Breaking the Flood By S.W. Douglas

It is early morning on Monday the fourteenth of August in the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and fifty-two. I am standing on the quay, St Mark’s basin spread before me, the Arsenal at my back. Not long risen above the dim mountains of the Dalmatian coast, the sun shatters brightly on the little waves of the lagoon, making me squint, then shade my eyes. All along the quayside knots of figures scurry this way and that, some carrying bundles and boxes, others shouting out orders, still others scrutinising what is being carried, then jotting down notes in pocket books.

Breaking the Flood
Breaking the Flood
Moored all along the quay, reaching almost to the corner of the Doge’s Palace itself, oared vessels bob and lurch. Many are mere skiffs; a few are brigantines while, here and there, a fusta, her double-banked rows of oarsmen already seated, appears to float slightly apart, as if deprecating the company she has been obliged, this day, to keep. But whatever their size or dignity, all of these ships have only one task: to receive and then ferry cargo. Indeed, some are already so laden with crates and barrels and bales, they lie dangerously near the waterline. Now, as my eyes grow accustomed to the sharp morning light, I can begin to discern where this cargo is headed. For some of these vessels have already cast off and, with oar-blades churning the dark lagoon waters, point their prows as one towards the centre of the basin. Here, loomingly dark and still, the galleys of the Beyrouth muda lie at anchor, waiting. For it is these great ships which all the smaller vessels have been commanded to serve and supply. Like meteors flashing their brief trajectories across the vast emptinesses that lie between the fixed stars, so these smaller craft dart and run between the galleys, servants to masters who, brooding apart with lateen sails furled and triple-banked oars raised in a slant stiff forest from the water, threaten to drown them in the shadows of their hulls. The skiffs and the brigantines and the fustae have no choice. Always they must draw up alongside steepling stern or prow and, dwarfed by the three-masted giants, allow their cargoes to be roped and pulleyed up by the compagni or ships’ mates who swarm on the deck above. Then there is nothing for it but to slide away, empty now, their task finished for another season. Behind them the mates are already stowing the crates and other containers in the hold and, when that is full to the satisfaction of both deck officers and scribe, stacking any remaining articles on either side of the central gangway. The great galleys of the Beyrouth muda have no further use for these humble denizens of creek and waterway. They are destined for another world: outremare, beyond the seas.

“You’ll be Gritti’s nephew.”

Immersed as I still am in contemplation of the scene out in the lagoon, I can perhaps be forgiven for not immediately responding to this half-articulated question. Without realising it I have sat down on the chest which contains all my worldly belongings. The figure, who has approached with the sun behind him, clamps a calloused hand on my left shoulder.

“I thought I’d seen you before. At the hiring, was it?”

Looking up, I see again the kindly, grey-bearded face of a man who, a few days back, accidentally knocked into me in the press of St Mark’s Square. I nod.

“And you’re the scribe. I watched you at the hiring booth.”

“That’s right. Didn’t have time to put a name to a face that day. Such a moiling and a boiling. And all for a few ducats and three months’ labour. Zaccariah, I’m called. Now, Signor Niccolo, is it?”

Again, I nod.

“That’s right. Now, the patrono is expecting you. The other two young gentlemen are already aboard. But what’s this, a bowman of the quarterdeck and no bow?”

This is too straightforward a query to be wholly avoided. Yet still I feel unable to use words. Dumbly and not without a rising sense of miserable isolation, I point to the chest. Zaccariah shakes his head.

“The patrono will want you in the sterncastle, armed, when we weigh anchor. For form’s sake, you understand. Now” – and here he seems to look enquiringly over my head – “where’s your servant?”

It is my turn to shake my head, shame sharpening my more general sense of woe. After an almost infinitesimal pause, my interlocutor continues.

“Well, our fusta is waiting there. We’ve just loaded the last of the Flanders linen.” Then, pointing to the chest. “I’ll help you lug this over and we’ll stow it away. Hear that bell? The fleet leaves on the hour. Look lively. That’s right.”

Meekly, I do as I am bid. We board the fusta. Out in the lagoon the sun flickers off something metallic, a sword perhaps. The silhouettes of the great galleys still dominate the horizon. One of them is about to receive me, swallowing me down in her pitchy darkness, thence to bear me away from everything I have ever known. So be it. I am in my nineteenth summer. Those nineteen years have led me to this beginning.


A Childhood in the Signoria

I was my parents’ only child, born a year after their marriage on Thursday the twelfth of March in the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and thirty-three. My mother came from the Barovier clan, cittadini originari (or citizens by birth), who for several generations had been engaged in running a glassblowing works on the island of Murano. My father, however, was a Gritti, a patrician family whose male offspring were automatically entered at birth in the Golden Book, thereby becoming entitled to sit on the Great Council once they had reached the age of twenty-five. This privilege was itself the gateway to further preferments, for all councillors could, in theory anyway, progress to being elected members of the Council of Forty, the Senate and even (although this was a somewhat remote chance) the Council of Ten itself. From time to time, other sinecures and positions of responsibility too numerous to list could also become available, uniquely, to us members of the nobility. As soon as I was old enough to understand, I learned that my name, too, had been set down in that magic tome. My future seemed assured.

Like so many nobles in our city, my father was a merchant. In partnership with his brother, Gabriel, and several other relatives, he traded overseas in a variety of commodities. Every year, on behalf of the partnership, he would attend the Senate auctions, bidding to rent one or more of the great galleys currently under construction in the Arsenal. If successful, he would take delivery of the boat a month in advance of her departure and then, at the partnership’s expense, have her fitted out and crewed. With all work completed on time, the Gritti Galley would then be ready to join one of the muda, the commercial fleets that sailed at their appointed seasons from St Mark’s basin, down the Adriatic and so out across the Mediterranean. Leaving Venice in midsummer, one convoy would brave the treacherous straits of Messina, then head west and northward through the Pillars of Hercules and so up the Portuguese coast to England and Flanders. Next, no later than July the twenty-fifth, the Romanian fleet would start out, eventually rounding the Peloponnese to aim for Negroponte and beyond. About three weeks after that, the galleys of Beyrouth set sail, emerging from the Adriatic to hug the always dangerous lee shore of northern Crete, then striking out for Cyprus and the Levant. Finally, a few days later, the Alexandrian convoy would follow the course of their Beyrouth sisters until, Cape Sideros receding to starboard, they swung south, down Crete’s eastern coast, bound for Egypt.

I suppose my detailed knowledge of these times and routes dates back to my very earliest years. For my father was a sailor as well as a merchant. While Gabriel and two other family members looked after the business at home (the remaining partners being no more than passive investors), Piero Gritti would be sailing in the very galley he had recently secured at auction. In the early years, before his marriage, he was a homo di conseio, or navigator. Later, sometime during my early childhood, he was given his first command, voyaging in an Alexandrian muda as a patrono or galley master. He was so successful in this capacity that the Senate committee convened to oversee these matters renewed the appointment on an annual basis until, in the year I turned eighteen, he was at last honoured with the title of capitanio, master of the whole fleet journeying, in this instance, to Romania. At home in the casa overlooking the right bank of the Grand Canal just north of the Rialto, it was natural that I should want to know about and even identify with my father’s travels. One Christmas, in acknowledgement of this, I was presented with a miniature fleet carved from cedarwood, picked up, I expect, by my father in a Lebanese fondaco. For several years afterwards, on the marble tiled floor of the hallway, I would take these fragile painted boats on imaginary voyages filled with hair-raising incident and fortuitous escapes, but always supposed (at least by me and one or two of the more indulgent servants) to be a faithful reflection of the real world in which my father moved. A little later, with my mother’s guidance, I even drew and inked a quite detailed portolan of our city’s trading empire, crisscrossing the seas with multi-coloured lines that represented the outward bound and return courses of each separate fleet. This, I caused to have hung above my bed so that it was often the last object I contemplated before my Torcellan nurse came to extinguish the candle between a wetted thumb and forefinger. Then perhaps I might dream of standing by my father’s side in the galley sterncastle as, with lateen sails furled and trumpets blaring, we rowed into some strange southern harbour, under a burning sun. How differently, in the end, things turned out.

But however vivid such imaginary voyages might be, the fact remained that my father was more often absent than at home and therefore something of a stranger to me. The fleets that voyaged to the south and to the east “beyond the seas” would be away for at least three months, only returning to Venice in time for the Christmas Fair. The Flanders galleys frequently overwintered in the north, not seeking to return until the seas opened up again in the spring. The Gritti partnership bought malmsey in the Morea and Arabian spices in Alexandria. These they sold in London and Bruges, using the proceeds to purchase bales of best English wool and swatches of fine Flanders linen which, in the following year, they would trade in the Levant. Given such a cycle (and there could be many variants on this basic template), it followed that my father could sometimes be away from home for more than nine months at a time. And even when he did set foot again on Venetian soil, business matters and the demands of the state (he not only attended the Great Council but sat on one of the committees that oversaw the running of the Arsenal), kept him fully occupied. Confronted therefore with a figure so remote he might almost be mythological, I turned naturally to my mother for human warmth.

This seemingly unwilled development was, I realise now, not altogether healthy; the unhealthiness stemming from the fact that my dependence was enthusiastically reciprocated. For my mother missed my father too. Indeed, unable to retreat into childish games, she probably considered the head of the family to be even further removed from our lives than I did. This painful apprehension of an ever-present loneliness was compounded by a certain tendency in my mother to distrust all other members of her sex. At the time I did not understand this but now I can piece the puzzle together. In her family home on Murano she had, by her own account, been treated as a chosen favourite; her father, it seems, was especially indulgent. Then, in her eighteenth year, had come her encounter with Piero Gritti, a consequence of his visiting the factory on partnership business. Out of that encounter had blossomed a full-fledged romance. The opportunity of marrying into the Gritti clan had been enthusiastically endorsed by her father. Her mother, however, seemed more ambiguous and in a conversation which the daughter had not been supposed to hear, alluded darkly to the Gritti males’ penchant for loose living. So that even though the marriage took place soon afterwards, my mother never quite shook off an almost formless suspicion which my father’s prolonged absences only served to exacerbate. Not that this suspicion ever bore fruit. My father, it seems, did not exhibit this particular family trait and behaved at all times with probity. Nevertheless, a certain perverse tenacity in my mother’s soul made it almost impossible for her to abandon an idea once it had taken root. The upshot of all this meant that she could neither confide in nor depend on any other woman, be they relative or friend. So, sensing her son’s need, she turned to him. When, in my fifth year, her own father died, we drew closer still, like saplings in a wood, starved of light by the shadow of my father’s absence and thereby draining each other of a vital sap of independence.

It pains me now to dwell on these matters, fostering as they did in me a certain unmanliness and in my mother a disposition at once querulous and tyrannical. However, these things are part of a story which I have sworn to tell truthfully. If, during those years, my mother was obliged to leave me in the casa for any reason, I would anxiously await her return, reciting repeated Ave Marias, whose number I had contrived, by dint of trial and error, to link to the length of her journey. Thus, if she crossed the Grand Canal in our private barge to visit an ailing uncle in the palace opposite, I knew that she would return after I had repeated forty such prayers. An expedition with her maid to the local church was more problematical, as it depended on whether a service was being conducted or if she was simply intending to light a candle for my father’s safe return. Nevertheless, over the years, with a sort of obsessive precision, I developed this system to be as accurate in its way as the calibration of a sundial. This was a source both of reassurance and of torture. If my muttering Hail Marys could make me feel secure, it could also – as time drew on and the prospect of my mother’s return seemed less certain – evoke exquisite agonies. At such moments I would deliberately slow down, pretending thereby that the stream of time itself was losing momentum. Then, if my mother returned at the predicted juncture, it was as if the Blessed Virgin herself had smiled on me. But if for any reason she were late, the recriminations flew thick and fast. And it was not as though my mother sought to alleviate these largely self-inflicted volatilities. The mutual reliance which I have already mentioned, obliged her to be a willing actress in this solemnly absurd masque. Indeed, she seemed delighted in this manifestation of her son’s devotion. Similarly, when a tendency to sore throats manifested itself in me, my mother took this as an almost divine signal: she must (despite the evident disapproval of my regular nurse) tend me herself. Once again we trapped each other and the occasions when I shamefully exaggerated my symptoms were matched by the times when she adopted the role of willing martyr. So the rent in our household opened up by my father was cunningly patchworked over by the son and wife he had left behind.

However, through all these early years, it was never once questioned that one day I would follow where my father had led. At my birth my mother had commissioned a well-known local astrologer to cast my horoscope. Amongst many customary (and, if truth be told, evasive) generalities, his assertions that my moon in Sagittarius indicated travel and my sun on the cusp of Pisces and Aries administrative talent, were seized on as sure indicators that this particular occult practitioner hovered at the pinnacle of his craft. That my mother kept the horoscope in an ivory casket adorned with carved figures of the virtues was a further proof of the astrologer’s reliability. This casket had come down from my mother’s mother as part of her dowry and was regarded by her with an almost superstitious veneration. Lying in that sacred box, the horoscope’s predictions gradually took on a sibylline quality, thereby accruing even more veracity, which an occasional furtive consultation (I was a past master at skulking) only confirmed. And why indeed should this not be so? After all, it was my father’s noble blood which granted him the privilege both of serving the Signoria and bidding for galleys at auction. His family background was not only the source of our power and influence but the provider of worldly prosperity. This blood had flowed directly down to me. My mother would no more question this pattern than she would the shape of the sunshafts which fell through our stone casements onto the table where the oracular casket lay. If the mysterious conjunctions of the heavenly spheres seemed to confirm a common knowledge then, as is the way with us mortals, both the natural and the celestial worlds stood mutually aggrandised.

So, although my mother and I formed a less than holy alliance, it was not so much against my father as against his absence. What he was now, I would be hereafter, the Golden Book guaranteed as much. Thus, like all our Republic’s young men of noble birth, I received an exiguous and rather narrow formal education. A succession of unloved and anonymous tutors schooled me in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. At some point in my second decade I would be expected to master a mercantile mystery as recondite in its own way as any wizard’s star chart. Sired in Lombardy, double-entry bookkeeping had by now been enthusiastically adopted by the Republic. Otherwise, my real schoolroom was assumed to lie beyond the world of grammar, Euclid and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in the shape of an as yet unbuilt galley on which, with my father for mentor, I would make my maiden voyage.

These assumptions were reinforced on those rare occasions when my father, having returned from overseas, found himself sufficiently at leisure to think of allowing me to accompany him on his civic and business rounds. Although I could not attend the monthly meetings of the Great Council, I was allowed to stand beside my father when, in the Scuola of the Ships’ Carpenters, he was presented, as their patron, with a ceremonial adze. He also took me to the Arsenal where, at first, the deafening noise and sharp unfamiliar odours, oppressed me with an inchoate fear. Hammering, sawing figures rose in rippled outline against a background of orange furnaces. The mingled stenches of saltpetre, pitch and sweat, hung in the stifling air. Out of this inferno a blackened, bearded demon took human shape, bowing obeisance to my father and frightening me even more. But this is a very early memory. Later I would be taken to watch a galley being launched from dry dock into the Rio dell’Arsenale. Now fear gave way to excited awe. I marvelled at the efficiency with which, from long, low-windowed sheds on either side of the Arsenal basin, shipwrights would haul out masts, rigging, sails and other accoutrements, setting them in place on the hull so that, almost without realising it, I witnessed an entire ship rise up before me. It was the same when, with my mother, I ventured down to St Mark’s basin to bid my father farewell or – alerted by a hundred church bells – crossed the Grand Canal to where, in front of the Dogana, I might welcome him home from his travels. My earliest memories are jumbled and disconnected, filled as before with frightening noises, figures and smells. Here, oarsmen and compagni leap out of skiffs into the arms of their women. There, crossbowmen shout obscene insults in an argument over a quiver of bolts. Once, my father, seemingly of giant proportions and smelling strongly of leather, leans down to kiss me and instinctively I flinch backwards into the familiar skirts of my mother. Later, however, I remember my delight at being allowed to accompany my father aboard his galley as far as St Niccolo Point. Since, at the very beginning of this story, I have left my nineteen-year- old person on the verge of embarking on his maiden voyage, I will not burden the reader with such details as he will encounter later. Suffice to say, I could believe, standing under the flapping sterncastle canopy, pennants embroidered with the Lion of St Mark streaming at each corner, that my old dream of accompanying my father to distant places seemed about to be realised. All too soon, however, to a great crying of gulls in our wake, a skiff draws up alongside and I must depart for dry land, a child as usual.

On still other occasions I remember accompanying my father as he carried out some of his more mundane duties in connection with the Gritti partnership. We would visit the echoing and dimly lit warehouses near San Pietro where the partnership rented space for storage. Again, I remember smells: the sharp and greasy lanolin stench of English wool; the faintly medicinal odour of Bruges linens. Once I recall being present in a bare room in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, while my father and another man haggled with a German merchant over some Bavarian silver plate. The merchandise lay on the table between them, glinting now and then in the low wintry sun that filtered in from the fondaco courtyard. And on a couple of occasions we visited the Jewish moneylenders who set up their stalls in the shadow of the Rialto. Here I was struck most of all by the yellow turbans which our city’s law requires all Jewish men to wear, thereby intensifying their alien Eastern demeanour. Once, one of these coifed phantoms offered me a lozenge of some preserved sweet or other. Beginning to suck on it, I was horrified to hear my father (thinking I was out of earshot) remark that he’d heard of a case in which “one of those sons of Abraham offered a Christian child poisoned sweets”. Even his subsequent opinion that “old Isaac would never dream of such a thing” barely calmed my fears. Surreptitiously, I spat out the gift then spent the rest of the day in fear of an imminent and agonising death. That remaining fragment of unsucked lozenge lay for days under my bed, the subject of terrified contemplation.

The other inescapable presence in many of these episodes was that of my uncle, Gabriel Gritti. Indeed, it was to Gabriel that my father made the remarks about the child-poisoning Jews; remarks which I was not, of course, intended to hear and which in turn called forth from my uncle a stream of hair-raising horror stories about the chosen race that only added to my discomfiture. Gabriel always disconcerted me. As a very young child I had been outraged when, by way of greeting, this tall, rather sallow-faced man, pinched my left buttock. As I grew older he began to treat me with a jocular off-handedness that – I later realised – masked considerable resentment. He was married but without issue. He was also notorious for the kind of loose living with which my maternal grandmother had erroneously damned the whole Gritti tribe. If, therefore, I must be a reminder of the futurity to which Gabriel seemed doomed not to lay claim, I was also (and again I only understood this at a later date) a convenient target for the jealousy which he felt but could not express towards his more clean-living and wholesome brother. Such feelings, however carefully suppressed, did not bode well for our relations in the times to come.

One particular memory illustrates this uncomfortable relationship and also perhaps suggests some of the forces which, acting unseen and in concert throughout these years, eventually brought me to the quayside that August morning in the nineteenth summer of my life. It must have been about ten years before that baleful date. Soon, Father would be setting out on the annual convoy to Alexandria. I remember that this was to be his first voyage to Egypt as galley master and as a consequence our household hummed with much delighted anticipation, especially given the fact that he would be transporting a cargo of finely woven Bruges cloaks, from which the partnership confidently expected to reap a particularly handsome profit in the Muslim bazaar. Now, a week before he was due to embark, my father must pay a visit to Gabriel, to tie up some loose ends. Since his brother had recently acquired a villa on the outskirts of Treviso, a family expedition seemed in order, especially since my mother had been finding the atmosphere in the city that summer unbearably close. Of our arrival at the villa, I remember little, except a long drive lined on either side by darkly forbidding cypresses. I was in a sulky mood, having been severely reprimanded that morning for stealing and eating three small pastries when the cook’s back was turned. Exhausted by the journey, my mother immediately retired upstairs. Her disappearance only served to exacerbate my petulance, so that when Gabriel, in that now familiar contemptuous and faintly mocking voice of his, suggested that, since he and my father had important matters to discuss, I might like to run along and play outside, I stormed out of the room in a state of tearful self-pitying anger. What my father thought of this I do not know. Always respectful of Gabriel’s status as both older brother and partnership leader, he never, in my presence, betrayed any sign of having registered his older sibling’s simmering rivalry, let alone the role which I so unwillingly played in it. On this occasion, before the door slammed behind me, all I caught was some casual remark about the fresh air doing my temper good. Strangely, I did not resent this. Like my mother, I had schooled myself into blaming any perceived shortcomings in my father on his enforced absences. Naturally, this blame attached itself to Gabriel as well.

Outside the villa, I found myself in a small, hot courtyard. Threading through a maze of box parterres, I came at last to an ornamental pool, where yellow and orange fish slid languidly. Limp with heat and frustrated ire, I sat down on the rim. But impatience soon overcame me and I was up again, idly kicking at the trunk of a pear tree espaliered along the courtyard wall. Almost immediately, swarming out of their papery grey nest, which hung from one of the upper branches, a cloud of wasps attacked me. Angry, I had myself provoked anger and must run now, fending the insects off as best I could, to the vaulted shadow of the entrance hall. The wasps retreated, but not before landing stings on my forehead and cheek, the pain of which simultaneously made me shiver and cry out in a manner that was, perhaps, excessive. It certainly brought me to everyone’s attention for in no time my father and Gabriel appeared at the top of the steps above, followed in short order by my mother, hastily wrapping herself in a silk shawl. Soon mother was clucking and soothing while my father went off in search of a servant to fetch vinegar. But Gabriel stood to one side and looked at me sourly. When, for a moment, my mother disappeared to see how my father was faring, my uncle descended a few steps toward where I stood, snivelling still.

“Stop that, why can’t you? A Gritti boy doesn’t weep. Even if he is his mother’s pet creature.”

The depth of his dislike resonated with me from that moment on. When my mother returned she was taken aback by my curt refusal of all treatment. I had resolved then and there never again to allow my uncle the pleasure of seeing me with my defences lowered. And, although I did not know it at the time, this resolution marked the beginning of my long effort to unpick the knots that bound me to my mother.


Rites of Passage

So childhood passed. My voice broke. I was thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. Gradually, with a sort of unspoken understanding, my mother and I drew back from one another. Both had seen, although neither would admit as much, that the future required us to maintain a necessary distance. Obliged to study still with this or that private tutor, I also had many leisure hours at my disposal. At such times, among a small shifting group of other well-born youngsters, I could roam the city, falling into such scrapes and adventures as boys of that age will invariably attract. But always, whether we were engaged in the delicate craft of aggravating shopkeepers, or the more robust art of deciding which rival group of young nobles to threaten or avoid, our thoughts circled restlessly round one unstated question: when would we become men? This mutual but unspoken obsession found its outlet in our often heated discussions on the subject of the compagnie delle calze. Having gained admittance to one of these clubs, along with the privilege of wearing its unique many-coloured hose, a boy might leave his childhood behind forever. Rapt at the prospect of such a miraculous transformation, we wasted many hours arguing about the relative superiorities or deficiencies of the various clubs, according as to who already belonged to them and what costume they chose to wear. Such are the sinful fopperies of youth. Yet if bellicosity and pride had begun to supplant the simpler moods of infancy, we had not escaped childhood yet. One muggy evening in the April of my fifteenth year, I remember how myself and two contemporaries, Tommaso Corner and Andrea Mocenigo, were accosted by three ladies of the night in the little court behind the Church of San Spirito. It was by no means the first time we had come across women selling their bodies on the streets of the city, but for some reason, that evening, my mood and that of my friends was less clear-cut than on previous occasions. We did not immediately shy away or indulge in juvenile banter. We were all three of us momentarily rooted to the cobbles, fascinated by the serpent gaze of untasted sensuality. The moment passed and then all three of us bolted, nervously shouting in the direction of the Grand Canal. But before we stopped, I took care to fall behind so that I could peel off unseen down a side street. I wanted to be alone. I knew the sort of words Tommaso and Andrea would exchange, leeringly, as they caught their breaths leant up against some greenly oozing wall. It was not that I hadn’t seen those breasts under their thin film of gauze. Nor that I too hadn’t desired then grown afraid. But there had been something else, something beyond that swing of black hair, that flicker of eyelashes, that stippled shadow across the cheek. Down in the reeking court, I had glimpsed a world beyond desire. The image of the face that had allowed me that fleeting communion sank, like a dormant seed, into memory’s tilth.

Such were the conflicts and crises that assailed all of us at that period, standing as we did on the cusp between the first and the second ages of man. But if it often seemed to us that this uncomfortable halfway house would never be escaped, time itself had other designs. That summer, Tommaso, Andrea and myself all turned sixteen and immediately became eligible for election to one of the long anticipated compagnie delle calze. We had already lobbied several and were delighted when our preferred choice, the so-called Club of the Fox and Cockerels (so-called after a well-known mosaic in St Marco), invited all three of us to join. The ceremony of formal acceptance, a parody of the entry at birth of a name in the Golden Book, was conducted in an upstairs room of the Merchants’ Confraternity, next to the Madonna dell’ Orto. It left us flushed with a new-found importance. The initiation rites which followed, including a game of blind-man’s buff in which the three of us had successively to run a gauntlet comprising other members wielding cudgels and staffs, saw us bruised and cut but no less proud of our new standing. This, in turn, was celebrated with the ceremonial donning of the Club’s yellow and red hose, followed by a drinking session in which pewter mugs of Veneto wine had to be drained to the recitation of obscene verses. Finally, dazed with the wine, we found ourselves being ushered through the doorway of a narrow tenement in a court nearby. It was the stews from which the three girls had issued back in April. Now we belonged to a Club, boyish flight was out of the question. Each must pay for a mate and prove his virility. The trio we had encountered six months ago were nowhere to be seen. If the black-haired girl had been available, I afterwards comforted myself, things might have turned out differently. But in truth I was relieved at her absence, strongly suspecting that what I had seen in that courtyard would not reappear so quickly or so easily. So, resignedly, I followed my chosen partner upstairs. She had a squint and smelt disagreeably of some sickly-sweet condiment. Her hirsuteness shocked me too, a fact for which I blamed my sudden inability to perform. However, looking back, the enforced and copious consumption of red wine probably played a bigger role in this embarrassment. No matter. Somehow or other I eventually managed, with a certain jabbing limpness, to strike home. The necessary deed was done. Like my companions, I deemed my boyhood finally behind me.

But love – even that low variety which must be purchased like a sack of chick peas – always lies cheek by jowl with war. Now that we belonged, however tenuously to the world of men, my friends and I found ourselves expected by the powers-that-be to give service to the martial arts as well. Membership of the Fox and Cockerels came with a Great Council edict ordering us, as sons of the nobility, to take a skiff or gondola twice a week across to the Lido, where an archery butts had long been established amongst the dunes. Here, we were obliged to discover what innate skills we might already have in handling bows and crossbows, then hone them, both singly and in teams, under the watchful eye of the Master of the Butts, an old crossbowman who had seen service in the wars with Milan. Through this repetitive discipline it was intended that, when the time came for us to go aboard the galleys or, in the event of war on land, take commission in the Venetian army, we would at least be able to handle an important weapon competently and thus enhance our service to the Republic.

I cannot, even now, pretend to any great skill with the bow, in either form. Indeed, the archery practice at the Lido Butts soon revealed that, to the congenital disadvantage of short-sightedness, I must add a certain cack-handed inability to progress beyond a rudimentary level of skilfulness. This combination, as the old soldier soon bluffly pointed out, disqualified me from handling the rather cumbersome crossbow, whose mechanism, if any speed and accuracy were to be achieved, must be deftly worked, from winding to release. I was far too jerky and uncoordinated. On the other hand, our North Italian short version of the English longbow was so constructed that, to some extent at least (and here I cite the veteran’s very words), “she could be left like a bird to fly all by herself”.

Certainly, in this form of archery I managed to acquit myself to my teacher’s reasonable satisfaction. But this did not mean I always pleased my fellow archers. Knowledge of the Republic’s expectations, mixed with the natural rivalry of youth, imparted to our practices an often tense aggression. This was particularly the case in the team competitions, which, after several months of initial training, were staged once a fortnight throughout the following winter. These often divided along lines that reflected our membership of different compagnie delle calze. So it was that, one blustery morning in February, I found myself preparing to participate in the semi-final of a contest that pitted the Fox and Cockerels against the Red Pennants. That we had remained in the running up to this stage was a cause for satisfaction. Yet I remained acutely conscious that my contributions had seen a basic skilfulness enhanced by a number of flukes, including one fortuitous gust of wind that turned a certain outer target into a bullseye. Most of my companions were aware of this too but had come to treat me with a certain amused superstition, as something of a lucky mascot. There was, however, one exception.

As I have recounted, Tommaso Corner had been my companion during a number of escapades and episodes over the past few years. Yet our superficial friendliness had always been underpinned by hostility. As a member of that branch of the Corners headed by Signor Zuan, Tommaso was acutely conscious of his family’s standing and riches: the Corners owned extensive sugar-cane holdings in Cyprus and were involved in the highest governing echelons of the Signoria. Indeed, Tommaso’s awareness of his background was perhaps the more acute since, as Zuan Corner’s third and youngest son, he would not automatically step into the positions of power reserved for his brothers. His arrogance, therefore, came mixed with a certain wounded pride. This, as time went on, made him dangerously unpredictable. Indeed, even now, should I accidentally overhear a man’s voice raised in anger, I associate the sound with Tommaso’s densely freckled, rather wide-cheeked face, the mouth almost masticating its imprecations, the eyes narrow and pitiless, like hard stones. He was impatient and vindictive and increasingly – perhaps because I was an only son, perhaps for some more obscure reason – he directed his venom at me. All this came to a head at the Butts on the day in question.

Tommaso had been sharply critical of my performances during previous rounds. Today, however, he was almost possessed by impatience. On this occasion the strong northeasterly provided no assistance; indeed it exposed the fact that my arrows were often too weakly propelled and therefore liable to be blown off course. To this disadvantage I was forced to add an eye infection that, despite copious applications of an egg-based compress, blurred my sight. Eventually, after one particularly poor shot, Tommaso shouted:

“Gritti, you should have been born a girl. You’re hopeless.”

Andrea was quick to try and restrain him but Tommaso broke free and came forward.

“Feeble at the targe as you are feeble with a woman.”

Perhaps it was the discomfort of the infection, perhaps a more deep-seated eruption of a long-resisted antipathy, but almost without realising it I had laid the bow on the sand and was bunching my right fist.

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

Here Tommaso grinned and, turning back to the members of the two teams, stretched his left arm out horizontally, placed his right hand on the upturned elbow then sharply raised his lower left arm to the vertical.

“That’s how I perform, but this milksop…”

And here he removed his right hand and let the left arm drop limply to his side.

There were a few stifled titters. Andrea, to do him credit, looked appalled. But I had already decided to act and the next moment felt the sharp pain of my knuckles’ collision with Tommaso’s freckled visage.

My opponent had fallen but would be up again soon. I steadied myself in readiness. Somehow he had got wind of my less than satisfactory performance in the stews on the night of our initiation. Certainly, I had not had the courage to venture back there; whereas Tommaso chose to make it something of a regular haunt, boastfully announcing on one occasion that he had picked up a dose, almost certainly “from that black-haired bitch I saw you ogling in the courtyard”.

So the taper of youthful ideals was applied to the smoking brands of lust, rivalry and pride. I had never told anyone of what I now regarded as a vision, but the very fact that Tommaso so ignorantly alluded to the events that surrounded it, felt like a violation. This only intensified my anger.

The fight continued. I was smaller than Tommaso yet always I had the better of him. What caused this unexpected inversion of the natural order? Did I draw my strength from the fact that I had at last been faced with an overt enemy, as opposed to the winking, insinuating, sneering Gabriel? Was I in some ways attacking Gabriel though the medium of Tommaso? Certainly, I began to feel a sense of freedom as my blows struck home. But there was also another more elusive force at work. It was not exactly that my manhood had been insulted, even though that was the case. It was rather that Tommaso’s loose life reminded me of that ancient accusation levelled at all the Gritti clan. In striking this loutish, whoreson dog, I was asserting an honour. Because of the behaviour of men like his brother, my father had been doubted by my mother, perhaps irrevocably. Each blow to Tommaso’s increasingly bloodied face struck home with that truth. Each blow also (and I set this down here because of what happened later in – as it were – another world), comprised a sort of hope for the future. As a man, I would not choose to live as men like Tommaso must always live. Not that there wouldn’t be lapses and fallings off. But I had seen something in the black-haired streetwalker’s face which I carried now in my heart. An image maybe, as in the mosaic of a wall, gold-nimbused, glimpsed in dreams.

Meanwhile, as the fight stuttered and grew slow, the old crossbowman came forward to intervene. He had seen too much military action to be concerned about the squabblings of barely bearded boys. But the competition must be continued, if only so he could make a full report to his superiors. Our side had finished shooting. Now it was the Red Pennants’ turn. They won by a not inconsiderable margin. I was not wholly disappointed.

There was no immediate repeat of that fight among the dunes. Indeed Tommaso – as Andrea pointed out – knew he was beaten and took steps thereafter to avoid me wherever possible. Two months later, family business saw him leave Venice on an overland trip to Padua. He would be gone for almost a year. I cannot say it wasn’t a fortuitous absence. Yet our quarrel, so long nurtured and so suddenly expressed must, in the not too distant future, bear a fruit whose first sour pungencies would eventually, perhaps, dissolve into unimagined sweetness.


A Father’s Downfall

I come now to the upheaval which was to set in train a series of events that diverted my life into a wholly new and unexpected course. It was the winter of my eighteenth year. Still studying in a desultory sort of way, still attending the Lido Butts, I increasingly contemplated the time when, but a few months’ hence, I should finally accompany my father aboard my first muda. Back in the spring, my father had been greatly honoured to be appointed by an overwhelming majority of the steering committee as capitanio for the August voyage to Romania. Not only did the appointment bring him prestige and additional income, it also enhanced the reputation of the Gritti partnership, after which the flagship would be named. The news was greeted with delight in our household and my father celebrated by throwing a Mayday dinner for all the partners and their families. On this occasion even Gabriel could not help but be gracious, although in his after-dinner congratulatory speech, I detected the old tone when he alluded to my father’s good fortune in having been blessed by God with both seamanship and male issue.

Meanwhile, the galley must be fitted out as usual and come the last week of July, the fleet assembled for departure. Now, for the first time since I could remember, I did not see my father off.

Because of a problem with one of the galley’s masts, the departure date had been delayed by a day. The new date of the twenty-sixth of the month clashed with a longstanding duty I had to take a donation from the Club to the Madonna dell’ Orto. I imagined I could discharge this obligation and reach the quays in time to say farewell but it was not to be.

Coming round the corner of the palace, I saw the fleet already diminishing, small and dim on the horizon. Workmen were swabbing down the cobbles where the usual impromptu market had been held. Many of the stalls were already dismantled. A few empty crates lay piled against a wall at the back of the Rio dell’Arsenale. The crowds of family and friends had largely dispersed too, leaving a few stragglers, old men and women, young mothers with babes in arms – staring forlornly at the eastern skyline. My mother and the servants were nowhere to be seen. More deeply dejected than I had thought possible, I turned away, only to be accosted by a member of the committee that had appointed my father master of the fleet. His stated opinion that my father’s new elevation brought both great honour and grave responsibility would, on some other occasion, have puffed me up with familial pride. But in my unexpected mood, these words sounded hollow and insincere. I even fancied that I could detect a veiled threat in the man’s tone and began to wonder if my failure to reach the quays in time had some occult implication. This intimation of ill omen was intensified when I caught sight of a beheaded cockerel lying in the sawdust of a half-dismantled butcher’s stall. Glumly, I returned home and consulted the astrologer’s birth chart. Its confident predictions seemed vaguer and more unhelpful than ever.

As summer passed this mood lifted somewhat. During late August a package containing my father’s first interim reports arrived at Gabriel’s office, having passed overland from the Peloponnese and so up along the Dalmatian coast. Tipped in with these reports was a letter addressed to my mother and I in which, having briefly outlined the volume and quality of the deals already made on behalf of the partnership, my father passed on to the subject of his new role. Where the senator on the quays had engaged in platitude, the capitanio himself was more particular. Before departure he had consulted a retired fleetmaster with a view to obtaining advice. This man had told him that the most difficult part of the job was keeping matters sweet between the different galleys. Although they were all bound in a common enterprise, each ship remained a separate world, with her own aims and objectives. As a patrono my father would have been complacently aware of this circumstance; as capitanio he must seek to turn it to the advantage of the fleet as a whole. Setting sail he had found this advice to be correct but what he had not been prepared for was the variety and interest of his duties: from overseeing the fleet navigation (his chief navigator or armiraio was particularly skilled); to overseeing the trades carried out at each port. In short, my father’s first letter as fleetmaster revealed him to be a man immersed in his work with a growing sense of challenge and achievement. My gloomy forebodings at the quays seemed misplaced. My mother too seemed relaxed and at ease.

But as autumn faded into a cold and gloomy December my feelings shifted yet again. That no more letters arrived was not in itself a worrying sign: communications between our city and her far-flung entrepots must inevitably be tenuous even at the best of times. What affected me was, ridiculously enough, a dream. No ordinary dream mind, but a kind of waking vision brought about by illness. I have already alluded to the subtle changes which my journey into young manhood wrought in relations between myself and my mother. When, in early December, I fell ill with a fever, I neither expected nor wanted the kind of fluttering yet oppressive attention which such an event would have called forth from my mother as recently as five years ago. Now, she was efficient and businesslike but left the day-to-day ministering to the servants, who in turn could see that I was quite capable of doctoring myself. This was how, in our different ways, both I and my mother wished things to be between us. We had passed through the fires of a mutual tyranny and emerged on the other side, cauterised but stronger. Nevertheless, in the watches of the night, with my fever at its height, I cannot deny that I missed the old days, when all suffering could be laid at the feet of the woman who had carried me. After one such vigil, towards cockcrow, I fell into a restless state from which, all of a sudden, I seemed to wake, only to find myself in the sterncastle of a galley. My father came towards me but when he tried to speak no words emerged. A high sea was running and I could feel the wind stinging my right cheek. Again, my father spoke, more agitatedly now, and again the words were inaudible. I began to be afflicted with an intense dread, made worse when my father pointed towards starboard as if wanting me to witness some terrible event. However, my eyes were suddenly blinded by spray and the next moment I came round in my bed, having spilled a flagon of water across my face.

That morning my fever finally began to ebb. During the following days, recovering my strength, I often returned to my dream in an attempt to tease out some message or sign. When I remembered my father’s silent mouthings I seemed to hear the words “I tried” and then “too late” but I couldn’t be sure. The dream remained locked within itself. It would be useless to mention it to anyone, especially my mother.

So December wore on. The Christmas Fair began. Our household was on tenterhooks. The galleys could appear at any time now. To distract herself my mother indulged in the arrangement of an orgy of housework, having all the carpets hung out and beaten, repeatedly ordering the mopping of perfectly pristine marble floors and sending the male servants up ladders to polish the silver sconces. Watching all this bustle, I took care to stand a little to one side, feeling that any natural anticipation had been usurped by something small and cold. Nevertheless, when, at about noon on the fourth day of the Fair, all the bells of the churches round St Mark’s began peeling a concerted tocsin, I readied myself like everyone else to go down to the quays in front of the customs house. It was, as always, a lively and exciting scene and, as always, I found myself sinking into the moment, so much so that I almost managed to lay the ghosts of the bad dream and before that, my evil mood on the day of the fleet’s departure. But things soon changed. Trying to make out if my father had landed yet (I could see the Gritta already riding at anchor in the basin), I left my mother still seated in her sedan and went down to the water’s edge. Here I passed close to one of our old servants, Fiorio, who was himself making a concentrated study of the basin. Suddenly he let his hand drop from above his eyes and looking round said, to no one in particular, “Where’s the Vallaressa? My grandson’s on the Vallaressa. I don’t see her.”

Then, receiving no reply, he wheeled back and began silently counting, pointing a bony forefinger at each galley in turn. For a moment or two I failed to grasp the meaning of all this. In front of me the fleet lay at anchor, the Gritta in their midst. Nothing seemed amiss. Then suddenly the thought came back that I had not witnessed the muda’s departure and therefore did not actually know the number of galleys it had contained. With a sinking heart, I grasped Fiorio by the shoulders, almost shouting, “What do you mean? Is the fleet a galley short?”

Before he could reply, several other household servants came up and launched into a confused and increasingly loud disputation. Again and again the name Vallaressa arose and again and again Fiorio said, “I don’t see her.”

How long this confused babble might have lasted it is impossible to say, but now, from a galliot that had just been moored to a nearby capstan, two oarsmen came up. One sported a heavily bandaged head and leaned heavily on his mate. They were greeted with the same confusion of tongues until Fiorio’s high-pitched, old man’s voice cut through.

“Hi! You’re Giovanni, aren’t you? You were serving on the Vallaressa. Where is she? I don’t see her.”

Looking dully at our servant, the oarsman with the bandaged head raised his free hand, then pointed violently downwards, pursing his lips. At this, a sort of low wailing rose from the little crowd punctuated by Fiorio’s latest question.

“But where’s my grandson? Where’s my Angelo?”

I would have stayed to question and learn more if, at that moment, my mother’s maidservant hadn’t tugged me by the sleeve. My father, she said, had just come ashore. My mother sent word that she was leaving the sedan to go and meet him.

The maidservant led me to the steps of the customs house. My father had indeed landed and stood now talking in a low voice with three of his patroni and the customs officer. My mother, who must have already greeted him, stood a little to one side, her eyes downcast. This submissive posture in one who, on occasions such as this, was naturally inclined to be ebullient, struck me as strange. It was as if my mother had been dismissed for the time being so that the men could conclude an important conversation. So peremptory a gesture on my father’s behalf was out of character too. But now, as my attention settled on him, I began to feel that all the vague apprehensions stirred up by Fiorio and the others were beginning to coalesce. Outwardly, my father looked the same as he had six months ago. He was a little more tanned perhaps and his beard had sprouted a few additional grey patches, but otherwise he bore himself as usual – burly but erect, his arms perhaps a little on the long side, his legs muscular, his chest broad. In short, the man whom (given that I favoured my mother’s more slightly built side of the family) I admired for his bodily prowess even as I respected and, in my fashion, loved him for his noble, if domineering, nature. But the voice had changed. That was the first clue. It had become at once more solemn than I had ever remembered it and more profoundly agitated. Going to stand beside my mother who, seeing me, threaded her arm through mine in a gesture that seemed to indicate a need for actual support, as if she had received some kind of blow, I perceived something much worse. For even as he talked, my father was no longer really there. Something had risen up to eclipse and defeat him. He was already (and I can think of no other way to put this) posthumous. So we waited, my mother and I, like prisoners whose punishment has not yet been decreed.

But the talk continued. My father, who, when I first came up, had seemed to be trying to explain a complicated series of navigational decisions to the customs officer, had now lapsed into a fidgety, almost resentful silence. Meanwhile the patroni had taken up the argument, now talking all at once to the officer, now disagreeing amongst themselves. The customs officer himself, an adipose man with a purple face by the name of Malipiero, struck me as at once obtuse and truculent, self-importantly tapping his ledger with a quill and saying in a squeaky voice, “But I don’t understand. Why didn’t you turn back?”

At last, as the voices rose to a crescendo, my father closed his eyes and muttered a vehement, “Enough.” Then, when he had earned their attention. “You, Antonio, go” – and here his voice assumed a sneer – “with this officer here into the Dogana. I cannot stand about any longer debating with petty state underlings.”

Here Malipiero’s face assumed a deeper shade of purple, but my father raised his hand to ensure silence.

“I must make my report to the Senate at once.”

Then, looking at the other two patroni. “You, Mafio, and you, Bortolo, will be so good as to accompany me. This is too serious a business, too serious a business…”

But here he stopped, pressing his palms to his eyes as if to stem tears. This was so painful a sight to witness that, without thinking what I might say next, I called out, “Father!”

Immediately, he uncovered his face and looked about as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. Then he recognised me. His voice was almost a whisper.

“So, you too, Niccolo. You too.”

Then, with his two galley masters on either side, my father turned back to the fusta that would ferry him across to St Mark’s Square. For my mother and I there was nothing else to do but return home and wait.

But to return home was no easy matter. The quayside had been overrun with people, summoned by whatever demons govern the dissemination of bad news. For by now it was on everybody’s lips. The Vallaressa had indeed been lost when, heading north along the Dalmatian coast just a few days previously, my father’s muda became scattered by a severe storm. With my arm round my mother’s shoulders I began to force a passage back to where our servants would be waiting with her sedan. But to the usual difficulties that arise when anyone tries to negotiate a large, tightly packed and disorderly crowd, a more specific problem was added, reserved exclusively for us. Penetrating a particularly dense knot of people, some openly crying, others shouting hoarse curses, we suddenly heard, almost as if it had been whispered straight into our ears: “They say that Gritti didn’t – wouldn’t – go to her aid.”

At this I felt my mother stiffen. It was imperative now that we reach our own servants. That my father hadn’t anticipated this turn of events, merely assuming we would reach home without his protection, demonstrated the depths of his distraction. Yet I could not help but resent this oversight. Meanwhile the voice gave way to hissing noises. All eyes were on us. If I surrendered to anger now, all would be lost. Then, just when the crowd seemed to be closing in on us, a gap opened. Two of our young stable boys had spotted our plight and come to their mistress’s aid. Soon we were on our way back to the casa, while the crowd, swept by a new rumour of disembarking survivors, forgot those representatives of a derelict authority which it had so recently purposed to destroy.

From that day forward my world began to crumble with a frightening swiftness. Having made his report to the Senate, my father returned to our house and locked himself away in his office, taking all his meals there and having a bed made up on the Ottoman divan in the corner. Only my mother was allowed to penetrate his seclusion, staying with him for several hours at a time. On the first such occasion I attempted to eavesdrop, standing on tiptoe in the rug-muffled corridor. But the walls were too thick and the door had been lined with tapestry, so that it was impossible to make out more than the odd word. Nevertheless, the general impression I took away with me was sufficiently revealing. Long silences obtained, punctuated by brief, intense exchanges, now angry, now pleading. There was sobbing too and on a couple of occasions the sound of some metallic object being dashed to the floor in impatient frustration. Whenever my mother emerged she was red-eyed, pale and unforthcoming. Clearly, our family had entered the first stage of a climactic crisis. Where this would lead I could not, as yet, fathom.

That is not to say I was idle in trying to grasp the situation as I saw it. When tackled, my mother seemed hesitant and evasive. It was now common knowledge that the Vallaressa had been lost. She knew I knew and didn’t dispute the fact. But on the circumstances of this loss as recounted by my father she would not be drawn. When I turned to the subject of his Senate report she would only say that that august body were making further enquiries and would summon my father again sometime in the new year. When I pointed out that this suggested my father’s version of events had at best been questioned and at worst openly rejected, she reverted to her now favourite phrase: “We must wait and see.”

Hovering over us at such moments was the memory of what certain voices in the crowd had uttered on the day of the fleet’s return. Neither of us could bear to allude to this, of course, but it certainly served to poison the air still further. Finally I asked her what would happen should the Senate find against my father. It had suddenly occurred to me that disgrace might come with financial penalties.

“Don’t even talk of such a thing,” was all my mother could manage.

In the end, I suppose her reticence angered me, not only because it suggested a lack of confidence in her only son, but also because it cast doubt on my status. Having walked through the city as a man, I found myself at home still treated like a child. So my anger overflowed, making my mother even more tight-lipped and uncommunicative.

At this point I demanded to see my father. Seeming almost frightened now, my mother actually stood in front of the office door with her arms outspread, like some funereal stele, as if to bar my way. Again and again she shook her head, saying, “No, Niccolo, no.”

This was so absurd a situation that my anger turned to sardonic laughter. But I was not to be swayed. My mother couldn’t stand in front of that door forever. When, late in the evening, I ascertained that she was busy elsewhere, I went boldly up to the office and, since I knew my mother would have locked the door behind her, knocked three times.

There was silence at first, then a muffled, “Haven’t I said I will see no one? Which of my cursed household are you? Name yourself. I’ll have you punished.”

When I identified myself there was another pause, then. “That includes you, Niccolo.”

But I was determined now. Again, I knocked then began to rattle the handle. I knew from a memory of my early childhood that, for some reason, my father could not endure the sound of a rattling door handle. Sure enough, after some minutes of this torture, the door opened. Standing there in his nightgown, hair dishevelled, face lined, eyes bagged, my father seemed to have aged many years in a matter of hours. He gestured to the room behind him.

“Well, you have been vouchsafed a glimpse of my magnificent kingdom. Now go.”

Diminished as he was, he could still evince an indomitable will and I must admit that, for a moment, I wavered, but grew determined at least to try.

“No, Father. I want to know. What happened? What have the Senate said? What will they do?”

Again, he was silent. Then he sighed.

“I wait on their pleasure, as must any servant of the state. What will they do? Remember this, Niccolo, remember this: a man can be cast down as surely as ever he was raised up. What happened? I have told them all I know. No doubt they are already talking to others. About what they know. It is up the Senate to say what happened.”

This last word was spat back at me like venom. Suddenly I knew that I would get no further. My father had sealed himself shut, like a mussel on the bed of the lagoon. Again, I felt I was being treated like a tiresome child. My mother perhaps I could forgive but when Father, whatever the provocation of events, attempted the same ruse, I felt myself withdrawing. Perhaps this was his intention. Certainly, it is from this moment that I mark the beginning of what became our final estrangement.

Nevertheless, I still wanted information, if only the better to position myself in what, during these sad days leading up to an even sadder Christmastide, was an increasingly disjunct household. The servants were my first point of call. These good men and women were, in many ways, more impenetrably resistant than my parents. Indeed, it was precisely because of my parents that everyone, from the head valet down to the lowest scullery maid, maintained a wall of silence. Their loyalty to the master and mistress took precedence in this matter, so that any enquiries made by the son of the household were countered with replies that sounded scripted, as if they had been supplied by some third party. Yes, a galley had foundered and sunk. Yes, there had been loss of life. As for the Senate, they knew nothing of such high-up folks. But everything, Master Niccolo, is in the hands of our Saviour. To Whom we, like you and like your parents, pray daily.

Even old Fiorio, who had first alerted me to the disaster, had now lapsed into a sort of ingenuous incuriosity. His grandson had been found alive washed ashore near Ragusa. For that miracle he thanked the Lord and wanted to think and say no more about the whole ghastly business.

Spreading my net further I ventured beyond the casa and began to sound out my acquaintances. At the Butts and in the Club everyone knew what I knew. They themselves had fathers who sat in the Senate and traded abroad. Indeed, Andrea was the son of the patrono who had been deputed to deal with the fat customs officer. These young men could not but have absorbed a great deal of information about my father’s case but, being well disposed towards me, they were reluctant to speculate and became visibly uncomfortable when I alluded to the accusations that had been flying around the quayside. Perhaps in this instance the absence of my enemy, Tommaso, was more curse than blessing. Certainly, he would have had no compunction about telling me what my father was rumoured to have done or not done so that, having first sifted out the inventions of mere personal spite, I might have come at some kernel of truth. With this in mind I even approached one or two members of Tommaso’s circle, but in his absence they did not know how far they might go and proved as uncomfortably reticent as my friends.

Even now I did not give up. Only a day after the start of my father’s self-enforced sequestration, he did in fact receive one visitor other than my mother. Normally, on the fleet’s return, directly after his obligatory appearance at the Senate, my father would have conferred with Gabriel in his suite of rooms near the Arsenal. But in these exceptional circumstances that had not been possible. Still, business must be attended too and so, carrying a sheaf of correspondence, my uncle arrived in a gondola at the canal door and demanded to be admitted to my father’s presence. When I heard this, and saw that he had indeed been granted audience, I determined to collar him on his way out. This I did, to his evident distaste, but eventually after much persuasion on my part, Gabriel agreed to an interview at his rooms the following morning.

That night the wind swung round to the north, bringing snow clouds down from the Dolomites. By morning a light dusting of white lay on roofs and chimneys. Snow flurries milled in the bitterly cold air. It was as if the heavy, hushed paralysis of our household had found an echo in the elements. But I at least must act and, at the appointed hour, set out, tramping through a thickening powder under leaden skies. Taking a shortcut across a back canal, I encountered a small group of nobles who, being members of a different Club, were known to me by sight alone. They were huddling on the bridge round a brazier, slapping themselves to keep warm, their breath rising up in plumes. Having no business with them, I sought to pass when, to my astonishment, they moved to block my path. In response to my irritated demand to be let through, one of the group stepped forward and spat, the spittle missing me and hissing into the brazier flames.

“That’s for your father. And for all your clan. Tell him you met Calbo’s son; Calbo, whom he abandoned.”

It was not possible immediately to avenge this insult. I was outnumbered and in any case to start a fracas in broad daylight in the middle of the city would immediately bring down the full wrath of the authorities. Safer to walk on, now that this hostile group, having made their point, was beginning to give way. Yet even at this juncture enmity still brewed. Another voice floated by me on the wind.

“He should be banned from ever captaining a boat again. That’s what the Senate can do, you know.”

I had already entertained the thought of some financial loss. But these words reminded me of my father’s saw about being raised up only to be cast down. As for Calbo’s son, I neither knew him nor his father. Yet the word abandoned could not easily be dismissed. It evoked the disturbing scene in front of the Dogana. The sooner I confronted my uncle the better. Borne in on a sudden gust, a thick snow flurry whipped round me. When I glanced back the hostile group was gone.

The rooms which my uncle used when on business in the city were sited on the ground floor of a three-storey building at the back of the council chambers overlooking the Arsenal. The partnership’s offices were located here, occupying the front two rooms of the suite, while my uncle’s private apartment lay to the rear. Ushered by an elderly, blue-lipped clerk down a narrow service passage whose walls were lined with shelves of dusty ledgers, I found myself in a bare, barrel-vaulted room whose mullion window overlooked a seasonally deserted Arsenal, the ribs of two unfinished galleys rising up dark against the grey, wintry sky. In the marble fireplace a weak fire smoked, sputtering now and then as a stray snowflake found its way down the flue. I felt colder in here than outside. An inner door opened and my uncle entered, sitting down at a desk under the window. I stayed standing.

The interview did not last long. Although I deemed it unwise to openly allude to my reluctance to consult him, I did make it clear that Gabriel was something of a last resort.

“Uncle, can you tell me what is happening? Neither my father nor my mother will say much. My father, as you know, keeps to his room. When the fleet arrived, down on the quays, there were rumours…”

My uncle studied me for a moment then bid me sit in the straight-backed chair opposite his desk. He tilted his hands together in a praying attitude.

“This is no whim of your father’s, Niccolo. He has had no choice. The Senate ordered him to remain in his domicile until further notice.”

I started.

“You mean he is under house arrest?”

Gabriel nodded.

“Then the Senate feel they have cause to distrust my father. Why? Because of the circumstances in which the Vallaressa was lost?”

Gabriel let his hands fall to the desk, palms upward. He frowned.

“I gather it is standard procedure in such cases, pending further investigation.”

Down in the Arsenal I could see that the ribs of the galley hulls were becoming furred with white on their north-facing surfaces. The wind was still driving in the snow.

“What did my father say to the Senate that they could not believe?”

Another pause, during which the wind moaned disconsolately in the chimney. At last my uncle sighed.

“I am not, this year, a senator, Niccolo. I was not present. I gather from your father that he made his statement, as is customary, and that they heard him out. But the loss of a galley is serious. He was master of that fleet. He could not expect to be exonerated on the spot. It is right and proper that the matter be looked into. He understands all this.”

These words disconcerted me somewhat. I sensed a certain complacency in Gabriel, as if he did not altogether deplore the Senate’s resolution, as if (ghastly thought) he actually relished the contemplation of such a disaster befalling his sibling. Could it be, even though, as a Gritti and a partner, he himself stood to be damaged by any scandal, that his ancient grudge against his brother overrode all other considerations? It was impossible to say. I decided to revert to my opening gambit.

“I have heard talk, idle talk maybe, that the Vallaressa could have been saved. That my father refused to go to her aid.”

Silence. The sputter of the fire. Perhaps now I would be told.

“Rumour is not evidence. If there is evidence – on either side – then the Senate will unearth it. As for your father and I, we have not touched on what they gossip about in the taverns.”

This haughtiness seemed intended to cow me. I persisted.

“But my father must have told you something?”

Gabriel sighed wearily.

“Yes, of course. But that is not the issue between us. Listen, Niccolo. It is a fact that over the last few years, business for us has been good, so good that, on this last Romanian voyage we were able to rent additional space in a second galley. That galley was the Vallaressa. She left Venice with a consignment of Swabian silver and was returning with a cargo of high-value Christian slaves, bought in Tana, at the mouth of the Don.”

If I had known any of this I had forgotten. A sudden foreboding gripped me. In all this talk of culpability and dereliction I had not considered the purely financial aspects of the case. My uncle sucked his teeth.

“However it happened, the Vallaressa is a grievous loss, not just to the family but to us as well. Perhaps a quarter of our capital went down with that galley. Since you came here for information I must tell you that, because of what happened on his watch, your father has offered me his resignation with immediate effect. I have accepted it.”

Once again Gabriel had wrongfooted me. Trying to play for time while I digested this information, I repeated, “Resignation?”

It was as if the word belonged to an incomprehensible foreign language.

My uncle folded his arms and leaned forward.

“It seems a politic move from every angle. The partnership will have to pull its horns in in any case now. One partner less means fewer expenses. Then, if the judgement goes against him, the news will have broken when your father is no longer part of the business. Thus, our good name is to some extent protected.”

This speech quite confounded me. Gabriel had found a way to indulge his ancient grudge whilst behaving with the utmost probity. I wanted to stand but dared not trust my legs.

Weakly, I murmured, “And is it true that the Senate can impose fines or even” – here my mouth went dry and I gulped audibly – “even strip a man of his dignities?”

My uncle glanced out at the dimly whitening Arsenal yards.

“Such powers are available to them and I may say, on occasions, turn out to be regrettably necessary.”

I moistened my lips with my tongue.

“But what if he is vindicated? What if these allegations are untrue?”

Gabriel stood abruptly, indicating that the interview was coming to an end.

“Then all is well and good, Niccolo, all is well and good. Your father has the opportunity to be a galley master again or even perhaps a capitanio. But clearly, whatever the Senate decide, we cannot work together, he and I, in the future. It is better thus, for all of us.”

By now I too had managed to stand up.

“And you, Uncle, do you think my father is to blame?”

Gabriel walked over to the fireplace and picked up a log for the sputtering fire.

“As I told you, Nephew, that is not for me to say. But listen” – and here he placed the log carefully in the grate – “I speak now as a brother, an uncle and, I may say, a family friend. You and your mother had better be prepared for the worst. It is always sensible. To be so prepared.”

The worst came soon enough. The Holy Days of Christmas were dour – an empty, endless succession filled with ugly presentiments. My father still kept to his room while my mother devoted many hours to praying at the shrine of the Virgin in our local parish church. The servants remained subdued, conducting their Twelfth Night feast in an almost Lenten gloom. I moped around the house or wandered beside the canals alone. The snowy weather had soon given way to rain from the west. Everything dripped and oozed. The lagoon began to seep into St Mark’s Square. An anonymous broadsheet appeared tacked up to the doors of St Mark’s herself, predicting a second apocalyptic flood. It was quickly torn down and the matter investigated but with no outcome. I began to have a recurring dream of a galley caught in a storm and sinking. Truly, I felt as though, in that dark season, the waters of the Last Days might as well pour in over all our heads.

I did not try to follow up my interview with Gabriel. What he had said resonated down the following weeks, alternately outraging and numbing me. Distaste at the thought of any further exchange blotted out whatever desire remained to learn more. Just after the new year my uncle visited my father again but I was out of the house at the time. When I returned he had gone but my mother accosted me in the marble-floored hall where, years ago, I had played with the fleet of cedarwood ships. In recent weeks her reticence toward me had diminished a little, as if my father’s constant but largely silent presence in the house were the obverse of his old seafaring absences, driving her to try and recreate the relationship she had formerly enjoyed with her son. This instinctive action was doomed to failure, if only because I was no longer the boy I had been. Nevertheless, I found I needed to talk with my mother, if only to try and grasp what I instinctively felt was coming for me, like a stalking beast, out of the future.

“He was here today. To sign everything off.”

I could see she had been crying. I did not need to ask to whom she was referring. She held a handkerchief squeezed tightly in her right fist.

“He might have waited until after the Senate…”

She stopped then looked up into my face. “Oh, Niccolo.”

Flinching from what threatened to become a raw outpouring of emotion, I tried to be businesslike.

“Father has resigned of his own free will. Uncle told me as much. And surely it is better thus. A new start with new partners…”

Halfway through this would-be sermon of reassurance I realised that my mother had stopped listening. I stumbled on for a few more words then stopped. My mother transferred her sodden handkerchief to the other fist and looked over to where a blocked gutter was allowing rain to sheet across the canal-side window.

“Free will. He told you that?”

Then, with a shrug. “Well, we’ll soon hear what the Senate has to say. I just think he might have waited, that’s all.”


Bowman of the Quarterdeck

Eventually, the day of the Senate hearing dawned; a cold, wet, early February morning, in which the waters of the Grand Canal beneath my bedroom window lay shrouded in mist. Into this mist my father disappeared, his back to the casa, hunched in our gondola, rowed by one servant. Glimpsing this, I was struck at how spectral he already looked, as if the mist were replacing his bodily substance with mere swirls and skeins of moisture. The morning passed. The mist did not lift. When at the twelfth hour my father reappeared in the Canal doorway, his face was not so much strained as blank. To my mother’s unspoken question, there in the dank lower hall (I had positioned myself just within hearing at the top of the stone steps that led up to our apartments) my father simply whispered, “It’s finished.”

At that moment, the future, which had for so long been waiting to pounce, suddenly roared into my head, blocking out all else. Somehow I staggered upstairs, retreating to the temporary sanctuary of my room. I knew that soon enough I would have to venture out again and learn in detail every verse in that apocalypse of which my father’s two words were the bald annunciation. But for the moment I lay gripped by the sinewy talons of fate and could not move.

On his return from the Senate my father abruptly ceased to keep to his room, wandering the house aimlessly, or sitting for hours in some randomly selected chair. Released from house arrest, he had immediately been precipitated into a condition of undesired freedom. He was not so much reclaiming his place at the head of the family as relinquishing all rights to authority, even of the most nugatory kind. He noticed no one and spoke only to himself. What I had anticipated on the quay in front of the Dogana had finally come to pass. Witnessing this change I was surprised at how calm I felt. This calm helped to steady me when, that same evening, the terms of the sentence under which our household had been obscurely labouring for so many weeks were finally revealed.

My father was no longer capable of announcing these terms himself. Instead Gabriel appeared again and held two audiences, the first with myself and my mother, the second with the household servants. With the servants, no doubt he was bluff and to the point. With his relatives, he allowed himself a certain leisurely preamble. Despite this attempt at padding (alluding as he did to my father’s sterling work for the company, to his skills as a capitanio and even to his qualities as a brother) even Gabriel could not put off the moment of truth nor sugar what turned out to be a small, compact and virulently bitter wafer. He held up a copy of the judgement and began to read, sometimes quoting, sometimes paraphrasing. In short, the Senate had found against my father. Having taken statements, both from a number of survivors of the wreck of the Vallaressa and from senior officers serving on the Gritta, they had come to the conclusion that the capitanio of the fleet had indeed been derelict in his duty not to change course in order to try and rescue both the crew and the cargo of the stricken vessel. At this Gabriel paused and shook his head, as if to express a sort of pitying incomprehension. Sitting beside me, my mother reacted with a suppressed sob. But I felt myself growing cold, having detected, buried deep in my uncle’s demeanour, a spark of murderous glee. Meanwhile, he had reverted to his copy and was reading out the sentence. First, my father was to be stripped of his hereditary right to be considered for the posts of capitanio and patrono. Second, he was to be forbidden the right to board any galley of the state for a period of three years. Third, he was to be fined the sum of twenty thousand ducats. This last clause drew forth from my mother a cry so sharp it might have signalled a birth pang. But from the next room came a nervous cackling that showed my father had been listening all along. All three of us fell silent as if we had heard a ghost.

Even now I cannot quite decide which aspect of this punishment was worse, the public dishonour or the financial penalty. Perhaps they were equally burdensome. Or perhaps they were so intertwined that it would have been futile to try and tease their varying strands apart. The fine effectively impoverished our family, making it impossible to maintain the casa on the Grand Canal, so that we were forced to find alternative and much humbler accommodation on the island of Giudecca. We moved there that same spring, having, with the exception of old Fiorio, reluctantly let all the servants go. It was a straitened existence which beckoned to us now, if only because the Senate’s displeasure led inexorably to social isolation. Of my parents’ former acquaintances among the nobility, not one would stand by them in their hour of need. Thus opprobrium, like the fine, hurt us all.

But perhaps the worst and darkest effect of this judgement was caused by the uncanny, almost vindictive manner in which it merged with a decision that had already been taken, namely my father’s resignation from the partnership. If he could not work for the Gritti firm again then equally, in the light of his disbarment from even boarding a galley, my father would not be able to find employment elsewhere. Worse, the fine emptied our coffers of almost all the cash that might have been used to tide us over until the three years’ probation was up. Learning this, my mother, with a certain grim practicality, took steps to apply to her relatives on Murano. What would have come of this I will never know. Two days after we moved to Giudecca, on the first day of March in the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and fifty-two, my father’s lifeless body was found by old Fiorio at the foot of the basement steps. He had died of a seizure.

To stand in the darkened drawing room of our poorly furnished apartment and trace out the lines of my father’s shrunken face, where he lay on the marble tabletop, already shrouded for the tomb, was to be at once irredeemably lost and yet strangely, almost mystically, at ease. Into the hollow casque of what had once been a man had disappeared, not only all childhood memories of my father, but childhood itself. Large, bluff and sometimes savagely brutal in life, my father had always seemed to explain the world. Now death had intervened and I did not know where I stood. Yet this sudden and all-enveloping ignorance left me strangely at peace. What would come would come. I turned away and left the house to contemplate the lagoon, arena of so many former triumphs and excitements but now, too, an inescapable reminder of the tragedy that had overtaken us all.

* * *

To my left, where the Rio dell’Arsenale debouches thick and scummy into the lagoon, a regular company of crossbowmen has just been drawn up, in two ranks, under the watchful gaze of their officer. To my right, enterprising traders have set up a row of booths and stalls from whose tented interiors disembodied cries issue, pleading, cajoling, threatening, all seeking to tempt some of the assembled multitude with the prospect of a last-minute bargain, be it of food, tableware or some seemingly necessary garment.


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