Robert McNamara

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.


Photo Finish

 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.


About Copperfield

Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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