April 15, 2011

The Painting Called Love Victorious


The Painting Called Love Victorious
by Gabriel Malloy

Amor vincit omnia, et nos cedamus amori.
~Virgil, Eclogues

The muffled commotion worked its way in between the slats of the window, shuttered against the fierce Sicilian noon, and even through the thick walls, Mario Minitti could recognize the voice of his housekeeper, suggesting that the fuss was on his own doorstep, and not just a couple of donkey-drovers colliding in the narrow street outside. The devil make away with the lot of them – all he'd wanted was a quiet meal at home – he might just as well have stayed at the workshop for all the peace he was getting. He put down his wine cup, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand (one of the coarser habits his new and gentle wife had been unable to break him of) and went out to join the battle.

There was a donkey, after all, and a man, and Signora Ottavia was cursing the both of them impartially, touching upon their parentage, personal grooming, and likely motivations for rousing a respectable and god-fearing household during the hour of rest. The donkey had dropped its head nearly to its small hooves and appeared to slumber, no doubt well-used to shouted abuse; the man was leaning against the flaking plaster of the ornate portico and the half-smile on his bearded face suggested he'd heard a certain amount of it in his time, too.

Signora Ottavia turned at the sound of reinforcements arriving behind her. "This misbegotten ruffian," she began, waving her bunch of keys about like a miniature, irate St. Peter in skirts, "refuses to give his name or his business and insists that he must see the maestro despite the inappropriateness of the hour. He also," she added, dubiously, " says you'll be so delighted to see him that you will fall upon him weeping tears of joy, which I do not believe for a moment, particularly as I can see the fleas hopping off that donkey and I know where at least some of them must have ended up…"

By this time, Minitti's eyes had become accustomed to the brilliant glare of the street, and he was able to see beyond the heavy beard, the dirt, the filthy shirt and red bandit's neckcloth of his visitor.

"Santa Maria degli Angeli. Michele." His accent made it into Mih-guy-yeh-ley.

The man straightened, grin widening, putting out his stained and grimy hands. "You never could say my name properly, you little Sicilian hack. Come, I want my weeping now. And at least two kisses."

Signora Ottavia took a deep breath to protest further, but lost it again as her respectable master shouldered her aside and took the ruffian into his arms. He was, indeed, weeping.

* * *

Washed, in a clean shirt, with one cup of wine inside him and another in his hand—safe—Michelangelo Merisi stretched like a cat in the sun and watched his host's wife through half-closed eyes.

Sixteen, if that – and far enough along in pregnancy to be clumsy with it. Not a great beauty, but pretty as a kitten with her soft little chin and dark hair with a blue shine to it. She hadn't raised her eyes once since she had joined them at the table under the arbor, murmuring politely in answer to his thanks for her gracious hospitality. You are welcome, Signore da Caravaggio. Please treat my husband's house as your own. And not another word out of her as she sat in her cushioned chair, playing with the pistachio-shells on her plate. Shy, perhaps, poor little thing - or just stupid. Or frightened. He wondered if it was her money that had bought her husband's house, this respectable house, so far from Rome and its bad men and poisoned river and enticing streets and courts and alleys, from confusion and accusation and violence. Here, where it was safe. Sicily, safe. We'll see, Mino.

He turned his head just enough to see Minitti, who sat beside him on the bench under the shade of the neatly-twisting grapevines, splitting a fig with a silver fruit-knife. The heavy black curls had been cut, almost tamed, but the small frown of concentration that drew the curved lower lip up into a half-pout was exactly the same as it had been. So how far have you come, Master Mino, from the boy with the dirty fingernails? If I asked you to kiss me again – here in front of your wife, would you do it? The words balanced on his tongue, unspoken, pressing against his lips with a taste like figs and honey. Say it – no, don't.

* * *

A burst of singing echoed brassily down the alleyway, and the naked boy, balanced half on and half off one of the workshop's bancas, twisted around in response, trying to look out of the window.

"Is it a procession? I want to see –"

A pomegranate flew across the room and bounced off the side of the boy's head, making him yelp and toppling him off the bench into a battered collection of musical instruments, cushions, animal skins, paint-rags, pots, and mismatched pieces of armor. Merisi watched him flailing around in the dusty junk, admiring for a moment his model-apprentice's command of invective in three dialects, then ducked behind his easel, evading the return fire.


"Fuck you up the ass, Merisi –"


"Fuck you up the ass, Maestro. That hurt." Minitti kicked aside a broken basket that had got tangled around one ankle and climbed to his feet.

"You shouldn't have moved. You spoiled the pose, you buggered up the drapery, and you ruined my last chance to get any work done on this today, you little ape – the light'll be gone soon." Merisi slammed his paint-knife back into its box as if it had been a rival's heart.

"Pfff. The drape's pinned to the wood in eight places – I did it myself earlier – and the sun will come up again tomorrow." The younger man shrugged. "So stop whining." He fished around in the mess on the floor and found his shirt. "It's time to eat, anyway."

"All you ever think about is your belly. And if it's not your belly, it's your cock. You might as well be a priest." Merisi's blasphemy was almost mechanical – he'd stepped a few paces away from the big canvas and was eyeing it, scrubbing his palm over his bearded chin. Even in the lowering light, the painted flesh seemed to separate itself from the surface in luminous curves, suave and sensuous, dominating the composition, turning everything else around it into toys and trash. Kings, courts, war, art, science, music, the world and the stars, made nothing by the simple fact of the transcendent body. And the body itself, balanced between child and man, between human and divine. He'd caught it somehow - or perhaps it had caught him. Amor vincit omnia…

The owner of the body pushed up in front of him, the ragged hem of his shirt flapping around his bare knees. "Madon'. I hope you're not going to fuck around with it much more, Michele. You'll only ruin it. " A fingertip, black-rimed around the nail, touched the wet paint, making a tiny erasure.

Merisi almost thumped the back of Minitti's head, but since it was a good erasure, he couldn't with any justice carry out the impulse and had to be content with saying, "Don't you have your own work to poke at, ragazzo – or colours to mix or something useful?"

Minitti stood, sucking his lower lip, eyes still on the transformed image of himself. "It's like seeing your reflection in a god's mirror. And no. Nothing but a figure study. And finishing the background for that hack-work you're doing for that fat Lombard's dining-salon. Where are the pillars, Maestro da Caravaggio? I wanted pillars. " The boy's imitation made the merchant sound like a goat with a Milanese accent. "And maybe a horsie."

"I don't do pillars."

"Because you're shit at perspective. And you don't do horsies very well, either."

"That's why I keep you round the place, Mino - to daub for your board and keep and pay me for the privilege."

The young Sicilian turned, brows drawn together, the black eyes under them signaling a storm-warning, close enough now for Merisi to hear the changed rhythm of his breathing. He smelled of linseed oil and terebinth, wine, sweat, summer dust, new bread. Like the street, like the workshop itself. Like the breath of God.

"That's the reason, is it?"

"And to stand very still while I make pictures of you for rich old men to buy."

One angry, indrawn breath – and then the smile, delight and wickedness and impossible to resist; the smile that said You liar, Michele, and in its triumph made everything else into toys and trash.

* * *


* * *

That is why I painted you with an eagle's wings, Mino, and not a dove's… and this is where they've brought you.

"Famous in Sicily," he said out loud.

Minitti glanced up from the fruit on his plate. "Better than dead in Rome. Isn't that why you're here, Merisi?"

Still trying to outrun the hand of God and the anger of powerful men? Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, genius, murderer, excommunicate, fugitive, raised his hands in the manner of a tennis-player graciously conceding the final point at the net.

"I'm grateful for your generosity, Maestro Minitti. Ports and storms."

Minitti licked the sticky fig-juice from his thumb. "Go into the house, gioia," he said to his wife.

Signora Minitti rose from her chair, opening her pretty fingers to let a last nutshell, crushed to fragments, fall to her plate. She said nothing, but the small soft chin came up, and her eyes met Merisi's for the space of a breath; they were black and sea-deep and held a cold hate. She turned and moved away, carrying herself and her unborn child a little awkwardly, the green-gold brocade of her best gown whispering across the tessellated paving of the courtyard.

Safe? No.

The spout of the jug clinked against the lip of his cup as Minitti refilled it. "A harbour? Sanctuary? Is that the reason, then?"

"Of course. " Merisi looked into the red heart of the wine, then back up at the man beside him, saw the suave curves squared, the rough line between the fine, angled brows. "I was surprised you let me past the front door, Mino."

Then the boy's smile came into the man's face, wickedness and delight, saying, You liar, Michele.

Et nos cedamus amori.

* * *

Gabriel Malloy is a professional freelance writer and amateur housekeeper living in Los Angeles. His interests include reading, PG Tips, BBC Radio 4, mythology, history, haiku, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, working on his long-term speculative fiction project Dharma*Gun, and trying to find a laundry detergent that REALLY IS mountain-fresh. His fiction has appeared in Collective Fallout and his poetry debut will be in the May 2011 edition of Petrichor Machine.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Get the details right. If you do your research, which is half the fun of writing historical fiction anyway, you pick up a huge amount of what looks like trivia but isn't, actually - curse words, snacks, underwear, the problems of getting from one place to another, how much to tip the servants, heresy, floor-coverings, street-songs, obscure holidays, weather, geography, what donkeys smell like, close up. Even if you don't use it all, it helps you feel your way into the period and the lives being lived in it. As Mr. Gilbert said, it's the corroborative detail that lends verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative - as well as helping you avoid anachronisms that make discriminating editors and readers go "Oh, COME ON" and taking you and your readers right where you want to go.


steveno said...

Great fun ! Light but full of depth. Nice visuals.