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Erin Thompson

The Academia of Florence houses Michelangelo’s David, a statue of which I am not fond but which most of the world seems to have gotten on their essential itineraries. The museum also has a set of upstairs rooms full of Trecento altarpieces, looking at which offers not only the pleasant sense, positionally, of tramping about on top of the David’s head, but also definite proper charms. I usually spend my time here, deciphering saint from saint, or painter from painter – Lorenzo di Bicci and Bicci di Lorenzo proving especially recalcitrant -; but on the occasion that begins this story I wanted to look at the museum’s earlier, almost Byzantine, paintings, which are in a room on the ground floor. To get there one must walk past the David and its attendant multitudes, a route that I ill-relish and usually accomplish with my hat pulled over my eyes and my eyes on the floor. I found upon beginning this walk that I had not calculated correctly the size of the crowd, for I had forgotten that the David had recently been cleaned – the Academia is forever cleaning one or another of its possessions and then representing them with great fanfare – and this very fanfare had drawn an even larger amount of tourists than usual. Whatever the general benefit to the world of this freshly-laundered David, to me it meant that I was rather suddenly stopped by a clot of tourists just at that juncture at which I wanted to turn off into the paintings room and they wanted to savor their first glimpse of the masterwork. I looked up to find a way through them, and as I did, I was struck by a large painting hanging in the corridor, one which because of my peculiar mode of passing this stretch of museum hall I had never before seen. It was rather dark and obscure – one of the few works in the museum not yet restored. I could, however, clearly see, as I looked up, one particular figure to the extreme left of the field, half-covered over – almost only peeping in around the frame. I saw it, and immediately turned away, and shouldered through the crowd into the safety of the empty altarpiece gallery, where I spent quite some time staring blankly at a St. George, although it was only after a long while that I recalled where I was, or could identify at which saint’s painting I had sought refuge from that thing in the corridor canvas. It had had a white, blenched face, with great dark eyes – made dark by eyelashes so long that they matted – and a perfect sharp rosebud mouth, with, however, no color, and hair perfectly flat, as if the creature had risen from a pool of oil; I say the creature, for though it had the features of a young girl, and wore the dress of a fashionable maiden of the early 16th century, the ends of the sleeves were hidden, and what was visible was horribly slack, as if the girl’s face were attached to a body with no appendages, one that curled away out of the painting. Upon reflection, the whole thing reminded me of those representations of the snake, tempting Eve to pluck the apple, which are sometimes shown as composed of a woman’s head attached to a snake’s body, curling up around the tree – as in Michelangelo’s own scene of Adam and Eve, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But those snakes, with their obvious anatomical incongruities (as well as their unashamed comment on the true nature of womankind) had always appeared to me to be rather amusing; this figure was contrastingly most disturbing. It had drawn my attention, and I felt that if I had continued to look I would have been in great danger of never stopping – of being drawn in through the frame and into its slack embrace, into the rustling space inside of its dress, and down with it out of the painting. Even in memory it stirred me, and only with difficulty did I walk back down the hallway to leave the museum without turning once more to look up at it. I noticed, too, when I walked out, certain unusual movements in that area of the corridor among the crowd – nervous tappings of feet, more prevalent than usual whinings and tuggings on of hands by children, more standings and more pushings – as the result of which came crashing down across my path a German matron, with a stunned and twitching expression on her face, and though I suspected the cause, I knew no solution, and therefore stepped around as best I could and continued out, into the sun.

Next day, I borrowed from my host a catalogue of the Academia’s collections – an old catalogue, without illustrations. It listed a large painting of Bronzino’s, which I knew must be the one with the dark figure, for I began to recall other of Bronzino’s works with somewhat similar persons. The same large eyes cut into a waxy white face were possessed by a little girl, an illegitimate daughter of one of the Medici, in a portrait by Bronzino in the Uffizi Gallery, and the same girl, a little older, appeared as an allegorical figure in another Bronzino in London – at least, half of the girl, for while she had plump, though dead white, arms and legs in the portrait, here she showed slim hands only, the hem of her dress pulled aside to display a snake’s body – she was supposed to be a representation of Inconstancy or Jealousy or some sin – I couldn’t remember, as I had found the painting – and the portrait – unpleasant enough to never want to study it more. Unpleasant, yes – I hesitated to meet the gaze, so to speak, of these figures – but there was not the dreadful repugnant attraction as to the figure in the painting that I had just seen.

I thought that perhaps there was merely something in the manner of Bronzino which was antipathetic to my taste, and accordingly, and gladly, let the matter rest until it was recalled to me by a conversation with the Director of the Academia. My host, a man rather more acquainted with the Director that I would have wished, invited him to dinner occasionally and insisted that I be present, an insistence, though made in friendship, I felt hard to demur. Accordingly, at dinner one night not long afterwards, I heard the Director complaining to my host about the behavior of tourists in the Academia, for, though the restored David was having the expected effect on ticket sales, half the tourists all seemed to stop at a certain point in the hall before they even got to the statue, and to linger there or in the museum for far longer than their usual wont – they usually only stayed long enough to take a few photographs – and though the only thing to look at near the stopping spot was a Bronzino painting, they could not be looking at it, no? For Bronzino is not such a popular artist as Michelangelo, certainly, and the few reports he had received from the museum guards and attendants were that people had complained of the painting being too dark, too hard to see, and that the guards had had to scold some visitors for standing too close, trying to make out the figures. The Director sighed that he would have to have the painting restored, and that then the crowds would return to their proper state of not attending to it at all. My host took a great interest in this restoration project – an interest more, I fear, at heart more pecuniary than scholarly, for he was currently engaged at the museum for a one-year research fellowship, and, having felt how sweet and pleasant it is to be such a fellow – to depart for a leisurely and prolonged lunch after having whiled away a few hours smoking in the library, returning only should it be the appointed day for picking up his ample pay packet – was endeavoring to persuade the Director to turn his year into an indefinitely prolonged position. Hence his solicitous attention to the Director’s cares and woes, the foremost of which, as it shortly turned out, was the restoration of this Bronzino. Not even my so solicitous host was allowed into the laboratory to which the painting had been removed – restorations in progress are jealously guarded from scrutiny – a policy instituted after a few early attempts, using the new scientific techniques, of the latter part of the just past century, at which, the processes having been declared infallible, journalists were invited to attend and observe the work in progress, for, during certain such public affairs, certain restorers, having proudly invited their audiences to watch as they wiped the accumulated grime from some vulnerable Madonna’s face, had wiped the face away as well. There had been additional scandal when these same Madonnas reappeared on gallery walls wholly intact, their faces suggesting not so much a miraculous regeneration as the brush of some painter of a far more recent date than the label of the painting would wish to proclaim. Nowadays, paintings are taken to back laboratories and thence returned to display with a strictly incommunicado period in-between, so that only the observer with a good memory can tell if the Madonna besmoked by generations of church candles has lost those qualities which prompted prayers as well as grime. In any case, my host was not allowed to look at the work in progress, and the whole operation was kept as secret as possible – which turned out to be not so secret after all, for, you see, things began to go wrong.

I myself was privy, at the Academia – the painting having been removed and proper crowd control reestablished, and thus proper conditions for studying my lovely old saints regained – to the voluble flight of the Head Restorer, who strode past me on his way out, shouting such loud and prolonged reasons for his quittance that I am afraid that I did not quite catch them all, and with the Director trotting along behind him, equally loudly beseeching him to stay – but also cursing him for leaving like all the others, for being a coward. The Restorer stopped, and turning to face the Director, said “Ho paura.’ That is to say, “I am afraid” – but, literally, the Italian is “I have fear” – which makes fear into quite a substantial possession, a thing in its own right – a thing such as might have caused the look on the face of the restorer, as he stood there, in the doorway of the room, rubbing his fingertips on his shirtfront, as if to clean them in this sacrificial manner from some persistently clinging filth. His fingers did indeed appear to be filmed with a slimy black, but though his shirt was of the finest white, and his suit light summer linen, not a trace of black rubbed of onto them – and with a last look at his fingers, the Head Restorer turned and left the room. The Director, uncharacteristically but understandably, was left mute at this sight, and until he recollected himself and hurried back to his offices, I had to inconspicuously occupy myself in the opposite corner with a particularly lurid St. Agatha – the one with the red hot pinchers, as you might recall.

There was soon no doubt in the minds of anyone who attends to these sort of things that something was not going quite as planned with the restoration, for a small article appeared in the Journal of Art, with an appended photograph of the Head Restorer of the National Gallery of London emerging from the back rooms of the Academia, looking quite stunned – it must have been an unexpected photograph, for he is usually so well composed. The article declared that the Director of the Academia – with, it should be noted, no mention of the museum’s now former Head Restorer – had called in the experts who had worked on the restoration of the London Bronzino, in order to further international cooperation among museums – and so on. International cooperation is, of course, the last thing that museums actually, in practice, want, and for one Director or Head Restorer to speak to another is an event so rare as to be portended by comets and eclipses – for museums are, after all, companies in competition for the money of tourists with a very finite appetite for art. Hence, from this meeting of Academia and National Gallery, one could diagnose first that the Uffizi – possessor of the restored Bronzino portrait of the young Bia – had already been consulted (national pride being resorted to, when institutional had failed), and that the consultation had failed, and secondly, that the authorities in London, instead of refusing to come, had considered it of enough importance as to send their Head Restorer – which meant that they must have had a problem during their own restoration, one equally as grave – so grave as to override the usual policy of non-cooperation -; however, the Londoners could not resist a bit of point-scoring, and so had leaked the news of their impending consultation to the Journal of Art journalist – a woman who, though purblind, had the requisite nose for artistic happenings, if not art itself. I had met her when my host invited her to one of his dinners, soon after the article, but though she managed to pick all of the truffles out of the common sauceboat into her own plate, she said that she had ferreted out no more about the restoration than had been published.

Whatever had happened in the laboratory between the London Restorer and the Bronzino, the attempt was evidently as unsuccessful as had been the presumed one of the Uffizi restorer, and the date of the promised unveiling of the finished product was fast approaching with, to judge from the Director’s increasing gloom, unbroken by even the finest of my host’s proffered after-dinner cordials, little hope of anything fit to reveal. A small conference had been planned for the new Bronzino, and the Director threw his enegeries into it, in the absence of its actual object. My host, who had, if the Director seemed gloomy, looked positively black – for the Director was in no humor to listen to pleas for research fellowships, even from one whose ear had proven hitherto so sympathetic – came home one day so excited that one might almost have called him panicked. He had just been asked by the Director to deliver a paper at this forthcoming conference. Bronzino was not, strictly speaking, within the area of specialization of my host, who, as far as anyone could recall, had really no area of specialization except the art of the table – but he practiced this so well, and so generously, that everyone who mattered assumed that the fault was theirs, for having forgotten his topic of research, which, they thought, he must undoubtedly have told them at some time or another. In any case, the Director was hardly in a state for such subtleties as these, and had simply adopted the idea that my host was the sort of scholar of which he had present need – since the Head Restorer of the Uffizi, who had promised to give a talk, had cancelled rather abruptly – which happening rather tended to confirm my conjectures about the Uffizi Bronzino restoration. My host seemed rather a humble replacement, and I wondered at the choice until I saw, from the looks of our distinguished dinner companions when he announced his fortune that, though he may have been the first to accept the invitation, he was not the first to whom it had been offered. I deduced that, despite the attempt at secrecy, rumors has issued forth from that back laboratory – hardly surprising, since the painting must have been of some concern to the museum’s staff of guards, restoration assistants, and that class of employees once called “charwomen”, but, I am certain, something else today. Such persons are more or less free to glance around the restoration laboratory, if their duties called them to somewhere in the vicinity, for they were assumed to be both loyal to the museum and unable to tell whether the restorers were employing distilled water or sulphuric acid, or any of the other fine distinctions likely to interest the press and public; however, even if not interested in varieties of fluids, they were likely to notice if something distressing was afoot in the back rooms. And, apparently, notice they had, and had communicated something of this notice, though heavens knows what, to those of the Florentine art world likely to be asked to talk about Bronzino. They had even told something to my host, as we shall see, but he was so eager for his position that he took these warnings only partially into account. Or perhaps it was merely that his Italian is not, at times, of the best.

After dinner, he drew me aside and asked me to tell him about Bronzino – that is, he asked me for the latest research, but seemed happy enough, as I suspected he would be, to hear the whole. He asked especially if I knew anything about what he called ‘the dark figure’ – after some worried and probably unconscious hint of the Director’s or of someone of the lesser museum staff. I told him that, from my brief glimpse of the painting – I did not expatiate on the attendant circumstances and effects, seeing then no need to – I thought the figure to stem from the same source as did the portrait in the Uffizi of Bia, the illegitimate daughter, as I have mentioned, of one of the later Medici. He pressed me for details, and so I continued to discuss Bia – which we know to have been the girl’s name from certain documents relating to her birth and death, and which is supposed to be short for ‘Maria’, but which always reminds me of the Greek βία, meaning ‘force’ or even ‘violence’ – you might recall that one of the characters of Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound”, the one who is responsible for nailing Prometheus to the rock, is named Βία. The Bia of our present concern had been born to the said Medici before he was married, and, the Medici being concerned to keep up their family line, had been kept in her paternal household as a sort of reserve child, should her father not produce any others – which was more than probable, given the impotence and short-lived inbred offspring then incident to the family. Her illegitimacy was not to be completely forgotten – hence the portrait in the Uffizi, done when she was about four years old, and in which she is shown with a portrait medallion of he father hung around her neck, to make the painting a more or less official declaration of her parentage – in so far as it was of concern. Shortly after the portrait, her father had finally married, and though Bia continued to live in the now conjugal home, the new wife – an appropriately close Medici cousin – gave birth to a new daughter, also christened Maria, and thought the two Marias could have continued to live parallel, dynastically interchangeable lives, the Bia of the portrait soon afterwards died. The other Maria – we have her, or perhaps her younger brother, in a portrait with her mother by Bronzino, and neither of these two sitters have anything about them which looks anything like the reflecting eyes and sharp fingers of Bronzino’s other Bia – grew up to be one of those fat, ugly, serene Medici women who liked to have themselves portrayed as saints – Mary Magdalene, say – by the equally corpulent German painters they then favored. Bia, too, grew up, in a way, after her death. She died at five, but the figure who so resembles her in the London Bronzino can hardly be much younger than twelve, and from my brief encounter with the Academia canvas, she seemed there to be fully grown – at least in the Renaissance sense – let us say about eighteen years old. She might have continued to grow older on Bronzino’s canvasses, but the painter died in his late middle age, quite soon after he completed the Academia painting – and, incidentally, just after the death of the Medici who fathered Bia. She had apparently made quite an effect on Bronzino – although, I reminded my host, it was more often the scholarly opinion that he had had the effect on her – that is, that Bronzino stylized, transformed, and coöpted his little subject, and that the painted figure could bear little resemblance to the actual girl – for how could any little girl – any human being! – look like that? Such scholars, in my opinion – which I at the time kept quite quiet – tended to forget that Bronzino was capable of painting quite blasé little females – witness Maria the second – and besides, if they would consent to peer as closely at people as they did at paintings (or at least at each other) they might see in the face of a gypsy child or some urchin peering from out the gate of a buried hill-town estate something of the qualities of the painted Bia – but only something. Whatever Bia was, she was it with such potency as even I have never seen in the flesh. More about Bia no one could tell my host, and more about Bronzino I could not – for I realized that I, so struck by the figure, could not even recall the subject of the Academia painting, besides that it was large and dark and may have had something to do with the Last Judgment. My host seemed unconcerned with this lack of specificity as to subject matter, but merely jestingly assured me that after restoration, it would at least not be so dark. He declared that the only thing to do would be to see the thing, and that then he would know what to give his talk about – although I believe that he had already begun to plan his attempt at the amelioration of the conditions of both the Bronzino and of himself. In any case, he said that he would have to consult Duccio.

Duccio was a guard at the Academia. One might think that museum guards, standing so many hours of the day in rooms filled with what have been supposed the most enlightening of objects, would have their spirits lifted, even if forcibly – but, more usually, guards spend less time examining what they guard, and more those from whom they are guarding it – which is reasonable, perhaps, except for the marked preference shown for the scrutiny of those museum visitors possessed of short skirts and high heels, who are perhaps not the likeliest to harbor intentions of damaging the objects that they teeter and titter among. In any case, Duccio was somewhat of an exception to this tendency – at least, he had looked at enough of the collection for long enough to have become endowed with a tremendously knobby Renaissance nose, the kind of thing not bred in the present age – and was even suspected in certain quarters of an equally archaic type of devotion – in that he had been seen with a tear in his eye in the room full of Crucifixions more that once, and had consequentially been assigned to guard the David, a more safely secular subject – more or less – at least one with a great deal of attendant activity to occupy his mind away from devotional thoughts – or the bottle – which is what some others thought the cause of the tears, and of the nose. Whichever the source, he and I had a certain understanding, and so when the rooms full of painted saints were closed – which they often were, for the day, on a rotating and unpredictable schedule – he would let me past the barrier, and I would exercise my ability to become wraith-like, to escape official notice, and at times he would even join me, to talk of various pictured miracles and manifestations. Duccio had also – whether though pious pity or appreciation of port – struck up an acquaintance with my host, and though he was not of sufficient importance to be invited to dinner, he would sometimes come for an after-dinner drink – which occasions were now so multiplied and prolonged that I gathered that my host was trying to persuade Duccio to let him into the laboratory, and that Duccio had neither positively refused nor granted the privilege – and since Duccio did not have what one might call a playful character, there must have been an inner conflict, one whose resolution I heard the fruits after an especially late session, one with disastrous consequences for my host’s liquor cabinet, whose powers had finally led Duccio to make a confession – “He says,” declared my host, “that the thing is haunted, or cursed, or some other ridiculous thing.”

Stung to the defense of Duccio, I told my host about the restorer and his black fingertips and fear, but my host pounced upon the information in quite another way than I had intended. He asserted that the blackness, as well as the general gloom descended over anyone in proximity to the painting, pointed to some source of a more scientifically analyzable kind. Perhaps Bronzino had used some paint which had become toxic over the centuries, only now released from beneath a cover of varnish – or perhaps, anticipating future meddling restorers, Bronzino had even implanted some deliberate – well – my host supposed that the concept applied only loosely to canvas, but still – loosely – traps. After all, restoration was just becoming a science, so to speak, at the time of Bronzino, and might not have he, dissatisfied with contemporary results, foreseen the possibility in the future for his own works? In any case, my host asked if I knew any apposite treatises – on poisoned paintings – even, he added, on haunted ones – in case, of course, such a work was written in code – science in the guise of religion – but in the end, all that I could recommend was a consultation of the Academia’s records of the painting – which had at least the benefit of being unexplored by any scientifically minded Head Restorer.

The next day – for the prior conversation had taken place, as always, after dinner – my host retired to the Academia library. He returned again for dinner, and threw me self-satisfied confidential glances throughout, but only after the guests had departed did he show me the results of his discovery. This consisted in a thick packet of old paper covered in the miniscule and precise handwriting of the Renaissance judiciary, and seemed to be, upon the hurried inspection he permitted me of the first few pages, the record of a trial of an unnamed woman on a charge of witchcraft – through the medium of the very Bronzino canvass in the Academia. Such a record would, one might think, be of immense interest to modern scholars, who are usually all agog over any scandalous details scavengable from an artist’s life – but the librarian of the Academia was not one to let such information loose. She was truly of a rather timid disposition, of the type which believes that secrets should be kept undisturbedly archived, should they not reflect to advantage an artist’s character, but she covered this timidity with such a gruff front that no researcher would have dared ask her for information, even if they believed that she had possessed it. My host, though, had cultivated her acquaintance in the months spent, as I have mentioned, smoking in the library of a morning, and had so far convinced her of his being both gallant and harmless that when he asked for Bronzino’s records she had probably thought that he wanted them only for something to read in the unexpected absence of the daily papers. Whether she had then granted him permission to leave with this trial record or whether he had absconded with it, I do not know – except that he showed a marked disinclination to return to the library – but perhaps that was because he was remarkably occupied in the coming days, for the last page of the trial bundle provided what seemed a valuable discovery. On this page, separate from the rest, and in handwriting more of the church than of the court, was written, “Lustrate the reverse”.

My host, having concluded that this instruction was the result of the trial, and the trial the result of some after-effect of the painting (for the it took place after Bronzino’s death), and having also decided that this effect was more chemical than magical in nature, had questioned Duccio, who admitted that, in so far as the restorers had made any progress with the painting, it had been to determine that something was wrong with the back – in just that area corresponding to where the dark figure appeared on the front – and that the painting was currently turned face down in the laboratory in order to address this problem – but that the Head Restorer had quit precisely after his first attempt to do so. My host expressed himself of the opinion that an application of water – a lustration – might do the trick – and, at least, that it would not hurt to try – since, this very innocuousness of water being a quality not usually recommending itself to restorers, who prefer stronger fluids, it was very likely that he would be the first to make such an attempt. If he could persuade Duccio to let him some evening onto the laboratory, perhaps…. I saw that he wished to deliver a solution to the Director’s problem instead of a mere paper. I asked, for various reasons, if he had considered what type of water he had planned to use. He saw my point at once, for, being an expert on scotches, he knew that waters of different sources have dramatically different effects on the palate. Obviously the ordinary water of Florence would not do – the bottled water was not local enough, while the tap water that everyone drinks bottled water to avoid was too much of its chemical time and place. I suggested, lightly, that he obtain some holy water, which was likely to be drawn from a church well, one in operation since the Renaissance, and thus the closest to the type of water recommended by the manuscript. He agreed with the thought.

On awakening the morning after this conversation I realized that what I had taken to be a slight touch of a cold, the kind of which one always gets at the height of a Florentine summer, was an illness of a slightly graver character. Not being the type to take to my bed, I adjusted my habits merely towards a greater frequentation of the more popular churches, in which my coughs would be rendered inconspicuous by the inconsequential chatter of tourists; I also spent time sitting under the porch of the Ospidale degli Innocenti, whose cool stone continues to minister to the fevered, even if the inhabitants of the building have largely changed their occupations. Most importantly for this narrative, I excused myself from my host’s dinners, feeling them to be perhaps even a cause of my malaise, for they were ever so profuse that even to eat as sparingly as I did was to eat too much. This absence from dinners and all their appurtenant meetings meant that my host, accustomed to make his confidences only within these pleasant bounds, could not change his nature so far as to tell me his plans and actions, and so I did not know what had happened until the end. I had, indeed, kept my host and his devisings in mind, but I had trusted to the relative distance in time of the conference, the reluctance of Duccio, and my host’s usual unequal proportion of talk to action to postpone any definite events. I had miscalculated.

My host, as I was later told, had gone the very next day after our conversation to church with Duccio, who was entrusted with dipping up sufficient quantities of holy water – whether because his fingers were more deft or more devote, I cannot say. A few days went by, during which my host, who had perhaps not at first fully revealed the ultimate purpose of the abstracted holy water, persuaded Duccio, who was indeed reluctant, to accompany him into the restoration laboratory at some appropriately private moment – midnight, say. It seems that my host began to explain his theories of the particular chemical composition of Florentine water and its practically scientifically assured effects on any miasmatic canvass, but Duccio would listen to nothing of the sort, and, at this immovable block, my host switched to a discussion of the holy nature of the water, and, though as he had proclaimed, he believed in nothing of the sort, he perhaps convinced Duccio that the operation would be more in the way of an exorcism than a restoration – and to this exercise Duccio was more willing to agree. Of course he was perfectly aware that my host was no priest, nor likely to ask the attendance of one – but it is my opinion that Duccio had already privately consulted a church official or two – but a situation must be very bad indeed before the Church is willing to perform anything so archaic and generally unseemly to the modern public as an exorcism, and the word of a mere humble museum guard – or even of a whole museum full of guards – was not likely to overcome such reluctance. The word of someone so hospitable as my host, who had indeed been a host as well to various prelates (of various churches) – someone who had perhaps had a fright, though not a fatal one, since protected with holy water – that might be sufficient to bring out the bell, the book, and the candle, properly. And so Duccio procured the proper keys and assured the proper privacy, and thus my host very soon found himself, upon a warm Italian midnight, peering at the canvas with the aid of a flashlight held by Duccio, who had the flask of water in his other hand.

The area requiring action was immediately evident, for, as my host later told me, there was fixed to the back of the canvass, which was still laying face down, a largish square of parchment with writing on it. My host, always an eager searcher after anionic clues, took care to decipher this writing – or at least to attempt to decipher it. The most prominent element was two words written with very broad and somewhat shaky strokes in a rusty brown – but written, curiously, backwards. My host, who had acquired, in a modest way, the skill of reading backwards, in a time when the persuasive content of the speeches of an oratorically gifted schoolboy sometimes rested on the information contained in letters always held vertically upright before the face of a shortsighted schoolmaster who always stood with a window at his back, could report with some confidence that the words in question read “Credo Deum”. This tag was surrounded by a tangle of geometrical figures interspersed with phrases in a miniscule hand; my host judged them to be in a variety of languages – Latin, Greek, and Hebrew being most conspicuous – but was unable to read them, both because of their size and because the ink seemed to have run under what appeared to have been, judging from faint stains, repeated applications of water or some other relatively harmless liquid. The central, backwards inscription had not blurred in the least. In any case, despite the evident care taken in preparing this parchment, it had been applied to the canvas in a rather slap-dash manner, as if with a trembling hand. Despite this, it had long remained undisturbedly attached – except for the water stains – and except for what seemed a very modern attempt to detach it, for one corner was raised up the slightest bit, and there glimmered in the light, as if oozed from underneath the patch, a black and sulpherous substance. Duccio uncorked the flask, ready to repeat these old lustrations, but my host thought differently. The problem lay on the back of the canvas, and this paper was an impediment and an addition which had no place there – and so, not one for tentative measures, he reached down and ripped it off entirely.

Of what lay underneath he had only a glimpse, but since it was almost the last thing that he saw, we might trust his instant impression. It appeared to be a hair – long, rigidly straight, and with a metallic gleam in the light of Duccio’s fascinated light – and it lay among the parted fibers of a much disintegrated canvass – but it did not stay still for long. It made a slow writhing down its length, and then moved in a blur of speed to my host’s hand, which still hovered, holding the parchment, above the painting, and from there up his arm, with a smell of burning, and thence up his neck, over his face, and plunged deep into his left eye. At this movement of the hair, Duccio made a convulsive start, and the holy water from the flask splashed over the painting and the sufferer all together. Duccio dropped his light, and his companion collapsed onto the floor.

Proper order had soon been restored, for Duccio had given a shout and thus alerted several waiting friends – as it happened, Duccio had prevaricated a bit about the promised unbroken solitude – and one could hardly except a museum to be absolutely cleared of guards, even upon a midnight – and why not enlist their sympathies? In any case, Duccio and his comrades carried the fainting, ill-fated, and damp experimenter out of the lab and into the public streets, to which an ambulance was called. That of the society of the Misericordia arrived – a society composed of medical personnel so thankful to have been gathered under the enfolding robe of the Madonna – you surely recall this “Madonna Misericordia” iconography – that they embark themselves on charitable medical missions – veiled in masked costumes, so that they should not be able to take credit for their gifts. Such otherworldly attire must sometimes disconcert the succored, waking unexpectedly in their grasp – but this patient, though he did wake under their care, could not be so frightened – for he could not see at all. His doctors pronounced that some thin object had entered his eye and then penetrated to his optical nerve, there destroying precisely those fibers essential to the operation of the other eye as well – and that, having reached this point, it had dissolved in a chemically quite violent and corrosive manner – which corrosion, however, did very little addition damage. There was nothing that they could do.

*                      *                      *

My friend is now a museum guard at the Academia, in that upper room filled with saints on gold ground, which was – and still is – one of my preferred haunts. The Director, although of course kept ignorant of the actual nature of the past events, was perhaps led by the sincerely penitential Duccio to believe that my friend’s misfortunes had something to do with exertions concerning the problem of the painting, and so he was awarded an indefinitely extendible post –as guard, not researcher. This general constriction of means and horizons suited my friend, who had undergone a change of heart based, as he would explain, on the content of the visions he had been subject to upon the penetration of the hair – he had seen, he claimed, the torment that awaited him upon the death which would have resulted should the hair have penetrated any further – for he insisted that the thing had been a hair, product of some creature that he had seen in horrible full in his momentary visions – a mixture of woman and snake, with a white-lead dead face. I told him, in these after-conversations, that I too had seen this thing, if only in a veiled glimpse, peeping out from the painting. The painting had, however, had lost this power. After my friend’s exertions – whether it was the removal of the parchment, the escape of the hair, or the application of water – or, as my friend now vehemently claimed – it was the particular nature of that water, used just in time to prevent the hair from penetrating any further – the dark figure had immediately ceased to produce any fascinating or noxious effects. It had indeed wholly changed its appearance, though subtly so, in a way perhaps not visible to the casual observer – but it had changed, and, indeed, had changed in just that way that the other figures of Bia could be diagnosed to have changed after their restorations. The Uffizi and the National Gallery must have undergone through similar events, and emerged from them with more ordinary portraits of a little girl, now sickly, but not deadly pale, now with bulging eyes still, but not with the hint of what was likely to burst forth from them, now a girl the subject of a inexplicable obsession of Bronzino’s – and not the cause and further broadcaster of such fascination.

As for the nature of Bia, or of whatever her portraits and after-portraits were an agent, my friend did not like to dwell on the question. He preferred to consider the precautions taken as revealed by the affixed parchment, which implied actions far more humanly sympathetic. The greatest problem was the backwards “Credo Deum”, which seemed to me very familiar. The source of this familiarity appeared not long afterwards, when, upon seeing it again during a passage through the collections of paintings of the monastery church of San Marco, I remembered that one of the altarpieces of Fra Angelico shows, as a side scene, the death of Saint Peter Martyr – who, upon being waylaid in a forest and thereupon stabbed in the head, collapsing, used the blood from his own wounds to write with his finger on the ground “Credo Deum”, as a sort of last confession of faith. A great time later, somewhat equidistant from his and our present one, as I now recalled, there had been a period of miraculous upwelling of this blood, and pilgrims had taken to putting down sheets of parchment to get an impress – in a similar matter to the now equally archaic pastime of making rubbings from stone or marble works – and of course, the copies would come out backwards. The rest of the writing on the parchment was then easily explicable as the prescribed diagrams and texts for a ritual of protection from – well – from whatever it was from which protection was thought to be needed – all accreted round a sacred relic chosen, perhaps, for its dialectical opposition to the figure painted on the other side – a figure which must have reacted unkindly to the application of the relic – hence the askew orientation, bespeaking a trembling affixer. The faint stains overtopping the parchment would indicate that the whole affair had been periodically libated – re-ritualed – until a certain period, at which time it had been forgotten or positively dismissed. What had caused the increasing potency of the figure’s affects I could not say – perhaps the stop of the applications of holy water, perhaps a certain loosening in the adhesiveness of the parchment after these centuries, or perhaps the increased nearness of large numbers of onlookers who would not be inclined, in their last moments, to proclaim anything as old-fashioned as a belief in the Lord, and thus who might be though not fully protected by even such a saintly relic. In any case, the sustenance of the patch did seem important, in light of the Head Restorer’s fingers, evidently blackened where he had attempted to peel up a corner, and the most dramatic adventures of my friend.

Nothing more could be known until some months after the events narrated above, when the term of my friend’s research appointment came to an end, and with it a polite but firm request from the Academia to vacate his lodgings, which had been provided by the museum. My friend, who had already been living with Duccio, was invited to stay there as a more or less permanent – and expatiatory – guest, and gladly accepted. He directed the packing up of his effects – having been such a consummate arranger of appearances, he still remembered where everything had been disposed. When we were alone in his study, Duccio being elsewhere occupied in the packing up of the liquor cabinet, whose contents he was as familiar with as his guest, my friend, after a period of agitation, felt his way along a bookcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers, asking me to return them to the Academia’s librarian – although, if I wished, I might read them, so that I might glean more information about what he had seen and known.

These were the papers comprising, as I have mentioned, the court trial of an unnamed woman and the record of the subsequent ecclesiastical intervention, and I did indeed read them more carefully than I had hitherto. The woman had been found, shortly after both Bronzino’s and the Medici’s deaths, in a room in the Medici palace, having gotten Bronzino’s portrait of his wife and her legitimate Maria off of the wall and laid it on the floor, but was apprehended before she could carry out anything more. The woman was said to be of low status – a designation at which we democratic moderns might turn our noses up at, but which we should also remember carried a technical meaning in the Renaissance courts, namely that her testimony could not be taken without a preparatory course of torture – but, under such trying conditions, she admitted no more than that she had been the mistress of the Medici, and the mother of the first Maria, and that she had, since her daughter’s death, become the lover of Bronzino. Beyond that she claimed utmost innocence. One gets the idea either that she was very charming – judiciary torture, after all, did not leave marks – or that the Medici family was just coming into enough power to want to settle certain matters, one way or another, out of court; in either case, she was dismissed, the charge of witchcraft dropped. The Florentines were, at times, either more logical or more private than our own more Northern forbearers. More private, at least, since the court record had ended up in the Academia library, a collection formed from the private Medici archives – the later Medici, in whom we see the affects of attenuated bloodlines, gave away such papers in order to concentrate more fully on their collections of objects d’art made out of various kinds of seashells – very fine ones, we are assured. The earlier Medici, however, had not devoted so much time to acquisitions as to forgo the investigation of their current holdings – as we might assume from the last, ecclesiastical paper of the bundle. Apparently, the woman had been suspected of tampering with more paintings than just the attempted one, and it also seems that the clergy had found out the affected ones and then attempted to counteract them – too late, however, for the life of the Medici, who may have joyed in his first child, but suffered from her image, and for Bronzino, who had, we might suspect, outlived his usefulness. The second woman and the second Maria, their picture having been better protected, lived.

So, then, the woman had done something to Bia’s portrait after her death, perhaps with the help of Bronzino and perhaps without, but if her timing can be thus deduced, an idea of her motivation is more difficult to arrive at. Perhaps Bia had died a natural death, and only then was the wrath of her mother aroused, her expectations having come to naught; perhaps, though, a more personal jealousy might be suspected. Perhaps this woman had held hopes of being a Medici bride herself, hopes finally dying when her replacement produced a child, proof of her fertility. The gypsy stock of Italy is vengeful, and this vengeance will stop at no obstacle, will baulk at no connivance. And after all, the Carthaginians are said to have sacrificed their own children for the fulfillment of their desires, and – witness Iphigenaia – the greatest powers are those of spilt virgin blood – or, perhaps, hair.