Francesco, Artist of Florence:The Man Who Gave Too Much
The child gazes at the jade parrot on my jewellery box, her eyes bright and fascinated.
I come to look too.
The perky parrot grasps a cherry. He is surrounded by carnations, cosmos and lupins.
I love that little pietre dure jewellery box which I inlaid with semi-precious stones! I thought it would make a good bridal gift.
The little girl stares at it in silence, and glows. She is captivated.
“It’s twenty florins,” I say. It took me three hours to carve it, but the hours were joy.
And Signora Farnese bows, and looks helpless, and the child looks up at her, understands and her face collapses, but they both keep standing there, keep looking at it, the bambina on tiptoes.
And I say gently, “Signora, would you like it?”
She nods. Her little daughter nods vigorously.
“How much can you afford?” I say, resigned, wishing I had remained silent.
“Seven florins,” she whispers.
I wrap it up, for the bambina has not lifted her eyes from the parrot since she entered the shop, and I would like the little box to go to one who loves it.
And the child goes out, holding it aloft, like the Corpus Christi itself, and I am repaid.
My little pietre dure studio in which I “painted” with inlaid precious stones in Marble was always crowded. After Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici started collecting treasures in pietre dure, every Florentine wanted what the Medici had.
And so they thronged into the Via Ricasoli, coveting my vases, fountains, and the bowls in which I inlaid gems, creating birds which would never cease singing, and flowers which would never fade.
And if I could have held out for a good price, perhaps I could have made as much money as it was rumoured Michelangelo did, or Leonardo or Masaccio. Cosimo de’ Medici paid Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Michelozzo 600,000 florins! 600,000 florins!
Perhaps I am lacking in ambition.
But my happiest hours are when I forget everything and time is no more as I work with the wafers of precious gems that the craftsmen from Ferdinand’s laboratory,
Opificio delle Pietre Dure, let me have cheaply–lapis lazuli, jade, moonstone, topaz and amethyst. I feel the smoothness of carnelian and jade beneath my fingers as I carve wild
flowers which will never wilt, and dragonflies that shall never die.
Working with them is my great good luck!
As I carve, beauty appears. Pietre dure–inlaying semi-precious stones in marble–is indeed painting for eternity, as Ghirlandaio says. And so I carve gardens of unfading flowers, in which I place a singing bird on a golden bough to keep a drowsy emperor awake with his eternal songs.
“Francesco, Francesco, stop all this carving. How many days has the shop stayed shut while you carve and carve? Go and sell what you have made.” Elisabetta stands in the doorway of my workshop, her hands on her hips.
I sigh and leave to open up my shop.
And as they see me pull up the shutters, people bustle in from the Piazza del Duomo.
My heart swells when they freeze and point at the clock I placed in the window, black marble inlaid with butterflies that almost flutter.
But why doesn’t somebody buy it?
Me, though Elisabetta calls me an old fool, I never ask people to sell me things for less than they want to. If that is what they want to sell it for, I buy it, if I have the florins. If not, I bow and leave.
But my customers. Bargaining! Infinite bargaining. And it makes me sad, for I price my treasures so that those who really want them, and are willing to sacrifice for them, can have a little loveliness in their homes: a cameo, a bowl, a table.
For I have longed to work with semi-precious stones I could not afford–with malachite and onyx and jasper. I have yearned to own pietre dure treasures in jade and lapis lazuli which I also could not afford. I cannot bear the thought that anyone should yearn for beauty as I have, and be unable to have it.
And so I price my art so most people can afford it, and our family can have pigeon occasionally, and I can buy Elisabetta a new brooch, and set something aside for Lucia’s dowry, and for old age, when arthritis might stiffen my fingers.
But no matter how low my prices, they are never low enough.
As they throng through, Signora Stallardi says, “Francesco, Caterina will be married at the Duomo next month. She is marrying a Ridolfi. I see you have marked four hundred florins for your marriage chest, but could you let me have it for three hundred?”
Three hundred florins! I smile ruefully. I have probably spent that on the gems which now gleam in the inlaid surface of the chest. However, if I sold it and took home three hundred florins today, perhaps Elisabetta might be happy…
I run my fingers over the cool stone. I remember melding those precious stones together, my eyes rejoicing in the harmony of colour.
And I remember Caterina as a bambina, her eyes brimming with suppressed laughter; she would love my chest, as would her bambini. And I cannot argue with Signora Stallardi, who played chess against me as we grew up in the Via delle Oche—and always won!
“Si,” I say.
As she steps out into the street, I hear her say, “Thank goodness Elisabetta wasn’t there. That old fool! He’d agree to anything.”
I bow my head, ashamed.
And so my day goes. Girolamo, who wrestled and played football with me in the Piazza Santa Croce, wants my table, which is exactly like the one in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. I’ve inlaid all my wafer of semi-precious stones in those intertwined lilies and roses. I had wild hopes for it.
“Now, now, Francesco. No more of that; we are old friends,” he stood there, arms akimbo, brushing aside my objections.
“No, not less than a thousand florins, Girolamo,” I say. “It is the most valuable piece in my shop.”
That would cover my costs, and pay all bills for a few weeks.
“Three hundred!” he says.
Would that even cover costs?
My head spins as I try to calculate, but I can see that he will not leave without the table, so I sadly sell it to him for four hundred florins
And I can see from the suppressed glee on his face, that he too believes I have been a fool, and that he will go home and gloat.
I go home, my money bag jingling with florins, which I pour onto the sala table. How beautiful is that heap of gold with the gleaming fleur-de-lis. Elisabetta is indeed happy, until I tell her what I sold to bring them in.
“Francesco, Francesco!” she cries, “You are just recovering the money you put in! This is no way to run a business.”
“But we have enough to pay our bills. We pay our taxes,” I protest.
“The money we spend on marble and gems is flowing back, yes, but we are barely saving anything. Carrara and Pietrasanta are
charging more and more for marble. We cannot afford to do business like this.”
“But we are living, aren’t we?” I falter. We have argued about this before, but it always confuses me.
But I bow my head for I sense she is right. Nobody else runs their business as I do.
However, when I see the eyes, the captivated eyes, the longing eyes, even the shrewd, greedy eyes of those who desperately want what I have made, I forget how much each piece cost. I just see the eyes of those who want my art.
* * *
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Excerpts from reviews
Anita has a lovely way with words. One of my favourite things as a child was reading books that captured my imagination as well as my heart. Francesco’s story does both.
I just love the amazing descriptions of semi precious stones, reminding me of biblical descriptions of the temple, so detailed that you can begin to picture them in your own mind. I’m a creative type and these kind of descriptions capture me, leading my imagination in a dance of colour and shape and pattern. But this book is not even really for me, it’s for children who I am sure will be as captivated as I was.
This is one of those books you’ll want to keep forever! One for the grandchildren. Not only is it a lovely story but it’s a book that you will want to keep. A book you will want to read not just to your kids, but to your grandchildren, or maybe, even to yourself.
As you enter into Francesco’s world you get a glimpse of 16th century Florence, an exquisite place of art and beauty through the eyes and hands of one of its struggling artisans, who introduces you to its residents. Reading Francesco’s story is a bit like taking a stroll down one of the cobbled streets of Florence, as you meet his neighbors made up of former schoolmates, children and a mother desiring to provide a worthy dowry for her daughter.
The book includes rich and vibrant illustrations of pietre dure that go hand in hand with Francesco’s story.
Although Francesco is a children’s book, readers of all ages will walk away from Mathias’ tale having had an enjoyable journey into this artisan’s world and experiencing the beauty and artistry of Florence and pietre dure.
This delightful little book is a little gem.
Anita brings us a story that brings a 16th Century Florence Artist and his family to life and takes us on a journey of forgiveness. Forgiveness for others and most importantly for ourselves.
He may be considered weak and a fool, but he is lovely. In part a reminder of Jesus.
When I read the last paragraph aloud I was choked with emotion…honestly Anita, you have written a beauty!
Simon Cutmore— it is a gem of a book and a beautiful parable and I think could be read by you and old alike.
Joanna Mitchell— I thought it was lovely – sweet and true and good — – and a bit like one of Francesco’s jewels.