Novelists ask: Did pope finance the Protestant invasion of England by King Billy?

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On the streets of Rome the centuries stand still. Everything seems to have been here for ever, the tightly twisting cobbled lanes, the high tenements, the gorgeous piazzas, the baroque churches; yet nothing has ever been as it appears, and intrigue succeeds intrigue down the hidden passages of the centuries, the hand of power fleetingly discerned behind the arras of history.

Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti are living out this uniquely Roman déjà vu. Historical novelists who happen to be married to each other, they write in tandem, and Imprimatur, their first novel and the book that made their name and fortune, is set in Rome in 1683 and is an exploration of this world of labyrinthine intrigue.

An inn in the city has been put under quarantine, the doors barricaded with the guests inside, because one has died and the city has a terror of the plague.

Coffined up in the lodging house with our narrator, an orphaned kitchen boy with ambitions to become a "gazzeteer", are an odd assortment of guests: Atto Melani, an abbot and acclaimed castrato singer, a rough-mannered Englishman, a fugitive Venetian glassblower, an insinuating French guitarist, a garrulous surgeon, a voluptuous courtesan. As the narrator's choleric patron, the inn-keeper Pellegrino, falls ill with a fever, and the talk turns to poison, readers find themselves sharing the paranoiac and claustrophobic lives of late-17th century Roman plague suspects – until the Machiavellian Abbot Atto, who is in the pay of Louis XIV, finds a subterranean passage of escape.

The story turns on the enmity between the pope of the time, Innocent XI, and Louis XIV of France; and on the fact – Monaldi and Sorti insist that they have established beyond doubt that it is a fact – that Innocent XI bankrolled the invasion of England by William of Orange; leading to the downfall of James II and the (Catholic) Stuarts, the triumph of the Protestants, and the end of Catholicism as a force in English politics.

That is the hinge of the story; and 320 years later – because Rome is the eternal city, and the powers that control it are eternal – it became the hinge of the lives and careers of these novelists, too.

Because their claim that Innocent XI, Benedetto Odescalchi before he was enthroned, financed the Protestant invasion of England is a sensational claim, and one the Church cannot accommodate, even today.

For the Catholic Church, Innocent has always been one of the great popes, for his commitment to cleaning up the Church in Europe but, in particular, for throwing enough money and political energy into the defence of Vienna to repel the Turkish siege of 1683 and save Europe from the scourge of Islam. The idea that this saintly figure was somehow involved in the triumph of King Billy and the crushing of papism in Britain, would be ridiculous and offensive if it were not – as Monaldi and Sorti insist, producing stacks of ancient volumes, some full of ciphers, to prove their case – nothing but the naked truth.

Today Monaldi & Sorti are successful across the continent – Imprimatur is published in Britain on 15 May – yet almost completely unknown in their native land. That is not an oversight on the part of the Italian book trade. Monaldi and Sorti have been blackballed by Italian publishing and journalism, apparently on the informal but irresistible orders of the Catholic Church.

Stated that baldly, it seems improbable. The Church has not ruled beyond the Vatican walls since 1870. Italy is a mature democracy. Pope Innocent XI lived from 1611 to 1689. How can one talk of bans, of papal censorship?

To explain why exposing the financial transactions of a pope who has been dead more than 300 years should activate the most effective machinery of censorship in the Western world requires that we go back a bit....

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