Monday, June 16, 2008

UN SOSPIRO (a sigh) - Chapter 2

Flight and Surrender

At the Villa del Saraceno, Villa of the Saracen, in Bellosguardo, Contessa Lucrezia von Reno is hosting an intimate “Black Velvet” cocktail party for 21 people.

Why 21? “I dislike even numbers.”

The name “Black Velvet” is used to describe champagne and beer mixed together. Lucrezia’s preference is Krug champagne vintage ’72 served with either Guinness Stout or Carlsberg Pilsner. The butler Ruffo is serving “Black Velvet” on silver Murano goblets. The guests are attired in gowns or dinner jackets, “diehard and inveterate wealth”. All the guests attending Lucrezia’s “Black Velvet” cocktail party will be at the formal dinner the City of Florence is hosting tonight, in honor of the dissidents and human rights activists.

Sergei’s words are swirling around in Lucrezia’s mind. “Since we first saw each other, we have dispensed with social hurdles. Let’s be alone tonight.”

He is not a typical inamorato, she muses. He isn’t playing at courtship. He’s gone straight to the substance. Years of hard labor in Siberia, makes for directness. No preambles. He knows excruciating pain and joy. Many people live and die without ever knowing they have lived and loved. Sergei must be the most sensitive of lovers.

“A pearl for your reveries,” booms Sir Harold Acton, her escort to the dinner at Palazzo Strozzi. Sir Harold is an aesthete, a famous unrepentant aristocratic capitalist, a judicious collector of Renaissance Art valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a steadfast homosexual. Sir Harold, once one passed “the tests”, was not a fair weather friend. He has noticed Lucrezia’s state of mind, thus the flippant pearls for your reveries.

“Thank you for that, darling Harold. I might be taking some things too seriously.”

“Life is not a dress rehearsal,” he admonishes. If you ask me, you must take some things seriously.”

Lucrezia confides in Serge Akimov’s “hotspur” proposal.

“My dear, I think it’s utterly delightful.”

“I’m not sure, caro mio. If I consent, I may be even more addle-pated than he.”

“Now, Lucrezia, that sort of silly, middle class comment does not become you.”

She agrees. “I didn’t mean to be superficial. Darling, when this carousel is over, please come for a chat and Ruffa’s Moroccan couscous.”

“Long overdue,” he replies succinctly. “Now we’d better hurry to Palazzo Strozzi; it’s time to make our entrance.”

“But some of the guests are still here,” she protests.

“I can well believe it darling. Even the gray stones of Florence know you only serve Krug Champage at all your soirees. Thank your good planets you are not in Genoa. You couldn’t get them to leave if you fired shots into the air. By the way, the old Lord Spencer used to do just that when his guests had overstayed their welcome or when they began to bore him.”

“Lord Spencer sounds dotty, if you ask me.”

“Dotty Lord Spencer is dead my dear. His son, the Earl is now the heir. His eldest daughter is seeing Prince Charles but I would put my money on Lady Diana. She is very beautiful and willful and it is Bonnie Prince Charles she wants, a little canary told me.”

Harold always knew everything that went on in every country that interested him. That meant places where he had deposits in Coutts Bank or, more likely Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, manor houses and thousands of hectares of land.

Excuse me. It’s time to leave for the formal dinner at Palazzo Strozzi. The Mayor ( Elio Gabuggiani) likes punctuality. He has zero tolerance for time alla Italiana. You all know that. Please take the unfinished bottles of Krug and drink them on the way. Consider it a gift. The Murano goblets stay here because I inherited them from my great-uncle twice removed Don Cesar the Tycoon.”

Apologies and murmurs. Where’s my sable, my mink, my lover, husband, wife, we have to run. Grazie Lucrezia. Marvy party as always. Sorry about the time. It’s your fault for being such a hostess with the mostest. We’ll send flowers. We always do. Ciao. See you at Palazzo Strozzi.

“Really Harold, why do I do these things which irritate me so much in the end?”

“Because you are a solar creature. A kind and well brought up person if a bit eccentric. Viva the eccentrics. That’s why I adore you. Now let’s vamoose as the cowboys used to say in the Far West.”

“I take exception to a bit eccentric. I aim to be very eccentric.”

"So you are Mia cara An intellectually brilliant and glamorous eccentric with her small, pretty feet planted firmly on terra ferma."

Lucrezia, with Sir Harold Actonj on her arm, strolls around Palazzo Strozzi. Its massive oil lit torches illuminate Via Tornabuoni, one of the most expensive and opulent streets in the world. They enter Palazzo Strozzi through its immense bronze doors fronting Piazza della Repubblica. Torches are on every landing. Because of the vegetable dyes used in each individual torch, the lights give out phosphorescent green, blue, scarlet, orange and gold. colors. They ascend slowly and imperiously on the wide marble steps to the Grand Salon. They catch the scent of jasmine and tuberose.

It is almost overwhelming. There must be thousands of garlands festooning the columns on the steps! They represent romance, adventure and – danger to me. Shall I meet all of these things head on?

Piero de la Francesca and Giotto painted the frescoes surrounding the Sala at Palazzo Strozzi. The Strozzi family rivaled the Medicis for at least a century. Gold florin for gold florin, the Strozzis matched them in wealth, power, cruelty, beauty and sex. Even Donatello, the homosexual sculptor of the erotic David (naked except for a deliciously droopy hat) a favorite of the Medicis, flirted with the Strozzi.

The tables at the Sala are set rapturously. The silverware is a late 17th century reproduction of Lorenzo il Magnifo’s cutlery. The handles feature a stylized griffin. The goblets are of an iridescent Murano gold. The plates, a pale yellow porcelain emblazoned with the coat of arms of the Strozzis and that of Florence. There are garlands of tiny yellow roses on the table, around the plates and around the water and wine goblets.

“What’s this I hear about your hugger-mugger with the Russian historian?” Gore Vidal, the famous American historian and writer, whispers to Lucrezia at the dinner table over a magical tiramisu.

She glares at Sir Harold. “Don’t be upset, my dear. These sort of secrets are meant to be revealed, “ he explains raising his right hand palm outward as if to say alla Fiorentina” Cosa vuoi fare? What did you expect?

“You have captivated Sergei Akimov,” Gore continues. “He keeps looking at our table.”

Lucrezia decides to be difficult. Gore always brings out her contrariness. It never fails. “There are other people at this table, all very fascinating.”

“We know he isn’t gay. That means the men at this table are ineligible.” Gore pauses for effect. “That kind of lust would only have eyes for you.”

“A Russian prince during Czarist times, perhaps a Volkonsky, a Galitzine, a Kutuzov, but a dissident?”

“You are deliberately being obtuse, dear girl. And why not Akimov? Akimov is handsome, handy, horny, hard, heroic and hungering for you.”

“Do I ever make comments about your private lives?” Lucrezia asks Sir Harold Actonj and George Armstrong a journalist who writes for the London Times, and is a crony of Vidal and Acton.

“Of course, you do it all the time. And you should … we’re friends. Don’t mind us old farts.”

“Stylish and rich old farts,” interjects Harold Acton..

“Don’t ponder too much about this to have or not to have love affair,” cautions Gore.

“We must all live our passions unwisely but well, writes Count Leo Tolstoy in ‘Anna Karenina’, his other masterpiece,” says Sir Harold affectionately.

“Che sara, sara,” replies Lucrezia, sipping her glass of Brunello di Montalcino.

All evening long she has felt compelled to glance repeatedly at Sergei and each time, unfailingly, Sergei is contemplating her. Their glances seem to turn into incandescent strands, which connect their pupils but are visible only to them.

Lucrezia finishes the Brunello; it scorches her. Odd, this has never happened before. I feel a rising heat.

Contessa Dominica known as “the Red Contessa” because of her Communist sympathies (her family owns the gorgeous and magnificently notorious Palazzo Capponi), leans over from across the table.

“Cara, don’t be schematic in love,” Dominica, nearly 20 years her senior, one of her dearest friends, tells her. “Jump into the wagon with all of us loons.”

“I can’t bear another affectionate, well meaning remark,” states Lucrezia softly gulping down the potent digestif Chartreuse. The dark emerald colored liquid incinerates her insides. “I won’t have to burn for Sergei.”

Everyone in the Salon seems to be occupied in gossip and opinions. The dinner is almost over. The guests appear ready and eager to go to their own madcaps.

“It’s a good time to exit; she whispers to Dominica and Sir Harold, kissing the former and embracing the latter. “Darling. If you feel like breakfast at Bellosguardo before we all troop back to Palazzo Vecchio for the second day of the Conference, the children, animals and yours truly, will be thrilled.”

“I shall do that. Thank you, my pet,” replies Sir Harold, returning her warn hug.

No one comments about the fact that Dominica, Lucrezia’s dearest friend, has not been invited. She never rises from her 15th century canopied bed until well past three in the afternoon. All her friends are aware of that.

Sergei is burning Lucrezia with amorous glances. She rises and heads straight for the heavily carved gilded doors, which four ushers in blue and gold livery hold open for her. She runs her eyes over Serge’s table. Mayor Gabuggiani is finishing a toast. She hears the clink of crystal.

It’s better this way. If he comes after me, so be it. It was meant to be. Perhaps he’ll decide it’s too much trouble? I shall consider him a flibbertigibbet, like Manfredi, my former husband, whom I now refer to as; the father of my children. One vacillating Peter Pan in my life is more than enough.

She addresses the dazzling frescoes on the vaulted ceilings. Men, women, god, goddesses, satyrs, cupids – were called putti in Venetian.
They gawk at her in silence, keeping whatever secrets they have witnessed about love and sorrow, sealed in their frescoes for 600 years. I want a man. Ecce Homo, as the ancient Romans used to say. Here is a Man! A Woman for a Man.!

Lucrezia’s magnificent silk gown in cardinal orange, rustles as she runs down the steps of golden marble wide a meter and not higher than an inch. This never fails to impress her and give her a frissom of deja vu. The master craftsmen had built the steps in the late 14th century palace in order to accommodate the horses as they galloped with their cavaliers all the way up to the Salone, which is on the 4th floor of the Palazzo.

Perhaps to take part in a conspiracy? An orgy? A tryst?

Swish! Swish! Goes her silk gown. Her low heels, hand-made King Louis Pumps in the identical silk fabric, jar the sacred silence.

The spirits and shades of Palazzo Strozzi might object to the slightest disturbance at this hour of the night. “Tis nearly midnight. The hour of the Dance Macabre” My grandmother’s jeweled Patek Philippe shines in the chiaroscuro of the light and shadows created by the torches, creating strange looking beasts.

She removes her shoes, the cool marble almost slides underneath her stocking feet, giving her a heightened awareness of the sensuality of marble.

These never ending steps are making me giddy. What am I doing? This is total “madness. I must be insane.

“Run away!“ croaks a voice. The whispers grow louder and increase their intensity. “For God’s sake - run!!!!”

“Go now,” more voices are whispering as if in a chorus.

“Yes! I’ll do that.”

The whispers grow louder.The whisperers sound desperate and dammed.

”Go! Go now.”

“Wait! Wait!” Stop!

Lucrezia is unsure if they are human voices.

“Wait” the voice pleads. It is Sergei. He is descending with great difficulty.

“You must not run away. You can’t leave me. It is futile.”

Lucrezia stops, whirls around and freezes. Sergei is limping badly. He falters, totters and then stumbles. One shoe is at least five inches higher than the other.

Oh dear God! I never noticed, He’s right. I am self-centered.. What happened to him in Siberia?

Sergei sways, and fights to keep from falling. She races up towards him, dropping her shoes.. He loses his balance, grips the thick gray granite railing. She scoops him up as she would one of her children, though he is much taller than her 1.78-meter height, and envelops him in her orange gown. He is one step above her. They hold onto each other unsteadily.

Lucrezia opens her eyes and looks up. All the frescoes are swirling, emeralds, rubies, gold, sapphires, all gyrating and undulating.

“I have lost my head,” she murmurs hoarsely, for she suddenly discovers that she has lost her voice as well. “I am hallucinating!. The Syndrome of Stendhal has hit me at last, after all these years of living in Florence.”

“Liubov maya. My love.. We are both afflicted with the Syndrome,” he replies lovingly, pressing his lips against her fair locks, which smell faintly of tuberose.

Doctors and psychiatrists have named this rather common occurrence to visitors and residents in Florence in honor of the great French writer Stendhal who was the first to accurately describe this syndrome. After days or weeks of intense experiences visiting churches, museums, palaces, piazzas, walking on beauty, surrounded by colors and shades, soaring arches everywhere, breathing and transpirating the most powerful of passions and emotions, the subject/object begins hallucinating. Visions come to him or her; the streets are filled with people in costumes; it’s another time and place. The subject continuously flips back between the vision and the present. It can be a terrifying experience. Stendhal, an observant man, described these “attacks of beauty” minutely and wrote about them. He met with doctors and learned men. The solution, then as now is: stop whatever you’re doing, stay in your room quietly for a couple of days so that your senses and your psyche can adjust. E tutto. That’s all.

“Why worry? I told you before, we both have the Syndrome,” answers Serge tenderly.

Lucrezia declares, “I don’t want to be in this state of madness. Please let me go.”

Serge pulls himself down painfully onto the steps, while Lucrezia lies on the travertine marble step. She takes a pliant Sergei into her bosom and clasps him tightly. Time stops. They, listen to the drumbeats of their hearts, throbbing against each other. They are still and quiet, endeavoring to understand the silence of their passion. It is the only orator that always persuades. Passion is a natural art, its rules are infallible. The simplest man with passion is more convincing that the most eloquent man without it.

Sergei breaks the silence. “What were you doing? Were you running away?” he asks softly.

“I wanted to see if you would follow me, come what may.”

“I’d follow you anywhere. You are fighting against yourself, Daregaya maya. My dearest. Why didn’t you stop by my table? You know everyone there very well. I’m sure they, as well as I, would have been delighted,” Sergei explains, a little too patiently.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. Are you better now?” Lucrezia asks, ignoring his tone.

“Life is moving on and passing us by swiftly. It waits for no one, Doushka maya. Sometimes, it is best to stop thinking and … just feel!”

Sergei rises slowly, awkwardly and painfully. “Ah,” he sighs, sotto voce. There is pain in his eyes and in his voice. Lucrezia realizes that she is yearning to ease his hurt. Wordlessly, she takes his hand and arm. They make their way down the steps slowly and in silence. Words are superfluous in certain situations. From up high, they hear the sounds of people laughing, their heavy footsteps reverberating throughout the many high vaulted ceilings.

“Come with me, to the Villa of the Saracen,” Lucrezia shocks herself at this impulsive invitation.

She is still shoeless, wearing only her silk stockings, which by now, have been torn to pieces. He pushes her softly down on the steps with one hand.” Give me your right foot.”

She lifts her leg. The voluminous ball gown creates discordant notes in the unspoken words, which pass between them. He kisses the inside of her ankle with his open mouth before placing her silk shoe back on her foot. He caresses his lips against her left ankle again and again before sliding her shoe on her foot. She does not expect this, she can’t find the words to express how much his actions have moved her. Once again, silence is more portentous than words. He raises her up without taking his eyes off her. ”Krasivaya” (beautiful) he says, aspirating deeply.

The liveried footmen with heavy gold braid running through their jackets and pantaloons, salute them They strain to open the great solid bronze door of Palazzo Strozzi. A cool wind from the river Arno caresses their faces as they step out into Via Tornabuoni. Diagonally across from where they stand, all the five store windows of the Gucci Florence are richly illuminated by Murano chandeliers.  

"Oh! I must see this up close," exclaims Sergei.

The windows feature paintings of the Renaissance 's most beautiful women, art collectors all. There is the Queen of them all, Isabella d'Este, Princess Vittoria Colonna, Eleanora Farnese, Lucrezia Borgia and the sexiest of them all, Contessa Guilia Gonzaga.

The Gucci Atelier boldly declares in the golden calligraphy of the Renaissance “Beauty is Freedom”.

“Krasivaya maya,” he sighs in surrender. “Let us enrapture each other. Take me to your Villa of the Saracen in Bellosguardo.”

1 comment:

  1. Exciting, with energy bubbling up and about to culminate in a grande passione. Can't wait for more.



Isabel Van Fechtmann

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