The Chapter House, Convent Of The Mother Of God, Duchy of Milan: Spring 1524, a breaking dawn
The storm raged within him, its eye the portal of calm through which invention moved from mind to manuscript. It swirled, drawing in memories and wild sensations, stirring such emotion that his hand quivered with each stroke of the quill. Music consumed him, possessing with a force as sweet as it was compelling.
Francesco Ippolito looked away from the freshly inked manuscript that lay askew beneath his hand. Sheets of tablature were scattered around, the inscribed rhapsodies of a long and sleepless night’s work. Many lay on the floor having fallen from the small table at which he worked, shuffled into disarray by the gentle chilling draught that blew under the door from the corridor beyond. His feet were cold and his right hand and arm ached from scribing. His tired eyes fell upon his beloved lute. Candlelight danced across the arch of her back, each of the joints between her segments spiking the reflected lights into new strands of luminance. She drew him close, the same gentle scattering draught moving through and across her strings and drawing from them a faint, ghostly song. Francesco reached out and stroked her exquisite neck.
She, the constant mistress of his passion, of all he was.
He gently took her and held her close, arching his body to receive her. He flexed the fingers of his left hand and positioned them between the frets. As the draught excited the candle flames around him, his aching right hand fell upon the strings and a soft, slow prelude eased the pain. His hands relaxed into fluid motion and the music of the scattered manuscripts once again filled the room, phrase upon phrase in emotional cascade; rising, falling; swelling, diminishing; racing, slowing; loud, soft. The night’s music, like so many of his compositions, had seemed to come upon him in a half waking dream. Even now, at age twenty-seven years, he still did not understand the source of his gift and had little control of it. It commanded him. Sometimes, his gift scared him. His fingers moved with effortless grace and dexterity across the strings, often with such easy accomplishment that he had wondered himself possessed of divinity. And how else might it be, if not by divine intervention, that neither fatigue nor the heavy beat of nagging pain’s familiar pulse in hand and arm could dull the romance between fingers and strings?
Yet it was not enough to be gifted. To achieve recognition and status as a musician, a gift, however prodigious, counted for little unless prettily bound in the gilt ribbons of social privilege and influential connection. He had once dreamt of a world of admiration rendered breathless by his virtuosity, a world in which the prize of principal lutenist to the papal court was the platform for greatness and that platform his without obstacle. And in his dreams such a world had remained. The world of his reality, defined at this moment by a sanctified room and the loneliness of a lutenist and his music, was a hard, unyielding place of slender opportunity. Even with connections and influence, there would be little chance now of a presentation to His Holiness.
He had his chance, when he was aged eighteen. He had, by fate and circumstance, become acquainted when he was fifteen years old with the renowned lutenist Lodovico Baldovinetti. Signor Baldovinetti taught him much and mentored him whenever his commitments took him close to Francesco’s home in Cremona. Baldovinetti gained favour as court lutenist with Giovanni de' Medici, Pope Leo X. The court of Leo was a lavish milieu, and the pope’s weakness in submitting to excess easily exploited. He conferred favours generously, and agreed to Baldovinetti’s request that he grant an audience to an extraordinarily gifted young lutenist. On the eve of his nineteenth birthday, Francesco played before the pope and was well received. Unfortunately, and unbeknown to Baldovinetti, one month earlier the pope had been impressed by another hopeful young man, a Milanese lutenist and composer, Francesco Canova, enough to consider bestowal of patronage.
And that was that. Francesco Ippolito consoled himself with his impression of Leo as a fat, ridiculous, splodge of a man. Seven years later, in the spring of 1522, Canova proving to be as restless as he was brilliant, Baldovinetti interceded again on Francesco’s behalf, this time with Leo’s successor Adrian VI, but to no avail. The pope, an ageing professor of piety, was consumed by insurmountable difficulties of office, not least the financial wreckage that lay in the wake of the reckless extravagance of his predecessor, and intent only upon reform. Later that year, in the late summer, one more intercession by Baldovinetti earned at last a recital before His Holiness, who appeared weary and unwell. Francesco was applauded and thanked, but opportunity vanished in the turbulence of what would prove to be a short papacy and all but lingering dreams was lost.
What of worldly ambition now? Trammelled by adversity in love and endeavour, he had almost none. To hold ambition was to look forward. To look forward was to pin contemplation to hope, and hope had so often shown itself to be a frail companion. He would continue to write down his music so that it might, one day, be impressed upon the world. This would be his legacy; it would, perhaps, live on after him and tell something of him. But, beyond this, should he again hope that love would return, or hope that his music would stir the soul of the world and earn rewards as great as the emotion he invested in it? It was so much easier to look back, to choose clear memory over faint hope.
He set his lute down, leaned back on the stone seat that ran around the oriel window and, nestling into the crease between jamb and reveal, the cold stone masonry warmed and softened by the richly embroidered drapes, he stared out across the landscape to the distant jumble of structures and rooftops that marked out the city. He pulled at a curtain and drew it around him for warmth, obscuring the view. Closing his eyes, he curled up in the snuggery of memory; visions, sounds and smells from the past rose like a tide and settled in childhood.
On a summer’s afternoon by the Po river, two children, a boy and a girl, he eleven years old, she ten, their fine leather shoes and his silk hose strewn on the coarse grass bank, her skirts gathered up into her arms, dipped their feet into the warm, babbling, sun-sparkled water. A fish rise bubbled and motioned outwards in concentric rings before them. Their feet broke the surface, his creating an upstream wake that washed into hers.
“Franni,” said Mariagrazia Veneto, “do you think that you and I will marry one day?”
Francesco lifted his feet from the water, turned to his left and sprawling out, leant his elbows on the bank and propped his head, hands under chin. He looked at her, waving his legs and feet carelessly about behind him, but said nothing, deliberately fanning her impatience.
“You will get grass stains on your shirt and your mother will scold you for it,” Maria said, needing to fill the silence that awaited his answer to her question. “Well,” she insisted, “do you think we will marry?”
“When I am the greatest lutenist in the whole world and celebrated even by the Medici and I can afford a grand house with an internal courtyard, then I might ask you to marry me, if we are still friends and if you have not already married somebody else.”
“Do you think we might not be friends and that I might leave you? I love you Franni,” she said, entirely innocent of love. “I want us to be friends forever. I will always love you.”
“You will be beautiful.” This much Francesco instinctively knew, for through his child’s eyes she was already lovely. He looked intently at her. Ringlets of long dark hair framing a bright oval face, illuminated by pale blue eyes and graced with, even now, full lips. “Many men will want to marry you and some will be rich and handsome. You may grow to think nothing of me.”
“Then you had better become the great Francesco Ippolito da Cremona, lutenist to the whole world and be very handsome and rich too,” Maria teased him, moving round to face him and flicking water into his eyes with her feet, “so that I remain true to you.” She laughed, stood up and still clutching her skirts ran away from him towards the long grass, looking back and exciting him to chase her.
Francesco stood up and ran after her, the grass of the bank spiking the soles of his bare feet. She ran fast, giggling, but he was faster. He caught her, flung his arms around her tiny waist and lifted her off the ground. They fell into the long grasses and tickled each other, laughing so much that neither could speak. Bladders straining for continence, they rolled away from each other and lay exhausted but happy in the simplicity of childhood.
“The sun is falling into the hills,” Francesco said, raising himself onto his elbows. “We had better go home. Our suppers will be made by the time we return and I have some tablature studies to practise ready for my miserable tutor tomorrow.” Francesco hated this latest lute tutor his father had appointed. He was bad-tempered, impatient and his breath stank. “You go first. I will follow in a while.”
“I love you Franni,” Maria said once more, levering herself up to return to the riverbank for her shoes. Francesco and Maria were forbidden by their families - mercantile houses locked in a trading war that their children neither understood nor cared about - to play together. Their rebellious disregard for what they considered to be an unfair parental rule, made their friendship dangerous but delicious.
As he made his way home, Francesco was uncomfortably aware of the grass stains on his crumpled shirt. He mused on how he would explain to his mother, yet again, his appearance. Could he have seen a reflection of himself, he would have realised just how clever he needed to be this time to explain away the impressive collection of grasses in the tousled mop atop his head to a mother whom he knew found it difficult to understand how her son - who had just a couple of friends of his own age, Caesar and Luigi - could get into such states seemingly without the rough attention of a great gang of others. He sauntered with an air of distraction between the great private houses where professional lutenists were sometimes invited to play, and headed for the street of workshops where materials from abroad were fashioned by artisans into every kind of object, decorative or practical. Here was his favourite place of all, the workshop of Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini.
Francesco peered into Giovanni’s workshop through a window almost entirely obscured by the dusty residue of recently worked timber. To his delight he saw the lute maker at work and knocked on the door. After a few moments, the door opened.
“Ah, Francesco, my young friend, it is good to see you. Come in, come in. I have something very special to show you.” Giovanni smiled at him, a smile that promised much. The kindly lute maker would often ask him to play a new lute before it was sold. He would sit in a corner of the workshop, thrilled by the feel and smell of the new instrument entrusted to him, and while Giovanni worked he would play his study pieces, improvising around them, sometimes wildly. He took great satisfaction from this, imagining the scowls he would get from his grumpy lute teacher, who forbade him from improvising.
“You will never be a great player, Francesco Ippolito,” his teacher was always chiding, “if you play only the things you want to play. You prefer to play what is in your head, rather than what is written before you, because you are lazy and because you think your music is better than the music of the great masters who precede you. You have a gift, but you lack discipline and think too much of yourself.”
Giovanni, on the other hand, encouraged him to play freely; and as he played, Giovanni’s workshop and its rich smells of wood and varnishes, the gentle background noise of Giovanni working, the clutter of instruments and parts of instruments in various states of completion or repair, hanging from rails and upon shelves, became in his exuberant imagination an elegant, sweetly scented chamber, he a dazzling lutenist, Giovanni his patron. Today, he decided, as Giovanni took a newly completed instrument down from a hanging rail and then carefully handed it to him, he would so enthral his imaginary audience with his very special new lute and his magnificent playing that they would beg him not to stop.
And as he kept his audience waiting, the more to excite them to impatient, rapturous applause, a legacy born of tormented love generations ere began to seal its provenance.