Aosta’s library, like everything else in the city, is built on Roman foundations. You peer over the landing to the lower floors and see the great, pale stones that once formed part of the Porta Decumanus. It gives a whole new meaning to “exposed brick.” An event is in progress down there and refreshments are being served but I overcome my curiosity and head for the second floor where the special collection on the Val d'Aosta is housed in a wing of its own. According to the notice on the desk I need a library card for access but the librarian waves me in without raising an eye from her computer screen.
I gather an armful of useful-looking history books from the stacks and colonize a table by the window in the reading room. I have the place to myself. The first volume I crack open is a hefty brute entitled Storia della valle d’Aosta by Andrea Zanotto. I do my best to skim through the Roman and church foundation history, the medieval saints and miracles and battles. But it’s too soon after lunch for this. (Did I mention lunch? A heaping plate of polenta concia - polenta swimming in globs of melted Fontina cheese - helped down by a generous quarter litre of red.) By the time I get to the Renaissance and Count Emmanuel Philibert de Savoie the words are strating to blur, I hear voices.
And then a familiar musty aroma meets my nose and the voices become a voice.
“And what vulgar tongue might this be?”
He’s leaning over my shoulder, eyeing the text with a scowl.
“Sigeric! I mean, Archbishop! Where did you get to last night?”
He ignores my question, still fixed on the text. “I can make out the semblance of a word here and there, but if they call this Latin… Oh, the world has sadly fallen. The end draws near.”
“This language is Italian, Archbishop.”
“Italian. And what is Italian?”
“It is a…” I don’t want to use words like ’vulgar’ or ‘corruption’ for the language of amore. “It’s a Romance language. A descendent of Latin.”
“A bastard descendent if you ask me. ‘Italian!’ Next it will be ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Lusitanian’ and ‘Gallic’…”
“Well, yes actually. We call those Spanish, Portuguese and French…”
“Enough, boy! Gog and Magog, that’s what I call it!” He snorts and leans closer. That smell again, of old books and damp stone. “It is no easy matter to read this hand. The form of the letters is peculiar. Can’t say that I recognize them all. Yet they have to them a great regularity. This is the work of a skilled scribe.”
“It’s called printing, Archbishop. It’s done by a machine.”
“A machine that writes? What a wondrous notion. But how then do the monks fill their time with no manuscripts to inscribe?“
“I would guess they have more leisure than in your day.”
“The Devil finds work for idle hands.” He pokes at the page with a thick, yellowed fingernail. “What manner of letters are these? And again here. They seem not letters at all but some barbarous script.”
He is pointing at a table of dates accompanied by population figures.
“I see no numbers.”
“Well this is an eight, and this is a four, and this is a zero…”
My pen is lying on the table. Sigeric seizes it with a sigh of impatience, closes his fist around it awkwardly, like someone using chopsticks for the first time, and scrawls in my open notebook VIII.
“This is an eight.” he pronounces.
“And this is a four.” IV
“And what was this other ‘number’ you named?”
Good Lord. Arabic numerals. He’s never seen one. He doesn’t even know zero. Must be another gift of the Arabs. I have no idea when Europe adopted these innovations, but it was certainly after Sigeric’s time.
“Well, let’s take a look,” my tutoring instincts kick in and I pick a date at random. “Do you recognize this figure?”
“It’s a one, yes. I see that, at least.”
“Good. Now this figure is a five, and this is a six and here is another one. You see? Fifteen-sixty-one. The year, that is.”
He looks absolutely stumped. I see this will take time. “Okay, let’s go through them all, starting with one.” We spend a few minutes on the integers, Sigeric grumbling and shaking his head all the while. But he seems to be picking them up. Then he wants to write them. I position the pen a little better in his hand and he essays the curves and spikes of 2s and 5s and 9s. Zero seems to give him misgivings. He declines to write it.
“That’s sufficient, lad. Somehow I have fallen out of the practice of applying my mind. We shall do more tomorrow.” He takes the book in both hands and riffles through the pages. “The parchment seems not very sturdy. But it is passing light. A great convenience to the peripatetic.” I’m tempted to tell him about e-books, but decide that can wait.
I have a bit of a dilemma. I’d like to get on with my research, but I’m afraid of losing Sigeric. A solution strikes me.
“How about if I read this out to you? You won’t understand much, I’m afraid the Latin is much transformed, but at least you can get used to the letters and their pronunciation.”
His thin lips spread in a smile. And so I begin. Now and then he slows me down or asks me to repeat a word, but for the most part he listens intently, watching my finger follow the train of words. And so we spend the afternoon.