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Published by James Watson

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Published by: James Watson on Mar 17, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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In Medieval Florence
An extract from a new story,
Besieged: TheCoils of the Viper 
byJames WatsonIntroduction
The mercenary armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, called The Viper, have brought terror to Italy. Citiessuch as Siena, Perugia and Bologna, have either beenovercome in battle or been terrified into submission.Florence alone stands out against him. In the burning hot summer of 1402, the Viper has laid siege to the city, hisintention to starve the citizens until they are too weak toresist.In the refectory of the priory of the Dominican brothers, the
, one of Florence’s most distinguished artists, and 
, his teenage apprentice, see no choice but to continuewith the great fresco that the Master has been commissioned to paint. They know that once Visconti’s savage mercenariesbreach the city walls few citizens will survive the brutality that has become the Viper’s trademark.While escaping the heat of the August sun and sketching themasterpieces of Giotto in the gaunt but magnificent SantaCroce basilica, Luca has become aware of the girl in a brownrobe, hovering in shadow as if compelled to look over hisshoulder at what his skilful hand commits to the page. Will oneof them pluck up the courage to speak? 
The Girl in the Brown Robe
Selected from Chapter 3 and edited 
…I’ve been sketching the figure of St. John the Evangelist and thepetitioners kneeling around him. Usually, after I’ve been here in SantaCroce for a while, I’m recognised by one of the lay brothers.
He pinched my cheek once, and I only smiled and shook my head.Since then he seems to haunt the chapel, and when he sees me he brings outa stool for me to sit on.He pats my shoulder and leaves me to my sketching.It looks as though the girl isn’t going to turn up. She’s become almost asregular a visitor as I am; about my age, curiously dressed – a brown woollenrobe, complete with hood but cut short at the calf. I guess she bought or stole it from a mendicant friar, took if off his corpse or traded it for servicesrendered.It’s that kind of world; everything is possible, and blame is as stupid as itcan be unjust.She usually wears rope sandals but at other times she appears out of theshadows barefoot. That’s how I think of her – a mystery; a sort of spirit. Inever see her arrive, never see her depart. Yet I’ve decided her eyes are toobright for them to belong to a ghost. Her skin, though fresh, has the hue of dark leather; and there is the hint of a limp, making her rock slightly fromside to side as she walks.Hers is as beautiful a face as I’m likely to see in these blighted days, for the respectable daughters of Florence are kept indoors, unless they’re inservice to the rich and need to chance the city streets to fetch and carry, or if their business is in the tanneries or the woolsheds along the Arno
 Today I promised myself I’d speak to her at last. All it needs is a word, aquestion, a smile. It’d be worth it merely to have her smile back, for so far she’s been as solemn as one of the angels my Master complains about inSanta Maria Maggiore; ‘joyless,’ he calls them.I shouldn’t feel so disappointed that she’s not turned up. Only a fool getshis hopes up in these horrible times. My hand seems to lose its motivation todraw, and I realise the only reason I keep coming, poring over theEvangelist’s resurrection of Drusiana, over his Ascension or the Death of St.Francis, is to see her.I realise I’m talking to myself and this is at the same moment that I senseher presence. She is close enough to see the page of my open sketchbook.I’ve been scribbling devils. She glances up at the fresco where there are nodevils, and the drumming of my heart tells me she is about to break our silence.Pointing up to Maestro Giotto’s fresco, she says, ‘
, excuse me,but is that what you see?’I amaze myself with my nerve: ‘I was thinking you wouldn’t come.’The comment startles both of us. We evade each other’s embarrassmentby staring up at the flowing robes of Giotto’s figures.She seems to be pleased at my frankness. ‘You noticed?...I’m surprised,for you seem to concentrate so hard.’ I’m struggling to keep up with her, saythe right words that won’t put her off; but she doesn’t need any help. ‘May Ilook?’She almost brushes my shoulder as I turn the pages of my sketchbook. Isay, ‘All very quick…Just, sort of, ideas on paper.’‘Why do you like Giotto so much – because you sketch only his figures,don’t you?’‘Because…well, they have volume, roundness. They’re solid – real.’
‘As if they’re about to step from the painting – alive?’‘Yes, that’s it, exactly.’I am pleased. Her interest is welcome, her perceptiveness obvious. ‘Yousee, so many paintings are just like the old mosaics – everything flat.’ I hear myself going on a bit, but I can’t rein in my enthusiasm. ‘They’ve no space,no perspective. They shut you out instead of drawing you in.’‘Is that the secret – perspective?’‘My friend Filippo swears it is. Perspective, he says, is the key to greatart. Without it, we are left with pure decoration.’‘Does it mean the same as having a perspective on life?’I decide she’s half-teasing me, but I’m grateful for that half-smile andlook forward to receiving a whole one. ‘That’s a bit more complicated,’ Imanage to say. I return to my latest sketch.‘That devil could be Gian Galeazzo the Viper, could it not?’I nod. My pencil shifts to a space on the page and I begin to draw acoiled serpent – Gian Galeazzo’s emblem. There are seven coils narrowingto a pointed tail. Trapped in the final coil is a tiny human figure, strugglingin terror. ‘That could be the people of Florence,’ I say, ‘in a few days’ time.’‘You are very talented.’‘Thank you.’‘I suppose everyone tells you that.’‘They did, once. But there’re no “everyones” any more.’‘Are you an apprentice?’‘For my sins.’She blesses me with a full smile. ‘You look too innocent to be a sinner.’They are clearing the church, locking up. The great works of MaestroGiotto have faded into shadow. I stand. She is tall, my height if not a shadetaller. She is thinner than I remember her; yet close up, her face is trulybeautiful, full of character (as the Maestro often describes his madonnas andhis saints – ‘depth of character, that’s what counts, in art as in life’).‘My guess,’ I say, determined to hold on to her company for as long aspossible, ‘is you’re not from these parts, neither Florentine nor Tuscan.’‘You can tell by my accent?’We are outside in the piazza. Normally it would be crowded, but we arealmost alone. The heat is as intense as it’s been since early morning, butnow the atmosphere is clammy. ‘You’re from the north, I think.’‘From Lombardy. Remember the Bianchi? I was one of them. When wemarched here, Florence gave us the kind of welcome that made us want tostay.’I laugh, remembering something the Master had said: ‘My Master approved of the Bianchi, and the city loved them, he says, because they paidtheir bills!’‘True, but our cause – universal peace, that was what Florencewelcomed.’‘Peace, my Master says, is good for trade, and trade is Florence’s firstreligion.’She takes the comment in good part. ‘Be a cynic, if you wish. But it wasmuch more than that. There was a yearning among the people, for an end towars and bloodshed. We felt it then and still do.’

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