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Authors: Gina Buonaguro

The Wolves of St. Peter's

BOOK: The Wolves of St. Peter's
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The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience,
the stupid by necessity, and the brute by instinct.



Tiber River, but it was the first one he recognized. He could almost hear her voice in the rain.
Calendula. I was named for the flower.
He stopped at the foot of the bridge, watching as two policemen attempted to hook her body with long poles and draw it toward the bank. Caught against one of the bridge pylons, she was barely distinguishable from the garbage and river weeds. Leaning over the parapet, a group of boys shouted instructions down to the policemen, their voices competing with the demented screams of seagulls circling like vultures overhead.

Francesco Angeli shifted his weight from one leg to the other, putrid ankle-deep mud sucking at his boots, the cold, insistent drizzle seeping through his cloak and straight into his bones. He looked up to where the Castel Sant'Angelo, as gray as the sky, loomed at the other end of the bridge and told himself he should go, deliver the sack he was carrying, and save himself the wrath of his master, Michelangelo. But he couldn't. Even in the filthy water, her hair was still every bit as golden as the flower she'd been named for, every bit as golden as his beloved Juliet's.

The first time he met Calendula, he'd thought she
Juliet and had almost called out her name. He'd stood there dumbfounded, disappointed, heartbroken, and Calendula had thought this turmoil was all for her.
You've never seen hair as golden as mine, have you?
she'd asked, winding one gleaming strand around her finger. She affected the voice of a little girl, though she was twenty, the same age as himself.
I have,
he'd replied when he could speak again.
Though not on a whore.
He had meant it to be cruel, but his voice had shaken.

The boys hooted with pleasure as the policemen finally freed Calendula's body from the pylon and dragged it toward the bank. It escaped, turning ever so slowly in an eddy of water, the weight of the waterlogged dress threatening to drag it under the surface.

There was a frantic scrambling of poles as the policemen attempted to snare the body once more, while the boys threw stones at it for good measure. Then, to their amusement, one of the policemen skidded down the muddy bank and found himself sitting up to his waist in the cold water. He pulled himself up and, directing his curses at the laughing boys, yanked off his cloak, threw it up on the bank, and waded out until he was chest deep. Grabbing at the dress, he staggered back to the shore.

Francesco could have left then. But something compelled him to keep watching.

The second policeman went to aid the first, and the two of them lugged the body up onto the bank before dropping it. One of the men pushed aside her hair with his boot, and Francesco recoiled at the sight of her face, battered and bloodied. Her eyes were still open and staring, their blueness shot through with blood. The hair
she was so proud of, so adored by men, so envied by women, was matted with sludge, weeds, and the rotten remains of an old sack. And the dress, carefully chosen to reflect the color of her hair, now muddy and torn, twisted around her slender body, exposing a breast the color of a dead carp. Bile rising in his throat, Francesco looked away quickly.

He'd painted her in that dress. Not Francesco, but Marcus. A portrait of the Virgin and Christ Child, with Calendula in a field of yellow marigolds, a child with curls as brilliant as her own resting in the luminescent folds of her dress.
Madonna della Calendula,
the Marigold Madonna. Glowing with an internal light, it was the best thing Marcus had ever painted. A masterpiece by an otherwise mediocre painter—at least in Francesco's judgment. It had been commissioned by a rich shipping merchant known as The Turk, and it had nearly killed Marcus to hand the painting over.
It sickens me to think of that fat prick's eyes on her,
he had said. Calendula was not only Marcus's model, she was his lover, and Marcus was jealous of those who paid for a brief taste of her beauty.

And she was so very beautiful,
Francesco thought, every bit as beautiful as the woman she'd reminded him of. But now, with her left arm twisted behind her back, her right splayed out on the bank, fingers curled like claws, it was already becoming hard to remember that loveliness.

He'd seen her just two nights earlier at Imperia's, the elegant brothel that was the favorite gathering place of Rome's artists. With the candles burning bright, Imperia, dressed in a violet gown, had seen to her patrons' comforts, pouring out flattery as generously as she'd poured the wine. A couple of houseboys, five or six years of age, dressed as cherubs complete with gold-tipped wings, held out plates of grapes and sweetmeats while a bare-breasted girl played
an ivory lute. And in the middle of the salon, Calendula had held court, a dozen men gathered around her. Seated in a delicate gilded chair in front of the pink marble fireplace, she'd basked in their effusive compliments as Marcus, vying to get closer, made several vain attempts to edge his own chair through the admirers. Francesco, standing a little apart, a little drunk, couldn't take his eyes off her, disoriented by the firelight dancing in her hair, the yellow dress that shimmered with every silken rustle. Only when she'd reached for a grape did he notice the ring, a large amethyst set in a heavy gold band etched with intricate swirls. Marcus, who had finally succeeded in reaching her side, saw it too.
Who gave you that?
Marcus had demanded.
The Turk?

Someone far richer than you'll ever be,
she'd said evasively, torturing him further by planting a kiss on the ring.

The Turk,
he'd said, grabbing her by the arm and attempting to pull the ring from her finger. She'd laughed, freeing her hand from his, and he'd slapped her face hard enough to bring tears to those eyes, as blue as the Sicilian skies she'd been born under, as blue as Juliet's.

There were several startled responses, but Francesco had acted first. Shaken out of his stupor, he'd lunged through the men, knocking Marcus off the chair and smashing his head into the side of the marble fireplace. It had taken Raphael and two others to pull him off the stunned painter. They'd pushed him into the nearest chair and told Marcus to leave. Francesco had shaken them off, saying he'd be the one to go. He'd gulped the rest of his wine and stood up, aware of Calendula watching him, the hand with the ring pressed over her cheek. She hadn't looked at Marcus, only at Francesco, as if to say,
I'm not just any whore to you, am I?
Francesco had thrown his cup into the fireplace and left without another word.

The ring wasn't there now. And not only was it missing, the finger she wore it on was missing too. “Her finger is gone,” he exclaimed in disbelief. Clearly this was no accident. Could Marcus have killed her out of jealousy?

“What did you say?”

Francesco turned to see a man standing beside him. A third policeman, this one with a large, pockmarked face and a dripping nose.

“Her finger's gone,” Francesco repeated reluctantly.

The policeman looked from Francesco to the body and squinted. “How do you know that?” he asked sharply.

“You can see. There. The middle finger. It's been cut off.”

“Must be sharp eyes you've got,” the policeman said suspiciously.

The other policemen were dragging Calendula's body farther up the bank, but when the boys from the bridge joined in, one of them grabbing an arm, another a leg, the men stood back and let them do the work. A small group gathered to watch, among them a woman with a crying baby wrapped in a shawl, a man leading a wretched-looking donkey weighed down with bundles of firewood, and a couple of hooded monks.

The policeman at Francesco's side watched too, and Francesco wondered if he'd lost his chance to leave. He knew they wouldn't spend much time worrying about how this woman came to be in the river, and he, standing here watching, was as good a suspect as any. He pictured himself being hauled down to the courts. Once the officials learned he had connections to the man painting the Pope's chapel, they might decide they could extort a nice fine, but Francesco didn't trust them not to first tie his hands behind him and haul him up over a beam to see if they could extract a more interesting story. Not to mention that Michelangelo would hardly feel
it his duty to bail out the houseboy who'd failed to bring his meal. Francesco didn't even know if his temperamental employer could be relied on to write his father or tell his friends. Not that Michelangelo knew who his friends were. If he did, he'd condemn Francesco to the gallows for that alone.

Having reached the top of the bank now, the boys dropped Calendula's body facedown just a few feet away. A seagull landed beside her and snatched up the hand with the missing finger in its beak. It flapped its wings as if planning to fly off with the entire body, and one of the policemen kicked at it, his boot thudding into its side. Dropping the hand, the bird backed off, screeching abuse at its attacker.

The policeman beside him pulled up the hood on his cloak, and Francesco could see he was bored and cold. If he'd been calculating before that Francesco looked like a good suspect, he was now thinking it was too much trouble. Francesco, reckoning this marked a conclusion of some sort to the events, shifted the sack with the bread and wine to the other hand and turned to go, the mud sucking at his boots.

“You know her?”

“No,” Francesco answered. He wasn't going to risk rekindling the policeman's interest in him. “No,” he said again. “Most likely just another whore.”

“You're probably right. We'll be stuck with the expense of burying her. I'm sure no one's going to pay to collect her.”

“Likely not,” Francesco agreed, thinking this would certainly be the case if he failed to tell anyone. But of course he would, and the faster he did so, the faster he could forget. He wouldn't go to Marcus, though, not after the other night. Maybe Raphael. He could trust him. Let him take care of it.

“What's your name?” The policeman asked this not as if Francesco were a suspect, but as if they'd come to this point in their relationship.

“Guido del Mare,” Francesco said without any hesitation, giving the name of his greatest enemy, even though Giudo was almost two hundred miles away in Florence.
Find him if you have any further questions,
he added to himself. He made his excuses and got away this time, not looking back until he was in the middle of the bridge. He watched one of the policemen bend over the body.
He's closing her eyes,
Francesco thought, and he cursed himself for not having had the courage to do it himself.

Francesco entered St. Peter's Square, thousands of men were at work. Every day they got up from their beds and came here to labor, and it was said the basilica consumed men as hungrily as it consumed stone. Mostly it appeared to Francesco as if they were moving things around. Stacks of timber, piles of stone and brick, mounds of gravel, crushed marble, lime, and sand—everything moving from one place to another to make way for yet more piles of timber, stone, brick, gravel, marble, lime, sand. Pickaxes, shovels, and mallets rang and scraped against stone; men shouted and cursed. In the center of the square, a group of old women wrestled a large iron cauldron onto a fire, ready to make the day's soup, a slop made of rotten onions and rancid meat scraps that, along with the barrels of vinegary wine, fueled the men.

Teams of oxen stood ready and harnessed to begin the work of dragging the giant blocks of limestone transported by river from
quarries north of the city. Yet more teams would cart the rock mined from Old Rome: the Palatine Hill, the Forum, the Colosseum.

The old St. Peter's was being demolished as the new one was being built, and little remained but the facade, which was dwarfed by the four giant pillars that would hold the new basilica's dome. By latest count (the architect Donato Bramante's design grew grander by the week), the basilica would cover tens of thousands of square yards, the dome itself over three hundred feet high. Greater than even the greatest visions of the ancient Romans. It was His Holiness Pope Julius II's way of saying,
We're back, even more glorious than before!

Pope Julius's ambitions also extended to the old Sistine Chapel, and the man he wanted to paint its twelve-thousand-square-foot ceiling was Michelangelo, but getting the sculptor to accept the commission had been no easy task. For years, Michelangelo's heart had been set on securing the commission for Pope Julius's tomb. Declaring himself a sculptor and not a painter, Michelangelo had fled Rome for Florence and evaded the Pope and his request for two years until, seeing no other option and fearing for his life at the hands of papal spies and assassins, he had acquiesced and agreed to start at once.

But Michelangelo knew almost nothing of fresco. Instead of applying paint to a canvas or dry surface, pigment was applied to wet plaster that absorbed and sealed the colors as they dried. The mixing of the plaster was akin to alchemy in its difficulty, and Michelangelo required assistants not only to do the tedious preparatory work but also to familiarize him with the process. Suspicious by nature and not trusting any Romans, he'd hired his helpers from his home state of Florence.

Francesco had come with them, though not because he had any artistic expertise. Up until two months ago, Francesco had been a
lawyer in the court of Guido del Mare, a powerful Florentine landowner and his family's longtime patron. Francesco's father, Ricardo, had been the del Mare family's personal priest and trusted humanist adviser for decades. But when Francesco made the mistake of falling in love with Guido's wife, Juliet, Ricardo sent him to Rome to keep him safe while he attempted to soothe their vengeful patron's injured pride. To punish his son for his sin of arrogance, Ricardo had struck a deal with Michelangelo, paying the artist handsomely to take Francesco on as his lowly houseboy.

BOOK: The Wolves of St. Peter's
12.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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