The Philokalia


A tragedy in five Acts



by Christopher Lewis




Philokalia:             Greek, “love of the Beautiful”, “beauty” in the sense of truth and goodness, is the name given to a collection of writings of the most exalted patristic spirituality.


Of the many influences which stimulated the Renaissance, perhaps the two most important were the dawn of the age of printing and the flood of exiles from the fall of Byzantium.




Cast of Characters


Aldus                        Aldus Manutius, founder of the Aldine Press, the first to publish on a mass scale at low cost, accomplishing his vision to make books more available than they had ever been.


Erasmus            The most renowned humanist scholar of the Renaissance.


Bembo                        Pietro Bembo, poet and literary critic, and in later life a Cardinal.


Jacopo                        Aldus’ compositor.


Christoforo            A young poet and neoplatonist philosopher.


Chrysologos            An aged exile from Byzantium.


Filippo                        A superb wood-engraver.


Antonio            Aldus’ head pressman.


Ercole                        Ercole Strozzi, a servant of Lucretia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara and a friend of Bembo’s.


Barbara            Barbara Torelli, Ercole’s wife: a poetess and noblewoman.


Lucretia            Lucretia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara: an illegitimate daughter of pope Alexander VI, and sister of the celebrated tyrant Caesar Borgia.


Duke of F.            Duke of Ferrara.


Boy                        An apprentice in Aldus’ printshop.


Wife                        Jacopo’s wife.


Maria                        Jacopo’s daughter.


Pipino                        Jacopo’s son.


Zeno                         A Venetian nobleman.




Torelli                         Barbara’s brother.




Ambassador             From France.


Duke of B.             Duke of Bourbon.


Citzens, Senators, soldiers, servants, etc.




Action of the Play


Act                         Scene


I                         In the printshop

Jacopo’s apartment


II                         Dinner, Aldus’ house

The piazza


III                         A chamber of the Senate building

Street outside Aldus’ house, night

In an empty cathedral, night

A room in the Duke’s Palace, Ferrara

Banks of the Tiber River, Rome, dawn


IV                         The Vatican: Filippo’s apartment

In the Vatican courtyard, by a fountain

Filippo’s apartment

On the ramparts of the Pope’s castle

Outside the castle gates, midnight


V                         A burned monastery outside Rome

Inside St Peter’s

A prison cell in the tower

A street, outside the Vatican


Epilogue             Erasmus’ study, Germany










Scene 1: Venice, Italy, about the year 1500. Inside the print-shop of Aldus Manutius: the famous Aldine Press. Aldus, Antonio and a boy are by the presses. Jacopo is at the composing stone. Filippo is carving a woodcut.


Aldus                         One more strike!


Antonio                                     Monday morning, sir.


Aldus                         Tonight we need a proof. Did you forget?

The holiday is Monday.


Antonio                                     Another lock-up?

Bring that here. I’ll break it over your head.


Aldus                         I don’t intend that you should re-pack the impression.

I don’t even care if the ink is flat…


Antonio             I know what Jacopo wants to do tonight–

pick up his pieces of type all over the floor.


Aldus                         A rough proof is all, to look at the format…


Antonio             Sixty long hours in the week are enough.

I’ve given my time, and that’s all.


Aldus                                                             I’ll do it myself.


Antonio             No sir, you can’t. You know the guild laws. Boy!

Change the lock-up there. Now, who’s going to ink it?

Gustavo slipped out the door already. I guess

he didn’t want to listen to our discussion.

Young man, here’s your chance. Grab those ink-balls –             [to the boy]

I know you’ve watched him do it. Smear some on.

Not like that! Just on the letters’ surfaces.

Master Aldus doesn’t care how it looks,

but as long as you’re learning to ink, you’ll do it right.

God, look at his hands, they’re black as the devil!

You’re not supposed to apply the ink with your fingers!

Now move your head.


Aldus                                                 Isn’t it almost magic?                         [his hand on boy’s shoulder]

I’m still amazed how metal and lampblack oils

can leave such perfect marks on the pristine paper

and their image of ordered thought!


Boy                                                             Magic? I wondered

what all those strange bent lines and circles and crosses

were used for!


Antonio                         Yeah, and since you put the ink down,

that’s what this will look like.


Boy                                                             When you hold it up,

and you frown and make those noises, what are you doing,

calling up the devil?


Aldus                                                 I’m talking in Latin.


Boy                         The devil lives in a cave called Latin?


Antonio                                                 That’s right!


Aldus                         I’m reading another language.


Boy                                                             Reading? Language?


Antonio             Can you read this one?                                     [handing Aldus the proof]


Aldus                                     Magnificent!


Antonio                                                 I’m so tired!


Aldus                         That’s all. Tomorrow is Sunday. Go home, rest.


[Looking over Aldus’ shoulder at the proof, Antonio suddenly throws his hands out, mocking the act of summoning, his eyes huge]


Antonio             There he is!                                                 [to boy, pointing across the room]


Boy                                     Where?


Antonio                                                 You can’t see him?

He’s big as the press, and blacker.                         [Exit; boy staring]


Jacopo             Next week he will come in like it’s been too long.


Aldus                         But he’s always so worn out by the end of the week.

I’m working him too hard.


Jacopo            It’s sweating at the limit of his endurance

that makes him love to throw the lever.


Aldus                                                 I hope so.

I don’t believe it’s the wage that keeps him here.

Even with him and eleven other pressmen

there’s too much work, and nothing to show for profit.


Filippo             Never would I presume my men were content

with little pay, and extended hours.


Aldus                         The wood-engravers’ guild is as old as Venice,

well protected with privileges in trade…


Filippo             You’d better do what you can to keep them from

behind my presses. They’re easier to turn.


Aldus                         You’ll do what you can to shut mine down. As it is,

I can’t afford your engravings, but I need them.

How do you like the woodcut with the type?


Filippo             How did you get a proof of my carving?


Aldus                                                             Just now

I locked it up with the type…


Filippo                                                 Without my permission!

We agreed to print them in my shop!


Aldus                         Just for the proof. I’d never print it that way.

But isn’t that why you’re here, to whittle down

the lines of the illustrations until they seem

harmonious to the rhythm of line in the type?


Filippo             You want to make the image subordinate

to letters, do you? I did not see that before.

When books command the printing trade, the mind

will be influenced and formed by words, not pictures.

That’s not my idea of what should happen!                                                 [Exit


Aldus                        What an impetuous artist! What will we do?

Look, Jacopo, look at his illustration,

it’s just what we want!


[Enter Erasmus]

Erasmus             So this is the Aldine Press!

And I didn’t even have to climb out of a boat–

they laid a solid stone street in front of your door!

What a city, Venice! It was a long walk

over the mountains, but now I need my sealegs

to cross the town! May I see the master?


Jacopo             You may, provided you have read our sign,

since you seem to be a man who can read.


Erasmus             I have, and I understand: this is a place

of business, not an open coffee-house

for the curious and idle intellects

of Europe. You must be plagued by them.


Jacopo                                                 Exactly.


Erasmus             At noon, they gather until they block the sun–

like the cloud of gnats? Yes, I can see it. Like flies

they buzz around the glory where learning dips

her torch, replenishing here the fire with which she

lights the world! Bear with me; I walked the Alps

to tell you this: that wherever the name of Aldus

is on men’s lips, they speak in a gentler tone

than before they read your thundering Cicero

or Seneca, or lofty Ptolemy, or the tongue

of God by which Jerome made Latin speak

exalted poetry! That sign above your door

is not to me as the one which turned Vergil white

when Dante begged him not to show him Hell.

I’d gladly have you put my hands to the burden

if you’d fulfill the threat that’s written there.


Jacopo             Well; sir, since you understand that well,

and have me somewhat spellbound with your words,

you may both see the master, and speak with him—

that’s he.


Erasmus                        Ah, but you may tell him for me

I bring letters from none other than

the renowned Erasmus. I am that man’s servant –

so true a servant that any communication

with me is to be binding as to himself.

I come to thank him for printing that little book;

and I carry other manuscripts

which cry to be read in Italy and Europe.


Aldus                         And are you himself, or are you the very devil?


[boy hides behind press]


Erasmus             Certainly I hope not to be the latter!

I’d do better to confess to the first

and concede to his fate.


Aldus                                     Which makes him welcome here!


Erasmus             And what is this? I’ve never seen anything                         [looking at proof]

so elegant and light. Is that a monk,

wandering dreamily by a forest stream?


Aldus                         It is a scene from the imagination

of a humanist monk, yes.


Erasmus                                     I have been called

a humanist myself, but is that a monk?

A Benedictine? What in the world is he dreaming?


Aldus                         It is an allegory.


Erasmus                                                 Well, I’m relieved.


Aldus                         We will look at your manuscripts, by all means.

Meanwhile you will stay in my home.


Erasmus                                                 Then I would labor

for my room and bread! Whatever you prepare

for press, I would examine critically

as may help …


Aldus                                    Well, I can show you a pile

needs editing! Oh – Jacopo,

you will begin next week composing from

that manuscript borrowed from Christoforo the poet –

orations of Gregory the Theologian–

tonight, if you wouldn’t mind beginning to read it?


Jacopo             Yes, I would like that!


Aldus                                                             Erasmus, come with me.                         [They exit


Jacopo             Erasmus, himself! I’ve followed his noble thought

with my slow method of study, putting one letter

in front of another, building phrase by phrase

on the composing stone. The words come back to me

often during the days, and sometimes, at night,

with deeper, mysterious meaning smoldering

in my too ignorant heart.

I’ll watch, and learn what kind of man you are!

But now, this manuscript.

Look, the first letter, red and gold

under the open window, seems on fire

with the setting sun. What expectations

of ecstasy of thought! And the penmanship,

so pure and regular in its slanting rhythm

racing toward exalted conclusions! And here,

notes for your design in type. Old page,

however dignified our reproduction,

ours will be just a pale, printed copy–

but this was written within the courts of heaven!


[boy, looking over Jacopo’s shoulder at manuscript, throws his arms out in imitation of Antonio]


Jacopo             Go to the devil!                                                                         [to boy]


Boy                                                 Where? Don’t let him get me!


Jacopo             Did I frighten you that much? I didn’t mean to.                         [laughs]

If he were here, he’d be as black as you!

Did you bathe in ink? Look, even your clothes–

don’t touch these pages, not even with your shirt-tail!

Go wash up. [Exit boy] He’ll turn the ocean black.


[Enter Christoforo]


Christoforo             Ah, you have the manuscript I found.



Jacopo             Where did you find this?


Christoforo                                                 A hard half-day’s journey

across the lagoons and marshes to the hills

beginning the ascent to the Alps, there is

a crumbling monastery, founded by

St. Benedict himself.


Jacopo                                                 And they gave it to you?


Christoforo             The old librarian can’t even read.

When I told him I have never

talked to anyone who’s even seen

a complete translation of the Theologian,

he said he’d never heard of this Gregory!


Jacopo             Now that I remember,

what a wonder that I can read, myself.


Christoforo            What’s that?


Jacopo             I was a pauper– in Mantua-

outside the palace gates where Aldus was tutor,

before he was inspired to leave that high office

for this labor, which raises me to knowledge

once given only to priests and privileged sons.

That the great man in furs, with book and staff,

followed by prince and bishop, noticed me…

I still can’t understand it.

But after the first friendly conversation,

I was always in the gate when he passed,

and always he had words of kindness, and words

that opened the gates of my heart and mind, tasting

waters of the four forgotten rivers

dammed up above sunrise! Such inaccessible vision

seemed open to me in the understanding of letters.

Words! Now, when I look at the words on the page,

oh, miraculous! Seeing how eagerly

I drank the simplest drop of learning, Aldus

taught me– how to read!


Christoforo             What a noble endeavor …

and not content to lift only a few

to this dignity, he wishes all men

to enter the secrets of letters, the knowledge of books!

Well, I will let you read.


Jacopo             “Again, my Jesus, again a mystery:                                     [to himself]

not deceitful nor disorderly,

nor belonging to the error of Greece

or drunkenness (such I call their solemnities,

and so, I think, will every man of sense) … ”


Christoforo             These are his heavy presses.

This is the giant screw. The immense beams

are fixed to the roof, which lends its downward weight.


Jacopo             “The error of Greece”? Sublime philosophy?

“Not deceitful”? As those mysteries

which still seem strange, still mysterious,

not even the wisest clearly understand,

and none can explain? “–or drunkenness–”

not convoluted thought? But a mystery …?


Christoforo             The pressman pulls the heavy lever; his back,

piled with muscles, his shirt transparent with sweat-

like the intoxicating streams which are squeezed

between the drunken slats of a bulging winepress.


Jacopo             “But a mystery lofty and divine

and allied to the Glory above. For the Holy Day

of Lights, to which we have come, which we celebrate,

has for its origin the Baptism of

my Christ, True Light that lighteneth every man

that cometh into the world, and effecteth

my purification, and assists that light

which we received from the beginning from Him

from above, but which we darkened and clouded by sin.”

What is this? How does my heart flame up

like a cloud when sunset ignites its flaming geysers

and clouds roll dark like smoke of the consumed world?

And the sky serenely waits for the revelation

of stars that speak of the heavens!


Christoforo              The pressman lets the

massive platen rest on unyielding lead

and the inked letters dwell in the dampened paper.


Jacopo             “Therefore listen to the voice of God

which sounds so exceedingly clearly to me, who am

disciple and master of these mysteries … ”

Who is this, that in humility

calls himself master of such mysteries?


Christoforo             He shoves the lever out, rolls the tympan

out of the press, unfolds the frame, and gingerly

lifts the page, and holds it up to the light.


Jacopo             “I would to God it would sound clearly to you: ‘I am

the Light of the World.’ Therefore approach ye to Him

and be enlightened. Putting away the darkness,

let us draw near the light, and then become

perfect Light, the children of perfect Light.

See the grace of this Day; see the power

of this mystery. Are you not lifted up from earth?

Are you not clearly placed on high, exalted

by our voice and meditation? You will be

placed much higher when the Word shall have prospered,

the course of my words …” This is a mystery

blazing up in my heart, somehow a blazing

immediate certainty– that I understand!


 [Enter Chrysologus]


Christoforo             Well, old friend. And where have you been? Sulking

around the suburbs? You never show your withered

and learned face where men are gathered. Don’t go!

I’ve not abandoned my struggle to master your language.

Truly, I am sorry I’ve been delinquent

in my visits to you, but the Greek quarter

depresses me. Does everyone there believe

they are the chosen people led captive, lamenting

by the waters of the Adriatic,

the fall of the holy city of Santa Sophia?

Besides, I have other interests

in my study of Greek than you would lead me to.

Let me read Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar,

and Plato and the pre-Socratic thinkers,

and put away your simple-minded Fathers.


Chrysologos             Vanity, all of it!


Christoforo             Easy to say, old man,

but you were young, I’d bet; a courtier

in the great city! What were the riches you saw?

What manuscripts? And how were the ladies adorned?

Ha, ha! And didn’t you learn to be eloquent

in order to turn a perfect ode for their favor?


Chrysologos             Leave me in peace!                                     [weeping]


Christoforo             Well, now I’m sorry.

You are not above the common torments of men.

I harangued you– because you regard me with

your grudge against all western Christendom.


Chrysologos             Schismatics!


Christoforo             But look now, I’ve found a Latin translation

of one of your theologians. I find him eloquent.


Jacopo                        “Where there is the keeping of commandments,

there is purifying of the flesh,

that cloud that covers the soul, and suffers it not

to see the Divine Ray. Where there is purifying,

there is Illumination: Illumination

is the satisfying of desire

unto those who long for the greatest things,

or the Greatest Thing, or That Which surpasses

all greatness!”


Chrysologos             Gregory of Nazianzus!

Oh father! “Supreme mind of theology!

The beauties of speech were added unto thee

as to one who sought the depths of the Spirit!

Cutting in pieces the webs of the rhetors, thou

adorned the Church with the vesture of Orthodoxy

woven” from on high!” Where did you find this?


Christoforo             In a Benedictine library, yellow and wrinkled

as you, and as neglected: but there it is,

translated two hundred years ago, I guess.

You see, we Latins have not been in such darkness

of learning as you imagine!


Chrysologos                                     You do not know

what you are talking about!                                     [stomps out]




Scene 2: Jacopo’s apartment at night; his wife, alone. Enter Jacopo.


Wife                         Where have you been?


Jacopo             Where I told you I’d go – to the monastery.


Wife                         You did not tell me!


Jacopo                        Last night. Were you asleep?

“I’m leaving before dawn, my love,” I said,

softly enough, it’s true; but since you smiled,

and drew me into your bed with your hand and a kiss,

and whispered that I was your courtier,

I assumed you heard me.


Wife                                                 I don’t remember

any of this! Are you making it up?


Jacopo             You know I never …


Wife                                                 No, you’re never

playful like that, serious Jacopo.

Did I miss the moment of those sweet words?

I woke, and you were not there. Oh, and I have no

record of them in my memory,

not even like that of a dream? If I did,

a day alone with your children has made me forget.


Jacopo             Why, what happened?


Wife                        Well, if you want the best of it all,

I’ll tell you about the processional this morning

at the end of Mass. Pipino volunteered

to play the part of the screaming demon

in the aisle, confronting the cross!


Jacopo                        Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you.

Pipino! Come here! Really, I wish I had seen it.

Wife                         You will hear more. Every friend you had

will recount details, and maybe make up a few.


Jacopo             Pipino! And Maria! You come here, too.

Pipirio, why did you act that way in church?


Pipino                         I wanted the beads from Maria.


Maria                         But I was counting the prayers of the sweet Mother!


Jacopo             Why did you want the beads?


Pipino                         They’re pretty.


Jacopo                                     So they are.

But you must understand why your sister held them,

and you must understand why your brother liked them.

So. If you try to understand each other,

then there’s something to learn about the beads you like,

and something to learn about the prayers you say.

Now go wash for dinner.


Children             Yes, Papa.                                                             [They exit


Jacopo             All day, you haven’t known where I was?


Wife                         You left before dawn, and now, see, the stars!


Jacopo             It was thoughtless of me.


Wife                         Why did it take all day? There are a hundred

monasteries within an hour’s walk.


Jacopo             One of the scholars had found a manuscript

upriver at the old Benedictine abbey.

It made me burn with a strong desire to hear

the Mass as the monks there might sing it.


Wife                         What did the manuscript say?


Jacopo             “Not to everyone does it belong

to philosophize on God; not to every man;

the subject is not so cheap and low; it belongs

only to those who are purified, and then

only to the degree to which they are able.”

It made me choke to escape these city walls

on a Sunday, and to find a cloister under the sky,

far from the clanging presses and quarreling thinkers.


Wife                         I think I understand. What was that saying,

that wonderful saying…


Jacopo                                                 I have told you so many,

I wonder that you listen anymore.


Wife                         …about, let’s see… about how the things of God

can only be spoken of in a certain way…


Jacopo             Yes, yes! That’s exactly the same

as what I read in the book of the Theologian!


Wife                         Yes, that saying mentioned theologians,

whatever they are, mysterious men, so Godly.

It was a saying– I remember now!

By the one whom Paul converted with his speech

to the Athenians.


Jacopo             “By no means, then, is it permitted to speak,

or even to think, concerning the superessential

and hidden Deity, beyond those things

divinely revealed in the sacred Oracles.”


Wife                         Yes, that was it. It is a terrible saying,

yet it comforts me that I can think about it

even though I can’t argue or even read.

Wasn’t there more?


Jacopo             “We shall establish the truth

of things spoken concerning God, not in the

persuasive words of man’s wisdom, but in

the demonstration of the Spirit-moved power

of the theologians…” That’s what happened to me

while I was reading that manuscript yesterday…

” … by the aid of which we are brought into contact with things

unutterable and unknown, in a manner

unutterable and unknown, in proportion

to the superior union of reasoning

and the intuitive faculty and operation

within us…”


Wife                                     I think about that passage when

I hear the Bible … you know, all those scholars–

they love to talk about God, and the good, and the True;

have they even given thought to purification?


Jacopo             How have I deserved to have such a wife,

poor and unlettered, yet an understanding so deep!


Wife                         Do not mock me.


Jacopo                         This life’s a shadow and

this world is a cloud, but when the sun comes out

and calls me by name, everyone will see you,

you and my little ones, standing in my heart,

no matter if he chains me hand and foot

for the other things seen there.


[Enter children


Maria                                                             Oh Papa, no!


Pipino             We won’t let it happen! We’ll be good,

from now on, we promise.


Jacopo             You weren’t supposed to hear that.


Maria                         We did, and we’ll try harder to be good.


Jacopo                        Children, you are good. If I have faults,

it is not because of you.


Maria                         Papa, where were you today?


Jacopo             I went to a monastery far upriver.


Pipino             What was it like?


Jacopo                         Like too many things in the world,

not what it should be.

As I climbed the hills from the river, I lifted my gaze

to cloister walls on the cliff. They brought to mind

the miracles from Benedict’s hand, since this one

was ordered once according to his rule

and name. He built his own first monastery

on rocky heights, where the climb down to the lake,

the only water, was hard and perilous.

At last the monks implored him to remove

their walls from that height. But under the stars he climbed

the path and prayed all night on top of the mountains.

He placed three stones to show where he had knelt.

Today, a stream still flows from that mountaintop.

It has three sources, each beneath a rock.

It was in this ecstasy of thought

that I ascended – above, a hawk on the fresh wind,

soared, and I knew that that miracle was true.

But when I entered the gates– what parody!

Monks were wandering aimlessly, as in dreams,

each in a separate trance. No one saw me,

except for one, who wanted to sell me a page

torn out from an old illuminated book!

I wept. It was a mistake to go.

It’s time for dinner. Go. I’ll be late.





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