In the old centre of Palermo lie the ruins of Palazzo Meliponderoni―piles of rubble sinking in the scrub and weeds and the cherry and fig trees the neighbours now tend for their pantries. The house had stood there for five centuries and in a moment it was gone. The marchese di Meliponderoni, although the title was of little use even in those days, spent his hours roaming vast, tenebrous rooms, draping himself in his olive robe on cold days, sipping tea and reading, a busy flyswatter near at hand during the dead summers. He had long withdrawn from the world.
A timid, civilised man, he was the last of his family, and there were no heirs―a fate so common and a tale so often told. Some say he was a friend of Lampedusa and that they often played chess under a carob tree that still stands, although when I asked where it was, I was pointed to two different ones. He and Emilia the housekeeper lived alone in the house, apart from Coignard, the lazy and promiscuous cat who often trailed behind his master in silent grace. He had about him the air of a plotting courtier. The marchese liked the crisp sound of his slippers dragging and hissing against the marble. He would push one of the shutters out, look down at the abundant fruit of the garden and be so pleased with his existence that he would stand in the shade there and whisper, “What philosopher would not envy such pleasant seclusion?” He read his Lucretius, dreamed of an even deeper bower of solitude. They say he corresponded with editors of historical and literary journals and those seem to have been his most intimate relations, apart from Emilia.
Every now and then a painting had to be sold. It doesn’t matter, he would tell Emilia, it was one of the weaker works of Guido Reni, a minor Ribera, the workshop of Rembrandt, and so on. It did him good so to clog the gaping hole in his heart. A precious table or an old armoire went, as did the ornate Florentine cassone that had been in the house for all of its five hundred years and in which he’d kept his parents’ tender correspondence. No matter, there was always plenty left, he’d say, fending off a ghost of malaise. He would keep his dozen favourite things until the end, he vowed, especially his three or four incunabula printed by Manutius.
When the war came, Meliponderoni scarcely left the house, even though he kept telling his neighbours, “It will not come here. What have we to tempt them with? Oranges?” From time to time he’d go out to buy roasted chestnuts or a newspaper, though he rarely bothered about the news and Emilia went to the market on most days anyway. He felt safe in the womb of the house in which he’d been born. But the war did come to the island and not for oranges. There were bombardments.
“What a time, what a time,” said Emilia, “when we were young, man was not such a plague of calamity, was he?”
“Mankind is ever the same, my dear Emilia, always is,” he said, “we’ve changed the tools of our trade, that is all.”
He made notes on Goya’s Disasters of War, of which he had an immaculate copy, now housed in the city’s university library. One day he told Emilia to stay in the house, it was safer there, and went out to buy some things. A siren sounded and shells started raining down. When he returned, he saw the main part of the house had been destroyed, only the walls standing, looming over a huge pile of stone. Most of a wing remained. He went up a staircase looking for Emilia. She no longer lived. He stared at the thick dust on his shoes as they pulled him away. That evening he found his way to the library and he made it his home. A piece of the floor in one corner had fallen down, as had some of the roof and one of the walls. He never saw Coignard again, and he liked to imagine the tomcat had boarded some ship and fled north.
Rain, though rare, got in, and yet he never left the library. He mourned for weeks but chased away any murmur of guilt. It is said he at first slept in an armchair, but after a while he longed for prostration and made a bed of books. And he slept there. And read.
Squatting by his bed, he would look at the spines of books and after long deliberation he would pry one out with great care and he’d lie down and read with a calm joy, a true epicure. He licked his finger before turning a page, and had a habit of scratching his bulbous nose. It was mottled with scabs old, new, and renewed. And always the smile, nearly as immutable as a mask. He was once heard to utter, “I am reading my bed, how singular.”
He read his entire bed and then reread it. His learning astonished him. His Latin attained a level of fluency he had never hoped to have. He could write monographs on Dante and Gassendi; on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on which in times past he’d written copious marginalia; and on Piranesi, in whose Carceri, of which he had a folio edition, he liked to wander for hours in awe, feeling free, a paradox that puzzled him; on Anatole France, his favourite novelist; he annotated Catullus and even Baffo the Venetian pornographer, which pleased me as it added a prurient element to the otherwise beatific portrait given by those who still speak of him. He felt no desire to partake of these scholarly riches with anyone, for he understood the sufficiency of his solitary tower. Wisdom fed itself, had its self-contained moral power. People came to get him out, but they could barely make themselves understood. On more than one occasion he said and laughed, as if remarking on a particularly crafty magician’s trick, “It stood there for five centuries and in a moment it was gone.”
The ears went entirely when the wing collapsed. It was the worst day of the war. What everyone maintains is that the bedroom, the former library, that is, stood. No one could attribute to chance this remarkable thing: all of the roof and ceiling and all the walls were now gone, yet none fell into the room, everything was simply plucked away in the bombardment. A bona fide miracle, said the neighbours, praising Christ and his mother. Meliponderoni had merely felt the violent tremors, surely thinking it an earthquake. His room was no longer a room but a rooftop terrace. He would sometimes stand at the edge for a long time, squinting as if surveying the city, but he cannot have perceived much for he could barely see farther than his outstretched hand. The world had withdrawn from him.
The old man liked deafness. What unheard-of serenity. He thought sound had been outwitted by the nimble sophistry of the machines of war. Neighbours didn’t bother him much anymore, but they left the long ladder that appeared after Emilia’s death for occasional provisions. On calm days, children played soldiers among the ruins of the house as though the times offered little in the way of carnage, and they slung fruit up to the old marchese who would pick these morsels up and smile at the fuzzy little ragamuffins. Their mothers brought him bread, goat’s cheese, and old wine flasks they filled with cold water. Their lips were moving but he shrugged and pointed at his ear. When he said that it had stood there for five centuries and then in a moment it was gone, he said it with no pang of regret.
One day he did not rise out of bed. A book was found spread on his stomach and Coignard wailed below. No one knew that Coignard had returned. Perhaps he had never left. He lived on for years and his saffron offspring now stalk the neighbourhood, although, like their father, they have no masters. No one remembered afterwards which book the marchese was found with, but people in this part of Palermo never quite forgot the image of Meliponderoni lying up there and still pass it on to travellers, saying his deathbed of books had become a kind of altar.