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The last Mantegna.

Fortnightly Fiction.


I’M SITTING IN the Almond Beach Café, eating breakfast. On my plate is a heap of Van Gogh-yellow scrambled eggs, nestling beside a pile of lightly oiled salad leaves. At the edge of the plate, tips a small stainless steel bowl of tomato and parsley salsa, blended with green-tinged olive oil. Two halves of fat toasted sourdough bread and a wrapped pat of unsalted butter wait. I sip a regular Americano coffee.

The man sitting at the table to my right, is eating exactly the same breakfast – except that he has a snowy heap of scrambled egg whites. He drinks copious amounts of black coffee, from a large cafetière. He has short, iron-grey wavy hair.

The fireplace behind us is framed by Malibu tiles, made in a 1930s factory way up the coast. The fire (artificial, of course) warms my back. This is January in Los Angeles, and the bright sun is belied by a visiting autumnal chill. Up in Malibu this morning there was a dusting of snow and a sudden hailstorm which left the sleek lawns covered in piles of tiny icy balls, slippery under the squirrels’ feet.

The man is here two or three days a week, typing on his laptop. He looks as if he might be a famous screenwriter, but if he’s that famous, why does he need to sit in a café? He’s lonely, of course. All writers are.

I have a notebook on the table, beside my plate. Perhaps I also look like a famous writer who’s lonely and likes working in cafes. Perhaps neither of us is what we seem.

The notebook belonged to my grandmother, Mrs van Hopper. She never liked her own daughter – my mother – and the distaff dislike continued down the generations. I once overheard her refer to me as ‘that horrid little child, Nancy’.

MRS VAN HOPPER would be proud of me now, though, proud of my resourcefulness and loyalty to the family. I turn over a page in her notebook, deciphering the slanted, crabbed handwriting. There are two recipes: one for risini; small, oval yellow cakes, made from rice grains, egg, lemon and icing sugar. The other is for sbrisolona, chunky biscuit dough, topped with whole almonds, still in their deep brown skins, the characteristic mandorle of Mantua, the northern Italian city in which I did my research. Last night I dreamed of mandorle again.

It doesn’t surprise me that Grandma collected recipes. She collected everything she could, including people. To be excluded from her guest list was to be denied life. F. Scott Fitzgerald was once snubbed by her, and took to the bottle for a whole week. Took too many bottles, one might say.

Most importantly, Grandma collected works of art. Her stately home, high on the Malibu hills, now a museum for artefacts, ancient and modern, was where I first found the letter.

In her will, Mrs van Hopper left me her library. As I went through the books, deciding what to keep and what to give away, I accidentally dropped a copy of Petrarch. Out of it fell a typed letter, addressed to a Count Alessandro Rietti. Three words were underlined in red: the names Isabella and Andrea, and the word ‘pearl’. The letter referred to a lost painting by Andrea Mantegna, a portrait of Isabella d’Este, the beautiful and powerful wife to one of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua.

The timing was perfect. I had just finished graduate school in the history of Italian Renaissance art, and this gave me the research project which has occupied me for the past ten years. I decided to track down the painting.

My researches filled many notebooks and files in my computer, but led nowhere – until 2006. Exhibitions commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of Mantegna’s death drew me back to Mantua. Returning to my hotel one evening, I glanced casually at the register and saw the name, Alessandro Rietti.

Reader, I identified him, and contrived to strike up a conversation with him next morning at breakfast. Statuesque, his white hair, streaked with black, was tied at the nape of his neck, escaping tendrils curling over his shoulders. We were two art historians, sharing enthusiasms.

I played the naïve American, in love with Italy and everything Italian. The invitation came on the third day. A real palazzo? In Florence? On the river Arno, down river from the famous Bridge of Sighs? Why, I’d love to. Sure, I can change my plans.

It was like walking onto a movie set, I kept saying. No, reassured Alessandro, this isn’t Hollywood, this is the real thing – early fifteenth-century, grand marble staircases, green and pink marble tiles on the floor, and, of course, paintings everywhere: da Vinci, Breughel, Perugino, Pisanello drawings – even some Mantegna miniatures, which he had refused to lend for the exhibitions.

When we arrived at his palazzo (he would not hear of me staying in a hotel), he took my right hand, holding my fingers lightly, raising my hand to his mouth, then stopping short just as I felt a faint breath on the backs of my fingers. The shock of interrupted anticipation was the most erotic thing I had ever felt – followed by a pang. Wasn’t my hand good enough to kiss? I learned later that this was the correct, aristocratic way. No contact between lips and skin, since any such direct contact betokened something quite else. And indeed, when his lips touched my skin for real, it really was something else.

There are some people who disapprove of intimate relations between a young woman and a much older man. All I can say, is that the differences in our ages seemed irrelevant. Of course, Alessandro was clearly practised at such encounters, but, oddly, this added to the pleasure and excitement. I knew it could not and would not last, and this was supremely reassuring.

I stayed in Florence for an idyllic month. Alessandro’s knowledge of the city was more personal, more profound, than anything I could have imagined. Every street, alley, statue and painting held a personal memory for him. His first kiss, he said, took place under Cellini’s statue of Perseus, outside the Uffizi. At night we sat on balconies overlooking the river, we went to bed, sometimes we slept.

One evening, after we had drunk our tiny, sharp and bitter espresso coffees, he took me by the hand and led me into a new part of the palazzo, a dimly lit passage, behind all the grandeur. At the end of the corridor, he opened a small door. He switched on a dim light, and, side by side, we went down a flight of stone steps. Ahead of us was a metal grille, and from behind it I could hear the lapping of the water in the river. We were in a cellar. He switched on another light, to reveal paintings stacked against the walls — and there she was.

A WOMAN LOOKED straight at me; her arms hung loosely by her side. She was wearing a simple, flowing, white silk dress, with an elaborate black and cream shawl draped round her shoulders. Her hair was down, loosed from the net in the familiar Leonardo da Vinci drawing, with no sign of the elaborate jewelled headdress in the ceremonial portrait by Titian. Round her neck was a silver chain, with a cream pendant in the hollow of her neck. This is the only painting of Isabella d’Este I have seen in which she is smiling.

It was a painting of a lover, by a lover. Alessandro spoke: The portrait dates from the years during which Mantegna worked for Isabella on her studiolo, the private apartments for which she commissioned paintings. But they argued – they fought, I protested …

Yes, interrupted Alessandro, and they were also lovers.

But this is wonderful, I said. The lost Mantegna. Where did you find it? He stopped my enthusiasm. No one must know about it, he said. I brought you here to see it, because there is something I want to give you.

He lifted the painting off the wall, rested it on the stone floor. He took a small pen-knife out of his pocket and cut through the hard backing. Sewn onto the back of  the canvas, about a third of the way down, was a small packet, wrapped in faded white silk. He cut through the threads which held it, and removed the packet. Come, he said.

He led me back upstairs, and we made love in his bedroom. Without a word. The penknife and the little silk packet lay on the bedside table beside us. Afterwards, he reached for the silk, and unwrapped it carefully. Out of the cloth he drew a slender silver chain, at its centre, a fat, oval, almond-shaped pearl. Alessandro fastened the necklace round my neck, and it lay in the hollow of my throat, just as it had in the painting of Isabella d’Este.

Mantegna wanted Isabella to hang the portrait in her rooms, he told me, and she refused, because she knew her husband would guess the truth about her lover. They argued, and the relationship ended. Mantegna stole the pearl and hid it at the back of the painting, behind its own representation. That was his revenge.

How do you know all this, I asked? Because, he said, this was the painting your grandmother could not persuade me to give to her.

You know who I am, I asked? Of course, said Alessandro. You look exactly like her: the same eyes, nose, the same smile. Before I could say anything, he continued: This painting was smuggled out of Mantua by one of my ancestors, in the seventeenth century. Tucked into the frame at the back was a note by Mantegna, explaining where the pearl was hidden.

And what about the other paintings in the cellar, I asked. They are in transit, he said. The artefacts are taken onto a boat in the Arno. From there, they are transported onto cruise ships. Captains are easy to bribe. America is a ready market.

But what has this got to do with my grandmother – with Mrs van Hopper?

He spread his arms and raised his shoulders. Draw your own conclusions. I shifted in bed, sensuality replaced by urgent thought. So my grandmother, I said slowly, the wealthy, aristocratic Mrs van Hopper, was nothing more than a smuggler? My grandmother smuggled artefacts from Italy to America? It is an honourable trade, said Alessandro, and your grandmother was one of the best.

But how does the Mantegna come into it?

Ah, said Alessandro. Your grandmother and I worked and loved for ten years. Then she began to be greedy. She wanted love to triumph over business. She asked me to give her the Mantegna as a present, to hang in her bedroom in California. I refused – and the relationship ended.

Why did you refuse?

Because she would have destroyed the painting. She didn’t want it; she wanted the pearl.

But now, I said, you have damaged the picture. You have cut he pearl out of the picture and given it to me.  Yes, said Alessandro simply. I didn’t plan to do it. You are so like her – when I saw you looking at the painting, all my feelings for you, and my feelings for your grandmother combined, and I wanted to see the pearl round your neck. She did not deserve the pearl because she expected it as of right. You deserve the pearl, he said, because you did not expect it.

Even if, in the process, you have destroyed a priceless painting?

It is not priceless any more, he said. And the price of love is beyond art.

What will happen to the painting? I asked. He shrugged. No-one knows it is here, in my house, and no-one knows it is spoiled. The world turns.

I’VE FINISHED MY breakfast in the Almond Beach Café. My knife and fork lie neatly across the plate.

Even with his hair cut and waved closely about his head, Alessandro still looks noble. He has a mansion in Beverly Hills, while I have an apartment at the top of the van Hopper museum, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We are no longer lovers, of course. He is far too old for me.

I take my mug of coffee and join him at his table. He turns the laptop so that I can see the screen. On it is the Mantegna painting of Isabella, overlaid with a grid.

What do you think? My fingers feel the pearl at my neck, soft and warm. I look at the canvas on the screen. I have nearly finished, I say. When I have, it will look as it did when Mantegna finished it.

The art historian has become the art restorer, says Alessandro, a smile on his face. Yes, I say, it is far more creative. He pats the back of my hand in a grandfatherly fashion.

Outside, the January sun is high, despite the air’s chill. Up on the Malibu lawns, the hail has melted.

When I have finished restoring the last Mantegna, the painting will hang above my bed. No one will know it’s there – no one, but Alessandro and me. We may no longer be lovers, but we are still business partners. We shall discover the lost painting, hidden behind a poor twentieth-century Californian landscape, and we shall make our fortunes. Well, I will make my fortune. Alessandro has generously said he will take only ten percent.

Mrs van Hopper, my grandmother, would have been proud of me. Tonight, I shall dream of mandorle again.

Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright and short story writer. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave).

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