VENETIAN WATER-COLOUR BY IAN MCLAUGHLIN
The following short story by Ian McLaughlin was published in the tenth issue, December 1981, pp. 14-5, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
The illustrations, apart from the magazine cover with the same boy, appeared with the story.
It was in Venice that I seriously contemplated suicide. The thought came to me over coffee and brandy at Florian’s. Just then the Piazza San Marco was plunged in the grey gloom of fog. In less than half an hour the lagoon city would be plunged In darkness.
I decided to disappear under one of those treacherous sottoportegi that suddenly runs into a canal: one step, the familiar Venetian sound of garbage being dumped into the water, and that would be the end of me.
“It's a masterpiece!”
“Do you really think so?” I asked, looking up at the earnest face of a bearded little man.
“You have mastered that very difficult technique of suggesting form by counterbalancing large blank space with light touches of almost flat tones. That is the real challenge of water-colour painting. I suppose the artist derives from the country which produced Turner and Sargent?”
He had been speaking English all the time, with no more than a slight Italian accent.
“Turner, yes,” I said, “but Sargent was an American. He built for himself quite a career in London, however.”
“And he came to Venice very often. Like you. Ah, the light of Venice! So many artists fall in love with it!”
“Do you want the masterpiece? I’ll sign it and dedicate it to you. It’s my last.”
“You don’t mean it, Sir? One shouldn’t jest about talent. Please come to my class at the Accademia tomorrow and let my pupils see your work.”
“I’m afraid it is out of the question. I’m committing suicide tonight.”
The professor shrieked with laughter.
“You Englishmen have such a droll sense of humour! Here is my card. I’ll expect you around ten and now let me have another coffee and brandy with you.”
I ultimately accepted his invitation — and was quite surprised at the professor’s pupils. I had expected to be confronted with pimply young artists, but these were angel-faced twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. The professor noted my surprise and thought I would be deeply disappointed.
“Make no mistake,” he assured me, “there is quite a lot of talent in this room. You are in excellent company.”
I surely was. Some of the boys even wore short trousers. The professor pushed one of his pupils forward. “This is our Tiepolo,” he said, presenting him proudly. “His name is Angelo.”
“Ciao, Anzolo!” I said to the boy.
“Aha,” the professor laughed, “I see you have mastered the Venetian dialect. Angelo, show this gentleman some of your drawings.”
As I remember, Angelo was indeed talented, but I barely looked at his sketches. It was the boy himself that I devoured with my eyes: slender, long-legged — he wore red corduroy shorts, red stockings and shiny black moccasins — Venetian blond curls, light brown eyes, long eyelashes that threw a finely notched shadow on his cheeks. Then and there I decided to postpone my suicide.
“Well, what do you think?” said the professor.
“I think he is excellent indeed. Shall I show him some of my work?”
“Please do. I’ll give the boy some comment in Italian. I hope I will not misinterpret your artistic intentions.”
To hell with my artistic intentions. My real intentions were of a very different nature, and while the professor kept prattling in Italian I feverishly tried to find a means of expressing them to the boy. I could think of nothing better than putting my hand on his red corduroy-wrapped cheeks and keeping it there while having “the light at the south side of the Punta della Dogana around five in the evening is most tempting to both young and older water-colourists” translated into Italian.
The message got through all right. Angelo came to the Punta at five o’clock sharp, with a huge box of paint, a block of Fabriano paper and an understanding smile which made it clear that he had no intention whatever of using all that material.
“Ciao,” he said, “io sono Angelo,” as if he hadn’t noticed that my eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. In that tempting south-side light Angelo kept up the credit of his name.
“Che bella valigia con colore que tenete,’ I said tentatively. Conversation was going to be painfully difficult. How stupid not to have mastered some rudimentary Italian! Angelo smiled again and opened the box for me to admire. Amongst the tubes of burnt umber, raw sienna and carmine red a tube of Vaseline leaped to the eye by the sheer obscenity of its incongruous presence.
“Quale colore è questo?” I asked, pointing to the irrelevant tube.
“Il colore del piacere,” Angelo said, keeping a straight face. “Ed io porto con mi il pennelito particolare all úso. Guarda!” And he unbuttoned to show me an instrument not often used by the English lady water-colourists. The meaning of “pennelito” came back to my mind: a little paint brush. This one had a little Kolinsky hair at the wrong end, but the handle was rigid enough.
“Noi no avere la intenzione di far questo modo da pittura in pubblico?” I stammered, scared stiff at Angelo's impertinent behaviour.
I sneaked him up to my hotel room and posted the Don’t Disturb sign on the door.
Angelo did some remarkable brush work for me there, getting to the bottom of it hard, adding some pleasant finishing touches, until he finally ran out of paint and potency.
I gently bathed him like a child, which as a matter of fact he was, and while I was soaping him down said teasingly, “Il tuo talento con il pennilito è splendido. Io obbligato notificarlo al tuo professore.”
Angelo gave me once again his knowing smile: “Il mio professore già sape. Perció sono il primo della classe.”