The Measure of a Man

Marco Malvaldi

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Measure of a Man, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor. It’s 1493, and a man is found dead in a castle in Milan. Ludovico il Moro, the reigning prince, seeks help from Leonardo da Vinci, who has a workshop in the castle, where he produces his masterpieces. And now he must astound the court again—not with his scientific or artistic achievements, but by his cleverness, alone.

The sun had not yet risen beyond the castle walls when the body was discovered.

The pitch darkness of deepest night had already begun raising its curtain in the last few minutes, ready to present the spectacle of another brand-new day. But you couldn’t see much inside the castle, and even in the courtyard known as the Piazzale delle Armi visibility was quite low.

That was why Remigio Trevanotti, one of the castle servants, did not immediately realize the nature of the object he had tripped over, an object that should not have been there in the first place, given that His Lordship had ordered that the courtyard be kept clear of objects lying on the ground at all hours of the day or night. It was a kind of bundle with an odd texture, almost like a sack containing large river stones stuck together with mastic. That was Remigio Trevanotti’s initial impression as he got back on his feet, cursing because it was now his job to remove this heavy package.

It was only when he handled it, trying to find the best way to load it on his shoulder, that he realized the bundle contained a man.

A man too cold and stiff still to be alive.

* * *


“Dead, Your Lordship.”


“It would not seem so, Your Lordship.” “Then how did he die?”

“It’s not clear, Your Lordship.” “Could it be that?”

“It could be that, Your Lordship.” “Do we know him?”

“I’ve seen him before, Your Lordship.”

The voice was that of Bergonzio Botta, not only Ludovico’s tax collector but also sometimes the master of ceremonies at  his morning audiences.

“He was one of the supplicants requesting an audience yesterday morning. Your Lordship did not have time to hear him. He came by the castle again yesterday afternoon to request another audience.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“I must have written it on the list. I’ll go and get it right away, Your Lordship.”

“Go, Bergonzio. But first send for Magistro Ambrogio.”

* * *

While the servants were laying the corpse out on the table, Magistro Ambrogio Varese da Rosate walked around it, swinging a thurible in which incense and lemon leaves were burning. Incense because its warm, fragrant fumes were believed to dispel the winds that carried contagion, and lemon leaves because Magistro Ambrogio liked the smell.

Having laid the body down, the servants stood by the table, their eyes shifting from the dead man to the physician, their feet pointing more toward the door than in front of them.

“Undress the poor wretch, may God have mercy on his soul.”

The servants did so, with the quick, strained movements typical of those who are scared out of their wits, and within a very short time left on the table a naked, dead, and very pale man.

Ambrogio da Rosate began circling the corpse, as slowly as a falcon searching for prey.

Ambrogio da Rosate, too, was searching for prey. Or, rather, a sign. Any sign. But there were no signs on this body, of any kind. No signs of stabbing, no marks from a dagger. No bleeding from the mouth, the nose, the ears . . .

“Turn him over.”

. . . or any other orifices of the body.

Ambrogio continued walking in circles, absorbed in thought, while the servants stood motionless, hoping they would soon be allowed to leave the room.

Nor any sign of poisoning from substances different than arsenic, so fashionable in those days.

No bruises or blemishes suggesting a beating, a brawl. or a violent contact with some blunt instrument.

No congestion in the face or neck that would make one suspect an apoplectic fit. Besides, Magistro Ambrogio thought, if he had died from a stroke, why take the trouble of wrapping him in a sack and carrying him into the middle of the Piazzale delle armi? What was there about a poor fellow who’d died of  a stroke that would need to be concealed?

No boils, bumps, or other ostentatious signs of the disease that had overwhelmed half the continent over a hundred years earlier—those livid weals, those venomous fungi that would pop up under people’s clothes and meant one thing only. That, as Ludovico had said and Bergonzio Botta had replied. A disease so terrible that no one at court called it by its name and everybody feared it. Servants, cooks, and armigers feared it, and even Magistro Ambrogio Varese da Rosate, an expert in the art of the stars but perfectly well aware of not being anything as eternal as they were, feared it.

And the man who had ordered him to examine the body feared it, too.

“Have you finished, Magistro Ambrogio?”

“I’m not sure,” Ambrogio replied in a slow, deep voice. “I’m very, very much afraid we’ve only just begun.”

“What do you mean, Magistro Ambrogio?”

Ambrogio da Rosate turned to the servant, heedless of the difference in their roles. His face was impassive, but there was dismay in his eyes. “Whatever this man may have died from, it’s an illness that’s never been seen before.”

* * *

“Are you sure, Magistro Ambrogio?”

“I confess my ignorance, Your Lordship. I’ve never come across this disease on the body of any man or woman, or in the pages of any of my treatises.”

“So it’s not the plague, then,” Beatrice said with a hint of hope in her voice.

“I can state that with absolute certainty, Your Ladyship,” Ambrogio da Rosate replied, while behind the ducal pair, a servant, hearing the disease named so explicitly, made a quick sign of the cross with a furtive tap on his balls between the Father and the Holy Ghost.

“Nevertheless it kills,” Ludovico said, his hands joined in front of his face. “And it kills fast. Messer Bergonzio, you told me you saw this man alive yesterday. When exactly?”

Bergonzio Botta, official collector of tributes for His Lordship in the provinces of Lodi, Como, and Vigevano, was not a timid man. Although he went around escorted by a handful of armigers, it was, so they said, purely and strictly for reasons of personal safety—a safety that was also jeopardized by lightning, plague, poisonings, and all the other calamities that, in Bergonzio’s opinion, were seriously underestimated by most of his fellow men. Anyhow, as we were saying, Bergonzio Botta was not a timid man: he was a genuine chickenshit. As Ludovico addressed him, he was actually counting the hours since he had encountered that young man, a mere five paces away, ten at the most, and wondering if the slight dizziness he was feeling might be a first symptom of possible contagion.

“At the ninth hour, Your Lordship,” Botto replied. “And how did he look, Messer Bergonzio?”

“Well, exactly as you saw him. A blond young man, about thirty . . .”

Ambrogio da Rosate, who had understood the question, tried rephrasing it. “Was he shaking? Did he look flushed with fever? Was he pale?”

“On the contrary, he was sound as a bell. Or at least he seemed to be. I’m not a physician, but he looked perfectly healthy.”

Ludovico il Moro, his face as dark as his name, looked at Ambrogio da Rosate.

“I’ve never come across a disease like this, Your Lordship,” Ambrogio admitted.

“Could he have been poisoned?”

“I see nothing on the body that would lead me to that con- clusion, Your Lordship. There is not the rash and bleeding associated with cantarella or aqua tofana. Every poison that enters our bodies leaves a trace, Your Lordship.”

“Every poison leaves a trace.” Il Moro repeated Ambrogio’s words out loud, as though he either found them particularly interesting or knew them to be true from personal experience. “I see, Magistro Ambrogio. Now tell me: what do the stars say about this?”

“I would need to consult my instruments, if Your Lordship will give me leave.”

“Yes, go, Magistro Ambrogio.”

After a deep, slow, dignified bow, Ambrogio da Rosate did exactly that. Ludovico let a few seconds pass in silence after the door had been shut, while Bergonzio Botta took his own pulse under his heavy dark cloth sleeve, trying to figure out if by any chance he was coming down with a fever.

“I need your assistance, Messer Bergonzio,” Ludovico said. “At your service, Your Lordship.”

“Send for Messer Leonardo.”

“I shall fetch him myself, if Your Lordship will allow.” “Messer Bergonzio, do you still go around with your escort?” “Of course, Your Lordship. Six valiant men, armed and

well fed. Messer Leonardo will be at no risk.”

Ludovico rolled his eyes. “Messer Bergonzio, what would the populace think if I were to send a tax collector surrounded by armed henchmen to fetch my most talented engineer and artist?”

“That he . . . I mean that there are issues between you and him, payment issues possibly . . .”

“I see that even you can use your head if you force yourself, Messer Bergonzio. Send one of your men, on his own and unarmed, to fetch Leonardo. Let him come alone, without fan- fare or henchmen. And conduct him straight to the hospital room.”

“As Your Lordship wishes,” Messer Bergonzio, muttered, beginning to feel unwell in earnest.

* * *

“I’d quite like this, too, you know, having an east-facing room,” Leonardo said, looking through  the  window,  which had no cloth covering.

Outside, the sun, only apparently static in the sky, was actually rising, clothing with fresh light laden with promises the room and everything in it, including the dozens of coats of  arms hanging on the walls, symbols of families of noble line- age, as motionless as befits a nobleman before a lord. And what a lord: Ludovico il Moro, master of Milan, who, they said, had the Pope as his chaplain and the Emperor as his butler. Il Moro was standing in the middle of the most luminous room in his castle: a sumptuous, open, elegant tableau. Too bad about the corpse lying bare-assed on the table in the middle of the room.

“Yes, I’d like it very much. Do you see, Your Lordship, how it provides a totally different perspective? The morning light is the most honest.”

I’d quite like an east-facing room too, Ludovico might have replied in normal circumstances, that is, with no infectious corpses in the vicinity. But I, effectively the regent and lord of the city, have to live in the Rochetta, in small, dark, west-facing rooms, until my useless nephew Gian Galeazzo kicks the bucket—although that’s something Ludovico would never have said.

“The corpse hasn’t been brought here so that you might paint it, Messer Leonardo,” Ludovico said curtly. “Magistro Ambrogio claims that the winds that carry the plague spread from east to west, and leaving it thus exposed we put the city at lesser risk of contagion.”

You mustn’t laugh, modern reader. Ambrogio da Rosate was merely complying with the medical knowledge of the time, which stated that it was the winds, and not bacteria, that carried disease, and that it was also the winds that swept them away, so much so that hospitals back then had doors facing the Vatican, to allow the Holy Spirit easier entry. Leonardo, therefore, found nothing strange in this detail. In another one, how- ever, yes.

“The plague?”

Raising an eyebrow, Leonardo approached the body, which raised no objection.

“He doesn’t appear to have died from the  plague,” Leonardo said confidently. “For a corpse, I’d say he looks quite healthy and blooming. Forgive my flippancy, Your Lordship, but prior to dying, this man was in excellent health.”

“That’s precisely our problem. He doesn’t actually look dead. Magistro Ambrogio says he has no idea what could have caused this man’s death. He rules out poisoning or premeditated murder, but what could have caused this man’s heart to stop, he says he doesn’t know.”

“Magistro Ambrogio says he doesn’t know. Ah.”

Had he been among his family members or in his work- shop, he would have blurted out something about Ambrogio da Rosate usually knowing everything, but not in front of il Moro. Of all the duke’s counselors, the astrologer was the one whose word was never questioned. He continued:

“If Magistro Ambrogio, the most talented physician and surgeon in the peninsula, said that, then what could a painter like I possibly have to add?”

“Magistro Ambrogio has only seen him from the outside.

I’d like you to look at the inside.”

“The inside?”

“Is it not true, Messer Leonardo, that you take an interest in anatomy and that, in order to make your paintings and your work more realistic, you usually strip the bodies even more, removing the skin and drawing what they look like then?”

Leonardo stopped breathing. But only for a moment.

In those days, human anatomy was more akin to necromancy than to life drawing. There was a vague, incomplete knowledge of where the organs were positioned, and if some- thing was missing it was replaced by astrological symbols as useful as a screwdriver made of modelling clay. There was a reason for this: dissecting corpses was not easy. Not forbid- den, but not easy either. Dissecting horses, dogs, and pigs was feasible. Dissecting a woman was not very hard: after all, as everybody knew, women had no souls, so quartering them in order to inspect their internal organs was not so unseemly or so compromising, as far as eternal life was  concerned.  But men were a different can of worms. Finding an intact male corpse and gutting it to look inside was neither easy nor with- out risk for anyone who was not a physician. Leonardo did it, but was not very happy for it to be known, partly because ecclesiastical courts were quick to misunderstand certain things.

“My knowledge of anatomy, Your  Lordship, is based on  the many cadavers I saw in Florence, including the similari-  ties between men and animals, which  makes  me  conclude  that there are analogies and differences between them. You see—”

“Listen to me, Leonardo. I don’t give a damn what you do with cadavers, just as long as you don’t manufacture your own raw material from living Christians. I’m neither my brother the cardinal nor his friend who’s sitting on the throne of Rome. I am, however, the regent of this city, so I’m more concerned with the living than the dead, and with avoiding their joining the ranks of the dead. I need your help.”

“If Your Lordship will forgive me again, I already have a lot of work, including, at the top of my list, the bronze horse  in memory of your father, so to me every minute is precious.”

“I understand, Messer Leonardo. You work very hard and are paid very little. By many people, myself included. Very well, Messer Leonardo. I thank you for coming so promptly, and now I will let you return to your business. This is a time of crisis, isn’t it?”

“Alas, yes, Your Lordship. It’s no time for mirth. There’s little money around and those who have it hold on to it even when they’ve pledged it.”

“I know you’re still owed a large payment by the monks of the Immaculate Conception at San Francesco Grande.”

“Twelve hundred lire, alas. Both I and the kind De Predis.”

“That’s extremely unfair,” Ludovico said, nodding sympathetically. “You will be paid tomorrow. You have my word.”

That was what Leonardo found annoying about Ludovico. He never explicitly promised anything in return for something else. He just made you feel indebted. As though wanting to reiterate that he was the master, that you knew it perfectly well, and that he would still be the master even if you did not take it as understood.

“Your Lordship is too kind. I wonder if . . .”

“Go on.”

“If you would like me to, I could at least take a look at this poor wretch, even if only from the outside. Magistro Ambrogio is wise and skilled, but his eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”

“Please, go ahead.”

With barely a hint of hesitation, Leonardo put a hand on the shoulder of the body to test its firmness. Then, with a res- olute and much more expert gesture than his previous words had suggested, he put an arm around the waist of the corpse and, almost effortlessly, turned it on its back.

He studied it for a few seconds, staring at it intensely. “No external marks,” he said.

“No,” Ludovico replied. “Externally, no marks.” Theoretically, il Moro had said the same thing as Leonardo.

In practice, there was a big difference in meaning, one that at this point was hard to ignore.

Just as it was hard not to see that something in Leonardo’s expression had altered. It was still serious, but his face no longer had the customary lightness that made those who met him happy. As though he had noticed something that had escaped the duke’s astrologer, but wasn’t entirely certain.

The two men were silent for a few more seconds.

“I shall require a few things,” Leonardo said in a practical tone, breaking the silence.

“I’ll send you my chamberlain immediately.”

“Thank you,” Leonardo replied, not weighing down his answer with unnecessary titles and possessive pronouns. “Also please have Giacomo Salaì fetched from my workshop. And don’t let anybody in apart from those two.”


From The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi, and translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor. Used with the permission of the publisher, Europa. Copyright © 2019 by Marco Malvaldi.

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