PERHAPS IT was her youthful beauty? Julien Barneuve thought so, at least when he first read the account of this fateful encounter, elaborated through the years and finally set down with all the romance that hindsight can offer around 1480, nearly a century and a half later. The pedigree of the anecdote was always suspect, seeming too close to Petrarch's encounter with his Laura to be comfortable. But it had tradition behind it, as well as one of Olivier's finest verses, the tenline poem that begins (in the wholly inadequate 1865 translation of Frédéric Mistral), "My eyes have stabbed my soul . . ." And the essence was surely true, for Olivier's dreadful fate a few years later when he fell into the hands of Isabelle's husband could not be contradicted. If he had not loved her, why would he have killed her and been attacked himself in such a way?
For Olivier was tainted with madness, it seemed; the story recounted how the girl had wished to go with her husband to flee the plague and the poet begged her to stay in Avignon, that they might die in each other's arms. And when she refused, he killed her, unable to let her go. The deed revealed his secret, and he was set upon by the Comte de Fréjus's hirelings in revenge, beaten, and his tongue and hands cut off. Olivier was, quite literally, silenced, his voice forever quieted. He could no longer talk, write, or even make signs so that others could understand him well. More still, the outraged and humiliated husband had destroyed all but a few of his poems. No one could now tell whether his poetry, for which he was beginning to become known, was indeed the first flowering of a literary Renaissance, the model beside which Petrarch ranked a lowly second, or merely appeared so to those few who had read his work during his life. Only a dozen or so remained, not enough to captivate a man like Barneuve until he came across some documents in the Vatican library on a cold day in February 1926 while going through the papers of Cardinal Annibaldus di Ceccani, a collector of manuscripts and the poet's first-and only-patron.
It was the first section of a twenty-page manuscript in Olivier's hand that kept Julien awake at night in excitement, when he finally made the connection and understood its importance. 'According to Manlius.' A brief sentence that meant nothing to most people, but all the world to him. In a moment of jest he said it was worth selling his soul for.
THE WRITINGS that Olivier passed down were begun by Manlius Hippomanes over a series of months at his villa a dozen leagues outside Vaison, some sixty kilometers to the northeast of Avignon. "Writings" is the wrong word, perhaps, for like many men in his position, Manlius rarely wrote himself, although he could do so quite easily if he chose. He dictated, rather, and his words were taken down by an amanuensis, his adopted son, whose life was made unreasonably difficult because of the speed at which his master spoke. Syagrius--an amiable young man of some twenty-three years who worked hard to make the best of his good fortune--had to scribble to keep up, then work long into the night to decipher his markings when preparing the fine copy. And no mistakes were tolerated; his master had a good memory and the highest opinion possible of his own prose, and could be punitive if so much as a word was changed. Besides, Syagrius desired nothing so much as to please, and attract a word or two of praise. What he dictated, what so excited Barneuve, was a digest of philosophy, cut down and reduced to its essentials for dissemination among his circle and perhaps, should opinion be favorable, beyond that. Few now had any familiarity with such matters and must drink their wine watered to make it palatable. After it had been read, and if it was found suitable, he might pay a copyist for up to a hundred versions--perhaps fifty would now be more than sufficient--which he would send throughout Gaul, to his friends.
Reprinted from Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © June 2002, Iain Pears. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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