Silvio Bedini was in Spain once, poking about in archives containing papers of the late C. Columbus, and these were thought so valuable that when the late Samuel Eliot Morison went there to see them, he had one awful time, and never did get very far.
But Bedini, who was then deputy director of the National Museum of History and Technology here, did something or said something and first thing you know everything was flung open to his inspection.
"Well, now what exactly did you say to the librarian there?" somebody asked Bedini.
His lips are sealed.
Once somebody asked me to describe the man:
"He goes about prying things loose," I said, and that's the way I still think of it.
The Columbus things -- his letters to Ferdinand and Isabella, his patent to the title of Admiral of the Ocean Seas, the great map showing Isabella what she was getting in the way of new empire for her investment in Columbus' expedition -- even the beautiful wrought-iron pulpit from the church where it was announced his returning ship had been sighted -- all these priceless mementos were shown at the museum here.
Then there were the Leonardo anatomical drawings, mysteriously turned up, and amazingly let loose for a History and Technology showing, again with the fine hand of Bedini in the pot.
Then some months ago Bedini was poking about the Vatican.
He wound up in obscure tunnels that should not have existed, and the Lord only knows what will come of his Italian expedition. It is known that he has turned up the burial site of a famous pet elephant of one of the popes.
For my part, I would not be surprised if either the stuffed elephant or the Bernini baldachin or perhaps the dome of the basilica turned up at the museum before long.
There is, of course, that priceless collection of books that Bedini helped acquire for the Smithsonian, when other repositories seemed far likelier. And I suppose everybody knows the Bedini books on early American thinkers and tinkers, and his book on the moon (with W. Von Braun and F. Whipple), and he is going to do a book about the pope's elephant, after all, and on Thos. Jefferson.
Sometimes Bedini keeps things to himself. Down in the museum vaults he had "the shed skin of the serpent of the Garden of Eden," but in this skeptical age the museum never displayed it.
"When are you going to let me see the serpent from the Garden of Eden?" I used to ask him.
"The shed skin of the serpent?" he used to say with surprise on his face. "Why, I never knew you were interested in that. Any day. Just come on by any day and I'll show it to you."
But over the years I've never managed to see this rarity, which I think has documents attesting its authenticity -- probably as good as most historical documents. After all, if we cannot be absolutely certain about the Kennedy assassination, yet manage to live with our modicums of doubt, I don't see why we should have any special problems with the shed skin of the reptile of Eve.
So I was not really surprised when somebody at the museum told me: "Silvio has written another book."
"Which one? The one about the pope's elephant or the one about Jefferson?"
"Neither," said the informer. "He explains where dominoes come from."
"You mean we didn't know where dominoes come from and need to?" I inquired.
So I let it drop. Even though my wife and I in fact play dominoes. And then one day I saw the book.
"The Spotted Stones," it is called. It tells how two Italian monks on their way to a shrine far distant from their monastery were thrown into a dungeon because they might be spies.
They assumed they would be questioned and then perhaps shot because in those far-off days justice was not everywhere rampant and triumphant.But nobody questioned them because everybody forgot they had been imprisoned in the first place, and as the days wore on they almost went stir crazy.
Then the skinny monk took to digging pebbles out of the earthen floor and, after some thought and no doubt guidance, devised the great game of dominoes, and the prince (whose dungeon it was) learned to play and the monks went on with their pilgrimage.
So now we know where dominoes come from.
Bedini does not say so, but I personally believe they picked up the serpent's skin at the shrine they visited and that the name of one of them was probably Bedini. But I carry speculation no farther.
The illustrations, I could not help noticing, are flawless (drawn by Richard Erdoes) but of course graphics experts never constrict themselves in any way or pay any special attention to the text, so you will find a dandy picture of the "earthen floor" of the dungeon neatly paved with stone slabs.
Words have always been pretty much at the mercy of the doodle-and-mud-pie folk who provide stunning designs to contradict the text.
There is hardly a reporter alive who has not, on some very rare occasion, allowed himself the liberty of referring to some woman as a great beauty, only to find the piece illustrated with a picture of a dromedary up close.
The book, needless to say, is utterly trifling and can be read in a few minutes and almost every page has a picture. Books should have more pictures.
Whether or not they are faithful to the "earthen floor."
I have never been able to believe people read novels. They buy them and give them to people in hospitals and jails.
If the reading time is more than 18 minutes, then I say it better be by Stendhal who, alas, is not writing any more.
Of course we have all met people who actually read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow, etc., and it keeps them off the streets.
But what many readers require is books of knowledge. I have sometimes wondered where mothballs come from, fascinating conglobulations of uncommon essences. And I know a fellow much burdened with administrative yokes who occasionally bursts forth when he ponders Nature: "Where do frogs come from? Tell, me, sir, where do frogs come from?"
And he gets mad if you tell him.
What is needed is a series of authoritative books by somebody like Bedini on, say, "Contra Lepidoptera" or "The Warted Messengers."
Other than that we don't need any more books. Too damn many as it is. If God had meant for there to be additional novels, He never would have given us Cervantes first. CAPTION: Picture, Silvio Bedini, Keeper of the Rare Books of the Smithsonian Institution, left, and an illustration from his book, "The Spotted Stones," right. Photo by William Smith; Illustration by Richard Erdoes Copyright (c) , 1978 Pantheon Books phto by william Smith; mustration by Richard Erdoes