A Man Of Valor In 18th Century Italy: The Novel, “Scarpia”

An historical figure named Vitellio Scarpia, who lived in the 18th century, was turned into a “sadistic agent”—the words of English novelist Piers Paul Read—in a play by one Victorien Sardou.  The plot of this play was borrowed by Puccini for his opera Tosca, and now, in his lively novel Scarpia (2015), Mr. Read has rescued Scarpia from Sardou’s calumny.    He, not Floria Tosca, is the main character here, and instead of a brute, he is a humane, dutiful baron and skillful swordsman for the Papal States.

The lionized opera singer, Tosca, is here, to be sure; and she’s important.  For one thing, after all, she is one of the women with whom Scarpia fornicates.  In Catholic Italy.  What the novel points up is that in European history numerous people grasped with one hand Catholicism and with the other hand sexual pleasure.  The major characters here are nominal Catholics—or nominal Christians—exhibiting erotic faithlessness as frequently as they fall in love.  Scarpia does this, with Tosca, after becoming a cuckold.  The cuckold is still married to Paola, a Roman princess.

I believe that what Scarpia is about, besides an author’s effort to help a libeled person, is damnation in life (not after death) and, in contrast, salvation.  Damnation in life means coming to a tragic end, a terrible end, after one has sinned.  Humane he may be, but Scarpia is also responsible for an act of cruel deceit toward Tosca.  It is Paola, the only woman Scarpia marries, who confesses and repents her way to the aforementioned salvation.  This she does after being the Arletty of Rome and sleeping with French Jacobins who invade Italy with Napoleon.  Meant, I think, to be a sincere convert, Paola is one of the few characters in the book who give rise to an affirmative element.

Read writes well about political actors, and still writes enjoyably about relationships between men and women.  And, all in all, to the relationship between God and man he has not given short shrift, as most other writers must do.  He has an understanding of it.

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