Part Two

 

What can that termagant expect of one
still marked by lamentations and his griefs?
Within these sudden and constricting depths,
are things unthought on that entangle speech
where nothing breathing can be brought to bank.

They say she's changed, is not that flare
of jewels and fiery nature that had made
once Venice follow at respectful distance,
and that great body in its open clothes
forgoes the armed retainers of its stride.

Me she hardly deigned to notice, not
the once among those scarlet personages
who walked attending on the Doge's chair.
Among the many in their titles, she
was foremost in the traipsing satined throng
of wives and courtesans and mistresses.

Who was that? I asked in confidence,
awaiting audience. My neighbour smiled.
'The large, imperious one with golden hair?
She, Caliari, is the Schiavoni,
and not for us.'

Please bid her talk to me.

'You, Caliari, a painter, mason's son,
would meet her in some tavern room,
and after drift up to your threadbare garret?
You are mad. Yes, a well-knit, handsome
man, well thought of here, commissions growing,
but she's a courtesan of peerless rank
who trails a emperor's ransom in her clothes.
Have sense: go find yourself a backstreet drab,
a better
service, like as not, and more
in charity and humbly given, than these
high-moving courtesans who lack a heart.'

I want a sitting. On whatever terms
she cares to name will be commission
to give her ever afterwards a name.

'No,' he said the two weeks later. 'No.
Of course I told her that your portraits grace
the best of palaces, the Doge's rooms,
that all admire your well-wrought sumptuousness
of colour, candour and the breath of day.
But she laughed, how much she laughed. Good friend,
go hither; be as Titian: you will not
beguile the Schiavoni with your art.'

That's as may be now, I thought. In time
she'll think the better of me. So I vowed
it like an adolescent, new arrival,
who does not grasp what social elevations
mark off the mountain peaks when seen from far.

I tried at first to call: she was not home.
50. I hung about the streets with words prepared.
I accosted her, but had my courage fail
as that full weight of bearing moved on me.

I said, I am the painter from Verona.

'Go by,'
she said.

Who wishes to record
your beauty that the ages hence will feel
how rich was Venice in that woman's day.

She swore. 'Caliari, yes, I know your name.
Do not insult me with such hackneyed words.
Why should I care what afterwards the world
may think that now hangs breathless at my steps?

Go away, little painter, do not dog my heels
or these attendants will undo your person.
You understand me? Keep some interval
between your breath and mine. Go paint your saints
and angels, but leave to me the suddenness
of things material that have my gift.
No, put him down
,' she said, and I was left
shaking with anger as she sauntered off
laughing carelessly, not looking back.

And yet I'd noted how that body moved,
unyielding heaviness in folded arms,
and distant fury under gilded lids.
Immediately, in bitterness, I set
my chalk to paper. Feverishly for hours
I worked, bewildering our Benedetto.

'What of commissions? Brother, speak to me!
First was idleness for weeks, and now
this headlong industry. Good man, take pause.
Who is this woman that you tear up drafts
that both of us have worked on and agreed?
'

Aghast, he watched me change the faces, bring
them round to that still ringing in my head.

'Good brother, by the saints in Heaven, you'll get us
dropped from every Guild or Council. Be done,'
he said, and 'find some other place to paint
what Heaven has given you, or some darker place.'

How many renderings of a onetime beauty
were fixed in that small portrait I sent off
and waited, sent a message, waited more
as weeks turned months and there was not a word.

From distances I saw the Schiavoni
moving as great vessels do, with power
to break all obstacles, and in that bearing
a force so menacing I brought to use
her features for my scenes of crowding faces.
She spread unwittingly throughout our city
in Council, church and merchant's rooms.

And that, for six long years, was all my dealing
with the donna Antonia Schiavoni —
100. but things imagined, adolescent longings
that caused me mischief and a lighter purse
in low-life drinking shops and bawdy houses.

Our meeting when it came was unexpected.
I was playing of an evening at a tavern,
a solo part with lute, and not demanding,
but still I turned that heartache into song,
when from the balcony there came a voice
I did not know, fragrant and dark and not
unmusical that drew all faces upward.
She laughed and threw a golden ducat down
and said, as we made bows,

'Come to evenings
on the Monticegno, all of you,
and you particularly, Caliari, I ask
attend my steward in the morning, there
to plan what's wanted and remuneration.'

We're not musicians, lady, only friends.

'Nor I a singer either.' Then she laughed
with such a drop of voice that all stood still
and looked at me again. 'Goodnight my friends.'

What can I say but she was gracious, kindly
even, treating us with deference.
And as we played, she sang and joined
as will a lady in the kitchen dress with herbs
the venison her maids have sweated for,
with humour and mock courtliness. Just that,
but sometimes of an evening it would seem,
this company of gallants, mistresses,
and we plain artisans were of one breath
that rang together as the crystal spheres
encircling Venice rose to make it one.
The long canals and flickering balconies
were of one symphony of day and dusk,
and we ourselves were wrought of coloured lights
of notes entangled and reverberating,
so each by chance assembled felt their soul
lift up with angels' wings, and in their passing
a peace in prospects falling far away.
I think if paradise is on this earth,
which we have read in scriptures will be ours,
it was those evenings in the Donna's rooms.

No mark was shown me, nothing favourable,
and though I burned for her it was in secret,
unknown to others. Sometimes she teased:

'Now won't
you stay, my painter friend, and sing awhile?
'

But I, not now the raw provincial, smiled,
made jokes of it, brought friends and mistresses,
and stayed unnoticing of her silence.

'My friends,' she said one evening as we went,
'I'll bid you leave me signor Veronese.'
150. That was my name by then, but never had
she used it. She smiled and took me by the arm
impetuously, and when alone with me,
said:

'You are not kind. What must I do? Write
threnodies in endless jottings on my face,
keep hours of darkness, dress in winding sheets,
forgo all riotous company and seek
to pass my days in sadness like a saint?'

My donna Antonia, I made an offer,
gave all I had in it, but was rebuffed.

'In what?' she said. 'That painting? You were a fool
in that, which I forgave, and burnt the thing.
Why not? I want no pretty likenesses
to fill the office of my person, stand
in painted distance to my court of men.'

You burnt my jewelled work, a thing compact
of many beauties, as all Venice knows?

She stared awhile, then swore, and struck me hard.

'Must I, the Schiavoni, sue, for what
is daily pressed on me by Doge's sons
with gifts and courtesies and pregnant words?
Listen, we are not
different, you and I.
We both serve Venice and our social betters,
as did my mother, and her mother too.
They both were courtesans, and in their way
as beautiful as any gracing ducal
courts. And both died poor, cast off by those
who tired of handling what they simply bought.

For both, now note me, master painter, spoiled
the future wanting as must other folk
a child, a husband and a home at last.'

It's true that each of us must must earn his bread
in ways appropriate to his gifts and station.

'Folly and arrogance. For what God gives
He does
extract in envy of the crowd,
in fear of what divides us, things not weighed
in those high scales the angels hold, that dread
accountability to which we're called.

Only I shall not. My ship, tricked out
with wiser preferences will sail
from
coasts to entrepots in what I seek.

Why look surprised? Your mind is subtle, quick
to take in circumstance and hold its peace.
You have seen my many flocks of suitors —
men well-bred and handsome, with the manners
acquired by trading through the lands they own.
Why should they not desire delight of me,
break through my inner fortress with bravado,
be royally bestial as good soldiers are?'

What can I say to you, my lady? I am
200. beholden to your kindness and your person
for hours of happiness, for having stayed
a little in the prospects of your gifts.

'I speak too plainly, do I? Caliari,
I know your dispositions: you would not paint
a woman's wantonness and love of clothes,
if not enraptured by that selfsame music.'

Perhaps the body more. What do you ask?

'I am as any woman is, who wants
some heart to pluck the inner chord of all
she is or would be soon. If that is you
or someone else I do not know, but I
would make a contract for a while, and give
this offer to you, honestly, Signore:
you take me fully, with your mind and heart,
or never draw me henceforth to your thoughts.'

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press