Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #The Etruscan Net
Mercurio was looking at him with a curious glint in his almond-shaped eyes. It reminded Broke of something, a fleeting likeness, which he could not pin down.
‘You don’t like me, do you?’ he said. ‘Very few people do. If you want to look at anything, you’d better hurry. You may not get another chance.’
Broke was examining a black-figure amphora. He was fairly certain that he had seen one like it, either in the Antikensammlungen at Berlin, or in the Metropolitan Museum at New York. It had a scene, painted continuously round the base, of lions pulling down a deer. It was full of the brutal detail which the Etruscans loved. The claw of one of the lions was sunk into the eye of the deer. Another lion had his fangs deep in one haunch which it seemed to be detaching from the living animal.
Broke had his hand out to pick it up when a deep voice behind him said, ‘I am sent to call you to dinner.’
It was the burly janitor who had opened the front door to them. He had a beefy, but placid face, and moved like an athlete.
‘All right, Arturo. We’ll come when we’re ready.’
‘Your father particularly told me to find you. The other guests are already seated.’
For a moment it seemed as though the boy would refuse. Then he said, ‘I suppose we’d better go. The old man gets terribly touchy about his meals.’
He stumped out. Arturo held the door open for them to leave, turned out the lights, and pulled the door shut. It closed with a click against its spring lock.
Broke had half expected that they would be required to eat their dinner reclining on couches, but he found a conventional table laid in the garden-room at the back of the house. The seats were solid, and well cushioned. The guests, most of whom had been standing about for a couple of hours, seemed glad to be sitting down. One Etruscan custom, at least, was faithfully observed. There was no hurry about bringing on the food. Dishes of nuts and olives were circulated, and the wine goblets were kept topped up.
There were twenty-four of them at table. Broke found himself near to his host, separated from him only by Doctor Solferini’s wife, with the doctor next to him. Opposite sat a swarthy young man whose face seemed vaguely familiar. He was not left long in doubt. The young man said, ‘Antonio Lucco, from Rome.’
‘Robert Broke, from England.’
A whisper from Signora Solferini said, ‘The celebrated association football player.’
Broke remembered him then. He also remembered an account of a very ugly incident in the European Cup semi-finals the year before, in which an English player had broken his ankle.
Lucco said, ‘I had thought you might be English. You speak Italian well, but by no means perfectly.’
‘I will hope to improve during the year I am here,’ said Broke. And to Doctor Solferini, ‘I imagine you have seen the remarkable treasures which our host keeps in his’ – it seemed indelicate to say ‘tomb’ – ‘in his strong-room?’
‘I have indeed. But I have had no real chance–’
‘The English,’ announced Lucco, ‘invented the game of football. But they have forgotten how to play it.’
Since this remark appeared to be directed to him, Broke turned away, reluctantly, from the doctor, and said, ‘Oh?’
‘They make the mistake of treating it as a science. We recognize it as an art.’
‘We seemed to do all right in the World Cup.’
‘On English pitches. With selected referees.’
The insult was too childish to upset Broke. He laughed. ‘I don’t think we could afford to bribe
the referees. We’re a very poor country, you know. You were saying, doctor–’
‘I was saying,’ said Doctor Solferini, ‘that although I have been permitted to walk through the strong-room on more than one occasion, I have never yet had an opportunity of examining the contents in detail. If they are as fine as I suspect they are, one would wish that they could be on public exhibition in one of our museums, for part of the year, at least.’
‘Where do they come from?’
‘All of them, I imagine, from the complex of tombs near Volterra which are being gradually explored. The tombs are, of course, on the Professor’s own property, and are being opened under his control.’
‘Are the public allowed to watch the process?’
‘They are not available to the public, but you could certainly get permission.’
‘Direct and virile play,’ said Lucco to his neighbour, a wide-eyed girl, ‘is confined now to Continental and South American teams. We play football. The English play at it.’
‘That’s right,’ said the girl. She knew nothing about football, but she thought Lucco was terrific.
‘Now, Signor Broke,’ said the Professor from his throne at the top of the table, ‘you shall tell us what you think of the Etruscan way of life.’
It was on the tip of Broke’s tongue to make a complimentary and entirely non-committal reply; but he was hungry, was conscious that he would have been much wiser not to have come, and had been provoked by Lucco. He said, ‘I find it extremely interesting, Professor. It corresponds so exactly, in my opinion, to the stage we have reached in our own modern western civilization.’
The Professor cracked a nut with his teeth, and said, ‘And what do you mean by that?’
‘The Etruscans were, at the start, an aristocracy founded on prowess in war, but it degenerated into an aristocracy of wealth. As soon as an aristocracy loses its martial character, it loses its true spirit and its will to lead. It is like a football team which buys its stars from abroad, instead of breeding them for itself.’
‘Because we have a Brazilian centre-half–’ said Lucco, angrily.
‘Quiet, Antonio,’ said the Professor. ‘We are talking about something more important than football. Can you justify your generalization, Mr Broke?’
only a generalization, I agree. We know too little about the Etruscans to be certain of anything. But I would say, on the evidence available, that they were a nation who preferred to pay other people to do things for them, rather than doing them for themselves. A Greek gentleman could compose a set of verses, play a musical instrument, or run a mile in the games. We’ve lost the Etruscan language, so we’ll never know about those verses. But we do know that the Etruscan had his music played for him, by slaves, and his sports performed by professional gladiators. Wouldn’t you agree, Professor Bartolozzi?’
Professor Bartolozzi, a mild old man with a goat-like beard and a sad face, said, ‘I think that comparisons between Greeks and Etruscans have been over-stressed. The Etruscans are sometimes held to be mere copyists. Now, that is a view I will never accede to.’
‘I agree,’ said Broke. ‘Rather talented youngsters learning from a revered elder, and then producing minor masterpieces of their own.’
’ said Bronzini. ‘If you call Vulca of Veii a minor master you must have very odd ideas of what constitutes a major art, Mr Broke.’
‘There are exceptions, of course.’
‘I perceive that you are at heart a Roman. The Romans,’ the Professor was now addressing the company at large, ‘were the traditional enemies of the Etruscans. The enmity was based on envy. The Etruscans had made the Romans what they were. They had transformed Rome from a second-class village, on a swamp, into a city with temples, places of entertainment, paved roadways, municipal government–’
‘And drains,’ said Broke.
‘You laugh at their achievements?’
‘Far from it. The drains were their most important achievement. The Coliseum may be in ruins, but the
is still working.’
‘I find your attitude, Mr Broke, a typical Roman compound of ignorance and arrogance.’
‘Don’t let’s quarrel over it,’ said Broke. ‘The Etruscans were a fine people. They enjoyed life more than any of their contemporaries. More than most people do today, I should say. Wherever they’ve gone to, from those lovely tombs of theirs, I wish them nothing but well.’
Doctor Solferini said, ‘Hear, hear,’ in a loud voice, and conversation was resumed all round the table. Boys appeared carrying tureens of soup, and the dinner got under way at last. Professor Bronzini still looked ruffled, but he confined his comments to his immediate neighbours. Fish stuffed with almonds followed the soup. Duck stuffed with chestnuts and sage followed the fish. A rich but unanalyzable Florentine confection followed the duck. The lengthy intervals between the courses were occupied by talking, listening to the musicians, and drinking.
As the evening went on, Broke found it more and more difficult to keep awake. If he had been doing anything more than sip at his constantly refilled goblet of wine he might have managed to keep his end up better. He felt that he had exhausted every possible conversational gambit with the Doctor and his wife. He was so tired that he found himself thinking, and framing his sentences, in English and then translating them belatedly into Italian.
Opposite him, Commander Comber was enjoying himself with a vivacious Italian brunette. He seemed to be reciting to her Macaulay’s ‘Lay of Horatius’, translating it into Italian as he went along. When he reached the verse about the grapes in the vats of Luna being trampled under the feet of laughing girls whose sires had marched to Rome, his rendering of it reduced his neighbour to such extremes of mirth that she leant her head on the Commander’s chest and was quietly and elegantly sick down the front of his shirt. At this point Broke felt a thud on his own shoulder and found that Signora Solferini had fallen asleep. He shifted her head round until it was comfortable, and closed his own eyes.
At an immeasurable time after this there was a general stir amongst the guests, and Broke realized that dinner was over. He propped the Doctor’s wife in a vertical position, and rose stiffly from his seat. A glance at his wrist told him that it was a quarter to four.
He strolled out on to the terrace to smoke a cigarette. It was the darkest moment of the night. In less than an hour, as the earth completed one more of its uncounted rotations, the stars would be going out, the mountain peaks in the east would be hardening as the sky paled behind them, and another day would be born.
‘“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad”,’ said Comander Comber, from behind him, ‘“walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.” Wonderful chap, Shakespeare.
didn’t need stage lighting. He gave it all to you in the script. Do you think we could find our host, and be slipping quietly away?’
‘What have you done with that brunette?’
‘I surrendered her, without too much of a struggle, to one of her compatriots. He has taken her down into the olive grove, to listen to the cicadas.’
‘Then let’s go.’
As they turned back into the house Comber said, ‘I did warn you it wouldn’t be an ordinary cocktail party, didn’t I?’
‘You did,’ said Broke. ‘And next time, I’ll pay some attention to your warnings.’
They found Professor Bronzini with the hard core of the party in the reception room. He was demonstrating his prowess on the double pipes and had just finished a rendering of what sounded like the ‘Flowers of the Forest’.
‘Go?’ he said. ‘Of course you mustn’t go, my dear fellow. The night is still young. You have work to do tomorrow? No true Etruscan ever thinks about tomorrow. But I had forgotten. You are not an Etruscan. You are a Roman. The
! A code which starts with self-control, but always ends by imposing control on others. The axe and the rods, eh?’
Broke was too tired to argue.
He said, ‘It’s been an unforgettable experience, Professor. I envy you your lovely house, and all those beautiful things you have downstairs.’
‘You have seen them?’
‘Mercurio was kind enough to show me round.’
‘You found them interesting?’ said Bronzini. There was a curious look in his Silenus eyes.
‘You must come and inspect them more at leisure. They are worth looking at.’
‘I’m sure they are.’
Out in the hall there was trouble. A voice, which Broke recognized, was shouting. It was Antonio Lucco, the great footballer. His face looked as if it had been clawed. The front of his shirt was hanging out and there was a long red stain down the front of his jacket which Broke thought, at first, was blood, and then saw was only wine.
Lucco was screaming insults at the little knot of men who were shepherding him slowly along the passage, like bees balling a struggling intruder out of the hive.
The gentle Arturo appeared at the end of the passage and the crowd opened.
As Lucco started to shout, Arturo grasped the collar of his coat and shirt in one large hand and picked him up, holding him suspended. As the pressure on his windpipe silenced Lucco, Arturo turned, still holding him, and carried him to the door.
It was an extraordinary feat of strength, for Lucco was by no means a small man.
At the door Arturo paused for a moment to say, ‘Will one of you find this gentleman’s hat and coat?’
Broke said to Comber, ‘What was up? Was he just tight, or what?’
‘He was tight all right,’ said Comber. ‘But that’s no crime round here. I gather he made a pass at one of the boys.’
They found their car at the end of the line of parked vehicles. As they were backing it out, Arturo loomed through the dark.
‘I must apologize for the disturbance,’ he said. He was entirely unruffled. Broke noticed that he was not even breathing hard. ‘The gentleman will be all right. He is in the back of his own car, asleep.’
‘As long as he doesn’t try to drive home,’ said Comber.
‘I have taken the precaution of removing the keys.’
‘He sounds just like Jeeves, doesn’t he?’ said Comber. They turned into the main road, and drove slowly down towards Florence, asleep and cradled in the mist at their feet.
Wednesday: A Busy Day
Despite the fact that he had had less than three hours of sleep, Broke was at the Gallery at the usual time next morning.
He went to the section of the bookshop which dealt with Etruria, took down half a dozen books, told Francesca to attend to any customers who came in, and retired to the office. This was so full of filing cabinets and clutter that there was barely room for a small table and chair, but it was private.
He started his search. In the big book edited by Poulsen, recording the work done by the Swedish Institute in Rome at the San Giovenale excavations; dipped into a work by P T Riis of Denmark, and then switched to
Die menscliche Gestalt in der Rundplastik bis zum Ausgang der orientalisierenden Kunst
by the German Haufmann.
It was a vagrant memory, a fleeting likeness that he was trying to track down; a bronze statue, not more than twelve or fifteen inches high, and forming, he thought, the upright of an incense burner or a candelabrum.
His search had traversed five centuries of Etruscan civilization before he found what he was looking for, and found it where he might well have looked in the first place, in the illustrated catalogue of the greatest of all collections, at the Museo Nazionale of the Villa Giulia, at Rome.
The likeness to the statue he had seen the night before was unmistakable. But it was a likeness in style and conception. The one was not a carbon copy of the other. On the other hand any disinterested expert, looking at the statuette in the Bronzini treasure house, would have pledged his reputation that it was genuine Etruscan work.
But since Mercurio had said, with that embarrassed giggle of his, ‘That’s me,’ the implication clearly was that he had posed for it. Which made the statuette a modern reproduction; or Mercurio a liar. Curious either way.
As he was turning the pages another picture jumped out at him. It was the head of the young man from Veii, known from its petulant expression as Malvolta, and bearing such a curious resemblance to Donatello’s youthful St George. There was a good deal of Mercurio in the pouting mouth and the eyes that were young and old at the same time.
A pair of pebble brown eyes in a yellow and wrinkled peasant face was peering at him round the door.
‘Come in, Milo.’
‘I have brought the frames.’
‘I regret that I could not finish them earlier. I have had trouble with my stomach.’ He patted the part of his body which a lot of people wrongly suppose to be the organ in question. ‘Much trouble.’
‘Tina told me.’
‘Tina is a good girl. It commences after meals, with a burning pain, which travels slowly, first across, and then downwards. There.’ He placed his hand on the bottom of his shabby waistcoat. ‘There it rests. Sometimes it passes away. Sometimes not.’
Broke, who was fairly certain he knew what was wrong with old Milo Zecchi, had nothing to say. He grunted, in what he hoped was a sympathetic manner, and opened the parcel which had been laid on the table.
Inside were three small wooden frames, carved and gilded. He held the first one up to the light, and said, ‘This is very good, Milo. Your hand has not lost its cunning.’
The old man opened his almost toothless mouth in a smile. ‘You are right there,’ he said. ‘Milo Zecchi is still the finest carver in Florence. Wood, bronze, marble, although there is small demand for marble now–’
Francesca looked into the room and said, ‘There is a gentleman who wishes to see you.’
‘You told him I was busy?’
‘I told him. He says he will not keep you for many minutes.’
Broke came out of the office and found Professor Bronzini occupying the centre of the shop. He was wearing a cloak of dark blue cloth, embroidered with gold thread, and a small blue felt cap. A boy was in attendance on him.
Francesca was fluttering anxiously in the background. Two tourists who had just come into the shop were observing the Professor and making notes of their next letter home.
Broke did not know whether to be annoyed or amused at this visitation. The Professor made a short, but definite, inclination towards him. Broke said, ‘Good morning.’
‘I have come,’ said the Professor, ‘to make a profound apology.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Broke, ‘it is I who should be thanking you for a most interesting party.’
‘It was an agreeable gathering. But in the course of it, I discovered that I had – unwittingly – insulted you. I assumed that your knowledge of the Etruscans was superficial only. It was not until this morning that I realized that I had been entertaining a celebrity unaware. That you were
Robert Broke, author of the standard work on Etruscan terracotta, proprietor of the Tarquin Gallery and adviser on Etruscology to the Department of Antiquities in the British Museum.’
The tourists had not understood a word of this speech, but had rather assumed, from the manner in which it was delivered, that the small, round man in a cloak was challenging the thin, serious Englishman to a duel.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Broke, ‘that you greatly exaggerate my standing.’
‘On the contrary, through ignorance, I have probably understated it. Did you not act as technical adviser to the excavations at Caere two years ago?’
‘I was at Caere,’ agreed Broke. ‘I’m not sure that anyone asked for my advice, or would have taken it if I had proffered it.’
‘You are too modest. But I did not interrupt you solely in order to flatter you. My object was to make some slight reparation. Should you care, at any time, to visit the few, the not very exciting excavations which are currently taking place on my property near Volterra, I should be more than pleased – I should be flattered.’
‘Kind of you,’ said Broke. Feeling that this was perhaps a bit brusque, he added, ‘Very kind of you.’
At this moment Milo Zecchi, who had sidled out of the office, and crept down the far side of the book counter, reached the door. The movement caught the Professor’s eye. He swung round, and said, ‘Milo! What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were interested in art books.’
Milo grinned. His embarrassment was plain; but to Broke inexplicable. He said, ‘Milo makes frames for my pictures. He is a fine craftsman. Do you know him?’
‘Yes,’ said the Professor. He seemed to lose interest in Milo, who had escaped from the shop and was shuffling off down the pavement as fast as his arthritic legs would carry him. The Professor took out a card and scribbled something on the back.
‘If you should have any trouble at Volterra, show that to my factor,’ he said. ‘We have to be careful. We have had trouble in the past. Tomb-robbing is by no means an extinct pursuit in Etruria.’
He gathered his cloak round him, gestured to the boy, and swept out into the street.
As Broke walked home to lunch, he was thinking about the events of the morning. It seemed improbable that a busy man like Bronzini should have come all the way down from Fiesole, in person, to apologize. The invitation to the diggings could have been dealt with by letter. Could he really have imagined that Broke had taken offence at the dinner table discussions the night before? That, too, seemed unlikely. The Professor, with his enthusiasm and his didactic manner, must have upset plenty of his guests before now, and not bothered to make a parade of apologizing to them.
He said to Tina, when she was bringing in the pasta which, in one shape or another, invariably formed his first course at lunch, ‘Does you father know Professor Bronzini?’
‘A thousand pardons,’ said Tina. ‘I will fetch a cloth.’ She had slopped some of the meaty gravy from the pasta on to the table. It was the first time Broke had known her to do anything so clumsy. When the mess had been wiped up, and the napkin spread over the soiled table-cloth, she said, ‘You were asking–?’
‘I was wondering whether your father knew Professor Bronzini.’
‘The man who lives in the big house at Fiesole, and has a property out at Volterra?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘I think my father has done work for him in the past. Yes. I am sure of it. He has done restoration work.’
‘What sort of restoration?’
‘I know nothing about these things. It would be pottery, I think.’
This seemed probable enough. Terracotta figures were often discovered in pieces and needed careful restoration.
‘Why do you ask?’ said Tina. ‘Has something been said about it?’
‘They happened to meet in my shop. I gathered they knew one another.’
‘Oh, I see. Will you take some wine?’
When she had poured it, she recorked the bottle and put it back on the sideboard. She did this so slowly that Broke knew she was summoning up the courage to say something. He continued placidly with his meal. When it came, it was a surprise. She said, ‘Would you be able to speak to my father?’
‘To Milo? I spoke to him today at the shop.’
‘Not in public. In private, at our house.’
Broke finished his mouthful whilst he thought about this. Then he said, ‘If he wishes it, yes. Can you tell me what it is about?’
‘Lately, he has been very unhappy. Partly, it is his stomach. But mostly it is something different.’
‘Not money. I think it is something else.’
‘When would you like me to come?’
‘It must be tonight. It is Dindo’s night out.’
‘Dindoni. He helps my father in his workshop, and he spies on him. He is not a nice person. I think he would like to take over the business when my father dies.’
‘Very well. I’ll come round after supper. About ten o’clock.’
Tina smiled at him. ‘You are a good man’ she said.
‘Save your halo,’ said Broke, ‘until I’ve seen whether I can do anything for him.’
After half past two he telephoned the shop. Francesca was there. He said, ‘I shall be going out this afternoon. Can you look after things? Good. Then I will see you tomorrow.’
The idea had come to him as he finished his lunch. It was a perfect afternoon. The wind had swung to the north-east, bringing a dappling of cloud off the mountains and taking the edge off the heat. It was the sort of afternoon when one would like to be out in a boat. The thought of spending it in a shop was intolerable.
From the cupboard in his bedroom he extracted the satchel which held the field kit of an archaeologist, the hammer and callipers, the watchmaker’s optic and the big flash-light. He had not touched them for more than a year. The battery in the torch needed renewing. What else? A small scale map of Tuscany, and a large scale map of Volterra. A pair of leather gloves. He went down to the car. The house, of which he rented the top floor, was one of four in a cul-de-sac off the Viale Michelangiolo. The garage was detached from the house and stood at the far end, up against the wire netting which bounded the tennis courts of the Campo Sportive.
The car should have gone when Joan went. Broke realized that. It had been such an integral part of their marriage. She had so often sat beside him in it, during those long, slow, journeys, through France and down into Spain, or Italy, and on occasions further afield, into Greece and Turkey. The worn bucket seat had become almost the husk of her body, the cocoon when the chrysalis is out. It was one of the last of those beautifully made Sunbeam Talbot drop-head coupés, looked after with anxious care, fitted with every extra from the reversing light at the back to the special fog-lamp slung low on the front bumper.
Broke fitted himself into the driver’s seat, backed out of the garage, and turned up the Viale. That way he could avoid going through the town altogether. There was a secondary road to Empoli, quiet and pleasant to drive on, now that the autostrada had channelled off the fast drivers. At Empoli he would head south-west, for Cecina and the coast.
It was four o’clock, and the sun was toppling over towards the west, when he came to the turning which leads towards the Bronzini farms. A bristle of notices warned against unauthorized entry, hunting, and the picking of flowers. They mentioned also the presence of fierce dogs. Broke drove carefully up the flinty path, and parked the car in front of a group of outbuildings. There seemed to be no one about. The stillness of mid-afternoon blanketed everything. Even the chickens were asleep.
Broke locked the steering wheel, got out, and started up the footpath. The grass was knee high and full of flowers. There were grape hyacinths and sea-blue vervain, and a sort of wild reseda, which a gardener would call mignonette, anemones of all colours, and bushes of heath and broom. Above him, larks were singing. It was not unlike one of those forgotten corners on the top of Salisbury Plain, which the military have taken over and then abandoned.
How wise had the Etruscans been, to bury their dead in free, happy places. Not to put them in solemn churchyards, under black yew trees, or in hygienic metropolitan cemetries, marble-slabbed, like butcher’s shops; but tucked away in little rock caves, in the open hill-side, with all the small requirements for their journey, all the luggage for an after-life, stacked neatly beside them.
But had they really believed it? Could a people who were practical enough to invent dentistry, drainage and town planning, sophisticated enough to enjoy concerts and spectator sports, meticulous enough to divide the liver of a beast into sixteen sections and attribute a different significance to each; could they
have believed in a future life in which pots and pans, and ropes would be useful? Or were they whistling in the dark?
Broke was a rational agnostic. He had no wish for a second innings in a fourth dimension. He believed that ‘this be truth, though all the rest be lies. The rose that once is blown forever dies.’ What happened to that tiny, personal, inner consciousness that men called self was a mystery. He was inclined to hope that it, too, went out like a snuffed candle.
When the first shot came he stood staring. When a second followed, instincts dormant for twenty-five years reasserted themselves and he went down flat on his face. At the third, he raised his head cautiously. It seemed to be aimed well above him, where a white bird was fluttering. As he watched, the bird tumbled awkwardly to the ground.