This is an excerpt from Painter to the King by Amy Sackville, an account of the life of Diego Velázquez from his arrival at the court of King Philip IV of Spain in May 1622, to his death 38 years and several hundred paintings later, published by Granta Books. Order your copy here.
It opens out from this dark corner: halfway along this corridor and— there’s the door. Distracted by something perhaps, looking at something on the opposite wall or at someone else or the floor plan or my own tired feet, I pass or almost pass it but—— then the eye just catches and I double-take and stop. Step forward to the archway and aside to just off-centre, letting people pass, buffeted by bodies; I don’t see them. I see: opposite, a man is also pausing in a doorway. And everything’s stopped. Between us: on my side of the frame, the buzz and brightness of the gallery; and on his a cool grey room, lofty, quiet, dim in its high and far corners. Both of us at a threshold, and the threshold of the frame between. And they are all there— all long familiar, I’ve been half-seeking them even and yet—— this shock. There they all are! Just as if they always have been, or have just this moment stopped. Looking back. And, just off-centre, just looking, he has just stepped back, he’s also just stopped— the painter; there he is, with his long brush. And I——
— I want to pass through this archway I’m stopped in and cross the gallery and step through the frame and into the whole room beyond it, find my way through and between them, their heads all turning to watch me pass or else still staring out as I move invisible among them; pause and stand at the painter’s shoulder and find out at last what he’s painting, what’s on the surface of the canvas, the reverse of that vast framed blank back, what he and only he can see— pause to look and then leave him to it and find my way all the way back to that door at the back, squeeze past the silhouette-man on the stair and see what’s beyond in the yellow light, which might be sunshine or lamplight. So I step towards him across the gallery until the gallery vanishes and all the people in it and the frame closes round my peripheral vision and I stand on the brink of the light and regard them——
— the sinuous line of them and how they might easily at any moment join hands and dance a jig: from the girl on the left, offering a red beaker to the girl about to take it, through gesture and curtsey and bow to the poised balancing hands of the delicate dwarf on the right, who is distracted by the dog and seems already to be dancing; and motionless, held here, I dance back across the restless, unresolved cadence of it. From hand to hand, from corner to corner; pointed toe to poised brush; elbow-crook to elbow-crook. It is a strange, cut-off light that lights them— bright lines in the depths— frame to frame to frame. The mirror just off-centre on the back wall is full of that borrowed light. He is interested in mirrors, this painter. I live in a world of them—I want to tell him—cameras, phones, chrome, shop windows, plate glass, screens of all sizes: reflections everywhere. I can’t get away from myself. What would you make of that?
But look how real, in contrast: this illusion he has made. How true to a life that is, itself, illusion; nothing more— but not less, either. Shadows and shams. A life lived as a dream that repeats and retreats and refracts through successions of sometimes impossible frames; I was—— but also at the same time you— I was there and also watching and you— and then—— But— then again—— Step closer, and it’s all just a surface of smears; rough daubs, features half-formed, hands that only gesture at the shape of hands. The painter’s brush has a long handle— made only of a swipe of that same brush; and so, stepping back, stopped, he sees clearly the illusion of coherence he is bringing into being——
— it is also the whole life of the painter; your whole life, Diego— or some semblance of it— a version— a way to say, to frame it. And at the centre back there in the dimness of a vanishing point, it is an open door; and I pause on the threshold unseen, about to leave or to enter, longing across this distance, dying to go towards it, to move towards you and I can’t yet— can’t move, can’t quite. This wasn’t going to be about you, but now— this, it turns out—— this is, you are, what I was looking for, in this hot foreign city. And I’ve stopped here and everything’s stopped. It feels like hours, and every minute passing increases that impossible distance, of centuries, of years, of yards. And from now on, from this moment on, I am always following, always trying to follow; I go out, back into the city and it’s been hours and already it’s evening and still light, and still hot; I order fino and sit and I’m still there, just— stopped—— just— to find a way to say it; to say——
— Say he arrived at night, the painter. In summer the dark comes late, the sky only just deepening blue as he reaches the gates of Madrid. He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight. The gatekeeper is waiting to take their entry tax, greets them with bluff caution, wonders who approaches the city so late? The roads aren’t safe after dark——
— True—— he must have been anxious to reach the city, but there’s no sense in his arriving in the middle of the night; why risk himself, his goods his horse his faceless servant? He has ridden a long road from Seville——
— Say he stopped for a rest as the sun sank— they are travelling north— so, as the sun sank to his left. The capital already half-shadowed in the distance on the tawny plain. The air full of kicked-up soil and straw-dust from the fields already yellowing and drying into a meagre baked crop. He stops and stays at an inn a few miles away, breaks his journey so that when he arrives he will be rested, fresh, as free of dust as anyone can be from the road coming into the city in summer. Spends a restless night, worrying, scratching. Glad to rise in the morning; he paid extra to avoid sleeping on straw but the beds are no less infested. Brown piss frothing in a piss-stained pot, a chip dark brown in the rim of it. The smell strong and stinging. He should drink. This dry air. He drinks and then washes quickly with cool water: an earthen ewer and a basin, liquid limpid with dawn light; he sees all of this, the droplet that hangs on the lip— there— the early high dawn caught in it and making the stoneware gleam. He thinks briefly of home and perhaps of the water-seller. Sweet trace of a ripe fig, the fluid clarity, the goblet’s shine.
He sighs, gulps the last of the water from the clay mug, sets it down and devotes some time to scratching each bite in turn, noting the night’s fresh welts, working around the older scabs—he’s been travelling a few days now, and the journey has marked him. Almost there now, almost. Intense, localised pleasure where his nails scrape, knowing when he leaves off it will only make it worse and he should stop, scratching, it feels so good to scratch, he should (scratch) he should stop. Stop. He washes again to soothe the bites, scratches scratches, inhales, holds his breath, holds his hands out steady, exhales and smoothes his hair, runs a finger and thumb across his moustache, his dark eyebrows. Curls with a finger the modest ringlet at his temple. If there’s a mirror, he searches his face as if to paint it, his tranquil eyes, which belie his agitation. A last scratch.
He descends the stair and finds his way to the kitchen. He hands his provisions to the old woman, asks her to cook him breakfast, he has eggs, which he has somehow transported from the last hencoop he passed; he watches them in the pan just setting, a semi-opaque gloop, a series of rounds within rounds. The circle of the old iron pan is not quite perfect; so if his brush-line were to follow its form he would include in the foreshortened oval that bentness, that dent.
The boy serves him the eggs— the serious boy with the straight-cut hair sleek like a mole’s fur close on the scalp, the planes of the bone beneath—— the boy serves him eggs, and water from a carafe, half-glazed white and painted with a simple leaf design.
The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled. The cool curve in the hand, the rough striation of the clay and the smooth glaze, the fine cracks snagging lightly each ridge of the fingertip; he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape. Copper, gleaming; a dark knife resting on a bowl, its bent black shadow; the hairy tangle topping a glossy red onion; a melon tied with cord, the pale orange sheen and the dull brown patch like— a map of a new continent—— or like nothing except a blemish on fruit-skin, exactly as it is——
— or a glass, a sherry glass, say, short-stemmed, tulip tapering to a narrow rim with a pink lip-smear where three sips have been taken; the chill condensing on the outside, just higher than the line of the pale fino reduced by three sips. Damp paper napkin, dirty plastic ashtray. A thin black pen, matte to the touch, nib nervously rotated in and out by the bent clip, grasped and ungrasped, loosely tapping at the page. I’m restless since I left you, since I moved off from where I’d stopped, left you stopped. Things look strange to me; the light, it might be. I’m looking. I’d like to borrow your eyes. None of these things, these solid objects on an outdoor table at the centre of this plaza in Madrid this evening, now seem as solid as that glossy red onion that rotted almost four hundred years ago. I’ve half made them up.
Piss-pot, ewer, bowl; eggs, onion, melon; carafe, woman, boy.
These are the elements of this composition. The sinews of her wrists— his strong large hands— thumbnail shining and long enough to cast a slivered shadow on the skin beneath. Solid objects, solid flesh. Just like any one of us.
So sated, stomach scrambling, the painter is on his way. It is still early and he hopes to avoid the worst of the sun, but the roads into the city are crammed with beasts, a smelly fraught jostle backed up for leagues. He joins the queue of animals, bearing wheat and fruit, wine and fish, silver and gold, goods from all over the country making their way to its heart, here, to keep the court running; the sluggish veins that return the empire’s bounty in trickles and clots. He waits, patiently, he picks his way through, his attendant following keeps his baggage close. His gut rebelling as the eggs digest, and as he draws nearer to the inevitable, whatever it may be—whatever’s meant for him in this city— but the noise of the road is enormous and no one else can hear it, the eggs, revueltos. At last at the gate he pays his entry tax from the stipend he has been provided, thus returning the coins to the coffers they came from. At last, he enters the city, which is already sleeping in the sun. It is long after noon and the day’s meal is eaten; he enters the capital dirty and hungry, gurgling, with the Canon’s letter tucked into his shirt: you have been sent for. Come, stay at my house. We Sevillians should stick together. He is still a young man; the King is younger. Not yet twenty, just a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.
Just about the time the painter sets out from the inn, say, the Prime Minister, the King’s valido, visits the King in his private chamber. In he strides, or lurches and stumps, too big for most rooms, covered in papers—stuffed into his hat, his belt, between buttons—so that he makes an important rustling sound as he walks, as he swaggers and rolls. He has weight to carry, the Count, the valido, his own considerable bulk and the government of the country on his high humped shoulders—— But he won’t be called valido, he won’t have it; he is not the favourite, he is only a servant; he has flushed out the corruption of the last king’s court and will not have it said that there is favouritism here. He is Prime Minister because someone must be; it is his honour, to bear this duty. He has worked hard to be permitted to the King’s chamber, first thing in the morning. He has always worked hard. He must be tired. Yet here he is, already up for hours, fresh from confession, clean of countenance and conscience; so perhaps he doesn’t get tired—or doesn’t show it.
A new artist has been sent for, Señor, says the Count, and is on his way now from the south. The King looks up, with something akin to interest. The Count passes the King the King’s shirt and the King sits on the side of his bed and puts it on. There are portraits to be made of Your Majesty, and this man has, already, a reputation. They say he sees the dignity, the grace of the Lord’s creation, just as it is: the truth, the life of it. A young man, a quiet man who will not bore Your Majesty with prattle. A cultured man. Like me, a Sevillian.
The King yawns, quite prettily, covering the stretch of his closed mouth with the back of his hand. Blood comes easily to the surface of his skin. When he opens his eyes again they are pink-rimmed and wet, like a waking child’s, fair lashes dew-sprung; or like a night rodent’s. He rubs his palms against his bare thin fair-furred thighs, receives his stockings one by one, his breeches. Yes, he’s sure the Count is right, he is always right. The Count nods his acknowledgement, and shuffles a paper from his hat, which he is permitted to wear before the King. He gives it a straightening flick, reviews it at length at arm’s length—does it merit His Majesty’s attention? he hmms. Flick— Hmmmm . . . But he is performing to an empty hall—His Majesty’s attention is currently elsewhere, he is tucking his shirt in ponderously—so his Prime Minister, standing before him like a fat fairground reflection, tucks the petition into his own belt. Coughs. And there is this other matter, which must be attended to. The King groans, throws himself into a chair, throws his head back, lets his mouth hang, lolls (he is just nineteen). Who will marry my sister, is it? That’s what you were going to ask? Who, who indeed? You know I’ve no mind for this. Haven’t we some cousin that’ll have her? There’s surely no shortage of them. (And indeed the King calls everyone of rank cousin, out of respect, and because it’s easier, and distantly at least a safe assumption.)
And then Felipe thinks of María, his youngest sister, his playmate, so bright and lively and unlike the rest of them, this sad family, and foresees a time when the court is even duller and darker for her absence, and letting his head hang right off the back of the chair to look upside down at the Count behind him, asks in a throttled whisper, Must we have her married at all?
Obviously a foolish question, which the Count ignores. For now at least, he says, we must deal with her suitor. The English Prince arrived incognito, at some personal risk, and awaits his answer. (This peculiar and unprecedented arrival of a royal guest—in disguise, unannounced, unknown to the English ambassador even—has caused no end of trouble for the Count, ever overburdened as he is.) For years we’ve talked about it, and now he’s here. Will this Prince Charles do for her?
The King snorts. What, this northerner who shows up as T-T-Tom Smith and expects our sister to marry a Protestant, one who goes in the guise of a commoner, no less? This tongue-swallowing incomprehensible P-Prince Ch-Ch-Charlatan, whose English is no better than my own?— Your Majesty’s English is excellent, of course, improving daily, the Count interjects smoothly— Well what does María think? Can she be persuaded? No, I can imagine; she is ignoring him. She is at all times in his presence very interested in her fan or her dwarves or her little dog. The Count laughs. He will not concede their terms? He will not convert? No, he will not. Then no. She will not marry him; she need not.
Quite right, Señor, nods the Count. He knew the answer already, he had already decided it. But still, Prince Ch-Ch-Charles must be . . . attended to . . . along with his boyfriend Buckingham (the erstwhile John Smith, to whom the Prime Minister has taken particular exception, his pompoms and his white stockings and his shapely solid calves, his garter, his bad reputation and his tassels); they must be detained . . . eh . . . that is entertained . . . a little; it is embarrassing . . . It is delicate. How to get rid of them, and keep the peace? How to play this?
How, indeed, says the King, sounding bored. His valido can work out the details. Appease him. Festivities. Feasts. Conferences in the afternoon. And yet more festivities. A parade, every day, for the English Prince! The King throws himself back in his chair again, so low that the royal backside is in danger of slipping from the edge of it and his chin rests on his chest, and he digs it into his sternum and then lifts it, jutting, a proud and famous chin indeed it is. He puts a hand to it. A little fuzzy. He will need to be shaved. This painter of yours . . . he covers a brisk yawn, pulls himself upright, pats his newly trousered knees decisively— what is he?
This is more in Felipe’s line. He has a collection to build on. It will be magnificent—it is already—the King’s chamber is hung with works acquired by his forefathers. The flesh of these nymphs and goddesses, these flanks and flushes and arrested flights—his great-grandfather and grandfather and father have enjoyed them all before him. His forefathers who are, of course, all dead, or he would not sit in these chambers, or yet be king. Here, on this morning, almost all of his reign is yet to come, and the two years of it passed have been much taken up with grieving. (There is another servant of the family, always on hand, a hooded old woman who’s been here longer than any of them, and will outlast us all—keeping quiet in the shadows, inhabiting the draughts. And there are so many draughts in this old fortress; though she, patient, fleshless, doesn’t feel them.) The outward show of masses and candles and black, a semblance to mask the unshown grief that the Count has seen in the King, in these private rooms, sometimes, and which hasn’t entirely to do with his father’s or any other individual passing. It was there already, he was already grieving for something greater, or less particular, than one man; which is to say, mourning suits him.
Anyway the King’s spirits are high, today, as a reed instrument can be thin and high and carry a brittle melody over low-strung notes. Thinly. He does not gambol or jape. But he is at least lively in his distraction; it’s restlessness rather than lethargy. He is enthused, as far as he can be, as far as he’s willing to show it. The Count, twice his age and bumptious, rustles about him, regards his features—the chin (which wants shaving), the nose, the golden hair, the pout which manhood will not retract. The Count has known these features all his life, he has worked hard and served and now he is needed, when once he was an irritant to the weary little Prince— This man wearies me, he’d said. Remember this, Your Majesty? How your servant lifted the Prince’s pot to his lips and kissed it, kissed the receptacle of the pettish Prince’s stool; how he had then quietly, with only the faintest yellow slosh, withdrawn from the chamber, taking the pot with him; remember how he suffered all those years under the Prince’s disdain, how he acquiesced, how he humbled himself, how he devised days of entertainment to be yawned and stropped through, how he schooled his pupil not to show it, the impatience, the fatigue, the strop; how he brought tutors of language, of drawing, of history and law; how he oversaw the slaughter of the Prince’s first boar, and the spilling of his seed into his first whore (actress, whore, let’s not split hairs), until at last this most devoted servant was tolerated, then trusted, and then slowly by degrees at last indispensable . . . and remember above all how, as the last King was dying, this faithful servant said: Everything is mine now; everything.
And yes, this young King will do better; his father was weak, too easily swayed, but with the Count beside him (his servant and the servant of the court), this fourth Felipe will do better. They will revive the country’s fortunes before they are even seen to be failing. There are many facets to being a king; and yet all edges must appear burnished to a perfect smooth orb, shining at the centre of his empire. A Planet King, a golden king to warm and shine upon this golden age, which can’t be allowed to end, or be seen to be ending.
And so, Señor, there must be portraits painted. There are treaties and matches and strategies to be made, but images also. Of course, the King assures the Count; when the time comes he will sit patiently for this painter. He gathers himself, a straight back, a jut and a pout. He tosses his chin and puts out a hand in regal pose, in readiness. Not a smile, which would be unseemly, but the possibility of one. Yes, this morning, he is at least lively——
— Later they’ll say he laughed only three times in his life, but this is a rumour that spores in the dank silence of his ageing; now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t say it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending——
Yes, he is laughing today, in this private chamber where a laugh is admissible, his laugh that comes out as a sigh.