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A True Renaissance

< The Birthday Cake

The Not-My-Birthday Birthday Cake  >

by Jenean McBrearty


Magdalena listened at the door, hesitant to enter the Great Council Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio while Leonardo and Michelangelo were still there. The first time she had come to wipe the floor, they thought she was bringing them fruit or wine.

“No, Sirs, I make sure the floor is clean.” She’d held up a water bucket and her rags. “Soderini doesn’t want anyone to fall.”

“Or ruin his floors,” Leonardo had said, and glared at Michelangelo.

“Get on with your work, Girl,” Michelangelo had ordered.

“No, come here,” Leonardo had said. “Tell me which mural you like best. The Battle of Angharsi or the Battle of Coscina.”

“I…don’t like battles. They are all ugly to me.”

“Leave her alone, Leonardo. She’s young and stupid…Get out until we’re done for the day.”

The handsome Leonardo had smiled and nodded towards the thick, heavy door. It was much too thick to hear anything stirring.

Today she opened it a crack and peeked in first to see if they’d gone. Leonardo’s paints were covered, but Michelangelo was standing at his work table mixing colors.

“Come in, Girl,” he said gruffly.

 She stepped inside. Though younger than Leonardo, he always seemed in bad humor.

“Soderini tells me your eldest brother was killed in Borgia’s army. Is that true?”

“Yes, Sir, and my mother still grieves.”

He sighed and put his brushes and colors aside. “Sit at the table.”

She put down her bucket and rags, and sat down. Michelangelo brought a leather pouch to the table and opened it. Carefully he withdrew a plate covered with a silk cloth, and when he removed the cloth, there was a small round chocolate cake.

“Oh, my,” she whispered.

“Leonardo is quite the dandy in his pink satin and purple velvet, but I know real taste delights the tongue. “

He broke the cake in half and gave her a side. “Now, whose picture is better, eh?”

“Yours, Sir.” she said, and savored her portion. Michelangelo covered the other half with the silk and said, “Take this home to your mother.” He patted her hand and left.

Magdalena wiped the floors, making sure she raised no dust or disturbed the artists’ equipment. Had this been a kitchen instead of the Council Hall, she might have whistled or hummed to herself. These great men, the most famous artists in Florence were engaged in a bitter battle of their own, struggling to prove which was the more talented. Soderini planned it that way. And so great was their rivalry, they were determined to win the approval of a scullery maid. Yesterday, Leonardo had brought her a berry tart.

Who am I, she asked herself, to judge whether a piece of art is beautiful? She looked at one mural, and then the other. She knew nothing of the painters’ words: color, form, composition, technique. Yet, the most important question for them was which one she liked. The cake and the tart proved it. This was an odd time, indeed, if artists worried about pleasing common people such as she.  


published 19 September 2016