Concerto con molti strumenti suonati dalle figlie del pio Ospitale della Pietà, avanti sua Altezza Reale, Serenissimo Federico Giovanni Nepomuceno Principe Reale di Polonia et Elettore di Sassonia
The first time I saw Venice, I was only a lad of eighteen. Rumours had reached them of my great love for music, so they took me to hear the famous figlie della Pietà. Although such a visit generally is but a small part of the general obligation for noble visitors, they had prepared a most special concert in my honour. I had heard much of the girls’ accomplishments, still nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing beauty of that moment. I remember it still…
The Prince of Poland was coming, they said. Poland? I’d not heard of such a place. Sister Maddalena said it was very cold, covered with snow all year round. The Prince was not what I was expecting, for most of the princes we entertained were old and ugly. This one was young and beautiful, like a prince in a legend. He wore a silver coat, and his eyes were the same colour as his coat. They shone like two bright, cold coins in his fine white face. He was so white I thought it might be on account of the everlasting snow, that it had somehow affected his health, made him white and cold as his homeland. He walked with a little limp, too. We struggled to get a better look at him through the grille. His face was haughty but not, I thought, unkind.
There was a melody for viola d’amore, something like a child’s plaintive cry, or perhaps a bird’s, one of those white-winged birds that glint in the winter sun as they sweep the lagoon for fish or floating waste. The tears sprang to my eyes and rolled down my cheeks despite myself. The girls were invisible as angels behind their silken screen -- but how I longed to make their acquaintance! I pressed my case with the Direttore, and in the end it was arranged quite easily.
Up close he was no bigger than one of the older girls. He sat at our table and dined with us, and I was unable to eat before those silver eyes. Then he noticed me and offered me a raspberry ice. Speaking French, with an almost German accent that made his words were rough and strange, he told me to come to him, to eat, to enjoy myself. He wanted to see me happy, he said, and everyone laughed. I was afraid to take the sweet gift from him. I burst into tears, and everyone laughed even louder this time. Then he took me on his knee and cried, ‘Silenzio!’ They all fell silent and looked down at the table. He asked me my name.
‘Elisabetta…’ I said.
But he said he would call me Elise. La Princesse Elise. Would I come with him to Poland and be his little sister? He hadn’t any sisters, only three brothers who were all terrible. I looked into his silver eyes, eyes exactly the colour of the sky just before it begins to snow.
‘Is it snowing all the time there?’ I said.
He said it was, and as I thought about that, the Prince continued to look at me with his silver eyes.
‘Yes! I’ll come,’ I said, and put my arms around his neck and gave him a kiss. In the morning he was gone, back to his land of ice and snow. He gave me a silver Thaler to keep until he came back for me.
The Prince of Poland is coming, but this time he is travelling incognito. His face, now aged and sagging, is badly marked with the pox. A heavy mask of white powder has settled into the cracks and crevices of this terrible face. The mouth painted bright vermilion gives the utterly mistaken impression of a smile. He limps heavily, grunting to himself as he goes. Behind him a young servant, beautifully dressed in yellow livery, wheels a sedan chair. When his breath grows extremely short, the Prince collapses slowly into this chair, and the servant covers him with a fur rug that reaches nearly to his double chin.
I remember the place: it was here, on the edge of the lagoon, looking out to the sea. I wonder whether they will remember me?
Whatever happened to the little girl? No one seems to know; no one remembers her. She was quite small, only ten -- perhaps eleven years old… I hold out my hand to show the good Sisters how small she was. Sua Altezza must forgive us; it was such a long time ago! they say. Then they put their black and white heads together and chatter like magpies. I am unable to follow what I can overhear of this conversation.
She stood before me that night in her little black orphan’s dress, as serious as a small bird, and nothing is more serious than that. Her skin was terribly white and her eyes dark, dark as hell’s mouth. She seemed to glow as if she were a lamp of that fine Venetian glass, filled with some precious oil that could never be used up. Light upon light – God guides whomever He will to His light. He leaves whomever He will to stray.
She kissed me. Just a little beggar girl, and yet I have never forgotten her. Elisabetta, Elise… never again have I felt anything so pure as that kiss. At last the Sisters brought an old washerwoman out to see me. She claimed to remember a child called Elisabetta who had sung in the Coro many years ago.
‘She died, Principe. It was the fever. So many of the children died of the fever that year. It was very bad, sir.’
But I do not believe it was the same child. Then the woman fumbled for a long time in her gown and at last produced something that she held out in her trembling hand to me: a silver Thaler, brightly polished and wrapped in a piece of red rag. A silver Thaler, bearing my name.