Birth of Venus
A flower does not choose its colour; its beauty is the desire of others.
Where does a Victorian-era man seek nocturnal pleasure; beneath a bridge in Florence, or in the paintings of a lost Master like Botticelli? Perhaps such men are lured by the temptation of both pleasures.
Alexander discovers Gianna in the reflection of lamplights off the River Arno. She offers him unlimited access to his two most guilty pleasures. Seduced by her heritage he allows nature to take its course, sampling the physical before being drawn by her art collection. He discovers a painting by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. It is hypnotic, and more the narcotic than Gianna. An obsession in the viewing as it was in the painting.
The Nation became the beneficiary of Alexander Barker’s Botticelli, while the painter bequeathed the world his Venus. Who was she… Simonetta Vespucci or the ideal Florentine Queen of beauty, as trumpeted by Giuliano de Medici? Were Botticelli’s paintings the ultimate betrayal of obsession, or can one man really love a single woman until the day he dies?
Book II of the Renaissance Series
The peal of the bells in Giotto’s Campanile tolled midday somewhere beyond the din of Stazione di Santa Maria Novella. Two back-packers consulted the section on Florence in their Let’s Go Europe guide, both perplexed, yet in decidedly different moods.
“It’s lunchtime, it’s thirty degrees already and we’ve been on that bloody train for hours.”
“But Gracie, we’re in Florence. You know, Room with a View, the statue of me, and ice-cream.”
“I have my whole world on my back, I’m tired and we’re lost!”
“We’re not lost, we’re in…”
“And where are we staying?”
“In one of the pensiones in the back of the book.”
“How’re we going to find it without a map?”
“We borrow one, from those two fellow Aussies.”
Gracie waddled about under the weight of her pack and discovered two women of similar age grappling with a fold-out map labelled Greater Florence. Their accents were indeed Australian and her companion had already made tentative steps towards them. With a sigh she followed him.
“Looking for a place to stay?” The introduction was clumsy, but the familiar accent drew a smile. “I’m nugget and the turtle behind me is Gracie.”
“Karen and Rebecca. Where you from then?”
“Melbourne, via London.”
The four laughed at the coincidence as Nugget continued. “Of all the places in all the world, bloody Aussies everywhere...” His pause had been dictated by Gracie’s gentle nudge in the ribs, “right, back to business. You’ve got a map and we’ve got a list of pensiones, care to share?”
Map held up against the façade of the train station and guidebook in hand, the four traced out a route through the streets of Florence to the nearest of the recommended accommodation houses. With a shared nod they shuffled off, down the street and around the corner. En route the travellers discovered they were all graduates of the same university, although each had studied different disciplines a year apart. The chances were astronomical, as were the possibilities of finding a room here in mid-July. Ten minutes later they were greeted by a squat Italian woman, dressed entirely in black, and the news proved disappointing.
“I only have the one room, but I can setup an extra bed.”
“But Nugget… it’s our honeymoon.”
“And now he has three women. Is Australia so lucky that women multiply for a married man?” The landlady’s joke produced a single smile and three frowns, yet the grin burgeoning at the corner of her mouth showed she was not fazed. “My room has the beautiful view. Come, I show you. How many nights will you stay?”
Gracie’s answer satisfied the woman. “Then the third night is the honeymoon and I will have a room just for the two of you. One with a very strong bed.” With a wink she hitched up her dress and pulled herself upstairs by the flimsiest of handrails.
The room came with three beds, a hand basin and a shared bathroom, set in the hall. A general groan of dissatisfaction was ignored by the landlady as she stumbled through the dimly lit room to the window. She threw open the shutters. Her grand gesture met by a grander view and gasps all around.
The old woman nodded, pleased with her temptation, and Gracie’s immaculate Italian.
“We’ll take it.”
“I will have my daughter bring up the spare bed.”
Nugget tested the fold out cot when it arrived, prepared to take the fall for the heat and his manic itinerary. He had met Americans who managed Europe in four weeks, with no time to rest, even to the point of sleeping on trains between major cities. His plan had promised seven countries in six months, but Gracie had still managed to grow home sick. Fortunately, the view was everything, and his three companions devoured it; silhouettes, shadows of Florentines past, flanking the window. It framed the bluest of skies above a crenulation of red-tiled rooves; its centrepiece, the great dome of the Florence Cathedral, but not quite as it had appeared in the movie.
Gracie was beside herself.
Nugget handed her an object wrapped in cloth, the reason they had chosen to stop in Florence en route to Rome. Recognition of the object from home swept away the tears brought on by heat and exhaustion. She removed the cloth, revealing a fractured piece of wood, worm-riddled and delicate. The object drew Karen immediately, but it was the sigh Gracie shed over it that grabbed Rebecca’s attention as well.
“OK, this I have to know about. Why are you pining over a cruddy old piece of wood? The view I can understand, the heat and the tears makes sense, but this?”
“It’s a family heirloom, passed down for generations.” Gracie paused to reflect on generations and their passing whispers. “It’s probably an old wives’ tale. You know how they get exaggerated over the years, especially by us superstitious Italians. Nugget tells it better, though. He’s all poetic and lyrical when it comes to stories. Why don’t you tell them while we enjoy the view?”
Nugget nestled himself into Gracie’s bed, knees up to his chin and arms around his legs. He knew exactly where to start, yet he waited, just long enough for their companions to be hooked. Before he began his tale they settled at his feet, focussed on him instead of the awe inspiring view.
“Imagine it is Florence in the 1850’s…”
The peal of the bells in Giotto’s Campanile tolled the end of another day. Alexander Barker cowered beneath the northern arch of Ponte Vecchio, the lamplights reflecting ripples off the Arno onto the underbelly of the ancient bridge. The Englishman felt an oncoming swoon as he was lost in Impressionist swirls, an arm about his waist preventing him from toppling like so many Italian city states.
“A reflection of the Gorgon’s piss.”
Alexander’s Italian was rudimentary at best. He questioned his new companion’s words with a look not lost in the reflected light of the Arno.
“Would the Signore prefer English?” He nodded. “A weak man swoons in the reflection of the Gorgon’s eyes.”
“I thought that’s what you said. One can be easily mesmerised by these subterranean Florentine hues.”
The woman smiled, but her mouth did not spread with warmth. This meeting reflected the nature of her life, an appointment of sorts, with money bound to change hands. They both understood her situation. She prowled the banks of the Arno for clientele on certain nights, usually beneath a full moon, when the tide was low. They paid her for services rendered – of a pleasurable kind – variably mounted horizontally, yet often vertically.
“Does the Signore have a name or does he reserve this for his wife?”
“I have no wife.”
“Most men would prefer the guilt of the secret to the guilt of not passing on his family name.”
“Then I will pass the name to you; Barker, Alexander Barker.”
He held out his hand. The woman rested her gloved fingers in his and curtseyed. Alexander bowed, the formality surreal, yet neither felt uncomfortable with the ritual.
“You may call me Signorina Muratore, or Gianna, if the formality tightens your arse cheeks. If you follow me I will loosen more than that.”
Gianna traversed the low tide shale as a child would the beach at Brighton while searching out the comfort of a wave on a warm summer’s day. Alexander stumbled after her, the desperation in his steps a misnomer.
A lone horse clattered across Ponte Vecchio, its shops teetering three storeys over either edge, the Arno rushing beneath in fear of an imminent collapse from above. Gianna made no sound beyond the sweep of her dress on the pavement, its bustle in tune to the swivel of her hips, accented to allure even the feeblest of men. Her short, hour-glass form distracted the Englishman from the frayed edges of her dress, cut low to please and pulled in tight at each curve to tease.
Alexander had a Renaissance painting in mind as she led him into a narrow lane, a scene with her lounging on a settee, all curves beneath a diaphanous gown. Modern figures were so manufactured by corsets and lace, with neck to knee shrouds befitting of a corpse.
Gianna melted into the shadows, but the rustle of her dress led him along, stumbling into the staircase that shook beneath her weight. He climbed after her, age no burden with the desire she had aroused, his tailored suit as tight in every joint as the top hat constricting the bulging veins at his temples.
She would make him earn his pleasure this night.
The stairs led to a crooked doorway, an impossible orifice, yet it had opened for her and it closed behind him. The room beyond, lit by a single candle, slowly came to life as Gianna dipped the flame onto a dozen wicks. Alexander felt as if he were in a Rembrandt room. There was no Renaissance light here, but she had provided the settee of his dreams, laying herself across it, dress hitched and legs apart.
“What is your desire, Signore Barker? What had you in mind to fondle?” Gianna ran her fingers up her thigh, the nails flickered with candlelight, their sheen her most polished aspect, distracting from the ragged lace they revealed. “Perhaps you would prefer the flaking paints of my collection to the foundation on my face?”
Alexander salivated at the twin prospects as his eyes became accustomed to the lighting, the flames of the candles accentuated by a comely fire that burst into life with the drop of a single candle. It crackled, as if mocking him, yet its flames warmed his face and spread a desire to disrobe as the mistress of the house did. She was untying the lace at her bosom with those nails; blood red and no doubt expert at scraping down a man’s back.
He removed his hat and hung it on the hat stand, each hook a carved gargoyle spitting accusations. His overcoat hid another torment as Gianna arched her back, those nails high up between her thighs. Alexander’s desire overwhelmed the search that had led him to Signorina Muratore, the ancient settee creaking in time with her hips, his study in Orpheus and the underworld all too brief, age catching up with the Englishman. He threw himself back on the arm of the settee in despair. She did not laugh as he expected, she passed him a pipe, the opiates within more satisfying.
Alexander dangled his head back over the arm of the settee, his wasted form draped in Gianna’s direction. Her nails searched out quivers in the flesh on his legs, while her eyes, wild with the effect she’d had on him, undressed his motivation.
“You do not seem a man searching out subterranean pleasures, more a man in search of Florence’s hidden treasures.”
He sucked on the pipe offered, the candles floating about the room and multiplying in his eyes, her nails bloodied daggers slashing at his morality.
“I was led to believe you embodied both.”
“Look around you, Signore Barker. I do not disappoint my customers. If they do not know their desires, I will discover one to satisfy them.”
Alexander focussed beyond the shimmering candlelight, the fire as light as its mistress’s banter, the flames dancing on walls cracked with resin and tempera. He sat up, his enthusiasm palpable. The recognition of his mistake struck him in an instant, and he relaxed back into the settee, allowing his eyes to manage the walking at a more casual pace.
“Don’t be shy with your appreciation of my artistic wonders, Signore. You were not so shy with my earthly wonders. Allow your eyes to feast as they have already this night. For me, this is just another transaction. The more you enjoy the view and the flesh on offer, the more you will spend.”
He stood, slowly, his exertions and Gianna’s opiates sapping the steadiness from his legs. She smiled, content to please herself, the walls about her flickering with the pleasure in his eyes. Alexander pulled up his trousers, walking as he applied the customary braces, the walls calling him, demanding respect.
The paint here peeled with neglect, but the panels and canvasses leaning against the walls showed more care. Beyond the first painting in each pile, the subsequent works of art had been draped with cloth. The layers revealed a collection beyond the depth of his own, and beyond his furtive imagination. He had searched through decrepit Renaissance and Mediaeval piles on many journeys to Florence, yet it seemed copious research and palm plying were no substitute for fornication.
“Where did you...?”
“Not every man can afford to pay me in cash, and many have built up quite delicate debts they would not want their wives to account.”
Faces and forms hidden from the world beyond Florence for centuries stared out at Alexander. Some hands were obvious, others lost to time if no signature had been tucked away in an obscure corner. Cupids and centaurs peeked out beyond dozens of Madonnas, many with child. He searched his mind for the words of Giorgio Vasari, cataloguing each painting to its period, while slotting some into the more fraudulent pre-Victorian age.
He stood after examining each pile and crouched before the next, unwilling to crawl in eagerness. She understood the saliva at the corner of his mouth and had she been the beauty of a decade before, men of his age would have preferred her to virgins, painted or actual. These paintings bore a truth; beauty bred greed, and Englishmen along with their Germanic cousins were insatiable.
“The paintings are stacked in order of expense, from front to back and right to left. And do not dare to doubt my appraisals, Signore Barker. Unlike my Roman cousins I do know the difference, and your saliva becomes more and more expensive.”
Alexander stood once more, but did not crouch at the pile of paintings to his left, hidden partly behind Gianna’s settee. Hands in pockets he turned to her, their understanding almost complete.
“Is it more expensive to approach you from behind?”
“And the paintings you conceal there?”
“Like a night with seventy-two virgins.”
“Thankfully I’m a Protestant. I prefer my pleasure in hand. God can mete out his punishment on his own time.”
“I have always preferred a man honest in his blasphemy, not shouting out the Lord’s name as if a night with me was a second coming.”
Gianna’s smile appeared genuine for the first time as she stood. She straightened her dress and dragged the settee away from the wall. A name leapt into Alexander’s throat like an exclamation, Botticelli, yet he managed to keep it to himself. She read the letters in his eagerness as he tugged excitedly at carpets of sideburns, which rolled out along his jaw in anticipation.
The reclining Venus with the strawberry-blonde locks and the diaphanous dress quizzed him as she lounged on a red cushion. Surrounded by three putti, tempting him to love her, the winged infant’s task had been managed with a single glance. This had to be from the hand of the forgotten master.
“Would you like to buy?”
“There are so many, it’s difficult to choose.”
“Yet you have gazed longer on that one, and crouched lower, without seeking what lies beyond.”
Alexander righted himself. Her accusation catching in his aging knees, and he stumbled backwards into the rear of the settee. Gianna leant over the couch, hanging a candle over to light the Englishman’s misfortune, highlighting the Botticelli in the process. He did not continue his study of the painting; his eyes were fixed on another vision.
“Where did you get this settee?”
“Are we still discussing art or have I your eyes all wrong?”
Gianna knew her men as well as she understood the art that surrounded her. Alexander’s eyes had not sought out her overhanging, unbodiced breasts; they had discovered another marvel, the beauty of Venus, and one with features he had spied at the Uffizi Gallery the day before. He took the candle, careful not to spill the wax, and lowered its light to the rear panel of the settee. The Venus here radiated beauty, unlike the panel he had stumbled from a moment before. Her companion was a slumbering male, near naked, and perfection in muscular form. The angelic pair was accompanied by four naked cherubs, quite like the previous Botticelli, but these were satyrs, sporting horns and devilishly playful grins.
Alexander recognised Botticelli’s hand, even if the name did not take a strangle hold on his throat. If he were less than a gentleman he would strike out at the wench. No one had seen them in mixed company. Her treasures, unrecognized, would be his and preserved for posterity. The dilemma was fleeting, a solution arriving on the lips of the prostitute.
“I am a very fine cook, Signore Barker.”
He had no doubt. His penchant for pasta and all its usual garnishes had ruled the nights spent in Florence since his first visit. Access to her local knowledge beyond the city’s borders was a mouth-watering prospect.
“I only ask passage and a comfortable bed of my own.”
Gianna’s fading beauty would be reflected in these masterpieces if they continued in these conditions. He raised the candle to the paintings across the room, the mould on the walls creeping toward the unprotected canvass and wood panels, suckling on the paint and dust, searching for fresher pastures beyond Madonnas and cupids.
“I would trade a new life for everything in this room.”
“Would you trade yourself?”
“No, Signore! Only my cooking.”
“Stand up, Signorina.”
“Will you inspect me in this light, where I have no age, my modest looks hidden among these paintings, a face in the imaginations of masters? Will you not wait until morning, or do you fear the fingers you will need to count up my years?”
“Stand up, woman! I will have you, but not on this couch.”
She stood as he had ordered, but made sure her spit dripped from his forehead and down his cheek as he rounded on her. Alexander pushed her away from the settee. Gianna raised her fist. He ignored the prostitute’s defence and aimed a kick in her direction; he missed, collecting the inside of the settee’s leg instead. His next blow collected an arm, and the seat of the settee dropped to the floor. A final kick to the opposite arm ripped the settee apart.
Gianna’s shoulders slumped like Michelangelo’s skin in the Sistine Chapel, her body held aloft by an invisible hand of fate. She had sold herself to a mad man and she dropped to the floor; the floorboards as gnarled and weathered as she felt. The Englishman ignored her plight, picked up a severed settee leg and used it to pry off the cushioned back.
“There… now that is something I can carry to England. If you are to accompany me to my home, I will require the additional space on the journey.”
“But you ruined my settee, my only furniture. It is bed and seat, trade and relaxation.”
“I destroyed the object that ruined your virtue, Gianna. I hereby set you free with one final payment.” Alexander tugged out a wallet, stuffed with a variety of Italian money, from the Lombardy-Venetian pound, to the Tuscan fiorino, and the Papal States scudo. “What is your pleasure?”
Gianna closed her hands around the wallet. “Put this away. If I am free of my former life, then I need no payment from you. You will buy my passage to England?”
“And I will have my own room and a kitchen to create pleasure for your tongue?” Alexander nodded. “Then these things are payment enough. Call your man.”
“How do you know I have a man?”
“All Englishmen have a man and a collection. Is this where you begin yours?”
“Some of these paintings will be lost in my collection, such is its extent, but they will no longer be lost to time. The others will make my collection a wonder in London, so deprived of Italian artists from so long ago. Help me with the panel on the back of this settee, and then we can find this collection a proper home.”
They took an end each, Gianna at the head of Venus, Alexander cradling Mars, and freed the painting from the remnants of its extraneous frame. Setting it down against a wall, the painting blossomed in the full light of the candlelit room. The Englishman scratched at his sideburn, his eyes skipping from one Botticelli to the other, a single word summed up both; sublime.
Gianna began clearing away the rubble beyond Venus and Mars, throwing the splinters on the fire. Alexander, ever the gentleman at heart, despite his meandering into a more Neo-Platonist world tonight, picked up the remains of the cushioned backing. A scrap of parchment fluttered from the wreckage, a Botticelli butterfly in his mind. It settled on the floor at Gianna’s feet.
“Another scrap for the fire, Signore?”
“No!” Alexander dropped his piece of the settee. “Don’t burn that, and open it with care.”
She unfolded the parchment, eyes on the Englishman, curious he showed more concern for this scrap than the family treasure which housed it. The letters she revealed did not enhance her opinion. “This is gibberish. A child’s hand.”
“Show me.” Alexander had crossed the room without her noticing. He stood at her shoulder, hand out and quivering. She scrunched the parchment in his hand and continued cleaning. The lodgings might be decrepit, but they were immaculate, just like her fingernails. The paintings had been protected with a similar amount of love. Gianna’s neatness and care with her hoard had convinced him to take her on. Gianna was wily. She did not have much, yet she highlighted the best and masked the rest.
Alexander concentrated on the Latin inscription he discovered scrawled over the parchment. It gave the Englishman an idea. He suspected his host lacked formal education, so he devised a test, a beginning to her learning while under his wing. He folded the note carefully and pointed to the Venus that had been framed by the settee.
“Tell me, Signorina Muratore, what do you think of her?”
“She is beautiful.”
“I cannot tell you such a thing.”
“Try. Compare the two; Venus alone with her cherubs to this one conquering Mars.”
Gianna curled her fingers about the edge of her dress, eyes flitting from the paintings to the ruin of her settee. Alexander took her face in his hands and directed it toward the painting with a single word, “Focus.”
“Her skin, it is perfect, no?” Alexander shrugged, and she continued with little assurance. “She does not smile, because she does not have to. The Venus knows her own beauty. I do not have to describe it.”
“A fanabla!” Hands on hips, Gianna paced. She had never been made to think. Her job was to make the man think... of her, or her paintings, and nothing else. “She has a flowing dress, of lace, and she is surrounded by angelic cherubs. Angels will only go to the beautiful and the worthy.”
“Is this what you think of me then?” Gianna’s foundation cracked between her eyebrows as she frowned. Alexander kissed the spot and laughed. “You surround me with many angels of the Renaissance and your good self. Am I not then beautiful and worthy according to your description?”
“You play games with me, Signore. Your heart is as a cold as a witch’s teat. Who are you to talk of beauty?”
“I am just like any man. Love is a mystery, beauty in my eyes different to the vision in the eyes of another man. Games are easier and can teach us many things, as can the writings of a child.” He held up the parchment. “Your opinion of Venus is not a like, it is an appraisal, a cold hard appraisal. I think you would fit in well at my club in London, if I were to furnish you with a smoking jacket and a cigar. I have seen such men postulating about masterpieces such as this; leaning on their sticks and their breeding. You cannot appraise beauty, my good woman. It must touch you here.” He reached out to Gianna’s breast, yet despite the earlier pleasures Alexander thought better of his action, placing the hand over his own heart.
“A prostitute has no time for love, Signore.”
“We all have time for love, if we make time. We have both let it pass us by. After fifty years, all I have are my paintings and my money. If I bought you the time, what would you love?”
“You think too much about love. Men think too much about love. A woman has to survive if she does not find a man to keep her. If she does find a man, she has to survive child birth and then manage the children. Women have no time to think about such things as love and fulfilment; existence devours our time.”
Alexander’s hand shook as he waved the parchment in her face. “Yet your words come from the heart. You should use such words in deference to the paintings you hoard here in the darkness. I am not the only one who has obsessed about fulfilment and failed despite my success.”
He read Gianna the words of a child to seal a most unlikely partnership. It was a note from the painter, so long forgotten; as Alexander assumed he would be...
The vestige of angels drew me nigh
Once but a beauteous visage in a crowd
Enveloped by a din that did but surround
A peaceful vision, a visceral sigh
You took my hand and led me here
Breathless steps within Saint Mary of the Flower
Your love ne’er spoken, not by minute or hour
My brush left dangling o’er your lips, quivering with fear
Should I leap from the ramparts of the dome?
Will the flight bestow on me peace?
A winged companion, deceased, whose face my torture construes
Shines like the stars in my eyes to lead me home
And whispers in the wind, “Sandro, I linger for your ease.
Come lay with me in these subterranean Florentine hues.”
Nugget opened his eyes, the poem recited from memory. The animation of his facial features highlighting the depths the words had mined within. The great dome of Florence stood proud yet sad in its neglect, the tale more enthralling on this particular afternoon. Rebecca sat mouth ajar at the foot of the bed, eager to discover more.
“So who is this Botticelli bloke?”
“Um, The Birth of Venus, the painting at the Uffizi.”
“Oh right… but who is he quoting, who’s calling for him to lay with her?”
“That would be Simonetta.”
The three women’s questions ceased their ears greedy for more of this tale. They had forgotten their room with a view, and were now captivated by a tale of unrequited love blown in on a fickle Tuscan breeze...
“Have you ever painted a goddess, Sandro?”
A blasphemous question such as this could only be uttered by a wealthy man, and a Medici at that. Sandro Botticelli considered himself an artisan. He was the master of his own workshop, but in reality he provided a brush for hire, an instrument usually ordered to paint the Madonna in various guises.
Giuliano de’ Medici populated another class, the minority elite who controlled Florentine trade, art, the Church, and organized tournaments only family members could win. He typified the man of his age; a dashing mop of black curls set up high on his forehead, a bold aquiline nose, and a commanding chin that ruled from above.
“Botticelli, are you there? Are you picturing her already?”
“Yes, of course, Signore Medici. She is in my head as you speak. My fingers twitch for the brushes I will require.”
“Stay your fingers, my friend.” Giuliano slapped a hand on Sandro’s shoulder and pushed him through the crowd. A late spring sun bathed the market square, Mercato Vecchio, a market for many centuries and many classes of people. Oval in its length and hung with canopies to shelter merchants on both sides, while populated by stalls of remarkable variety and patronage in between. Giuliano held a scented cloth to his nose, yet the painter inhaled the scene, as if the smells of Florence breathed life into the visions before him. Azurite for the cloudless sky, orpiment for the straw at his feet, and malachite as lettuce in the stall Giuliano buffeted him through.
Sandro was dizzy with possibilities. His benefactor held him steady and directed him on through poultry and pigs, leather merchants, their skin as tanned as their hides, and rancid children, the likes he did not wish to produce. He remembered the local urchins from his childhood in Florence whose smells overwhelmed him, yet he smiled now, as they did. Life was an adventure of the senses and market day could fill a lifetime of memories to be painted.
“Why are you here, Signore Medici?”
Giuliano tugged the painter to a halt, the eyes about them searching out the nobleman’s face. “Not so loud with that name. I permit you to use Giuliano on this day, in this sea of humanity.”
Botticelli lowered his voice. “If you fear the masses, why are you here?”
“I do not fear anyone; my family rules Florence. But I do not require their attention or their patronage today. We are here for your benefit. My words are not adequate to convey the vision, but here, amongst the refuse of my city, her visage will inspire you. She is an angel rising above the masses, a goddess in human form.”
The painter’s senses had certainly been dulled by the pigments he had spent a decade blending. The substance the nobleman had laced his handkerchief with was more of a concern. Could the juice of the Squirting Cucumber clear the nostrils and also inflame the senses, creating a vision? How could he paint the results of another man’s intoxication?
“Why would an angel appear here? Do they not inhabit the Church and the Heavens above?”
“Some such creatures of our Lord would touch their feet on the Earth and bless those whose path to God will be more swift, whose entreaties will never allow them to be worthy. Besides, it is the custom to bestow favour on the Poor during such festivities. If a Medici can do this, why not an angel?”
Sandro had witnessed the delivery of coins to the masses by the wealthy before. He considered it the clearing of scraps from their table for the dogs. While he might be a brush for hire, at least his coin had been earned in worthy pursuits. His fingernails leached with pigment, the cracks there a rainbow of possibilities.
A minstrel’s plaintive wails added to the colour of the market scene as Giuliano continued to drag the painter between the stalls, handkerchief again concealing the aristocratic lines of his chin. The nobleman paused at the centre of the throng, taking undetermined bearings, before marking out the Colonna dell'Abbondanza. He pushed his way towards it, climbed up upon the column’s stepped base and offered Sandro his hand. The gesture was beyond the painter’s station, yet he took hold of Giuliano’s hand and found himself head high above the market’s throng, like a child on his father’s shoulders walking through a festival.
The spring breeze wafting off the Arno dispersed the smell of humanity that had so coloured his vision. It parted the crowd as if the staff of Moses, and there she stood. Sandro’s eyes widened to a twitch. He shook his head as she shook hers, refusing a hand offered as she stepped amongst the masses, her strawberry blonde hair tussled by the breeze.
Botticelli found his eyes following all those in the market, down to her alabaster hand, so finely carved, as if by God. It reached into a leather pouch, spun with gold, releasing much sought after coins. This vision had all Florence at her feet. Sandro felt compelled to fall on the ground and grovel before her, blinded by the essence without studying the detail.
He shook his head again; aware Medici sought out his reaction, the nobleman’s greed never more obvious, despite his wealth.
The lady stepped along the swathe she had forged through the crowd with her coins, one foot crossing the path of the other, the toes of her shoes peering out beneath the hem of her dress as it caressed the cobbles. They guided her seamlessly, for her eyes, dipped beneath bashful lashes, sought out the faces of all those who worshipped her. She imparted smiles between rouged cheeks with the generosity of a martyr, spilling blood for all, as if each urchin and peasant deserved the sacrifice.
The painter shook his head again, unwilling to be bewitched by the subtle flame of her hair, the rose petal lips, the sapphires of her eyes glinting in the morning sun, the...
“Have you got her, man? Well, have you?”
“Yes, Signore... for now… and always.”
“What is that you say?”
Giuliano dragged Botticelli from their pedestal as the woman approached their lookout. It was not the gentlemanly act to stare, at least not publically. The odours and the colours of the market were awash in Sandro’s mind, crashing over the vision Medici had drawn him to, like the red sea over the Pharaoh’s chariots.
She was gone.
His path beyond the market a blur.
Giuliano’s jaw jutted in juxtaposition, a face the painter need not see so clearly; a visage masking hers. Botticelli saw himself in the nobleman’s eyes, a ghost in her presence, colourless and fading in form.
“Should I slap you now or do you wish to have more time with her?”
“Slap me now, Giuliano, or I will never work again.”
The Medici’s blow drew blood from Sandro’s lips and smacked colour into his cheek. The painter’s face found form in Giuliano’s eyes and both men laughed.
“It is difficult, is it not, to allow your eyes to absorb such beauty in this colourless world? Most would fall at her feet to be spared the pain, and rewarded with her husband’s gold.”
“Husband... but who is she to have such a thing and still draw your attention?”
Giuliano pinched his nose, dragging the thumb and forefinger along its aquiline prominence with a sigh. The action struck Sandro. He had never witnessed such weakness in a man of power, and he had painted for many a Medici.
“That, she... the vision you just witnessed is Simonetta Vespucci. I want her face on my standard, for the jousting tournament my brother Lorenzo is preparing for the waning of winter.”
Giuliano thrust a pouch, heavy with coin, into the painter’s throat. “You can and you will, if you are half as good as my father says. And I will double this gold if my banner flutters in the breeze as her hair did today.”
“Then drag me to my workshop and thrust a brush in my hand. The coin is incidental.”
“Look around you, man. You are already here. My servants have delivered the banner, already embroidered, and your apprentice has laid out your pigments.”
“No colour that brings her face to life should have the word pig attached. My colours will be known in her presence as tint. Leave me, Signore Medici. This moment requires perfection, not a strong jaw and a proud nose.”
Botticelli pushed the nobleman aside, an offense in public, yet a necessity under these circumstances. He ignored the smile that crept across Giuliano’s face and waved to his boy. Words were no longer required; they would only cloud his vision as it parted the great swell of humanity from the market.
Sandro unravelled the cloth provided for the Medici banner. He had never worn such finery and this would be a mere flag. It would be far more illustrious when he had finished. Scanning the workshop, he realized his boy had prepared well; providing a cleared and elevated bench, brushes laid to his left, pigments and eggs to his right. He rubbed his fingers together, itching to take a brush in his hand. The painter resisted, poking through a variety of graphite chips and chalk instead. He chose the chip of graphite that felt soft enough for her delicate features and began tracing the image he projected on the cloth before him. Signora Vespucci’s face appeared first as a shadow, a promise of the reality he had witnessed at the market.
The strokes of her chin became bolder as he fleshed out her face, the greyness of the strawberry blonde hair an annoyance in its sketched form. Sandro knew he would paint the hair first, before he forgot the intricacies of the subtle braids that settled the flames in the breeze, but he needed an outline first. He would flesh this out with all the subtleties of the beauty witnessed in the market place.
Botticelli stood back and mopped his brow on his sleeve. The likeness pleased him, yet it did not satisfy. The visage lacked a certain... something he could not place his fingers on. He would have to complete the portrait to know.
His boy raised the lamp lights and placed a plate on the bench. The painter swept his dinner onto the floor.
“Why do you put this meat before me?”
“You must eat, Master Botticelli.”
“Will you despoil her vision with this? Get out, get out of my sight! The room is worthy only of my hand and her face. You are but the swine in the swill of my pigments.”
Sandro laid his boot into the boy’s arse as he cowered from the room, the image of the painter complete. Master of the brush, master of obsession, and a Master gone mad. He allowed himself a chuckle, before turning on the portrait. Patience Sandro, this is of the utmost importance, you do not paint for the Medici, you paint an image from God. He scratched his scalp and picked up the off cut of salted pork his boy had brought. Food was as important as inspiration, and if consumed, it could not detract from her vision, which had already consumed him.
He tore at the meat on the plate, his eyes focussed on the banner and the ghost of beauty past. Who was she? Did the woman befit the goddess? Were Giuliano’s words the primer for his state, and the woman little more than elevated lust?
Each fibre he chewed became a piece of her, building on the nape of the neck, the pulse of thought beneath her temple, and the fine line between woman and man along her jaw. Botticelli gnawed at the skin, desiring more of her, yet it served only to represent a piece of the puzzle before him, as did her actions in the market. He threw the empty plate at Simonetta’s ghostly portrait, missing the target, an act of athleticism his benefactor would consider embarrassing. Sandro had become a painter for good reason. Having failed at his initial goldsmith trade, unable to lift any portion of his weight in gold or bend it to his will, his father had pandered to his desire, and the gold leaf in his early paintings bent beneath the painter’s will. He slumped to the floor, exhausted, knowing he would not sleep while Simonetta remained gormless.
Giuliano de’ Medici paced before the threshold of Botticelli’s workshop. He had knocked twice and now fumed, unused to any man refusing him entry, excepting those who called themselves enemy. A third knock would draw the attention of neighbours and a Medici only drew attention for his own benefit. His finger twitched at the handle of the dagger hanging by his side. The nerve of the painter; the insolence. Giuliano turned, he would send his personal guard to collect this arrogant painter and deliver him within the Medici halls for punishment.
“Signore Medici, Excellence.”
Botticelli’s apprentice dropped to his knees in the dirt of the Florentine street, a dagger to his neck.
“Where is your Master, boy?”
“He is in there, Excellency. My Master has been in there for days. He will not let me enter... he accepts no food... no wine. He is possessed by the ghost of that woman.”
Giuliano smacked the boy across the face with the back of his hand, the dagger gouging a piece out of the apprentice’s cheek.
“That woman is Simonetta Vespucci, a beauty so rare you could not possibly survive her heavenly gaze. You are not fit to grovel at her feet. Let alone be in the same room as her image. Your Master has done well to lock you out, but no door in Florence refuses a Medici.”
He launched his shoulder at Botticelli’s door. It gave before his charge, flung open by the painter who marched into the street oblivious to his visitor. The nobleman fell on his face in the dirt of the workshop, the dust a veil in the midday sun. It drifted back to earth, a seventh veil on an Arabian night, unveiling the spectre haunting Botticelli; the face of Simonetta Vespucci.
Giuliano did not seek out the painter. Waving the boy away, he knelt before the goddess of Florence, little more than a sketch, yet magical to behold. The painter’s actions were bemusing. His progress appeared obvious. With a single viewing, across a crowded market place, he had captured the lines of her face with perfection. All she lacked was the flesh. Perhaps the artist had proven unworthy to paint her beauty, driven mad by her fair countenance as Giuliano had been nightly. He managed to relieve himself between the legs of mistresses whose names no longer rolled off his tongue with guile. Simonetta proved to be the sole name he could utter in ecstasy.
The nobleman stood, and brushed himself off, then bowed before the painting, an arm across his chest. He deemed his painter already worthy, but he would see the portrait completed with the strawberry blonde he swept away each night in the breeze of his dreams.
* * *
Sandro did not run far beyond his workshop. He did not possess the stamina. He reserved such rigorous exercise for his fingers, which twitched in anticipation of the face they would paint. He dropped to his knees, the shadow of the great brick dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, shielding his eyes from the only light in the heavens comparable to her face. The Cathedral hovered over him, its incomplete façade as tragic as his unfinished banner, deserving of flesh to complement its pious interior; perhaps Simonetta represented a similar conundrum.
The patter of approaching footsteps forced him from his knees. He did not want another countenance to tarnish hers until she was complete. Concealing himself in a niche of the ancient octagonal Battistero di San Giovanni, Sandro waited for the interlopers to pass. They did not. The voices, both feminine, lingered by Pisano’s bronze doors in the south portal.
“Wait here, Antonia.”
“But Signora Vespucci, I cannot leave you alone in so public a place.”
“This is a house of God, a place of reflection and rebirth. I will not linger long with the saints, but I do desire a few moments alone with them.”
Botticelli understood the moment as if he had lived it before. Creeping from his niche he sought out the east door, dubbed the Gates of Paradise, and slipped inside the Baptistery unseen. The saints queried him from above. He held his finger up to his lips to silence their martyred whispers.
Simonetta entered to his left. She did not seek out the altar, as expected, retiring instead to a sheltered corner by the octagonal baptismal font. A scarf concealed her features, yet her dress highlighted the hour glass of time that would run lower with each passing moment.
He crept closer as she peered over the edge of the font and prayed. How fortunate her birth, to gaze into the face of the divine each morning. The painter moved closer still, the zodiac motifs on the mosaic marble pavement enhancing the heavenly visage he inched towards, as if floating beyond this world, his footsteps were imperceptible.
Simonetta’s words echoed about him, larksong in a painted cage. Words so pure and virginal, only the truly pious could manage to have them repeated over and over in ever-enveloping echo. Botticelli leant against a marble column. He closed his eyes and painted her words in the tiled zodiac, his hand waving with an invisible brush; her words his lifeblood, her heart beat his... until their true meaning struck him like a thunderbolt from God...
“Tell me, Lord, do ordinary mothers look upon the waters of the font as I do? Are their prayers for beautious children, since they have been less fortunate? Do they look upon consecrated waters and see themselves or do their children’s faces fill the void of beauty where they cannot?”
She dipped her fingers into the font. Sandro imagined the ripples that distorted her features, tripling her breast and eyes, flattening the perspective of the most perfect nose. The waters settled and the words continued their deflowering in the shadow of the great Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary of the Flower.
“Why do you bestow so much upon me? Cannot even a ripple distort the beauty you have laid upon me, Lord? Or am I not the same as looking in the pool? Do my hand mirrors tell more of the truth, smudged and mottled? What is the truth, the great beauty in the font, the awe on the faces of the those in the market place, or the cracks in my vanity?”
Simonetta slapped her hand on the water, crossed herself and swept from the Baptistery with her head held high. Sandro slid to the floor, his fingers feeling every ridge and furrow of the tiles. Each one a vanity expressed by Signore Vespucci. Her ugliness left to echo about these walls, and settle on the floor, her beauty skin deep.
He had discovered the missing dimension, beneath the flesh with which he had struggled. Sandro rubbed his fingers together. She was there now, reborn in the Baptistery, forgiven her sins and vanity. Boticelli strode from the Baptistery, the flakes of dried paint from his clothing a fine sprinkle of colour in his wake.
“Can I see her, Botticelli?”
“Close your eyes as you do every night. Do you not see her there, in your dreams?” Sandro bit his tongue, omitting the words ‘writhing in your lust’, for he was as guilty as his Medici patron. His eyes, once those belonging to a younger man, were now blackened and sagging. He had witnessed their rebirth, their fall into the abyss, in the font of the Baptistery. Sandro had hoped to see her as he searched the holy waters of the font. He wondered if she had been bestowed additional beauty for each unfortunate who peered in, jealous of her, while she accumulated a beauty unrivalled in Florence.
“The tournament is today. Do you wish me to enter the Piazza Santa Croce with no standard?”
“Only if I wish to lose my head, Excellency. Close the doors. I have the scene lit for your final inspection, although I know you have forced yourself upon her before this day.”
“Only in my dreams, as you say.” Giuliano slapped the painter’s cheek. It was a playful gesture, his recent malice saved for the tournament. “Where is she?”
Botticelli allowed the nobleman’s eyes to adapt to the dark, before lighting a new lamp and hanging it above his work bench. Medici gasped. Sandro allowed the nobleman a moment, standing back to marvel at his work, as God did each time he looked down upon Simonetta. His child was ready for the world.
“What is this, Botticelli? Pallas Athena, Goddess of War? Is this the helmet you use to conceal her hair? Are you so bold, is she so bold, or should we be bolder still?”
“Do you not know her, Signore Medici, do you not know yourself?”
“Of course, I introduced you into her world.”
“Did you? And what words did she speak to me at that meeting? Did her voice sing of the lark?”
“Were her words those of the saints, pious and humble?”
“Most assuredly. Have you spoken to Signora Vespucci in person? Do you doubt my veracity?”
“I have your purse and I hold out my hand for another, what more do I need?” Botticelli ran his fingers along the edge of the completed banner, the painting as fine as the material. “Is the banner not wondrous? Does she not depict the entwined tongues of beauty and battle? Will she not blind your competition and ride with you to victory, laying your hand on your lance as you drive it home?”
Medici nodded. The painter had thought the allegory through perfectly, beyond mere lust and pride, while leaving space for the words in French as instructed. He deserved the coin at his patron’s side, already doubled in anticipation, based on the information from various spies. Giuliano unhooked the pouch and placed it in Sandro’s hand with a firm shake.
“You have excelled yourself, Botticelli. My family will call on you again. Will you have the banner delivered?”
“Personally, to continue the mystery and heighten the drama. I can hear the gossips whispering, ‘Why does Botticelli travel to Medici? What does he carry so proudly, yet with such secrecy?’”
Medici departed, leaving Sandro with another playful slap on the cheek. The painter accepted the gesture as he would from a proud grandparent. He prepared the banner for transport, summoning his much neglected apprentice to his side, pinching the boys cheek with the same playfulness Giuliano had slapped his and the circle was almost complete. Simonetta had begun as a vision, been recreated with love, and would return to look upon herself, triumphant.
Botticelli was surprised by his own understanding of human nature as he walked the streets of Florence, banner held aloft with its image concealed. Tongues wagged in his wake like playful dogs, many following in his footsteps to Palazzo Medici instead of making their way to the Piazza Santa Croce. Sandro puffed out his chest. So many of his commissions languished in private houses, appreciated by the elite of Florence, never to be seen by the masses. This would be a marquee day. His boy strode behind, shoulders erect for the first time in his life, and the pair dragged an ever-increasing band of devotees to the house of Medici.
The Medici house loomed over Florence with dominance and grace, yet it drew the inhabitants of Florence in with its ground floor loggia, open to the street on the corner of Via Larga and Via de’ Gori. Sandro could see the private internal courtyard of the Medici’s from the street, through the arches of the loggia, used for the transaction of business with ordinary Florentines. Many sat on the stone bench that ran around the exterior of the Roman inspired mansion. The Medici’s were Florence, as all Florence was a part of the Medici world.
The painter caught his apprentice gawking up at the façade; solid stone at ground level, yet lighter in construction on the first floor above, and lighter again above that; the deception in its construction beyond the reasoning of most. He dragged the boy into the interior, to a courtyard of arches, perched upon the finest of columns.
Giuliano and his brother Lorenzo sat astride their steeds at the head of a procession awaiting a banner to lead them. Sandro presented the Medici’s with their prize, yet they kept it hidden, drawing more murmurs from the gathering crowd, peering in at them through the arches of the loggia. Botticelli and his apprentice bowed low before the Medici brothers, sweeping their arms towards the street and the jousting tournament beyond.
“When will they unveil her, Master?”
“Only when the eyes of all Florence are upon them.”
Botticelli had never been given to prophecy, but he had toiled for months over the face of Signora Vespucci. He understood the effect she had on him. There was no doubt she would transfix all Florence today.
The Medici procession did not charge toward the tournament. Their horses were held at the bit, snorting, wild to the whites of their eyes, heads tossing back braided manes. Giuliano whipped his hair into the wind, one hand on his reins, the other on his hip, ignoring the entreaties of the crowd, wishing him to unveil the banner. Lorenzo rode with similar pride, despite not laying his eyes on the banner, the secret alone shared between the brothers.
Their path gathered the eyes of Florence, those yet to assemble for the joust, through narrow cobbled streets hung awry with structures wishing they were a Medici Palazzo. The Cathedral of Florence appeared alone in its opposition, set in its own piazza, headed by the Baptistery, its dome prouder and mightier than Palazzo Medici. The procession passed in admiration and genuflection, before being swallowed by another narrow street, which opened up to the Palazzo della Signoria, and it’s imposing tower, where Cosimo de' Medici was once imprisoned. The Medici house was humbled again, yet their occasional residency here made this more of a homecoming, a celebration of their ultimate success. Turning to their left, one final tapered street led them to their destination, the burgeoning crowd stretching back to the palace of their elders.
The sand-strewn, cobbled Piazza of Santa Croce greeted the Medici procession with a sea of humanity, shifting waves of colour, each representing the favoured knights of the tournament. The tides stilled as the Medici’s approached. Rumour preceded their entourage, like an infestation of rats at a plague fiesta. Giuliano held up his hand at the edge of the piazza, halting the procession, drawing the eye of every Florentine present. He stood tall in his stirrups and scanned the crowd, allowing himself a smile, before signalling his man, with a sly nod, to unveil the Medici banner.
Gasps were followed by cheers.
He bowed low towards Simonetta Vespucci and her husband, seated in the stand of the notables, erected by the Medici’s especially for this occasion. The words embroidered on his banner, La Sans Pareille - the unparalleled one - not lost on the educated elite of Florence, while the beauty of its portrait enraptured the masses.
Giuliano lowered his hand and the profusion of Florentine faces before him parted. His entry a triumph, Botticelli’s name, until now a whisper, shouted out from each corner of the piazza as the bells of Santa Croce signalled the commencement of the jousting tournament.
Medici’s men dismounted. Pushing back the crowds with their horses, they trailed two thin ropes, tied off with yellow and red ribbons at regular intervals. Their actions created a jousting field at the heart of the piazza. Lorenzo, the host, reigned in his horse at an imaginary juncture overlooked by the stand constructed for the viewing pleasure of the ruling families. He bowed, eyes focussed on Simonetta, her strawberry blonde hair teasing every eye toward her on the breeze.
Lorenzo’s attendant raised a short horn to his lips, announcing the initial joust of the tournament. The combatants required no introduction, but this was a Medici sponsored event requiring a suitable announcement. Lorenzo raised his hand for silence; the flutter of Simonetta’s hair the one remaining sound.
“To my right, beneath the banner of the goddess Athena, the honourable Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici.” He paused for the requisite cheer before continuing with equal fervour, introducing Giuliano’s opponent. Another cheer followed. He raised his hands for silence, drawing the crowd in wit expectation, winking to the notables who all knew the importance of baiting the masses. He lowered his hands, more silent than a pin dropping and roared out the expected command. “Let the tournament begin.”
Lorenzo nudged his horse backwards, a display of ultimate horsemanship, parting the crowd behind him as his men lowered the rope that signified the course the knights would traverse during the joust. Giuliano reared his stallion and charged. Lance blunted, yet deadly, the Medici shield protecting his heart. The shock of black hair, so carefully kept, swept out behind him; this Medici wore no helmet. The Florentines gasped at his bravado, which his opponent ignored, charging from the opposite side of the piazza in full regalia, lance raised to strike above the red and yellow colours of the Medici shield.
Despite the layer of sand on the cobbled surface, the horses clattered towards each, Simonetta’s hand over her mouth, as was every lady’s, following Giuliano’s path until the horses clashed. The Medici’s lance glanced off his opponent’s shield. His opponent’s weapon zeroed in on his head, Giuliano’s smile the bull’s eye. The Medici ducked at the last moment, weakening his thrust, catching the lance to the side of his head. He teetered in his saddle and fell, to a mixture of cheers and screams. Dangling from his stirrups, his ragged hands scraped the cobbles, shredding his knuckles.
All eyes followed the fallen nobleman, except Botticelli’s; his were focussed on Simonetta. Her face, flushed with excitement moments before, had been possessed by Giuliano’s ghost. Her teeth shredding the handkerchief she held to her mouth.
The colour quickly returned, as did her composure. She clapped and cheered along with her entourage, but not for the victor. Giuliano had righted himself. Saluting the crowd, he steadied his steed and clutched at a second lance. He afforded his opponent the respect of time; waiting for him to exchanged lances, before charging again.
The men clashed mid-piazza, neither ducking, Giuliano’s lance unseating his noble opponent, dropping him on his arse, onto the sand and cobbles of the Piazza Santa Croce. The victor saluted Florence, discarded his splintered lance, and offered his hand to the vanquished. The gesture was accepted with grace and both men were cheered as attendants of the house of Medici cleared a path for the next joust.
Sandro enjoyed the spectacle; so many colours, smells and faces, but he did not enjoy the exposure. He had denied himself twice already, to the amusement of his apprentice, and an old woman poked him in the stomach with the same question in her eyes.
“You are the painter of the goddess Athena. Are you not the great Botticelli?”
“The painter? Do I froth at the mouth with tempera? I do have the look; I grant you that, but not his hand.” Sandro held out his hands, causing them to shake purposely. “See, too much wine. Another goblet and any woman could seem a likely target.”
A spark of a memory glinted in the old woman’s eyes, not the squeal and about turn Botticelli expected. She followed this with a near toothless grin and took his hands in hers.
“Don’t mind me, Master Botticelli, I will not tell. Perhaps you will paint me one day and make me the goddess Vespucci.”
“I’m not sure she possesses your humour.”
“Be careful with books and their covers, Master Botticelli. There are many chapters within that book.”
The old woman kissed his hands and turned back to the joust. Sandro’s apprentice repeated her actions, taking his master’s hands in his.
“Why do you not sign your paintings, Master? Do you want the world to forget you when we salute you to spend eternity with God?”
“As long as He knows, it does not matter.”
A juggler entertained the masses between jousts, managing a bottle in each hand, which he freely passed wind into, and three balls on the foul air in between. A good natured heckler interjected, “I had three balls once, after two bottles of wine,” but failed to disrupt the juggler’s concentration. The coins tossed in appreciation of his flatulent performance managed the trick in time for the next joust.
The Basilica di Santa Croce glowed in the sunset as the sun sunk to the roof-line of the buildings on the piazza’s western edge. Two combatants faced off for the final joust; Giuliano de’ Medici having fought his way to the last pair. His participation at this moment had never been in doubt. Despite the Medici’s earlier dramatics, his brother Lorenzo had paid for the tournament and its outcome.
Simonetta’s face waved to her across the square. Her handkerchief waved back in the fresh afternoon breeze. Giuliano saluted with his lance, threw his helmet aside, and spurred on his horse. The knight at the opposite edge of the piazza reared his horse and charged toward the Medici. Both lances splintered as the knights met, bringing a collective cheer, followed by applause usually reserved for the victor.
The second round cracked both lances evenly, and a third was summoned. The knight’s steeds steamed in the chill of the winter’s afternoon. Nostrils flaring they charged again. Both lances rammed into their targeted shields, splintering into hundreds of readymade toothpicks, shattering over the vanquished rider as he hit the cobbles of Piazza Santa Croce. All Florence cheered as the victor leapt off his horse and strode to his fallen combatant, offering a welcomed hand.
“A fine joust.”
“And you, Signore.”
Lorenzo de’ Medici galloped to the centre of the piazza, his trumpeter running in behind, sounding off like a wounded dwarf.
“I declare the winner of our celebratory Giostra, Giuliano de’ Medici.”
Simonetta stood as all Florence applauded Giuliano. The cut above his ear bubbled with the sweat of the final joust. He had earned this moment, despite it being pre-ordained. Marco Vespucci held out his arm, assisting his wife down from the rostrum. Giuliano knelt before her, head bowed.
“Rise, Sir Knight, and accept this garland as winner of the tournament.”
Giuliano accepted his prize without standing. Grabbing Simonetta by the hand he announced to all of Florence, “And I nominate you the Queen of Beauty!” He kissed it with the same passion he had charged his opponents, men who had travelled from all over the Italian peninsula for the pleasure of the joust, and a welcome Medici purse. Simonetta withdrew her hand with a smile, pleasant without beaming.
“You ride beneath an interesting banner, Signore de’ Medici.”
“I commissioned it especially for this tournament. Would you like to meet the artist?”
“You did not paint it yourself? I am very much disappointed.”
“Would you see yourself a scarecrow instead of a goddess? Come to the House of Medici tonight. Bring your husband. I will have the artist there.”
Simonetta offered her hand, which was devoured by Giuliano and his brother who knelt beside him. She prised it loose and studied the brothers, their banner flapping in the breeze. It seemed to be their only accompaniment, the only breath in the piazza the wind. Simonetta no longer felt the hundreds of eyes upon her, the usual sensation on any given day, but a bead of sweat from Lorenzo’s temple suggested she was the only one at ease.
“The House of Medici should rise, there are others here would adore you today.”
Simonetta turned and took the arm of her husband. The brothers rose to generous applause. Lorenzo draped his arm over his brother’s shoulder and each Medici raised a triumphal fist. Giuliano had earned his victory, yet he found satisfaction lacking.
“Bring the banner, Brother, and the artist. I will deny her nothing.”
Botticelli was discovered studying a fire breather, the painter bobbing down beneath the flame, allowing it to light up the sky. The flames of Hell itched in his fingers, but the wind in Simonetta’s hair also struck him as worth painting again. Something was amiss there, something the random bursts of flame lacked; a banner in a fickle wind, bashful about its beauty.
Sandro dropped a coin at the fire breather’s feet. His colours were in the painter’s head and he now desired a fresh palette. Simonetta had drawn him into the natural world, into mythology, beyond the daily grinding of pigments for the Madonna and Child. He rubbed his fingers together, the dried paint catching in the myth of fingerprints, the one signature he always allowed himself.
“You there, Botticelli!”
The sound of his name silenced the crowd about the painter. He cringed, wishing he had the option to run or a handful of brushes he could fling at his accuser. A hand clasped each sagging shoulder and Botticelli’s hunt for fresh images and colours ended.
“What do you want of me? Why do you abuse my name?”
“You are famous, Signore Botticelli, and your benefactors desire your company.”
“Is there any other name in Florence?”
The two Medici guards led Botticelli from the Piazza Santa Croce, careful not to appear as forceful as their grip on his shoulders. Sandro allowed the men their moment of power. His life had already painted them into oblivion and he had many more paintings left in his head. Their path to the House of Medici seemed like già visto in reverse, a vision played back on itself. In the back of Sandro’s mind, the banner represented Simonetta in a light breeze; an obsession whose manacles he thought had been loosened and pitched into the River Arno. His wrists hung together at his waist as if shackled. Time would free him of her conceited image.
Palazzo Medici appeared as a fortress on the corner of its Florentine streets; its stone walls foreboding in the evening light. The loggia, so inviting in the sunlight, summoned the wary inside to a courtyard almost as tremulous as the Piazza Santa Croce. Saddles were being polished and armour disassembled, while the two brothers accepted the congratulations of the household, eyes on the lookout for any early guests. Giuliano spotted the painter immediately, approaching him with arms outstretched.
“Sandro Botticelli, now that is a name many will remember from this day on.” The painter did not believe this or the sincerity of the greeting. “Why do you scowl, Sandro? Your workshop will have many new commissions based on your marvellous banner, and a handful of apprentices, not just one.”
“As you wish, Signore Medici.”
“No, as all Florence desires, my dear Botticelli.”
“Have you a new commission for me, your Eminence?”
“Not on this night, but I do have a task for you. It might be considered more in the nature of self-promotion. Anthony will show you to a room where you can wash and eat. I will call for you later in the evening, after our more esteemed guests arrive.”
Giuliano brushed the hands of his henchmen off Sandro’s shoulders and placed his own there instead. He shook the painter and afforded the artist a smile.
“Relax, Botticelli. Enjoy a moment outside your workshop. When did you last take the air? Where will you get your inspiration if you keep yourself locked away? Go, eat wash and relax.”
Sandro followed the nobleman’s orders, but the painter’s shoulders were as rigid as the town’s gallows. He washed his face and hands, without fracturing the many colour splinters on his fingers, and he ate obediently. The servant, Anthony, piled logs onto a small fire as Sandro’s breath reached spirit levels. The winter’s day had proven short, yet longer than any for a month or more. He dreamed of longer days with extended light. Spring beckoned in his mind’s eye, searching out colours and illumination for his paintings. What he could do to this featureless servant’s room. The brush fingers on his right hand twitched, an involuntary action, his eyes enraptured by the fire and its burgeoning flames. A flourish mid-air was interrupted by another servant who beckoned him to follow; the Medici’s were ready to receive him.
Led out into the same courtyard, Sandro discovered a remarkably different scene. The remnants of the joust were a memory, replaced by carriages and arriving nobles. Accustomed to nobles, but never in numbers, Sandro allowed himself to be led up some stairs, through a kitchen, and into the Medici’s great hall, a wonder only surpassed by Il Duomo in his experience.
Botticelli found himself in a great hall, its ceiling worthy of a cathedral, the space beneath fit for a congregation. The details were lost in a blur of faces, each focussed on him as he meandered, aimless, his guide having left him to fend for himself in the midst of a nest of nobles.
The painter stepped further into the gathering with care, images of flowing frocks sweeping beneath his undiscerning feet. His fingers picked at their nails, attempting to pry off the paint before someone offered him a hand. Giuliano could not resist, parting the fabric that found no form in Botticelli’s eyes, led by his nose, commanding the attention of everyone in the hall. He slapped his arm around the painter’s shoulders.
The painter could feel his cheeks breaking out in a shade of cinnabar, his armpits damp, and no doubt reeking like the essence of a thousand painter’s smocks.
“None of that, Sandro. We are all friends here. All Florence is welcome into the House of Medici.” He lowered his voice and pulled the painter closer. “Look how they all stare. You have painted the face that fell a dozen knights. Nobles no longer in armour, knights in white satin. There is no harm in a bit of pride.”
Giuliano led the painter as he talked, his free hand conducting the guests and widening their path. The prize at the end of the avenue... Simonetta Vespucci.
“Signore and Signora Vespucci, I am honoured by your presence in my family house.” Giuliano released Botticelli and bowed low, sweeping his arm to the tiled floor. “In return, I honour you with a Master... no, the Master; the painter of your image on my banner, Sandro Botticelli.”