When I was a small boy, I struggled to be the well-behaved son my father required. He wanted me to be quiet and still; I needed to run and explore and do. I feared I had a machine inside me, like the one that ground wheat and corn at the mill, or like the giant wheels of a grand carriage, always clacking along cobbles, wobbling in ruts. I loved Papa and desired his approval, but I lacked the words to explain about the machine.
He would take me down the stone lane to our village church on Sundays and holy days, where my struggle to keep still was painful: anything of interest that might hold my attention and keep me in place seemed hidden by the very size of the surrounding adults. Their layers of clothing—the long, wide-sleeved cioppe, their mantles and zimarre, especially when lined with fur in winter—became oppressive walls, forcing me to look down, to tap finger rhythms on my lap, to swing my legs back and forth as I sat next to Papa in church. One Sunday, bored with my own little games, I looked straight up and was surprised to see people on the church ceiling. My father explained later that those were frescoes of saints and biblical figures. The following Sunday I studied the ceiling carefully, to be sure my father was right. Si, he was. The ceiling people in their classical costumes suggested myths ancient and wondrous. I absorbed the details, made the figures move in my mind, and knew I would grow up to paint figures, too.
In time I apprenticed with a master painter, learned quickly, advanced my understanding. I developed techniques to render landscapes that duplicate the sunlight and shadows known to the hills below my village. My plants, rocks, streams, and sky are all in the same agreement one finds in nature, and my architectural spaces invite the viewer to step inside. Ah, but the people! The people I paint appear poised between living breaths and movements—they do not require help from a child’s imagination.
I have worked hard to learn, to discover new methods, new truths. They are my passions, discovery and truth. Discovery is ever new and changing; whereas truth, by its very nature, is constant and endures. Truth kindles our lives with its sparks and in return, we should illuminate our world.
The people say we live in an enlightened age, perhaps because discoveries abound and we marvel at our own cleverness; even so, I have seen dark clouds cover a land and rouse a mighty storm when enlightenment is not nurtured from conceit into reality. To stay locked in conceit is a danger, for conceit abhors illumination. In my country, too many are in danger. That is why, as I discover and illuminate truth, I am discreet.
While Milano thinks I’m in Firenze, Firenze thinks I’m in Milano. They are so sure of themselves, so sure of me. For now, let them think what they need; they do not lessen the quality of my work. Certamente, they are pleased when they commission me because they value my art and even more because they take great pride in their public displays, in possessing for others to envy. Yet despite their displays they are creatures of secrets, shadow people who hoard power and manipulate behind sanctioned doors. Such behaviors carry a certain stench and the air is freshest when Such are far away.
I breathe more fully here in this distant land, where secret patrons require my expertise. My understanding of anatomy makes me their choice. Their spies gained access to my private notebooks filled with sketches of bones, sinews, muscles, internal organs. They discovered how I learned what I know, how I studied the body’s architecture. Yet these new patrons will keep my secrets from the Church Fathers. They offer me protection and have paid me a handsome purse to travel secretly to their country just to paint a portrait of a woman.
She has a small following here in her private kingdom. There are no dogmas or tallies and her subjects are loyal, but I am here to paint a portrait, not tithe allegiance. My chosen kingdom is the mind: its subjects are stores of information, its charging steeds of thought link memory and learning to fortify the keep. In this lady’s kingdom, they respect this. It is not always so in my country.
Enough. Now I am here on the grounds of this manor to paint the woman. I am required to study her features and paint her as she looked in her youth. The room in which I work is guarded by household servants and other attendants who feign business nearby. They take my measure and, no doubt, report my progress to my patrons, but they are not shadow people and they do not target me; we are in league.
Because I am known for my expertise, my perfectionism, I imply that these prolong my stay. In truth, I am intrigued by much here and want to spend some time in the company of la bella donna. I like to think she might study painting under my guidance: learn line and form, chiaroscuro e chroma; employ perspective and proportion; commit to diligent practice. I wonder if these things would captivate her. I am told she is educated: she understands perspective, proportion, light, and the purest of colors. I would like our acquaintance to grow, am aware that it cannot—not because my station is beneath hers, not because she does not deign to see me in a more intimate light, but because she died long ago and I am paid a grand sum to paint her portrait from her bones.
I am told they are quite old, these bones. The lid of her sarcophagus has been removed that I might view her remains, which have been very carefully protected since her death in the hope of keeping them safe in all ways. A series of burial shrouds wrap what is now the skeleton; someone has deftly cut through the layers around the head and lifted that portion away to reveal her skull for me to study, but in candlelight far too dim. There is no window, no opportunity for adequate light. There is not the proper air in here and I have written at length and taught many apprentices about the quality of light and air necessary to fine painting. In Milano or Firenze I can demand these things—and my patrons there get small thrills from knowing they can provide whatever I require. Yet here, it is not so. The people of this manor are guided not by the purse but by the heart—that most mysterious of kingdoms—and I am somewhat imbalanced by their proximity. They give forth spiriti that wash across my body like waves on a shore. Perhaps they know this about me, too. I feel held in place by the walls of their energies and am restless; still, I am well-paid so I shall behave for a while.
The servants and attendants are watchful and move about discreetly—as they should; yet when they are near the lady, I sense a profound hush, a settling of their spiriti, as if this place were a cathedral. Have they ever been in one? I have painted for and designed a good number. The cathedrals in my country are God’s palazzos: golden, formidable—like grand muscles, thick and primed with power. To stand steadfast in the nave and meditate on the lessons in the frescoes, to stand in a fortress of marble—the altar, the statues, columns, walls, floor, all marble—and to feel their weight, their might, the pull of the rituals, the voice of tradition, Thou art Peter.
Here, in this lady’s country, the cathedrals are not muscles; they are bones. Flying limbs along the outer walls distribute weight and maintain balance, internal ribs support vaulted ceilings over chambers of worship. To enter and take a step, then seem to rise and soar with the arches to their pinnacle, unconfined, to pass like vapor through the ceiling’s pores and ascend into the blue, beyond hills of clouds into the landscape of knowing, benedicta tu. It is sublime: to soar, to hover, to return to earth and the skin that binds me. Profondo, to sit in dim light by these bones—no frescoes, marble, or grand arches—and feel the grace that flows, too, in this simple place.
This place…these bones. Where her neck once was, I can see the edges of the burial cloths that have been added over time, one upon the other, to keep her bones in place. Some layers barely hold together; the oldest remaining threads look as delicate as ash from a hearth, and I know that the soft tissues of the body have dried and crumbled to dust long ago, leaving her bones loose beneath the stiffened layers of cloth. Yet in my mind I see her bones as the cathedral they once were, her ribs as thin strong arms embracing the body as they arc over internal chambers supporting life, the arcs rising and falling with each breath, rising...falling...rising... falling...There comes a great stillness over me, and my mind fills with images: the moon rises to share the night sky with a single star, the sun casts shadows across the land, measured footsteps approach a hill, a breeze circles a tree then follows the sun. When these images subside I must think a moment, to recall where I am and why.
The lady’s skull is quite brown with age and I do not touch it for fear it might collapse in fragments. It is the color of calfskin parchment, but pitted and cracked, flecked with brown. When I first saw her skull my breath caught—as if an invisible finger stroked my spine—and I recalled the time I saw a young provincial boy pull back at the sight of a bird skeleton he encountered along a river bank. Perhaps he thought the remains were some occult sign and feared a spell might be cast upon him. He did not seem able to connect those bones to the life that once held them, which is what I must do now.
Life once flowed around and through this woman’s bones; they once walked dusty roads, pulled water from a well, bent in a garden, sat at an olive wood table, embraced a beloved. I consider what I have been told of her: She came from a good family, was married and had children, for a few years she led a public life; she knew joy, sorrow, difficulty, resolve, perseverance. Fullness. I open my eyes, expecting to see her breathing once again, smiling at me, offering me cool water and grapes or figs as a proper hostess might on a fine afternoon. But the she in my mind has vanished and only her bones remain.
I study the twin holes that held her eyes, the triangle where her nose once took shape, the way the skull’s cheekbones curve to the jaw, hinting at the delicate smile that surely was hers—and I draw. My charcoal shapes the darkest shadows that the candles cast and a ghostly image floats on my paper's surface. I smooth in gradations of shadows until the shades are quite light and the image looks like the subject. I draw the skull from as many angles as are available to me. Do I observe accurately, or do I draw what I hope? There is a difference and I must find it. I draw again and again, to learn, and to be in her company. I compare the results and one drawing stands out among the rest. Perhaps the candles now cast their illumination in such a way that their flickering makes this drawing appear to move and I glimpse what once had been; my breath catches, just as the young boy’s had at the bird skeleton by the river, and I wonder now if he had been startled by a sudden glimpse of the bird in life. Just so, the lady is here now, in my mind’s eye.
I begin to draw her face—rather, the glimpse of her—to capture it while the impression remains clear in my mind. I am pleased that my first attempt is accurate, still, I want to keep drawing: her eyes, tender and wise, with a hint of distance (my nod to her antiquity); her nose, narrow and one third the length of the face; the start of an approving smile (her approval, my own conceit); the smooth brow, the long hair and gossamer veil that trail along the neck to the shoulders, and the bodice and sleeves of a gown in the current style—this, my patrons’ request. We bring who we are to how we interpret her. Yet here, before her bones it is as if she interprets me: I see who I am compared to her and discover my own limitations. A part of me wants to pull back from this glimpse, to stop it from undoing the me I have constructed throughout my life. This glimpse has roused a monstrous wave within me that I fear I cannot survive. Or perhaps...the glimpse and the wave are one, come to release my fear and wash it away, if I will just let go.
I continue to draw, more than is necessary. As my drawings multiply, I place them around me on the floor. When those of the manor come near, they stop in the entry so that the drawings remain undisturbed, and also, I think, out of respect for the lady. They see the drawings and, veramente, some of them are moved to tears. A few stumble back a step, others pause in some private moment. Still others show discomfort; two appear troubled and quickly leave. As if a portrait gives her life despite the claim of her bones. As if her portrait allows each one his glimpse.
They will expect me to begin painting soon. I shall paint for them, and also for myself, to keep her with me always.