The Bravo: A Tale (1831)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 12-19.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] Set in Venice in the early eighteenth century, the novel is a fictional treatment of the corrupting influences of power and wealth on all forms of government, even a republic. Exposition, ranging from the fading glory of the city's past to the gossip of the day, is provided in the conversation of two old friends, Gino Monaldi, a gondolier, and Stefano Milano, captain of La Bella Sorrentina, a felucca that has just docked. (Besides its commercial ventures, the vessel also carries out secret missions for the Venetian senate.) Almost all of the dramatis personae are introduced in this first chapter through the dialogue of these two men. Their discussion ends when Gino is called by his employer, Don Camillo Monforte, Duke of Sant' Agata.

[2] Gino and his assistant gondolier, Giorgio, row Don Camillo to his palace. There the duke directs Gino to deliver a packet, just after sundown, to one Jacopo, giving Gino his own signet ring with which to identify himself to this person. The gondolier is reluctant to undertake this mission, saying that to be seen with Jacopo, the bravo, would ruin his reputation. Jacopo is known to be an underworld agent of the Venetian nobility in their machinations to circumvent the vaunted democratic processes of government in the island republic. En route to his meeting with the notorious brave, Gino stops at the home of his sweetheart, Annina, daughter of a wine seller, in order to disguise himself in his carnival clothes and mask. [3] When Annina, detecting his nervousness, insists on accompanying him, Gino pretends that his purpose is to visit Stefano Milano, whose ship, he tells the girl, contains rare wines which she may wish to buy for her father's shop.

Leaving Annina to bargain with Stefano, Gino slips away and approaches the Bridge of Sighs, where he hands the Duke's signet ring to someone he mistakes in the dark for Jacopo. It is the ne'er-do-well son of Senator Gradenigo, Giacomo, who flees with the ring. Subsequently Gino meets Jacopo himself and manages, even without the ring, to persuade Jacopo that he is a servant of the duke. Much to his chagrin, Gino discovers that Annina has returned from La Bella Sorrentina and witnessed his interview with the bravo.

[4] While such a concern complicates the love plot of these menial characters, political forces threaten to affect an affair of the heart in which the orphaned heiress Violetta Tiepolo may become involved. Because of her wealth, with its economic implications for the state, Violetta is not at liberty to choose a mate. In behalf of security of the state, the government will determine whom she may and may not marry. A rigorously enforced law prohibits anyone of the patrician class from holding property or title outside Venice. Just as this law will control Violetta's future love life -- she is presently an ingénue of sixteen -- so it strongly influences the position of Don Camillo Monforte, a young Neapolitan duke, who has recently saved Violetta from drowning when her gondola was run down by a larger vessel. In ancient times his family had had a senate seat in Venice. When the family had inherited extensive estates in Calabria, a younger son (the ancestor of Don Camillo) was sent, with government approval, to possess and administer these properties. While the Calabrian branch of the family had thriven, the older branch had gone out of existence, and now Don Camillo, heir of both branches, seeks reinstatement of the Monforte senatorial rank. To achieve this end, however, the duke must, according to Venetian law, renounce claim to all his southern seigniorities.

[5] Accompanied by Donna Florinda, her governess and chaperon, Violetta calls upon her state-appointed guardian, Senator Alessandro Gradenigo. Besides paying her respects to her aged counselor, Violetta has come to request his influence in behalf of Don Camillo, to whom she feels indebted for having saved her life. Gracious and affable until he hears her request, the crafty old senator quickly changes roles to that of the suspicious and hedging politician. After warning her against involvement in such affairs of state, he promises her, falsely, to consider the matter. His duplicity becomes apparent almost immediately. After Violetta leaves, he warns his dissolute son, Giacomo, that he now has a rival for the hand of Violetta in the person of Don Camillo. Giacomo replies that he has effectively eliminated this rival by filing an anonymous accusation against the stranger, an accusation to which the court will give credence because it was accompanied by Don Camillo's own signet ring. The senator's uneasiness at hearing this is caused not by the falseness and injustice of the charge but by the possibility that Giacomo's treachery may somehow be exposed. Soon after his son departs, the senator is visited by his foster brother, Antonio Vecchio, a poor, ragged, but proud old fisherman. Refusing the money offered to him, Antonio requests a favor of the senator: his help in securing the release of the fisherman's fourteen-year-old grandson from his servitude as a galley slave in a Venetian warship. Antonio has lost all five of his sons, the father of this boy having been killed in the continuing wars with the Turks. Although Antonio makes his request with dignity, his problem is obviously deserving of sympathy. Gradenigo's lack of compassion and his refusal of assistance are measures of the man's moral values.

[6] Yet further dimensions of the senator's character are revealed in his continuing interviews of the evening, the next with a disguised figure who, unmasked, is recognized as Jacopo. The bravo, an undercover agent for the government, warns Gradenigo that Giacomo is borrowing money at high interest rates from Jewish brokers. Declaring that he will attend to this problem himself, the senator orders Jacopo to warn Antonio against making remarks critical of the state; Jacopo is also to promote among the common people discussion of the state's recent demonstration of justice in awarding reparations to a Genoese wronged by a Venetian. The bravo departs, and Don Camillo enters the senator's chamber. Having contacts in the Vatican and in other states, the duke is used by the Venetian nobility to further their interests abroad. Gradenigo advises him that securing for the republic better relations with Spain will be Don Camillo's best means of influencing the senate to restore the Monforte position in Venice. Some time later comes the last visitor of the night, Hosea, a Jewish jeweler and financier. Gradenigo advises Hosea to warn the Jewish moneylenders against charging unreasonably high interest rates to young patricians lest the senate take action against such usury. The senator then rewards Hosea with a hundred sequins for identifying the purchaser of an amatory signet, the information being useful in some way in the intrigues of state.

[7] Although the senator now retires, his agent Jacopo works on into the night. Finding Antonio near the doge's palace, he cautions the old man against his outspoken criticism of the state. Unmoved by this warning, the fisherman declares that he will sleep there on the pavement in order to intercept the doge early on the morrow and plead his case against the state before its highest official. Antonio also appeals to Jacopo, the son of an old comrade in arms, to renounce his role as informer and assassin for the senate. Remaining masked and using the alias Roderigo, Jacopo next confers with Stefano Milano about some secret work which the Calabrian captain is to carry out for the senate.

[8] All of Venice turns out on the following day to watch the festivities of the annual regatta. As the doge leaves his palace for the colorful event, he listens to Antonio's petition and seems sympathetic until he understands the exact nature of the old man's case; at that point his compassion fades and he dismisses the fisherman peremptorily. After the traditional marriage of Venice to the Adriatic -- the doge casts a precious ring into the sea and pronounces the nuptial service -- the gondola races along the Grand Canal begin. [9] In the most important event, one open to all contenders, Venetian and foreign, Jacopo places second, deliberately allowing Antonio to come in first; Gino finishes third. [10] The three winners are brought before the doge, who rides in a splendid galley, surrounded by Venetian officials and the diplomatic corps, to receive their awards. Although Gino accepts the third prize, a miniature boat, Antonio refuses to take the first prize, a golden oar, and Jacopo declines the silver oar which is the second prize. Both request that their reward be the liberation of Antonio's grandson from galley duty.

The assembled aristocrats reject this request as a mark of disloyalty to the state. They are even more alarmed, though they carefully conceal their feelings from public view, when a large body of fishermen rallies around the ragged old Antonio and calls for the restoration of his grandson. Although the fishermen are afterwards permitted to return to their homes in the Lagunes, at the conclusion of the regatta, their ranks are infiltrated by gondolas of the secret police, among whom is Annina.

[11] That night Jacopo meets Antonio by appointment, disguises him appropriately, and conducts him to the presence of the secret, dreaded, and most powerful executive arm of the government, the Council of Three, of which Senator Gradenigo is a member. (Minor responsibilities are delegated by the senate to its council of three hundred; heavier responsibilities fall upon its Council of Ten; the most crucial matters are decided upon by the Council of Three, whose power and authority exceed those of the doge himself.) Both the Council members and their subordinates are masked. [12] After Antonio is questioned about his supposedly disrespectful efforts that day to have his grandson released, he makes his final bid to please the tribunal: he presents them with the valuable ring with which the doge had wedded the city to the Adriatic. Marking with a small buoy the spot in the bay where the ceremony had been conducted, he had returned and recovered the jeweled ring. Finding the Council unmoved either by the Vecchio family sacrifices for the state or by his own well-earned claims to special consideration, Antonio at last speaks bluntly of the injustice he suffers. Bound to secrecy about his appearance before the Council, the old man is dismissed to await their verdict. [13] In their subsequent deliberation a decision is made on Antonio's case, but the reader, like the Venetian public, is not to be informed about it until later. Among the other actions of the Council are the removal of Violetta Tiepolo's guardianship from Senator Gradenigo and a decision to place Violetta herself in a convent for better security. (These decisions had been made before Gradenigo had joined his colleagues.) Both actions may have been prompted by the anonymous accusation made against Don Camillo warning that the Neapolitan duke intended to abduct the heiress.

[14] This same evening Don Camillo serenades Violetta beneath her balcony, later enters her palace, and proposes to her in the presence of Florinda and Father Anselmo, the Carmelite monk who is the girl's spiritual adviser. Violetta pledges that if she is not permitted to marry the duke, she will spend the rest of her life in a convent. This scene is interrupted by a state messenger who announces to Violetta that she has been removed from the supervision of Senator Gradenigo, and that her new guardian will soon be determined. Don Camillo is hidden in a chapel of the palace by Father Anselmo during this intrusion of the senate's agent. As he leaves the Tiepolo palace, the messenger requires the monk to accompany him.

[15] The Carmelite is taken in a state gondola to the gondola of Antonio, who is fishing by moonlight for a meal to appease his hunger, where he is told to shrive the old man. Although alone now, the old man had been visited by Jacopo, who had offered him fine food; the fisherman had refused it because it had, he said, been bought with blood. After hearing Antonio's confession and blessing him, Father Anselmo declares to the state agent that an error was made, that the criminal they sought must have escaped. As the large boat moves away, however, one of its crew ties to it the little gondola of Antonio. The sudden and unexpected movement tumbles the old man into the bay, where he drowns before the returning Jacopo can rescue him.

[16] So shocked is Father Anselmo by the assassination of Antonio that he agrees to flee, if that is possible, with Don Camillo, Violetta, and Florinda to the duke's Calabrian castle. Another official courier arrives at the Tiepolo palace to inform Violetta that she is to be removed from her family home temporarily -- no mention of a convent is made -- and that her only servant henceforth will be Annina, whom he has brought to begin her duties. After Annina and the courier leave the room, the four refugees hastily prepare to depart. What Don Camillo mistakes for the boat he ordered is a state-owned duplicate of the vessel. After his group is aboard the large gondola, Don Camillo is seized and thrown ashore by two gondoliers. Violetta, Florinda, Father Anselmo, and Annina (who jumps aboard) are whisked away before Don Camillo can take action. His own large gondola, commanded by Gino, pulls up to the palace water gate seconds too late. [17] Unable to discover the whereabouts of Violetta, Don Camillo, in deep melancholy, walks among the tombs in the Jewish cemetery where he comes upon the equally melancholy Jacopo. The now proscribed bravo and the duke, formerly hostile toward each other, exchange accounts of their grievances against the corrupt state of Venice and become friends.

[18-19] On the following day Jacopo, disguised, calls at the infamous dungeon opposite the doge's palace. There he is admitted by his sweetheart, Gelsomina, who, though the jailer's daughter, is a simple and innocent girl. She has no knowledge of Jacopo's occupation, and she knows him only as Carlo. She is Jacopo's means of visiting his father, Ricardo Frontoni, long a political prisoner there. It is obvious to Jacopo during this visit that his father is near death, close to the liberation which the senate cannot prevent.

[20] Leaving the prison at dusk, Jacopo meets Don Camillo briefly and then proceeds to La Bella Sorrentina, where he learns from Stefano that the ship is that night to transfer from Venice a lady of high estate. Back on land again, he encounters Hosea, who, mistaking him for Giacomo Gradenigo, also informs him of the senate's plan to move Violetta that night to some destination in Dalmatia. After Jacopo leaves, Giacomo himself approaches Hosea in haste to borrow a thousand sequins. His urgent need for money is soon explained: he has his own plan to abduct Violetta that night.

[21] Gino calls upon Annina and tells her of a nearby gondola laden with rare wine smuggled into Venice from Calabria. Although she is in great haste, and although she declares that her friendship with Gino is at an end, Annina cannot resist the opportunity to buy duty-free wine for her father's shop. When she steps into the canopied gondola, however, Annina finds herself the prisoner of Don Camillo, who demands that she disclose the present whereabouts of Violetta. Their conversation is interrupted by a mob of fishermen come to protest the murder of Antonio. [22] Sweeping past Don Camillo's gondola on their way to the doge's palace, they intercept and capture a state boat. Aboard are no officials against whom they can take vengeance but only Violetta, Florinda, and Father Anselmo, none of whom they know. Taking the boat in tow and having the Carmelite chant prayers over the corpse, they proceed on their way. Following the instructions of the Council of Three, the doge listens to the fishermen's complaints and their demand for justice. He denies the state's responsibility for Antonio's death. Senator Soranzo, a young patrician in the official party, suggests that Jacopo, whom Antonio surpassed in the regatta, may have killed the old man for revenge. Erroneous and ironic as this suggestion is, it strikes the fishermen as plausible, and a roar goes up for the death of the bravo. The frightened patricians can now afford to be generous, and continuous prayers throughout the night are ordered for Antonio as he lies in honor in the Cathedral of St. Mark.

[23] During the riot the state gondola, still bearing Violetta and Florinda, is neglected, and the two women make their escape. Gelsomina, seeing their distress, gives them temporary sanctuary in the prison. [24] The jailer's daughter then agrees to bear a message to Don Camillo, but she is intercepted at the duke's palace by Annina, who persuades her simple cousin that Don Camillo is a rake and Violetta a strumpet. The gullible and confused girl does not, therefore, give the message to the duke when he appears and asks her mission. When Jacopo, posing as a gondolier, rows Gelsomina and Annina from the duke's palace, he learns from his sweetheart, sotto voce, that Violetta and Florinda are at her quarters.

[25] Jacopo rows first to La Bella Sorrentina. Having served as the senate's contact man (using the name Roderigo) with her captain, Stefano Milano, Jacopo finds it easy to give orders that Annina be held aboard as part of the ship's secret cargo for the night. He then rows Gelsomina to the prison from which he takes Violetta and Florinda, whom he also delivers to the felucca. En route to pick up Don Camillo, he is stopped by Giacomo and Hosea, who hire him to assassinate the duke. Inasmuch as he is proscribed now, Jacopo agrees to undertake this bloody job lest he be exposed by Giacomo. Once free of his would-be employers, Jacopo locates Don Camillo and rushes him to La Bella Sorrentina, now ready to sail. The ship has already been cleared by the police for departure (supposedly to carry Violetta to a Dalmatian convent), and thus its leaving is unhampered. Jacopo accompanies the ship until it reaches the open waters of the Adriatic and then, over their strong protests, bids his friends farewell and rows his gondola back to Venice.

[26] On the following day Jacopo visits his father, whose condition is deteriorating rapidly. In attempting to leave the prison he is trapped on the Bridge of Sighs and taken into custody. It is then that Gelsomina learns that her beloved Carlo is the feared and detested bravo, Jacopo Frontoni. [27-28]] His case is brought before the Council of Three and before a larger, more representative group of senators. Although penalties are given to Giacomo Gradenigo and Hosea for their attempt to have Don Camillo assassinated, no formal decision is reached concerning the bravo. The two older members of the Council of Three, however, distrusting the judgment of Paolo Soranzo, the humane and still idealistic patrician who replaced Alessandro Gradenigo on that tribunal, secretly order the execution of Jacopo the following morning. During a recess in the hearings, Jacopo has been permitted to visit his father during the old man's dying moments.

[29] To Jacopo's own cell is now sent Father Anselmo to hear his last confession. Both the Carmelite and Gelsomina are surprised to learn that Jacopo has never committed any of the murders attributed to his hand. Using threats to torture his imprisoned father, the senate had forced him to accept the blame for all the murders committed by the secret police; even the privilege of visiting his parent has been made conditional upon his assuming the reputation of an assassin. His greatest sin has been his serving as messenger for the state in its nefarious activities.

[30] Father Anselmo and Gelsomina go directly to the doge's palace and insist on an audience with the prince, but before he listens to their plea, the aged figurehead of power invites a nearby member of the Council of Three to audit the interview. The monk and Jacopo's betrothed explain so persuasively the injustices suffered by the Frontoni family that the doge, moved to tears, promises a further hearing on the matter. Gelsomina and Father Anselmo leave with confidence that there will be a stay of execution. [31] Even as Jacopo is led to the block the next morning, they expect a last-minute reprieve to be signaled by the doge, but at the prescribed moment the axe glitters in the air and the head of Jacopo rolls on the pavement. Gelsomina loses her mind at the horrible spectacle, and the Carmelite is stunned into immobility. He is led by a friend to the outskirts of Venice and started on a journey to the Papal State. He eventually becomes a member of the household of Don Camillo, Duke of Sant' Agata.

Father Ferdinand Anselmo, Bartolomeo, Father Battista, Enrico, Senator Enrico, Florinda, Jacopo Frontoni, Ricardo Frontoni, Gelsomina, Giorgio, Giulio, Senator Alessandro Gradenigo, Giacomo Gradenigo, Hosea, Olivia Mentoni, Captain Stefano Milano, Gino Monaldi, Duke Don Camillo Monforte, Pietro, Giulietta Soranzo, Senator Paolo Soranzo, Violetta Tiepolo, Annina Torti, Giuseppe Torti, Tommaso Torti, Antonio Vecchio.