Readings — From the August 2013 issue

The Exiled Queen

By László Krasznahorkai, from Seiobo There Below, published last month by New Directions. Krasznahorkai was born in Hungary in 1954. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet.

He already knew how to draw a Madonna even before he knew what a Madonna was, but it wasn’t only in this that he displayed an extraordinary talent, but in nearly everything else too, for he was able to read and write, master the skills of carpentry, use the tools of the workshop, grind and mix the pigments to perfection, gild frames in such a way that no one ever had to teach him, so that in Prato his father always followed his progress with laudatory attention, keeping an eye on his every movement, and he only caressed the boy when little Filippino had the inclination to sit on his lap, and this period somehow passed very quickly, the child had hardly reached his sixth year when his father began to notice that he didn’t like to be touched, that he had no need to be embraced, indeed — to put it more directly — he detested it, although he was treated with particular love in his father’s dwelling as well as in the workshop; the family, the numerous and often-changing ranks of assistants and pupils, even the distinguished patrons, if they came to negotiate with the famous master, never failed to praise him, saying what a beautiful child, just as they never failed to gape in astonishment (although they did not truly believe that this wee mite had made them the drawing so proudly displayed by the master); hence he grew up in the warmest possible of settings, but still it did not, for a long time, quell the unease felt by his parents, for it was distressing enough, from the time of his birth, to consider what an accursed life would be the share of one brought sinfully into the world, to consider the circumstances in which one of the parents had been a Carmelite monk, the chaplain of the Santa Margherita monastery, and the mother, to their even greater shame, had been a nun in the same monastery at the time of conception, so truly they were sinners indeed, the manifest sinners in a scandal discussed all across Firenze for months, albeit relatively ordinary sinners, but sinners all the same, who would have remained so for a long time to come, perhaps even up until the very gates of Hell, if the extraordinary genius of Filippo Lippi, renowned all across Italy, had not, under the pressure of the Medicis, brought about a papal absolution from Pius II, who resolved the affair by “cancelling them out,” that is, exempting them from their monastic vows — but he could only save them, he did not help the child any further, so that the stamp would remain forever on little Filippo, whom his father, in vain, inundated with love, every sign of passionate love; never could he free himself from the anxiety of what would become of the child when he grew up, and this anxiety persisted for years and years, until the point when the child began to show that there was no need to be anxious on his behalf, because he would be able to stand on his own two feet and his talent would compensate for his impure birth, for he demonstrated such unparalleled intellectual sensitivity, and so adept at learning was he that he simply dumbfounded everyone around him; it was possible to see that this boy would be a great man, just like his father; he was, however, never instructed — neither by his father nor by anyone else; he only observed, continually, regardless of who was doing what in the workshop, or at home, or on the street, the child watched silently, and he asked questions, and when he saw his father beginning to draw, he began to draw, too, he took a wooden board and a bit of charcoal and he copied every movement precisely, observing how his father made a large sweeping arc with the charcoal, and the arc on his drawing curved astonishingly in the same way, but it was like that with everything, the child observed everything thoroughly, he was able to sit silently for up to an hour beside the blacksmith of Prato and watch how perhaps three pairs of horses were shod, he was able to spend long hours on the banks of the stream, observing the ripples in the water, and the light on the rippling surface, in short when he had achieved his sixth year, his parents were no longer anxious for him; his father was certain that the fruit of his deeply passionate love, sinful and yet preordained, had been taken into the protection of the Lord, he brought his son with him wherever he could, even to Spoleto, where he was at work on the Cathedral; on the building site the child, alongside the chief scribe, performed the duties of a kind of assistant, for he was capable of that too, confirming his aptitude everywhere and in everything, and in addition swept everyone off their feet with his gentleness and sensitivity, although as a result his parents were subjected to a different kind of worry, that is to say that the child’s health was not in good order; he was always catching cold, he wouldn’t dress warmly enough; his throat was already swollen and he would be bedridden for days, so the problem was then the state of his health; his parents could never tell him enough that he had to take great care, even in 1469, when his father lay on his deathbed and charged the boy with the completion of the fresco of the Holy Virgin that he had begun in the Cathedral; no, not even then, and even there, did he fail to remind his son to dress very warmly while he was working, as in the Cathedral it was always too chilly, and under no circumstances should he drink cold water while at work; and of course what could Filippino do but promise to adhere to his father’s words, but then he didn’t keep it and it was practically all the same anyway, because if he happened to think of his health and dressed properly on a very cold winter day, it was enough simply to air out the workshop briefly to make him bedridden again; there was no solution, he could never be circumspect enough, for he was laid open to illness, as it was expressed to him, even Battigello — his older friend who served as an apprentice alongside him in his father’s workshop, who later opened up his own workshop in Firenze, where Filippino followed him — even he said so, Battigello — that name clung to him with such injustice, because as a matter of fact it was a jeer directed at his stout elder brother Giovanni, who haggled with the customers in the pawnshop — in a word, even he, this Battigello who was soon to become one of the greatest painters of Firenze and of all of Italy, even he pointed out to Filippino that if he didn’t look after himself, then when a serious epidemic struck, that would be the end, it would take him and he could look back then; it was just that Filippino was powerless, this was the cross he bore, and perhaps this was the price for his sensitivity from the very beginning, on a spiritual level, as his father said, because in reality this was what separated him the most from his peers: while they were playing outside, Filippino sat inside, happily reading, and he read everything that Battigello pressed into his hands, and as for what Battigello pressed into his hands, it was everything, and very often such works as really should not be pressed into the hands of an eleven- or twelve-year-old youth — Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano, for example — and maybe Filippino didn’t understand, how would he even understand the sentences, but the spirit of the thoughts behind them reached him, and this spirit made him pensive, even then he began to spend hours brooding below the workshop window, huddled into a corner, if there happened to be no book in his hand, and when he turned fourteen, even Battigello himself was forced to recognize his ability to penetrate everything intuitively, so that roughly during the time when Battigello came to be called Botticelli, and the young master began to be mentioned and praised all across Firenze, one day he informed Filippino that he no longer regarded him as an apprentice, he had in fact never done so; Filippino should instead regard himself as a fellow painter in the workshop, as he had already been, strictly speaking, for a long time now, maybe even from the very day when, stepping into Battigello’s workshop, he had begun to work with him; because for grinding the pigments, burning the wood for charcoal, boiling up the sizing and so on, a real assistant or two was always turning up; Battigello always gave Filippino such tasks as: Well, do you see that Madonna, paint the Infant in her arms with two angels, all right? — fine, Filippino would answer, and an Infant and two angels would appear on the painting, such that no one would have ever been able to say that Battigello had not done them himself; this Filippino had an unbelievable ability to intuitively penetrate everything; he had only to observe, for example, the movements of Battigello’s hand, his thoughts, his colors and his drawings, his themes and his figures and his backgrounds — all beyond his father’s painterly world — and from that point on he was able to paint any kind of a Battigello at any time; so that he, Battigello — when he received the commission from the new master of the Merchants’ Guild to paint an allegory of one of the seven virtues, and this commission took up all his time — he entrusted Filippino to prepare, from start to finish, all the other projects of lesser import in the workshop, and so it happened that the commission of the panels, depicting the story of Esther, of the two forzieri was given to Filippino, who after discussing the manner of elaboration of the theme with Battigello completed them to the greatest satisfaction of the patron, and even on time, indeed completed them the day before the date agreed on, which was truly not a characteristic of Battigello or the greater number of masters in Firenze at all, and perhaps not even of Filippino, but, well, this was a bridal gift and there could be no question of delay, and the commission itself, the workshop’s first genuinely serious commission in this respect, stimulated Filippino in an extraordinary fashion, so that he worked on it night and day, and the two larger panels were ready within two months, and he had already painted the second side panel when Master Sangallo had finished constructing the two chests and Antonio had prepared the goldsmithing; Battigello was satisfied and praised the work of Filippino, but tactfully avoided expressing the thought that it all looked as if he himself, Battigello, had painted it; Filippino, however, was not fooled by this, because when the beginning of the last month of the year came around, and only one panel remained to be painted and placed into the chest, he decided that he would work not in the spirit of Battigello, but according to the dictates of his own imagination; namely, he completed the commission, creating the companion picture of the side panel “Esther arrives at the palace of Susa” so as not to upset the balance of the entire work, but he did paint the chief figure in the picture, Queen Vashti, as he saw fit, and he saw fit to paint her in such a way that this exile would reflect forth every humiliation, every indignity, every human collapse, and that moreover in this humiliation, in this indignity, in this collapse, Queen Vashti would not lose any of her extraordinary beauty, for as Filippino sensed, it was only with the deepest beauty that this humiliation, indignity, collapse, could be expressed — this was different from what Battigello had seen up to now, so very different, and on the day before the last day of the year, the patron came with his extensive and merry family, as well as a tumbrel hired for the two heavy chests, and on this occasion — for the reckoning of the bill had to take place as well — Battigello had to be present, and so he arrived a few hours early, and while waiting, he examined the chests once again, at length, for the last time, including the last side panel, and Filippino could tell how he was struck just as wordless as when he had examined them for the first time, and then he looks at him, Filippino, with a sad, endlessly mournful gaze, and it is as if his words were not addressed any longer to his companion, as he looks away from him, and then he says in his own velvety, gentle voice: If only one day I could find such beauty as that in someone, Filippino, if only one day I could find it, too.

They entitled it La regina Vashti lascia il palazzo reale, that is to say “Queen Vashti Leaves the Royal Palace,” but originally it had no title at all, if we are not to regard as a title the designation Filippino had given it just before while in discussion, when it was time to present the forzieri, finishing with the presentation of the carpentry and the truly splendid goldsmithing to the family, who were visibly greatly pleased; he explained, proceeding from one picture to the next, and one scene to the next, what picture and what scene was depicted on the side panels; perhaps it was the title the head of the family himself later gave it, when in a moment of solemnity at the bridal ceremony itself he explained to the young couple — Sara and Guido — that on the sides of the dowry chest they had just received as a gift there was depicted none other than the story of Esther according to Hebrew tradition, which — at least in the view of the family patriarch — illustrates marital fidelity, as well as the deeper significance of Purim, and preserves it for memory — but of course these accidental designations could never qualify as titles, there wasn’t even any point to bestowing a title, for in the times that followed, wherever the two forzieri happened to turn up, they were regarded everywhere as what they were, two very beautifully painted dowry chests, and later when only money and jewels were kept in them, they were seen merely as two old safe-boxes that, as one owner — the wife of a textile merchant from Ferrara — put it, were “decorated with pleasantly painted scenes” — a title became necessary only when the chests fell apart, the beautiful copper linings were stripped away, and their value was determined separately, as well as that of the paintings, of course, the price of which unexpectedly shot up to the heavens by the length of time that had passed, and due to the not very impartial craze for the quattrocento; in a word, when the pictures began their existence as individual pictures, that is to say, after Torrigiana, then in that moment of course each one needed to have a title; one was needed in Chantilly for the Musée Condé, and one was needed in Vaduz for the Liechtenstein collection, and one was needed in Paris as well, and mainly one was needed in Firenze for the Horne Foundation, particularly here because it was with that title that they hoped to express that the determination of the picture as an object was now a closed matter, and that from now on the panel depicting Vashti would have to bear the title “Queen Vashti Leaves the Royal Palace” and that was it; it went under this title as part of the huge Botticelli exhibition in Paris, in the Grand Palais, which for many was and remained an unforgettable experience, and although according to the scholar at the Home Foundation it was given a rather unworthy setting, still, whoever had eyes to see — squashed up against a side door — saw within the work the greatness that was around Botticelli, in other words that of Filippino Lippi; still completely unrecognized, the genius, the restless, vibrant brushstrokes, the tautened vibration, the explosive force, the proto-Baroque of Lippi the younger, and with that the figure of Vashti, broken in suffering, stepped with finality into that mysterious empire, which was even more mysterious than the one from which the main figure in the picture had come; into an Empire, where this figure, tortured from suffering and broken in soul, stepping out through the royal palace’s — no, it was more like a fortress now — Northern Gate, finds herself on a terrace that leads nowhere, and there she comes to a halt, the landscape before this fortress is nearly called into question by her beauty and her pain, her radiant being and her forsakenness, what should be done with this enchantment cast into human form, with this sovereign nobility, in the desolation of its own bleakness — but this is only called into question, there is no need for reply, and all of Susa is quiet, for everyone knows what will happen now before the palace, because what follows is not exile, that was merely the induction of the judgment according to the tradition of Marduk, but behind Vashti, the hulking executioner brought from Egypt shall appear, he will seize her and drag her back into a designated palace courtyard, and there he will smother her under the ashes of legend, he will crush that milk-white delicate neck with his bull-strong right hand, until that milk-white delicate neck is broken and the legs writhing below cease their dance of death, and the body at last collapses, for once and for all, prostrate on the ground.

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