Paris, January 1714. The scene opens on a freezing, snow-bound night, in a place (which only a few pages later turns out to be a church) decked out for a solemn event. The Narrator (the same one as in IMPRIMATUR and SECRETUM) is waiting for his old master and friend, Abbot Atto Melani. But, for the first time in twenty years of friendship, Atto is late. At last, the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobbles announces his arrival: the church doors open and a catafalque is borne in. Atto has died and this is his funeral. The Narrator remembers: the first time he attended a funeral was in Atto’s company. Then, too, it was cold and dark…Flashback to three years before: Vienna, February 1711. Europe is on its knees. For ten years the continent has been embroiled in a devastating conflict: the War of Spanish Succession, the very war that Atto’s scheming had helped bring about in SECRETUM. Two years before, in 1709, one of the most terrible winters in history had caused a famine in which millions died, especially in France. Rome, too, is famished. The Narrator has been reduced to extreme poverty and is working as a chimney-sweep in order to keep his family alive.Suddenly he receives a summons from a notary in Vienna. Atto Melani, who is now 85, has at long last resolved to keep the promise he made ten years previously but has never yet honoured: in exchange for the Narrator’s services he had undertaken to present dowries to his two daughters, but had then absconded. Now, the donation has at last arrived and the Narrator is to go to Vienna to receive it. Cloridia is sceptical, she fears yet another of Melani’s traps. She has never liked the man, but beggars cannot be choosers.In Vienna, the Narrator, Cloridia and their third child, an eight-year old boy, arrive exhausted by their long journey (the two grown-up daughters have stayed behind in Rome) and find lodgings at the Convent of Porta Coeli. From the notary, they receive the contract with the donation, a cottage with a vineyard and above all a much sought-after post as… Imperial Sweep! This, however, turns out to be something not to be scoffed at: in Vienna, the chimney sweeps are doing well, indeed they’re even prosperous. What is more, the city seems to have been spared by the famine that is ravaging Europe.Scarcely two months after his arrival, the Narrator, his wife and their little boy are once again flourishing. Cloridia has even found work in the service of Prince Eugene of Savoy, whose palace is in the same street as the convent. Cloridia’s mother was, after all, Turkish and she knows the language. Meanwhile, in Prince Eugene’s palace, an interpreter is needed for the retinue of the Turkish Aga whose arrival has been announced with only a few days’ notice, thus giving rise to much surprise and no little disquiet on the part of the Viennese. The Empire and the Ottomans are at peace, so why this visit? The mysterious words pronounced by the Aga in the presence of Prince Eugene refer to the Golden Apple, a name used by the Ottomans for Vienna, deriving from a thousand ancient and deeply troubling oriental legends. The Aga’s words seem to allude to an age-old conflict and the turbid events which follow offer glimpses of a mortal plot in which no one seems completely above suspicion.The arrival in Vienna of Atto Melani in disguise, accompanied by his nephew Domenico, arouses contrastiing feelings on the part of the Narrator: gratitude for the donation and the suspicion that Atto has all along been acting in his own interests, in order to obtain the Narrator’s help for yet another of his dirty schemes. Atto, who turns out to have become blind, has no intention of lying to the narrator and confesses at once that he has come to Vienna on a secret mission, but a peace mission on behalf of France: to reveal an unthinkable betrayal to the young Emperor and thus induce him to put an end to a conflict which is annihilating an entire epoch.
The Narrator and his assistant sweep, Simonis the Greek, a Bettelstudent (= poor or mendicant student) of medicine, who gives the impression of being conspicuously dim-witted, try hard to understand the real meaning of the Aga’s words and why he pronounced them in the presence of Prince Eugene. In their research into the Golden Apple, they obtain help from Simonis’ Bettelstudent friends. But soon these students are killed one after the other in the most gruesome and unexpected ways… Could their enquiries perhaps be troubling someone? Who knows? After all, being Bettelstudenten, every single one of them was doing jobs of dubious legality to earn their keep, so there was always a possibility that their death might be connected with their double life and have nothing to do with the Golden Apple or the Turks.The situation seems incomprehensible even to Atto Melani. But might he not yet again be hiding something? The Narrator wavers constantly between trust and suspicion: true, Atto has done him and his family much good, but he has lied to him so many times in the past, barefacedly exploiting and betraying him. How could he be trusted now?When Joseph I falls ill with smallpox, we catch glimpses of a plot in which Atto, a French spy, seems implicated. No less suspect is the position of the great general, Prince Eugene, Mazarin’s great-nephew, who had fled Paris when he was still in his teens. Melani, who saw him growing up, is fully aware both of his homosexual past and of his terrible jealousy for whoever dares outshine him on the battlefield.The question pervading the whole book is: who is siding with whom? At stake is the future of Europe and the secret struggle against dark forces that are changing the face of the world and giving it the aspect which it still has today. In the end, it emerges that nothing and no one are what they seem.Once the “truth” is out, the Narrator who has suffered in his own flesh the tragedy of a dying Humanity, will prove unable to bear the shock… but every ending is also a beginning.
Against the background of VERITAS, the writers have meticulously reconstructed the European society of the period, a society about to be violently swept away forever, with its life, its rhythms, its beauty, its freedom, and above all its humanity, one which we can barely imagine today. As Mozart was to write, “Just to be in Vienna is entertainment enough.”
The Narrator’s workplace as a chimney-sweep is the Place without a Name, also known as the Neugebäu, or New Building. The Emperor Joseph I wishes to restore it, rescuing it at last after 150 years of neglect, during which it has sunk to the level of a menagerie for exotic beasts: lions, elephants and panthers. It is a bizarre, undecipherable building, its oriental garden set with minaret-like towers. Built in the XVIth century by Emperor Maximilian II, it is sited on the exact spot where the Empire’s arch-enemy, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, pitched his tent during the siege of Vienna in 1529. What message did Maximilian intend to leave with this edifice to which he devoted himself, body and soul, during the last sad decade of his life, without ever succeeding in completing it? Why did Maximilian’s perfidious counsellors and ministers so hate his project that they did all in their power to ensure that the Emperor should never have enough funds to finance the building? Why, after Maximilian’s sudden death, was the building of the Place without a Name left off half finished? Above all, why did Maximilian never give it a name?Right down to the present day, the Place without a Name has been the object of unremitting hatred and a series of attempts – alas, partly successful – to destroy it.The Place without a Name also contains a flying ship in the shape of a bird (as reported in the newspapers of the time) and this turns out to hold no few surprises.
VERITAS is also populated by: Ottoman legends, a dervish who performs strange rituals in the forest (drawn from the accounts of a contemporary traveller) meetings of student societies, exhilarating student initiations, manuals for the strangest crazes in vogue among the student population, such as how to how to produce or read invisible writing, how to make bulletproof vests, how to be obeyed by wild beasts; clandestine gambling dens, a febrile night life punctuated by balls (forbidden by law) and animal fights.The Narrator’s evenings are punctuated by rehearsals for an oratorio, the Sant´Alessio in which the composer, the young Roman nun Camilla de Rossi, the choir mistress of Porta Coeli and close confidant of the Emperor Joseph I, has enlisted him. She too is the bearer of a secret which concerns the Narrator.Finally, the Narrator and Atto come across an old acquaintance in Vienna: Ugonio, the Viennese corpisantaro whom they encountered in IMPRIMATUR and yet again in SECRETUM, following which Ugonio fled Rome for his native city.At the end of the novel, there is – as always – a substantial body of notes which explain to the reader the true historical background to the tale, providing all the instruments for a personal check on these events and the way in which the authors have interpreted them.An entire chapter is devoted to the supposed smallpox which killed Joseph I: by means of a meticulous historico-medical reconstruction and with the help of experts, Monaldi & Sorti have been able to demonstrate that Joseph I was deliberately inoculated with smallpox. The report of the autopsy carried out after the Emperor’s death reports clear signs of what is referred to as the “Purpura vaiolosa vaccinatoria”, or the bursting of all blood vessels, a horrendous and mortal outcome of smallpox which developed only after the contemporary invention of inoculation (the forerunner of vaccination) a technique which was in fact developed in Turkey. Monaldi & Sorti have requested the exhumation of the remains of Joseph I.
VERITAS – dramatis personae:
Abbot Atto Melani: castrato and spy of the Sun King, engaged in an experiment to find out whether there is room for him in the new era that is emerging.
The Narrator: works as a Chimney-sweep to support his family but discovers his true vocation in the end.
Cloridia: The Narrator’s wife uses her knowledge of Turkish in the palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Camilla de Rossi: choir mistress of the convent of Porta Coeli and composer of oratorios for Emperor Joseph I.
Simonis: is a Greek medical student. He works as the Narrator’s assistant and is the holder of a secret.
Penicek: comes from Prague and, in accordance with student customs, must serve Simonis as Quill-bearer. When he isn’t attending university courses on Simonis’ behalf, he earns himself a living in Vienna as an unauthorised cab-driver.
Hristo Hristov Hadij-Tanjov: the Bulgarian is a Bettelstudent like his friends, but also a masterly chess player who never loses a game.
Jan Janitzki “Count” Opalinski: the courageous and erudite Polish student who earns his living by acting as an agent for illegally rented apartments.
“Baron” Koloman Szuppan: comes from Hungary and, besides his studies, works as a waiter and is a great womaniser.
“Prince” Dragomir Populescu: A Romanian student. He keeps his coffers full with all manner of louche activities in Vienna’s night life.
Frosch: the animals’ keeper (addicted to schnapps) at the menagerie of Castle Neugebäu, also known as the Place without a Name.
Ugonio: is continuing his shady activity as a vendor of false relics in his native Vienna.
Ciezeber: the Indian dervish is part of the retinue of the Turkish Aga, Cefulah Capichi Pasha, who comes to Vienna on an impenetrable mission..
Domenico: is Atto Melani’s favourite nephew and takes good care of his old uncle.
Gaetano Orsini: the charming and sociable tenor who sings the part of the protagonist in Camilla de Rossi’s oratorio, Sant´Alessio.
Mustafa: the oldest lion in the menagerie of the Place without a Name obeys Keeper Frosch like a lamb.
The Flying Ship: awaits its passengers in the Place without a Name, in order to perform a secret task.
And, in the background:
Prince Eugene of Savoy: Commander of the Austrian Army and President of the Council of War, who receives the embassy from Turkey in his palace.
Joseph I: Habsburg Emperor from 1705 until his sudden death on 17 April 1711.
Maximilian II: ancestor of Joseph I, was Emperor until 1576. He began building the fabulous Castle Neugebäu, which fell into ruin until Joseph I decided to rescue it from oblivion.
… and many, many others.