Wednesday, 21 January 2009


"One day your father brought me the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa. I had sold many editions of this book, always at a good price, because it is filled with expensive illustrations. Now I may still have that book. Let me think."

My uncle kept in his apartment a bookcase that reflected his bookshop in miniature, where some of his most expensive editions and his favorite titles were shelved. Whenever he said, "Let me think" he would invariable stop whatever he was doing, stand in front of that bookcase and trace his finger along the leather and calfskin spines. He did this so commonly I had the impression he shelved his memories there, that these particular books described his entire intellect, and that they were as much a part of his person as his wig, his spectacles or his clothes. In a moment he returned to where I was waiting with a thick, dusty volume in red leather.

"This was my father's book?"

"I would say it belonged to your grandfather, but yes, it passed into your father's possession after he died."

I slid my hands over the leather. It was worn down to the boards from much handling and stained with ink. Inside the cover, an ex libris pasted to the marbling showed the head of a unicorn over a twisted wreath or torce of silk. Underneath were the words "Fallaces sunt rerum species." A rose petal, browned with age and flattened as thin as a tissue, fell out into my lap. I studied the tracery of tiny veins in its transparent skin.

"What does it mean?"

"It is from Seneca. The appearances of things are deceptive. It was your family motto."

I put the rose petal back in its place, marked by a stain on the paper. The next page was engraved with a crest.

"Now that is what makes this book so interesting. Do you see the shield quartered with the crowned lyons rampant in the corners? Those are the Palatinate lions, the arms of Frederick V, the Winter King. This particular volume came from the Bibliotheca Palatina, the Library of Heidelberg sacked by the Catholic League when von Tilly invaded Bohemia at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. All hermetic and cabalistic books were destroyed: the rest were transported over the Alps and presented to Pope Gregory XV."

"What's hermetic? I don't understand kaba, kaba..."

"Only God knows how a seed becomes a tree, or why gold never dulls with age, or why night air makes a person ill. Every material in the world: stone, air, water, flesh, blood, fire; they all contain secrets sealed within them on the day of creation by the angels. For centuries men have tried to unlock those secrets. The little we have learned is called hermetic knowledge, and the spells that summon forth their true appearance is called the cabala by some. But the Church considers these things to be evil magic and forbids them."

1 comment:

Osprey said...

/me starts carving her initials with a penknife on the underside of a Georgian reading table, while she waits for more.