The Roman Empire, Greek civilisation and ancient Egypt never existed? Are they nothing but the invention of a group of mediaeval monks? Plato and Aristotle, Julius Caesar and Cicero are mere phantasms? Their works were fabricated centuries after Christ’s lifetime? Today, we’re living, not in 2011 but in about 1700, or even perhaps still around the year 1000 A.D.?

Such are the disturbing theories ans questions that face readers of Mysterium, the new novel by Monaldi & Sorti. The two Italian novelists have gone to great pains to make them digestible for the broadest possible public. It cost three years’ work to complete Mysterium, the fourth in a series of seven novels launched with Imprimatur in 2002, and involved a team of no less than 10 persons (five expert graphologists, two translators working from Hebrew, two documentalists in Rome and Paris, as well as the well-known Dutch Biblical scholar Ruben Verhasselt). Once again, the world avant-première of the new work by Monaldi & Sorti (who, since the boycott of Imprimatur in Italy, have published their books only in translation, in 27 languages and 61 countries) will take place in the Netherlands.

The man who launched the theory that the history, literature and philosophy of classical antiquity are the fruit of a colossal deception was a controversial member of the Society of Jesus, Jean Hardouin (1646-1729). This learned Jesuit claimed to have discovered a sort of secret code, thought up by monastic forgers between the 13thand 14th centuries, which was built into all the works of antiquity. Since the code in question was full of references to Christianity, it was posited as revealing that the masterpieces of Virgil and Lucretius, together with those of Plato and Aristotle, are of mediaeval origin and so were written, not before the time of Christ, but centuries later. Are these brilliant intuitions or just plain madness? It goes without saying that the theory was rejected by official science. Hardouin was silenced by his superiors who placed a ban on publication of his works; he himself is written off by modern scholars as a case of incurable paranoia. Strangely, however, his manuscripts (conserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris) have never been examined by any expert. Monaldi & Sorti are not fond of conspiracy theories. That is precisely why they set out to track down hard facts. Thus, they put Hardouin’s affirmations to the test, working directly from his writings, and, to their surprise, they found that the “secret code” does appear to emerge, for instance, from Plato’s texts.

Since the authors are not asking to be taken at their word, they have arranged for publication in the website of De Bezige Bij of Hardouin’s manuscripts conserved in Paris,so that whoever wishes to do so may examine them in person and draw his own conclusions.

Even more disturbing, in Monaldi & Sorti’s view, is the intrigue plotted by Giuseppe Scaligero (1540-1609), the celebrated Italo-French scholar venerated to this day at the University of Leyden. Scaligero, author of the chronological tables on which world history is still based, forged a number of Greek texts in order to simplify his task of dating events that took place in antiquity. Regarded to this day as the noble father of our universal memory, he helped his own father Giulio Cesare Scaligero to perpetrate a blatant mystification involving the origins of their own lineage. In other words, the scholar who first drew up a history of the human race turns out to have been a vulgar confidence trickster, the creator of Invented Time. Under the circumstances it seems only fair to give Hardouin a chance to present his case. After all, Isaac Newton thought that ancient history had been inflated by a few centuries and dedicated his last work to this subject. In Britain, Germany and Russia lively discussions have been taking place for decades (without receiving any media attention) between the defenders and debunkers of the scheme of “official” history. In the most extreme instance, this has involved shrinking the modern era by some 10 centuries, so that Jesus would have been born in about 1053.

Nor do the uncomfortable topics touched on by Mysterium end here. In passing, the two Italian writers take a few vigorous swipes at their illustrious compatriot Galileo Galilei. Monaldi & Sorti’s portrayal of the Tuscan scientist bears scant resemblance to the pious image of the innocent victim of Papal censorship handed down to us in the history books. Far from it, Galileo went out of his way to irritate the Pope, who was his friend and supporter. After arousing Urban VIII’s wrath, and without having had to spend so much as a single day in prison, he obtained the backing of an able and unusually powerful advocate, a man who has since been forgotten, and it was this fixer who, working like a modern PR man, publicised the Galileo Affair throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Thus, the Italian scientist was cast in an heroic role and his books, which had until then been gathering dust on publishers’ shelves, became best sellers overnight. In more recent times, Galileo’s theories have proved to be in error, both experimentally and in terms of their methodology.

But Mysterium is no historical treatise, far from it. It is a suspense-filled novel that lives up to its name, a book brimming over with mysteries. The focal point of the plot is a bloody murder, one that really did take place in Rome over 350 years ago, and Monaldi & Sorti have patiently reconstructed, piece by piece, the obscure circumstances surrounding this crime. On the evening of 20 March 1641 Jean-Jacques Bouchard, secretary to the Pope’s family, was assaulted in St Peter’s Square and brutally beaten with staves. He died after five months of long drawn-out agony. Bouchard (1606-1641) was a brilliant young Greek scholar who had come to Rome from Paris in order to study an exceedingly ancient manuscript, one that had for centuries been believed lost, on the origins of the world. His ambition was to gain a bishop’s crozier. The person suspected of having commissioned the murder, the French Ambassador to the Holy See, avoided a trial thanks only to his diplomatic immunity. No one was charged with the crime. Surprisingly, among the papers which the victim bequeathed to the well-known scholar Cassiano Dal Pozzo, was an intimate diary full of embarrassing details about the victim’s sex life: homosexuality, masturbation, impotence. The scandal spread at once as far as Paris and poor Bouchard was consigned to obloquy. Since then he has been remembered only as the author of those unhealthy intimate confessions. His works of philology were forgotten and his papers scattered.

Yet no one seems to have noticed the curious anomalies surrounding the case. Does it really make sense that someone who aspired to become a bishop should, despite five months of slow agony in which to reflect, have left to posterity a diary that revealed all his vices?

Their suspicions aroused, Monaldi & Sorti had the diary examined by a team of graphologists. Their findings reveal that, in the erotic passages, Bouchard’ shandwriting shows signs characteristic of duress. In other words, Bouchard was forced to pen the passages that damned his reputation forever. These distinctive traits are the same as those that characterised the handwriting of Aldo Moro, the Italian statesman kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades in 1978 when, during his imprisonment, he wrote a series of dramatic memos and letters to relatives and friends, the enigmatic content of which is still a matter of controversy in Italy.

Who forced Bouchard to write what he did not want to? Who was behind, not only his death but the defilement of his very memory? What was there among his many works that must at all costs be expunged from the record?

Monaldi & Sorti guide the reader through a possible answer: the manuscript on the origins of the world on which Bouchard was working had been discovered in Paris under somewhat suspicious circumstances by none other than Giuseppe Scaligero, and the latter had made it one of the cornerstones of his own system…

It is difficult, three and a half centuries later, to establish evidence on which to convict Bouchard’s assassin. Yet every novelist has special arms at his disposal. In their foreword to Mysterium, the writers cite a famous j´accuse written by Pier Paolo Pasolini a few years before the Moro kidnapping, one of the murkiest episodes in Italy’s recent political history:

«I know. I know the names of those behind this. I know the names of the inner circle of conspirators . I know the names of those who implemented the plot. I know the names of the group of men of power.I know the names of those who… I know the names of serious and important persons. I know all these names and I know all these facts. I know. But I do not have the proofs. I know because I am a writer, one who by intuition and deduction seeks out all those things that are not known or are passed over in silence; one who coordinates facts, even those distant in time and place, piecing together the disorganised and fragmentary parts of a complete and coherent political framework, one who reveals the logic behind what seems a merely arbitrary, mad, mysterious chaos. All that is part and parcel of my job and of the instinct of my job. I think it is difficult to get the outline of a novel wrong, failing to come to grips with reality, difficult for its references to real persons to be inexact. I believe that many other novelists know what I as a novelist know. Because reconstructing the truth is not in fact all that difficult…».

As in the other books of the Mysterium series, the protagonist of the novel is the brilliant Atto Melani (1626-1714), castrato singer and secret agent. Atto, whom readers will in the earlier novels have met as an old man, appears here as a youngster of barely twenty, an envoy sent by the Medici from Florence to Paris, to sing in an opera of which, strangely, no one knows either the title or the subject. He is accompanied by his faithful middle-aged secretary who with subtle art narrates in the first person the dramatic events to which he is witness. The ship on which Atto and the secretary set sail is attacked by Muslim pirates. Miraculously, Atto and a few other passengers escape, together with two pirates who are former Christian renegades, and make it to an islet in the Sea of Tuscany. Among the group, which includes a number of learned and very conceited Greek and Latin scholars, there is a good friend of Bouchard’s, while others are well acquainted with Scaligero…

The truth about Bouchard’s death and the mystery of Invented Time emerges in the bleak atmosphere of the desert island with its bizarre handful of renegades who beguile the castaways with promises of salvation, together with the mirage of a populous capital city and a rich abbey, all of which things prove distinctly difficult to attain. Death, by murder or suicide, will claim its victims. Wandering to a high tower on the cliff top, an abandoned village, undersea grottoes inhabited by strange aquatic beings, an ancient cemetery and paths lost among the thickets, the marooned travellers are whiling away their time with atrocious accounts of piracy and petulant bickering and backbiting among the scholars, when they discover the one remaining original of a masterpiece from ancient Rome, the Satyricon of Petronius, a literary triumph of sexual depravity. Like a subtle itch, the leitmotiv of perversion will accompany the companions in misfortune to the very end. But it will be the blind brute force of the pirates that will in the end decide the fate of the rediscovered Satyricon and give a decisive twist to destiny.

There is a link, too, between Mysterium and another recent work by the Italian couple: the novel Dissimulation, which was brought out last June by the CPNB, the Netherlands publishers federation, with an extraordinary print run of 846,000 copies, on the occasion of the Maand van het Spannende Boek,“the Month of the Suspense Novel”. Dissimulation shares a story line with Mysterium: readers of that novel will find many answers to their questions in Mysterium, and vice versa. Taken together, the two books make up a “tale with two faces”: like a Moebius figure, which seems to have two sides but in reality has only one (Monaldi & Sorti presented their creative idea at the Belle Van Zuylen Lecture in Utrecht in 2008), each of the four remaining titles of the Atto Melani cycle will be accompanied by a short novel revealing its hidden side, while the pair reciprocally illuminate one another.

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