Caterina by Moonlight
PART 1 My Childhood
1465 The Convent of Le Murate, Florence, Italy
I sat across my father’s lap with his warm arms around me. I rested my head against his chest, listening to the beating of his heart mingled with the soft clip-clop of Luna’s hooves on the dirt road beneath us,. The old mare’s swaying was very like the rocking of my cradle when I was a baby, and I could imagine old Nonna, singing me a lullaby, as a I dozed off.
Suddenly I felt his voice rumble in my ear. “Wake up, Cati.”
I rubbed the sleepiness from my eyes and looked past the trees ahead of us. The road crossed through a big meadow and on the other side was a very large building made of stone.
“You see, sweet one? We are approaching your new home.”
Now my own heart began to pound.
“I don’t want a new home, Papa. I like the one we have.”
“I know, my dear child. But do you remember what I told you? Our home is no longer ours. I must go very far away soon, but I cannot take you with me. The kind ladies here will take care of you while I am gone. They will be your family.”
“I don’t want a new family. I am happy with you.” Now that old Nonna was in heaven with my mother, my Papa was the only person in my world.
“I know, my little love. I do not want to be away from you, but it cannot be helped for at least a little while, so I have found a safe place for you to stay until I can return. You see? Here are the blessed sisters, coming to greet us!”
As we got closer, I saw many ladies in black robes walking outside through the big front doors..
“Why are all the signoras wearing the same clothes, Papa? And why do they all wear white cloth hats?” I had seen nuns before, on the rare occasion that Nonna would take me into San Gemigniano, near our little home and orchard, but never so many at once, all dressed alike.
“Because they are Benedictine nuns, Cati dear, and their head coverings are called wimples. They wear them to hide their hair for the sake of modesty. They serve God without vanity.”
I did not know what ‘vanity’ was, nor who God was, though I had often heard Papa say “God be praised” or “Thank God” whenever I had a mis-hap but was not hurt, or “God forbid!” if someone said something terrible. Before she went to heaven, to be with Mama, Nonna told me that if I was a good girl I would also be with God someday.
Papa continued, “I cannot provide all you need to become a proper young lady. Here you will receive food, shelter, and learn to read and write. Le Murate will be a safe home for you. You will see.”
He jumped from the saddle to the ground and lifted me down, but I held onto his leg, afraid that if I let go, he would disappear, and I would be alone among all these strangers
The nuns all nodded respect to a very tall lady, who stepped forward to greet us. “Welcome, Signore Cellini.” She looked down at me. “This must be the young daughter you wrote to us about.”
“Yes, Holy Mother.” My father bowed. “This is my Caterina. She is only five years old.” He turned me to face her. ”Cati, this is the Prioress. She is from the noble Orsini family of Rome. A very learned and gracious lady.”
He took a pouch from his saddlebag and handed it to her. “This should be enough to provide for her, but I will send more. I have deposited two hundred florins in the Medici bank’s dowry fund, so that by the time my Caterina is ready to wed, there will be a sizable amount for her husband.”
“We will take excellent care of your daughter, Signore Cellini. Sister Agnese will be in charge of her.” A nun with plump pink cheeks stepped forward.
My papa knelt down, and I threw my arms around his neck, trying not to cry. “Please take me with you, Papa. I promise to be good.”
“You are very good, my sweet girl. But the hardship of travel to distant lands is not for a child. Your mother made me promise that you would be raised as befits a member of her distinguished family, the Bardi, so you will be a wise and educated woman as she was.” His eyes filled with tears. “Your mother was a great lady. I miss her every day of my life. But she lives on in you.”
“Please, Papa. Don’t leave me! I will be very helpful and I won’t be any trouble at all. Please, please take me with you!”
“I wish I could, my sweet Cati. You will always be in my heart, as I will always be in yours. But this is better for you right now. I will return to you again if I can. But in the meantime, be my brave girl. Promise to be obedient and listen to the blessed sisters who will care for you.”
He hugged me, and then pulled my arms from around his neck, and reached into his pocket, taking out a little white horse. “This keepsake is very old. It was carved from the tooth of an ancient beast. Whenever you feel lonely, it will remind you that I love you and will do everything I can to return to you one day, and that your mother watches over you from heaven.”
I could not help weeping as he tucked it into my pocket, kissed the top of my head, and turned me toward Sister Agnese. She wrapped me in her cloak, lifted me into her arms and patted my back, but I did not feel any better.
My father bid me goodbye, mounted his horse and rode back down the path.
I sobbed watching him ride away. He turned and waved just before disappearing into the woods. I struggled free and tried to run after him.
“Papa! Don’t leave me with these ladies! Please!” but I slipped and fell on the gravel path and skinned both of my knees. Sister Agnese carried me to the convent infirmary. I soaked her shoulder with my tears.
“We do not run or cry aloud here,” she told me gently. “We walk with dignity and we bear our pain with courage, like the saints. I will take you to Sister Benedicta in our convent infirmary. She makes special medicines and knows everything about healing.”
An older lady-nun with kind eyes washed my bleeding knees. “This is called myrrh.” She sprinkled it on my cuts. “It will help you heal quickly.” I held my little horse tightly inside my pocket, fighting back my tears, hoping Papa would hurry back to take me home again.
While Sister Benedicta wrapped my knees in soft bandages, I looked at all the plants hanging from the ceiling and the rows and rows of bottles. I wondered how she had made all the medicines on those shelves.
“We glory in God’s creations. For every ill, God provides a balm,” she said to me, as she lifted me down from her treatment table. “For every sadness, He offers joy to come.”
Sister Agnese led me to the bare room where I would sleep and the pallet that would be my bed. I asked why there were no playthings, no vases with flowers, as we had at home.
“We have no personal possessions to tie us to this earth, since we are all here simply to serve Our Father as we wait to join him in heaven.”
“My mother is in heaven.”
“As we all will be someday, if we are very good.”
I kept my little horse hidden in my pocket. I understood it was a “personal possession” and I did wish to be very good so I could be with my mother and their father in heaven, but it was all I had of my own father, and I could not bear the idea of parting with it.
The next day, Sister Agnese woke me to attend prayers and breakfast and then took me to see the Prioress. She brought me as far as the entrance to her private chambers, bowed and left me standing there in the doorway. I wasn’t sure what to do.
The Prioress rose from her table. From lines on her brow and at the edges of her eyes, I could tell she was very old, but she smiled at me, and held out her hand.
“Come in, child.”
She beckoned me to enter and stand beside her desk. She turned her chair to face me and took my small hands in hers. “Welcome to the Lord’s House, my dear. Here you are free of the vanities, temptations, and limitations of the world. Here you will learn, and do good in the eyes of Our Lord.”
I did not know what any of that meant, except for ‘doing good.’ So I listened quietly, thinking of my father riding away. My chin began to tremble, but I tried not to weep again.
The Prioress tilted her head slightly as she gazed at me. She turned to remove a large leather-bound volume from the massive bookcase behind her, and opened it to a colorful page. She turned it so I could see. There was a picture of a man in armor fighting a fearsome dragon.
“Would you like to be able to read the stories about our Lord and the saints and their bravery and sacrifice?”
I had not expected to hear stories, nor see such lovely pictures. I wanted to touch the colorful images and trace the graceful shapes of the letters. The embattled knight’s head was surrounded by a circle of shining gold as the dragon snarled at the end of his lance.
“Very good.” She smiled and nodded. “Every night after vespers but before bed, you will come to me and we shall read together. Tomorrow we will begin learning letters. But for today, I will read to you.”
She lifted me onto her lap and began the tale of Saint Michael and the Dragon. I was so enraptured by the story and the vivid pictures, I forgot, for that moment, that I had been abandoned among strangers.
When she took my hand to lead me back to the doorway, we passed a small table where little figures of kings, queens, horsemen and soldiers stood on a board made of many squares. I longed play with them.
The Prioress noticed my interest. “Do you know what this is?”
I shook my head.
“It is a game called ‘Chess’ and I will teach you how to play it.” She lifted me onto one of the chairs and gently placed each piece in my hand, one at a time, explaining how they would move on the board. She held an ivory lady with a crown on her head. “If one is forced to live in the secular world, a woman must be well educated and clever. The Queen is the most powerful piece in this game.”
Every evening after I had worked on my alphabet and listened to a story about the saints, she would teach me how to play chess.
When my saint’s day approached, we read the story of Caterina and how the wicked pagan Romans tried to torture and break her on a spiked wheel and finally beheaded her. The pictures were painted in bright colors – poor Caterina, stretched across the cruel spikey wheel, her eyes looking heavenward, as the wheel breaks into pieces beneath her. On the next page, a man in armor with a huge sword had cut off her head! Blood gushed from her severed neck as her head flew across the page.
I covered my mouth to stifle my silent scream, but could not tear my eyes away. The Abbess quickly turned the page to show Saint Caterina rising to heaven with wings of a dove, her happy smile showing her peace and holiness.
“Despite the pain and torture we must all endure in life, the saints were rewarded after death with pure bliss and joy in Christ’s love. ”
I was not sure what “bliss” was but I was relieved to know Santa Caterina finally had a happy ending in the arms of Our Lord. But I could not forget the horror of her impalement on the horrible spikes of the wheel or the sight of her head flying through the air, streaming blood.
When I related the tale to Sister Agnese, she cheerfully told me the story of her own namesake, and how she was sent to a brothel, had her breasts cut off, was stabbed with a sword, and condemned to be burned. I did not know what a brothel was, but if it was a place where people were cut apart and burned, it must be terrible. Between these stories and the images of poor Jesu Christi on the cross, with blood spurting from his side, his hands, his feet, and from his forehead beneath the crown of thorns, I had nightmares for weeks.
Whenever I awoke with night terrors, Sister Agnese would take me to see the lovely paintings of the Madonna and Child, to focus my attention on the gentle tenderness of serene Mary, which only made me long for the mother I had never known, who died when she gave birth to me. When I dreamed of my mother, she always appeared as the beautiful Madonna from the painting.
I stood on tip-toe, peering over the edge of the sturdy oak table where sister Dominica was grinding the pigments She was an artist and was making a painting on the wall of the dining hall of Lord Jesus and his last supper.
“Where do these colors come from?”
Sister Dominica raised them one at a time and explained them to me. She said I should remember so I could help her prepare them as I got older.
There was vine black, a charcoal made from burned grapevine twigs, green verdigris from copper and vinegar, red from the madder root. And there was a deeper red made from so many crushed tiny dried kermes bugs from oak trees that you could never count them all. She needed that color for wicked Judas’ cloak. There was lead for the white of Christ's robes, which she said I should never taste because it would make me sick. The deep blue for Mother Mary’s robes came from crushed Lapis Lazuli, a precious stone from far away.
"Here, Caterina." She gave me a scrap of parchment and a thin stick of charcoal. "Make a picture for me."
This became our daily afternoon ritual, until I was old enough to mix the gesso and pigments myself.
Sister Dominica took me to the chapel, where a man was working on a giant painting on the wall, of the Magi bringing their gifts to the Christ Child.
“Signore Botticelli,” she said to him. “This is Caterina. She enjoys drawing and I thought you might like to show her your fresco.”
“What a lovely child! I would be most happy to show her.”
He pointed out the faces of the people he had included in the painting.
“These are Medicis, who traced their ancestry to the Magi. Here is Cosimo, the father of Florence, his son Piero, and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano, as they were when they were children, all greeting the newborn Child.”
I recognized that he had made a picture of himself as part of the crowd.
Every morning after prayers at Prime, sister Agnese would fetch me to help her in the herb garden just inside the walls, where we grew the plants for the Pharmacia, the infirmary and the kitchen. After lunch before Nones, I would draw with Sister Dominica. And every evening, after prayers at Vespers but before retiring to my straw pallet, I would join the prioress in her private quarters to learn to read from the illuminated scriptures and to play chess.
Once a week, I was allowed to accompany Sister Agnese and some of the novices to the market for provisions. We would walk down to the Arno River, where we could see the spire of Spiritu Sancti on the other side of the Trinita Bridge. We’d walk along the banks of the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, where the butchers and goldsmiths shared space in stalls and shops on both sides of the walkway leading across the bridge.
The streets were crowded with citizens from all walks of life, and I had so many questions. Although my questions were usually answered with a cursory “Because it is God’s will,” Sister Agnese patiently explained that some were wealthy merchants and guild tradesmen and others who wore chains were slaves from the Circassis and North Africa. Everywhere there was color and noise, the delicious scent of meat grilling, and the pleasant sound of street musicians.
While sister Agnese was busy bargaining for some lamb for the convent, I approached a man who held an instrument with strings.
“Shall I play my lute for you?”
His fingers flew over the strings and he sang a rollicking song. I could not help but dance – and I twirled and swayed, filled with joy, until Sister Agnese grabbed me. “We do not dance. It is a frivolous diversion from our duties.” She took my hand and led me away from temptation. I did not understand why God would not like dancing.
In the distance beyond the bridge to the east, Sister Agnese pointed out the rising walls of the new Pitti Palazzo under construction. And to the west, the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ‘seat of government for our Republic,’ she said, and just beyond it, the stone walls of the Bargello, the soldiers’ fortress and prison.
Once Sister Dominica allowed me to accompany her when she delivered pigment powders to the Monastery at San Marco. On the way, we passed the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the orphanage.
“This is where poor and desperate mothers abandon their babies.” She pointed out a wheel that turned to deliver the infants into the hands of caretakers and wet nurses inside. Above the wheel was a sign that she read to me : “Our father and mother have forsaken us; the Lord has taken us in.”
“You are very fortunate,” Sister Dominica continued. “Many of the children abandoned here die or are sold to those who would use them as servants, or worse.”
I did not fully understand her meaning, but I tried to be grateful for my circumstances.
As I grew older, I was given more responsibilities. I was very proud that Sister Dominica trusted me to carry pigments to Signore Sandro Botticelli in the new chapel where he was creating the large fresco. Sister Agnese, working in the herb garden just outside the entrance to the chapel, rose to follow me. I made sure to carry the tray with its valuable cups of ground blue lapis lazuli very carefully – it was not only expensive to obtain, but was very precious because it was used for Mother Mary’s robes.
I placed the tray on Signore Botticelli’s work table. He glanced up, put down his brush, and walked me into the light of the entrance where he studied me from various angles.
“One day, little Caterina, you will rival Simonetta Vespucci as the most beautiful girl in Florence.”
Sister Agnese immediately chastised him.
“You are encouraging vanity and pride, Signore. For shame!”
“Forgive me, sister” he replied. “But you must admit this child is angelic in both her sweet nature and her appearance.”
Sister Agnese crossed her arms and gave him a punishing stare.
Signore Botticelli raised his hands in surrender. “Forgive me. I will refrain from encouraging sin, of any kind.”
1468 My first friend
Today Sister Agnese fetched me from the garden where I had been picking herbs for the kitchen and the infirmary.
“Come with me, Caterina.”
I followed her back to my cell. Several servants were carrying a new pallet into my small chamber.
“Another girl is coming. She will sleep here with you.”
I tried to contain my excitement and keep my voice as calm as I could.
“Another girl? Is she my age? Do you know her name?”
“To constantly ask so many questions is unseemly. “ The somber nun turned to me and pursed her lips. “Though she is a few years older than you, I hope you will be a good influence on her. I expect you to provide her with a model of modesty, chastity and obedience.”
I had heard these words often. I always bathed wearing my chemise, to maintain my modesty. I had no real idea about the meaning of “chastity.” I admit that my curiosity sometimes interfered with my obedience, but I tried very hard to be good.
“I will do my best, sister.” I followed her to the abbess’s chamber. A girl stood before the prioress, her back to us, her hands balled into fists.
The abbess gestured for me to come forward.
“Caterina. This is Lucretia. She will be staying with us until her marriage.” She turned back to the girl. “ Lucretia. Caterina will help you to adjust to our routine and rules.”
Lucretia glanced at me, crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “A child. Of course you have put me with a child.”
Even frowning, she was beautiful. Red-gold curls tumbled past her shoulders and her green eyes reminded me of young leaves, emerging in spring. She was probably about eleven or twelve, but already had a women’s body and demeanor. Her small bosom swelled over the square neckline of a beautiful pale green gown with gold embroidered designs, and a dark green surcoat in a fabric that looked so soft, I longed to touch it. From the golden circlet in her hair to her dainty shoes, she was a glorious sight.
“You are staring, girl.” Lucretia’s comment startled me back to the moment at hand.
As we followed Agnese back to our little chamber, I whispered so only Lucretia could hear. “Forgive me. It is just that you are so beautiful…and I have never seen such lovely garments or such elegant fabrics.”
“Poor little waif” she said. “This is velvet. This is brocade. And this is silk.”
Sister Agnese cleared her throat. “Your parents have directed that you will wear simple linen and wool, as we all do here.” She left to fetch Lucretia’s new clothes.
Lucretia shook her head. “How can you stand it here?”
“I have nothing to compare it to. It is my life.”
“Poor thing. Have you no friends?”
I did not think any of the nuns truly qualified as a friend. But now Lucretia was here and my heart soared with promise. “Perhaps now I will?”
Lucretia smiled benevolently. “I’m sure we shall be great friends, though I can’t wait for my wedding so I can get out of here and have some fun. My future betrothed imports fine fabrics from the Levant and spends most of his time in Constantinople so I will be free to be the mistress of a young, powerful, wealthy man.”
I know I should have been shocked, but I was intrigued and fascinated.
“Is not marriage a sacred state, ordained by God?”
“Of course, my dear. For procreation. To produce sons to carry on the line and daughters to barter for gain. Marriage is a business arrangement. Love is something else altogether. As long as you give your husband heirs, you can have friends and admirers and be the object of their affection and inspiration for poetry and art. But to only be a wife? What a dismal life that would be.”
Lucretia knew more about everything than I did. She was very good at eavesdropping on adult conversations. She knew more about the ways of men and women as well, which was the reason, she said, that her parents had forced her to live in the convent until her wedding.
“They said they would not allow me to disgrace them by dancing about any man’s maypole and jeopardizing my virtue.”
I had seen maidens dancing with colorful ribbons around a maypole on the village green near my childhood home, but had no idea what man it may have belonged to, or why it would shame their parents for them to dance around it. I asked Lucretia what they meant.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “You are such an ignorant child. Men have funny little pieces of flesh between their legs that we don’t have,” She lowered her voice to make sure none of the sisters could hear. “…and they grow longer and hard, like a pole, when girls touch them!”
During our shopping adventures with Sister Agnese and the novitiates, Lucretia pulled me aside from the group, to peer into the garden of the Medici palazzo. There was a statue of a naked boy, wearing only a wide brimmed hat and sandals, his foot resting on a severed head. Lucretia pointed out his extra part. Sister Agnese caught us giggling and scolded us severely.
“When we walk past statues of unclothed men from pagan times, you are to lower your gaze. Only statues of holy subjects are acceptable for your eyes.”
Lucretia rolled her eyes. “Even holy men have extra parts.”
We both attempted, unsuccessfully, to stifle our laughter.
Agnese herded her flock through the streets as quickly as possible, back toward our home at Le Murate.
A week later I awoke in the middle of the night to see Lucretia slipping out into the garden. I followed. From the shadows, I saw a young man drop into the cloistered garden from the top of the wall, and Lucretia ran to him. Within moments, Sister Agnese appeared with a candle.
“What is going on here?” She came closer to the couple and raised the candle higher. “Lorenzo de Medici? Why are you bringing shame on yourself and this wicked girl?”
The young man backed away from Lucretia and bowed to Sister Agnese. “I beg your forgiveness, sister. I am only here to verify the chastity of your charges.” Even in the moonlight I could see his grin.
“I never heard such nonsense in my life. Get out immediately!” Sister Agnese grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to the front gate. I hurried back to my cell before she could re-deposit Lucretia on her pallet.
“If you ever invite such sin into our convent again, you will be severely punished. Your parents brought you here to insure your virtue. For shame!” Sister Agnese stormed out and I heard the lock click on the door.
Lucretia sulked. “That was my admirer. He was bringing me his latest poem. Ugh. I can’t wait to be free of this place.”