Sunday, 9 November 2008

Chapter Eleven

At the same time that his sister was making herself at home in the office of the wine merchant, Silvio di Rossini was making his way along the Grand Canal in a gondola, propelled with quiet, purposeful efficiency by one of the many gondoliers that worked the area ferrying the citizens of Venice along the canals that were the main thoroughfares of the city. The gondola was painted black, by tradition and also as dictated by one of the many sumptuary laws that regulated trade, commerce and even the clothes that people of various stations in life were allowed to wear. Silvio was grateful for the shelter provided by the gondala's small felze cabin that provided some shelter from the elements. The sunshine of earlier in the day had vanished, to be replaced by lowering dark clouds and a stiff, cold scirrocco wind blowing in across the lagoon from the Adriatic sea whipping up small waves and whitecaps on the water, making the boat ride choppy and uncomfortable. Summer had definitely long passed, and Silvio suspected that first major storm of the winter was on its way, sooner rather than later.

The small boat rounded the bend in the canal by the fish market, causing Silvio to wrinkle his nose subconciously at the familiar sour smell, and the famous Rialto bridge came into view. It had been completed only fifteen years previously and was rightly regarded as one of the architectural wonders on the world. The designer Antonio da Ponte had beaten such eminent designers as Michelangelo and Palladio for the contract and had completed the work, against all expectations, in just three years sinking twelve thousand wooden pilings into the mud of the canal base to support the imposing structure. It was the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot, and its vast 24 foot span was thronged with street sellers hawking their wares, small shops and stalls, and a few hardy courtesans working the shadowy areas under the bridge where the traghetto ferries docked. It was a little early in the day for their trade, and Silvio knew that that particular area was one to avoid in the hours of darkness unless you liked to live life on the wild side and didn't mind the risk of getting robbed of your purse or worse.

Silvio disembarked at one of the many small jettys on the eastern bank of the canal near the bridge and climbed the steps up to the street that were now slick with the drizzle that was threatening to become rain. He hurried into the grand hall of the palazzo near the Rialto that served both as the hub for the majority of Venetian trade and commerce, and also as one of the world's major financial centers. He never failed to be astonished by the opulent splendour within. Merchants, stock traders and nobles with an eye for business thronged the area that operated as a bourse for trading in just about every product and service available in the world, and there were many areas both public and private where deals could be arranged. Silvio thought with some amusement that the old joke that when our lord Jesus Christ had thrown the money changers out of the temple they had all agreed to move to the Rialto bank in Venice was not so far from the truth.

Today the customary bustle had a darker edge. It was said that the market had the same four humours as the human body and that you could judge its health in much the same way as a physician would judge the wellness of a man, and decide where to employ his powders and leaches to cure its ills. Such as physician would have quickly diagnosed an excess of black bile requiring an severe purging. Rumours were evidently flying around, and in the central trading area papers were being waved by those desperate to sell and close a position before they lost a fortune. Prices were falling rapidly, and nobody seemed to know exactly why.

Silvio looked around for one of his dealers, and finally saw Bennedetto di Campo rushing past with a sheaf of papers, invoices and receipts in his hands. He grabbed his elbow and asked with quiet urgency.

"Benedetto - what is going on? What have you heard?"

"Nobody knows for sure, but there are rumours that some bad news is expected soon and the dealers are selling everything they can. A lot of people are losing a lot of money, and everybody is trying to get their hands on gold instead of paper. Excuse me sir, I must deal with these papers quickly before the market closes, otherwise I can't speak for the consequences."

He hurried off into the crowd.

Finally, another buzz of excitement was heard across the far side of the hall. A palace official bustled into the room, looking red in the face and out of breath. The great bell of the exchange tolled sonorously, the sign that dealing was to cease, and it was almost unheard of for it to be sounded in the middle of the day. The room quickly fell quiet as the crowd collectively held its breath. The official got up onto a dias to speak.

"Si รจ morto il Doge, no la Signoria"

The Doge was dead, but the council still lived.

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