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Authors: Katie Ward

Tags: #General Fiction

Girl Reading (7 page)

BOOK: Girl Reading
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Laura is astounded by the artist’s elaborate construction.

Then he asks her about the vase.

The vase? Is it not a pot for the lilies to go in? (She chastens herself for her rudeness.) It is such a lovely pot.

I could have shown lilies planted in the ground, or cut stems being held, but I have chosen specifically a vase. Does this not strike you?

Laura shakes her head. I see only flowers in a vessel.

Aha. A
Follow that line of thought.

I am ignorant, Signore. I have not studied these matters.

I think you are doing yourself a disservice. Do try for me . . . ?

I suppose the Virgin Mary could be called a vessel, in the sense that God chose her to give birth to Christ.

Precisely. Capital work. I can hear the abbess’s praises already.

Laura feels a spark of gratification.

A vase also means “treasure” in certain traditions. And at the Annunciation, God gives us the most precious treasure of all, do you agree? The vase is a “vessel” and it is a “treasure”—but even an item as mundane as this can have more than two meanings. In alchemy, the vase is where miracles occur, as in the Virgin’s womb. The mouth of this vase is open to God’s divine influence.

Laura is taken by a new thought, one that would explain Maestro Simone’s inclination toward layers of symbolism that are lost on her. Are you an alchemist scholar, Signore?

Ah, no. I find the toil of painting more than sufficiently fills my time without my attempting to purify the soul and turn base metals into gold. I do not mean to imply these things are impossible—who
knows what can be achieved with enough study and luck?—only that it would be futile for
to attempt such goals. I leave that task to those who are more fit for it. Although, being able to conjure gold would be useful just at the moment. You heard me and Lippo discussing it, of course, on the first day?

A lot of it went over my head.

I have charged Lippo with a difficult mission, to procure me a large amount of gold leaf in a short period of time. It is expensive, but believe it or not, affording it is the easy part. Finding an adequate supply and the gold beaters who can make it fast enough—well, he has not let me down yet.

An altarpiece for the cathedral needs to be decorative.

This is true, and a man like Vescovo Donusdeo expects it. Nonetheless, I have the idea that I would like my Annunciation to
(Simone slides one of the sheets out from the sheaf and lays it on top for her to see. It is the angel kneeling to deliver his message in yellows and golds; the patterned cloak swirls and curls as though lifted by air, wings raised, mouth open midspeech.) The Angel will go on the left of the panel and face Our Lady, who will be here on the right, the figures set against a background of pure gold. I will not show a room as such, because in effect it has been swallowed up by ethereal light.

(Laura recalls her experience in the oratory—was it a dream? Aspects of it feel distant and unreliable; when she turns her mind’s eye toward the memory all she can see is light.) He is bearing an olive branch for peace. And for . . . ?

Victory, among other meanings. Have you heard this . . . ?

Simone Martini lifts a book from his collection. He wants to get it word for word.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;

The similitude of His Light is as if there were a niche;

And within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass;

The glass as it were a glittering star;

Lit from a Blessed Tree;

An Olive, neither of the East nor of the West;

Whose oil is nigh luminous, though no fire has touched it;

Light upon Light; God guides to His Light whom He will.

And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything.

Do you like it, Laura?

It is beautiful.

I was recently reminded of this passage, and I had to look it up again. The light, the star, the olive: all of it is in harmony with what I am trying to do . . . even the niche. The triptych will be a sort of niche, will it not? And the painting is itself a similitude. I like it a great deal.

Where is it from?

A book called the Koran.

Laura opens her mouth in shock. The Saracen text? That is heretical.

First, they are not Saracens, that is a name we have erroneously given to a people who do not use it themselves. Second, what is considered heretical is largely subjective, and we should be careful how we apply such an accusation. And third, you yourself just called it beautiful when you did not know its origin.

Laura bites her lip, burning at her inability to argue her point of view. He is too clever for her. Signore, I simply meant, what can that have to do with the Blessed Virgin? Theirs is a different god to ours. It seems to me you do not have time for these investigations. You should be concentrating on the commission for the cathedral, the church of our faith.

On the contrary, it has been extremely useful. I will leave aside
the question of a “different” god, or we will be here all day, and simply tell you this: Our Lady is exalted in the Koran; indeed, she has a whole chapter named after her. I have learned more about her here than from the entire New Testament.

Laura is uncomfortable with this conversation and wishes to avoid more disagreement. Will the Virgin also be dressed in gold, Signore?

If she were, it would be troublesome to distinguish her at a distance on a background of the same material. No, she will be in a red gown with a night-sky blue mantle over it. I have a first-rate color especially for this purpose. Her form will recede into the brightness; the eye will be irresistibly drawn toward her.

Laura leafs through the images. There is a preparatory sketch of a tondo for God the Father, and four more circular designs for the great prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—to be placed along the top of the triptych.

Simone explains that Lippo will be responsible for the side panels of two full-length saints, Saint Ansanus, to whom the altar will be dedicated, and Saint Maxima, his nurse. After Lippo’s hard work, he should at least be allowed to paint something.

Laura lifts the last sheet, which is blank. Where is she . . . ?

Simone Martini laughs. You understand my problem.

But you have been working for all this time, I have watched you for hours. I thought you had made numerous pictures of her.

I have. None is satisfactory, none I can use.

The artist picks up an object wrapped in cloth, one of the items Giovanna brought. He uncovers it, a luminous codex bound in red leather, pages edged in gold leaf, thin black straps with intricate gold fastenings, the illuminated manuscript within.

This is my wife’s own book of hours, which I gave to her on her last birthday.

Laura receives it, rests it carefully in her lap.

I know at least that my Virgin will be holding this, to show her as pious and wise—I knew it almost instantly when I was approached. As to the rest—the old man shrugs—how will her face be? How does one paint her receiving this strange and wonderful news? What can I paint that will be truthful?

Laura’s heart aches, the guilt at her absence as fresh and sharp as a thorn; Simone’s kindness in spite of it, and that he did not press her for an explanation. His need for friends precisely as Giovanna described; the position of trust in which she has been placed; a desire to do good. Laura feels these desperately.

What can I do?

It is a problem for me to worry about, young lady. I will solve it.

When? How?

Ideas are not rainbows that appear in the sky, at least not often; they can be worked on, planed like wood, improved with friction. Have I worn you out? You look quite unwell. Would you like to go home and rest?

I do not need rest. I want to be of service.

Simone taps his mottled cheek. Are you sure you want to offer your help?

Laura Agnelli insists she does.

Very well, then.

The painter gives her folded garments belonging to Giovanna and bids her put them on behind the screen. The rich fabric, blue and red, is heavy in Laura’s arms, the clothes cut slightly too big for her. Simone organizes his materials: pen, brushes, ink, new parchment. Arranges chairs: one for you, and one we will pretend is the angel. He gives her the codex.

Laura is pinched by self-consciousness. How should she sit? How should she hold the book?

The man mutters for her to do whatever she thinks best.

Laura forces herself into stillness and grasps the book of hours.
It is the most fabulous object she has ever held. Maestro Simone, is there a difference between a closed book and an open book?

A vast difference. (Simone breaks an egg and separates out the yolk, neglects to tell her what the difference is.)

Laura opens the book, then closes it. Open, it ought to be open. Randomly—it is a page from the Penitential Psalms, and what Laura recognizes as
De profundis.
It used to be a favorite passage of hers. Her mouth dries.
De profundis clamavi, ad te Domine. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
She sits upright, using her backbone in a pose she hopes is both modest and resolute.

Simone Martini commences a new Marian
the first he has made led by the instincts of an orphan. The novelty of the experiment reignites his enthusiasm.

They fall into a half-trance.

Time is measured for Simone by his progress, outline correction face hair feet chair blue gold. He is transfixed by the delicate doll that materializes—she has a sweetness, a primness, and a restlessness—as though the figure on the page would drop her book on the floor, stand up, walk away. His experienced eye discerns it is not exactly right for the altar (it lacks drama, narrative, presence). He did not expect immediate gratification but senses this is the closest yet he has come to his Virgin. He is on his way at last.

For Laura, it is oddly similar to sitting in private. She soon realizes the painter is consumed by his work. Though he concentrates on her appearance so intently, he is barely aware of her person as long as she does not move. She finds this easier than the hours she endured when Simone was trying to ignore her and she so frequently irritated him. It is a relief. It is an opportunity to think, to untangle some of the mess.

De profundis clamavi, ad te Domine. Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuae intendentes in vocem deprecationis meae. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

Laura, you are slumping.

The girl straightens, her muscles aching. Maestro Simone—her voice cracks a little—will your wife, will Giovanna, come today?

No, she is visiting her parents.

I should like to see her again.

You had a pleasant conversation, did you? I shall ask her to come by next week.

I should like to see her again very soon.

I am sure she would like to see you too.

Laura trembles. As soon as she can, please.

Simone Martini raises his gaze to her. Whatever is the matter?

Her skin has turned to a dreadful pallor.

The artist sets aside his tools and goes to her. He asks whether she is sickening, and she does not deny it. Should he send back to the hospital for a physician?

She refuses. It is true that Laura has the urge to cry, but she does not want to shed tears on anything that does not belong to her, least of all the precious book of hours. She rests the codex with her thumb to mark the page (it might be important for it to look the same when the study resumes).

I will be all right soon. I think we were doing well, Signore. We ought to continue.

No, we will stop. There is a burden weighing upon you, Laura Agnelli. Why not tell me what it is, and I shall see if I can help?

Laura mutely shakes her head, makes a brief and artificial smile.

It is why you want to see Giovanna, you want to confide something in her, I think. Regrettably she is away for several days. Whatever
it is, can it wait for so long? To me, it seems not. To me, it seems you are suffering now.

It is unimportant.

Is someone hurting you? Are you in trouble? To confessor, doctor, and lawyer, do not hide the truth.

Laura wrings the folds of the fabric with her free hand but does not, now, avoid his gaze. Which are you being, Signore?

Whichever you are most in need of. Just a friend, if it pleases you. I thought we had become friends today, you and I?

We have. We have.

Then tell me what ails you. Tell your

Laura’s reply is a whisper. I am in despair, Maestro Simone. I have been robbed.

Who has stolen from you? What have you lost?

I have been seeing a man outside the hospital, and now I am sure I am with child.

There is a flicker of astonishment in the artist’s face, and a glimmer in his eye like the breaking of day, which fades as his features rearrange themselves into the mask of deep thought. Then your demeanor and your recent disappearance are finally accounted for. What can you tell me of your young man?

Laura fixes her suspicious stare on him. Why? What are you going to do?

Nothing. Not anything. Not one thing, without your express wish: you have my word.

At this, she relents. His name is Bartolomeo Pavoni. He is a citizen of Siena, I think. I had not considered marriage until I met him and he began paying me attention. He was very charming at first.

Yes. I see. Now I must be indelicate for a moment and ask a necessary question: are you absolutely certain that what you and this Pavoni did together can cause pregnancy? Because if you just held hands or merely kissed and touched each other—

Laura cuts across this speech. Yes, she knows what took place is the thing that causes pregnancy.

I had to make sure. Can you tell me the way this occurred?

BOOK: Girl Reading
11.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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