The Brass Boar
In the city of Florence, not far from piazza del granduca, there is a transverse street – I think its name is porta rossa – in which, in front of a kind of bazaar where vegetables are sold, there lies an artistically fashioned brass boar nicknamed Il Porcellino; fresh, clear water runs from the mouth of the beast which, because of age, is quite blackish green, only the snout gleams as if it had been polished until it shone, and this it in fact the case – by the many hundreds of children and poor people who seize it by the snout with their hands and put their mouth to that of the beast in order to drink. It’s an absolute picture to see the well-formed beast be embraced by a half-naked boy that places his young lips against its snout.
Anyone coming to Florence will easily find the spot, he only needs to ask the first beggar he sees about the brass boar, and he’ll find it.
It was a late winter’s evening, the mountains lay decked with snow, but there was moonlight, and moonlight in Italy has a light intensity that is just as strong as a dark winter’s day in northern Europe, in fact it is stronger, because the air gleams, the air uplifts, whereas in the North the cold, grey leaden roof presses us down to the earth, the cold, wet earth that one day will do likewise on our coffin.
Over in the count’s castle garden, under the roof of the stone pines, where thousands of roses are in bloom in the winter, a small, ragged boy had been sitting the entire day, a boy who could be the epitome of Italy, so beautiful, so smiling and yet so suffering; he was hungry and thirsty, no one gave him a small coin, and when it grew dark and the garden was to be closed, the porter chased him away. For a long time he stood dreaming on the bridge over the Arno river gazing at the stars that were sparkling in the water between him and the magnificent marble bridge. He went over to the brass boar, half-knelt, threw his arms around its neck, placed his young lips to its gleaming snout and drank great draughts of the fresh water. Nearby lay a couple of lettuce leaves and few chestnuts, which served as his supper. There was no one to be seen in the street; he was completely alone, he sat down on the brass boar’s back, leant forwards, so that his curly little head rested on that of the animal, and before he even realised it himself fell asleep.
It was midnight, the brass boar moved, he heard it say quite clearly: ‘you, young lad, hold on tight for now I’m going to run!’ and then it ran off with him; it was an amusing ride. – They first came to piazza del granduca; and the bronze horse that bore the count’s statue gave a loud whinny; the many-coloured coats of arms on the old city hall gleamed like transparent pictures, and Michelangelo’s David whirled his sling; it was a strange life that came into motion! The bronze groups of Perseus and the Rape of the Sabine Women stood there all too alive; a cry of mortal anguish from them sounded over the magnificent, lonely square.
At palazzo degli Uffizi, in the cloister when the nobility gathers for the carnival celebrations, the brass boar came to a halt.
‘Hold on tight!’ the animal said, ‘hold on tight, for now we’re going up the flight of steps. The little boy didn’t say a word, he was half quaking and half blissfully happy.
They entered a long gallery, he knew it well, he had been here before; the walls were resplendent with paintings, there were statues and busts, all of this bathed in the most beautiful light, as if it were day, but the most wonderful thing of all was when the door of one of the side rooms opened; yes, this splendour the boy was to remember; though on that night everything shone quite wonderfully.
A lovely, naked woman stood here, as beautiful as only nature and the greatest master of marble could form her; she moved her lovely limbs, the dolphins leapt around her feet, immortality shone from her eyes. The world calls her the Venus de Medici. On either side of her stood marble statues of handsome men; one of them was whetting his sword, he is called the Grinder, the other is a group of wrestling gladiators; the sword was being sharpened, the gladiators were wrestling for the goddess of beauty.
The boy was as if dazzled by all the brilliance; the walls were radiant with many colours, and everything was life and movement there. The image of Venus showed itself in duplicate, the earthly Venus, so curvaceous and fiery, as seen by Titian. The images of two lovely women; the beautiful, unveiled limbs stretched out on the soft cushions, their breasts heaved and heads moved so that the plentiful locks settled round the round shoulders, while their dark eyes flashed incandescent thoughts; but none of those depicted dared step completely out of their frame. The goddess of beauty herself, the gladiators and the sharpener remained in their places, for the haloes radiating from the Virgin Mary, Jesus and St. John bound them. The holy images were no longer images – they were the holy figures themselves.
What lustre and what beauty one room after the other! and the young boy saw them all; the brass boar went step by step through all that splendour and magnificence. One view superseded the other, only one image could be held fast in one’s thoughts, and mostly at the sight of the glad, happy children that were depicted – the young boy had once nodded to them in broad daylight.
Many people easily just pass by this picture, although it is a treasure trove of poetry: it is Christ who is descending into Limbo, but it is not those in torment that one sees around him, no, it is the heathen; the Florentine Angiolo Bronzino has painted this picture; most marvellous of all is the expression of childlike certainty that they are to go to Heaven; two young children are already embracing each other, one reaches down to another one further down and points to himself, as if saying: ‘I am to go to Heaven!’ all those who are older stand there, hopefully, or bow down humbly in prayer before the Lord Jesus.
The boy stood there looking at the picture longer than at any other one, and patted the brass boar which clang! clang! leapt down the stairs with him.
Thank you and blessings in return!’ the brass boar said, ‘I have helped you and you have helped me, for only with an innocent child on my back do I get enough strength to run around! yes, see, I even dare go in under the light cast by the lamp in front of the image of the Virgin Mary. I can carry you anywhere except into the church! but outside it, when you are with me, I can look in through the open door! do not get off my back, for if you do, I will lie there dead, just as you see me in the daytime in porta rossa street!’
‘I will stay with you, my amazing animal!’ the young boy said, and then they shot off at breakneck speed through the streets of Florence, out to the square in front of the Santa Croce church.
The great double door flew open, the light shone from the altar, through the church, out onto the lonely square.
A strange lustre emanated from a sepulchral monument in the left aisle, thousands of moving stars formed what was like a halo around it. A resplendent coat of arms adorned it, a ladder gules on a chief azure, it seemed to gleam like gold. This was the grave of Galileo, a simple monument, although the ladder gules on a chief azure is a significant coat of arms – it is as if it were that of art itself, for here the path upwards is always on a glowing ladder, but to heaven. All the prophets of the spirit ascend to heaven like the prophet Elijah.
In the right-hand aisle every sculpture on the rich sarcophagi seemed to have come to life. Here stood Michelangelo, there Dante with a laurel wreath on his brow; Aflieri, Machiavelli rest here side by side, these great men, the pride of Italy. It is a magnificent church, far more beautiful than Florence’s marble cathedral, though not as large.
It was as if the marble raiment moved, as if the great figures even raised their heads and looked in the night, amidst singing and music, up towards the many-coloured, gleaming altar, where cassock-clad boys swung golden thuribles; the strong fragrance streamed out of the church onto the open square.
The boy stretched out his hand towards this lustre, and at that very moment off shot the brass boar; he had to hug on tight, the wind roared past his ears, he heard the church doors creaking on their hinges as they closed, but immediately he seemed to lose consciousness, he felt an icy coldness – and opened his eyes.
It was morning, he had slid half-way off the brass boar, which stood where it always used to stand, in porta rossa street.
Fear and dread seized the boy at the thought of the person he called mother, she who had sent him out yesterday and said that he was to procure some money, for he had none; he was hungry and thirsty; once more he threw his arms round the brass boar’s neck, kissed it on its snout, nodded to it and then walked away, to one of the narrowest streets, only wide enough for a well-laden donkey. A large, iron-mounted door stood ajar, here he went up a brick staircase with dirty walls and a smooth rope as a railing, and came to an open gallery plastered with hanging rags; a staircase led from her to the courtyard, where from the well heavy iron wires were linked to all the storeys of the house, and the one bucket swayed next to the other, while the block and tackle squeaked and the bucket danced in the air, so that the water sploshed down into the courtyard. Again he went up a dilapidated brick staircase; – two sailors, who were Russians, leapt vigorously down it and nearly bowled the poor boy over. They were returning from their nocturnal amusements. A not so young but strongly built female figure, with a mass of black hair followed them. ‘What have you brought home with you?’ she said to the boy.
‘Don’t be angry!’ he begged her, ‘I’ve got nothing, nothing at all!’ – and he seized his mother’s dress, as if he wanted to kiss it; they entered the small room: we have no wish to describe it; only to say that a jug with handles stood there with coal-fires, marito, as it is called, which she took on her arm, warmed her fingers and nudged the boy with her elbow. ‘Of course you’ve got money!’ she said. –
The child cried, she kicked him with her foot, he wailed loudly; – ‘Stop your noise, or I’ll smash your bawling head in!’ she said and swung the fire-pot she was holding at him, the boy ducked down low with a shriek. Then the woman next door came in, she too had a marito on her arm. ‘Felicita! What are you doing with the child?’
‘The child’s mine!’ Felicita answered. ‘I can murder him if I feel like it, and you too, Gianina!’ and she swung her fire-pot at her; the neighbour lifted hers to ward this off, and both pots crashed into each other, so that the shards, coals and ashes flew all over the room; – but the boy was already out of the door in a trice, across the courtyard and out of the house. The poor child ran until finally he was completely out of breath; he stopped at the Santa Croce church, the one whose double doors had opened for him in the night, and entered. Everything was gleaming; he knelt down at the first grave to the right, it was that of Michelangelo, and soon he was sobbing loudly. People came and went. The mass was read, no one took any notice of the boy; only a rather old citizen stopped, looked and him and then went off like the others.
Hunger and thirst tormented the young boy, he was quite weak and ill; he crept over to a corner between the wall and the marble monument and fell asleep. He did not wakeup until it was almost evening, when someone shook him, he leapt up, and it was the same old citizen standing before him.
‘Are you ill? Where do you live? Have you been here the whole day?’ were just a few of the many questions the old man put to him; they were answered, and the old man took him with him to a small house close to one of the side-streets; it was a glovemaker’s workshop they entered, his wife was sitting there industriously sewing when they arrived; a small, white Bichon Bolognese, cropped so close that one could see its pink skin, jumped up and down on the table, and made a leap towards the small boy.
‘Innocent souls recognise each other,’ the woman said and stroked both the dog and the boy. He was given something to eat and drink with these kind people, and that said he could sleep the night there; the following day the father, Giuseppe, would have a word with his mother. He was given a small, humble bed, but that was a royal luxury to him, for he often had to sleep on the hard stone floor; he slept oh so well and dreamt about the wonderful pictures and the brass boar.
Next morning, father Giuseppe went out, and the poor child was not so happy about that, for he knew that this meant he was to be taken to his mother, and he cried and kissed the agile little dog, and the wife nodded to both of them. –
And what message did father Giuseppe come back with? he spoke a great deal with his wife, and she nodded and patted the boy. ‘He’s a delightful child!’ she said. ‘He can surely become a fine glovemaker, just as you did! and his fingers are so fine and flexible. The Holy Virgin has decided he is to be a glovemaker!’
And the boy remained there in the house, and the wife personally taught him how to sew; he ate well, he slept well, he grew cheerful and started to tease Bellissima, as the dog was called; the wife raised a threatening finger at him, scolded him and was angry, and this the boy took to heart; he said thoughtfully in his small room that faced the street, hides used to be dried there; there were thick iron bars across the windows, he couldn’t sleep, the brass boar was in his thoughts, and suddenly outside he heard: ‘Scrabble, scrabble!’ yes, it must be, surely! he leapt over to the window, but there was nothing to be seen, it was already all over.
Help Signore to carry his paint-box!’ the mistress said the next morning to the boy, when the young neighbour, the painter, came lugging it along with him, as well as a large, rolled-up canvas; the child took the box, followed the painter, and they took the path to the gallery, went up the same stairs he knew well from the night when he rode on the brass boar; he knew the statues and pictures, the lovely marble Venus and those who lived in colours; he saw once more the Virgin Mary, Jesus and St. John.
They now stood in silence in front of the painting by Bronzino where Christ descends into Limbo and the children around him smile in the sweet certainty of heaven; the poor child also smiled, for he was in his own heaven here.
‘Well, off home with you!’ the painter said to him, when he had already stood there for so long a time that the painter had put up his easel.
‘May I see you paint?’ the boy said. ‘May I see how you get the picture over there onto that white canvas?’ –
‘I’m not going to paint!’ the man replied and took out his black crayon – his hand moved swiftly, he sized up the large picture, and despite the fact that he only drew a thin line, Christ stood there floating, just as in the coloured picture.
‘Be off with you now!’ the painter said, and the boy walked quietly home, sat up on the table and learnt how to sew gloves.
But all day long his thoughts were in the hall of pictures, and therefore he came to prick his finger, was ham-fisted, but he didn’t tease Bellissima on the other hand. When evening came and the street door stood slightly ajar, he crept outside; it was cold but lit by stars so beautifully and brightly; he walked off through the streets were it was already quiet, and soon he was standing in front of the brass boar; he bent down over it, kissed is shiny snout, and sat up on its back; ‘you marvellous beast,’ he said, ‘how I have longed for you! We must go off for a ride tonight.’
The brass boar lay there motionless, and the fresh water gushed out of its mouth. The little boy sat up there as its rider, when something tugged at his clothes; he looked down to one side, Bellissima, the little, short-cropped dog had slipped out of the house with him and followed the little boy without him noticing it. Bellissima barked, as if to say, see, I’m here with you too, why are you sitting up there? No glowing dragon could have frightened the boy more than to see the little dog on this spot. Bellissima out on the street and without being dressed, as the mistress called it – what would become of it? The dog was never allowed out in the winter time without being put into a small sheepskin specially cut and sewn for it. This could be tied round its neck with a red ribbon that had a bow and small bells on it, and it was also fixed under its stomach. The dog almost looked like a young goat when, dressed up in the sheepskin, it was allowed to trot alongside the Signora. Bellissima was with him and undressed – what would become of it? All his fantasies had evaporated, but the boy kissed the brass boar even so, took Bellissima on his arm, the creature was shivering with the cold, and ran as fast as he was able.
‘You there, what are you running off with!’ two gendarmes he met with shouted out, and Bellissima gave a bark. ‘Where have you stolen that lovely dog?’ the asked and took it away from him.
‘Oh, please give it back to me!’ the boy wailed.
‘If you haven’t stolen it, you can say back home that the dog can be fetched from the station,’ and the named the location and went off with Bellissima.
What a terrible state of affairs. He didn’t know if he ought to jump into the Arno river, or go home and admit everything. They would beat him to death, he thought. ‘But I will gladly be beaten to death; I want to die, for then I will come to Jesus and the Virgin Mother!’ and he went home, mostly so as to be beaten to death.
The door was shut, he could not reach the knocker, there was no one in the street, but a loose stone lay there, and he thundered on the door with it; ‘Who’s there!’ they shouted from inside. –
‘It’s me!’ he said, ‘Bellissima’s gone! let me in and beat me to death!’
What a scare, especially for the mistress, because of poor Bellissima; she immediately looked over at the wall where the dog’s garments normally hung – the little sheepskin still hung there.
‘Bellissima down at the station!’ she shouted out loud; ‘you wicked child! How did he get out of the house! He’ll freeze to death! That fine creature among those coarse soldiers!’
And father Giuseppe had to be off at once! His wife moaned and the boy cried; everyone in the house gathered, including the painter; he took the boy between his knees, questioned him, and in bits and pieces he was told the whole story about the brass boar and about the gallery; it was difficult to make head or tail of. The painter consoled the young boy, pleaded with the old woman, but she would not be satisfied until her husband returned with Bellissima, who had been among the soldiers; then everyone was happy, and the painter patted the poor boy and gave him a handful of pictures.
Oh, they were marvellous pictures, amusing heads! but best of all, there was one of the brass boar itself, as large as life. Oh, nothing could be more wonderful! with just a couple of strokes it stood there on the paper, and even the house behind it was suggested.
‘If only one could draw and paint! then one could bring the whole world to oneself!’
The next day, the first moment he was on his own, the young boy grabbed hold of a pencil, and on the white side of one of the pictures he tried to reproduce the drawing of the brass boar – and he managed it! a bit askew, a bit topsy-turvy, one leg thick, the other one thin, but it was possible to make it out – he was joyously happy with it! The pencil refused to go as straight as it should, he noticed; but the following day another brass boar stood next to the other one, and it was a hundred times better; the third was so good that anyone would recognise it.
But things went badly with his glove-sewing, slowly with his errands about town; for the brass boar had now taught him that it was possible for all pictures to be transferred to paper, and the city of Florence is a whole picture book if one wishes to leaf through it. On the piazza della Trinità there stands a slender column and on the top it stands the goddess of justice, blindfolded and with a pair of scales; soon she was down on paper, and it was the glovemaker’s little boy that had put her there. His collection of pictures grew, but it consisted only of dead objects so far; then one day Bellissima jumped in front of him: ‘stand still!’ he said, ‘then you’ll be wonderful and be in one of my pictures!’ but Bellissima refused to stand still, so he had to be bound; his head and tail were bound, he barked and starting jumping about, the string had to be tightened – then came the Signora.
‘You wicked boy! the poor creature!’ was all she managed to utter, and she shoved the boy aside, kicked him with her foot, banished him from her house – he was the most ungrateful brute, the wickedest child; and in tears she kissed her little, half-strangled Bellissima.
At that moment the painter came up the stairs and – here is the turning-point in the story.
In 1834, there was an exhibition in Academia delle arte in Florence; two painters exhibited side by side, collected a great number of onlookers. In the smallest painting, a small, cheerful boy was depicted who was sitting drawing; as his model he had a small, white, close-cropped lap-dog, but the animal refused to stand still and so it had been bound with twine, at both head and tail; there was life and truth in that painting that couldn’t help appealing to everyone. The painter, people said, was a young Florentine who was said to have been found on the street as a young child, been brought up by an old glovemaker, he had taught himself to draw; a now famous painter had discovered his talent when the boy was about to be chased away because he had bound the mistress’s darling, the little lap-dog, and made it his model.
The glovemaker-boy had become a great painter, this picture was proof of that, and even more so did the larger one next to it; here there was only a single figure, a ragged, attractive boy sitting asleep in the street; he was leaning up against the brass boar in porta rossa street. All those looking at the picture knew the spot. The child’s arms rested on the boar’s head; the little boy slept so soundly, the lamp in the picture of the Virgin Mary cast a strong light onto the child’s pale, wonderful face. It was a magnificent painting, surrounded by a gilt frame, and in the corner of the frame there hung a laurel wreath, but among the green leaves there twined a black ribbon, a long black mourning crape hung from it. –
The young artist had recently died!