Farewell to the Flesh

Farewell to the Flesh

The Mysteries of Venice, Book Two

Edward Sklepowich


never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone

, Venetian monk (1552-1623)

Everything deep loves the mask, said Nietzsche, but the mask has passionate loves of its own. Its favorite time is Carnival—
or “flesh, farewell”—and its favorite trysting place is Venice, a city of veils.



Urbino Macintyre was amused as he sat in the café Florian listening to the Contessa da Capo-Zendrini. Here it was only a few days after the New Year and she was already pining for her summer villa up in Asolo.

“It's the prospect of
that makes me want to wish my life away like this,” she said. She leaned back on the maroon banquette in the Chinese salon and slowly shook her head. “You're still a bit too young to realize it but time lost can never be regained, despite what poor Proust in his cork-lined room thought.”

A doleful look clouded her attractive face. The Contessa had never told Urbino her precise age but the stretch of her memory and the range of her experience, as well as her frequent references—sometimes playful, sometimes wistful—to what she called his “youth,” indicated someone at least two decades older. The wedding photograph in the
salotto blu
of the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini showed a patrician-featured English girl who hadn't so much changed since her days at St. Brigid's-by-the-Sea as gradually aged into the mature look already present in the otherwise fresh face.

She glanced out the window at the Piazza San Marco, relatively empty and quiet now after the recent festivities.

“All those barbarians in masks descending on our serene city! It's intolerable even to think of it!”

She reached out for another tea cake, this one frosted with a deep-rose icing that matched the color of her dress.

“And I can't even go up to London for February. It would be cruel to abandon Josef even if he does insist on staying with the Sisters.”

The Contessa was referring to the emigré Pole, Josef Lubonski, who was restoring a fresco at the Church of San Gabriele in the Cannaregio. She had secured him the position after she had seen the work he had done in London in her former parish church and in the townhouse of a friend. Instead of staying at the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini as she had suggested, however, he preferred to lodge at the Casa Crispina, the pensione run by the Sisters of the Charity of Santa Crispina across from San Gabriele.

“But what about abandoning me, Barbara? Doesn't that give you pause?”

“Are you ever anything
abandoned during
Carnevale, caro?”
she said with an arch little smile. “And it seems that this year you're determined to be even more shameless than ever.”

When Urbino was about to defend himself, she languidly waved a beringed hand temporarily bereft of a petit four.

“Please! I refuse to hear anything more about this masked ball you're thinking of giving at the Palazzo Uccello.”

Urbino smiled.

“Oh, I'm not thinking about it anymore, Barbara.”

“Thank God for that. The good Sisters at St. Brigid's were right, I see! Even the most inveterate sinner isn't beyond redemption.”

“What I mean, Barbara, is that I don't have to think about giving it anymore. I've decided to go ahead.”

“To go ahead?” Her gray eyes were round with startle. He might have said that he was going to attempt a translation of
Remembrance of Things Past
into Serbo-Croatian. “But,
, it will be chaos, simply chaos!” She reached out to touch the sleeve of his tweed jacket. “You don't know the first thing about it!”

“I agree.”

She nodded with self-satisfaction and reached for another tea cake.

“At least you know the limits of your own presumption.”

“Exactly. That's why I've decided to ask Oriana to help me organize things. She'll be my hostess.”

The Contessa was holding the tea cake, this one iced in light green. She lost interest in it and put it back on the plate.

“But why Oriana,
? I love her dearly but she isn't the least preoccupied of women.”

The Contessa was right. Oriana Borelli and her husband, Filippo, were usually in the thick of extramarital intrigues and domestic disputes that left them little time or energy for much else. Urbino had no idea if Oriana would be able to help him. In fact, he hadn't even brought it up with her yet.

The Contessa took a sip of tea.

“Even if Oriana is a competent woman when she isn't distracted by the
opera buffa
they like to make of their life, what could she hope to do with the Palazzo Uccello? It's a lovely building, but if you're giving a ball,
, you'll need space. The Palazzo Uccello is too
. Oriana can't work a miracle.” She looked at him slyly over her teacup. “Because you're an attractive younger man, Oriana might be making promises she can't fulfill. What plans have the two of you made?”

“I wouldn't exactly say we've made any plans yet, Barbara.”

“And why not? The storm that's going to disturb this calm”—she nodded out at the Piazza—“isn't so far away. Some people start to think about the next
as soon as the old one is over. Plans should have been made long ago; surely even you can see that.” She put her teacup down and paused before adding with quiet firmness, “A great many things.”

“Such as?” Urbino prompted.

“A motif, for example! A theme! Do you have that?”

“Not really.”

“Not really! You need a theme, Urbino dear, I can't believe that Oriana didn't tell you!”

Poor maligned Oriana, of course, could have told him nothing at all on the topic.

“What would you suggest, Barbara?”

“What would I suggest,
? Whatever in the world have I to do with it? This is Oriana's pet project, and I wish her—and you—the best of luck! You'll both need it!”

“All this is making me feel a bit dispirited,” Urbino said, letting his voice drift into a resigned tone. “I hope you realize that I'd prefer you to help me but I know how you feel about
. Quite frankly, I was afraid of asking you.”

“‘Afraid!' Am I a person to be afraid of?” she said, shooting him a quick, baleful look. “Don't be a
! I hate
, yes! But does that mean that I would be happy to see you make a fool of yourself—and of me?”

“Of you? But what would you have to do with it?”

“Even if I have nothing to do with it—absolutely, positively nothing as you have so obviously decided all on your own!—I would be in the thick of it. It would reflect on me! We're associated, we're linked, we're allied! Everyone knows that. Everyone can see it.” She gestured around the Chinese salon at the other patrons, who seemed completely oblivious to the two of them enjoying their fabled rapport. “If you make a gaffe—as surely you will if poor, well-intentioned Oriana is seeing to things—they'll laugh at us both. I couldn't bear that for you!” she finished with a commiserative shake of her head and a look that was meant to be devoid of everything else but sympathy for him.

“What would you suggest, then, Barbara?” he asked again.

“I don't see any alternative, do you, Urbino? I feel like sweet, smiling Pope John Paul the First who had things thrust upon him, poor man. What choice did he have but to put his shoulder to the wheel?” she said with more passion than appropriateness in her idiom. “And we all know what happened to him!”

“Does all this mean that you'll help me with my masked ball?” he asked, trying to hide a smile.

“It means nothing of the kind! If I had to provide something at the Palazzo Uccello at this late date, I would be doomed to abject failure! I'd be like Fortuny trying to make do with a pitiful little scrap of material, lovely though the Palazzo Uccello is. Neither of us would survive it.” She paused. “Oriana's failure, however, would be even more abject than our own. That's beyond dispute.”

For a third time this early January afternoon Urbino asked for her suggestion.

Before answering she caught the attention of the waiter in his formal black and white and ordered a fresh pot of tea.

“I'd suggest,
, that you forget all about having a masked ball at the Palazzo Uccello.”


“I can see there's no choice,” she interrupted. “No choice whatsoever but for me to have one at the Ca' da Capo. You force my hand. Settle things with Oriana. Tell her I've decided to have a
ballo in maschera
and you wouldn't think of having one yourself. She'll understand. She'll probably even be relieved.”

“But, Barbara, I wouldn't want you to go through all that trouble.”

“You call it trouble, Urbino. I call it a penance willingly embraced before Lent even raises its ashy head. But don't forget what I'm doing it for.” She gave him only a moment to consider before informing him, “I'm doing it for you,

She reached across the marble table to pat his hand.

And this was how Urbino, who had never had any intention of giving a masked ball at the Palazzo Uccello, was able to persuade the Contessa to give one herself at the Ca' da Capo-Zendrini. He knew that the Contessa, rather than being offended by his little deception, was just the kind of person to appreciate it. But he also knew that she would no more have admitted to this than admitted to having been aware, all along, of the deceit itself.

The Contessa's appreciation, along with her awareness, shone almost mischievously from her gray eyes as she picked up yet another petit four and waited for her fresh pot of tea.

Part One



Just the other night, only a few hours after Carnival officially began at midnight, one more aged sister died at the Convent of the Charity of Santa Crispina.

Surrounded by a group of equally ancient nuns, Sister Clara sat up straight in bed and said with a blind, unblinking gaze,

“I see her clearly, so clearly, my dear ones. Her face is as young as ours when we took the veil.” She smiled and opened her thin arms wide. “Welcome, Sister Death.”

Promptly, without any anticlimax, she fell back on the pillows and died.

The sisters started to do what had to be done. Two prepared to wash the body, two prayed, and two argued over whether the smile on Sister Clara's face should be toned down a bit. And no doubt at least one of them was wondering who would be left behind to tend to her own temple of the Holy Ghost when her time came.

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