Poet, prose writer, and literary translator Linda Lappin received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A former Fulbright fellow, she currently divides her time between the US and Italy, where she has taught English in Italian universities for 20+ years. Her writing appears regularly in US periodicals and her short fiction has been broadcast by the BBC World Service Radio. Her first novel, The Etruscan, was fiction runner up for the 2010 New York Book Festival and short listed for the 2011 Next Generation Indie Award in fiction. Katherine’s Wish (2008), based on the life of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, received the gold medal in historical fiction from the IPPY awards, and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year in fiction. The mystery, Signatures in Stone, set in the sculpture garden of Bomarzo the Monster Park, is her third novel and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for excellence in mystery/suspense from Romance Writers of America. The winner will be announced later this month.
Excerpt from Signatures in Stone
Pleasure Boat Studio
© Linda Lappin 2013
When we reached the gate, Finestone produced a key from the breast pocket of his overalls and handed it to me. It was a huge iron key made by a blacksmith, weighing at least a pound, almost a potential weapon, and icy cold to the touch.
“Madame, I leave this privilege to you,” he said, inviting me to unlock the gate.
What gallantry, I thought, as I turned the key and pushed open the gate. Before stepping inside, I held my breath for a second as a swimmer might do before a dive. Immediately I felt the air temperature drop a degree or two. A chill flickered through my knees, up my spine, and across my scalp, though there was no logical explanation for such a sharp change in temperature.
Finestone paused on the threshold, as if waiting to see my reaction, then stepped in behind me, seized my arm, and began my guided tour.
“In the mid-sixteenth century, when this place was created, parks and gardens were meant to offer more than just an aesthetic experience, a pleasant promenade in the shade or a showcase for flowerbeds. They were models of the cosmos and also tools for altering one’s consciousness, possibly for changing one’s destiny. Entering a place like this was like succumbing to a dream. Every detail was intended to produce a specific effect on the mind and body, to excite and soothe the senses like a drug. To awaken the unconscious self.
“The colors, textures, odors, and shapes of the plants, like yew and mistletoe and belladonna, all capable of inducing catatonia, nightmares, prophetic dreams . . . contributed to create such an impression, along with the tinkling of running water, and the cries and shrieks of exotic birds kept captive here in aviaries. All this was intended to catapult the visitor into a primordial state of awareness.”
Closing his eyes, Finestone snorted in short gusts of air, like a yogi, as if to force oxygen straight to his brain; I too inhaled deeply the fragrance of the dew-drenched vegetation surrounding us. Clumps of laurel, rosemary, ilex, juniper, yew, pine, moss, fennel, rocket, and wild mint exuded their perfumes. Above our heads crows cawed in the treetops. It truly seemed an enchanted place.
A few feet away from where we stood, a trail snaked through the underbrush. He motioned for me to follow as he loped along with his cane. The path wove in between bushes and outcroppings of rock where ferns lashed out in our faces and thorns ripped our clothes. Picking our way through fronds and brambles, we reached the sphinx I had noted the evening before, situated in a small clearing from where an even narrower trail wound into the interior. Not far off we could hear the men working.
“This sphinx is probably a copy of a genuine Etruscan piece from Vicino’s collection of antiquities. The surrounding hills and valleys are full of Etruscan tombs that must have provided an endless source of income to the duke. Such artifacts were prized highly by his aristocratic cohorts who used them to decorate their homes and sold them at great profit to English ladies of fashion. Many collectors and museums today would pay a pretty penny to add this copy to their collection. Here she crumbles beneath rain, and cold, and lichen.”
Pensively, he patted the sphinx’s haunches.
“Set here at the entryway, she suggests that this place is a riddle the visitor must solve.”
An inscription, barely visible, encrusted with moss and lichen, was chiseled on the base of the statue. I deciphered the letters and read aloud, “Tu ch’entri qui pon mente parte a parte Et dimmi poi se tante maraviglie sian fatte per inganno o pur per arte . . .”
Finestone complimented me on my pronunciation.
“My brother and I learned Italian at school,” I explained. “My family had a passion for opera.”
I ventured a partial translation. “You who enter . . . tell me whether or not these marvels have been created through deceit or art.”
Inganno o arte? Deceit or art? An intriguing proposition. Was the Monster Park a sort of “trick” or illusion? A flight of fancy only meant to entertain? Or did it artfully conceal a deeper meaning? “Pon mente parte a parte . . . ,” I repeated. That was the phrase that I did not understand. “Literally, the words mean put your mind side to side,” I said. I reflected on this. “Could it mean that the visitor must examine all sides? Or that one should stand outside oneself when making judgments?”
“Perhaps it is asking us to set aside the rational mind and not to make our final judgment until we have seen and pondered the whole.” With a sweeping gesture, he embraced the park that lay before us, still immersed by copious vegetation from which emerged a few rough sculptures and massive boulders, resembling forlorn islands rising from a lake of green.
“But she is only the preamble to this eccentric representation of hell on earth, as you will see,” he said, pointing to an area nearby where the men had succeeded in ripping off a tangled mound of brambles from a colossus. We wended our way toward it, waist high in weeds. Manu and the workmen greeted us deferentially when we reached them, withdrawing under an ilex tree several yards away, where a grinding wheel to sharpen their cutting tools was set up on a trestle. All the workmen seemed to hold Finestone slightly in awe, and admittedly he did cut a bizarre figure, with his ginger-colored beard, blue overalls, and scholarly air. Manu, I noted, kept glancing our way, as though to keep an eye on us as he sharpened the blade of a scythe on the wheel, sparks flying into the air.
“The horrific statues carved here may be viewed as fragments of consciousness itself, the residue of violent emotions.”
The sculpture, at least twenty feet tall, crudely carved all of a piece from an enormous boulder, depicted twin giants in combat. Their thighs were as massive as tree trunks. The victor had seized his opponent by the legs and was dashing his head against the ground while tearing the poor fellow in two through the crotch and up through his torso. The features of their rough-hewn faces had eroded beneath scales of lichen, but those blank eyes and crumbling lips were still legible enough. The victim was screaming in horror and pain as his conqueror gnashed his teeth in the throes of a savage fury.
Placed so close to the entrance, this hideous sight seemed to serve as an introduction to what was to come. It was a statement, a challenge, a setting of the tone, the opening notes of an overture. It was meant to shock and warn visitors to the park, perhaps even, I thought, to terrorize them.
As if reading my thoughts, Finestone said, “The local peasants once believed that the statues came to life at night. Were they not held down and impeded by all these brambles and vines, they might break loose and go marauding through the town.”
I pictured these two entwined figures, like some great golem, thundering down the streets, smashing windows and rooftops, wrestling and rolling in a deadly embrace. “So, I suppose that explains why the owners allowed it to become so overgrown? They were glad when nature reclaimed it.”
Finestone smiled again and added, “After all, the ancient Egyptians knew how to breathe life into their statues of the gods, and performed special rites for this purpose. Perhaps this knowledge was preserved and transmitted to the Romans and then down to us through the Renaissance. Perhaps Vicino himself—or more likely the artist who sculpted them—knew the secret art of animating statues. Or perhaps this superstition arose in the local population because Vicino’s clever sculptor may have invented devices, water works, or wind-driven mechanisms to produce sound or even the illusion of movement. Even in recent times, they have been known to roar in the night.”
I shot a sidelong glance at the scholar. I could see he was teasing me, so I said, “And have you heard them roar?”
“Only in my dreams.”
We stood for a moment contemplating the sculpture. These naked, time-blackened figures carved from a single outcropping of stone and still partly imprisoned there called to mind unfinished statues of Michelangelo I had seen years ago in Florence: incomplete figures stirring to life, struggling to assume human shape within their rocky matrix. Finestone was right, there was a dreamlike quality about the place which immediately exerted an influence upon my imagination. With a flash of insight, I suddenly understood the sculpture’s message. I knew exactly why it had been placed in that particular spot and what it meant, though I have no idea from whence my certainty had come. I suppose I had read its signature.
“It’s a reversal. A very painful reversal,” I said, staring up at the statue. “I believe it is saying: now that you have entered here, your perspective will be violently turned on its head. The resulting vision will make you mad. It will cause an inner division that will make you feel as though you have been ripped apart.”
Finestone arched an eyebrow and nodded. His eyes glittered. I could see we were of a similar cast of mind. We both enjoyed guessing at emblems and riddles, as I had already realized the previous night at dinner when he had talked of the Holy Grail. We were two of a kind who find sermons in stones and personal meaning in the patterns of nature and art.
“And of course a rape, a violation,” I continued. For through the loops of ivy clinging to their limbs, one could clearly see that in the process of tearing apart his victim, the giant aggressor seemed to be engaged in something else as well. The lower part of his body was pressed firmly against his victim. “It is saying: your most basic beliefs about yourself and the world will undergo violation. You must become impure.”
“Perhaps . . . ,” Finestone said, stroking his beard and squinting at the sculpture through his bifocals.
“What is your interpretation?” I asked.
“From the evidence I have gathered concerning the life of Vicino Orsini, it may represent his own anger and madness when his wife, Giulia Farnese, died. After her death, he wished to tear the world the pieces. Or perhaps instead the duke identified himself not with the slayer but with the victim lacerated by grief and loss. Or it may be warning in a Neoplatonic vein— “Passionate love leads only to madness.” Or perhaps it says, “The body will be brutally sacrificed for the survival of the soul.”
I said nothing in reply to this, but I did not agree in the least with Finestone’s interpretations. They were much too meek and rational. Something far more basic and bloody was being enacted here. One could see why the local people found this sculpture so frightening, invested with a power that might come alive and wreak havoc in their midst. And what of the artist who had conceived this rape and these monstrous grimaces? Had he experienced such wrath or pain or had he only imagined them? Or had he tapped into the world soul where all emotions and all transgressions exist in potentiality?
“Tell me, Professor. You say the Monster Park is a sort of book or diary, that these statues are the residue of violent emotions and fragments of nightmares. You suggest they represent the patron’s dark feelings and dreams, those of Vicino Orsini; but what about the artist who first imagined these forms? Might they also refer to his own life and experiences?”
“A very acute question, dear lady. If we knew for certain who the architect of the park was and the precise purpose for which it was designed, we might be able to answer that question more satisfactorily. But for the moment, you understand, I am not at liberty to disclose any of my findings, which are concerned with that very question; so, it must remain a matter of speculation, at least for the time being. Undoubtedly, these figures contain autobiographical references to the lives of both men.”
I pondered this as I gazed up at the sculpture, and then I was disturbed by the buzzing of a bee around my ankles. I looked down into the nest of ferns and weeds where I stood—and there at my feet I noted a little white glimmer. Thinking it might be a piece of the decapitated doll, I reached down to the grass, but must have stuck my hand into an ants’ nest, for when I pulled the object out of the tall grass my fingers were swarming with ants, which I brushed off in disgust. The tiny object I had retrieved proved to be a piece of mother-of-pearl, the face of a button or perhaps a cufflink. I glanced at Finestone’s shirt where the cuffs were tightly buttoned, American style. This dainty decoration most certainly did not belong to him. It was small enough to have come from a child’s shoe. Staring at the button, which seemed to burn into my palm like a small lump of ice, I suddenly saw in my mind a child’s shoe dunked in water. I frowned at this impression, which had possessed me for a moment, then blinked twice to dispel it. Holding the button out to the professor, I asked, “Have you lost a button?”
Finestone checked his cuffs and shook his head.
“I’m no medium, but my guess is that this comes from a child’s shoe and that it was torn off in unfortunate circumstances.”
Finestone’s eyes widened behind his bifocals. He went a trifle pale. “Perhaps. The daughter of the villa’s owner met with a dreadful accident here about ten years ago.”
“She slipped and fell into a fountain, and was not found till it was too late.”
“But didn’t you say that the entire park has been overgrown for centuries? Wouldn’t the fountains have gone dry in the meantime?”
“At that time, it seems, one or two had been rediscovered and put to use in a period of drought. After the child’s death, they were allowed to be swallowed up again by the vegetation. At this latitude, it didn’t take long for them to be covered over like the rest of the place.”
My mental image of the child’s shoe in water had been only too accurate. “I was struck by the fact that there is no trace of any children ever having lived in the villa.”
“Everything was removed which might recall the tragedy to mind.”
“I see.” I supposed that explained why the owners of the villa had decided to lease it out to strangers, like ourselves. Having lost a daughter myself, I could empathize with their grief. It gave me an eerie feeling to think that the doll’s head I had found might also be related to that sad event. “No foul play?”
He shook his head. “A dreadful accident. An act of fate.”
“Do you know which fountain it was?”
“I believe it is somewhere near the middle, but I haven’t located it yet. I expect it is quite large.” He gestured toward an unbroken expanse of green. “Over in that direction.”
I put the button in my pocket and mused on the story as we walked toward another area where some men were working. Finestone was absorbed in his thoughts.
When we passed a ferocious Cerebus, three heads snapping in all directions, Finestone seized the opportunity to introduce a new topic of conversation, one which he knew would appeal to me.
Amicably patting each of the hell dog’s heads and caressing the tips of their fangs, he said, “These sweet creatures guarded the gates of hell, where you were allowed in, but not out again. Local legend claims these dogs are also guardians of a hidden treasure. If read correctly in the proper order, the statues in Vicino’s park might guide the seeker’s steps to where a treasure is buried. Although Vicino’s descendants may not have given credence to such ideas, they may also have allowed the sculptures to become overgrown in order to prevent armies of potential thieves from invading the grounds with picks and axes, hoping to unearth treasure chests.”
“That also sounds like a logical explanation for its abandonment,” I said. “Do you believe there is a treasure buried here?” I did not voice my real thoughts: Is that why you are here? To piece together a scattered map from these signatures or clues? I thought it very likely.
Finestone laughed. “It depends on what you mean by treasure. When ordinary people think of treasure, they imagine precious stones or gold; a more cultured person may imagine some exquisite work of ancient art or an artifact which might be made from iron or bronze. Still they think of treasure in terms of something material. For a scholar like myself, “treasure” might simply be the confirmation of a name, a date, a mathematical formula, a missing word in a text. Then again, if a treasure exists here in any material sense, it may be an object which to an untrained eye may seem as dull and unremarkable as an old brick, but which to a person able to understand its meaning would represent a boon of inestimable value.”
“Like the philosopher’s stone, which allowed alchemists to transmute lead into gold?”
He laughed again. “Perhaps something less lucrative.”
He smiled but did not answer. I suppose he thought further revelations might compromise his research. Still, I was eager to know more.