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  • The Madonna of Seville
  • George Keithley (bio)

Property of the Prado, a painting on sailcloth, c. 1605

—Artist unknown

I confess all and repent nothing. Rosa Ayala, like her brother, a native of Seville, and never truly at home in Naples, could besly one minute and lovely the next. A terrible tease. A girl of barely seventeen years, she was my model for four sketches in charcoal and one painting, The Madonna. Her brother Luis, a noisy little nobody, puffed up with Spanish pride, was never my friend. But his death was my undoing.

Illegitimate, abandoned at birth, I was baptized a son of the church and nursed in the convent of the sweet Sisters of Charity.

I was raised—that is to say, fed and educated—by the pious Benedictine brothers in that white stone monastery overlooking our fabled bay: the slant of sunlight on the cliffs about us; the wind brisk on the water below, where boats of all sizes sat bobbing, the fishing tackle, the sieves and nets, glimmering wet. Behind our refectory stood the winery and tool sheds, the mule’s stall, the bees’ hives, and on a green slope lay our tidy cemetery. Here a cross marked each grave but none was named, for in this world no monk should be distinguished from another.

In my early years I was by nature neither studious nor devout and loathed discipline. Yet, toiling in those low rooms supported by dark cypress beams, the windows so narrow that the sun must force its way among us, a brief but dazzling light, I exhibited promise in calligraphy and illumination. So, like many youths, I entered the holy orders as a matter of course. What did I know? But in my young manhood I departed that sanctuary, descending into the city of my birth where I took to the streets. I found lodging on my own: an uncommonly spacious loft above a gaming den, the Tavern of the Hound—loud, but offering ample light for my art.

Sketching and painting occupied my daylight hours; dusk sent me to the tavern and the darkening streets where I met models for [End Page 193] certain pieces that attracted notice: the tender boy in whose hands I placed a lute among The Musicians; that girl who gives you her sidelong glance as she pours wine for two men in The Tavern; in Gamblers appears the rowdy lady laughing at three men playing cards. Was she a whore? Who shall judge her? Did I sleep with her—and those other models—as Luis Ayala claimed? Did I quarrel with men for their favors? I did not back down. After hours, in the dim streets, fights broke out over women and debts. A night of wine. Soldiers and dandies wore swords. Courtiers, too—those in the Cardinal’s camp. But what young man wouldn’t carry at least a cudgel or knife? Often a dagger, lean and sharp.

The old scrivener who posed for my most difficult oil, Lazarus Emerging from the Tomb, told me upon our parting that I was a deplorable libertine. No, no. Mine was that enthusiasm of youth which he’d long forgotten. Days absorbed in work the world would surely reward; nights when I was dizzy with delight. I was what my city made me, and I wished for nothing more.

Like many a young man I could afford only sailcloth for canvas. Still I had reason to hope my art would find support. A benefactor of the convent, Giovanni di Palma, offered a generous sum for my Lazarus. And why not? A choice suitable for the Mother Superior and her flock: eternal life accomplished in gradations of umber and grey. Just on his forehead, at his hands and feet, a shade of light as innocent as an eggshell gave Lazarus the vitality that overwhelmed his ghostly pallor. I think of that work now, the wasted man in his funeral rags stepping forth from unfathomable darkness, which the chiaroscuro of the canvas can only suggest, his soul almost shining through his decrepit flesh, and I ask: How can this be? A life without end? What is it, then, that endures...


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