I will begin on holy Thursday in the Christian year 1487, Eastertide for the Christians, Passover for the Jews, a perilous time for all. Until that day I had lived the eight years of my life in a child's paradise. On Passover eve Fra Bernardino da Feltre preached an Easter sermon in the town of Mantova. After that day nothing was ever the same again.
The day began for me and my little brother in the ordinary way. Awakened at cock's crow by the slave girl Cateruccia, who slept at the foot of our bed, we washed up, said our prayers, and went on to Mama's room for a sweet bun and some watered wine. This repast had been added to the household routine the year before on the advice of the humanist physician Helia of Cremona. According to him a small amount of bread and wine at the beginning of the day gave protection against the plague by heating the stomach, thus strengthening it against disease. Since few of our neighbors ever served a morsel of food until dinnertime, this extra meal gave our famiglia a certain notoriety among those whose minds and habits were mired in the Dark Ages. But our parents were adherents of all things modern and humanistic. They believed in the superiority of the ancients, the beauty of the human body, and the new educational methods of Maestro Vittorino. Not for them the rabbinical axiom "First the child is allured; then the strap is laid upon his back." Our tutor was never permitted to use the rod.
Out of respect to the wisdom of the ancients, daily exercise was as faithfully adhered to as daily prayers. Mens sana in corpore sano. Even on Passover eve, we made our daily pilgrimage to the Gonzaga stud where our family had permission to ride, Jehiel and I on our pony, Papa on a black Araby stallion looking every bit the great lord in his sable-trimmed cloak. We often saw the young Marchese, Francesco Gonzaga, gallop by although he rarely troubled himself to acknowledge us. However, that morning he stopped to have a private word with Papa, whom he called Maestro Daniele, a term of some respect.
It was not a long audience. Francesco Gonzaga always preferred to converse with dogs and horses rather than people. But his demeanor that day was remarkably agreeable. He even had a smile for us. I thought he must be amused by the way we rode our pony, I in the saddle and Jehiel on pillion, contrary to the usual arrangement for boys and girls. Whatever his reasons, to me it was as if one of the gods had descended from heaven and smiled on us. I didn't even notice how ugly he was.
To my surprise, Papa introduced Jehiel to the Marchese by the name Vitale. I now know that Vitale is what Christians call all Jews named Jehiel, in the odd belief that they are translating the name directly from Hebrew into Italian, since Jehiel means "light" in Hebrew and Vitale means "light" in the Italian vernacular. My name, as is almost always the case with women, remains Grazia to both Jews and Christians. Apparently precise distinctions are not necessary in the naming of girls.
As for Jehiel, he was as perplexed to hear himself called Vitale as I. I think my brother had never heard his Christian name before. But he responded with a modest bow like a perfect little gentleman. And I bowed too since no one had taught me how to curtsy while seated on a pony. Again, the Marchese smiled. A fine beginning for Passover eve.
But on the way home, when we attempted to cross the Piazza delle Erbe, three barefoot Franciscan brothers appeared out of nowhere to bar our way, cursing us for infidel Jews. The sainted Bernardino da Feltre was preaching in the square that day. How dare we trespass on this holy Christian event?
We looked to Papa to put these cheeky priests in their place. Instead, he nodded courteously, reversed his mount, and led us home by way of San Andrea. As we approached our stable, he did make a halfhearted jest about barefoot priests but I caught a glint of something like fear in his eyes.
The maids had worked far into the night cleaning and plucking chickens and fowl and skewering them onto the great spit. And when we entered the house, the steaming kettle was beginning to release into the air that heavenly scent of figs and cinnamon that issues from the Passover pudding and fills the house with its fragrance as it cooks.
Dinner consisted of minestra and bread - scanty fare at our table, but no one complained. They knew they would feast that night at the seder. But as the soup was being served, Monna Matilda, the shohet's wife, rose to her feet, her beard hairs bristling, to challenge my father.
"Why were we not told that da Feltre was engaged to preach in our city this day, Ser Daniele?" she demanded on behalf of the assembled household. "And what is being done to protect the safety of this famiglia?"
I swear to God if the geyser at Vesuvius had erupted, that woman would have blamed it on the dei Rossis. But Papa, not always the most tolerant, man, kept a special store of patience in reserve for Monna Matilda.
"I well understand your fears, good woman," he began sweetly. "Remember, I have little ones of my own and a wife in a delicate condition."
"Exactly." Monna literally preened her breast with pride at having been vindicated.
"I know you will be pleased to hear that this very morning I held a discussion on the matter with Marchese Francesco."
A restrained gasp went up among the diners at the mention of the title. True, Marchese Francesco Gonzaga was yet young, but in the Mantovan territory he shone with a luster equal to that of the Pope, the Emperor, or the great kings of Europe.
"The young Marchese was most gracious, as always," Papa reported. "He understands our unease. He is aware of what happened at Trento, even though he was a boy at the time."
At the mention of Trento, all heads dropped into a prayerful pose and murmurs of "God guard us from it" were heard all around.
"At the same time," Papa continued, ignoring the bowed heads, "the Marchese urges us to remember that his family has a long and close association with Fra. Bernardino. Thus, to use his own words, he must pick his way carefully between his loyalty to a valued family friend and his duty to preserve the civil peace of Mantova."
"Does that mean," Davide, our tutor, asked in a quavering voice, "that the Marchese will allow this friar to preach against us in Mantova as he did at Trento?"
"Not a bit of it," Papa answered with a smile of satisfaction. "He has given me his personal assurance that the friar is strictly prohibited from preaching against the Jews in this territory. In his own words, 'There will be no rabble-rousing in Mantova as long as Francesco Gonzaga rules here. Nor will we permit anyone to interfere with our Jews.'"
"And do you take this declaration to be sincere, Ser Daniele?" asked the old rabbi.
"I do, Rov Isaac," Papa replied respectfully.
"Christians have broken their promises in the past..." the old man reminded him.
"So they have," interrupted Dania, the tutor's wife.
Rabbi Isaac silenced her with a glare. The old man had no regard for the opinion of any woman. "I was inquiring of Ser Daniele, who knows the Gonzagas well - the late father as well as this young son - if he rests content with their assurance of our safety."
"I have a particular reason to depend upon the protection of the Gonzaga family, Rov Isaac," was Papa's reply. "A reason that extends beyond their promises."
In fairness to Papa, he did have a good reason - a hidden reason - to put his trust in the Gonzagas' promise of protection. It seems that the young Marchese's grandfather, Lodovico Gonzaga, had initiated the practice of investing a sizable sum of ducats with the dei Rossi banco for the purpose of sharing in the high interest rate that he permitted us to charge. Put bluntly, the Gonzagas were silent partners in our banco.
Now bear in mind that the Pope only allowed Jews to lend money at interest in order to prevent Christians from committing the sin of usury. Imagine then the extreme displeasure of his Holiness were he to discover that one of the great soldiers in his Christian service, such as a Gonzaga or a Bentivoglio, was using Jewish partners to cover over his own dealings in usury. It was clearly in everyone's best interests that such partnerships remain "silent." But whether secret or open, being a partner in our I>banco. And perhaps another thing. There lives within some of us Jews - especially the banchieri and the physicians - a powerful pull toward the Christian princes. Because of the intimate nature of our dealings with them, we are brought close enough to the perimeter of their lives to see into their very hearts. Yet no matter how close we get, no matter how many privileges we are accorded, no matter that we are invited to their fetes, permitted to ride our horses in their parks, made party to their secrets, we can never truly be a part of their world. Their sphere becomes a charmed circle; they themselves a breed apart. And no amount of contrary evidence, of brutal acts, coarse habits or broken promises can quite vanquish the charm they hold for us.
I believe that this aura wrapped the Gonzaga court in a kind of veil that obscured its all too human aspects from my father. He was a very clever man, and worldly enough to know that the gracious young man who welcomed him at his court, who called him maestro, who saluted him when we passed each other on our morning canters - that this prince was quite capable of maintaining his pledge to protect the goods in our warehouse while, at the same time, withdrawing his protection from our persons...which is precisely what Francesco Gonzaga did to us on the eve of Passover in the year 1487.
The first hint of this betrayal came in the form of three wagons and a teamster that clattered into our vicolo just after dinner. They had been sent by Marchese Francesco, the wagon master announced, to transport the valuables in our warehouse to the Carmelite convent in the Via Pomponazzo for safekeeping.
From the astonishment on Papa's face, it was clear that this was an aspect of Francesco Gonzaga's gracious benevolence he hadn't counted on. Still he could hardly refuse the proffered help without offending the man. Hiding his distress under a flinty smile, he offered his arm to the factotum and led the way to the warehouse.
I remember asking myself, as I watched them turn the corner, why if we were so safe under the Marchese's protection, must our valuables be sequestered elsewhere "for safekeeping"? But something else bothered me even more. I could not get out of my mind the moment at dinner when everyone fell silent at the mention of Trento. What had happened in that place? I had to know.
I could not have chosen a worse time to trouble my father with my perturbation. But, to his credit, he put aside his own worries and responded to my question. "The events at Trento are among the blackest ever recorded," he advised me. "You are a maiden. Do you have the stomach for a diabolical mix of horror, lies, and slaughter?"
"Very well." He laid down his papers and took me up into his lap. "I suppose a girl who has weathered the Odyssey is ready for Trento. But you must agree to stay with me till the end of the story."
I agreed. And he began. "Twelve years ago, the Christian Easter coincided exactly with the Jewish Passover."
"As it does this year?"
"Exactly. And it so happened that the preacher who came to Trento to preach a course of Easter sermons that year was - "
"Bernardino da Feltre!" I knew it.
"Now before you jump off into a sea of analogy, daughter, bear this in mind: That was Trento and this is Mantova."
"Analogy is milk for babes but reasoned truth is strong meat," I quoted proudly.
Papa sighed. Why was it that everybody always sighed when I quoted the ancients? "Now can we get on with Trento?"
"Very well. In the year 1475, Fra Bernardino was still merely one of a legion of itinerant preachers who roam the peninsula in bare feet exhorting Christians to revenge Christ and kill the Jews. Bur by the time he had delivered the last of his sermons, titled 'The Sins of the Jews'" - here Papa's voice took on a deeper timbre - "his name was inscribed in the Book of infamy. "
"What did he say, Papa, that was so evil?"
"The libel is breathtaking in its malevolent simplicity," Papa answered in the same stentorian tone. "He told the people of Trento that there was a secret ingredient in the matzoh that the Jews baked and ate at Passover time. And that this secret ingredient was human blood. Now here is the real cunning of the man. This blood, he told the people of Trento, was no ordinary blood, mind you, but the blood of Christian babies stolen from their mothers' breasts by the blood-hungry Jews, crucified in a mockery of the suffering of our Lord, and finally disemboweled, their tiny limbs torn from their bodies and their hearts milked for blood."
"But that isn't true!" I burst out.
"It is a falsehood so monstrous that it has achieved its own cognomen: the Blood Libel of Trento." He shuddered slightly as he spoke the word, "Now you, my daughter, are schooled enough in the law of Moses to appreciate the magnitude of the falsehood. You know well the categorical prohibition in the Mosaic Code against the consumption of blood in any shape, form, or quantity. You know that a Jew would rather die than eat blood, so repugnant is it to his faith. But how were the people of Trento to know this? Their saintly friar had verified the libel as true.
"On fire with blood lust, the crowd streamed out of the church bent on vengeance. In the street where they lived, the Jews of the town were conducting the first seder, celebrating the escape of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt. As the Jews bowed their heads in prayer, the crowd of Christians stormed the street like an enraged beast, shouting, 'Burn the Jews! Avenge the children!'"
"No!" I did not want to hear any more. But Papa plunged on as if unable to stop himself.
"The people of Trento put the houses of the Jews to the torch one by one. Then they lay back and waited, the way hunters wait for their dogs to flush out the prey. And after not too many moments, the Jews began to emerge, choking, from the fiery furnaces that moments ago had been their homes. As they came out, the Christians cut them down one by one. It is said that no one there got out alive. Women, children, the old, infirm, all perished."
He leaned back, exhausted.
And I kept silent, thinking that the same preacher who had exhorted the people of Trento to a crime too vicious to imagine would, this day, be preaching in my town, in my square. And I knew why a roomful of people had lowered their heads in desperate prayer and why Papa shivered at the mention of the name Trento.