Pietro Aretino was somewhat surprised to find a red- haired demon at his door that day in Venice in
1524. But not too surprised. Aretino made it a point never to be put out of countenance by anything.
He was a big man, his own red hair receding from his high brow. Thirty-two years old that month, he had spent all his adult life as a poet and playwright. His verses, which combined the utmost scurrility with an exquisite sense of rhyme, were recited and sung from one corner of Europe to the other.
Aretino 'was able to live well on the expensive presents that kings, noblemen, and prelates were forever forcing upon him to induce him to desist from attacking and mocking them. "Pray take this gold salver, good Aretino, and be so kind as to disinclude me in your latest broadside."
"Good evening to you, sir," Aretino said, keeping a respectful tone until he knew whom he was insulting.
"Have you some business with me? For I think I have not seen your race.
"We have not met before this," Azzie said. "Yet it seems to me that I know the Divine Aretino through the luscious sagacity of his verses, in which a sound moral point is never far behind the laughter."
"It is good of you to say so, sir," said Aretino. "But many hold that there is no moral content whatsoever to my lines."
"They are deceived," Azzie said. "To scoff at the pretensions of mankind, as you unerringly do, dear master, TS to point up the excellencies of that which the churchmen are usually all too willing to dismiss."
"You speak out boldly, sir, in favor of those deeds that men consider evil."
"Yet men perform the Seven Deadly Sins with an alacrity they do not display in their high-minded quests for the good. Even Sloth is entered into with a greater alacrity than accompanies the pursuits of piety."
"Sir," said Aretino, "your viewpoint is my viewpoint. But let us not remain here on the doorstep, gossiping like a pair of old crones. Come into my house, and let me pour you a glass of a fine wine I recently brought back from Tuscany."
Aretino led Azzie inside. His house, or rather his palazzo, was small though luxurious. The floors were carpeted with thick-piled rugs sent by the Doge himself; tall waxen tapers burned in bronze candelabra, and the flames sent streaks of light down the cream-colored walls.
Aretino led the way to a low-ceilinged sitting room decorated with rugs and wall hangings. A charcoal brazier took oil the wintry chill that still hung in the air. He gestured to Azzie to make himself comfortable and poured him a glass of sparkling red wine from the crystal decanter that stood on a little inlaid table nearby.
"Now then, sir," said Aretino, after they had toasted each other's health, "tell me how I may be of service to you.
"Say rather," said Azzie, "that I wish to be of service to you, since you are the preeminent poet and satirist in Europe and I am but a simple patron of the arts who wishes to set forth an artistic enterprise."
"What exactly did you have in mind, sir?" Aretino asked.
"I would like to produce a play."
"What an excellent idea!" cried Aretino. "I have several that might suit your purposes very nicely. Allow me to fetch the manuscripts."
Azzie held up a hand. "Although I have no doubt as to the supreme perfection of everything you have written, my dear Aretino, something already written will not do. I would like to be involved in a new enterprise, a piece that would make use of a particular conception of mine."
"Of course," Aretino said, for he was familiar with men who wished to produce works of art, coming up themselves with the conception but leaving the dull work of the actual writing to someone else. "And what, sir, do you propose for the theme?"
"These are the usual sorts of moral propositions," Aretino said. "Do you wish to confute them?"
"Indeed I do," Azzie said. "Even though they are the very stuff of everyday folk wisdom, some of us know that matters do not always come out this way. My play would prove the contrary to what is generally maintained by the mumble-mouthed do-gooders. In my play, the Seven Deadly Sins will be shown as the true path to a fine life, or in any event, as no impediment to it. In brief, my dear Aretino, I wish to produce an immorality play."
"What a noble conception!" cried Aretino. "Oh, I applaud you, sir, for your great notion that single-handedly attempts to oppose the centuries of mealymouthed propaganda with which men have tried to convince themselves to do the conventional thing no matter how they opposed it. But let me point out, sir, that it will be difficult to mount such a production without bringing down upon our heads the hypocritical wrath of Church and State. And besides, where will we find a cast? Or a stage that isn't claimed by the Church?"
"In the play I want to produce," said Azzie, "I do not contemplate such a formal procedure as actors, stage, and audience. The play will unfold naturally; we will give our actors a general sense of the situation, and let them work out the lines and action for themselves, in a free-form and unpremeditated manner."
"But how would you have your play prove its moral unless you foreplan the outcome?"
"I have a few thoughts on that," Azzie said, "which I will share with you when we are in agreement on the project. Let me just say that the machinery of worldly cause and effect is something I can manipulate to good advantage to get the results I desire."
"It would take a supernatural being to make such a statement," said Aretino.
"Listen to me closely," Azzie said.
"I listen," said Aretino, somewhat taken aback by Azzie's suddenly commanding manner.
"I am Azzie Elbub, a demon of noble lineage, at your service, Aretino," Azzie said, making a negligent gesture with one hand, at the end of which blue sparks of lightning flashed.
Aretino's eyes opened wide. "Black magic!"
"I avail myself of these infernal stage effects," said Azzie, "so that you might know at once with whom you are dealing."
Drawing his fingers together, Azzie produced a large emerald, then another, and another. He turned out six of them and lay them side to side on the little table where the wine stood. Then he made a pass over them, and the emeralds shuddered and collapsed into a single large stone, the largest emerald the world had ever known.
"Amazing!" said Aretino.
"Amazing!" said Aretino again. "Can such a trick be taught?"
"Only to another demon." said Azzie. "But there is a lot I can do for you, Aretino. Come into this enterprise with me and not only will you be paid beyond your wildest dreams, but also you will receive a tenfold increase in your already sizable fame because you will be the author of a play that will set forth a new legend upon this old Earth. With a little luck, it will presage the beginning of an age of candor such as the hypocritical old globe has not yet seen."
Azzie's eyes flashed fire as he spoke—he wasn't one to stint his effects when trying to make a point.
Aretino stumbled back at this display. He tripped over a footstool and would have fallen heavily had not Azzie reached out a long lean arm covered in fine red hair and restored the surprised poet to his balance.
"I can't tell you how flattered I am," Aretino said, "that you would come to me for this supreme production. I am entirely in accord with your wishes, my dear Lord Azzie, but the matter isn't quite so simple. I would not give you less than the best. Give me a week's time, my lord, in which I may consider the matter, and meditate, and consult the ancient stories and legends I have heard. The entire basis for this play of yours, however it is mounted, must be a story. It is the search for that story to which I'll devote myself. Shall we say until next week at this same time?"
"That is most excellently said," Azzie said. "I am glad you are not jumping into this matter lightly. Yes, take a week."
With that, Azzie made a gesture and vanished.