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Venus in the Eastern Sky

By Bree Smith

Napoleonic Venice

1805

You must paint my daughter, Il Falco had written, for soon she will be wed. This fatherly request concluded a six-page rant about Napoleon’s coronation at the Duomo di Milano. I could picture the vein in Pietro Bianchi’s forehead throbbing as his quill flew across the page.

My old friend’s letter had arrived in Constantinople just as I was preparing to take my leave of the place. The envelope was sun-bleached and filthy from its journey across the Adriatic. I inhaled the stinking perfume of saltwater and fish guts soaked into the parchment. In truth, it made me sick with longing for that crumbling paradise I called home. For the past year, Venice had been beckoning me back with long, golden fingers.

I wrote to Il Falco and promised I would come for my goddaughter’s wedding. I accepted the portrait commission and agreed to walk the bride to the church as tradition required. It had been two decades since Pietro had married and produced the daughter whose soul I swore to guide and protect. I had not laid eyes on the child since I dangled her naked bottom above the font of holy water at her baptism. Three-week-old Clarissa Bianchi had squirmed and howled like a banshee, her face as furious and wrinkled as an old woman’s. Without a second glance, I handed her back to her mother.

Years later, Pietro’s wife was dead and my wife, Francesca, had taken up with a Neapolitan ship captain. I had tarried too long in Constantinople, wreathed in hookah smoke, devouring pomegranates and despoiling courtesans. These days my knees creaked and my fingers ached with the first rumblings of arthritis. Every time I looked in the mirror I remembered: I am an old man. Now gliding languidly along the canals of my birthplace, I realized I had never felt so weary or so lost.

It was many hours past midnight when I arrived at the Bianchis’ house. Bank-like with austere Roman columns, even the building was reminiscent of the family patriarch. Pietro was known throughout Venice as “Il Falco” because of his uncanny resemblance to a bird of prey. Hawk-nosed and thin-lipped with gristly limbs and raptorial eyes, Pietro’s unflinching glare had made him the richest and most hated lawyer in Venice. But to me he would always be the boy in short pants who chased me around the garden with a wooden sword.

“Alessandro, you old tomcat!” Despite the lateness of the hour, Pietro greeted me at the door with a firm handshake. “How was your journey? You look terrible.” His sharp eyes appraised my faded coat and haggard face. Pietro gestured impatiently for a troop of bleary-eyed servants to carry my bags.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” I replied as he ushered me into the house. By candlelight the marble floor was polished to a mirror-like sheen. The ceiling was encrusted with gilt angels romping about in nude abandon. The furniture sank into carpets cast in ruby and citron shadows. An unlit chandelier groaned under the weight of golden apples, crystal pears and jeweled grapes dripping from the vine.

“Supper is long past, dear friend,” Pietro said. “Will you take something cold from the kitchen? I’ll wake the cook.”

“I believe I’m too tired to eat,” I replied.

Pietro grinned ruefully. “We are old men now, eh? Always abed and no longer for pleasure. You can meet Clarissa in the morning.”

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought nothing of that screaming red-faced infant. My jostled old bones ached until I longed to shed them like a serpent’s skin. Nevertheless, I was grateful for Pietro’s commission. My last lira had been spent tipping the gondolier who carried me home.

* * * * *

Looking back, that night was like a precipice from which I was about to fall.

My commission began promptly after breakfast the next morning. Il Falco left me in the hands of his valet, who brought me to Clarissa’s private morning room. For the first time I felt a glimmer of curiosity for the young woman whose image I was to paint.

The room was a Francophilic jewel box; one could almost sense the looming shadow of the guillotine. Every stick of furniture was painted gold and embroidered with rosebuds. Diaphanous curtains swayed in the breeze. Limoges figures dallied rapturously along the mantlepiece. The girl’s perfume lingered on every surface: rose, almond and cream. So soon after the massacre of the Ancien Régime, the effectwas at once morbid and enchanting, like a fairytale princess with blood-spattered gloves.

“Good afternoon, Signor Gatti.” Signorina Bianchi’s sudden arrival made me drop the novel I had been inspecting. “Or should I call you godfather?”

I bowed, feeling clumsy. “It is an honor, signorina. The last time we met you were a child.”

Her lips curved into a smile. “I see you were examining my choice of literature.”

I replaced the gilt-edged volume on the table. “The Romance of the Forest by Mrs. Radcliffe,” I read aloud.

“I often hide it behind Augustine’s Confessions,” Clarissa replied impishly. “My father is none the wiser.”

“Il Falco is not known for his literary sensibilities,” I agreed.

“And what are you known for, signore?” she asked, arching a brow. “My father tells me you are a world traveler.”

I shrugged. However exotic, Constantinople was but a pinpoint on the globe.

“I have lived in the East these past twenty years.”

“How adventuresome.” Clarissa’s face brightened with interest. “I have often dreamed of the East.”

I shuffled around the chamber adjusting the easel and securing the drapes, trying to ignore how Clarissa’s eyes absorbed my appearance like the cursed eyes of Il Falco. How I must have seemed to her – my face scorched by the blazing Turkish sun, my hair streaked with silver. You are an old man, I reminded myself.

Clarissa perched lightly on a chair and spread out her skirts. This was my cue to take up my charcoal.

“Tilt your head to the left,” I instructed her. “Just . . . there.”

Clarissa tilted this way and that, fluttering her eyelashes and biting her lower lip. She folded and unfolded her hands. Light refracted like a kaleidoscope from her bejeweled wrists. Her skin was as delicate as gauze; pale blue veins throbbed in her temples. There was something fey about the structure of her face. When she turned to the left, she looked like a vision of Artemis. When she turned to the right, she could have been any Venetian shopgirl.

My charcoal-blackened fingers itched with frustration. I was struck with a truth that all painters must occasionally face: it might be impossible to capture Clarissa Bianchi’s likeness in brushstrokes.

 * * * * *

Nevertheless, I applied myself ceaselessly to the task. Over the next months, Clarissa’s image became engraved on my memory: the curve of her jaw, the slope of her long, straight nose, the curling tendrils at the nape of her neck. As I worked, she peppered me with questions about color mixing and chiaroscuro. She asked which paint smelled of pine trees and licorice. (It was turpentine.) She wondered whether I trained to become an artist or whether the gift had been thrust upon me by the Fates. Her father was adamant that she should never touch a paintbrush, though Clarissa still sought to win him over.

As we whiled away the hours, I entertained her with tales of Constantinople. She was captivated by my descriptions of the smoke-filled hookah cafés and cool, blue-tiled bathhouses. I showed her sketches of the chaotic, spice-scented bazaar, of cross-legged snake-charmers and caged canaries. Clarissa traced her finger over my drawings of women, admiring their kohl-lined eyes and clouds of blue-black hair. It sickened me to think that I had seduced them for a pittance.

“Will you teach me to draw?” Clarissa asked one day as I unrolled my toolkit.

“Take these,” I instructed, wrapping a few nubs of charcoal in linen. “Draw everything you see – the fountain in your father’s garden, your maid’s calloused hands. It’s the only way to learn.”

“Thank you, signore,” she whispered, as though my honorific were a hallowed thing.

“Please call me Alessandro,” I begged.

“I would sooner call my father by his Christian name,” Clarissa demurred, her cheek dimpling.

After that, she never came to our sittings without awful drawings of perfume bottles, lapdogs and books.

“These are very good for a beginner,” I lied, rifling through the sketches. “Very much improved.”

In this way, we grew close. We shared secrets that no godfather and goddaughter should share.

“When I was first betrothed, I used to kneel for hours before the Virgin in the Basilica,” she said one morning.

I was struggling to do justice to the tiny blue speckles in her irises. “Why?” I asked.

“The priests insist that we must confess our sins or risk immortal damnation,” Clarissa explained, a faraway look in her eyes. “They say the passions of the heart are most abominable in the eyes of God. I could not kindle any feeling in my heart for my betrothed; I had desires of my own.”

I imagined her, bathed in a shaft of moonlight, begging the Virgin for forgiveness on her bruising knees. The thought was titillating.

“But the Virgin took pity on me.” Clarissa’s eyes locked on mine. “She revealed that our passions are the heart’s truest confession.”

I looked away. The child knew nothing of desire or confession or the crushing burden of a lifetime of sin.

“Will you tell me about your wife?” she asked.

Taken off guard, I blurted the truth: “She left me.”

Clarissa moved closer to my easel, her skirts rustling in the mid-morning stillness. Her beauty was like a magnet pulling me out of myself; I was unable to staunch the tide of memories tumbling from my lips. I told her of the morning I woke to find Francesca and my two sons gone to live with my wife’s sister in Naples. There was a note on my easel begging me not to follow them.

“I had no intention of following them,” I admitted, ashamed. “Three days later I boarded up our house and headed east.” For all I knew, Francesca was married to her ship captain, having assumed I had perished in a foreign land. My sons might have become sailors or shipbuilders. I had not heard from them in years.

Clarissa said nothing. Instead, she began peeling her gloves off finger by finger, never raising her eyes to meet mine. A harsh pink flush stained her cheek, her neck, the gossamer skin of her décolletage. Cautiously, she placed her long, bare hand over mine. Her skin was as cool as a slice of ivory.

Looking at her smooth fingers over my paint-splotched paw, it struck me that I had lived Clarissa’s lifetime more than twice. She could not know my weariness or my bitterness or the depths of my boredom. And yet, my heart stirred each morning at the sight of her curious eyes, her fluttery hands, her tilted chin and parted lips. Her naked skin sent a shiver down my leg. For the space of a heartbeat, I forgot she was my goddaughter and Il Falco’s cosseted child. I ignored that loving her might damn both our souls. I knew I could not worship Clarissa as Dante worshiped Beatrice; I could not immortalize her as Petrarch did Laura. I was, in the end, only a weak and lustful man whose selfishness destroyed everyone he held dear.

Clarissa’s lips were inches from mine. With the slightest movement of my head, I could have them.

And then, her father’s shadow fell over the room like an eclipse.

“Alessandro! Clarissa!” Il Falco’s teeth were bared in a wolfish smile.

Clarissa’s hand snapped back into her lap. Her cheeks burned.

“Clarissa, dolcezza, your Aunt Agneta has come to call,” Il Falco said. “It’s a wonder you didn’t hear the bell.”

“Oh!” Clarissa leaped up, pulling her gloves on like Eve hiding her nakedness before God. “I must go. Please excuse me.” She curtsied dizzily and was gone.

Il Falco turned the full force of his glare on me. “I’m glad of the opportunity to speak with you alone, Alessandro. I was hoping to see the progress you’ve made on the portrait.”

“You know I never reveal a portrait before it’s complete.” Unnerved, I busied myself with my brushes.

“Of course. How silly of me.” Il Falco began pacing the room like a tiger on the prowl. “Nevertheless, I wish to unveil the portrait this Friday evening. My future son-in-law, Signor Di Santis, will be joining us for supper. He is returning from that impostor’s so-called coronation in Milan.”

“Consider it done,” I said.

“Di Santis has written to me about the event in painstaking detail,” Il Falco continued. “That beady-eyed Corsican danced about in the Iron Crown calling himself the King of Italy! You were not here, of course, when he ravished our beautiful city leaving nothing but destruction in his wake.”

“It was heartbreaking to read of it in your letters,” I murmured.

Il Falco wheeled on me. “What do you know of heartbreak? You abandoned our home and everything we held sacred long ago.”

“What could I have done to stop Napoleon’s army?” I demanded. “I am only a painter.”

“Only a painter, only a painter! Pah! You were always full of excuses.” Il Falco’s lips quivered with disgust. “You know, there have been whisperings below stairs. The servants gossip that you are in love with your own goddaughter.”

“What rubbish.” I swallowed hard and pretended to be absorbed in packing my supplies.

Il Falco sneered. “Imagine the scandal! An old man leering at an innocent girl under her father’s roof!”

“I think of Signorina Bianchi as my own child,” I lied.

“I would horsewhip you myself if I thought otherwise.” Il Falco paused, his flinty eyes probing mine. Finally, he let out a barking laugh. “Enough! The very idea is absurd! You know I’ve always had great faith in you as an artist, Alessandro. I don’t think Clarissa will need to sit for the rest of the portrait. She’s so much needed around the house now that her mother is gone. May God rest her soul.”

“I have only a few finishing touches to make,” I said, crossing myself alongside him.

Il Falco’s smile was like the grimace of a fleshless skull. He turned and left me with the dying afternoon sun and the ghost of his daughter’s perfume. I could still feel the imprint of Clarissa’s hand enfolding mine. In a fury, I picked up the portrait and broke it in half over my knee.

I knew I would never see Clarissa Bianchi again.

* * * * *

I rang for a servant and informed him that my plans had changed: I would be departing from Venice in the morning. Then I lit every candle I could find and sat down before a fresh canvas.

Images poured out of me like water gushing from a dam: Clarissa’s arched brows, Clarissa’s fanned-out lashes, the shocking sound of Clarissa’s laugh, tears shining in Clarissa’s eyes. I thought of how she blinked when she was surprised. I thought of the wisps of hair curling at her temples. I imagined her alone in the Basilica di San Marco, pleading with the Virgin to absolve her of desire. I pictured her as an old woman, reading her smutty romance novels before a fire and smiling to herself.

As the night deepened and the candles burned low, I painted ever more furiously. I forgot everything I ever learned about shadow or form or technique. My eyes grew bleary and red-rimmed; my throat itched with thirst. I ignored everything, my mind spinning. I was born too early; Clarissa was born too late. She was my best friend’s daughter; I was her guardian in the eyes of God. In another life we could have strolled arm-in-arm through the Piazza San Marco. We could have slipped along the canals, her fingertips trailing in the sea. We could have thrown candy almonds at our wedding guests and kissed while they cheered. We could have grown old at the same time, and maybe I could have held her hand as she drew her final breath.

Instead I imagined Clarissa in her bridal gown, fretting with the hems of her sleeves while she waited for Signor Di Santis. I imagined her bearing down in childbirth, curls plastered to her forehead and every muscle trembling. I imagined the months turning to years, and I hoped that Clarissa would think of me every so often in secret.

I remembered her as the shrieking infant I held over the baptismal font, and I remembered how she could not look me in the eye when she put her hand over mine.

Finally, I dropped my brush, my hand spasming. Stepping back from the canvas I suddenly saw Clarissa Bianchi — my Clarissa — in all her splendor. She was a Holy Roman Empress with ribbons trailing from her hair, a virgin with the eyes of a sphinx. A crown of orange blossoms rested on her head; a nautilus shell spiraled to infinity in her lap. She was like Venus rising in the eastern sky. But as Clarissa rose higher and higher, gathering light, I was falling deeper and deeper into decline.

Gathering my brushes, I placed a note carefully on the ledge of the easel. Amore mio, it said, I beg you not to follow me.

________________________________________________________________

Bree Smith is an avid reader and writer of historical fiction. Her favorite stories are about complex psychologies and unconventional relationships. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

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