Lorenzo's Book

First Chapter

(from Get Thee to a Nunnery by David R. Slavitt)

How is the double man to be true to himself? All our ideas of loyalty assume a singularity of heart and mind I can imagine as the attributes of angels in their rapture -- and of devils in their enraged torment -- but not of human beings, imperfectly modeled, mottled (even motley) as we all are and full of our contradictions. The only true man, then, is the double agent, true to his doubleness, to the contradictoriness of his impulses and his affections, his alternating moods and humors. He does not spy for the money, does not labor for the gold, but loves the guilt, the notion that he is at any moment betraying something dear to him by serving something else that is no more dear sub specie aeternitatis but only for the moment available, attractive, or convenient. So some lovers enjoy most to lie down with a woman and imagine her reproaches, her pain, her complaint on that very day when she shall be left alone and the man gone to some other bed, in which another bella donna waits, thinking -- the fellow thinks -- of him. Intricacy, intractable intricacy. They call it baroque, but it is a kind of simple truth, obvious and blunt as a straight line in a painting where there is no other straight line. Our souls are crooked, full of crazy scrollwork and embellishment, draped, etched and chiseled. . .

I am Lorenzo. If any eyes ever scan these pages, it is a fair guess that the brain to which they connect will have stored away some information about me, most of it wrong. In the past few years, I have become a kind of folk hero (or, more accurately, a folk supporting-player) known for my goodness, my gentleness, my simplicity. It is all nonsense, or almost all. I was there in Verona. I played a part in the events that have been enacted upon the stages of the world, but in a transmogrified form I can only smile at. The requirements of the public are for abrupt reversals, the suffering of young lovers, the chagrin of age and authority, a liberal spicing up of the dish of experience the world serves us. The truth is an acquired taste, and if refined palates crave it, part of the reason, I think, is that, like the truffle of Périgord, it is a rare commodity. Indeed, one could maintain that too much of it will cause indigestion, convulsions, stupor, coma, and death -- which makes it a poison, as the Church has always supposed (why else monitor the truth or try to control it -- even to control the truth about the truth).

But that is another subject for another volume. My concern here, having leisure in God's abundance and the inclination (or arrogance?), is to reclaim a little of my own history from the garble that has gone forth about me, and about us all. The features of Romeo and Giulietta have been obliterated like the faces on coins that have been too much handled, and in the absence of any distinguishable physiognomy, they have been assigned the conventional masks of traditional lovers. It is important, therefore, to reassert some differentiation, to reach across the dull cartoons they have become to the people they actually were.

He was something of an oaf. And she was thirteen years old. Oh, they mention her age but then they ignore it. Convention takes over, inexorably, and she is merely nubile, indistinguishable from any young woman of any place and any time.

They also get Verona wrong. It is turned into a stage set with ramparts in the foreground of the drop cloths, and wooded hills beyond.

Let us recognize it as a typical town, but put it in Italy, in the backwaters of the Veneto. Let it be typically corrupt, typically venal, typically selfish and cruel -- and then it begins to resemble the Verona I knew. I was sent there, after all, not as a reward for my outstanding services and conspicuous abilities, but as a punishment, as much deserved as any punishment ever is. One is punished for having been clumsy enough to get caught. But, again, that's a matter for another treatise.

The real place, then, was a small town with a quite impressive Roman amphitheater and a couple of decent churches, one of them with a remarkably fine rose window. A river. An assortment of predictable public buildings, shops, stables, palazzos and . . . what you'd expect to find anywhere. But on a small scale. Here, there were two leading families of what we have learned to call the middle class. The Scaliger princes were less powerful than they might otherwise have been, because of the proximity of Venice, which was, as has been said to the point of boredom, Queen of the Adriatic. Anything so frequently repeated is bound to be incorrect, and this sobriquet too is false. She was the Shopkeeper of the Adriatic. Which meant that the mercantile families in the Veneto had considerable power.

The Montecchi and the Capelletti were powerful enough, together, to outweigh the Prince of Verona. And the Prince, who was not a fool, must have understood these realities, and I always supposed that, in order to preserve his own authority, he was keeping the two leading mercantile families at odds. It stood to reason. Divide and conquer. He could never say he was doing this, never admit that it had even crossed his mind. But that was the obvious policy by which he could maintain his authority. On the other hand, in all his public utterances he had to declare that the quarrels of the Veronese were a wound in his side, were disgraceful, distressed him, that he wanted peace and harmony, that he deplored the fighting and wished to have tranquility and understanding. And so on, and so forth. Real harmony would have meant the end of Scaliger authority, and he knew that, but like many public men, he began after a time to believe in what he was saying.

The Montecchi and the Capelletti assumed that the maundering pronouncements the Prince made on ceremonial occasions were to be taken with more than a grain of salt. I supposed them to be -- like the flags and bunting and the uniforms on the cowardly guards -- conventional decoration for these occasions, trotted out, displayed, and then put away until next time. One person, however, gave credence to every word the man spoke. She was quite alone in this belief, but the saying is that love is blind. I remember how shocked -- not to say distressed -- I was upon discovering her in the confessional one day.

"Father?" she asked. It is not an implausible way to begin. I assumed that the confessor was making sure that there was someone on the other side of the grillwork.

"Yes, my child?"



"What on earth are you doing here, Father?"

"I don't understand," I said. And I didn't. And it took some time before I realized that her mode of address was biological and not just ecclesiastically appropriate. "Rosaline?"

"Yes, Father."

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

She laughed -- which is irregular in a confessional -- and informed me that she had been living in Verona for some years. I was the newcomer. I was the intruder, she meant, although she did not go quite so far as actually to say so. Recognizing her exercise of restraint, I suggested that we repair to the rectory for some wine and conversation. Conversation in a confessional is . . . awkward. One can't look into the other person's face.

She had much to tell me, and with great volubility she informed me of the progress she had made, the great difficulties she had overcome, the hopes she entertained. God! It was all very self-congratulatory and, at least by implication, critical of me for not having provided her with the advantages to match her lofty opinion of her true worth. And yet, to be fair, she had done well enough. And to rise in the world one needs an exaggerated opinion of one's merits. That way, the struggle to improve one's station is not merely ambition but a more general putting the world's affairs in order, an effort in the direction of justice and the harmony of things.

Perhaps not. Nevertheless, there was an impressive fervor in her exertions over the course of the five or six years since I'd last seen her. She had managed to pass herself off as the illegitimate daughter of the late Doge of Venice, which enabled her to skulk along the chair railings of rather grander salons than those to which she was entitled as my illegitimate daughter. Our connections are . . . respectable. An uncle of mine was a general in the armies of Lucca -- famous in his day for negotiating favorable conditions for surrender. And a great-aunt of mine was once mistress to a pope -- or claimed to have been. He died before proper provision could be made for her (and therefore for all of us). The mention of her name was helpful in getting me admitted to the seminary, but as for tangible rewards, we have been left to seek them for ourselves.

My daughter, Rosaline, had been seeking fairly assiduously, I must say. Having given herself airs -- or at least forebears -- she had managed to insinuate herself into the very highest circles, having become more or less mistress to the Prince of Verona.

"And I mean to consolidate that position," she insisted.

What she meant was that she intended for him to marry her.

"Unrealistic," I warned her. "And unlikely. Because he has more power as a bachelor than he could possibly have as a married man."

I, who had been in Verona only a very short time, a little less than a month, had to explain to her how the Prince could hold open the possibility of an alliance with either house -- with the Capelletti or with the Montecchi, playing their ambitions and their enmities and envies as carefully as a musician plays the different stops of an organ with the different keyboards and the pedals.

Rosaline, however, was interested not at all in my music lessons or my metaphors. She was altogether single-minded, as the ambitious frequently seem to be. Toward her objective she ran like a blindered horse.

If I had been aware of the consequences of such unswerving dedication to her goal of personal aggrandizement, I expect I should have been willing to do my duty as a citizen of Verona, as a member of the clergy, as the Prince's spiritual advisor, and as a father, too. I could have exposed her, told the Prince that she was not the Doge's daughter, and conducted her to a convent, where she would be out of harm's way. But I didn't. We all are subject to occasional fits of sentiment, are we not? I confess that I was moved by the brusqueness of her conversation, her lack of any respect or affection for me, her selfishness and her pride -- all of which proclaimed her as the daughter of my heart as well as of my loins. Besides, she was a very handsome young woman, striking, tall, almost severe looking, but with a prominence of lip and eye and bosom that can beguile. I wondered just how far she could go. And if she went as far as my imagination conducted her, then the information I possessed about her paternity might prove valuable.

I had no thought of blackmail, mind you. It was simply a provision I had to make for her observance of filial obligations. It is a commandment, is it not? The pressure one brings to bear on one's child in order to steer her toward the path of virtue. . . But I sound as if I am delivering a sermon, which is not my intention.

"How, then, do you propose to convince the Prince that he does not need to hold out the prospect of matrimony in order to manage the destinies of his city?"

"Not convince, Father. Demonstrate," she said, runically for effect.

"What, if anything, are you talking about?" I asked her. The best defense against the runic is the condescending.

"Of course, I understand that when the Prince makes speeches, he is only . . . making speeches. Or I hope that's the case. Nevertheless, if one were to take him at his word and accomplish what he claims to desire, then he'd have no possible grounds for objection, would he?"

I was, by this time, quite lost. And I told her so. "If there is a subject to this verbiage, I'd be deeply grateful to learn what it might be!"

"Peace. Peace in Verona. An end to the bickering between the Capelletti and the Montecchi. Harmony, tranquility, order."

"You sound like a religious enthusiast, which is, given my profession . . . in questionable taste."

"If I can arrange that peace in Verona he's always talking about, he'd have to marry me."

It was a curious proposition. So far as I could see, the conditional clause and the independent clause were only tenuously connected with one another.

"You must be a person of extremely good luck," I told her. "Why would he have to marry you?"

"He'd have no excuses left to remain single."

"Granted. And he'd perhaps consider marriage. But why would he consider marriage to you?"

"Because he is a good person. Because he'd be ashamed of himself if he tried simply to ditch me."

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard in all my life."

"Surely you exaggerate," she said. "But the obtuseness is his, not mine. I must be mindful of the nature of the man I'm trying to manipulate, mustn't I?"

How sorry I am, now, to admit that I looked at her with some approval. She was my progeny, not my protegee; still, one tends to confuse these roles. I offered her a little more of our local Valpolicella and inquired how she had managed to find her way to Verona in the first place. I had not seen her for some years, not since I had left the seminary in Ravenna, where Rosaline had been one of the young waifs in the orphanage. Her mother, the prettiest of the nuns, had delivered the girl one night with the help of some of her sisters in Christ, had put the girl in a basket, had left the basket on the doorstep of the orphanage, and -- I should imagine within a matter of seconds -- found the basket she had left. Out of a sense of self-preservation as much as anything, the nun kept from the little Rosaline the identity of her ancestry and never showed her any favoritism, but the child blossomed nevertheless, as she ought to have done, having me as a father and the nun (a young woman of noble birth and real accomplishments) as a mother. It was with no great effort that Rosaline learned the accomplishments required of young ladies -- needlework, singing, French, Latin, painting. All the fine and practical arts. She had them and, at a fairly early age, a figure as well. So she was hired as a governess by a count from Ravenna who did not even wait to get home before taking her virginity -- in the coach!

It is a persistent assumption of our poets and playwrights that a woman's first lover holds a special place in her affections forever, that the pattern of associations in the heart is as automatic as that of the mind. And there may be some truth to this. But in my daughter's case, it was an association not so much with this particular count as with the coach, the novelty of the world outside the orphanage, the brevity of their acquaintance with one another. In short, she became infatuated not so much with the count himself as with her own sexuality and attractiveness, her own power. She came to believe in the lightning flash and the thunderclap, in overwhelming and irresistible mutual attraction, in the impromptu coupling that she took as a kind of tribute to her beauty. It was a kind of fetishism, really, but not so crippling as most fetishes. Indeed, hers was unusual because it gave her confidence and courage -- not to say brashness. Before a month had elapsed, she had seduced the eldest son of the count, had elicited from that young infatuate an offer of marriage, had returned to the father to negotiate a settlement, had been bought off at a very impressive figure, and had left Ravenna for Venice, where she intended to establish herself, seek her fortune, and become one of the great ladies of the age.

Needless to say, she didn't quite make it. But she had her moments of success as well as failure. She confided to me that her chances would have been much better if there had been carriages in Venice. The motion of the gondola is too gentle, soporific rather than aphrodisiac, lulling rather than inspiriting. Furthermore, even a city like Venice is only so large, and the important people are few indeed. After a time, she had met most of them, knew which ones were celibate, or asexual, or homosexual, or in other ways malapropos. She believed, still, in the arrival of the mysterious stranger who would crush her to his chest, carry her away, and change everything.

But there were no strangers left. There were only tourists and businessmen and petty princelings of the surrounding towns in the Veneto -- like our Prince, for instance. She saw him at a party, decided on very little evidence that he was, indeed, the one (I must suppose that she inquired and discovered him to be neither married nor homosexual) and followed him. Even to Verona!

Her stratagem for the contrivance of an introduction was boldly original. She sent him an invitation to a tryst -- in the shadows of the amphitheater, which is a notorious place for ruffians and villains. He supposed -- as she expected him to suppose -- that this was a threat more than an invitation, that there would be an assassin rather than an adoring lady. He sent some thug, a bravo disguised as himself, in order to find out who was trying to kill him. Rosaline received the bravo, pretended not to know he was not the Prince, welcomed him into her carriage, and took him for a quick ride, depositing him back at the palace with a last twitch and kiss, so that the Prince learned -- as she knew he would -- how he had deceived himself.

The idea of what he had missed drove him crazy. And she did not do what he expected her to do, hoped she'd do, burned for her to do, as he waited day after day for that second invitation. She did nothing, leaving it to him to try to find her, the mysterious woman, the admirer, the succubus, the angel-whore . . . She left the construction of categories to the play of his fancy. It was impossible, of course, for the Prince to identify this passionate stranger. And the bravo's recollection was not of her face so much as other, less immediately visible attributes, impossible to ascertain on any wide-scale survey. She waited for him to despair of ever knowing for himself what this marvelous creature was like, and then, at a large reception honoring the grape harvest, she whispered in his ear that she missed him.

"Madame? Do we know one another?"

"Intimately," she said, still in a whisper but her eyes fluttering loudly.

"I beg your pardon . . ." He broke off, having decided she had to be the one. "The amphitheater?"

"You remember?"

"Yes," he said. What else could he possibly say? He could not admit that one of his paid thugs had impersonated him, not if he ever hoped to see her again (for the first time).

"I had hoped to hear from you," she said.

"But how was I to find you?"

"I put that little paper into your hand, remember?"


"Yes, with my name. My address."

Obviously the fool had lost it. It had fallen out of the carriage, or had crumbled to dust in his pocket, or been laundered into a sodden pulp. There were all sorts of plausible stories, had he needed to invent one. Or had she required one. But it was all beside the point. He had found her. He was delighted. The allure of a first rendezvous and the joys of a reunion, improbably combined as they were, approximated her own rather odd notions about the fateful brief encounter, at once casual and yet somehow connected to the inner workings of the greatness of the universe.

From this intricate beginning, what wonders ought to have followed? I have no idea what she expected, or what the Prince expected. But it would have been obvious to me that there would be a dreadful falling off, a descent into the banal. The two of them adored each other, delighted each other, and very shortly became domestic. He installed her as his more or less official mistress. She moved into the palace, retaining her own rooms in a nearby villa for the sake of propriety, and perhaps as a place to retreat to, should the need arise. Her imagination had exhausted itself, and all she could dream of now was to become his wife and the principessa of the Veronese.

"Not exactly a novel ambition, but sturdy. Solid. It has a nice gravitas," I told her.

"Thank you," she said, perhaps a little wryly, as if to let me know she did not give much of a damn whether I approved or not. "But as I say, it is necessary for me to establish, if only in a temporary way, at least the illusion of civil harmony in the city." The qualifications -- temporary and illusion -- betrayed some realistic thinking. Peace in Verona was an impossible project, but the temporary illusion of peace -- particularly where the signs of hostility were so extravagant and abundant --might actually be managed. It was theoretically possible, at any rate.

"And how do you expect to accomplish this minor miracle?" I asked her.

"With your help."

"Mine? Why mine?"

"Because you are my father."

"And as my daughter, as my own flesh and blood, you ought to have enough shrewdness not to presume too much upon that connection."

"And you are ambitious."

"None of us is immune altogether. What are you getting at?"

"This is not the kind of place you had hoped to end your days in, is it? A word from the Prince to Venice, and there could be a more appropriate use of your accomplishments in a more -- how shall I say? -- a more distinguished setting. It could be a very good thing for you. We could both benefit."

"I never trust cooperative ventures," I told her. "There is always a point where the mutuality of interest ends and different goals present themselves to the parties. And I never trust relatives."

"It is no great sacrifice I am asking you to make. It is a little thing, in fact."

"It always begins with a little thing. Then eventually, there is something just a little larger, a little more strenuous. Then the world."

"You can always change your mind."

"I don't have to change my mind, though, if I begin by refusing."

"You won't even hear what I have in mind?"

"I doubt that I can prevent your telling me."

"The Capelletti have a little girl, do they not?"

And so on.

The story is well enough known that I see no point in drawing out the process of discovery. What she had in mind was a match that she and I should engineer between the Monteccho boy and the little Capelletto. The nuptials would not only produce a temporary illusion of that harmony she required for her own purposes but would also set a kind of example, give just the right subconscious nudge, to her somewhat slow-footed Prince. Finally, her aims having been accomplished and her dreams turned into vital statistics, she would see to it that the church promoted me and transferred me to a more suitable and more cosmopolitan post. Venice? Florence? Bologna? Milan? Or even Rome? Why not?

A shapely fiction, but a fiction nevertheless. Indeed, the giveaway is its shapeliness. Nothing is that neat. In the real world, people refuse to behave like orderly characters. They balk, hesitate, vacillate, temporize, lurch forward and fall back in the most unpredictable ways. Still, a connection with the royal family was not to be dismissed, however impromptu. More to the point, I was not at all sure I could afford, at this early stage in my Veronese career, to offend my daughter, whose power and prospects I could hardly gauge, and whose enmity, therefore, I did not at all desire. I agreed to look into it, at least to take that first step down the road. My intention was to go only far enough to gain her trust and then, at a fair and decent opportunity, betray her or threaten to -- in order to get her to do what she should have done in the first place, which was to obey the commandment and offer unselfishly to make my life richer, fuller, easier, and more amusing.

It is a daughter's duty.