Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The painter-alchemist

This story is inspired by the latter years of the painter known as Parmigianino (1503-1540).


A tall lean man in a student’s long gown, much patched and torn, crouched before a furnace, the crimson glow lighting up weirdly the many lines and hollows of his wan face. His beard was ragged, his hair long and matted—once dead black in hue, now part grey from time and trial, part brown from dust, and singeing, and neglect: he had wild-looking, bleared eyes, scorched, claw-like hands, a painful shortness of breath, and the tremor as of palsy vibrating every now and then through his whole frame. The room was large, low-roofed, and lighted almost altogether by the fire, for the sun could hardly pour any of its rays through the long narrow slit of a window cut in the very deep wall of rubble and rough-shaped stones. An utter want of order prevailed in the room and its garniture. Open books and tattered manuscripts, flung about anyhow, covered the floor. Alembics, retorts, crucibles, jars, and bottles of various forms, thick cobweb festoons and coatings of dust; here a pile of faggots, there a heap of charcoal; while mingling with these and in equal confusion a painter’s implements—the easel and wand, the pigments and stack of canvases and panels. The ceiling was black from smoke, and the air hot and stifling, charged as it seemed with poisonous fumes. Molten metals bubbled and seethed over the red fire. In the doorway stood a young man in a grey surcoat with silver buttons, a silver-hilted dagger swinging from his belt. He was fanning his face with his cap, evidently oppressed by the intense heat of the chamber.

“I have been deceived then. You are not Francesco Mazzuoli?” he said.

He was small in stature, light and supple in figure, with long abundant brown hair and delicate if not regular features.

“No,” answered the man by the fire, without turning round. “I am not he whom you seek.”

“And yet they told me I should find him here. He is my relative—my cousin.”

“Your name?”

“Geronimo Mazzuoli.”

“The son of Michele?”

“The same.”

“Come nearer.”

“I may not, the furnace is too hot.”

“To the window then, Geronimo,” and the watcher by the fire rose with difficulty and dragged himself, rather than walked, to the place indicated. He stood there a moment, letting the daylight fall upon his haggard features.

“Now look upon me,” he said. “Should you know your cousin?”

“For years I have not seen him. We parted at Parma a long while back. He journeyed to Rome. I have been there since, and learnt tidings of him. Surely I should remember his face; and I have seen his picture, and lately too, at Arezzo, in the house of Messer Pietro, the poet. It was given to him by his master, the Sovereign Pontiff.”

“Well, and how looked he in his picture?”

“It was painted by himself, and strangely like him, so it seemed to me, and so all have told me. A noble youth, with the beauty of an angel rather than a man—in his eyes a glory—”

“Enough. Why do you seek him?”

“I bring him news from Parma. I am a painter also, but younger—poorer—I seek of him instruction and help. I would learn from him the secrets of his art. But you are not he, let me go hence therefore.”

“Peace! I am Francesco Mazzuoli!”

“Impossible!” and Geronimo started back at the wild, crazed look in the other’s eyes. “You are old and bent, and—yet pardon me. I should not speak such words to you.”

“Where is my mirror? You are right, Geronimo. It is not the same face I painted at Parma in the house of Michele, your father. The same yet not the same—I am old and broken; black from the fire, withered and dying.”

He spoke in a strange plaintive tone.

“Ah!” cried the young man, moving towards him, “that is Francesco’s voice. Unsay your words, cousin. You are not dying?”

“Living then—for the misery, and shame, and sorrow of life.”

“Living for your art, Francesco.”

He gave a wild, shrieking, unearthly laugh.

“For my art?—it is dead—look here,” and he drew his cousin to the further end of the chamber, and tumbling down a pile of canvases, turned one over with its face to the light. “Look, do you see this?”

“The Roman Lucretia,” said Geronimo. “You are indeed Francesco. If I cannot see it in your face, I see it here. Cousin, it is divine. But why unfinished—to work and complete it!”

“I cannot—look into the eyes.”

“They are glorious—they glow with life—they move—”

The painter-alchemist.png

“You see it then?” and he laughed again. “Yes, they are her eyes. It is her face. I can paint that only. I see but that. I try to work, but then she looks upon me out of the canvas with eyes of love, of sorrow, of reproach, and—and the tears cloud my sight, cousin. I can paint no more.”

“Of whom do you speak?”


But the word conveyed no meaning to Geronimo. He wrung his cousin’s hand kindly.

“It is the secret of your heart, Francesco,” he said, in a low voice. “It is holy ground—I will not seek to trespass on it.” And he turned away.

For some minutes neither spoke.

“To think that you, cousin, should cease to paint!” exclaimed Geronimo at last. “You, with the crown of our profession within your arm’s reach; you, with your skill, your power, your genius—self-critical, and dissatisfied, and desponding! What hope is there for me, then,—a poor plodder only—a simple struggler in the ranks, never to rise to a command? You, the painter of the Madonna in the Air, heavenly in her beauty, robed in golden gauze, the bright flesh glowing through the draperies; the Infant Christ—Infant and yet Christ—with the globe of the earth in his hand. You, painter of the Vision of St. Jerome and of St. Guiseppe, the Blessed Virgin, and the Angels—works at which the soul thrills, and prayers rise unbidden from our hearts. You, of whom they say at Rome that the spirit of the dead Raffaello has passed into your body, Francesco.”

“Do they say that?” asked Francesco, trembling, and pressing his hands upon his heart. “Such words are as exquisite music to the ear. Once they would have made me glad—how glad!”

“Why not now, cousin?”

“Now?” and his wild laugh broke out again. “Now I have a nobler mistress than art.”

“What mistress can be nobler?”

“Alchemy!” cried Francesco. “Look here,” and with a hurry and eagerness that approached violence, he dragged Geronimo to the furnace. “Look—nay, shrink not from the heat, it is nothing. Watch with me the mystic changes of the crucible, and you shall see the frothing liquid change into dolphin hues; the black crow, the plumed swan, the peacock’s tail, the green lion, the pale citron, the scarlet dragon! No pigments can render those tints, Geronimo. By them your brightest palette is but dull, and drab, and dead. Stay with me, and share my studies. All my discoveries shall be yours. You shall halve my wealth—I have found the powder of projection for producing gold, the blacker than black; I have found the congelation of mercury, the flower of the sun, the perfect ruby, the universal remedy that shall make us live for ever, young, and rich, and noble, and beautiful.”

“You have found these, cousin?”

“Ay, or shall find them, boy, ’tis the same. I will initiate you, Geronimo, in the sublime mysteries. You shall know the secrets of Jason’s helm, Pandora’s box, the dragon’s teeth, the pelican, the crosslet. We will together break the glassy seal of Hermes. Oh, Geronimo, you will love with me this glorious science. It is nobler than art, for it absorbs it; it is universal, it is all-pervading. The whole world is but an allegory of science. See here,” and he hurried again to the pictures, turning them over with trembling hands. “What call you this?”

“The Conflict of the Archangel and the Evil One.”

’Tis more than that—a parable, the sage subduing science, winning the philosopher’s stone, the stone of two substances, the fixed and the volatile. The throat of the dragon is the fixed salt, the tail a symbol of the volatile element. Here again,” and he pointed to another picture, “the Five Virgins receive from above the ingredients for making gold, the foolish scoffers at wisdom are these with their lamps untrimmed. Here the Magi bring gold, and frankincense, and myrrh—types of sol, and sulphur, and mercury. Why turn away, Geronimo?” asked the painter, panting for breath and trembling with weakness and excitement.

“These are sinful words, Francesco,” said the young man, gravely; “perversions of our faith. What would the holy brotherhood of the Staccata say to such speech as this?”

“Ha!” cried Francesco, wildly, “they beat me for less, flung me into prison, bound me with chains—see where the rust bit into my wrists!”

“And why was this?”

“I was to adorn their church of Santa Maria with frescoes. I toiled for them a long while. I painted the Madonna borne up by Angels, gazing in devotion at a glittering cross cased in a crystal urn. The eyes of Catarina suddenly looked upon me from the eyes of the Blessed Virgin, and I paused. Then the monks poured gold into my hands. I turned again to my crucibles and my furnace. They called me cheat and robber, and imprisoned me. I escaped from them. I am free again, Geronimo—before my furnace again!”

“And the frescoes are finished now?”

Francesco shook his head. His cousin seemed pained at this recital, and turned his eyes to the window.

“You shall stay here and study with me, Geronimo. Soon the glory of the science will dawn upon you. Listen, now. It is all more simple than you deem it. All metals are of like components—earth and water; all metals would be gold were their components purely and fittingly mingled; of the water comes mercury, of the earth sulphur—they are the male and female of mineral creation. Purge these metals in the hottest fire, rectify them by more or less sulphur, by more or less mercury, and gold must come. I say it must, Geronimo. That step gained, we mount to other marvels. We go on—”

“Peace, cousin! these are thoughts to you, perhaps; they are but words to me.”

“You will not hear me? You will not grow rich with me?”

“No; I want not your gold! your elixir! your long life—”

“Say that again. You want not gold? You—a poor painter?”

“Oh, Francesco! turn from these pursuits which will but madden and kill you; quit this heated room, poisonous with charcoal fumes, and come out into God’s pure air; close your books, and fling away your crucibles, enter the church of S. Stefano, and pray for pardon and for strength to resume the profession you have degraded—the noble art you have trampled under foot. Be worthy of the spirit of the dead Raffaello. Paint again as you once painted, as you alone of living men can paint.”

Moved by these words, Francesco cowered before his fire, hiding his face in his hands. Geronimo wiped the heat drops from his forehead. The room seemed to be unbearably hot. He moved to the door again.

“Don’t leave me, Geronimo, I am very weak and sinking—don’t leave me. I can pardon your words, you know nothing of the great science you despise, but when you see the yellow gold forming in the crucible—when you see the commonest metal transmuted into gold—when wealth unbounded lies at your feet—”

“I have said, cousin, I want not your wealth; and you are wrong, believe me, Francesco, to squander what is nobler than gold—your genius—upon so vain a quest.”

“How! a vain quest?”

“I am not learned, Francesco, as you are—still, I believe! Let us say that there are mystic secrets to be discovered only by close and painful study and seclusion, and poring over the crucible and the cauldron. Who are we taught shall probe these mysteries? The pure of life, the good, the holy, who pray as they work, who toil for heaven’s glory, not their own; who seek gold, not for the good it will do to them, but for the good it will enable them to do to others. Will the covetous succeed, do you think? Never!”

“Spare me, Geronimo!” cried the alchemist, piteously.

“Will gold be found in the crucible when fraud has heated the furnace? Never! You have robbed the monks of the Staccata, taking money and not giving toil; it is their money that consumes in that fire. Francesco, you will never find the secret—you seek your own vantage, and you are a cheat!”


“I am sick speaking such words, but I must speak them. May the Virgin make them reach your heart.”

“Stay! lift me up—what day is this?”

“The 24th of August.”

“And the year?”

“The year of our Lord 1540.”

“Ah! the game is nearly played out, Geronimo. It was as I thought. The spirit will quit me, then, as it quitted the divine Raffaello. It was at my age he died.”

“You were like him once, Francesco; you had the same sweet smile, the same grace of manner, the same kind eyes and witching voice.”

“And now, cousin, now you would say I am savage and ragged, burnt and mad. Yes; very nearly mad. Let us do as you say; let us go out into the air, I am very faint and feeble, and there is something weighing on my heart, and staying my breath—let us hence, I am stifled.”

“And the fire?”

“It must go out. I shall need it no more.”

He spoke in a tone of deep suffering. Geronimo bore the sinking man into the sunshine. It was almost blinding after the darkness of the laboratory. The sky was deep blue, with here and there a dapple of vapourous white.

“I breathe with more ease here, Geronimo, though the light beats cruelly upon my poor scorched eyes. Don’t withdraw your hand, don’t shrink from me.”

“Indeed, Francesco, I do not.”

“Promise me one thing—nay, two. Do you hear me, cousin?”

“I do. I promise.”

“When I am dead—”

“Nay, speak not of it. You will live yet, Francesco.”

“Peace! I am dying, and I know it. Hear me. You will finish the frescoes of the Staccata for the holy brotherhood, without reward, save only the dead Francesco’s thanks.”

“To the best of my abilities, I will do this, cousin.”

“More—how my hands burn, and yet I shiver; this is fever, is it not, Geronimo? More—let me be buried at the Fontana, the church of the Servite monks, a mile from Casal Maggiore. Let me be buried as a lay brother, without shroud or coffin, save the robe of the order, and place a cypress cross upright on my breast. You will do this? You swear it?”

“I will, indeed.”

“So, I believe you. I would be near her even in my grave; and, oh! Geronimo—”

“Speak! what would you, cousin?”

“Blame me not when I am gone—cry not shame upon my grave. If I have been wrong, wicked, impious; if I have sought gold for itself only, as you say, from covetousness—yet—yet there is excuse.”

“There will be only sorrow for you in my heart, Francesco. No blame, no bitterness.”

“But hear me. You remember, I left you at Parma, I journeyed to Rome, years and years gone. There, Geronimo—there, I loved, with my whole soul, with a love that preyed upon my brain, Catarina—call her only that—more of her name I have breathed to no living soul! I may not tell even to you, my cousin. Look at her face in the face of the Roman Lucretia in the picture; see her eyes in the eyes of the Virgin in the fresco of the Staccata. I loved her madly! Years have gone by, and still that love is mine—new and young and restless in my heart as ever.”

He stopped breathless, while Geronimo wiped the wan face and brushed away the withered, tangled hair from the furrowed forehead.

“It was love without hope, Geronimo. She was far above me, noble and rich as she was beautiful. I, a poor painter, the son of a poor painter, the child of dead Filippo Mazzuoli, the flower-painter. I, to dare look up so high! Still, I loved. I knew that she often visited the workshop of Valerio Vicentino, the carver in crystal. With my best picture I bought of him the right to loiter in the room where she might come. It was such happiness to look upon her, to be near her. Soon my heart would bear silence no longer—my passion would burst into words. The opportunity came. I told her all and learnt from her own lips that my love was returned. The miserable folly of this was clear to all others, perhaps, but not to us. Then the end. The black curtain fell between us. We were cruelly sundered. I was driven from her presence, never to see her again. While, yet, there was a whisper torturing my ear, that if I had been rich she might have been mine! I was haunted by a demon that ever cried to me, ‘Gold! gold! get gold! A painter you will starve, a sage you will grow rich—find the philosopher’s stone, and buy of her proud kinsmen the hand of Catarina!’ Well! I have toiled over the furnace, I have watched the crucible—— What sound is that, Geronimo?”

“I hear nothing.”

“It is the music of angels! and one voice, with, oh! such a plaintive wail in it, thrills through all. Listen, Geronimo!

“I hear nothing—yet, stay. Ah! it is the nuns of Santa Lucia winding along the footpath, singing as they approach.”

“Geronimo, it is her voice; Catarina joined the sisterhood of Santa Lucia! Quick! bear me to her. It is for her I have surrendered all—my art, my life, perhaps even my soul! I have ventured these, and gained—nothing! Oh! let me crawl to her feet! Let me see her once again!”

As he spoke his voice grew fainter, fading at last into little more than a trembling of his lips. As he essayed to rise, his strength failed him, and he sunk back into the arms of Geronimo. A quivering of the seared eyelids, one long-drawn sigh, and all was over.

The procession of nuns, singing the Ave, passed the house of the alchemist. They paused at the sight of the young man bearing in his arms the lifeless Francesco, and holding to his lips a silver cross. One of the nuns came forward—a tall, slight figure, with a pale, sorrowing face, and a pained look in her eyes.

“He is my cousin,” said poor Geronimo, “and very sick, I fear.”

The nun bent down, and touched with her thin white fingers the blackened hand of the painter-alchemist.

“He is dead!” said the nun. “Heaven rest his soul!”

“My poor Francesco!” said Geronimo, and his tears fell on the dead man’s face as he stooped to kiss his forehead.

“Was that his name?”

“Francesco Mazzuoli, painter of Parma, sometimes called Parmigiano.”

“No! no!” With a strange wild cry the nun took his head into her breast. “This is not Francesco!” and she gazed into the livid, withered face eagerly, passionately.

“So please you, it is he indeed—a noble painter. I am his cousin, and know what I say. He sought to grow rich, poor soul! May God forgive him, he practised alchemy! He sought for gold, yet not for himself. Perhaps his brain was turned; he loved, yet haplessly so.”

The nun did not speak. She had fainted on the body of Francesco, with her lips upon the lips of the dead man.

“And there were tears in her eyes,” said the lady abbess of the convent afterwards. “I never saw tears in her eyes before. Perhaps she will be happier now.”

Parmigiano was buried, as he had desired, in the church of the Servite monks, with a cypress cross upright on his breast. Geronimo often found other flowers strewn upon the grave than those he had himself placed there, yet he never knew from whose hand they came. Often to himself, though, he would say:

“Surely the eyes of that sister of Santa Lucia look out in the eyes of the Roman Lucretia, and in the eyes of the Holy Virgin in the fresco of the Staccata.”

Dutton Cook.