Mario’s Masterpiece

by Ron Van Sweringen


Mario’s fingers were trembling when he put down the brush. A streak of cadmium red paint smeared the palm of his right hand. Your soul is bleeding, he thought, staring at the brilliant pigment. It was his favorite color, signifying life.

His black hair with its silver highlights shone in the studio lamp light. He was a handsome man in his fifties with sensitivity and intelligence radiating from his face. Everything about Mario De Nitti told the world he was an artist.

A highly respected artist represented by several fine galleries, with more than a few works in major museums, his reputation was well established in the art world. Still, with all his accomplishments, Mario De Nitti was incomplete and unfulfilled in his heart. God knew it and Mario knew it. He had not yet painted his masterpiece, the one shining example of his talent that would secure his place among the immortals.

That circumstance changed one autumn afternoon when a young man rang the bell for admittance to Mario De Nitti’s villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Mario was amazed when the stranger made an appearance in his studio. Few men he had ever seen possessed such classically perfect features. To put it bluntly, he was stunningly beautiful behind the rich amber eyes that stared casually at Mario.

“Are you Mario De Nitti?” the young man asked with the hint of a smile.

“I am,” Mario replied.

“Then I am your new model,” he stated, looking straight into Mario’s eyes for maximum impact.

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Mario replied, “I decide who I paint.”

What happened next was completely unexpected. The young man began unbuttoning his shirt and, before Mario could think of what to say, slipped off his sandals and let his pants fall, until he stood naked and bathed in sunlight.

As Mario’s eyes traveled over the naked body, he could only think of a golden David, created to be worshiped. What he saw from every angle was the gift of perfect proportion. When Mario returned to his face, the young man was again smiling at him.

“How old are you, and what is your name?” Mario asked.

“I’m twenty-two and my name is Jubal Sams,” was the reply.

“Are you aware that work as a professional model is very difficult and sometimes painful?” Mario asked, waiting to see Jubal’s reaction.

“How much money will I make?” was the quick reply, completely ignoring Mario’s question.

“More than you’ll make at anything else, if you’re good at it.”

“I’m good at everything I do,” Jubal replied, offering Mario his hand in a firm grasp.

At that moment Mario knew he would paint Jubal. The question in his mind was simply how he could survive the waiting until he made love to him.

* * *

Peggy Cameron was a twenty-four your old American expatriate, employed as Mario De Nitti’s studio assistant. To say the attractive young woman considered herself fortunate in that situation would be a gross understatement. The sun rose for her in Mario’s greeting every morning along with the elegant lifestyle the position afforded her at his villa. Mario De Nitti had become a driving force in her life.

She was surprised one morning upon entering the studio by Mario’s excited voice.

“It has come at last!” he shouted, pointing to an open letter on his desk. “The commission I have waited a lifetime for. Read it and you will understand.”

The letter stunned Peggy. It offered Mario a very large sum of money to create a work of art titled “The Dying Christ.”

“Read it all,” Mario urged with a triumphant smile. “The stipulations.”

The painting was to be a life-sized version of the Crucifixion, featuring the body and face of Christ. What followed next took Peggy’s breath away. “The Dying Christ,” would be given a two year tour of seven countries and twelve major museums. The importance of this was overwhelming. With this one work of art, Mario De Nitti could become immortal.

“And miracle of miracles,” Mario continued excitedly, guiding Peggy to a veranda overlooking the garden and a large turquoise swimming pool. “I have found the perfect model for ‘The Dying Christ’.” he added, pointing to a figure doing laps in the pool. Peggy observed the young man’s slim body gliding through the water but could not see his face until Mario called out his name.

Jubal answered Mario’s voice immediately. He was standing chest deep in the water and waving.

“You can judge for yourself how perfect he is,” Mario said, motioning for Jubal to join them.

Peggy watched the figure approach on the garden path, becoming aware that he was nude only as an afterthought. His tanned body was reminiscent of a Greek bronze, and he moved with unparalleled grace. God, she thought, he’s beautiful.

By the time Jubal had reached the balcony, a bath towel was firmly in place around his waist. Mario reached out and took his hand,

“This is Jubal,” he said to Peggy, his face beaming. Peggy had never seen him so animated. “Let us sit down in the studio and give Jubal the good news,” Mario added, leading the way.

When they were seated, Mario handed Jubal the letter. “A wonderful gift has been given us,” he said, “You are to be immortalized in my masterpiece, ‘The Dying Christ’.”

Jubal read the letter slowly and when he finished was silent for a moment, before asking a single question. “How long will it take to complete the painting?”

Mario was surprised at the question but answered it quickly. “Eight to twelve months, I would imagine, if all goes well.”

“Then it seems we are going to be busy,” Jubal replied.

Mario, in his euphoria, did not catch the hint of uncertainty in Jubal’s voice, but Peggy did, and it caused her to wonder what he might be hiding.

Later that morning, Mario began his first drawings of Jubal. It was a study in concentration that Peggy observed with rapt attention. Sunlight seemed to wash the room in brightness, for the moment shadows did not exist, only magnificent light. Mario worked feverishly over a large canvas. A piece of charcoal in his hand moved swiftly, leaving behind the sensual outline of perfect symmetry that was Jubal’s body.

“We must capture his agony,” Mario said to Jubal. “We must feel his pain if we are to succeed in creating a masterpiece.”

It seemed to Peggy that somehow time had stopped for the three of them in that moment. She had witnessed similar scenes before, the beginning of a new work with a handsome young model, many of whom Mario had become fascinated with. This time, though, something was different; there was an electricity in the studio that she had never felt before, and it frightened her.

The preparatory drawings for “The Dying Christ” began in September and took nearly six weeks of diligence on the part of both Jubal and Mario. A pattern of work soon developed, beginning in the morning hours and ending in the afternoon when the two men took lunch together and a swim in the pool. This routine was rarely interrupted and witnessed only by Peggy and a manservant who brought their food.

It was obvious to Peggy that a strong attachment had formed between Mario and Jubal. They sometimes held hands on their walk to the pool and, on occasion, she had glimpsed them exchange an affectionate kiss. It was not the overtly sexual display that Mario had shown toward some of his other models.

At the end of six weeks, Mario felt confident in touching paint to canvas. A large wooden cross had been carefully erected to fit Jubal’s measurements perfectly. It was purposely rough-hewn to catch and reflect the light in the painting.

When Jubal was tied by his wrists to the cross, the sharp edges of the wood hurt his shoulders and back. When he cried out, Mario insisted that they let him down and workmen be brought in to apply padding to the cross.

“No!” Jubal announced to Mario’s amazement, “The pain is not great, but it will show in my face, and you will capture it.”

Progress on the painting was slow but beyond magnificent. The few visitors who were allowed into the studio were left speechless and some even tear-stained at the sight of the artist and model.

Mario had completed the outline of Jubal’s body on the canvas in sepia-colored chalk and had begun laying in the basic skin tones of his underarms when he noticed two small purplish marks below Jubal’s elbow that had not been there the day before.

“Enough for now,” he said quietly, untying Jubal from the cross. Peggy noticed the change in routine instantly. Something important had upset Mario enough to make him stop work. Her suspicion was born out when Mario exited the studio without a word to anyone. She watched him make his way along the veranda toward the garden, until Jubal joined him. She could hear their conversation as it grew louder, almost verging on becoming violent.

“Now I understand why you questioned how long the painting would take to complete!” Mario exploded, his hands raised to his forehead in exasperation. “Why didn’t you tell me you had AIDS?”

Jubal threw his arms out as if to stop Mario. “I didn’t tell you because I was afraid it would rob me of my last chance to do something worthwhile in my life.” Jubal’s arms dropped to his sides, his voice pleading, “Please grant me what only you can,” he sobbed, “the gift of being remembered by the world.”

Mario looked at the beautiful young man standing before him who suddenly seemed frail. “I believe you know my heart leaves me no other choice,” he replied, taking Jubal in his arms.

It had been seven months since work began on “The Dying Christ,” and the painting was nearing completion. Already through word of mouth, newspaper articles had appeared about the work and curious onlookers often lingered at the gates of Mario’s villa, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous artist or his model.

Peggy had come to the painful conclusion that her work as Mario’s assistant would come to an end upon the painting’s completion. She had witnessed the change in his countenance over the past year: for lack of a better word, it was his gradual glorification. Now, when he entered a room, there was an aura about him, almost a glow that caused conversations to cease and eyes to stare. The pinnacle of his talent had at last placed him where he belonged, in the sphere of the immortals. “The Dying Christ,” was truly Mario’s masterwork.

It was a gray November day marked by chill dampness in the air. The sun had not shone for a week, and Mario longed for its warmth on his face as he stood at the studio window staring into the bleak garden. The turquoise pool he and Jubal had used so often, now appeared cold and uninviting. His fingers twitched and a slight shiver ran across his shoulders; this was the day it would end, when “The Dying Christ” would be completed.

Jubal appeared in the studio doorway with Peggy at eleven in the morning, wearing a deep scarlet robe, his feet bare, as usual. There was a moment of silent reverence by those in attendance. His body, though still beautiful, was thin almost to the point of appearing emaciated.

Once Jubal was in position and mounted on the cross, Mario picked up his brushes. Before Peggy turned to leave the studio for the last time, she watched Mario’s hand tremble as he gently touched Jubal’s feet on the cross.

“When it is finished,” he whispered, “I will paint no more.” In his heart, Mario knew the remark was wasted. Jubal was beyond hearing.


Copyright © 2015 by Ron Van Sweringen

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