The Forgery

1.

The Forgery by James Warner, Illustration Sheri MauAs Giacomo entered the atrium of Cipriana’s villa, Cipriana descended a marble staircase. “You don’t look a day older,” Giacomo called to her, pausing by an Etruscan statue of an emaciated-looking warrior.

“But you, Giacomo, actually look younger,” Cipriana lied.

He hadn’t seen her since the days when they both belonged to the leftist group Lotta Continua — it was alarming to see somebody from so long ago, as if the intervening decades had collapsed into nothingness, and he and Cipriana were merely impersonating their earlier, less compromised selves. As they made contact and kissed each other’s cheeks, Giacomo registered that her face had been zealously over-restored by a plastic surgeon. He seemed to be kissing a taut replica of the spontaneous features he recalled from nights of drinking Frascati in trattorias, timetabling the overthrow of the state.  Detecting the wash of impatience beneath her finely-toned enthusiasm, he allowed her to lead him upstairs.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” she added, more truthfully.

He nodded, too weary even to go through the motions of flirting with her. She was not surprised to see him, but surprise was the only emotion her renovated face seemed able to express.

“How are your august employers treating you nowadays?” she asked.

Cipriana believed Giacomo was still a research curator for the Vatican. He could not respond to her question, because he was reeling from the Modigliani sculpture at the top of the stairs. Within moments, he was certain it was a fake. It gave him a feeling like motion sickness.

There was no more vivid difference than that between something made with love and a cynical imitation. Giacomo said nothing about the Modigliani however, because Cipriana had invited him here to pronounce on another artwork entirely, a de Chirico her new husband Licio was contemplating buying from a local family of art dealers. Cipriana had persuaded them to let her borrow it for a week, “to see how it looked in the dining room,” and summoned Giacomo to examine it.

In the dining room, Giacomo noted an alcove behind the drinks cabinet containing several Apulian vases and a Benvenuto Cellini saltshaker his former masters at the Vatican would have broken all ten commandments to get their hands on.

The de Chirico showed a neo-classical facade, with Corinthian columns casting disquieting shadows. A fragmented marble torso and the sail of a distant ship contributed to the ominous mood. As he stiffly contemplated the canvas, his arms folded, Giacomo’s immediate emotional reaction was as to a rehashing of something no longer believed in.

But when determining authenticity, understanding the personality of the artist is key. Giacomo had visited de Chirico once, in his studio at the top of the Palazzetto dei Borgognoni. The paintings de Chirico had done in Paris had impressed the Surrealists and established his reputation, but in middle age, after moving to Rome, he’d settled on a more realistic and representational style, influenced by Renoir and even Rubens, a style that brought him only contempt from the avant-garde. His later works having never attained the same market value as those from his metaphysical period, as an old man he’d supplemented his income by turning out pastiches he claimed were old works of his he’d “found under the bed,” prompting one Roman wit to claim that de Chirico must sleep seven feet above the floor.

Giacomo was sure this was a work from beneath de Chirico’s metaphysical mattress.

“The attribution is unquestionably accurate,” he declared, “although not the date.”

It would be more truthful, he thought, to call it a de Chirico forgery of a de Chirico. But it was genuine enough for Licio, a suspiciously wealthy magistrate. “Thank you Giacomo,” Cipriana said. “You spoke of asking me to do you a favor in return for this one?”

“I need to find Max,” Giacomo said.

“Our old English comrade?”

Giacomo inclined his head.

“He wrote to me not long ago,” Cipriana said. “He still lives in Rome, you know. I think it’s unforgivable,” she added insincerely, “what Max did.”

Giacomo stared out across the terrace over the sun-drenched roof tiles. Mopeds roared, and one of Cipriana’s neighbors, somewhere out of sight, was singing arias in his bath. For a long moment, Giacomo found himself incapable of remembering exactly where he was or what he was doing.  He began fighting down a panic attack, sweating and also shivering, symptoms of the disease that had killed his aunt, and her mother before her.

The villa seemed too small suddenly. Cipriana helped him back down the stairway, his eyes squinting to avoid taking another look at the so-called Modigliani, and found him a glass of brandy. He could see she had realized something was deeply wrong, and had decided not to acknowledge it. Her actions and utterances from now on would all be counterfeit. “If I were you, I would forget all about looking for Max,” she said. “Take care of yourself, and try not to get into trouble.”

#

Later that week, Giacomo stood by Antonio Gramsci’s grave, waiting.

Most of Rome was deliriously hot in summer, but it was cool beneath the creaking cypresses in the Protestant Cemetery.

Soon after Giacomo’s meeting with Cipriana, a messenger from Max had arrived, asking Giacomo to suggest a meeting place. Giacomo was however not sure Max would show up. Max undoubtedly knew, as Cipriana seemingly did not, that Giacomo currently worked for a division of the army known as the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, the Command for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

Crickets chirped and swallows swooped. Giacomo had chosen this meeting-place to remind Max of their shared enthusiasms of bygone years, for Gramsci but also for Keats and Shelley who lay buried here too. A hairless cat reclined on a tombstone.

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence,” Max declared, “but an optimist because of will.”

Giacomo turned slowly. Max did not look like a man to quote Gramsci in Italian. He had diminished into a fat, red-nosed Englishman of the sort seen in old caricatures, complete with shaggy hair and beard, straw hat and pinstriped jacket.

The two men shook hands first, then embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks. Max, a homosexual, had always claimed to be in love with Giacomo, back in their Lotta Continua days. Max had been a successful art dealer for decades now, but had been keeping a low profile since the great auction houses learned most of the Grand Masters he sold were his own skilful reproductions.

“I was sorry to hear of your disgrace,” Giacomo said, “although I have reasons of my own to be confident that you still make a good living.”

Max chuckled. “I sold sculptures no expert could prove weren’t by Michelangelo. Damien Hirst sells a dead cow and calls it art. Which of us is the real impostor?” Max had always been adept at rationalizations. His earliest forgeries had been designed to use the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie against them, hastening the demise of capitalism.

Giacomo accepted a cigar from Max. As they smoked, they glared at the fine view of the Pyramid of Cestius, for centuries believed to be the burial place of Remus, in reality a self-made man’s tasteless memorial to himself, dating from the first century A.D. — most ancient Roman art copied the art of other peoples the Romans had invaded. The pyramid’s ersatz, marble-faced blocks were mottled with lichen, and its shadow fell across Keats’s grave.

“Contemptuous of modern art,” Max was declaring, “I chose to paint in the tradition of the grand masters. Is it my fault that nowadays the only way to make a living painting in the tradition of the grand masters is to paint grand masters? You seem tired.”

“I have a rare inherited disease of the brain,” Giacomo confided, “fatal familial insomnia. I have seven to eighteen months to live. My prognosis is four months of increasing insomnia and panic attacks, followed by five months of hallucinations, rapid weight loss, dementia and death.”

Max sighed and put his arms around Giacomo.

“There is no cure. My aunt died the same way.”

“I can’t express how sorry I am,” Max muttered, releasing Giacomo. “I’ve been an insomniac myself for years but… obviously there’s no comparison.”

“Right now I’m getting two hours sleep a night, and soon I won’t be able to sleep at all. My pension from the carabinieri will be almost nothing. I need to raise some money, to make sure my wife and daughter are provided for after my death. For that reason, I am hoping to locate a Sumerian marble statuette.”

“How to establish a provenance for such a work?” Max wondered.

“It could have been part of the spoils of an ancient campaign,” Giacomo said with a shrug, “perhaps from the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Emperor Septimus Severus. However I prefer the idea that it was looted more recently, by one of our Italian soldiers serving in Iraq, perhaps taken from the National Museum in Baghdad. Their system of inventory left much to be desired. A prospective buyer already exists. It’s just a matter of locating the piece.” Giacomo stubbed out his cigar. “I’m well placed to arrange the export license and the other paperwork.”

“I don’t know much about Sumerian art,” Max said. “But I’m a quick study.”

#

Giacomo had imagined Max working in a desolate and picturesque spot, such as the Jewish catacombs beneath the Appian Way. Everyone knew, after all, that Englishmen were romantics.

But when Giacomo showed up there a few weeks later, Max’s flat turned out to be in a newly-built residential area, on the fringes of the countryside. It was a flat that was completely ordinary-looking in all respects, except for being full of half-finished Raphaels, Uccellos, Caravaggios, and Piero della Francescas. Here the Renaissance was still in full swing.

Giacomo’s glanced quickly from canvas to canvas. To compare these paintings side by side was to put Max at a disadvantage, as his own distinctive brushwork stood out jarringly.

His sculptures were far superior. There was one that Giacomo might have taken for a freshly-discovered Donatello saint, had the subject not unmistakably been Giacomo himself. As he scrutinized his own marble likeness, his eyes seemed to gaze back at him cruelly, as if foreseeing the deterioration of attention and memory he could expect to suffer, and the progressive, dreamlike state of confusion that would follow, as prions accumulated in his brain. “To make a Donatello requires real skill,” Giacomo commented, “because he was so consistently inventive. One might even say that Donatello never attained a mature style.”

“Sometimes I think there’s no such thing,” Max muttered. He took up his mallet and chisel and made an alteration to one of the folds of Giacomo’s toga. There was something Roman in Max’s flair for improvisation — one’s true country is not always the place where one is born. “How is Cipriana?” Max inquired.

“Her new husband’s been amassing quite a collection recently,” Giacomo said.

“That Modigliani of his,” Max sneered. “Looking at that is like getting kicked in the balls. I could make a better Modigliani with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back.”

Giacomo came to the Sumerian statuette. Beside her, Max had propped open the Prussian textbook Giacomo had sent him, including shots from three different angles. She was the goddess Innana, a goddess of fertility who brought a lump to Giacomo’s throat.

“There is no scientific procedure for dating marble,” Max said, “but stable isotope analysis can be used to determine where the marble used in a sculpture was quarried. I used Proconnesus marble. I forget whether that quarry falls within the borders of Greece or Turkey today, but some of the Sumerian city-states might have had access to it, through trade with the Phrygians.”

Giacomo said, “I am confident that my buyer will not attempt to authenticate the source of the marble.”

Max had deliberately dropped his work a few times and glued it back together, careful to use glue made from recipes of great antiquity. Yet it still had the glistening freshness of anything newborn. “In a fake,” Max said, “too sloppy is always better than too meticulous. I don’t know who this goddess was, but whoever sculpted the original believed in her absolutely. The next stage is to immerse her in a solution of vitriol and urine to get the right patina, and coloring agents to impose a variegated surface.”

Giacomo handed Max an envelope of Swiss francs and said, “Send her to me when the aging process is completed.”

“She was harder than I expected,” Max said. “Ideally we’d bury her for a few months, but I suppose there isn’t time. Well, there never is. But you shouldn’t dig too deep in Italy. When they buried Shelley, they tried opening the grave containing the remains of his son by Mary Wollstonecraft, buried there three years before. But the bones were gone. They found an adult skeleton instead. I understand that was how you lost your job as a Vatican research curator, for asking too many questions about things better left buried.”

Too tired to respond, Giacomo watched Max count the banknotes.

“She has a unique energy,” Max said with a yawn. “They’re real when I’m making them – I think it’s only afterwards they become fakes.” Clasping Giacomo’s wrist with both hands, he gazed downward as if in search of underground secrets.

2.

Long weeks later, the statuette was delivered to Giacomo’s home. He fumblingly unwrapped her, and compared her with the original. Considering that Max had only had photographs to work from, it was an astonishing achievement, lacking only the vital spark of originality – and that was something few besides Giacomo seemed able to detect.

He held her upside down – it was easier to spot a fake that way – and she still appeared impeccable. What could Max have managed if he’d been able to see the genuine article?

But that would have been too much of a risk. The fewer people knew the real Innana existed, the better.

Giacomo had been dispatched to Baghdad as part of an art crimes unit in 2003, to scan and log information about missing treasures into international databases. A Sardinian soldier, serving with the Sassari brigade, had sold Giacomo the female deity, claiming to have found it near a ziggurat among the ruins of Babylon. It was incredibly rare, one of the few cult statuettes of a Mesopotamian goddess surviving anywhere in the world. Giacomo had bought the original intending to sell it, but found himself unable to part with her. He was not really a collector, but this piece affected him so strongly, he knew it had to remain within his family.

There were nights in the last few weeks when Giacomo had slept. But more often he spent the hours of darkness sweating and thinking of nothing. In the rare moments when he did sleep, it was the agitated sleep of a man about to emerge from a nightmare, a parody of genuine repose.

As Giacomo rewrapped the looted artifact in cloth and replaced it in his attic, anything he took his eyes off for more than a moment seemed to be shimmering slightly.

After breakfasting on espresso, he staggered out of his house with the replica under his arm. He had a headache, and his nose was bleeding. His fatigue made the city appear brittle, ready to shatter at a single tap from a divine mallet.

Rome was more malodorous than usual today, because the garbagemen were on strike. Giacomo took a bus to Piazza Navono. Graffiti was everywhere, here a hammer and sickle, there a swastika — no political cause ever entirely died out here.

There was a big soccer match on, Roma versus Lazio, which most of the police force had taken the day off to attend. Mint sprouted from the sidewalk outside a video store. In Piazza Navona, there were buskers and mimes, and a beggarwoman hawking handbags of imitation leather. Giacomo got off the bus and strode deliberately through the Campo del Fiori, where Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and where during a demonstration he and Max had once gotten into a fight with some anarchists.

A gypsy tried to sell him a simulacrum of a necklace. Souvenir shops displayed garish, tacky memorabilia of the former Pope. These days Giacomo generally only went to the Vatican to buy cigarettes, since Italian state taxes did not apply there. He crossed the border, and trod once again through the Vatican’s echoing, painted halls.

His destination today was the office of Randall Krone, a Curial Monsignor, an American. Giacomo knocked and entered, and the Monsignor looked hungrily at the parcel Giacomo placed on his desk before unwrapping it.

Monsignor Krone turned the statuette around about ninety degrees and continued to inspect her, as if trying to stare her down. Giacomo felt very weary. Today was swelteringly hot. Monsignor Krone rotated the statuette another ninety degrees. “Big tits,” he commented in English. “Proves she’s a nature goddess.”

Men like this were trophy hunters, caring more for what a piece represented than for what it embodied. Giacomo was glad he was not parting with the original.

Switching to Italian, the Monsignor said, “Under Italian law, if you buy a work of art in good faith from a legitimate dealer, you immediately become the rightful owner, even if it’s hot property, right?” Giacomo nodded. “Good faith,” the Monsignor said. “That’s a pretty elastic concept around here.” He displayed a sneer that must already have made him many enemies. It was hard for anyone to rise very high at the Vatican without making enemies, for an American it was even harder, and for this particular American…  Monsignor Krone squinted at Giacomo. “I thought Italians never got drunk.”

Giacomo said, “I am not drunk.”

“They say antiquities smuggling is helping to fund the insurgency in Iraq,” said the Monsignor. “The price we originally agreed on is too high,” he added.

After some half-hearted haggling, they fixed on a new price.

“You’ll get paid once I’m sure this isn’t a fake,” the Monsignor said. “I’m going to have somebody look at it. Pax vobiscum.”

Dismissed, Giacomo found himself wandering through muggy corridors, past frescoes of voluptuous angels. Drawn into a small, unobtrusive side-chapel by the sight of a plaster Madonna in a dark alcove, he considered kneeling to pray for the restoration of his strength and good spirits. But then he saw the dampness of her abraded cheeks, and was reminded of the way, throughout his life, village Madonnas had spouted miraculous tears whenever it looked as if the Communist Party might pick up seats in the next election.

Religion was a masquerade. From the pickpockets in Saint Peter’s Square to the money launderers at the Vatican Bank, everyone was on the take.

Giacomo bought six cartons of Marlboro from the Vatican supermarket. He was no longer a Vatican employee, but they still accepted his pass. Oppressed by the clammy past falling away beneath his feet, he quickened his step as he departed from the Holy See. What was this place but a museum of lies? Many of the great Masters of the Renaissance had made money on the sides by churning out spurious antiquities, and Giacomo knew from personal experience that perhaps eighty percent of the classical pieces owned by the Vatican were really the work of eighteenth-century forgers. No organization on the planet was slower to admit to its mistakes.

And if the world’s oldest antiquities were accepted as genuine, this was mainly because there was nothing to compare them with. They could equally well be pastiches of originals now long lost. Many of the world’s ancient Greek statues were really ancient Roman reproductions of Greek statues. The world was full of forgeries that would never be detected, a fact that sometimes depressed Giacomo, but today lightened his mood, so that he was in a sort of hopeful stupor as he passed the sunlit dome of Saint Peter’s.

The sky was limpid and luminous. On his way through Saint Anne’s gate, Giacomo nodded to the Swiss Guards with their halberds, and the blue-suited Vigilanza officers, who still knew him by sight. A billboard on the other side of the gate displayed a topless model in blue jeans. A gang of Lazio supporters were impeding traffic, in a victory-inspired trance. Giacomo thought that the clouds looked strangely elaborate and stiff, almost rococo in their convoluted fluency.

“Do I wake or sleep?” Keats had asked. Giacomo made his way to a café table, trying not to flinch when a car horn blared. He had the sense of being hopelessly late for an important demonstration, and of something watching him from underground, a feeling that a glass of Orvieto did nothing to dispel. All he could do now was wait for Krone to come up with the money…

#

Licio had last worked with Giacomo on the case of a Guercino caricature stolen from the Capitoline museum. Today he seemed merely to have dropped into Giacomo’s office for a little chat, until Giacomo asked how Cipriana was, and Licio replied, “She is not taking the news well.”

When Giacomo did not understand, Licio looked incredulous.

“The news of Max Branthwaite’s death.”

Giacomo was by now simply too tired to process fresh information.

“Max has been murdered,” Licio exclaimed. Giacomo felt as if he was floating in a bottomless cavern, alienated even from his own grief, even though he could already feel tears forming. “They found him lying in the Botteghe Oscure, with a fractured skull.”

Licio produced the Prussian textbook, still open to the page with the photograph of the Sumerian statuette, and bearing Giacomo’s name on the frontispiece.

“When did you last visit Max’s house?”

Giacomo understood at last that Licio was in charge of investigating Max’s death. Already softened up by weeks without sleep, constipated and wracked by intermittent tremors, he was in no state to resist interrogation. “A few weeks ago,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly. A social visit.”

“Why would an officer in the carabinieri pay a social visit to the home of a convicted forger?” Licio asked in his nasal voice.

“Max was an old friend,” Giacomo sobbed.

“Yes. You were both members of Lotta Continua.”

As a former revolutionary, Giacomo would never be fully accepted within the world of law enforcement. For the carabinieri, Giacomo’s Vatican connections somewhat compensated for his leftist past, but Licio probably saw Giacomo and Max as bad influences on Cipriana – unaware that, in the old days, she had been the most radical of them all. Unless of course, she had been a police spy all along… but Giacomo dismissed the thought as unworthy of him. Cipriana had wound up marrying a magistrate, but then, had anyone among them lived up to their youthful ideals? Perhaps Max had come the closest.

“Cipriana told me you were looking for him… did the Englishman say anything that might shed light on the manner of his death?” Licio asked.

Giacomo tried to remember the conversation. “He said that the only way to make a living now painting in the tradition of the grand masters was to paint grand masters.”

“Someone hit him from behind with a blunt instrument, hard enough to crack his skull. Who would have wanted to do that?”

Half the world’s art experts, Giacomo thought, who Max had exposed as incompetents. Or else a private collector enraged at being swindled. But Giacomo replied, “Max told me that in Italy, it was never possible to get at the truth.”

Licio’s gaze returned to the textbook. “Do you recognize the work of art depicted here? You were seen last week visiting the office of Monsignor Randall Krone.”

“I had some questions to ask the Monsignor,” Giacomo said. “I suspect he is involved in smuggling antiquities.”

“It’s common knowledge. You went to see him on official business?” Licio offered Giacomo a cigarette, then lit one himself.

Giacomo’s own hands proved too unsteady to light his cigarette. “I was following a hunch,” he said.

Licio took a long drag before saying, “Hunches can be useful in our line of work.”

They could have gone on for hours like this. Giacomo felt that he was on the verge of confessing about the Innana statue, out of sheer fatigue, but he was saved by a phone call from his boss.

There was an urgent job for him. And the carabinieri were not about to hold up business to suit Licio – there was too much rivalry between the separate branches of Italian law enforcement.

So a couple of muscular officers in Versace Ray-Bans, swearing constantly about the traffic, drove Giacomo to the Fiumicino airport in a shiny black Alfa Romeo.

Giacomo was needed to authenticate an etching by Giovanni Piranesi.

The owner was a professor bound for New York, who for some reason dressed like an Albanian pimp, and kept repeating over and over again that he had a plane to catch. Customs had found a framed etching of the Baths of Diocletian in his luggage.

Piranesi was the artist who best understood Rome – that combination of powerful exuberance with ultimate futility, of choking constriction with dizzying endlessness. Giacomo could detect a real Piranesi by the dread feeling it gave him in the pit of his stomach, and this one was a hopeless fraud, watered-down and fussy, lacking Piranesi’s awe-inspiring perspective.

The frame was rather heavy however, and after Giacomo took it aside into a special room and opened it up, concealed beneath the etching he found a sketch of an antique dungeon, deep enough to inspire vertigo, and full of unsettling marvels. The buyer clearly believed this was the real thing, a preparatory sketch for one of the artist’s Imaginary Prisons. But although something of the menace of a true Piranesi came through – a cavernous interior, paradoxically managing to inspire claustrophobia and agoraphobia simultaneously — Giacomo could tell it too was a forgery, although a far more skillful one than the other piece.

It was one of Max’s.

The thought hit him that Max would never make such a thing again. The violence of Max’s demise only heightened the melancholy of this drawing, a vast dungeon with chains, stone lions, balustrades, cogs and pulleys, and, in one corner, dwarfed by the cyclopean structures around them, some tiny, gesticulating figures.

One of them was clasping a statue that Giacomo recognized.

Surely it was the sculpture of the Goddess.

But that could not be. When he looked again, he could no longer find the Goddess and, even more confusingly, the sketch now seemed like a perfectly passable Piranesi.

One of the few artists who was not only an architect but also an archeologist, Piranesi was alive to the inexhaustible layeredness of Rome, to the oppressiveness of the ever-present past. Piranesi had recognized Rome itself as a masterpiece garishly and feverishly retouched, until it was itself no longer an authentic example of any style, a mishmash of periods and styles festooned with anachronisms and surrounded with scaffolding.

Giacomo trusted his first instinct, and told his colleagues, “It’s a fake.” This being so, the carabinieri had no objection to the American taking it to New York. It was only genuine Italian art that they were sworn to keep in the country. Giacomo replaced the sketch in the frame behind the etching, since it was better if the tourist believed his trick had worked — who knew what they might catch him with next time?

The professor complained self-righteously about their wasting his time, made some general observations about Roman bureaucratic inefficiency, then went to board his flight.

Giacomo tried to form a sentence, but his colleagues seemed to have gone. He did not know how long he had been standing here, in the airport, no place for a weary man. His bones ached, his joints burned, and the names of places he would never visit flickered on a large board. Tourists from all the nations flocked past. How many of them carried smuggled antiquities, and how many were real?

At last he saw the carabinieri coming for him. Would they take him to a dungeon like the one in the Piranesi sketch? His aunt had been raving about dungeons when she died.

But all they’d done was go to get him a takeout caffé macchiato before driving him home. The carabinieri were only late because they had been flirting with a waitress in the café.

Luckily they had not parked too far underground. It took courage for Giacomo to descend even the single flight of stairs that led down to their parking place…

#

Giacomo and his wife Azzurra were eating zabaglione. The olive oil tasted wrong to Giacomo, as if it had been mixed with seed oils. He would have to notify the branch of the carabinieri responsible for preventing the adulteration of olive oil.

Azzurra had uncorked a bottle of Pinot grigio, but there was no relief in wine to a man this befuddled. Giacomo sipped Pellegrino water instead – it tasted wrong too. It was August, and he was on vacation. Azzurra showed him a potion she had received from a gypsy. “You mix this in your drink,” she said, “to make you sleep. Do you think it will work?”

Because of his reputation, people often asked Giacomo to pronounce on the reliability of objects – coins they’d found, or saints’ relics or fragments of the True Cross – that fell outside his sphere of expertise. He told such people what he thought they wanted to hear. People had suggested he find sleep with the help of molasses, melatonin, licorice, valerian root, wheat germ oil, a silk eye mask, a white noise machine – all to no avail. But he told Azzurra he was sure her potion would help.

Her smile was briefly so radiant, it reminded him of the early days of their courtship, of their honeymoon in Yugoslavia. That was where Communists vacationed in those days – Fascists vacationed in Spain.

Now Azzurra was having an affair. Giacomo could tell by the determination with which she observed her customary routines, the deliberation with which she dressed down, the fact that for three months she had not substantially remodeled her hairstyle. These days, Giacomo wished that more escaped him. His own libido had been extinct for weeks.

She put his hand on his. He stared at her uncertainly. “Are you just pretending that it will help?” she said.

“I swear by the Madonna.” He poured the potion into his Pellegrino.

Azzura pointed to the room upstairs where their daughter Zita was trying to get some sleep. “Be sure to check in on her every few hours,” Azzura said.

Giacomo thought of the dungeons beneath Diocletian’s place in Split. They had spent many happy hours in those arching vaults. He would not have returned there for anything — the underground realm was horrible to him now.

He would have to resign soon, whatever Licio might read into that act, and prepare himself for death.

When he noticed that Azzurra had gone, he looked through a coffee-table book of Piranesi engravings.

Each one seemed to be by Max.

Max had been heard to say that some of his Piranesis had fooled everyone. Of course, he would have to say that, to confuse the historical record. The art work was full of unrecognized fakes. It was how men like Max revenged themselves on a world that had failed to appreciate their talent.

But not all of the Piranesis in this book could be Max’s.

When Giacomo glanced at himself in a mirror, there were black circles all around his eyes, and his pupils had shrunk to pinpricks. He turned the mirror to the wall, and looked at his book again. All the machines depicted here seemed to be fragments of instruments of torture.

He walked up to the top floor, the Piranesi volume under his arm, to get further away from whatever lay below. Outside, people shouted and threw firecrackers into the night.

Giacomo smoked a Marlboro cigarette, which did not look, smell, or taste like a Marlboro cigarette. Was the Vatican selling fake cigarettes now? His favorite desk seemed to have been replaced with a cheap imitation, as if someone had broken in and replaced all the furniture, and when he next looked at the etchings, they seemed to be seething.

He closed his eyes, and the hallucinations continued, monsters creeping through prisons, lost travelers straggling around giant oubliettes. Sometimes he looked at the book, sometimes he just lay on his bed, it made no difference. A faucet dripped nearby, the sound of eternity. Everything on television was phony. Phony politicians waged phony wars. The art world trafficked exclusively in phoniness.

Giacomo stood and limped up to the attic to look at the statuette of Innana.

Had he given Krone the wrong Goddess by mistake? This too looked like the work of Max, not like the original he remembered secreting here. Or had the Sardinian sold him a fake? The Goddess’s smile seemed to have deepened, becoming crueler. She even seemed to have grown slightly. Judging authenticity in the absence of sleep was like trying to taste food when you had a cold.

“Daddy, I can’t sleep.”

His daughter had tiptoed up the stairs behind him. She gave him a hug, glancing without interest at the goddess, and Giacomo lay down on what had once been a Minotti recliner and waited for her to fall asleep in his arms, holding her tight and praying for her to turn back into herself. But to whom was he praying? Too weak now to lift his sleeping, murmuring daughter by himself, Giacomo waited patiently for his wife to return home, listening to the buzzing of appliances and to Monsignor Krone’s voice, on the answering machine from the floor below, demanding to know why the hell he didn’t pick up the phone…

3.

Krone had work for him.

Underneath the Vatican, the air was dank with wet clay. Giacomo was with the Monsignor, and a German bishop in bifocals. Bearing flashlights, they descended into the Necropolis of the Parking Garage.

Giacomo was terrified and could hardly breathe.

All Rome’s churches were founded on pagan shrines. There was always a crypt with a locked doorway the sacristan was prepared to open for a small fee, disclosing stairways leading down to the remnants of baths, taverns, long-buried brothels, arcades, barracks, and arsenals. The founders of churches liked to obliterate the competition by covering them up, and as a general rule, the more imposing the edifice, the more important the horrors it was there to conceal.

The Necropoli dell’Autoparco was unearthed in 2003, directly below the street connecting the Vatican pharmacy and supermarket, when construction workers broke ground for a new parking garage. Following complaints that dump trucks leaving the site were carrying tombstones and other important archaeological debris, the Vatican admitted they had uncovered a burial ground, a cluster of mausoleums preserved when they were covered by clay during a fourth century landslide. These were now a museum open to the public on Thursdays.

“Whoever authorized this in the first place made a huge mistake,” the bishop growled.

Giacomo was silent. As a research curator, he had helped pressure the Vatican into pursuing the excavation, by leaking select information to the newspaper Il Manifesto.

They passed urns and amphoras, steles and sarcophagi. Seeing the head of a young girl in a glass case, Giacomo tried to speak, but the words struck in this throat. Clay tubes, used by pagans to feed their dead with honey and syrup, still protruded fingerlike from the ground.

Now they were leaving the Necropolis for another, more recently excavated site, that Giacomo had not even heard rumors about. The bishop pointed his flashlight down a steep shaft.

“No way in Hell am I going down there,” said Monsignor Krone.

“Below,” the bishop told Giacomo, fingering his gold chain, “is a statue like the one you sold us. But much larger.”

“We asked two experts if she was real,” Monsignor Krone said. “One said yes, one said no. But they both agreed the statuette you brought over was the real deal. Give us your verdict on what’s down there, and you get double the sum we originally agreed on.”

As Giacomo accepted the bishop’s flashlight and began to lower himself into the city’s entrails, both Krone and the bishop made the sign of the cross.

“Hey, you look like you’re running on empty,” Krone said. “Try taking a Benadryl at night with a shot of bourbon. Only thing that works for me.”

There were twenty-three metal rungs welded into the stone. What did Giacomo really have to fear? What torture they might inflict on him down there could be worse than this state of hallucinatory exhaustion?

He was so thin now, he had no difficulty squeezing through the narrowing shaft into the Earth’s crust. His descent reminded him of removing layers of varnish and soupish overpaint to get to the original surface of an over-restored painting. When he ran out of rungs, he found he was standing on some kind of mosaic floor. There was an aroma of myrrh and fungus, with a slight trace of wax. He turned the flashlight around him. He could discern some kind of frieze on the walls, but his eyes could make no sense of it. There was something sticky on the ground at his feet. “So tell us,” the bishop barked from above, “is she genuine?”

Then Giacomo saw her.

He was in a grotto which led into a vast sepulcher, housing a huge statue much like the one he had sold the Monsignor. It was in hope of something like this that Giacomo had wanted the original dig to go forward, but now his stomach turned, and his throat contracted with atavistic fear. She was like one of the antiques Piranesi had famously forged, by digging up bits of ancient sculpture and sticking them together to fashion monstrosities.

Giacomo did not know how long he had been here, with intolerable sounds in his ears, echoing footfalls in burial chambers, crumbling stone, the whispered, incomprehensible conversations of the long dead. For without sleep, nothing seemed real…

#

The Circus Maximus, at dawn, was the haunt of derelicts and drug dealers.

Giacomo’s eyes strained to make out the ghostly shape of the ancient racetrack.

He was here because he could no longer bear to lie awake in his bed every night. Rome emitted constant low-frequency sonic vibrations, sounds he found increasingly intolerable.

Framed by the Palatine’s rock face, a shivering Libyan prostitute complained into her cell phone. Every man who passed by had the look of an informer. This world swarmed with cruder inaccuracies every day, lusterless, lacking the spontaneous, erratic quality of everything true and free. Its agonizing blankness was squeezing the life out of him. And nothing felt to his fingers as it should — cloth felt like stone, wood like sand.

A hand grabbed Giacomo’s shoulder.

It was Licio’s granite hand.

Giacomo was in Licio’s Lancia now. Licio drove with the frenzy of a charioteer. Rome was an unrecognizable maze. A forest of street signs mocked Giacomo’s directionlessness. He could no longer even tell north from south. This was a city of all-embracing unreality that gave the eye no rest, a montage of Fellini outtakes, a fearful world from which no escape was possible… He had dreams all day long, and could forget none of them.

Licio said, “You bought a forged Piranesi from Max Branthwaite, and smuggled it to the American at the airport.”

Giacomo thought Licio was not convinced of his own theory, but was hoping Giacomo would confirm it. Through fluttering eyelids, he stared at a gelateria beneath an aqueduct. Pigeons scattered before them as they passed the Trevi fountain, which roared like a crowd condemning a gladiator. Cars were like lions. Travertine facades took on the hue of honey.

“You were working with Monsignor Krone,” Licio said, “to smuggle Piranesi forgeries out of the country.”

Licio hoped to impress his ideas by the sheer loudness with which he iterated them. His was a type commonly found among policemen and museum curators. Giacomo found himself retrospectively questioning Licio’s reconstruction of the disappearance of the Guercino caricature. In that instance, Licio had won a confession from a young security guard – had the guard simply been overwhelmed, in the end, by Licio’s obstinacy and brutality?

“Max was planning to tell us what was going on,” Licio shouted, “so the carabinieri murdered him to stop the truth getting out. Isn’t that right?” An old-school rhetoritician, Licio threw his whole body into the points he was trying to make, dangerous though this was while driving. He was a Fascist, one who dealt in mystically-justified false certainties. “In the name of God,” Licio screamed, “confess something, deny something, say something. Talking can only do you good,” Licio tried again, as he screeched to a halt outside the police station.

Invited to sign a confession, Giacomo found himself physically incapable even of grasping a pen. His eyes locked onto a sketch on the wall of Licio’s office, a forgery in the style of Caravaggio that had just been brought in, depicting the decapitation of St. John the Baptist – Giacomo saw at once that it was Max’s work. And St. John the Baptist, seen only from behind, looked like Max – it was Max’s last little joke on the art world, his version of a suicide note.

Unable to endure his own insomnia any longer, Max had paid somebody to kill him, leaving this sketch behind as a final statement. Giacomo would have explained this to Licio, had he been able to form the words, but without sleep, there could be no such thing as justice or absolution…

#

After Giacomo’s aunt lost the ability to talk, she had lasted another three months. In the end, unable to swallow, she had drowned on her own saliva.

Giacomo could not walk any more. He was on a bed now, shaking so much it took three doctors to hold him down, as they attempted to administer barbiturates intravenously.

Everything Giacomo saw afflicted him with the sense of constriction, the lack of freedom, of a late de Chirico, an artist who had ceased to believe in what he was doing, who had failed to attain a mature style.

Piranesi had understood the same thing – this was a forger-god’s world. Authenticity and innocence were illusions – only sleep could restore, and to restore was always to fake a little. Old memories were the least reliable, because the truth had been rubbed out of them, and Rome was a very old memory.

It was fall now, and murmurations of starlings were blackening the sky, while Giacomo endured the staccato passage of time. Here they had all the latest machines and drugs that were supposed to help him lose consciousness for a moment. The phantasmal golden light, pouring through the hospital windows, stung him like acid. There was a plastic rosary in what should have been his hand, but all he wanted was for the flood of images and noises to stop.

His relatives were here, vibrant and glowing, their flesh translucent. They did not talk much about the sickness, but they were scrupulous about visiting anyone in its last stages. And here was Monsignor Krone, handing Giacomo a briefcase full of what were clearly intended to be euros.

“Ego te absolvo,” the Monsignor lied in impeccable Latin, “a peccatis tuis.”

He slipped a tiny particle of the consecrated Host under Giacomo’s tongue — a leftover from a terrifying, barely-disguised pagan ceremony, tasting neither of bread nor of God nor of anything else.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” Giacomo made the effort to run a hand through the hair of his supposed daughter, who was singing to him, singing beautifully. He could give her the money — that was all he could achieve now. One should act as if something was real, because soon it would be time to sleep.

————————

James Warner {www.jameswarner.net} is the author of All Her Father’s Guns {www.allherfathersguns.com}, a novel published by Numina Press in 2011. His short stories have appeared in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online, and elsewhere. He also writes the literary column “Standing Perpendicular” for openDemocracy, and helps organize the Lit Crawl for San Francisco’s annual Litquake festival.