It’s dangerous for a girl to be a mathematical prodigy in eighteenth-century Rome.
Daniela Messo and her father withdraw from the world, but Giuseppe Balsamo arrives with his occult magic and the claim that Daniela has inherited the secrets of a long-dead Jewish mystic. Posing as wonder-working pilgrims, they swindle their way across Europe, ever further east, en route perhaps to Jerusalem or to an ambiguous salvation.
Targeted Age Group:: 16+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I hope you're not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.
Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung's Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind. I started to research his life and learned his real name was Giuseppe Balsamo but at that stage in my own life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. Or simply, how love intoxicates. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. Over and over again, the more I tried to learn about the world Daniela lived in, the more connections and coincidences I found and the more excited I got.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had great power. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy and religious orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. (There's a lot we can relate to today as there's a not-so-peaceful coexistence right here in the US as well as around the world between a secular and scientific outlook and fundamentalist faith.) As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women's pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly's Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I'd decided from the start that Daniela would have to be a child prodigy. Most prodigies exhibit their talents either in music or mathematics and since math is what I know least about, I made Daniela a mathematician. As I started researching the era, I discovered there had actually been a female mathematical genius in 18th-century Italy: Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Daniela is not Agnesi, but being (as confessed above) ignorant in math, I happily borrowed some calculus details from Agnesi's work.
Daniela would have to be extremely rational, scientific, and skeptical as a foil to Balsamo's mysticism and magic. We are so often attracted to what is different and that touch of magic can make us reckless, no? Balsamo isn't conventionally attractive. His hold on Daniela, including his erotic hold, had to come from mind games and mystery. And because he represented a means of liberation and escape.
If I had not been raised to be a genius and if Pope Benedict had lived a few more years, my father would not have suffered a stroke on the afternoon of April 14, l760, my thirteenth birthday. If not for the events of that day, we would not have cut ourselves off from the world, here behind these walls.
If Papa had been in good health four years later, when you first asked to be admitted to our home – a stranger, a Sicilian, without introductions or name – I suspect he would have said no. Instead, he heard your request and looked up for a moment. “Library?” he repeated. “Uh, yes,” and returned to his breakfast, a mush of bread and eggs.
If we had not been trying to save my father's life and restore his lost youth, we would not have stood before one another naked. Perhaps I should never have reached the point of knowing I would do whatever you might ask.
“Give yourself to me,” you said, and it was as though one of Leibniz's monads, independent and oblivious to every other monad moving through space – unaware that Pope Benedict and my father, the integral calculus, the deadly man in scarlet cap were all part of the harmony – should suddenly step back and see the entire pattern that brought you to me and made you my destiny. Balsamo.
Give yourself to me, you said. But how is it done? I am willing, don't you see? I stepped into your arms as easily as I would hand Fiammetta a shawl, and yet I saw you weren't satisfied. How does one give?
You can give someone a plate of noodles, but then the noodles must be eaten. It is not enough for the gift to offer no resistance – I offer none to you – but it must be offered in a form in which it can be consumed.
The problem: I am not a serving of pasta, nor a pair of lace cuffs that I can give you and even help to fasten at your wrists, an ornament to accompany you in the world.
The solution: I give up my suspicions, I hold you first in my heart and in my mind. I have entertained your friends and I have trusted you with my father's life. Yet none of this is useful, none of it in the proper form. I have failed you.
This morning, I went to your room.
So much has happened in these short months since you first appeared. I remember you, a slight figure in threadbare clothes, a Southerner, and not quite civilized. Your dark curling beard, your hairy frame made me think of a malnourished satyr. I felt sorry for you then, you were so ugly.
This morning I sat on the edge of your bed. “I love you, Balsamo.”
“Dani,” you said, “you are so innocent.”
“No. Innocent,” you said. “Who are you, Daniela? I want to know you.”
And I started to cry, because you do know me. No one knows me as well as you.
“You keep your secrets, Daniela.”
I have no secrets. I stood before you naked. Not even I have seen myself as you have seen me. I have looked at my arms, my thighs; I studied my breasts as they grew. But I have never seen myself whole. Only these fragments, this part, that. My face in the mirror. Balsamo, no one but you.
No, this is all wrong. I sound like a silly girl and that, above all, is what I am not. Try again.
* * * * *
God may not watch the world from on high, but I do. A third-story window leads onto the roof and I have scrambled over the tiles to my flat and secret hiding place and I have looked out over Rome. Here, from our house on the hill, while I look down on the church of Santa Francesca and the convent, the bell tower rises in the distance, almost on a level with my eyes. The ruined arch at the near end of the church seems to be getting higher, growing up to poke through the screen of trees. If the arch means something – and Balsamo says it does – I swear I know nothing about it.
Daniela Messo was my mother's name and what they called me at birth. But I have no mother. I am Minerva, sprung forth with a yell from my father's skull. He raised me to be a genius, though I have been called other things. Now, at seventeen, I cannot be counted a prodigy anymore, so what am I to be?
I am what I know. So put it all down, Daniela. Then mystery must yield to study, and fears to facts.
“When I think of all I tried to create in this world,” my father once said, “your mind is the one unqualified success.”
That mind has conquered Latin and Greek, chemistry, the integral and differential calculus. I have never before turned it to look at my life.
* * *
My father, Don Michele Messo, is a very good looking man – slender, small and well-defined. His nose comes to a sharp point and his eyebrows form two straight silver lines. His eyes glinted like metal when we bent our heads together over the secrets of algebra and geometric forms, but now those eyes are nearsighted enough to be gentle and dim. My father has always been a non-conformist – perhaps because his only child is a daughter and not a son – yet his bearing is – was – that of, I imagine, a military man. Before his health failed, he had the most wonderful way of standing up from his chair. He never unfolded his body the way some, especially taller, men do. Counting on nothing but the strength of his thighs, he would push himself up, without effort or hurry, his back absolutely straight.
Even before his stroke, I can remember, now that I think back, his memory had become confused. One day, in the spirit of radicalism, he told us – the servants Carlo and Fiammetta, and me – that we were to call him “Michele” from that day forth. We were embarrassed, but he insisted and so we agreed. “Michele,” I said, trying to get his attention. “Michele?” But perhaps he had not heard the word spoken without its preceding respectful Don since he was a boy. At any rate, he had forgotten the sound of it and no longer answered to his name. “Father,” I said at last, and then he looked up and scolded me for my formality.
Papa taught me at home. By the age of seven, I was fluent in Latin and French and could read and translate from Hebrew and Greek. I learned philosophy, and so I could have reminded my father that matter is neither created nor destroyed. He has not made me – at most, he has recombined my elements.
In those early years, I wasn't kept here at home. I was free, or so I thought. I made my own choices though, now I see, all with the aim of pleasing him. My ignorance of Art is an echo of Papa's disdain. We agreed that busts of the Emperors glorified tyranny; graven images of saints, gods and angels sprang from disordered minds. In the old days, by which I mean before I was thirteen, my father would call for the carriage and we'd visit his friends – priests, mostly; most every man in Rome is either a beggar or a priest. To dress respectably, even my father often wore a black cassock, and we would go and visit somber homes and palaces, vast, ill-lit and dreary, with bloody crucifixes on every wall, tables covered with bric-à-brac and pretty clocks and stones, and prayer stools arranged so cunningly that a child couldn't help but trip over them in the dark.
Once, at a time when I could not have been more than two or three, I remember a room where murmurous women petted me and made me stand before the crucifix, looking up at the ragged, punished man upon the Cross. “And you know who He is, don't you?” they asked, as they kissed me and fussed. I'd had no religious education. The only Cross we had at home hung over our door so that men relieving themselves in the street would show respect and squat a little further down the road.
“She doesn't know,” the women murmured. “She's just a baby, a tender babe.”
Even at that age, I was used to being praised for giving answers and didn't like being treated as a child. “I do know!” I cried. “I do!”, and guessed: “That's the dirty man who made caca on the floor.”
I can remember quite clearly the women's shock and my own feelings of shame, but I only know the words themselves because my father loved the story and repeated it many times, but only to the most discreet and trusted friends.
For the most part, though, as I grew, I had nothing to do with women. Girls my own age never interested me. I was different. Sober, uncharming, I was admitted into the company of adult men. But all I wanted was to be home with Papa. In those days, I would have happily given up the outside world of my own free will. All I wanted was to be home, seated with him, my father, sharing him only with the books we studied together, his face close to mine.
We prepared orations in Latin, presentations of debate. A crowd of men would assemble each year, priests and scholars and patrons, all my father's curious friends. Each year on my birthday they would come to measure my amazing progress, to meet me and listen to me, the miracle child.
And my mother, in all of this, what was she? She was dead. She was just dead.
I have her name but I never knew her face. It was not the fashion for Romans to sit for portraits in her day; we have no likeness of her in the house. Fiammetta tells me she was a great beauty, but I can't imagine Fiammetta telling me anything else. Once, when I pestered her with questions, she held me up before a high mirror.
“That's what she looked like,” said Fiammetta. “Daniela Messo.”
I looked into a pair of hazel eyes and a jam-smeared mouth and chin. I smelled in Fiammetta's scent: garlic, crushed herbs, wet powder, harsh soap.
“She didn't really die,” said Fiammetta. “Not all the way. She lives in you.”
Then she put me down again, the one time I remember Fiammetta holding me.
I don't mean to sound sorry for myself. This is simply the way it is.
My mother. We still live on her, of course. Her family was very rich, so Fiammetta has told me, with investments and interests in many foreign cities and ports. We live on the income from the Tuscan estates my grandfather settled on her at the time of her marriage. As for my maternal heritage, that is all I know.
Papa always hated the thought of being a landowner and living off the labor of other men. He tried many ventures to earn his own way. There are books in the library that were printed on his seized and bankrupt press. We eat off dishes from the pottery works that failed. I like to think there is nothing under the sun my father hasn't tried. His hand is everywhere. And I, the only success. Or rather, my mind. But what difference has there ever been between my mind and my self?
There is no choice: we live on my mother's remains. Not in luxury, but in comfort, comfort being all my father's conscience will allow.
“I killed her,” he said once, “getting her with child.”
I killed her, I thought, being born.
She left us, she went off, not even waiting to know me. I am not her child. I have no mother. I am mind, shaped by my father's mind.
Sometimes, when I am hiding in my secret place on the roof, I hear my father pacing the floors below, calling “Daniela? Daniela! Where are you?” Then for a moment, I think that love for my mother, complete eternal love, has unhinged his mind, that he wanders the halls like a madman, tearing his hair and trying to call her back from the grave. Oh, my mother! I think of her, perfect and beautiful. I think of her, ignorant, illiterate (for so she was), and bloody at my birth. Oh, my mother! I cry, knowing that I am Daniela, that my father is calling me, only me.
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