Buonarroti’s on It
The young priest made a mental note to pray on the rosary beads once his mentor left for home. As they walked through the courtyard, he could feel the pride grow larger inside him. So large, he finally had to tell the older priest about the good news.
“Brother Francisco, I wanted to keep this a secret until the right time but the Devil might take me if I hold on much longer.”
Francisco, in his fifties and less prone to excitement, nodded. “I doubt the Devil will do anything since you sound too happy. So what is this surprise, Pietro?”
“Well,” Pietro said as he clasped his hands in front of his chest, “this church has been blessed with the presence of one of the great artists. For him to show up here still boggles my mind.”
“That’s wonderful. Might I ask who it is?”
“That’s part of the surprise, Brother Francisco. I’d like to tell you about how it all happened. We’ll walk to the chapel where I’ll show you his painting.”
“All right, I’m now curious about this mystery master.”
As they left the courtyard and back into the church, Pietro began his story: “I met him several months ago on my way back from Florence, where I was visiting a friend I had several years ago at the university. I wanted to get some advice about how to deal with my congregation — they’ve been upset about how the late Father Giorgio was replaced by a priest in his twenties — but an emergency for him came up and I left sooner than I anticipated. So taking my time, I decided to enjoy the Tuscan countryside while coming back. It was near one of the vineyards that I saw this strange man eating some of the grapes. He was quite disheveled and had only rags and a large wooden box on his person. Worried that he’d get caught, I went out towards him to-”
Francisco frowned and lifted his hand. “That was a foolish thing to do.”
“Yes, but I knew he wasn’t going to do anything to me. It felt as if God was giving me a sign I couldn’t ignore, So — fortunately — the man was too famished to try and attack me. I asked him if he wanted to join me for dinner in the closest town, only a few hours from where we were standing. I also pointed out that grapes weren’t really enough to sustain him and he grunted that he agreed. Strange man, actually. I don’t recall him talking in coherent sentences in the whole time I’ve known him…”
Francisco remembered that Pietro liked to wander off-course sometimes. “So you had dinner with him and that convinced him to come here to your village?”
“It did. We had a wonderful conversation, despite his manners. He’d tear at his meat without cutting it and would drink straight from the bottle without bothering to ask if I wanted a glass. But I just attributed it to his eccentricity, especially since he told me he was a sculptor and a painter and that he’d just finished a fresco for one of the Borgias, finally making his way back south. He was looking for work again and when he said that, I realized it was divine grace that we had met when we did. The chapel here has been in severe need of some art and I figured it would do well for the villagers too.”
“Since they might finally like you for doing them this favor.”
“Exactly! Having this painter come would do all of us some good, I thought. So he came back with me and began to work on the front wall of the chapel off to the left of the main sanctuary. We gave him room and board at one of the inns, a quick walk from here, and about 20 lira a week to do as he pleased. Of course, I was hoping he’d use if for food, supplies, and some new clothes but I noticed it usually went to several bottles of Chianti at a time. As long as he worked on the painting, though, I just thought of it as another eccentricity. It was also a little tough at first to get the villagers to warm up to him.”
“Due to his excessive drinking, I imagine…”
“Sort of — it was more his relations with some of the local youth. Do you remember what I wrote you about the Annunzio family here?”
Francisco shook his head. “Vaguely. I remember you mentioned their children were rather beautiful. Two boys and four girls, if I recall.”
“That’s right. Well, the painter was able to have them model for him but apparently one of the housekeepers at the inn said she saw the oldest boy and two of his older sisters scurry out of the room nearly naked, after what she swore was engaging in lewd acts with my guest. So I spent over two weeks running around all over the place, trying to convince everyone — especially their father, who threatened to have our painter taken to the courts to be drawn and quartered — that I didn’t intentionally bring a pederast to the village and the whole thing was just a misunderstanding!”
Francisco responded with a skeptical look.
“I’m serious,” Pietro continued. “It was divine grace when they found that the housekeeper had been stealing money from the inn for several weeks that it weakened the rumor and work resumed again. We had to get different models from another town, though.”
“I see — did you actually see of any of this painting while he was here?”
“I saw some of it in small pieces. I know the subject was the Ascension and from the outline he drew on the wall, all the figures had a similar muscular yet lithe quality. He requested that no one but himself or the models be allowed in the space, though, so I didn’t see much more than that. I did check on the paint he ordered — bright colors similar to the ones he used in the Sistine Chapel.”
“Oh…” Francisco tried hard to hold his disbelief, knowing it would only hurt his friend once the truth revealed itself. “Now I would definitely like to see this.”
They stopped in front of the chapel door, which was open and showing a large white drape behind the alter. “Sadly the painter left last week, as one of his conditions was that we not unveil it while he was still here. I hoped you would’ve gotten the chance to meet him but I figure letting you be the first to view it before tomorrow’s Mass would be the next best thing.” Pietro walked up to the drape and stood next to it. “Now, do you have any idea who the great artist that blessed this church with his talent might’ve been?”
“No.” Francisco gave himself a penance for lying.
“The last four months have led to this potential new masterpiece,” Pietro said as he grabbed a corner of the drape and tugged hard to pull it to the ground, “by Michelangelo himself!” He then looked at Francisco to see his reaction but found his eyes had bulged and his hands were over his mouth, as if to keep from laughing. “What’s wrong?”
Francisco crossed himself and pointed at the painting. “You probably should have exercised more oversight with your Michelangelo.”
Pietro stepped back and followed the hand to a point on the painting. When he was what Francisco was referring to, he felt as if all the blood in his head raced to the pit of his stomach. What he expected was all there, the scene of the Ascension with the right parts. Eleven Apostles, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin stood in awe of the resurrected Christ. The hills and the stone to the tomb were in their correct positions. Figures were muscular yet lithe, colors like the ones in the Sistine. Even the proportions were proper, except for one specific category: genitals. His Michelangelo had not only painted all parties as completely nude but also graced them with comically-oversized bits, crudely-scrawled with bold black outlines. Worse, the Lord’s were shaped like a gigantic carrot with a pair of large beets. Stuck right next to all this was a letter tacked on with a glob of putty. Hesitant to touch or even look at it, Pietro snatched the letter and handed it to Francisco, who then opened and read it aloud.
“Thanks for your patronage and money, sucker. Signed Giacomo Buonarroti.” He then tore up the letter and stuffed it in his robe. “So when he told you who he was, he must’ve only mentioned his last name. You never bothered to verify that he was the Buonarroti you made him out to be, I presume.”
Shivering and clutching his beads from his pocket, Pietro said a quick prayer and then answered. “Yes. I was under the impression there was only one artist with that name.”
“So how are going to handle this then?”
“I can’t simply have it painted over and pretend it never happened. The villagers already know he was here working on it.” He rolled one of the beads with his fingers, mumbled another prayer, and sighed. “I’ll keep praying for more divine grace.”
Moral: Always verify, never presume.