Fiction

The Old Man and the Pea


Leonardo leaned heavily on his walking-stick as he rose from an ornately carved chair to greet his visitor, Francis. He felt it only right and fitting that he did rise despite being almost three times the age of the man who had come calling; after all, Francis was his host, having recently provided him with both lodgings and a workroom in Château Cloux. Furthermore, the young man was the king of France.

“Your majesty,” said Leonardo, bowing as far as his aged frame would allow.

Francis walked towards him, smiling broadly. “Leonardo, master, please do sit down.”

Leonardo did as he was bidden, grateful for the young man’s understanding of the infirmities of the old, and he rested his hands on the crook of his stick.

Rich silks rustled as the king sat down opposite him.

“You are settling in well, master?” asked Francis. “Everything to your taste?”

Leonardo bowed his head slightly towards the king. “Your majesty’s generosity is overwhelming and very much appreciated. I could not have chosen better for myself.”

The king lifted his hands in protest. “Really, it is my pleasure. It is a privilege to have you here, master.”

Leonardo smiled. “To live out one’s days in such comfort is not something afforded to all. I fear I will never be able to repay your kindness.”

“What need have I of repayment? I have the great da Vinci as my houseguest, and if I would care to be in his company as he works, that is repayment enough.”

Leonardo had dealt with the whims of too many noblemen and princes to let his smile slip even a fraction at this news. “Your majesty is more than welcome to join me whenever he likes – although this old man’s company may be less than stimulating for the ruler of all France.”

“Oh, but I wish to learn from you, master.”

“And I would gladly have a willing pupil, yet I fear that affairs of the realm would have a greater claim upon your majesty’s time. A country as great as France cannot run itself without a leader any more than a painting can paint itself without the attention of the artist.”

Francis laughed. “Quite so, master, quite so. I wish to observe you, then. I wish to know what genius moves your hand when you create a masterpiece. How do you know where to put the line, how long to make it, how heavy or fine? How to portray the face and its many expressions? How is it that lines and pigments can, under such a hand as yours, transform into… for example… the twelve disciples and Our Lord at the Last Supper?” His eyes widened and he held up a forefinger as if a thought had suddenly come unbidden into his mind. “Yes, that’s what we shall do, master – you shall paint another Last Supper and I shall observe you.”

Leonardo bowed his head. “But your majesty – I cannot reproduce that work.”

The royal mouth turned down at the corners. “Why not? You cannot say that you do not like the repetition – you have painted so many Madonnas that I have lost count!”

Leonardo stared at the floor. “Your majesty, I am an old man, with an old man’s frailties. My eyesight is nowhere near as sharp as it used to be, and the light is poor.”

Francis smiled again and shrugged. “Then we shall procure for you the finest optical lenses that can be made. As for light,” – he opened his arms expansively – “you shall have as many candles blazing as you wish. We will magnify them with lenses and reflect their light with mirrors.”

“But that is such expense, your majesty; why not employ Giampietrino or Cesare da Sesto to do it?”

The king leant forward, patted the old man’s hand and grinned conspiratorially.

“Then it would not be a Leonardo, would it?”

The artist turned his palm upwards; it trembled very slightly, but enough to be seen. “Your majesty, my right hand loses its abilities daily.”

“Yes… it does.” Francis took each of Leonardo’s hands into his own. The walking-stick fell to the floor. The king’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed. “But it is your left hand where your power resides, is it not? You use your right hand for the coarser elements – the washes and such – but the left hand does the real work. Think of all the sketches you have done – the notebooks you have filled – using your left hand alone. If there is any artwork your right hand cannot do, the left will complete it. If necessary, your assistants can execute the broad sweeps of colour and you can save yourself for the finer detailing.”

“But would that truly be a da Vinci, your majesty?”

Francis dropped the old man’s hands. “It would be da Vinci enough for me.” He sat back and his smile returned. “Come, master; paint me the picture. I cannot believe it is beyond your capabilities.”

Leonardo lifted his head and sighed. “It may be beyond my lifespan, your majesty. My time is short. To paint The Last Supper took almost three years – and I was so much younger and more able then.”

The young man steepled his fingers and tapped his thumbs together. “Yes, but you did not work on it continuously, did you? Leonardo, it is well-known that you are a… procrastinator, shall we say, with a tendency to… hmm… abandon a work of art from time to time. But there will be no need of procrastination here at Château Cloux.  You will have every comfort and for part of the day you may work on your own inventions but there will be no other distractions.”

The old man was silent.

“Besides,” continued Francis, “I do believe that the Last Supper you did for the Duke of Milan has already started peeling off the wall. In years to come there will be nothing left of it.”

The old man snorted. “I did not want to paint it on such a thin exterior wall, but the duke insisted. It was such a damp place, and I experimented with my methods. What can one expect? It would be the same here, your majesty – castle walls are notoriously damp.”

The king nodded. “They are, they are…which is why you shall paint it on canvas.” He raised his forefinger briefly towards Leonardo. “You shall paint another Last Supper, on canvas, for me. If the Duke of Milan has one, surely the King of France can have one.”

“Your majesty, I cannot…”

Francis gripped the arms of his chair and leant forwards. “What?!” he snarled. “Are you content to let your greatest work die on the wall of some mouldy and peeling mausoleum? Are you content that in years to come, people will talk of you and say they hear your Last Supper was a masterwork, but as they can no longer see it, they can no longer consider it so? The world needs a permanent record of it, Leonardo, to show how you are the supreme artist – and the world shall have it!” He sighed deeply, picked up the walking-stick and handed it to the old man, saying gently, “You shall paint another Last Supper.”

Leonardo grasped the stick. His head drooped and he took a long, slow breath. Three score years already behind him, he wanted his numbered days to be spent in study and invention – ideas which future generations would bring to fruition. His mind teemed with mechanical devices for situations yet undreamt of, and he needed to get them on paper and experiment with them before his powers waned completely. And yet…

He sighed. An old man’s bones needed comfort – food, wine and shelter. An artist’s soul needed paper, canvas, brushes, oils, charcoals, paints and pigments. An inventor’s mind needed wood, metal, materials and tools. All of which the king was happy to provide in endless quantity and without charge.

And – curse him – the king was right. The experiments carried out with paints on the Duke of Milan’s Last Supper had not been a great success. Would this not be an opportunity to put that right and crown his legacy with a lasting masterwork?

He lifted his head and took a deep breath. “Very well, your majesty. For half the day I will work on the Last Supper and your majesty shall observe; for half the day I shall work on my own enterprises and your majesty may run the country.”

The king laughed and clapped his hands. “Excellent! I knew you would see it my way. It is settled then. Send one of your assistants with a team of servants to procure all the materials you need, and we shall get started as soon as we can.”

*****

Both Leonardo and the king were as good as their word. The necessary materials were brought to the château; Leonardo worked in the mornings, outlining the recreation of his masterwork, and Francis observed him. The old man drew quickly and cleanly, without error, for the form and line of The Last Supper was already clear in his mind and he had no need to re-stage it. During the afternoons, Leonardo was free to work on his inventions as the king attended to affairs of state.

In the beginning, Francis was at the master’s side every day, asking questions, making notes, attempting to copy the swift, sure movements of Leonardo’s hand. However, the responsibility of governing a country began to encroach and as the years passed his majesty’s visits to Leonardo became fewer and farther between. Being a man of honour, Leonardo kept his side of the bargain and continued to work on the painting each morning. The canvas was steadily covered until Christ and the disciples were seated at an empty table.

One morning, Leonardo turned from the canvas to find Francis standing behind him.

“Your pardon, your majesty,” he said. “I did not hear you enter.”

The king waved a dismissive hand. “No matter, no matter.” He paused, regarding the canvas carefully. “Master, why have you worked in such a fashion, leaving the table empty?”

Leonardo wiped a brush on a rag already full of generations of pigments. “Your majesty, my health is failing and every day death steps closer to my door. Do you wish that those who will gaze upon this canvas cast their eyes upon bowls of food painted by da Vinci, or do you wish them to marvel in awe at the faces of God and His disciples?”

A grin broke across the king’s face. “Very good, Leonardo, very good. It is well that you have painted the holy ones first. But now the table must be filled, must it not?”

“Indeed, your majesty.”

The king took in a short, sharp breath. “I wish there to be a single pea somewhere.”

Leonardo looked at the king uncertainly. “I beg your majesty’s pardon – my ears…”

“I wish you to paint a pea somewhere.”

“A pea?”

“Yes. All I ask is that there is a pea somewhere in the painting. As it is a supper, I would not have thought it too much trouble.”

Leonardo’s brow furrowed. “I beg your majesty’s pardon again, but Our Lord and His disciples would not have eaten peas. The Bible tells us that there was bread, and wine of course… scholars have it that they would most likely have eaten a dish of stewed beans… there would have been fish… olives with hyssop… sweet and bitter herbs… pistachios, and sweet fruit and nut paste. Not peas, your majesty. I regret, there can be no pea; the picture would not be an accurate representation.”

The king laughed. “Ah, master, I will forgive you that remark in honour of the humour it brings to me. It will not be an accurate representation at all, will it? Forgive me, Leonardo, but I do believe that Our Lord and His disciples would have been of a more… swarthy complexion, living where they did. And which group of friends would sit entirely down one side of the table where half of them could not reach the food? No, no, no, it can never be an accurate representation because you were not there.” He put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “There will be a pea in the painting.”

“A pea, your majesty,” said Leonardo, resignedly. “Might I be permitted to ask why?”

Francis picked up a sketch for a mechanical device from Leonardo’s work table. Leonardo swayed slightly and almost held out his hand.

“Apart from the fact that I am the king and I wish it?” said Francis. He appeared to study the sketch as he ambled around the room. “Let me see… the pea will be a tribute to the great Charlemagne, who seven hundred years ago ordered peas to be planted all over his domains and they have saved many from starvation over the centuries. They are a staple of the poor man’s diet, are they not, and the king must not forget that he rules over rich and poor alike. Christ himself was of the poor and lived and worked among them. What else? Oh, yes, I feel the painting should reference the place where it was painted, and thirty-five years ago His Majesty Louis XI gave this very château to his closest adviser – a man who had worked his way up from being a kitchen-boy, no doubt at some point shelling peas.” He stopped in front of the fireplace and held one hand out to gain heat from the flames which cast a glow of gold onto the sketch he carried. “Are those reasons enough for you, Leonardo?”

Leonardo bowed.

“Your majesty is very gracious and tolerant of an old man’s worries.”

“So there will be a pea?”

“There will, your majesty.”

*****

Leonardo continued work, filling the empty table with platters, drinking vessels, knives, food, wine, salts… but all the time his thoughts were overshadowed by the knowledge that he would have to find a place to put the pea.

How could there be a single pea on the table, without a bowl of peas for it to have come from? Whose plate should he put it on? Whichever one he chose, the king would ask him why, and he had no good reason. Why would only one person be eating a single pea? He couldn’t put the pea on the floor, because that would seem as if he were discarding its importance – an importance which the king placed upon it. But to put a pea anywhere in the painting would have scholars arguing over the fact of the pea, rather than the artistry of the painting or the message of the religion which prompted it.

There came the time when the work was all but done. For Leonardo, the smell of the cold, damp earth which beckoned his future grew stronger by the day but he could not go to meet his maker if his work depicting one facet of that maker were incomplete; it would mean that he, Leonardo da Vinci, would be incomplete and his soul would grind in frustration for eternity. He would not have that. This would be the artwork that would be finished, not abandoned. He would not die an unsatisfied man.

One thing stood between him and his final breath, keeping him alive and summoning his little strength. That one thing was the knowledge that he must paint the pea, for without the pea he could not sign his final masterpiece to show that it was finished.

Every morning for a month, the old man painted a pea and every afternoon he painted it out again. Every night his health failed a little more, hastened by restlessness and worries over the placing of the pea. Finally, with death raising a hand to knock for him, he knew what had to be done and he knew that posterity – not he – would live with the consequences and argue over the reason for those few crucial brush strokes. Too ill to walk, he was carried in his bed to the canvas, his servants held him up and put the brush in his trembling hand. He did what he had to do. He signed the painting; the brush fell to the floor. His servants tenderly laid him down and he turned his face to the wall, never to rise again.

The king was told of Leonardo’s death, which grieved him greatly; he came to Leonardo’s room to pay his respects, shed tears for his friend and bemoan the loss of the supreme artist.

Francis gazed at the painting, lost in contemplation and wonder. The canvas was magnificent – a glorious riot of colour and expression, the painted figures seeming to be alive in the room. The detailing was exquisite, from the folds of the robes to the bones in the outstretched hands.

It would be a legacy to the world, this artwork. The original on a wall in Milan would surely be gone from this earth in fifty years’ time, a victim of experimental techniques and the relentlessness of nature, whereas this, this masterpiece would live forever, surely bearing into antiquity the name of the man who commissioned it, Francis of Angoulême, King Francis I.

But it also bore the signature of the master artist who refused to die until he had finished his last commission to the letter – the very last letter:

leonardo da vincip

Carol Carman’s splendid new novel – Gingerbread Children – is out now, published by McCaw Press.