The Summer of 1578
I lean back in my chair. Neck stiff and shoulders tense, I let my head loll back and stare up at the ceiling. Lit only by a few flickering candles, the frescoes on my chamber ceiling leer at me. Directly above me, Venus, clutching her hard-won golden apple, smiles her crooked, knowing grin at me. Cupid, sporting his wings and quiver, steals a kiss from his own mother. The twisted tableau torments me. It mirrors, it amplifies my shame. From the far corner of the room, the bearded, balding figure of Father Time sweeps out his arm, as if trying to shield me from the transgressions of Venus and Cupid. All he succeeds in doing is to remind me of the fleeting nature of life. It may all be over tomorrow.
I glance down at the piles of papers and maps and scrolls strewn across my desk. The wax is finally ready. I slowly pour the sticky red syrup onto the parchment and roll my seal athwart. With a shaking hand, I scrawl my signature across the bottom of the decree I have just drafted; the decree that has kept me awake half the night, the decree that may yet keep Father Time at bay, the decree that could very well save La Serenissima.
The decree that has only come about because of Caterina.
All those months ago, I had ordered Francesco, one of my Signoria, to summon Caterina to court. I had heard talk of her beauty, her wit, her charm, and even her virtue. Her name cropped up in every story that every courtier told. Every song, every poem, every sonnet was dedicated in her name. The women of the court all lusted for her grace and beauty. The men of the court simply lusted after her. But it seemed that every time she called at court I was whisked away to deal with matters of state. It was infuriating. First I had attended the whims of the vain French ambassador, then feigned interest at the caterwauling of the Florentine Medicis and, most recently, endured a tiresome four hour lecture from the Duke of Milan on the absolute imperative that is naval strength. Each time I returned to La Camera di Scarlatto, it was only to find that Caterina had vanished, replaced only with whispers of her latest adventures and growing beauty. I was not used to being thwarted. It was not a feeling I liked.
When I mentioned this sorry state of affairs to Francesco, he counselled caution, warning me that it almost seemed as if fate was trying to keep me from Caterina. Not one to let fate obstruct my will; I immediately ordered that Francesco send for the woman. What harm could a cortigiana onesta, even the most expensive cortigiana onesta in Venice, possibly bring to the Doge?
Of course, Caterina did not refuse my invitation. When summoned by the Doge, there is but one answer. My spies watched Caterina’s approach to the Palazzo Ducale, reported her arrival at the Porta della Carta where, contrary to all reports of her virtuous nature, she propositioned a scribe to hasten her entry. My informant was incredulous. He recounted how one moment she was staring skyward at the statues of the four virtues, the next she was nibbling on the scribe’s ear, pressing her body against his. According to my spy, Caterina was the very antithesis of the four virtues, the embodiment of every vice. I did not share the spy’s pious outrage. The world is not so black and white, and I am nothing if not a practical man. To succeed, every advantage must be exerted. Something in Caterina’s seemingly cold-blooded manipulation of the scribe called to me. Her practicality called to me; perhaps we were cut of the same cloth.
I felt Caterina enter La Camera di Scarlatto long before I saw her. It was like the air shifted, like the room, and all its occupants, pulled a little towards her, wanting to be nearer. Conversations all around the room stuttered to a halt. I was warming my hands at the fireplace. The fire seemed to glow a little brighter, the sparks shooting up the chimney with more force than before. She stood in the doorway, waiting for her introduction, as custom demand.
Her white-blonde hair fell in cascading curls to her waist. Her pale eyebrows arched delicately over sparkling emerald eyes, rimmed with dark lashes. Her pale complexion lightly kissed by blushing rose on each cheek. Her small, snubbed nose sprinkled lightly with freckles. Just the hint of a smile played at the corners of her full, red lips. She slowly licked her lips, clearly enjoying the effect she was having on every man, and even some of the women, in the room. She seemed to glide as she moved forward into the chamber, greeting courtiers and accepting compliments. The hem of her violet gown never seemed to brush the floor. Already my heart belonged to her.
In an instant I was across the chamber and by her side. Like a life-sized marionette, controlled by the master manipulator, I was hardly aware of what I was doing. Still today, I cannot recall what it was that I uttered to her, on that our first meeting. Caterina has told me many a time, but still I have no recollection. I will never forget her first words to me though: ‘Sebastiano, I am just a woman’.