La Faccia del Maestro
Do you know what it is to burn with some nameless need, some unspoken desire that drives you past all human endurance? Something that digs into you like a splinter, festering? Something that is so fundamental to the core of your being that thinking of it stops words and takes from you the gift of speech? Something so much yourself that it drives you to tears when all other emotion has faded? Such is the tale of my life.
Tuscany e’ bella. The word is inadequate for the task and yet there it is. The land and its beauty invades your soul like the clay of the earth invades the food you eat or the wine you drink. Tuscany permeated my soul.
I have been told that even at a young age my beauty was apparent. I had long red curls and a body toned in the way children can, by running and climbing and exploring the world. This beauty was a gift from my mother, since my father had no such looks. She gave me to him, as their union which brought me was not sanctioned by the church. The servants in my grandfather’s house did not hide their words of derision from me. That I was il bastardo that my father cast upon the family was simply a fact.
My father’s wife Albiera, loved me. She loved me in a way that my mother Caterina had not. I adored Albiera and she adored me. I was her bella. Her death crushed me in a way that caused a part of me to withdraw from the world forever.
I wanted that freedom again but could not think of a way to return to there. No other love, either from woman or man touched me like hers. I needed to find that solace elsewhere. Ser di Cione set me on that path and for that I will be forever grateful.
Art was that path and through it I found my way. I studied the faces of all, both beautiful and grotesque. I studied the way water moved, the flight of birds, the behavior of cats. I studied light and color and the wonders of the body. I wanted to know what I could do, what I must indeed know to return to that time when I was Albiera’s Bella.
It was there that I changed and my beauty began to fade as my body went down another path, down roads I had not imagined it would. This filled me with an unnamed dread but for me was not the path of the castrati. I would not become one of those soft, pasty monks trapped in their cells only to come alive when they sang. I was too alive for that. So I widened my study, more and more, all the while feeling the distance between myself and Albiera’s Bella lengthen.
My notebooks ran to overflowing with my studies. Years lengthened and I could find no way for me to turn from this fallen state back to the paradise of Bella. I needed to learn more and more so that I could find that return. But, like smoke, the answer eluded me.
The years whittled me away like a statue. I aged, as all things do. Still no answer had appeared. During a return to Florence it hit me like a bolt from the Almighty. Was I not an artist? Was I not more skilled in the understanding of anatomy than any other of my time? Fool that I was I began.
The task was great, how to return to Eden when you have been wandering in the wilderness? My memory was equal to the task. I recalled the face of Bella, of how Albiera would run her brush over my burnished locks until they shone like sunsets fire, of how the cloth sat on my child’s body. This would be for her, for me, for Bella my long lost soul.
The background was easy, the Arno valley was the inspiration, but it was taken from the land that shone behind my eyes when I dreamt. I worked on it for years, struggling to make her, make Bella come to life, with that private smile that Albiera and I shared when my father traveled with my uncle playing over my face.
The work brought back those lost days when I would be in Albiera’s chambers, without even her handmaid in attendance. Those days, where she held me to her breast and sang to me her love in music too precious for words, lingered in my mind. The memory of her precious Venetian brush sliding through my hair, oh how it had soothed me. I was her doll, her beloved, her Bella.
Lovingly, carefully, I painted my hidden soul. It was not for some Duke, King or even il Papa, but for me to gaze at longingly and dream of what might have beens. Other works continued but I always returned to her, for how could I part from myself? Water always ran its true course.
Season fell into season, year into year, version after version, when after four years my face was done. I wept unashamedly for there she was again, Bella, looking back at me with my own eyes. The painting was deceptively simple which only underscored the beauty, magnified the loss. Albiera, my beloved mother, my true mother, how I missed you. I could never return to Bella for fear of being called Heretic and burned away in the cleansing fires and yet I longed for her, for you.
When I left Italy my face, my soul came with me, for it was not mine to part with. She was the face I longed to see again in the mirrored glass. She made me feel light hearted, free, and so I named my painting after how she made me feel. Those eyes and that smile, the painting returned them to me.
As the cold hand of time crept up on me I knew I had to protect the true face of me and so I gave my beloved Salaino the face to hold in his keeping. I could not bear to think of her fading when so many of my other works would not. He would do what he could to protect she who was me.
Bella’s gentle smile welcomed me into the loving embrace of God.
Albiera was a sixteen year old girl who was married to Ser Piero, a Florentine notary. His illegitimate son, from a peasant named Caterina, was Leonardo. Leonardo had been born in Anchiano on April 15, 1452, which was a hamlet near the town of Vinci.
The painting in question is La Gioconda (the light-hearted), the most famous painting in the world. Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs believes that the painting is a self-portrait. Perhaps this small tale might explain why.
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