Mantua, Italy. 1461.
It looks like a whorehouse. Cheap and run down. Mean little windows in odd places. Dark chunks of timber jutting out. Pieces of masonry, pediments and columns from an earlier age are stuck in the walls like fragments of old teeth.
But it seems deserted. No loud talk, music and raucous laughter when you walk past. No girls about either. There should be a gang of them outside, offering up their tits like apples on a tray. Some shrivelled. Some just ripening.
‘Will we be long here Maestro?’
‘Silence. Wait here. Stay outside. Talk to nobody.’
‘Of course Maestro,’ Gregorio murmurs holding the mare still. ‘And tell nobody where we have been today. Do as you are told or fear the consequences boy! Unless you fancy a spell in the cage, eh?’
Gregorio’s boyish features drop in fear. He swallows quickly. ‘No Maestro.’
‘Clinging on. Swinging about up there. The wind freezing your blood to ice?
‘No Maestro.’ The groom shivers at the thought. He wouldn’t be the first to be condemned to a public death in the cage.
‘Then keep it shut like this.’ Mantegna bunches his fist together and pushes it against his groom’s mouth.
Gregorio flinches. ‘Yes Maestro.’ Not daring to look round, he strokes the mare’s velvet muzzle. He waits until the door creaks open and Mantegna enters. ‘Bastardo!’ he hisses. The mare pulls back against the reins, her eyes fearful. She stamps a nervous hoof into the red dust. ‘Not you.’ Gregario murmurs, gently pulling on her silky ear. ‘No, not you little lady.’ She blows grassy breath into his palm. He dares a quick glance over his shoulder. ‘Him.’
Mantegna pushes on the massive studded doors and slips inside. Five minutes later he is still standing in the arcaded courtyard. Normally he would have stormed off, but he has to stay. Money is tight. He looks down in the direction of an odd shrill noise that seems to be coming from below the filthy floor. His wipes his damp palms down his sides.
‘Where’s Dati? The servant who finally ambles up is a stocky Neapolitan, a shifty looking peasant who understands none of the Mantovan dialect. The man motions him to wait.
Mantegna’s face has set hard by the time Goacobo Dati makes his way quickly down the stairs. He eyes the man’s nondescript clothes. No courtly manners. No idea how to dress, no senza vergogna at all.
‘No velvets today Maestro? How wise.’ He sounds out of breath. ‘Or perhaps necessity.’
Mantegna gives him an uneasy glance. It’s as if his thoughts are being read. Ludovico Gonzaga has already reprimanded him over his lavish ways and the scarlet velvet jerkin had probably been one ostentation too far. Scarlet. The colour of cardinals and emperors. But he had looked magnificent. He remembers the gasp when he swaggered into court. His glance drops down to his worn tabarro. The jerkin was pawned months ago. He looks round warily. ‘Where can we talk? I want this over with as soon as possible.’
‘I see.’ Dati leads him into a room off the hallway. Mantegna’s nose wrinkles. Mildew and something else. It smells more like a stable than a home.
‘These are just my business premises Maestro,’ Dati puts in quickly, before he pulls two battered chairs together. ‘I come here only rarely. So I am unable to offer you vin santo or almond biscuits.’ Mantegna looks up at Dati’s lean intelligent face. The man is more polished than he thought, but he is known to be a wily merchant. Shake his hand then count your fingers, that’s what he’s heard. ‘My home is quite luxurious in fact, I was thinking I might commission you to paint an antique frieze for me.’
‘Ha!’ Mantegna tilts back his head with a terse laugh. ‘You’re all the same you traders. ‘A classical fresco and a bust of Dante and you think you’ll turn into a nobleman.’ His glance is withering. ‘You couldn’t afford me.’
‘Really? So you’re doing well?’ Dati smiles politely. ‘The Gonzagas are paying you promptly each month? That’s a first.’ Dati examines a long thumb nail which is curved like a claw. ‘I heard you’ve been taking on private commissions.’ One eyebrow rises. ‘Commissions that the Gonzagas know nothing about.’
Mantegna’s brow furrows. ‘So what are you insinuating? I just don’t have ready money at the moment that’s all, but let me tell you one thing, Ludovico Gonzaga is desperate for me to start my latest commission for him. Two major frescos in the Palazzo Ducale, one of the whole family and all their courtiers,’ Mantegna flings open both arms. ‘And another entire wall to celebrate his son being made a cardinal.’
Dati inclines his head, his face ironed of all expression. ‘I know. And as you are known to be so very painstaking Maestro, it will be many years before such enormous frescos will be finished and you get your final payment. And if it’s true that you have already mortgaged some of your future earnings against these great works, then your financial position must be a little….difficult.’ He gives a sympathetic nod. ‘The Gonzagas are known to be as tight as a tick’s arse are they not? Never part with a sessino until they have to. And I’ve heard of your debts too.’ He shrugs. ‘You know how these things get bandied about in the piazza.’
Mantegna scowls. He stands and takes two half-hearted paces towards the door. Dati must run an army of spies. ‘I didn’t come here to listen to this Dati! I have come here with a business proposition, not be spoken to in such a way,’ he fumes.
‘Sorry. I was only repeating what I had heard. I have no wish to give offence to a man so highly esteemed.’ The chair creaks as he leans back. ‘So, what can I do for you?’
‘I have a friend…’ Dati turns away to hide the wry downturn to his lips. ‘… and this friend of mine has a wife who is pregnant. He already has many daughters to feed and clothe.’ He returns to the chair and sits forward. ‘This friend is a cultured man, you understand, who has no wish to give the child away but if this child were to be a girl child... then … But only to an excellent home. He might allow the child to be brought up as a servant, but not a slave. In no circumstances can the child be poorly treated.’
‘I see. These days are getting difficult. The church seems to impose more moral strictures each day and the Ecclesiastical Courts now seem to be hounding any poor man whose mistress…’
‘I didn’t say anything about a mistress.’ Mantegna turns sharply. ‘All I said was, he’s a respectable man who merely needs to do the right thing and secure the child’s future.’
‘So sorry Maestro. My mistake.’
‘So could you find her a home? My friend will accept less money if the family will be kind.’ He looks across. ‘What’s so funny?’
‘Nothing. Done a lot of business have you Maestro?’
‘No. I’m an artist. As you well know.’ He sits up proudly in the chair. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Nothing. No reason at all.’ Datis voice soothes like a stroke. ‘’Will the child be pretty?’
Mantegna sits very still. ‘She will be.’
‘Handsome parents?’ Mantegna’s nod is awkward. ‘In fact I might have just the family who would take her, in the event... A Patrician family who have recently lost a daughter. The wife is fading fast and the husband wants to help her recover, so he is looking for a child to adopt.’
Mantegna’s eyes widen. ‘A Patrician? And he would adopt a girl?’
‘Strange, I know, when there are plenty of beggar families who’ll give a sturdy son away for practically nothing, but the wife is pining for her little girl.’
‘Speaking of money…’
‘Well they won’t pay much. But as you yourself said earlier, your friend will accept less money if the family will treat her well. This family will do a lot more than that. They’ll bring her up as their own.’
‘I see.’ Mantegna looks nonplussed.
‘I’ll make enquiries for you shall I?’
‘Yes. When will they want her?’
Dati steeples his fingers together. ‘Give the child at least a year. Let’s see how healthy she is by then. If she is robust, then I can arrange everything.’
‘How much can my friend expect Dati? I need to be able to tell him.’
‘First of all, I need to negotiate on your behalf. These things take time.’
‘Who are they? This family?’
Dati shakes his head with a reluctant smile. ‘I’ll never be able to disclose that. In my business discretion is everything. That is why you have come to me today, is it not?’ He stands and motions Mantegna to follow him out. ‘You can trust me. Many men like your friend often do.’
Dati waits behind a motheaten curtain until Mantegna and the groom leave in a cloud of dust. The big Neopolitan is at his side immediately with a lantern in his hand. When the cellar door opens a wave of raw urine hits the back of their throats. Dati holds his cloak to his mouth. The murmur of noise stops immediately as they climb down the uneven wooden staircase into the damp straw that lines the floor. A parabola of red light swings out from the lantern glinting on several pairs of eyes which stare back at them from the shadows, before the whimpering begins. Dati grabs onefrom the far corner and drags it across the rustling straw. ‘Come, there’s work to be done.’