Authors: Jorge Magano
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Jorge Magano
Translation copyright © 2015 Simon Bruni
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Previously published as
La Mirada de Piedra
in 2014 in Spain. Translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2015.
Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Scott Barrie
In the fields and along the paths, here and there, he saw the shapes of men and animals changed from their natures to hard stone by Medusa’s gaze. Nevertheless he had himself looked at the dread form of Medusa reflected in a circular shield of polished bronze that he carried on his left arm. And while a deep sleep held the snakes and herself, he struck her head from her neck. . . . He told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings.
THE BIRTH OF A MONSTER
The block of marble seemed to glow as Andrea Bolgi stood it upright on the bench and gazed at it, lost in thought. A burning passion took hold of him as he looked deep into the stone. He thought he could see the monstrous smile of the creature encased within. Emulating old Michelangelo, his task was to free it from its prison and release it into the world.
Bolgi often forgot that he was no Michelangelo.
Though the great master worked with agility, seemingly without effort, guided by his instinct—or divine power, as he believed—Bolgi’s methods were often criticized by his colleagues as being too coarse. They considered his work cold and static, at odds with the expressive, dynamic, theatrical trends of the time. But Bolgi did not care what others might say. He was euphoric as he worked on his new piece, a commission for the wealthy merchant Domenico Corsini, who had built a garden to house his sculptures of mythological subjects. The ancient gods’ world of love and conflict had seduced Corsini, just as it had inspired Cardinal Scipione Borghese to commission some of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s finest works years before.
After this, nobody will doubt my ability
, Bolgi thought with stubborn naiveté as he set to work on the block. On several occasions the flying chips of stone struck his bare arm, but he ignored the pain and kept chiseling. The task would take weeks, but he would not rest until it was finished. For the first time in his life, Andrea Bolgi was determined to push his gift to its limits.
On the third day of this work, a tall man with a bushy black mustache walked into the shed and stood beside the artist, watching him sculpt. “I see you’re making progress.”
Bolgi stopped and looked up. Recognizing his patron, he gave a hint of a smile and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“It’s coming along. I want to finish as soon as possible. I’m sure you’ll be satisfied, once it’s done.”
“With this final piece in my collection of monstrous creatures, my garden will compare with that of Emperor Hadrian himself.”
“I have absolutely no doubt you are right,” Bolgi assented, though deep down he was not so sure. He bent and picked up a portfolio from the floor. “This is what it will look like.”
Domenico Corsini examined the sculptor’s charcoal sketches, half closing his eyes as he studied the images. Never before had he seen such expression: the wild hair; the creature’s violent, bulging gaze and twisted features; the contrast of light and shade. Never had he seen such a brilliant portrayal of monstrosity. He admired the drawings in silence for several minutes, and then slapped Bolgi on the shoulder.
“I truly cannot wait to see it finished, so I will leave you to your work. Next Tuesday I’ll return to see what progress you’ve made. Arrivederci, Andrea.”
For the next several days, Bolgi worked to form and contour the figure. After polishing away the marble’s impurities, he recalled what his master, Bernini, had taught him.
The marble must not resemble marble. You must make every surface and material true to life, imitating its texture and light.
Bolgi, who had taken ten years to complete his Saint Helena for the Vatican, did not want to waste time now, so he dismissed his master’s advice and left the marble as smooth as it had been when it was cut from the quarry at Carrara. When the figure was finished, he compared the sketch to the sculpture one last time. Satisfied with the result, he covered the marble with a cloth and went to rest before Domenico’s next visit.
“What do you think?” the impatient artist asked when Domenico arrived a week later.
Domenico Corsini removed the cloth and walked around the bust several times, inspecting every detail closely. He ran his hand over his face and hair a couple of times, then pulled it away, looking disenchanted. Finally he shook his head at Bolgi.
“You see, Andrea, when you showed me the sketch I was astounded by its expressiveness. It captured that spark of life found only in the great art of the ancient world. But I’m afraid the final result is disappointing. The ancient sculptures in my garden have lives of their own. You must have seen this for yourself. Aphrodite emerges from the water and the transparent liquid runs down her body; Hercules’s mace looks as if it was made of wood; the nymphs’ garments look like delicate cloth, not marble—I do not wish to denigrate your work, Andrea, but this sculpture is nothing more than cold stone. It no more deserves a place in my collection than a half-starved mule belongs in my sumptuous stables.”
His self-respect mortally wounded, Bolgi begged the merchant to give him another chance with the gorgon, assuring him he could do much better and faithfully capture what he had sketched, but he needed more time. Domenico was lenient and granted this to him, but Bolgi imposed one condition.
“I would beg you not to enter the shed for one week. I will have finished the piece by then, and you may reject it or give me your approval.”
The demand surprised Domenico, and he nearly refused there and then, but the sculptor’s determination moved him. Agreeing, Domenico took his leave, promising not to return until the appointed day.
When Domenico returned a week later, he found a smiling Andrea Bolgi leaning on an object draped in cloth. The artist’s proud expression suggested he had fulfilled his promise. Domenico hoped that was the case. He had no desire to reject the piece again.
“Here it is, as we agreed,” said Andrea with a tone of complete confidence. Before Domenico could say anything, Bolgi pulled away the drape and bared the statue.
The bust wore the same terrifying expression Domenico had seen in the drawing and on the first version of the sculpture, yet this time there was a vital difference. Now, the wrinkles on the face and neck were like those of a real person. The tangled hair was no longer simply hair but glistening serpents that writhed in an orgy of movement. The gaze—hard, wicked, demonic—made Domenico shudder.
He could not believe his eyes. He placed his hand on the woman’s neck, but after holding it there a brief moment, he snatched it back in fright. The marble felt almost warm, and he imagined he could feel the flesh somehow throbbing. He glanced back at the artist, who was still smiling.
“I must admit I’m impressed,” he said in a low, almost reverent, voice. “Bravo, Andrea! You have done an extraordinary job. It truly is the most terrifying thing I have seen in my life. And what movement—it is as if it could turn its head at any moment to gaze at me!”
The sculptor ran his hand through his hair, combing out little drips of sweat.
“Do you accept it for the garden?”
Domenico lifted his eyes to the artist’s face, and after scrutinizing him, turned back to the gorgon, feeling another reflexive spasm when his gaze met hers.
“I never thought a lump of marble could embody evil so savagely! I can almost believe that anyone who looks upon it will be turned to stone.”
Corsini’s words about the sensual savagery of the statue could have applied just as well to the young woman who, a week later, moaned and writhed beneath him in his bed. Since they’d met a couple of years earlier at a party at the Royal Palace, their private bacchanals had become a most pleasant habit for the hedonistic, womanizing merchant. He enjoyed beautiful companions as much as he admired a beautiful poem or sculpture, and Constanza was one of his greatest pleasures.
“Domenico,” she told him, “if you keep wearing me out like this, soon there will be nothing of me left!”
His eyes idled down her body. “There’s still so much of you to explore, Constanza.”
“Much? Don’t tell me there’s something you’d like to do that you haven’t done already.”
“And if there is? Will you refuse me?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” she countered, cocking her eyebrow suggestively.
Corsini fell against his lover, exhausted, and burst into laughter. “Grant they or deny, yet they are pleased to have been asked.”
Constanza rested her head on her hand, her elbow sinking into the straw mattress. The firmness of her naked body captivated him. She was a stunning young woman, with eyes like hot coals that echoed the heat of her unruly, flame-colored hair. “Ovid,” she declared, drawing out each syllable.
The points of Domenico Corsini’s mustache lifted as he smiled. “You never disappoint me, Constanza. You can recognize any quote from antiquity, however obscure.”
“That’s why you want me. My head excites you more than my chest,” she said, juggling her breasts in her hands. “You couldn’t care less if my beauty fades, as long my mind remains intact. Maybe you should find another woman to satisfy your base desires.”
“There is nothing worse than a woman, except another woman,” Corsini recited. Seeing his lover’s look of feigned anger, he added: “according to Aristophanes. Anyway, I already have another woman, though I doubt she will satisfy me the way you do. Get dressed; I want you to meet her.”
They went out into the garden and strolled among its impressive collection of mythological sculptures. Corsini had begun assembling his collection as soon as the palazzo’s architect, Cosimo Fanzago, had finished building the stately mansion. It was one of the many buildings constructed under the auspices of the Spanish Habsburgs, who had ruled the viceroyalty of Naples since 1516. The city had become an important cultural and artistic center, where nobles and wealthy merchants led opulent lives in the new palazzi that presided over the newly built streets and squares.
“Here you have it, my most recent acquisition,” said Corsini, stopping in front of the marble pedestal that supported the head of the gorgon Medusa.
It was not a cold day, but Constanza wrapped her arms around herself as if suddenly chilled. She paled and looked at her lover with disgust. “What monstrosity is this?”
“Impressive, isn’t it? It’s a piece by Andrea Bolgi, a sculptor from Carrara. He’s not very famous, but he was a disciple of Bernini and worked at the Vatican.”
“It’s horrifying. Get rid of it, Domenico.”
“What do you mean? It’s sublime. Look at the work on the snakes, the expression in the gaze, the ferocity of her countenance . . .”
“Take it from me—it can only bring you misfortune.”
Corsini was surprised by the alarm in her voice. Constanza was an erudite woman, not at all superstitious. When he pressed her on the issue, she explained that as a child, while she was playing in a sown field, she had found a medallion that bore the image of the same being. A friend of the family, a priest, told her that it was the work of the devil and that she must throw it away, for it was imbued with evil powers. But Constanza wanted to keep it, and she hid it in a cabinet at her grandmother’s house. The next day the house burned down.
“My beautiful Constanza,” Corsini said. “That was undoubtedly a fatal coincidence, nothing more.”
“It was not. The priest was right and I was foolish. The medallion was cursed. The monster brings bad luck, and this statue will bring it again.”
Corsini tried to reassure her, but she could not be talked out of her distress, nor of her demand that he destroy the sculpture that very day. He refused, and she left his house, never to return.
Four months later, the moon’s rays fell on the façade of the house as the front door opened and a frantic figure bolted into the hedges. If any of the many eyes that watched the garden had belonged to a being of flesh and bone, a witness could later have described the moment when Domenico Corsini, naked and out of his senses, scampered among his brood of nymphs, satyrs, gods and monsters, reciting verses by Petrarch and Ovid. But all the eyes were of marble, and none could appreciate that Corsini’s mad gallop followed a predetermined course to the front of the pedestal supporting the bust of Medusa.
There, the Neapolitan merchant fell to his knees. “Infernal monster!” he declaimed, trembling with fever. The buboes on his neck had burst and were oozing a blackish fluid. “Bastard daughter of Poseidon! I curse the day you were created. That sculptor tricked me. Oh, poor Constanza! She said you were cursed, and now she is dead, with hundreds of others! But your victory will be short-lived. Before I die, I will defeat you. Your reign of terror is over.”
The gorgon’s bust stood motionless on the pedestal, immune to the reproaches and threats. Corsini arose clumsily and rained blows on the marble with his fists until his hands bled. “Oh gods!” he whimpered. “My strength fails me. But if Perseus could destroy you, so can I. I just need . . .”
His words were lost in the night. Corsini was rendered mute: horror-struck by Medusa’s face, bewitched by her chilling expression. He screamed, and his cry was heard in surrounding Naples as its inhabitants fought against the plague that would kill half of them.
Corsini’s servants didn’t find his body until the next day. It was floating in the pond, its black skin covered in cuts and scratches, its fingernails broken, and several locks of hair pulled from its head. A short distance away, the gorgon Medusa stood upright on her pedestal, defiance flashing through her stony expression, as if warning that her kingdom of shadows would reign for many centuries to come.