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An electrifying novel of a goddess cult in America--by the author of "Commonwealth Avenue." When the legends that have shaped her view of the world erupt and spill over into her personal life, a woman with an obsession for Italian Renaissance paintings becomes a bloodthirsty pagan whose newfound attitude colors her interpretation of Christian art.
Florence, Italy: April 1978
A first met Selene Catcher during the time she was my cousin Piero's lover.
One bright spring afternoon, he phoned at my sister Carla's house in Florence to say he was taking the train from Venice the next day and would see us before sundown. He had an American friend with him, he said. A woman.
I'd been staying with Carla for the month or more since I'd left my post at the Vatican, having broken several bones in my foot playing soccer with some of our younger seminarians. As a man approaching his fortieth year, I suppose I should have known better.
But I'd also been feeling a distressing yet undeniable need for more secular companionship, which Carla certainly provided. Her beautiful house in the Oltrarno district of Florence was airy and bright, with a magnificent view of the Duomo across the river. Usually, the house resounded with the elaborate entertainments with which Carla filled her life, but she promised that we would be very quiet, just the two of us at little, perfect dinners. For several weeks I had been relishing that solitude, happy to be alone with my books and my thoughts. But I had just begun to confront the decision to return to Rome, or not to, when Piero called, peremptory and energetic as always, to announce his visit.
We hadn't seen him since the previous summer, but such a long breakbetween encounters was not unusual for us. While Carla and I chose to stay close to home in Italy, cousin Piero roamed the landscape at will, devouring his part of the family fortune as quickly as the various accountants and advisors could replenish it. Piero traveled extensively, pausing from time to time to study something that caught his interest--mathematics, history, perhaps primitive music--and be off again, seeing the world and spending his inheritance.
Carla, Piero, and I are all that remains of a very old family that lived for hundreds of years in a villa north of Milan. The origins of the Corio fortune are obscure, not bearing scrutiny, perhaps, but we did know that long ago our ancestor had been the court historian of Ludovico Sforza, the notorious Duke of Milan who died, a prisoner of the King of France, in 1507. However dark his reputation, however, we in the family knew Ludovico as an important collector and patron of the arts, the man who had in fact virtually discovered Leonardo da Vinci, surely enough of a contribution to outweigh the many unsavory rumors of a cruel nature.
Late the next afternoon, the sun was just setting over the hills when Piero's taxi screeched to a stop in the gravel drive. He jumped out and kissed and hugged Carla, then embraced me as well, pounding my back with enthusiasm, while his American friend stood next to the driver, poised and relaxed behind a pair of movie star sunglasses, her mane of dark blond hair shining in the last rays of the early April sun.
"This is Selene Catcher," Piero said, drawing her toward us.
Knowing what little I do of Piero's history with women, I suppose I'd expected her to be what Carla's sophisticated friends would call squisita, as if an extraordinary physical beauty was essential to the task of catching and keeping Piero Corio's attention; and yet I can't really say she wasn't.
What she was, I think, was riveting; she was the sort of person who compels the attention of others, someone from whom you cannot take your eyes. She was extremely tall, almost six feet, and thin, a spike of a woman without discernible breasts or hips--although that was hard to tell because her gleaming black mink coat hung so gracefully from her shoulders, it could not do much more than suggest the woman underneath.
Her presence was absolutely arresting--a perfect posture combined with a perfect hauteur--but it was her eyes that drew me in, made it impossible to look away. They were of the oddest color--not yellow ... gold, I'd say--a bronzy, tarnished gold flecked with an amber brown, the rims of the irises a deeper shade that reminded me of the heavy pieces ofEtruscan armor they have in the museum of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. And clear as water.
They were set in a narrow, fine-boned face, the nose large but chiseled, defined, the mouth wide with pale, narrow lips. Her hair, which fell almost to her collarbones, was held back and away from her face by two handsome tortoiseshell combs. I sensed almost at once that that shining surface covered much that did not gleam, though it took me many years to learn that I was right.
Carla, making her welcome, kissed her on both cheeks, already chattering away. But then, when Piero turned and introduced me as "my cousin, Father Giovanni Corio," Selene held out her hand and gave me a warm, almost intimate smile. Though for several days we did not have occasion to speak except at table, from time to time I caught her looking at me and she would smile again with the same private expression, as if she found me intriguing in some way, as if she knew me.
For almost a week after her arrival, my brief encounters with Selene were characterized by intense though unexpressed interest on both sides. My sister feigned ignorance of that small, inconsequential drama, but one afternoon, observing such a moment, Carla threw her arms around my shoulders and tilted up my face with her plump fingers.
"Isn't he lovely!" she cried, caressing my flat cheeks, "this face--this marvelous silky hair. Too bad he's given it up, no? Ha!" I chuckled and pulled away, embarrassed (as Carla had intended that I be), but as I looked back, I thought I saw Selene wink at me, though I wasn't absolutely sure.
My gregarious sister was, and remains to this day, an extravagant and generous hostess who prides herself on her hospitality. Her spacious house, hidden behind an ornate fence, high in the hills near the Piazzale Michelangiolo, was beautifully decorated with eighteenth-century furniture and paintings (selected, I was sure, as much for the excitement of the acquisition as for the luster of the provenance), and it was constantly filled with an assortment of old friends and chance acquaintances.
The arrival of Selene Catcher fit perfectly into Carla's social enthusiasms. Carla adored her from the start and seemed quite willing to be dazzled by Piero's American friend, though she more than held her own in such glamorous company. In those days, Carla affected a glossy American style--expensive designer outfits and elaborate toilettes. But in spite of those efforts, Carla somehow could not help looking precisely like the Roman aristocrats Lotto and Raphael liked to paint, like our ownancestors perhaps--robust, self-assured, very direct. She loved to arrange her hair in ornate, fifteenth-century styles, coiled over her ears with strands of pearls all twisted through, as in Laurana's famous bust of Battista Sforza: the strong shoulders, the superb nose. Until I came up from Rome, Carla had people staying with her constantly; it was like a revolving door, new guests coming in the front while an army of used ones were going out the back. I'm sure many of them took advantage of her good nature, but Selene did not. They had formed an instantaneous affinity and the two of them were a delight to see.
Selene and Piero spent almost a month with us and their presence seemed to give Carla the pretext she'd been needing to break her vow to me of solitude and quiet meals à deux. Carla had always refused to indulge what she viewed as my intellectual excesses and insisted that I participate in all her extravagant pastimes, as if that might cure me of an extravagance of my own. As a consequence, I was thrown into Selene's society on a daily basis and was able to observe her relationship with Piero at close hand.
They were both exceptionally intelligent and witty and Piero's considerable learning and humor seemed as great a part of her interest in him as were his strong features and his powerful, athletic body. Nevertheless, it was clear that sex was the source and foundation of their rapport.
One day I was just coming out of the drawing room, planning to take a walk down toward the river, when I saw Piero and Selene sitting side by side on a brocade settee in the entryway of the house. Piero had his arm around her neck and the tips of his fingers were holding up her chin so she could listen as he whispered ... whatever it had been. Startled at seeing such an intimate moment, I ducked back into the drawing room and went out another way, not wanting to be seen seeing them.
My fascination with Selene grew upon her air of mystery, inescapable in spite of her sophisticated talk and warm, vivacious personality. To my dismay, that fascination penetrated my most private thoughts and at length it occurred to me that I might exorcise it (as it surely deserved?) by talking to Piero.
One day I mentioned (oh, so casually) that despite her pleasant, friendly nature, I found her quite a mysterious figure.
"Well," he said with a small chuckle, "when you're that rich, you cando pretty much as you please and let people speculate at their leisure, can't you?"
We were on Carla's small terrace, a lovely little balcony off the study, which looked out over the dark ribbon of the Arno and across to the mass of the Duomo, glowing in the early evening light.
"How rich?" I asked, too intrigued by Selene herself to worry about the rudeness of my question. I poured a little more whiskey into Piero's glass and went into the study to turn on one of the tall lamps over the bookcases. I came back out and stood self-consciously by the balustrade, gazing across to the clock tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, unwilling to let him see my face.
"Oh, enormously," he said. "Enormously. Family money? Land? Who knows? But yes, very wealthy indeed. I've come to the conclusion that she's simply gotten bored with it all and taken it into her head to come over here for a while. It doesn't much matter why, does it? She has money and she speaks perfect Tuscan. Except for a sister, and possibly some old connections in Venice, I don't think she has any ties."
I was disappointed in that encapsulated description, but although Piero is famously uncommunicative, even in his most voluble moods, I'm not sure he knew much more. He did tell me, however, that Selene had been living in a small house in the Dorsoduro section of Venice since the death of her father, Professor Sterling Alva Catcher, late of Harvard University, an eminent author of many books on Greek poetry and drama. I was intrigued anew, having spent no little time in Cambridge myself, but apparently the father had left there many years before and we were not to know the details. At least not right away. Selene spoke of him very infrequently, but when she did--"Oh, yes, Father knew him ... went there ... did that ..."--it was in a factual tone that I found very hard to interpret.
That Selene Catcher and I--the charming, carefree heiress and the quiet, disaffected Jesuit--might have a point of intense convergence seemed impossible to me, until one afternoon several weeks after she and Piero arrived. It was early in May, only a few days till Carla's birthday, and I knew she would never forgive me if I did not mark the occasion in a suitably excessive way. Carla took special days very seriously, and I knew extraordinary gift-giving feats were called for. On a whim (or so Itold myself) I asked Selene if she would be willing to help me find the perfect present. To my amazement and delight, she agreed at once and volunteered to be, as she called it, "the mastermind." My job was to pay.
"There's no point in looking anywhere but on the Tornabuoni," Selene said briskly as the taxi turned off the Ponte Santa Trinita and deposited us at the corner of the Via Porta Rossa. "This is Carla Corio we're talking about. No point at all."
The early afternoon was warm and sunny and we strolled up one side of the street and down the other, peering into the elegant window displays, getting ideas. There were beautiful silk scarves and gold watches and gleaming leather handbags. In one shop window, embroidered evening dresses dripped from the shoulders of a trio of impossibly thin, faceless mannequins--clearly not the best choice for my dear sister.
At that point we had been looking for more than an hour and both of us were beginning to feel a trifle disheartened, when, all at once, Selene pulled me by my elbow into a gioielleria about halfway up the street near the Palazzo Strozzi. There, instantly catching the attention of the proprietor, Selene demanded to see his rubies.
In a flash, necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, and brooches blazed up like a rosy fire from the velvet mat. I rather liked a small brooch that featured a ring of diamonds surrounding a perfect gem the size and color of a cherry. That it cost millions of lire seemed to make no difference to Selene. She picked it up and squinted into the ruby's heart.
"It really is lovely," she whispered to me in English, "nice and big. But nowhere near fancy enough for Carla, do you think?" She turned and peered around the shop. "Oh! Vanni! Fantastico! Dai un'occhiata!"
Selene's use of the old family nickname she'd heard from Carla and Piero had startled me for a second, but then I saw what had caused her outburst. On a round display table was an arrangement of small evening purses, jeweled and enameled, all shaped like animals and birds. They were, indeed, astonishing. With another cry of delight, Selene went over and picked up several at once. Drawing a disapproving glance from the proprietor, she hung their golden chains over her elbows and shoulders, opened their intricate hidden clasps, and examined the workmanship with care.
One, about eight inches wide, was shaped like a parrot, with a hooked gold beak and feathers made of glittering green and blue crystals and beads. Its red eyes were actual rubies, several carats each. Selene modeledthe purse in the mirrored side of a cabinet; it swung in gaudy brilliance from her shoulder.
"Perfètto!" she cried, turning with a smile to the proprietor, whose displeasure melted instantly away. "Perfètto! Vanni, do you like it? Yes? It's Carla all over. An excellent choice." While I paid, Selene rummaged through a pile of heavy silk scarves and selected two as her own gift to Carla, one a gorgeous scene of a Renaissance wedding and the other a vivid design of flowers and tropical birds that matched the purse exactly.
Out on the sidewalk again, she turned to glance up and down the Tornabuoni and then smiled into my eyes. "Shocking price, no? How do they get away with it, I wonder."
I laughed. "Carla will love it. May I express my gratitude with an aperitivo? The Baglioni isn't far. Or Ballatóio's? It's just up near the Piazza."
"Perfètto," she said again, and linked her arm through mine.
RENAISSANCE MOON. Copyright © 1997 by Linda M. Nevins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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