VATICAN skullduggery in the Middle Ages has proved rich pickings for authors in the wake of Dan Brown’s global success, but Alessandro Gallenzi’s third novel, his most ambitious to date, follows in the footsteps of another Italian master, Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose pioneered semiotics long before The Da Vinci Code.
Gallenzi’s historically factual protagonist, Giordano Bruno, tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, shares the intellectual heft of Franciscan friar William of Baskerville in Eco’s novel: there is even a medieval labyrinthine library in The Tower, but the unlocking of a centuries-old mystery is fast forwarded to contemporary Jordan, the responsibility of an accident-prone but affable English sleuth, Peter Simms. What he lacks in gumption, he makes up for in perseverance.
Undoubtedly, parallels with In The Name of the Rose surface — the undermining of the Gospel by cosmic pluralism — but Gallenzi seems more interested in the ongoing discord at the interface between religion in the factious Middle East and the digitisation of literature.
Simms and philologist Giulia Ripetti, a character not fully fledged, are summoned to a meeting in Jordan to probe the apparent theft by a Jesuit priest — who has naturally vamoosed — of a priceless 16th century manuscript by Bruno.
Simms and Ripetti are in and out of meetings in a modern and huge Tower of Babel, where an American company, Biblia, is bent on having all the world’s literature digitised by 2020.
“The centres of wealth and economic influence are shifting. Data is the new oil. Data and content,” Simms is told.
Yet Simms is a head-and-legs type of man, so we are always kept on the move, and Gallenzi ratchets up the tension when the story spreads its wing to Jerusalem.
Before the plot becomes viscous with suspense, Gallenzi in alternate chapters introduces us to Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, the author of the missing manuscript, and who is remembered today not for what he achieved in life — his practice of mnemonics and his development of Copernican cosmological theories — but the manner of his leaving, burned at the stake in Rome.
This isn’t a plot spoiler, as Bruno’s fate is well known to anybody with a cursory interest in the Inquisition or who has seen his famous Obi Wan Kenobi-like statue at the Campo de Fiuri, within spitting distance of the Tiber, into which his ashes were dumped.
To his credit, with inventive dialogue and a lucid explication of the arguments which polarised the Catholic Church, Gallenzi humanises what otherwise would have read as a humdrum rollcall of Bruno’s cosmological and mathematical achievements.
Splendid as they are, it is only when the Inquisition gets its hands on him after a wild goose chase throughout Europe, and the noose tightens, that we begin to vicariously imagine his state of mind between the years of his arrest, torture and execution.
Gallenzi, who could be forgiven for excessive use of poetic licence to depict the horror of Inquisition justice, refrains, and we enjoy spending time with the stubborn Bruno the man, not the myth.