The Day Laid on the Altar

A Novel

Awarded the 1999 Bakeless Fiction Prize






“Spare, elegant, passionate, and brilliant, The Day Laid on the Altar, like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, drops us deftly into the heart of another time and place.  Throughout the 16th century, in Venice, Florence and a mountain village in the Apennines, the struggle to make art and life and wonder of the bleakness, plague, and hunger, streams through characters ranging from an unlettered, visionary shepherd to the painter Titian, his family, and his servants.  Adria Bernardi inhabits with equal grace the hearts and minds of men and women, knaves and saints, and artists and beggars, and in the process has made a novel as moving and precisely detailed as any of the paintings she so beautifully describes.”
— Andrea Barrett

“This book enters you as you enter it.  You feel you are being shaped somehow as you read.  You are the grain on the threshing floor.”
— Martha Faketty, Third Coast

“Bernardi’s language is magical, lyrical and unbelievably economical.  She handles great detail without ever weighing down the reader because the details are purposeful.  Her spare style is mesmerizing and reveals her insights about human beings all the more powerfully with its light, direct touch.” 
— Marilyn Wade-Jordan, Nashville Tennessean


from The Day Laid on the Altar


            When he exhales, his breath is visible in the faltering light.  Below, to his left, in the valley, a bell pounds five times, a hollow knocking toll.  He pauses and looks.  In Ardonlà, minute lights begin to flicker; the river has already disappeared in the dark.  The mountain peak and ridges are looming hunchbacked beasts.
            He whistles, a sharp, cranium-piercing whistle, and Diana the goat trots up beside him and follows.  He is a tall, gangly man, all limbs and neck.  He approaches the stable, leans a shoulder into the door, loosening it, lowering his head as he passes underneath the lintel.
            Inside, he lights one candle and set is high on a shelf, out of the way, so that it will not be accidentally toppled.  A tunic falls to just above his knees; it is a plush material, a purple so deep it is almost black.
            Diana the goat settles into a corner and is sleeping like a patient dog.



            Titian sits with his back to the sea.  Most days, he sits at the head of the table, facing the lagoon, but today he does not want to be distracted.  He has already lost precious time to a fleck of red on the distant cape of a passenger floating by, yanked back in time unexpectedly, unwillingly.  He was so young then.  He painted the fresco in just three days, a Saint Christopher in the ducal palace, but, oh, how he had lost sleep over the color of that cloak.  The foreigners threatening the city from every direction, the French, the Turks, but Venezia reigned supreme and she would be protected by Christopher, patron saint of wayfarers, protector from daily harm.  Saint Christopher, who hoisted that plump, robust Christ child upon his shoulder and ferried him across the lagoon.  But that cloak, that billowing cloak had given him a headache, throbbing, throbbing, it could not be too triumphant a red, or too muted.  The color would not meld properly with the still-wet plaster.  Redder than russet, browner than garnet.  Wasn’t there a hint of crimson?  He stared at the paint, then wall, then paint, a stand-off, until he coaxed out sinoper.



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