So as not to be overheard, I stoop a little and whisper into the youth’s ear, “What’s with the mucky feet again, eh? It’s all right depicting the hoi polloi in such a way, I suppose, but the Virgin? I mean, c’mon!”
The youth, not feeling the need to lower his own voice, is not very forthcoming. Half smiling, half sneering, he curtly replies, “With respect sir, my master already explained it to you, on your last visit, if you remember.”
Indeed, he had, and rather bluntly too. In fact, I almost wish I hadn’t asked at all, but I simply needed to know about the feet business. We all did.
I change tack. “Has he forgiven me, yet?” I ask the youth. He answers, “For asking too many questions, maybe. But for the figurine, not fully.”
Ah, the Madonna figurine from my pilgrimage to Loreto. Only a requested souvenir, but he’d hit the ceiling when he realised it was made of lead and not silver. “How dare you slight me like this?” he’d screamed. “You know I’d have paid up, you dirty, Perugian cheapskate!” And on and on he went in a language much more colourful than his earthy palette.
Luckily, I’d ducked the holy missiles which he’d thrown from point blank range and was quick enough to escape his boot as he chased me out of his dark studio into the bright plaza.
I’ve made amends since; using my contacts, I’ve purchased him two silver Madonnas, free of charge. But despite this, I’m keeping to the shadows today. He knows I’m here, of course, but it’s better to be on the safe side. “Don’t crap on Big C” is the warning out on the streets.
When he’s not looking at her, Mary shoots me a grin and winks suggestively. A beauty all right, but definitely not the pious type. He has her laid on her death bed, but I’ve often seen her in the Ortaccio, full of life, offering her wares in the very shadow of the monastery of the Convertites! C runs several girls, they say. A nice little earner on the side and a cheap way to procure models, eh? She’s not to my tastes, though. Now the youth, that’s another thing. Have you seen him pictured as Cupid, David or the Baptist? Nice. And close up in-person, mmm!
I’d like to get closer still, but he’s gone back to the paints, mixing his master the dull ochres, umbers and Verdigris of his trade; probably muddying the costly ultramarine which, if C ever deploys at all, he uses sparingly and sombrely.
C suddenly announces his need to pop out and borrow a prop from his friend Onorio. In his absence, I take the chance to inspect the painting in progress. There’s not much to it yet. Unlike other mere mortal artists, myself included, C never goes to the effort of making an under-drawing, so that leaves everyone, apart from himself, guessing what’s coming next. At the moment, all that’s to be seen is the Virgin’s pallid face and, sticking out from under a cover, her bare feet. Brilliantly realised, with C’s usual attention to naturalistic detail fully displayed, but with so much dirt on her feet. Always, the dirt!
It’s not to my taste and, I dare say, it won’t be to the Pope’s either. When C returns, I could advise him he’ll never see his painting hanging over any altar in St.Peter’s, not with Our Lady’s feet so encrusted with filth. But will I? Since I don’t have masochistic tendencies—maybe the figurine episode excepted—I most certainly won’t! Utmost in my mind is the recent incident, in which C rearranged a waiter’s face with a pewter plate, all for repeatedly insisting that the artichokes be cooked in butter rather than oil.
Because it’s not so easy to see what’s on show—honestly, I just don’t know how he manages to paint in this dingy room—I almost have to press my nose up to the canvas. Whilst I’m doing so, Mary surprises me. Sneaking up from behind, she gently runs her long fingers up and down my nape. She asks, “Admiring the quality of my skin, are we?” I try not to blush, but catch the youth smirking at us from besides his paints, and can’t help doing so.
“Your feet need washing,” I joke. She takes my hand, gives it a soft squeeze and answers, “Maybe you’d like to do that for me, or are you too proud? Surely you know that Christ humbled himself when he cleaned the feet of his disciples.” “Indeed, he did,” I say, “and in doing so, Our Saviour taught us that unless we are washed clean of our transgressions, we cannot enter His eternal kingdom.” “Quite,” she says, as she massages my forefinger. Looking unashamedly into my eyes, she adds, “And we have all transgressed, have we not? I know I have.”
Just when I’m hoping she’ll stop in her attempt to drum up some trade, Mary lets go of my hand and turns to the painting. She stares hard at it and becomes serious. “Consider C’s representation of the heels and toes,” she begins. “The feet are the lowest part of the body, despite what many men think or feel. And, just as the humble feet hold up the body, so do the feet of the humble hold up the body of the church; the truly humble of heart, I mean, like the pilgrims pouring into the city each day, what you might call the hoi polloi; often the poorest of the poor, having travelled barefoot from heaven knows where, with their blackened, dirt-ingrained soles.”
I’m not quite sure where she’s going with all this holy poverty stuff, but reply, “You seem to know an awful lot about the spiritual aspects of feet.” “Perhaps it’s because I’m the Mother of God,” she says, “and also because C confides in me.” She resumes her close stance and breathes into my face. “Haven’t you heard, I’m the ear to his mouth? Whatever comes out of him goes into me!” This innuendo becomes something of an announcement, as C suddenly stomps back into the studio, carrying a large, copper bowl which he drops onto the floor near the death bed. “Not for pissin’ in,” he grunts. “And you, back on the bed, lady!”
Getting back into position, she moans at him, “Will I be able to leave soon, it’s not as if I haven’t got other business to attend to!” He simply returns one of his dark stares and she relents. But, turning to me, she complains, “I’ve been on my back three days. Three whole days!” And then some, I think.
At this time of day, the temperature in the tiny room is stifling, not helped by the heat from the high lamp, the light from which falls straight down, producing the tenebristic contrasts C desires and, indeed, for which he is famous. So, despite the drab interior, both he and the youth strip down to their breeches and go about bare-chested and, surprise-surprise, bare-footed. Though the youth’s frame is a vision to behold, it’s C’s wounded torso and arms which demand my attention. Many scars criss-cross his sinewy contours, like the busy marks on a cartographer’s map; all evidence of his many street fights; proof of vendettas, feuds and duels; the letting of bad blood; plenty of his own, it seems. Somewhere in this den will be hidden his dagger and sword. It’s said he keeps them as close to his person as he does his paints and brushes.
Back at his work, he’s soon lost in deep concentration. His stolid, muscular frame stands between me and the composition. I see his thick, brawny neck repeatedly turning from the model back to his work. I could describe him as wholly bear-like, were it not for the gentler movements of his arm and hand, as he puts paint onto canvas; like a court dancer, delicately stepping across a marbled floor on the tips of the toes.
The youth stands patiently beside his master, ready at any moment to do his bidding. It’s said they are uncommonly close. If it’s true, then damn C, the man has everything! But I’m not sure. As far as I can make out, their behaviour together isn’t licentious. And anyway, there are more rumours in Rome than there are plates of ricotta and as easily spread.
In the near silence, I recall some of the things that C had candidly imparted, on the occasion of my enquiring into the unwashed feet business. “Listen here, you,” he’d snarled, “don’t get all devoutly la-di-dah with me! There’s nothing wrong with the way I paint feet. Take it as gospel that the word ‘humus,’ meaning ground, is the Latin root of ‘humilitas,’ meaning humility. Thus, matey, it makes good logic that I, the artist of the age, should depict the low-born foot in all its grubby, earthy detail; for to honour the ankles, heels and toes is to humble the self in the light of God, A-bleedin’-men!” In his quest for a chiaroscuro effect, and to his landlady’s consternation, C had once punched a hole in roof of his studio to let in a beam of light; fortunately, following my asking, he decided not to punch me too. His fearsome invective had done his fighting and I was left physically unscathed, though my breeks needed scrubbing afterwards.
Te Deum laudamus—time stretches out into an unrushed, devotional hymn. He works painstakingly on the Virgin’s toes. The bones beneath her skin begin to appear. Despite the mired limbs, not since the Word became flesh has the glorious complexion of such holiness been witnessed on Earth. I take my hat off to C, he’s got what it takes, the bastard. But, as I’ve said, it won’t do him no good, the Pontiff won’t like it. Neither will he take kindly to finding out that Our Lady has been modelled on a certain whore. Not that I’ll be the source of any such salacious scuttlebutt, y’understand? At least if he fails with this one, the rest will get a chance to shine, me included.
Although I’ve kept my tongue in check, I’m beginning to tire of simply observing the genius at work. So, hesitantly I make my way towards him and delicately present myself from the side [not from the front, oh no, never!] I say, “It’s coming on nicely, C. Lovely detail!” He doesn’t reply. It’s as if I’m not there. Undeterred, I question him on a subject unrelated to the matter of feet, but to a particular point of interest to anyone who admires the singularity of his art. “Will you be making an appearance in this one?” I ask. “You usually do, eh!” Let’s see, if I remember rightly, you popped up in Judith and Holofernes, the Martyrdom of St Matthew, The Betrayal and, let’s not forget, the Medusa! My favourite, you looked rather wonderful in the severed Medusa!” This time he responds. “Hardly surprising,” he snorts, “since you and all your kind would like to see my head separated from my shoulders, no?”
Wishing to cause no unnecessary offence, I back off a little but fear I have lit his temper’s very short fuse. He takes a heavy step forward, pointing his brush at me. “Do you know what I’m going to include in this painting?” he asks. “Er, no,” I reply, “please, enlighten me.” “Your ballocks, sir, your ballocks. Since you talk ballocks, act ballocks and paint ballocks, I will immortalise your ballocks. Your shiny, greasy ballocks will hang forever in the Vatican, on view to all of Christendom!”
This outburst causes Mary to cackle unnaturally and kick her exposed feet in the air. Similarly affected, the youth spins on his heels in hysterics. This only encourages C to become more outrageous. He drops his breeches, cups his genitalia in his free hand and gives them a shake. The youth, following his master’s example, gleefully does the same [oh for shame, beautiful shame!].
Horrified at such a visual attack upon my honour, I step back towards the door in the hope of a quick escape, but before I can exit the room Mary leaps from the bed, removes her drape and reveals her nakedness. Convulsed with crude humour, this stripped Salome comes at me, dancing in a debauched fashion and beckoning me forward with her fingers. C suddenly launches a Madonna and then the other at my person. Luckily, they strike the lintel instead.
To a backdrop of manic, pealing laughter, I hurriedly leave this order of demons to their un-holy humour. And following the example of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, before heading elsewhere I remove my shoes and shake the dust from the soles of my feet.
John E Caulton is an English ex-coal miner and school teacher. He has been published by Macmillan, Wrecking Ball Press, Hands Up Books, RCAT and variously online. He currently edits the website Flash Fiction North. Among his interests are swimming, painting and playing folk guitar – but not at the same time.