As told by Bianca Florentino
My friend, Aurora, and I were visiting Chicago for a few days as we made our way back to New York City from a holiday in San Francisco, and our eventual return to Italy. I had just returned by train from visiting my brother in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago.
It was a delightful autumn morning as I exited the train station onto Jackson Boulevard; perfect for a few hours of shopping in Chicago’s Loop. As I crossed the Canal Street Bridge, I noticed a little bookshop on the left-hand side of the boulevard. On the other side was a ladies apparel shop which seemed like a good place to begin my shopping excursion.
The saleswoman in Les Très Élégant Ladies’ Apparel noticed my accent and asked in fluent Italian where I was from. Her face lit up when I said Rome. “Ah, sì,” she sighed, “la città eternal,” as she opened several drawers and began displaying undergarments the likes of which I had only seen in exclusive shops of Paris and Rome. I recognized the silk crêpe de chine fabric, and whispered, “Where did you get these?” She smiled and proudly explained she visits Europe twice a year and purchases limited quantities from a family-owned firm in London – for her special customers.
I picked up one of the garments and looked up in surprise as it melted across my hand, “This is hand stitched.”
“Yes, of course. I believe the use of a sewing machine would destroy this fabric.”
I could not resist the temptation. I made purchases for myself and Aurora. We chatted happily for half an hour and then I bade her farewell, “Salute e grazie molto.”
As I left the shop, I once again noticed the Olde Book Shoppe across the street. I looked at my watch, then crossed the street and perused the display window before entering. As I closed the door, I was greeted by an elderly gentleman whose radiance made me feel at home immediately. “Good morning, my dear.” His crystal blue eyes smiled over gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his nose. His slight accent and manner of dress told me he originated from somewhere on the continent. I felt so at one with this gentle creature it surprised even me.
“Good morning, kind sir.” The fragrance of dust and old wood was pleasantly appealing as I gazed about the room.
“Is there something, in particular, you are looking for?”
“Oh, no. I thought I might browse if that’s all right.”
“Yes, of course, please make yourself at home. My name is Morris, and I’ll be in the back if you require assistance.”
“Thank you, Morris. Oh, wait. I would be interested in any volumes you may have, written in Italian.”
“Yes, of course. You’ll have to go up into the loft. Turn right at the head of the stairs and you’ll find what you’re looking for. The shelves are marked.”
“Thank you.” I paused as he disappeared behind the partition curtain. His lingering smile seemed much more than satisfaction in accommodating my request. I got the feeling he knew what I needed to find even if I did not. I could not help but smile with anticipation as I began climbing the narrow stairs. Each tread was stacked with different sized books, making it an adventure just reaching the floor above.
I turned right as instructed and immediately saw several shelves illuminated by sunlight coming through the overhead skylight. My attention was drawn to an odd looking book tucked away in the corner of one of the shelves. It was old and worn; the binding being practically non-existent. I was amazed with delight at the many delightful drawings appearing throughout the book as I gently fanned the pages. Even more surprising, the book was entirely handwritten – it appeared to be someone’s personal diary from long ago. In perusing sentences and paragraphs that caught my attention, it appeared to be the diary of someone who was telling a love story. Each entry contained the date of 1495. Could it possibly be that this volume was over 500 years old? Impossible, but there it was. I could not resist it; I had to have the book.
I descended to the main floor and called to Morris who came immediately. “I’ll take this book.”
He looked at it curiously, “You found this upstairs?”
“Yes, in the section you recommended.”
He frowned, “This book is in such poor condition … I’m not going to charge you anything. Please take it as a gift.”
“Morris, you can’t do that.”
“Oh, yes I can. Here let me wrap it for you,” which he proceeded to do, wrapping it in brown paper and tying it with a bit of red string.
“I hardly know what to say.”
“Thank you will take care of it.” He laughed merrily.
“Yes, of course. Thank you … very much.”
“Good afternoon, my dear.”
“Good afternoon, Morris. Good-bye.” He opened the door and I walked out into the sunshine. I turned and waved, then proceeded on my way downtown.
That evening, Aurora, picked up the package I had gotten from the bookshop. “What’s this?”
“It’s a lovely old book I found in a quaint bookshop this morning.”
“May I open it?”
“Yes, of course, but be gentle. It appears to be very old.”
I showered and was preparing for dining out when Aurora appeared in the bedroom doorway holding the book. The look on her face caused me to pause, “What is it?”
“What about it?”
“Do you know who the author is?”
“No, but they are obviously very talented … those drawings are quite beautiful.
“You’re not going to believe this.”
I continued combing my hair even though the sound of her voice told me to stop and pay attention. I waited for her to reveal the name she was teasing me with. When she didn’t speak, I turned to her. “Aurora, for heaven’s sake, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Look at the name I found on the last page.” She handed the book to me.
I read the name and looked up, “It can’t be.”
“I’m afraid it is. You are in possession of the personal diary of one of the world’s few great geniuses.”
I read the name aloud, “Scritto da Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.”
“That book is worth a fortune. How much did you pay for it?”
I shook my head as the reality set in.
“I paid nothing. The shop owner gave it to me. He thought it too old and worthless.”
“He gave it to you?”
“We have to go back to that shop. I want to see what else he has.”
The next morning our taxi pulled up in front of Les Très Élégant Ladies’ Apparel. “This is where I purchased your gift. And there is…”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s gone. It’s not there.”
“Perhaps we’re on the wrong street.”
“No, we are not on the wrong street. Come with me.” I turned and walked into the dress shop.
“Buongiorno.” The sales lady was surprised to see me again.
“How can I help you this morning?’
“The bookshop. It’s gone.”
“Bookshop? I don’t understand.”
“When I left here yesterday, I went across the street and obtained a book at the bookshop. And now it’s gone … as if it had never been there. Do you have any idea what’s going on?
The woman searched my face for a moment, then closed the shop door and hung the closed sign in the window. “Please, come with me.”
Aurora and I followed her to a pleasant living room at the back of the shop. “Please, sit down.”
She placed three cups and a thermos of tea on the table, “Please, help yourself. Would you like lemon or milk?”
She sat down and poured tea into her cup. “There was a bookshop there … a very long time ago. It caught fire and burned to the ground.”
“But I was in there yesterday, and talked with, Morris.”
“And I believe you.”
“But where is it?”
“It’s still there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This may be difficult for you to comprehend. You’ll just have to take my word for it.”
“I’m listening.” I could only imagine what she was about to tell us.
“I don’t know how or why, but The Olde Book Shoppe is still there. I’ve been here almost thirty years and have heard countless stories about the place. I’ve never seen it since it was destroyed, but I have met people, like you, who have not only seen it but have been inside.”
“You’re kidding?” Aurora’s eyes widened.
“No, I’m not. And I’m not in the habit of telling anyone what I’m about to tell you. What I have gathered from those I’ve spoken with, many wonderful and miraculous things have happened there. Most of the tales revolved around an ancient fairy tale book. Did you see it while you were there?”
“No, I spoke with Morris; he directed me to the loft when I asked about books written in Italian.”
She sipped her tea and set her cup down, “The shop appears when there is a need, and once that need is met, it disappears again. And only those involved can see it. I saw you leave yesterday and cross the street but I never saw the bookshop. You have been greatly blessed by being allowed inside.”
“But I don’t have a need if that’s the only measure for becoming involved.”
“Perhaps as time goes by you will recognize why you were lead there. The book you found will reveal why you were involved. Please, tell me about this book.”
“The moment I came upon the bookshelves Morris recommended, I saw this tattered old thing stuffed in a corner of one shelf. The moment I held it in my hands I knew I had to have it. So, I took it downstairs and tried to buy it.”
“And the owner gave it to you?”
“Yes, he did. How did you… But, what does this mean?”
“I don’t have that answer. All I will say … is the book you were given is evidently filled with very valuable information for which you are now responsible.”
“Have you looked at the book?”
“Yes, Aurora and I have perused it.”
“And what have you discovered.”
I was hesitant and looked at Aurora.
“Don’t look at me. It’s your book.”
I paused a moment, “It appears to be the personal diary of … Michelangelo.”
“The sculptor? The painter of the Sistine Chapel?”
“Yes, but I can’t be sure. It may not be.”
“If you found it at the bookshop, I’d say it’s genuine, and Morris knew it.”
“Oh, my God, I just got a chill up my spine when you said that.”
She told us as much as she knew while we finished our tea; then we bade farewell to our astonished new friend. Aurora and I walked across the street and stood in front of the blank parking structure wall. “You’re sure this is the spot?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I don’t know. I guess we may as well go. It’s obviously not going to appear again.”
We waved to the shop owner who had been watching us and proceeded to the Loop.
I had little time to look at the book until we were on our flight back to Rome. I knew Michelangelo had carved David between 1501 and 1504, but this diary began earlier. I was confused at first, as it appeared he was carving a life-size statue he named David in 1495, six years earlier than history books have been telling us.
There were notes and drawings on the first few pages. Then I came upon the first entry:
March 6, 1495. Traveled sixty miles to the Carrara marble pits. Tomorrow I will search for the perfect block of staturario marble. I have been anticipating this journey for months. The figure of this young man in my head has become so obsessive, I must carve it to have peace again. The beauty and goodness I feel coming from this vision are overwhelming. I know every inch of his figure. So well is it fixed in my brain, I will not need to create a model first, and thereby will have no need of a pointing machine. I will simply launch into the marble and bring this figure forth. Today is the date of my birth. I am twenty years old. I celebrated alone with a good meal by the talented cooks of Carrara.
March 7, 1495 – I spent the morning hours looking at blocks of marble. Nothing spoke to me. In the early afternoon, I saw it from afar and knew this was the block I wanted. I could feel the figure within struggling to get out. I had no choice. I was compelled to make this purchase. Afterward, I had bread, wine, and cheese with the men who will prepare it for shipment to my studio. They were not surprised when I told them what I saw in the marble, and their interest grew. I was confident they would take as much care with this block as if it were their own. I’ll stay the night in Carrara and travel home tomorrow.
April 9, 1495 – It arrived today. My heart surged. My blood ran hot through my veins when I heard them coming down the lane. The bellowing of the oxen pulling the cart, the neighboring children shouting, dogs barking. Some children ran ahead to announce the arrival. I opened the gate and ran down the lane to meet them. All of my neighbors knew what was happening. Everyone came to the lane and cheered the oxen and drivers, offering them water and fruit. Some got behind the cart and pushed to ease the load on the panting animals. All had been prepared for man and beast after the delivery was complete. They would stay the night and return to Carrara the next day. It was midnight before all was quiet and I was alone with the marble by candlelight. I am overjoyed to be alone and finally be able to see it, and touch it. I examined it from all angles and decided which would be the front and side views, chalking the image on both sides. Tomorrow I would begin. My heart leapt as I took a last look before retiring. It was here and he was waiting to be released.
April 10, 1495 – I was up before dawn. I sat for an hour contemplating my work for the day. I made sure the delivery men and oxen were well fed. It was dawn when I closed the gate and listened to the men and team of oxen make their departure. A few of the neighboring children were up and played about the team and then all was quiet. When the sun crept over the garden wall and struck the marble, it came alive and filled my soul with anticipation. I began removing the fat with chisel and hammer. By mid-day, the figure was there, waiting. I paused for food and rest. The light was already fading when I returned. I cleaned away the mountain of marble chips and contemplated the work of tomorrow.
April 11, 1495 – The day was cloudy with showers of rain. I avoided the intricate portions of the figure and worked instead on those not requiring brilliant light. By the end of the day I had accomplished a great deal but not enough to satisfy, I no longer needed the heavy chisel and hammers. I packed them away and cleaned the fallen chips away. I was covered with two days of marble dust and I stank like a sweating horse. So, I gave myself the luxury of a bath. There was still light when I emerged from the water. I walked into the studio naked so as to dry myself in the cooling breeze. As I stood at a distance, I could see him so clearly now. Tomorrow I would begin with the La Gradina tool, clawing away the final layer. The details would take a week or ten days at the most before I could begin the polishing. I decided on a name for this figure. I would call him David.
April 12, 1495 – I woke with a start in the middle of the night. I thought I heard my name called … twice. It had to be a dream since there was no one near. The day dawned partially cloudy which I was able to work with. I finished clawing the face back to the ears. The rest could wait. I clawed the shoulders, the front and back below the neck. Then I brought the neck, chin, and jaw into proper proportion. Finished clawing the left arm and could not wait. I began to burnish the cross-hatching down, made a pumas slurry and brought the surface to where I could polish it. The clouds departed in the afternoon. When the sunlight hit that portion of the arm I had been working on, it took on a translucent living flesh appearance I had not anticipated. I marveled at it and wondered if the entire figure would take on the same appearance. I had something to eat, rested, and then cleaned the area around the marble. Until the light was gone I viewed the figure from every angle and I was satisfied.
April 13, 1495 – I woke twice in the night from someone calling my name. It was almost a whisper. There was a pleading tone to it. I couldn’t imagine where it was coming from other than my brain. I slept fitfully. The light was perfect today. I worked the right arm, the torso, buttocks, and then began the thighs. I avoided the genitals for the moment.
April 14, 1495 – I slept the night through but fitfully.
April 23, 1495 – Illness came these last days. Could not work. Angry at being delayed
April 28, 1495 – Strength returning. I staggered to the marble as the Sun crept over the wall. I scraped and gouged until the nose was free. The brows and eyes came alive as my strength waned. I was forced to leave it and rest. I found myself with thoughts of Anteros, the god of requited love. So much so, I was having a conversation with him throughout the afternoon and evening, praying for his strength to continue the work.
Fell into a deep sleep as evening shadows gathered. Came suddenly awake and found myself kneeling before a great throne. A great voice commanded me to rise and approach. When I asked who he was, he laughed so loud it hurt my ears. I felt very bold and challenged his laughter. His silence humbled me. When next he spoke I fell to my knees.
“Your prayers have been answered, Michelangelo.”
“I have but one prayer of late, good sir.” When he smiled, I knew. I crawled to him and embraced his foot.
“Beware, Michelangelo. Your prayer is granted. Your David has been given the gift of life but beware of Aradia.
I came awake with a sudden thud as if I had been cast from heaven on to my bed, soaked in my own sweat. I ran to the marble but nothing had changed. David remained frozen in the pose I granted him.
Rebuked for a silly dream, I returned to my bed and remained awake until dawn.
April 29, 1495 – I returned to the marble and continued hewing out the beloved form of my avid. The day was fair but cloudy so I polished the hair on his head, every curl attended to. At day’s end, all was completed except the lower legs and feet. And then the final polishing.
May 10, 1495 – The final layer of unwanted marble has been clawed away. Tomorrow I begin polishing, provided the sky is clear. I need the brilliance of the Sun to perfect the surface of his skin.
May 28, 1495 – It is finished. David is complete. Now I wait to see if my dream will come true.
May 29, 1495 – Nothing
May 31, 1495 – All is quiet
June 1, 1495 – All is lost. I moved my David into the garden. My heart is heavy, heavy, heavy.
June 2, 1495 – I awoke when the cock crowed. Unable to go back to sleep. The moon was full. I went to the garden to be with David. He was gone. My wish had been granted but where was he? I searched everywhere and finally found him in the orchard, eating an apple under an apple tree. I stood silently watching him until he noticed me. He dropped the apple and put his arms out to me. I rushed forward. We held each other for a long time. He was warm, soft, and fit into my embrace perfectly. I uttered my prayers of thanks to Anteros and drew my David close to me.
Diary entries are sparse from this point but those that he wrote only describe the intense relationship between Michelangelo and David. I was amazed at the ability of this genius in saying so much in so few words.
But then the day came when Aradia, the arch-enemy of Anteros, brought the affair between David and Michelangelo to a crashing halt. Aradia not only turned David back into stone out of sheer jealousy but destroyed the marble statue with lightning.
There are no more entries until Michelangelo discovers that the powers that be want the “Giant” languishing in the Cathedral workshop to be finished into the Biblical Warrior, David. Entries in the diary begin again with a vengeance as Michelangelo spews out his despair at the loss of his beloved.
The church officials consider the slab of marble to be worthless because it has been so damaged by other attempts to carve the David of the Bible. Michelangelo’s reputation had grown to such a proportion that he had no trouble acquiring the eighteen-foot piece of marble.
It is brought to his studio and he begins carving in absolute secret. No one is permitted to see what he is doing except for a deaf-mute boy, Piero, he has befriended and who has become his servant of sorts to lighten the load of everyday necessities while he carves.
The diary goes into meticulous detail along with drawings as each facet of the figure is released. I had to stop reading several times and take a deep breath as the realization of what I was reading took hold within me. The miracle of David unfolding page after page in details I could hardly believe. It was as if I were witnessing his birth every step of the way.
Entries trailed off as Michelangelo began the final task of smoothing and polishing the statue to perfection. And then it was finished. He called the committee that had granted the commission to see the results.
The reaction of those viewing the statue for the first time was outlined in Michelangelo’s usual self-effacing manner, but it was quite clear that this committee of men – including Pier Soderini [the Gonfaloniere of Florence], and artists, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli – were in awe of what they saw. It was their duty to decide where David would be placed.
He also touched lightly on clairvoyant moments he had with his beloved David. It was evident that their relationship continued even though David was on another plane of existence, but all the while energizing Michelangelo in his task. There was also vague statements about the life to come when Michelangelo passed from this plane and he and David would be together once again.
Once the statue had been moved into the public square the entries in the diary began to be less and less. After the Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed in 1512 the entries are practically nonexistent.
A final note in the diary, in another hand, described hearing Michelangelo speaking with someone as he took his final breath.
February 18, 1564 – He raised up his head from the bed and whispered, ‘David, David,’ then the light faded from his eyes and he was gone.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni died on February 18, 1564. He was eighty-eight years old, three weeks before his eighty-ninth birthday. His body was taken from Rome for interment at the Basilica of Santa Croce, fulfilling the maestro’s last request to be buried in his beloved Florence.
This was the last entry in the book.
We were about to land at Roma Fiumicino airport as I closed the book. I held the precious manuscript to my breast. Tears of gratitude welled in my eyes along with my determination to see this vision of undying love as soon as possible. Upon landing, I booked passage on Italia rail for the following morning. I would arrive in Florence around 8:30 am and take a taxi to the Galleria dell’Accademia.
As I entered the Hall of Prisoners, I stopped in mid-step. I saw him at a great distance for the first time. The morning light from the skylight was perfect for my first glimpse of this Adonis.
I constrained myself to keep from running. As I got closer, there was no doubt in my mind that this seventeen-foot giant was not the Biblical warrior, David. This was David, the love of Michelangelo’s life, carved from this magnificent piece of gleaming white staturario marble – a proclamation to the world of his love, his passion which only a few knew and understood. With the diary safely in my possession, I would make it my goal to change that understanding.
I selfishly wanted every living soul to leave the gallery, permitting me to be alone with this tribute to grace, beauty, and love. I wanted silence in hopes of hearing the heartbeat of each hammer blow Michelangelo gave his chisel to bring this heavenly creature into being.
For a moment, melancholy overwhelmed me at the realization of the depth of Michelangelo’s loneliness and anger at having his treasure, taken from him by Aradia, and turned back into stone. But that was long ago, they are together now and all the pain and loneliness they endured is gone and forgotten. For an instant I envisioned them walking hand in hand through fields of emerald green beneath an azure sky, filled with the contentment only souls committed to one another can possibly experience. How I wished them well and at the same time envied them.
I slowly walked around the pedestal supporting David, taking in the exquisite contours revealed in the dazzling vision of youth and vigor, I could only imagine Michelangelo’s hands smoothing over every inch, every centimeter of the surface to make sure it was perfect, and perhaps, as the light faded each day before he retired, his lips caressed the hands, the feet, the thighs, the torso, the genitals, the buttocks, the small of the back, the shoulders, the chest, the neck, the cheeks, the nose, the forehead, the lips as memories and tears of his time with his David engulfed him.
I circled, again and again, to make sure I missed nothing as the light slowly changed with the passage of time, emphasizing the beauty of this creature in so many different ways.
I was overwhelmed when the realization came to me that Michelangelo had attended every inch of this miracle in marble. His chisel removing every bit of unwanted marble, smoothing, caressing to ensure perfection agreed with his fingertips, his palms, his eyes, and his heart – caressing as his memory flared of what once had been in the dead of night of the past.
As I left the gallery I took one last look at David, standing alone in the distance, and could only imagine what Michelangelo felt, the intense pain of being alone, the overwhelming agony of wanting to be with his beloved David once again.
As I departed the building, the realization of my responsibility in publishing the diary was indeed mine and mine alone. I thought of Morris. He knew who I was and why I was in the bookshop that day, that moment, even though I did not know. His beautiful face came back to my mind’s eye, the twinkle in those crystal blue eyes smiling at me over those gold-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his blessed nose. Had I only realized what was happening to me at the time, I would have embraced him with the gratitude I was now feeling at having the privilege of telling Michelangelo and David’s untold love story. ‘Grazie, Morris. Grazie.’