1635: THE CANNON LAW – snippet 53:


Cardinal Antonio Barberini was not, in any measure, a happy man. He stood at the window overlooking the square where, money permitting, he would be wheedling his uncle to commission a new fountain. The piazza needed it, frankly. Something by Bernini, if the man had time to work on it any time before he died. The trouble with Bernini, of course, was that he was so good, he had more commissions than he could truly keep up with.

Right now though, the problem with the piazza Barberini was not so much the absence of fountain, but the very real and present presence of what looked like a couple of hundred people. Not, if one were to be truly pedantic, a mob. They didn’t seem to have a great deal to say for themselves, and while there would certainly be pockets being picked and minor scuffles, the whole scene just didn’t look criminal. Or, at least, not from this elevated and removed vantage.

It was just—untidy. Badly-composed. An eyesore. A pain, in crude terms, in the ass. A little while ago, he’d asked that someone be sent to wander through the crowd and see what had drawn them. Idle curiosity, really. The fellow who’d gone out—someone had picked out one of the below-stairs porters as being most likely to blend in, and Barberini could see the point, the man looked quite charmingly villainous—had come back a few moments ago saying that the crowd wasn’t really there for much; a couple of the fellows Barberini’s man had talked to had been paid to turn up and the rest had hung around to see if anything was going to happen. That alone would just have been an amusing oddity of idleness and the beginnings of a long, hot summer.

It was not alone. There was the paper. That had been handed to the porter, he said, within minutes of him setting foot in the square. There were street-boys down there giving them to anyone with hands to hold them. The porter could not read it, but had kept it to show his boss. Barberini had it in his hand now, read once and then gripped. Naturally, the thing was scurrilous beyond belief. No-one who actually knew him would believe a word of it. Not least because the author had at one and the same time accused him of sins against nature and of patronizing Gentileschi simply in order to fornicate with her. In its way, quite amusing. And damnably infuriating.

“Your Eminence is -” a long pause—”Angered?”

“Father General,” Barberini said, not turning away from the window, “I did not hear you enter.”

Vitelleschi moved over by Barberini, but did not, the younger cardinal noted, stand in the window. “Your Eminence’s majordomo vouchsafed that you seemed ill at ease. I took the liberty of entering unannounced.”

“To be sure of seeing me helpless in fury? Knowing my weakness?” Barberini drew on every drachm of civility and manners at his command not to snarl at the Father General. It would not do for the pope’s nephew to lose his temper with his uncle’s most dependable ally. And most useful, at a time like this.

“Your Eminence recognises it for the temptation it is. Wrath is a deadly sin.” Vitelleschi’s dry rasp had softened somewhat, Barberini noted, and he found himself all the more angry with the old man.

“I need no catechism from you, Father General.” Barberini took pride in the fact that his voice was icy calm. Another deadly sin.

“It is a provocation, nothing more.” For a wonder, Vitelleschi said it without sounding patronising. “Similar things have been written about your uncle. Many times, over the years since he was elected.”

“I also need no schooling in such footling tricks as this,” Barberini said, snapping at last. “Did I need such, there would already be squadrons of horse in the square, slaking my wounded name in blood.” He realised as he said it that he was losing his white-knuckled grip on his self-control, and had brandished the paper at Vitelleschi.

“I doubt they seek to provoke anything so crude.” Barberini noticed for the first time that Vitelleschi had brought a slim brief-wallet, and took from it other handbills like the one that was passing in the square below. Barberini could see that the ones from the case were different, for all that could not read the contents from where he was standing. Vitelleschi was silent for a long, long moment, before he went on. “Your Eminence might perhaps consider the possibility of other hasty reactions which those responsible for this libel might have sought to provoke.”

What little patience Barberini retained was barely a shred. “Such as?”

Vitelleschi’s glare was as baleful as the basilisk of legend. “What did Your Eminence think to do after dismissing the thought of ordering a massacre of innocents?”

Barberini’s urgent desire to slap the Father-General across the face parsed the full measure of the insults in that question faster than his sentient mind could. He actually raised his hand before realising that the barb had been a deliberate goad. The sharp sting of the schoolmaster’s cane. Never forget that the Jesuits are educators as much as they are anything, he told himself and lowered his hand. “Father General,” he said, bowing his head and folding his hands together, “I must apologise most humbly for my unseemly and unwarranted action,” he said.

“It is nothing, and still less to forgive. Your Eminence will please remember that I am your uncle’s most obedient servant, and he and I have grown old in the service of Christ. Yet neither of us has forgotten what it was to be a young man, with a young man’s passion and impulses.” There was the faintest ghost of a smile about the Jesuit’s lips.