I entered the house which was by no means luxurious, and as he took the lamp from the other man, I followed him through a side door into his workshop where he put the lamp on a table full of paints and brushes and rags.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. This was the man who had done the great paintings in the Sistine Chapel, this ordinary man.
The light flared up and filled the place. Sandro, as he had called himself, gestured to his left, and as I turned to my right, I thought I was losing my mind.
A giant canvas covered the wall, and though I had expected to see a religious painting, no matter how sensual, there was something else there, altogether different, which rendered
me speechless once more.
The painting was enormous as I’ve indicated, and it was composed of several figures, but whereas the Roman paintings had confused me in the question of their subject matter, I
knew very well the subject matter of this.
For these were not saints and angels, or Christs and prophets – no, far from it.
There loomed before me a great painting of the goddess Venus in all her glorious nudity, feet poised upon a seashell, her golden hair torn by faint breezes, her dreamy gaze steady, her faithful attendants the god Zephyr who blew the breezes which guided her landward, and a nymph as beautiful as the goddess herself who welcomed her to the shore. I drew in my breath and put my hands over my face, and then when I uncovered my eyes I found the painting there again.
A slight impatient sigh came from Sandro Botticelli. What in the name of the gods could I say to him about the brilliance of this work? What could I say to him to reveal the adulation I felt?
Then came his voice, low and resigned.
“If you’re going to tell me it’s shocking and evil, let me tell you, I have heard it a thousand times. I’ll give you back your gold if you want. I’ve heard it a thousand times.”
I turned and went down on my knees, and I took his hands and I kissed them with my lips as closely as I dared. Then I rose slowly like an old man on one knee before the other and I stood back to gaze at the panel for a long time.
I looked at the perfect figure of Venus again, covering her most intimate secret with locks of her abundant hair. I looked on the nymph with her outstretched hand and her voluminous garments. I looked on the god Zephyr and the goddess with him, and all of the tiny details of the painting came to reside in my mind.
“How has it come about?” I asked. “After so long a time of Christs and Virgins, that such a thing could be painted at last?”
From the quiet figure of the uncomplaining man there came another little laugh.
“It’s up to my patron,” he said. “My Latin is not so good. They read the poetry to me. I painted what they said to paint.” he paused. He looked troubled. “Do you think it’s sinful?”
“Certainly not,” I responded. “You ask me what I think? I think it’s a miracle. I’m surprised that you would ask,” I looked at the painting- “This is a goddess,” I said. “How could it be other than sacred? There was a time when millions worshiped her with all their hearts. There was a time when people consecrated themselves to her with all their hearts.”
“Well, yes,” he answered softly, “but she’s a pagan goddess, and not everyone thinks that she is the patron of marriage as some say now. Some say this painting is sinful, that I shouldn’t be doing it.” He gave a frustrated sigh. He wanted to say more, but I sensed that the arguments were quite beyond him.
“Don’t listen to such things,” I said. “It has a purity I’ve almost never seen in painting. Her face, the way you’ve painted it, she’s newborn yet sublime, a woman, yet divine.
Don’t think of sin when you work on this painting. This painting is too vital, too eloquent.
Put the struggles of sin out of your mind.”
He was silent but I knew he was thinking. I turned and tried to read his mind. It seemed chaotic, and full of wandering thoughts and guilt.
He was a painter almost entirely at the mercy of those who hired him, but he had made himself supreme by virtue of the particularities that all cherished in his work. Nowhere were his talents more fully expressed than in this particular painting and he knew this though he couldn’t put it into words. He thought hard on how to tell me about his craft and his originality, but he simply couldn’t do it. And I would not press him. It would be a wicked thing to do.
“I don’t have your words,” he said simply. “You really believe the painting isn’t sinful?”
“Yes, I told you, it’s not sinful. If anyone tells you anything else they’re lying to you.” I couldn’t stress it enough. “Behold the innocence in the face of the goddess. Don’t think of anything else.”
He looked tormented, and there came over me a sense of how fragile he was, in spite of his immense talent and his immense energy to work. The thrusts of his art could be utterly crushed by those who criticized him. Yet he went on somehow every day painting the best pictures that he knew how to paint.
“Don’t believe them,” I said again, drawing his eyes back to me.
Excerpt from Blood and Gold, Anne Rice