The Medici Boy
By John L'Heureux
Astor + Blue Editions Copyright © 2013 John L'Heureux
All rights reserved.
It is right and just to confess at the very start that it was fornication that took me out of the Order of Friars Minor and set me on the path of sin. I am an old man — perhaps sixty-seven — and make this confession at leisure and in detail since, imprisoned in this monastery, I have nothing left but time. And, to speak truly, I write this for pleasure as well. Having long left behind me the possibilities of lusting and loving, I find satisfaction in watching my quill move across the page. There is no waste; I use the reverse side of paper that has already been ruined by false starts, ink stains, the wanton mistakes of inattentive copyists. On the finer side of this confession, blotted, you will find Holy Scripture, a nice irony. I have myself served as copyist — and do yet — and I know it is easy to err, even in the service of God.
The unwanted son of a rich merchant and his Dalmatian slave girl, I was taken in by a dyer of wool and consigned as a boy to the Fratelli of Saint Francis where I proved a failure as a monk. Later I failed as a painter and still later as a sculptor. From birth I have been a creature of lust and misadventure and I have continued on in the usual way of men who have come to nothing. Thus I have no claim to your attention. I can make none. I presume to write this only because of my long association with two men: the cattivo Agnolo Mattei who is burning now in hell, God have mercy, and Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, my master, whom the whole world reveres today as Donatello, the greatest sculptor of our time.
I was born — perhaps — in the year 1400, a time of great portents that the world was ending. It rained blood in Orvieto, there was a plague of frogs in Pisa, in Florence fire was seen in the sky for three nights sequent. It is said that in Paris a two-headed baby was born speaking Latin and Greek, but that of course was harmless folly, and in any case the world continued on as wise and foolish as it had always been. No worker in dyes knows the date of his birth, though everyone remembers the turn of one hundred years, and it is certain many unwanted sons were born in 1400 and so perhaps was I.
My mother, Miryam, was a Dalmatian slave in the house of a rich merchant of Prato, and when it was clear that he had made her pregnant, he married her off — with a persuasive dowry of forty florins and a chest of bed linen — to a wool dyer in the Via dei Tintori. Thus was I born, officially legitimate, to Matteo Franchi and his new wife, Miryam, who two days after my birth died of the Black Pest.
The pestis atra, the Black Pest, has marked the most important moments of my life. It was the Black Pest that carried off my mother two days after my birth and it was the Black Pest that released me for a time from the Rule of Father Saint Francis and I used to think — but no longer — that in the end the Black Pest would see me off, swollen and foul smelling, to the silence that never ends. But I cannot repent its ill favors since it was the Black Pest that brought me, hastened on by my sins, to the bottega of my lord Donatello.
* * *
In truth, I was lucky from the start. Begotten on a slave girl by a rich merchant of Prato, I was — for a goodly fee — born in the house of Matteo Franchi and was greedily sucking at my mother's breast when, with no warning, she came all red with fever. Black buboes appeared beneath her arm and in her groin — they took me from her nipple then — and before the third day of my birthing, she lay dead. I should have died with her but I did not. It was the will of God. I was put to nurse — for a small fee — until Matteo, the dyer of wool, was assured he could keep my mother's dowry. After that, in secret, he placed me on the steps of the foundling hospital with a note and a basket of swaddling cloths and left me there until a year later when the merchant inquired about my well-being. By this time Matteo had found a mistress with a liking for children, and since this Spinetta could not bear children of her own, they took me back. Soon after my return she became pregnant — who knows the mysterious workings of God? — and within ten years she had popped out four babies, all of them sons. Matteo married her after the second.
I grew up playing in the colored muck of the Tintori where the dyers boiled their wool in huge round vats, turning the cloth with long paddles, until the indigo and woad made the raw wool blue, and the dyers' hands burned and their arms took on the colors of the dye: indigo here, and in other vats the red of tomatoes and the deeper red of blood, violet and purple, green and onyx.
At seven, I was of an age to help with the dyeing but I was not tall enough or strong enough to control the long heavy paddle used to stir the vats. It was for this reason that the accident occurred. It was a midsummer day and the sun had long been hot on my back and the weight of the paddle moving among the woolen cloths became too much for me. I lost the paddle in the boiling vat. It was the second time this had happened and the dyer, a little drunk and in much anger, cried out upon me and struck me smartly on the head with his closed fist. I fell from the stirring platform and for a time lost sense of who and where I was, and when I returned to myself I had a great ache in my head. My leg was tingling strangely and I flailed about with my arms and for a while I could not speak. It seemed no great matter, but it was the start of the spells that would return now and again through all my life. These spells were from the devil, the dyer said, and he spoke more truly than he knew.
I was the oldest of the dyer's boys when, two years later, the merchant who begat me on my mother took notice of me. It was again a summer day, I remember, heavy with the hot stink of the dyes and the dead stink of the privies, the sun glinting on the river in the distance, and the hammering of the carpenter who was repairing a breached vat. I knew by then that the merchant was my natural father.
"Who is that one?" he asked.
I was standing on the platform at the boiling vat, pushing the heavy load of wool with my long stick as the madder turned the gray cloth red and the boiling water sloshed at my hands and arms.
"Luca," the dyer said. "He is the oldest. And he's strong and fair." He seemed to forget he beat me soundly whenever he was drunk.
"Is he mine?"
"Sir," he said. "He is like a son to us."
"Can he read? Does he know his numbers?"
I looked up from the vat of boiling wool and said loudly, "I would like to read. I would like to know my numbers."
The merchant laughed at my impudence and said, "Send him to the Friars," and almost as an afterthought, he said, "I'll pay." He looked around, as if this were his family and he was pleased with it.
"How many do you have?" he asked.
"Three," Spinetta said. She was heavy with child. "And now a fourth."
"And Luca," the dyer said. He did not mention that I sometimes had spells. "He is our favorite."
But the merchant wasn't interested or deceived. "The Friars," he said again.
* * *
So it was that I became a student in the Order of Friars Minor. The merchant, I discovered later, would have taken me into his own house, but his wife would not tolerate the idea that the son of a slave girl should be brought up as one of her own. But I was well-favored because of my mother, and my rich father looked kindly on me and did for me what he thought best. To atone for his sin he gave over my life to God.
I was sent to the Brothers of Saint Francis where I could learn to read and write and do numbers and where, in time, I could embrace a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Thus freed from all worldly desires, I would atone for his sins and, as it might happen, a great many of my own.
My worldly desires were simple at the start since there is nothing more simple than reading and numbers. I loved reading the sweet, unbelievable stories of Saint Francis's Fioretti and later, with my plodding Latin, I struggled through the Confessiones of Saint Augustine and the Cur Deus Homo? of Saint Anselm of Canterbury and I developed a certain facility with the abacus. The merchant, who was himself a student of painting, paid for me to be instructed in that art, or rather in the art of drawing with a stylus. Study was great joy to me and work in the fields was a necessary evil since it took me from my books. I learned silence and I learned to love it. But it was drawing that I enjoyed most, especially when it was found I had some skill at it. I was praised, reluctantly, by Father Gerardo, our superior. And then at age twelve I discovered purity of mind and body just in time to lose them.
Attenzione! What men and women do in bed was nothing new to me. Anyone who has grown up in a dyer's cottage with two rooms and five children and a neighborhood latrine knows all the mysteries of the body by the time he is six. By nature and inclination dogs copulate and geese copulate and the dyer and his wife copulate, and do it again and again as their mortal essence spurts from them and they reproduce, and in a brief time grow tired of it all. That was no surprise. What surprised me was desire. This desire was a hard ache in the groin: it was relentless, stinging, a fire in my mind and body. By merely taking thought, sometimes with no thought at all, I would go hard, even at prayer, especially at prayer, and I would kneel straight up, my back stiff, my head bowed, and — engorged and erect — I eased myself against the prie-dieu. I firmed my mind with determination not to spill my seed, not in chapel, not at prayer, and mostly I succeeded. But at night on my straw pallet there was no escape. My hands were quick and deft beneath the covers and I spilled my seed with ease but — I was twelve — with a relief that was only momentary. Once more and yet again, and then at last sleep.
Confession was no help. I told my sins — the kind and number and the frequency — and my confessor shook his head and said again and again that I must promise to be pure with the purity of the angels. I must try. Purity is all. I promised and I tried, but angels are pure spirits unencumbered by this thing between my legs that had a passion and a will of its own, and I was not pure spirit.
This was my life, then, from age twelve to fifteen. Prayer and study and work in the fields all day, and my hands on my engorged cazzo in the night. My spells had ceased for a time. No more tingling of the leg, the great pain in my head, the flailing arms. I had grown out of spells and into private sin.
Father Gerardo, our superior, decided I should spend more time drawing. It would occupy my mind, he said, and my hands as well, and thus keep me from sin. This was not a matter of my ability. It was a matter of obedience. And who could tell? Perhaps one day I would paint, he said. Perhaps one day I would study with a master painter and thus bring great credit to our friary in Prato. And so I was assigned to make two murals in the refectory in imitation of those great paintings by Niccolò Gerini in the church of San Piero Forelli. The first was to be his pietà — that is, our Lord risen from the tomb with our Lady beside him — and the second, on the opposite wall, Saint Francis with the stigmata. In preparation I sketched a copy of the pietà on an oaken panel in a one-to- twenty proportion — a simple mathematical equation — and was surprised that my little copy actually resembled the original. Father Gerardo was more surprised than I and said he had great hopes for the painting and great hopes for my hands. Then I sketched the pietà in charcoal on the refectory wall, but after it was well advanced and I had painted in the faces and the hands, Father Gerardo assigned the other postulants to complete the work. He feared lest I commit the sin of pride in considering the painting my own. And so too I proceeded with the mural of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, except that crouching at Saint Francis's feet where Niccolò Gerini had painted in his patron, I sketched a likeness of the merchant who begat me and turned me over to the Friars. In this way no matter how many postulants completed it, I had made the painting my own. When the merchant saw the mural he recognized himself at once and, flattered, said, "The boy has gifts. Send him to Arrigo di Niccolò. He will teach him much." He added, knowing the friars, "I'll pay." Father Gerardo nodded and smiled but I was not sent to study with Arrigo — causa superbiae again — lest I become proud. It was God's will.
By the end of my postulancy year the murals were done — higgledy-piggledy in finish and design — and though I had escaped the sin of pride, I remained unchaste. Despite my prayers, despite fasting and nightly chastisement with the cord and the catena, I continued to commit the lonely sin. I told our Father Gerardo I had failed, that I was not meant to be a Brother of Saint Francis. But Father had boundless hope for human nature and great joy in prayer and he said that with God's help and the help of the Virgin Mother I would change and become chaste, because this was God's will and perhaps his mysterious way of keeping me humble.
In this way I became a novice in the Order of Friars Minor.
As novices we lived the true life of the friar. We prayed. We meditated on poverty and chastity and obedience. We learned the rule of Father Saint Francis, and what it means to be a servant of the poor. Chastity and obedience we took for granted, but poverty was the essence of our lives. When it was my turn, I begged from house to house — bread or a coin or whatever charity was offered — for Francis believed that the greatest poverty is to beg for one's bread. "Poverty is having nothing and desiring nothing," he liked to say. "Thus we enjoy all things in the freedom of not possessing them." This was a paradox I found hard to understand at the time and impossible to understand now that I am a prisoner of the Fratelli. But it was all I knew. And I knew it was God's will.
At the end of that year, though still unchaste, I was admitted as a Brother to the Order of Friars Minor, promising for the next three years to live as a monk who is pledged to God by temporary vows until he is admitted to solemn vows: that is, I was offered but not yet accepted.
As the youngest of the new Brothers I was sent on trial to care for the aged and dying at our tiny mission house on the river. The Brothers of Saint Francis always dwell among the poor — they are our mission and our reason for being — and the poor live chock-a-block in mean and dirty streets where the gutter is very often the privy and where grueling labor wears down the body and the soul. Our mission house stood in the poorest section of Prato, near the fulling mill on the Bisenzio River. It was a small house for a small group of Brethren, seven old and dying monks, with myself and Brother Isaac to minister to them. Brother Isaac was nearly eighty. In his late years he had suffered flashes in his brain and then had lost much of his speech, but he continued to cook well and in any case our food was simple. He prepared the meals and I served them. Father Alfonso, our priest, though he was one of the dying seven, still managed to say Mass and hear confessions and to lead the morning prayers.
It was my office to look after the Brothers. I dressed the ones who could still get out of bed, I fed them and washed them and helped them to the privy. Some were not able to get up, and for them I brought the basin and emptied it each morning and night. The old are a race unto themselves. Their bowels are second only to God and the privy second only to chapel. Indeed, they would sooner miss the chapel than the privy. Our privy was a model of good order, always clean, always efficient. It was built on an ell extending just beyond the riverbank so that, after the office of Prime and before the office of Terce, the Brethren shat into a branch of the gently flowing river. It is true that further downstream the dyers washed their wool but by that time the shit had dissipated and no offense was offered. This green river, the very life of the city, has always been hard used. Once the Brethren were settled for the morning, it was my task to go to market for the fish and game. I bargained with the peasant women over baskets of leeks and beans, with fishmongers for tench or carp or eels, with farmers for cheese and milk and eggs. I bought bread from the baker and meat pies when he had them and, on feast days, a cooked roast pig with a Mary apple in its mouth. Each afternoon I begged for alms. These tasks, plus obligatory prayer, made up my day and, to some extent, controlled my thoughts and desires. But at night, on my cot, I remained Fratello Luca of the busy hands.
Prato is not like Florence. The first business of Florence is money and, after that, rich cloth and fine sculpture, whereas the sole business of Prato is wool. Prato is a merchant city of little houses with foul alleys between them and the noise and smells of a slum ghetto, with not enough air and sunlight and too much of the muck that comes from living close and working hard. There are canals with fulling mills and dyeing sheds leaning into them and the stench of the dyes and sulfur and alum, but there are gardens everywhere and in spring they perfumed the air. The streets are often too narrow for a cart to make its way, and it is easier to get to market on foot than in a cart, which was well for me since our little mission house possessed no cart and no horse or donkey to pull it.
Cutting down back alleys and over canals, I had found a shortcut to market that took me through the tiny campos of the decaying Gualdimare quarter directly to the market square. In fact, that is not quite true. This route was not so quick but it was more pleasant since it followed the river where the children played along the banks, and took me past a world of kitchen gardens and backyard privies, and through the Camposino San Paolo where twice — my heart racing at the sight of her — I had seen the whore, Maria Sabina, drawing water at the well. The trip to market was my favorite duty.
It was May, a hot morning after a long spell of rain, and the air smelled freshly of green things growing, of primrose, lavender, tansy, and mint. Telling my beads, my mind wandering, I had passed the river and the kitchen gardens and was crossing through the Camposino San Paolo — not everything that happens is the will of God — when I heard a voice and stopped to listen. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Medici Boy by John L'Heureux. Copyright © 2013 John L'Heureux. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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