Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(3)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(3)
Author: Anne Rice

But my father had brought pupils up from Florence when I was very young, good painters who had studied with Piero della Francesca and other such, to cover these chapel walls with murals taken from the lovely stories of saints and Biblical giants in the books known as The Golden Legend.

Not being himself a terribly imaginative man, my father followed what he had seen in the churches of Florence in his design and instructed these men to tell the tales of John the Baptist, patron saint of the city and cousin of Our Lord, and so it was that during the last years of my life on earth, our chapel was enfolded with representations of St. Elizabeth, St. John, St. Anne, the Blessed Mother, Zachary and angels galore, all dressed - as was the way of the time - in their Florentine finest.

It was to this "modern" painting, so unlike the stiffer work of Giotto or Cimabue, that my elderly uncles and aunts objected. As for the villagers, I don't think they exactly understood it all either, except they were so overawed in the main by the chapel at a wedding or baptism that it didn't matter.

I myself of course was terrifically happy to see these paintings made, and to spend time with the artists, who were all gone by the time that my life was brought to a halt by demonic slaughter.

I'd seen plenty of the greatest painting in Florence and had a weakness for drifting about, looking at splendid visions of angels and saints in the rich dedicated chapels of the Cathedrals, and had even - on one of my trips to Florence with my father - in Cosimo's house, glimpsed the tempestuous painter Filippo Lippi, who was at that time actually under lock and key there to make him finish a painting.

I was much taken with the plain yet compelling man, the way that he argued and schemed and did everything but throw a tantrum to get permission to leave the palazzo while lean, solemn and low-voiced Cosimo just smiled and talked him down more or less out of his hysteria, telling him to get back to work and that he would be happy when he was finished.

Filippo Lippi was a monk, but he was mad for women and everybody knew it. You could say that he was a favorite bad guy. It was for women that he wanted out of the palazzo, and it was even suggested later at the supper table of our hosts in Florence on that visit that Cosimo ought to lock a few women in the room with Filippo, and that maybe that would keep Filippo happy. I don't think Cosimo did any such thing. If he had, his enemies would have made it the grand news of Florence.

Let me make note, for it is very important. I never forgot that glimpse of the genius Filippo, for that is what he was - and is - to me.

"So what did you so like about him?" my father asked me.

"He's bad and good," I said, "not just one or the other. I see a war going on inside of him! And I saw some of his work once, work he did with Fra Giovanni" - this was the man later called Fra Angelico by all the world - "and I tell you, I think he is brilliant. Why else would Cosimo put up with such a scene? Did you hear him!" "And Fra Giovanni is a saint?" asked my father.

"Hmmmmm, yes. And that's fine, you know, but did you see the torment in Fra Filippo? Hmmm, I liked it." My father raised his eyebrows.

On our next and very last trip to Florence, he took me to see all of Filippo's paintings. I was amazed that he had remembered my interest in this man. We went from house to house to look at the loveliest works, and then to Filippo's workshop.

There an altarpiece commissioned by Francesco Maringhi for a Florentine church - The Coronation of the Virgin - was well under way, and when I saw this work, I nearly fainted dead from shock and love of it. I couldn't leave it alone. I sighed and wept.

I had never seen anything as beautiful as this painting, with its immense crowd of still attentive faces, its splendid collection of angels and saints, its lithe and graceful feline women and willowy celestial men. I went crazy for it.

My father took me to see two more of his works, which were both paintings of the Annunciation.

Now, I have mentioned that as a child, I had played the Angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin to announce the Conception of Christ in her womb, and the way we played, he was supposed to be a pretty beguiling and virile angel, and Joseph would come in and, lo, find this overwhelming male with his pure ward, the Blessed Mary.

We were a worldly bunch, but you know, we gave the play a little spice. I mean we cooked it up a bit. I don't think it says anything in scripture about St. Joseph happening on a tryst.

But that had been my favorite role, and I had particularly enjoyed paintings of the Annunciation.

Well, this last one I saw before I left Florence, done by Filippo sometime in the 1440s, was beyond anything I had beheld before.

The angel was truly unearthly yet physically perfect. Its wings were made of peacock feathers. I was sick with devotion and covetousness. I wished we could buy this thing and take it back home. That wasn't possible. No works of Filippo were on the market then. So my father finally dragged me away from this painting, and off we went home the next day or so.

Only later did I realize how quietly he listened to what I said as I ranted on and on about Fra Filippo:

"It's delicate, it's original, and yet it is commendable according to everybody's rules, that's the genius of it, to change, but not so much, to be inimitable, yet not beyond the common grasp, and that's what he's done, Father, I tell you." I was unstoppable.

"This is what I think about that man," I said. "The carnality in him, the passion for women, the near beastly refusal to keep his vows is at war always with the priest, for look, he wears his robes, he is Fra Filippo. And out of that war, there comes into the faces he paints a look of utter surrender." My father listened.

"That's it," I said. "Those characters reflect his own continued compromise with the forces he cannot reconcile, and they are sad, and wise, and never innocent, and always soft, reflective of mute torment."

On the way back home, as we were riding together through the forest, up a rather steep road, very casually my father asked me if the painters who had done our chapel were good.

"Father, you're joking," I said. "They were excellent."

He smiled. "I didn't know, you know," he said. "I just hired the best." He shrugged. I smiled.

Then he laughed with good nature. I never asked him when and if I could leave home again to study. I think I figured I could make both of us happy.

We must have made twenty-five stops on that last journey home from Florence. We were wined and dined at one castle after another, and wandered in and out of the new villas, lavish and full of light, and given over to their abundant gardens. I clung to nothing in particular because I thought it was my life, all those arbors covered with purple wisteria, and the vineyards on the green slopes, and the sweet-cheeked girls beckoning to me in the loggias.

Florence was actually at war the year we made this journey. She had sided with the great and famous Francesco Sforza, to take over the city of Milan. The cities of Naples and Venice were on the side of Milan. It was a terrible war. But it didn't touch us.

It was fought in other places and by hired men, and the rancor caused by it was heard in city streets, not on our mountain.

What I recall from it were two remarkable characters involved in the fray. The first of these was the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, a man who had been our enemy whether we liked it or not because he was the enemy of Florence. But listen to what this man was like: he was hideously fat, it was said, and very dirty by nature, and sometimes would take off all his clothes and roll around na**d in the dirt of his garden! He was terrified of the sight of a sword and would scream if he saw it unsheathed, and he was terrified too to have his portrait painted because he thought he was so ugly, which he was. But that was not all. This man's weak little legs wouldn't carry him, so his pages had to heft him about. Yet he had a sense of humor. To scare people, he would suddenly draw a snake out of his sleeve! Lovely, don't you think?

Yet he ruled the Duchy of Milan for thirty-five years somehow, this man, and it was against Milan that his own mercenary, Francesco Sforza, turned in this war.

And that man I want to describe only briefly because he was colorful in an entirely different way, being the handsome strong brave son of a peasant - a peasant who, kidnapped as a child, had managed to become the commander of his band of kidnappers - and this Francesco became commander of the troop only when the peasant hero drowned in a stream trying to save a page boy. Such valor. Such purity! Such gifts.

I never laid eyes on Francesco Sforza until I was already dead to the world and a prowling vampire, but he was true to his descriptions, a man of heroic proportions and style, and believe it or not, it was to this bastard of a peasant and natural soldier that the weak-legged crazy Duke of Milan gave his own daughter in marriage, and this daughter, by the way, was not by the Duke's wife, poor thing, for she was locked up, but by his mistress.

It was this marriage which led eventually to the war. First Francesco was fighting bravely for Duke Filippo Maria, and then when the weird unpredictable little Duke finally croaked, naturally his son-in-law, handsome Francesco, who had charmed everybody in Italy from the Pope to Cosimo, wanted to become the Duke of Milan!

It's all true. Don't you think it's interesting? Look it up. I left out that the Duke Filippo Maria was also so scared of thunder that he was supposed to have built a soundproof room in his palace.

And there is more to it than that. Sforza more or less had to save Milan from other people who wanted to take it over, and Cosimo had to back him, or France would have come down on us, or worse.

It was all rather amusing, and as I have said, I was well prepared already at a young age to go into war or to court if it was ever required of me, but these wars and these two characters existed for me in dinner table talk, and every time someone railed about the crazy Duke Filippo Maria, and one of his insane tricks with a snake out of his sleeve, my father would wink at me and whisper in my ear, "Nothing like pure lordly blood, my son." And then laugh.

As for the romantic and brave Francesco Sforza, my father had wisely nothing to say as long as the man was fighting for our enemy, the Duke, but once we had all turned together against Milan, then my father commended the bold self-made Francesco and his courageous peasant father.

There had been another great lunatic running around Italy during earlier times, a freebooter and ruffian named Sir John Hawkwood, who would lead his mercenaries against anybody, including the Florentines.

But he had ended up loyal to Florence, even became a citizen, and when he departed this earth, they gave him a splendid monument in the Cathedral! Ah, such an age!

I think it was a really good time to be a soldier, you know, to sort of pick and choose where you would fight, and get as carried away with it all as you wanted to.

But it was also a very good time for reading poetry, and for looking at paintings and for living in utter comfort and security behind ancestral walls, or wandering the thriving streets of prosperous cities. If you had any education at all, you could choose what you wanted to do.

And it was also a time to be very careful. Lords such as my father did go down to destruction in these wars. Mountainous regions that had been free and pretty much left alone could be invaded and destroyed. It happened now and then that someone who had pretty much stayed out of things got himself worked up against Florence and in came the clattering and clanking mercenaries to level everything.

By the way, Sforza won the war with Milan, and part of the reason was that Cosimo lent him the required money. What happened after that was absolute mayhem.

Well, I could go on describing this wonderland of Tuscany forever.

It is chilling and saddening for me to try to imagine what might have become of my family had evil not befallen us. I cannot see my father old, or imagine myself struggling as an elderly man, or envision my sister married, as I hoped, to a city aristocrat rather than a country baron.

It is a horror and a joy to me that there are villages and hamlets in these very mountains which have from that time never died out - never - surviving through the worst of even modern war, to thrive still with tiny cobbled market streets and pots of red geraniums in their windows. There are castles which survive everywhere, enlivened by generation after generation. Here there is darkness. Here is Vittorio writing by the light of the stars.

Brambles and wild scratching things inhabit the chapel below, where the paintings are still visible to no one and the sacred relics of the consecrated altar stone are beneath heaps of dust.

Ah, but those thorns protect what remains of my home. I have let them grow. I have allowed the roads to vanish in the forest or broken them myself. I must have something of what there was! I must.

But I accuse myself again of going on and on, and I do, there is no doubt. This chapter ought to be over.

But it's very like the little plays we used to do in my uncle's house, or those I saw before the Duomo in Cosimo's Florence. There must be painted backdrops, props of fine detail, wires rigged for flight and costumes cut out and sewn before I can put my players on the boards and tell the fable of my making.

I can't help it. Let me close my essay on the glories of the 1400s by saying what the great alchemist Ficino would say of it some years later on: It was "an age of gold." I go now to the tragic moment.

Chapter Three

IN WHICH THE HORROR DESCENDS UPON US

THE beginning of the end came the following spring. I had passed my sixteenth birthday, which had fallen that I year on the very Tuesday before Lent, when we and all the villages were celebrating Carnival. It had come rather early that year, so it was a bit cold, but it was a g*y time.

It was on that night before Ash Wednesday that I had the terrible dream in which I saw myself holding the severed heads of my brother and my sister. I woke up in a sweat, horrified by this dream. I wrote it down in my book of dreams. And then actually I forgot about it. That was common with me, only it had been truly the most horrid nightmare I'd ever had. But when I mentioned my occasional nightmares to my mother or father or anyone else, they always said:

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