I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old. I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes. One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it. Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.
Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.
I still remember vividly our first meeting. I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me. I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.
“Yes,” he said solemnly. “You should be honored.”
Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later. I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean. Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles. It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah. To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes. The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time. Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace. All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else. And the silence of that place! The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace. It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea. Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.
Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added. My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection. Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore. It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.
But what of the man? Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”. Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face. Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly. But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede. I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics. Science, Music, Literature, Religion. He was a Renaissance Man. But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.
“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me. “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”
This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.
“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”
He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists. We were alone in his gallery. All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea. We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.
“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me. “Make living flesh from stone. Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”
We arrived, by now, at my statue. It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.
“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips. “You must make them light and airy. They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone. Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold? So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”
I took no offense. How could I? He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.
I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine. He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition. There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report. There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself. There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models. These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them. Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.
I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past. This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.
“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said. “Donatello and Michelangelo. I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’. Realism is what matters. Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”
There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals. A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros. Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.
And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce. This, I swear without caveat. It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying. Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.
“Exquisite, isn’t he? Unequaled, too, I promise you. And the cost? A human soul could fetch as much.”
It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror. He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted. It was wholly realistic. Too realistic. More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.
“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.
“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused. “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”
“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle. “The veins are extraordinary. Please tell me how long this took.”
“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’? Yes. That is how long it took.”
I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.
“Enough, my son,” he said. “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”
“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.
“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”
Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension. Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery. Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”. Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.
Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent. He rejected my work outright. I was upset. I was at a loss. After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece. The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”. I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted. How could it not belong among his gallery? I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings. Again I sent photos from my studio. This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.
“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”
The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”. It was ineffable. The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution! I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.
Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.
When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island. This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue. He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work. Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.
Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy. Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself? Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity? How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone? How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations? Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs. The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.
A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras. That said, I had my suspicions. Banking. Drugs. Human trafficking. Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt. To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power. It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.
And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.
Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron. He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.
“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly. “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”
I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves. For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.
He suddenly called out to a servant. “Bring me the mirror!”
Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea. The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun. He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome. Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless. It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth. He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.
Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him. I did so. It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.
“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently. “The proportions are cartoonish. Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”
I deferred to his opinion, naturally.
“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said. “Such are the injustices of this world. Unfair and innumerable.”
Again, I deferred to his opinion. Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.
“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said. “And I intend to defy him. I intend that you defy him. Defy him and all of the gods. I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential. But I am overripe, and running out of time. Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance. Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind. I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea. He devours all his children, you know? Whether god or human, he devours us all. And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me. As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”
“I am honored, Padre,” I said.
He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.
“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said. “All have attempted my dream. All have failed. Save for her, of course. She works expediently. She works…unnaturally.”
He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain. What the joke was, I did not understand.
“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated. “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”
He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy. Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.
“Because I push human limitations,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods? I want another artist to succeed as she has done. Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man. Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness. And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”
“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.
“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire. And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat. Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work. I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.” He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist. He smiled sardonically through the pain. “Frailties and all.”
Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital. One breast was bare. She handed a small, circular shield to Padre. It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror. Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.
“This is my aegis,” Padre said. “Though it has not always belonged to me.” He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly. A moment later, he handed it to me. “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”
I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass. What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given. It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided. The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.
Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis. So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.
“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”
“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.
“And so it does,” he said. “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass. It was made by the gods, you know. Athena herself, supposedly. That is why it does not age. That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”
He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis. Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.
“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”
“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”
“And why is that? Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being? Is it the skill? The interpretive talent? Or is it the sacrifice of the venture? Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”
“All of those reasons,” I said. “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable. Why not indulge one’s vanity”
“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die. So who is the painting really for?”
“For my posthumous pride,” I said. “For the ages.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it? Or at least to be remembered forever. But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone. No, it is war. It is revenge. Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite. I entertain no delusions as to live forever. I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes. I only want to avenge myself. And, by extension, humanity. That is my intention. That is the raison d’être.”
He became silent. Pensive. Gloomy. Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.
“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly. “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances. Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph. Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”
“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.
Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.
“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space. Yes? Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”
I frowned. I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos. They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like. But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture. Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.
Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?
Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft. A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe. With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment. He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.
Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap. The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within. It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.
“You hear them?” he asked. “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters. Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed. Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos. What is Chaos but timelessness? It is the calming of the waters. The ceasing of the waves. Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”
As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur. Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome. In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils. Her posture was of defeat and death.
I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time. Months passed. I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter. I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could. The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration. All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work. Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime. This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works. Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.
And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work. To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.
It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants. They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time. This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle. When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island. I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery. Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island. This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island. Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury. I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work. I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind. Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.
Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery. While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery. I did not even wish to look at my own work.
A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery. He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went. We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away. He stared at the piece, and I stared at him. He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself. Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment. His scraggly white beard had thinned. His sallow cheeks sagged. However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.
At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished. But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness. The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.
“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly. “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”
“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.
He shook his head. “No, it is I who am sorry. Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require. There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you. So young and so much potential. But not enough time. He taunts me even now, you see? Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”
“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter. “What of her superior skills? Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”
“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said. “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now. Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”
He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair. It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.
“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble! Had I only more time!”
The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax. I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants. But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.
“What now, little one?” he mumbled. “Aspire still? What hope have you? You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”
I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself. He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.
I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again. I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached. And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action. I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.
I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island. It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life. Yet I did not. Coming to the island, I found it abandoned. There were no servants. No signs of life. No one lived there or stirred within that paradise. It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.
I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants. Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive. Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it. Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate. So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.
No life stirred there. The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing. My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.
I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor. Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal. Nearing it, I found it open and empty. A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.
I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.
“Padre?” I said.
Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion. I asked him what was the matter. He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age. As I approached him I realized my error.
It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal. He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light. Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro. And something else. A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves. The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.
The sun was setting and the gallery darkened. I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place. As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan. I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery. By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight. I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could. I never returned to that island.
He still remains there, a part of his gallery. Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos. Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.