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The Seventh Circle

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Easter is a time for revenge. That's not what the Church teaches, but its actions have belied its words. His Holiness Pope Sixtus IV encouraged a coup against his rivals the Medici. "Let no man be killed," His Holiness ordered, yet how can a coup be bloodless? There must always be a sacrifice.

Giuliano de' Medici was the paschal lamb, slaughtered not in the name of God but martyred for the sake of wealth. Nineteen times stabbed, his blood gushed onto the floor of the Duomo in front of thousands of witnesses. Florence is rife with whispers comparing Giuliano to Caesar. At times like these, when tempers are hot with outrage and moods are violent in reprisal, the citizens forget that Giuliano had not the genius of Caesar.

But Lorenzo, his brother, has Caesar's genius and the wealth of Croesus.

* * * *


Sandro Botticelli looks up from his work, dragged from the soothing lull of the brush upon canvas by his patron's voice. He blinks, letting the real world slide back into focus. Sometimes his heart aches when he has to leave a painting, but this one is different. A memorial portrait offers little in terms of challenge. The dead have no secrets to reveal, no gifts to impart, no promises to make. Sandro wishes his patron had commissioned another artist to paint the dead Giuliano.

"Golden light on the golden boy." Lorenzo de' Medici enters the room with halting footsteps. His voice is hoarse and tender. Sandro doesn't know if it's from grief or from the injury he sustained to his neck during the coup. His wound was slight, a glancing blow that caught him just beneath his ear before he fought off his priestly attacker and was ushered into the safety of the Sacristy.

Lorenzo had been in fine voice later when he shouted to the citizens to stay their hands, asking that there be no more unlawful killings. Now his voice has shrivelled. The doctors say it is a temporary aberration of the mind. His voice has gone because his brother has gone. Various remedies have been swallowed or applied, but the only thing that seems to help cure the malaise is the strip of cloth torn from Giuliano's sleeve and stained with his blood. Lorenzo wears it around his throat like a holy icon, like a great jewel fastened in an intricate necklace of gold.

Sandro knows he's not required to talk to his patron. Artists are more eloquent in their silence. Lorenzo often likes talking to him, though. Lorenzo has an opinion on everything. Sandro holds few opinions, preferring instead to feel rather than think. Instinct serves him well in his creative endeavours. Instinct is telling him now that his memorial portrait of Giuliano is uninspired, flat, and dead.

The initial sketch he drew from Giuliano's corpse. He can still recall the smell of death, the curdled blood and the heavy masking scent of perfumes and spices. Giuliano's stillness was the worst thing to witness. So active in life, so sure of himself - in death, he shrank to nothing more than a memory, and an imperfect one at that.

Now he studies the portrait: the Medici nose, strong and hawk-like; the masculine jaw; the thick, slightly curly hair. The half-closed eyes and enigmatic smile he's given Giuliano make him look pious. Giuliano was never pious.

Unhappy with his work, Sandro twists his lip. When Lorenzo has gone, he will change Giuliano's expression, infect it with a glimmer of life and a touch of personality, but for now Sandro sits back and stretches discreetly, warm in the beams of sunlight shining through the windows. Eggshells litter the floor at his feet. In a bowl the yolks sit, gleaming a fat, luscious red-gold. Sandro covers it with a cloth.

Lorenzo offers no opinion of the painting. Sandro feels uneasy at this, and watches sidelong as his patron turns from the canvas to the couch nearby. Sandro had placed a few of Giuliano's garments there, stuffed with cushions to give the approximation of a body inside, and had been engaged with capturing in paint the red velvet nap of Giuliano's doublet.

"I would like you to make a statuette of my brother." Lorenzo sits on the couch, moving aside the arrangement of cloth as carefully as if Giuliano's body lay there. "In gold, of course."

"Of course," Sandro echoes. He looks inwards, seeing not the canvas in front of him nor the finished piece as he imagines it, looking instead for the depiction of Giuliano de' Medici in solid gold.

It is said that every sculpture lives inside its marble block, waiting to be revealed by the artist's hand. Sandro Botticelli dreams his paintings the same way, not as a whole but as composite parts revealed one piece at a time. The real genius of art is not in the imagining but in the execution, and yet to Sandro's mind, there must be something more than mere technique. Anyone can be a craftsman, but few can be artists.

He supposes the same thinking can be applied elsewhere. The Pope, particularly the current incumbent Sixtus IV, is a craftsman. His appropriation of the Church's power for the glory of his own family reminds Sandro of a blacksmith forging an iron chain. The links are useless until joined together, but even in completion the chain is ugly, serves only one purpose, and eventually it will rust.

Lorenzo de' Medici - now he is an artist, Sandro thinks with a certain admiring detachment. An artist of expression, an artist of manipulation, Lorenzo knows when to be humble and when to be proud. An artist knows how to present himself for eternity. Only an artist could reinvent himself, give himself so many faces one never knew which was the real Lorenzo.

Giuliano knew. But now Giuliano is dead.

Lorenzo's grief is real. His anger, extravagant and cold, is also real. What troubles Sandro is Lorenzo's response to the recent papal bull of excommunication. How far should a man go for the sake of his brother, his city, his freedom, his pride? Sandro wonders how far he would go for the sake of his art. He doesn't think he'd be willing to take the risks Lorenzo has done. But then, he doesn't have Lorenzo's wealth, and wealth cushions a fall much more gently than does art.

"I have been thinking," Lorenzo announces with the gravity of the very drunk, although as far as Sandro can tell, his patron is utterly sober. "I have been considering Dante."

"Dante, my lord?" Sandro always calls his patrons `my lord'. Occasionally the title is appropriate. Even when it isn't, usually the patron is flattered. Lorenzo is neither a lord nor is he easily flattered. The excessive wealth of the Medici ensured that Lorenzo grew up surrounded by sycophants much more skilled at their business than Sandro. He supposes it's been a long time since Lorenzo believed any kind of flattery.

"My grandfather feared Hell," Lorenzo says, making himself comfortable on the couch. The sunlight picks out the golden stitching on his doublet and belt, and glisters from the buckles on his boots. He holds up his hands and spreads his fingers. "My grandfather feared ending up in the seventh circle with the usurers. All those men with restless hands. He didn't want that. He was busy enough in life; in death, he wanted to be still. The thought of being banished to the seventh circle haunted him."

Sandro says nothing. Everyone knows the refurbishment of the monastery of San Marco was Cosimo's indulgence, his surety against the fires of Hell. A banker to the last, Cosimo even included a contract, written in stone and set into the wall of the monastery, detailing the terms.

"Your grandfather is surely in Heaven," Sandro offers. He wonders if salvation can be bought. The Church says so. Cosimo believed it to be so. But Sandro has his doubts, heretical though they may be. He thinks art is his salvation, but in believing this, he sets up Art as a false deity alongside God. The thought is a conceit, a vanity of whim.

Lorenzo snorts. "I doubt it. He will be in Hell, where he feared to end his days. A usurer can never remove the taint of money from his flesh. The smell of gold seeps into the pores. No, he will be in the seventh circle, and he will greet me when I arrive to take my place as his neighbour."

"You think you will go to Hell?" Sandro is genuinely startled.

"I know it." Absently, Lorenzo strokes the smooth velvet of his brother's red doublet, rubbing against the nap so the fabric lifts and darkens. "Do you know what I fear, Sandro?"

Sandro is cautious, fearing to give offence. "Loss."

"Of a sort." Lorenzo's hand stills on the doublet. His fingers clench around it. "I fear loss of faith."

"The excommunication?"

Lorenzo laughs, a husky sound. His hand relaxes on the velvet. "I don't care if the Pope excommunicates me a hundred times. He may sit in the throne of St Peter, but della Rovere is nothing but a greedy, short-sighted fool. What's bred in the bone will out in the flesh, and della Rovere's flesh is weak."

Disquieted by the conversation, Sandro returns to the portrait. He darts swift glances at his patron. He mixes colours, thins some and thickens others, and uses the living brother as a model for the dead one. They were never alike, Giuliano and Lorenzo, but the skin tone, the gleam in the eye - these are traits shared by both brothers, and Sandro uses Lorenzo's animation to bring the portrait of Giuliano to life.

"No," muses Lorenzo, "the excommunication is nothing. The Pope is nothing. But the murder of my brother in a cathedral after Easter Mass, my survival at the expense of Giuliano's life... I question God's will. I reject it."

"Blasphemy, my lord," Sandro says softly.

"Yes. And so to the seventh circle of Hell I shall go." Lorenzo gets up from the couch and puts a hand to the bloodstained strip of cloth around his neck as if checking it's still there. "It will be worth it."

"The blasphemy was not of your making."

"Was it not? I ask myself this question endlessly. If we, the Medici, were not so abnormal in our dealings with men and gold, if we did not stand against God, perhaps my brother would still be alive."

"You cannot know these things." Sandro works faster, finishing the curve of light over Giuliano's cheekbone just as Lorenzo comes to stand beside him.

His patron stands at his shoulder and studies the incomplete portrait. "Hell is doubting oneself. That's the biggest blasphemy of all."

Sandro knows what it is to doubt. He lets his brush rest.

Lorenzo looks away from the painting. Humour gleams in his eyes, running through him like a seam of gold in base rock. He leans closer. "Only think, Sandro: think of the joy we shall feel on beholding one another in Hell. My grandfather, the usurer. Myself, the blasphemer. And you..."

Sandro knows who else inhabits the inner part of Dante's seventh circle. He waits for his patron's punch-line.

"You," Lorenzo whispers in his ear, "the sodomite."

Sandro waits until the silence is uncomfortable before he laughs politely.

Lorenzo pulls back, his hair brushing against Sandro's neck. "You've made him look pious."

"What?" Sandro almost turns, but he is too aware of his patron's closeness. He recollects himself. "Oh. The portrait. I can change it, if it displeases you."

"No." Lorenzo straightens and smiles. "Leave him be. He is more pious in death than the Pope could ever be in life. When you and I are in Hell, Sandro, we will see His Holiness again. But we will not see my brother. He will be the only Medici to go to Heaven, a glorious golden martyr murdered by the Church."

They both look at the memorial portrait. Sandro realises this isn't a painting to remind Lorenzo of his lost brother. It's an image to remind him of revenge and the eventual damnation of his eternal soul for blasphemy.

Sandro sighs. "Better he keeps his pious expression, then."

He picks up his brush and returns to work.