Pisa, June 1609
Orazio looked around the cluttered studio, unable to identify many of the objects within it. Diagrams of heavenly orbs, a metal triangle inscribed with figures, large tomes on the sciences and mathematics, and strange objects whose function he couldn’t begin to guess at. He shook his head, half smiling, remembering his few childhood encounters with the fascinating man who lived here. The professor was just a year his junior; they’d both grown up here in Tuscany. Though they’d never been close acquaintances, they’d known many of the same people.
He shifted impatiently. It had been nearly half an hour since a servant had brought him here, assuring him that the professor was due back from his afternoon lecture at any moment. Orazio was certain he’d heard someone enter the house shortly after his arrival, but had seen no one when he’d peered out into the hallway.
No matter; he would wait. Even though he should have been on his way to Florence for an important meeting. He would not return to Rome till he had what he’d come here for. Obviously the professor was trying to avoid him. Well, Orazio wouldn’t have it. Perhaps he should search the house.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. A moment later, the studio door opened and a solid, imposing man with close-cropped brown hair entered. He bowed respectfully to Orazio.
“Benvenuto, my dear fellow,” he smiled. “Terribly sorry to have kept you waiting so long; a small crisis cropped up the moment I got back from the university. Nothing to trouble you with.”
I daresay that small crisis was me, thought Orazio.
He did his best to be civil as the professor engaged in small talk unrelated to the payment of his debt. Surely such a great mind knew why the artist was here. In the very unlikely event that he did not, it was time for a polite hint. “Signor, I trust you are enjoying my painting. I noticed it the moment I entered. I’m gratified to see it displayed so prominently in your fine home.”
“I am delighted with the piece, Signor Gentileschi; it is superb,” the professor gushed. “And it’s received more than a few compliments from my visitors.”
There was a short silence as Orazio waited for him to broach the topic of payment. “And I am most pleased that you are pleased, Signor,” the professor finally added.
More silence and more smiling.
Orazio hated the direct approach and avoided confrontation whenever possible. “Since business has brought me to Tuscany, Signor, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone, as it were, and come by to collect my fee,” he said in the most assertive tone he could muster. “Save you the trouble of having it sent to me,” he added magnanimously.
The professor nodded emphatically. “Yes, yes, of course!” he replied. “And you would certainly have it by now, if not for my difficult circumstances. You see, I’m shouldering a heavy financial burden at the moment. I support my dear mother, as well as a brother whose artistic endeavours have thus far failed to cover his living expenses. I’ve just recently completed dowry payments for my sisters. And then there are my children.”
Orazio’s heart sank. The man had no intention of paying him. He knew he should have required a deposit as Mama had insisted. She’d always told him he was too soft in business. Dear Prudenzia, in her gentle way, had made the same observation, laughing that he would be the happiest of men if he could only be left to paint and not worry about practical things like money. Even now, four years after her death, he found it hard to think of her without tearing up.
He swallowed hard, preparing for another round with the professor. “But Signor, I too have obligations. Three sons. A dowry for my daughter. We all have such burdens. But we must still pay our debts.”
The professor scratched his head as though pondering Orazio’s words. “How about a trade?” he proposed. “Your painting for one of my inventions. A wonderful new device. You’ll be one of the first in Rome to own one!”
“What sort of invention?” asked Orazio warily. “And would it be worth—”
“My dear friend, wait till you see!” The professor exclaimed as he stumbled through heaps of clutter to get to a metal object propped against the wall in a corner. Grabbing the thing, he gleefully held it aloft.
“The latest craze; everyone wants one,” he declared, handing it reverently to Orazio. “Truth be told, I can’t keep up with the demand; there’s a waiting list. Don’t even need to advertise. It’s something new, something novel. People are snapping them up. Lucky for you, the fellow I promised this one to didn’t show up to collect it, so it’s yours!”
Orazio sighed. He didn’t feel very lucky.
The professor continued, his excitement fading. “Look, if you don’t want to keep it, then sell it. You’ll get your fee and probably a bit more into the bargain. Take it to the docks; the sea captains love these things. One of them is bound to give you a good price. Now, let me show you how it works….”
The next thing he knew, Orazio was heading out the door with the professor’s contraption. He could already see the look on Mama’s face. But what else could he have done? It was the invention or nothing. And since he’d been delayed by his dealings with the professor, he now had to head straight for Florence if he was to get there before dark. Which meant he wouldn’t have time to unload this cumbersome object at the docks here in Pisa; he’d have to drag it along with him.
A few days later, Orazio arrived back in Rome. The easy part was behind him. Now he had to get the thing into the house without his eagle-eyed mother noticing. Thankfully, in her devotion to the church, she attended Mass daily. In fact, he realized, she should be there now. Orazio relaxed and stepped inside.
A servant heard the door open and ran to help him in with his things.
“Benvenuto, my son!” came a stern, female voice from behind him. Apparently his mother hadn’t attended noon Mass after all.
Orazio jumped. “Mama! It’s good to see you,” he managed, scurrying over to plant a kiss on her cheek. “I thought you’d still be at Mass.”
“I went early today so I could be here when you got home.” Her eyes narrowed as they settled on the metal instrument. “And what is that?” she asked, her voice tinged with suspicion.
Orazio reluctantly told her the story and braced for her reaction.
“That sly professor saw you coming, and no mistake,” she grumbled. “I’m sure he said to himself, ‘I’ll just fob one of my useless inventions off on this idiot and save a florin or two.’ Now he can boast that the great artist Orazio Gentileschi hands out his precious paintings for trinkets! What is it, anyway? A machine for paying bills? For they certainly won’t pay themselves!”
“Dear Mama, please calm yourself,” urged Orazio. “The professor assured me it would sell easily, and for a good price. I’ll see to it first thing tomorrow. Besides, it really is a marvel. Have a look.”
His mother waved dismissively as though swatting a fly, and hustled out of the room. “I haven’t time for such nonsense; there’s work to be done,” she shot back over her shoulder.
Orazio turned to his servant. “Paolo, please take my things to my room. Except the metal cylinder; I’ll hold onto that.”
A moment later, he poked his head into his studio, where a dark-haired teenage girl stood painting at an easel. Orazio tapped playfully on the doorpost to catch her attention.
“Papa!” she squealed, running to him. “I’ve been working at this painting all morning, trying to finish it as a surprise for you.” She frowned. “But it’s not quite done yet.”
Orazio hugged his daughter close. “No matter, my dear Misia; take your time and do a proper job. Now, why are you here alone? Where are your brothers?”
“Still with the tutor, Papa—you know that!” laughed Misia. Then she noticed the strange object her father was carrying. “Papa, what’s that?”
Orazio grinned. “This, my dear, is a bit of magic! Let’s go into the garden, and I’ll show you what it does.”
Misia studied the curious bronze-coloured cylinder as they stepped outside. Her father told her to look into one end of the device as he held it up.
“What do you see, Misia?”
It took a moment for her to work it out. “Papa, that rosebush over by the fence—it’s as if it were right in front of me!” She jumped back. “What sorcery is this?”
Orazio laughed. “Not sorcery, Misia, but science! The glass inside the telescope—that’s what this cylinder’s called—is curved in such a way that the objects you see look bigger, or closer. This telescope is small enough to hold in the hand, but the professor has just built a much bigger one that makes things appear even larger than this one does. He uses it to observe the heavens.”
Misia shook her head in disbelief, letting this impossible reality sink in. “This instrument—telescope—captures the imagination! What an interesting fellow this professor must be. I should very much like to meet him one day.”
Pisa, September 1633
The professor smiled when he read the letter he’d received that morning from the painter. He chuckled as he remembered Orazio, here in this very study, and his awkward attempts to collect his debt. As he reread the tender message, a tear rolled down his wizened cheek.
Dear Signor Galilei,
I hope by way of this letter to encourage you, a scientist, as you have so often encouraged me, an artist. I was appalled to learn that by order of the Inquisition, your home has now become your prison. I cannot imagine how anyone could find your wonderful ideas offensive.
You've inspired me from the moment I first peered through your magical telescope all those years ago, and since then, you’ve continued to open my eyes to the remarkable world around me. It’s made me a better painter. Your inventions and ideas have sparked my imagination, and I hope that shines through in my work. My dear Galileo, may God bless you and use you to open the eyes of people everywhere to the wonders of His incredible world.
Ever your devoted friend,