for three days Roberto remained with his eye glued to the ship’s spyglass (blaming himself that the other, more powerful one was now useless), staring at the tops of the trees on shore. He was waiting for a glimpse of the Orange Dove.
On the third day he roused himself. He had lost his only friend, he was himself lost on the farthest of meridians, and could feel no consolation unless he saw a bird that perhaps had fluttered only in the head of Father Caspar!
He decided to explore again his refuge to learn how long he could survive on board. The hens continued laying their eggs, and a nest of baby chicks had been hatched. Of the collected vegetables not much was left, they were now too dry, and he would have to use them as feed for the fowl. There were still a few barrels of water, but if he collected rain, he could even do without them. And, finally, there was no shortage of fish.
But then he considered that, eating no fresh vegetables, he would die of scurvy. There were those in the greenhouse, but they would be naturally watered only if rain fell: if a long drought were to arrive, he would have to water the plants with his supply of drinking water. And if there was a storm for days and days, he would have water but would be unable to fish.
To allay his anxieties he went back to the water organ, which Father Caspar had taught him how to set in motion: he heard always and only “Daphne,” because he had not learned how to change the cylinder; but he was not sorry to listen hour after hour to the same tune. One day he identified Daphne, the ship, with the body of his beloved Lady. Was not Daphne after all a creature who had been transformed into a laurel—an arboreal substance, thus with an affinity to that with which the ship had been made? The tune hence sang to him of Lilia. Obviously, the chain of thought was entirely inconsequent—but this is how Roberto was thinking.
He reproached himself for having allowed himself to be distracted by the arrival of Father Caspar, for having followed him in his mechanical frenzies and having forgotten his own amorous vow. That one song, whose words he did not know, if it ever had any, was being transformed into the prayer that he intended to make the machine murmur every day: “Daphne” played by the water and wind in the recesses of the Daphne, in memory of the ancient metamorphosis of a divine Daphne. Every evening, looking at the sky, he hummed that melody softly, like a litany.
Then he went back to his table and resumed writing to Lilia.
In doing so he realized that he had passed the previous days outdoors and in daylight, and that he was again seeking refuge in the semidarkness that had been his natural ambiance not only on the Daphne before finding Father Caspar, but for more than ten years, since the days of the wound at Casale.
To tell the truth, I do not believe that during all that time Roberto lived, as he repeatedly suggests, only at night. That he avoided the excesses of the blazing noonday sun is probable, but when he followed Lilia, he did so during the day. I believe this infirmity was more an effect of black bile than a genuine impairment of his vision: Roberto realized that the light made him suffer only in his most atrabiliar moments, but when his mind was distracted by merrier thoughts, he paid no attention.
However it was or had been, that evening he found himself reflecting for the first time on the fascinations of shadows. As he wrote, as he raised the pen to dip it into the inkwell, he saw the light either as a gilded halo on the paper or as a waxen fringe, almost translucent, that defined the outline of his dark fingers. As if the light dwelt within his hand and became manifest only at the edges. All around, he was enfolded by the affectionate habit of a Capuchin, that is to say, by a certain hazel-brown glow that, touching the shadows, died there.
He looked at the flame of the lamp, and he saw two fires born from it: a red flame, part of the consumed matter, which, rising, turned a blinding white that shaded into periwinkle. Thus, he said to himself, his love was fed by a body that was dying, and gave life to the celestial spirit of his beloved.
He wanted to celebrate, after some days of infidelity, his reconciliation with the dark, and he climbed onto the deck as the shadows were spreading everywhere, on the ship, on the sea, on the Island, where he could now see only the rapid darkening of the hills. Remembering his own countryside, he sought to glimpse on the shore the presence of fireflies, live winged sparks wandering in the shadows of the hedges. He did not see them, and pondered on the oxymorons of the antipodes, where perhaps nightjars appeared only at noon.
Then he lay down on the quarterdeck and began looking at the moon, letting the deck cradle him while from the Island came the sound of the backwash, mixed with cries of crickets, or their equivalent in this hemisphere.
He reflected that the beauty of day is like a blond beauty, while the beauty of night is a dark beauty. He savored the contradiction of his love for a blonde goddess which consumed him in the darkness of the night. Remembering the hair like ripe wheat, which annihilated all other light in the salon of Arthenice, he would call the moon beautiful because it diluted, fading, the rays of a latent sun. He proposed to make the reconquered day a new occasion for reading in the glints on the waves the encomium of the gold of that hair and the blue of those eyes.
But he savored also the beauties of night, when all seems at rest, the stars move more silently than the sun, and you come to believe you are the sole person in all nature intent on dreaming.
That night he was on the point of deciding that he would remain on the ship for the rest of his days. But, raising his eyes to Heaven, he saw a group of stars that suddenly seemed to reveal to him the shape of a dove, wings outspread, bearing in its beak an olive twig. Now it is true that at least forty years before, in the austral sky not far from Canis Major, a constellation had been identified and named the Dove. But I am not at all sure that Roberto, from his position then, at that hour and in that season, saw those same stars. In any case, though the observers who had seen in them a dove (like Johannes Bayer in his Uranometna Nova, and then much later Co-ronelli in his Libra dei Globi) possessed far more imagination than Roberto, I would still say that any arrangement of stars at that moment would have seemed to him a pigeon, a dove, a turtle, whatever you like. That morning he had doubted its existence, but the Orange Dove was driven into his mind like a nail— or, as we shall see, a golden spike.
We must in fact ask ourselves why, after Father Caspar’s first hint of the many marvels the Island could offer him, Roberto chose to take such interest in the Dove.
We shall see, as we continue to follow this story, how in the mind of Roberto (whose solitude day after day made increasingly ardent) that dove barely mentioned at first, becomes all the more vivid the less he manages to see it, becomes an invisible compendium of every passion of his loving soul, his admiration, respect, veneration, hope, jealousy, envy, wonder, and gaiety. It was not clear to him (nor can it be to us) whether the bird had become the Island, or Lilia, or both, or the yesterday to which all three were relegated, for Roberto’s exile was in an endless today, whose future lay only in arriving, some tomorrow, at the day before.
We could say Caspar had recalled to him the Song of Solomon, which, as it happens, Roberto’s Carmelite had read to him over and over until the boy had almost memorized it; and from his youth he enjoyed mellifluous agonies for a creature with dove eyes, for a dove whose face he could glimpse among the clefts of rock.... But this satisfies me only up to a point. I believe it is necessary to engage in an “Explication of the Dove,” to draft some notes for a future little monograph that could be entitled Columba Patefacta, and the project does not seem to me completely otiose, considering that others have devoted whole chapters to the Meaning of the Whale, that ugly black or gray animal (though if white, it is unique), whereas we are dealing with a rara avis, its color even rarer, and a bird on which mankind has reflected far more than on whales.
This in fact is the point. Whether he had spoken with the Carmelite or debated with Padre Emanuele, or had leafed through many books held in high esteem in that time, or whether in Paris he had listened to lectures on what were called Enigmatic Emblems and Devices, Roberto should have known something, however little, about doves.
We must remember that his was a time when people invented or reinvented images of every sort to discover in them recondite and revelatory meanings. It sufficed to see, I will not say a beautiful flower or a crocodile, but merely a basket, a ladder, a sieve, or a column, and one would try to build around it a network of things that at first glance nobody had seen there. This is hardly the place to discuss the difference between a Device and an Emblem, or to describe how in various ways these images were complemented by special verses or mottoes (except to mention that the Emblem, from the description of a particular deed, not necessarily illustrated, derived a universal concept, whereas the Device went from the concrete image of a particular object to a quality or proposition of a single individual, as to say, “I shall be more pure than snow,” or, “more clever than the serpent,” or again, “I would rather die than betray,” arriving at the most celebrated Frangar non Flectar and Spiritus durissima coqmf). The people of that period considered it indispensable to translate the whole world into a forest of Symbols, Hints, Equestrian Games, Masquerades, Paintings, Courtly Arms, Trophies, Blazons, Escutcheons, Ironic Figures, Sculpted Obverses of Coins, Fables, Allegories, Apologias, Epigrams, Riddles, Equivocations, Proverbs, Watchwords, Laconic Epistles, Epitaphs, Parerga, Lapidary Engravings, Shields, Glyphs, Clipei, and if I may, I will stop here—but they did not stop. And every good Device had to be metaphoric, poetic, composed, true, of a soul to be revealed, but even more of a sensitive body that referred to an object of the world. It had to be noble, admirable, new but knowable, evident but effective, singular, proportionate to its space, acute and brief, ambiguous but frank, popularly enigmatic, appropriate, ingenious, unique, and heroic.
In short, a Device was a mysterious notion, the expression of a correspondence: a poetry that did not sing but was made up of a silent figure and a motto that spoke for it to the eyes—precious in that it was imperceptible, its splendor hidden in the pearls and the diamonds it showed only bead by bead. It said more making less noise, and where the Epic Poem required fables and episodes, and History deliberations and harangues, for the Device a few strokes and a syllable sufficed: its perfumes were distilled in impalpable drops, and only then could objects be seen in a surprising garb, as with Foreigners and Maskers. It concealed more than it revealed. It did not charge the spirit with matter but nourished it with essences. It was to be peregrine (a term then very much in use), and peregrine meant stranger and stranger meant strange.
What could be more a stranger than an orange dove? Indeed, what could be more peregrine than a dove? Ah, the dove was an image rich in meanings, all the more clever as each conflicted with the others.
The first to speak of the dove were, as is only natural, the Egyptians, as early as the most ancient Hieroglyphica of Hora-pollon, and above its many other qualities, this animal was considered extremely pure, so much so that if there was a pestilence poisoning humans and things, the only ones immune were those who ate nothing but doves. Which ought to have been obvious, seeing that this animal is the only one lacking gall (namely, the poison that all other animals carry, attached to the liver), and Pliny said that if a dove falls ill, it plucks a bay leaf and is healed. And bay is laurel, and the laurel is Daphne. Enough said.
But doves, pure as they are, are also a very sly symbol, because they exhaust themselves in their great lust: they spend the day kissing (redoubling their kisses reciprocally to shut each other up) and locking their tongues, which has inspired many lascivious expressions such as to make the dove with the lips or exchange columbine kisses, to quote the casuists. And columbining, the poets said, means making love as the doves do, and as often. Nor must we forget that Roberto must have known those verses that go, “When in the bed, the ardent try their arts, / to nurture warm and lively yearning / just like a pair of doves, their hearts / lust and collect such kisses, burning.” It may be worthy of note, too, that while all other animals have a season for love, there is no time of the year in which the male dove does not mount the female.
To begin at the beginning: doves come from Cyprus, island sacred to Venus. Apuleius, but also others before him, tells us that Venus’s chariot is drawn by snow-white doves, called in fact the birds of Venus because of their excessive lust. Others recall that the Greeks called the dove peristera, because envious Eros changed into a dove the nymph Peristera, much loved by Venus. Peristera had helped defeat Eros in a contest to see who could gather the most flowers. But what does Apuleius mean when he says that Venus “loved” Peristera?
Aelianus says that doves were consecrated to Venus because on Mount Eryx in Sicily a feast was held when the goddess passed over Libya; on that day, in all of Sicily, no doves were seen, because all had crossed the sea to go and make up the goddess’s train. But nine days later, from the Libyan shores there arrived in Trinacria a dove red as fire, as Anacreon says (and I beg you to remember this color); and it was Venus herself, who is also called Purpurea, and behind her came the throng of doves. Aelianus also tells us of a girl named Phytia whom the enamored Jove transformed into a dove.
The Assyrians portrayed Semiramis in the form of a dove, and it was the doves who brought up Semiramis and later changed her into a dove. We all know that she was a woman of less than immaculate behavior, but so beautiful that Scau-robates, King of the Indians, was seized with love for her. Semiramis, concubine of the King of Assyria, did not let a single day pass without committing adultery, and the historian Juba says that she even fell in love with a horse.
But an amorous symbol is forgiven many things, and it never ceases to attract poets: hence (and we can be sure Roberto knew this) Petrarch asked himself: “What grace, what love or what fate—will give me the feathers of a dove?” and Bandello wrote: “This dove whose ardor equals mine / is ardent Love burning in cruel fire / he goes seeking in every place / his mate, and dies of his desire.”
Doves, however, are something more and better than any Semiramis, and we fall in love with them because they have this other, most tender characteristic: they weep or moan instead of singing, as if all that sated passion never satisfied them. Idem cantus gemitusque, said an Emblem of Camerarius; Gemitibus Gaudet, said another even more erotically fascinating. And maddening.
And yet the fact that these birds kiss and are so lewd— and here is a fine contradiction that distinguishes the dove— is also proof that they are totally faithful, and hence they are also the symbol of chastity, in the sense of conjugal fidelity. And this, too, Pliny said: Though most amorous, they have a great sense of modesty and do not know adultery. Their conjugal fidelity is asserted both by the pagan Propertius and by Tertullian. It is said, true, that in the rare instances when they suspect adultery, the males become bullies, their voice is full of lament and the blows of their beak are cruel. But immediately thereafter, in reparation, the male woos the female, and flatters her, circling her frequently. And this idea—that mad jealousy foments love and then a renewed fidelity, and then kissing each other to infinity and in every season—seems very beautiful to me and, as we shall see, it seemed beautiful to Roberto as well.
How can you help but love an image that promises you fidelity? Fidelity even after death, because once its companion is gone, this bird never unites with another. The dove was thus chosen as the symbol for chaste widowhood. Ferro recalls the story of a widow who, profoundly saddened by the death of her husband, kept at her side a white dove, and was reproached for it, to which she replied, Dolor non color, it is the sorrow that matters, not the color.
In short, lascivious or not, their devotion to love leads Origen to say that doves are the symbol of charity. And for this reason, according to Saint Cyprian, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the form of a dove, for not only is this animal without bile, but also its claws do not scratch, nor does it bite. It loves human dwellings naturally, recognizes only one home, feeds its young, and spends its life in quiet conversation, living with its mate in the concord—in this case irreproachable—of a kiss. Whence it is seen that kissing can also be the sign of great love of one’s neighbor, and the Church has adopted the ritual of the kiss of peace. It was the custom of the Romans to welcome and greet one another with a kiss, also between men and women. Malicious scholiasts say that they did this because women were forbidden to drink wine and kissing them was a way of checking their breath, but the Numidians were considered vulgar because they kissed no one but their children.
Since all people hold air to be the most noble element, they have honored the dove, which flies higher than the other birds and yet always returns faithfully to its nest. Which, to be sure, the swallow also does, but no one has ever managed to make it a friend of our species and domesticate it, as the dove has been. Saint Basil, for example, reports that dove-vendors sprinkled a dove with aromatic balm, and, attracted by that, the other doves followed the first in a great host. Odore trahit. I do not know if it has much to do with what I said above, but this scented benevolence touches me, this sweet-smelling purity, this seductive chastity.
The dove is not only chaste and faithful, but also simple (columbina simplititas; Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves, says the Bible), and for this reason it is sometimes the symbol of the life of the convent and the cloister. And how does that fit with all these kisses? Never mind.
Another source of fascination is the trepiditas of the dove: its Greek name, treron, derives certainly from tree, “I flee, trembling.” Homer, Ovid, Virgil all speak of this (“Timorous as pigeons during a black storm”), and we must remember that doves live always in terror of the eagle or, worse, the hawk. In Valerian we read how, for this very reason, they nest in inaccessible places for protection (hence the device Secura nidi-ficaf); and Jeremiah also recalls this, as Psalm 55 cries out, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for them would I fly away, and be at rest.”
The Jews said that doves and turtledoves are the most persecuted of birds, and therefore worthy of the altar, for it is better to be the persecuted than the persecutor. But according to Aretino, not meek like the Jews, he who makes himself a dove is eaten by the falcon. But Epiphanius says that the dove never protects itself against traps, and Augustine repeated that not only does the dove put up no opposition to large animals, stronger than it, but is submissive even toward the sparrow.
A legend goes that in India there is a verdant leafy tree that in Greek is called Paradisian. On its right side live the doves, who never move from the shade it spreads; if they were to leave the tree, they would fall prey to a dragon, their enemy. But the dragon’s enemy is the tree’s shade, and when the shade is to the right, he lies in ambush to the left, and vice versa.
Still, trepid as the dove is, it has something of the serpent’s cunning, and if on the Island there was a dragon, the Orange Dove would know what to do. It seems a dove always flies over water, for if a hawk attacks, the dove will see the raptor’s reflection. In short, does the bird defend itself or not?
With all these various and even extraordinary qualities, the dove has also been made a mystic symbol, and I need not bore the reader with the story of the Flood and the role played by this bird in announcing peace, calm, and newly emerging land. But for many sacred authors it is also an emblem of the Mater Dolorosa and of her helpless weeping. And of her it it said Intus et extra, because she is pure outside and inside. Sometimes the dove is portrayed breaking the rope that keeps her prisoner, Effracto libera vinculo, and she becomes the figure of Christ risen from the dead. Further, the dove arrives, it seems certain, at dusk, so as not to be surprised by the night, and therefore not to be arrested by death before having dried the stains of sin. And it is worth mentioning, as we have already indicated, the teaching of John: “I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove.”
As for the other beautiful Columbine Devices, who can say how many Roberto knew? Like Mollius ut cubant, because the dove plucks out its feathers to soften the nest of its young; Luce luadior, because it shines when it rises towards the sun; Quiescit in motu, because it flies always with one wing folded so as not to tire itself. There was even a soldier who, to crave indulgence for his amorous excesses, chose as his emblem a helmet in which a pair of doves had nested, with the motto Arnica Venus. In short, the reader may think that the dove has all too many meanings. But if a symbol or hieroglyph must be chosen as something to die for, its meanings should be multiple, otherwise you might as well call a spade a spade, an atom an atom, a void a void. Something that would please the natural philosophers Roberto met at the Dupuys’ but not Padre Emanuele—and we know that our castaway was inclined to be influenced by both. Finally, the wonderful thing about the Dove, at least (I believe) for Roberto, was that it was not only a message, like every Device or Emblem, but a message whose message was the undecipherability of clever messages.
When Aeneas must descend to Avernus—and also find the shadow of his father and therefore somehow the day or days now past—what does the sibyl do? She tells him, true, to go and bury Misenus and to make various sacrifices of bulls and other livestock, but if he really wants to perform a feat that no one has had the courage or the luck to attempt, he must find a leafy, shady tree on which there is a golden bough. The wood hides it and dark valleys encircle it, and yet without that “auricomus” bough no one can penetrate the secrets of the earth. And who is it that enables Aeneas to discover the bough? Two doves, who are also—as we should know by now—maternal birds. The rest is familiar to the bleary aged and to barbers. In short, Virgil had never heard of Noah, but the dove bears a warning, points to something.
It was thought, moreover, that doves acted as oracle in the temple of Jove, where he replied through their mouth. Then one of these doves flew to the temple of Ammon and another to that at Delphi, whence it is clear that both the Egyptians and the Greeks told the same truths, even if darkly veiled. No dove, no revelation.
But today we are still here, asking ourselves what the Golden Bough meant. A sign that doves carry messages, but the messages are in cipher.
I cannot say how much Roberto knew about the kabbalas of the Jews, which were, however, very fashionable in that period, but if he saw much of Monsieur Gaffarel, he must have heard something about these arcana: the fact is that the Jews constructed whole castles based on the dove. We referred to this, or, rather, Father Caspar did: Psalm 68 mentions the wings of a dove covered with silver and her feathers with yellow gold. Why? And why, in Proverbs, does a similar image recur when “a word fitly spoken” is likened to “apples of gold in settings of silver”? And why in the Song of Solomon, addressing the girl “who has doves’ eyes,” does the speaker say to her, “O my love, we will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver”?
The Jews commented that the gold here is scripture and the silver refers to the blank spaces between the letters and words. And one commentator, whom perhaps Roberto did not know but who was still an inspiration to many rabbis, said that the golden apples in a silver setting mean that in every sentence of Scripture (and surely in every object or event in the world) there are two faces, the evident face and the hidden face, and the evident one is silver, but the hidden one is more precious because it is of gold. And he who looks at the picture from a distance, with the apples surrounded by its silver, believes that the apples too are of silver, but when he looks closer, he will discover the splendor of gold.
All that the Sacred Scriptures contain prima facie shines like silver, but its hidden meaning glows like gold. The inviolable chastity of the word of God, hidden from the eyes of the profane, is as if covered by a veil of modesty and remains in the shadow of mystery. It says that pearls must not be cast before swine. Having the eyes of a dove means not stopping at the literal meaning of words but knowing how to penetrate their mystical sense.
And yet this secret, like the dove, eludes us, and we never know where it is. The dove is there to signify that the world speaks in hieroglyphics, and there is a hieroglyph that itself signifies hieroglyphics. And a hieroglyph does not say and does not conceal; it simply shows.
And other Jews said that the dove is an oracle, and it is no accident that the Hebrew word tore, dove, recalls Torah, which is their Bible, sacred book, origin of all revelation.
The dove, as it flies in the sun, seems simply to sparkle like silver, but only one who has been able to wait at length to discover its hidden face will see its true gold or, rather, the color of a shining orange.
From the time of the venerable Isidore, Christians have recorded that the dove, reflecting in its flight the rays of the sun illuminating it, appears to us in different colors. It depends on the sun, and its Devices are Dal Tuo Lume i Miei Fregi (From Your Light Comes My Ornament) and Per te m’adomo e splendo (Through You I Am Adorned and Shine). Its neck is sheathed in the light of varied colors, and yet the dove remains always the same. And thus it is a warning not to trust appearances, but also to find the true appearance beneath the false ones.
How many colors has the dove? As an ancient bestiary says: