A painter at court in a palace in Rome
Lamented the fate that made it his home.
"My art's unsurpassed by mortal man,
But do I achieve more than they who less can?
I paint the duke's nephew, who'll not sit still,
Then paint the old countess whose breath is swill.
She loves with great rapture the likeness I bring.
(That she does not love me is a fortunate thing.)
I paint the aged champion as young with his sword
And so I am given the court's reward.
Is it so important, my title to keep,
When thoughts of new portraits are ruining sleep?
A new stroke of lightning dividing the sky,
Its image reflected in creator's eye.
A wounded unicorn tended by nymphs,
The rise of an angel, if I could but glimpse
For an instant such fabulous visions.
Painting princesses is not my mission.
I must tour the globe, a model to find
Whose slightest smile can unloose the mind
To soar on love's wings across time and land,
To high Olympus, its palaces grand.
The lady I seek can none other be
Than sweet, laughing Venus, sprung from the sea."
He went to his patron and told his tale,
All royalty dressed in a flattering veil.
The count replied, as he shed a small tear,
"You will ever remain welcome here,
And the countess will miss you, this I know.
But if you insist, then you may go.
Your quest I allow you to undertake."
The painter was gone ere next daybreak.
The painter, who was Pietro by name,
Despising vain kingdoms and petty fame,
Went forth from his birthplace. This land he forsook.
A favorite paintbrush was all that he took.
"The paints, too," he reasoned, "must wondrous
To befit one so heavenly as she.
My quest will commence in search of these.
I'll ply to the oracles of distant Greece."
He went single-mindedly upon his way.
For splendidest vistas he tarried no day.
Snow carved mountains, great valleys of green,
Storm tossed ocean and river serene,
Towers and minarets, gypsies and Turks,
Rajahs on elephants. Glorious works
And great empires, unable to hold him,
Only his quickening step embolden.
He traveled on foot, his blood all aburn. He
Thought of nothing except his journey.
He enters the temple with falterless step,
Though in the last fortnight he scarcely has slept.
A silent initiate takes him by hand,
As if aware of the interview planned.
He leads the old painter through myriad halls,
Through gigantic chambers with featureless walls
Each like another. They walk for hours.
Each turn makes Pietro doubt his power
To know which direction or how far,
And how many chambers there actually are.
"Are we walking in circles?" the painter cries.
"Why build a temple of such a size?
Guide me directly!" He stops with a groan
As he discovers he is standing alone,
A huge looming wall on every side.
Hopeless, he calls for his disappeared guide
And hears the echo of a hundred walls.
The sounds die out. Pietro falls.
On the innermost floor he lies gasping. When
He prays for forgiveness, only then
"Pietro!" an unearthly voice commands,
And without any strength, Pietro stands.
Before him, a flaming apparition,
More shapeless than a vanished vision,
Mocking and merciful, older than stone,
Confronts the painter with eyes like his own.
"Pietro," repeats the voice without face,
"I know well why thou hast come to this place;
Thou seekest paint and subject fit for thy art.
The paints must come from thy body and heart.
Thy blood thou must mix with thy every hue.
But ere I tell more, for me thou must do
A labor worthy of she whom ye seek.
Thou hast beholden the temple walls bleak.
Paint them, Pietro, and I will show thee
Thy sweet, laughing Venus, sprung from the sea."
Pietro had labored for two times ten years.
No news of outside could reach his ears.
Each painting he thought would be the last,
But the temple was inhumanly vast.
He finished one room, another lay bare.
It wrinkled his forehead and grayed his hair.
Continuous painting was all he knew.
He mixed paints, painted, sweated, drew.
His skill was confirmed by his every feat,
Though now he doubted he'd see it complete.
Far greater works than ever he'd wrought
Formed in bored habit and without a thought.
One day while distractedly cleaning a brush
A voice from beside him says with a hush
"Thou art finished, Pietro. No chambers remain."
He turns to behold the strange creature of flame.
From Pietro's eyes pour joyful tears.
"To finally see her will be worth these years!
Our bargain's completed, let me now see
Dear, sweet, laughing Venus, sprung from the sea."
His fiery companion makes no reply
And slowly turns an unfathomable eye.
Pietro stands upright with horror.
"I have worked so long, shall I not see her?
You must show her to me! This you must do!
For twenty years I have been true.
I left wife and family, the Italian shore.
Where is the lady I long labored for?"
The flaming seer laughs and laughs and laughs.
"Recall thy last painting, oh man of great wrath!
Return to that chamber and view if you will
The lady of beauty atop that hill
Amusedly watching two lovers at play.
That lady is Venus. Moreover, they
Lying happily intertwined below
Are her son Aeneas and fair Dido.
A masterpiece truly, thou shouldst be proud."
Pietro just stands with his head deeply bowed.
"Thy quest is completed magnificently.
Pilgrims will travel, this temple to see.
Thy fame will be carried back to Rome
Where thy wife still awaits thee in thy home
To greet thy return with kisses and wine.
A famous and happy life is now thine."
Pietro grows taller with mounting rage
And cries out "false prophet! Unholy sage!
The future you offer is pointless and dull.
I'm left unfulfilled and with naught to fulfill.
I wanted a goddess, you offer me straw.
I painted a beauty I never saw.
I've ruined my life because you have lied!"
He rushed at the seer and bitterly cried
As the flames embraced him until he died.
"Was he mad?" the acolytes afterwards asked.
"To finish himself after such a task!"
"Such beauty he made! Could he not see?"
"I especially liked the one with the tree."
"Yes, that was quite good. The war was good, too."
And so their aesthetic discussion grew.
A madman? Perhaps. It matters no more.
He could not have said what he painted for
As the flames embraced him until he died.
Madmen are never satisfied.