In a post published on August 8, 2014, entitled Pange Lingua Gloriosi, I wrote about one of my favorite characters: “Lorenzo Da Silvio, an aging, dissolute Italian portrait painter who’s been hanging around my novel, Sabra the Astonishing, for well over thirty years and is now being consigned to outer darkness by a plot that appears to no longer need him.” I am well into a rewrite of this novel and just came across a bit of Da Silvio’s back story that I am excising . . . but would like to share with you.
Da Silvio had been born and raised in Florence. His mother had been one of those scores of minor contessas gently reared on modest incomes, whose name and grandiose title greets one from the mailboxes of every shabby but respectable apartment house in Northern and Central Italy. His father had been a barrister, so neatly turned out that he might have been produced on a lathe. Da Silvio’s home life had been quiet to the point of tedium. The family, which included, besides himself, two rather bloodless older sisters, moved as if on eggshells through a tangle of antique furniture beneath fading frescoed ceilings and flickering nineteenth-century chandeliers — the small, dark apartment they occupied having once comprised the public rooms of a considerable nobleman’s townhouse — for his father, who was neuralgic to a high degree, could bear nothing in the way of commotion.
Every once in a while the family passions, too long concentrated, would explode. Denied a request, one of his sisters would choke with rage and clutching her napkin, rise from the table only to faint dead away. His other sister would shriek. His father would cover his ears and call plaintively for spirits — not for the victim, but for himself. His mother would burst into tears and go scrounging around in the depths of a corset which doubled as a pharmacy, wrestling out a phial of ammonia, but not before the girl had revived and apologized and subsided into mute, muffled misery. Then, like a cloud that drifts overhead and then dissolves, the tension which had prompted the outburst, which was never not there, would seem to evaporate, and life would settle like silt to the bottom of a pond, and Da Silvio’s family, like elegant crayfish, would scuttle on.
Later, after both sisters had married and moved out, Da Silvio, seeking to effect his own escape, began to succumb to attacks of religious mania. He entered orders. He left orders. He left the church altogether, determined to lead God, in whom he believed but whose methods he called into question, on a wild goose chase. He returned to his native Florence and became a painter.
His first patron was the aged Contessa Piera Da Schio; she engaged the young artist to paint those ceilings in her Castello dei Pini on the Adriatic to which Tiepolo had not gotten round. He lived with her for nearly five years before an aneurysm felled her. This took place on an oil cloth directly below the scaffold on which Da Silvio lay supine, painting the ceiling of her dressing room. It began in her brain, gained strength as it shot down her arm; by the time it reached her fingertips, it was as thunder. She crumbled to the floor, knocking over the pail of burnt sienna.
Da Silvio, hearing the pail overturn, rolled his head to one side. All he could see was pair of Ferragamo pumps dating from the forties. He swore softly, fearfully, and called “Piera?” When there was no answer he inched to the edge of the scaffold and, rolling himself off it, dropped to the floor. There she lay, crabbed and stiff and curled into a fetal position, like an aged monkey found dead on a jungle floor. He knelt beside her and attempted to turn her over. As he did, her fingers clamped onto his wrist and he read in the stunned, still-living eyes that she wanted company on the long journey. Then a second aneurysm rattled through her like an express train through a station. Light drained from her eyes. They went as dull as pewter. Her fingers grow cold and calcified around his wrist. He could not loosen her grip.
“Gianni!” he called out for her servant, but the old man had gone into town on an errand. Da Silvio sat for a moment, then glancing about, spotted a small hammer. Weeping — for he had loved this old woman like a grandmother — he seized the hammer and pounded on the fingers until he had broken them all. He remembered how brittle they had been. Like old ivory.