The boy stood where he usually did at that time of the morning. In the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, on the summit of the Aventino hill, not far from home. Alessio Bramante was wearing the novelty glasses that came in the gift parcel from his birthday party the day before, peering through them into the secret keyhole, trying to make sense of what he saw.
The square was only two minutes’ walk from Alessio’s front door, and the same from the entrance to the Scuola Elementare di Santa Cecilia, so this was a journey he made every day, always with his father, a precise and serious man who would retrace his steps from the school gates back to the square, where his office, an outpost of the university, was located. This routine was now so familiar Alessio knew he could cover the route with his eyes closed, no longer needing that firm, guiding adult hand every inch of the way.
He adored the piazza, which had always seemed to him as if it belonged in a fairy-tale palace, not on the Aventino, which was a hill for ordinary, everyday men and women. Ones with money, like bankers and politicians. But not special people, kings and queens, banished from their homelands to live in the grand villas and apartment blocks dotted through its leafy avenues.
Palms and great conifers, like Christmas trees, fringed the white walls that ran around three sides of the piazza, adorned at precise intervals with needle-like Egyptian obelisks and the crests of great families. The walls were the work, his father said, of a famous artist called Piranesi, who, like all his kind in the Rome of the past, was as skilled an architect as he was a draftsman.
Alessio wished he could have met Piranesi. He had a precise mental image of him: a thin man, always thinking, with dark skin, piercing eyes, and a slender, waxy moustache that sat above his upper lip looking as if it had been painted there. Piranesi was an entertainer, a clown who made you laugh by playing with the way things looked. When he grew up, Alessio would organise events in the piazza, directing them himself, dressed in a severe dark suit, like his father. There would be elephants, he decided, and dancers and men in commedia dell’arte costumes juggling balls and pins to the bright music of a small brass band.
All this would come at some stage in that grey place called the future, which revealed itself a little day by day, like a shape emerging from one of the all-consuming mists that sometimes enshrouded the Aventino in winter, making it a ghostly world, unfamiliar to him, full of hidden, furtive noises and unseen creatures.
An elephant could hide in that kind of fog, Alessio thought. Or a tiger, or some kind of beast no one, except Piranesi in his gloomiest moments, could imagine. Then he reminded himself of what his father had said only a few days before, not quite cross, not quite.
No one gains from an overactive imagination.
No one needed such a thing on a day like this either. It was the middle of June, a beautiful, warm, sunny morning, with no hint of the fierce inferno that would fall from the bright blue sky well before the onset of August. At that moment he had room in his head for just a single wonder, one he insisted on seeing before he went to Santa Cecilia and began the day, as befitted a school dedicated to the patron saint of music, with a chorus of song in which he made sure his own, pitch-perfect voice was always uppermost.
“Alessio,” Giorgio Bramante said again, a little brusquely.
He knew what his father was thinking. At seven, tall and strong for his age, he was too old for these games. A little—what was the word he’d heard his father use once?—headstrong too.
Or perhaps, as his grandmother once said, he recognised himself in his son. They were alike, or so some claimed. And, at the party, his father was the one who picked out the parcel with the glasses, hoping, perhaps, to bring the event to an end as quickly as possible. So it was only right that he bear some accountability for the toy.
Alessio was unsure how old he was when his father first introduced him to the keyhole. He had soon realised that it was a secret shared. From time to time others would walk up to the green door and take a peek. Occasionally taxis would stop in the square and release a few baffled tourists, which seemed a sin. This was a private ritual to be kept among the few, those who lived on the Aventino hill, Alessio thought. Not handed out to anyone.
The secret was to be found on the river side of the piazza, at the centre of a white marble gatehouse, ornate and amusing, one of the favourite designs, he had no doubt, of that man with the moustache who still lived in his head. The upper part of the structure was fringed with ivy that fell over what looked like four windows, although they were filled in with stone—“blind” was the word Giorgio Bramante, who was fond of architecture and building techniques, used. Now that he was older Alessio realised the style was not unlike one of the mausoleums his father had shown him when they went together to excavations and exhibitions around the city. The difference was that the gatehouse possessed, in the centre, a heavy, two-piece door, old and solid and clearly well used, a structure that whispered, in a low, firm voice: Keep out.
Mausoleums were for dead people, who had no need of doors that opened and closed much. This place, his father had explained all those years ago, was the entrance to the garden of the mansion of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, leader of an ancient and honourable order, with members around the world, some of whom were fortunate enough, from time to time, to make a pilgrimage to this very spot.
Alessio could still remember first hearing that there were knights living nearby. He’d lain awake in bed that evening wondering if he’d hear their horses neighing in the warm summer breeze, or the clash of their swords on armour as they jousted in the secret garden beyond Piranesi’s square. Did they take young boys as pages, as knights in the making? Was there a round table? Some blood oath which swore them to silent, enduring brotherhood? A book where their good deeds were recorded in a hidden language, impenetrable to anyone outside the order?
Even now Alessio had no idea. Hardly anyone came or went from the place. He’d given up watching. Perhaps they only emerged in the dark, when he was in bed, wide awake, wondering what he’d done to be expelled from the living world for no good reason.
A Carabinieri car sat by the gatehouse most of the time, two bored-looking officers inside ostentatiously eyeing visitors to make sure no one became too curious. That rather killed the glamour of the Knights of Malta. It was hard to imagine an order of true gallantry would need men in uniforms, with conspicuous guns, to watch the door to its grand mansion.
But there was a miracle there, one he’d grown up with. He could still remember the days when his father used to pick him up, firm arms beneath his weak ones, lifting gently, until his eye reached the keyhole in the door, old green paint chipped away over the centuries to reveal something like lead or dull silver beneath.
Piranesi—it must have been him, no one else would have had the wit or the talent—had performed one last trick in the square. Somehow the architect had managed to align the keyhole of the Knights’ mansion directly with the basilica of St. Peter’s, which lay a couple of kilometres away beyond the Tiber. Peering through the tiny gap in the door produced an image that was just like a painting itself. The gravel path pointed straight across the river to its subject, shrouded on both sides by a tunnel of thick cypresses, dark green exclamation marks so high they stretched beyond the scope of the keyhole, forming a hidden canopy above everything he could see. At the end of this natural passageway, framed, on a fine day, in a bright, upright rectangle of light, stood the great church dome, which seemed suspended in the air, as if by magic.
Alessio knew about artists. The dome was the work of Michelangelo. Perhaps he and Piranesi had met sometime and made a pact: You build your church, I’ll make my keyhole, and one day someone will spot the trick.
Alessio could imagine Piranesi twirling his moustache at that idea. He could imagine, too, that there were other riddles, other secrets, undiscovered across the centuries, waiting for him to be born and start on their trail.
Can you see it?
This was the ritual, a small but important one that began every school day, every weekend walk that passed through Piranesi’s square. When Alessio peered through the keyhole of the mansion of the Knights of Malta, what he saw through the lines of trees, magnificent across the river, was proof that the world was whole, that life went on. What Alessio had only come to realise of late was that his father required this reassurance as much as he did himself. With this small daily ceremony the bond between them was renewed.
Yes, the young child would say, day after day, earnestly squinting through the narrow metal hole, trying to locate the vast white upturned coffee cup across the river hovering mystically in the bright air, a solid if mysterious fact in the world around them, one that never changed, one that predated their own existence and would stay with them forever through never-ending time.
Yes. It’s still there.
The day could begin. School and singing and games. The safe routine of family life. And other rituals too. His birthday celebration was a kind of ceremony. His entry into the special age—seven, the magical number—disguised as a party for infants. One where his father had picked out the stupid present from the lucky dip, something that seemed interesting when Alessio read the packaging, but just puzzled him now he tried it out.
The “Fly Eye Glasses” were flimsy plastic toy spectacles, large and cumbersome, badly made, too, with arms so weak they flopped around his ears as he tucked the ends carefully beneath his long jet-black hair in an effort to keep them firm on his face. Perhaps Giorgio was right. He was too old for toys like this. But Alessio Bramante was aware of what he had inherited from an archaeologist father, digging the past out of the ground, and an artist mother, whose paintings he admired but never quite understood. For him the world was, and always would be, intensely physical: a visual maze to be touched, examined, and explored, in as many different ways as he could find.
The glasses were supposed to let you witness reality the way a fly did. Their multifaceted eyes had lenses which were, in turn, hosts to many more lenses, hundreds perhaps, like kaleidoscopes without the flakes of coloured paper to get in the way, producing a universe of shifting views of the same scene, all the same, all different, all linked, all separate. Each thinking it was real and its neighbour imaginary, each, perhaps, living under the ultimate illusion, because Alessio Bramante was, he told himself, no fool. Everything he saw could be unreal. Every flower he touched, every breath he took, nothing more than a tiny fragment tumbling from someone else’s ever-changing dreams.
Crouched hard against the door, trying to ignore the firm, impatient voice of his father, Alessio was aware of another adult thought, one of many that kept popping into his head of late. This wasn’t just the fly’s view. It was that of God too. A distant, impersonal God, somewhere up in the sky, who could shift his line of vision just a millimetre, close one great eye, squint through another, and see His creations a myriad of different ways, trying better to understand them.
Alessio peered more intently and wondered: is this one world divided into many, or do we possess our own special vision, a faculty that, for reasons of kindness or convenience, he was unsure which, simplified the multitude into one?
Fanciful thoughts from an overimaginative, headstrong child.
He could hear his father repeating those words though they never slipped from his lips. Instead, Giorgio Bramante was saying something entirely different.
“Alessio,” he complained, half ordering, half pleading. “We have to go. Now.”
What did it matter if you were late? School went on forever. What were a few lost minutes when you were peering through a knights’ keyhole searching for the dome of St. Peter’s, trying to work out who was right, the humans or the flies?
“Because today’s not an ordinary day!”
Alessio took his eyes away from the keyhole then, carefully, unwound the flimsy glasses from his face, and stuffed them into the pocket of his trousers.
His father snatched a glance at his watch, which seemed unnecessary. Giorgio Bramante always knew the time. The minutes and seconds seemed to tick by in his head, always making their mark.
“There’s a meeting at the school. You can’t go in until ten thirty . . .”
“But . . .”
He could have stayed home and read and dreamed.
His father sounded a little tense and uncomfortable, with himself, not his son.
“So what are we going to do?”
Giorgio Bramante smiled. “Something new,” he said, smiling at a thought he had yet to share. “Something fun.”
Alessio was quiet, waiting.
“You do keep asking,” his father continued. “About the place I found.”
The boy’s breathing stopped for a moment. This was a secret. Bigger than anything glimpsed through a keyhole. He’d heard his father speaking in a whispered voice on the phone, noticed how many visitors kept coming to the house, and the way he was sent from the room the moment the grown-up talk began.
“Yes.” He paused, wondering what this all meant. “Please.”
“Well.” Giorgio Bramante hesitated, with a casual shrug, laughing at him in the way they both knew and recognised. “I can’t tell you.”
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “It’s too . . . important to tell. You have to see!”
Giorgio leaned down, grinning, tousling Alessio’s hair.
“Really?” the boy asked, when he could get a word out of his mouth.
“Really. And . . .”—he tapped his superfluous watch—“. . . now.”
“Oh,” Alessio whispered. All thoughts of Piranesi and his undiscovered tricks fled.
Giorgio Bramante leaned down farther and kissed him on the head, an unusual, unexpected gesture.
“Is it still there?” he asked idly, not really looking for an answer, taking Alessio’s small, strong arm, a man in a hurry, his son could see that straightaway.
“No,” he answered, not that his father was really listening anymore.
It simply didn’t exist, not in any of the hundreds of tiny, changing worlds Alessio had seen that morning. Michelangelo’s dome was hiding, lost somewhere in the mist across the river.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson. Copyright © 2007 by David Hewson. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.