The peal of the bells in Giotto’s Campanile tolled midday somewhere beyond the din
of Stazione di Santa Maria Novella. Two back-packers consulted the section on
Florence in their Let’s Go Europe guide, both perplexed, yet in decidedly different moods.
“It’s lunchtime, it’s thirty degrees already and we’ve been on that bloody train for hours.”
“But Gracie, we’re in Florence. You know, Room with a View, the statue of me, and ice-cream.”
“I have my whole world on my back, I’m tired and we’re lost!”
“We’re not lost, we’re in…”
“And where are we staying?”
“In one of the pensiones in the back of the book.”
“How’re we going to find it without a map?”
“We borrow one, from those two fellow Aussies.”
Gracie waddled about under the weight of her pack and discovered two women of similar age grappling with a fold-out map labelled Greater Florence. Their accents were indeed Australian and her companion had already made tentative steps towards them. With a sigh she followed him.
“Looking for a place to stay?” The introduction was clumsy, but the familiar accent drew a smile. “I’m nugget and the turtle behind me is Gracie.”
“Karen and Rebecca. Where you from then?”
“Melbourne, via London.”
The four laughed at the coincidence as Nugget continued. “Of all the places in all the world, bloody Aussies everywhere...” His pause had been dictated by Gracie’s gentle nudge in the ribs, “right, back to business. You’ve got a map and we’ve got a list of pensiones, care to share?”
Map held up against the façade of the train station and guidebook in hand, the four traced out a route through the streets of Florence to the nearest of the recommended accommodation houses. With a shared nod they shuffled off, down the street and around the corner. En route the travellers discovered they were all graduates of the same university, although each had studied different disciplines a year apart. The chances were astronomical, as were the possibilities of finding a room here in mid-July. Ten minutes later they were greeted by a squat Italian woman, dressed entirely in black, and the news proved disappointing.
“I only have the one room, but I can setup an extra bed.”
“But Nugget… it’s our honeymoon.”
“And now he has three women. Is Australia so lucky that women multiply for a married man?” The landlady’s joke produced a single smile and three frowns, yet the grin burgeoning at the corner of her mouth showed she was not fazed. “My room has the beautiful view. Come, I show you. How many nights will you stay?”
Gracie’s answer satisfied the woman. “Then the third night is the honeymoon and I will have a room just for the two of you. One with a very strong bed.” With a wink she hitched up her dress and pulled herself upstairs by the flimsiest of handrails.
The room came with three beds, a hand basin and a shared bathroom, set in the hall. A general groan of dissatisfaction was ignored by the landlady as she stumbled through the dimly lit room to the window. She threw open the shutters. Her grand gesture met by a grander view and gasps all around.
“Il Duomo!” The old woman nodded, pleased with her temptation, and Gracie’s immaculate Italian.
“We’ll take it.”
“I will have my daughter bring up the spare bed.”
Nugget tested the fold out cot when it arrived, prepared to take the fall for the heat and his
manic itinerary. He had met Americans who managed Europe in four weeks, with no time to rest,
even to the point of sleeping on trains between major cities. His plan had promised seven
countries in six months, but Gracie had still managed to grow home sick. Fortunately,
the view was everything, and his three companions devoured it; silhouettes,
shadows of Florentines past, flanking the window. It framed the bluest of skies
above a crenulation of red-tiled rooves; its centrepiece, the
great dome of the Florence Cathedral, but not quite
as it had appeared in the movie.
Gracie was beside herself.
Nugget handed her an object wrapped in cloth,
the reason they had chosen to stop in Florence en
route to Rome. Recognition of the object from home swept
away the tears brought on by heat and exhaustion. She
removed the cloth, revealing a fractured piece of wood, worm-riddled
and delicate. The object drew Karen immediately, but it was the sigh Gracie shed
over it that grabbed Rebecca’s attention as well.
“OK, this I have to know about. Why are you pining over a cruddy old
piece of wood? The view I can understand, the heat and the tears makes sense, but this?”
“It’s a family heirloom, passed down for generations.” Gracie paused to reflect on generations
and their passing whispers. “It’s probably an old wives’ tale. You know how they get exaggerated over the years, especially by us superstitious Italians. Nugget tells it better, though. He’s all poetic and lyrical when it comes
to stories. Why don’t you tell them while we enjoy the view?”
Nugget nestled himself into Gracie’s bed, knees up to his chin and arms around his legs. He knew exactly where to start, yet he waited, just long enough for their companions to be hooked. Before he began his tale they settled at his feet,
focussed on him instead of the awe inspiring view.
“Imagine it is Florence in the 1850’s…”
The peal of the bells in Giotto’s Campanile tolled the end of another day. Alexander Barker cowered beneath the northern arch of Ponte Vecchio, the lamplights reflecting ripples off the Arno onto the underbelly of the ancient bridge. The Englishman felt an oncoming swoon as he was lost in Impressionist swirls, an arm about his waist preventing him from toppling like so many Italian city states.
“A reflection of the Gorgon’s piss.”
Alexander’s Italian was rudimentary at best. He questioned his new companion’s words with a look not lost in the reflected light of the Arno.
“Would the Signore prefer English?” He nodded. “A weak man swoons in the reflection of the Gorgon’s eyes.”
“I thought that’s what you said. One can be easily mesmerised by these subterranean Florentine hues.”
The woman smiled, but her mouth did not spread with warmth. This meeting reflected the nature of her life, an appointment of sorts, with money bound to change hands. They both understood her situation. She prowled the banks of the Arno for clientele on certain nights, usually beneath a full moon, when the tide was low. They paid her for services rendered – of a pleasurable kind – variably mounted horizontally, yet often vertically.
“Does the Signore have a name or does he reserve this for his wife?”
“I have no wife.”
“Most men would prefer the guilt of the secret to the guilt of not passing on his family name.”
“Then I will pass the name to you; Barker, Alexander Barker.”
He held out his hand. The woman rested her gloved fingers in his and curtseyed. Alexander bowed, the formality surreal, yet neither felt uncomfortable with the ritual.
“You may call me Signorina Muratore, or Gianna, if the formality tightens your arse cheeks. If you follow me I will loosen more than that.”
Gianna traversed the low tide shale as a child would the beach at Brighton while searching out the comfort of a wave on a warm summer’s day. Alexander stumbled after her, the desperation in his steps a misnomer.
A lone horse clattered across Ponte Vecchio, its shops teetering three storeys over either edge, the Arno rushing
beneath in fear of an imminent collapse from above. Gianna made no sound beyond the sweep of her dress
on the pavement, its bustle in tune to the swivel of her hips, accented to allure even the feeblest of men.
Her short, hour-glass form distracted the Englishman from the frayed edges of her dress, cut low to
please and pulled in tight at each curve to tease. Alexander had a Renaissance painting in mind as
she led him into a narrow lane, a scene with her lounging on a settee, all curves beneath a
diaphanous gown. Modern figures were so manufactured by corsets and lace, with neck to
knee shrouds befitting of a corpse. Gianna melted into the shadows, but the rustle of her
dress led him along, stumbling into the staircase that shook beneath her
weight. He climbed after her, age no burden with the desire she had aroused,
his tailored suit as tight in every joint as the top hat constricting the
bulging veins at his temples. She would make him
earn his pleasure this night.
The stairs led to a crooked doorway, an impossible orifice,
yet it had opened for her and it closed behind him. The room
beyond, lit by a single candle, slowly came to life as Gianna dipped
the flame onto a dozen wicks. Alexander felt as if he were in a Rembrandt
room. There was no Renaissance light here, but she had provided the settee
of his dreams, laying herself across it, dress hitched and legs apart.
“What is your desire, Signore Barker? What had you in mind to fondle?” Gianna
ran her fingers up her thigh, the nails flickered with candlelight, their sheen her most
polished aspect, distracting from the ragged lace they revealed. “Perhaps you would prefer the flaking
paints of my collection to the foundation on my face?”
Alexander salivated at the twin prospects as his eyes became accustomed to the lighting, the flames of the candles accentuated by a comely fire that burst into life with the drop of a single candle. It crackled, as if mocking him, yet
its flames warmed his face and spread a desire to disrobe as the mistress of the house did. She was untying the lace at her bosom with those nails; blood red and no doubt expert at scraping down a man’s back.
He removed his hat and hung it on the hat stand, each hook a carved gargoyle spitting accusations. His overcoat hid another torment as Gianna arched her back, those nails high up between her thighs. Alexander’s desire overwhelmed the search that had led him to Signorina Muratore, the ancient settee creaking in time with her hips, his study in Orpheus and the underworld all too brief, age catching up with the Englishman. He threw himself back on the arm of the settee in despair. She did not laugh as he expected, she passed him a pipe, the opiates within more satisfying.
Alexander dangled his head back over the arm of the settee, his wasted form draped in Gianna’s direction. Her nails searched out quivers in the flesh on his legs, while her eyes, wild with the effect she’d had on him, undressed his motivation.
“You do not seem a man searching out subterranean pleasures, more a man in search of Florence’s hidden treasures.”
He sucked on the pipe offered, the candles floating about the room and multiplying in his eyes, her nails bloodied daggers slashing at his morality.
“I was led to believe you embodied both.”
“Look around you, Signore Barker. I do not disappoint my customers. If they do not know their desires, I will discover one to satisfy them.”
Alexander focussed beyond the shimmering candlelight, the fire as light as its mistress’s banter, the flames dancing on walls cracked with resin and tempera. He sat up, his enthusiasm palpable. The recognition of his mistake struck him in an instant, and he relaxed back into the settee, allowing his eyes to manage the walking at a more casual pace.
“Don’t be shy with your appreciation of my artistic wonders, Signore. You were not so shy with my earthly wonders. Allow your eyes to feast as they have already this night. For me, this is just another transaction. The more you enjoy the view and the flesh on offer, the more you will spend.”
He stood, slowly, his exertions and Gianna’s opiates sapping the steadiness from his legs. She smiled, content to please herself, the walls about her flickering with the pleasure in his eyes. Alexander pulled up his trousers, walking as he applied the customary braces, the walls calling him, demanding respect.
The paint here peeled with neglect, but the panels and canvasses leaning against the walls showed more care. Beyond the first painting in each pile, the subsequent works of art had been draped with cloth. The layers revealed a collection beyond the depth of his own, and beyond his furtive imagination. He had searched through decrepit Renaissance and Mediaeval piles on many journeys to Florence, yet it seemed copious research and palm plying were no substitute for fornication.
“Where did you...?”
“Not every man can afford to pay me in cash, and many have built up quite delicate debts they would not want their wives to account.”
Faces and forms hidden from the world beyond Florence for centuries stared out at Alexander. Some hands
were obvious, others lost to time if no signature had been tucked away in an obscure corner. Cupids and
centaurs peeked out beyond dozens of Madonnas, many with child. He searched his mind for the words
of Giorgio Vasari, cataloguing each painting to its period, while slotting some into the more fraudulent
pre-Victorian age. He stood after examining each pile and crouched before the next, unwilling to crawl
in eagerness. She understood the saliva at the corner of his mouth and had she been the beauty
of a decade before, men of his age would have preferred her to virgins, painted or actual.
These paintings bore a truth; beauty bred greed, and Englishmen along with
their Germanic cousins were insatiable. “The paintings are stacked in
order of expense, from front to back and right to left.
And do not dare to doubt my appraisals, Signore
Barker. Unlike my Roman cousins I do know the difference,
and your saliva becomes more and more expensive.”
Alexander stood once more, but did not crouch at the pile of paintings to his
left, hidden partly behind Gianna’s settee. Hands in pockets he turned to her,
their understanding almost complete.
“Is it more expensive to approach you from behind?”
“And the paintings you conceal there?”
“Like a night with seventy-two virgins.”
“Thankfully I’m a Protestant. I prefer my pleasure in hand. God can mete out his punishment on his own time.”
“I have always preferred a man honest in his blasphemy, not shouting out the Lord’s name as if a night with me
was a second coming.”
Gianna’s smile appeared genuine for the first time as she stood. She straightened her dress and dragged the settee away from the wall. A name leapt into Alexander’s throat like an exclamation, Botticelli, yet he managed to keep it to himself. She read the letters in his eagerness as he tugged excitedly at carpets of sideburns, which rolled out along his jaw in anticipation.
The reclining Venus with the strawberry-blonde locks and the diaphanous dress quizzed him as she lounged on a red cushion. Surrounded by three putti, tempting him to love her, the winged infant’s task had been managed with a single glance. This had to be from the hand of the forgotten master.
“Would you like to buy?”
“There are so many, it’s difficult to choose.”
“Yet you have gazed longer on that one, and crouched lower, without seeking what lies beyond.”
Alexander righted himself. Her accusation catching in his aging knees, and he stumbled backwards into the rear of the settee. Gianna leant over the couch, hanging a candle over to light the Englishman’s misfortune, highlighting the Botticelli in the process. He did not continue his study of the painting; his eyes were fixed on another vision.
“Where did you get this settee?”
“Are we still discussing art or have I your eyes all wrong?”
Gianna knew her men as well as she understood the art that surrounded her. Alexander’s eyes had not sought out her overhanging, unbodiced breasts; they had discovered another marvel, the beauty of Venus, and one with features he had spied at the Uffizi Gallery the day before. He took the candle, careful not to spill the wax, and lowered its light to the rear panel of the settee. The Venus here radiated beauty, unlike the panel he had stumbled from a moment before. Her companion was a slumbering male, near naked, and perfection in muscular form. The angelic pair was accompanied by four naked cherubs, quite like the previous Botticelli, but these were satyrs, sporting horns and devilishly playful grins.
Alexander recognised Botticelli’s hand, even if the name did not take a strangle hold on his throat. If he were less than a gentleman he would strike out at the wench. No one had seen them in mixed company. Her treasures, unrecognized, would be his and preserved for posterity. The dilemma was fleeting, a solution arriving on the lips of the prostitute.
“I am a very fine cook, Signore Barker.”
He had no doubt. His penchant for pasta and all its usual garnishes had ruled the nights spent in Florence since his first visit. Access to her local knowledge beyond the city’s borders was a mouth-watering prospect.
“I only ask passage and a comfortable bed of my own.”
Gianna’s fading beauty would be reflected in these masterpieces if they continued in these conditions. He raised the candle to the paintings across the room, the mould on the walls creeping toward the unprotected canvass and wood panels, suckling on the paint and dust, searching for fresher pastures beyond Madonnas and cupids.
“I would trade a new life for everything in this room.”
“Would you trade yourself?”
“No, Signore! Only my cooking.”
“Stand up, Signorina.”
“Will you inspect me in this light, where I have no age, my modest looks hidden among these
paintings, a face in the imaginations of masters? Will you not wait until morning, or do you
fear the fingers you will need to count up my years?”
“Stand up, woman! I will have you, but not on this couch.”
She stood as he had ordered, but made sure her spit dripped
from his forehead and down his cheek as he rounded on
her. Alexander pushed her away from the settee. Gianna raised her
fist. He ignored the prostitute’s defense and aimed a kick in her direction;
he missed, collecting the inside of the settee’s leg instead. His next blow collected
an arm, and the seat of the settee dropped to the floor. A final kick to the opposite arm ripped
the settee apart. Gianna’s shoulders slumped like Michelangelo’s skin in the Sistine Chapel,
her body held aloft by an invisible hand of fate. She had sold herself to a mad man and she dropped to
the floor; the floorboards as gnarled and weathered as she felt. The Englishman ignored her plight, picked
up a severed settee leg and used it to pry off the cushioned back.
“There… now that is something I can carry to England. If you are to accompany me to my home, I will require the additional space on the journey.”
“But you ruined my settee, my only furniture. It is bed and seat, trade and relaxation.”
“I destroyed the object that ruined your virtue, Gianna. I hereby set you free with one final payment.” Alexander tugged out a wallet, stuffed with a variety of Italian money, from the Lombardy-Venetian pound, to the Tuscan fiorino, and the Papal States scudo. “What is your pleasure?”
Gianna closed her hands around the wallet. “Put this away. If I am free of my former life, then I need no payment from you. You will buy my passage to England?”
“And I will have my own room and a kitchen to create pleasure for your tongue?” Alexander nodded. “Then these things are payment enough. Call your man.”
“How do you know I have a man?”
“All Englishmen have a man and a collection. Is this where you begin yours?”
“Some of these paintings will be lost in my collection, such is its extent, but they will no longer be lost to time. The others will make my collection a wonder in London, so deprived of Italian artists from so long ago. Help me with the panel on the back of this settee, and then we can find this collection a proper home.”
They took an end each, Gianna at the head of Venus, Alexander cradling Mars, and freed the painting from the remnants of its extraneous frame. Setting it down against a wall, the painting blossomed in the full light of the candlelit room. The Englishman scratched at his sideburn, his eyes skipping from one Botticelli to the other, a single word summed up both; sublime.
Gianna began clearing away the rubble beyond Venus and Mars, throwing the splinters on the fire. Alexander, ever the gentleman at heart, despite his meandering into a more Neo-Platonist world tonight, picked up the remains of the cushioned backing. A scrap of parchment fluttered from the wreckage, a Botticelli butterfly in his mind. It settled on the floor at Gianna’s feet.
“Another scrap for the fire, Signore?”
“No!” Alexander dropped his piece of the settee. “Don’t burn that, and open it with care.”
She unfolded the parchment, eyes on the Englishman, curious he showed more concern for this scrap than the family treasure which housed it. The letters she revealed did not enhance her opinion. “This is gibberish. A child’s hand.”
“Show me.” Alexander had crossed the room without her noticing. He stood at her shoulder, hand out and quivering. She scrunched the parchment in his hand and continued cleaning. The lodgings might be decrepit, but they were immaculate, just like her fingernails. The paintings had been protected with a similar amount of love. Gianna’s neatness and care with her hoard had convinced him to take her on. Gianna was wily. She did not have much, yet she highlighted the best and masked the rest.
Alexander concentrated on the Latin inscription he discovered scrawled over the parchment. It gave the Englishman an idea. He suspected his host lacked formal education, so he devised a test, a beginning to her learning while under his wing. He folded the note carefully and pointed to the Venus that had been framed by the settee.
“Tell me, Signorina Muratore, what do you think of her?”
“She is beautiful.”
“I cannot tell you such a thing.”
“Try. Compare the two; Venus alone with her cherubs to this one conquering Mars.”
Gianna curled her fingers about the edge of her dress, eyes flitting from the paintings to
the ruin of her settee. Alexander took her face in his hands and directed it toward the painting
with a single word, “Focus.”
“Her skin, it is perfect, no?” Alexander shrugged, and she continued with little
assurance. “She does not smile, because she does not have to.
The Venus knows her own beauty. I do not
have to describe it.”
“A fanabla!” Hands on hips, Gianna paced. She had never been made to
think. Her job was to make the man think... of her, or her paintings, and nothing
else. “She has a flowing dress, of lace, and she is surrounded by angelic cherubs.
Angels will only go to the beautiful and the worthy.”
“Is this what you think of me then?” Gianna’s foundation cracked between her
eyebrows as she frowned. Alexander kissed the spot and laughed. “You surround me with many
angels of the Renaissance and your good self. Am I not then beautiful and worthy according to your
“You play games with me, Signore. Your heart is as a cold as a witch’s teat. Who are you to talk of beauty?”
“I am just like any man. Love is a mystery, beauty in my eyes different to the vision in the eyes of another man.
Games are easier and can teach us many things, as can the writings of a child.” He held up the parchment. “Your
opinion of Venus is not a like, it is an appraisal, a cold hard appraisal. I think you would fit in well at my club in London,
if I were to furnish you with a smoking jacket and a cigar. I have seen such men postulating about masterpieces such as this; leaning on their sticks and their breeding. You cannot appraise beauty, my good woman. It must touch you here.” He reached out to Gianna’s breast, yet despite the earlier pleasures Alexander thought better of his action, placing the hand over his own heart.
“A prostitute has no time for love, Signore.”
“We all have time for love, if we make time. We have both let it pass us by. After fifty years, all I have are my paintings and my money. If I bought you the time, what would you love?”
“You think too much about love. Men think too much about love. A woman has to survive if she does not find a man to keep her. If she does find a man, she has to survive child birth and then manage the children. Women have no time to think about such things as love and fulfilment; existence devours our time.”
Alexander’s hand shook as he waved the parchment in her face. “Yet your words come from the heart. You should use such words in deference to the paintings you hoard here in the darkness. I am not the only one who has obsessed about fulfilment and failed despite my success.”
He read Gianna the words of a child to seal a most unlikely partnership. It was a note from the painter, so long forgotten; as Alexander assumed he would be...
he vestige of angels drew me nigh
Once but a beauteous visage in a crowd
Enveloped by a din that did but surround
A peaceful vision, a visceral sigh
You took my hand and led me here
Breathless steps within Saint Mary of the Flower
Your love ne’er spoken, not by minute or hour
My brush left dangling o’er your lips, quivering with fear
Should I leap from the ramparts of the dome?
Will the flight bestow on me peace?
A winged companion, deceased, whose face my torture construes
Shines like the stars in my eyes to lead me home
And whispers in the wind, “Sandro, I linger for your ease.
Come lay with me in these subterranean Florentine hues.”
Nugget opened his eyes, the poem recited from memory. The animation of his facial features
highlighting the depths the words had mined within. The great dome of Florence stood proud
yet sad in its neglect, the tale more enthralling on this particular afternoon. Rebecca sat
mouth ajar at the foot of the bed, eager to discover more.
“So who is this Botticelli bloke?”
“Um, The Birth of Venus, the painting at the Uffizi.”
“Oh right… but who is he quoting, who’s calling for him to lay with her?”
“That would be Simonetta.”
The three women’s questions ceased their ears greedy for more
of this tale. They had forgotten their room with a view, and were
now captivated by a tale of unrequited
love blown in on a fickle
Birth of Venus
Book II of the Renaissance Series
A flower does not choose its colour; its beauty is the desire of others.
Where does a Victorian-era man seek nocturnal pleasure; beneath a bridge in Florence, or in the paintings of a lost Master like Botticelli? Perhaps such men are lured by the temptation of both pleasures.
Alexander discovers Gianna in the reflection of lamplights off the River Arno. She offers him unlimited access to his two most guilty pleasures. Seduced by her heritage he allows nature to take its course, sampling the physical before being drawn by her art collection. He discovers a painting by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. It is hypnotic, and more the narcotic than Gianna. An obsession in the viewing as it was in the painting.
The Nation became the beneficiary of Alexander Barker’s Botticelli, while the painter bequeathed the world his Venus. Who was she… Simonetta Vespucci or the ideal Florentine Queen of beauty, as trumpeted by Giuliano de Medici? Were Botticelli’s paintings the ultimate betrayal of obsession, or can one man really love a single woman until the day he dies?