Sarnano’s Room

There is magic in the town of Sarnano and, as men imagine, a sense of forever.

Photo of a dark room in Sarnano
Photo: Jez Timms on Unsplash.

Sarnano, the hilltop town in Le Marche where I live, was under construction in the year 1265 with labor gathered by the wealthy founding families. The Piazza Alta was completed first, church and civil authorities equal under a clear sky. Elliptical lanes and houses grew downward until the population numbered several thousands; craftsmen, farmers, all manner of vendors, tradesmen and workers. People were close of  necessity, convenience and a sense of community. Laughter and ecstasy as well as life’s pain and anguish echoed through the buildings and piazzas. Walls, twenty foot thick, and narrow curved entrance gates, protected those who lived within the stacked bricks. The generations passed quietly one to the other and the village watched while the renaissance traveled to Florence and Rome and regions united to become a country with a hundred dialects. You can feel the shifting shape of time, hard to explain but easy to touch. There is magic in the town and as men imagine, a sense of forever.

In this old town there is a collection of meerschaum pipes and antiquarian books, the earliest of which is the Civil Statuti di Sarnano, dated 1543. The town has a copy, but it is  damaged, incomplete and disbound. There is another, lacking a folio, at Yale in Connecticut, and no recorded copies in  Rome. Our copy in vellum and uncut is the single perfect copy in the world and will someday reside with the Comune who will shelve it in a poorly lit room where it will not be touched, the pages turned or the  words read aloud. The past will not be altered or rewritten, simply ignored and forgotten in the dusty stacks.

The guardian of these treasures is an old man with a cane, frail and enduring. All the principals in this story are, in current speak, beyond their best buy date. They share the light and hours, drawing strength from each other. This  is the story of one evening in a calendar of centuries,  dreams written on leaves washed clean in the rain.

The room he sits in is not quite square. It has pockets around the edges, somewhere for small children to hide were they to intrude. The carpet is industrial and worn, stained where coffee and wine have spilled and added rings of dark against the pile. There are bookshelves against the walls, split between metal, dark green and cold, and wood, warped and light stained in contrast to the bindings of the antiquarian books, rich dark oiled morocco, brown and tans, one or two vellum. The shelves vary in height. They surround the man and cast uneven shadows, gray on gray. There are no windows.

To the side is a chair, soft shaped with tired fabric, a faded pattern of green and gold from a consignment shop very long ago. The fabric is crushed, the seat sags from weight and years. The arms reach forward so that a man’s wrists fall downward. There is a foot stool of the same vintage. A table fits over and slides to the chair, allowing a person to read and support a book. The table is nondescript, scrap but appropriate to the task. The man has spent his money on other things.

On the table is one book, a desk lamp for illumination, pipe and holder, an ashtray, diamond brand wood matches, a tobacco tamper, tumbler of Jack Daniels on a folded handkerchief. Behind the chair is a record player, songs on vinyl from decades erased by most, treasured by this man in his 70s. Robeson’s rich bass, Crosby’s crooning melodies, tunes that got Britain through the blitz and onto Berlin, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw. When the music comes there is a feeling of melancholy. The clarinet solos run and dance in the clouds, but in joy there is sadness and disappointment. The old records are scratchy, well used.

Tonight is the time for a pipe, a meerschaum, decided by discussion and agreement with himself. He loves the fine and expressive carvings, the color of heat and use, the taste of age. Which pipe to smoke? The smiling Friar Tuck or the Nubian woman? Not this evening. The Pasha with the straight stem and a long beard? The hirsute Irishman is chosen, a gentle egg white in color, large enough to hold comfortably, admire and contemplate the impermanence of man’s endeavors. A favorite, it came from a warrior friend who knew life’s cycles of sun and snow. The pipe’s face has a mole on the side of his nose and the mouth holds a cutty, clenched under a mustache. He has a beard, scarf and porkpie hat. There is breadth in the figure, more than a century old. The man has not aged past the resolve and purpose of his laboring years.

A man smoking a pipe of a man smoking a pipe. The tobacco is aromatic vanilla and custard. The black cavendish offers brown sugar, grass, citrus and drops of honey from gold Cavendish and Virginia. The creamy rich vanilla custard topping is the star. When the smoker releases his breath, the smoke spirals up, circling and drifting, touching and bouncing off the walls. The taste on the tongue is different than that on the nose and the room fills with the sweetness of fruit and cake. The air darkens slightly. His puffs are regular: draw in, hold, exhale, think.

The man takes up his book. In appreciation of the Irishman and his Island, he chooses a rare exquisite volume from 1599, the second edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages, the first great English collection, the beginning of empire and world domination painted red on false globes. Shakespeare was youthful when this book was published, Elizabeth sat on the raised throne, Francis Drake was young in his lead coffin buried at sea. The book is massive, bound in contemporary polished calf, with a central arabesque device on the front board, gold border lines an inch from the edges. It has weight and presence; even in that distant century the property of important men. Inside are the inscriptions of owners, one a judge of the high court of admiralty, from 1600, who passed along the book to his son. There is a short poem on hope and the future in Latin and a neat signature of the second cashier of the bank of England, a shelf mark location where the book slept three hundreds of years in a rich man’s country house where wars were begun and discussed over dinner, the empire grown. The book crossed the western ocean to the new world and a collector whose name is lost. There are no other records of provenance. The book came to our man from an auction that featured Greek religious texts in a Manhattan basement. Hakluyt is not a book for novices. It is a foundation book and honored.

Hakluyt has rested on the tables and beds of dead men who will live as long as this book survives. This book the property of….it would have sat in cold rooms with fire and candles, a throw rug over shoulders and a hound for company on the floor. Those men left marginalia, fine quill secretarial notes, perfect and tiny, swirling lines in ink. Pipe and Ink, a holy combination. The age of exploration, small ships heading into darkness, recorded on cloth made paper, pages of storms and battle, seas unnamed. Few will come back to be courted and given audience by the queen. Adventures beyond imagination. Journals written in black letter with dreams found, lost and drowned. Low talk, mouthed to courtiers, ministers and royalty.

He lights and keeps the pipe’s bowl glowing with flaring double matches. The ash grows, discolored white powder. The muted euphoria increases; matches fill the tray, a cone of used carbon. The smoker sits with his legs bridging the stool, the past centered in his hands.  The letters on the book’s page change from metaled impressions cut into paper and rise off the page as images that move with the grace of birds above dark roiled oceans. Clock and calendar roll in reverse, time trapped in the room with the smoke. Here is Frances Drake and a hundred more, brocaded and ragged, armed and scourged by disease, the obsession of discovery, treasure and survival. Young Thomas Cavendish returns to England in triumph from the Philippine capture of the gold laden Manila Galleon in the 1580s. Explorers, plunderers, they return in triumph from the corners of the earth. Most die unmarked on sea and shore. The smoker can see this in risen smoke.

The reader’s fingers trace the decades of the 16th century. His eyes water and lose focus. In his mind, the bullock carts heavy with treasure halt before the castle on the river with banners and trumpeters in lines. Men hold the snorting oxen’s tossing leads, crowds cheer for heroes who come from lands where dragons be.

The man continues reading. The whiskey glass is empty. Another part of an hour and his eyes begin to wander with the effects of the pipe and history’s lines before him. The past had begun to take over. Stay longer and he might not return to his own time. The pleasures of the pipe and book are sufficient. The man looks around and bookshelves bend in his vision, the smoke a dirty cloud on a summer afternoon. His head drops to his chest, voyages complete for the evening, the promise fulfilled. The Irishman with his cutty comes gently to rest on the table, Hakluyt open to Drake’s marauding voyage on the Spanish Main’s forested swamps in sight of the Pacific Ocean. The last of the smoke climbs unbroken to the ceiling. In this nearly square room, man, pipe and book sleep in peace.

The pathways of Sarnano are silent. Ghosts walk together in the mist, young and old, arms joined.  The sweet, strong fragrance of the star jasmine, rincospermo’s slender white flowers. fills the air. In the morning, many of the pedals will have fallen to the ground.