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Over five hundred years before, the sinister Duke Claudio, known as The Falcon, lived his twisted, brutal life, preying on the people of Ruffano. But now it is the twentieth century, and the town seems to have forgotten its violent history. But have things really changed? The parallels between the past and present become ever more evident.
“In du Maurier’s fiction, she unflinchingly exposed hard truths.”-Times (UK)
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The Flight of the Falcon was published in 1965, coincidentally the year my own family moved to Italy, to the very city where the novel opens: Rome. The shadows of the Second World War, and the appalling poverty that made Italy so vulnerable to Fascism, were on the wane. Rome was incomparably lovely, a place where artists still came to learn from antiquity, where the privileged enjoyed the dolce vita celebrated by Fellini's film of that name, and the less privileged were desperate for American dollars. Mass tourism was in its infancy then, and the kind of tours that du Maurier's hero, Fabbio, takes around Italy were more innocent, less commonplace and less world-weary than one suspects they are now. Those were the days in which the waspish whine of a Vespa in the Eternal City carried young couples as beautiful as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, not a pair of muggers out to rob the unwary walker. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Curiously, The Flight of the Falcon is the only one of du Maurier's novels to be set in Italy—though "Don't Look Now," her masterpiece short story, had Venice for its setting. Du Maurier loved Italy and visited it many times, though it is uncertain whether she went to Urbino before she wrote The Flight of the Falcon, for which she seems to have used a researcher. Her son, Kits Browning, visited the city with her in 1964 to check on the details after the novel was completed, and remembers being asked to take "lots of stills" of it.
Fabbio is a Germanicized Italian, shamed by his mother's wartime affairs with German and American officers. He begins his story with a small bet and ends it with a desperate gamble for freedom. A tour guide, or courier, he is good at his job, which involves impressing his charges by sheer force of personality in acting as their shepherd, conductor and mediator. His elder brother, Aldo, is meanwhile plotting a much more sinister kind of leadership, revolving around the cult of personality all too familiar to survivors of the War. There are still elderly Italians alive today who complain that the country has never functioned so efficiently or so proudly as in the time of Il Duce, Mussolini. If du Maurier's plot can seem too Gothic, too improbable in its conflict between the good brother and the bad, it may not seem too extreme to those who remember how nations have been swayed to commit and justify acts of atrocity under the influence of a single charismatic leader.
What I particularly admire about The Flight of the Falcon is the way its drama seems to spring from a geography and architecture that exist in real life. Just as the second Mrs. de Winter's tale is indelibly marked by Manderley, and Cornwall, so Ruffano is intrinsic to The Flight of the Falcon. Du Maurier's city is virtually indistinguishable from Urbino, the remarkable city east of Florence and south of Bologna, transformed and largely built by Federigo da Montefeltro. Montefeltro was a supremely successful soldier who had his marriage celebrated in a famous double painting by Piero della Francesca, featuring the Duke and Duchess in profile on one side, and shining white horses, representing Fame and Virtue, charioteered by cupids across an idyllic Umbrian landscape on the other. Montefeltro became Florence's favorite mercenary, and poured the wealth and plunder he obtained from war into expanding and beautifying his native city of Urbino. His Ducal Palace is a marvel of Renaissance architecture, largely paid for by decades of ruthlessness as a hired soldier. The Duke was a true Renaissance man, whose enthusiasm and genius as a condottiere, or hired general, was matched by an intelligence as subtle as it was fine. The greatest pupil of the greatest teacher of his age, Vittorino da Feltre, he personally conceived his Palace's architecture and design. You cannot walk through its rooms without being struck by the beauty of their proportions, their rare combination of taste and opulence, their theatrical sense of drama and restraint.
Certainly, du Maurier's description of the Ducal Palace is one that many visitors to Urbino will recognize:
The silhouette might be that of some fantastic back-drop at a theater… Fragile, ethereal at first view, the true impact came later. These walls were real, forbidding, with all the ingenuity of a fortress, concealing strength within. The twin turrets above their encircling balustrades pierced the darkness like sharpened blades. Beauty was paramount, menace lurked within.
Above all there is the small room overlooking a drop of over a hundred feet to the ground below. What precisely was this room? Was it a tiny private chapel, as some think? It contains virtually nothing but Piero della Francesca's haunting painting, The Flagellation of Christ, which John Mortimer observed in his novel, Summer's Lease, is "undoubtedly the best small painting in the world." In The Flight of the Falcon, the Palace's great painting (by an unnamed artist) is of an imaginary Temptation of Christ, in which Christ is shown being tempted by his double, the Devil, to fly down to the rooftops of Ruffano. This parable will be reenacted for real in the climax of the novel, when Aldo's evil madness becomes irresistible. Temptation and guilt, rather than suffering and self-sacrifice, are what set du Maurier's imagination alight. She was drawn to polar opposites, often of a domineering sexual nature but also of a familial kind, and her fiction is almost always concerned with the liberation of a secret or hidden self which emerges through conflict. It is easy to see how in Urbino such a combination—a controlled, profoundly beautiful meditation on suffering, and a balcony whose height invites thoughts of flying and falling—could have inspired her to write what is essentially a Gothic tale set in Umbria. The rivalrous bond between the two brothers is as old as myth, but here, too, Montefeltro's history may have suggested her plot.
Born the illegitimate son of the Count of Urbino in 1422, Federigo da Montefeltro inherited his father's title at the age of twenty-two following the murder of his legitimate half brother, Oddantonio. His people, as rugged and resilient as the landscape they inhabited, had their taxes kept low, which may account for Federigo's confidence that he could walk about his city without bodyguards or fear of the kind of assassination attempts that haunted other leading Italian families. (Du Maurier's duke has a very different attitude to his people, and is guarded accordingly.) Montefeltro's iron discipline over his troops ensured a minimum of bloodshed and destruction during conquest. His rule was informed by a superb intelligence and scholarship: the library he created now belongs to the Vatican. Perhaps it was the creation of this library, once one of the best in Europe, that gave du Maurier the idea for Fabbio's job as a temporary librarian's assistant in the Ducal library.
The pattern of many of du Maurier's novels is to set up an opponent, often fiercely desired or admired, who turns out to be a Lucifer-figure. Du Maurier experienced intense feelings for her charismatic actor-manager father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and was herself overwhelmed by the memory of his commanding presence, so it is tempting to see her novels as a means of playing out an eternal fluctuation between love and hatred. Between these two magnetic poles, the world of her story spins into eventual disaster before coming to rest. If the usual sexual attraction between victim and predator is missing here, the fraternal bond more than makes up for it. Abel to his brother's Cain, Fabbio (or "Beo," short for beato or "blessed" in Italian) is, in fact, almost puerile in his lack of sexuality. He has, as we later learn, literally been usurped by his older brother. He is the opposite of the stereotypical Italian male, and the driver of his coach tour jokes that they should change places, so that Fabbio can drive while the driver makes love to the clients. His most passionate relationship is still his bond with the past, and his adored brother, Aldo. Their childhood games involved the younger brother dressing up in dirty linen and pretending to be Lazarus, raised from the dead by Aldo as Christ—or, tellingly, dressed as the Devil in the dark shirt of the Fascist Youth organization to which he belonged. "He was my god, he was my devil too," Fabbio realizes. Where Aldo is two-faced and double-natured, Fabbio, like the nameless heroine of Rebecca, has grown up in his brother's shadow and has barely enough personality to make an impression on those he meets. Doubles haunt du Maurier's stories, but Fabbio is surely the most colorless until, fighting back, he finally acquires some style. He notices women if they possess a Madonna-like beauty, like Signora Butali, but otherwise they are to be feared and despised, like Carla Raspa. Sexually attractive women are rarely rewarded in du Maurier's world, perhaps because of her troubled bisexuality, yet this portrait is a savage one.
Everyone in The Flight of the Falcon is obsessed by someone else, mostly Aldo, and Aldo himself is obsessed with the Duke of Ruffano, known as "the Falcon." He insists that, contrary to reason, the wicked Duke flew from the balustrade of his palace when tempted by Lucifer to show himself as the Son of God. Aldo became a pilot, believed to have been killed in a flying accident during the War. His return and rebirth as the city's Director of the Arts Council makes him appear more than mortal, a Lazarus or Lucifer. Ostensibly a good citizen, Aldo has modeled his behavior on the first Duke of Ruffano, a character whom we are told "cast off his early discipline… and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties."
Fabbio's emotional and spiritual entrapment by his brother, his desperate attempt to hold on to sanity and virtue, are also foreshadowed by the fictitious history of the ducal brothers. If Duke Claudio was mad and bad, his half brother Carlo was known as "the Good"; it was he who rebuilt the city and made Ruffano famous. Du Maurier split the character of the real-life Montefeltro into two, which, given that he fascinates us by embodying violently contrasting natures, one regrets—but her fiction needed opposites to spark its dynamics. As it is, The Flight of the Falcon is du Maurier's most political novel, one in which the consequences of breaking the accepted order of things is not solely a personal, emotional choice but has repercussions on a small society. Though they fought in the Resistance against Fascism, Aldo's followers want to rid Ruffano of "scum." They accuse the old of hypocrisy, abuse of power and lack of passion. They fail to see that there are other virtues, without which a civilization cannot continue to exist and develop. Du Maurier, who had written The Glass-Blowers, a novel set against the background of the French Revolution, was perhaps thinking of where such attitudes can lead. In order to punish those who fall short, Aldo's followers carry out acts of cruelty and violence which cannot possibly be justified—or do they?
"Don't imagine I'm here to bring peace to this city…" Aldo says. "I'm here to bring trouble and discord… to bring all the violence and hypocrisy and lust and envy into the open." His words echo those of the deranged Duke, or Falcon: "The proud shall be stripped… the haughty violated… the slanderer silenced, the serpent die in its own venom." Ironically, the person who seems to partake of these vices most of all is Aldo himself.
At the start of the novel, Fabbio knows he is engaged in a "flight without purpose." It is only when he is forced to fly for his life that he discovers what really matters to him is not the past but the future, not the soaring glamour of insanity but the earthbound humility of the sane. His initial mistrust of the present, "slick, proficient, uniform, the young the same the world over, mass-produced like eggs," and his fascination with the past, "that sinister and unknown world of poison and rapine, of power and beauty, of luxury and filth," has been felt by many visitors to Italy. Du Maurier, for all the high drama of her imagination, always surprises the reader by ultimately turning away from passion and elation. Aiming too high, in her fiction, is the prelude to catastrophe and downfall. It is the humble, almost anonymous characters, poised between the sweetness of hope and the bitterness of experience, who survive to tell their version of the story before us.
The Flight of the Falcon is a work of fiction. Although Ruffano was inspired by an existing Italian city, the topography, the events described, the inhabitants and every member of the university are purely imaginary.
We were right on time. Sunshine Tours informed its passengers on the printed itinerary that their coach was due at the Hotel Splendido, Rome, at approximately 1800 hours. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it wanted three minutes to the hour.
"You owe me five hundred lire," I said to Beppo.
The driver grinned. "We'll see about that in Naples," he said. "In Naples I shall present you with a bill for more than two thousand lire."
Our bets were continuous throughout the tour. We each kept a book, checked the kilometers against the time, and then settled up when either of us felt like paying. The latter generally fell to me, no matter who had come out on top with the betting. As courier, I received the larger tips.
I turned round, smiling, to my load of merchandise. "Welcome to Rome, ladies and gentlemen," I said, "the city of popes, emperors, and Christians thrown to the lions, not to mention movie stars."
A wave of laughter greeted me. Somebody in the back row cheered. They liked this sort of thing. Any facetious remark made by the courier helped to establish the relationship between passengers and pilot. Beppo, as driver, may have been responsible for their safety on the road, but I, as guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls, held their lives in my hands. A courier can make or break a tour. Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old.
I climbed down from my seat, flinging wide the door, and saw the porters and pages hurrying from the swing-doors of the hotel to meet us. I watched my flock descend, sausages from a machine, fifty all told—no need to count the heads, for we had not stopped between Assisi and Rome—and led the way to the reception desk.
"Sunshine Tours, Anglo-American Friendship League," I said.
I shook hands with the reception clerk. We were old acquaintances. I had been on this particular route for two years now.
"Good trip?" he asked.
"Pretty fair," I replied, "apart from the weather. It was snowing in Florence yesterday."
"It's still March," he said. "What do you expect? You people start your season too soon."
"Tell them that at the head office in Genoa," I answered.
Everything was in order. We held block bookings, of course, and because it was early in the season the management had fixed my whole party on the second floor. This would please them. Later in the year we should be lucky to get the fifth, and tucked away in the rear of the building at that.
The clerk watched my party file into the reception lounge. "What have you brought us?" he asked. "The holy alliance?"
"Don't ask me," I shrugged. "They joined forces at Genoa on Tuesday. Some sort of club. Beef and barbarians. The usual treatment in the restaurant at seven-thirty?"
"It's all laid on," he said, "and the relief coach ordered for nine. I wish you joy."
We use certain code words for our clients in the touring business. The English are beef to us, and the Americans barbarians. It may not be complimentary, but it's apt. These people were running wild on pastureland and prairie when we were ruling the world from Rome. No offence intended.
I turned to greet the respective leaders of my Anglo-American group. "Everything's fine," I said. "Accommodation for all on the second floor. Telephones in every room. Any queries ring down to the desk and they'll put you through to me. Dinner at seven-thirty. I'll meet you here. The reception manager will now show you to your rooms. O.K.?"
Theoretically, this was where I laid off for an hour and twenty minutes, found my own small lair, had a shower and collapsed, but it seldom worked that way. Nor did it today. My telephone buzzed as soon as I'd taken off my jacket.
"It's Mrs. Taylor here. Utter and complete disaster! I've left every package bought in Florence in that hotel in Perugia."
I might have known. She had left a coat in Genoa and a pair of overshoes in Siena. She had insisted that these things, almost certainly unnecessary south of Rome, must be telephoned for and forwarded to Naples.
"Mrs. Taylor, I'm so sorry. What were in the packages?"
"Breakables, mostly. There were two pictures… a statuette of Michelangelo's David… some cigarette boxes…"
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it. I'll telephone Perugia right away and see that your packages get to our office in Genoa, and are waiting there for your return."
It depended on how busy they were at reception whether I left them to put through the call and make the inquiry, or dealt with it myself. Better do it myself. It would save time in the long run. I had sized up the Taylor woman as a package-leaver as soon as she joined us. She trailed belongings. Spectacles, head-scarves, picture postcards kept falling out of her outsize handbag. It is an English failing, a fault of the species. Apart from this, beef give very little trouble, though in their desire to seek the sun they blister more readily than other nationalities. Bare-armed, bare-legged, they're into cotton frocks and shorts the first day of the tour, turning brick red in the process. Then I have to conduct them to the nearest chemist's shop for salves and lotions.
The telephone buzzed once more. Not my call to Perugia, but one of the barbarians. A woman again, naturally. The husbands never bother me.
"Guess what. It's a boy!"
I did a double-think. Barbarians give you their life history the first evening in Genoa. Which of them was it that was expecting her first grandchild, back in Denver, Colorado? Mrs. Hiram Bloom.
"Congratulations, Mrs. Bloom. This calls for a special celebration."
"I know it. I'm so excited I don't know what I'm doing." The scream of delight nearly broke my eardrum. "Now, I want just you, and one or two of the others, to meet Mr. Bloom and myself in the bar before dinner, to drink the little boy's health. Shall we say seven-fifteen?"
It would cut down my free time to half an hour, and that call from Perugia hadn't yet come through. Nothing to be done. Courtesy first and foremost.
"That's very kind of you, Mrs. Bloom. I'll be there. All well with your daughter-in-law?"
"She's fine. Just fine."
I hung up before she could read me out the cable. Time for a shave, anyway, and with luck a shower.
You have to be wary about accepting invitations from clients. A birthday or a wedding anniversary is legitimate, or the arrival of a grandchild. Nothing much else, or it tends to make bad blood and you are halfway to ruining your tour. Besides, where drinking is concerned a courier has to watch his intake. Whatever happens to his party, he must remain sober. So must the driver. This is not always easy.
I dealt with the Perugia call while still dripping from the shower, and after struggling into a clean shirt went downstairs to inspect the arrangements made for us in the restaurant. Two long tables in the middle of the room, each seating twenty-five, and in the center of either table, dwarfing the flowers, the bunched flags of both nations, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. This never fails to please—the clients feel that it gives tone to the proceedings.
A word with the headwaiter, promising him to have my party seated by seven-thirty sharp. They liked us to have our main course finished and the dessert served before the other diners wandered in to their tables. It was important for us, too. We worked to a tight schedule, and were due to take off for our tour of "Rome by Night" at nine o'clock.
A final check on time, and then the short celebration drink in the bar. There were only a handful of them gathered to toast baby Bloom, but you could hear them from the entrance hall, where the excluded beef hung about in twos and threes, aloof, disdainful, their faces buried in the English newspapers. The extrovert barbarian roar had turned the Anglo-Saxons dumb.
Mrs. Bloom glided towards me, a frigate in full sail. "Now, Mr. Fabbio, you'll not refuse champagne?"
"Half a glass, Mrs. Bloom. Just to wish long life to your grandson."
There was something touching in her happiness. Generosity exuded from her person. She placed her arm through mine and drew me forward into the group. How kind they were, dear God, how kind… Epitomizing, in their all-embracing warmth, the barbarian hunger for love. I drew back, suffocated, then, ashamed of myself, let the wave engulf me. Back in Genoa I had many tributes from Mrs. Bloom's compatriots. Christmas cards by the score, letters, greetings. Did I remember the trip two years ago? When would I visit them in the States? They often thought of me. They had named their youngest son Armino. The sincerity of those messages shamed me. I never answered them.
"I hate to break this up, Mrs. Bloom. But it's just on seven-thirty."
"What you say goes, Mr. Fabbio. You're the boss."
The two nations mingled in the entrance hall, halting momentarily as they greeted new acquaintances, the women appraising each other's dresses. Then through to the restaurant drifted my fifty head of cattle, lowing, murmuring, myself the stockman in the rear. There were cries of pleasure at the sight of the flags. For a moment I feared a burst into national song, "The Star-spangled Banner," "God Save the Queen"—it had happened before—but I caught the headwaiter's eye and we managed to seat them before patriotism could do its worst. Then to my own small table in the corner. One lone male barbarian, middle-aged, swimmy-eyed, had placed himself at the corner of one of the long tables, from where he could watch me. I had him taped. I knew his kind. He would get no encouragement from the courier, but we might have trouble with him in Naples.
While I ate I did the day's accounts. This was my custom. I shut my ears to the sound of voices and the clatter of plates. If the accounts are not kept up to date you never get straight, and then there is hell to pay with head office. Bookkeeping did not bother me. I found it relaxing. And then, when the figures were totted up, the notebook put away, my plate removed, I could sit back, finish my wine and smoke a cigarette. This was the real time of reckoning—no longer of sums to be forwarded every day to Genoa, but of my own motives. How long would it continue? Why was I doing this? What urge drove me, like a stupefied charioteer, on my eternal, useless course?
"We get paid for it, don't we?" said Beppo. "We make good money."
Beppo had a wife and three children in Genoa. Milan—Florence—Rome—Naples—they were all the same to him. A job was a job. Three days off duty at the end of it, home, and bed. He was satisfied. No inner demon broke his rest or asked him questions.
The babble of voices, topped by the barbarians, rose to a roar. My little flock was in full cry. Replete, at ease, their tongues loosened with whatever had filled their glasses, expectant of what the night would bring them—and what could it bring them but a bedding down beside their spouses after peering at buildings old, remote and alien to them, falsely lit for their enjoyment, glimpsed briefly through the windows, steamy with their breath, of a hired coach?—they spilled themselves, for a brief moment, of doubt and care. They were no longer individuals. They were one. They were escaping from all that bound and tied them—but to what?
The waiter bent over me. "The coach is waiting," he said. Ten minutes to nine. Time for them to fetch coats, hats, scarves, powder their faces and relieve themselves. It was not until I had counted the heads, as they climbed into the coach at one minute after nine, that I realized we mustered forty-eight. Two were missing. I checked with the driver—not Beppo, who was free to spend the evening as he pleased, but a man native to the city.
"There were two signore in advance of the rest," he told me. "They walked off together, down the street."
I glanced over my shoulder towards the via Veneto. The Hotel Splendido stands one street away, in comparative peace and quiet, but from the pavement one can see the bright lights and the gay shopwindows, and watch the traffic surge towards the Porta Pinciana. Here, for most women, is greater lure than the Colosseum we were bound for.
"No," said the driver, "they went that way." He pointed left. Then, from around the block, into the via Sicilia, came the hurrying figures. I should have known it. The two retired schoolteachers from south London. Forever inquiring, forever critical, they were zealous for reform. It was this couple who had bade me stop the coach on the road to Siena because, they insisted, a man was ill-treating his oxen. It was this couple who, finding a stray cat in Florence, made me waste half an hour of our precious time seeking its home. A mother, admonishing her child in Perugia, had been in her turn admonished by the schoolteachers. Now, bridling and outraged, they clattered towards me.
"Mr. Fabbio… Someone should do something. There's a poor old woman, very ill, humped in the doorway of a church round the corner."
I contained myself with difficulty. The churches of Rome give sanctuary to all beggars, down-and-outs and drunks who care to sprawl upon their steps until such time as the police drive them away.
"Don't concern yourselves, ladies. This is quite usual. The police will see to her. Now hurry, please. The coach is waiting."
"But it's absolutely scandalous… In England we…"
I took both women firmly by the arm and propelled them towards the coach. "You are not in England, ladies, you are in Rome. In the city of the emperors oxen, cats, children and the aged receive their just reward. The old woman is lucky in that refuse is no longer fed to the lions."
The schoolteachers were still choking with indignation as the coach swept left, past the very church where the woman lay.
"There, Mr. Fabbio, look… there!"
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company