She moved amongst the shadows, before dawn, as the bright moon orchestrated passages of light
through the Venetian calle. The young maid was cautious, occasionally stopping along her route,
listening, looking to see if someone was following her. She waited for a moment. Her solemn face
caught in the light of the moon, motionless like white marble. On another night, another girl had
walked to the Pieta and was set upon by an intoxicated cutpurse. Commotion ensued and the girl’s
newly born baby dropped to the floor screaming. A man intervened and was cut across the hands
and face. The baby suffered no real harm, unlike the thief who was later ambushed in prison and
had his eyes removed; all debts settled.
The maid wished to avoid a scandal. And scandal would surely follow any interruption to the
depositing of this illegitimate baby. She was lucky, her own parcel made no noise and her passage
went unnoticed. Along the way, she thought about the baby girl - if it were not for illegitimacy, she
would have a fine place in society with such a well-educated mother whose noble position and looks
were enviable. The father, handsome, young, an English painter on tour, a rising star. The affair had
been exciting and neither had regrets other than it could not continue as the mother’s husband
would return within a week. The husband must not come to know of any improprieties that befell
his household during his year of absence. There would be more than hell to pay if it became known
that the young painter had gone through his maps and manuscripts, lounged in his study, tasted
sweets brought for his beloved wife and debauched her in his own bed, while swigging his precious
wine. The painter had grown fond of the nights spent in bed talking to his lover with their different
but converging perspectives on politics and science; he had learnt much from her. He thought about
hiring a killer to take care of the man whose house he had intruded. It wasn’t really in his nature,
but his mind toyed with images of murder as he perused objects of novelty brought from far afield.
Of humble origins, the painter had found a growing audience for his work and he was moving in new
circles. Often bemused by the upper classes, it seemed to him that this woman was the most
precious of elements amongst fool’s gold. And what of this child she was carrying? Perhaps, he
could raise enough of a fortune to challenge the man of the house... The husband was a major
trader known far beyond Venice. Double dealing or debt would never go unpunished and no one
would break contract. Machiavellian orders ensured his men operated with malice in lithe and cunning fashion. No, this child was for the Pieta della Ospedale where many before had been taken. The maid had been entrusted to take the baby without being seen. As she walked, she thought of the babies brought this way and what life was like after such abandon.
“She wasn’t so good looking behind that mask, I tell you!” “Give a damn? No hiding those bloody
great big diddeys though, eh?!” English voices interjected. Tonight had been a big night for the
opera houses and it was clearly still big for the two excited fops who came around the corner with
their hands brushing the air preening. She stood still against the wall and they walked past.
“Indeed, no lying there!” “I thought lying there was exactly what you did do!” “On the contrary, I
stood and lashed with the plugtail - burning the arse!” “Talking of burning, where is that cayenne
snuff?” “Loathsome stuff, I’ll swap you the pepper for the Indian rose?” “Perfect. I do hope the
Pieta will allow me to survey the ladies after a performance tomorrow, I shouldn’t want to dream of
their beauty if in truth they look like your whore did tonight” “A cruel trick indeed” . The heated
voices faded and the air turned cool and weightless again.
The maid carried half of a small torn watercolour. Sketching a scene of moving colours by the Grand
Canal, the artist had torn the work in half and given one to the maid. The other was hidden at the
mother’s residence and would match with that left with the baby. At a future date, this would allow
her to be claimed perhaps.
Considering a lack of pleasure or privileges she had gained in life, the maid wondered whether the
fate of children left this way was so bad. The orphans were generally considered lowly in Venetian
social standing but they didn’t experience the look of distain she regularly encountered. Orphans at
the Pieta rarely experienced gazes upon their faces by the public at all as their faces were hidden. Those who came to hear the exquisite sound of the all-female “figlie di coro”, could only imagine what lay behind the metal screens that guarded their looks. Whilst raw ability was much appreciated, the orchestra wasn’t fawned over for its appearance or status, unlike some men and women in Venetian high society. In a recent fad, women from wealthy families had their portraits painted and sold in large numbers. Mass produced replicas sold like wildfire to tourists who flocked to buy them as souvenirs. One small generic image was replicated over 3000 times and could be found in keepsake boxes in many different countries. A transient sense of popularity seemed purpose for those who found it and the women who engaged this market of ego and intrigue found they were in a certain way privileged. The trinket stars were given preferential treatment at public events and the invitations to shows and dinners poured from men, businesses and families who sought to align themselves with the vogue. Popularity faded as soon as it arrived however and there was always a new face who would court fleeting attention. The orphan women at the Pieta and those who were momentary fashion icons, had considerably different lives, except for when a musician became a star themselves. Some of the artists were attracting visitors from all over Europe, as was the Pieta’s maestro Antonio Vivaldi.
“Who cares about these dumb women, I’m better looking than any of them anyway” a young
violinist told the maestro when she heard others discussing popularity of the small pictures. “Yes,
and you play much better” he answered, “your talent will last longer than looks do”.
The maid could hear the sound of footsteps approaching. There were two barrels near to her and
she crept behind them to wait until threat had passed. Italian voices came close and four men
stopped directly in front of her covert position. “He is painting her?” Fear struck the maid, she
broke into sweat and prayed that the baby made no noise. There he was - the master of the house.
“Yes” replied the master’s number one, “he visits the house three times each week to paint her
portrait”. “Who is supporting him here?” asked the great trader. “The cardinal buys his pictures,
they are close now”. The master stroked his beard and his eyes grew wide “The Cardinal’s debt to
me is worth more than the friendship of any artist. My arrival will be known in two days” He
paused for a moment to consider his options then spoke with clarity and a look of justified
conviction “Go now and take him to the west corner of Isola di San Michele - cut off his hands and
throw him into the sea. If he can swim to safety and survive, he is indeed a truly great artist and in
that case I will give him my house and my wife in exchange for the portrait he has made of her”. He
turned his back on the men and they followed him away.
She waited a moment before making her way again, taking a different path from her master she
moved quickly. Coming close to the darker workings of her employer, she now felt relieved of fear - no thief would be as wicked. Running a short while, she steadied her pace as she approached the
sanctuary of the Pieta. A sleeping miracle, the baby had made no sound the entire journey! The baby was safe now, new guardians. She placed the child in the rotating door of the scaffetta and looked at her one last time. Oblivious to evil, she looked angelic as she slept. The scaffetta turned without a sound and the maid pulled hard on the bell three times to alert the new father - off to Vivaldi!