An Impossible Task

Girolamo Miele, the greatest architect in all Talia, was in jail. Not for murder or theft or treason; he had forgotten to pay his Guild fees. And angry as he was with those who had plotted to imprison him, he was much more fearful of what his young wife Beata would have to say about his forgetfulness.

Miele paced the stone floor of his underground cell, only a few hundred yards from where he should have been working on the great unfinished cathedral of Giglia. He stopped to cast a critical eye at the vaulted ceiling of the cell; it was competently designed, no more. Still, prisons did not have to be more than functional.

But Girolamo Miele was a sculptor and goldsmith as well as an engineer and architect. And he believed that form and beauty were the same thing — if a thing functioned properly it would be beautiful in its own right and all ornament just a footnote, an indulgence of the maker. Mentally he began to redesign the dungeons, to pass the time till Beata would come with the money for his fine.


'Twelve scudi!' Beata had exclaimed earlier when the guards had come for Miele.

'You would imprison my husband, the great Miele, for non-payment of a sum that is less than he pays a labourer on the cupola for one lousy day's work!'

For that was what the missed dues to the Stonemasons' Guild amounted to: one scudo for each month of the year. But the fine was a hundred times the sum, a punishing one thousand two hundred scudi. It didn't matter to Miele; he had thirty or forty times that banked with the di Chimici family, who were the richest family in Giglia.

Beata and Girolamo wasted no time on enmity towards the guards; they knew who was really responsible for the arrest. The feud between Girolamo Miele and Ottavio Altamonte had being going strong for thirty years, since before Beata had been born, and this was just the latest skirmish.

The Rivals

In 1400, when the di Chimici were just coming into their fortune as bankers in Giglia, the Guild of Wool Merchants decided to hold a competition. The huge cathedral, Santa Maria del Giglio, Saint Mary of the Lily, was nearing completion. The crossing was still open to the sky, its floor messed by pigeons, awaiting a dome worthy of the mighty building conceived a hundred years before.

But in front of the cathedral fašade, which was still rough brick at that time, stood a much more ancient building. The black and white striped baptistery was an octagonal structure, now dedicated respectably to Saint John, the patron saint of all baptisms. But there wasn't a single Giglian who didn't know that it had once been a temple dedicated to the Consort of the Goddess, the Sun.

Its very shape — eight sides representing rays of the sun — showed it to belong to the old religion of the Middle Sea, the one that Talians continued to believe in their bones, under the surface of form and doctrine that modern fifteenth-century men and women wore.

Talia had been converted to Christianity only a few hundred years before and only on the understanding that people could go on believing what they liked because no one was going to ask them. So Talians, and that meant Giglians as much as anyone else, built their churches and cathedrals  but went on swearing 'By the Goddess!'  They had their Pope in Remora, but never forgot that it had been capital of the Reman Empire when the Goddess and her Consort held sway all over the Middle Sea.

And in 1400 Giglians were afraid that they had perhaps not been paying enough attention to the old deities. There had been a terrible plague — the Cold Death they called it, 'Morte Fredda', because once the victims reached the shivering stage of the disease, they were doomed. A quarter of the city's inhabitants had died.

So the Guild of Wool Merchants had decided to cheer up the remaining three quarters by having a competition to do something magnificent for the old temple. Donato Nucci, who was leader of the Guild, wanted the people to let the Lady know that she and her fiery lover were still important to the city, that the vast bulk of the Christian cathedral rising over the old temple was no insult to the old gods.

So he authorised the Lana, the Wool Merchants, to pay for a pair of splendid bronze doors that would face Saint Mary of the Lily and remind all worshippers of the new religion that the old one was always nearby. The doors would show scenes from the Christian Holy Book but ones that could be interpreted as representing older stories. The prize would be 80 silver florins and was open to all sculptors in Talia. The cost of the materials would be borne by the Guild and the competition would be judged by a special committee.

The scene to be depicted for the competition was that of the Maddalena weeping over the dragon. It was an enormously popular story with Talians because it had two meanings. The one in the Holy Book was that the reformed sinner wept over the creature because it belonged to the pagan past, which would dissolve under the influence of the new faith. That was what the Archbishop of Giglia could believe when he came to bless the doors.

But in the older version the Saint was none other than the Lady herself and the dragon was the new religion, which would devour her. She wept then because she saw how the future would be but the ravening beast dissolved at the first drop because, after all, the Lady cannot be driven away; she will always find new forms.

There were at least seven serious contenders but only two matter for this story. Ottavio Altamonte was a young lad of twenty, untried and inexperienced but good-looking and extremely polite. Girolamo Miele was twenty-four and had cast bronze before but was ill-favoured and not possessed of the sweetest temper. While the competition panels were being made, Ottavio sought advice from every artist and person of judgment in the city. No one was allowed to look at Miele's work, except his great friend the sculptor Gabriele.

Now this Gabriele was no better-looking or more polished than his friend, but the two men had known each other all their lives, had both been born within sight of the rising cathedral and were passionately loyal Giglians. Gabriele had sculpted in marble, cast in bronze, carved in wood and could represent anything he saw and lots of things he didn't.