Literary breaks

Elvira the Serenissima

Hidden codes, lovers exposed

By Célia Houdart 18 March 2020


© Jérémie Fischer

Elvira the Serenissima

Emmanuele works in the library of the Palazzo Bò in Padua. When a young student asks to consult a work on the destiny of an 18th century woman in Venice, he does not suspect that he is on the point of discovering a hidden treasure. Within the labyrinth of ancient dusty volumes has slipped a sulphurous work that would make many an historian gloat. Who said that seduction and sexual scandals were a male province? The author Célia Houdart has imagined a feminist riposte to Da Ponte’s libretto in this vibrant narrative with a detective story flavour.

Everyone was talking about the cold spell that had gripped the north of Italy and the water in the fountain in the Piazze delle Herbe that had frozen during the night. It was eight o’clock in the morning. Emmanuele was drinking his coffee in the Da Mario bar. Three men and two women were sitting on high stools at the counter. The owner himself was serving his clients. Emmanuele picked up a little paper napkin and stretched out his arm in order to take a brioche filled with apricot jam from the display of French patisserie a little farther over on the bar. He pulled it towards him delicately, between thumb and forefinger, so as not to reduce it to crumbs or inconvenience his neighbour on the right, a big man with a bloated red face who, in any case, after his third caffé corretto, no longer heard the sound of his phone stuffed inside his jacket pocket and was completely elsewhere.

Emmanuele ate his cornetto with relish. Then he wound his tartan scarf around his neck, covered his prematurely balding head with a cap, and left. An icy wind was blowing. The arcades echoed with distorted snatches of conversations in dialect. One could see blue and grey smoke wafting up from the chimneys only to be dispersed in the clear sky. Emmanuele directed rapid steps towards the university library of the Palazzo Bò. A beak-like nose and black eyes was about all that could be seen of the librarian’s face. A little student job that Emmanuele had prolonged for a year, then two, then five had finally become his permanent job, after he failed the exam to become a teacher of Italian Philology. He wasn’t complaining. He had even taken a liking to handling books, to the discussions with the students, to searching the Venetian library networks. It should be mentioned that the old Padua library, with its spiral staircase and its wood panelling was an architectural marvel.

During slack periods, the week of the Ferragosto (15th August) or during the annual inventories, when the university was deserted, Emmanuele could give himself up to his greatest pleasure: reading incunabula and other ancient books. In the town streets that morning, the houses, the statue of Petrarch and the seventy-eight illustrious men in marble on the Prato della Valle seemed to oscillate in the ghostly winter light. Emmanuele was the first to arrive at the library. He left his things in the little room that served as a cloakroom. He gently slipped on his grey overalls, keeping his scarf on as it was chilly. He entered the reading room, tidied up a few journals and a plastic cup that were lying around, then took up his position behind the big oak desk. A few students arrived, talking together. Before Emmanuele had had time to check any e-mails from his superiors on his computer, a young woman was already standing before him. Slender, with big dark eyes and curly brown hair that tumbled over her shoulders. She was holding out a form that she had just filled in. Her clothes – ski-pants with braces, a beige fair-isle sweater with the head of an elk in red on it, lace-up hiking boots, - made Emmanuele smile. On her form he noticed her small round handwriting and her name: Anna Ginzburg. She wanted to consult a work: Destini di donna nel Settecento veneziano. Prof. V. Ponti. Published by Gabrielli. Verona 1976. With the code PONT.3020. XII. The book was to be found on the third floor with the books on Italian History. Emmanuele checked on the data base that the book was available.

“I’ll fetch it for you. It hasn’t been consulted for six years. Is this the first time you’ve been in here?”

“Yes. I’m doing my thesis at the university in Pavia. I’m sifting through libraries and archives for documents that have something or anything to do with my subject: the emancipation of women in the Venetian Republic in the 17th century.”

Emmanuele asked her:

“You went to Venice first, obviously?”
“Yes. But I wasn’t able to pursue my research.”
“The aqua alta?”
“They had to close the Marciana. You knew about that?”
“And how... a million books ... a calamity! ... the slightest spot of damp on an incunabulum, like on a paperback, if it’s not treated in time... my colleagues are terribly worried.”
“At least in Padua you’re safe from anything like that...
Magari! ... You know, Padua too is also, in its way a lagoon city, a huge dried-up marsh. If the Brenta and the Bacchiglione burst their banks, I don’t know what would happen.”

Emmanuele slipped the form into the pocket of his overalls and went off in the direction of the staircase. He climbed slowly as if through the whorls of a huge sea shell. Half-concentrated, half-dreaming, letting himself be hypnotised by the succession of lines made by the handrail, steps and bannisters, oblique, horizontal, vertical, then oblique, horizontal and vertical once more.

Meanwhile, the young research student admired the dark, gleaming wood panelling of the reading room.

On the third floor, Emmanuele followed the order of the codes: POJ, POK, POL, POM, PONT.3015, 3016. 3016 bis. 3017. 3018. 3019... PONT.3020. I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII, IX, X; XI, ... PONT.3020. XII. 1. The book was missing... the librarian looked a little farther on, for it did happen, despite the thoroughness of the staff, that a book was misplaced. Emmanuele drew out the books from the place where the object of his search should have been. There, almost hidden against the wall, he came upon a small, slender cardboard folder which had escaped his notice. Had it slipped under the wooden shelf? Had it been placed there deliberately? Whichever the case, Emmanuele delicately took out the contents leaf by leaf so as not to tear them. Despite the dim light, he realised simply by touching them that these dust-covered pages were themselves turning to dust. They must have lain in that place for years, flattened, forgotten in the darkness.

As for the young research student, she was looking out of the window of the reading room at the children shouting and playing in the street. They were tracing words and faces on the frosty windscreens of parked cars. From where she was standing, she tried to decipher their writing, traced with the tip of a mitten or glove. A little farther on, a shopkeeper was spreading salt in front of his shop. The cold morning sun illuminated his face. The research student heard behind her, at the end of a corridor, the sound of someone falling. No librarian apart from Emmanuele had gone into the stacks. She instantly realised that something had happened. She made up her mind to hop over the rope hanging between two posts across the entrance to the corridor indicating an area closed to the public. At the end of the corridor, she saw Emmanuele. He was at the bottom of the spiral staircase. He was holding his nose. Blood was running from his right nostril onto his scarf and his grey overalls. He had just fallen. On the stairs, loose leaves were scattered and an old folder of beige card, torn in places, was precariously balanced on the handrail.

Emmanuele raised his head slightly:

“Oh, there you are... I wanted to protect this... this bundle. I don’t know what to call it. I am an idiot.”

The young woman smiled.

“That’s extremely dangerous. The pianist Clara Haskil died falling like you did, head first, on the stairs at the Gare du Midi in Brussels, trying to protect her hands.”
“I’ve always said that being a librarian was a risky job.”
“It’s not my book that you wanted to save though, was it?”
“No. In fact, I couldn’t find it. I got my nose broken, as they say. I’ll have to check whether it’s been lost, that book. In the meantime, I’ve found something else.”

He showed her the pages scattered on the stairs.

The library assistant and the young woman began to gather the scattered sheets. They were in manuscript and numbered. The folder bore this title: Catalogo. Donna Elvira.
The library assistant, whose ribs and nose were hurting him, bent down painfully. The student, seeing that Emmanuele was suffering and sensing that he had discovered no ordinary document, suggested he let her do it. Finally, holding in her hands the carefully stacked but disordered pages, she said:

“Go to the chemist. Have a coffee... sort yourself out...” (Indicating the folder)... “I’ll look after this. I won’t touch it. I’ve plenty to ready anyway. I’ll wait for you in the reading room.”

Emmanuele, touched and almost surprised at so much consideration and good sense, handed the two sheets he had managed to pick up to the young woman and left in the direction of the cloakroom.
The young research student sat at a table, put the pages in order and, immediately breaking her promise, began to read:

Signor mio, il catalogo è questo, degli uomini chè amai.
Osservate, leggete con me.
In Italia settecento ;
In Alemagna duecento e cinque ;
Deux cento in Francia, in Turchia una centina;
Ma in Ispagna son già mille e quatro.

The young student raised her head. She had recognised the words, modified, of the “Catalogue” Aria from Don Giovanni by Mozart. But this time, it told of the conquests of a woman. Elvira? Was it she of Da Ponte’s libretto. Anna looked for a date. On the back of the last page she read: Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia.

1793. She made a quick search on her phone. The manuscript post-dated the first performance of the opera. Was this a feminist pamphlet in response to Da Ponte’s libretto? A facetious bit of literary plagiarism? How was one to know? After the neatly stated numbers, the authoress named the men that she had loved. Names censored by means of little crosses, in the style of Liaisons Dangereuses. A ruse that, feigning to dissimulate the lovers, made their eyes shine almost more brightly through the slits in the mask:

Pasquxle Paxli
Clxmente Bxndi
Vittxrix Alfixri
Cxrdxnale Giovanni Mxria Riminxldi
Giovxnni Paisixllo
Antxxio Sxler
Rxxxx de la Bretoxxe
Donatien Alphxxxx Frxxçois de Sxde
Georges Jxxques Dxxton
Maxixxlien de Rxbesxierre
Hubert Rxbert
Gabrxxl de Sxxnt Aubxx
Jexn-Frxnçois Gossxc
Cxzxyirli Gâzi Hxsan Pxcha
Bxhâdur Shâh Zxfar
Jxmes Bxswell
Jxhn Greenwxxd
Frxncisco de Goyx

The list went on for thirty-five pages.

The young research student understood that she was in the presence of a treasure. She placed her hand on the pile of sheets. She breathed deeply, to savour this discovery and let the voice of Donna Elvira resound within her. She felt rather hot in her skiing outfit. Outside, the frost-covered rooftops of the town gleamed softly with a delicate silver sheen.

This article is also available in the folder Don Giovanni

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