by Barbara Shoup
Piero’s Truest Friend
Of the hundred or so boys in our school near Grazziano Crossing, six distinguished themselves in their maturity, first among them the painter, Piero della Francesca, whose works live here in our city of Borgo San Sepolcro and far beyond. Piero’s younger brother, Francesco, entered the Camaldolese Order at the age of thirteen and, in time, became prior of the Abbey, host to the great men of learning who traveled through our city. A cousin once removed supervised the construction of the Pazazzo Venezia in Rome. Boys of the commune variously became the Bishop of Camerino, served in the court of Sigsimondo Malatesta, and achieved great wealth as merchants and ambassadors.
I, Lorenzo di Santi, am known for one thing only, and it is enough for me: I am Piero’s truest friend. We are old men now, our days on this earth numbered. His world has gone dark, his hand stilled, but his mind—it is a marvel. Mornings, when it is cool, we sit together in the shadow of the church of San Francesco and I listen to him repaint his masterpieces in words, wrestling again with calculations and colors, remembering the satisfaction of geometry—a living world emerging from the perfect structure of lines and numbers he created to hold it, agonizing over the long-ago failure of a hoof or hand. He is harsh with himself sometimes; he has always been so. When he dwells on his failures or on the disappointment of his father and brothers, which has plagued and weakened him all his life, I remind him of his Madonna del Parto in
Monterchi, the triumph of his mother’s face.
“Would you have spent your life counting their money in lieu of that?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says. “You are right, my friend.”
And falls silent. We both do, seeing again her alabaster complexion flushed pink; her eyes half-closed, as if she is dreaming. She is great with child—Mary awaiting the birth of Christ, her blue gown loosened in the front and on one side to allow for the swell of her belly; her right arm bent, her hand resting on her stomach; her right, akimbo, the palm of her hand turned back.
I imagine it is Piero she carries, her first and most beloved child. The one most like her, the one who loved her best, nursed her through the most gruesome of deaths, and so deeply mourned losing her that he very nearly lost his way.
He never returned to Monterchi but carried her with him always in a miniature of the fresco, a traveling altar with his mother, the Madonna, in the center; an angel at either side of her, each holding open the brocade curtain of the tabernacle in which she stood. The angels are mirror images of each other, of my sister, Chiara, who has loved Piero all her life and would gladly have become his wife. She tends him now in his darkness. Each morning, upon waking, he raises his hands and she lowers her face so that he can see it again with his gentle, knowing fingers.
His Mother’s Death
Upon receiving news in late October that his mother, Romana, was gravely ill, Piero and I made the journey to the city of our birth from Rome, where he had been in residence at the Vatican Palace. Piero’s urgency to reach his mother was such that we made the seven-day journey in six, walking late into the night, rising before dawn. We barely noticed fellow travelers, the occasional thundering hoof beats of horses, the rattle of carts. The cloudless blue sky above us could not allay could our deep apprehension, the last golden leaves raining down, lit by sunlight, did not ease our hearts.
Upon arrival at his family home, Piero went directly to his mother, the dust of travel still upon him, and found her suffering and delirious from the pain of surgery done to uproot a tumor from her breast. It was like a painting of St. Agatha we had seen, he told me, his face pale, his eyes filled with tears. A terrible sight: the festering wound big and round as a plate and, revealed deep within, three white bones, like rungs of a ladder, glistening in her chest.
She suffered five days more, and during those five days Piero did not leave her.
During this time I waited in Piero’s quarters, grieving for my own impending loss at her death, for Signora Romana had loved me as a son, secretly bearing news of me to my own mother when she could, reassuring her that I was well and happy in the work I did as Piero’s companion and assistant. I was unwelcome in my own home. In the eyes of my father and brothers I would ever be the son who had betrayed his family in choosing to serve a friend and, as such, I was as a ghost to them. Only my sister, Chiara, defied them, professing her love for me, treating me with abiding kindness, carrying blessings from our mother who dare not see me for fear of our father’s wrath.
But what else could I have done, called to serve Piero by God?
We were schoolboys when it happened. I was already a disappointment to my father in my failure to absorb even the most simple principles of the abacus; Piero was brilliant in his command of mathematics, but had no interest in putting it to use in his father’s business. Rather, he wandered through the town, slipping in and out of workshops to watch artisans at work. He allowed me to accompany him, spoke to me of the holiness of numbers, trusted only me to see the drawings he had begun to make, laying line and form upon them, each a kind of prayer.
One night when I was but eleven, I dreamed the drawings came alive—charcoal lines disappeared beneath strokes of pink and blue and gold and green grew into angels, saints and penitents. Landscapes dotted with mountains, fields, and towers.
A monk emerged: Myself—wearing not a simple brown or gray robe, but a splendid blue one, sprinkled with stars. Waking, I knew what it meant, recognized the richness and color of the robe as God’s voice granting my vocation. He had brought Piero to this earth to praise Him through marvelous works, and He had brought me here to serve my beloved friend.
“It is your family you were brought to earth to serve,” my father said, when I told him of this vision. “It is I to whom you answer. That is God’s will.”
In truth, it was no more than tradition that made him want to hold me. The deficiencies in my character and capabilities he had been so quick to point out for as long as I could remember should have made him glad to let me go. I had no head for business, no heart for the acquisition of gold, and a fever in my youth had stolen my hearing but for a few registers, all of which would have made it unwise to delegate to me any responsibility whose outcome required proficiency or negotiation.
His denunciation sorrowed me, of course, even after his death. But I never once repented spending my life as Piero’s servant and companion, reverent witness to the creation of worlds my own eyes could never have fathomed--miracles of line and color that flowed from God directly through his brush. The deep sense of purpose this commitment afforded me every single day of my long life, the memory of each painting Piero made, lighting up the dark cave of existence, more than tipped the balance from sorrow toward grace.
Still, being in San Sepolcro, where I might encounter my father or my brothers in the street, always brought with it a heaviness that mingled now with the knowledge of Signora Romano’s suffering and Piero’s deep sadness, which I felt as my own. Above Piero’s quarters, where I awaited news of Signora Romana’s death, the healers hovered with their potions, the family prayed at the bedside—all but Piero’s father, Benedetto, who paced, muttering what might have been prayers or might have been the devouring anger he never failed to express when something was taken from him. He could not bear the sight of his wife clinging to Piero’s hand, knowing that, as her life dwindled, it was this errant son’s nearness she craved. She clung to his hand, gazing upon him even as she received the Last Rites, her own hand falling away from his only when her eyes closed the last time and her soul was lifted from this earth.
She Is Laid to Rest
In the hours after Signora Romana’s death, the family gathered round her corpse, weeping; then there was the bustle that always ensues in a house once a soul has made that final passage. Women walking up and down the stairs, bearing bowls of warm, scented water with which to wash her body, garments in which to clothe her for the grave. Men making arrangements for the burial and the mourners’ feast.
In time, Piero returned to our quarters. His face was ashen, his eyes sunk into the dark circles made from lack of sleep. He was at this time in the middle of his fifth decade, but that day he looked seventy. We did not speak; we did not need to speak. He did not weep. In time, the tears locked inside him now would pour through his brush, and what he made of them would be a glory to God.
Meanwhile, he must brace himself for tomorrow’s funeral, all the more difficult for knowing his mother would have wanted a simple burial. When she married Piero’s father, he had been a dealer in hides. She had not shared his ambition to raise his family to the merchant class, and never grew accustomed to the fashionable clothing and valuable jewelry he believed bestowed honor upon her, or to the rich taste and malignant gossip of the merchants’ wives with whom he expected her to mingle.
But the funeral of a beloved wife was an occasion to extol the lineage of the family. So, Benedetto had Romana’s body wrapped in fine silk, and it was borne on a draped bier through the streets of our town by prancing horses bedecked in ornamental coverings. Clergy and mourners followed, accompanied townspeople carrying colorful banners and candles flickering in tall decorative shafts. At the abbey, a requiem mass was said for her soul. Then, at last, she was laid to rest. A requiem mass was said for her soul before she was laid to rest.
I was not family. My place in the procession had been behind the prestigious guests dressed in their somber garb and the members of the Confraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia in their regalia, so I could only imagine Piero walking at the front with his father and brothers, head bent, in the otherworld to which he escaped when the world became too much to bear. Only after the interment could I go to him, briefly rest my hand on his shoulder to bring him fully into the moment—a silent reassurance that I was with him and would not leave him through the long mourning banquet that would soon commence at the family home.
We led a simple life together: work and prayer, just bread, cheese, and wine twice a day to sustain us. We had so long shared the rhythm of our days that words were rarely necessary. We spoke by gesture and with our eyes. Now the plenty of the banquet table, the greedy mourners filling their plates, the racket of their conversation overwhelmed us, and once Piero had fulfilled his duties in accepting the condolences of the guests, we removed ourselves to where the women mourned—my own sister, Chiara, among them.
Her plain face lit up at the sight of him, and Piero went directly to her for the quiet consolation only she could give. She had long ago accepted that he would never marry, and loved him as I did: completely, with no expectation but to serve him. We serve him now, as the moments of lives dwindle. We are his eyes, we intuit his every need, we are his comfort as he fades toward the light.
That day, Chiara stood, held out her hands to Piero, and he took them, shedding his first tears. Silent tears, that made his face wet and shining.
“Io so. Io so,” she murmured. I know.
“E impossible che le se ne sia andata,” Piero said, his voice cracking.
“Si, impossible,” Chiara said. “But she is at peace with our Lord now, resplendent in the crown of heaven. We cannot wish her to return to the sorrows here on earth.”
I saw the sadness on her face. We both knew that had it not been for his mother, Piero might have left San Sepolcro forever upon relinquishing his rightful place as heir to all his father had worked so hard to accomplish. We might have spent the whole of our lives wherever he was called, instead of coming back each time he was offered a commission so that he could be with her, each time leaving before the work was complete when the rope of family tightened around him and he could no longer stay. Now there would be little reason for him to return.
In fact, the family had already begun to chafe him. Benedetto had become renewed in his determined that Piero should at last prepare himself for the patriarchy of the family and threatened to suspend the meager allowance that allowed him to continue to work toward the glory of God with his paintbrush. Piero’s brother Marco was equally determined to claim that patriarchy for himself, an honor he believed he had earned through his successful business endeavors and devotion to the family. Patrons were pressing him to resume work on commissions he had not yet completed—not the least of which was an altarpiece honoring the Madonna della Misericordia meant to grace the hall of his family’s own confraternity among them.
They had no way of understanding that for Piero time was like the ocean, each day one of an infinite number of waves breaking on the shore. Only I understood that he worked to the call of an ocean inside him. He would complete the altarpiece at this call and no other—and, as I knew she would, the Madonna reigns now in the confraternity’s chapel. Flanked by Saint Sebastian, the two Saint Johns and Saint Bernardo of Siena; surrounded with a constellation of lesser saints who draw the eye in a circle toward the annunciation at the top, the scenes of the predella below, she blesses the members in their good work, inspires constancy in their commitment to the poor and suffering among us.
But it would be years after his mother’s death until Piero returned to San Sepolcro and took up the brush to bring the altarpiece into being. Now Piero turned further and further inward, escaping to the world of numbers, as he so often did when the grasping disorder of daily life threatened to overpower him. It had been so since we were boys in school together.
Others struggled in Abacus School under the stern hand of our teacher, I more than most, but it was as if what we were meant to learn had always been as an open book inside Piero’s head and all he must do was close his eyes to see it.
He had patiently taught me what was necessary for me to know, bringing the numbers to life by taking me round on market day, dazzling the merchants with his scribbled calculations that translated the angles of cheese, the lines in a bolt of silk, the volume in a pitcher of goat milk into geometric constructions that enabled them to place a value on their wares. I let my father believe that I learned these things to please him, but it was Piero’s good approval that I craved. So I learned—slowly, but well—because he also showed me how numbers lay beneath everything in God’s world.
“Everything is made of them,” he said. “Look.”
He opened the leather folio he carried with him always, and in a few strokes sketched the image of an angel with Lucia’s face. Then, with a ruler, he bisected her, drew slanted lines from the top of her head to either wide of her gown, another like a floor beneath her feet.
“A triangle,” he said. “Now—”
He circled her with his pen, touching each point of the triangle, revealing a sphere.
My world shifted. From that moment on, all I looked at reduced itself, became at the same time simple and miraculous. I was lost to my father’s house forever.
The Call to Monterchi
It seemed a miracle when, little more than a fortnight after Romana’s death, news came of a commission to paint a fresco for the altar of Santa Maria Momenta in Monterchi, the nearby town of her birth. A wealthy wool merchant in the town, Romana’s brother Paolo would pay for it, perhaps as a way to have his beloved nephew with him in his time of grief. Certainly, to honor Piero’s loyalty. Of all Romana’s children, only he had defied his father in refusing to sever the bond with his uncle when the two families quarreled over business matters more than twenty years before. In any case, Piero instantly sent back word of his acceptance—and the next morning, at sunrise, we left Borgo San Sepolcro to begin the journey.
It was the end of November, the fields along the road glittered with frost. The trees with their visible bones might have come from Piero’s notebooks—black lines and angles from which whole worlds would grow. The realization that my rosary had gone slack in my hand considering what these worlds might be shamed me, and I resumed my walking prayers, sliding the smooth beads across my fingers.
Lord of mercy, hear our prayer. May our sister Romana whom you called your daughter on earth, enter into the Kingdom of peace and light, where your saints live in glory. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.
Midmorning, Monterchi appeared on the horizon—a blur of yellow stone and red roofs, bell towers reaching for the sky. We climbed toward it, passed through the city gate and continued climbing to Paolo’s home at the top of the town.
He greeted Piero with a tearful embrace, ushered both of us into main room, where his wife, Donatella, did the same. They embraced me, as well—which brought tears to my own eyes for it brought to mind Senora Romana’s kindness.
“Warm yourselves.” Senora Donatello gestured toward the fire.
Paolo drew two chairs to join the ones they had been sitting in before our arrival.
They begged Piero to tell of Senora Romana’s last days, which he did—sparing them the worst, as I knew he would. What good would it do them to know how she had suffered? She was still the young Romana to them, full of light and life, the adored sister of five brothers—Paolo her favorite among them. She had come of age in the house Paolo and his family lived in now, and the presence of her girlhood spirit was felt in the stories he told of her that morning.
The fresco Piero was to make would be to honor her, Paolo said. Santa Maria Momentara was a small church outside the town near a stream known since ancient times as a place where pregnant women’s prayers for a safe birth might be answered. His travels had taken him recently to Florence, where he had seen Taddeo Gaddi’s Madonna del Parto in the church of San Francesco di Paolo.
“You must know it, of course,” he said.
I saw the Madonna in my mind’s eye: her rose-pink gown, one hand peeking out from a brocade shawl to support her swollen belly, the holding forth a red book. Her narrow eyes, inscrutable expression. Her elegantly tilted head.
“Since Romana’s death, I cannot forget her,” Paolo said. “I want—” His voice wavered. He leaned toward Piero, grasped his hand. “I want Romana to be remembered in this way, I want the women who come to Santa Maria Momentara to feel that she is there with them, praying with them for the blessing of a safe birth for their children.”
Piero was without words, overcome.
“Lo farai per me?” Paolo asked. “For the glory of God?”
“Si, zio. I will do it,” Piero said.
At Paolo’s insistence, we stayed for the midday meal. Advent would begin the next day, and he beseeched us to spend this solemn time in Monterchi as guests in their home, but Piero declined. We would take lodging in the monastery of Santa Maria Momentara, Piero, where would be near his work and the prayers of the monks would bring it blessing. So, after the meal, we bid Paolo and Donatella goodbye and made our way back down the hill to the church. There was yet a chill in the air, but the sun warmed us as we walked and soon it came into view, a humble structure nestled in a copse of bare trees—butter-yellow against the blue sky.
When Piero opened the door, a shaft of sunlight illuminated the wall opposite it, where his Madonna del Parto would live for all time. But now he just stood looking at the light, letting its radiance speak to him about beginning.
We Prepare for Her
We woke to church bells throughout the town ringing in the first Sunday of Advent, whose holiness felt greater for the knowledge that as the season prepared us for the birth of our Lord, we would be preparing the wall of the chapel for Piero’s Madonna.
Almighty God, grant us the will to greet our Savior with our good works when He comes, so that we may be worthy to be on His right hand and possess the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the day prayed this prayer for the first Sunday. At its end, we shared a meagre meal with the monks. Prayers and hunger would fortify our spirits in the weeks that followed.
Monday morning, Paolo sent his men to construct the scaffold to Piero’s specifications. The planks must be able to be moved up or down to allow us to reach from top to bottom of the wall. They must be wide enough to hold us, as well as Piero’s brushes and paint pots, and the tools I would need to apply the plaster foundation for the fresco he would paint. The men also brought the lime and sand I would need to mix the plaster, an iron trough to mix it in, and a bucket for carrying water from the stream.
We worked from sunrise to sundown, stopping fifteen times to pray the Saint Andrew Novena as the season of Advent required. We ate a small portion of bread and cheese, said the novena for the last time before falling onto our sleeping pallets at night. Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of his Blessed Mother.
Each night I dreamed the Madonna, waiting in Bethlehem. Each day I woke into her piercing cold. It made a scrim of ice that must be broken for my morning ablutions, rose up through cold stone floor, numbing my knees as I knelt for morning prayers. It penetrated my layer of clothing as we walked from the monastery to the church, where icy winter light fell through the windows.
If Piero felt the cold, I did not see it. From that first day of our labors, Piero lived not with me, in the cold world, but in his universe of numbers, where he sought the bones of his composition within their order. I, too, lived in a world of my own once I began my work each day—caught in the careful preparation of the plaster upon which he would paint. Plaster that must be perfect if it was to properly receive the paint and fix it so that his Madonna would live in this humble church forever, to the glory of God.
My whole body, ancient now, with ever diminishing strength, still remembers the heft of plaster on my hawk, the ringing of the iron trowel upon it as I scooped exactly the right measure, the slap and swish, slap and swish of it on the wall—a kind of music against in my hand. The quiver of anticipation running through my blood with the knowledge that, soon, Piero’s design would be known to me.
I had known this acute awareness of my body in the Vatican Palace, in the palaces of Leonello d’Este in Farrara and Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini. I had known it in churches far grander than this small chapel in Monterchi. But never had it been more keen, more all-consuming than in the days preparing the wall for the Madonna dawning in Piero’s mind.
Paolo had provided lime putty of the finest quality: fat and fresh, properly aged and pure white. This ensured that, over time, it would bleach the surface so that it reflected the colors Piero would lay on it. The sand was free of any element that would cause the plaster made of it to weep or cause salt to migrate to the surface and form a coating on the finished work. I ran some grains through my fingers, and they felt sharp and angular, as they should—impossible to roll like a ball over my fingertips. Two parts sand, one part lime putty. I mixed them in the trough, my arms aching from the effort, my heart beating just a little harder as it always did when heat rose from it with the slow stream of water I added from a clay jug. The alchemy of these elements changing form unsettled me, despite Piero’s faith that it was evidence of God at work.
Leaving the plaster to cure for several days, I readied the wall, washing it clean, then wetting it thoroughly to receive the rough coat necessary to support the arriccio on which each day’s intonaco would be applied. For this coat, the plaster must be heavy must be heavy on the hawk, thrown on with the trowel, and floated in circles with a firm pressure. I started where the plaster was first laid on the wall, spattering a little water ahead of the float when I needed it, to ensure the plaster would be even, then scratching it with a metal comb to better hold the intonaco upon which Piero would paint.
When the coat was dry, we measured and marked the wall, creating what might have been a page from an enormous folio of his geometric constructions. I had not asked to see his drawings of her while he worked. I did not want to see the numbers upon which she was made. I waited, preferring the slow revelation of line and volume becoming flesh, becoming garments and wings, ermine and pomegranates. Touchstones of the world God had made for us.
On the Eve of the Birth of our Savior, Piero used charcoal to draw an outline of the composition to verify the correct proportions on this larger surface. He drew the arcs of curtain, the background with a free hand, but he had made cartoons for the Madonna and her angels—cutouts scaled to size, the details drawn in charcoal. Now he positioned the Madonna on the asse di simmetria, adjusting her according to numbers and angles that only he understood. To the untrained eye she would seem exactly in the middle of the wall, and I could not help but feel proud to see that this was not quite so. The left side of her was just a hint farther past the line of symmetry than the right, which I knew, in the finished painting, would direct the eye like a sleight of hand.
When he was satisfied that she was perfectly placed, I transferred the image to the wall, carefully pricking holes along the lines of the drawing, then dusting them with pigment from a cotton bag, brushing the residue away with a bouquet of feathers.
The Madonna emerged when I took the cartoon away, monumental, even though only a ghost of what she would be. Her face, Senora Romana’s young face, beloved of his childhood.
There was but one cartoon for the angels, which Piero flipped creating a perfect symmetry in the figures, offsetting the different distances of their feet from the Madonna’s gown. But the two angels had just one face: my sister’s. I did not speak of this to Piero; he did not speak of it to me. How could either of us have said what it meant, even if we had known it?
Once the angels and the brocade curtain in place, Piero bid me mix the red ochre with which he would brush on the outline. Seeing the faces of Senora Romana and my sister on the cartoons had diverted my attention so that only now, as the drawing emerged in full, I fully understood how different Piero’s Madonna del Parto would be from any other we had seen. One hand rested on her swollen belly, above which the Girdle of Thomas those madonnas wore would have been. She did not hold the closed a closed book, the implied presence of the Word of God. She made no regal gesture, no altar framed her. She wore no sumptuous gown or shawl. She stood in the entry of a round tabernacle, a pregnant woman who might have been any woman with child come to pray for a safe birth, but for the angels with ordinary faces on either side of her, holding back the curtain in a moment of revelation.
We Celebrate the Birth of Our Lord
On the eve of Our Lord’s birth, we climbed the hill and walked up through Monterchi to Paolo’s house. I was startled by the sudden warmth, the cacophony of happy voices that greeted us. By the closeness of Paolo’s embrace—and then Donatella’s. And the children! So many of them! Paolo’s and Donatello’s five sons, grown now with children of their own—beautiful little ones, rosy-cheeked with excitement.
I felt bewildered after so many days of silence, disconcertingly near tears for I could not help but think my father, who celebrated even the holiest of days meagerly, in a rigidity of devotion that he believed made him more pure than others in the eyes of God. I saw now that it was evidence of no more than his parsimoniousness, for how could God look upon my father as more pure, more deserving of his love than Paolo and his family were? The trappings of their celebration were not sumptuous, as some we had seen in our travels, but rich in their simplicity, presented in gratitude and joy. This made me savor the taste of the good wine they offered, to enjoy its sweetness in the spirit with which it was given. To be a part of their happiness together seemed a kind of prayer. It must have seemed so to Piero, too, for he sat among them, a contented smile on his face—a smile I never saw when he was in the company of his father and brothers.
At sunset, one of Piero’s sons brought in an olivewood log as large as the fireplace could hold and set it on red-hot coals remaining from the fire that had burned through the day. Donatello and her granddaughters garnished it with dried figs and slices of apple and pear; grandsons laid on branches of juniper and laurel. We prayed to Our Lord, asking Him to summon the return of heat and light to the earth, and then Paolo set the log ablaze to the cheers of the children. The light from the fire softened the creases on his face, the candles flickering throughout the house made a yellow haze, haloing each person and object within. The scent of the burning tree, like the scent of the oil made of the olives it had borne, and the scent of the blackening, disappearing fruit and the crackling branches of juniper and laurel mingled with the scents of the food Donatella had been preparing all day and now brought from the kitchen—spaghetti with clams, cod fried with peppers, cheese with mustard, cooked pears with chestnuts—each dish more delicious than the last. Though it unsettled my digestion, as I had eaten no more than brown bread and cheese since our work here had begun.
I was glad for brisk air, the walk among friendly townspeople to San Simeone for midnight mass. For the hush upon entering, the sleeping babe in the presepio looked over by the two cows brought in from the pasture, big, beautiful animals who seemed to understand why they were there and stood perfectly still on each side of him. For the beauty of the mass said to commemorate the birth of our Savior. For the Madonna in the church below the town—a ghost on her wall, awaiting Piero’s brush.
A light snow was falling as we and I made our way back to the monastery in the darkness of this holiest of early mornings—the whole world shining, as if lit by God. I felt blessed in the life He had chosen for me, blessed by the voices raised in faith and hope still ringing in my ears.
Tu scendi dale stele/O Re del Cielo/e viene in una grotto/al freddo al gelo.
From starry skies descending/Thou comest glorious King/a manger low thy bed/in winter’s icy sting.
Snow continued to fall, blanketing the world white as far as we could see, soaking our boots as we walked to Santa Maria Momentara the day after Christmas. The air was sharp and frigid. The chilblains on my fingers ached, my wet feet burned with cold. The monks had kindly placed small braziers with burning coals near the Madonna, and I warmed my hands with gratitude. But I soon forgot my discomfort as I set to working the plaster for the giornata—first with a spade, then a trowel, until it had the consistency of an ointment.
When it was mixed to my satisfaction, I climbed the scaffold with my bucket of plaster and one of water, which I set on the wood plank. After marking the composition on the arriccio, Piero had cut the cartoon in pieces—one for each day of work—and now I set today’s piece in place to mark the borders of the intonaco on the wall. I dipped a large bristle brush into the clear water, sprinkled it over the dry plaster, then laid on the plaster—thin, but not excessively thin—troweling and floating in a circular motion. Smoothing, smoothing until the surface was as marble, no human mark upon it. When it had dried enough to hold the cartoon without marring the surface, I set it back in place and pounced it as I had pounced the now hidden drawing beneath.
On that first giornata, golden pomegranates, brimming with seeds, bloomed on the deep red brocade curtain. Cold winter light fell through the round window, illuminating the wall. The very air in the little church seemed holy to me. There was sound but the pigment giving way beneath my pestle, the quiet splash of water poured for mixing it in the glazed dishes, which I filled and refilled all day so that the paint was always fresh. The rhythmic swishing of Piero’s brush.
I felt the pure concentration with which he worked, understood that, working, he was no more than the brush. He loved painting in fresco because it was the most difficult of forms. He must paint quickly and boldly. He dare not make mistakes, for they could not be painted over, as in egg tempera, or rubbed away, as in oil—but must be plastered over, smoothed, begun again. And always the race with time to complete the day’s section, calculating when, exactly, the golden hour would occur—that hour near dusk, just before the plaster locks up, when it is in the perfect state to receive the layer upon layer of translucent color that will shine up through the fresco for eternity.
Those colors must be made only from the earth itself. Clay, chalk, lead, resin. Roots, berries, tree bark, saffron, cinnabar. Lapis Lazuli, very dear, which came from far away Asia. The dried bodies of insects! The tusks of elephants! The mucus of snails! Grinding the pigments, feeling the color beneath my fingers, took me to places from which they had come—fields and forests I knew, exotic lands I could only imagine. It seemed a miracle every time to watch Piero make life of them. He did not like to speak about his work, other than the necessities of its preparation, so I did not ask whether, painting with the stuff of God’s earth, he felt closer to Him. It seemed that he must, for I felt it myself and I was but the hands making things ready for him.
Nights I dreamed the giornati floating against a black background, searching for and finding each other, becoming whole with no need of the laborious work I must do each morning to layer the intonaco to accept them with no evidence of the joint. I dreamed Senora Romana, the child Piero in her arms. I dreamed Chiara as she had been as a girl in the summers of our youth, before she must take the womanly duties that dulled her spirit.
Day, the real pieces of the fresco emerged beneath Piero’s brush.
The opposite side of the curtain.
The face of Chiara on the angel to the left of the Madonna, her lifted hand.
Her green robe, her red shoes and pink wing.
The Madonna with Senora Romana’s serene face. Her braided hairpiece, a gold halo. Her neck, graceful as a swan’s. Her bent arms: one resting on her swollen belly, the other at her waist, as if to support the weight. The top of her simple pregnancy gown made of Lapis Lazuli, the most dear pigment of all, from faraway Asia. The ermine of the tent’s interior behind her, so real and rich it seemed it would be soft to the touch.
Chiara again, but opposite—all but the skirt of her robe.
The red skirt of Chiara’s robe, her green shoes. The glorious blue folds of the Madonna’s gown.
Thus, as God made the world in seven days, so Piero brought the Madonna and her presenting angels to life in the chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana, begun on the 26th day of December in the year of our Lord 1459 and completed on the third day of the year of our Lord 1460. We did not stay to see her celebrated by the town, but left Monterchi at dawn the next morning to travel, as always, like pilgrims, searching for grace.