Vatican City, Rome – February 1740
The first symptom of the poisoning began as a fever.
Sitting at one of two long white-silk-draped tables in the Sistine Chapel, along with sixty-seven of his fellow cardinal-electors, Pietro Ottoboni cast his vote for Pope on the eighth day of the conclave to replace the late Pope Clement XII.
Enfeebled by fever, the 73-year-old Ottoboni made his way toward the front of the chapel to a small altar below Michelangelo’s majestic fresco The Last Judgment, dropped his ballot onto a brass saucer, then tipped the saucer, letting the ballot fall into the large brass urn beneath it.
A few moments later, having returned to his seat, the cardinal collapsed onto the table, the high temperature having sapped his energy. Shocked, the other cardinals stood to better see what was happening to their colleague. The master of papal liturgical celebrations suspended the conclave while they moved Ottoboni to his apartment under the care of a Vatican physician.
Long considered favorite among the papabili to succeed Pope Clement, Pietro Ottoboni was born in the Most Serene Republic of Venice to a rich and noble family, whose most distinguished member was his grand-uncle, Pope Alexander VIII. Ottoboni had held every important post in the Vatican during an illustrious career, and as cardinal-bishop to several churches in Italy, his annual salary exceeded fifty thousand gold scudi—the present-day equivalent of six million dollars per year.
Cardinal Ottoboni had been a prolific paramour with a countless number of lovers, many of whom were married to the great patricians of Venice. In fact, the famous masks unique to Venetians were introduced not to ward off the plague, as many later believed, but to officially disguise the wearer’s identity—thus permitting anyone, noble or peasant, to do or say whatever one pleased. With this ingenious permissiveness, affari di cuore—affairs of the heart—were as common as the fleet of gondolas plying the canals of the celebrated city, without legal recourse. Having taken full advantage of this liberal device, Cardinal Ottoboni was known to have produced up to seventy children in his lifetime among his various mistresses.
Though he lived well in Rome’s grand Palazzo della Cancelleria, Ottoboni’s greatest passions were music and art, and he was a generous patron to some of the most renowned masters in both fields: Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Giuseppe Crespi, Tintoretto, Veronese—and most of all, to his close friend and protégé, the prodigious maestro di violino of Venice, Antonio Vivaldi.
As he lay on his deathbed, Ottoboni summoned Vivaldi to his side. In a low, rasping voice, the cardinal confided to his friend a tale of great importance, a scandalous operation run by the notoriously corrupt Cardinal Niccolò Coscia in league with the feared secret Mafia organization known as the Camorra.
In fact, he added with struggling breath, he was convinced it was Coscia, acting on orders from the Camorra, who had poisoned him to keep him from acting on what he knew. With information gleaned from one of his many spies, Ottoboni had discovered the ongoing scandal days earlier and approached Cardinal Coscia with a warning that he and his Camorra would soon be out of business, at least as the Vatican was concerned. Were it not for his required attendance in the papal conclave, he would have put a stop to it sooner, especially if he was elected Pope, an elevation to supreme power that was expected by everyone.
The following day, however, Cardinal Ottoboni succumbed to the poison, killed for a secret now known only by Antonio Vivaldi.
Like most Italians, Vivaldi survived cautiously within the Camorra’s Venetian sphere of influence. The secret society’s tentacles reached into everyone’s life, and their strict enforcement of the seal of omertà—the sacred code of silence—ensured clan activities remained discreet and wholly within la familia. The family.
Since the late 17th century, the Camorra had carved out its territories, starting in Naples and moving northward, into the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy encompassing its most lucrative prizes, Milan and Venice. Competing with La Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the 'Ndrangheta of Calabria, the Camorra’s criminal enterprises included prostitution, gambling, smuggling, kidnapping, and art theft—but also the unusual niche of producing and selling fine art forgeries of the highest order.
During the earlier reign of Pope Benedict XIII, who cared little for managing his vast realm of Papal States, Cardinal Niccolò Coscia oversaw all Vatican government operations, taking advantage of his authority to carry out substantial financial abuses, virtually draining the Papal treasury. But his ongoing misdeeds eventually caught up with him. In 1731 he was charged with corruption, tried and convicted to ten years' imprisonment, and excommunicated from the Church.
However, still not without influence, he managed to get his heavy sentence commuted to a mere fine. He was also mysteriously reinstated as a cardinal, allowing him to take part in the papal conclave of 1740—the one during which Cardinal Ottoboni had died.
* * *
With Ottoboni out of the way, Cardinal Niccolò Coscia could now carry out his master plan without hindrance. In his not-so-secret role as capo of the Roman Camorra, Coscia led development of the Veneto branch of the Mafia clan, based in Venice and headquartered in his own newly acquired Palazzo Feudatario on the Grand Canal. Purchased with funds he had discreetly absconded from the Vatican treasury, Feudatario would be a most fitting place to carry out his planned forgery operation of the Vatican’s most profound works of art.
Niccolò Coscia was a meticulous diarist and, owing to all the business he conducted outside the Church, he had created the first book to record the activities of his new organization, naming it Il Giornale Coscia della Camorra Veneta—The Coscia Journal of the Veneto Camorra. In it he would secretly record careful notations of all paintings by artist and title, including each work’s provenance and to whom the forgeries or originals were sold, depending on which he chose to return to the Vatican—for many were prominently displayed in public, while most were simply returned to the Vatican’s vast art storage vaults, unseen by anyone.
The Coscia Journal would be passed down to each capintesta, head of the Veneto Camorra, for generations.
Unfortunately for Coscia, Cardinal Ottoboni’s spies had discovered not only the Camorra’s abhorrent plan for art forgeries, but the very existence of the Coscia Journal for recording such transactions. At that point Ottoboni’s death was preordained, for no one could ever know such proof existed.
* * *
Antonio Vivaldi, who at age 25 was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, was now at a crossroads. He feared possessing knowledge of the treacherous secret passed on to him by his esteemed patron in his dying moments. Putting himself at odds with the Camorra was not just an unappealing prospect, it could end up costing him his life, depending on what he did with what he knew.
But Cardinal Ottoboni had one last request of his protégé.
Intent on stopping the sinful and unlawful activities of Cardinal Coscia, Ottoboni had pleaded with Vivaldi to see that Coscia was brought to justice, to pay for his felonious actions. Distressed by letting his friend and mentor die without the satisfaction of such a promise, Vivaldi agreed to do what he could. He would ensure that the authorities were informed, the Coscia Journal would be found, and the matter would be settled.
After the cardinal’s stately funeral, Vivaldi waited for the right moment to fulfill his promise. But as he waited, he became more apprehensive. He was just a lowly priest, after all, and not a very good one at that. The violin was his life, and teaching it was his life’s work. Besides, who would believe him? Where was the proof? And what would the Camorra do to him if he were to expose its business? He had seen the results of their retribution—those who crossed the Mafia were dealt with harshly. Beheadings were not uncommon, and those who weren’t beheaded were drawn and quartered—alive. No, he must find a way to honor his pledge without exposing himself to such horrible consequences.
An idea came to him. He would hide the messages in plain sight, in his musical compositions.
Picking up a sheet of staff lined manuscript paper, Vivaldi began to assemble the first of many, his Scherzo Tiaseno in Sol.
* * *
Venice, Italy—Present Day
An enormous flight of pigeons, hundreds of them, flocked overhead, diving for potato chips and bits of bread sticks tourists had enthusiastically tossed out for them, as Father Michael Dominic and Hana Sinclair made their way across the Piazza San Marco.
Despite the ban on pigeon-feeding in St. Mark’s Square, little children were oblivious to the law and more amused by the flapping gray-and-white spectacle than frightened by the few gendarmerie patrolling the square, whose policing efforts to stop the feeding were futile. Venetian health experts estimate over 130,000 pigeons had roosted in the historic center—well over optimal concentrations for such a small public space—and efforts to rid the city of the determined birds had failed miserably. The damage to the marble buildings and statuary was considerable, not to mention possible pathogenic health hazards.
Locals knew it was often prudent to cover one’s head with a newspaper or magazine when crossing the vast piazza, lest strollers subject themselves to the inevitable bombardment of bird droppings from above.
An old hand at the practice, Father Dominic had kept pages of the newspaper he had read at breakfast for that very purpose, knowing he and Hana had to cross the piazza in order to get to Venice’s Biblioteca Marciana, the Library of Saint Mark.
The director of the library had requested the Vatican’s help with a planned exhibition of manuscripts held in its stacks, and as Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Michael Dominic had accepted the invitation, while also taking a week’s vacation time in the fabled city. At only 31 years old, his access to the Vatican’s vast number of historical manuscripts still humbled him. The Biblioteca Marciana was yet one more repository of ancient wonders that fascinated him.
Lovingly named La Serenissima by Italians devoted to its “most serene” natural and historical wonders, Venice was also Michael Dominic’s favorite city in the world. He loved its vibrancy, its rich history as a major world trading port up to and through the Renaissance period, and of course the inherent romantic nature of the people and their ancient ways.
“I’m so glad you could join me, Hana,” Dominic said as they walked through the piazza. “Have you ever experienced Carnivale before?”
Holding the newspaper awkwardly over her stylish wide brim straw hat, Hana replied with a contented sigh. “I was here once, years ago, but Carnivale had just ended. I’ve been meaning to be here for the real festivities for some time now, and since my editors wanted a piece on the celebration for Le Monde’s Weekend Section, I volunteered for the assignment.”
She looked up at the priest and smiled. “Thanks for letting me tag along with you, Michael. I don’t mind that you have a little business to attend to. I need some time off myself and can always float around in a gondola and take notes while you’re occupied.”
Dominic laughed as he removed the newspaper from over his head, having passed the worst pigeon zone. He took Hana’s paper and tossed them both in a trash receptacle alongside the library façade. “I can just see you now, laid out on a shiny black gondola, that fetching hat drawing everyone’s eye as you cruise the canals. A fashion photographer’s dream. But let’s have some fun together while we’re here as well.”
“Agreed. I can get some writing done after dinner each night,” she said with a sly grin. “So, what’s in this library that you’ve been asked to weigh in on?”
“I’m meeting with Paulo Manetti, the curator of the Marciana’s Cardinal Bessarion Library, a special wing containing the original founder’s collection of books and precious manuscripts from 1468. The Vatican has an original translation of Homer’s Iliad, a companion version to his Odyssey, but the Marciana has the oldest actual texts of the Iliad. Manetti has asked me to consider lending ours to the Marciana for a temporary exhibition on Homer. They also have the only autograph copy of commentary on the Odyssey from the 12th century, so it should be a fine showcase.”
Fascinated as she was by Dominic’s explanation, Hana’s eyes glazed as the warm sun took hold of her, her white cotton midi skirt fluttering in the light breeze. They had passed the tall brick Campanile and were now walking through the piazzetta between the Marciana Library and the Doge’s Palace, heading toward the entrance to the Grand Canal. It wasn’t quite noon yet, the appointed time for Dominic’s meeting, so they settled onto a stone bench near the traghetto, the gondola landing overlooking the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore on the island across the lagoon. Vaporetti, gondolas, and sleek mahogany water taxis plied the calm waters as they sat there, each in their own dreamy state of mind, an effect Venice has on every visitor.
As the tower bells of the Campanile struck twelve, Dominic leaned back for a deep stretch to rouse himself, then stood and reached out for Hana’s hand to help her up. With one last glance over the lagoon, they headed toward the library.