was built on rock, and also on sand. At the most northerly part of the ridge
there had been a landslide which had taken away a section of the Etruscan
wall, created an abyss and left the Camaldolese Abbey stranded on a promontory.
It was a long walk from the acropolis to the cliffs, a walk that marked the
extent of the ancient boundaries but which, in our time, took us out of our
city by a gate in the Christian wall and into the boroughs. Before we left
the city, however, we stopped at the monastery of San Francesco, of which
Antonio was particularly fond and which he would never pass without entering,
for in a chapel within the church was a magnificent cycle of frescoes. I gazed
at each wall in turn, and the pointed arches and lunettes - all covered in
scenes and figures - but Antonio stood captivated by one scene only, that
of the Massacre of the Innocents.
Here, before this vast picture of distraught mothers and dead babies, he pointed out the details to me, of the woman tearing her face with her nails, of the mother who gripped the thrusting sword of a soldier so hard that blood spurted from her hand. To me it was a scene from the Bible, of Herod's iniquity, and my attention was drawn away from the carnage by two women shown hiding in a cave. The bodice of one was open to reveal two full breasts at which her baby suckled. As she reminded me of my nurse, I presumed that her quiet companion - the only woman in the picture without a baby - must be my mother. But Antonio interrupted my thoughts with the startling assertion that this was a picture of the sack of Volterra.
'These gates,' he said, pointing, 'are our gates, through which the soldiers ride.' Volterra had been sacked at least twice in its history, and had suffered many violent upheavals in the politics of power. Sometimes governed by Pisa, sometimes by Siena, the history of the city was a continuous one of a struggle for independence. In these days of my childhood, Volterra was nominally a republic in the territory of Florence, and Florentines held the major offices of Captain of the People and the Lord of the Castles. After a century of rebellion under Florentine rule, my people had at last become content, for Florence itself was a republic, and the Florentine magistrates had the air of protective fathers. Volterra, said Florence, was independent, and as long as we continued to pay tribute to the great city on the Arno, we would be safe to enjoy our freedom. Battles and sackings were of the past. This was a new age where merchants ruled and our working days were governed by trade rather than the whims of castellated lords.
Antonio gazed at the picture of massacre and said, 'I envy you because you are a Volterrano; you live here, you breathe this air in all seasons. For the sake of my education, I have to live in Rome, the city of hypocrisy. As soon as I can, I intend to live here all year as you do, and no longer have to leave this place each autumn blinded by tears.'
As we left the monastery, Antonio paused to give an old beggar a few coins and then - to the beggar's amazement and my horror - he stooped down not only to speak to him but to lay his hand companionably on the filthy rags of the old man's shoulder.
'You do not have to speak to those people,' I said as we continued on our way. That is why we have the Confraternita della Misericordia. We give them the alms, and they distribute them.'
In response to this, Antonio bore an expression of such sorrow for mankind that I began to share my uncle's fears, that Antonio would one day walk away with a staff to some isolated, craggy place and pray so feverishly that bloody spots would appear on his hands and feet.
From San Francesco we went down through the boroughs to the place where the ridge had collapsed. Though Antonio might weep at leave-takings, he had no fear. He ran to the gap between the massive boulders of the ancient wall and stood with his feet projecting over the lip of the precipice of sand. I stood back, trying to enjoy the vista of gentle hills, some dotted with sheep that looked like stones placed in mysterious ciphers for the gods to read. Further along, on the bluff of the ridge, was the Camaldolese Abbey, a place of much beauty and tranquillity. It stood on a grassy mound which, when swept by anemones, was our first sign that spring had truly arrived. I pretended to gaze at the buildings in admiration but knew too well what was to come, what was expected of me. Everything in me liquefied, my very bones demanded that I remain safely behind the wall and not stand where the wall no longer was; but when you have a cousin ten years your senior, it is imperative not to betray fear. 'Vieni, vieni,' said Antonio gently, beckoning me forward, and against the desire of my palpitating heart, I moved next to him. Below me there was nothing but the drop. I inched my toes over the edge and dared not look down. Antonio raised his arms; I raised mine. To anyone in the eroded valley below, we must have seemed as two crosses on the skyline, one tall, one short. As we stood thus, inviting the elements, the wind came to play with us and larks rose up to greet our appearance in their own elevation. Suddenly Antonio threw back his head and cried to the sky: 'Freedom!'
'Freedom!' I cried, as an echo.
I did not know then that one word could mean different things, or that what Antonio desired was not the same as the fledgling ache in my own soul.