Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Countess and the Sculptor

A Countess

      In Italy, at the height of the Renaissance, a beautiful countess hired an artist for a portrait. She stood naked before the man for hours while he labored with brush and hue.
      At lunch, he asked if he could take sometime to eat. He suggested she clothe herself in the interim. The countess’ face moved from beautiful to cruel. She fired him on the spot and ordered his painting destroyed.
     She hired a poet who was to compose a sonnet to her beauty. He visited as she was having her afternoon tea. He spent only a handful minutes and a few drops of ink hastily darted across a scrap of a paper that he had produced from his pocket.
     When he was done, he began to clear his throat and prepare his recitation, but she stopped him and asked, “So soon? My tea is not yet cold.”
     The poet became flustered and bowed and began to write another line and bowed again but she fired him. She tossed his poem into the bin, unread. She bought all his debts and demanded payment immediately and he fled Italy in disgrace.
     She called a composer of chamber music; one who had earned a reputation in the high social circles of Sicily, Jullience Marcus Ernesto the third, I believe was his name. He saw her for only a moment as she was in the bath, and then retreated into the parlor where he drew the curtains. He wrote all day and all night. In the morning, he called musicians to the countess’ household. He commanded the countess be brought from her bedchamber still clad in her nightgown. He played for her his composition. It was beautiful say all who were present in the room at the time. When it finished, there was not a sound. No one said a word.
     On the countess’ face was an expression of contentment. It was a face not reflected in the composer’s. He admitted that this work, his work, was the greatest thing he had ever imagined and he expressed a wish to perform the piece at the grand hall, in the countess’s honor, of course. But the countess denied him, and as he pleaded and argued, she calmly collected the score from the other musicians and then passed them over the a candle flame. The composer left in tears.
     Word of the countess’s cruelty reached the ear of Michelangelo. He heard of the countess’ rudeness and the nuisance she had been to the artists of greater Italy. He called upon her and declared his intention to make of her a sculpture.
     His arrival was devoid of pomp or grandeur. He simply shuffled through the front door with the authority of a beggar.  All day for seven days straight, she stood before the great master. And all day, for seven days straight, he worked against the stone until the form appeared. During that time, she stood silent and perfectly still and neither exchanged but a word. They took food only a night, right before they parted for bed.
    At sunset, on the seventh day, Michelangelo stepped away from his work. His clothes were heavy from dust. He was bent over and struggled to right himself. It seemed as if he had aged a year for each day of work. The countess, on the other hand, was unchanged, and indeed there was a rumor that not a single hair grew or fell from her head during that week.
     Michelangelo slowly revealed the masterpiece. THe heavy white canvas fell with a whisper to the floor. The countess showed her approval.
     Michelangelo had waited for this cue. He stepped up to the statue, climbed the wood lattice wordlessly until he stood head to head with the figure. He held in his left hand a hammer and in his right chisel, and without a second of hesitation stuck the statue squarely on the nose with the intention of removing it. However, my some accident the nose remained. Michelangelo struck it again, and then again, and then chisel snapped in two, and then with the next blow, the hammer itself broke.

    The countess laughed and declared the master a fool.
Beauty is your god and you would perform deicide. Truth is your lover and you would betray her. The imitations of heavenly things you are privileged to create but it is not your right or entitlement, simply, your contract.
There are four things other than man: the Earth, the Truth, the Sacred and the Secret. Each attracts man but each defies him. As man reaches to touch these things with grasping fingers, they vanish and reveal the folly of such arrogance.
What the Holy Scriptures does not tell of is that the Earth first asked God to create man. It was the Earth that gave the idea to God so that she might have someone who would admire her beauty, delight in her spring waterfalls and snowy winters.
And when the Truth heard this idea, it also spoke up. The Truth thought it was a wonderful opportunity. It longed to pass down its genius, its honesty, because what the Truth wanted more than anything else was a pupil to teach.
And the Secret spoke and gave her agreement, asking God to create man so that she might have a pursuer, a lover of her mysteries.
And so God agreed. And the Earth labored before the dawn to ready herself. She filled her oceans with fish and sea life. She planted forests, tilled up mountains, and populated each with creatures of all kinds.
And the Truth set up the invisible rules that would govern man’s world. It reviewed its calculus and physics and double-checked the math. It invented the sonic boom on the spot. Finally, It wound up the sun like a pocket watch and set the planets into motion.
The Secret came last, hiding the workings of things, sweeping up the footprints and odd ends the others had left. She gave lightning and thunder to the clouds and lit the fires at the core of The Earth. She set the limitations on how long man could expect to live and made that magic that is called love.
Everything was prepared. The whole world was ready and waiting. The Sacred chose this moment to speak. He requested a single condition be added to the world, a single addendum to the work of the others. He asked that God limit man. He asked that man be kept from perfection, so that he might never rule of the Earth, might never claim exclusive ownership of Truth so that he would never discover the heart of all secrets.
By these means, man was denied rest, for while he might spend his life pursuing the three others, he could never claim himself master of any of them.

And God agreed.

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