The first time I saw that ruffian he had his hands tied in front of him. He was clutching a little wooden crucifix. Even from that distance I could see he was shaking, but as a painter what interested me most was the contrast between his skin – they had stripped him to the waist – and the dark tunic and hood of the executioner. I remember thinking that if it weren’t for that trembling he would have made me a magnificent martyr – St. Lawrence lashed to his gridiron, or St. John in his pot of boiling oil.’
‘Or St. Sebastian.’
‘Of course – Sebastian. I painted that saint many times, copies of that first canvas; it became the obsession of my life. The first version is still in Rome, so far as I know. There will not be any more; my fingers are too wasted to hold a brush and I have barely the strength to lift my head from this pillow. Well, that man was my Sebastian. I must ask your patience, Father, with this painful story, for it is he who stands between me and heaven.
‘Giuliano was perhaps about twenty-eight years of age. He had been a servant in the house of some toothless but wealthy crone, to whom he had made advances in the hope of enrichment, but when he eventually baulked at doing what she then expected of him she denounced him for robbery. I had my workshop and lodgings in the Via dei Cerchi overlooking the gallows – it was a cheap enough place, as one had to contend regularly with the baying crowds that accompany such spectacles. It was sometimes difficult to persuade some of the finer patrons to call. As you know, the mercy and wisdom of Mother Church is infinite, and in Rome this meant that not only might a criminal’s soul be redeemed but at the last moment his body also. For some lesser crimes he could escape the noose if he agreed to marry a common prostitute; I have sometimes wondered what would happen if such a dispensation were made here in Avignon. So drabs would throng the base of the scaffold waiting for the condemned man, and then would exhibit themselves as shamelessly to him as they did to any poor dupe waylaid on his way home from the tavern. I have seen men waiver at the last minute, but then turn to mount the ladder, whilst other wretches shrugged and took the first woman to hand. In that way the better man dies, and the coward is spared. Giuliano was just such a coward; I saw him and the blown rose of his choice carried on the shoulders of the crowd into the church of S. Maria in Cosmedin before he could change his mind – in spite of the loud protests of the old woman who had betrayed him.
‘My wife – my young wife, for it was my foolishness with regard to her that led to my catastrophe – stood beside me as I watched that grotesque comedy. Letizia was my servant first, then my model, but though old enough to be wiser I married her as she would not let me bed her otherwise – only to find when I finally did so that some other man – or men – had preceded me. When I railed at her (and at my own stupidity) she sat up in bed laughing, swinging her breasts in my face and taunting me: “Provençal! Provinciale!” You have to understand that Rome was thronged with foreigners like myself in search of patronage. But the Barberini pope surrounded himself with other Florentines, lodging them in the papal apartments whilst a man of my talent had to settle for executions below his windows and a second choice in women.
‘Letizia was a fine model though a complaining one, and as the name Trophime Bigot became better known she brought me many commissions. Images of her, naked to the waist, hang in the apartments of cardinals. God’s representatives on earth would buy a Magdalen by candlelight, or St. Catherine scourged – or once, memorably, St. Agatha just as the pincers were about to do their work; I did not care much for that patron, though he paid me promptly. Noblemen with humanistic pretensions bought paintings of my wife as Lucretia embracing the dagger, or as Cleopatra, swooning open-mouthed whilst grasping the asp as eagerly as if it was a man’s plug-tail. I posed her usually in three-quarter view, the light catching the breast facing the onlooker, the other nipple in profile –‘
‘- but you said it was your Sebastian that threatens your immortal soul,’ said the priest, his voice hoarse.
‘Forgive me. I painted that subject first for Trevisan – he was attached to the Venetian legation. His waterlogged city, he told me, was cursed regularly by the plague. As he said, “we invoke his help because the wounds the archers made in his flesh remind us of the buboes of the pestilence.” I remember the dampness of his upper lip as he said this – a fine, austere-looking man – he had been indifferent to Letizia’s charms as Io embraced by the cloud, the work I had on my easel that day. Now you will remember the legend of Sebastian, Father, better than I –‘
‘Bound to a tree and pierced with more arrows than a sea-urchin’s spikes’.
‘Yes, but only a Fleming or a German would paint him so literally – northerners have always favoured bruises and putrefaction over grace and style -‘
‘- he was left for dead, when St. Irene of Rome, widow of another holy martyr, went with her maid in the night to recover his body and found he still breathed, and so tended his wounds and nursed him back to life.’
‘That’s what this prelate was after. He was very precise, even to how much of the canvas should be taken up by the martyr’s body, how the light should fall on his torso, how little space Irene would occupy. Letizia told me she knew the perfect model for Sebastian, and when she brought him to me I at once recognised the scoundrel I had seen on the scaffold some months earlier. Fortuitously his wife had died about twelve weeks after saving his life, leaving him her savings, and now the grieving widower stood before me cocksure and smiling, my wife holding his elbow and with her free hand pointing out his merits. Giuliano Venditti had a face that could part the thighs of a Poor Clare, or plant the seed of despair in the heart of a contented husband. I knew Trevisan would like him.
‘Our first argument over the painting concerned the composition. Irene was to be depicted easing an arrowhead out of Sebastian’s flesh, but Letizia insisted that there was greater dramatic impact if her hand was across Giuliano’s body – “here, for instance”, she said, dragging a fingernail across the skin just below his navel. Already in pose in nothing but a linen cloth tied around his hips, Giuliano lay back as though faint with pain and loss of blood, his mouth half-open and his eyes half-shut, but smirking nevertheless; I saw him quiver as she touched him – even his eyelashes shivered. However, Trevisan’s instructions were clear. Letizia had to be satisfied with plucking daintily at his upper arm whilst our greasy old cook stood in for Irene’s maid. I had great difficulty with that smile of his. It was only after his disappearance that I was able to go back to the canvas and paint over it the face of a man close to death – a face rising through water. You know of course how Sebastian did die eventually? Beaten with clubs and his body thrown into the Cloaca Maxima. That sewage flowed into the Tiber, and if a corpse was not fished out before Ostia, by which time it would probably be bloated or nibbled beyond recognition, it went out to sea – but of course such a subject is of little interest to a painter.
‘I have to tell you that since she mocked me on our wedding night I was barely able to be a true husband to my wife, though I had no difficulty desiring her when I saw her at a distance, or in my thoughts when I was alone. Thus I must add onanism to the list of my sins, Father – and later, whoring. I could acquit myself with honour serving a woman who pretended to like me only because I had paid her to. Yet so often when Letizia touched me, my manhood failed me, though she would tell me frankly what else I could do to try to satisfy her. I was obedient to her instructions, for I feared losing her. I learned quickly what she really was, but by then I already loved her.
‘I heard them first. They made no pretence of hiding what they did. I suppose I should be grateful she did not deal me the ultimate insult of coupling with him in the bed where the most I could do was fumble and lick with tears in my eyes. They were in the small rear chamber which was seldom used and they had not even troubled to fasten the door. I think that they wanted to be discovered, or at least did not care if they were, for they wore not a shred of clothing. She was perched on her marriage chest, of all things, her legs wrapped around his waist.’
‘You sent him away, of course?’
‘No. I wanted him for the picture still. Even as I watched them from the doorway I could see what a gift he was to an artist. His shoulders, back, limbs – even his busy buttocks – were sublime. He was as perfectly proportioned as the Holy Father’s celebrated marble Apollo half of Rome used to go and see in the courtyard of the Belvedere. But it wasn’t just that. When I saw that man, moving in and out of my wife, where I, her husband, had scarcely been, I desired her as I had never done before. Perversely that gave me hope for us. And she – she was transfigured. That exultant expression, Father, glimpsed over his shoulder – there was the face of our Our Lady taken up to heaven, or better still, St. Teresa in ecstasy.’
‘Please, consider your words – ‘
‘You’re a man, aren’t you? Not only a priest? So try to understand. Had they not flaunted themselves at me that situation might have endured until one or other of them tired of it. To begin with, the servants would not meet my eye. Later they got used to it; she could be heard upstairs crying out his name and they did not so much as blink. Even as I painted I was cuckolded. That loincloth could not disguise what he intended to do with my wife the moment I released them. Their contempt for me was absolute.
‘I sent Letizia on an errand I knew would take her some time – to buy madder I think it was – and then I sent for him, saying that she waited for him. Later, the place where he lodged complained that he had run off without paying his rent. By then it had been some time since I had been permitted to touch or taste her – must you fidget so? – and now with his apparent abandonment of her Letizia became mad with grief and had to be prevented from injuring herself on more than one occasion. I considered consigning her to the Pazzarelli where she would be chained wrist and and ankle, but I wanted her by me. I still hoped there might be some rapprochement, that if she recovered she might at least be grateful to me for my steadfastness. So I employed Nicoletta, a surly but conscientious Titaness who eventually reduced Letizia to a near catatonic calm. It was with the help of this attendant that seven months after Giuliano’s disappearance my wife was delivered of a stillborn girl, and four days after that she died. Trevisan, of course, had got his picture and was very pleased with it, though I did not release it to him until I had made the first copy. I painted other versions to safeguard my memory of Letizia, but with each attempt her likeness faded further whilst his face came back to me as clearly as it did that day, and no matter what I did he would be painted no other way.’
‘There’s a little bag under the pillow – could you get it for me, Father? There is enough there to recompense the Trinitarians for their care of me, and for me to be buried decently but unmarked in the crypt of Sainte Marthe –‘
‘- but there must be hundreds of livres here –‘
‘The rest, Father, I entrust to you, for masses for the soul of Giuliano Venditti, who died unshriven and has no known grave –‘
‘Wait, for pity’s sake – for the sake of your soul!’ The priest fumbled in his soutane, pulling out the strip of purple silk. He kissed it hurriedly and placed it around his shoulders.
‘Remember, my son, the mercy of God is infinite –‘
‘It was in 1634, on the Feast of St. Perpetua. We had a barrow that was used for carting rubbish to the river. Very early that morning whilst most of Rome slept I shrouded my burden in sacking and put it on top of the stinking mess of boiled bones, fish heads, offal the cat didn’t want. Then for a pall I tipped the night-soil box over the lot. No bells tolled for him; there was only the slap of water as he slid into the Tiber. An hour later the cook came yawning and scratching into the kitchen to find me burning what she took to be paint-stained rags. She thanked me for my kindness in taking away the rubbish for her.’