with men ‘until the Greyhound shall come, who’ll make her die in pain.’
But there was a second part to the prophecy, a coda that her father had never known:
He will evanesce at the zenith of his glory.
By the setting of three suns after his Greatest Deed, Death shall claim him.
Fame eternal shall be his, not for his Life, but his Death.
To her father, to the world, Cangrande was the Greyhound. He himself had believed it for years. Yet it seemed it was not the Scaliger but young Cesco who was destined to slay the she-wolf, whatever that was, and be remembered for his own death. Antonia stared at him and prayed God to preserve him. Heaven knew that none of them had been able to so far.
As the knights all arrived, they dismounted and their horses were led away. There was young Detto, looking as crushed as a faithful hound that’s lost its master. Not far behind him, Antonia saw her older brother step out of his stirrup and onto the cobbled stones. His face was grim as he met her eye. They both had the same sunken hearts. But there was nothing for it. They had to plunge ahead with the travesty of matrimony.
Antonia watched Cangrande and Carrara dismount. The first day she had seen Marsilio da Carrara, thirteen years before, he had been engaged in a duel with her brother. So she had little liking for him. But it was the smiling and waving Cangrande who had earned the bulk of her ire. It was his fault, of course, that Cesco had been brought to Verona too early. His fault that Cesco had been tasked past enduring. His fault that Cesco’s heart was now a wreckage, perhaps never to be mended.
Cesco did not show it, though. Arriving just behind the Capitano, he waved and grinned as if he were the victor of some great battle, his cousin and fellow-bridegroom by his side.
Antonia had to tamp down her revulsion at the sight of Mastino. Though he’d denied it, she was certain he had known of Fuchs’ crimes, condoned them, perhaps even ordered them. Bile rose in her throat as she imagined him laughing as Fuchs related the details – how she had fought, cried, tried to strike back. She knew it was an un-Christian thought, but if it were ever in Antonia’s power to do Mastino ill, she would welcome the chance.
Stapping down from their snowy mounts, Cesco and Mastino climbed the three short stairs to the church doors. Antonia could have almost reached out and touched Cesco as he passed. The main duty of the clergy was to witness the oaths exchanged, and verify that neither couple had an unacceptable degree of consanguinity. This last task had Antonia feeling quite ill. She shot a glance at Mastino, whose eyes glowed in malicious delight.
Cesco showed nothing but a resplendent smile as he received his blessing from the Bishop. Then the doors were opened and from within the great cathedral emerged the bridal party, with the families of both girls dressed in lavish fashion. Antonia had expected Cesco’s future father-in-law to look grim, but he appeared to have already been drinking, for there was a sloppy smile plastered across his face. Here came several more children, bearing the precious Venitian bridal chalices. Antonia half-willed one of them to trip, break the glass vessel, and so curse the marriage. Could she use superstition to prevent it from happening? Alas, both children were lamentably sure-footed.
The music reached a fevered pitch, heralding the arrival of the brides themselves. Both were heavily veiled, dressed like the grooms in matching cloth of silver and black, save for the single ribbon of blue to indicate their purity.
Mastino’s intended was the first to be greeted by her future husband. Taddea da Carrara allowed her hand to pass from her cousin Marsilio to her new master. Mastino kissed the proffered hand and then stepped close to lift the veil, showing his bride to all the people of Verona.
It would have been perfect had she been beautiful. But she had the too-tight face of her famous father, the late Il Grande da Carrara. Her whole head was longer front to back than it was tall, making her short-chinned and hawkishly-nosed. In her father, the features had made him stern and serious. In the daughter, the effect was just the same. The smile on her face seemed strained and out of place. But she had been expertly painted, and she had one attribute eternal to beauty – youth.
All eyes turned to Cesco as he stepped forward to greet his bride. She was holding back shyly just inside the cathedral doors, balking at this, the ultimate moment. But Cesco knelt before her and said something, flashing her a smile that had very little wryness in it. Antonia could not hear what he said, but it made the girl laugh. Standing, he held out his hand for her to take. She slipped her fingers into his, and together they stepped forward for all to see. As Cesco reached across and lifted her veil the crowd cheered, many were the sighs of 'aww' and 'how precious' from the combined citizens of Padua and Verona.
If youth was any measure to gauge a bride’s beauty by, Cesco’s betrothed was the fairest in the land.
She was all of five years old.
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