The room was a testament to an untidy mind. The walls, covered in sturdy shelving, sprouted scrolls, books. Sheets of paper – some folded carefully, others jammed in gaps. There were quadrants of different sizes and construction – one covered in Arabic script, of a different design but of the same ancestry. There were devices the visitor recognised as magnifying glasses, cunning contrivances that made small things bigger. His father had bought one at vast expense as his eyes failed. Here there were several, some lying on the table, others arranged on an odd stand that allowed the user to line them up. Similarly, there were tubes with both concave and convex glass in them, though the visitor could not immediately fathom their use. Here and there were bottles of ink and piles of quill pens, brushes and palates, dividers and protractors: the tools of the map maker. Under the window in stark contrast to the rest of the room, there stood a surprisingly uncluttered desk, equipped with rulers and wells of ink.
The rest of the room was simply dishevelled, if such a word could be applied to a dwelling. Chairs stood with cloaks and other clothing heaped over them; a cap hung carelessly from the door handle. A collection of walking staffs and canes were propped in an untidy stack against the corner walls.
But the centre of the room was different. Roped off, but with a walkway around, lay the map. A mosaic map of the finest detail and colour, built into a tray that stood what, four inches deep? Across the map, but suspended just above so as not to touch the surface, there was a criss-cross lattice of wires and on the edges where they were attached to the frame, a sequence of letters and numbers, so that any part of the grid could be identified and catalogued without difficulty. Some of the pieces seemed to be the size of a walnut, others just grains of sand, with every variation of size between.
The visitor, a nobile was not a man who impressed easily, but it was impossible not to admire the intricacy and majesty of Europa laid out in miniature at his feet. Educated well in the histories and arts of his land, the young man recognised art and craftsmanship when he saw it and he knew that this single map, spanning the burning lands of Iberia to the wastes of Russ; Anglia in the north-west and Imperial Byzantium in the south-east with all points between, surpassed the work of any artist or craftsman of the ancients. Italia sat to the south and his eyes sought out the city of Venesia, his home.
This mosaic was an example of the craft that had attracted the young nobleman to the home of The Map Maker. Just so: The Map Maker. Not a map maker, but The Map Maker: il Cartagrafo. Master Cagliostro’s level of skill and artifice demanded no less than the recognition bestowed by the use of the definite article and capitals. His art –his science in this field – was second to none and the elite of Florence knew it and through them, so did all of Italy, or rather all those in Italy who mattered. It was said and only half jokingly, that if the map did not match the geography; it was the land that lay wrong, not the map.
And yet for all this, Master Cagliostro could hardly be said to be famous. Few people knew where he lived, much less what he looked like. If not actively secretive, The Map Maker was intensely private and it was rare that he troubled himself with matters of court or the affairs of princes, and yet he was obviously wealthy: very wealthy. Perhaps the observation was wrong; the Map Maker was clearly widely enough known in those circles that demanded his particular skills for them to reward him appropriately.
Bored with his wait, the young Nobile leant out over the mosaic to get a better look; the effect was quite remarkable, the closer he looked, the more there appeared to be to see until he found himself staring at minute detail, certain that if only he could look closer, there was more to be revealed. He fancied that this must be how God sees His creation, with the exception that from God nothing is hidden.
Suddenly he felt dizzy: the kaleidoscopic effect of his inspection of the map made his head reel. The young man swayed forward. A hand clutched at his shoulder and drew him back, guiding him to a chair where he might regain his composure.
“It is unseasonably hot, is it not?”
Master Cagliostro was a wiry man of slightly more than medium height. He wore richly appointed robes that showed signs of wear and clear neglect, though it was equally evident that this was due to a lack of concern rather than resource. It might be said and with some truth, that he resembled a Venetian trading ship under full sail.
As his head cleared, the young Nobile found it hard to match the man he saw in front of him with the reputation. He had expected someone rather older, though now he thought on the matter he had to confess that he had no idea of precisely how hold he had thought the Master to be. Certainly he was not a young man, though neither was he old, or at least he did not seem it. There was a certain sheen to the skin of his hands and face that suggested a level of vigour and youthfulness that was, for want of as better phrase, stretched, as if preposterously, Caglisotro had simply forgotten to age. Despite his observation concerning the temperature, it did not seem to trouble him unduly under the layers and weight of his vestments.
As the younger man pondered this he became uncomfortably aware of the Master’s scrutiny and he realised that some time had passed and he had spent it rudely gawping like a peasant and that he had neither introduced himself nor observed even the most basic rules of etiquette.
“You must forgive me, Master Cagliostro, my name is Cèsar d’Baroni. I am here on urgent business, on my family’s business. Our immediate neighbours dispute our property rights to the Isola di San Marco.”
He pointed with his cane at a small marking on the map, an island sitting between the water front before the Basilica San Marco and the rather larger Isola di San Giorgiao Maggiore.
“This land and the properties built thereon have belonged to us directly for generations and we have tended them and acquired additional lands over the years so as to represent a substantial holding in the city and a rising force within the Repùblica Vèneta. The family traces its origins back to the days of the Eraclian ascendance. Unfortunately, a cadet branch of the family, though of some distant remove has, through marriage and political intrigue, acquired what are indisputably documents of questionable veracity to suggest that they have the senior claim to a significant portion of our wealth.”
“Monsignor el Doxe is taking the matter more seriously than common sense and propriety might suggest and we are therefore unable to dispose of this challenge to our sovereign rights in the manner that we would otherwise see fit”.
Cagliostro crossed to his work bench.
“You are of course aware, Signore, that I am a close acquaintance of His Serenity, and a personal friend to his granddaughter, the Lady Aurelia. Should the Dandolo family, as the first amongst Venetians, feel that the matter requires investigation, I am not disposed to argue or otherwise obstruct their deliberations.”
The younger man took a step back. He was used to people doing his bidding and did not take kindly to a rebuff, even if only implied. His tone and demeanour shifted.
“Perhaps I was unclear in this matter. The island is ours; this is beyond dispute and if it requires that I pay you to provide me with a map to demonstrate this, then so I shall and you shall provide it!”
In a flash of temper he stabbed his cane at the map, stamping it hard and accurately on the representation of the Venetian lagoon. There was a crack as a piece came free.
Immediately he realised that such a tactic, a display of petulant authority regularly employed with servants and commoners would not work here: he had started without thinking, but the damage was done. As he tried desperately to restate his position in more placatory terms, he watched Cagliostro pull himself up, almost unfold himself to reveal a rather taller and more impressive figure. He stepped forward and stared his visitor in the eye. The already close atmosphere suddenly seemed darker and more oppressive.
“You come into my home uninvited and spin me a tale that illustrates greed, impatience and a lack of basic civility in a manner that betrays the moral decay of your family. You proceed to insult me by suggesting that I should be willing to betray my principles and friendships for mere wealth. You then damage the very item you wish to use to your profit. Your very presence is an insult and your lack of appreciation of what constitutes my craft, my Art, evidences your lack of worth in my eyes.
“You think that I care about petty divisions of land between families? These are transitory; fleas arguing over the ownership of the dog they infest. My maps are a precise and accurate representation of the world as it is, not as it is perceived in your papers, plans and genealogies. I record and measure the sweep of the plains, the rise of the mountains and the shade of the valleys; I have no need of, or interest in mundane matters such as lines enclosing areas and assigning ownership.”
And then the moment passed and Caglisotro was suddenly just a tired man in faded robes. “You simply do not understand; it is beyond you and your kind.” He reached across to his work bench and pushed a few parchments to one side. There was a small clay jar, which he grabbed and uncorked. Cagliostro knelt over his map, took the jar and sprinkled a dull grey ash over the damaged portion of the map. He brushed it gently with his fingers and muttered something that sounded like old Latin under his breath. For the briefest of moments d’Baroni thought he saw the powdery ash glimmer, but then it was gone.
Master Cagliostro rose to his feet and held up a tiny, chipped piece of quartz. “Perhaps you believe in chance or in Providence, or perhaps there are powers at work beyond your limited comprehension.”
He held out the chip to diBaroni. “Either way, you have your wish, if not in the manner you intended. This is, was, the Isola di San Marco. The matter is resolved though not, I suspect, to your satisfaction.” He looked sadly at the young aristocrat and dropped the chip into the younger man’s hand. As he did so, he clasped him by the shoulder with his other hand and softly whispered:
“Per artem perdo et muto mentem; Absentis faciem in oculo mentis”
Three days later, after increasingly frustrating attempts to find anyone who may know of, or even have heard rumour of the reputed Master Mapmaker, the fabled Cartagrafo in the whole of Florence, Cèsar d’Baroni decided that his family had sent him on a wild goose chase. There was clearly no such man and how could there be; a man whose maps were so accurate, the world bent to them? Preposterous. He had been a fool to accept this commission, when it was clear that his family simply wished him away from under foot as they resolved matters their own way.
Tomorrow he decided, he would begin his return journey to Vèneta and make plain his dissatisfaction. He was pondering a piece of quartz in his hand, that he could not remember picking up, when his reverie was disturbed by a clamour outside his rented chambers. A man pushed into the room, dishevelled and dusty from a long journey. Seeing diBaroni he strode over “Signore, signore! It is a calamity! Two nights ago, the ground shook and the lagoon boiled. The family is in disarray, for many were in the villa when the waves took them!”
DiBaroni looked at the messenger uncomprehendingly. “What are you saying?”
“Signore: the Isola di San Marco is no more. It has gone”.
The chip of quartz rattled as it fell to the floor.
©2011, 2019 Bryan Lea
Note: I found this while rooting around in the depths of an old hard drive. I’ve been feeling the vaguest of itches to write something recently and have a couple of half-formed ideas. If anyone actually reads this and, even better, enjoys it, I’d appreciate a comment saying so. Constructive criticism is welcome. Be kind! 😉