Suddenly the Duke pushed his chair back from the table and lurched to his feet. His face had drained of colour. The sun was not hot this late in the year, but here, outside in the woods, the cool, bright light caught beads of sweat upon His Highness’ forehead. As the Duke straightened up unsteadily, Cardinal Ferdinand put out a solicitous hand to offer support. Irritably the Duke brushed the proffered arm aside, and the loose sleeve of the Cardinal’s jacket knocked over the Duke’s beaker of wine. A red stain spread rapidly over the white linen table-cloth.

Galileo watched the Duke walk away towards the nearest clump of trees… A minute or so later the Duke re-emerged from the bushes adjusting his dress and strode more briskly back to the Family table. He grabbed his beaker, which had been promptly righted and refilled, and poured the contents down his throat in one long gurgling draught. He turned abruptly and embraced his surprised brother the Cardinal, who had again risen from his seat upon the Duke’s return. For a moment they swayed together like tired wrestlers, before the Duke released his hold and, turning to the other side, stooped to gently kiss his Duchess Bianca upon the mouth. Straightening up again, he seemed to be struck by some sudden thought or remembered duty. His hand reached out towards the table but faltered in mid-air, and he crumpled in a heap upon the ground.

The scene put Galileo much in mind of one of those old-fashioned frescoes of ‘The Last Supper’ – especially if you allowed yourself to imagine that Our Lord, after one-too-many toasts of blood-heavy red wine, had slid off his chair and disappeared under the table. All the guests at the Duke’s high table were frozen in strange poses of surprise and dismay, the Cardinal still half out of his seat, staring open-mouthed at Francesco’s empty place. The similarity to ‘The Last Supper’ was more than merely pictorial: the Duke might well have just announced that ‘One of you that eateth with me has betrayed me.’

front cover of Galileo's Revenge

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