Image is Public Domain
Portrait of a Moorish Woman – Italy about 1550; School of Paolo Veronese (oil on canvas)
Presently in a private collection (as of 2003)
“Do hurry up child, the painter expects us before nightfall.” Fortee’s husband barked on the way down the stairs.
The Ivory Coast immigrant bit her lip while adjusting her chemise and overgown one last time. Though married over three years, she had only been living with her merchant husband for a few months after he had made arrangements to bring her home. She still cursed her father every day for accepting the bride price from the self-absorbed money-grubbing man. The marriage contract benefited her family back in Africa as well as the Brunos here in Venice, but she paid the price. Her young soul longed for a single lingering glance or soft touch. Looking in the glass, her brown eyes questioned the servant behind her. The white maid nodded a half-hearted approval, not yet comfortable with the wife her master unloaded from the boat following his last excursion.
Enough dithering, Fortee squared her shoulders, eyed the high feather to gauge its height for ducking through doorways and followed in her husband’s wake. She found him at the front door giving orders for the evening’s meal; several guests tentative about participating financially in the next trade trip were expected. Black eyes darted, measuring her like lumber, before returning to his business, and she felt every bit of the age difference between them. None of the servants bothered turning as she approached.
“The drop pearls work well,” Johannes observed without inflection in her native tongue as they pulled on their wooden platforms before leaving the townhouse.
She muttered a “thank you” in proper Italian but didn’t believe he heard it. His mind tumbled numbers, charting the course and cities for next month’s voyage to maximize profit.
The portrait painter’s workshop neighborhood required walking deep enough into the city the last lingering scent of sea disappeared into the effluvium of humans and animals too long together in too small a space. Holding a scented cloth to her nose, Fortee stepped over horse dung to enter the artist shop. Inside linseed oil and other fumes pushed back the odors of the city.
Her husband was cornered by the oldest of the men in the open, well-lit room. Upon her arrival, the youngest of those present flocked to her. Dark skin drew them. Even in an international port like Venice, the children don’t see many Africans, at least this far into the city. At port, people from her continent sometimes were the only color seen, depending on which ships were in, but here the difference was a rare treat for the young. Fortee crouched down and shifted her shawl so they could touch the skin and hair. Well-trained, the children only patted and stroked, keeping her careful preparations for the painting unmarred.
Two of the older ones darted over to some bottles on the side. When they returned, their arms each had half a dozen lines of different browns. The boys compared it with her skin, then begged her to come over to the paint area so they could figure out exactly how to get the color right. Crowded by children, apprentices, and young journeymen, Fortee allowed herself to be dragged to the work area. Soon every child had at least one stripe somewhere on them representing their best guess at her color. She laughed alongside them until her husband demanded she join him.
There he explained the portrait would take several sittings, including a number of hours today. He verified she could find her way back to their house, checked the master would provide escort, and coins changed hands before he left to prepare for the evenings negotiations.
The master introduced himself as Paolo Caliari after Johannes left, as well as his sons Carlo and Gabriele and his nephew Luigi. All four wanted to paint her, their school priding itself on the study of color and the human body. Paolo arranged her seat and lighting best for the portrait her husband had commissioned. Once she and the master were situated, the rest took various positions around the room, including one of the scamps who had been the first to try and figure out how to paint her skin color.
Several times during the initial sketches they allowed her to get up and play with the children when the youngsters had breaks from crushing stones and mixing dirts for paints. She learned far more about stretching and preparing canvases than she ever expected existed from the excited children. Twice the artists asked her to cease moving during the “rest” breaks so they could sketch a particular position.
Until sunset, she had all the laughter, lingering looks, and soft touches she had been missing.
(words 778; first published 4/14/2018; published on blog on 4/22/2018)
Notes: Writing-in-Stone, my writing group, provided the above picture for inspiration for their April challenge.