I could have written a book set in the contemporary world with all its familiar contradictions, screaming injustices, obscene wealth, abysmal poverty, and inhuman inequality, immediate and in your face. Instead, I told a story set in Venice in 1368. Why?
First and foremost, I didn’t tell the story. The story told me. From the moment I discovered the Ballot Boy (il ballottino) and began to investigate his possible worlds, the narrative spoke and I only needed to listen. But in order to heed its call, I had to question everything I knew about the world around me, from the meaning of words to the meaning of units of time to the meaning of concepts like loyalty, love, God, and life. I needed to suspend all my habitual assumptions in order to imagine how things felt there and then if I wanted to bring that world to life. Throughout the process of giving this story life I realized, over and over, that the lens works both ways, not only from present to past, but also from past to present. Examining the past refracts the present, not directly, but á la McLuhan, looking forward through the rearview mirror.
Shorn of particularities (first and foremost, the magnitude of weapons of mass destruction and the influence of mass media), the fundamentals of human existence can be told in the past, in Hoboken, New Jersey, on a distant planet with only a change of costume, scenery, scale, and above all, assumptions. The appearance of things changes more dramatically than the basal metabolism. Greed is greed and naked greed is naked, then or now. Human nature remains paradoxical, sublime, and perverse. But certain times and places stand out, revealing human endeavor at its peak.
Venice in the late 14th century is such a time and place. The story of “The Ballot Boy” could only be told in its time, in its world, under its laws. The tides of history conspired to make it sui generis, outside the ordinary run, resplendent and squalid and filled with glamor, artistic achievement, depravity, and individual and collective heroism.
Venice reached the apex of its splendor at the dawn of the renaissance, a world taut with contradictions, with art and science pouring from east to west , with men burned at the stake for loving other men and women’s noses cut off for disobeying their husbands or masters. Polyglot, cosmopolitan, obscenely rich, and desperately poor, Venice was for a time the crossroads of the world. The wealth of Asia poured off its galleys to be sold to the rest of Europe. This fabulous bazaar, the richest city in Europe, La Serenissima – the Most Serene Republic – attracted the hate and envy of every prince and emperor and king, an irresistible magnet to their ambition.
Desperate times, high heroism, abysmal cowardice, extremes of human endeavor usually reserved for World War 2 epics, played out at the birth of the renaissance. The pressure-cooker of the times also produced a profound spirit of communality, running inextricably from the doge to the fishmonger. Every man, woman and child fought together for their homes, their lives, and their republic against appalling odds. They triumphed because class distinctions, ancient rivalries, rank, and wealth were subsumed in the common battle to defeat an enemy seeking to destroy them. The spirit of that moment spoke to me and compelled me to write this story of heroism in the face of destruction, optimism in the darkest of times, the depths to which humanity sinks and the heights to which it soars. So yes, it’s history, but it is equally about us.