When I returned to London following two weeks in Ewelme in family conference thus settling the B.M.’s estate, Anthony must have seen how drained and wan I looked. I was in deep gloom at the loss of a Beloved Mother and in a state of shock at the revelation of her sin (perhaps the only secret I never revealed to my blood brother). He therefore proposed that this marked the proper time for us to go on the next stage of our pilgrimage — our grand tour of Europa, you might call it — to the font of our Catholic faith and cradle of the burgeoning renatio, or new learning: the great city of Rome. Anthony, always more pious than I, had a strong desire to visit the Holy City and to pay his respects to the Holy Father, at that time Sixtus the Fourth (or Forthus the Sixth as I liked to call him, much to Anthony’s pious chagrin).
To journey overland to the Papal States governed by His Holiness, we would have to pass through several other Italian principalities: the duchies of Savoy — a sort of marchland between France and Italy — and Modena and the fabulously named “Republic of Florence” or Firenze as the native Italians call it. Anthony was particularly drawn to the extraordinary idea of a state governed — like the ancient state of pre-imperial Rome — as a republic or commonwealth without a king or ruling prince. He believed that the study of such a polity would equip him better to tutor and prepare his nephew Edward as a future philosopher king, while I was more intrigued by the wonders I had heard — back in my days governing Humberside — of the beauties of Florentine art and architecture and the splendours of the Medici “court”.
So, we set off with a very small suite — no more than twelve or fifteen retainers, comprising a few knights and the rest grooms and body servants (an all-male party, of course), and all the necessary laisser-passers, and royal letters of credence and introduction to the princes of the various lands through which we must pass. As we were now at peace with our French neighbours — and the fashions at court were increasingly Francophile with the queen and her daughters wearing the latest Parisian modes and working hard to improve their fluency in the langue of the French court, with the very fair fifteen-year-old Lady Elizabeth betrothed to become Queen of France — we had no problems in obtaining passports from the French king’s envoys to King Edward to travel freely across his kingdom. And so, we did over for fifteen days — France being a kingdom much bigger and wider than England having many interesting adventures involving damsels and dragons — and all the rest you would expect in the age of Le Morte d’Arthur. But as we began to approach the borders of Italy — through the French duchy of Savoy — it was as if we were entering a different century and another age.
Having avoided Milan, we passed into the lovely duchy of Modena which is ruled from Ferrara by the Este, or d’Este family. As visiting the duke’s principal city would have taken us out of our way, we merely paid our respects to his cousin, a marquis (a title I would have much prized, had it ever been offered) who governed the charming city of Modena; with such pretty buildings and handsome young men and women. As it was now September, the arduous heat of the Italian summer had passed and the days were sunny and balmy. I began to relax in my Antonio’s warm and sunny company and to forget myself for the first time since the B.M.’s demise.
But if Modena was pretty — like a little Italian sister of Bruges — how can I describe our first vision of Florence? Our little party was on a low Lombardian hill when we first saw that ravishing city. We stopped for a moment and Anthony said, “No wonder Dante lived here. This must have inspired his vision of il paradiso.”
The very air of Firenze is unique; ambrosian and yet so human too. When we saw its perfectly proportioned buildings — the palazzo Vecchio, for instance, the duomo, and especially the lovely, ponte vecchio which arcs across the Arno River — I remember saying, dumbstruck, to my friend, “This is a new world of building, of culture.”
He replied, “It’s the classical world reborn, dear Edward. This is the renatio.”
At the city gate, we were met by representatives of both the republic and of its leader Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose family had dominated that city, and region, for three generations. We were offered the tastiest of wines and morsels, with an invitation “should it please us” to attend upon the signor at his palace in three hours’ time. Meanwhile, we were escorted — with courtesy at least as exquisite as any that France or Burgundy has to offer — by young men with eyes of amber and skin like the oil of Tuscan olives; more beautiful and more finely attired than any we had ever met before.
Freshly bathed and changed into our finest robes, we were ready and most eager later that afternoon to be escorted from our own delightful chambers nearby, through a shady courtyard with fountains sparkling like Moorish Alhambra into the handsome and spacious chambers of the great Lorenzo. Signor Lorenzo (and what a splendid name that is — had I a son, I would introduce the name into England) sat on what could surely pass for a throne, though less elevated than such a chair would be and without the usual regal canopy above. And, almost as soon as we were announced into his grand hall of audience, unlike a king who would be hemmed in by protocol and hierarchy, he immediately stood with an easy Italian charm and came towards us. His “courtiers” — men of all ages but all superbly dressed and handsome, some dark but others as fair as the day — were milling around and inclining gently first towards him and then towards us. So, we walked to meet him. Though still young, he was not a handsome man; probably the least good-looking in the room. Yet his face was strong, characterful and fiercely intelligent. He possessed that effortless grace the Italians call sprezzatura: the gentlemanly art that conceals art. And when he smiled; ah, then you knew at once why this merchant banker and his father and grandfather had been raised up to rule in all but name this opulent city-state.
“Gentlemen, my lords,” he spoke in French with a charming Italian lilt, “What a pleasure and honour it is for us to receive our friends from England, and to offer our simple hospitality to lords who are so close in blood to the great Plantagenet himself.”
We bowed and Antony — or here I should say Antonio — replied in the most elegant Petrarchan Italian. “The honour is ours, signor. Such beauty, such hospitality, such magnificence; we can already attest to the truth of Your Lordship’s epithet as il magnifico.”
Lorenzo then gave me the most glorious smile (such teeth I have never seen in northern Europe) and I bowed deeply in return. He then asked if we would do him the honour of meeting his mother, the Lady Lucrezia.
We knew that on the death of his father Piero (known as “the Gouty” so presumably his figure was less lissom than his son’s), Lorenzo had come to power, but always guided by the experience and wisdom of his mother, so this invitation was not a surprise. He swept back in a great gesture with his right arm, the crowd parted and, sitting there on a chair equally fine as his own, was the still very beautiful Lady Lucrezia. We bowed and she inclined her head. Now it was my turn to show off.
“Benedetto sia ‘l giorno, e ‘l mese, e l’anno
E la stagione, e ‘l tempo, e l’ora, e’l pun
E’l bel paese e’ l loco, ov’io fu giunto
Da duo begli occhi, che legato m’hanno.”
As I recited this Petrarchan sonnet in tribute to the elegant lady, the whole room became hushed; you could have heard a gauntlet drop. As I finished, all the courtiers burst out into cheering, hallooing and waving their gloves or hats while the lady herself stood, smiled as winsomely as her son and inclined her head with a queenly nod.
“So, the fame of our great sonneteer has spread as far as England,” said Lorenzo admiringly. “Are you a poet yourself?”
“Sadly not, it is my brother here, Lord Rivers, who is the author amongst us. Though I do have the honour to be great-grandson to a bard who is famous in England, by name Geoffrey Chaucer.”
“Ah indeed,” said the Lady Lucrezia speaking for the first time, in a voice dark and rich as Turkish coffee, “The famous poet of the Canterbury Tales. I greatly respect his work.”
I bowed low. I was in learned company.
“In my family,” I said, “We have a tale that, in the middle of the last century at the wedding of the then Duke of Clarence here in Firenze to an Italian princess, my great-grandfather dined here with the poet Petrarch and the great chronicler Froissart.”
“If only,” said Lucrezia, “We could have a record of their conversation.”
I made a courtly bow.
“My mother, you know, is a poetess,” said Lorenzo, “And we have many poets and artists of genius here in the republic. May I introduce my honoured guests to a most promising painter known as Leonardo from the little town of Vinci?”
A young man came forward and bowed awkwardly. He was strongly built with a heavy, long beard behind which his big luminous eyes seemed to be hiding. He looked at us like an eagle. Or rather he glanced at me and then was transfixed by Anthony. The artist, who seemed rather shy, said something in dialect to Lorenzo who smiled and turning to us said, “Leonardo would like to have the opportunity to paint the portrait of the angelic Englishman with the green eyes.”
“Greatly as I am honoured by his request,” replied Anthony, “I fear it will not be possible at this time — we have business with His Holiness.”
At this mention of the pope, Lorenzo’s face flashed a much less amicable expression.
“We would much prefer to stay in Florence, but we are carrying letters from King Edward — about church appointments and the like. We are aware that His Holiness has not always been — shall we say — an easy neighbour to the republic.”
“His Holiness is a wonderful neighbour — if you live in England,” quipped Lucrezia.
The laughter throughout the room dispelled the awkwardness that Anthony’s faux pas had evoked.
With exquisite Italian tact, they had given us adjoining chambers, each beautifully decorated with tapestries — Anthony’s an allegory of St. Francis with the birds in delicious shades of blue, mine with the same saint and the fishes in hues of green.
Next morning, we were woken, with the bright sun streaming through the casement, Anthony lying on his bed and I curled up on the Turkish divan a few yards away from its side, by the sweet sounds of twangling instruments, pipes and tabors and a small harmonious bagpipe rising from the courtyard beneath our windows. It was like waking in Heaven. I opened my eyes to see Antonio’s fine features looking down at me, not bleary-eyed — those emerald eyes were never bleary — but dreamily.
“Are we in Dante’s paradiso, do you think?” he asked.
I wish we could have stayed there.
After breakfast, we were given a tour of the buildings and archives of this splendid city and wherever we went, as the people saw we were under the aegis of the Medici, we were greeted with a courteous reverence.
“So, it is to be a republican monarch,” Anthony said to me, smilingly.
“I think you have found your philosopher king,” I replied.
We spent the afternoon in siesta — a wonderful custom we should adopt in northern Europe — and at the setting of the sun, we were invited to a reception (a kind of republican holding of court) in the elegant sala musica of the palace. Here were no tapestries but the walls were alive with frescoes — fiercely bright pigments applied to damp plaster on the walls, forming wonderful pictures of fables from the lays of ancient Greece and Rome. As we entered, a troupe of minstrels were playing, including a young man with glorious long honey-blond curls and a short fair beard plucking out a melody on a long beautifully shaped stringed instrument placed across his lap, which I had never seen before. At the other of the hall was our host, il Principe Lorenzo, standing with advisers and senators of the republic around him, speaking to a tall and broad-shouldered man we could see from behind. That man was wearing a full-length black silken caftan; again, something we had never before seen.
As we approached, Lorenzo acknowledged us, as did his entourage. “It is a great pleasure to receive our English visitors. This gentleman, my lords, is an envoy to the republic from our friend King John of Aragon. I present the Honourable Rabbi Abraham di Mayorca.”
I looked at Anthony, in shock that a Jew — and a Jewish magus masquerading as a royal ambassador at that — should be presented to us as our equal. But our breeding equalled us to the distasteful task and, keeping our faces devoid of expression, we made him a small bow to which he responded with one even smaller. I looked at the man, and saw someone between ten and twenty years my senior, dark-bearded and heavy-set. He was not a handsome man, with a large nose and mottled skin. His eyes were watchful and confident; almost arrogant. And he had about him an aura — not an odour as such (we all have that, though amongst the nobility we bathe at least once a week and use fragrant unguents to mask it) — but something powerful he projected to which I took an immediate dislike. It was like being kicked in the stomach by an angry horse, and not one I felt could be easily tamed. Yet he was clearly a man of some influence in his own land.
“It is a joy to meet lords from a kingdom I have heard of only in song and fable,” said the rabbi, in a voice which was surprisingly mellifluous and suggested spiritual depths. His tone was amicable, veiled and possibly ironic, which did not increase my warmth towards him.
Anthony, who I sensed took against him less than I, replied, “And for us to meet an envoy of such a distinguished king.”
Actually, the King-Counts of Aragon were clearly in decline and it was the larger kingdom of Castille with which the Lancastrian kings had been allied.
Lorenzo signalled to the musicians to play and, as attendants presented us with wine and morsels, he drew us slightly to one side.
“The rabbi is here from the king on business with me as head of our family banking house, but tomorrow we are expecting ambassadors from our friend the Sultan Mehmet to whom I shall be delighted to present him. You see, we provide a sort of sanctuary here, a safe space within which the representatives of powers without formal relations may meet and talk freely.”
I was about to say it was surprising to see a Jew negotiating to take a loan — rather than to provide one at usurious interest — but then remembered that, apart from it being undiplomatic, my own Hull-born ancestors had risen into the nobility by lending their mercantile profits to King Edward III for his wars, so instead I said, “My companion and I are sworn members of a covert brotherhood with similar aims, which meets generally in Bruges in Burgundy.”
“We are able to be more open about such things — and many others — here in the republic,” he said, with a cryptic smile, “Which is why we keep the Holy Father at arm’s length.”
Anthony then intervened. “I see you have a very beautiful harp here, Signor Lorenzo. Lord Edward is a fine harpist. A true amateur of the art. Isn’t it a lovely instrument, Edward?”
It was indeed; made of fragrant cedar wood and in the shape of a classical lyre. And I was put on my mettle by Anthony’s challenge in such powerful company.
“Now you must honour us with a melody, my Lord Edward!”
“If you please,” said the rabbi, poking his large nose in.
I had no choice, so I bowed, sat and played a song I had learnt in Bruges composed by the great Master Josquin des Prez. I felt transported as I played. It went well.
There was more than polite applause from the assembled company.
“You represent your king even better in music than in words,” said Lorenzo. I think it was a compliment.
The rabbi regarded me with shining eyes and said, “Bravo, sir, that was beautiful.”
I still did not like him.
“What are these state matters you have
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