Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
‘My good friend!’ exclaimed Alexander as he returned Lysippus’s embrace.
‘My King!’ replied Lysippus, his eyes brimming with tears.
‘Have you washed? Have you eaten? Have they given you clean clothes?’
‘I’m fine, please do not worry. My only wish is to look at you again – looking at your portraits isn’t the same thing. Is it true that you will pose for me?’
‘Yes, but I also have other plans. I want a monument such as no one has ever seen before. Sit down.’
‘Tell me,’ said Lysippus while the servants prepared more seats for dignitaries and for Alexander’s friends.
‘Are you hungry? Will you eat with us?’
‘With pleasure,’ replied the great sculptor.
The servants brought the tables and arranged them in front of each of the guests and brought the speciality of the city – grilled fish seasoned with rosemary and salted olives, pulses, greens and bread fresh from the oven.
‘Well,’ began the King while everyone helped themselves, ‘I want a monument to commemorate the twenty-five
of my Vanguard who fell during the first attack against the Persian cavalry. I had their portraits drawn before putting them on the funeral pyre so that we can produce faithful likenesses. You must depict them in all the fury of the charge – as if we could almost hear the thunder of their galloping, the snorting of the horses. The only thing missing will be the breath of true life, a power which the gods as of yet have not granted you.’
He lowered his head, while a veil of sadness came down across his face in the midst of all that cheer, in the midst of the cups of wine and the plates full of wonderfully aromatic dishes.
‘Lysippus, my friend . . . those lads are ashes now, but you must capture their living souls, gather them from the wind before they are lost completely and meld them into the bronze, render them eternal!’
He had stood up and he walked now towards a window that gave out over the bay, shimmering under the midday sun. Everyone was eating, drinking, joking, warmed by the weather and the wine. Lysippus followed him.
‘Twenty-six equestrian statues . . . Alexander’s troop at the Granicus. It will be a tangle of hooves and muscled backs, of gaping mouths shouting war cries, of arms brandishing swords and spears in anger. Do you understand, Lysippus? Do you understand what I’m trying to explain?
‘The monument will stand in Macedonia and will remain for eternity to celebrate those young men who gave their lives for our country, rejecting a dull, ordinary existence, lacking in all glory.
‘I want you to pour into the molten bronze your very own vital energy, I want your art to be a vehicle for the greatest miracle the world has ever witnessed. Those who pass in front of the monument must tremble with admiration and awe, as if the horsemen were actually about to attack, as if their mouths were about to utter the cry that goes beyond death, beyond the mists of Hades from which no one has ever returned.’
Lysippus looked at Alexander in silent astonishment, his huge, calloused sculptor’s hands hanging motionless, apparently lifeless, by his side.
Alexander took them and held them tight. ‘These hands can achieve this miracle, I know. There is no challenge that you cannot meet, as long as you want to. You are like me, Lysippus, and it is for this reason that no other sculptor will ever model my statue. Do you know what Aristotle said the day you finished my first statue in our retreat in Mieza? He said, “If god exists, he has Lysippus’s hands.” Will you cast my fallen companions in bronze? Will you do it?’
‘I will do it, Alexander, and the result will astound the world. I promise you.’
Alexander nodded and stared at him with his eyes full of affection and admiration.
‘Come with me now,’ he said and took Lysippus by the arm. ‘Have something to eat.’
PELLES ARRIVED THE FOLLOWING
afternoon, accompanied by a grand entourage of slaves and fine-looking women and young men. He was extremely elegant, though slightly eccentric with the amber and lapis lazuli pendants he wore round his neck and his brightly coloured clothes. Rumour had it that Theophrastus had written a small satirical booklet with the title
and that Apelles had been the inspiration for the section on the exhibitionist.
Alexander received him in his private apartments together with the beautiful Pancaspe, who still dressed in a young girl’s peplum, the only way for her to display her splendid shoulders and cleavage.
‘You look in fine shape, Apelles, and I am glad that Pancaspe’s splendour is still a fount of inspiration for you. Few are those artists who enjoy the privilege of having such a muse.’
Pancaspe blushed deep red and moved closer to kiss Alexander’s hand, but he simply opened his arms and embraced her.
‘Your arms are still as strong as ever, Sire,’ she whispered in his ear, in a tone of voice that would have reawakened the sexual drive of an old man who had been given up as dead three days previously.
‘And I have other things which are no less strong, in case you had forgotten,’ he murmured in reply.
Apelles coughed in slight embarrassment and said, ‘Sire, this painting must be a masterpiece that will last through the centuries. Or rather, these paintings, because I would like to paint two of them.’
‘Two?’ asked Alexander.
‘If you agree, of course.’
‘Let us hear about it.’
‘The first will depict you standing, poised to let loose a lightning bolt, like Zeus. And next to you will be an eagle, one of the symbols of the Argead dynasty.’
The King looked doubtful and shook his head.
‘Sire, I must emphasize that both Parmenion and Eumenes agree with me on the fact that you should appear in this pose, especially because of its possible effect on your Asian subjects.’
‘If they say so . . . and the other painting?’
‘The other one will depict you astride Bucephalas, spear in hand, about to charge. It will be a memorable work, I can assure you.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Apelles, evidently irritated.
‘I’ve had an idea for a third painting,’ she replied.
‘And what might that be?’ asked Alexander. ‘Aren’t two enough? I can’t spend the rest of my life posing for Apelles.’
‘But you wouldn’t be alone in this one,’ explained Pancaspe with an even cheekier giggle. ‘I’d thought of a painting with two figures – King Alexander depicted as the god Ares resting after battle, his weapons spread around him on a fine meadow, and I might be Aphrodite, attending to his pleasures. You know, a bit like the one you did at that Greek general’s house . . . what was his name?’
Apelles’s face suddenly drained of colour as he furtively elbowed Pancaspe. ‘We must go now, the King doesn’t have time for all these paintings. Two are more than enough, is that not so, Sire?’
‘Exactly, my friend, that’s exactly right. And now I must go; Eumenes has organized a full day for me. I will pose for you before supper. You may choose the subject you wish to begin with. If it is to be the equestrian pose, have the wooden horse prepared – I doubt Bucephalas will have the necessary patience for the portrait, not even for the great Apelles.’
The painter exited with a bow, dragging his reluctant model behind him, telling her off as they went down the corridor.
Immediately afterwards Eumenes introduced some new visitors – ten or so tribal chiefs from the interior who had heard about the arrival of the new master and had come to pledge their allegiance.
Alexander stood and walked towards them, shaking hands warmly with all of them.
‘What is their petition?’ he asked the interpreter.
‘They wish to know what they must do.’
‘Nothing?’ replied the interpreter in amazement.
‘They may return to their homes and live in peace as they did before my arrival.’
The one who seemed to be the leader of the delegation murmured something in the interpreter’s ear.
‘What did he say?’
‘He’s asking about the taxes.’
‘Oh, the taxes . . .’ Eumenes piped up. ‘. . . Well, they will remain exactly as they were because we too have our expenditure and . . .’
‘Eumenes, please,’ Alexander interrupted him, ‘there’s really no need to go into detail.’
The tribal chiefs conferred and declared themselves very happy with the situation. They wished the powerful new chief all the best and thanked him for his benevolence.
‘Ask them if they wish to stay for supper,’ said Alexander.
The interpreter did his job and the chiefs again conferred.
‘They are honoured by the invitation, Sire, but they say that the road is long and they are needed at home to milk the livestock, to help the mares give birth and . . .’
‘I see . . .’ said Eumenes, cutting the interpreter short, ‘urgent affairs of state.’
‘Thank them for their visit,’ concluded Alexander, ‘and remember to give them tokens of our hospitality.’
‘What kind of tokens?’
‘I don’t know . . . weapons, clothes . . . whatever you like, but don’t send them away empty-handed. These are old-fashioned people who still appreciate good manners. And in their own homes they are kings . . . do not forget this fact.’
Supper was served after sunset, when Alexander had finished his first session posing for Apelles, astride the wooden horse. The grand master, obviously, had decided to begin with the most difficult subject.
‘And tomorrow I will go to the stables and have Bucephalas brought out – he too must pose for me,’ said the painter as he threw a contemptuous glance at the padded wooden mock-up which Eumenes had managed to have prepared in a rush with the help of a craftsman from the theatre.
‘In that case I advise you to pay a visit to my cook and collect a few of his honey-flavoured biscuits,’ said Alexander. ‘Bucephalas is partial to them and they will certainly help you make friends with him.’
An orderly came to announce that supper was served. Apelles was just completing his preparatory sketch of the figure. Alexander dismounted and came closer to the painter. ‘May I look?’
‘I cannot say no, Sire, but no artist is ever keen on showing an unfinished work.’
The King took one glance at the large tableau and his mood changed suddenly. The master painter had used charcoal to trace the basic lines of the image, rapid, whirlwind strokes, slowing down only occasionally to refine a few details – eyes, some locks of hair, hands, Bucephalas’s dilated nostrils, his hooves drumming on the ground . . .
Apelles furtively checked the King’s reactions.
‘Remember, it is as yet unfinished, Sire, it is only a sketch. It will flesh out when colour is added and . . .’
Alexander lifted his hand to interrupt. ‘It is already a masterpiece, Apelles. This is an example of your best work – anyone can imagine the rest.’
Together they went to the banquet room where the dignitaries of the city were waiting for them, with the heads of the sacerdotal colleges and the King’s companions. Alexander had given orders not to overdo it with the banquet because he did not want the Ephesines to get the wrong idea about him and his friends. The ‘companions’ the Macedonians had brought with them limited their activities to playing musical instruments, and the wine was served in the Greek manner – one part wine and three parts water.
Apelles and Lysippus, whose expertise and fame were recognized by all, were at the centre of conversation.
‘I heard a really good one recently!’ said Callisthenes, turning to Apelles. ‘The one about the portrait you made of King Philip.’
‘You did?’ replied Apelles. ‘Do tell me about it because right now I cannot remember it at all.’
Everyone started laughing.
‘Well,’ Callisthenes said, ‘I’ll tell it just as it was told to me. Now then, King Philip sent for you because he wanted a portrait to hang in the sanctuary at Delphi, but he said, “Make me a bit more handsome . . . what I mean is, be sure to get me from my good side, without the missing eye, make me a bit taller, my hair a bit blacker, without pushing it too much of course, you understand.”’
‘It’s as if he were back here with us,’ laughed Eumenes, and then, imitating Philip’s deep voice, he said, ‘ “I don’t know, I call this great painter and then I have to tell him how to do everything?”’
‘Ah! Now I remember,’ said Apelles, laughing heartily. ‘That’s exactly what he said.’
‘Tell the rest of the story then!’ Callisthenes said.
‘No, no,’ the painter replied, ‘I’m enjoying myself too much listening to you.’
‘If you put it like that. Well then, the master painter finally completes his painting and he has it brought out into the courtyard in the full light so that his illustrious client can admire it. Whoever has been to Delphi will have seen it – beautiful, splendid! The King is depicted wearing his gold crown, his red cloak and sceptre, he almost seems to be the image of himself. “Do you like it, Sire?” Apelles asks him. Philip looks at it first from one side and then from the other – he doesn’t seem to be sure. “Do you want to know what I think?” he asks. “Of course, Sire,” says Apelles. “Well . . . in my opinion it doesn’t really look like me.” ’