(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When a lady in black asks Cardinal Salviati, “Who are you?” he replies not with a straight answer but with a story. The cardinal’s mother, Benedetta, was married at fifteen to Prince Pompilio, a nobleman of forty-five. She bore him a son, as expected, but the boy was weak and physically deformed. Pompilio then took his young wife to the country, following the advice that she would benefit from being away from the temptations of city life. In their country villa Princess Benedetta matured and experienced a discovery of self. She transformed from a traditionally submissive wife to a woman of self-awareness. Her change grew out of her love for singing, which surpassed even her prior love for literature. In singing she found a language all her own.

The climax of her self-transformation occurred during a trip to Venice to see Pietro Trapassi Metastasio’s opera Achilles in Scyros (1736), whose music awakened her entire sense of identity. Within a few hours, every particle of her nature underwent a change, and she triumphantly became her whole self. Her awakening was realized in her spiritual communion with the castrato Marelli when their momentary gaze into each other’s eyes united them, bestowing manhood on him and imparting passion to her—a mentally virginal woman. Afterward, Benedetta was impregnated by her husband, but she knew the spiritual father of her child to be the castrato.

Benedetta and her husband...

(The entire section is 508 words.)