A historical and philological detective story: a search for the solution to the riddle of the world itself
De phoenix by Paul Claes is a historical detective story in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It takes place in Florence in 1494, and the leading character is one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance, Count Pico della Mirandola.
When his good friend, the poet Angelo Poliziano, whose poems inspired Botticelli to paint ‘Spring’, dies in mysterious circumstances, Pico suspects he has been murdered, with good reason. Poliziano was feuding with Piero de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence. The Dominican priest Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who at the time was preaching fire and brimstone in a Florence threatened by the French king Charles iii, who would eventually gain power over the city, plays a dubious role. In other words, there are more than enough political and other intrigues providing various people with a motive to get rid of Poliziano.
Nevertheless, this classic story line is not what is most important about De phoenix. In De satyr (1993) and De zoon van de panter (1996) Claes has already shown that he is above all a philological detective; someone enormously literate, who combines various classical texts in such a way as to give a completely different reading from the common one. De zoon van de panter, for example, can be read as an attempt to rewrite the New Testament. In De phoenix Pico considers that the ancient antithesis between Aristotle and Plato might eventually be reconciled. Reason and revelation, through reason alone, will ultimately produce a single truth. In a discourse which is as ingenious as it is complicated, Pico is compared to Christ, who is depicted as the phoenix, the mythical bird which rises from its own ashes. The cycle of birth, death and resurrection of the phoenix lasted 1,461 years, and by adding the 33 years of Christ’s life to this, we arrive at 1494, the year in which the book is set.
In a masterly manner Claes suggests that in Pico della Mirandola the old Christ dies and the new arises, that he is the Phoenix. He finds himself straddling two ages and incorporates both. His investigation into the death of his friend becomes an investigation into the passing of an age and a portrayal of mankind, and leads to the inevitable conclusion of his own death. In De phoenix Claes uses an ornate style in which the senses and reason, myth and philosophy, flow together. It has become a book in which the search for the solution to the mystery of the murder of Pico’s friend is a search for the solution of the riddle of the world itself.