Sunday 9 August 2020

Castel Vecchio

by Robert Ward

a glass of Italian white wine, perhaps Vernaccia di San Gimignano

NOTE: It may help the reader to know that the Ghibellines in fourteenth-century Florence were those who sympathised with the claims of the Emperor, whilst the Guelph party were supporters of the Pope. In this story the Malatesta, over-lords of the territory, cleave to the Ghibellines and to the emperor, whilst the Buonacorsi, who hold the castle, have papal sympathies. The Dominican order, to whom the latter have given refuge, were ardent preachers of Catholic orthodoxy.

'Did you not hear my lady go down the garden singing,
echoing all the songbirds, and setting the valleys ringing?
Did you not hear my lady, out in the garden there?
Shaming the rose and lily, for she is twice as fair...

All archaeology is violation. That’s Rule One. It’s the first thing we teach. It’s no use getting squeamish about it now.’

This isn’t about archaeology,’ protested Benedetta, ‘it’s about theology' - but the  director of the dig had already turned on his heel and left. Benedetta turned in appeal to her university friends, working with her through the summer on the site at Castel Vecchio - the old castle. ‘This is about allowing 
the dead to rest in peace. Where they were buried, with full Christian ceremony. To wait for the coming of Christ’. 

So overt an appeal to Christian sentiment found little sympathy. One or two of the boys openly scoffed and walked away, and the girls turned after them. Benedetta was left, feeling isolated and misunderstood. 

A short distance away people were gathering in the partially excavated castle chapel for the most anticipated event of the season. The opening of the vault that lay before the sanctuary step, directly in front of the altar. Benedetta, unused to unearthing the dead, felt that by her presence she was somehow complicit in what was about to be unleashed in spite of all her protestations, so lightly set aside. Seven hundred years or seventy, it seemed to her to make no difference. And yet, as the expectation and anticipation mounted, she knew that she couldn’t opt out. She too would be there in the circle when the contents of the vault came up into the light.
Seven hundred years before, on 13th May 1391, a different circle of witnesses stood around the open vault- all of them men, all of them cowled and vested in the black and white of the Dominican order; all of them turned inwards as the heavy stone sarcophagus was lowered. The choir, standing around a large book of antiphons on a lectern in the chancel, sang the propers from a requiem for the departed. Fra Bartolomeo watched as the casket 
was lowered to the bottom.It had only been a short time since the young master had fled to them in the forest from the vicious man-hunt which had been initiated in the town. He had arrived among them like a wild animal, eyes fearful and wide open, sides heaving as though his heart and lungs wouldburst. He had thrown himself on the mercy of the Ghibelline lords of  the Castel Vecchio and they in turn had entrusted him to the safekeeping of the Dominican brothers who tended the chapel. Clearly he believed that he was fleeing for his life. Fra Bartolomeo as infirmarian had received him into the hospitium.Gimignano is an unsafe place for me to be,’ the young man had explained to his host, as they sat together by the warming fire allowed in the accommodation for the sick. ‘There are spies everywhere. They say that walls have ears and the words we speak in our bedchambers are repeated in the open square.’

The guest master smiled very slightly. The allusion was not lost on the friar. This young man, like the members of his own Dominican Order of Preachers, was evidently well versed in the scriptures. Moreover, he spoke with an eloquence and an accent which marked him out from the inhabitants of the region. Like the friar, he was an outsider here. ‘You do not come from these parts?’ Bartolomeo ventured.

No. From Firenze. I was born there and learned my letters from the brothers at San Marco.’ 

Again, a point of contact with the brothers at Castel Vecchio. The same order. The same path almost that Bartolomeo himself had trodden. The older man smiled more openly. You’re a stranger in the town?’

I came to speak on behalf of the Guelph party. To win the city over to their persuasion. To bring the people home to Christ.’ 
The old man’s smile broadened. His eyes softened further. There was a moment of silence.

Then the younger man continued. ‘All seemed to be in order, everything to be going our way. I spoke in the market place and found a warm response. But then…it was as though the town went mad. Quite suddenly, overnight. There was rioting in the town square. Two 
of my companions were lynched by the mob. The agents of the Pope had been at work, whispering in the streets, in the public squares. The mood of the people was unsettled, anti-clerical feeling was stronger than we had bargained for.' He faltered, thinking perhaps of those
whom he'd thought he could trust, whose loyalties had proved shallow, and whose faces had turned away from him when the hue and cry were raised, as much as to say, 'I never knew you.' 

They sat in silence for a time, a condition with which the older man was well acquainted and with which he felt at ease. Eventually, it was the other who resumed. 'I came to this place, through the forest, knowing I was hidden all the way. At the gates, I knew I'd be given refuge. The sympathies of the Buonacorsi are known for miles around.' He looked at the older man with the hint of a question in his face. 

'Today, you are safe. Tomorrow... who can tell? There are envoys here as well. News from the town, as you say, is not good. There are armies on the move. Men, horses, machines of war. My brothers were given refuge here, it's true, by the Buonacorsi, but this quarrel is about something other than the keeping of men's souls.'
There came at that moment a commotion in the courtyard out beyond- the percussive sound of armour, horses' hooves, men's voices raised. 

'Nowhere is safe.' The friar rose and took the younger man by the hand. 'Come with me and do exactly as I say.'

'On the twelfth day of May in the year of Our Lord Thirteen Hundred and Ninety One, from His Most Serene Highness Prince Vincenzo Buonacorsi Buonvicini of Castelvecchio to His Most Serene Highness Prince Pietro Malatesta: Greeting. Whereas it has seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit to accord to our brothers in Christ of the Sacred Order of Preachers safe passage, and whereas that safe passage has been granted in accordance with our word, we now accord to our brother of the Malatesta our most heartfelt and cordial allegiance, in token whereof we this day send out of our territories those whom we have sheltered hitherto, and know that in return we shall enjoy the favour of His Most Serene Highness Pietro of the Malatesta and shall hold in peace our castle of the forest lands in perpetuity; as a token whereof we hereto affix our seal on the Feast of the Blessed --- --- in this year of grace Thirteen Hundred and Ninety One.'

The departure was a hurried one. There was a meeting after dawn  between the Prior and the Lord Vincenzo. The Lord Vincenzo told the Prior, 'My duty to my earthly lord demands that I must do that which I would rather not do, whilst my duty to Our Lord in Heaven demands that I do you the courtesy of this meeting face to face. You will have safe passage until you are beyond the lands of the Malatesta. We are men of honour and he will not betray his word. There is however the matter of a a refugee from the court of the Malatesta - a young man, the cause of an affray in the city and the subsequent deathsby violence of several leading citizens of the place.' He looked away from the Prior, fixing his gaze on a distant point. 'You know, I think, something of this man?'

There was an urgent consultation between the Prior and his chief  officers, the cellarer, the sacristan, the infirmarian. There was hastily convened an emergency meeting of the inner initiates of the community of brothers, and a last strained liturgical leave-taking of the 
place which had been their refuge these eleven years. It was, appropriately, a burial. Eleven brothers stood in a circle around the vault which they had constructed below the sanctuary step, in the place of honour, for the Buonacorsi race. The stone sarcophagus, 
unknown to their lords, they had prepared in readiness- there would not be time on hearing of a death in the central chambers to prepare a casket fit for such a lord.

And in the morning it was there that they buried the stranger who had come to them by night, hastily, yet with due reverence, in the stone coffin. And then, in a similar spirit, they prepared to leave their home.


Steady as she goes!’ the director cried, as they heaved upon the ropes, raising the stone coffin to the surface at a precarious angle. There was some concern that the ropes might fray beneath the weight but all held good, the coffin lid fastened in place so that it would not slip or fall back into the vault. 
The winching apparatus set up above the tomb performed its task, the men hauling on the winches responding to the calls – ‘Lower the feet! Steady! Steady! Now guide it down.’

Other hands set to and the colossal weight was guided to rest at the side of the open shaft. 

Benedetta held her breath. Whatever private feelings she had voiced earlier in the day, she could not stay away. The tension and the excitement of the occasion were all the greater for being mixed with apprehension. What was happening had violated for her some taboo, some sense of what was best 
left undisturbed.

The carving was crude and simple, the coffin long and narrow like a canoe, the lid thick, slightly ill-fitting, pitched like the roof of a house - and the whole encrusted with the damp accretions of seven hundred years. Benedetta, like the others present, wondered what would shortly be revealed. As the ropes were unfastened and the top began to slide aside, her fascination with what was soon to be revealed battled with her urge to turn away. She had heard of bodies preserved incorrupt, both in the lives of saints and in conversations with fellow archaeologists, and of bodies exposed to the 
air which held together for a moment and then crumbled into dust. More likely than either was the sight of bones, wrapped perhaps in garments thin with age, discoloured, she imagined, as a result of…..The top was off. A cry went up. She saw - nothing but a casket  filled with rock. On the lid was carved the single word: ‘Resurgam.’ I will rise again.


The brothers left the castle shortly after noon. The heat was up but they had more than half the daylight hours to travel, to reach shelter in the neighbouring territory by dusk. Their hearts were heavy, all but one. A twelfth member of their company went his way among them with a heart as light as the noontide, happy and secure, if inappropriately vested, in the black and white habit of the order. For him it seemed that all the birds for miles around did sing.

About the author

The Revd. Robert Ward is a priest in the Church of England who has an interest in the medieval religious orders and in what Bishop Rowan Williams once called 'rekindling the imagination of the English people.' CafeLit recently published two earlier stories, also influenced by visits to religious sites in England and in Tuscany.


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