‘He is a poor disciple who does not excel his master.’ Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks
You have to be careful. Write nothing that might incriminate. Think before you speak. With friends, speak only of technical matters: the form of a church, the curve of an arm, the plan of a city. Say nothing of yourself, nothing. Watch out for your enemies, but watch out for your friends as well, for they…
He stopped: what was that in the other room? A mouse? The floorboards shifting in the afternoon heat? Or a footstep? He stayed still, quill in hand, listening intently. He heard: the clatter of a handcart, dragged along the cobbled street outside, the cry of an urchin, a church bell, striking three times for no apparent reason, a conversation between two citizens—they were planning a journey to Genoa. Nothing from the other room. He turned back to his notebook.You had to be careful. A commission, an important commission, from the Duke himself: the same as last year. The Duke hadn’t changed: watchful, guarded, slow as ever. Their meeting was at the castle, in the quiet room, as it was called, its cold stone walls covered with thick, burgundy tapestries depicting hunting scenes that nobody ever looked at. The city’s festival, of course. Not a surprise. His third year with this responsibility. Or was it his fourth? An honor for an artist, they always said. He would bring delight to the city, the Duke told him, but he knew otherwise.
His memories: the villages in the hills round Florence, where Carneval was still a riot. The wild singing, the deep voices of the men courting the high trills of the women… Wine flowed into their mugs, and after sunset their eyes shone in the flames of the fire. He’d walked up there with another apprentice, a son of the village, and they’d accepted him, even though he was a notary’s son. Their laughter, their caricatures of the rich, the pompous, the powerful, each more ridiculous, more obscene, more outrageous… Dressing-up, and then—undressing… But here, in Milan. A funeral march, not a festival. Where was the joy? That wasn’t part of it. True, all were invited: knights, nobles, merchants, popolo, even the laborers, the market women and the urchins. All would line the streets: they’d cheer as the floats lumbered by and the corporations and guilds processed, they’d drink the wine that was offered them. There’d be marching, singing and shouting. But joy? He sighed.
Sights, sights, sights… He had to find something for them to stare at, something better than last year, even something they might learn from, illiterates, semi-literate dabblers in Italian vernaculars and pretentious Latin scholars, all of them. And if he failed? Well, it wouldn’t be the death of him. An artist might die in a street brawl with a drunken soldier, or from plague, or even from a broken heart—but not from assassination or poisoning. They talked about the artist’s miraculous power to create glorious images that spoke directly to the brain… But no one cared enough to murder him. Still, a failed festival could ruin him. He couldn’t lose the Duke’s favor. How would he live without his studio, his wine, his constant supply of paper? His clothes, his desk, his books?
This was the best part of the day. The little sounds of mid-afternoon and, on his desk, a cup of sweet wine, a bowl of almonds and his notebooks. The courtiers had retired for their naps, Salai too, probably. Maybe even the spies would take some time off: they could walk round the city’s moat to clear their heads, to forget—for a moment—the endless series of conspiracies, rebellions and betrayals that they hunted in the city. His quill scratched on the paper, almost moving by itself. Nothing compromising! But a glimmer, a sight, a thought was there. There were still months before the festival, but he needed to say something to the Duke soon.
His quill moved, sketching out a cart, filling in the details of its great wheels, shading in the platform, then moving up to the float, where he’d place…
‘Leonardo!’ It was Salai, calling from downstairs. He recognized the tone: something important. He tutted: an idea, half-formed, dissipated as he stood up.
‘Leonardo!’ The call was more urgent. ‘It’s the Moor!’
The cry, meaningless to anyone outside Milan, made perfect sense to him. Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza required his presence. He grabbed his best coat, buttoning it up as he paced down the stairs.
The message was simple: the Duke, now. It would be the festival, he thought. The Moor must have an idea, and his heart sank at the prospect. Outside, he turned right, left and right again, onto the main route, where his passage was blocked by two laborers pushing a huge, creaking cart filled with bricks. He let them pass, then made his way to the castle. He’d have to be receptive, show interest in the Moor’s latest fixation, and afterwards gently steer him away from it. He walked fast. The Moor! What a ridiculous title. But a thought occurred to him: maybe it demonstrated some rule or tactic. Turn a weakness into a strength. The Duke, born with a swarthy complexion, had stood out in the ranks of fair young nobles. At an age when a young man is sensitive to every word, to every look, he was mocked as ‘the Moor’. So what did he do? He turned the epithet into his motif. Clever, he was clever. But was there something else here? Could there be a more general application of this rule? Weak Italy, divided between warring dukes, republics, Papacy and Empire, yet so productive in culture and ideas… He shook his head as he walked: he had to concentrate.
The Moor. Once again, he wondered: should he use the Duke’s motif in the festival procession? Was this now a symbol that the popolo and workers would understand? He pushed past three women ambling across the street, bundles of onions, mushrooms and greenery in their arms, the smell of the vegetables briefly masking the rich, pungent smell of Milan on an autumn afternoon. He glimpsed the castle ahead of him, high above the houses and workshops, framed by the tall towers of the aristocrats, but then the street twisted away. A beggar called to him , asking for a coin, but he pressed on, walking as fast as he could. The Moor. Something in the theme repelled him: a Moor was a common sailor, a slave, a commercial rival, perhaps even an enemy. It wouldn’t be right to use it in the Duke’s procession, even if…
The castle: there it was, in plain view. Grey, gaunt, with sharply-angled walls to repel cannon attack. He sensed a change as he left the commerce and chatter of the streets behind him, as if he had crossed some invisible border.
He’d prepared a line or two. A joke about how, next year, the festival floats would be bigger than African elephants. The Duke had a sense of humor, if you knew how to get on his right side. And he could review last year’s festival: talk about what had worked well, what had caught the enthusiasm of the crowd, what had demonstrated the greatness of the city and its ruler, and how it would be improved. Then there was the problem of street disorder. Music, wine, shouting—somebody always went too far. This year, the guildsmen must be present, and they must be armed. He’d insist on it. But at all costs, he must steer the Moor away from whatever idea had gripped him.
But when he arrived in the quiet room, he didn’t see the scene he’d expected. The Duke was sitting, staring out of the window. He didn’t react as Leonardo entered, and then gave a sort of start.
‘Leonardo! There you are.’
The faraway look didn’t leave the Duke’s face.
‘There’s a problem, Leonardo.’
Problems could be solved. Canals could be diverted, walls could be re-built, houses could be repaired…
Leonardo had to think fast. Tomasia—which one was she? The wife of the merchant from Pavia? No, no, she was Taddea. Tomasia… She was—she was the daughter of an old landowning family, coming up to marriageable age. Probably of marriageable age now. The family had moved to the city, like they all did these days. A blonde girl, quiet, didn’t look up much. He could remember her with decorated braids in her hair at some formal meeting, maybe a visit from the French ambassador. Then something else came to his mind: they said that she’d become an accomplished lute-player. A suitable talent for a marriageable daughter. But why would the Duke call him to discuss this?
The Duke started again, talking awkwardly—unlike him. There was a prospective husband. A minor son from a rising clan of international bankers in Genoa. A useful connection.
‘It would draw them closer to us, you see?’
‘Because, if we don’t construct a connection this way…’
The Duke paused, and the unfinished sentence lay heavy in the air. The implications were clear: the other side of the Sforza legacy. On the one hand, the political skills: the placement of daughters, the knitting, unravelling and re-knitting of alliances, the weighing of the balance of power… And, on the other, the threat of force, even the brutal assertion of power—these were all things in which the Sforzas excelled. Maybe a single blade to remove a man who had become an obstacle to their plans, maybe a whole army to besiege and destroy a city. Of course, if it came to the second route, he had his part to play. He’d designed terrifying new instruments of war: giant crossbows with exploding darts, subterranean mining works that could destroy a city’s walls, colossal mortars that would terrify an enemy force—these toys had first drawn the Duke’s attention to him. If there was conflict with Genoa, he knew what would be expected of him. But a girl? A marriage alliance? What was this to him?
‘Your lordship,’ he began, choosing his words carefully, ‘obviously I rejoice at the prospect of a bond between ourselves and the great city of Genoa, but…’
The Duke looked up, and Leonardo fell silent.
‘She’s become a problem, you see,’ the Duke said, still speaking in that strange, slow voice that Leonardo found difficult to follow. ‘Some madness—some thing has seized her, has unbalanced her.’
‘Has a physician been called? An astrologer?’
The Duke shook his head, then tutted.
‘It’s something else, Leonardo.’
‘Maybe it’s—it’s her womanly rhythms…’
In a trice the Duke was up and standing over him.
‘Idiot! It’s not her time of the month!’
He raised his fist, and Leonardo had time to think, he’s going to hit me—again. Instead, the Duke rapped him on the head with his knuckles. Not a blow, not really, but it still hurt.
‘Idiot! I keep you here because they say you’re one of the finest minds in Italy. Well, prove it! Go, talk to this girl, make her see sense.’
‘But sir! I’ve—I’m unmarried, I’ve little experience with women…’
The Duke was sitting down again, looking out the window, clearly turning to the next issue.
‘I know, Leonardo, I know. But go, do what you can. And be quick about it. We need this alliance. I want an announcement of a marriage in five days.’
When he was shown to Tomasia’s quarters, he heard lute music. He paused to listen, for he knew the solemn Venetian tune she was playing, with its regular bass notes and repeated decorative ornamentations. He could picture her fingers reaching up, getting that high note to vibrate, once, twice, then that part with the bass notes—no, she’d missed one. A string buzzed coarsely. Now, if she’d slowed down for that part, broken with careful meter of the tune, and had played that part more slowly, then… Then not only would it have sounded right, it would have sounded accomplished. Make your weakness into a strength—that thought had already come to him once today, hadn’t it?
Tomasia put her lute down as he came in. She was as he remembered: a fine, delicate young woman, golden-blonde hair, tender-looking, bursting with that earnest pride that often possesses the young. He could imagine her in a painting, maybe as an allegory of spring… Then she looked up, and he saw in her eyes a harshness, a clarity which few of her age showed.
‘After the physician, after the astrologer, who have they sent to cure me? The Moor’s pet.’
She spat the words out, and despite himself, he felt his blood rise. In other places, such language would have sparked a fight. Sometimes, even an artist had to lash out. He controlled himself: he was not in a tavern.
‘They say you are not well, Tomasia.’
He was not sure how to address her, but there seemed little point in searching for polite phrases.
‘Do they indeed? And what might be wrong with me?’
‘Perhaps—the talk of marriage has disturbed you?’
‘A banker’s son? My servants tell me he is not cruel, he only has two whores, and he probably won’t beat me. And he’s not ugly! What could be better? A fine reward for all those years I spent learning Latin and French!’
‘You resent this marriage.’ He wanted to stay silent, but he guessed he had to say something to make her talk.
She looked him straight in the eyes, and he had an impression of the rage within her, but of something else as well.
‘You want the truth?’
‘No, I don’t resent this marriage. If I refuse him, they’ll only find someone worse. At least the man can read. So let’s get it done.’
He saw the problem—or part of the problem. She accepted her fate, but her acceptance was too clear-sighted, too brutal to satisfy the conventions. She spoke with a callousness that only old matriarchs, veteran marriage-fixers, might use. Even a banker’s son, pushed into a politically useful marriage, might expect a show of tenderness from his bride-to-be. Wasn’t that the fashion? The Triumph of Love, the joys of the hearth… Everyone wanted romance, where once there had only been calculation, convenience and practicality.
‘So what does the Moor’s pet say? Should I refuse my suitor?’
‘It would be welcomed by the Duke…’ he began.
‘Of course, the other alliance, the real one. The joining of Milan and Genoa, for which I must part my legs…’
Leonardo winced at the coarseness of her words, and she smiled. She began again:
‘For which I must be sacrificed.’ She laughed: a short, hard, cold sound. ‘For the good of the state, of course. But the Moor’s wrong about Genoa.’
Despite himself, he automatically looked round, checking that no one else could hear.
‘He’s wrong, Leonardo. This will not benefit Milan.’
‘If Milan takes Genoa, then it faces France, directly, with no cover. For Milan, Genoa is a port, and so the gateway to the Mediterranean. For France, Genoa is the gateway to Italy. And if Milan tries to close that gate to France…’
He raised his eyebrows. Where had the girl learned to think like this?
‘Yes, Leonardo. If Milan holds the gate, then France will force it open: she will strike, and strike hard.’
‘Tomasia… It is not—not wise to contradict the Duke’s ideas so openly.’
Leonardo walked back to his studio. Now he could see why the Moor had called on him. Tomasia was neither ill nor mad. She was a healthy, good-looking, exceptionally intelligent young woman. That was the beginning of the problem. A man might welcome a bride-to-be with a little book-learning and the ability to quote some decorous lines of Latin poetry, but real intelligence in a woman was hardly an advantage in a marriage. Of course, times were changing. There was that woman—that woman in Venice, who had published a book, in her own name. What was it? Something in Latin, on the virtues of the saints. Leonardo had bought a copy, and had tried to read it, but the solidity of its Latin prose, mangled with its odd Venetian syntax, made the book incomprehensible to him. He passed it on to a cathedral canon, who as surprised as him to hear of a book written by a woman.
Yes, intelligence in a marriageable young woman was not an advantage—but it could be excused or down-played by a canny matriarch, eager to see her family pushed forward, briefly, into the center of political events. But when intelligence was coupled with Tomasia’s cold anger, her disdain for convention—this was truly a poisonous mixture. And yet! And yet, she was right. She saw clearly. In fact, she saw too clearly. She could well be right about the Moor’s projects for Genoa. This was not madness, but its opposite: a cold, clear sanity. Tomasia was no tender virgin, frightened at the prospect of her husband’s embraces, but a lucid adult, accurately calculating her chances. He paused at a street corner, and let out a short laugh. A passing apprentice, a bundle of planks on his shoulder, gave him a quick stare. Leonardo saw the true nature of the problem which the Duke had presented him. His task was not to cure Tomasia of madness, but to cure her of sanity, a far more difficult task. He shook his head, exhausted. He missed the quiet and order of his studio, but even as the image of his desk and notebooks formed in his mind, he thought of the festival. There was too much to do.
The busy street, bustling with apprentices, laborers, market women and well-dressed citizens, annoyed him. He turned left, and passed by the backyards of a row of houses. After sunset, he would not have ventured here, but today, at the end of an autumn afternoon, all seemed calm. Chickens clucked as he walked by. He thought again of his conversation with the Duke. What could he do for Tomasia? He could not openly refuse the Duke’s wishes. That rap on his head had taught him something: the Duke saw this as important. He expected results, and quickly. If Leonardo showed himself to be slow or incompetent, he could lose the Duke’s favor. Someone else—another artist, or an engineer—might be asked to arrange the festival. There were plenty of them at the court, each seeking the Duke’s eye. But if open refusal was not an option, could he evade the command? Lose it in a flurry of activity, dazzle the Duke with talk of projects that would revive the glory of ancient Rome in modern Milan? That had worked in the past—but this time, the Duke had insisted: the matter with Tomasia was urgent. It had to be solved now.
He sighed, and pushed past an old fencepost. As he turned towards his own house, he caught sight of something through some bushes. A servant girl, washing herself in a tub. She stood up, back towards him, and his eyes ran down the taut muscles of her neck, the arc of her shoulders, moving as she raised her arm, the curve of her back, the swell of her buttocks… Framed by the green leaves of the bushes, the figure of the girl made him think of those coy, sentimental images by Botticelli: sedately prancing virgins, demurely half-dressed as they stepped over carefully placed wild flowers. Tomasia would look like this, he thought. He quickly estimated curves, angles and lines: yes, the servant was an exact match. Tomasia would have these same curves, not the stronger, more regular sinews of a man. He blinked, and then remembered where he was. What would they say at the Duke’s court? The great artist, caught ogling a naked servant girl.
He moved on carefully, making no noise, but the image of the girl stayed in his mind: a perfume that lingered, a fruit he’d never tasted. Men—he knew men. But women? What were they? The graces, those austere, ideal, imaginary goddesses of antiquity; the forceful, handsome aristocratic women of the court, quick, fickle and demanding; the tough, strong wives of guildsmen and laborers, coarse and unthinking. Tomasia was none of these.
The next morning, Leonardo was back at his desk. For the moment, he gave up with Tomasia: he knew of no cure for sanity. He’d have to tell the Duke that, after the physician and the astrologer, the artist had also failed. And his great work would have to wait—there was no time for the painting at the Convent. A shame: that was the task that truly deserved his attention. But the festival—at last he had an idea. It had been in front of him all the time: sight, he’d been searching for a sight. And that’s where he’d start, and then move on to all the senses: from sight, to sound, smell, touch and taste. Ideas flowed and his quill ran back and forth across the pages on his desk: beauty, women like goddesses, like graces, standing by great white columns—glorious images to represent sight; music, for hearing—a float of musicians, no, a series of floats, carrying coordinated teams of musicians, playing themes which were compatible with each other, so the crowds would experience each float that passed as a new section of the same piece of music. Smell would be represented by flowers: not real flowers, but models of them, great artificial gardens rolling down the streets, perfumed appropriately, and maybe with immense cauldrons of incense to accompany them. Touch was more difficult to represent, but he could use devices like hammers to signify men’s power and strength. Maybe images of the Madonna, holding her infant? No, too soft, too obvious. Celebrate instead clout and muscle, taming the material of brute nature. Taste was obvious: wine, sweetmeats, pies—the joys of the harvest, all the things that the crowd would have expected. And, in each case, he’d choose themes and devices which would represent the Sforzas’ contribution to the region. Their wine, the flowers of the Sforza gardens, the hammers of Milan’s artisans, and so on. But wait—in which order should the senses be shown? Obviously, sight was the most noble, and so should lead the procession. Or—or would it be better to start with the bestial faculty of taste, give the crowd what they wanted, and then ascend, through the senses, up to the glories of sight? Make the procession pull them up? Or should the moral hierarchy be respected? He wanted to collate these ideas and sketches: he could do that later, get Salia to stitch them together, in order, in a new notebook. He smiled.
Leonardo grabbed at sheets of paper on his desk, pulling them to him to scribble down an idea, to outline an image, then pushing them back. He knew what was needed: five clean images of floats on carts, simple enough, clear enough to convince the Duke, but—just as important—complex, detailed enough to delight him, to convince him that this would be an event as fine as those of Ancient Rome. Time passed, marked only by the scratching of his quill and the shifting of sheets of paper on his desk.
Something changed, without him noticing. One moment he was reaching for a new piece of paper, suddenly struck with the idea of a hunting horn—and next he couldn’t remember where to put it. He stayed still, gazing at the mass of papers on his desk, the assorted images, sketches, scribbles, notes and sentences. Time passed. The angle of the sun changed: its light left his desk, and moved to the corner of the room. What was he doing? Why was he doing it? Tomasia’s words came back to him: the Moor’s pet. The sense of urgency that had propelled him faded. He toyed with the bowl of almonds, moving it round and round, not touching its contents. The five senses. A clever idea, a nice theme—but no more than that. The sort of theme an artist would think of if required to produce something for his master. The thought was heavy and dark: it crushed him. And all this time, he was neglecting his painting.
Without moving, he stared at the images on his desk. Well-composed, some of them. Nicely drawn, he’d learnt his trade well in Verrocchio’s studio. A fine geometrician, that’s what they’d said.
He picked up his quill again. He had to lose this mood. There was work to be done. Outside, the church bells rang: midday. The Duke would want to see him soon. It would be better if he went to him before being called, if he went tomorrow. If he was full of enthusiasm for the festival, he might be able to push aside the question of Tomasia with an easy laugh: another crazy woman in Milan! Where the devil did they come from? He could imagine the Duke smiling. The alliance with Genoa could be formed another way.
But he couldn’t concentrate. His mind was unsettled: ideas for his great painting and for the festival were jumbled with thoughts of Tomasia and images of that naked servant girl. For God’s sake! He had to work. Just five clear images, it shouldn’t be difficult. His quill scratched and scraped along the paper, digging into it. The lines it formed now meant nothing. Scrawls and squiggles, not even patterns in any order. What sort of paper was this? Salia had let him down, he’d failed to get paper of first-class quality. He might as well be writing on a plank! No wonder he couldn’t work.
‘Salia!’ he shouted, but there was no reply.
He picked up a sheet of paper between his thumb and forefinger, and rubbed it. As he’d thought! It was abrasive, scratchy. He could feel grains in it. And now he remembered: the master at the paper manufactory, Simone, had died of plague in the summer. His widow had continued to run it, for better or worse, while waiting for a man to replace her husband. An odd woman. Friendly, yes, very friendly, not as strange as Tomasia, but…
It was no good. He couldn’t work. He might as well walk to the manufactory, and order some proper paper: while he was there, he’d check it, just to be sure. He found his ordinary coat, and then headed through the first ring of city walls, past the houses and gardens of the lesser guildsmen, shop-keepers and traders who lived in the outer circle, and then along to the stream that fed into the moat. Within minutes, he was by the manufactory, which stood outside the city, in a landscape of well-cultivated fields.
He liked the manufactory, he always had. He liked its bustle: the women and girls sorting out the rags, the men carrying the great loads of old cloth down to the settling tanks, the bitter smell of the fermenting rags… Perhaps, if his life had taken a different turn, he could have worked in a place like this. Occupied with the material and the practical. Or maybe in a printshop, with the smell of freshly printed pages…
The men in the yard recognized him. He had employed them before: they were reliable, competent workers. Some of them had helped in last year’s festival.
‘Afternoon, Dino!’ called one, with a laugh.
Another artist, a courtier would have taken offence. The man was being too familiar, but he hadn’t the energy to argue. Dino! How had he acquired that nickname? It should mean Bernardo or Riccardo, but somehow, all those years ago in the Verrocchio’s studio, he had become Leonardino, little Leonardo, then just Dino. Some southerner’s joke, he seemed to remember. Little Leonardo, earnestly measuring angles with his compasses, making points on sheets of paper, sharpening pencils. He nodded at the bearded man, a giant with a bundle of rags on his shoulder: he couldn’t remember his name.
‘You’re looking for Bona?’ the giant asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied. He supposed he was.
The giant gestured to a hut at the end of the yard. ‘Through there.’
Bona seemed delighted when he stepped through the door.
‘Dino!’ she cried, as if he was a son that she hadn’t seen for years. She ordered wine, bread, olive oil and tomatoes, saying she could see he hadn’t been eating properly. She made him sit down, and she looked at him, her eyes shining.
He felt unsure of himself. His desk called him, even now, but he remembered his inertia before his papers: if he went back, he might just face that same dull blankness. Better this brief immersion in Bona’s welcome, better to sense the buzz, activity and production all around him. Maybe he could feed off it, maybe it would inspire him.
‘Dino,’ she repeated. ‘I’ve been hearing so much about you, but you don’t come to see me.’
He smiled. ‘What have you heard?’
‘The painting, the great painting. Christ with the Apostles, on his last day.’
He raised his eyebrows. They knew of that even here? Truly, there were no secrets in Milan.
‘And what do they say of it?’
‘It will be a masterpiece, Dino, it will make you one of the great artists.’
‘What a subject, what faces, what a design…’
‘But what of you, Bona? Since Simone…’
He couldn’t say the words. He’d never liked her husband. A small, thin, difficult man, always arguing over prices and demanding payments.
She shrugged. ‘Death. The plague killed hundreds in summer, you know that. It was his time.’
He nodded. That was as true a statement as any. Better than saying she knew he was with the Lord above. More dignified. He looked at her again. Her eyes gleamed, her hair shone, her skin glowed. Widowhood suited her.
‘And the manufactory?’ he asked.
‘A man from Pisa’s interested in it. I’d stay involved, of course.’
‘I’ve been running this manufactory for fourteen, maybe fifteen years. I’m not going to stop now. There’s more need for paper than ever, you know.’
He knew. Humanists, astrologers, aristocrats, poets, bankers… Everyone wanted to write, everyone wanted to get published. Even women!
‘But eat, eat!’ she cried.
He picked a piece of bread, dipped it in the olive oil, and placed it in his mouth. Taste, he thought, remembering his plans for the festival procession. The bread tasted good. He sipped the wine, and then turned to her.
They talked easily. The changes in the court, the chatter in the churches, the new publications from Florence… But he was aware that they were having two conversations, overlapping, connecting—one spoken, one merely felt. In the second, unspoken, conversation, she was saying to him: Dino, there’s a place for you here. You could leave your fragile position on the edge of the court, you could settle here, you could live like other men. And he was replying: Bona, I can’t. I’m not the man for you. Twenty years ago, I chose a path. I can’t leave it now. He had a brief impression of her generous, round, brown body, her warm curves—and there was just an echo of a question, forming in the back of his mind. But no, no, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t… He could see she was a good woman: he didn’t need to be told that he’d find no better. But…
‘But you look worried, Dino. What’s bothering you? Christ and the Apostles?’
Their subterranean, unspoken conversation had ended. She’d made her offer, and she knew he’d refused. Maybe she was disappointed, but she wasn’t angry or even surprised. They talked more. He told her of his plans for the festival. She nodded when he explained his theme: the five senses. Then, to his surprise, he found himself talking about Tomasia. Bona was interested. When he laughed, and said the Duke wanted him to cure a woman of her sanity, she nodded.
‘You want to make her mad?’
He frowned, irritated that she’d made the problem sound so simple by misunderstanding the issue.
‘No, not mad. But something else: she must lose her cold reason. That’s not the same as being mad, you see?’
She smiled. ‘Of course, Dino, of course. It could be done.’
A visit to the Duke: he’d rushed in, demanding priority over the merchants and office-holders who sought attention. Then, with the Duke’s word and money to back him, he hired one of Milan’s finest artisans and found that servant-girl, who was called Ghena. She was terrified, poor thing. Well: a mysterious demand from the Duke himself, what was she to think? She must have heard some stories about what nobles might require of servant girls. Leonardo spent time reassuring her: nothing immoral was intended. She seemed skeptical, and he reminded her of the money the Duke would pay. It was a sum beyond her reckoning, and—in truth—did nothing to persuade her of the legitimacy of his demands. But bullying, bluster and bribery finally won her cooperation.
For the next three days, they locked themselves in his studio. The three of them worked intensely hard. To his surprise, once she understood the nature of the task, Ghena proved unexpectedly useful. She had her own ideas, and suggested modifications and improvements. Leonardo went back to those damn virgins of Botticelli: spring, the three graces, the sea breeze, joy… Insipid, sentimental, colorless, poorly crafted—the man had a lot to answer for! But he needed them now. They talked, planned, criticized, considered, produced. On the third day, two apprentices joined them. Once again, he had that sense of what his life might have been, working in a different way… As they worked, he grew more confident. Bona had been right, this was a cure for Tomasia’s sanity. He sent more requests to the Moor: a goldsmith was required. The Duke grumbled at the expense, but accepted after meeting Leonardo and hearing his enthusiasm.
On the fourth day, the Duke requested Tomasia’s immediate presence in the quiet room. He warned Leonardo before they started: if he found that his wishes were thwarted by a mere girl, there’d be hell to pay. Leonardo smiled serenely, stifling his last doubts.
Ghena was stationed in an adjoining room, and instructed to enter only when she was called for. She nodded, unable to bring herself to talk directly to the Duke.
Tomasia came in. Leonardo had to admire her: even in the presence of the Duke himself, she showed no nervousness. She curtsied, and uttered a smooth ‘Your lordship’ as if she was in the habit of meeting Dukes every day. The Moor looked at her closely, searching for signs of her humor. He always assesses first, thought Leonardo. The slow one, the one who thought before acting.
‘A marriage means many things,’ the Duke began.
Tomasia looked up, for all the world like an obedient pupil, listening to a new lesson.
‘It can be the union of two states, or of two families,’ continued the Duke. ‘But it is also, always, the joining the two people.’
‘Of course, your lordship,’ muttered Tomasia.
‘The old days, when we could demand submission from a young girl for reasons of state, are over, thank goodness.’
‘Indeed, your lordship.’
‘But…’ the Duke paused, apparently searching for the right words. ‘I would be failing in my duties if I did not inform you of something. I hold the prospect of a union of your family with the banking families of Genoa to be vital for the future of our city.’
Leonardo could not restrain himself.
‘They’re a fine family, friends of the arts, generous patrons…’ he began, but stopped when the Duke glanced at him.
‘As you consider your future, I thought it right to give you a sign of my favor: the first of many, of course.’
‘Your lordship,’ repeated Tomasia, clearly growing puzzled. ‘It was never my intention to refuse the man who has been chosen for me…’
‘And yet,’ said the Duke. ‘Sometimes, as in affairs of state, a mere absence of refusal is not the same as an acceptance.’
Tomasia looked up at him, obviously perplexed, and did not respond.
The Duke raised his hands and clapped.
‘Ghena!’ he called.
The servant-girl entered. Even Leonardo was amazed at the sight she made. Her hair had been re-arranged by the maids of the Duchess; her skin, transformed by their feminine wizardry, glowed. But it was on her dress that all eyes concentrated. It was made with delicate, white silk folds that shimmered from her neck to her ankles. Gold tassels adorned throat, and a gold-leaf pattern sparkled, covering the cloth. The entire costume was patterned with flowers and curving decorations. It followed the contours and the curves of Ghena’s body, accentuating and hiding at once. Tomasia’s jaw dropped: she gasped in amazement.
‘You see, Tomasia,’ the Duke said, ‘everyone who attends that wedding will think that you’re the Queen of Milan.’
‘But… my lord…’ she stammered.
‘You will be the spirit of Spring, leading your husband-to-be to a new land, while the greatest families of Milan and Genoa look at you. You will glide down the finest church in Milan…’
Yes, thought Leonardo, this is it. Sanity cured!
Walking back to his studio, Leonardo congratulated himself. He’d healed Tomasia. He laughed. Maybe in future he could paint more beautiful young women like her? He pictured the folds of a dress, pale hands, a quiet smile, and eyes that sparkled. Many nobles would pay well for a flattering portrait of a daughter or a wife.
He’d found working with the tailor, the goldsmith and Ghena unexpectedly interesting. It had been good to talk with them, to hear of their trades and their techniques. A dress, after all, was like a machine: its drapery and borders were cogs and gears. And its function was… Here, the thought evaporated. He wasn’t sure any longer. Was a dress like a machine? If so, what was its function? To make beautiful? To hide a shameful nakedness? To accentuate an existing beauty? He’d used a dress in a particular manner: to rectify Tomasia’s harshness. But how little he knew of women’s lives! Without Bona’s help, he could easily have returned to the Duke with only a confession of failure.
His mood changed, for no obvious reason. One moment he felt proud of his success, and then… He thought again about Bona and Ghena and Tomasia. Maybe they were part of a greater whole: it was the city itself which was the working mechanism, brought into action by the connections he’d made over the past four days. And himself? The engineer: tuning and adjusting the machine, enabling it to work. The Moor? The owner of the machine, but not its controller. And not a gracious owner. And now, what would happen to those individual parts? Here, a stab of regret. He shrugged his shoulders. What could he do for them? He had no power. Maybe Bona might find another husband, one wise enough to leave her alone to run the manufactory, and she would end her days arguing about rags and paper and prices. Ghena? Well, that was the last time she’d wear a fine dress. Her best chance was a good husband and a move to a house in the city’s outer circle. Tomasia? Difficult. If her bad temper returned, her husband would soon tire of her, and she’d become another bored, unhappy noblewoman. Would she keep that clarity of thinking? Maybe even write a book? Unlikely.
He felt a growing dislike for his idea of a festival procession based on the five senses. It was too obvious, too shallow. Looking again at the guildsmen, laborers and market women on the street, he felt he wanted to celebrate all the inhabitants of this city. He recalled the old ideal of the city-state, whose greatest strength was its people. Could he persuade the duke to accept that? A celebration of the city itself. He sighed. The Duke would insist on Milan’s military might as the main theme. A festival of cannon and armored knights, of crossbows and pikemen. Nothing like the vision of city and its inter-connections which had gripped him, nothing for Tomasia, Bona or Ghena. He frowned. You had to be careful. Without the Duke’s favor, he’d be nothing. And his great painting? Maybe there’d be time tomorrow: a moment to sketch a wine glass, a salt cellar, a cloth… The little things first…
He remembered his desk and papers, and walked faster.
Sharif Gemie is a retired history professor living in Wales. In all his 32 years as a professional historian he never studied Renaissance Italy: this short story was inspired by a visit to Venice.