.. | short stories | 05 (Italian sculpture)
For his last project under the tutelage of his Master, the venerable sculptor Orazio Ferreti, Gian chose the Daphne. It would be a massive undertaking but he felt more than up to the task, since for the last year or so he'd only been finishing many of the smaller works Orazio himself could not due to the shaking of his hands. His old Master often grumbled about the loss of his livelihood with his encroaching age, but Gian could only smile instead of pitying him. If Orazio stopped taking commissions tomorrow he'd certainly be well off enough for the rest of his days; it was pure, stubborn obstinacy that kept the grumpy old man going. Meanwhile Gian himself was becoming an expert of fine detail in finishing up these last works of his Master's.
At 22, after a six year apprenticeship to Orazio, the best known sculptor in the region, Gian was quite settled and confident in his abilities, but truly lacked the cockiness that Orazio often chided him for anyway. Tall, hardy and strong as a field hand, the young man did have the ability to afford him a little assuredness in his craft to believe he could take on the life-sized Daphne. She'd been beginning to dance about in his head for a few months now, a lively nymph, until she was frozen in the moment before her body took on the form of a tree to escape the passions of the sun god Apollo. That was the moment he wanted. He was sure he could do it better than Bernini.
He smiled to himself and rubbed his rough chin, pulling his hand away to see chalk and stone dust on his roughened fingers. It was near the end of the day and he realized that he needed badly to bathe before calling upon his Master at home with this new inspiration. A shave would be needed too and clean clothes most certainly, though he was never one to put much effort into social propriety. Working out of doors, getting up a good sweat that dripped from his brow, the feel of his muscles aching- that was the good life. A mortal one, a live one.
Doubtless his Master would disagree. He was the one who'd insisted there be an entire wall knocked out from one of the studios so that the fresh air might get in and cool him off during the searing summer days. Old people just complain too much sometimes, Gian thought with a smile as he wiped his forehead with his arm.
Heaving himself up from his low stool, Gian stretched stiff muscles. Around him a few laborers still toiled at their work, those last minute details before calling it a day and going home. There were the rhythmic chinks and scrapes of chisels and hammers, the muffled hiss of sanded paper against stone, voices echoing off of lofty adobe and stone ceilings and walls. Over all there was the bristly sweep of the youngest apprentices' brooms in a vain attempt to control the ever-present stone dust. All the sounds and smells were comfortingly familiar to his ears and he stretched once again, at that moment a lucky man alive indeed to be so enamored of his chosen life's-work.
He nodded to the few of his peers who remained and tossed stubborn black curls out of his eyes. His hair was too shaggy as well to be a man of respectable means at any rate but he cared none for that sort either. It was a fair thing he preferred the unrespectable to the opposite in terms of life's little pleasures anyway.
"Gian! Before you go-" a voice called out to him. The elder apprentice stopped and looked round until his eyes fell upon one of his juniors, Carlo, waving him down as he trotted to him. "Would you take these to Signore Ferreti? You promised you'd show them for me-"
In front of him he held a stack of rough charcoal sketches of his newest idea to be approved by Orazio before he put in wasted time and effort. Such approval took more persuasion and skillful talk than pretty drawings. Everyone here had a hand for the craft practiced and could draw plans easily enough, but few could get their projects accepted without a more senior apprentice's guidance and help with the old Master.
Gian flipped through the sketches with a slight nod. He wouldn't embarrass himself by showing someone else's faulty designs, but Carlo's bid for the studio's recent commission of a family of busts looked to him decent enough to win audience with their harshest critic.
"I will," Gian said with a smile. "And I'll be expecting that bottle of Cicilian port for it."
Carlo with a broad smile slapped his hand and shook it in agreement. "Done," he said. "See you next week!" He jogged off to finish his chores before taking leave over their two day break.
Gian rolled the papers up and tucked them under his arm. To show Orazio his own plans he needed no such visual aid, being possessed enough of an imagination and smooth tongue to sell his idea with words alone. As he strode with a characteristic swaggering walk out of the studio his mind began to concoct the true form of what he wanted to create. As soon as Orazio let him have it he would then have to find the right girl to make it happen.
Arabella lay across her sister's unmade bed, reading a book she had managed to purchase with the meager funds Lina had afforded her. She had been here for two weeks now, away from home for the first time at the tender age of sixteen, much by events that were not her doing. In those events, having occurred over a fortnight ago, she'd lost her family, her home, her privilege, and had had to leave her name of delgi Franciascelli behind forever. The name was too high, too lofty, and to be singled out among the wasted place she now resided in was the last thing she wanted.
It was an achievement in her young mind that she was even able to focus on a book at all, being of a nervous, timid temperament and having gone through so recently what she had. But the days here were monotonous once one got used to the sounds and smells of it all, and she feared she would go mad without some diversion from the wretched thoughts in her head about what she had done.
Bored now, even of her book, Arabella sat up from the little bed she shared with her sister and moved to the small four paned window that overlooked the square outside. From below her second story state she could see and hear the dregs of humanity that began coming out at around this time when the sun was going down and the day's work was done. It was the sheer number of people she'd had to get used to first, second, their smell and third, their complete and utter lack of decency. The few letters she had received from Lina when her sister had left, when Arabella was but ten years, had failed to describe the true identity of the place Lina had finally settled in to call home and work at the same time.
The Russet Room. That was what this place was called, the name reverently whispered in dark alleyways, a place where silver-blessed pleasure-seekers could spend their fortunes for a night or two in pleasurable company. This was the place the eldest daughter Lina had claimed sanctuary in to hide disgrace from their family when she too had left the name delgi Franciascelli behind.
It was nigh seven years ago that Arabella had received the quick note in secret by a most certainly dubiously-paid messenger, telling her where her beloved sister had taken refuge and what she had become to make ends meet. It was a tragedy of the worst fate; the eldest daughter of the most respected family in the realm, who had once wandered the Gardens of Cagliari on idle walks, who had cast herself down into the lees of society to now walk the corridors of the infamous Russet Room.
So it would seem now that the youngest delgi Franciascelli daughter would do the very same. But Arabella, high strung as she always had been, had cast herself down in the eyes of society not of her own doing but of someone else's will. Nevertheless she had taken herself here as punishment so that her parents- her mother especially- family and friends may never know that there were two in disgrace instead of one.
Lina had welcomed her dear sister with open arms and listened to the whole tale with dark, moist eyes. A tale that Arabella had not uttered to anyone else. How she had been courted innocently enough by the men of their estate and village, but always under the watchful eyes of her nanny and chaperone. But one day, on an outing with old Ghita, she had met with one of her suitors, the most persistent one of all and the one she was least sure about. He was a dark man of about thirty, possessed of a grand fortune and looking for a young, pretty wife to share it with. That had been on the surface.
Inside, and his eyes were a window to his true nature, he had been a wolf in a handsome man's skin, preying on whomever caught his fancy, and there had always been rumors that more than one woman of good standing had lost her integrity and virtue to his whims. Arabella, like most people who heard the rumors had thought it a result of foolish women who had not been properly taught to handle such a man, of which there were many.
But on that day in the market, that sunny afternoon when she had turned around and not found Ghita, but him behind her instead, she had suddenly realized, as a spark burning through her youthful naivety, that it was not the women who had been foolish enough to give themselves without a marriage vow.
She remembered it well, as if it were yesterday in fact. There were three bluebirds sitting on a whitewashed farm fence as she walked with him, having been lured with an offer of an escorted walk home, as her nanny was nowhere to be found. The sun had been half-obscured by the clouds and the breeze had been warm and billowing as he persuaded her to rest away from the dust-blowing road in a grove of trees where shade and sitting logs might be found.
What happened next was an event she had worked daily, hourly, minutely to block from her mind and memory but the walls would not come down to shut it out. He had been so gentlemanly through the whole ordeal, even decent enough to ensure she would not bear a child as proof. Then he had delivered her, trembling and speechless but dressed again well enough to her very door. He'd tipped his hat to the bellman and was on his way. Arabella had stolen right up to her room and cried until the tears would no longer come and her entire face hurt from the effort. She could feel his hands on her in the most unspeakable places still as she rose from her bed to strip off the foul garments he had taken off her only an hour before.
She'd bathed, scrubbed, nearly torn her flesh in an effort to get the feeling off of her but it was of no use. He was there. He would always be there. For the rest of her life she believed she would feel him.
And yet the physical fouling of her body wasn't the worst torment she went through. It was knowing that what had happened would reflect on her family. She was now one of 'those women', those foolish, faceless women. Arabella, who had been her mother's prized, had been disgraced to the lowest depths so that no man would want the burden of a woman with no virtue. She would never marry, never have children. Never been happy.
That very night she had stolen out of her window, dressed in a boy-servant's clothing with her heavy hair braided back tightly, and disappeared into the night. She hadn't even turned around to see the lights of her house to bid it goodbye. Through her shameful tears she could not have seen them anyway.
Arabella breathed a little sigh and withdrew from the window. Her sister had been gone for most of the evening on her business, and would likely not return until the early morning. A dark-haired beauty, Lina stood out among the other girls despite dressing and acting the part of a common street prostitute. There was something possessed in her gait, in the way she held her back straight and head high. It was in her features, her almond shaped eyes, her straight, narrow nose and full lips. It was the air of aristocracy they'd been born into that would not leave and could not be hidden.
The Russet Room's Madame did not know Lina's background but surely she could suspect more than one or two things. An ample woman of great assets, Madame had a tart temper in handling her girls. She had not been keen on welcoming Arabella into her house, and it was only Lina's pleading that had earned her stay for a little while at least. But they both knew there would come a time when Madame grew weary of supporting a girl who did not support her back.
Arabella had sat on the bed again and arranged the folds of her dress, wishing for the feel of soft satin again instead of this cheap, itchy cotton.
Orazio tapped his chin thoughtfully as he chewed his dinner and gazed at the parchments laid out on the table next to his plate. Across from him Gian sat straight-backed, waiting to hear his Master's opinion on the matter of Carlo's charcoals.
"Mmm. Tell him he may proceed," he old man muttered after a swallow of wine. "But that I want Marcel to help him pick the stone and start it."
"Obviously," Gian answered. Starting the stone was the hardest part for an apprentice to learn, getting that first form out of it without cutting too much or too little.
Orazio flashed his black eyes up at Gian as he stacked the papers and was done with them. "Now what is it you had to tell me? Have you decided what you will do?"
Gian waited a short pause and then a smile spread his lips. "The Daphne," he said in a hushed tone. "A nude perhaps, right at the moment she becomes a tree. Leaves sprouting from her fingers and hair."
His Master raised his thick white eyebrows. "Should I tell Signore Bernini you're out to steal his glory?"
Gian looked indignant. "It will be different. I don't intend to copy him, it's a fable we all know. After all, there are more than one Zeus's in Rome."
His Master seemed dubious. "Full sized I assume? That's a difficult project, you've never done something that large completely on your own."
"Isn't that the point?"
Orazio cackled a little in his throat. His eldest and best student had always wanted to take on something of that size and effort but his early inexperience had limited him. Now that he was at the end of his apprenticeship the time had come for him to prove his ability before Orazio would release him into his own trade.
The old man's eyes gleamed in the torches and candlelight as he watched Gian waiting on tenterhooks for his answer. His dark eyes held a hopeful look and he absently he batted away his shaggy hair. He had grown up so much since Orazio had first acquired him after the death of his father, and the old man was proud of him even if he'd never admit to it. In his aged heart he spared a thought that he wished his dead friend could see his boy now and the man he had become, for Gian was the spitting image of his father.
"You'll need to find a model," he said at length and watched the thrill alight into the young man's eyes.
"I'll begin tomorrow," Gian said quickly. His white smile was bright and genuine.
The old Master merely shook his head and continued with his supper. He was unconcerned for the most part about the project even through his student's elation; he knew very well that Gian would succeed in it and the next and the next until he had surpassed them all.
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