The Contessa Isabella Flavia Luisa di Lampedusa adjusted the clasp of the diamond that hung from her left ear like a droplet of tears. She smoothed the rustling damask of her full wine-red skirt. She powdered the skin on her neck and in the curve of her breasts that were pushed up tight by the bone corsetry of her bodice. She smoothed back the loose blue-black hairs that had escaped the golden fretwork of her net. She perched herself carefully on the satinwood chair, whose arms and legs scrolled down towards their elaborately carved lion’s paws, their claws sharp as needles.
The chair sat by a table, next to the window. The Contessa looked out of the window, towards the olive groves and the hills of Mantegna, cast in afternoon shadow and the pale flare of a late September sun. She heard the faraway tolling of the bells in the campanile high in the village and in the many other towers on the far side of the valley.
‘Entra,’ she said, using the formal term of address.
The door opened instantly and the serving woman, Julia Maria, entered, ushering in the young man behind her. ‘The painter,’ she said. ‘To paint your portrait.’
‘ I know. It’s his usual time. Every day when the bells toll for None. Now go.’
‘The Count has told me that I must stay.’
The Contessa flashed a look at her. It seemed to say, ‘You are my servant. This is not a prison. I am a Contessa.’ But she said nothing.
‘Where shall I sit, madam?’
The room was richly furnished. There was a walnut cabinet, inlaid with ivory, ebony and bone and a fine Savanarola chair. A tapestry hung from the stuccoed walls. It showed a man on horseback, skewering a wild boar. The Countess let her eyes sweep across the room, away from the pale light that filtered in from the window, towards the darker recesses of the room.
‘Take your sewing into the corner. You can see me well enough from every angle there. You can tell the Count, your master, what looks have passed between me and the painter, whether I stayed seated or stood up to gaze out of the window, when precisely I sighed, or took my embroidered handkerchief out to wipe the perspiration from my lip, whether we talked of chiaroscuro or scarlet pigments ground from cochineal, or the blossom bursts on the cherry trees in the garden below. The corner will be adequate for all of that.’
‘Yes Madam, I will follow your wishes obediently, as always.’
The painter waited till the exchange was over, then took out his box of paints. The easel stood ready, in the middle of the room. He took off his outer garment, a dun coloured cloak. The Contessa remembered it from the last time. She had thought then, as now, that it was thin and ugly, barely serviceable even for the balmy evenings of spring. Beneath the cloak, his shirt was stained with paint and turpentine, rumpled from sleep, hanging limp from lack of starch and steam. His grey hose were badly patched and his leather boots unpolished. And yet.
The painter did not look at her. He opened the box of paints and took out the pigs’ bladders filled with the oily paints he had prepared in his studio, pungent smelling pastes of ground glass and pigment, oglio cotto and beeswax. He was silent as he worked, squeezing the paints onto his palette. The Contessa sat still, her pale hands locked together in her lap. She looked at the colours as they appeared, slipping so easily out of their flabby casings. The yellow of the lemon groves stretching out behind the monastery. The green of winter grass plumped up with rain. The strident purples of Medaglie del Papa flowers in the woods of cypress trees and pines at spring. The violent red of the blood hurrying in her veins.
The painter wiped his hands on his tunic. He raised the sheet from the easel and let it drop to the floor. Julia Maria set down her embroidery. She hurried over to pick it up and fold it neatly. She placed it carefully on the stool beside him. The Contessa saw the look of undisguised displeasure that she gave to the painter, before returning to her seat in the corner.
And now the painter was ready. He lowered his head and breathed in deeply. He took up the palette and selected a thin brush. He wiped one hand across his face and swept back the long dark hair that hung over his brow. And then he looked at her.
His eyes travelled up from her soft leather shoe, peeping out from beneath her skirts. They went up towards her hands poised in a firm clasp in her lap, to her narrow waist, held by a tight band of silk, to her breasts, powdered with soft white dust, her slender neck and her slightly angled chin. His eyes moved beyond, to the mole on her cheek and to her eyes, where they rested for a moment. She caught his gaze with her own and held it, saw the strange blueness that flashed out of the olive darkness of his skin, searched it for a moment and then looked down.
He brought the brush up to his face and held it perpendicular before him, as if to measure the distance between forehead and eyebrows, eyes and nose, nose and lips, lips and chin. But his eyes never left her own.
‘Julia Maria. Will you fetch me a drink of water from the kitchens?’
‘There is a jug on the table, Contessa. I will pour you a glass.’
‘It is warm and stale. The water in the kitchens is cool and fresh. I am weary from the heat.’
‘I will call to the kitchen maid,’ Julia Maria replied.
‘You will waken my son from his afternoon sleep.’
‘He is sleeping far away, under the trees in the orchard, with the wet nurse watching over him.’
Julia Maria opened the heavy oak door. She shouted down the corridor, so that her voice rang out against the cold stone walls.
‘Anna Luisa! Bring fresh water for the Contessa. Subito!’
There was a click of a latch and the slow whine of a door creaking open in the room across the corridor. The Contessa felt the subtle change in the light and a draught of cool air unsettling the still, sleepy heat. She felt eyes resting on the back of her neck, surveying her, looking at the painter, the room. And then she heard the click of a latch, as the door was quietly closed again.
When the fresh jug of water appeared, she allowed the girl to pour her a glass and set it down on the table beside her, then flicked her fingers to tell her to go. She folded her hands in her lap again.
‘Your water, madam?’ said Julia Maria.
‘I am no longer thirsty,’ she said.
T he painter spoke for the first time.
‘Madam, shall we start?’
She stretched her neck, sat forward in her seat and adjusted her gaze, so her eyes followed a line through the open window and out to the wooded hills.
‘A little more to the left,’ he said.
She turned her head slightly.
‘Your chin needs to be angled more this way.’
She tilted her head.
‘May I?’ the painter said. He moved towards her.
Julia Maria’s needle’s was still, its fine silk held unmoving above the cloth.
The painter placed himself carefully next to the Contessa. She sat motionless, looking out of the window. He reached towards her face, with one hand. With two fingers, like a conductor invoking the most perfect pianissimo from his violins, the painter touched her face and turned her chin towards him.
Julia Maria leaned forward in her seat.
The painter edged backwards. He looked at the Contessa.
‘Perfect,’ he said.
He reached for his palette and started to paint.
The Contessa sat listening to the brush strokes, the fine scratching of bristle on canvas. She heard the jangling bells of the goats in the village and the call of the goatherd. She caught the sound of water being sluiced from a bucket into a drain and the shout of Anna Louisa, asking where in the name of Jesu was the man with the partridges that she needed to prepare for the Count’s dinner. Finally, she heard the soft, bubbling snore of Julia Maria, whose head had dropped forward and whose needle had slipped from the thread and fallen unnoticed to the floor.
The Contessa turned to look at the painter. She was struck by his ugliness and by his beauty. His nose was too big. It jutted out of his face. It took up too much space. His forehead was low and broad and his eyebrows dark and heavy. His face was rough and unshaven. He looked uncouth, uncomfortable in his skin, more of a farmhand or gardener than a painter. And yet those eyes. Blue of bluebells in the woods or lapis lazuli stones? Blue of sapphires or diamonds or shallow pools or the sky on days when the sun sears the skin? No, none of those.
He turned his eyes away from the canvas, towards her, then back to Julia Maria, slumped forwards in her chair. Slowly, he edged out and away from the canvas. Stepping softly in his leather shoes, he moved towards the Contessa. He reached into a pocket of his tunic and brought out a small slip of thin, folded parchment. He opened the Contessa’s clasped hand, peeling back her slender fingers one by one. She could hear his breath coming louder, faster. Carefully, he placed the parchment on her open palm and closed it again. Then, watching her all the while, he stepped back to his canvas and resumed his painting.
There was a sudden start. Julia Maria looked up. She reached down for her needle that had fallen to the floor, then looked around her. The painter was at his easel and the Contessa was gazing out at the hills, her hands clasped simply in her lap.
The bells rang in the Campanile in the village and the Contessa finally turned towards Julia Maria.
‘Enough. I am tired. The painter can come again another day.’
She stood and gently brushed out the creases in her damask skirt. ‘Tomorrow, or the next day,’ she said. And then she moved to go. Julia Maria hurried to open the door for her.
‘Let the painter pack away his tools, then see him out,’ she said.
She nodded her head towards him and he bowed down low, raising his eyes to look at her only at the very last moment. ‘They are like cornflowers,’ she thought.
The Contessa went straight to her room and closed the door behind her. She stood resting her back against the oak panels, so that her head, her shoulder blades, her back and thighs were supported by the hard wood. She closed her eyes.
If there were a lock on her door, she would lock it. If there were a ladder, she would climb down it. If there were a marvellous machine that could fly, she would board it and let it carry her away, out over the olive and lemon groves, the orchards and fields, the woods, the campanile and the village and away. She would return to her family. She would forgo the partridges and the pheasants. She would rip off the silk and damask and say good-bye to the diamonds and the pearls.
But the painter. The cornflower eyes. And the ugly nose.
She waited till the blood had slowed a little, then opened her palm. Inside, the tiny piece of parchment lay folded, a little damp now from the warmth of her hand. Should she open it? Or safer to just bury it in among the twigs and logs at the hearth, to catch into flames when Anna Luisa came soon to light the fire. Unseen, she would never know what the painter had given her. Unseen, she could give nothing away.
She opened it.
It took her a moment to understand what it was. She had expected words, a declaration of devotion, a desperate plea to meet, at this time and at this place, with the help of this trusted friend.
Instead it was a drawing. A simple sketch. Two faces, his and hers. His large nose turned to one side. Hers tipped forwards. An awkward angling of faces, finding a complicated accommodation. The painter and her, lips touching, eyes open, looking at each other. A kiss.
She took the piece of parchment. She went towards the fire. Then she turned and, folding the paper, she reached down into her bodice, found a space between the hard bone of her corset and the soft linen of her blouse and placed it there. Not safe but secret and close enough, for now, to the beating of her heart.