JOE LOCKED HIS BICYCLE to the parking sign outside the Borghese Gallery. The trees that had inspired the first movement of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome cast a welcome shadow over him as he caught his breath and let the breeze cool his sweat-soaked body.
The Villa Borghese, Rome’s vast central park and botanical garden, was one of the few spaces in the Eternal City that allowed the wind to move without having the closely packed buildings and asphalt roads heat it up. Joe did not mind the workout. It was only a half hour from school to the Borghese Museum, and the long, smooth downhill runs to the Tiber River from either end made up for the steep climbs.
Today’s excuse to come to his favourite museum was a homework assignment. Brother Matthew had assigned his students in the Introduction to Art History class to write a report on one of the sculptures in their textbook. Joe had quickly volunteered to research Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. He had recently read the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Latin class (a painful exercise comparing four different translations to the original Latin).
He spent some time in the room studying the sculpture from different angles. He tried to imagine just how fast the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel tree would take and whether Apollo would not have had time to grab her anyway. It is, after all, a snapshot in marble. He could see the movement of the transformation but could not know at what point the scene looked just like this.
Not wanting to lose the idea of the snapshot or a movie still, Joe went to the windowsill, where he could set his notebook. He wrote some thoughts about speeds and stills, then closed the notebook to consider the sculpture again.
He tried to picture a naiad like Daphne today. Then he got tickled thinking about how his mother, Nancy Lockhart, would have reacted to a stalking Apollo. Unlike the river god Peneus, Joe’s grandfather would never get a call for help from his daughter. More likely, General Matthew Ardwood would be proud that his stubborn girl could take care of herself. Probably deck Apollo with her championship backhand. He started chuckling at the image of a Greek god nursing a black eye on the ground after getting fresh with the former tennis pro.
The security guard scowled at him.
“Scusi.” Sorry. Joe was still grinning when he left the room. He wanted to write two reports on this assignment, one for Brother Matthew, the other for himself. If the monk seemed to be in a good mood, he might share both stories.
On his way back to the main entrance, he paused at the room that held Italian Renaissance paintings, specifically the sixteenth century. A portrait of a lovely girl in a red dress caught his eye. He remembered this picture from the plates in the center of his art history textbook. Dama con Liocorno. Lady with a Unicorn.
She is lovely, he thought. More than lovely, the blond woman, who could not have been any older than Joe, was beautiful. She looked out from the scene with a confidence and maturity that spoke of a life of power and daring deeds ahead of her. Usually, portraits of Renaissance brides looked their age, hardly ready for the altar or for the responsibility of running a noble household.
Joe admired the Dama for a few minutes, then left, resolved to look up more information on her.
The Dama was indeed Joe’s age, but only in the memory of the artist, Raffaello Sanzio. Various experts disagreed as to whether the young noblewoman was Caterina Gonzaga, Giulia Farnese, or Maddalena Strozzi. All three families were household names in Italy. Joe read about them in Maria Bellonci’s biography of Lucrezia Borgia, who was a fast friend of Giulia Farnese. Maddalena Strozzi was the bride of the wealthy art patron of Florence, Agnolo Doni. Doni had commissioned portraits of himself and his bride from Raffaello.
Caterina, Giulia, Lucrezia, and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, were no more than two years apart. The first three were “natural” children, which Joe knew would be called “love children” today. Their fathers recognized them, so they benefited from being noblewomen, but they had a special perspective on the patriarchal world around them. Each of them spent years running their husbands’ cities, including directing armies, surviving sieges and cleverly escaping the Sack of Rome by Charles VI of France. The husbands were variously absent at war or useless.
Joe sided with the historians who argued that the bride in the picture was Caterina Gonzaga. In real life, she had even won a beauty contest of sorts against Giulia Farnese, in the report of which both women had been described in detail.
Brother Matthew was not happy the following Monday when Joe asked for an extension on his report. Over the weekend, he had lost himself in Bellonci’s book, and the contradictory analyses of the Dama con liocorno.
With some midnight oil on Monday night, he produced a report on the sculpture, with some information from the encyclopaedia and his observations about Bernini’s capturing the movement in a photographic moment. The teacher gave him a B for being late. Joe asked if he would look at a different report, in the form of an updated story. The cleric agreed to look at it when it was ready.
“Apollo, would you pull-eze stop moping at the window?” Leto never stopped stroking the razor edge of her sword with a whetstone. She huffed an impatient noise. “It’s Daphne again, isn’t it?”
“How do you know?” Apollo turned from the window and crossed his arms.
“I’m your mother. I always know.” She smiled at her handsome – no, beautiful – son. “Besides, your shoulders always sag a certain way when you think of her. You have different poses for the others.”
Apollo shrugged. Leto tested the sword on a two-by-four, cutting it cleanly across. She sheathed the weapon.
“Much as I hate what Eros did to you, I must admit that it’s a little ridiculous for you to go on like this. Give it up, son.”
“You’re a god, dummy. Of course, you can.”
“What do you suggest?”
“You could apologize to Eros – or Cupid, or whatever they call him now.”
“Humans pull out pictures of him to celebrate some guy named Valentine. Crazy mortals: Valentine was char-grilled, and they give each other chocolates in his honor.”
“I never did understand what your father saw in them.” Leto knew that Zeus had plenty of mortal lovers in addition to the goddesses he admitted to.
“You really think apologizing would do any good?”
“It couldn’t hurt. He might have forgotten about it by now – and no one on Earth seems to care much what we do.” She put a kettle on the range and arched an eyebrow at the god. He nodded and got out two mugs.
“Besides,” Apollo said, “he may look like a silly boy, but he is almost three thousand years old and a damn good shot. Still, I’ve never apologized to anyone.”
“Try it. What’s the worst he can do?”
Apollo sat in the windowsill and thought. The cold air on his back made him jump back into the room. Living in the clouds above Mount Olympus was always chilly except on the hottest days.
“I’d expect him to refuse to accept the apology. He can really hold a grudge. But if he starts crowing about the apology, I think I’ll lose my cool.”
“What would you ask him to do? I mean, assuming he accepts the apology.”
“I’d like to be free of this longing. After I got over the rage of Daphne escaping me, I thought I was in love, but I realized that I needed to let her go. I was just horny – don’t say anything!” He grinned as she let her breath out. “Coronis and Kyrene helped me understand that. But you see the moping. I can’t get over Daphne.”
“Sounds like you still are in love. Tough for an immortal, you know.”
“Tell me about it! I went looking for her, but the woods were gone. It’s a suburban shopping mall now.” He went to the cabinet and got out the bowl of ambrosia paste. He scooped some into the mugs. Leto poured the hot water. They stirred the warm ambrosia in silence for a while.
“I have an idea. Take your sister with you.”
“Artemis doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Maybe not. But she is a better shot than Eros, even if the ‘silly boy’ doesn’t think so. You were always clever, and he’s a sucker for a dare. Bet him that he can’t outshoot her. When he loses, he can back out the curse of his golden-tipped arrows.” She took a sip. “Do you know where she is?”
“Playing basketball with the girls at the high school.” He tilted his head toward the sprawling metropolis of Athens. “She won’t want to be bothered.”
“Maybe not, but take her some fresh clothes and a towel. She always forgets them, and she always wants a shower or a bath after playing ball.”
“Okay. Don’t wait up for us for supper. I want to go to the Palomar Observatory tonight and look at Orion with her.”
“Good move. That will help her understand how important this is to you.”
“Thanks, Mom. You’re the best.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“Don’t tell your stepmother. Now go on, before you have to chase her like one of her dogs.”
Brother Matthew liked the story enough to raise Joe’s mark to B+. He also suggested that Joe submit it to the Roman Eagle, the school newspaper.
“Thank you, brother. May I ask if we are going to study all the plates in our book?”
“Probably not, Joe. We don’t have time. But we will wrap up the Renaissance next week with another field report like this one. Are you anxious to write another story?”
“Maybe. I asked because I recognized the Dama con liocorno in the Borghese when I went to study Apollo and Daphne. It’s in our book.”
“Do you want that one?”
Joe shrugged. “Sure.”
“Good. I’ll put you down for it. The others can pick something else tomorrow. Your reward for this story. I enjoyed it.”
The next week, Joe turned in his report. Raffaello, Caterina and her friends got him an A this time.
Years later, the Dama would enter Joe’s life dramatically. But he would not get a grade for that story…
© 2022, JT Hine