He was ten years old, a little shepherd boy who loved to lounge in the pastures of the misty lowlands of Lombardy. He liked tending the sheep, listening to the birds, watching the clouds drift, and inhaling the scent of wildflowers. It was serene and peaceful. And it was an escape from the tiny hovel crammed with his ten brothers and sisters, his drunken father, and his shrewish mother.
And unfortunately he liked to sketch.
It was a cool morning in early spring, and he was busily covering a large flat fieldstone with a portrait, in charcoal, of his favourite lamb. It was most realistic and beautiful.
"That is quite good, boy."
He jumped to his feet, startled, and stammered something foolish. He had not heard anyone approach. The art critic was a handsome young man of about the same years and height as his eldest brother, but dark haired, grave of manner, and severe of countenance. The style of his garments, and the costly silk of which they were made, pronounced him a Florentine.
"You have rendered the curve of the spine quite well. Have you studied anatomy?"
He had never heard of the word. It was all he could do not to gape at this rich and learned stranger. "No, sir."
"Are you apprenticed to anyone?"
His heart was pounding. "No, sir."
"Would you like to be?"
"I I cannot, sir. My father is very poor."
"Can you read?"
"Who taught you?"
"A nun, sir."
"What is your name?"
"Vito Ricotti, sir."
"And your father's name?"
"Giacomo Ricotti, sir."
"I am Maestro Cervello d'Avonci, master craftsman of the company of St. Luke."
This meant nothing to Vito, and his ignorance must have been apparent on his face.
"The painters' guild. Of Florence. But I am living at Milan now, at the court of Lodovico. I would like to speak to your father, Vito. Will you take me to him?"
He could not leave his sheep unattended. His father would whip him. But neither could he insult this distinguished stranger. He gulped, nodded, and began to lead the way across the fields.
His father was sitting in the open doorway. He was drunk, very drunk, unkempt, and dirty. His eyes were bloodshot and his nose was swollen.
The maestro introduced himself. Giacomo belched, scratched his armpit, and spat.
"I would like to take young Vito as an apprentice."
"Wha'? 'Prentice? Him?"
"He shows exceptional promise."
"As a painter."
"Look here, maestro, I can't pay no 'prentice fees. Can't you see that? The boy's a shepherd. Go away and don't make sport of us."
"I will take full financial responsibility for him. I will adopt him as my son."
Giacomo coughed and nearly choked on his wine. "Adopt him?"
Several pairs of frightened, yet curious eyes were watching these proceedings from behind the crumbling doorframe. "You have plenty of others," the maestro observed. "I don't think you'll miss him."
"You? Want to adopt? This boy?"
"Yes, if he wants to come with me. I shall provide him with food, clothing, shelter, and his education for thirteen years. At the end of that time he will be a master craftsman himself."
"And paint them angels on the walls?"
"Something like that."
Giacomo belched again. "Take him away. He's yours."
The maestro turned to Vito. The eyes were so very intense, and yet there was kindness in them yes, and more than that: loneliness.
"Would you like to learn to be a painter, Vito?"
His heart was beating so swiftly he felt light-headed. Giacomo had gone into the house. The baby and two-year-old Carlotta were squalling from within. "Good," came his mother's voice. "One less mouth to feed."
"Yes, Maestro," Vito said. "Yes."
He took the hand that was extended to him and thus left the hovel and came to live in the castle of the Sforzas.
The room in the Palazzo della Signoria was very large, very quiet, and very empty. Vito had long ago exhausted all sources of conversation. The jokes he had told about bureaucracy just a few days ago were no longer appropriate; any jokes would now be inappropriate. The maestro was not merely weary, and angry, as he had been: now there was panic in his eyes, a wild, desperate look that Vito found both frightening and heart-wrenching.
The door at last opened, and the civil servant, blank-faced, as always, came towards them. The maestro stood.
"The gonfaloniere will not be able to see you today," was the announcement.
"But I have been waiting here for ten hours every day for the past five days!"
"He will not be able to"
"Will no one listen to me? I have been sent from one desk to the other for the past fortnight. 'That is not my department.' 'I do not handle such matters.' 'You need to talk to the paper shufflers in the administrative building.'"
The civil servant looked profoundly bored. The street door opened and several well-dressed officials entered.
"Isn't it enough that the King of France has plundered all I own in Lombardy, without my having to endure the confiscation of my own property here in Florence? I am a Florentine, sir! I demand that my case be heard! I demand to see the gonfaloniere!"
Although the maestro was frequently ill-humoured, never before had Vito seen him actually lose his temper. But that morning they had spent their last soldo. They had no place to stay, and could not even buy anything to eat.
"You will have to return next week," was the indifferent response.
"Is there not one honest man in all of Florence?" the maestro shouted after the retreating civil servant, his voice echoing through the vast marble chamber.
One of the well-dressed officials paused, and then turned and approached them. "Diogenes did not think there was one in the entire world."
"I am not interested in humanist drivel. I demand that my case be heard. I demand justice. I demand to see the gonfaloniere, now!"
"But the gonfaloniere is not here," the newcomer said, puzzled. "He has been at Mantua this past week."
The maestro's face was now white with rage.
"But perhaps I can help you. I am the gonfaloniere's principal secretary. My name is Rugiero Blachiavelli."
"My father left a house to me in his will, and it and everything else I own including the bank account I maintained here for years has been confiscated by my half-brothers and sisters on the claim that I am not entitled to it because I am illegitimate. I demand justice. I demand"
"Please, come with me into my office and tell me the entire story, and I will do all I can to help you. What is your name?"
"I am Maestro Cervello d'Avonci, and this is my son, Vito."
The official's face had changed, reverence blending with astonishment and even joy.
"Well now, I'm glad someone in this benighted city has heard of me."
"Please, Maestro, come this way."
Humble gratitude was another emotion Vito had never seen in the maestro's face, yet see it he did when, two days later, the house was deeded back to him and the bank account, with its proper interest, was restored intact.
The house was small, boring, and unremarkable, and Vito discovered, in the course of his usual investigations into the maestro's papers, that the bank account was equally disappointing. Vito knew this state of affairs could not last long; surely another royal patron would soon welcome them to his court and shower them with gold, but months passed, and nothing happened. The maestro began writing a great many letters, but he posted these before Vito had the chance to learn their contents or even to whom they were addressed.
And then, one autumn afternoon, Ser Rugiero Blachiavelli paid a visit.
"I was wondering," said he, "if you might be interested in the post of military engineer."
The maestro paused before replying. "As I'm sure it is common knowledge to you that I have been seeking such a position for the past decade, the question astonishes me."
"Well, yes, I was aware that Lodovico had hired you in that capacity."
"He did. But he set me to designing theatrical entertainments and other nonsense. If he had listened to me, the King of France would have never conquered Lombardy. So. The Signoria finally wish to offer me a post?"
"It's a little more delicate than that, I'm afraid. It's a very dangerous mission, as a matter of fact, but it is essential to the safety of Florence. The Signoria would like you to go with me to the court of La Suprema, and offer her your expertise as fortress inspector."
"Are you mad?"
"It is a bribe your skills, along with a great deal of money, will be Florence's gift to her to prevent her from attacking Tuscany."
"She will take the money, kill you, torture me until she has extracted all my military secrets, and then conquer Tuscany, smiling seductively the entire time."
"I see you have met her."
"I do not think she is eager to attack Florence. Our alliance with France has made her seek easier targets for the time being. But I am not proposing that we crawl to her as suppliants that is merely a pretence. I propose that you and I personally use our cunning, and your genius, to destroy her."
"What makes you think I care about the fate of Florence? Remember, Ser Rugiero, the King of France your cherished ally plundered all my possessions in Lombardy."
"We had no choice but to welcome him as our ally. Surely you know that we paid him an exorbitant tribute so he would not sack us. You will help us, Maestro, because you are a Florentine."
After Ser Rugiero had gone, the maestro stood by the window and watched the departing horse and rider. "No," he announced, more to the air than to Vito, "no, I shall help Florence because I am indebted to him. And he knows it, the devious devil."
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Last updated on 18th of April 1999.