Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 13, 2017

Ye Bigge Sleepe, Part 3: Beauty and Intellect in Bologna

Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. There’s the issue of Medieval parchment stolen from a Croatian monastery and that puzzling line in the text ….

 Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.

I stepped out of Bologna Centrale train station on a chilly, overcast day, glad to be back in the old city. I dragged my bag over to a cab and gave the driver the address: Via Zamboni 32. As he drove down Via Rizzoli I played tourist and snapped views of the Piazza del Nettuno and the Due Torri.

134 Bologna Brad Nixon (640x475)

135 Bologna Brad Nixon (508x640)

I’d had only one thought for days: What would it be like, seeing Luciana Notastere again? During our student days in Gōttingen, she had been an intimidating young woman: a fierce intelligence, exceptionally learned, fluent in 8 or 9 modern and ancient languages.

And, she was incandescently beautiful. Our classmate, the acerbic Brit, Chip Wroxton, quipped that if there were two of her they’d both belong in Paris, one on either side of the Seine: a face for the Louvre and a mind for the Sorbonne. One could tell when Luciana was walking across the campus by the string of men reciting Dante, desperately vying for attention. Heedless to all entreaties, she’d earned the nickname Luciana ‘non stasera’: “not tonight.”

I wasn’t immune to the intellectual and physical charms of la bella Luciana, but had been spared infatuation by virtue of being already under the spell of another brilliant and beautiful woman back in the U.S. Not that I hadn’t given Dante a try. Getting Luciana to turn those eyes on you ─ even with scorn ─ was worth it.

Now an accomplished scholar, she directed the medieval studies program at the University of Bologna. Her opinion about the manuscript would be extremely valuable.

The building housing the Dipartimento di Filologia Classica e Italianistica was a classic 18th-Century Bolognese structure: 4 floors, stuccoed facade, arched portico at street level.

Via Zamboni 32 Bologna 1 (640x371)

I rolled my bag through a dark central hall, the walls pasted-over with a ragged collage of class schedules, lectures, performances, students looking for roommates, then climbed to the second floor. I introduced myself to a young woman at the reception desk.

She regarded me in that way Italians have. I was well-dressed enough, but she could tell in an instant I was a foreigner, probably American. She had only to glance at my shoes and my hair. No one has shoes or haircuts like the Italians. I figured she was thinking, Non una bella figura.

She picked up the phone, said, “Lui è arrivato,” and a moment later Luciana Notastere was standing in the doorway of her office, arms folded, studying me.

I’d tried to prepare for the fact that I was going to see a woman forty years older than I remembered. My imagination had failed. Although no longer quite so slender, she was still stunningly attractive. The once-dark hair was touched with gray, shorter, not long and straight, but … those eyes.

Buon giorno, Professoressa,” I managed.

She said nothing, nodded, then with a gesture of her head to indicate I should follow, turned and walked into her office. A woman accustomed to having men follow her.

She closed the door and turned to face me.

“It’s good to see you again, Blackie,” she said, stepped toward me and gave me the traditional two kisses, one on each cheek. That put me two Luciana kisses ahead of most of the world’s men. Except for Chip Wroxton.

She sat in one of two visitor chairs and crossed her legs. They were still worth looking at.

I sat in the other chair and she smiled at me.

“No Dante, after all these years? I’m to be disappointed?”

An unexpected command performance before the supreme arbiter. I stood up again, breathed in, concentrated, looked into those dark eyes and gave it all I had.

Donna, sei tanto grande e tanto vali,

che qual vuol grazia ed a te non ricorre,

sua disianza vuol volar senz’ali.

Luciana listened, a look of something like detached amusement on her face, then smiled again.

“Still acceptable, but your vowels haven’t improved. You’ve always had style, but you lack sprezzatura.”

I should be old enough not to let that judgment bother me. I hadn’t done any better when I was 23, either.

We stepped through the usual “What have you been doing?” questions, but I could tell she wanted to get down to business. I’d emailed her photographs of some of the manuscript pages, but she was obviously eager to see the manuscript itself. I put on a pair of white gloves from my briefcase, handed her a pair and then passed the stiff parchment document in its wooden covers over to her.

She reached into a pocket of her suit jacket, pulled out a pair of glasses and looked at me.

“If you say one word about how I look with these on,” she stated, “I will have you thrown out.” But she was smiling.

I raised my hands in silent acquiescence, she put them on and bent to study the manuscript, turning pages while I watched the spectacle of one of the most gifted scholars I’d ever known, intent on what might or might not be a long-lost masterpiece. She made occasional comments:

“The parchment does seem of the period…. The capitals are different than the Cotton Nero MS: perhaps southern Midlands…. It all seems to be one hand: a single scribe, quite consistent.”

She looked up at me.

“This line you pointed out, 1686. It certainly is a departure from the original.”

I told her what she probably already knew. The other manuscript differences might be inadvertent errors by a careless scribe. Line 1686 was simply wrong in a couple of ways, and had to be intentional or copied from an unknown version of the poem:

He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe

That bides but an more nyght

“It has ye,” she said, “With a yogh, but it should be “the big sleep.” And it doesn’t scan unless you pronounce the final e’s, which wasn’t done at that time. It’s a stupid error, and almost certainly not a 14th-Century idiom.”

Ah, so my conclusion seemed to be correct.

She gave me a level, thoughtful look. If Luciana Notastere had gazed at me with that intensity 40 years earlier, I might have fainted dead away.

“You and I know one person both skilled and dishonest enough to forge a masterpiece, but who can never remember the difference between yogh and eth.”



Was Luciana doing an Abbot and Costello routine?

“What?” I asked.

“No: Vaht … Udo.”

Of course. Udo Vaht. Our classmate at Göttingen. Not only had he never mastered medieval orthography, he inevitably voiced final e’s in Middle English, when they should’ve been silent. That could account for the incorrect scansion. Vaht’s other notable characteristic was that he’d never encountered anyone else’s work he wasn’t willing to steal or copy. It was a brilliant insight from Luciana.

“You don’t really think ….”

“It would be just like Udo to improvise one clownish departure in an otherwise perfectly imitated MS and make several stupid errors while doing so. Arrogant, dishonest and careless: That summarizes him perfectly.”

“And you think he’d forge something like this? Why?”

“Why else? Money. He can’t work in academia: His reputation for plagiarism precedes him. He’s been implicated in other forgeries. This line is almost as damning as if he’d left a fingerprint.”

I had more questions for Luciana, and she had some suggestions. In the end, we agreed that I needed to find Vaht, but she had no idea where he might be.

She told me one person who could have a clue about who might be dealing in stolen 14th-Century parchment: a dealer in antique books and paper, Giuliano Leopardo, whose shop was in Venice. It was possible the parchment stolen from the ship in Los Angeles, originally from a Venetian trading ship in the 1500s, had come to his attention.

I asked her if Signor Leopardo was entirely on the up-and-up. She laughed.

“We Italians don’t make fine distinctions about what is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal.’ We say, ‘Tenere i piedi in due staffe’ which means to walk two paths while deciding which one suits you better.”

Leopardo would be a longshot, but it was all I had to go on.

I would’ve liked to have stayed longer. Luciana was standing, ready to say farewell. We looked at one another.

“There was a young woman you were in love with … all those years ago,” she said. “What became of her?”

Leave it to one of the world’s most intriguing women to remind a man about the other woman ─ just in case she’s slipped his mind.

“That took a while, but it worked out all right. She’s back in L.A. Her address is the same as mine now.”

Luciana smiled and nodded, but it was a bittersweet smile.

È magnifico.” She seemed to hesitate. “Are you going to stop in England … to see … see him?”

Hell. She would have to ask. I returned her gaze, but I didn’t smile.

“And if I do, Professoressa, do you have any message for our old friend Professor Wroxton?”

For a moment I thought she might crack and say something meaningful, but probably all those words were long in the past.

“Tell him I said hello.”

Damned ironic. Two of the world’s most accomplished linguists, unable — or unwilling —to communicate about what there’d been between them … separated by a mere two-hour plane flight but a lifetime of unspoken words. People aren’t always the smartest animals in the zoo: even highly educated ones.

Luciana kissed my cheek, wished me well, and I trundled my bag back down the stairs, headed for the train station. Next stop: Venice.

Click here for the next episode: La Serenissima.

The passage from Dante is Paradiso Canto XXXIII, ll 13-15:

(Dante to Beatrice)

“Lady, you who are so great, so powerful,

that who seeks grace without recourse to you

would have his wish fly upward without wings.”

The Dipartimento di Filologia Classica e Italianistica of the University of Bologna is real, but all details in this story are fictional.

Grateful acknowledgement to Simona Lidia Zaira at Where Lemons Blossom and her husband, Walter, for Luciana’s idiomatic Italian phrase and her joke about Italians and the law. Grazie!

Lines 1686-7 in the original Cotton Nero MS read:

Sir Gawayn lis and slepes

Ful stille and softe al nyght

© Brad Nixon 2017. Image of Via Zamboni 32 © Google.


  1. Intriguing! I’m looking forward to the next installment. Onward to Venezia …


  2. Hi Brad. Congratulations! I really mean it. I love your description of Bologna. Bologna is where my aunt’s family lives; my aunt Gigliola used to manage a bookshop in via Rizzoli and my sister studied in via Zamboni! I loved to read a story taking place in such a ‘familiar’ setting, so well described by you.
    I also loved the meeting between the main character and Luciana. It might be my age (almost 47) but I was intrigued by their meeting some forty years later. Sometimes I bump into people, in my hometown, that I used to associate with a long time ago, and I always get that awkard feeling of a missed relationship… Congratulations on your writing abilities and well, thank you for thanking Walter and me. We did so little! Just wanted to say that it should be ‘non stasera’ (with a final ‘a’) and that it is ‘tenere i piedi in due staffe’ (‘i piedi’ not just ‘piedi’). But this is a trifle. I felt so proud to be quoted in such a great story. Grazie mille, Brad. Looking forward to reading more of this story and congratulazioni again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Simona. The older one gets, I think, the more one sees all those possible connections and interconnections … many missed or overlooked or ignored, for a number of reasons. Thank you for the corrections. I’m a poor student of Italian, and happy to have your assistance. I wish we could have seen more of Bologna, and we hope to return. I’m delighted to hear about the coincidences with your family there. Grazie mille.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravissimo!! Fantastic character development, and thank you for taking us to Bologna. So much to love in this piece, but I especially enjoyed this line because I have been there many times: “She regarded me in that way Italians have.” 🙂 Love the italiano sprinkled throughout too. Non vedo l’ora per Venezia!

    Liked by 1 person

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