The chair creaked painfully, even if Primo1 Sansoni, the consul, had laid his huge ass on it with careful respect. His large face opened in a smirk: – It is a very old piece, you know? I bought it in Scotland a dozen years ago from a countess who loved a bit too much to bet on horses. – He made a sweeping gesture with his arms, as if he were talking to an adoring audience. But there was nothing of an adoring attitude in the small man placing the easel and colors at the center of the hall, and occasionally scratching the tip of his nose.
– I was told that you are the best in this field – the landlord continued, barely blinking his bluish eyelids. – It seems that the President himself has commissioned his portrait for the country villa, a few months ago.
– Really? – the other muttered. – You know better yourself, sir.
Primo Sansoni startled at first and the chair kept creaking. – How is that? You mean they told me some balderdash?
– Bald… No, no. I don’t know what job this man did here, I mean. I don’t remember.
The consul’s double chin swelled in amazement. The white starched collar seemed about to explode. – How can you say that? How can you transfer the essence of such an important man on a canvas without taking into account his status?
The little man shrugged, opening the box of colors. – I don’t care. I mean, I depict people not their roles.
Sansoni leaned back, trying to keep his shoulders straight well. The painter had already started to sketch something on the canvas with a dusty pencil. The sun filtered through the window overlooking the park, illuminating the artist and his model.
– And yet – the latter hissed, his cheeks slightly colored – you cannot claim to portray Sansoni, the consul, without knowing anything about him. Try … Try to ask me some questions.
The painter added a few doodles, occasionally raising his gaze and quickly moving it down immediately after. Then he put down his pencil and began to mix some colors on a rough wooden table. When he spoke, there was amusement in his voice: – Your name is “Primo”, right? I don’t think it’s by chance.
– That is correct – the other gloated. – It was my father who Christened me like that, since I was his firstborn. He wanted many children, to be sure to perpetuate the race.
– Then you must have many brothers. You’re a lucky man.
Sansoni shifted in his chair, ignoring the squeak. – Yes, I am lucky. But I am an only child.
– Oh, I’m sorry.
– Do not be. I have never felt lonely. With all the servants wandering around the house? Come on!
– I understand. And what you used to like to do, when you weren’t in the middle of all those people?
– To do? Oh, well, I have been studying, I have been reading … I have been studied mainly. I have always used my time well, to prepare myself for the excellent job that my father had chosen for me. I have never succumbed to childish amusements. By the way, try not to make me a very shiny head: I could appear with an overly receding hairline.
For several minutes there was silence. The brush scratched the canvas. The trill of a bird and the hum of an irrigation system came from far away.
– And what about women? – The little man chuckled. – Yeah, I mean, there must have been some nice girls, nearby, which it was worthy to spend a bit of your precious time with.
– Of course! Our cook had a daughter, a wonderful young girl … – Primo Sansoni stopped. A wrinkle on his forehead deepened. – I met the most suitable woman during a business trip – he continued. – I was a great catch, she was a French diplomat’s granddaughter. You know, my position led me to do a lot of social life. He paused, perhaps waiting for a comment of admiration that never came. – Actually – he added by tightening the knobs of his chair – I met her on a ship bound for France, where she went back after the divorce, bringing our daughter with her.
The painter’s hand, which was moving fast and safe on the canvas, hesitated. His eyes remained still for a few moments on the consul’s shape, strangely not so stiff anymore. – What are you going to do with the portrait, when I finished it? – He asked after a certain period of time.
– I will have it delivered to my grandchildren: they are young, they know me too little. And they will never be allowed to keep a picture of mine. My wife and I, we did not part in a very friendly way, you know. – His eyes lit up: – But if she expects me to go and beg my family’s company, she’ll have to wait for a long time! But a painting, you know, it is different; it is a valuable object. If you really are such a esteemed artist, they will not dare to take it away from the girls.
The painter made a few steps away from the easel and looked at his work with his head tilted thoughtfully.
The velvet chair made a small crash, such was the ardor with which the consul got to peek.
– Have you portrayed me with a certain dignity, right? – he gasped. – I want to leave a good memory to my grandchildren.
The painter scratched his nose. – Don’t worry, they will remember you exactly as how you are. – So saying, he turned his canvas.
Sansoni found himself staring at a little curve, placid face, with tears in his eyes and a faint sad smile. – This is not the consul – Sansoni stammered.
– Of course not – answered the other. – This is Primo. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go. Do not move the picture, I will be back in the next few days for the touch-ups.
The artist picked up his gear and headed for the exit. From the corner of his eye he saw the stunned expression of Sansoni staring at his own portrait: it seemed that he had just made a great discovery. While the governess accompanied him to the door, the artist overheard a snippet of conversation from the room: – Call that number. Yes, the French one. It’s on my planner. None of your business! Just tell them … I’m Primo.
1“Primo” in Italian means “The First” but it is also a first name. It was decided not to translate the original meaning as a personal name.