I never imagined I'd be famous. People come from all over the world to see me. Yet my beginnings were humble. My mother, a buxom Milanese, was low in the pecking order. I was expected to follow the family tradition and cater for my embryonic relative. But I didn't get the chance to pursue that calling, for I was torn from my home at an early age and assigned to decorating duty.
I was to help paint a dining room wall. The traditional method involved combining pigments with water and quickly applying the mix to fresh plaster before it dried. But my supervisor had no experience with this high-throughput fresco technique. His expertise was in painting dry surfaces like wood panels. He'd mix pigments with me or oil to produce bright paints that allowed for much greater freedom to adjust and correct, suiting his meticulous ways. But these tempera- or oil-based methods hadn't been tried out on murals. He decided to risk it and do the experiment. For good measure, he threw both me and oil into the mix.
That's how I found myself clinging to a dry wall, 15 ft from the ground, my supervisor perched next to me on scaffolding. Friars came and went below, for the monastery dining room was still in use despite the renovations underway. Being so close to my supervisor, I could read his thoughts. He was planning to depict thirteen males (I only became aware that his species had females much later), taking supper at a long table. I was to contribute to blue mountains in a central window that backlit the scene.
My supervisor was obsessed. Not only did he ceaselessly ponder the poses and composition of his mural; his mind overflowed with inventions of war machines, flying machines, architectural designs, theories of how mountains, rivers and living beings develop and function. He didn't trust accepted ideas but always made careful observations for himself, sketching what he saw and scribbling down notes in mirror script. His mission: look at the world with fresh eyes and find better ways of understanding, representing and improving it.
I was three when they removed the scaffolding. Visitors came from far and wide to witness the revolutionary composition that lit the central figure, the dazzling combinations of red, green, yellow and ultramarine robes, the extraordinary interplay of contrasts, the lifelike expressive faces, plates of food and pleated tablecloth. My supervisor had achieved lasting fame, putting to rest accusations that he never completed his works.
Fortunately, he didn't witness my decay, for he died in France 22 years later. It was around then that parts of me began to flake off. By my fifties I was in such a sorry state that the friars felt justified in cutting a door into the wall beneath me, amputating the central figure's feet and further loosening paint with blows from their pickaxes. When I reached 300, Napoleon's soldiers pelted me with bricks and used the room as a stable. Four years later there was a fifteen-day flood and I became covered in green mould. At 450, an RAF bomb blew the roof off and only tarpaulin protected me from the skies. A major restoration began 34 years later. They removed the grime, overpainting, waxes, varnishes, glues, shellacs and resins that had been used to preserve me. After 22 years of painstaking work, what little colour remained was said to be 20% supervisor, 80% restorer.
I'm now 529. Visitors raise hand-held devices to capture my decayed state. What if my supervisor hadn't been so experimental? What if the spirit of his age had been to stick to the tried-and-tested rather than risk failure? Maybe they'd still be able to see his creation in its full glory. But then again, I wouldn't be here, and neither would those hand-held devices.