Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn't as if Florence didn't have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn't walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.
The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God's message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ's miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.
I was almost ten years old when Domenico Ghirlandaio completed his frescoes for the Tornabuoni family in the central chapel of Santa Maria Novella. I remember it well, because my mother told me to. "You should remember this moment, Alessandra," she said. "These paintings will bring great glory to our city." And all those who saw them thought that they would.
My father's fortune was rising out of the steam of the dyeing vats in the back streets of Santa Croce then. The smell of cochineal still brings back memories of him coming home from the warehouse, the dust of crushed insects from foreign places embedded deep in his clothes. By the time the painter came to live with us in 1492--I remember the date because Lorenzo de' Medici died that spring--the Florentine appetite for flamboyant cloth had made us rich. Our newly completed palazzo was in the east of the city, between the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the church of Sant' Ambrogio. It rose four stories high around two inner courtyards, with its own small walled garden and space for my father's business on the ground floor. Our coat of arms adorned the outside walls, and while my mother's good taste curbed much of the exuberance that attends new money, we all knew it was only a matter of time before we too would be sitting for our own Gospel portraits, albeit private ones.
The night the painter arrived is sharp as an etching in my memory. It is winter, and the stone balustrades have a coating of frost as my sister and I collide on the stairs in our night shifts, hanging over the edge to watch the horses arrive in the main courtyard. It's late and the house has been asleep, but my father's homecoming is reason for celebration, not simply for his safe return but because, amid the panniers of samples, there is always special cloth for the family.
Lautilla is already beside herself with anticipation, but then she is betrothed and thinking only of her dowry. My brothers, on the other hand, are noticeable by their absence. For all our family's good name and fine cloth, Tomaso and Luca live more like feral cats than citizens, sleeping by day and hunting by night. Our house slave Erila, the font of all gossip, says they are the reason that good women should never be seen in the streets after dark. Nevertheless, when my father finds they are gone there will be trouble.
Excerpted from The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant Copyright 2004 by Sarah Dunant. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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