Voices part 3
By Chris Whitley
- 38 reads
'Weeks had gone by since this meeting, and still the legend's night-searches
to the slums had made no progress. The places were hellish; black as
a snake's stomach. Here were your authentic Renaissance slums --
black squares and streets lit by fire, full of swirling smoke, arrant
with all the dramaturgy of life: black lurking, back-stabbing
mischief surrounding the bear pits, gambling joints, dive-bars, dens,
knocking-shops, slop-houses, and speak-easys. Peopled by an
inebriated mob, a sordid mash-up, a brouhaha, the hubbub of low life:
the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, soldier, sailor,
beggar-man, thief, and of course, hustlers, whores, and pimps... And
they were all under no law, but that of the Milanese, warring,
'Leonardo did take up the Duke's offer of a few sharp blades – and needed to
– who were lean and hard as crowbars, and openly displayed their
full fighting kit. They were commanded to stay by the Master's side
at all times. He was also often accompanied by his friend Luca
Pacioli, and a couple of his closest servants.
'Night after night they entered and combed these ever darker and notorious
street-sinks... Sometimes they would pass a group of eyes that would
fix on them. Eyes that measure your muscles, and weighed your purse.
Life here, trapped under the foot of poverty, was short, mean, and
violent. And although, Leonardo was no stranger to all that is
human, these searches still caused him to muse on his own good
fortune, and how every life should have shape... and should be marked
by far more than the mere comings and goings of cradles and
'Many times he felt wasps of doubt. He wondered, if he should compromise
his ideal... this face of Judas, which he knew was
somewhere out there, and who, he alone would recognize. He wasn't
crazy about spending his, and his friend's time like this... dragging
them down into this rotten subterranean world every night. In search
of what they probably thought was a mythical creature. He
could, he mused, be getting on with The Gran Cavallo. If he could
simply settle for one of the scores of possibles they had stumbled
upon; the-almost-but-not-quites. But he, somehow, could not settle
for a face that was not right... he had to hang in there. And this
all brought him to wonder, not only at the strangeness of his own
mind, but of the complexity of identity itself. Who we are... It
amazed him how human beings keep this nebula like identity all
together... ''Why, under the surface of every man is a mass of
conflicts, moods, and contradictions that we somehow manage to
'As Leonardo and Ambrogio arrived at the Convent of Santa Maria delle
Grazie they entered into the rather dark refectory. The Master stood
contemplating his work in progress, while Ambrogio lit the large
torches, and made up their pallets. They began work; touching up the
almost – but for the missing face -- finished picture. As they
worked they sang, and recited verse, talked, and played word games.
Ambrogio told the master many jokes he had heard wandering minstrels
tell, and the Master tested the boy on his knowledge of his work,
until they heard the striking of eight bells, when they stopped and
ate a small meal, before their troupe of heavily armed bodyguards,
arrived, ready for yet another night search in, yet another, dismal
'Fetid, fowl, insalubrious, and noxious were some of the more refined
adjectives the group employed as they entered the very worst of the
slums: Wooden Town, outside the city walls. If the city had an anus,
this was it.
'The sky was getting mucky, as they left the city. They entered the slum
as a part of a thin stream of people, but were suddenly pulled and
pushed into a thick press of a caroming mob
that swept them along the street. Wild, exotic, faces and voices
surrounded them – faces of worldly features, and of many hues, some
tattooed,but also many hooded and hidden faces like their own. The
intimacy of so many sordid bodies gave off a stench that caused them
to muffle their noses with cloths in fear of the plague.
'Among the buzz of the mob the Master took in the many cadences of speech:
word-waggery, hard grinding talk, raw and sour remarks from sneering
mouths... He heard an exchange between two briny voices over his
shoulder, that included one of those New World turn-of-phrases that
was doing the rounds; both eccentric and outre.
'''Are you hungry?''
'''Hungry? Why, I could eat a Benedictine!''
'Imagine that..., thought the Master.
'They were suddenly funnelled into a small square, fire threw absurd
shadows on the swimming elephant-grey boarded walls. The place was
full of hassle, witchy yells, and curses. There was a swelling air of
murder and devilling, full of cat-hidden-tension. They realised
something horrific, and public was about to take place, which they
didn't want to be a part of. An old testament voice was proclaiming
what sounded like a message from oblivion...
''They make their own entertainment here,' one of the soldiers commented.
'They managed, with the guards' help, to force their way through to the
other side of the square, where they turned a foot, and swung into a
side street off a sided street. There, they came upon the most
saturnine looking den they had ever seen: The Smoky Porky, where
inside, the soldiers informed them, narcotic fumes took men from
themselves and the world...
'After rapping on the heavy door, they were confronted through a small
square hole in the door by a large disgruntled looking face of a
woman, who looked as if she was about to lay an egg. They informed
her of no more than their search for a man, and bought entrance with
threats and a small sum of money.
'Sweet, earthy fumes like Pan-poop engulfed them as they made their way down
into a dank catacomb; a warren of low narrow passages, and tiny dirty
cubicles, each containing prone, drugged, dreaming bodies.
'They began going from one to the other. Leonardo considering the faces of
the dreamers, as they lay almost unconscious of the company's
presence – the guards manhandling them – turning them over when
the Master couldn't rightly see them.
'Then, hallelujah! they found him! This moment would also make a wonderful
painting – the scene frozen in time. The string of people around
the supine body of Judas, barefoot and in rags. And at the centre,
that eureka moment lit-up on Leonardo's face...
'The Master sucked in breath when he set eyes on him... The man was rank,
stinking, blood and vomit splattered, an unnatural ball of filth. A
black, black, beard, that absorbed all light, on a yellow bony face
of slime, with a grim savage mouth that lied without speaking, and
eyes that stole a slow half squint at them, then rolled to and fro.
Yet, that one brief look was long enough for the Master to see it was
indeed the eyes and face of his Judas. He could imagine this face
like a paper cut-out, to be simply put into the empty space in his
picture; the final missing piece to a puzzle.
'Take him, nolens volens!' cried the Master, and the guards sprang
in to action, lifting the arms and legs of the limp body before
steering him away.'
'They carried the man back to Leonardo's studio. He was in such a state,
the Master put him into the hands of the apprentices, who washed and
tended the many sores on his body.
'They made up a bed for him in one of the rooms. The man was barely
conscious, and could scarcely hold down liquids. His eyes rolled like
marbles in a shoebox. Both the Master and Ambrogio couldn't wait, and
began some initial sketches as the wretch slept, albeit – with
closed eyes, and a sagging mouth – they knew it was the live fish
they really needed.
'The next day was the same, though the man did call for drink, and was
given water, which he spat out in disgust. ''Wine! Wine!'' he
sobbed loudly, as his eyes rolled away again. But Leonardo would
allow him no wine. He had poured enough screech down his throat.
''Every drink brings a man closer to the idiot – out of his gourd:
unable to think, nor speak, nor walk?'' Time and patience, he
thought, and ordered that the man should be watched over while he
slept, for he knew the power of this kind of thirst.
'But later, Leonardo as he listened to the man's wracked sobs, felt a
sudden closeness to this poor wretch – his darkness must be filled
with such loneliness and fear... He thought back to his own troubles
back in Florence... but, he luckily had come down handsome... But
what if he hadn't? ''Yes, we are all in this totality of life
together: the dead, the living, and the unborn...'' What, he
pondered, had brought this creature to such a heartbreaking
void? What had driven and cornered him into this cul de sac of self
hate? Was it under some unbearable whip of loss or regret? He decided
then and there, he would not return this man back the teeth of hell
they 'd found him in. He would help him.
'The following day the man awoke in the morning, in a kind of delirium,
pleaded in a rough and squeezed voice for wine again. But was given
only water, which he drank, before crashing out again into a long,
deep sleep. The vales of sleep: the kingdom of retreat and renewal.
'The next day the apprentices informed the Master that the man was
conscious. He had slept eighteen hours. The Master ordered them to
wash and dress him in Judas' toga, prepare food, and a place at the
table on the model's platform, and ready the studio and lighting for
a full day of drawing and painting.
'An hour later everything was in place, each of the artists had paper and
canvas, and a paint-loaded palette at the ready. The artists were
circularly arranged around the model's platform, which was
brilliantly lit with burning torches, with the light reflected and
directed with an array of mirrors. Then the man was led in on unsure
but eager legs to the table of food, which he fell on like a wolf.
'The artists worked quietly, while the man ate with gusto. He took several
helpings, before he finally stopped, leaned back in his chair, and
for the first time looked around him, and noticed the busy artists.
He shaded his eyes from the bright light attempting to see them
'''You are a guest, Sir.'' said Leonardo from the darkness.
'''I am?'' said the man with a clenched grimace on his face.
'''Yes, Sir, and as you can see I have taken the liberty to employ you as a
model, for which if you agree, you will be well paid for your time.
Do you agree?''
'The man looked out into the darkness, fingering his black, black beard,
has he thought for a moment. He smiled, and said ''I do, indeed,
agree, but Sir, do you have wine?''
'''Ambrogio!'' called the Master, ''bring some wine for the gentleman.''
'Ambrogio left, and soon returned from the kitchen with a bottle, which
Leonardo took from him, and walked into the bright light to give it
personally to the man. The man stared at him, vis-a-vis, with
a look of astonishment on his face.
'''Oh! it is you, Master...'' he said in a fretful voice.., and pushed
away the table and fell to his knees at the Master's feet.
'''Master,''...please forgive me, I did not see you correctly... I... I...''
'''You know me, Sir?'' asked Leonardo.
'''But, Master Leonardo,'' he moaned, looking up into the artist's
face, ''do you not know me...?''
'Leonardo looked hard at the face of Judas (the face he had known before he
even saw it). He never forgot a face.
'''No Sir, I do not...''
'''But, Master... Master...,'' the shocked face whimpered, ''I was
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