John Basye Price

Murder for Fine Art

   Now that I have reached the age of more than threescore, and my life draws to a close, I think it only right that you should know the real truth about my trouble with Pompeo - trouble that put me in the gravest danger of my life and nearly ended my career thirty years ago. Do not show this letter to anyone, but do not destroy it! Instead, wall it up in the new hall now being built at your convent, so that it may be found only after the building falls to ruins many hundred years hence.
   It was in Rome in 1534, shortly after I had lost my position as Director of the Mint, that Pompeo approached me. I had known him for some time as a jeweller from Milan. He thought himself clever, but I regarded him as a pompous windbag, and (although he did not know it) as a secret enemy. However, I greeted him politely, and asked what he wanted.
   "You would not call me an artist, would you?" he surprised me by asking.
   "Well, hardly," I replied.
   "And yet in half an hour I can make a better picture than the greatest artist can paint in a week."
   "I have no time for jokes," I said, turning away in disgust.
   He clutched my arm and took something out of his pouch. "Look at this!" he said
   I stared in amazement at a piece of parchment he held in his hand. On it was a picture of the Coliseum, but such a picture as I had never dreamed of. Except that the picture was in black and white, it was exactly as if an image from a mirror had been miraculously transferred to the parchment.
   "Did you make this?" I gasped.
   "I did, in half an hour, yesterday morning. "
   I looked and looked at the picture. I could not imagine what medium had been used. The picture had not been drawn by pencil or pen, nor painted with oil-paint or water-colours.
   Pompeo stood by, with a smirk on his face, watching my perplexity and wonder. Finally, I turned to him and asked, "But why do you show this to me, Pompeo?"
   "The truth is," he said, "I need your help."
   "My help?"
   "Yes. I know that you are making some medals for Pope Clement (VII) and see him often. If you can get me an audience with his Holiness and will help persuade him to grant me a large reward for my new method of making pictures, it will make the fortunes of both of us, for I will give you one-tenth of all he gives me."
   "But, Pompeo, you are closely related to Messer Trajano, the Pope's favourite servant. Why don't you approach his Holiness through him?"
   "Unfortunately, an estrangement has arisen between us." This (I learned later) was true, and for a reason most discreditable to Pompeo. Under the circumstances I, of course, agreed to Pompeo's conditions. After he had sworn me to secrecy, he took me to his shop and revealed his secret.
   No doubt you know, my dear niece, that with the right kind of lens it is possible to project a picture of the view outside on the wall of a darkened room. This is called a camera lucida. In brief, what Pompeo had done was to take a thick lens and place it at one end of a closed box, which thus acted as a small camera lucida. At the other end of the box he placed a plate of thin isinglass treated with chemicals (which I shall not name). The light of the image so affected the chemicals that they reproduced the outside scene on the isinglass in reversed black and white. Pompeo explained that it was necessary to fix the image by soaking the isinglass in other chemicals in a dark room to make the image permanent. Then with this plate exposed to sunlight he transferred the picture to chemically treated parchment.
   I congratulated Pompeo on this great discovery, and told him to bring his sun-camera and chemicals to my house the next morning, from whence we would take them to show to the Pope.
   I slept but ill that night, turning over and over in my mind two questions: first, where had Pompeo learned the secret of the sun-camera (for I was convinced that he was not capable of inventing such a thing by himself); and secondly, what was I to do in regard to the matter? It was not until the early hours that I reached an answer and a decision.
   In the morning, Pompeo came to my house as arranged, but I greeted him with a long face. "I am sorry, Pompeo," I said, "but I have just heard that his Holiness was taken ill last night, and can see no one today. Let us hope that he will be recovered by tomorrow."
   "I hadn't heard that," he said. (Neither had I, as a matter of fact, but I was determined that Pompeo should not see the Pope.)
   I continued: "The news has just reached me; but come, it is too fine a day to sit here repining. I have a new gun, and the marshes are full of ducks and other fowl. Let's get on our horses and go out for a day of sport. Come, let us start."
   "But what of the sun-camera and chemicals? I must take the home first."
   "Not a bit of it!" I replied. "We can lock them up in my strongbox and they will be perfectly safe."
   This was done, and we started off for the marshes. I was careful to find the most deserted spot imaginable. We tied our horses, and as we advanced towards the water I was holding the gun. It crossed my mind that anything falling into one of the nearby bogs would never be seen again. I looked all round, but no one was in sight, then I turned to Pompeo and said, "Now we are alone. Suppose this time you tell me the truth about the sun-camera. Who really discovered it?"
   "As I told you before, I did."
   "Oh, no Pompeo, you will never make me believe that a donkey like you could invent such a thing as the sun-camera ... but never mind, I already know the answer. There is only one man who ever lived who was capable of making a discovery like that."
   "Who do you mean?"
   "That great artist, poet and scientist - Leonardo da Vinci."
   "But, man - Leonardo has been dead for fifteen years!"
   "Yes, but I was born in Florence myself, and I have heard that he left many unpublished note-books. You were in Florence a few months ago; no doubt you read them and stole the idea of the sun-camera."
   "You are dreaming," said Pompeo; "but even if all that were true, what difference would it make? Leonardo is dead, and I have the sun-camera."
   "No, you are wrong."
   "What do you mean?"
   "I have the sun-camera, Pompeo, locked up safe in my strong-box!"
   "For the love of God, what's the matter with you? Surely you are not a thief? I thought you were my friend."
   "You are no friend of mine, Pompeo. I know perfectly well that it was you, acting through Messer Trajano, who persuaded the Pope to deprive me of my position as Director of the Mint and to give the post to Fagiuolo instead."
   "But that is an old story, why bring it up now?"
   "Do you not understand, even yet? Here we are entirely alone; over there is a deep bog that would hide a body for ever; I am armed and you are not. In short, I am going to kill you, Pompeo!"
   So saying, I cocked my gun. I had expected that he would attack me, but instead, he turned to run. Aiming the arquebus directly at him, I pulled the trigger; but by cursed ill-luck the gun misfired.
   Dropping the gun, I drew my dagger and started after Pompeo. But in all my life, before or since, I have never seen anyone run as fast as he did. Fat as he was, he reached the horses first, flung himself astride, and galloped off as if the Devil were after him.
   By chance or design Pompeo had taken the faster horse, but he weighed much more than I, so I had every prospect of overtaking him before we reached the city. But I lost him when he turned and took a short-cut through a field.
   I set off for the city as fast as I could. By good luck I reached my house in time; I opened the strong-box and took out the sun-camera and the chemicals and hurried to the house of my best friend, Albertaccio del Bene, whom I knew I could trust. I left them with him for safe keeping and started back to my own house.
   When I came in sight of it, as I had expected, I saw Pompeo in front of my door, and with him was the Bargello (sheriff) with his constables, some armed with pikes, some with arquebuses, and some with two-handed swords.
   I approached and called out, "Pompeo, are you feeling better now?"
   He was taken back for an instant, and then shouted at the Bargello, "Arrest that man; he tried to kill me!"
   "Kill you, my dear fellow!" I exclaimed in a tone of amazement. "Your mind is more disturbed than I thought."
   Turning to the Bargello, I said, "Pompeo's mind has been affected for some time; and this morning, when he came to see me, it was evidently much worse. He talked in such a wild way that I tried to soothe him by taking him for a day's shooting in the marshes. But as soon as we got there, he lost his reason altogether. He screamed that he saw the Devil coming after him and galloped off. I followed as fast as I could, for I feared that in his state he would do himself some injury. I have just arrived."
   "Lies, lies, lies!" screamed Pompeo; "I tell you, he tried to shoot me, and would have, but his gun misfired!"
   "But, Pompeo, calm yourself; why should I want to kill you?"
   "You know why; you want to steal my invention - my sun-camera."
   "Sun-camera! What on earth do you mean? I never heard of such a thing."
   This enraged Pompeo so much that he forgot his need for secrecy. Turning to the Bargello, he said, "I have invented a machine that can make a better picture in half an hour than the best artist can draw in a week."
   "Do you mean that you can draw a picture in half an hour that is better than one made by a trained artist? " the Bargello asked in astonishment.
   "No, I don't draw the picture myself. With my machine the sun makes the picture for me. Just as if an image from a mirror had been transferred to parchment."
   At this reply the Bargello's whole attitude changed. Turning to me, he said, "I beg your pardon for doubting you for a moment. You are right, Pompeo has gone mad. There can be no doubt that he is insane."
   "No, no, no!" screamed Pompeo, "I'm not crazy. I don't care, now, whether the Pope gives me a reward or not. I'll show you my sun-camera and you can see for yourself." Pointing at me he said. "He locked it in his strong-box this morning. Have him open it and I will prove it to you."
   In silence I handed my keys to the Bargello, and we three entered my house. The Bargello opened my strong-box, but, naturally, there was nothing inside.
   "There you are," I said. "I am very sorry for Pompeo; I happen to have a medicine which is very useful in cases of this kind. Let me give Pompeo a few drops and soon, no doubt, he will be more quiet."
   "For the love of God, no!" screamed Pompeo. "He's trying to poison me!" He was so worked up that he foamed at the mouth and acted in such a manner that if the Bargello had had any remaining doubts they would have been dispelled. He and his constables marched Pompeo away and locked him up.
   The next day I was summoned by Pope Clement, for the Bargello had reported the matter to him. In answer to his questions, I told him that there was no doubt that Pompeo was dangerously insane. Others had reported the same thing, so the Pope ordered Pompeo to be confined in an asylum until he should recover his wits.
   If Pompeo had been at all clever he would have calmed down and stated that he now realized that his tale of a sun-camera was a delusion, and that his mind was now recovered. But, like the donkey he was, he kept insisting that everything he had said was true. (As a matter of fact it was, but only I knew that.)
   For a time everything went well with me. The Pope was very pleased with some gold medals I had made for him, and promised me enough new work to make my fortune. Everything seemed to be going my way, with the Pope my patron and Pompeo in the insane asylum. But suddenly the Pope was taken ill. I had finished another medal, and took it to him; he was in bed and unable to see the medal clearly, even with his spectacles. Three days later Pope Clement died.
   I knew I must be careful, for anything can happen in the anarchy which occurs after one Pope dies and before the new Pope is elected. On Clement's death, his order confining Pompeo to the asylum was annulled.
   I learned this unexpectedly. I was sitting in the street with several friends watching the great commotion which always follows the death of a Pope, when a group of ten Neapolitan soldiers, very well armed, came up and stopped just opposite us. The ranks opened, and Pompeo stepped out from the centre of the group and hailed me.
   "So, Pompeo," I said, "I am happy to see that you have recovered your wits again. Or have you? I see that you have hired these ten men as a bodyguard. No doubt to protect you from some fancied danger?"
   Pompeo replied with a torrent of abuse, and called me every vile name he could think of. My companions expected me to draw my sword against him, but I saw that was just what Pompeo wanted. If I drew my sword it would give his hired soldiers an excuse to kill me. My friends and I were armed, but were outnumbered. And so I said in a loud voice to Albertaccio del Bene, at my side. "If any sane man were to talk to me like that it would be the last thing he would ever do on this earth; but poor Pompeo has not yet recovered from his madness, so I will just ignore him."
   This was too much for any of Pompeo's remaining caution, and he shouted when he should have kept silent. "We will see if I am crazy or not! Tomorrow, I will have another sun-camera ready; and this time the Bargello will believe me." So saying, Pompeo and his body-guard marched off slowly towards the Chiavica.
   Although I did not show it, Pompeo's last words had given me a tremendous shock. I had supposed that it would take him weeks to grind a new lens for the sun-camera (for an ordinary spectacle lens will not do). Was it possible that he had already made another lens beforehand? Pompeo was a liar and a boaster, but this time he might be telling the truth. I wished then that I had drawn my sword and led my friends against him, but it was too late now. How could I ask them to attack a man who I had just stated was not responsible for his actions?
   Very uneasy, I followed Pompeo's party alone, taking care to keep out of his sight. When the group reached the corner of Chiavica, all my fears were confirmed, for Pompeo entered an apothecary's shop while his guards remained at the door. He had told me that he always bought fresh chemicals from this shop just before making a sun-picture.
   I saw all my plans in ruins about me, and knew that I had not an instant to lose. Pompeo came out of the shop, and his soldiers opened their ranks and received him in their midst. Nerving my- self, I drew my dagger, and taking everyone completely by surprise, I pushed into the midst of the group. Before they could draw their swords I seized Pompeo with my left hand and with the dagger in my other hand struck at his head. (I have always maintained, since, that I only meant to wound him, but this is not true.) I tried to kill him, and I did kill him, for as he turned away in fright, my dagger stabbed him just behind the ear and he fell stone-dead in the street.
   Shifting the dagger to my left hand, I drew my sword to defend myself against odds of ten to one. However, these soldiers were so taken by surprise that they all ran to lift up the corpse, and before they could recover their wits and attack me, I had escaped alone through Strada Giulia.
   You already know, my dear niece, what deadly danger I went through after the death of Pompeo. I had to go in hiding from the Bargello, who had orders to take me dead or alive. Worse still, Pompeo's family hired assassins with promises of great rewards if they would slay me. I had several very narrow escapes from being killed. Finally, I had to flee from Rome and take refuge in my native city of Florence.
   After almost a year, my friends in Rome persuaded the new Pope Paul (III) to grant me the pardon of Our Lady's Feast in mid-August. I went to Rome under a safe-conduct, and presented myself to the Pope, who signed the pardon and had it registered at the Capitol. On the day appointed, I walked in penance in the procession, and so got clear of the murder at last.
   And now, my dear niece, no doubt you are wondering why you have never heard anything about the sun-camera and its marvellous pictures. You will wonder why I did not use the invention and make a great fortune with it. To explain: Pompeo was wrong, that day on the marshes, when he thought that I wanted to steal the sun-camera for my own advantage. Murderer I have been, but never a thief. When I first realized that the discovery could only have been made by Leonardo da Vinci, I asked myself, "Why had not Leonardo given his discovery to the world?"
   A little thought gave me the answer. Leonardo knew that artistic creation is the greatest glory of our human race. The past century has given us many great artists, and doubtless the next century will give us as many more. But suppose the secret of the sun-camera became known. Anyone and everyone, from Emperors down to common ploughboys, could make as accurate pictures as now only the greatest artists can make. Real artists no longer would be able to obtain patrons to order portraits, and would either starve or be forced into common labour. All the great artists of future would be stifled in their youth. And artistic creation would be extinct.
   And another matter. No doubt some artists with private means would continue painting for pure love of the work. But I fear that a group of quacks and charlatans without any artistic ability at all would paint pictures distorting things as they really are just for an effect of novelty. They might cover canvases with meaningless daubs of colour, and then try to persuade the ignorant and gullible that they were great pictures that common people couldn't understand.
   Perhaps these "new artists" might even sneer at genuine artists doing honest painting, and say that their pictures only represented things as they are and were no better than sun-pictures.
   The artists of centuries to come would thank me if they could know what I have done for them, even though it was necessary for me to murder my enemy, that thief Pompeo, to accomplish it.
   I threw the camera into the Tiber, and I pray the Good Lord it may be three hundred years before someone else rediscovers its secret.

Your devoted uncle,


AUTHOR'S POSTSCRIPT: Every spring the Stanford University Art Department's water color class spends an afternoon in the lane in back of my home, painting pictures of the trees, garages, and garbage cans. Some of the work seems very good, but I found on talking to the students that not one intended to make art his, or her, profession. They explained that there is little demand now for the artist who paints things as they are ... The thought came to me: how different plans of some of these students might have been if photography had never been discovered.

The End