The first chapter in the short story.
The soul is born, alive with music and colour and beauty. Our talents, meant to be explored and celebrated and shared with the world. But when that is stolen, the inner beauty becomes twisted by forlorn rage and rusty fear. And then the soul begins to crumble.
* * *
There are some beauties in life that cannot possibly be described. To attempt to put such wonders into words would do them injustice. Impossible to capture Nature’s exquisite perfection, some things are better left unsaid.
And so that is why I wanted to show them.
I could sit in the garden for hours, a whole day. Perhaps I would spend even longer just watching the grass, if I didn’t have to eat or care for my younger sisters or help cook dinner.
I’d look at the way the light sifts through the trees, and spatters the ground with crisscrossing patterns of different shades of green. At the way the delicate blossoms would be swept up by the spring breeze, whirl through the air, and then gently settle down to earth.
All these things I watch, I see, I remember.
And then, then I paint. With my brush I gently stroke the canvas, bringing life to the brushed white fabric. Imprinting upon it the world. Imprinting it with myself. Immortalising the world’s beauty, with the delicate wave of my hand.
I look at what others create too. At the work of other painters, other pilgrims on this endless journey to capture the perfection of the world that we see. And I realise: our sight differs.
I suppose it is a good thing, it makes life interesting. But it also means the line between right and wrong is blurred. Some people think they can do things, that those things are justified, when they’re actually hurting and destroying beauty.
That is what I now know.
* * *
Milan, 13 August 1447
If change were to be pinpointed, to be attached to a specific event, this would be it.
This was the day that Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milano, died.
To me, what happened on that date has little significance. But everything that followed was another matter. The consequences surged forth, greater than a mere ripple, like the waters of the Po River in the springtime after the snow from the Alps melted and bled into the valley.
I wouldn’t know it at first. I wouldn’t have expected it. And I was only a girl, barely a woman, who lived in her fantasy worlds and daydreamed and painted. My family was wealthy, and I could do what I liked. I didn’t have to work, and I would go to the markets with my amateur pictures and feel important whenever anyone glanced my way.
I suppose that’s what its like. Change, that is. Things aren’t obviously different, all of a sudden. It’s a gradual process. And when things start getting bad, initially you don’t notice. You adjust, day-by-day and week-by-week, to new circumstances. You don’t realise at first that you’re sinking.
Then it hits, and you’re submerged.
I was a young woman, and I’d never had to think about such political matters. First I didn’t understand anything. Then I became vaguely aware of some sort of power struggle.
Problems, my city was reeking with problems. Our Duke had left without a male heir and various parties attempted to seize control. It seemed there would be order, with the formation of the Golden Ambrosian Republic. But nothing is ever so straightforward.
My father was a Republican, one of the true ones, who fought for democracy and opposed some man called Gonzaga. Too many intelligent men, men who could have governed our city and ensured its prosperity, were being replaced by clueless and greedy aristocrats. There was no one to manage affairs properly. No one to ensure the heart of beloved Milano kept beating steady.
Instead, it faltered and struggled.
Other cities declared their independence: Pavia, Lodi and Piacenza. They wanted to detach themselves before the disorderly undercurrents manifested into greater, more tangible problems that could crumple their walls.
It was a real threat, not an imaginary one. Not to mention the on-going clashes with Venezia.
That is a fact of this existence I wrestle with, constantly torn by a futile search for understanding. Why, why in the midst of such a rebirth of culture, a renaissance of ideas, is there still conflict? Whilst art and music and life are celebrated, still people die senselessly as men struggle to prove their dominance.
It is as if the beauties, wonders, creations that surround us, cannot exist without the ravishing of land and people alike. More than we dare to accept, than we would ever admit, the darkness is inspiring.
It is brighter than this reawakening of past glory.
* * *
Piazza Broletto, Milan, February 1449
She remembered being caught up in the crowd that day. The chaos. The sweaty stench, bodies pressed together and a mob of citizens pulsing down the streets that flushed into the market square.
Some clambered eagerly for a glimpse, as if drawn to the abhorrent sight. And the very thought that those people actually wanted to see such things made her want to retch. Sent her stomach into spasms, her throat clenching tight, her mouth so dry that even had she wanted to scream, she would not have been able to manage.
In the mayhem, the air seemed to sizzle with a sickening odour of rotting flesh. A strange heat warmed her, despite the winter cold and the wind that lashed the exposed skin of her face.
A man jostled her and the next moment she felt the freezing stone of a marble column against her back. She drew a square of cloth over her nose and part of her mouth, trying to catch some respite from the smells. Closing her eyes, she let blind relief consume her senses.
Then the tide of people swept her up again and she stumbled into the piazza.
There it was, right before her eyes.
Heads. Human heads, of men her father had once worked with. Ghibellines.
Maybe he was there too. Maybe…
Some people were crying out in voices that, to her ears, bore hints of glee. It’s as if the suffering of one brought, to another, the thrilling shockwaves of glory rippling through their body.
At once, you feel fragile, as pain and death rears before you in a startling reminder of human mortality. At the same time, there is this hideous rejoicing that you are still alive, still present on earth, still there to see this sight and record history with your eyes.
I’m going to paint that day, paint its horrendous magnificence. Lord help me, for I should but do not feel ashamed.
* * *
Paula watched her daughter, Cecilia, where she sat cross-legged in their little courtyard, her eyes glazed and misty in her own dream world.
Once, Paula would have smiled. Now, she cringed. The prospect of what was coming wrenched her gut, and little beads of sweat formed upon her brow.
Life was about to change for them. No more idle summer days, drinking fresh juice and basking in the sun. No more cosy winter nights with warm red wine, and bowls of polenta groaning beneath a heap of mushrooms and chunks of roasted veal.
No more, now that Franco was gone.
There was no chance of them staying here. Paula did not know what she would do, or where she would take her infant daughters. Her sons would have to provide for them now, though they were not yet men.
It was Cecilia who had a chance for happiness.
“Cecilia,” Paula murmured. She approached her daughter, and gracefully knelt to the ground, her skirts sweeping around them. “Cecile…” Her voice trailed away. She could not speak, could not utter the words. Could not break the news.
She tried not to choke, had to hold herself together. Focussed her mind and repeated to herself that this was the right thing to do. Her daughter had a chance, her beautiful daughter who was now desired by a wealthy and powerful man. He could care for her, provide for her where her family could no longer. It was the best option.
Paula tried not to think about the money she would be getting in exchange for her daughter. Tried not to think about why such a sum had been offered. Tried not to think about what could happen, because the harsh truth was she needed the money for the rest of them. Otherwise they had nothing.
She would not feel guilty, could not feel guilty. And she pushed away the thought that Cecilia was merely being used.
* * *
When Mamma sat beside me that day, I knew from the way she looked that something was wrong. She was trying to hide it. The smile was false, I could tell because there was a strange glint in her eyes. A bit of sadness, anger, worry, all mixed together in a way that made it impossible for me to even begin to guess what she was thinking.
I never learnt the full story about what happened. I only could really speculate and try and fit pieces of the puzzle together. So many lost pieces too. Never granting me a full picture, although I had my own very probable ideas. I was getting smarter. I understood things beyond the paints and the palettes and the oil solvents I used to wash my brushes.
Yet there was one certainty. Papa had gone.
I think it must have been linked to the heads I saw, displayed like trophies in Piazza Broletto. They were Republican leaders, Ghibellines, advocates of a true Milanese Republic and democracy – just as my father had been.
I knew he must have held quite a senior position. And whether he’d been murdered for that, or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, it didn’t matter.
I couldn’t deny it. He was most probably dead. And fear for the future filled all my heart, so there was no room for me to feel anything else. No bitterness or resentment that he was gone and our lives shattered, forced to pick up the pieces. Only fear.
There was this man I was sent away to. Mamma told me that he had heard of my beauty, that I had been noticed at the market where sometimes I tried to sell my paintings. Not many people bought from me. I was an ordinary girl, no one special. People who could afford the luxuries of art would always want to buy from someone famous. So they could brag about a name to their friends. Labels, that’s what people care about, more so than true talent placed before their very eyes.
But apparently I had been noticed, for my appearance, was what Mamma had told me.
Back then I remember wishing it was my art that the man had liked. But when we did marry, I learnt a very different truth.
My wish came true. This man, my husband, wanted me for my art. And it ended up being much worse.