I am Venus, page 1
ALSO BY BÁRBARA MUJICA
The Deaths of Don Bernardo
Far from My Mother’s Home
Sanchez Across the Street
To my husband, Mauro, with love
This edition first published in hardcover in the United States in 2013 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
For bulk and special sales, please contact email@example.com,
or write us at the address above.
Copyright © 2013 by Bárbara Mujica
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
ALSO BY BÁRBARA MUJICA
1 SEVILLE 1619
2 THE VIRGIN ON THE PEDESTAL 1619
3 BEYOND THE MOON 1619
4 SECRETS 1622–1623
5 THE LADY ON THE ORB 1623
6 VENUS SPEAKS 1660
7 ALTERATIONS 1623–1624
8 RIVALS AND PLOTS 1626–1627
9 NEW DIRECTIONS 1628–1629
10 ADVENTURES AND ADVENTURERS 1629
11 ACROSS THE PLAZA 1629–1630
12 VENUS INTERRUPTA 1660; 1630–1632
13 FAMILY BUSINESS 1633–1635
14 APPEARANCES 1636–1638
15 THE BIRTH OF VENUS 1660; 1644; 1660
16 THE FACE IN THE MIRROR 1652; 1660
17 MENINAS 1656–1658
18 REVELATIONS 1660
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I WAS RECLINING ON THE DIVAN FACING THE WALL, MY BACK TO the artist. Gossamer sunbeams caressed my left shoulder and buttocks. He had posed me looking away from the window, but I could feel the fingers of light warming my body. They stretched over my arm toward the plush red curtain that hung around the foot of the bed. I lay on a maroon silk sheet that would, one day, turn charcoal-colored. The luster of flesh against the sheen of the cloth filled the scene with light and created an atmosphere of luxurious intimacy. That’s what he said: “luxurious intimacy.” He was a well-spoken man. He was, after all, a courtier.
Madrid is a strange city. Palatial residences stand alongside squalor. A fishmonger can live on the same street as a duke. Velázquez had a studio in the king’s gallery, but he’d chosen to paint this particular piece in the private apartments of a patron. I’d snuck in through the servants’ door and didn’t know who the house belonged to. Perhaps Don Gaspar, as some people said, but perhaps not. Velázquez wouldn’t tell me.
The morning bustle filtered through the open window. The grunt of pack mules carrying produce to market. The throaty croon of a drunken soldier—Madrid was full of them. The curse of a scurrying servant who had slipped on the contents of a chamber pot that someone had emptied onto the street. The cry of a buñolera hawking her sweet, sticky fritters. The clop-clop of an aristocrat’s elegantly appointed horse. French peddlers offering trinkets—glass beads, ribbons, earthenware crocks. Foreigners had flocked to Madrid after the king’s father had expelled the Moriscos—Moors who had converted to Catholicism. The new arrivals filled the void—they became artisans, weavers, and of course street hawkers. The streets were full of them crying out in their mangled Spanish, “Buy a shell comb for your hair, señora! Buy a button to adorn your pretty dress!”
Velázquez moved toward me. I could hear the soft shuffle of his slippers against the tile floor. Even though I’d been posing for him for weeks, he was never satisfied with the tilt of my head. He gently lifted my arm and placed it over the back of the divan, then bent it at the elbow and laid my right ear on my open hand. I sensed his gaze on my back and tried not to squirm. Soon my outstretched upper arm would start to ache, but even then, I would force myself to lie very still. Velázquez—I nearly always called him Velázquez, not Diego—made a sound that conveyed neither satisfaction nor its opposite. He remained motionless a moment, then ran his finger over the nub of my shoulder. It tickled, but he wasn’t being playful. He was interested in the crescent shadow on my upper arm created by the height and angle of the elbow. He leaned over my torso and adjusted the white silk that lay beneath the maroon-colored sheet. Then he tipped my buttock slightly forward in order to better capture the curve of my left hip against the intense whiteness.
“Perfecto,” he whispered.
He stepped back to his easel. I could hear the swish of brush against canvas, and I concentrated as hard as I could on not moving.
We both knew we were taking a chance. The Inquisition forbade the depiction of nudes under pain of excommunication, which is what made it so exciting—and so frightening. Our very salvation was at stake.
Excommunication transforms you into an outcast. The bishop expels you from the Christian community in a public ceremony. A bell tolls as if you were dead, and then they close the gospel and snuff out a candle. No one speaks to you. People snub you in the street. Sometimes they spit at you. You can’t receive Christ’s sacred body in your mouth or drink his sacred blood, but of course, they don’t take away confession, just in case you want to repent. If you show remorse in confession, the priest can help you get the excommunication lifted. But if they don’t lift it before you die, you’ll go straight to hell. Sometimes I close my eyes and picture myself in flames. I feel my whole body smarting, then stinging, then throbbing. I see my flesh turning red and blistering. I smell the putrid odor of burning tissue. My flesh turns purple and falls from my bones, and then I disintegrate. I hear myself shrieking, but eventually the shrieks grow weaker and weaker until they fade away. Then it all starts all over again because that’s what hell is: never-ending fire, never-ending agony.
Was he worth risking hell for?
For Velázquez, I would have risked a thousand hells.
Outside, the clickety-click of coach wheels against cobblestone. The high-pitched stammer of a blacksmith’s anvil. The gravelly cry of a flower vendor—claveles! rosas! The Arabic refrain of a kitchen slave chopping carrots.
Velázquez moved toward me and once again adjusted the tilt of my head. He wanted me to look toward the left, as though I were gazing at my reflection in a mirror. He said he was going to paint a mirror into the composition, with a little winged boy to hold it. A naked little winged boy with a pouch for his arrows and reddish-purple ribbons in his fingers to play off the reddish highlights in my hair. He wouldn’t use a model for the child. Instead, he would sketch one of the many statues of cherubs you can find in any church and then copy it onto the canvas.
The child was essential, of course. Without it Velázquez could never get away with this painting. With his delicate feathers and pouch of arrows, the child would be easily recognizable as Cupid. And then the viewer would know who I was: his mother, Venus.
In Florence, not two days’ journey from the seat of the most holy Roman Catholic Church, painters prided themselves on their nudes, especially their male nudes, but in Spain, preachers ranted against the decay of national morals. Vulgarity oozed out of Italy under the guise of culture, they said. Of course, this didn’t mean that there were no nudes in Spain—only that they w
And yet now, a rich and important courtier had asked Velázquez to paint a nude. And just to up the ante, a female nude! This patron could have gone to Rubens or Furini or even to Rembrandt, but he wanted a painting by Velázquez. He was adamant about it, and I could understand why. Velázquez was the king’s favorite, the greatest painter Spain had ever produced. To have a nude by him would be a feat and a triumph, especially if it were painted in Madrid, right under the noses of the authorities.
Velázquez vacillated. How would it look if he were arrested? He was not only His Majesty’s protégé, but also the son-in-law of the great art theorist Francisco Pacheco, once an arbiter of good taste in painting, whose opinions still loomed large in Velázquez’s mind.
Velázquez wanted to please his patron, but he didn’t want to be flung into jail, and he certainly didn’t want to be excommunicated. Finally, he decided to try an old trick that had worked for over a century in Italy: he would give his painting the name of a mythological figure. Italian painters knew that if they named their subjects Adonis or Narcissus or Ganymede, they could get away with anything. After all, no one expected gods to be clothed. Spaniards were much stricter than the rowdy Italians, but even so, Velázquez decided it was worth a try. He would call his painting Venus. He would say the nude figure on the canvas wasn’t a human woman, but a goddess. Velázquez thought he had enough clout at Court to dare and besides, the mysterious patron had promised to keep the painting hidden away from the censors or, if it did come to light, to make sure Velázquez appeared before a lenient judge. Every region in Spain had its own Inquisitorial tribunal, and different censors judged paintings differently. Velázquez was convinced that his patron was so powerful that he could easily pull the necessary strings to keep him safe.
But where would he find a model? In Rome or Florence, plenty of courtesans were thrilled for the chance to have an artist immortalize their curves on canvas, or else a painter could find a girl through an artists’ guild. And if worse came to worst, he could pick out some pretty prostitute in a brothel. In Spain, though, authorities found even clothed female models distasteful, and not even a whore would pose nude. That’s why my participation in the project was vital.
“Our Venus will be different,” Velázquez said when he first broached the subject. “Our Venus will be more tasteful than those Italian canvases. It will be a nude that celebrates the female form, but without shocking the sensibility of the viewer.”
“Our Venus,” he had said. His and mine. I was to be an integral part of a wonderful, grandiose project.
“At least tell me who it’s for,” I begged.
He knit his brow. Solid and swarthy, Velázquez was a handsome man despite his nearly fifty years. He had thick black hair, a robust moustache, and deep, comforting, ebony eyes. He pressed his lips to my fingertips. “It will be a beautiful painting,” he murmured. His voice reminded me of cinnamon syrup.
“Can’t you at least give me a hint about the patron?”
“I can’t, mi amor. I’m sworn to secrecy.” He was doing his best to sound endearing, but I scowled. Velázquez usually called me mi amor only when he had to implore or apologize.
But it didn’t matter. I wanted to pose because I wanted to make him happy. Of course, I didn’t want to get caught, to roast in hell, but he made it all sound so exciting and worthwhile. He said we would be pursuing an ideal—the ideal of beauty—something beyond the comprehension of Spain’s petty, parochial conformists.
“¿Estás cansada? Are you tired?” He touched my shoulder and I got up and put on a dressing gown.
I was tired. My neck ached from holding my head rotated and still for hours, and my arm was sore from being stretched into such an uncomfortable position.
“You can’t relax long. I have to work while the light is good.” He was mixing colors and testing them on the palette.
“I just need a few minutes. I have a crook in my neck.”
He glanced at me as though he didn’t recognize me with my gown on. He dipped his brush in a pot.
“Take off your robe and lie down.”
He obviously hadn’t heard what I’d said. I could hear the bristles glide across the canvas.
“Can’t you tell me anything about who commissioned the painting?” I asked after a moment. “At least you can tell me if this is his house, can’t you?”
“Don’t talk. You move your head when you talk. Now I have to position you all over again. Anyway, I already explained that I can’t tell you. Someone important.”
His voice no longer evoked cinnamon syrup, but dry twigs. He stood behind me and rotated my head slightly. “Pretend you’re looking in a mirror. The mirror is right here.” He came around to the foot of the bed and outlined the imaginary mirror in the air with his index finger so I could focus my gaze.
Outside, the fritter vendor was calling: ¡Buñuelos! ¡Buñuelos calientes!
“That’s enough for today,” he said curtly. “Get dressed. We’re done.” He tapped me gently on the back.
He didn’t say “thank you.” He simply put away his materials and cleaned up his workspace, then left without saying good-bye.
It was about three, time for the midday meal. I imagined he would dine with his aristocratic friends. By the time he’d finished eating and slept off the effects of the wine, the light would have changed, and it would be too late to go back to his easel. Perhaps he would saunter along the arcades of the Calle Mayor to browse in the luxurious shops, or wander over to the Prado, where gentlemen on fine horses paced smartly up and down the avenue and ladies in carriages peeped out from behind mantillas. One thing was certain: he would not go back to his wife that night.
I want to tell my story, the story of Venus, because if I don’t, no one will ever know. I will tell it as though it happened to someone else, and the parts I don’t know, I will imagine. After all, what is art but a play of mirrors, an illusion? After Velázquez finished our painting, a fountain of gossip spewed from the back chambers of palaces and gaming houses. “Who is she?” “Who posed for him?” Very few had seen the painting, but everyone had an opinion. Courtiers who did have the chance to see it stared at the face of Venus in the mirror—the mirror Cupid was holding—and struggled to place it. Some said the model was this woman and others said she was that woman, but who was right?
All that happened decades ago, when my skin was still smooth and white and my hair was soft and brown. But I remember as if it were yesterday. Now I’m an old woman. My flesh is no longer firm, and no one wants to see my naked body stretched out on a silk sheet. My hair is silver. My cheeks are furrowed. And yet, although I may be shriveled and ugly, I am eternally beautiful. I am immortal. I am Venus.
JUANA CLENCHED HER TEETH AND GRIPPED ARABELA’S HAND. She felt as though she were caught between the jaws of a vise that squeezed, squeezed, squeezed and released, then squeezed again. She let out a shriek that caused Arabela to flinch, and dug her nails into the nursemaid’s palm.
“Oh, Ara, it hurts! It hurts so much!” Rivulets streamed out of the corners of Juana’s eyes and disappeared into the soft muslin pillowcase.
“Breathe, Doña Juana. In and out, in and out. Try to keep it steady.”
“Give me some brandy!”
“Not yet, Doña Juana. Not until the baby is born.”
Juana pressed her eyelids together. Through the window, she could hear the manic twittering of what seemed like thousands of birds. She imagined them staggering over the branches like drunkards in their euphoria, beaks turned upward, eyes closed.
“What have they got to be so damn happy about, Ara? Make them stop!”
“It will all be over soon, niña. By tomorrow it
“Agh!” wailed Juana. “It hurts so much! It’s as though an enormous mule were kicking me in the belly!”
Ángeles, the kitchen maid, brought in a heavy pot of water and hung it on a hook over the fireplace. A moment later, the chambermaid Julia walked into the room, carrying a pile of folded rags that she placed on the night table.
“Where is Venturo? What’s keeping him?” Juana felt her shift sticky around her legs, and she longed for a fresh one, but Arabela had told her that for this, too, she would have to wait. After the baby came, said the nursemaid, she would bathe her and dress her in a clean nightshift. Arabela had been Juana’s own nursemaid, and now she was going to care for the new baby.
Years before, Juana’s father Francisco Pacheco had spotted Arabela and her infant son on a street corner, both of them wailing in desperation. Arabela’s husband had died of the plague around 1601, leaving her destitute. Pacheco took her in after doctors assured him that she was free of contagion (he was charitable, but of course not careless). She had milk, and his own newborn daughter desperately needed a pair of full breasts. Doña Leonor de Pacheco, the baby’s mother, was frail and nearly dry, and anyway, it would be unseemly for a woman of her position to nurse her own child. Doña Leonor died when Juana was six years old, about the same time Pacheco sent Arabela’s boy off to learn a trade. Arabela stayed on to serve Juana, and she had been there ever since. Other maids came and went, thought Juana, but Arabela was forever.
“Where’s the wet nurse, Ara? When will she get here?”
“Don’t worry about it, niña. Don Francisco has taken care of everything.”
“I’m sure he has,” Juana said with a tinge of sarcasm. Why, she wondered, did her father have to stick his nose into this business? Normally, it was the husband who hired the wet nurse, but Don Francisco had insisted on taking charge of all the details. Of course, Velázquez, Juana’s twenty-one-year-old husband, could hardly be counted on to attend to anything. He was a well-intentioned man and a passable student, but he didn’t know an enema from a crossbow.