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Business meetings are more or less the same all over the world, and have been since the beginning of time. There is the man in charge; the man supposedly in charge; the man wanting to be in charge; their minions, their enemies and those waverers who float gently downstream, hoping things won't get too choppy. And there is always a dispute, which serves the purpose of making half-felt antagonisms real. Sometimes these are of importance and justify the energy expended on them. But not often.
So it was one afternoon in September in a large but utilitarian room in a shambling, run-down set of buildings in that section of Rome loosely known as the Aventino. There were twenty people, all men of between thirty-five and seventy-five years old; fourteen items on the agenda, and two factions, each determined to sweep all before them and rout the forces of (on the one hand) dangerous and puerile innovation and (on the other) hidebound traditionalism irrelevant to the needs of the modern world. It was, the chairman thought as he took a deep breath, going to be a long afternoon. He only hoped that the two hours they had just spent praying together for God's wisdom to infuse their collective decision would stop the imminent debate from getting too acrimonious.
But he doubted it, somehow. Much as he felt himself teetering on the brink of heresy in even considering the idea, he did sometimes wish the Lord could make his wishes just a bit plainer: then his fear might not be realized that he, Father Xavier Münster, thirty-ninth head of the Order of St John the Pietist, might also be the last. His heart sank as he saw the glitter of battle in the eyes of those souls nominally submissive to his total authority. Above all Father Jean, organizing his papers in front of him like so many divisions of tanks, waiting for the moment to advance. Determined to oppose, mindless of the problems he had to face. Although, in the circumstances, that was just as well. 'Perhaps,' Father Xavier said with determination to the assembled collection of his order presently in Rome. 'Perhaps we might begin?'
Five hours later, it was at an end, and the shattered brothers staggered out. Ordinarily, there were apéritifs on the terrace after such a meeting; this time only a few people, those who had not become too involved in the unseemly brawling, turned up. The rest went to their cells (such they were called, although they were little different to the sort of rooms students occupy) to meditate, pray, or fume with rage.
'I'm very glad that's over,' murmured one of the most youthful of the brothers, a tall, handsome man from Cameroon called Paul. It was selfless of him to say it so mildly; he had hoped that his own concern might have been dealt with. But, yet again, his little problem was too far down the list to be discussed.
The words were addressed to nobody in particular, and were heard only by Father Jean, an old man who had stationed himself next to the Pernod bottle at the table. He peered upwards in the general direction of Father Paul's face -- which was a good eighteen inches above his own -- and nodded. He was exhausted; that sort of combat does use energy and sometimes even he was surprised and alarmed at the deep sources of hatred that Father Xavier's efforts at reform had stirred up in his usually placid soul. He had not come on to the terrace to be social; unusually for him, he was there because he needed a drink.
In the past he had always refused to be sucked into such disputes and still could not quite believe his new role as leader of the opposition. It was not what he had wanted; not his ideal way of spending his declining years. He still thought of himself as a natural loyalist. So he had always been ever since he was plucked out of village school at the age of twelve by a priest who had spotted his qualities.
But not this time, although the vehemence unleashed by the contest between himself and Xavier appalled him. Even at the height of the doubts and anguish thrown up by the great Vatican Council, he remembered nothing which could compare with the sheer unpleasantness the meeting room had witnessed that afternoon. But there was nothing to be done about it: the soul of the body was at stake; of that he was absolutely sure. Xavier was a good man, no doubt; a courageous one, even. And many saints had been as ruthless and determined to follow their vision, despite all opposition, as he was. Look at St Bernard; look at St Ignatius. Neither were exactly known for their ability to see all sides of an argument. But this was not the Middle Ages, nor the seventeenth century. Other techniques were required. Patience, tact, persuasion. And none of them were Xavier's speciality.
So Father Jean nodded sadly to himself. 'Over? Only for the time being,' he said. 'I fear we have not seen the last of this dispute.'
Father Paul arched his eyebrow. 'What more is there to say? It's settled, isn't it? You got your way. Surely you should be happy.'
Paul could speak with little heat because he, almost alone of the brothers, had not taken sides. Indeed, he wasn't entirely certain what the dispute was about. He understood the occasion, of course, but the underlying cause meant nothing to him. All he understood was that it wasted a lot of energy that, surely, could be better spent.
'It was only defeated by one vote,' Jean replied. 'Only by one vote. Last year -- what did he try to do then? I don't remember -- he was turned down by five votes. Which means this will be taken as an encouragement, rather than as a defeat. You just wait.'
Father Paul poured himself an orange juice and sipped thoughtfully. 'Oh dear. I do wish I could go home. I hardly seem to be doing the Lord's work here.'
'I know,' Father Jean said sympathetically, wondering whether a second Pernod would be permissible. 'You must find us shocking, and you're probably right. And I'm sorry we've put off discussing the business of your going home yet again. Next time, perhaps; when tempers have cooled, we might bring the subject up. I will do my best, if that's any help.'
A few kilometres away, in the very centre of the city, a quite different, more worldly, organization was ploughing its quietly effective way through life. The main door (newly electrified at hideously unnecessary expense) swished to and fro as eager policemen walked purposefully in and out. In small, windowless rooms technicians and filing clerks pursued their careers with keen concentration and devotion to duty. Further up the building greater harmony reigned, as detectives in their offices read, telephoned and wrote in their determined pursuit of Italy's stolen artistic heritage. And from the top floor, from the room which was frequently described in the more respectful press as the brain centre of Italy's Art Theft Squad, came a low rumble which was disturbed only by the persistent buzzing of a large, fat bluebottle.
The efficient machine was on autopilot; the brain was off duty. It was a hot afternoon and General Taddeo Bottando was fast asleep.
Not that this mattered, normally. Bottando was handsomely into his sixties and even he was now ready to agree that youthful sprightliness was no longer one of his dominant characteristics. Experience more than made up for this loss, however. So what if he husbanded his resources now and then? His overall strategic grasp was as good as ever, and his organizational powers unfaded by the years. Everybody knew what they were meant to do, and they got on with the business of doing it, without any need for him to supervise them day and night. And if something happened when he was not around (so to speak) then one of his team, such as Flavia di Stefano, was fully able to deal with the situation.
Such had been the way in which he had described his role that very lunchtime, to a pair of senior civil servants who had taken him out to a fine, excessively fine, restaurant to make up. For reasons which he couldn't quite understand, Bottando had suddenly become popular, after years of battling for money and continued existence. Now, perhaps due to a major success a few months back, everybody loved him, everybody had always loved him, and everyone had always been his secret supporter against the machinations of others. All those years, and Bottando had never noticed. He had all but purred with pleasure, and had permitted himself to wallow in complacency as he played a significant role in the destruction of a second, then a third bottle of good Chianti.
Perhaps he should have seen it coming, an old hand like himself. The bonhomie, the admiration, the friendliness. But the wine and the warmth lulled him into assurance. Deep down, he was a trusting man, despite years in the police force contending with crooks and -- what was worse -- superiors. For once, he permitted himself to think that everyone was on the same side; we are all colleagues. Perhaps I really am admired and appreciated for my efforts.
His mood was one of confident, generous urbanity by the time the most senior of his colleagues -- a man he had transferred away from his command years ago in a different life in Milan -- leant forward with an ingratiating smile and said: 'Tell me, Taddeo, how do you see the department developing? In years to come. I want you to take the long view here, you see.'
And so he gave a peroration, about international cooperation and regional squads and all that sort of thing. About new computers and new techniques and new laws which would all make the business of retrieving stolen works of art that little bit easier.
'And yourself? How do you see yourself?'
If he hadn't been wary before, the alarms should have gone off now. All the signs were there; but he never for a moment even suspected the existence of the huge and omnivorous trap doors creaking open to swallow him up. He talked about teams and leadership and overseeing functions, talking the foreign language in which he had become fluent, if not entirely comfortable.
'Good, good. I'm so glad we are in agreement. That does make our task so very much easier.'
Finally, at long last, despite the heat and the drugging effects of the wine and food, a warning tickle activated itself at the base of his thick and powerful neck.
'You see,' the man said as Bottando mentally assumed a crouching posture but kept silent, 'there are all these reorganizations. This new promotion structure.'
'Which ones? Have I missed something again?'
A nervous chuckle. 'Oh, dear me, no. It hasn't been published yet. In fact, you're the very first person to be told of it. We thought it best, as you may well be the first person to be affected.'
More silence, more caution and a raised eyebrow.
'It's all structural, you see, and I'd like it known that I am not happy with it.'
Which means, of course, that he is. Probably his idea, in fact, Bottando thought.
'So many people, all crammed up with no promotion prospects. The demographic age bulge. What's to be done with them? All over the government, the very best people are leaving. Why is this? Because they've come to a dead end, that's why. And then there is Europe. We are entering a new age, Taddeo. We must be prepared. The time to start planning is now. Not when it is all too late. So it has been decided -- by people other than myself -- to introduce some, ah, changes.'
'What, ah, changes?'
'Two things. Specifically, there is to be an intragovernmental liaison group to coordinate all aspects of policing. It will start with a particular area as a way of testing procedures and operations.'
Bottando nodded. He had heard all of this sort of thing before. Every six months some bright spark in a ministry decided to nail his promotion prospects to yet another piece of liaising. Never came to anything much.
'And the second, which will ultimately be linked with the first, is to sort out the relationship between your department with the new international art safety directive.'
'A European affair, funded entirely from Brussels, but the minister has managed to establish that it will be headed by an Italian. You, in fact.'
'And sit around writing memoranda which no one will ever read.'
'That depends on yourself. Obviously you will encounter resistance. You would have resisted it fervently yourself. It will be your job to turn this initiative into something.'
'Does this mean lots of foreigners?' he asked dubiously.
They both shrugged. 'It will be up to you to decide what it is you want to do. Then to get the budget to pay for the staff to do it. Naturally, the staffing structure will have to be balanced.'
'It does mean foreigners.'
'And where will this fine example of Euro-nonsense be located?'
'Ah, there now. Obviously, the most sensible place would be in Brussels. However...'
'In that case I'm not going,' Bottando began. 'The rain, you know...'
'However,' the civil servant continued, 'other factors come into operation here.'
'Such as the fact that money spent in Brussels benefits Belgium; money spent in Italy benefits us. And, of course, we are the greatest centre for art. And, come to think of it, for art theft. So we are lobbying hard for it to be located here.'
'And what about my department?'
'You continue in charge, of course, but you will obviously have to delegate day-to-day operations, which will run in parallel, with some interchange of personnel.'
Bottando sat back in his chair, his good mood dissolving as the full implications dawned on him.
'What choice do I have about this?'
'None. It is too important for personal preference. It is a matter of national honour. You accept, or someone else gets your job. And you will have to go to Brussels in a week to explain how you will run this organization. So you have a lot of work to do.'
Not knowing whether to be pleased or irritated, Bottando went back to his office to try and figure out all the subtleties and, as was his habit, ended up sleeping on it.
It was not the best time for an anonymous tip-off to come in, warning about an imminent raid to steal one of the city's works of art.
Jonathan Argyll walked home across Rome at half past six in the evening, taking some, but not a great deal, of pleasure in the bustle of a city anxious to get home for its dinner. He was tired. It had been a long day, what with one thing and another. A lecture in the morning, which was becoming routine now that his stage fright had left him and he had gauged the low expectations of the audience, followed by two hours of sitting in the little broom cupboard officially called his office, fending off students in various levels of distress who came to waste his time. Could they be late on this? Could he photocopy that to spare them the trouble of actually sitting in a library themselves?
No, and no. Much to his great surprise, his random career change nine months previously from art dealer to temporary lecturer in baroque studies had brought out a hitherto unsuspected authoritarian side to his character. Combined with a tendency to grumble about what students were like in his day, he had managed to institute a reign of terror for all who were lured into the great mistake of signing up for his course on Roman art and architecture, 1600 to 1750.
The Baroque. The Counter-Reformation. Bernini and Borromini and Maderno and Pozzo. Good lads, all of them. No need for slides or illustrated lectures in this of all cities; just send the idle good-for-nothings on walking tours. On their own on a Monday, escorted by him on a Wednesday. Mens sana in corpore sano. Health and knowledge, all in one package. Cheap at the not inconsiderable price the besotted parents of the little urchins coughed up to add a patina of cultivation to their offspring.
Even more surprisingly, he was quite good at it. His boundless enthusiasm for the more obscure and impenetrable aspects of baroque iconography slowly transferred itself to some of his students. Not many, admittedly; half a dozen out of thirty of so, but this was held by his colleagues to be pretty good going considering the motley collection of raw material they had to work on.
And the great virtue of it all was that he didn't really have to prepare anything: his only problem was deciding what to leave out. And marking. That was depressing, of course.
'Medieval monks scourged themselves with birch rods; we do the same thing with essays,' the head of his department, a Renaissance man himself, explained in a philosophic vein. 'It comes to the same thing in the end. Painful and humiliating, but part of the job. And purifying, in its way: it makes you see the futility of your existence.'
There was, however, a snag. Lurking ambition, somnolent or at least beaten into submission, had been awoken once more by the transition. Old habits and pleasures came back to haunt him. Having taken the job as a temporary measure because of the flaccid state of the art market, Argyll found himself rather liking the business, despite the students. He had even taken out his doctorate, long since forgotten and mouldering on the shelves while he tried to make a living as a dealer, and dusted it off. The itch was upon him once more: the desire to see his name in print. Nothing grand. A little article, with a decent array of footnotes on some minor topic, to get him back into the mood. An excuse for ambling around in the archives. Everybody else was at it; and it was a bit awkward to have lunch with a colleague. What are you working on? It was an inevitable question. It would be pleasant to be able to answer.
What indeed, though? He had been flailing around, trying to come up with something for a couple of months. Nothing, so far, had struck his fancy. Too big, too small or done already. The universal chorus of modern academia. It occupied his mind mightily these days.
Except when there was marking. That was the little nagging detail in the back of his mind which stopped him enjoying the view of Isola Tiburtina as he trudged through the thick fumes of evening carbon monoxide and across the Ponte Garibaldi on his way home. Fifteen essays on Jesuit building programmes. Could have been worse; they might all have managed to pull themselves together and produce something. And judging by the look of it, some of the offerings were going to be a touch thin. In abstract, he loved the conscientious students who worked hard and tried. When he had to mark the result, he loathed the little swots for the reams of paper they produced. But there was nothing to be done about it; a couple of hours of his evening were going to be devoted to reading their efforts, and trying to stay calm when, as was inevitable, one of them informed him that Raphael had been a pope, or that Bernini taught Michelangelo everything he knew about sculpture.
When what he really needed was a nice quiet evening with Flavia, who had promised faithfully to be home early and cook dinner for the first time in weeks. Now that they had, tentatively, decided to recognize reality and get as married in law as they seemed to be in practice, and Argyll had settled into his new job and was no longer fretting continually about his career, life had become as blissful as it could possibly be when you were proposing to link your life's fortunes to a woman who never knew when her job would allow her to come home.
Not her fault; police work was like that, and she did her best. But it was galling, occasionally, to be so obviously pushed into second place by a purloined chalice, however much a marvel of sixteenth-century Tuscan workmanship it undoubtedly was. All very well, once in a while. But these things kept on vanishing. The thieves never rested. Did they not feel the need for a quiet evening with their feet up now and then like everyone else?
This time, Flavia would be home; she had left a message to that effect not half an hour ago, and Argyll was looking forward to it; he had even done his duty and got all the shopping on the way home so they could have a properly civilized meal together. He was so much looking forward to it that he felt a little anticipatory skip as he turned into the vicolo di Cedro, and began the last stage of the journey home.
And met Flavia coming down the street. She gave him a quick kiss, and looked apologetic.
'You're going back to the office, aren't you?' he said accusingly. 'I know that look.'
''Fraid so. Just for a while. I won't be long.'
'Oh, Flavia. You promised...'
'Don't worry. I won't be long.'
'Yes, you will be.'
'Jonathan. There's nothing I can do. Something's come up. It really won't take a long time. There's a little problem.'
He scowled, his good mood evaporating.
'I'll go and do my marking, then.'
'Good idea. And I'll be back by the time you're finished. Then we can have a quiet evening together.'
Grumbling to himself about essays, Argyll mounted the stairs to the third floor, said good evening to the old signora on the first floor and nodded coolly but politely to Bruno, the young lad with a taste for filling the night air with very loud and extremely bad music on the second, before fumbling in his pocket for his keys. Odd, he thought. There was a very strong inverse relationship between the volume of music and its quality. He'd never noticed it when he was young.
Two hours later, he'd finished his marking; Flavia had not yet returned. Three hours later, he'd eaten his dinner and she was still not there. Four hours later he went to bed.
Copyright © 1996 by Iain Pears
Posted December 12, 2009
For those who love Rome in its many facets, have an equally keen appreciation for an excellent detective/mystery story, and appreciate the world of fine arts, you really should grab this brief, but highly entertaining novel by Mr. Pears. He writes knowingly of Rome, has a sharp ear for dialogue, and certainly understands the almost irresistible allure that the world's greatest paintings often have on those with, and without, the means to either purchase or steal them. I read this delightful novel having just left Rome. It reminded me viscerally of the Eternal City's endless pleasures; I almost felt as though I were back walking its marvelous streets in search of skullduggery.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 8, 2005
A well-built mystery. All the characters have subtle and interesting motivation. The dialogue is intellegent and believable. The reader learns a lot about Rome, especially the Aventine area, and about art. Pears gets the balance between the elements of a story right. This mystery story hasn't much blood splashing around but has brains enough keep the reader up pretty late. This is part of Pears series staring Jonathan Argyll series, and equal to any of them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 7, 2001
You are thinking of reading this novel? Then you need to be aware of the fact that some key elements from the plot of 'Giotto's Hand', i.e. another Argyll novel, are revealed here! Make sure you read the 'Giotto' story before you read this one.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.