His Eminence Cardinal della Rovere, it is said, has an appreciation of the male form. The words are whispered, caged behind hands, but they travel; Rumour has always been fleet of foot, her eyes bright with malice as she dances from one ear to the next, and soon all of Rome knows it.
Most of Rome cares little. It is a city of sinfulness and depravity, and has been almost since its founding. Stranger vices are played out in its narrow alleyways; sins far more dangerous are enacted beneath its loggias and in the corners of shadowed squares.
Giuliano is aware of what is murmured about him, but unlike the polluting antics of the Borgia Pope, his admiration of male flesh is a pure and pious pursuit.
The Holy Father should be unblemished and beyond reproach. Giuliano acknowledges that this is impossible for a man, as it was once impossible for Caesar’s wife, but despite human fallibility and weakness, the Office of the Papacy should be more than an ideal.
It is surely worse to sin in word and deed than it is to sin in thought, for thoughts can be strangled at birth before they devolve into word and deed. Giuliano’s thoughts are chained, like Prometheus. They can do no harm where they reside, within his skull, within his heart. His thoughts, his sinful thoughts—they go no further. They cause no harm to others, nor to himself. His soul is not imperilled, and he need not confess.
It is enough to gaze upon male beauty. He does not need to praise it out loud. He does not need to touch it.
His admiration is based not upon filthy animal lust or the urge to copulate against the laws of nature, but upon the most perfect contemplation of the divine. The male form, stripped naked and with wounds still raw, is a cipher of the Living Christ. As He suffered, so do all men, and Giuliano—whose scarlet cardinal’s robes signify his blood, the blood he is willing to spill in defence of the Church—appreciates the reminder of suffering.
The male form, naked and beaten, is a worshipful thing. It is reminder of humanity at its most basic; it is a lesson even the dimmest and most recalcitrant of oblates could understand. The male form, revealed to the rude gaze of the people to be judged, limbs and torso glistening with sweat, striped red from the whip, the beauty of agony etched into the face, just as Pilate delivered Christ scourged and crowned with thorns, and offered Him to be crucified. Pilate said Ecce homo. Behold the man.
And that is what Giuliano does, but in private. Like St Theresa in her ecstasy, he communes with God through his appreciation of male flesh. His interest is theological, artistic, rooted in the wisdom of the ancients. When he seats himself beside the fire and a page kneels so Giuliano may place his feet in the boy’s lap, it is an exercise in humility for both of them. There is no sin in it.
When the assassin Micheletto presents himself half naked and with the marks of the lash still fresh upon his back, when Giuliano takes a cut lemon and squeezes its stinging juice upon healing wounds, it is a form of worship.
A reminder to Giuliano of his faith. Of his reason. Of his passion.