Thursday, 17 March 2011

BOY MEETS Medieval Florence
No. 21

Boy meets Girl
An extract from a new story

Besieged: The Coils of The Viper


The mercenary armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, called The Viper, have brought terror to Italy. Cities such as Siena, Perugia and Bologna, have either been overcome in battle or been terrified into submission.

Florence alone stands out against him. In the burning hot summer of 1402, the Viper has laid siege to the city, his intention to starve the citizens until they are too weak to resist.

In the refectory of the priory of the Dominican brothers, the Master, one of Florence’s most distinguished artists, and Luca, his teenage apprentice, see no choice but to continue with the great fresco that the Master has been commissioned to paint. They know that once Visconti’s savage mercenaries breach the city walls few citizens will survive the brutality that has become the Viper’s trademark.

While escaping the heat of the August sun and sketching the masterpieces of Giotto in the gaunt but magnificent Santa Croce basilica, Luca has become aware of the girl in a brown robe, hovering in shadow as if compelled to look over his shoulder at what his skilful hand commits to the page. Will one of them pluck up the courage to speak?

The Girl in the Brown Robe
Selected from Chapter 3 and edited

…I’ve been sketching the figure of St. John the Evangelist and the petitioners kneeling around him. Usually, after I’ve been here in Santa Croce for a while, I’m recognised by one of the lay brothers. He pinched my cheek once, and I only smiled and shook my head. Since then he seems to haunt the chapel, and when he sees me he brings out a stool for me to sit on.
He pats my shoulder and leaves me to my sketching.
It looks as though the girl isn’t going to turn up. She’s become almost as regular a visitor as I am; about my age, curiously dressed – a brown woollen robe, complete with hood but cut short at the calf. I guess she bought or stole it from a mendicant friar, took if off his corpse or traded it for services rendered.
It’s that kind of world; everything is possible, and blame is as stupid as it can be unjust.
She usually wears rope sandals but at other times she appears out of the shadows barefoot. That’s how I think of her – a mystery; a sort of spirit. I never see her arrive, never see her depart. Yet I’ve decided her eyes are too bright for them to belong to a ghost. Her skin, though fresh, has the hue of dark leather; and there is the hint of a limp, making her rock slightly from side to side as she walks.

Hers is as beautiful a face as I’m likely to see in these blighted days, for the respectable daughters of Florence are kept indoors, unless they’re in service to the rich and need to chance the city streets to fetch and carry, or if their business is in the tanneries or the woolsheds along the Arno…

Today I promised myself I’d speak to her at last. All it needs is a word, a question, a smile. It’d be worth it merely to have her smile back, for so far she’s been as solemn as one of the angels my Master complains about in Santa Maria Maggiore; ‘joyless,’ he calls them.

I shouldn’t feel so disappointed that she’s not turned up. Only a fool gets his hopes up in these horrible times. My hand seems to lose its motivation to draw, and I realise the only reason I keep coming, poring over the Evangelist’s resurrection of Drusiana, over his Ascension or the Death of St. Francis, is to see her.

I realise I’m talking to myself and this is at the same moment that I sense her presence. She is close enough to see the page of my open sketchbook. I’ve been scribbling devils. She glances up at the fresco where there are no devils, and the drumming of my heart tells me she is about to break our silence.

Pointing up to Maestro Giotto’s fresco, she says, ‘Scusami, excuse me, but is that what you see?’

I amaze myself with my nerve: ‘I was thinking you wouldn’t come.’

The comment startles both of us. We evade each other’s embarrassment by staring up at the flowing robes of Giotto’s figures.

She seems to be pleased at my frankness. ‘You noticed?...I’m surprised, for you seem to concentrate so hard.’ I’m struggling to keep up with her, say the right words that won’t put her off; but she doesn’t need any help. ‘May I look?’

She almost brushes my shoulder as I turn the pages of my sketchbook. I say, ‘All very quick…Just, sort of, ideas on paper.’
‘Why do you like Giotto so much – because you sketch only his figures, don’t you?’
‘Because…well, they have volume, roundness. They’re solid – real.’
‘As if they’re about to step from the painting – alive?’
‘Yes, that’s it, exactly.’
I am pleased. Her interest is welcome, her perceptiveness obvious. ‘You see, so many paintings are just like the old mosaics – everything flat.’ I hear myself going on a bit, but I can’t rein in my enthusiasm. ‘They’ve no space, no perspective. They shut you out instead of drawing you in.’
‘Is that the secret – perspective?’
‘My friend Filippo swears it is. Perspective, he says, is the key to great art. Without it, we are left with pure decoration.’
‘Does it mean the same as having a perspective on life?’
I decide she’s half-teasing me, but I’m grateful for that half-smile and look forward to receiving a whole one. ‘That’s a bit more complicated,’ I manage to say. I return to my latest sketch.
‘That devil could be Gian Galeazzo the Viper, could it not?’
I nod. My pencil shifts to a space on the page and I begin to draw a coiled serpent – Gian Galeazzo’s emblem. There are seven coils narrowing to a pointed tail. Trapped in the final coil is a tiny human figure, struggling in terror. ‘That could be the people of Florence,’ I say, ‘in a few days’ time.’
‘You are very talented.’
‘Thank you.’
‘I suppose everyone tells you that.’
‘They did, once. But there’re no “everyones” any more.’
‘Are you an apprentice?’
‘For my sins.’
She blesses me with a full smile. ‘You look too innocent to be a sinner.’

They are clearing the church, locking up. The great works of Maestro Giotto have faded into shadow. I stand. She is tall, my height if not a shade taller. She is thinner than I remember her; yet close up, her face is truly beautiful, full of character (as the Maestro often describes his madonnas and his saints – ‘depth of character, that’s what counts, in art as in life’).
‘My guess,’ I say, determined to hold on to her company for as long as possible, ‘is you’re not from these parts, neither Florentine nor Tuscan.’
‘You can tell by my accent?’
We are outside in the piazza. Normally it would be crowded, but we are almost alone. The heat is as intense as it’s been since early morning, but now the atmosphere is clammy. ‘You’re from the north, I think.’
‘From Lombardy. Remember the Bianchi? I was one of them. When we marched here, Florence gave us the kind of welcome that made us want to stay.’
I laugh, remembering something the Master had said: ‘My Master approved of the Bianchi, and the city loved them, he says, because they paid their bills!’
‘True, but our cause – universal peace, that was what Florence welcomed.’
‘Peace, my Master says, is good for trade, and trade is Florence’s first religion.’
She takes the comment in good part. ‘Be a cynic, if you wish. But it was much more than that. There was a yearning among the people, for an end to wars and bloodshed. We felt it then and still do.’

We’ve strolled down to the river. There’s scarcely a dribble of water. A pale golden light still lingers on the fa├žade of San Miniato high above us. The avenues of pine and cypress are deepening from green to black tinged with the last flashes of crimson along the horizon…
. ‘My name’s Luca, by the way.’
‘Caterina – come sta, how are you?’
‘Sto bene, grazie, I’m fine, thank you!’
We talk about Florence. ‘You are very proud of the city, aren’t you, Luca?’
‘And sometimes I’m ashamed of it. At its best, I love it. It was once beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful city on earth.’
‘Are you forgetting Venice?’
‘Never been, but the Master jokes about his visit there – “Too much water!” he said.’
Her face lights up every time she smiles. ‘Especially if you’re not looking where you’re going. I went there once. It does pong a bit. But as for Florence, it’s what the city stands for, isn’t it, which makes you Florentines proud?’…

Caterina puts her hand on my arm, shakes it gently with what I can only guess is affection. ‘I see Florence being truly great once more.’
I cannot believe it, but we are holding hands. ‘You seem very confident in the future,’ I say. ‘What are you – a fortune teller?’
She stares down at the riverbed where a child in rags is trying to scoop up water in a brass pot. ‘Perhaps I am…something like that. Or just an optimist.’ She glances again at the river. ‘The Arno looks as if it is dying, doesn’t it? But come the spring, everything will be different. The seasons bring hope.’..
I’m not so easily shifted from my dark mood. ‘Yes, and sometimes the floods wash away bridges. Nobody’s safe.’
For a moment we both sense that the floodtide is in ourselves, one of sadness and bereavement. Our fingers slip reluctantly apart. Defeat is in my voice: ‘It’s so difficult to hold on to hope when everything seems stacked against us.’
I guess that she is as loath to depart as I am. Her gaze meets mine, lingers… and I sense that if I had put my arms around her and hugged her she would match the strength of my feelings.
She is now holding out her hand towards me, formally, almost stiffly. ‘Till next time, perhaps.’ We shake hands. It is almost comical when really I would like to hold her and kiss her.
Her smile closes this, the happiest hour of my life. ‘Things to do.’ She turns, strides away, limping a little from the hip.
I call after her. ‘I would like to sketch you.’
She stops, faces me. The last light of the evening adds a splash of scarlet to her face and hair. ‘One sitting will cost you ten soldi.’
‘Can I pay you when I’m famous?’
‘A gold florin if I have to wait that long!’
I call after her one last time. ‘You didn’t say where you live.’
This time she does not look back. ‘No I didn’t.’ She heads towards the Ponte Vecchio leaving me suddenly empty, struck by melancholy as if I’d lost something precious that I might never recover.

NEXT: Girl Meets Girl
Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa.


A good read...

Anna Perera’s first novel took us into the horrific heart of Guantanamo. The detail was so well-worked, so convincing that it was difficult for the reader to believe that the author had not somehow undergone the experience of incarceration and torture herself.

In Anna’s new novel, The Glass Collector (Penguin), we get the same sense of sometimes overwhelming authenticity as in Guantanamo Boy. In both cases we are introduced to a scarcely imaginable world. Teenager Aaron, his family, his friends, his neighbours are Zabaleen Christians scratching out a desperate living in one of the poorest quarters of Cairo.

We gag at the stink. Nothing, anywhere, could be worse, more hazardous; yet Anna’s characters shine out of the ordure of rubbish collection just as do the fragments of glass, the coloured bottles which Aaron gathers and sometimes cherishes.

The Glass Collector punches hard and relentlessly. It deals with the isolation of a neglected community which nevertheless holds together and has a vital function in the greater order of Cairo life. At the same time, it is brave. What is striking among the young people Anna describes, and whose lives she portrays compassionately but with steely objectivity, is their lack of aspiration, the unwillingness to seriously contemplate escape.

True, an artist working on the local church gives Aaron a leg up when things are really down for the young thief, but once things are on an even keel, once his love for Rachel is reciprocated he does not aspire to be an artist, perceive that as a way out of his predicament; rather he returns happily it would seem, to the harsh but strangely rewarding reality of collecting a city’s discarded glass.

We can read here a lesson in belonging, that to be part of a community for all its often traumatising customs and pressures, is sometimes more powerful than western-style individualism and personal ambition. What we have here in Anna Perera’s excellent novel is an antidote to the prevalent values of our times. The life world she creates is impossible actually to desire, but somehow impossible not to admire.


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