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Erin Thompson

“All by myself,” said the Vice Commissioner as he sat down beside me, “I am about to make Florence as she was five hundred years ago – but it is a bit lonely, being such a discoverer, and I was just wishing for a witness when I saw you.”

I had come to rest in the Piazza degli Signori, watching the tourists come and go on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio. I had just left the neighborhood of San Pancrazio, and so, as you may remember, I was without lodgings. The Vice Commissioner had been a frequent fellow dinner guest when I was staying with my ill-fated friend of the Accademia, and perhaps because he had heard of the dissolution of that household, and thought that I was sitting beside my suitcase in the Piazza for that reason, or perhaps merely because, as he said, he was in need of a witness, he soon offered me the use of a room in the Palazzo.

Such room was in ample supply. During the early Middle Ages, the aristocrats of Florence had fortified their palazzi; during the later Middle Ages, the populace had torn down these supernumerary towers and battlements, leaving only the crenellated and rough-cut block of the Palazzo Vecchio to stand as the seat of the new Republic. The aristocrats gradually during the Renaissance gaining back the government, in fact if not in name, had subjected the Palazzo to the same changes of interior paint and plaster as they did their own homes. Its exterior, of course, held firm against such ambuscades of fashion, which broke upon its stone, but its generations of governors divided the interior into more and more intricate apartments and suites, so that in the end even the modifications were modified, and a given room might have a multitude of doorways, records of changing access and intermittent sealings-up. All these rearrangements and reconstructions of the place make difficult any passage within it, for one soon loses one’s orientation to the outer world among its interrupted staircases, its series of large bare rooms from whose ceilings flakes of plaster constantly fall, and above all in its buried secret studies. It was in one of these that the Vice-Commissioner had his office. Of course, as he explained, leading me to it, the secret was now fairly out. It was still referred to as such out of a sort of historical deference to whichever of the fashionable aristocratic governors who had caused it to be built, for each had made for himself a study, hidden away with false walls and trick doors. Each succeeding governor usually being a rival, he also made a sport of finding out the study of his predecessor and converting it to some low use – the lowest, in the mind of the aristocratic Renaissance governor, being that of government itself – and so the various studies housed the various bureaucratic offices of the Republic. The arts, ever since they became a concern of the Palazzo, had been housed in the very same study to which he lead me; moreover, he said, the first bureaucrat to office there, five hundred years ago, had had the very same name as himself: Alessandro Forzori.

It was from the activities of this bureaucrat that the current Vice-Commissioner hoped to draw his discovery, and so his desk slid with piles of records in the hand of his eponymous predecessor. He said that he had often worked in the last few months all night long, until the letters crawled before his eyes and he could hardly distinguish his notes from his text, and so the guards of the Palazzo were used to seeing him at odd hours, and he was sure that if he created me his assistant and issued the appropriate identifications and passes that I, too, could spend nights without raising official suspicions. It was indeed true that provided with the proper paperwork I passed invisible for the rest of my stay back and forth before the guards. On this first night, though, he had to remain with me, having entered me into the building as a mere private guest, who must always be accompanied, and so, having told me a little of his project, he deposited me in a small room – really, a screened-off corner of the study proper – which was furnished with a camp-bed, and left me to sleep while he continued his investigations.

For a long time I lay in a somewhat dozing, wandering state of mind, thinking with my eyes half-open both of what the Vice-Commissioner had told me and of my own lately concluded adventures, only faintly aware of the continued muted sounds of his research. These woke in me pleasant memories of my own engagements in the basements of libraries and back-rooms of museums, and I dreamed half-awake of what I had found there while hearing his rustled pages and the sighs and shifts following from the discoveries or disappointments revealed therein. My own reminiscences, as I have said, distracting me, it was some time before I noticed that a change in the quality of the light and sound had taken place. The light coming over the top of the screen flickered and was altogether dimmer, almost as if a rush candle had usurped the place of the electric lamp, and the sound of the pen of the Vice-Commissioner was harsher and intermittent, as if he were stopping to dip a rather worn quill. The smell of the room, too, was changed; it was older and thicker, as if in the night all the blocked-up drains and damps of the place had begun to seep. As I realized these things, I heard the Vice-Commissioner push back his chair and stand. He began to move about the study with a dragging, effortful pace, tapping at the walls and floor first in a blundering, but then a more purposeful manner. He had hinted in our earlier conversation that he was looking for something hidden behind a false wall, but however much that accounted for his tappings, I could find no explanation for the taps that his taps began to elicit in return. At first these seemed mere echoes awakened in the multitude of interconnected wall-work in the Palazzo, but as his taps became firmer and more deliberate, the returning taps replied in patterns just as seemingly purposeful, but all different; more and more joined in, so that soon the noise was as great as if unseen hands knocked a code from beneath every floorboard and behind every wall. I stood up on my bed, which vibrated beneath me at the sound, and looked over the top of the screen. The desk was between us, and he heaved back and forth behind it, hunched over a cane with which he almost pounded the floor. In the course of his turning he tossed up his head and saw me, and dropped his stick. The other tappings immediately ceased, and no echo was returned to the thud it made as it fell. The Vice-Commissioner straightened, and a long rusty-black overwrapping fell from his shoulders and disappeared in the shadows beneath his desk. The light was now steady and the odour faded, as if the room were once more properly sealed off from the rest of the building.

He smiled and said, “I apologize if I have disturbed you; sometimes I find myself pacing about the room without meaning to.”

I lay back down, not knowing if it had been he or I who had been dreaming.

* * *

The Vice-Commissioner’s object was the rediscovery of a fresco painted in the Palazzo Vecchio by Leonardo da Vinci. This indeed would be a great achievement, for though drawings and statuettes are forever arising from long-lost depositions into the hands of art auctioneers, their attribution to the hand of the master usually savors much more of the hopeful than of the veracious. The finding of an enormous fresco on the very wall on which it had been painted and all Florence seen it would be, on the other hand, a little more difficult to create ex nulla. Leonardo had indeed painted on a wall of the largest room – the Salone dei Cinquecento – of the Palazzo, the one in which the city council met. The wall opposite had been awarded to Michelangelo, and the two worked in competition, an arrangement so dear to the heart of the Renaissance; however, this rivalry had inspired Michelangelo to make more and more elaborations to sketches and plans without ever beginning to paint, and at last he was called away to Rome by the Pope and left his wall blank. Leonardo finished, and thus, for some years, his work faced the empty wall of Michelangelo, until soon after both of their deaths the one succeeded in a posthumous sabotage of his rival, for the governor then in power commanded his chief artist, Giorgio Vasari, to repaint the entire room, as the standing arrangement was somewhat asymmetrical. Now Vasari, though famous, was by no means as renowned even in his own day as Leonardo, and even less so in ours, and so there would be little to prevent his overpainting from being scraped off in favor of revealing what it covered, once the reign of the governor who ordered the overtopping was over – except that there are certain peculiarities in the techniques of fresco painting. The fresh plaster which is to be painted, though when dry forms a durable thickness, will not, when applied wet, adhere to a smooth surface. Thus the wall to be plastered must first be knocked all over with a hammer to create chinks in which the plaster will stick, and this ungracious treatment tends rather to destroy prior paintings, and thus even those who love Leonardo admit the wisdom of keeping a whole Vasari in preference to revealing a chipped-off master. That is – if the master were really chipped. Vasari had had something of a conscience, the Vice-Commissioner was coming to discover. He had often been employed in this sort of redecoration and its preparatory destruction of the works of the past; as well, he had been among the first to realize that he stood on the downslope of that course of artistic development peaking at his teacher, Michelangelo – and so he thought, and rightly so, as I sometimes emphatically considered, that his own work was not really an improvement on what it was designed to replace. Still, the replacements went on; as you can see from our current shops, the agitation and abrupt coup d’etat of styles of furnishings will go on no matter what the quality of the articles available in the trade. Vasari, though, ordered to replace, became a genius of concealment . He was commanded, for instance, to plaster in plain white the walls of Santa Maria Novella by Medici tired of looking at the faded frescoed admonitions of the Middle Ages and perhaps anticipating a smoother transition to the next world by means of clean walls in this; Vasari, however, before he whitewashed, built a large stone tabernacle – a sort of side altar, with an upright appended frame for a canvas painting – and installed it just over that portion of the wall containing the famous fresco of the Trinity by that forlorn boy-artist of the early Renaissance, Masaccio – and when the stone was removed in another modern change of fashion, the Three-in-One glowered forth again, risen from their protective entombment. The past had grown rarer and consequently more valuable in the elapsed time – this was in the century immediately before our own – and so the fresco was allowed to stand, though a little more dingy than the current style, and Vasari was hailed for his reverence and his providence, for laying up such a treasure for the successors of his own patrons. Now, the various churches so restocked by Vasari had come by their reacquisitions through accidents of discovery, but what the Vice-Commissioner had found were actual governmental documents recording his salvific activities. Thus he could seek for what was still covered.

As the Vice-Commissioner had to reveal something of his plans and projections in order to gain the necessary permissions and assistances to fulfill them, a sort of tremulous anticipatory excitement began to overtake the Palazzo, and as more and more of its inhabitants knew or suspected, their whispers combined into a force great enough to set the very walls vibrating. To be sure, it was not so very great of a perceptible flexion, for the false walls of plaster and gilt could not shake much without self-destruction – but still, especially when I passed some stretch of the stone of the original construction, it just-perceptibly hummed with the rumors. But in the Salone dei Cinquecento, the wall in question was all still silence, even more than usual, for the electronics of the room, which usually barked out touristic information, had all just broken, and without information, hardly anyone of all the passing crowds looked at the frescoes at all. I myself avoided the chill silence near the wall in question, which seemed so much more presciently anticipatory than the reflected humming of the rest of the building – perhaps because it looked forward its own dismantling. Also, of course, I avoided hinting with my presence as to the source of these ever-present echoed secrets. Many frescoes had been painted and over-painted over in the course of the Palazzo’s redecorations, and so the Vice-Commissioner had been believed when he revealed his object, in general, but not his specific hopes or means, lest some other governmental minister too use his privileges of midnight entrance and attack the overcovering walls with the ungentle persuasion of hammer and chisel. His cautions were needed, as was shown when, despite his initial disguisings, sundry chips had appeared all over the Palazzo at night, and during the day all its inhabitants seemed to go about trailing knocking knuckles against the wallboards – an occupation carried out strictly in private, for though I heard it around corners and through doors, the sound always stopped when a possible investigator came into view. The Salone dei Cinquecento seemed protected by its public openness from such tapping depredations– or else Vasari might have been pinched away by fingertip lengths long before the official demolition could have taken place. Still, hearing all these knockings, the Vice-Commissioner had introduced the idea – perhaps by whispering it into a hole in the floorboards, as it veritably seemed that it was through such lifeless channels that all news then traveled – that he had found something in the storerooms. These were a group of subterranean vaults into which trash too cumbersome for far removal and furnishings too outmoded for further use had been for centuries thrown. It would not seem that the Renaissance would trouble to cut a fresco out of a wall only to throw it into the damp jostlings of the store, where it would shortly have crumbled; but that some were not troubled by such doubts was shown by certain trimmings of cobwebs and dust apparent on the disappointed shoulders of many Palazzo officials. As well, that some had redeemed their investigations from utter ill-use was evident from an appearance in surrounding antique shops of various Renaissance doorknobs and Medieval windowpanes.

In truth, I did not find out about these additions to the stock of local antiquarians until some time later, for to do so I would have had to leave the Palazzo, and I had hardly ever done so since I had entered it under the Vice-Commissioner’s graces. It had been about two weeks since I had become his guest, during which he had investigated in his papers by night and machinated in the offices of his supervisors by day, as I have said, for the permissions to operate on what he had found. While I was free to come and go, I found that I usually accompanied him during the day – though the conversations were to me inscrutable, less for their Italian than for the complexity of their administrative vocabulary – and engaged in my own investigations during the evenings. When it was proper night, I slept quite solidly – whether the Vice-Commissioner’s tappings did not repeat as they had on the first night, or whether I simply did not hear them, I am not sure – but before the Vice-Commissioner returned from home, where he went for dinner, I wandered through the hallways alone. All the workers and tourists of the day had gone, and the guards, it seemed, depended upon their exterior forces to keep out the unauthorized, and so did not patrol the inner rooms. Thus solitary in my perambulations, I carried out a curious sort of prowl – for I suppose that I must explain a little about my aims. Hitherto I had looked for my object in the recorded experiences of others, since, for certain reasons, I did not think such an experience likely to happen to myself; but, as I have perhaps told you, books and manuscripts, letters and lists, even texts concealing themselves under layers of code and puzzlement, had not proved to contain what I sought. But here, in the dusk in the Palazzo, I continually felt that the object of my search would appear to me itself, for here, uniquely, I felt myself in company with the spirits of the past. They seemed to flow behind the paneling and through the balustrades, to animate the painted figures on the walls, to beckon from behind closed and secret doors. I was the only one who walked in the open corridors and who used the means of transportation so tiresomely coincident with life and breath – the floor, the stairs, the slow pace of feet. I almost heard them mocking at me for my inability to join them, but I still could not catch their secret, though their voices grew louder and louder the longer I wandered, and the longer I stayed in the Palazzo –

My disappointment in this respect still somewhat troubles me, both because I failed to enter what I suppose that I must call “the world of the spirits” and because I am still tempted to make another trial of doing so, even despite what I later learned about at least some of these other inhabitants, so to speak, of the Palazzo. I think that I shall be able to hold myself aloof, especially since I am now not a person to be spoken of by the officials of the government, and so would have to pay admission as a private tourist, and try, among hordes of fellows, to listen to ethereal directions among a din of lecturing, whining, and asking for the facilities in bad Italian, which I rather suppose would cover over the spiritual. In any case, almost as soon as the intensest rise of my investigations had been reached, I was removed from the possibility of continuing them, as my lodgings were changed, though not my host, at the insistence of his wife.

They had just recently been married. This Signora of the Vice-Commissioner looked far younger than himself, though she could not have been an absolute blushing maiden, since I heard it whispered around the Palazzo that she had long haunted its vicinity, apparently on the watch for a minister to make her own. I suppose that she had had after a time to content herself with merely a Vice-Commissioner – but she hoped to see him rise. A discovery of the proper caliber would give off enough reflected merit to buy him a promotion, and indeed she seemed already to anticipate it, for on the night on which we were first introduced she was fitted with all the accessories of a wife of someone with more power – and salary – than the Vice-Commissioner: the stockings, the gloves, the hat with a projecting veil below which her powder-pale face curled its reddened lips. She came into the study one evening when the Commissioner had declared himself too tired from a day of meetings to go back home. The point of negotiations had been reached where the Vice-Commissioner had been promised all that he asked if he would just reveal where it was that he wanted to search, but he had been curiously reluctant to commit his secret to the outer world. His agitation continued until his wife entered, and then he ceased to wander about the room and acted instead the properly attentive new husband. Her first question was whether or not he had made the final arrangements.

“No – it is so difficult to be certain,” he explained. “If I were to convince the governors to destroy Vasari’s fresco without finding anything underneath, so too would I be destroyed – and, too, some part of me wants to keep covered what is covered –“

“But my dear,” the Signora interrupted, “think of how much fuller a life we would live if you only find what you are looking for! We won’t have any longer to see each other just barely for moments – we will be free – able to be together always.” It rather seemed that his wife underestimated the amount of time granted to her by the Vice-Commissioner, who truly was busy, but by no means entirely occupied by and confined to his work; however, he raised no objections to the premise, only repeating his original complaint: “It is so difficult to be certain.”

He turned to me. “You see, my predecessor seemed for so much of his career to disapprove of any attempts to preserve or resuscitate the past. His records, which I have been reading pieces of since I assumed his role – although, of course, with much more interest and attention recently – showed him to be more a man of Renaissance science than art, with a scientist’s desire for the perfections of future knowledge and scorn for the muddlings of antiquity – and yet his duties led him to spend a great deal of time contemplating just such futilities, as his journals make clear he considered them. Why, for example, you remember of course when that Roman tomb in Fiesole was uncovered, the one with what looked like a perfectly preserved body of a young girl? When everyone flocked to see her, he stood in the piazza and declared that she was nothing but a painted effigy, not a body at all, and he mentions her quite frequently in his journals afterwards, even quite virulently –“

“’That seductress of decay, that whore of the dead,’” quoted the Signora, rather dryly.

“Just an example, as I said, of his opinions. At least, his opinions when he was younger – he was about as old as I am when the tomb was discovered – but at the very end of his journals there seems to have been a change. A repentance, almost. He began to praise the past and despair of the present – this was shortly before his death, and so perhaps there was some weakening of his faculties…”

“Let us not,” interjected the Signora, “speak ill of the dead.”

“In any case, he seems to have become involved in a project of Vasari’s to preserve some sort of great painting in the Palazzo. What’s strange is that he almost seems not to care at all what this painting is, and so he never even mentions the artist’s name, but he is quite specific about its being in the Salone dei Cinquecento – he even gives indications of where the first section of the covering wall was to be built – such an amount over from a window and such an amount down, and so it really must be the Leonardo. It would all be so certain, except that he died on the day the work was to have started – there was a little scandal even, since he insisted on being buried up in Fiesole, in the very tomb from which that Roman girl had been taken – quite a change of heart – and the Pope had to grant permission, I believe. But since he died, I cannot be certain that the work did begin or that Vasari finished without destroying the former fresco.”

“But think,” said his wife, “why would he die if not because he felt certain that his repentance would succeed?” The Vice-Commissioner did not answer.

“Death, I fear, is not caused by one’s will alone,” I remarked. The Vice-Commissioner remained silent, but his wife looked at me somewhat impatiently, as if I were of unwelcome influence. She soon did away with the possibility of any future effect on the Vice-Commissioner by making the only offer then likely to make me want to leave the Palazzo.

“Why don’t you stay at our home? There are not many amusements, but there is, if it appeals to you, a ghost.”

* * *

One could think that the Signora had said this as a merely conventional sort of advertisement, and yet I believed her – perhaps it was the way in which her eyes flickered when she spoke, as if they were spirits resting in a masking body of powder and silk. In any case I saw that her tolerance for my stay with her husband was at an end, for whatever reason, and thus we left him alone in the Palazzo, which echoed with our footsteps as I followed the Signora out into the night.

We were driven up to Fiesole. This is a small town up in the hills, not far from Florence, but independent of it until a protracted dispute in the later Middle Ages, after which Fiesole decided to render unto Florence that which was Florence’s and retain independence of mind. Thus, the houses of Fiesole still cling to their hills and simper down on Florence, to which they pay taxes but not much mind. It is somewhat symptomatic of the similar attitude towards Florence of her ministers that so many of them live here, in the higher and more spacious air; however, while most face the slanting and irregular main square, where they can see one another, the Signora had her villa in an out of the way corner of the town. Through the trees of her back garden one could see the excavations. Fiesole, like Florence, had been a Roman foundation, but while Florence had oversprawled her romanitas, Fiesole had built with, though not over, her ancient stones. Thus to one side of town, on the utmost edge of its main hill, is a clearing in which the last century has painstakingly excavated the foundations of temples and baths more roughly laid bare by the depredations of previous ages which had built the surrounding villas, including that of the Signora, with Roman stone. From this clearing one could look over the other hills and valleys of Tuscany, which in the ripe warmth and blue glaze of a summer morning seem to be governed by antiquity’s gentler nymphs; however, those are not the spirits of our present concern.

The Signora had led me into her house – a family possession, she explained – the usual affair of gates, dull tile floors, and duller stretches of plastered wall well covering over its heritage of materials. Against the summer heat it was dark and shuttered, almost as if closed for a long abandonment; the only thing that moved within it was my hostess, whom I only saw at dinner, for which the Vice-Commissioner still came home. He had revealed his object and obtained permissions, and after a week or so from the beginning of my stay he told us that scaffolding had been erected and that he would cut into the wall the following morning. The Signora chose that evening to return to the subject of her ghost.

“It is,” she explained, “like the house, a family heritage. You might have wondered at my knowing so much about the girl whose body was discovered in Fiesole, the one of whom Alessandro was speaking, but it is hardly surprising, since her tomb is very near here, in the back corner of the garden, in fact. And so I’ve been told her story a thousand times since I was a child, all about the lovely young girl with golden curls and rose petals across her breast, all as fresh as if she were still alive. We did not, in any case, consider her an effigy. You know, of course, that she was carried to the Piazza del Duomo and all Florence came to see – but the next morning she had disappeared. It was suspected that the Pope had ordered her to be taken away and reburied, lest she become a new saint – a pagan saint, imagine! Wherever her body went, it has always been said in my family that her spirit returns to visit her tomb at times; at least, some of the more romantical of my ancestors have claimed to have seen her wandering there. I think, though – since it must be admitted that I, too, have some fairly romantic notions about the past –that perhaps she ran away by herself from the piazza – that perhaps she had fallen in love with one of those who came to look at her, and wanted to find him again, in whatever way she could. And I’ve always suspected that if she had anything of the foolishness of femininity, she would fall in love with precisely the one who most didn’t want her, the one who stood all day next to her proclaiming her false and, even if real, worthless – Alessandro Forzori, to be exact. And so I am happy that the present Alessandro Forzori and I can reenact this love, so to speak, although, it is to be hoped, with somewhat more satisfactory of an ending – at least I hope that Alessandro is still enchanted with me…” Here she looked at the Vice-Commissioner, who murmured “Entranced, my dear,” and then lapsed back into his silent contemplations. It seemed that he had heard the story before.

After dinner, the Vice-Commissioner kissed the hand of his wife and went back to Florence to work again alone. The Signora and I sat over drinks which she had mixed and poured herself, and of which the odour, of pears ripely rotten in a summer orchard, was in itself sufficient to set me nodding. She said at last, “But you have not yet seen my room, with all its antiquity preserved.” She led me not through the house but into the garden, explaining that in the summer she slept in a little pavilion outside. It was a single room, windowless with a peaked ceiling and walls constructed of mortarless rows of rough-squared stone. Here the smell was of dampness and earth, but still that heavy first perfume persisted with me. Her bed was wooden, covered with thin wrappings of white sheets. Around it were placed chests, vases, and Etruscan cinerary boxes, those most common products of Tuscan soil, with portrait-figures of the dead reclining on their tops. In the light of her lamp their lidless eyes drooped and winked and their fingers shifted among the leaves of their clutched funerary garlands. The Signora was taking off her jewelry, made of beaten and granulated gold in the antique style, refastening her earrings in the holes of the ears of the statues and piling her bracelets in their shallow laps. Her skin was so pale that it faded into the shadow without the sparkle of the adorning metal, as if she were pulling off her fingers with her rings.

“Everything is old here by my garden bed – nothing from this filthy present age. The dust of the past is dry and well-sifted, and nothing else beside we two, we whose souls are even older.” She had lain down on her narrow bed. “And now it is time to go to sleep – for you as well as I.” The lamp grew dimmer, the scent stronger; there was a growing droning hum as of bees in a garden, and I heard no more.

* * *

The road down the mountain from Fiesole to Florence is narrow and winding and lined with the walls of villas whose owners enclose their pleasures from the commerce of passersby. In the past this road was pleasant to walk, with birds calling from behind the walls of gardens into the hot stillness of a summer morning, but in our era, with the violenter transports of the time pressing close along the fences, not even spirits would keep up habitual haunts on the Fiesole road for fear of being deatomized anew. Thus I, too, took to modern means, and waited for the little omnibus which runs from the piazza into Florence. I had woken in a curious sort of niche in the hillside above the excavations and below, I thought, the Signora’s villa, with a peaked ceiling and walls of morterless stones. My first concern was to ascertain what had become of the Vice-Commissioner, since I did not hold any longer a very confident trust in the well-wishes of his wife.

On the seat I took when the omnibus arrived was folded the morning paper. The date was two days after my last conversation with the Signora. It was opened to an article entitled “La Rinasciamente en polvoro” – “Powdered Renaissance.” I translate it below, silently correcting the small errors of title and place so apt to creep into even the most careful journalism:

The administration of our Palazzo Vecchio yesterday invited a few gentlemen of the press to be present at what they said might be the greatest discovery of the past five hundred years – a famous fresco hidden behind Vasari’s decorations of the Salone dei Cinquecento. Alessandro Forzori, the Vice Commissioner of Culture, led observers onto a scaffolding constructed in the Salone, there carefully cutting out a square of the current fresco. Removing the plaster, he did indeed reveal that Vasari painted on a wooden support erected on top of the actual wall of the Sala – but on this wall were no signs of another fresco. Instead there was only a black dust which covered the Vice Commissioner’s hands and made literal the mud on his face…

The rest was composed of pitying wishes that the Vice Commissioner could have reconstituted the Renaissance with his powder; the only items of further interest were in the last few lines:

Though the administration of the Palazzo maintains that the Vice Commissioner never promised to find anything, and was, almost up to the very moment of the cutting, uncertain as to the wisdom of the proceedings, so that he is not to blame for his failure, he seemed a changed man as the disappointing dust poured upon him – stooped, older. As workers made Vasari’s fresco whole once more, he announced his retirement from the Palazzo, saying that he intended to spend his time with his wife, in her villa in Fiesole.

Thus from Florence, after confirming that the Vice-Commissioner had indeed removed himself from his office – which was being repainted, I saw, by workmen complaining that he had managed to leave behind him what seemed to be several centuries worth of candle-smoke on the walls – I went back to Fiesole. It is possible that wandering among the walls and convolutions of the town that I simply failed to find again the Signora’s villa, but in any case, find it I could not. I did succeed in making my way back to the place where I had awoken. I saw now that it must have once been an ancient tomb. Any trace of its first inhabitants had of course long ago been removed into museums or the hands of other collectors, but in the ground, which I now saw was paved with marble slabs, though covered with much dirt, was laid a long gravemarker. On it was cut the name Alessandro Forzori, and underneath, dates that showed it to be the grave of the predecessor of the Vice-Commissioner, and thus the tomb of the ancient girl, as well. There had been an alteration recently made, though, for something sharp, the pin of a brooch or earring, perhaps, had scratched out the date of his death and written instead yesterday’s date – the day of the Vice Commissioner’s disappearance. The ground around the gravemarker was not at all disturbed, and so, though I thought I knew where the Vice-Commissioner was now, it seemed impossible to explain how he got there, and so I went back to Florence alone.

* * *

Impossible to explain, that is, unless one has a firm conviction of the power of “the foolishness of femininity,” in the words of the Signora, to achieve its wishes despite the most adverse of circumstances, such as, for example, the death of both participants. In after-times I have often thought about the workings of this somewhat mysterious affair of the Vice-Commissioner, and I have decided to take the Signora at her word. One could of course think of the whole affair as a folle a deux, with the Signora convincing her husband that she and he were the fated reincarnations of the long dead Roman and bureaucrat. This, though, does not account for their disappearance nor for my own experiences of the spiritual stirrings and strange happenings both at the Palazzo and in Fiesole. The insistence of the Signora on the opening of the wall and the reluctance of the Vice-Commissioner to do so seems to me to be the whole key of the affair. Imagine, then, that the discovered girl, or whatever remained of her, really did fall in love with Alessandro Forzori. Imagine that, having horrifiedly spurned her, he repented, in his elderly solitude, and tried to summon her back. Such a blooming girl, though, of course, in actuality far older than he, would have nothing to do with such an aged version of her beloved. Having waited so long, she can well afford to wait longer, and perhaps Forzori was not entirely averse to waiting until he could be young again as well. He could have used the lure of revealing one thing from the past – Leonardo’s painting – to ensure the revelation of something of himself – some mixture, some alchemical powder that would make a young man do what an old man wished he had done. After his death, then, imagine that the first Forzori had lived on, like his beloved – and imagine that they had both waited for a goodly enough man to come close enough to reincarnate both their desires with his reverence for the past.