The Blackhearted Saint
Cover design by:
Copyright 2011 Ned Minkov
I would like to thank Mr. Asparouh Velkov for helping me refine the manuscript and turn it into a book worth publishing. I would also like to express my gratitude to Erin Sanchez for the reassuring talks while preparing for my debut as an author.
I walked out of my rental apartment rather reluctantly. It was 7:30 a.m. and the November chill was making me shiver. The streets outside were swathed in a dense fog, seasonal for this time of year. The University campus across the hoar-frosted meadow could barely be made out through the grayish curtain.
Usually, I found such weather romantic – its air of mystery, its feel of depression. Not this time round though. I was still sleepy and regretful that I had to exchange my cosy, snug bed for the cold outside. I’d much rather have lain in for another couple of hours. However, no one was likely to finish my Ph.D. dissertation for me. And as the deadline was looming larger and larger, I could not sleep peacefully, anyway. That was why I had made up my mind to get to work earlier that day instead of wasting yet another morning at home.
I was headed towards the Library – the only facility of the University that was outside the campus. It was on the far end of the park opposite to where the faculties were located. А long, narrow alley lead to the mansion-like building of the Library through a thick forest. The mist concealed the trees which, along with the chilly air, rendered the place ghostly, as if I were crossing a cemetery. Yet, as I was walking along the alley, I found its silent seclusion comforting. And I needed this comfort, for I had been feeling troubled too often lately.
I realized that the deadline for finishing my dissertation would coincide with my start in life. Ever since I had walked into the university for the first time, I had been striving towards this turn in my life. My parents had spent years working hard so as to make sure that I not lack comfort or proper education. Now, they expected me to graduate and find a decent, well-paid job and enjoy the good life they had struggled for. Then, the question of what a good life should consist in I had discussed with my colleagues at university, who in turn had inherited a notion from their parents and followed their examples. Raised in upper-middle-class families like me, they were accustomed to driving nice cars, to wearing expensive clothes, to living in spacious apartments or houses around Campus. And they had taken it for granted that these possessions should be the values to be striving after. Consequently, most of them had graduated, had begun working, and some were already married – their ideal of a perfect life fulfilled.
I myself had not been that impatient to take these steps. Although I also recognized the family as a cornerstone of general happiness and had been in a relationship with a wonderful smart girl for three years, I was not confident that I was willing to go all the way. This entailed, as my parents’ example had showed me, entering the vicious circle of work, loans, mortgages, savings, and planning from which there was no way out. Besides, I had begun wondering whether marriage itself was merely another form of possession.
Thus, I had applied for a Ph.D. program, hoping it would allow me time enough to figure out what I truly wanted from life. But this retreat of mine was now coming to an end, while the answer kept eluding me. The topic I had chosen for my dissertation had something to do, though remotely, with my attempts to solve this existential riddle of mine: The Sacred Dimensions of Secular Values in Italian Renaissance Poetry. I had been hoping that the wisdom of ancient men would cast some light on the essentials of life. However, instead of finding an answer to my troubles, I was left under the impression of having escaped reality. And reality in modern society meant calculating in money’s worth everything.
When had people lost their ideals, such as love, honour, and goodness, substituting them for the pursuit of wealth and possessions? Are there any high values still valid, or have they all been buried in the past? Has man discarded the unworldly from his nature, to strive after material comforts? Is that what life’s purpose should be?’
Such were the thoughts crossing my mind as I approached the Library. I decided to put an end to these troubled reflections of mine and leave them aside. Surely, there would be plenty of time to think the matter over. I had enough on my mind as it was. And there I was, entering what was later to become my office – the old University Library. Being no stranger to this building, I easily found my way to the reading hall. Even before resuming work on my dissertation, I used to spend time by its tall windows over a random book. One can say it was my retreat and indeed it was. The silence, along with the scent of wood and of old books, made it the perfect place to collect my thoughts, to hide from the otherwise hectic pace of life at the University.
Next to the hall’s entrance there stood a row of four computer workstations. I tapped on the screen of the nearest one and entered my faculty number and password. Then I opened the Library catalogue and made a search for the books I needed. After choosing a few titles, I went to one of the desks facing the tall windows of the hall. I was the only person in the room, so I did not have to wait long for my order. A frail woman in her late fifties entered the hall through a SERVICE door carrying a small pile of books. She put them on the desk, smiling kindly, although somewhat forcedly, then quickly turned around and left.
I went through the books which contained the poetry, mainly sonnets, of Italian Renaissance authors. Most of the works in the volumes were written by the significant poets of that time – Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Alighieri. So far in the rough copy of my dissertation, I had reproduced what experts had written on the subject, regarding mainly love as the universal value. Now, I wanted to continue with my own analysis of a less familiar author, and hopefully a one who could add something more beside romance as the life’s ultimate purpose. But, as I leafed through the pages, the prospect of realizing my ambition grew less likely with each book I went through. Even in the old library’s vast collection, my two-hour search came to nothing, except for a few odd sonnets by anonymous authors. I was feeling completely disheartened, when I took the last book and stared at its paper cover. It was very old and its wretched look had made me leave it for last. I opened it. It began with Petrarch’s Qual Donna Attende A Gloriosa Fama - another dead end to my research. But what intrigued me was the elegant Italic font in which the poems were printed. I had always been fascinated with the art of calligraphy and with scripts in general. So I went through the pages with keen interest, as if I were reading those lines for the first time. On turning yet another page somewhere towards the middle of the book, I noticed something funny about the following sheet. Its colour was different to the rest. It seemed much older, as the paper had yellowed with age, and the ink was slightly washed out. Still, it was legible and I was staring at yet another sonnet.
One I had never read before. I went through the lines attentively, translating the text in my mind:
With his soul turned away from God,
And mind yielded to profane learning;
Succumbed to flesh’s sinful yearnings,
Heaven’s grace to embrace – he did not.
His path of life – by the Devil wrought:
In his wake – death and ruins burning;
From his heart all sanctity spurning:
Not lead by God – by the Devil caught.
For his faith he turned into mortal sin,
He shall rest in his golden restraint.
Shadows his home, serpents – his kin,
With vice his glory is forever stain’d.
For before s
amidst sinners he shall rise a Saint!
It was written in Italian, just like the rest of the works in the book. But, at the bottom of the page, there was an inscription, a line of characters, which on closer inspection I realized was a series of letters and numbers in Latin:
My first guess was that it indicated when the sonnet had been written: MCCCCXII was the Latin for 1412. This meant my find was a Renaissance piece, but written far too late for it to be the work of any of the authors collected in the book. I was fascinated by the melody of its rhymes and by its literary figures. However, my initial excitement quickly dissipated. I did not know who the author of the sonnet was and in any case could not analyse an anonymous poet with a single work. Nevertheless, I decided to take a closer look at the odd page. The other side of the sheet was blank and as I was turning it over, it detached itself. My hand froze, holding the loose sheet. I thought I had involuntarily ripped it off, but then I saw that its inner side was intact. Apparently, someone had tucked it in neatly between the pages.
‘So this sonnet must have been left inside the book centuries after it was originally written’, I mused. But who could possibly be its author? I certainly had to make some enquiries and luckily, I knew whom I should turn to.
The Library Director’s office was a sequestered room on the northern side of the imposing mansard roof of the building. The Director himself was an elderly professor at the University, a distinguished expert in the History of Culture. I had attended his lecture on The Vatican’s Cultural Heritage as a second year student. He had spent a couple of years as a visiting lecturer in the Università di Sapienza in Rome, and rumour had it that he had been granted access to the Vatican Archives.
I knocked on the massive wooden door and pricked up my ears for a reply.
‘Come in!’ the answer came in a low, deep voice. I pushed the door open and stepped into the office.
Holding a newspaper, the Director sat, in a leather armchair by a decorated tea-table with a steaming cup of fine china on it. Lifted over his horn-rimmed glasses his eyes were set on me.
‘How can I help you, young man?’ he asked.
I began by presenting myself, unsure about how to make my request for help.
‘I have been working on a dissertation on Early Renaissance Italian poetry.’ I explained. ‘I was going through some volumes, when I stumbled upon this particular book.’ I extended my left arm with the old book in hand. The Director kept staring at me questioningly. ‘It contains sonnets by Petrarch and Alighieri, mostly, but I found this odd sheet of paper tucked in between its pages.’
As I showed him the sheet, I noticed that the Director remained somewhat unimpressed. After a brief moment of silence, he threw the newspaper on the tea-table and beckoned me to draw closer.
‘Take a seat, will you?’ he pointed to another leather arm-chair facing his. Although he seemed a bit irritated, he was forcing himself to be polite, observing me, as I sat down.
‘So, what is so strange about this sheet of paper?’ he asked. By his tone alone, I could tell that he already knew the answer.
‘There’s a sonnet, sir’, I went on ‘And a date, an inscription in Latin written at the end. But what I need to know is who the author of this work is.’
‘May I have a look?’ he requested the paper and I handed it out to him. He examined it briefly and looked back at me.
‘So, you are saying that the inscription below is a date, aren’t you?’
‘I have basic knowledge of Latin, Sir. The numbers at the beginning of the inscription read 1412, unless I am mistaken. And the ones that follow must be those of the exact date. What I need to know however is the author’s–’
‘But you do have the author’s name’, the Director interrupted me, smiling.
‘What do you mean? I do? But where is it?’ I could hardly conceal my excitement.
‘Here, let me show you.’
He took the newspaper and produced a pencil from the pocket of his worn-out coat. Then he rewrote the inscription in a margin of the paper and handed it out to me.
I looked at the writing. It was the same as on the old sheet from the book, only I noticed that he had left a couple of spaces in the line:
MCCCCXI IOANES XXIII
I tried to decipher the copied inscription.
‘I can now see that the first set of letters refer to the year 1411 rather than 1412, as I thought. But who and what could IOANES and the number 23 stand for? Is it …’
Then it dawned on me.
‘John the XXIII? Perhaps Pope John the XXIII?’
‘Exactly’, the professor confirmed. ‘This sonnet was written by Pope John XXIII in the year 1411.’
‘Written by Pope John XXIII.’ I repeated, puzzling over my discovery. ‘Is it some sort of an edifying address?’ I asked, as I knew of such a form of address that had been used by the popes. It came along with anathemas of notorious sinners and served the purpose of public edification.
‘If it was what you suggest,’ the Director said, ‘it would have been written in Latin rather than in Italian. No, this is something more than a mere letter of edification.’ He rose from his chair and walked to a cupboard whence he took out another china cup and a small saucer.
‘Would you like some tea?’ he asked rhetorically, while reaching for a tea-pot and pouring some of the beverage into the cup. ‘The story of this sonnet isn’t short, but, as you will soon find out, it is certainly fascinating. It is a tale from the past which few know the truth about.’
I was sincerely disappointed by the fact that the sonnet had been written by a pope. In this case, it was very unlikely that I could use it for my dissertation. But the tinge of mystery in the Director’s voice whetted my curiosity. I took a sip of tea, confirming my anticipation.
He settled himself back down in his chair, took the sheet with the sonnet and stared at it, before handing it back to me.
‘Read it once again before we begin’, he urged me. ‘But first, what can you tell me about this sonnet?’
‘It is an Italian-style sonnet’, I said. ‘The year in which it was written and the rhyme patterns tell for sure that it is a Petrarchian one, a style named after the famous sonneteer of the Italian Renaissance. It has fourteen lines divided into two parts. The first eight follow their own rhyme scheme, meaning that in each four lines, the first one rhymes with the fourth, while the second with the third. The remaining sestet uses a regular rhyme scheme – the first line rhymes with the third and the fifth, whereas the second – with the fourth and the sixth.’
‘Excellent! Only its author is not Petrarch,’ the professor said. ‘That’s does not apply here. Rather, this particular sonnet relates the sinful crimes committed by a single man. His name is Balthasar Cossa and this is the story of his life.’