An excerpt from

The Pumilio Child

Judy McInerney

Mantua. 1460.

It doesn’t look like a whorehouse. Too shut up and silent. Too old. 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. Brothels are more open. 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. His mouth tightens in distaste when he has to cup Mantegna’s balls to ease him over the pommel. They sit on his palm like a pair of damp plums. Small ones. Not tall enough to manage the reins, the stirrups and that little cock as well. The groom gives a sly smile.

‘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?’

His boyish features drop in fear. He swallows quickly. ‘No Maestro.'

‘Clinging on. Swinging about up there. The wind freezing your blood to ice? Eh?’

‘No Maestro.’ The groom shivers at the thought. He wouldn’t be the first. The Maestro had sent already two men up there and neither had come down alive.

‘Then keep it shut like this.’ Mantegna bunches his fist together and slams 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. ‘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 stands fuming in the arcaded courtyard. Normally he would have stormed off, but he has to stay. Money is very tight. And he wants to see how they are reared.

‘What do you want?’ The servant who finally ambles up is a stocky Neapolitan, a shifty looking peasant who understands none of the Mantuan dialect.

Mantegna ignores him and waits. His face has set hard by the time Goacobo Dati makes his way slowly down the stairs, apparently unperturbed. ‘You should have been waiting by the inner door to lead me up to the piano nobile. The rules are quite simple,’ he snaps. I’ve been waiting here at least five minutes!’ He eyes the man’s nondescript clothes. No courtly manners. No idea how to dress, no senza vergogna at all.

‘Mi scusi. I’m here now Signore, and I wish to welcome you to my …’ he stops uneasily, ‘…what shall I call it? Farm? Yes. Let’s call it that.’ His dark eyes lower. ‘I don’t live here of course. Obviously I wouldn’t want my family seeing anything that happens here. So I just visit discreetly, like you have done today.’ His glance at Mantegna’s dull tabarro is complicit. ‘And it helps to have a servant here who doesn’t speak the local tongue. But that means the normal social niceties don’t always take place.’ He shrugs.

‘I see.’ Mantegna looks up at Dati’s battered profile more carefully. The man’s discretion will be useful. This business could make him a lot of money. It will have to.

‘No velvets today Maestro? How wise.’

Mantegna gives an uneasy glance. It’s as if his thoughts are being read. ‘No. Obviously. Not coming here.’ A proud private smile flickers across his face. 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 puffs out his chest remembering the gasp when he swaggered into court. His glance drops down to his worn tabarro. The jerkin was pawned months ago. Probably to one of Dati’s tribe. This next acquisition might be pushing his luck even further. ‘I might be interested in one for my household,’ he announces.

‘Ah I see.’ Dati nods with a knowing smile. ‘Good for your status Maestro. Your reputation. Artists are judged not only by their skill are they? Even painters as celebrated as you. Ever since Barbara of Brandenberg bought a couple for the court, then every rich family in Mantua is desperate to have one.’

Mantegna frowns and tries to stretch the tension from his shoulders. ‘But it’s a dangerous business to be in, isn’t it? People are very squeamish and the process is kept very secret. Tell me, are they specially bred? Or kidnapped? ‘What is done to them? Some might say it’s immoral. Even sacrilegious.’ He looks round warily. ‘Where are they? Where do you keep them?’

‘In the cellar. In the dark…they seem much happier down there.’ Dati steeples long bony fingers together. ‘And of course… out of sight is better. One has to be very careful.’

‘I want to see them,’ Mantegna insists. ‘Straight away.’

‘Why not discuss business first? Perhaps over a glass of vin santo…?’ Mantegna looks up at Dati’s lean intelligent face. The man is more polished than he thought, but his tribe are hard to trust. He casts a disparaging glance at the way the man’s cap clings to the back of his head like a scab. Shake their hand then count your fingers, that’s what he’s heard. ‘And I’m thinking that if our business together prospers, 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,’ he says witheringly. ‘You couldn’t afford me.’

‘Really?’ Dati smiles politely. ‘Well, I’m wondering exactly what you can afford Signore Mantegna. How much you’re able to invest in my little … farming enterprise here?’

Mantegna flips his hand dismissively. ‘Whatever you need. Whatever letters of credit you require.’ He tries to look amused. ‘Or even promissory notes if you find it hard to trust me.’ He folds his arms impatiently across his bulky chest. ‘But I haven’t seen anything of them yet. How you keep them. How they are reared.’

Dati’s tone is firm. ‘No. Not promissory notes. Lira or gold would be my first preference. But I can take currencies from other lands too, if necessary. Florins, escudos, whatever you have.’

‘When a man has the patronage of the Gonzagas he doesn’t need to deal in cash,’ Mantegna’s chest swells out as tight as a drum. ‘His word is enough.’

‘Really? I see. So no money to invest then?’

Mantegna stops short. ‘Perhaps…I might…’ His chest suddenly deflates ‘Not at the moment. No.’

‘So the rumours are true then? That you’ve been taking on private commissions.’ Dati examines a long thumb nail which is curved like a claw. One eyebrow rises. ‘Commissions that the Gonzagas know nothing about.’

Mantegna’s brow furrows. ‘So what are you insinuating? Eh? 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 now he’s asked me to do another wall to celebrate his son Francesco being made a cardinal in January.’

Dati inclines his head, his face ironed of all expression. ‘I know. And that’s why you’ve been putting him off, placating him with other paintings, shorter commissions. And working in secret for other patrons. You see…’ he smiles as if approvingly ‘you are known to be very slow and painstaking Maestro, so it will be many years before such enormous frescos will be finished. 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 scudi 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’s face mottles in fury. He takes two paces towards the door. It’s true what they say about this damned tribe. They miss nothing. They’re known to run an army of spies. No wonder they need a curfew. He smiles at the thought of the big ghetto gates clanging shut on them each night before sundown. ‘I didn’t come here to listen to this Dati! To be spoken to in such a way,’ he fumes. ‘Not by one such as you.’

Dati watches the heavy swing of the back of Mantegna’s black cloak. He notes the way he pauses then takes a small step backwards. The doorway no nearer. ‘And there is talk of an exotic mistress too. A foreign slavewoman. Ruinously expensive to buy no doubt, and not cheap to keep either.’

‘You rise above yourself Dati!’ Mantegna spins round to play his ace. ‘Never forget the patronage of the Gonzagas is vital for this… this… business enterprise, and I am your entrée into the court. There might be many noble families who want this merchandise, but you can hardly set up a market stall, now can you?’ he sneers. ‘It’s a very sensitive business to be in. Perhaps even testing God’s providence by going so far against nature.’

‘But yet, you are willing to be involved in it.’ Dati’s glance slowly travels up from Mantegna’s scuffed shoes to the worn patches that show the dome of his knees through his hose.

Mantegna’s shoulders rise in anger. He is outclassed. Dealing with these people is like trying to catch quicksilver with your fingers. ‘Now look here Dati…’ he begins.

‘I’m sorry, Maestro. Forgive my forwardness. It’s just my way,’ Dati’s voice soothes like a stroke. ‘I only mentioned the mistress to please you. To flatter your taste in buying a woman of such beauty. I did not wish to offend.’ Mantegna’s big shoulders relax. ‘Of course with your superior artist’s eye, only the most incomparable beauty would suffice.’

Mantegna looks mollified. ‘Indeed she has a rare beauty. But enough talk of my private affairs. I am here to discuss money.’

Dati slides a fingernail inside the horny tunnel of his thumbnail and eases out a kernel of filth which he sprinkles fastidiously on to the tiles. ‘So how many customers from the court can you get for me? As you so cleverly put it Maestro, I cannot advertise my wares openly. How many?’

‘I don’t know. A lot. Probably.’ Mantegna pulls himself up taller. ‘So how much will I get for each buyer I bring in?’

Dati sucks in air between his front teeth. ‘Difficult. That will depend on the supply I have at the time. And the quality, naturally. Bring me in at least ten buyers then we can discuss your commission.’

Ten? Ten? Before he’d see even a scudi? Mantegna swallows loudly. ‘Of course. That won’t be a problem. The court is full of rich chickens ready to be plucked,’ he smiles broadly.

‘You couldn’t get hold of any of the … creatures themselves for me could you? Healthy. Sturdy. Under two years old. Pretty to look at, if possible. That’s where the real money lies.’

Mantegna struggles to keep the horror from his face. ‘No of course I couldn’t! I couldn’t do anything like that!’ He looks up into pair of shrewd dark eyes assessing his reaction. ‘In any case I … I wouldn’t know where…’ he clears his throat and walks to the corner. ‘Come along Dati. My time is short,’ he blusters. ‘I want to see them immediately. I insist. I’m not used to being kept waiting like this.’

Dati demurs and nods towards the door. ‘Follow me downstairs then. The darkness keeps their skin pale. The customers prefer them more candido. We bring them up from the cellar occasionally otherwise their eyes weaken. They’re worthless if they go blind.’

‘I might reserve one for myself,’ Mantegna announces ‘As a plaything for my son Francesco.’ Nicolosia would hate that. Spending money on such a luxury. That would teach her. His bitch of a wife.

Dati turns around cautiously giving his surprised look enough time to dissipate. ‘Is that wise Signore? With your son being …’

Mantegna spins Dati round and squares up to him. ‘What are you trying to say? Eh? How dare you! My son’s different! Completely different. Any fool can see that!’ Mantegna’s eyes glint and Dati has to force his own eyes to lock on to them to prevent any instinctive glance straying down Mantegna’s odd cumbrous body.

‘I was thinking merely of the expense Maestro,’ he soothes. ‘Nothing more. Except that… perhaps the Gonzagas might think it presumptuous for you to dare to copy them by buying such an expensive novelty? Even for an artist as famous as you. Favour at court is precarious is it not? I’ve heard that it rests merely at the whim of the Marchese Ludovico or his wife Barbara. Which ever courtier is enjoying his brief moment in the sun.’

‘Presumptuous? You dare lecture me about the ways of the court? One like you, who would never ever even gain admittance to it?’ Mantegna’s lip curls as he paces the floor. ‘And yet you accuse me of being presumptuous? Enough! Dati. Enough! Take me to see them now! Or I’m off.’

‘Of course. So sorry Maestro.’ Dati inclines his head and picking up a lantern motions the artist to follow him. When the cellar door opens a wave of raw urine hits the back of their throats. Mantegna holds his cloak to his mouth. The murmur of noise stops immediately. Dati leads him down an uneven wooden staircase into the damp straw that lines the floor. The creatures wail and scuttle away from the light making for the walls. The straw scuffs up beneath their tiny feet making the air taste sour and musty. Saliva fills his throat as he makes out several pairs of eyes staring back at him from the shadows. Dati grabs one from the far corner and drags it by its bindings across the rustling straw. As it struggles and whimpers, a parabola of red light from the lantern swings wildly in the darkness. ‘Here. Hold this.’ When Mantegna takes the lantern from him, the brass handle feels slippery in his grasp. After a couple of punches the creature whines but stops still. Mantegna holds the lantern nearer and looks on intently. ‘This is a good one brought from the Balkans about two years ago. See the gold colouring and the pale eyes.’ Dati’s two wiry hands prevent any escape. ‘People will pay a high premium for that. It’s intelligent too.’

Mantegna struggles to keep his shoulders from shuddering. ‘How do you know?’

Dati looks down at the tiny squirming form. ‘It started speaking a year ago.’