Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 27, 2017

Ye Bigge Sleepe, Part 4: La Serenissima

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, which has led me to Venice and antiquarian manuscript dealer, Leopardo. For earlier episodes, see below.

The light was getting low on the chilly winter afternoon as I stepped out of the Stazione Santa Lucia in Venice and boarded a vaporetto. For twenty minutes the sheer wonder of La Serenissima drove all thoughts from my brain, an appreciation that seems new every time I’m in Venice.

I got off at the Ca Rezzonico pier, made the short walk to Campo San Barnaba, then on to Campo Santa Margherita.

campo-santa-marg-brad-nixon

Signore Leopardo’s antiquarian bookstore, my objective the next morning, wasn’t far away, near the Università Ca’ Foscari. I wandered the city for a while, ate dinner, then made my way to St. Mark’s Square and had a caffè at Florian’s.

I lay in bed that night with the window open despite the cold so I could hear the Venetian night filled with only the sound of human voices and footsteps on stones, no traffic: unlike any other city on earth.

The next morning I made my way south to the Fondamenta Zattere on the Giudecca Canal and entered the university’s Biblioteco Servicio Didattico.

I had a few things to research that I hoped might give me a clue to Ugo Vaht’s whereabouts: publications (probably plagiarized) he’d produced in the last couple of years. My moderately acceptable Italian got me directions to where I could find what I was looking for in the big research library.

I got turned around, looking for the right row of shelves when a voice behind me said in perfect English, “May I help you? You look lost.”

A woman, dark hair, fortyish, judging from her haircut and clothes, Italian, who’d apparently identified me as an American.

I showed her the citation slip and explained what I was looking for.

She raised her eyebrows and gave me one of those Italian looks.

Medium Aevum … you’re a medieval scholar?”

“Not quite that old,” I tried, and got a laugh out of it.

Without hesitating, she said, “Just over here” and led me to a row of shelves.

“What language?” she asked.

“Middle English,” I told her, and she smiled.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,” she recited, with a good command of the language.

When I asked, she confirmed that she was, indeed, not only Italian, but Venetian, and taught English literature at the university.

I thanked her, introduced myself and asked her name.

“Paola,” she said. “Paola Brunetti.”

I’m certain my eyebrows raised as far as they could go.

“You’re … your husband is Commissario Brunetti?”

She simply nodded and walked away with a smile. I was flabbergasted, but also concerned. I looked around. If Donna Leon found out one of her characters walked into my story, I’d have a copyright problem on my hands.

An hour later, without much to show for my time in the library, I found Leopardo’s shop in a narrow calle not far from the university. I rang the bell.

Leopardo opened the door: perhaps mid-sixties, tall, fair, with light green eyes, apparently a northern Italian. His shop was dark, with tables and shelves stacked with bound and unbound books and manuscripts.

We got through the formalities and down to business.

I’d told him on the phone that I had an ancient parchment, and was hoping to determine its possible market value.

Leopardo led me to a table and had me place the erstwhile Sir Gawain in an open space and he turned on two lights.

He had me open the wooden cover and turn pages for him while, one after another, he examined them through a loupe, concentrating not on the text but the edges.

After maybe ten minutes, he straightened up and gave me a quizzical look. He said I could put the book back in the case, and led me back to his desk. Seated, he put his hands on the blotter in front of him and leveled his gaze at me.

“It is very old parchment. But the document is almost certainly a forgery. The edges look stained by time, but they have been cut from larger sheets, perhaps rather recently. There are impressions along the edges made by a mechanical cutter. In that period, parchment would have been cut by a sharp knife, not a cutter with a blade, as yours has been. I have seen it before in otherwise excellent forgeries.”

He waited for my reaction. For all Leopardo knew, I was the forger, or the forger’s agent, trying to sell him a fake manuscript.

I outwaited him.

He asked, “You said you studied the text. What was your conclusion?”

I told him that it was very good, but a few crucial problems had led me to the same conclusion as his: a forgery.

“Then why bring it to me?”

Now I might offend Leopardo, at the risk of having him throw me into the Rio del Tolentini canal, just outside.

“Because no one else might be in a position to help me associate this document with a shipment of 14th-Century parchment that recently disappeared and might now be reappearing as forged documents like this one.”

That level gaze of his darkened. “Wait here a moment,” he said.

He got up and went through a door in the back of his office. A few minutes later he was back, a sheet of parchment in his hands.

“This is one sheet we purchased recently for use in restoring manuscripts. It appears to be nearly identical to the material in your book.”

I looked at it and nodded.

“The seller had documentation that it came from a cache in a monastery in Croatia, where it had been since the sedicesimo secolo.”

I said, “I have reason to believe there’s a connection to Croatia with my manuscript, too.”

He sat down again. I played my ace.

“If your transaction involved a man named Udo Vaht,” I said, “I’d be very interested in speaking with him. In person, if at all possible.”

That caught him unawares. I saw it in his eyes. He knew the name.

It took a while, but what I learned was that his seller ─ my former classmate, Udo Vaht ─ might be in Rijeka, Croatia, or perhaps at the address on his invoice, in Milan. All Leopardo’s dealing had been by mail, no phone calls. It was a tossup. I was convinced that finding the source of my probably forged Sir Gawain and the Green Knight meant finding Udo Vaht. I had a decision to make. Where next?

Continued in the next episode: The Croatian Monastery.

To see the earlier episodes:

Part 1: My Toughest Case: Ye Bigge Sleepe 

Part 2: Stolen Parchment

Part 3: Beauty and Intellect in Bologna

© Brad Nixon 2017. Paola and Commissario Giulio Brunetti are the creations of Donna Leon, © Donna Leon.

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