But not yet. For now we are all caught in the wonder of the moment. Firebrands light the air as the grooms calm the horses, their snorting breath steaming into the freezing air. Father is already dismounted, his face streaked with grime, a smile as round as a cupola as he waves upward to us and then turns to my mother as she comes down the stairs to greet him, her red velvet robe tied fast across her chest and her hair free and flowing down her back like a golden river. There is noise and light and the sweet sense of safety everywhere, but not shared by everyone. Astride the last horse sits a lanky young man, his cape wrapped like a bolt of cloth around him, the cold and travel fatigue tipping him dangerously forward in the saddle.
I remember as the groom approached him to take the reins he awoke with a start, his hands clutching them back as if fearful of attack, and my father had to go to him to calm him. I was too full of my own self then to realize how strange it must have been for him. I had not heard yet how different the North was, how the damp and the watery sun changed everything, from the light in the air to the light in one's soul. Of course I did not know he was a painter then. For me he was just another servant. But my father treated him with care right from the beginning: speaking to him in quiet tones, seeing him off his horse, and picking out a separate room off the back courtyard as his living quarters.
Later, as my father unpacks the Flemish tapestry for my mother and snaps open the bolts of milk-white embroidered lawn for us ("The women of Rennes go blind early in the service of my daughters' beauty"), he tells us how he found him, an orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea where the water threatens the land. How his talent with a pen overwhelmed any sense of religious vocation, so the monks had apprenticed him to a master, and when he returned, in gratitude, he painted not simply his own cell but the cells of all the other monks. These paintings so impressed my father that he decided then and there to offer him the job of glorifying our chapel. Though I should add that while he knew his cloth my father was no great connoisseur of art, and I suspect his decision was as much dictated by money, for he always had a good eye for a bargain. As for the painter? Well, as my father put it, there were no more cells for him to paint, and the fame of Florence as the new Rome or Athens of our age would no doubt have spurred him on to see it for himself.
And so it was that the painter came to live at our house.
Next morning we went to Santissima Annunziata to give thanks for my father's safe homecoming. The church is next to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the foundling hospital where young women place their bastard babies on the wheel for the nuns to care for. As we pass I imagine the cries of the infants as the wheel in the wall turns inward forever, but my father says we are a city of great charity and there are places in the wild North where you find babies amid the rubbish or floating like flotsam down the river.
We sit together in the central pews. Above our heads hang great model ships donated by those who have survived shipwrecks. My father was in one once, though he was not rich enough at the time to command a memorial in church, and on this last voyage he suffered only common seasickness. He and my mother sit ramrod straight and you can feel their minds on God's munificence. We children are less holy.
Lautilla is still flighty with the thought of her gifts, while Tomaso and Luca look like they would prefer to be in bed, though my father's disapproval keeps them alert.
When we return, the house smells of feast-day food--the sweetness of roast meat and spiced gravies curling down the stairs from the upper kitchen to the courtyard below. We eat as afternoon fades into evening. First we thank God; then we stuff ourselves: boiled capon, roast pheasant, trout, and fresh pastas followed by saffron pudding and egg custards with burned sugar coating. Everyone is on their best behavior. Even Luca holds his fork properly, though you can see his fingers itch to pick up the bread and trawl it through the sauce.
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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