The Liberty of Norton Folgate, 1576
Papa was a magician. No one was ever more loving or wise than he.
Seven years old, Aemilia nestled by his side in the long slanting light of a summer evening. Friday, it was, and Papa was expecting a visit from his four brothers. This was a change in custom, for previously Papa had always gone to meet them at Uncle Alvise’s house in Mark Lane. But this evening was special, Aemilia thought, glancing at Papa’s expectant face. The air seemed golden, filled with blessing, even as from outside their garden walls came the cries of the poor lunatics locked up within Bedlam Hospital. From the west came the baying of the beasts held within the City Dog House. Drunken revelers sang and howled as they spilled out of the Pye Inn just down the road. Yet none of it could touch them here within the boundaries of Papa’s magic circle. Aemilia imagined his sweet enchantment rising around their family like fortress walls. This garden was his sanctuary, his own tiny replica of Italy on this cold and rainy isle.
The pair of them sat beneath an arbor of ripening grapes, planted from the vine Papa had carried all the way from Veneto. Around them, his garden bloomed in abundance. Roses, jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria, and gillyflowers released their perfume while from within the house echoed the music of her mother singing while Aemilia’s sister, Angela, played the virginals. Beyond the flower beds, Papa’s kitchen garden brimmed with fennel, haricots verts, and rows of lettuce that they ate in plenty. Papa even ate the bloodred love apples, though Mother swore they were poison and she would not let her daughters near them. It was an Italian habit, Papa said. In Veneto, people prized the scarlet pomodoro as a delicacy.
Beyond the vegetable beds lay the orchard of apples, plums, and pears, and beyond that the chicken run and the small paddock for Bianca, the milk cow. Food in London was expensive, so what better reason to plant their own? Aemilia’s family never lacked for sustenance. While Papa was away, a hired man came to look after the gardens for him.
They dwelled on the grounds of the old priory of Saint Mary Spital, outside London’s city wall. The precinct was called the Liberty of Norton Folgate, Papa told her, because here they were beyond the reach of city law and enjoyed freedom from arrest. Some of their neighbors were secret Catholics, so it was rumored, who hid the thighbones of dead saints in their cellars. But Papa’s secrets lay buried even deeper.
When Aemilia begged him for a fiaba, a fable, a fairy tale, he told her of Bassano, the city that had given him and his brothers their name. Forty miles from Venice, it nestled in the foothills below Monte Grappa. Italian words, as beautiful as music, flew off his tongue as he described the Casa dal Corno, the villa where they had dwelled that occupied a place of pride on the oldest square in Bassano. A grand fresco graced the Casa dal Corno’s façade. Holding Aemilia close, Battista described the fanciful pictures of goats and apes, of stags and rams, of woodwinds and stringed instruments, and of nymphs and cherubs caught up in an eternal dance.
Aemilia turned in her father’s lap to view their own house that had no fresco or any adornment at all, only ivy trained to grow along its walls. Loud black rooks nested in the overhanging elm trees.
“Why didn’t you stay there?” she asked, thinking how lovely it would be to live in that villa, to be sitting there instead of here. She pictured white peacocks, like the ones she had seen in Saint James’s Park, strutting beneath the peach trees in that Italian garden.
Papa smiled in sadness, plunging an arrow into her heart. “We were driven away. We had no choice.”
“But why?” Her fingers tightened their grip on his hand. “It was so beautiful there. Bellissima!”
Aemilia believed that Italy was paradise, more splendid than heaven, and that Papa was all-powerful. How he could have been chased away from his home, like a tomcat from her mother’s kitchen? Aemilia’s father and uncles were court musicians who lived under the Queen of England’s patronage. They performed for Her Majesty’s delight and wore her livery. Papa was regarded as a gentleman, allowed a coat of arms. Though the Bassanos of Norton Folgate weren’t rich, they had glass windows in their parlor and music room. Their house boasted two chimneys. They’d a cupboard of pewter plates and tankards, and even two goblets of Venetian glass. A fine Turkish rug in red and black draped their best table. Their kitchen was large, and they’d a buttery and larder attached, and a cellar below. Battista Bassano was eminently respectable, a man of means. How could such a fate have befallen him?
Papa cupped Aemilia’s face in his hands. “Cara mia, you will never be driven from your home. You’ll be safe always.”
“When I grow up, I shall be a great lady with sacks of gold!” she told him. “I’ll sail to Italy and buy back your house.”
With the red-gold sun dazzling her, it seemed so simple. She would grow into a woman and right every wrong that had befallen her father.
Papa stroked her hair, dark and curling like his own. “How will you earn your fortune, then? Will you marry the richest man in England?” His voice was indulgent and teasing.
Solemnly, she shook her head. “I shall be a poet!”
“A poet, Aemilia. Truly?”
Even at that age, it was her desire to write poetry exquisite enough to make plain English sound as beautiful as her father’s native tongue. Poets abounded at court, all vying for Her Majesty’s favor. The Queen herself wrote poetry.
As Papa held her in his gaze, she offered him her palm. “Read my future!”
He took her hand in his, yet instead of looking at her palm, he stared into her eyes. Aemilia imagined her future unfolding before his inner vision like one of the court masques performed for the Queen. Cradling her cheek to his pounding heart, he held her with such tenderness, as though he both mourned and burned in fiercest pride when he divined what she would become.
“What do you see?” she asked him. “What will happen to me?”
Before he could answer, her uncles slipped through the back gate, which Papa had left unlatched. She watched as Uncle Alvise carefully bolted it behind them. Her uncles were usually boisterous, making the air around them explode with their noisy greetings, but this evening they were as quiet as thieves. Aemilia’s heart drummed in worry. What could be wrong? Papa was old, already in his fifties, and her uncles even older, their hair thinning and gray. Giacomo, Antonio, Giovanni, and Alvise kissed her and patted her head before Papa instructed her to go inside to her mother and leave them to...