Innocent or Not?

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Chance put this book into my hands – and I shall be forever grateful to her.

Searching for local colour from late seventeenth-century Rome for a project of my own, I came across the Italian historical thriller Imprimatur (2002) by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Whodunnits are not really my thing, but this seemed likely to fit the bill. It had been a hit all over Europe and was favourably compared with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Then I read that the Vatican had been accused of leaning on Italian publishers to boycott further editions of the novel because of its con­troversial claims about the Pope of that time, Innocent XI. Given the Catholic Church’s history of banning books, there was an appealing irony here. The book’s title, Imprimatur, means ‘Let it be printed’ and is the Church’s official stamp of approval for theologically vetted works. But the controversy – so it was said – had done even greater damage: it had forced the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to suspend Pope Innocent’s imminent canonization.

All this was intriguing, but it looked suspect. The book’s authors, Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, are a married couple and both former journalists. The Vatican, being the world’s oldest extant insti­tution, is a favourite (and sometimes deserving) target of the press. But I know Italian (and British) journalists who have written books in which far worse things have been said about it, without hindrance. Besides, the controversy was not new.

The issue is whether Pope Innocent, while still Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, had directed his family’s merchant bank to lend large sums to the Protestant William of Orange. The money was to fund William’s wars against the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, but it may also have enabled William’s coup against another Catholic monarch, James II of England, in 1688. In short, the loans were seen as treachery amounting almo

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Chance put this book into my hands – and I shall be forever grateful to her.

Searching for local colour from late seventeenth-century Rome for a project of my own, I came across the Italian historical thriller Imprimatur (2002) by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Whodunnits are not really my thing, but this seemed likely to fit the bill. It had been a hit all over Europe and was favourably compared with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Then I read that the Vatican had been accused of leaning on Italian publishers to boycott further editions of the novel because of its con­troversial claims about the Pope of that time, Innocent XI. Given the Catholic Church’s history of banning books, there was an appealing irony here. The book’s title, Imprimatur, means ‘Let it be printed’ and is the Church’s official stamp of approval for theologically vetted works. But the controversy – so it was said – had done even greater damage: it had forced the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to suspend Pope Innocent’s imminent canonization.

All this was intriguing, but it looked suspect. The book’s authors, Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, are a married couple and both former journalists. The Vatican, being the world’s oldest extant insti­tution, is a favourite (and sometimes deserving) target of the press. But I know Italian (and British) journalists who have written books in which far worse things have been said about it, without hindrance. Besides, the controversy was not new.

The issue is whether Pope Innocent, while still Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, had directed his family’s merchant bank to lend large sums to the Protestant William of Orange. The money was to fund William’s wars against the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, but it may also have enabled William’s coup against another Catholic monarch, James II of England, in 1688. In short, the loans were seen as treachery amounting almost to heresy.

Once pope, Innocent showed himself unusually ascetic, shutting theatres, cracking down on public indecency, suppressing graft and living – like the present Pope Francis – in the humblest quarters of the papal palace. More to the point, he actively mobilized European resistance to the encroaching Ottoman Turks who were encamped under the walls of Vienna.

Innocent was put up for canonization in 1741 but progress was interrupted by French complaints and accusations of secret Jansenist leanings. His beatification, the stage before sainthood, was reached only under Pius XII in 1956. In 2003, under the Polish pope John Paul II (himself now a saint), there was rumoured to be a move to get Innocent XI’s cause over the line as a way of showing defiance in the face of the 9/11 attacks on America by Islamic fundamentalists. But that sounds improbable. John Paul was noted for building bridges with orthodox Islam as well as other faiths.

All this background is interesting, but the book has no need of extravagant promotion. It stands on its own.

The date is September 1683, and we are in a locanda in the Via dell’Orso just north of the Piazza Navona and close to the Tiber. The ten guests, the innkeeper and his young apprentice are being locked in following the unexplained death of one of the lodgers, an old Frenchman. The authorities suspect the plague. Officers arrive and take the names of the inmates, many of whom (as we will learn) are not quite what they pretend to be, including the young courtesan Cloridia who is the only woman in the place. A claustrophobic set­ting then, but rather appropriate, since I picked up the book just as we were entering the first coronavirus lockdown.

The story is told by the 20-year-old apprentice, whose diary we are purportedly reading. He is small – perhaps a dwarf – uneducated but intelligent enough to ask all the questions we need answered in order to follow the plot.

When the apprentice discovers that three little pearls given him by one of the guests have been stolen, he is helped by another inmate, Atto Melani, a former castrato chorister and ‘honorary abbot’ who has been on the payroll of Louis XIV. Their joint search uncovers a secret staircase which leads them through dripping passages down to the halls and sewers of ancient Rome where they meet, amid the scurrying rats, a couple of corpisantari or relic-hunters who scratch a living by selling pieces of bone supposedly belonging to early Christian martyrs. Ugonio speaks in mangled malapropisms while his mate Ciacconio can only mumble something that sounds like ‘Gfrrrlubh’. They may be revolting, but the corpisantari have hearts of gold and, in a story replete with villains, they are the heroes.

While the nights are spent peering through the dark, the days bring relief and growing comprehension – for us, the readers, as much as for the narrator – as the apprentice and his cunning mentor Melani go over what they have learned the previous night. Beguiled by the young man’s innocence, the other inmates also drop hints. And so unfolds a panoptic view of political intrigue embracing all of Europe.

A Muslim invasion is threatened, yet Louis XIV is at odds with Pope Innocent, who resents his encroachments on the Church’s territory. And while Innocent is mobilizing support to defeat the Turks, King Louis is secretly hoping – even planning – that he will fail, so that he and the Sultan can carve up what is left of the Habsburg empire. And so we inch towards the discovery of a plot to poison the Pope.

Meanwhile, the apprentice has work to do. His boss falls ill and he has to take over the cooking. His snacks and soups are thrown together, then disguised with heaps of cinnamon. Naturally, the guests rebel. Food, as we know from our Covid confinement, is a source of comfort. Fortunately, the cellars of the locanda are stuffed with provisions kept cool in sacks and ice: wine, oil, fruit and vege­tables, salted, smoked and dried meat; tongues, sweetbreads, tripe and other offal, game birds of all kinds, even swallows and sparrows; and more than thirty varieties of fish, shellfish, frogs and snails. These mouth-watering culinary treats are followed by eye-watering enemas administered by the resident doctor Cristofani who, with the boy, tours the house dishing out prophylactics and potions cooked up from outlandish recipes which he has learned by heart.

An important ingredient of the plot is the seductive rondeau played repeatedly by one of the lodgers, Robert Devizé, a French guitarist. Devizé (or de Visée) was a real person, as was Francesco Corbetta, the guitar virtuoso who composed the piece supposedly for Louis XIV’s queen, Maria Theresa. The rondeau turns out to be a message in code, vital to the outcome not only of the power struggle in Europe but also of the battle for Vienna. To say more would be to say too much.

The rondeau reminds us that musical cryptography was familiar to the Renaissance and Baroque ages. We are in a period overshadowed by myth and magic, a time when alchemy and astrology were strug­gling to become ‘science’. Experiment was all the rage. And so we are introduced to the German Jesuit priest and polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano. Kircher was an intellectual magpie who studied everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to magnetism, and who was obsessed with automata and other mechanical inventions. He wrote enormous, lav­ishly illustrated books to flaunt his own extravagant theories while shamelessly borrowing other people’s work. But Kircher was not always wrong: he proposed, for instance, that bubonic plague was carried by infectious micro-organisms, even though he could not possibly have seen them under his microscope.

Imprimatur is a cunning combination of fact and fancy. A preface dated 14 February 2040, written by the purported Bishop of Como, a friend of the authors, warns the Vatican of the risks involved in canonizing Pope Innocent XI. He complains that the couple had sent him a typescript and then disappeared, and he pretends to be unsure whether the book is pure invention, largely true or merely plausible.

Before becoming journalists, Rita Monaldi had studied the history of religion, Francesco Sorti the musicology of the seventeenth cen­tury. Like good scholars, they have provided endnotes to their novel, detailing their sources. This would suggest they had originally planned to write an historical exposé and had switched to a fictional form instead. If so, it was a good decision. It doesn’t matter what liberties they may have taken. Their story is both delightfully implausible and completely gripping, a jigsaw in which hundreds of apparently random pieces fit beautifully together to form a picture.

As for the local colour I had been counting on, there was little on offer. That’s no surprise, given that we, the readers, are underground for half the time and locked in for the rest, emerging into the open only for a grand, cinematic finale. Monaldi and Sorti have written two sequels, Secretum and Veritas, which contain further exploits of the wily abbot Melani, but I haven’t dared try them – a great act can be hard to follow.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Christian Tyler 2021


About the contributor

Christian Tyler, a retired Financial Times journalist, has not forgotten the advice once given him by Doris Lessing: if you want to learn about another country, don’t buy guidebooks. Read its fiction.

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