THE ARMOUR OF SAN GEREONE

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They had a quarrel; then there came a shower in the square and they took shelter under the arcade opposite the small museum on the harbour piazza adjoining the duomo. She read the inscription on a tablet above them on the inner wall, because she wanted to show him she had a strong, separate existence and could find interest in life aside from him. But she couldn't help exclaiming at what she read there, and so the silence between them came undone; they began to move to each other's breath again, woodwind, a chamber piece, quiet and urgent. They had returned to their room in the hotel on the sea front, and as he remembered now the way Julie had leant over him and thrown her hair over her head and let its soft bright rain sweep his body as she whispered his name, he heard her again say it, "Fabio", and his younger man's moaning floated up through him from the past.

So Dottore Fabio Gremoli was awake before daybreak, and pushed open the shutters of his hotel; his latest lover had telephoned to tell him she was detained by a meeting; she would join him, for sure, the following day. Isabella ran a business in leather goods; made money; took telephone calls on her mobile at night; while his architect's firm in Milan was idling.

The dawn drew light pleats slantwise across the sky, which was still deep and dark; he recalled Isabella's underclothes, which were severe but expensively tailored to pull against her hollows. Angry that the journey they had planned together had begun without her, vexed that she was always so occupied and keen to let him - and others - know it, he had not wanted to arrive at the house alone, and so had stopped in this small port on the coastal road, where he had not made a reservation, which he knew only a little.

Yet he was looking for the tablet, now; it was 15, no, maybe 20 years ago, Julie had come across it and her pleasure had stilled their angry spirits; she now had children, whose mutinous mouths forced a smile in occasional Christmas cards she still sent from New York. There was the inscription; he quizzed it. It described a miracle, and Julie had laughed at its lovely unlikelihood.

He did not read monuments, because he was brought up in cities where, with the oracular resonance of his language's past historic, every corner summoned the glorious dead, or recorded the moment when a leader on an arduous march had made a halt to drink from a well, or the founding speech a father of the state had given from this very spot on the pavement, or admonished the living to recall the bloody sufferings of heroes in this place and the effulgent works of artists and poets, often so local and so minor that the statues became indeed their only claim against obscurity. But she was a stranger, an American in Italy, and a student, and she liked puzzling out the rhetoric.

He'd pull her away: "It comes from that creaking old humanist Christian Democrat tradition - liceo classico and all that. It's so bombastic - disgusting - how can you bear it?"

But this one had made even him smile; had softened him. A gunboat had appeared off the coast over 200 years ago and opened fire; the square had been packed, it was a Sunday, the "solemn noonday Mass" had just finished, when "a blazing cannonball" had hurtled through the air as if "from the very pit of hell itself". The crowd had had no time to scatter, hardly even time to realise the danger, but the "fatal missile" landed among them only to rise up again, in an arc, high into the air and hit the wall at the piano nobile of the arcaded palazzo where they had sheltered; it did it some damage, cracked the stucco, shattered a window, before burying itself toothlessly in the brickwork; no one had been hurt. It was providential.

All this was expressed in the condensed sharpness of that literary tense; it was a pity, he found himself reflecting, that everyone used auxiliaries now, just as they made buildings, full of slack space, otiose embellishments. Such verbs, so abbreviated, so staccato, seemed to cut deep into memory till it bled more brightly. A moment later, and he dismissed this, shamed by his lapse into nostalgia. It was only seemingly so - as if with fake gore, thought Fabio Gremoli: the public, smiling wounds of agreed histories.

The tablet did not say if the gunboat repeated its fire; perhaps its other missives had fallen short, into the sea, spouting there like sea- serpents. The incised stone words closed by thanking heaven and San Gereone, the town's patron saint, for preventing a massacre; by the grace of almighty God, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.

For the miracle was not that the cannonball had simply fizzled out; it was that it had hit the town's patron saint on the head. It had landed on him and then bounced off, or, strictly speaking, it had been repulsed by the armour the statue was wearing: San Gereone, piercing a small, gnarled and scaly dragon with his sword, was encased in heavy, loricated plates of chased steel. The cannonball had landed on his head, and though the helmet of his visor was up, it had ricocheted from that impregnable surface and begun to fizzle out.

The helmet had been a bit dented, he remembered. He turned to look back at the church; the morning light so near the shore was delicately flossy now, like dandelion spores, and it rose up from the milky smoothness of the sea towards the still shaded sky; the meeting of air and light and water was indecipherable in the shimmer. But the monument in front of the church looked unfamiliar. He walked over: his first impression was correct. Here was no longer their valiant knight in armour from a decade or so ago; but a substitute, a portly statesman with his hand raised, holding a diploma, in a bronze swallow- tail coat, cravat and waistcoat, and the stamp of the foundry beneath his booted foot.

The church was open; the usual four women and a man at the early morning Mass. It was nearing its close; he called in at the sacristy, he found what he had expected, postcards for sale of the miraculous statue, and handouts of the same image with a prayer on the back invoking the intercession of San Gereone. He wondered through what furious local anti-clericalism had this unusual demolition or usurpation happened: a patron saint who saved the townspeople removed from his pedestal? He had no time for the Vatican or its faith, but it offended his sense of history to see the miracle effaced; besides, the story was connected adventitiously with that journey, when he had not realised he would not enjoy such love-making for ever, had not understood there would not be so many others, nor with them the same pitch and sweetness. He was a son of the post-war consumer boom; he had been formed to expect products to repeat, exactly.

The priest who gave him a half-dozen of the holy pictures was seamed in hands and face; his teeth showed when he replied, smiling at his visitor's interest, like an old dog's; his cassock was smeared.

"I'm all alone here, now. But when I came there were six priests and me, the novice. Now everything is up to me - there's not even a woman left to dust the altar steps. Otherwise I would show you San Gereone. He's in the crypt." The priest pointed down, through the marble floor.

His visitor became more curious, and picked out a rosary from the pile and took out his wallet. "Maybe I can go and see him by myself? Just tell me where - and maybe turn on the lights?"

The priest took the note, counted out change. "Where did you say you were from? You can see San Gereone's armour in Pisa now: in the Museo Diocesano."

At first his visitor thought, wearily, do I want to hear more, do I want to involve myself in some parochial tale of government and injury? But then he asked, "His armour? Yet he is ... below? How so?"

"When I first came here," the priest took up the question with unexpected heat, "I understood straightaway that it was very particular - No, don't mistake me. Not because it is or ever was miracle-working. We are moderns, men of my generation in the church - moderns.

"No, I recognised it when I very first set eyes on it. A complete suit of armour from the skilful hands of Lotario Bartelli from around 1495. I knew it anyway, but I researched, I turned over documents in the archive; I found the name, in a ledger with the sum, 13 scudi, for the suit of armour. The original commission! Years passed before I could do anything about my find. The name means nothing to you? Tssk, he was the greatest armourer in Lombardy, worked for the Visconti in Milan, a German by birth, Lothar Bartel, you realise. And the sword! His signature on the blade in a device of wyverns, in honour of San Gereone's victory over the foul fiend ...! Anyhow, I prayed to the Madonna as to what I should do ... at last she revealed to me - in a dream - that my only recourse was to make my discovery public. Write to the newspapers, she commanded me. What am I? Who was I? Nobody: a parish priest from a small place. But I knew it was a treasure of national interest. One must do something when one knows what is right. So I wrote to Il Corriere (even if it is owned and run by the devil and his associates), and told them it was a crying shame that this incomparable work of Renaissance science should be exposed to the elements, battered and rusted and falling to pieces in the open and that it was only a matter of time before it disintegrated altogether, if nothing was done ..."

Two women had appeared in the doorway, and were waiting patiently for the parocco's spate to stop; each of them was carrying a statuette. They approached, murmuring; one was about 18, with plump bendy legs under a skimpy dress, the other, too old to be her mother and too young to be her granny, was wearing a black lace mantilla that had turned ginger with use. They thrust the coloured plaster figures towards the priest.

"Bless them, please, Father, for our house."

He raised one of his sere, yellowed hands over the statues and began to mutter.

"No, Father, not just like that. Please do it the proper way, with the full ceremony." The girl propped up her statuette of Our Lady of Fatima so that she was standing upright and pushed her towards the priest, then made passes with her own hands, miming ritual gestures. "We want you to make them holy, to give us protection." The older woman echoed her; her St Anthony of Padua with baby Jesus in his arms was stood up and held in place just behind the Virgin.

The old priest frowned: "I haven't any holy water left. I haven't had time to make any recently, and if it's run out this isn't the moment to make some more."

His brusqueness was startling, but the women wheedled. Under his breath, in the direction of his visitor, the priest threw out, "These things don't interest me." But he crossed the room and peered into a stoop on the opposite wall.

"Come over here," he beckoned the women, pulling a stole round his neck and dipping his hand in the dribble at the bottom. "You're fortunate it hasn't completely dried up. Otherwise, I would have sent you away." He threw a glance at the visitor who was so interested in San Gereone, and who was still attending to the scanty goods for sale as he waited for the reluctant minister to finish his blessing.

When he had done so, he dismissed the women with a cross flick of his fingers; they continued to ignore his impatience and thanked him as if he had regaled them with kindnesses.

"I was successful," he said. He was relentless, his whole attention fixed on this outsider who was interested, and Dott. Fabio Gremoli felt a certain surprised gratitude to him for staving off the habitual assault of boredom. His own company, he had never learnt to enjoy it, as friends advised him adults should learn to do; he liked a companion, often if only to define his own apartness and lack of need. "And my friend," the priest continued, "he wasn't my friend then, but he became so - came from London to verify my identification, the world's greatest expert in Renaissance weaponry and armour, Professor Oliver Stallworthy -" He paused, waiting for recognition. "You don't know of him?"

His visitor had to shake his head. "I'm sorry, no. Not my field, you understand."

"We took the suit down together, piece by piece, and cleaned and polished the rust and the grime off every one. It took us night and day for nearly a whole month. Then we looked at the figure underneath and realised we could not leave it on the plinth

In the crypt, the body of San Gereone lay on its side; the stuffing was coming loose from the sacking which formed the torso, and the legs were bundles of sticks and straw tied with dried grass, also drifting into shreds. He had been flung, wooden head face down, as if drowned, so his expression could not be seen.

"Do you ever travel to London? You do? Will you tell him - tell Professor Oliver Stall- worthy - that you have seen me, Father Bruno Boncompagni, here, in the parish of San Gereone, and that I shall never forget his visit, when we ascertained that the armour was the genuine work of Lotario Bartelli, every particle and piece from his hands, no inferior stuff from the workshop of, as is common. He was an historian from Oxford - but he was already retired when he came and authenticated my suit of armour - he said it was one of the finest he had ever seen, with hardly a link in the chainmail or a screw in the armour missing. And he singled out as his masterpiece that crowned it - the sword, the sword of San Gereone.

"But Professor Oliver Stallworthy has not written to me for some years now. You must go to the Museo Diocesano in Pisa - there you can see how together we saved a major opus from destruction. I would like to go to London, I would like to talk to him again. If you go - everyone travels everywhere today - give him my homage. I have never forgotten what we did together those days."

The stained, ancient priest followed him into the square with his talk, but did not emerge from the darkness of his church. For his part, Fabio Gremoli was glad to be back in the light, now full and yellow, as it fell across the stones, drawing a short, hard shadow from the substituted statue on the stones of piazza; he welcomed its dazzle, but put on his dark glasses to look out, eyes leaking from the brightness, beyond the square over the sea; out past the chiasma of breakwater and harbour wall, to where the separation of air and water vanished at the blurred boundary. In his past historic, were there revenants as vividly present to his eye, rising from his core, as that armourer who had thrown down a saint and diverted a priest? He pushed the thought from him; statues, memorial plaques - how sure they were of their ground; he disliked them especially for that brand of lying. Not that he was in love with ruins; he was a "Modern" too, and had in his time raised many an austere interior of steel, white plaster and glass, making no concession to memory. Yet he discovered that he minded that he could not find it in himself to touch sharper, deeper, indelible longings or losses: for he ached only vaguely for Isabella's cool limbs, and Julie was a wisp, fugitive as if his memories were painted in watercolours.

This story, from the forthcoming collection 'A Book of Miracles', was inspired by Lino Mannocci's paintings on postcards. From top: Viale Margherita (1996); Monumento a Viani (1994); Piazza della Signoria (1993); Piazza Garibaldi I (1994); Piazza Garibaldi II (1994). By courtesy of The Eagle Gallery, London EC1R 3AL. 0171 833 2674

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