Today I will take you to a journey into the start of the christian world, into the life of Saint Augustus, in the 3rd and 4th century. I will talk about “Vita Brevis”, a book written by Jostein Gaarder, first published in 1996. The book presents in 164 pages a letter addressed to Saint Augustus by his lover Floria Aemilia. It is a revision of love, filosphy, towards what can be happening when you don’t follow your dreams.
The action revolves aroud the question “Have you ever been to Rome?” which Augustus asks Floria during their time spent together. The question repetes various times during the novel in the memoirs of Floria, becoming a burden of the book.
The story shows the unacomplished love between a woman and a seculer who became a priest. Many references are being made to biblical and mithologycal characters. They themselves were seing each other as Dido and Enea. In the story, Enea left Dido for going to Rome, which caused Dido to commit suicide. Floria didn’t commit suicide but she affirmes that she is like dead because she doesn’t feel anything.
In the course of the book, a parallel is made between past and future. The past ends when Floria and Augustus cross the Arno bridge and he smells her hair (which is a refference to the fact that Augustus now considers that any smell or small pleasure of life like admiring nature is considered a sin) which makes room for the future which starts when they meet again after the death of their son and he beats her terribly, furious that she stopped his way to salvation. His anger is actually directed towards Eva, the mother of all women and, implicitly, towards any woman. Floria presents this moment as an attempt to his permanent castration for getting rid of the temptation. She affirms that she doesn’t believe in the god he adors because she can’t believe in a god that saves a soul with the price of another one, her’s. The love between the two of them was first shaded by a mother wanting some other destiny for her son and then by a baptise as a bishop which led to his marriage with divinity. As I said before, various mithological and biblical characters or events are higlighted like Icar or the construction of the Babel tower. The book is a filosophical reflection of the love that transcends beyond time and space but which gets lost in the darkness of theology.
“Many unanswered questions remain. Did Floria sent the letter to Augustus? Or did she want to send it and lost her courage? The letter seems to say that.Floria writes that she is afraid of what clerical might do to a women like her.
As some footnotes indicate, I am almost convinced that the letter was sent to the bishop Hippo Regius. A possiblity would be that the letter had a life more or less hidden along the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Even if many copies were made, it might have not been known by many. And, of course, the original parchment might have remained hidden – intentional or not-, until it appeard, unexpectadly, in the XIth century. But what happened afterwards?
Maybe my copy after <<Codex Floriae>> remained in the library of some monastery until it was found, recently, and sold to the small antique store in Buenos Aires. The owner said he was protecting his clients. Even a priest- or a nun- might have had an urgent need of money.
Regarding handling the letter, I can see another possiblity. If Augustin didn’t receive it, maybe the old parchment was found by the arabs while they were invading the north of Africa, in the VIIth century. The arabs took it in Spain, where it was kept many centuries, after which it was discovered and taken in South America by the Spanish conquistadors.
Does the old parchment still exist?
I am more interested by another question. How did Augustus reacted to the letter of his former lover? What did he do to it? Did he contact Floria? It is unlikely to ever find out if Augustus received the letter from Floria, although, just a few years ago a unique letter written by Augustus was found (Peter Brown, The body and Society, Columbia Press, N.Y., 1988, p.397).
On the other hand, I was incredibly naive that I haven’t asked at least a receipt confirmation from the library of Vatican” – Jostein Gaarder, Oslo, 8th of August 1996.