Portrait of a Lady c.1465 National Gallery, by Alesso Baldovinetti (c. 1426-99)
For Tessa Traeger
It was easy, helping her from the frame –
the way I’d seen a footman hand a lady
from her coach – but everything looked the same:
her profile, pearls in the blonde hair, was ready
for the next Sunday visitor, while we
(her spirit, not the picture) went for tea.
‘I’ve not been out for years,’ she sighed,
‘so thank you for inviting me’. ‘What would
you like?’ I asked. ‘Just to look,’ she replied.
‘Seeing young people eating is so good.’
When someone scraped a chair across the floor,
she jumped, as if she’d heard a lion roar –
‘which actually, I did – at Carnival one year,’
she laughed, relaxed: ‘the old duke had one brought
to Florence to amuse his friends – oh dear,
the beast ran off, although it was soon caught.
Why do young women show their underclothes?’
‘Street fashion,’ I grumped, ‘means anything goes –
but please may I ask you something? Those palms
stitched on your sleeve – are they significant?’
‘Ah, my label – curators have no qualms
about regaling folk with their redundant
and hopeful speculations. No, that “symbol”
was just a joke among my girlfriends’ circle –
we all wore it one month to tease our men
and naturally it worked extremely well.
So I wore it when we had the portrait done.
Any other falsehoods I should dispel?’
‘I’ve always wondered, do you think it’s you? –
assuming that a portrait can be true.’
‘It’s me. My husband didn’t like the nose
because it isn’t classically straight –
but it’s correct. I like that. Also those
thin lips. The custom was to plump them out,
the bosom too, of course, but history
received reality – unflattered me.’
‘If I may, as I’ve known you all these years,
there’s one more thing. Now you’ve become great art,
what would you say you yearn for most, apart
from loved ones?’ ‘Well, love never disappears
(although it’s time I went) but what we miss’ –
and here she took a draught of breath – ‘is this.’
Mark Haworth-Booth. Commended.