Esto Perpetua: Fra Paolo Sarpi
Blood everywhere, the dagger in his ear
so far it lodged in his other cheek,
the surgeon’s pliers pulled it like a tooth
Agnosio stylum Curiae Romanae –
Fra Paolo Sarpi punned, he knew the stylus/
the style of the Roman Curia.
One of I Giovanni, austere, devout,
he rose in the Servite order, believed
that church authority derives from states.
When Venice tried two priests for murder, said
the Church must ask permission to build churches
and banished the troublesome Jesuits,
Sarpi argued the Venetian case:
the pope was bishop of Rome, his power Peter’s,
no more. Infallible in faith alone.
The city would ignore Rome’s interdict.
A modest boy, nicknamed La Sposa.,
he loved the world and so he studied it—
discovering the valves in human veins
that move the blood, how light dilates
the pupils of the eye, and fathering,
as Galileo said, the telescope.
The only thing that frightened him was air,
being of St. Alban’s opinion, that air
is predatory, especially hurtful when
the spirits are most employed. He sat at his desk
fenced in a castle of paper about his chair
and over his head for protection. Twice more
the Curia would try to kill him, fail.
Excommunicated, he celebrated
mass as always. His last words were esto
perpetua—Venice would live on.
The Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga.
They’re here to say, Time’s up! So goes one reason
in this snaking line of explanations
and a million iPhones measuring them each season,
as if in flight from the final Detonation.
Another is rapine, ruthlessness, the agony
of Byzantium rent by soldiers and by coups,
wildfire dropping magnificence to its knees,
Venetians stealing off with what they chose—
the horses, icons, caskets, marble shafts.
Less visibly, the bodies of Lucia, Paul
the Martyr, Anastasius, Simeon.
The Holy Shroud, a shinbone of St. Paul,
the Virgin’s hair. The statue now Theodore
on the Piazzetta. And still another version
in which barbarous Franks appear, melting down
Byzantium’s pagan gods and monstrances,
gold and silver art in fluid ruin.
They let Venetians curate the arts of Byzance,
while they mint coin pay their debt: nine tons
of silver, owed to Venice, on contract for
supplies and ships for thirty thousand men,
supplies and ships for their five thousand horses.
For what? The Franks were going on crusade,
were Egypt bound, to sever Saladin’s
supply lines. Venice would open Muslim trade.
But they’d failed to muster all the men and coin
they’d promised. Venice let them stew in flies
and the Lido’s heat for nine months while they thought.
Agreed to sail for spoils, lest Venice die.
But Frankish knights were keen to clear the slate
so when Alexius Angelus appeared
to raise an army that would wrest throne
of Byzance from his father’s murderers,
and promised them such fortunes they could earn,
they jumped. Venice was unsure—to harm
their trading partners did their city harm
but Frankish debt could bankrupt them. So the boy
Franks thought God’s manna was enthroned. His word
was soon proved meaningless, devalued by
his councils. There was a coup. The boy was dead.
Venetians and Franks were ex-communicated
by the Pope for their assault on other Christians.
The celebrated horses were translocated
as an edifying end-of-history lesson.
The Church of State
in San Zanipolo, also known as San Giovanni e San Paolo, Venice.
It’s Niccolò Orsini, large as life,
the condottiere warhorsed on the wall—
he has defeated the League of Cambrai and looks
down the side aisle, across the nave, to where
St. Catherine’s left foot’s at rest.
His wooden horse ungilded plods ahead
to the skin of Marcantonio Bragadin
conquered at Famagusta. Magnanimous,
the model patrician when promised safe surrender.
He died before the skinner reached his waist.
His well-tanned skin was stuffed and mounted for
the Sultan. Diplomacy returned what rests
here with 25 doges, admirals, the Bellinis.
God’s grace, they say, we thrive, we’re all for one,
in One, and for that great and good.
Outside is Colleoni, armored astride
a surging horse, a skillful violence
in its artful three-point stance, the haggard face
and torque of the man, the horse’s vigilance
and large equine scrotum, the silky coglioni
dangling there. A Verrocchio commission,
the condottiere gave it to the city
on condition that it sit in St. Mark’s Square.
The Scuola Grande is the one San Marco near.
Robert McNamara has published three books of poetry, and over the last thirty years his poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies, most recently in the anthologies The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy (Iowa, 2006) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Notre Dame, 2007). He translated with the author a selection of the poems of the contemporary Bengali poet, Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, published as The Cat Under the Stairs by Eastern Washington University Press in fall of 2008.