It was a dull day in the Where Peter Is offices and not much was happening, apart from the Church falling apart in the Last Days; but that was no longer a story and we had a page to fill for Friday. The Managing Editor walked in and threw a Dictionary of British-American English on the desk.
“One of our Patreon sponsors just bought that for us. It will save me time editing your British-English. Now you can see where we put z’s instead of s’s.” Mike turned the computer on. “There’s a new breaking story about Viganò from Roberto de Mattei. Can you do something with it?”
“I’m bored of the whole Viganò thing,” I replied. “It would have to be specially juicy to interest me; like, suppose Viganò’s rantings were all dreamt up by some speech-writer who got drummed out of SSPX and was regarded even by traddies as totally insane. Maybe—for added craziness—he was running a high-class agency specialising in gay weddings. Anything less simply wouldn’t interest me. I’d write it up as a parody chapter from an Umberto Eco novel. Call it Viganò’s Pendulum.”
“Good title,” said Mike. “Well, you’re in luck: that’s exactly the breaking story that Roberto de Mattei has broken.”
“Redundancy,” I interrupted. “You need to lose either the breaking or the broken from that sentence.”
“OK, and please write specializing in gay weddings with a ‘z’ please, not specialising.”
“Touché!” I thanked him for the dictionary. We looked at the new Roberto de Mattei revelations on the computer screen. There were several hot-links to a blog by someone using the name ‘Cesare Baronio.’ [Good name: very Umberto Eco.—Ed.] The Baronio blog had already been hastily deleted within minutes of de Mattei’s breaking story, but Mike found the cached pages for me. They were all in Italian. It went with the territory. I poured a whisky and checked to see if it was whiskey in the dictionary. Hang on: it was bourbon in Rick’s Bar, wasn’t it? Yes, I decided to call it bourbon and make the Casablanca reference my obligatory Umbertian nod to popular culture.
So, the basic story from Roberto de Mattei appeared in two parts: first a piece suggesting a difference in Viganò’s linguistic style in 2020-21 (referred to as Viganò II) compared with his style in 2018-19 (Viganò I). After de Mattei published this, Viganò fired off a contemptuous riposte the next day. Encouraged that he was hitting the target, Professor de Mattei wrote a second piece together with a co-writer Emmanuele Barbieri (good name), with a delightfully Umbertian emphasis on textual linguistics and semiology. (American-English correction: semiotics. It’s the same word in Italian and Umberto Eco was a semiotician.) The structural analysis of the Viganò I and Viganò II language compared with samples quoted from the ‘Cesare Baronio’ blog was striking. It all matched in vocabulary and tone. But then, so what? Viganò has a ghostwriter. Is that de Mattei’s ‘big story’?
The immediate disappearance of Baronio’s blog from the internet immediately after de Mattei’s report confirmed it was indeed becoming a bigger story. Maybe de Mattei and Barbieri were onto something and this was a way to flush out the villains? As a holder of a good graduate degree in linguistics, I explored the cached pages of the Baronio blog and there was clear evidence that Siffi had the identical speech and vocabulary rhythms and contemptuous tone that went with Vigano II. It doesn’t take an expert: everyone had commented Vigano II was different from the tone of Viganò I and many earlier supporters have already distanced themselves from him. All right, so a new ghost-writer came in from 2020… and so what?
I looked at the whisk(e)y but I didn’t feel like drinking any more, now it was called bourbon, so I went to make coffee in the dingy damp Where Peter Is kitchen. [Patreon supporters please note.—Ed.] I looked out the window. There was a dead bat on the windowsill. I put on my Covid-19 facemask and opened the window. The dead bat was lying on its back, wings spread out, like a playful medieval stonemason’s carving in the yellowy-grey (gray) limestone on an upper archivolt of Milan cathedral (or any cathedral really, but we do need a Milan reference in an Eco parody.) I wondered how a dead bat got there. If it was some kind of message, who sent it? Or maybe it just, you know, died, as a bat does in a nature article and not a conspiracy parody.
I scooped it away, off the windowsill and watched it twirling down—like an oversized Gothic sycamore seed—two stories to the pavement (sidewalk) below. It bounced and was almost immediately removed by a stray cat. I felt a passing chill of cold wind and I shuddered. Some unseen menacing force was lurking out there in the fading light and it was hard to discern if it was anthropogenic climate change or the Great Reset. I shut the window.
Back at the computer I continued exploring the de Mattei and Barbieri story. They had discovered more about the blogger ‘Cesare Baronio’ but they were vague on how they connected to the real person behind the pseudonym, Pietro Siffi. They gave no clue about their sources, so it was hard to check anything. After Viganò did his big celebrity grandstanding against Pope Francis in 2018, enquirers and supporters were directed to Siffi’s email address, so that was hard evidence, but of what? Siffi was helping Viganò run his post room (mailroom)? Are we surprised Siffi also had a radical traddy blog and he is at the same time in league with a schismatic archbishop? Hardly a surprising revelation. At this stage my mind was actually more focused on how a dead bat had got on the office windowsill.
I raised the coffee mug and tried to sip from it, but spilt (spilled) coffee over the keyboard. I checked the draft story and saw my mistake: I had not taken off my Covid-19 mask from two paragraphs earlier. Then I realised… realized that I hadn’t washed my hands and the bat might have been infected with virus. Maybe the evil poison bat had been put on the windowsill by the Illuminati or some Nazis from an SSPX safehouse sent by Steve Bannon to silence me before I could finish explaining the de Mattei exposé for Where Peter Is readers.
In the bathroom I saw myself in the mirror as I washed my hands. Did Viganò look in the mirror and see himself as Viganò I or as Viganò II? Why did I—or anyone—give a monkey’s uncle what Viganò thought? I cast my mind back to the 1980s and 1990s parish missions where we had none of this crazy nonsense, and we just got on with being the Church and following Pope John-Paul II, and watching communism collapse. We had neither Viganò nor Schneider nor Burke, nor the internet, nor social media. The parish office had an Amstrad computer connected to a printer, producing sticky labels to put on envelopes and mail them to the parishioners and the utility companies. That was the computer revolution back then. End of story.
This limited encroachment of digital technology in the life of the Church meant that the old-fashioned conservative guy in the front pew—who was old before his time—didn’t call the sacristan a “libtard” just because he forgot to light the high altar candles one Sunday. Now that whole world was gone and future grandchildren will sit down with their grandparents and ask, “What did you do in the Culture Wars, granddad?” Twitter veterans will smile and proudly explain how they trolled each other for years and kept the devil and secular culture at bay.
I snapped out of it. This assignment was getting to me. Back at the computer again, I continued with Roberto de Mattei’s file on Viganò’s supposed ‘double’ Pietro Siffi. He was born in 1969, his educational details were available; he had gone to seminary in France with SSPX but left very quickly—no reasons were offered—and soon he was in another seminary, but only for a short time once more, and de Mattei provides heavy innuendo, so we assume the worst. He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. I momentarily picture Pietro Siffi standing alone—maybe wearing a biretta—beside Foucault’s pendulum in the darkened hall of the museum of mechanical inventions, where he is silently stalked by an unseen assassin. Infected bats flit around in the high vaults above. Roberto de Mattei didn’t put any of that in his story, but it kind of belongs there somehow.
I focus on de Mattei again, and arrive at the juicy bit. Pietro Siffi now runs an exclusive wedding business—pietrosiffi.com—together with his business partner Fabio Zardi who arranges gay weddings. This seems to be the main revelation. De Mattei says “Archbishop Viganò has always rightly denounced the existence of gay lobbies.” The reader gasps with righteous indignation and duly notes this would amount to hypocrisy.
So, I wondered, is that it then? De Mattei has unmasked blogger ‘Baronio’ as Siffi, the voice of Viganò. This shadowy figure was once in seminary (well, OK twice), survived assassination in a museum in Paris (I think that was my contribution, so leave that out), and he is now arranging expensive floral displays and wedding bouquets at luxury locations in Italy and Greece. Sometimes these wedding bouquets are for people of the same sex; but presumably not if they suffer from hay-fever, a detail that Professor de Mattei fails to explore.
“Morons never do the wrong thing. They get their reasoning wrong. Like the fellow who says that all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, therefore cats bark… Morons will occasionally say something that’s right, but they say it for the wrong reason… A lunatic is easily recognized. He is a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his thesis; he has logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else.”—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
My original enthusiasm for de Mattei’s revelations was gone. There was nothing more here to see. I told Mike I’d get a story done on this but what was the story? Was this the best exposé that a brilliant traditionalist intellectual and philosopher of politics could come up with? There’s no honour in being a reactionary academic if you can’t successfully destroy the reputation of your own tribe’s most renowned schismatic archbishop, but this was not a knockout punch. So far, there was not a masonic plot in sight, and on closer inspection it seems only one gay wedding is cited. Even that could be an error: the people concerned may not have properly explored their relationship and not known they were the same sex? Should I do a snooping exercise on Google Advanced Search: Siffi and Zarda “gay weddings”? Has it really come to this? Who am I to judge?
An owl hooted outside. It was dark already. Should I have an early night and work on the story in the morning? I messaged the Managing Editor.
“Mike, I’m beginning to think there’s really nothing in this de Mattei Viganò story. It boils down to: Viganò has a guy who helps write his stuff and is also a flower-arranger. It’s just a huge construction of pointless linguistic acrobatics with a big hole in the middle.”
“I’m hearing huge and big there, Gareth. Good work, sounds great. We’ll run it on Friday.”
“OK I’ll see what I can do. So, the fact that there’s nothing in the story becomes our story? A sort of Where Peter Is end-of-term commentary on the absurd current state of things? A Roman summer night’s dream…”
“Oh, and one other thing, Mike. There was a dead bat on the kitchen window sill.”
“I know: I had Lafferty deal with it earlier. It’s gone. Speak later.”
I froze. It did not take a detective to see that a second dead bat had been deliberately put on the office windowsill after the first had been removed. Who were the people out there trying to poison Where Peter Is writers with SARS-Cov-2 infected bats? Viganò’s rabid mob? SSPX? The Catholic Women’s Guild? I closed down de Mattei’s web page.
Umberto Eco wrote Foucault’s Pendulum in the early years of digital technology, when a computer in a publishing house was simply a clever typewriter, a word processor. As a linguistics expert, Eco found something gloriously fiendish about random generation of ideas. It was a way to produce the ultimate conspiracy that encompassed everything.
There had been other influences: the revolutions of 1968 and the hippie culture, when conspiracy was a very left-wing hobby (as discussed not long ago by Mike and David on WPI’s The Critical Catholic.) The trilogy by O’Shea and Wilson, Illuminatus! gathered a cult following of left/liberal students in the 1970s with an anarchic web of all-encompassing conspiracy where an elite society had been secretly running the world since the very beginning of civilization. Nobody in those days could possibly believe such playful nonsense. Without social media it could never catch on as alternative reality. When Marshall McLuhan said ‘the medium is the message’ his electronic media were just radio and TV. In his day the DNA of the digital revolution—which would eventually enable vast conspiracies—was still a test-tube experiment being prepared for human consumption by technicians in white coats working in laboratories. One day the enhanced digital products would escape from the lab and infect the market nextdoor.
The real genius of Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is that he lived in a pre-microchip age but his characters already see the potential of the available primitive computing power (mere word-processors!) to generate a conspiracy so multi-faceted that it can become a deadly intellectual pandemic and engulf them all. In Eco’s story, what starts as a pastime conspiracy game gets completely out of hand when real conspiracists hear about it and believe it. The protagonists are caught up in a deadly battle of good versus evil when their deliberately crafted nonsense backfires. The key document at the centre of their conspiracy—with its supposed secret meaning that will unlock esoteric mysteries—turns out to be, in reality, an entirely mundane medieval laundry list.
De Mattei’s linguistic analysis of Viganò I and Viganò II invites us to regard a mystery of how a rebel prelate is saying something slightly different in 2021 than he was saying in 2018, and concluding that he has a different speech writer. Prompted by our sensational delight in 24/7 social media, we are easily drawn into gasps of amazement at the disappearing blog of ‘Cesare Baronio’, the gay weddings supposedly arranged by Pietro Siffi and his partner, and whatever SSPX connections may also be some small and distant part of the story.
Apart from that, all that we can tangibly observe here—in the real world—is that two significant players in reactionary Italian Catholic intellectual circles, de Mattei and Viganò, have fallen out and seek to destroy each other’s reputations. Fuelled by their voracious appetite for attention, they both want to draw us into their competing conspiracies. Meanwhile, real external and internal forces try to undermine our civilization and culture—including the Church which had such a central part in forming both—but the man on the Clapham omnibus is entirely distracted by the latest conspiracy nonsense on his smart phone. The show is not over until the Fool sings, and for Catholics the low end of that market is Viganò, now joined in combat with de Mattei.
It’s a dead cat. Or a dead bat. A distraction and we fall for it every time. Jacobo Belbo in Eco’s novel says, “Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation.”
“Good quote,” said Mike. “We’ll end with that. And great spelling work, Gareth. Who was it that quipped, ‘America and Britain: two countries divided by the same language?’”
“Dunno,” I replied. “Putin?”
Header image: The eponymous fool from the opera Rigoletto, illustrating the Opportune Inoportune blog page of ‘Cesare Baronio’ referenced by Professor Roberto de Mattei and now deleted from the Internet.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).