THE SUMMER OF 1578
Never has a bigger lie crossed her lips. Caterina could never be just a woman. She is my confidant, my counsellor, my advisor. She had listened for hours while I mused over policies and alliances and declarations of war. Her views on history, politics and geography have helped shape the future of La Serenissima, much to the chagrin of my Signoria.
My Signoria cannot fathom why I place so much trust in her, why I confide in her, rather than them. At the outset of our dalliance, they counselled caution and restraint. As our relationship and the imminent threat of the plague grew, so did their complaints. Now, with the most devastating outbreak of plague that La Serenissima has seen, they are steadfast in their opposition. They claim that Caterina is a witch. That she casts enchantments to protect herself from the plague. That she has cast a spell over me. Like a rabbit in a trap, I am ensnared by her magic.
Gone are the days when Caterina toyed with courtiers. The courtiers will not as much as look in her direction, for fear of enchantment. The women of the court refuse to visit her, fearing accusation by association. The servants will not enter her chamber, inventing black magic tableaus of caldrons and covens, black cats and broomsticks.
I think on all the accusations and the universal opposition. The Malleus Maleficarum is steadfast in its proclamation. The source of all witchcraft is carnal lust. In women, carnal lust is insatiable. And Caterina is renowned for her insatiable appetite. She is, after all, a cortigiana onesta. It is common knowledge that witches defy convention; they overstep the lines of proper female decorum. Much as Caterina does. Surely her rapacious nature does not make her more disposed to sharing the secrets of the devil. Surely my love is not so completely misplaced.
Francesco comes across me reading the Malleus Maleficarum. He plays on my doubts. He, and my entire Signoria, begs me to set Caterina aside. They come to me with countless matches; the Duchess of Savoy, the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, the princess of the two Sicilies, any of the daughters of the Medici household, even the daughter of Mary, Queen of Scotts. I refuse them all, despite the Malleus Maleficarum and its edicts. None of them is Caterina.
Caterina pretends not to notice the accusations, the averted eyes, her dwindling friends at court. Instead she keeps herself busy any way she can. I assume that is why she has taken to frequenting the orphanages. When I learned of Caterina’s proclivity for visiting the children of La Serenissima, I must admit that I was, at first, concerned. The injuries done to children by witches are innumerable. Witches are known to offer children to the devil, like some sort of sacrificial lamb. Witches are taught by the devil to confect unguents from children’s limbs to use in spells. I struggled to align the gentle, graceful, caring Caterina I have grown to love with such an abhorrent image. It simply could not be true. It was not true. I would not believe that she was anything other than my love.
I vowed to see for myself. So, for the first time, I accompanied Caterina this morning on her daily pilgrimage to the poorest areas of La Serenissima. With the protestations of my Signoria at my back, I wove my way through the canals in growing disbelief. Oftentimes we could not pass through the crushing throng of humanity. The people were sceptres, half-hidden by their death masks, dancing and dipping in a crazed plague-induced delirium. I could scarce believe the horrors. The foul stench of rotting, burning flesh seemed to burn my nasal passages, to claw at my eyes. I could taste it. Bodies were piled in the streets like little more than yesterday’s food scraps, boats bobbed listlessly on the canals, as if abandoned in a desperate flee from the plague. Urchins, faces blackened with filth, clawed wildly at my pockets, desperate for a coin, for help, for any sign of kindness.
But the most horrifying aspect of all: Caterina seemed unafraid. A line from the Malleus Maleficarum echoed through my mind. But there is no bodily infirmity, not even leprosy or epilepsy, which cannot be caused by witches. Surely her fearlessness was not bourn of the knowledge that, as she was the cause of the plague, she was immune to its ravages? It is simply her courage, her fierceness that she wears like armour, in the battle against the plague.
A violent tug on my pocket watch snapped me out of my musing. A child, no more than ten years old, with weeping sores lining his cheeks, stared stonily upward. He accused me without uttering a word. What had I let happen to my city of gold and pleasure and intellect? Once a capital that hosted painters, sculptors, architects and authors: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Galileo. A capital of cultural vivacity, of personal freedoms which offered so many persecuted foreign intellectuals a second home. It was now home to little more than death and disease and despair.
Sheltered in the Palazzo Ducale, blinded by the half-truths of my Singoria, I had not noticed the horror that had befallen my beloved La Serenissima.