“Hear me out,” May said. “If you ask him for advice, then the project becomes his to share, and that gives him an incentive to defend it. Even against those he has stirred up.”
Bernini wasn’t convinced. She had a bad feeling in her stomach, wondered briefly if it was the sausage from last night, but when he replied, it vanished.
“Shrewd woman,” he said, smiling now. “You would make a good courtier. But the man truly hates me for taking the job he assumed would be his—Architect of St. Peter’s. I doubt anything can change his hatred.”
He was wavering, but considering her idea.
She elaborated on her reasons. “But he loves his reputation. Being your advisor could enhance his standing a lot. Surely he will recognize how a partnership of geniuses will promote you both.”
She had to say so herself: it was a brilliant idea.
“He may be a genius, but he’s also depressive egomaniac.”
His anger for a moment almost seemed to be directed towards her, so she adopted his strategy. She fought his opposition with an audacious turn.
“He is going to be completely taken by surprise at your invitation to collaborate. And if he is a genius architect, he will recognize how valuable it will be to him.”
It was the truth, and Bernini saw it. He broke into a laugh and his face lit up with his most charming smile.
“For you, I will try it! My note to Borromini will be the roses I lay at your feet, for coming here at my request.”
She was delighted. “That’s much better than roses!”
He sent the invitation immediately and Borromini’s reply came within an hour. He would come that afternoon. May was very excited to meet another giant of the Renaissance, the architect whose buildings proudly refused ornamentation because their complex geometries were so beautiful that colors, paintings, and statues would have been a distraction.
Francesco Borromini arrived just after one in the afternoon. He came toward them from the door at the far end of the studio, so she could watch him approach. He was everything she had imagined, with his pale face and Van Dyke beard, good looks sabotaged by his scowl—such a contrast with Bernini’s very public and ready charm. Borromini wore a knee-length dark brown cloak, old-fashioned and dour for the period. Under it he wore black, making him dark from hair to shoes. She could feel the anger simmering under his melancholic greeting.
“Cavaliere," he said, bowing.
Before he lowered his head, she saw the grim expression that revealed the temperament. That depressive, suspicious nature had resulted in Borromini withdrawing from working under Bernini, his young rival, at St. Peter’s. It was a banked fury that scared her and reminded her that Borromini would die by grotesque suicide, on his own sword. She wondered, as Bernini bowed in response, whether this meeting had been a good idea.
“Maestro,” Bernini conceded as Borromini rose unsmiling to stare at him, waiting. Bernini’s bow put a fleeting smile on Borromini’s face.
Despite their evident mutual dislike, May was excited. It would benefit them both if they could work together to rescue the bell tower project. And if that changed history, so much the better for history. She was playing God. She felt almost up to the part.
But Bernini wasn’t playing his part. He was just standing there silently waiting. She prompted him, “You wanted to ask for some advice?”
Borromini turned to her with a disgusted look. “Is this one of your models? Why is she here?”
May was suddenly frightened. She felt the chasm between cultures and centuries and realized she was out of her depth with such male chauvinism that they hadn’t yet even invented a term for it. It simply was the way things were—women were inferior and to be treated as barely existing.
Bernini came to her rescue. “She is not my model. She is my adviser on … matters of politics. I’ll thank you not to insult Signora Bellini.”
He had improvised a distinguished Venetian name for her, thinking quickly to give her social superiority over Borromini from a region wouldn’t be very familiar with.
This was the moment to say something, but she had no idea what. If a curtsey was right, she didn’t know how to execute one. She opted for the nobler slight dip of her head. Borromini, out-maneuvered, dipped his. He hesitated and then executed a lavish bow to her.
May was very glad she had not made the mistake of a bow, as she had in St. Peter’s—a masculine bow, which had made Bernini laugh. She reminded herself to be feminine, but not subservient. Feminine and noble, whatever that was.
“It seems politic for you both to consider working collaboratively on the bell tower design,” she said, hoping that by filling in the blank she would gain the advantage for Bernini.
Borromini turned to him. “So, Cavaliere, is this why have you summoned me?” He made his disdain clear.
“You are to consult with me,” Bernini said in a commanding voice that May didn’t think was going to help. “I acknowledge your engineering proficiency, and I want you to … to …”
He was choking on the word “advise.” He just couldn’t say it.
“You seek his advice, isn’t that right?” she said softly, hoping only Gianlorenzo heard.
Borromini allowed himself a smile. “You seek my expertise about the bell tower project, is that it?”
Bernini seemed unable to utter, “yes,” so he bowed again.
Borromini bowed even lower. Bernini bowed again. There seemed to be a pissing match in progress that May didn’t understand. She guessed that whoever spoke next would be the loser.
“Might you be concerned the towers are too heavy for their bases?” Borromini asked.
Score one for Bernini, who eked out the merest of smiles. “You are correct, sir. I have concerns. I might consider your thoughts on the matter.”
May was thrilled.
Borromini smiled broadly and said, “Because you’re already trying to decrease weight in the South Tower as it is built, I understand your dilemma. You must be aware that your design may prove too heavy for the bases already constructed by our predecessor, Maderno.”
Bernini was the one to scowl now. “That is exactly what the cowardly author of the scandaglio wrote against my plan. I wonder, Maestro, whether or not you are acquainted with the author of that insulting document?”
To May, this was tantamount to an accusation. Borromini seemed to agree. “You think I would write such a public rant? Why would I jeopardize my own reputation with the pope? No, I had planned to wait until your tower is finished and then we will see if it stands. Of course, my estimate about the weight may be entirely incorrect.”
This was to have been the moment when Bernini asked Borromini to help calculate what had to be done, but Borromini had succeeded in getting Bernini to fume. This wasn’t what May had envisioned. How had they managed to collaborate at St. Peter’s? Surely they could find some common ground.
“Stonemasons have been consulted,” Bernini said defensively, “and they assured us that my design for the towers is not too heavy for the bases.”
His haughtiness wasn’t helping. May could see Borromini’s mood had a deeper and darker color than Bernini’s. He could afford to bait Bernini, because the Cavaliere was notoriously emotional. With a lurch of disappointment, May realized that was why Borromini had come. This had been a terrible idea. These two artistic titans were hoping to mortally wound each other. As a result, both would fall.
“I remember this anonymous critic mentioned that your towers will cost twice as much as Maderno’s original design,” Borromini said. “I suppose you justify that on the basis of the pope and his taste for extravagance. He seems to always prefer the most elaborate design to the most pure one.”
“You impugn all my designs at one sweep!”
Bernini’s steam was frothing over. The dour Borromini now shot May a smirking glance. He was going to milk this encounter in the hope of getting Bernini to do something he might regret. She saw now that the greater maneuverer in this meeting was Borromini, though Bernini always had the greater luck. That luck lay at the core of Borromini’s hatred and thus it would never change.
She felt the tightness of her sleeves and bodice, the surreal way her breasts wanted to spill over the top of the dress. She couldn’t catch her breath. She couldn’t imagine surviving the oily poison of this atmosphere between them.
“Cavaliere, you must rise or fall on your own calculations,” Borromini said grandly. “I do not know why you summoned me, if you have no wish to listen. I cannot help you.”
“You always were a stubborn ass!” shouted Bernini.
“And you, Cavaliere, have always been a thief.”
“What do you mean?”
“The devious way you stole my rightful commission for the Four Rivers Fountain. A pickpocket’s ruse robbing a true artist.”
“Rightful commission?” Bernini shouted.
Borromini’s voice rose too, cracking in a higher pitch. “Your esthetic is as common as your heritage.”
“And how would the son of a stonemason appreciate esthetic refinement?” Bernini shouted.
Borromini was already retreating, but at this last insult, he turned. Throwing one side of his cape over his shoulder to reveal his hand on the hilt of his sword, though not drawing it, he answered.
“As easily as the son of a mediocre carver of small statues can understand the complexities of geometry.”
It was amazing that Borromini, renowned for his temper, had managed to bring the poised Bernini to near-hysteria. Her hopes were at an end. She just hoped there wouldn’t be a duel, and she had to remind herself that history had recorded none between them.