By Jennifer Falkner
Everybody here is an artist. Camillo Paderni, director of the Royal Museum, is a painter. Giuseppe Canart, appointed to restore the sculptures unearthed from the ancient buried cities, is a painter and sculptor. I studied under Canart, learned to extract the image of a man from a block of marble, to reveal skin and sinew beneath layers of rock. I have exhibited my work in Paris. The mother of the king of France has one of my marble sculptures, a Pi?ta, in her collection.
So why am I in this workshop in Naples, the armpit of Europe, smoothing away marks on other people’s statues, mending chipped corners and, on a good day, retracing strands of hair or sharpening the outlines of lips and eyes created by another man’s chisel? Why am I employed as a mere craftsman?
I was promised more than this. Canart asked me to join him here to be part of something historic, to bring to light the art of antiquity. He made it sound important. He made it sound prestigious, even glamorous. He made it sound well-paid.
The marble workshop is located across the street from Canart’s home and if he is not at the Royal Foundry at Portici working on the bronzes, he is here. Chipping in. Before I found lodgings off Spaccanapoli, I stayed with Canart for a few weeks last spring, enjoying his wine, his dinner parties, not to mention the sweet blushes of his young housemaid. Night and day from the miserable boarding house where I now find myself, which smells of boiled cabbages and is always cold. My nose hasn’t stopped running since November. And my landlady doesn’t know how to blush; her cheeks are perpetually red from drink. But the room is cheap.
Since the workshop is steps away, one would not think that Canart needed another in a converted stable behind the house. Nor should he need another set of tools there, when he has his own set locked away from our use in a strongbox at the main workshop. Or large blocks of Carraran marble delivered to the house by cart in the early morning.
His caginess about it I put down to the insecurity of the artist at work. He had his own commissions, separate from the Pompeian restorations. I only wish I had.
I envied him the strongbox. Tools were always going missing from the workshop and were expensive to replace. I had begun taking my own home with me every night and hid them during the day when I stepped out for a break. I smoked apart from the other men, preferring to stand near the front entrance while they huddled in the back, always hoping for a glimpse of young Marietta.
So when I returned, after my cigarette had failed to light (my matches damp from the interminable drizzle) and Marietta had failed to appear at any of Canart’s many windows, to discover three of my chisels missing, I was incensed. I shouted at the others, kicked the strongbox, nearly knocked the head I was working on to the ground. I was an idiot. But I was an idiot who had reached his limit.
Canart had tools. Canart had a large, comfortable house. Canart had time to work on his own commissions, expanding his reputation and evidently his fortune, while I laboured in obscurity. I stormed across the road, rang his bell until it pealed like Christmas Day and when Marietta opened it I stumped into the house, through the kitchen and out the back door.
The stable was closed but not locked. I pushed the heavy door open. I had wondered how Canart managed to work in a building with such small and widely-spaced windows, but now I saw how the light poured in when the door was propped open. Or would pour in, if it weren’t still raining.
A wooden trestle table stood to the right of the door, with mallets and half a dozen chisels of various sizes lined up neatly across its surface. I didn’t reach for them. I was as still as the statue I saw before me.
Through the murky grey light, it was dazzling. Rising from the mess of scattered plans and drifts of marble dust was a Greek orator. Toga and beard. One arm up-raised. I knew that beard well, I knew that limb. I had re-carved the tendrils, re-attached the arm to the original. I had crated it up and sent it on to the museum in Portici.
And here was its twin, a perfect copy.
So this was how Canart could afford his large house, his lavish dinners. His coach and his fancy waistcoats. I wouldn’t have minded, not a bit. Except he had never once offered me the chance to share in the venture.
Anyone can blame me who likes, but it was only natural that I should try, in some small way, to redress the balance. So that is how I ended up here, back at my lodgings, staring moodily at the head of a Greek philosopher perched on the dresser. It, in turn, stares at the cheap print of the Coliseum on the wall. Perhaps it is contemplating its future with some wealthy collector, one who doesn’t ask too many questions, who doesn’t notice that the body I will make for it isn’t quite as old and worn as its head. Then again, perhaps he won’t notice. We restorers are good at our job.
Meanwhile I will plan my return to Rome, with money enough to start my own workshop, to begin my own school of artists.
Jennifer Falkner’s previous writing credits include Vintage Script, The Nassau Review, THEMA and The First Line. She also edits Circa, an online journal dedicated to historical fiction.