Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Detail, Triumph of Death. Camposanto. Pisa

Sálle has waited all his life to be contacted by the spirits. Now that they've called, there's no turning back—not until the spirits say STOP.

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42. Becoming Apprenticed (January 4, 1348)

This saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.


Bávlos awoke the next morning in a strange and cluttered room. He opened his eyes a slit and the light of the day made his head pound. A rooster was crowing. Beside him lay Buoamico, his heavy arm thrown over Bávlos’s chest. Bávlos saw that his clothes lay in a heap by the side of the bed, but he had no memory of taking them off, something he never did except to go swimming or take a sauna. As he puzzled over the situation, it occurred to him that he had no memory of going to sleep either, and no memory of even coming to this room.

“Buonamico?” he said quietly, poking the sleeping man.

“Humph,” grunted the painter, his eyes still closed. Then he opened one eye and stared at Bávlos.

“Paolo!” he said, suddenly becoming aware of his friend’s confusion, “so you’re awake! We got on a bit late last night, what with celebrating the day! I had to carry you home, boy—I don’t think wine quite agrees with you!”

“I don’t think so, either, “ said the pilgrim, “I don’t remember anything at all of last night!”

“Nothing at all?” laughed the painter, “Not the singing, not the bear imitation? Why you were the life of the tavern last night! Everyone was in agreement that Sallivario must be a fine land!”Bávlos lay in bed puzzled. What had happened? How had he lost full hours of his memory?

“I can’t understand,” he said at last.

“Understand? Ah,” said the painter, “you have not drunk our Tuscan wine before.”

“No,” said Bávlos, remembering the deep red drink from the day before. “What about the wine?”

The painter laughed. “That’s what wine does when you’ve drunk too much!” He pinched Bávlos’s cheek. “In vino veritas, they say: our true selves come out with a drink or two!”

“Why are my clothes off?” asked Bávlos, still perplexed.

“Well, I took them off you, boy,” chuckled Buonamico. “You wouldn’t want to go to sleep with your clothes on, would you?”

“In my land, we always do.”

“Sleep in your clothes?” laughed Buonamico. “Ah, that explains a lot. At any rate, in this country it’s the custom to take off your day clothes and put on night clothes, at least if you’re a person of status enough to own such things.”

“Special clothes for sleeping?” asked Bávlos amazed. It all seemed so extravagant, so lavish, like the soft raised bed he was lying upon. How did Buonamico take all this with him when he had traveled here from Firenze? He must have a mighty string off pack animals.The outside door suddenly banged. It was Signora Bertoli arriving to fix breakfast.

“Morning!” she cackled, “The day’s half over! How can a painter make a living if he sleeps the day away?”Buonamico groaned and rolled over. Bávlos slipped off the bed and began to pull his clothes on hurriedly. He wondered how Nieiddash was doing in the stable out back and if she had had sufficient water for the night. He felt ashamed for not having tended to her before going to sleep.

“I need to check on my deer,” he said.

“Do that,” said Buonamico. “You’ll find some hay and grain there for him.”

“It’s a female,” said Bávlos.

“A female? With antlers?” chortled Buonamico. “Never heard of such a thing!”

“She will keep her antlers until she has her baby,” said Bávlos. “The antlers mean she is expecting.”

“Ha,” said Buonamico. “And when will she give birth to this little one?”

“In a few months,” said Bávlos, not knowing the words to explain it in any more detail.

“Well, don’t keep the expecting mother waiting, then,” said Buonamico. “And come inside for breakfast when you’re done.”Bávlos walked through the kitchen to the back door. Signora Bertoli stared at him for a moment and then continued her bustling.

“Good morning, Sir Pilgrim,” she said. “Still with us today?”

“Good morning,” said Bávlos. “Yes, it seems that I am still here.” In the stable, Bávlos was relieved to find Nieiddash in good spirits. She seemed to be on good terms with the mule, goat, cow, and chickens that shared the space, and Bávlos saw that she had plentiful water in a large trough by the wall. It smelled good in the stable, and Bávlos was glad for the fresh morning air. He had never slept so late before. Nieiddash nuzzled him gently.

“Here is where you are needed,” said a voice. Bávlos looked around. There was no one in sight. It must be his spirit gang.

“Iesh?” said Bávlos.

“You have found the place I told you to search for,” said the voice. “But your journeying and your work are not over.”

“What more do I have to do?” asked Bávlos, looking at the ceiling. The door opened and Angelo entered. He was a short, dark boy with curly hair. He looked around as he stepped forward.

“Are you talking to me?” he said hesitantly.

“Oh no, sorry,” said Bávlos, embarrassed. “I was, I was talking to my deer here.”

“He is a fine animal,” said Angelo.

“She,” said Bávlos. “It is a female deer. Her name is Nieiddash.”

“Nieiddash,” said the boy. “What does that mean?” It means ‘little girl,’ bambina,” said Bávlos.

“Ah,” said the boy. “What a beautiful little girl,” he said. “May I pet her?”

“Of course!” said Bávlos. “She likes to be scratched! She grew up with people because her mother left her.”

“Why did she do that?” asked Angelo.

“Well, it happens,” said Bávlos. “The dogs or wolves, they scare the mothers when they are having their babies, and then they run away. And sometimes they come back to lick the baby and give it milk, but sometimes they just run and run and forget all about the little one. And then they don’t want it anymore, even if you show the mother the baby.”

“Oh, said Angelo nodding. “My mother was like that I guess.”

“Your mother?” said Bávlos. “You are Buonamico’s son?”

“No!” laughed the boy. “He is my master! I am an apprentice.”

“An apprentice?” asked Bávlos.

“Yes, the home where I grew up, the home for abandoned ones, they paid for me to learn painting from Master Buonamico Buffalmacco. I am to work for him until I am fully grown, and then I can be a painter myself!”

“Ah, so you are learning how to paint!” said Bávlos. “Yes,” said the boy, looking at the ground. “But I don’t much like it. I’d rather just take care of animals out here in the stable.” Bávlos nodded. He could understand the feeling. “You go inside for breakfast,” said the boy. “I will clean up in here and then come in too.” Bávlos nodded again and walked out through the little courtyard to the kitchen. He looked back to see Angelo vigorously stroking Nieiddash’s neck.

Over breakfast, Bávlos and Buonamico talked about the pilgrim’s plans.“So what is next for you?” asked Buonamico. “I think you will want to see the Cathedral and all, yes?”

“Indeed,” said Bávlos.

“I will take you there myself,” said Buonamico. “And then?”

“Well, after that I don’t quite know,” said Bávlos. He remembered the words of the Iesh from the stable: Here is where you are needed.

“Look here,” said the painter, clearing his throat. “You know, I could use some help in my workshop, if you’ve no other plans. Normally a painter worth his salt’s got a troop of assistants, but I don’t seem to attract the apprentices like some masters do.” He looked ruefully over at Angelo, who had come in from the shed by now and was busily wolfing down his bread and cheese. The boy did not raise his eyes.

“I would like that,” said Bávlos.

“I couldn’t pay you anything,” said Buonamico hastily, “but you’d get room and board, and of course training with me, one of the greatest painters of our times.”

The old woman snorted. “Mamma mia,” she said, shaking her head. “How this one goes on!”

“At any rate,” said Bávlos, “I would like to help you. I think that is what I came for.”

“To help me?” laughed Buonamico. “So you’re the answer to my prayers?”

“I don’t know that for certain,” said Bávlos, “but I think so.”

Buonamico leaned back in his chair a moment and stared. “Who sent you?” he said, chuckling. “Is this some trick of Calandrino’s?”

“Iesh,” said Bávlos, “It was Iesh that sent me.”

“Iesh?” said Buonamico, furrowing his brows.

“Iesh, the Savior.” Said Bávlos, pointing upward.

“Ah, so is that what he’s called in your language! Iesh,” said Buonamico, rubbing his chin. It seemed to dawn on him now that Bávlos was in earnest.

“In my language he is not called anything,” said Bávlos simply. “My people are what you would call pagans.”

The old woman dropped the pot she was carrying, sending table scraps flying in all directions. It smashed to pieces on the stone floor. She crossed herself vigorously and fled out the doorway. Buonamico whooped with delight.

“I’m afraid you’ve frightened poor Signora Bertoli speechless!” he laughed. “And that’s probably the first time in her life!” Growing quieter he leaned forward and asked, “But then, however did you become a Christian?”

“Iesh called me,” said Bávlos simply.

“Ah,” said Buonamico, nodding, “I see.”

That very morning, Bávlos began his training as a painter’s assistant. Buonamico gave him a painter’s tunic to wear: a rough woolen robe with a hood. Bávlos put his belt over it so that he would still have his knife and other tools handy. Buonamico laughed at the sight. Buonamico also offered him a pair of shoes to wear, but these were far too large for Bávlos’s feet, so he dug out his summer shoes from his pack and put those on instead. He learned how to grind colors by rolling colored pebbles between a heavy stone and a flat hard block. Buonamico had strict rules about how much each type of pigment was to be ground, and he was very exacting about every detail. The mineral called aethiops was black when coarse, but the finer one ground it the brighter red it became. Buonamico instructed Bávlos to grind it until it became a powder of flame red hue, which Buonamico termed vermillion. On the other hand, when Bávlos started to grind the blue pebbles that were to make azure, Buonamico stopped him before he had hardly begun. If the stones became too small, Buonamico explained, they would cease to show their color and the pigment would be ruined. The different sized pebbles had to be carefully sorted using mixtures of water, soap, gum, and lye. Each grade of powder had its own uses and Buonamico wanted them carefully stored in separate bags. Not all colors were made from stones. Buonamico showed Bávlos how to tie grape vines into tight bundles, place them in a pot and bake them over light heat to make a charcoal. This could then be ground to create a deep and oily black. Still other colors were shrouded in wonder and mystery. White pigment, Buonamico explained, was made by placing pieces of lead in bowls of vinegar and sealing these shut. Then they were buried in the heat of a dung hill. When the lead was later removed, it could be slowly roasted over a fire until it turned a vivid white. Roasting it more transformed the white to an orange which Buonamico called minium. Another favorite red of Buonamico’s was called dragon’s blood: it was made from cinnabar, the fallen blood of fabulous animals called dragons and elephants, shed when they were fighting to the death. One of these was an immense animal many times the size of an ox, equipped with a nose longer than both a man’s arms outstretched. The other was a scaly beast that could swim and fly and sounded like the guovlas sea serpents Bávlos had heard of back home. Bávlos was reasonably certain that such dragons were around, but he was doubtful of the existence of those beasts called elephants.

Not only was it necessary to prepare the different pigments in their various ways, but they needed to be mixed with liquids so that they could be painted on the walls. Buonamico showed Bávlos how to separate egg yolks from egg whites, and to beat the latter vigorously until they became transformed into a stiff, dry foam. Then they were mixed with the shoots of fig trees as well as earwax and allowed to sit for a time. Gradually, the bubbles of the egg whites all popped and the egg became a runny and smooth liquid again. Buonamico added some red powder to it to keep it from spoiling, and then it was ready to be used in painting.

While some pigments could be mixed with this egg white when being applied to the wall, others, like the azure pebbles, were too heavy and had to be mixed with a thick liquid made from boiling pieces of parchment in water. At every turn Buonamico instructed Bávlos carefully: he was a wonderful teacher, one who could discuss his subject very seriously.

“There are some,” said Buonamico when showing Bávlos how to beat eggwhite with a wooden stick, “that use a sponge to do this beating. You squeeze the egg white in and out of the sponge until it gets nice and loose and no longer stringy. But in the process it is adulterated by every sort of grit and dirt and the resulting liquid is hideous to use. I favor the cleaner way: you beat the whites in a pottery bowl with a wooden prod until they become like snow. Any less than that,” he said, shooting an irritated look at Angelo, who was slowly grinding some pebbles on the large slab, “and the whole painting is spoiled, utterly spoiled. Can you do that beating for me, Paolo, my boy?”

“I think I can,” said Bávlos, nodding seriously.

“Good,” said Buonamico. “Because I have got to get that San Sebastiano finished for the abbess or she’ll never recommend me for another commission in this city! I was supposed to have it done already on Christmas eve. I don’t know what the rush is—his feast is not for several weeks!”

In the exacting art of painting, little could be done ahead of time: things needed to be mixed and immediately applied to retain their hue and effectiveness. At the church, Buonamico carefully mixed bits of pigment with the egg white in an egg shell and applied these to the panel he was painting with a fine brush. Bávlos sat beside the ladder to hand him materials as he needed them.

As time went by, and Buonamico became absorbed in his careful painting, Bávlos drew out a large piece of pine he had taken from the stable and began to carve it. Before long he had shaped it into a version of San Sebastiano: a tall man, bound to a pole, his hands tied behind his back. He made holes where he could insert little arrows once he had time to carve them up. By late afternoon, it was ready to smooth. Buonamico was astounded by the work.

“Why you’ve captured the very essence of the saint!” he cried. There was something sinuous in Bávlos’ sculpture: small though it was, it seemed to exude the noble martyr’s strength and bravery. It had a grace and ease about it that, if Buonamico were to speak honestly, he would have to admit was missing from his own painting.

“Back home I’ll show you how to put some gesso on that and get it fit for painting.”

“I know about that,” said Bávlos, recalling his time with Master Claes so long ago in Gotland.

“Ah,” said the painter, “I see.”

Over the next few days, both San Sebastianos drew to completion. Buonamico added the final touches to his work, carefully elaborating the fabrics on the clothing of the saint’s oppressors. Bávlos inserted small arrows all over his sculpture and painted the work with Buonamico’s help. He gave his Sebastiano brown hair rather than yellow and made his loincloth grey. He painted the post in a mixture of black and brown that somehow captured exactly the look and feel of a tree trunk. He enjoyed applying red in liberal quantities to convey the saint’s ample bleeding. When it was finished, Buonamico was in awe.

“My boy,” he said, “You have talent. I’ve never seen a better rendering of the saint done in wood in less time. Why you could produce three of these in a day if you wanted!”

“Oh, said Bávlos, shrugging his shoulders but pleased at his friend’s admiration, “back home everyone carves when they’re not doing other work. I’m no better than most.”

“Then you come from a land of artists,” said the painter. “I tell you, they call this the land of painters, but most folk hereabouts couldn’t make the image of an orange!”

“I give it to you,” said Bávlos quietly, “to thank you for your help.”

“Why, thank you kindly!” said the painter. “You know, this beauty may just come in handy during my visit with the bishop!”

A few days later, after a generous lunch purchased at a local inn with some of Bávlos’s coins, Buonamico escorted his pilgrim apprentice to the grand cathedral area of the city. It was the site of marvelous buildings: a round baptistery of great height and beauty, a grand cathedral bestrewn inside and out with impressive carvings and paintings, and a tall though tilted tower. Buonamico showed his friend the various artworks of the complex, telling him of the artists who had done the work. One was old fashioned and limited, another daring but technically inferior, another conceited beyond bearing. Bávlos was taken with a number of paintings of Notre Dame, all in stunning blue.

“Notre Dame liked blue clothes,” said Bávlos thoughtfully.

“Not likely,” said Buonamico. “She may have liked grey for all we know. It’s just that lapis lazuli makes that color ultramarine, the finest pigment known to art, far nicer than the azure I had you preparing the other day for San Sebastiano. A really high quality painting always needs lots of lapis lazuli, along with some gilding, of course. Real gilding, I mean, “ he said gravely, “like you see on the paintings in here: not pieces of tin painted yellow!”

Bávlos enjoyed learning to see art from the technician’s perspective, noticing how an image was constructed, not simply what it depicted. And Buonamico seemed to love to hold forth on such topics, imparting wisdom that Angelo seemed little interested in receiving.

“Let me take you round to the last part of the area,” said Buonamico, “the Camposanto. I’ve got my eye on a commission there!”

The two men walked to a long building that lay to the side of the bapistry and cathedral. Although shorter in height than either of the other buildings, it was still an impressive sight: it looked like a grand cloister, with a fine open garden in its center and long hallways open to the air on one side. Bávlos liked the openness of the space and admired the many fine monuments on the floor and walls of the building.

“What is this place?” he asked. “It’s a graveyard,” said Buonamico, “a place for burying the dead.”

“Oh,” said Bávlos. Such places were not to be found in his father’s lands. Back home, family members were buried discreetly, in places chosen by the family near one of their seasonal camping places, not pooled together into one place as here.

“Of course, it’s not an ordinary graveyard,” said Buonamico impressively, “the soil beneath your feet was brought back from the Mouth of Golgotha in Gerusalemme, where our Savior died and was buried!”

Bávlos felt his body going cold with fright. “They took soil from the place where the Savior died?”

“Yes,” said Buonamico. “And now all the finest Pisani can be buried in the same soil as Christ!”

“But soil! Oh no,” said Bávlos. How could it be that such people did not understand the gravity of such acts? Taking soil from a grave was simply evil: it could not be interpreted in any other way. It was done to work evil magic, to harm people or control their souls. And to take the soil from Iesh’s own grave: what could that mean? “I must leave this place at once,” said Bávlos. “We must leave! It is not healthy to stay here!”

Buonamico opened his eyes wide. “But Bávlos, this is the finest place in all the city and I have my eye on a wall I’d like to paint—”

“Please!” said Bávlos frantically, “No good can come of being here. Unless we leave, great harm can come to this city!”

Buonamico smiled. “Bávlos, you are an eccentric. But I’ll humor you for the moment. Come, let’s go.” They walked out of the Camposanto, Bávlos crossing himself vigorously in the way he had seen Italians do when coming upon unlucky things. He was visibly shaking from the experience.

“Come now, Bávlos, relax,” said the painter, laying his hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezing his neck. “They have had that soil in this city for over a generation now and no harm has ever come: no misfortune, no pestilence, no demise! Quite the contrary, in fact: Pisa shines as one of the greatest cities of the world. Why, hardly more than twenty years ago they even defeated Firenze in battle and I doubt that things will ever be otherwise. These Pisani are a favored people and this land of theirs is favored as well.”

“I do not think it was right to take that soil,” said Bávlos, relenting somewhat. “It must have been a very ignorant man who did so.”

“I’ll have you know it was an archbishop,” said Buonamico as if affronted, “but then again, you’re probably right. Such ones are often as ignorant as—oh-ho!” he whispered suddenly, “Look who’s there!” Buonamico motioned furtively at a grand prelate, marching toward his residence with a younger man and a train of attendants. “His excellency the new Archbishop Giovanni Scarlatti. Former papal legate to Armenia, that one, and sometime ambassador to the emperor at Constantinople,” breathed Buonamico. “That man has seen the top, and now he is here as archbishop of Pisa.”

“He must be a very holy man,” said Bávlos craning his neck to look. “And who is the other man he is talking to?” he asked.

“His nephew Luigi,” said Buonamico. “Made a bishop just last week. Quite a worldly fellow I’ll have you know,” he said, raising his eyebrows confidingly: “keeps in mistress here in town and another in San Gimignano. Goes in for fine art and all the luxuries.”

“A bishop?” said Bávlos, showing his surprise. “But I thought—”

“That he’d be humble and pious and simple?” said Buonamico, chuckling.

“Well, yes.”

“Not the nephew kind of bishop, Bávlos. The nephew type is quite another kind of animal. Rich and contented, usually pretty conceited too. They get their title from their uncles as a kind of family favor. A nasty habit, really, but then these nephew types are often great patrons of the arts. They’re not so busy with prayers as the other ones generally are. I’m going to be meeting with that bishop Luigi later today.”

“Well,” said Bávlos, thinking back to his friends in France, “that is certainly interesting. At any rate, you can remind the bishop of the evil of taking dirt from a grave!”

“I’ll mention it if it comes up in conversation,” said Buonamico, smiling. “You usually have to follow the bishop’s lead in an audience, you know.”

Late that afternoon, Buonamico made his visit to the archbishop’s residence. He was escorted into an elegant room where Bishop Luigi was seated on a red velvet chair. He was idly fingering some figs, and chatting with an attendant. He glanced at Buonamico and popped a fig into his mouth.

“Ah Buffalmacco,” he said chewing, a little fig juice trickling down his chin. He extended his hand to the painter. Buonamico galantly knelt down on one knee to kiss the bishop’s ring and then rose with some difficulty.

“Allow me to congratulate you on your elevation to the episcopate,” said Buonamico, drawing Bávlos’s sculpture from behind his back. “I have made bold to procure for you a small token of my esteem to mark the occasion.” He hoped the paint was thoroughly dry.

“Beautiful!” said the bishop, lifting the statue close to his eye as he examined its workmanship. “Simply beautiful. Unless I miss my guess, Dutch work, from one of the finest shops in Leiden.”

“You amaze me,” said Buonamico, bowing.

“I know my art, Buonamico. And I thank you for this statue. It is most appreciated.”

“Your excellency,” said Buonamico, bowing again. Then after a short pause, he began again. “Your excellency, before your elevation we had discussed—”

“Discussed a painting, yes,” said the bishop, his eyes sparkling. “A rendering of the Annunciation. But I wanted to delay the commission.”

“Yes, your excellency,” said Buonamico.

“Well,” said the bishop “things have changed. I’m prepared to finance, er commission, the work now at once.”

“Excellent, your excellency!” said Buonamico excitedly.

“Oh, but Buonamico,” he said, “Remember the dimensions we spoke of?”

“Yes your excellency.”

“Well, double them. And use lots of lapis lazuli too—money is no object!”

“Yes your excellency,” said Buonamico, smiling broadly and nodding.

“When you’ve completed it, bring it to my, er, retreat in San Gimignano. Can you do that, Master Buonamico?”

“Certainly, your excellency. It will be my pleasure.”

“Good, Buonamico. I think our audience is at its end?”

“Yes,” said Buonamico bowing as he bent again to kiss the bishop’s ring.

Buonamico returned to his home in high spirits. “Bávlos, my boy!” he cried, “Let’s celebrate!”