The heart of Peter Innocent Bon, cardinal prefect of the Congregation of the Propaganda, was filled with happiness that was almost childlike in its simplicity. After thirty years, he was to see his native Venice once more, for brilliant, vain Pius VI, about to visit its lagoons and golden palaces, had named the aged cardinal a member of his suite. Peter Innocent, in 1782, was in the eighty-first year of his life. A shy, mild man, he seldom appeared in the rich vestments of his office, but went inconspicuously about Rome in the gray-brown garb of the Franciscan Friars Minor, a robe suited to the humility of a follower of St. Francis.
Only one small regret marred Peter Innocent’s pleasure as he viewed again the city of his youth. Pius was traveling in state, and he and many of his suite were accompanied by their nephews. Peter Innocent had no nephews; his brother had fathered only daughters and his sisters were in holy orders. Seeing the satisfaction that other churchmen found in the company of their young kinsmen, he wished that he too might have enjoyed such comfort in his old age. Prayers, fasting, and pilgrimages to holy shrines, however, had given him no nephew of his own, and the thought of parenthood would have been as foreign to the chastity of his mind as to that of his body.
During the Venetian visit, Pius treated Peter Innocent with particular graciousness and asked him to represent the pontiff at the singing of a new cantata at the Incurabili. Listening to the music, the cardinal felt that its subject, the return of Tobias, was appropriate to his own situation.
As he left the Incurabili, a hand touched his shoulder. He turned to find Alvise Luna, the famous glassblower of Murano, at his elbow. Luna, whom the cardinal had known in earlier days, complained that he had fallen upon evil times. Willing to help his old friend and not knowing that the man was under suspicion as a sorcerer, Peter Innocent went with him to his cellar workshop. There he met a masked stranger whom Luna introduced as M. de Chastelneuf, Chevalier de Langeist. Peter Innocent was amazed when the men displayed their miraculous wares, a flying golden griffin, a glass stag that walked, and glass birds that sang. When they asked if they might execute a commission for some bauble he had in mind, Peter Innocent reached a sudden decision. He asked modestly if they could make him a nephew such as he had always desired.
At Luna’s warning glance, Chastelneuf repressed the smile and the ribald comment that rose to his lips. Solemnly he assured the cardinal that such a work of art was difficult but not impossible. If he would return in three days, he could see for himself the result of their labors.
Peter Innocent went to Luna’s cellar three nights later. In a chamber scented with spices and incense, Chastelneuf brought to life a figure of Venetian glass...
(The entire section is 1179 words.)