“We can’t be late, I hear the Pope is in one of his black moods today.” the man at arms at the head of our procession called as we entered St Peter’s square.
We were walking through a flock of fat gray pigeons when I spotted the ragged boy soaking his feet in the fountain. He was hungrily examining our entourage. I recognized that look. Like the hawks circling overhead, he’s looking for the easy mark, the fat pigeon that will not put up too much of a fight or give chase. When I was young I too was barefoot and cunning, always searching for the crumb, the loose coin in the pocket— always hungry.
The boy stood up and then began to shadow us at a safe distance. I would guess that our official entourage consisting of the man at arms, a diplomat, the court scribe and then myself, a Moorish slave, promised a fatter purse than the tired pilgrims, his usual prey. But on the other hand the hungry pilgrims rarely carried sabers.
The portly scribe in front of me, unable to keep up, had fallen behind. The growing distance from the armed deputies must have tempted the boy. I was sure he did not consider me a threat, as my hands were occupied carrying a large painting wrapped in black velvet. By the way I carried the painting in its expensive covering he would correctly surmise that I would not set it down on the dusty plaza just to chase a petty thief.
The boy slowed down to match the dawdling pace of the scribe. He was getting ready to strike. The scribe would have been my choice too. That prize was worth the gamble.
The thief was now running in an arrow-straight line toward us, drawing his blade. I stepped back to keep the painting out of harms way.
The boy slipped into the space between us. A dull flash from his blade and the leather strap of the purse around the scribe’s neck was cut. He tucked the fat purse into his rags and then turned to run and I kicked him as hard as I could, just for show. The boy stumbled to the ground as the scribe patted himself, frantically looking for his purse.
The boy leaped to his feet, our eyes met for an instant, and then he ran off into a rising cloud of beating gray wings. I think he was smiling.
“Thief! My purse!” The scribe yelled. The man at arms and his deputies drew their sabers and then halfheartedly ran toward the now circling flock of pigeons.
“Moor, give chase, my purse!” The scribe shouted in my face, and then grabbed for the painting, but I would not let go.
“My master has entrusted me to carry this painting to the pope himself.” I stated in a matter of fact tone.
“I order you to give chase!” the desperate scribe yelled into my face. But I had no intention of giving chase. My responsibility was to my master and his painting.
“Why will you not go after him?” He squealed.
“Because I do not wish to add to his misery,” I answered, knowing this would infuriate him.
My master would not punish me for considering the safety of his painting above this scribe’s purse. Why would he side with the scribe after the cowardly and cutting things that he has been saying about this painting.
“Impudent Moor, your foolish Master has allowed you to forget that you are nothing but a nameless, soul-less slave. The court will hear of this!” He threatened and then pulled even harder on the painting. I jerked it away from him and in a low respectful tone I recited the words my master made me memorize in Spanish and Italian before he sent me out on his errand weeks ago.
“My name is Juan De Pareja, servant and studio assistant to Don Diego Velazquez, court painter and confidant of The King of Spain, Phillip IV…”
“Silence, enough! ” the scribe yelled. “The Moor puts on airs! Imagine the King’s own painter rendering a slave in a nobleman’s collar, then having him parade this outrage around Rome.” He turned to appeal to the other members of our party, repeating almost word for word the insult he carelessly spoke in my master’s own studio. “We must put a stop to this. He’s making Spaniards look like fools.”
When the officer returned from the chase, the scribe pointed his fat finger at me. “I want to make a formal complaint. This insolent slave must be punished. This painting has gone to his head. He must be put back in his place.”
“I care not for your court’s intrigue,” the man at arms said as he slid his saber back into its scabbard. “but If I present you one second late, for your audience with His Holiness, his wrath will fall heavy on all of us. Now let’s move on.”
The scribe was right; this painting had gone to my head, but not in the way that he thought. I might be a slave but I am not a fool, yet it is a complicated matter to consider.
The lace my master hung around my neck, a nobleman’s collar, was no tribute. If I listened to the likes of the scribe, I would see it as a joke at my expense, a ruse that I have to play out over and over again in the studios of the great artists of this city. For the past two weeks as instructed by my master, I have entered their studios, set my portrait on their easels, assumed the pose and then recited his speech. The painters’ reactions are almost always the same. They comment on my master’s economy of means, his deft touch in creating a sense of light, and atmosphere. But then, inevitably, they’ll marvel at his uncanny ability to imbue a fool in a nobleman’s collar, a mere parrot, with a depth of character and nobility of spirit that surely no Moor or slave could posses. I wish my master, the supreme painter of Kings, and Queens, jesters and fools had painted me as I am, a devoted, skillful assistant, sometime confidant, and yes a slave, but not a fool wearing the nobleman’s collar.
But I must not be ungrateful. After all, my master chose me above others in the studio to accompany him on this his second trip to Rome. He had allowed me to rise in the studio from sweeper to carpenter, then to grinder and mixer of his pigments. But he would not allow me to study the secrets of the craft openly like his apprentices, because I am a slave.
It was no secret that I collected the odd scraps of paper, linen and the scrapings from his palette. He must have known that when everyone had left the studio, I drew and painted, trying to improve my skills, hoping someday to rise to the status of copyist. I think my master and I are very much alike in this way. He recognizes and respects my efforts to rise in the studio because he is also ambitious. He would never pass up an opportunity or court position that would raise his stature in the hierarchy of the palace.
His second trip to Rome was an opportunity to rise in the court as well as a chance to establish his reputation outside of Spain. But in this city of painters, Don Diego, favored painter of the King of Spain, had been royally snubbed and ignored. Although they had been invited, none of the great painters had come to see him. Even the Pope, who had agreed to sit for an official portrait, had not granted him an audience.
My master’s pride had been severely bruised, but he expressed his anger and disappointment to no one but me. For weeks he brewed and stalked about his studio in a foul mood until one day he called for me. When I arrived, he immediately asked me to set out his pigments. Then he motioned for me to stand for a portrait, just as I was, in my work clothes, with the hole in my sleeve in full view.
He painted in silence, as was his habit, using the long handled brushes that were the newest technique borrowed from the Venetian painters. When he stepped away, indicating that he had finished the drawing stage, I set to mixing his full palette of colors from the finely ground pigments he keeps in a locked wooden box.
When I heard him walk out of the room, I glanced up at the painting and was surprised by the accuracy he had achieved with a just few dabs from the long handled brushes. Just as I was finishing his palette he came back into the studio with a lace collar in his hand. Without explanation he placed the collar around my neck, then instructed me to tie it off.
We worked until the light faded and then little longer. When he finally put down his cat’s tongue brush, the brush he always finishes with, he seemed pleased. “We have worked well today Juan,” he said, and then stepped back to study his painting. “There you are. ” His voice betrayed a pride and satisfaction in his work that he rarely expressed outside of the studio. “ Tomorrow I will instruct you on the errand you will run for me, and soon Rome will know we are here.”
I was anxious to study the fresh paint but I waited for him to leave. Then I walked around the easel to the spot where he had stood, three meters away from the painting. In the fading light, the smudges and strokes were transformed into rough cloth, hair, and flesh in light and space. As I gazed upon the portrait from a distance, I had the unsettling sensation of having left my body, and then of watching myself approach as I stepped in closer.
Picking up a long handled brush, I assumed his fencer’s stance at arms length, then carefully danced the brush tip just off the surface of the painting. Mimicking the one, two, three, rhythm of his hand. I tracked his strokes, marveling at his touch, and his magician’s confidence that a semi transparent scumble at arms length would engender the illusion of the cottony texture of my hair from a greater distance.
I have watched him perform countless times, learned to mimic the movements of his hands, memorized the sequence of steps that bring him to the end of a painting. But still there is a mystery there, something that cannot be explained.
Once, a court magician showed me how he was going to make the dove in his hands disappear. He repeated the same hand motions and words, but when the dove disappeared I was left teetering at the edge of a mystery, the vast space between fact and illusion. In front of his painting I witness the facts of his strokes, as they conspire to create the illusion of light on form and then essence beyond likeness, but still the mystery remains. Perhaps my master has understood that the mystery starts on the canvas in front of our face but the real magic takes place behind our eyes.
As I unwrapped the painting in the great hall of the Vatican I did not question my master’s motivations. I understood the lace as a painter’s choice, a choice guided purely by the need to set off the face, relieve the dominant tonalities that would otherwise have drowned the painting in grey- brown mud.
But I cannot understand his choice of my portrait to represent his talents to the painters of Rome, and ultimately the Pope. He could have used any one of the fine portraits of Spanish clergy and diplomats he had painted, but he chose a painting of a Moor, the long-standing adversaries of the Spanish Crown and the Pope, a gamble so obviously and mysteriously out of scale with his sedate character.
But I can understand his choice if I look at him in the same light as the hungry boy in the St Peter’s square or myself, the moor in the rough cloth of the slave wearing a nobleman’s collar. Maybe, like the little thief, he decided that the prize was worth the gamble. I know I would have.