Already I am beside myself with excitement at the thought of our new houseguest. Flemish painters are much admired in Florence for their precision and their sweet spirituality. "So he will paint us all, Father? We will have to sit for him, yes?"
"Indeed. That is partly why he is come. I am trusting he will make us a glorious memento of your sister's wedding."
"In which case he'll paint me first!"
Lautilla is so pleased that she spits milk pudding on the tablecloth. "Then Tomaso as eldest, then Luca, and then Alessandra. Goodness, Alessandra, you will be grown even taller by then."
Luca looks up from his plate and grins with his mouth full as if this is the wittiest joke he has ever heard. But I am fresh from church and filled with God's charity to all my family. "Still. He had better not take too long. I heard that one of the daughters-in-law of the Tornabuoni family was dead from childbirth by the time Ghirlandaio unveiled her in the fresco."
"No fear of that with you. You'd have to get a husband first." Next to me Tomaso's insult is so mumbled only I can hear it.
"What is that you say, Tomaso?" My mother's voice is quiet but sharp.
He puts on his most cherubic expression. "I said, 'I have a dreadful thirst.'
Pass the wine flagon, dear sister."
"Of course, brother." I pick it up, but as it moves toward him it slips out of my hands and the falling liquid splatters his new tunic.
"Ah, Mama!" he explodes. "She did that on purpose!"
"I did not!"
"Children, children. Our father is tired and you are both too loud."
The word children does its work on Tomaso and he falls sullenly silent. In the space that follows, the sound of Luca's open-mouth chewing becomes enormous. My mother stirs impatiently in her seat. Our manners tax her profoundly. Just as in the city's menagerie the lion tamer uses a whip to control behavior, my mother has perfected the Look. She uses it now on Luca, though he is so engrossed in the pleasure of his food that today it takes a kick under the table from me to gain his attention. We are her life's work, her children, and there is still so much more to be done with us.
"Still," I say, when it feels as if we may talk again, "I cannot wait to meet him. Oh, he must be most grateful to you, Father, for bringing him here. As we all are. It will be our honor and duty as a Christian family to care for him and make him feel at home in our great city."
My father frowns and exchanges a quick glance with my mother. He has been away a long time and has no doubt forgotten how much his younger daughter must say whatever comes into her mind. "I think he is quite capable of caring for himself, Alessandra," he says firmly.
I read the warning, but there is too much at stake to stop me now. I take a breath. "I have heard it said that Lorenzo the Magnificent thinks so much of the artist Botticelli that he has him eat at his table."
There is a small glittering silence. This time the Look stills me. I drop my eyes and concentrate on my plate again. Next to me I feel Tomaso's smirk of triumph.
Yet it is true enough. Sandro Botticelli does sit at the table of Lorenzo de' Medici. And the sculptor Donatello used to walk the city in a scarlet robe given in honor of his contribution to the Republic by Cosimo, Lorenzo's grandfather. My mother has often told me how as a young girl she would see him, saluted by all, people making way for him--though that might have been as much to do with his bad temper as his talent. But the sad fact is that though Florence is rife with painters I have never met one. While our family is not as strict as some, the chances of an unmarried daughter finding herself in the company of men of any description, let alone artisans, are severely limited. Of course that has not stopped me from meeting them in my mind. Everyone knows there are places in the city where workshops of art exist. The great Lorenzo himself has founded such a one and filled its rooms and gardens with sculpture and paintings from his own classical collection. I imagine a building full of light, the smell of colors like a simmering stew, the space as endless as the artists' imaginations.
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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