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It was a cold and darkly clouded afternoon as Margherita made her way down the narrow, cobbled streets of the neighborhood called Trastevere, shielded by a tangle of shoppers, merchants, stray dogs, oxcarts, and gangs of children. The air smelled of horses, sheep, and drying laundry that flapped between buildings above her. Before her father could ask her to draw the dozen fresh loaves of baccio from the blazing bread ovens she had slipped out the open door of the bakery, carrying the dozing toddler on her hip. It was the only way to get a moment's peace.
Cloaked in a midnight-blue wool cape and a simple green cloth dress, she had vanished the moment all of the waiting customers had been served. Surely Letitia could assist Father a bit more for a change. It might actually benefit her sister, she thought with a rueful little smile, to do something other than complain about life's unfairness, and the lack of leisure time, when she continued to insist upon producing children in such rapid succession.
Walking briskly away from the Via Santa Dorotea, Margherita passed a toothless woman, her face a patchwork of wrinkles, and a garland of garlic wrapped around her neck, as she sat before a shop bearing cows' heads and pigs' feet hanging from bloody strands of rope. Above the shop on the narrow, shadowy street were large windows barred with heavy iron grates. The massive wooden doors between street-front shops were studded and bolted in iron as well. Even in this weather she was glad to be outside, glad it would rain soon. Her mother, God rest her soul, had said that the rain always washed away the predictable and brought with it possibilities, and she, too, liked to believe that.
Putting a sleeve across her nose, she moved away from the gutter where a blue-black sludge and rancid piles of horse dung had gathered tainting the air. She passed the busy fish market, and the vendors calling out their prices, amid the pungent smell of the day's catch. Such a tangle of odors, and so much activity. Nearby was an apothecary shop, a grocer, and, beyond that, a grand stone stable block for the nearby villa of the powerful banker Agostino Chigi. Her sister's husband, Donato, worked there as a stableman.
She held her cherub-faced little nephew, Matteo, who adored her especially, close to her chest beneath her cloak as she walked with brisk purpose onto the Via della Lungara toward the wildly opulent Chigi Villa. To dream is to live, her sainted mother had also taught her from the time she was old enough to understand the words. And dreams were the only way out of a predictable existence. Here, away from Trastevere and the bakery, she could make herself believe she was almost equal to the women of means who moved around her. Here she, too, was simply a woman, with a child, out on a day's errand. Free to breathe, and to imagine. The baby's presence would keep men, and their unwelcome attentions, at bay.
Moving nearer, her heart began to race with anticipation, as it always did, as the majestic manor on the banks of the flowing Tiber came into view. Dio! she thought, feeling the warm rush of freedom's pleasure as she quickened her pace, avoiding more pools of sludge, and pockets of litter and dung, along the path. She felt her smile broaden with the little boy asleep in her arms, the hem of her simple dress and cloak whispering across the cobbled stones, at last once again in the shadow of the grand, classically frescoed Palazzo Chigi.
And the fantasy was always the same. What must it be like, to live amid this great, regal stuccoed giant, with its many elegant mysteries? To actually know that sort of magnificent existence beyond the slender pilasters, terra-cotta frieze; past its walls of rough-hewn, honey-colored stone, with silk dresses, servants, and meals on platters of Tuscan silver. When she was feeling brave like this, and a little in need of her mother's dreams, she would steal herself here to catch just a glimpse of the fantastically grand stone villa beyond the daunting iron gates. Seeing it was, she thought, to glimpse a bit of heaven.
Margherita could actually imagine that life of nobility that her sister mocked. She would be like a princess, one who lived in something like this villa of the great Chigi family. When she was alone at night, brushing out her hair, and free to give into her thoughts, she allowed herself to imagine servants readying her bed, laying out her jewels and gown for the following day. There would be silken sheets, rose petals cast upon them, and a coverlet full of goose down . . . a banquet of sole with pine nuts, of rich Etruscan wine, and a table just for sweets . . .
Checking Matteo, she glanced down and saw her rough hands. Baking flour rimmed her small, round nails, as it did her father's. She cringed, confronted again with a reality no magic could sweep away. Margherita felt the dream steal, like a frightened child, back into the corner of her heart. It was where she kept it safely locked away, with all of the other memories of her mother, who had died when she was young. It was the place she forgot to go more and more now, between the mending and cooking, and the work at the bakery that needed doing. Those were a child's dreams. She had a woman's life now—and that life was firmly rooted beyond the ancient Porta Settimiana, in Trastevere.
"You there! Signora!" The menacing baritone voice startled her and she glanced to see a green-and-gold liveried guard, glinting sword drawn, glowering at her. "Move along! You've no business here!"
Margherita swallowed hard, feeling a sudden odd spark of haughty indignation flare up through the initial burst of panic at the authority in his tone. It was an unexpected sensation, and she tipped up her chin.
"I believe you do not know that, signor guardia."
The guard, in formal puffed trunk hose, vest, and puffed toque, looked at her appraisingly. A moment later, he began cruelly to chuckle. "Indeed I do know it, signora," he condescendingly declared. "If not by your garments, then certainly by the expression of pure inferiority on your pretty, young face."
Well-dressed passersby gaped at her, some of them whispering behind raised hands, one man even chuckling to himself.
Angry at the sleight, something suddenly caused her to reply. "Allora, is this not a public street, signor guardia, where I may look at whatever I wish?"
"The street is public, the residence you ogle is private."
"I stand only on the street, bothering no one."
"Like a bug landing on a sweet cake."
"Are you always so charming?"
His response was a snarl. "True spirit, signora, falls flat in one without the means to sustain it. It takes no more than a glance to see that this neighborhood is well beyond the likes of you, and that there is no good reason on earth for you to loiter here, and so I tell you again to pass!"
"You know nothing of me. You yourself are but a servant to those beyond your scope. And, by the way, brute force," she haughtily countered, "falls just as flat as spirit—in one without the mind to see it through!"
"I shall not ask again," he growled. "Move along, I say, back to whatever rabbit warren you come from!"
Someone behind her laughed mockingly then and Margherita felt the heat of embarrassment redden her cheeks. The moment was over, but spirit, for Margherita Luti, the baker's daughter, was a harder thing to press away forever.
Raphael stood firmly, arms crossed over his chest, in a velvet doublet of deep scarlet, with full gold sleeves. His face, beneath umber-colored, neatly tamed waves of shoulder-length hair, was tight with frustration. It was not a classically handsome face, but sensually intense. His cheekbones were high, his chin was small, and his eyes were like clear black glass. Through the long, unshuttered window of the richly paneled workshop, his studio, with its soaring ceiling and heavy beams, a stream of buttery sunlight crossed the woman. She sat perfectly still on a stone pedestal before the master and his assistant. "Per l'amor di Dio," he groaned, then turned from her.
Beside him, still occupied with his own task, a young apprentice in a dark-blue working robe, belted with frayed rope, stood at a long plank table grinding colors into a wooden bowl. Another stood, tying miniver paintbrushes, while still another sharpened drawing pencils. Swirling throughout the workshop was the pungent odor of oil paint and linseed oil, and all around was the relentless hum of ceaseless activity. Worktables were littered with pallets, empty pewter tankards, half-eaten plates of food, and unlit candles in puddles of dry wax from the evening before—the unruly environment of a group of men focused only on excesses of work.
Raphael nodded to the tall, ruddy-faced bear of a man, with a distinguished shock of gray hair, punctuating his order with an absent wave of the hand. It was a silent directive to pay the girl for her trouble and see her home. It was the second time this week alone that he had dismissed a model. Giovanni da Udine, the assistant who had been with him the longest, let an audible sigh as his heavy lidded eyes rolled to a close. The search would go on.
Raphael ran a hand over his face. He had known instantly she was not right. To Giovanni, an artist far more literal than himself, the faces of these girls were only acceptable circles, ovals, and other linear or geometric shapes. A study of composition forced the assistant to see forms as highlights and shadows, tones and halftones to be added to or rejected from the work. To the master of this workshop, the mastro, however, the criteria could not be more different. She—this girl—was not right. Not for a Madonna.
There was nothing extraordinary in her eyes.
When he turned from the girl she was gone from his mind. Raphael Sanzio was behind schedule on many projects more pressing than this, and even the very lenient Pope Leo X had begun to show frustration. Too many accepted commissions, from too many places, Raphael thought now, and no matter how many apprentices he was given, the works were still his to complete.
The rest of the large workshop, facing out onto the murky and foul-smelling waters of the Tiber, was stacked with half-finished works. Altarpieces, portraits, banners, and chests shared the room with apprentices and assistants, in their paint-stained aprons, all of them painting, mixing, carrying, or moving something. There were Carrara marble pieces strewn about, heads and hands of wax, and pieces of wood prepared for painting. In a corner nearby was a large, intricate panel of the Assumption.
Standing before a huge hunting tapestry on an iron rod, another assistant was now doing the skilled work of applying sheets of beaten gold onto the panel. On the other side of the room, nearest the large, walk-in stone fireplace, sat an ancient-looking, withered old man with a thatch of unruly white hair. He modeled for a gaunt-faced assistant, also covered in a paint-stained working robe, who added to a black chalk sketch he had begun earlier. Raphael studied the man's sunken eyes, protruding lower lip, and plunging nose, all of which suggested determination and weariness with life. They were elements he could use on the face of Noah in God Appears to Noah, for one of the ceiling bays in a new stanza—a grand room, at the Vatican Palace which he was designing for the Holy Father. He made a mental note to speak later with Giovanni about it.
Beside the old man, another senior assistant stood at an easel adding a vivid shade of crimson oil paint to intensify the heavy cloak in a new papal portrait, while still another was just beginning a panel by applying the first layer of underpaint. Everywhere there were works of art in various states of completion. The sketched figure of a Madonna with no definable face dominated the workshop on a tall, narrow panel propped on a large easel. It was to be part of a grand, gabled altarpiece bearing the Apostles in solemn guardianship, destined for the church of San Sisto. And now it was to be delayed yet again.
As the girl stood and took the handful of coins, Giovanni turned back to Raphael. "But what will you do if you do not settle for this one, mastro? You have promised Cardinal Bibbiena the altarpiece by month's end, and you have yet to find the model!"
"Then we can do nothing more than keep searching, can we?"
In point of fact, the commission for the new Madonna had been granted to Raphael four years earlier, by the previous pontiff, Julius II. It was to be a gift to the Benedictines in Piacenza as a token of that city's voluntary annexation by the papal states. With all of the other work given to Raphael by Julius's successor, Leo X, this old project had claimed little of his attention. But there was to be a celebration in Piacenza and the new pontiff wished to present the painting then. It was whispered that Cardinal Bibbiena, a personal friend and secretary to the new pope, was using the incomplete panel as a way to undermine Raphael's standing at the Vatican. The reason involved his own niece, Maria, to whom Raphael was betrothed, yet who he had thus far successfully avoided marrying.
Bibbiena was growing impatient and angry, and the unfinished commission gave him an excuse to nip at Raphael's heels.
"Dio mio," da Udine could not keep himself from groaning. "But this one really did fit the form perfectly."
"I do not care if you believe she fits. Use her at Chigi's house for one of the lunettes in the Galatea room if you like. She is simply not a Madonna!"
"Respectfully, mastro, could you not have made any of these women we have brought you into one?"
Raphael turned to him. His dark eyes were set deeply with commitment. Yet they were eyes that saw life in a different way; with consciousness of form, a strong graphic sense and luminous penetration of detail. How could he make anyone else understand that he must be inspired by a face—driven to re-create it as the very image of the mother of Jesus Christ? It was not that he did not care. This theme had come to symbolize, for him, his own mother holding him as a child. A mother he had lost tragically, when he was just a boy. To Raphael, painting various Madonna images had always been a way to bring her back to life—a mother he idealized far more than he remembered her, but a mother whose loss had forever changed his life.
Raphael had painted a dozen Madonnas since leaving Urbino. Beneath the tutelage of his own first master, Perugino, the Madonna had become his most resonant theme. He had based them all at first on the models, and the faces, chosen by Leonardo da Vinci, under whom he had studied in Florence. But Raphael was no longer a pupil. Now, at the age of thirty-one, he, too, was considered a master—a mastro. And the idealized face of his youth, the one he had repeated in Madonna after Madonna, would no longer satisfy his goals for the work.