In The Mascherari, my protagonist, Antonio da Parma, is haunted by visions of a beautiful and mysterious woman. Her name is Magdalena. For months after completing the novel, I pondered over Magdalena's features and over who I could best use to illustrate the raw quality of her beauty. I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon a photo of a long admired actress with an Italian origin.
Here it is, then; a portrait of Magdalena on canvas. It is based on a dark-haired version of the young Ornella Muti. She is perfect.
Journal of Antonio da Parma
He dreams on a gondola as it glides in silence. Sound asleep, he lies, beneath a fiery dawn, while the palace’s Eastern wing rises above, and casts golden shadows upon his face.
This is how I may have appeared to my guide as I drifted off, while he strained with the oar, drawing us closer to the Ducal stones, closer, beneath the towering Campanile, closer to this monstrous Republic of galleys with its islands and canals, into the heart of this lagoon fortress gilded by the sun’s first rays, and past her mansions of Istrian stone, whose glorious facades looked on, across a sea of silk and glistening foam.
Curious, isn’t it? How I saw her.
I would see her differently now.
Daughter of Venus, Venezia, you rose from nothingness. The memory of you…
How could this not be my first diary entry? For it was that day, as I arrived in Venezia, that I experienced my first vision.
She was standing on the Rialto Bridge. I write, standing, but now that I remember–and it is hard to recall after all that has transpired since–I think, yes... I think she was floating. I swear that I never once saw her feet touch the ground. I remember the fluttering hem of her gown and the way it thinned into a vaporous mist. I remember that I crossed myself and whispered the names of the saints upon seeing her face for the first time.
She stood alone. She was watching me.
And I, I saw only her.
She seemed to have eluded the vanity of Venetian women. Perhaps she did not live in our times. She cared not for the blonde locks they coveted, had not shaved her forehead in the new fashion, and wore no silk, nor jewelry. Her hair–I crossed myself again–for it was night, and her black locks were like the manes of a strega; insolence upon her shoulders.
Oh, the dark beauty of that face.
I saw, even from afar, the longing eyes beneath their sultry lashes and the parting of her lips as she whispered. She resembled those Southern women or perhaps those forbidden beauties of Constantinople into whose eyes one dares not stare too long, for fear of some lurking evil.
It struck me at this instant. I ignore how, it struck me that this woman was a harbinger of some fateful event, one that I was soon to encounter, here, in Venezia.
The sun rose, filtering light through the rios, casting flames upon her black hair. My gondolier’s vessel meandered through the lagoon. Light shone on the Canal Grande.
Still in dream, I gazed at her form but she drew away. No, she floated away, vanishing to the other side of the bridge. And as the morning rays bathed Rialto Market, not a trace of her remained.
The loss of her wounded me. Abandoned by the unsettling vision, I rose from my slumber. I awoke to the stern Ducal Palace looming over our gondola. It lay still. As silent as its secrets.
Later that morning, I spoke of my vision to Almoro Donato, member of the Consiglio dei Dieci. He told me what I did not want to hear.
“Antonio. Antonio, you grieve, my friend. But it must end. Yes, don’t you see? You must find a new wife, si? With so much beauty in Venezia, a man like you—“
“Basta. I am already past the fourth decade. I care not for another wife. It was not her I saw in the dream. The woman, there was something about her—”
But he interrupted me. I think he has studied me carefully over the years. I suppose his position demanded it. It was under his recommendations that Venezia had appointed me, a Florentine, for the second time. The Consiglio dei Dieci had a well-earned reputation for respecting nobody’s secrets and my employer was a master spy. He gave me that look of wariness, that short disapproving glare which I remembered from years before.
“Ah, Antonio, see how you drift again. Your preoccupations always lead you into visions. But remember your place, avogadore. I will ask you to prepare for your future role within the commune, yes? We will have none of that in the Republic, will we?”
He looked at me again.
“Will we, Antonio?”
I may have shrugged my shoulders, but the foreboding manner of his words taunted me, even then.
As we crossed inside the palace’s entrance hall, I waved away my unpleasant feelings. I cast aside my dream. Already Venezia tugged at my soul but I attributed my ill-feeling to his sermon.
“Tommaso Mocenigo is very ill,” he explained, gesturing gravely toward the Doge apartments to our left. “He has been confined to bed for weeks already. When the New Year commences next March, do not be surprised if the patricians are called upon to appoint a new Doge. It is not known how many months Tommaso has to live but I feel his time is near. And between you and me,” he whispered, “our young procurator, Francesco Foscari, would want this time to be nearer still.” He cleared his throat. “Antonio, the Consiglio would prefer it if you remained in Venezia until then.”
I started. “Until March?”
His eyes narrowed. I understood that I had little choice.
I calculated that I would remain in Venezia until at least the commencement of Lent.
And the realization struck me.
Carnivale is upon us; diabolic days where madness surges and unfolds, unrelenting. Where the masses of Venezia, the popolani, forget themselves into debauchery and descend ever deeply into the odious core of their fettered being. Carnivale, a season of obscene songs and erotic dance, when the masked rival for attention while making believe they are free.
I never long so dearly for the rolling hills and scented valleys of Tuscany as when I find myself in the Republic during the infernal period of Carnivale.
I refrained from sharing my thoughts and moved inside the Consiglio dei Dieci gathering room for my briefing.
It was after my visit to the palace, when my gondolier had led our boat through the nation of Santa Croce, that I encountered the first abomination.