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Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction

Benedetti

by Wendy Nardi

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor


I

If you had met Girolamo Benedetti on the streets of Florence back then, you would have thought him a pitiful figure, shabby and preoccupied. His crooked back made him limp, and he had to screw his head sideways to look at people. His brown hair was thick as an animal's pelt, while his hands were as wide as dinner plates, knobbed and calloused. But his eyes were beautiful, round and deep and dark, a legacy of his mother's people in the South. Everyone knew Benedetti, even though he'd been at Rome for years; they recognized him staggering across piazze and called out, "Ecco Benedetti!" and waved to the artist, who never responded. In fact, he may have been hard of hearing. Overprotective mothers hid their children from him when they passed, fearing the evil eye. But no one knew of anything evil he had done. On the contrary, his life was given to creating religious sculptures of great power and beauty.

Word of his talent had sped from Rome to Florence as one after another he conquered the forms available to a sculptor—reliefs, busts, single figures—and then in 1498, he carved two full figures from one stone without adding a single piece, the finest work ever done: a sweet-faced Madonna with the Child lying across her lap, eyes full of pity, skin polished so smooth it seemed warm with life, and light supple draperies you'd swear would blow off in the next breeze. People said God sent Benedetti to show artists what human hands could achieve. And we felt it was right He sent this example to Florence, where art is exalted as nowhere else.

Perhaps Benedetti's divine mission compensated for his personality, which was irritable and lonely. He fought with everyone, including the Pope, who once threatened to throw him from a scaffold if the artist didn't stop banging paint-pots under a fresco long enough for His Holiness to hear mass in the chapel. Benedetti refused to leave the fresco, in which he'd discovered a flaw, and stayed to fix it before the plaster dried, simply pulling up his ladder and ignoring the impotent stomping of papal guards below. When it was done, the fresco was a marvel, and of course everyone said it had been alright to move the service elsewhere. In fact, the Pope was so dazzled by the work, he forgot to pay his bills, and Benedetti, who was pitifully poor, slipped off home to Florence during a winter storm, leaving several commissions undone. That was early in 1501. By then he was famous, an artist to watch, and everyone said his best work was still to come. We local men waited for it as astrologers scanned the sky for a meteor or an eclipse. He piqued our interest by turning down one commission after another from noble houses of Florence, Venice, and Ferrara. "Okay," the word went around our community sculptors, "he's biding his time."

When he asked for Cioppo's marble, we were stunned.

"E pazzo," more than one person concluded. Even I, who wanted to be a disciple of Benedetti's, wondered privately, "Is he crazy?" That stone was a monster, a block fully eighteen feet high and skinny and curving as a brook. Granted, it had a fine hue, different from any other we'd seen. But it had been mistreated. Great hunks were hacked away where Cioppo had tried to carve before giving up and going to the mountains of Carrara to quarry new block, where he was crushed in an avalanche. Now the city owned it and had offered to pay someone to make a sculpture for the Piazza del Duomo. The stone had sat untouched in the Office of Public Works, anyone's for the asking, but who would take it? Only a madman, or someone hoping to fail.

Or Benedetti.

This was the man who locked himself in a studio for eight days without food until he got a nose of John the Baptist right. He had been banned from mass for butchering corpses to see how muscles were connected. He spent two years wandering the hills of Carrara hunting for marble for a small altar font and smashed thirteen Madonnas because they weren't quite perfect. Since he left Rome afterward, the fourteenth Madonna was never made and the Pope was left with rubble.

"There must be something special about that stone," went the rumors. We knew that Benedetti's technical skill was exceeded only by his vision, and we dropped in one by one to review Cioppo's marble before he started carving. I ran into Gianfranco Lionni there, a colleague who doubled as a civil guard when art commissions were thin. He stood staring at the stone.

"It's a fiend," he said, chewing on his beard. "A sculptor-eater. The sides are hacked away. They look like teeth."

"The devil must have quarried it," I agreed. And then, of course, Cioppo had been no great hand with a chisel. I ran my hand over the stone. Where Cioppo had let it alone, it had a creamy smoothness. The color was fascinating, tinted peach from impurities in the marble, making it look like living flesh. But how would Benedetti handle all the flaws?

"Hit here, or here, and you split the block from top to bottom," said Lionni. He waved his hands. "No one can carve it." Given that he was the brother of my fiancé, Francesca, I couldn't disagree, but I kept studying the marble, searching for whatever forms greater eyes than mine had seen in the ragged column.

Frustrated, we went to the wine cellar, where we met up with the others who had already started drinking. "You'd have to carve a baby—or a stork—to get a figure from it," complained a red-faced Bobbo Martinelli.

"Ah, but you can never tell with Benedetti," warned Dante Frascati. "He's got the devil's power." I crossed myself. People had been saying that for years about the sculptor, whose talent seemed more than human. We speculated well into the night.

Then, as usual, Benedetti moved into the workroom and locked the door, letting no one see the piece unfinished. The only possible spy I knew was a guy named Grande, a skinny old farmer from Fiesole who worked as a porter at the building and ran errands for people sometimes. But he probably wouldn't talk. Benedetti saw to it his work was kept secret until the final ceremonious unveiling, when he'd sweep away the canvas and reveal a perfect statue, born in a glance, a miracle. He even burned all the sketches. Ironically, when he did this with the Madonna and Child in Rome, the effect was so stunning that people whispered pride had led him to make unholy deals, and he was nearly arrested by the Inquisition. People made many foolish claims back then. But one fact we did know: Benedetti worked like ten men each day at his art. If he smashed a few disappointments, well, that seemed like his right.

Once he started on the statue, Benedetti never left the Office of Public Works except to walk around Florence and get some air, often ending up at a stone quai by the Arno, watching birds cloud the masts of the fishing boats. Or if the day were mild, he might stop to buy bread and cheese from Signora Pigni's. Then back he'd limp to the workroom where the marble stood surrounded by scaffolds going up eighteen feet in the air. He labored ten or twelve hours each day, as long as there was light, while the climate faded into dreary winter, twisting his crooked back to reach across the top of the block and carving his way down, clearing away stone so efficiently that in just two months he settled down to finishing work, first close-sculpting the head. To prevent intrusions, he built a drawbridge on the lowest level of scaffolding and raised it when he'd hauled up his tools. He lived completely alone, seeming to need no one for company or advice. Life, he implied, was just him and marble, and we heard what they did to each other in sometimes hellish sessions in the studio went beyond words. Before most people had rubbed sleep from their eyes, Benedetti was at it, pounding and scraping and hammering in a haze of dust, cursing and whispering like a lover to the figure he saw inside the stone. "I'll free you," he would say, and went at it as if devils were whipping him. When the sun set, he subsided to a bed of dirty straw near the unfinished statue and slept in its shadow. Some nights he drank, whether from success or despair at a particular phase of the work. But people passing the building at late hours heard him singing in a wild voice, the tunes sad and primitive.

As I said, I was still young then and would gladly have learned from Benedetti. I was tormented by the thought that he would take his secrets to the grave. In the end, without telling any of the others, I tried to visit him. "Signore Benedetti," I called, pounding on the workroom's heavy door. He had been relegated to an old council chamber in an empty wing of the building, where noise from the chisels and hammers wouldn't disturb the important functions of government. Although our government was so corrupt, we knew the real decisions were likely to be made at dinner parties at the fashionable palazzi, officials wining and dining themselves into compliant stupidity before carrying out their patron's bidding. They had to maintain decorum, though, at the offices, especially since councilors always had a hangover and liked it quiet. On this day, the corridor was hushed except for wind racing outside. I knocked again. "Signore, open up." When no one answered, I shoved at the door and entered the workroom, with Benedetti nowhere in sight. The statue stood in the middle of the room, a huge figure shrouded in canvas, towering like a mountain.

Squatting, I lifted an edge of the canvas and stuck my head underneath. Too dark. I climbed a ladder and yanked at the canvas cocoon until it fell in drifts and exposed the top of the statue. I was standing at the shoulder of an enormous man pushing his way out of the stone, back taut, muscles set, shoulders squared, the massive head crowned by thick curls. The face was unpolished, features scored into the surface of the marble. An elbow jutted from the side, flowing into a hand with fingers splayed again the hip. It was like a god from a forbidden religion, something ancient struggling to be born. It had a feral power. I tried to cover it back up, dragging canvas across the diabolically slippery marble, but in the end, I failed and had to leave the shroud slumped around the torso. I ran down to the lobby of the Public Works building and out into the cold, hoping no one had seen me, hurrying until I reached the wine cellar, where I stopped for a bracer.

That's all that happened. As usual, people have been talking, and I swear I just wanted to offer Benedetti my services. But I had learned one thing: he was sculpting a David. "It's perfect," I told Lionni, who was already at the wine cellar. Carve a boy, slim where the marble was narrow, long-limbed and graceful, holding a slingshot—a weapon small enough to fit in one of the stone's awkward bulges—and solve the problem of the head. We'd spent hours discussing this. The stone was too shallow to allow a normal profile. Unless the figure was meant to look like Benedetti himself, whose nose had been smashed years ago in a fistfight with a rival, you'd have to turn the head. But where would it be looking? Now, we knew. Benedetti was carving the young hero, a shepherd boy, right before he killed Goliath: feet set, eyes leveled over his shoulder at the giant that threatened his people. "The eyes of a country boy, yes," I said, shouting over the noise in the pub. "But one who will be king." Eyes that didn't quake at the enemy's hideous size, I thought. Calm, ready eyes. The eyes of a killer.

"Only God can make perfection," warned Bobbo. "Anybody can break things, like Benedetti does. That doesn't make him great."

"Nothing's perfect," Lionni added. "Even God gave Adam flaws when he made him from clay. Is Benedetti a better sculptor than God?" He tossed the dregs of his wine into the fire. "Some people think so."

That night, we stayed later than usual, fighting over theories, and bet we could climb the roof of the Public Works building and spy on Benedetti's carving through the skylight. We were drunk enough to try. But I got to the piazza and bowed out. I had betrayed Benedetti's privacy enough already.

 

II

Spring was harsh that year, a gray season with fierce winds and hard, driving rain. The Arno bucked so high it flooded, knocking vendors off the Ponte Vecchio and sinking the fishing boats moored at the quai. Buckets dotted the floor under leaks in the roof of Santa Croce, and when Bishop Nervi got drenched during services, he turned communion over to a parish priest and refused to enter the transept until summertime. People rushed across piazze with sacks over their heads when they had to go out to mass or shopping. Not that there was much to buy: rain pounded crops into pulp, and the farms outside the city walls were a brown lake, navigated in the distance by the tiny forms of farmers, their plows engulfed in mud. Inside the city, walls mildewed, hay rotted, gutters ran, and soon there was talk of cholera.

Still, Benedetti carved, the tools getting finer and the work on the David more detailed. We bought news from Grande, who took the sculptor meals and supplies—firewood, chisels, files—through the pouring rain. He came after work to dry off and drink at the wine cellar. He was old and bitter and liked to stretch his legs by the fire, pocketing the tips we gave for information.

I had my own business to attend to, of course. I had won a commission to do a small bronze for Duke Piero de' Medici's niece's ward, a young girl who liked elephants. I had never seen such an animal and so taxed my imagination for weeks in the damp gloom of my parents' cellar, trying to picture the behemoth in three dimensions from a study of old mosaics depicting the invasions of Hannibal. In the end, I reasoned that the young ward had probably never seen an elephant either, so as long as it had a trunk and a tail, I'd be fine. But I suffered as I worked on it because I like to come as close as I can. I had few distractions: Bobbo Martinelli was out of town on pilgrimage to Rome, and Lionni and I had been fighting over dice. So it was a lonely spring, and my thoughts strayed often to Benedetti.

One day, when my mother had been nagging me to feed the pigs, I fled to the wine cellar and found Grande already sitting by the fire. The place felt abandoned, but I was happy to be there. I'd been brooding all morning, listening to rain beat at the walls.

"You buying?" Grande asked, stiffly making room for me on the bench. "Because otherwise, I'll leave. I don't know what more I can tell you, anyway." He looked thin and brittle and stank of fish. "My bones ache. At least I'm not out there, though," he glanced at the windows. "When I was a farmer, the weather couldn't stop me. Sun or rain, we worked."

"Drink, old man, and keep me company." I passed the jug. We sat looking at the fire, grateful when the landlord heaved on another log. The flames crackled, but Grande shivered, his breath raspy. Indeed, he was pale as a corpse.

"You look bad," I said.

"I feel like hell."

"Fever?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know. I never felt like this before. And I gotta go back in an hour. He's working late."

My interest was roused, though I tried to hide it so I wouldn't drive up Grande's price. "You're going back to Benedetti's?"

He nodded. "To take him the heavy mallets. In the rain, with the shakes."

I listened to the wind, the landlord yelling to his daughter, feet shuffling past, fire snapping under the eaves. I watched red light glance off the wooden beams. Then I asked, "How's it going?"

"The usual rates?" Grande squinted at me through one red eye. I nodded, pulling out a few coins. He counted them. "The statue's a miracle, it has the breath of life. But he's crazy, you know. He never sleeps, just keeps banging at it all day and at night. When good people are in bed, he's up walking around and around, chattering. I heard him last night. I slept there, because of the roads. He has so much talent, but it's a sinful life, working for his own glory. Demonio. He thinks he's God's gift." Grande hunched over. "Well, we can't all be geniuses."

"Can you get me in?"

"No," he snapped.

"Come on."

Grand took the money I held out, then stared into the fire. "Come at two o'clock, when he has to appear before the council. They have questions for him."

I went home and fed the pigs after all, then lit a lamp in the dank cellar and started modeling the little elephant again. I smoothed the curve of the trunk, fingering the clay. One leg was raised, ready to smash an enemy. The big head would tip back, ears flapping—but what kind of ears? Damn those ears, I thought. Like a rabbit's? A hound's? Mosaics were fuzzy on that point. Asses' ears. I threw the clay on the floor. Rain howled over the Arno, seagulls screamed.

At two o'clock, I went out and dodged the rivers of stinking smut heaved up from the gutters to get to the Public Works building. I had to fight my way into the foyer, wind tearing the enormous door from my hands. My hat sat in a lump on my head, my shoes soaked through. Trying to look as though I belonged, I slogged upstairs and passed along the hallway to the wooden doors of the workroom. At first, I thought I had strayed down the wrong hall. Instead of the empty, cryptlike feeling of the other day, this time it was crowded and noisy. Something had happened: Benedetti's workroom doors were flung open. People stood bunched on the threshold, waving their hands and talking, shouting, pushing for a better view. Hazy air drifted, thick as mist. A stocky guard with ribbons on his cap tried to block me, swearing, then began berating others who were dragging bundles out the door. "Basta, non e permesso!" he cried as I shoved my way in.

The room was ruin of marble. Huge chunks of stone lay strewn on the floor. Marble-dust fogged the air. White boulders rose from a blasted sea of shards and powder that comprised the wrecked David. All that remained was the base, with the splayed soles of two huge feet. I choked. The place was freezing. Benedetti was gone, and the guard yelled, "Back up, c'mon everybody, he's no here," or some such thing. I walked deeper into the room. People coughed, drifting like ghosts in the dusty air. Shivering, beating my arms across my chest, I kicked at the rubble, looking for an identifiable part of the statue.

"Signore," someone called. Grande was stumbling toward me. "Che peccato! I didn't get here in time. I don't even know where he is. Have you seen him? Assassino. What I'd like to do to him. I'm still a man yet," he said, shaking his fist, his face wet with tears.

"Help me with this," I said, stooping beside a big fragment. It took both of us to move the marble, which rocked and lodged and finally flipped back to reveal an eye, calm and clear under a wide brow in a noble hollow of the skull. The gaze was keen, serene and proud. Benedetti's polish-work was shockingly lifelike, the detail so far beyond the usual abilities, I couldn't approach it even in a dream.

Wishing I could have been more surprised, I pressed through the crowd and went downstairs, heaved on the door, sloshed out into the windy piazza, and breathed in chilly air. Unsure where to go, I wiped my face, pointlessly, over and over—it must have been marble dust in my eyes—and tried to look around. But all I saw was rain. Rain was everywhere.

 

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