Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This page:



William Weaver


Holy Grail

index pages:


translated from the Italian by William Weaver

Copyright © 2000 RCS Libri S.p.A
English translation copyright © 2002 by Harcourt, Inc.

Baudolino explains to Niketas what he wrote as a boy
“...A wise ruler does not lend an ear only to his courtiers, but tries to understand how his subjects think, too.”



Niketas had long since learned that the Latins, though they were barbarians, were extremely complicated, hopeless when it came to fine points and subtleties if a theological question was at stake, but capable of splitting a hair four ways on matters of law. So for all the centuries that the Romei of Byzantium had devoted to fruitful discussions bent on defining the nature of Our Lord, while never questioning the power that still came directly from Constantinople, the Occidentals had left theology to the priests of Rome and had spent their time poisoning one another and trading hatchet blows to decide if there was still an emperor and who he was, achieving the admirable result of never having a genuine emperor again.

Baudolino talks with the emperor and falls in love with the empress
“The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things.”
Baudolino gives Frederick some wise advice
Numerous physicians, including some Arabs and some Jews, and therefore the best that a Christian emperor could offer a bishop, had tormented his now fragile body with countless leeches, but—for reasons that those pillars of wisdom were unable to explain—after almost all his blood had been extracted, he was worse than if they had left him with it.



“You must understand, Master Niketas,” Baudolino said, “The life of a boy can be marked by the confession of a dying teacher who can no longer distinguish between two truths.”
“In Paris you will study rhetoric and you will read the poets; rhetoric is the art of saying well that which may or may not be true, and it is the duty of poets to invent beautiful falsehoods.”



“Mind you, I am not asking you to bear witness to what you believe false, which would be a sin, but to testify falsely to what you believe true—which is a virtuous act because it compensates for the lack of proof of something that certainly exists or happened.”



Baudolino makes the Poet write love letters and poems to Beatrice
Like all those in love, Baudolino became vain, like all those in love, he wrote that he wanted to enjoy jealously with his beloved their shared secret, but at the same time he insisted that the whole world be informed of his joy, and be stunned by the immeasurable loving nature of the woman who loved him.



Baudolino in the Earthly Paradise
“There is nothing better than imagining other worlds,” he said, “to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”
Baudolino constructs a palace for Prester John

“You Christians do not understand that the sacred text is born from a Voice. The Lord, haqadoch baruch hu, that the Holy One, may his name always be blessed, when he speaks to his prophets, allows them to hear sounds, but does not show figures, as you people do, with your illuminated pages. The voice surely provokes images in the heart of the prophet, but these images are not immobile; they liquefy, change shape according to the melody of that voice, and if you want to reduce to images the voice of the Lord, blessed always be his name, you freeze that voice, as if it were fresh water turning to ice that no longer quenches thirst, but numbs the limbs in the chill of death.

“Canon Richard, to understand the spiritual meaning of each part of the Temple, would like to reconstruct it, as a master mason would do, and he will never succeed. Visions are like dreams, where things are transformed one into another, not like the images of your church, where things remain always the same.”



Baudolino writes the letter of Prester John
“The kingdom of Prester John must be a place where Christians succeed in keeping the divine commandments, while the pope has not managed to achieve anything similar with his children; indeed he himself lies, and worse than others. Anyway, insisting on the fact that nobody lies there, we make it self-evident that everything John says is true.”
Baudolino is deceived by Zosimos
“You have become my parchment, Master Niketas, on which I write many things that I had forgotten, as if my hand proceeded on its own. I think that one who tells stories must always have another to whom he tells them, and only thus can he tell them to himself.”




“Master Niketas, surely you know, since you were logothete of countless secrets, that when spies from opposing sides meet on the same field of intrigue, the most natural thing is for them to maintain relations of cordial friendship, each confiding his own secrets to the others. Thus they run no risk of stealing them from one another, and they look very clever to those who have sent them.”



Baudolino discovers that Prester John wrote to too many people
[...] in Paris they told me that if our mind is able to conceive of a thing that is greater than anything, surely that thing exists.”

Compare to:


Baudolino finds Zosimos again
“The fact is that a basileus can use his power to do good, but to hold on to his power he has to do evil. You too have lived at the side of a man of power, and you too have admitted that he could be noble and wrathful, cruel and concerned with the common good. The only way not to sin is to seek isolation on the top of a column as the sainted fathers did in the past, but by now those columns have fallen in ruins.”
Those who perform magic, it so happens, finally are persuaded that, even if they don’t believe in the devil, the devil surely believes in them.


The Devil


Baudolino on the Third Crusade

“You should know that in our markets, at first glance, you wouldn’t want to buy anything because they ask too much, and if you immediately pay what they ask, it’s not that they take you for fools, because they already know you are fools, but they are offended because the merchant’s joy is bargaining. So offer two coins when they ask ten, they’ll come down to seven, you offer three and they come down to five, you stick to three, until they give in, weeping and swearing they’ll end up homeless with all their family. At that point, go ahead and buy, but you should know that the object was worth one coin.”

“Then why should we buy?” the Poet asked.

“Because they also have a right to live, and three coins for what is worth one represents an honest trade. But I must give you another warning: not only do merchants have a right to live, but so do thieves, and since they can’t rob one another, they’ll try to rob you. If you prevent them, that’s your right; but if they succeed, you mustn’t complain. So I advise you to carry little money in your purse, just the amount you’ve decided to spend, and no more.”



Baudolino and the journey of the Magi

“Try it!”

“No, not I. I’m not a mechanic, I’m a philosopher, and I reach my conclusions on the basis of thought.”



Baudolino waits to leave for the kingdom of Prester John
“Faith makes things become true; my compatriots believed in a new city, one to inspire fear in a great emperor, and the city rose because they wanted to believe in it. The kingdom of the Priest is real because I and my companions have devoted two-thirds of our life to seeking it.”



Baudolino sees a lady with a unicorn

“You see, there are moments when perfection itself appears in a hand or in a face, in some nuance on the flank of a hill or on the sea’s surface, moments when your heart is paralyzed before the miracle of beauty....”



Baudolino meets Hypatia
[...] God has left shadows of truth in the depths of the heart of each of us, and it is a matter only of bringing them forth, to shine in the light of wisdom, as you free the pulp of a fruit from its skin.”
“We feel heat and cold, light and darkness, and all those things that are one contrary to the other. Sometimes we do not like the cold, and to us it seems bad compared to heat; but sometimes the heat is too great, and we want coolness. We are the ones who, confronted with opposites, believe, as our whim, our passion takes us, that one of them is good and the other evil. Now, in God opposites are reconciled and find reciprocal harmony. But when God begins to be emanated, he can no longer control the harmony of the opposites, and this is broken and they fight with one another.”



Baudolino stylites
They told him of their misfortunes, and Baudolino would answer, for example: “If you are proud, you are the devil. If you are sad, you are his son. And if you worry over a thousand things, you are his never-resting servant.”
Baudolino is no more
“Yes, I know, it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges.”



“It was a beautiful story. Too bad no one will find out about it.”

“You surely don’t believe you’re the only writer of stories in this world. Sooner or later, someone—a greater liar than Baudolino—will tell it.”



text checked (see note) Mar 2005

top of page

Graphics copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen