A Girl from Urbino ~ Lee Upton


The day before the ground quaked I had displeased the Duchess’s friend, a squat woman, her face a trench, but with the quaking—a crack slithering up the wall, swallows wheeling through the portico, the hillside spitting pebbles onto the roofs of our neighbors—I was forgiven, then forgotten. Afterwards, on the steps to the pond, lizards gasped like old men catching their breath.

Each day I anticipated the Duchess’s requests, from the cassone to draw out the silks, from the bed to bundle the sheets. As for her spaniel—I was to carry him to the courtyard, his paws wiped in a bowl of water, his fur combed, his nose checked for fever. When a wind blew through the chamber I drew the draperies. When the Duchess was thirsty I arrived with wine on a salver. When she slept, I searched my own memories for those I wished to keep as if with a sliver clasp of my own.

The Duchess seldom looked at me, made sure there was no need to see me. I was often searching in the chest for what she needed, on my knees, the older maid, half-blind Guilia above me, her sleeves rolled.  My good fortune—I was told. To serve in a noble house, to walk upon floors the sunlight heated, to know fabrics pleasant to the touch. The small reward the cassone offered: to run my fingers through silk, velvet, brocade, an embroidered handkerchief dyed with flowers. To be alive to the smell of almond oil and the scent of candle wax burning at the tip of each breeze, and to stare between the columns of the portico at Urbino below us, an inky solution the night seeped through.

I was a girl before I was a woman. I played with shadows and light and in the chapel bent my knees before a wooden egg that opened to a scene of the nativity.

The lizards were everywhere, then. How fast they were, their tiny forearms bent at the elbows. They gulped into cracks in the floor or disappeared between stones or, audacious, sunned themselves, laid out in the heat of the day, flicking away if I came too near.

A younger maid would take my place with the Duke eventually. I only had to be forgotten.

I would guess that I was eleven years of age when the imposing stranger appeared, his cloak heavy, gold metal at his chest, his nose trembling with interest.  Rumors: he wanted wealth and knew his own worth. He seldom traveled but had arrived with some fanfare for the Duke. A commission. He smiled, and then seemed stunned upon seeing me. The stranger announced that he had a friend who looked like me.  A resemblance. I felt the pinpricks, the tracery of his fingers over my cheeks although he never touched me.  It wasn’t delightful, this sensation of near touching. I might have been a piece of wood, a stone. His eyes on me: the way one might stare at the agitating ripples of a river, unaware of what moves beneath the water.

He asked me to stand in the light and then to stand out of the light.  I felt his eyes again trace my face, as if he touched my eyelids before he disappeared with the Duke.

I knew only of the rumors about Venice, the city the artist returned to—the boats rocking in the lagoons, knocking against one another, the glassy windows and the lit torches, the women parading on stilt-like heels as if exotic specimens easy to capture. I’d listened to Guilia tell tales about the smell of unguent, of skin flayed and burning, the air carrying the scents, and I heard of the terrible catches in the lagoon, how an arm or a leg or an infant might be scooped with a net and then released back into the swale.

In Urbino the skies were full of the smell of ash, whirling rains blotting the doors. My slippers were so worn they made a flapping noise that irritated the Duchess.

I didn’t know then of the sponge dipped in vinegar, the ruse of the lemon cut and capped, acid to destroy what will become a child.

It would be years before the artist returned. I passed him on the steps, daring to glance at him.  He stopped me, holding out an arm, and this time when he studied me he appeared to know more. To know of the infant delivered from me. A boy—whisked away. When my milk came in, the ache of that.

How could he know?  Know how I touched the wet crown of my infant’s head?  Know by a wide knowing, know in his fingertips, know he could catch at a string of it: how for months I disguised myself with elaborate straps and bindings to keep my secret.

Again he asked me to move into the light.

The fierceness of his gaze worked upon my skin. I looked up, and my own fierceness blazed until something in him was shaken. I thought he’d take revenge for my disrespect.

At the feast before the artist left, pheasants and swans were served, the feathers stuck back upon those roasted birds for nobles to pick at their teeth with the quills. Higher in the palace, I gazed down to the pond that had filled from the rains and turned sluggish with what grew there, a weed greenish white, vapors rising.  I prayed my son had found a mother.

In the courtyard a woman passed, holding an infant with reddish hair. By the time I touched the last step the woman must have gathered him up, slapped a hat on his head, disappeared into the market. I wandered searching until it was not safe to wander.

Three years later the Duke began to retreat often to the inner room within his apartment, a room secret and secure as a walnut.  The room was not aired. We were forbidden to enter, not even the Duchess was to enter. The Duke and the guild masters and other notables retired to this room and asked nothing from us. No sounds were to be heard, although sounds there should have been, despite the walls muffled by draperies. A bell attached to a string rung outside the chamber—wine could be left only on the table in the corridor, and afterwards we were to disappear.

On the feast day, excused from my duties, too weak to go to chapel, I lay in bed. I’d been this way years earlier when I gave the child away. I was disguised once again, the belted fabric bunched at my waist, perhaps too tightly. That night I lost what would have been a child.

The palace was empty, the marble cool under my feet when I dragged myself from my bed. The door to the Duke’s secret room in his apartment was heavy. At first I didn’t dare pull back the drapery and stood breathless before the fabric, my lungs whistling, my heartbeat in my throat. I nearly fell into the draperies when I tossed them apart.

A pallid expanse, a field of pale poisonous flowers, the doughiness under the skin, the softened stomach of a woman carrying a child in the first months or recently released from a child. I could not look at the body’s face. Instead, I studied the painting’s distance. The shock when I saw, at last, that there I was, my back turned. I was kneeling, searching inside the wooden cassone, my belted waist, the underside of my slippers splayed.  How small a figure I made, nearly swallowed by the frame of the chest, my knees aching, my hands plunged into the cassone, sifting through for anything my mistress needed. I was young, how young?  And what exactly was I searching for? Another sheet to cover a body? The sheet on the couch, rumpled as if something hid there.

I looked again at what can’t be ignored: the long stretched body with soft small feet. The fresh-washed hand with the ring on the little finger, the wrist circled by a gold band.  The spaniel at the end of the couch, curled as a snail.

When I dared to look at the face—the expression that would be called obscene, riveting, daring, an invitation for lust, or even an exemplar of a wife’s marital duty, and more—I saw whose face was there. Why else hide one face in the background, send a young body to her knees, overseen by an older maid and condemned to search perpetually for another woman’s needs when it is the duke whose desires are the only ones to be found?

While I am faceless at the back of the painting the Duke must have delighted to see my face on that long body, that woman’s body, to see that face without shame—or perhaps the Duke didn’t recognize me, and it was the painter’s memento. Was the Duke thinking permission is written there in that body? The Duke might have liked my resemblance to the famous courtesan with her belladonna, her body as sleek as a mink’s.

But the body laid out in The Venus of Urbino is no one’s body, an escaped cloud, while at the far point of the painting near the open vista, near the fragrant myrtle, my actual body is sunk into the wooden chest, searching.

For three days I lay in bed, left to myself—and fortunate. Afterwards I did not stop searching. In the market I saw a boy’s face that might have been my son’s. Saw many faces that might have been. As time passed I knew the danger of meeting eyes.

I lived seven more years before eternally I was bodiless.

Languages float through me for centuries. If I’m seen, I’m seen most often as an awkward servant, bent over a chest’s wooden frame. Anyone visiting the gallery where the painting lives—can anyone look deeply enough to hear what can’t be seen, listen to the birdsong like wood chips flicked at a door, then the ground’s roar as the cliff side flakes and a crack slithers like a lizard up a wall?

I know of Titian’s other miracles. In Assumption of the Virgin, Mary looks upward, arms outspread, surrounded by infants. In Annunciation—that is the painting I understand most—her hand shields her brilliant face when the angel announces what he must. She had no choice either but she was allowed—for years—to keep her child.

The plague Titian feared, how often he missed the plague’s visits himself. He would live—I am glad he lived his long life—even while my own body tangled with others under lime.

Out of death after all this time I visit the painting in which my life is cast twice. Should I be flattered that I was flinted with light by a great artist?  Perhaps a child will see the painting, a child of my child of my child of my child of my child, if my own child wasn’t tossed aside—and that descendent will not see obscenity, or a leering invitation in the face attached to that long body, the body laid out unnerved as a rabbit’s pelt.  And my descendant will search at the far reach of the painting for a detail and find my own body, and then look again at the face of that woman whose eyes must meet ours—her hair the color of that child’s hair in sunlight, her eyes as patient as that child’s, and waiting to be found and known as a human soul.