We were walking through a flock of fat gray pigeons in St Peter’s square when I spotted a ragged boy hungrily examining our entourage as he soaked his feet in the fountain. I recognized that look. Like the hawks circling overhead, he was looking for the easy mark, the fat pigeon that would not put up a fight or give chase. When I was young I too was barefoot, always searching for the crumb, the loose coin in the pocket, always hungry.
I would guess that our official entourage consisting of an armed court officer, a diplomat, the court scribe and then myself, a Moorish slave, promised a fatter purse than the tired pilgrims, his usual prey. But on the other hand the hungry pilgrims rarely carried sabers. The boy gathered himself, stood up, and then followed us.e
The portly scribe in front of me, unable to keep up, had fallen behind, our growing distance from the armed deputies must have tempted the boy. I was sure he did not consider me a threat, as my hands were occupied carrying a large painting wrapped in black velvet. By the way I carried the painting in its expensive covering he would correctly surmise that I would not set it down on the dusty plaza just to chase a petty thief.
The boy slowed down to match the dawdling pace of the scribe. He was getting ready to strike. He had decided that the prize was worth the gamble. The scribe would have been my choice too.
The thief was now running in an arrow-straight line toward us, drawing his blade. I stepped back to keep the painting out of harms way.
The boy slipped into the space between us. I saw a dull flash as the leather strap of the purse around the scribe’s neck was cut, and then the he tucked the fat purse into his rags.
When he turned to run, I kicked him as hard as I could, just for show. The boy stumbled to the ground as the scribe patted himself, frantically looking for his purse. When the boy leaped to his feet, our eyes met for an instant, and then he ran off into a rising cloud of beating gray wings. I think he was smiling.
“Thief! My purse!” The scribe yelled. The court officer and his deputies drew their sabers and then halfheartedly ran toward the now circling flock of pigeons.
“Moor, give chase, my purse!” The scribe shouted in my face, and then grabbed for the painting, but I would not let go.
“My master has entrusted me to carry this painting to the pope himself.” I stated in a matter of fact tone.
“I order you to give chase!” the desperate scribe yelled into my face. But I had no intention of giving chase. My responsibility is to my master and his painting.
Then, his annoying squeal, “Why will you not go after him?”
“Because I do not wish to add to his misery,” I answered, knowing this will infuriate him.
My master would not punish me for considering the safety of his painting above this scribe’s purse. Why would he side with the scribe after the cowardly and cutting things that he has been saying about this painting.
“Impudent Moor, your foolish Master has allowed you to forget that you are nothing but a nameless, soul-less slave. The court will hear of this!” He threatened and then pulled even harder on the painting. I jerked it away from him and in a low respectful tone I recited the words my master made me memorize in Spanish and Italian before he sent me out on his errand weeks ago.
“My name is Juan De Pareja, servant and studio assistant to Don Diego Velazquez, court painter and confidant of The King of Spain, Phillip IV…”
“Silence, enough! ” the scribe yelled. “The Moor puts on airs! Imagine the King’s own painter rendering a slave in a nobleman’s collar, then having him parade this outrage around Rome.” He turned to appeal to the other members of our party, repeating almost word for word the insult he carelessly spoke in my master’s own studio. “We must put a stop to this. He’s making Spaniards look like fools.”
When the officer returned from the chase, the scribe pointed his fat finger at me. “I want to make a formal complaint. This insolent slave must be punished. This painting has gone to his head. He must be put back in his place.”
“I care not for your court’s intrigue,” the court officer said as he slid his saber back into its scabbard. “If I present you one second late, for your audience with His Holiness, his wrath will fall heavy on all of us. Now let’s move on.”
The scribe was right; this painting had gone to my head, but not in the way that he thought. I might be a slave but I am not a fool, yet it is a complicated matter to consider.
See Part 2, next Blog.