Umberto Eco
Painting - The Garden of Earthly Delights, Detail by Hieronymus Bosch (1490)
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Detail · Hieronymus Bosch ( 1490)
Oil on canvas · 205 x 384 cm ·Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

“There, Master Niketas,” Baudolino said, “when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds. A bit with the help of wine, and a bit with that of the green honey. There is nothing better than imagining other worlds,” he said, “to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”

Arriving to Constantinople during the turmoils of the Crusader conquest at the cusp of the Fourth Crusade, Baudolino tells his curious and fantastical life story to a Byzantine historian and member of the Imperial court, Niketas Choniates.

”You see, Master Niketas, I remembered then that Otto had spoken to me about the Magi in connection with Prester John. To be sure, if that poor old priest had displayed them as if they had appeared from nowhere, nobody would have believed him. But does a relic, to be true, have to date back to the saint or to the event of which it was part?” “No, of course not. Many relics that are preserved here in Constantinople are of very suspect origin, but the worshiper who kisses them perceives supernatural aromas wafting from them. It is faith that makes them true, not they who make faith true.”

A self-described liar, Baudolino cleverly alters little truths “so that the greater truth emerges”. He takes us on a meandering journey across distant lands, in order to help us appreciate the weight and meaning stories and storytelling hold for our shared culture – the ability to create something new by reforming what already exists. Reading Baudolino prompts us to try to distinguish inventions from facts, yes, but also to explore the narrative dimensions – and thereby world-altering and matter-bending potential – of dreams and hallucinations, signs and symbols, omissions and exaggerations, dogmata and prejudices, wonder and fear, irreversible fabrications and revised certainties, yearnings of souls and memories of minds.

Looking back centuries and millennia, how can we creep closer to the truths that lay at the foundations of a complex constellation encompassing all of our sacred – and profane – myths, rituals, legends, traditions, and relics?

”Then I learned,” Baudolino said to Niketas, “that Rahewin had written to a Parisian scholar, begging him to ask the Victoriens for those manuscripts, but the scholars obviously found no trace of them. They accused their librarian of negligence, and the poor man had to swear that he had never seen them. I imagine, in the end, some canon, to put matters right, really did compose those texts and I hope that someday someone will come upon them.”

As with Baudolino’s conjuring of Prester John’s kingdom out of thin air, Eco weaves together fact and fiction in this mesmerizing, remarkably charming story.

”I was by now consecrated to falsehood. It is hard to explain what was going through my head. I said to myself: All the time that you were inventing, you invented things that were not true, but then became true. You made San Baudolino appear, you created a library at Saint Victoire, you sent the Magi wandering about the world, you saved your city by fattening a scrawny cow, if there are learned doctors in Bologna it is also your merit, in Rome you caused mirabilia to appear that the Romans themselves had never dreamed of, starting with the gabble of that Hugo of Jabala, you created a kingdom of supreme beauty, then you loved a ghost, and you made her write letters she had never written, and those who read them went into ecstasy, including the lady who had never written them, and she was an empress; but the one time you wanted to do something true, with the most sincere of women, you failed: you produced something no one can believe in or desire to exist. So it is best for you to withdraw into the world of your portents, for there at least you can decide yourself how portentous they are.”

Small sketch - Book Review - Baudolino
© 2024 Camillo Visini