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Romance of Roman Villas (The Renaissance) By Elizabeth W. Champney Characters: 24674

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It will be remembered by those who have read my published memoirs that in the year 1535, while I was in Florence in the service of Duke Alessandro de' Medici, I received orders from his excellency to execute a little coffre in gold to hold his own portrait, a medallion which I had previously modelled from life and cast in relievo.

That I dismissed so lightly masterpieces of which I had such reason to be proud was due to the fact that certain personages of exalted station and of choleric temper, quick and able to revenge any imputation upon their honour were concerned in the adventures of the casket, so that I deemed it prudent during their lifetime to withhold a recital which I trust my present reader may find of a diverting nature.

This casket was conceded by all connoisseurs in such matters to be the most admirable work of its kind hitherto produced. It was crowned by a statuette of Hercules, with other most exquisite figurines at the four corners, set upon feet of crouching sphinxes, half women and half panthers, and was further enriched by reliefs of laughing boys holding garlands, by grotesque masks and foliages of the most graceful and ingenious design that could possibly be conceived.

I had been to infinite pains, as was but fitting since the Duke proposed to present it to his betrothed, Margaret Duchess of Parma, daughter of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, to whom he was to be married at Naples on the return of her father from his glorious expedition against the Turkish Corsairs. This marriage had been arranged for his "nephew" by Pope Clement VII. on his pacification with the Emperor after the taking of Rome, but its consummation had been hitherto delayed on account of the tender age of the bride. Now, however, she was upon her way to meet her father. Therefore the Duke requested me to serve as his messenger in presenting these gifts, whose excellencies I of any person in the world was most competent to explain and extol.

Instructed that the Duchess Margaret would rest upon her journey at the villa which Raphael had built for the Pope upon the slopes of Monte Mario, and which Clement had bestowed upon her as a part of her dowry, I repaired thither before entering the gates of Rome.

I had been told by the Duke to ask upon my arrival not for the Duchess but for Monna Afra, who had been installed as housekeeper of the villa by the Pope when he was as yet only young Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, and his personal affairs were not submitted to the glare which surrounds the tiara.

Whatever these may have been, Monna Afra, though once a Moorish slave, and of dark complexion and uncertain temper, was not without a certain savage beauty, or would have been but for the marks of tattooing between her eyes, and, though well advanced in years, carried herself erect with a dignity worthy of royal descent.

She was dressed in the Moorish fashion, with a profusion of necklaces of linked sequins of uncut precious stones and of large turquoises, some of them I could judge of great value, though clumsily set. These necklaces depended from beneath her gaily striped head-cloth upon her forehead and also covered her bosom. Her dark blue robe was girdled by a golden belt of curious workmanship, and she wore bangles upon her ankles with bracelets of cheap blue glass upon her arms. Her hair, braided in a multitude of fine plaits, was jet black and heavily perfumed. She wore but one ear-ring, a hoop of gold in which twinkled a great diamond.

I had a letter for her from the Duke, and as it has never been my practice to deliver a missive of whose contents I am ignorant, lest I might be deputed to give orders for my own execution, I had taken the precaution to open it (having first made an impression of the seal so that I could reseal it beyond possibility of detection), but all to no avail for this letter was written in Arabic, of which language I have no knowledge. I was in twenty minds to destroy it, professing that I had lost it en route, but having calculated that honesty was the more gainful part to play, I put my trust in my patron saint and boldly presented it. By so doing I came into possession of an important secret, for on reading the letter Monna Afra exclaimed: "My son informs me that you are an unprincipled rogue whose life he holds in his hands, on account of certain murders which you have committed, and that therefore I need not fear to trust you with our private affairs."

The opening words of this ungracious speech caused my spirit to leap within me, for Duke Alessandro far from confiding to me or to any one else the secret that he was the child of a mulattress, and in all probability the bastard of the Pope, had persistently maintained that he was the legitimatised son and rightful heir of the last Duke of Florence, and his mother a princess whose name would in time be divulged, and this notwithstanding that his dark complexion proclaimed him of Oriental race.

I dissimulated my exultation, swore loyalty to my patron's honoured mother, and showed her the portrait of her son, with which she was greatly pleased.

"You shall give this to the Duchess, later," she declared, taking the casket from me, "but first I desire you to copy the medallion for me, and to say nothing of this commission."

The wish to possess the likeness of her son seemed so natural to a mother and so flattering to me that I readily consented to oblige her, being the more content to do so that I found myself extremely well lodged and nourished in one of the dependencies of the villa, with the suite of noble attendants appointed to wait upon the Duchess.

Among these I have cause to remember with the utmost vividness a beautiful page, the grandson of Cardinal Farnese, who waited upon Margaret as her train-bearer. This boy's name was Ottavio, and I was drawn to him from the first for his character matched the exceeding loveliness of his lineaments.

Monna Afra from some strange whim had desired me to copy the Duke's portrait upon glass, and thinking possibly that I might break the slip, had given me two of precisely the same size. On one of these I was impelled to paint for myself the miniature of this adorable child in the court costume of white satin doublet and white silk hose which he was to wear at the wedding of the Duchess. To this circumstance was due a mischance, which while it seemed to work me ill at the time was in the end productive of good.

Though but a child in years the soul of the page, Ottavio Farnese, was well-nigh ravished from his body with love for the Duchess, who but six years older than himself was still but a slip of a girl. Often as I saw these two children pelting each other with roses and playing many childish games I wished that by some enchantment I might keep them thus forever, for my heart revolted at the thought that this exquisite creature was soon to be sacrificed to a brutal profligate twice her own age.

"Certes," I said one day to Ottavio, "it is a great pity that you are not some ten years older, then would I devote myself to your service and it should go hard ere the daughter of Charles V. should wed with that swine of an Alessandro de' Medici."

"Is he indeed a hog?" cried the boy, "then will I slay him, for I would gladly give my life for her."

Seeing that so precocious and so pure an affection was beyond the conception of our comrades (though not of the ancients since they figured the love of the boy Cupid for Psyche), I protected Ottavio from their ribaldry, declaring that I would punish with my sword any who made a jest of a devotion which might have drawn tears from the angels.

While the Duchess Margaret was in her way equally charming, she was not of such a heavenly gravity as her little comrade. On the contrary, at this time her spirits overflowed in a bewitching and mischievous wilfulness, which made her the more irresistible. She was conscious that she was soon to be wedded, and this knowledge gave her a sense of importance together with mysterious heart throbbings and perturbations, a wild curiosity to know what manner of man her future husband might be-the coquettishness natural to woman which at times made her rebel at being thus fettered, all the more that it was without her consent, and at others built up an ideal in her imagination which she was ready to fall down and worship.

Seeing her thus curious, Monna Afra had promised Margaret that a necromancer should show her the presentment of her future husband; and upon a certain morning this designing woman sent for me, saying that the slave who ordinarily assisted this magician had suddenly died, and that she desired me to aid him in his magic rites.

She neglected not at the same time to remind me again that I was completely in her power and that if I did not perform all that was demanded of me she would denounce me to the authorities as a murderer. Thus admonished, and believing also that the necromancer was able to work me a mischief, I put my trust in St. Michael, confounder of Satan, and faithfully performed all that I was bidden to do.

Hurrying me into a musician's gallery, which overlooked the chamber in which the incantations were about to take place, the sorcerer showed me a strange instrument, compounded of lenses set in a black box in which burned a small lamp. "Fear not, Benvenuto," he whispered, seeing that I hesitated, "but manipulate this machine as I will now show you, placing from time to time these slips of painted glass in front of the lamp, and when I shall call upon the name of the arch fiend Beelzebub, be careful to introduce the copy of the portrait of the Duke which you have just made for Monna Afra." He then made some cabalistic signs upon my forehead and bidding me be of stout heart descended to the main floor of the room, which was but dimly lighted by the flames of a brazier.

I could see, however, that around the light were grouped the Duchess Margaret, Monna Afra and Ottavio, who suspecting some design against his mistress, had insisted on accompanying her. Around these three the necromancer now traced upon the floor a magic circle; entering it and directing Margaret to keep her eyes fixed on the wall opposite to the little gallery where I stood, he invoked with a loud voice the demons Soracil, Sathiel, and Ammon dwellers in the moon, bidding them appear with all their legions.

As I had previously witnessed a similar conjuration by which another necromancer had filled the tiers of the Colosseum with innumerable legions of devils, the horrible fear which I had experienced on that occasion returned in so lively a manner that my hands trembled so that I could scarcely perform the rites assigned to me. I had hardly introduced the first slip of glass when Ottavio cried out that the house was on fire and endeavoured to drag the Duchess from the circle, but the necromancer held him firmly and commanded him on his life not to stir as the demons were gathering in force.

Having placed the next slip of glass in its place I myself perceived them, horrid creatures of gigantic stature clutching at their victims. Thus the ceremony proceeded, the enchanter uttering strange sentences in the Hebrew language, while Monna Afra shrieked and howled in blood-curdling tones.

Ottavio also was well-nigh bereft of his senses with fear, and flinging his arms about the Duchess cried to the fiends to take him to hell, but to spare his beloved lady.

At this point, Margaret, who was strangely unafraid, repeated after the necromancer these words: "I conjure thee, Beelzebub, Prince of Darkness, to reveal to me the likeness of my lord and husband, and renouncing all others I promise to be true to him throughout all eternity."

This was my cue, but fumbling in the casket for the portrait of Duke Alessandro I inadvertently introduced into the throat of the infernal machine not that bit of glass but the one on which I had painted the likeness of Ottavio.

Seeing the beautiful face of the lad gleaming like that of an angel between the rifts of the smoke of hell, there was not one of us who for the instant doubted that the apparition was miraculous.

Monna Afra ceased her diabolical bellowing, the necromancer was speechless with surprise, only Ottavio found his voice, and

crying, "It is I, it is I!" fainted from stress of emotion.

Comprehending immediately that I would be held responsible for the miscarriage of the prodigy I hastily made my escape from the villa, nor did I, until long thereafter, meet with any of the parties concerned in this adventure. The augury in which I had assisted seemed false for the marriage of Margaret to Duke Alessandro took place, as had been planned, on the arrival of the Emperor at Naples. Though Charles was greeted with acclamations as the champion of the Church against the infidel, he having put to flight Hayraddin, admiral of the Sultan, and taken the city of Tunis, thus liberating thousands of Christian captives,-yet in the midst of the festivities there lacked not those who saw a certain inconsistency in the wedding of his sweet daughter to a man notorious for his wickedness and of the very race which he professed to hold in such abhorrence.

Duke Alessandro after his marriage refrained not one whit from his evil ways, but rather exceeded his former profligacy, so that all Florence was scandalised thereby and pitied his gentle Duchess. I mind me now, however, that to my astonishment there was one who took another view of the matter, for Lorenzino de' Medici affirmed that Margaret was possessed of that dauntless courage which one sees sometimes in the tamers of lions and other savage beasts; that Alessandro was a mean-spirited creature cowed by his child wife; and that one had but to note the haughty poise of her head and the hang-dog sullenness which he maintained in her presence to guess the truth. Though I abhorred the Duke, yet as he had made me master of the mint it was necessary that I should have commerce with him, and on the first occasion upon which I presented myself being made to wait in an ante-chamber, I overheard a remarkable conversation which caused me to credit the opinion of Lorenzino. The door was ajar between the room in which I sat and the next in which the Duke and Duchess had just risen from breakfast.

What he had said to her I know not, but his face was one malignity as he leaned toward her across the small table. She faced his snake's eyes, her own dark with an intensity which should have warned him, and half beneath her breath, as though she told him of some danger with which she had nothing to do, as one might have said, "Provoke not that dog, or you will inevitably be bitten,"-she very quietly uttered these words:

"Lay so much as your finger upon me and I will kill you."

"And what is to hinder my killing you first, my little tigress?" he hissed.

I had gripped my sword in answer to that question, but there was no need, for she blazed forth at him, the very daughter of her father.

"The Emperor!" she cried triumphantly, and there she had him; for though Charles had sold her like a slave and lifted no finger to avenge the indignity which she suffered, yet Alessandro well knew that he would be answerable for her life. As she left the room the Duke turned upon his heel, and catching sight of me cried out angrily that I was well come, for he was on the point of arresting me for feloniously making away with the casket and portrait which he had bidden me take to his consort.

I told him truly that I had left the casket in the possession of his mother. With that he flew into a rage, demanding who had dared to say that this vile hag was in anyway related to him.

I made answer that Monna Afra had herself told me that this was the fact, whereupon he swore that he would kill her for spreading such a rumour, and offered me a large sum to undertake her execution for him. When I respectfully declined this office he replied: "As you please, but if you hold not your tongue concerning this matter I will find effectual means to silence you."

Then reflecting doubtless that I was not a man to be governed by threats but more likely to be moved to generous deeds by appreciation of my talents, he admitted that his wife had indeed had the casket in her possession after I left Villa Madama, and had not missed it until her chests were unpacked at Naples, and that his true reason for choosing me to regain and restore it to her was that I was the best fitted of all his courtiers for so difficult an undertaking.

I replied that the opportunity to serve the Duchess would be the greatest favour and honour which he could confer upon me,-and with that he showed me the key of the casket which until now had never quitted Margaret's chatelaine, desiring me to duplicate it for him, with this difference that the handle was to be ornamented by a crown of thorns.

When I objected that the metal points would inevitably pierce the hand of the Duchess when she attempted to unlock the casket, he replied that he did not design the key for his wife, and bade me obey orders without foolish comment.

As I am an expert in forging metals I soon made a little key with which the Duke was delighted. Taking it into his cabinet he returned presently with a little box on which were inscribed certain Arabic characters.

"This box," said he, "contains the key which you have just fabricated with an order to Monna Afra to deliver the casket into your hands."

"Since I am to bring away the casket," I replied, "for what purpose do you send this key? Is it, perchance, that Monna Afra may retain for herself any of the contents of the coffre?"

"I have already reproached you"-the Duke answered with a most malignant expression-"for giving vent to vain imaginings. If you cannot refrain from thinking, at least keep silence, and implicitly carry out my instructions.

"After delivering this package wait a little, while Monna Afra goes to fetch the casket; should she tarry follow her and, no matter what you may see or surmise, make no outcry but hasten from the villa failing not to bring the casket with you. The Duchess tells me that while at the villa she kept it in a hiding-place constructed by the Pope for his jewels, which opens by pressing a certain ball upon one of the Medicean shields with which the villa is so profusely ornamented. But, on reflection, I see no reason for giving you access to our family treasure-chest. Monna Afra will not have placed the casket there, since she herself showed the Duchess the secret receptacle, and it would be the first place in which she would search for it; and if, indeed, it is hidden there it is perfectly safe."

Thus commissioned I betook myself again to Rome; but being welcomed by old acquaintances, and finding an accumulation of important orders awaiting my attention, I naturally thought that the Duke's business might wait upon my own, and indeed might have clean forgotten it but for the following circumstance.

I had gone fowling one day with a friend in the marshes near the villa of Magliana, in the neighbourhood of Ostia. Toward nightfall (as I have elsewhere related), happening from a little hill to look in the direction of Florence, I saw an extraordinary phenomenon, namely, a heavenly body in the shape of a Turkish scimitar, its blade directed toward the city. Whereat I exclaimed loudly, "We shall certainly hear that some great event has occurred at Florence."

Even as I spoke a stranger wrapped in a long cloak who at a little distance from us was attentively observing this appearance, asked me what I supposed the portent might signify.

"Nothing less," I replied confidently, giving vent to the first thought which came into my mind, "than the assassination of Duke Alessandro." With that he uttered an exclamation in Arabic, and hurried in the direction of the Tiber. We had ridden but a short distance when some peasants rushed toward us with frantic gestures, crying out that a ship rigged after the manner of the Turkish corsairs was moored in the river.

This gave us such a fright that we clapped spurs to our horses and rode with the utmost speed to Rome. But our fears having somewhat abated, we made no report of the alarm upon our arrival, realising that we had cut no great figure in the adventure.

The next day, my thoughts being still upon the Duke, I resolved to execute his orders and so rode out to the Villa Madama. As I approached what was my surprise to see descending its terraces the same man who had accosted me near Magliana.

Monna Afra stood in the loggia watching him, her hand, lifted to her eyes to protect them from the rays of the setting sun. I told her that I had come from the Duke and on what errand, and presented the packet which he had given me.

She read it attentively, and without making any objection or inquiry, instantly brought the casket. But as she was about to unlock it something awoke her suspicions, and examining the key more attentively she thrust it before my eyes exclaiming, "Dog of a Christian, you have attempted to poison me!"

It needed but a glance to show her fears well founded, for the handle of the key once of shining copper was corroded to a virulent green, so that it resembled a bit of antique bronze, and I comprehended that her villain of a son had dipped the sharp-pointed crown of thorns in some deadly acid, hoping that in exercising some force in turning the lock she would lacerate her hand, and that he would thus compass her death.

As I remained speechless she took my condition as an evidence of guilt, and seizing a torch which hung in a metal torchère, rushed upon the terrace waving it to and fro like a fury. Though I lacked not the wit to perceive that this was a signal of some sort, yet remembering the Duke's orders by all means to secure the casket, I did not immediately address myself to flight, but strove to wrest it from her by force. She, however, opposed me in this design with all her strength, and throwing it aside fell upon me with a most ungentle embrace, throttling me and burying her nails in my neck.

While we struggled thus I was aware of trampling feet and saw the loggia suddenly filled by a horde of barbarous pirates, refugee Moorish cut-throats, who had conceived the daring design of making a descent upon the outskirts of Rome to plunder its rich villas, and first that of Chigi, in revenge for the chastisement received at the hands of the Emperor.

For the moment my only thought was one of thankfulness for my release from this hell-cat, but as I stood with my arms pinioned Monna Afra brought forward a large sack and, as I understood from her expressive gestures, demanded that I should be sewn up therein and cast into the Tiber.

Though he had thrown aside the cloak in which he had previously disguised, I recognised the man whom I had already twice seen in the gaudily accoutred officer whom Afra now addressed as Hayraddin.

He spoke to her very earnestly, and I could see that what he said caused her the greatest consternation, for she tore her hair, howled and scratched her own face as vehemently as she had formerly maltreated mine.

Shaking her by the arm he continued to admonish her, until picking up the casket she retired into the interior of the villa. Then turning to me he addressed me in good Italian in these words:

"Most noble Signor: You cannot fail to have understood that my sister desired me to kill you, and that I could readily have done so; but I have explained to her that you are a great astrologer, for from the appearance of the heavens you announced to me yesterday the assassination of her son which news has not yet reached Rome-and has but this moment been told to me by a party of my men who intercepted the messenger at the Ponte Molle.

"In deference to your supernatural knowledge I spare your life, and shall leave you here bound and gagged, where in good time you will doubtless be discovered. This news of the death of my nephew has effected more than all my arguments and entreaties, for my sister has no further desire to remain in this accursed land, but will return with me to Africa."

Scarcely had he concluded when Monna Afra entered, heavily veiled and carrying an immense bundle. This one of the pirates took from her, and supported by two others she followed her brother and I saw her no more.

It was two full days, during which I neither ate nor drank, before I was released from my miserable plight, but even so I counted myself fortunate to have escaped with my life.

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