Oil and Marble - Stephanie Storey


December. Milan

From up close, he could see that the mural was already beginning to flake off the wall. The paint was not smooth, as it should be, but grainy, as though applied over a fine layer of sand. Soon the pigment would break away from the plaster and crumble into specks that would blow away, bit by bit. The earthy tones, made from dirt and clay, would be the first to go. The vermilion, the rusty red color of blood and pomegranate, would most likely stick the longest; it had the most permanent qualities. But the ultramarine worried him most. Ground from precious lapis stones, the brilliant blue was shipped in from a faraway land in the East and was the most expensive hue on the market. By using a hint of ultramarine, a painter could elevate a picture from mediocre to masterpiece, but its use on fresco was rare. Without ultramarine, his work could be dismissed as insignificant or, worse yet, conventional. And it was already starting to crack.

“Porca vacca,” he swore under his breath. The deterioration was his own fault. He had pushed his experiments too far. He always pushed things too far. The left side of his face twitched. He took a deep breath, and his expression softened back into serenity. No need to feel ruffled. For now, he reassured himself, this was still a masterpiece, and he was still the master. He turned to entertain his audience with secrets and stories. It was, after all, what they had come for: to hear the great Leonardo from Vinci explain his latest painting, The Last Supper.

“One of you will betray me!” Leonardo boomed, his voice echoing down the vaulted stone dining hall in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where his fresco spanned the north wall.

The crowd of French tourists was delighted by his dramatic outburst. He knew that for many of them, he was a great curiosity. At forty-eight years old, the Master from Vinci was one of the most famous men on the Italian peninsula; his name had spread to France, Spain, England, and the far-flung land of Turkey. He was known for his ingenious designs of war machines and groundbreaking innovations in paint. Tourists traveled from all over the world to see him stand in front of his famous fresco, which was known for its luscious colors, still clinging to the plaster for now—for its thirteen realistic portraits of Jesus and his disciples, and its an undulating composition, balanced around a central, stable Christ.

“This is the moment immediately following Christ’s accusation,” he said, stepping away from the fresco in hopes of diverting the crowd’s attention away from the decaying paint. “At this point in the story, no one yet knows it is Judas who will betray Jesus. The revelation that there is an impostor among them is shocking. The disciples jump up, flail their arms, and cry out in alarm. One of them is a traitor. But who?” He scanned the tourists, as though hunting for a snake among them. In truth, he was studying their faces, looking for unique features and expressions that he might scribble into his notebook after they were gone.

“I hear you use your own face for Doubting Thomas,” a voluptuous French girl remarked in heavily accented Italian. “But I do not see ressemblance.” Her lips puckered over the French pronunciation, as though ready to plant a kiss.

Leonardo knew that both women and men appreciated his good looks. Although he often wore spectacles to aid his aging sight, when he looked into a mirror he saw that his golden eyes still