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Monday, 26 September 2011

Silver Threads among the......lead. Yet another Felicia and Robin prequel

Silver threads among the….lead.

When your client drops dead during the time that he is resting from having a sitting it is extremely disconcerting to say the least.
Signor d’Agnolo was a nice old man who had asked for a painting of himself for posterity since his silversmithing business had done extremely well; he provided threads of silver to the Arte della Seta, the guild of silkworkers to weave them, as they do gold threads, in their brocades and tissues, and for the Arte della Lana, the guild of woollen manufacturers who used such threads in cloth-of-silver, often woven in with threads dyed that richest of blues, Alessandrine to produce an effect like moonlight on a lake at night.
My master and I had been glad to do the portrait because we were low on funds – my master had but recently been maintaining a very expensive mistress whom I disliked more than usual – and having the chance to live in at Signor d’Agnolo’s country villa meant we did not have to pay the bills for day to day living.  He set a good table too, so we were eating better than we did even when we were in funds, and though my master teases me for my fondness for my food, he should recall that I am growing and must needs fuel the growth.
We were told of the death when Signor d’Agnolo’s man, Bartolomeo, came howling through the house like the angel of death himself, tearing at his clothes and hair.
My master reached surreptitiously for a pen-cil and I stood on his foot.  The poor fellow did not deserve to turn up in a painting as one of the afflicted whose devils were cast into the Gaderine swine. 
“Censorious little shrew” said my master without rancour.
Perhaps it would be a good point at which to describe the other members of Signor d’Agnolo’s household.
The Signora d’Agnolo was a recent acquisition and I use the term advisedly.  Tancia d’Agnolo was definitely of the class of fogattini, the small-hatted ones which is to say the insignificant; being the child of a shoemaker.  Her husband had not only waived a dowry to possess such a beautiful, if not very clever, bride as his second wife, but had settled a considerable sum on her father.  Tancia was happy enough with the bargain, which being so there is not a shoemaker in the land who would not jump at such a suggestion, for everyone knows that shoemakers are always having to live on credit, since nobody ever pays his shoemaker unless he has to. 
I will say that it is one of the more attractive things about my master that he pays in advance and in full any sum owed to our shoemaker who considers my master little short of the angel he would resemble if one did not take the aquiline nose into account.
Tancia was not of course held in high regard by Signor d’Agnolo’s two sons, Giovanni and Leonardo.  They were twins whose birth together with the third son who had died had cost the life of their mother, and each as different to the other as two beings could be, belying the idea that twins were always as alike in personality as in looks.  Giovanni was apparently the older by some half an hour, and was the good looking one, with smouldering eyes that a lot of girls found irresistible.  I thought he looked sulky myself but then I am not really old enough to get stupid about young men. He liked being wealthy and spent the allowance his father made him as soon as it was in his hands; and he was not so good a worker in his father’s workshops that he was like to earn a bonus ever either; though his flights of imagination in the matter of making decorative beads and spangles for clothing pleased his father mightily.  Leonardo on the other hand was a hard working young man, diligent and patient and without a single spark of originality or imagination in his body.  He put in twice as much effort in the workshop as Giovanni and gave his father all that he could.  Both youths were seventeen and might expect to have their papers of release from apprenticeship within the next year when they might choose to leave their father to set up on their own or seek work with another master.


Naturally we had not stayed frozen, bar my master’s desire to sketch, when Bartolomeo spread the news of his master’s sudden death.  We ran to Signor d’Agnolo’s room where he lay in horrid evidence of the truth.
Some servants are prone to exaggeration after all.
Signor d’Agnolo had voided himself and vomited horribly and his eyes started from his head in an expression of seeming horror, but more likely from the efforts of his extreme purging.  The little red spots in his eyes and on his face spoke of how he had gasped frantically for breath.  I had seen this before on a drowning victim whose body my master had managed to acquire.
It is not legal but how is an artist to understand anatomy if we have not studied how the body works at first hand?  Bribing a sexton is one of the little expenses one has to accept.
Tancia set up a screech which was hardly surprising for her husband of but a few weeks was a rather horrid sight.
“Dear God!” cried Leonardo “It must be lead poisoning – see his pewter goblet!  Have I not warned him often and often that the acid in wine will leach out the lead into his drink?”
“Funny” said my master “I saw no signs of memory loss or headache, and he has not complained once of stomach ache when we have dined here.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Giovanni quickly “You know about poisoning, Signor Robertini?”
“Of course I do” said my master.  “I use poisons as a matter of course; many of my pigments are poison, and I have been refreshing my mind as I teach Felicia to prepare them safely.  Salt of Saturn  I use every day, the soluble form of lead.”
It is part of his secret formula that permits his paints to dry more quickly than those of many other artists but of course he would not mention that.
I went forward to the pewter goblet; it stood still on the table and had not been upset and a good third remained in it.
I sipped cautiously.
“Felicia!” my master paled.  He does care for my wellbeing.
“It is bitter master; there is no sweetness at all” I said.  “The name most people give to Salt of Saturn is Sugar of Lead because it makes things taste sweet.  This wine has something horrid in the bottom of it.”
“Permit me to enlighten you my child” said my master grimly “With so sudden and violent a death with just these symptoms.  They are similar to death by lead poisoning but I have never heard of lead poisoning coming on so fast.  It is a slower death than – arsenic.  Which tastes bitter.”
I pulled a face; I could not help it.
“With so little amount you will take no harm, child, but you should not have taken the risk!” my master chided me. “But it is clear that this is no case of accidental lead poisoning but deliberate murder.”
“Who would murder our father?” demanded Giovanni.
“You for one, brother” said Leonardo “Were you not in trouble for being in debt yet again?  And is it not a fact that you watch Tancia with lustful eyes that dwell on her perfect face and white globes that you long to touch with your lewd fingers?”
Giovanni gave an angry bark of laughter.
“Not I, brother; she is not fiery enough for me.  I should prefer the artist maid when she is old enough to have a figure as well as a temper.  See?” he added as I bit my thumb at him.  “Delightful!”
“Oh my poor husband!” wailed Tancia “Who will care for me now he is gone? Will my step sons see that I have a handsome dowry to remarry?”
“Pretty Tancia, to get rid of you to another as foolish as our father, anything” said Giovanni “But only if you stop this screeching.  I would listen to the Artist and his brown shrew.”
“Who carried the wine to him?” I asked. I looked to Signor d’Agnolo’s man Bartolomeo for an answer.  He had his own hysterics under control and was weeping.
“The maid Lucia” said Bartolomeo.  “She is my lady’s maid but she said that she would carry it to the master.”
“Send for her” said my master.
It is wonderful how he can take charge by sheer personality; we had of course no standing in the household at all but Bartolomeo obeyed without question.


The little maid came and gasped in horror at the sight of her dead master.
“Dear God!” she cried “Surely this is a nightmare!” she turned to look at the brothers “The powder cannot have done this!”
Leonardo let out a howl.
“You have murdered my father on the orders of your lover, my brother!” he cried “I will kill you and him!” and he launched himself towards her drawing his knife as he did so.
My master’s own knife was out of the scabbard before anyone could blink, blocking and parrying the blade and in one smooth movement wrenching it from Leonardo’s hand.
“I would prefer to hear about this powder you know” he said calmly, kicking Leonardo’s feet from under him.
“It was Signor Leonardo who gave it to you, wasn’t it?” I said to the girl.
“Yes Signorina!” she said “He said it would enhance the master’s performance to please my mistress the more!”
“Madness!” howled Leonardo from the floor “Why would I kill my father?”
“Yes, why would he?” asked Giovanni “He is the good boy not the wastrel.”
“Because,” I said, “However good he was, however hard he worked, he could never please your father as well as you.  You were the one with brilliance and flair who pleased your father with your designs even though you vexed him with your spendthrift habits.  He knew you would settle down in time.  Perhaps he was wild as a youth himself.  But Signor Leonardo was jealous that for all his diligence you were favoured – even as Cain was favoured over Abel by their father.  Abel was a fraudster but your brother decided to go further.  Moreover from the way he speaks of the fair Signora Tancia d’Agnolo, it is he who lusts for his stepmother and perhaps hoped to possess her if your father were out of the way.”
“It is a SIN!” cried Tancia.
I knew she was not very clever but if she had not noticed that murder was more of a sin than technical incest then she was dimmer even than I thought.
Giovanni nodded.
“I see” he said shortly.  “Thank you Signor Robertini, Signorina Felicia.  You will present your arguments to the Gonfalonier?”
We acquiesced of course.
Giovanni had grown up and laid aside that wild youth in the shock of the death of his father. A hard way to have to come fully to manhood’s estate.


“So what started you suspecting Leonardo?” asked my master.
“It was he who was keen to suggest accidental death and to insist that he had warned his father about the dangers of drinking from a pewter goblet” I said “And then when he saw that he could not pass it off as such with our testimony to the contrary he was ready to lay it onto Giovanni.  And to kill the girl before she could speak.”
My master nodded.
“Your reasoning as ever is good” he said.  “Well, at least we are to get paid to finish the painting from our sketches for Giovanni; and then we shall eat well, hmmm?”
“Until you spend all our funds on something frivolous” I said tartly.
He laughed and cuffed me lightly.
He does at least acknowledge his many faults.

1 comment:

  1. This snippet was good...since there were some interesting potential relationships---I really wanted Giovanni to make a serious pass at Felicia so that Robin could get good & jealous--and their stepmother had comic possibilities that could not be fully exploited in the space allotted...I was only disappointed that it had to be a "quickie"...

    Nice evocation of the guild structure of Florence, here, as well as the outlying Umbrian countryside...

    Looking forward to more of this series!!!!