In a future 2040, the church is considering the canonization of Pope Innocent XI. An unusual seventeenth-century manuscript is brought to the attention of the authorities and the bulk of the novel is its transcription in full.  

The manuscript is the diary of an intelligent, but inexperienced young orphan-apprentice who is working in a Roman hostel in September 1683. The Catholic Church is fighting the Ottoman Turks who have besieged Vienna. Tensions with France are high as that country and its king have long asserted their exemption from Church rule.

 A hostel guest dies, and the authorities, suspecting plague, impose a quarantine. The apprentice falls under the influence of another confined guest, Atto Melani, a famous castrato and spy for King Louis XIV of France. Believing that the deceased guest was murdered, they venture out each night into subterranean Rome searching for clues to support their theory and leading them to investigate poisons, panaceas, and political plots. Meanwhile, a physician also confined to the hostel attempts all remedies to prevent plague, while another guest, besotted with astrology, strives to reveal the future, and yet another plays soothing music. 

Like a baroque Agatha Christie novel, plausible suspicion is cast upon every guest until the truth emerges and with it many doubts about the saintliness of Pope Innocent XI. The 2040 writer invites the Holy Office to consider the implications of the manuscript before proceeding with the canonization.


A married couple, the authors are journalists with academic backgrounds: she in classical philology and religion; he in musicology.

Full of elaborate atmosphere and intrigue, their novel is a masterpiece of historical research in politics, religion, and social conditions. Many of the characters are real.  The epidemic conditions resonate strongly for anyone who has experienced the COVID-19 lockdowns. The quarantined people are frightened and angry in equal measure; they dissemble and disobey the rules. The confined physician is desperate to help preserve the health of his fellow hotel guests, one of whom really does develop plague. Many remedies are taken directly from the medical pharmacopeia of the time.  

Also featured is the healing power of music -- especially that of real composer, Luigi Rossi, and a famous rondeau now attributed to the much later François Couperin. A list of the musical pieces mentioned in the novel appears at the end. 

The story plunges into almost overwhelming detail on some issues, as told or experienced by the confined lodgers. For example, many pages are devoted to the court of Louis XIV, his opposition to the Church, his numerous affairs, his ambitions for Europe, and his jealous rivalry with Nicolas Fouquet who built the chateau now known as Vaux-le-Vicomte. Also, as the apprentice and Melani venture into the underground passages of Rome each night, a parallel tale involves the corpisanti class of disfigured ruffians who mine the catacombs for body parts to sell as holy relics. 

A sixty-page Addendum refers to historical scholarship and evidence on the life and dealings of the Pope and his family. Chief among the apparent “sins” is the financial relationship that they maintained with Prince William of Orange, which leads to the surprising conclusion that the Pope, who appears far more grasping than modest, had financed the Protestant takeover of England. 

When the novel was released in 2002, it caused an uproar in Italy. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Church was once again considering the canonization of Innocent XI for his 1683 triumph over the Turks, mirroring, it was thought, the war on Islamic terrorism. This novel effectively stopped the process. It is no accident that the fictional diary begins on 11 September.


Translated by Peter Burnett from the original 2002 Italian edition



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