A Portrait

Image: Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Woman (1520-1525). Tempera and oil on poplar panel. 44 x 35 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

Bartolommeo Veneto

The Städel’sche Institut at Frankfurt

A CRYSTAL, flawless beauty on the brows 
Where neither love nor time has conquered space 
On which to live ; her leftward smile endows 
The gazer with no tidings from the face ; 
About the clear mounds of the lip it winds with silvery pace 
And in the umber eyes it is a light 
Chill as a glowworm's when the moon embrowns an August night. 

She saw her beauty often in the glass, 
Sharp on the dazzling surface, and she knew 
The haughty custom of her grace must pass : 
Though more persistent in all charm it grew 
As with a desperate joy her hair across her throat she drew 
In crinkled locks stiff as dead, yellow snakes . . . 
Until at last within her soul the resolution wakes 

She will be painted, she who is so strong 
In loveliness, so fugitive in years : 
Forth to the field she goes and questions long 
Which flowers to choose of those the summer bears ; 
She plucks a violet larkspur,—then a columbine appears 
Of perfect yellow,—daisies choicely wide; 
These simple things with finest touch she gathers in her pride. 

Next on her head, veiled with well-bleachen white 
And bound across the brow with azure-blue, 
She sets the box-tree leaf and coils it tight 
In spiky wreath of green, immortal hue ; 
Then, to the prompting of her strange, emphatic insight true, 
She bares one breast, half-freeing it of robe, 
And hangs green-water gem and cord beside the naked globe. 

So was she painted and for centuries 
Has held the fading field-flowers in her hand 
Austerely as a sign. O fearful eyes 
And soft lips of the courtesan who planned 
To give her fragile shapeliness to art, whose reason spanned 
Her doom, who bade her beauty in its cold 
And vacant eminence persist for all men to behold ! 

She had no memories save of herself 
And her slow-fostered graces, naught to say 
Of love in gift or boon ; her cruel pelf 
Had left her with no hopes that grow and stay ; 
She found default in everything that happened night or day, 
Yet stooped in calm to passion's dizziest strife 
And gave to art a fair, blank form, unverified by life. 

Thus has she conquered death : her eyes are fresh, 
Clear as her frontlet jewel, firm in shade 
And definite as on the linen mesh 
Of her white hood the box-tree's sombre braid, 
That glitters leaf by leaf and with the year's waste will not fade. 
The small, close mouth, leaving no room for breath, 
In perfect, still pollution smiles—Lo, she has conquered death ! 

 

 

Bartolommeo Veneto

The Städel’sche Institut at Frankfurt

A CRYSTAL, flawless beauty on the brows 
Where neither love nor time has conquered space 
On which to live ; her leftward smile endows 
The gazer with no tidings from the face ; 
About the clear mounds of the lip it winds with silvery pace 
And in the umber eyes it is a light 
Chill as a glowworm's when the moon embrowns an August night. 

She saw her beauty often in the glass, 
Sharp on the dazzling surface, and she knew 
The haughty custom of her grace must pass : 
Though more persistent in all charm it grew 
As with a desperate joy her hair across her throat she drew 
In crinkled locks stiff as dead, yellow snakes . . . 
Until at last within her soul the resolution wakes 

She will be painted, she who is so strong 
In loveliness, so fugitive in years : 
Forth to the field she goes and questions long 
Which flowers to choose of those the summer bears ; 
She plucks a violet larkspur,—then a columbine appears 
Of perfect yellow,—daisies choicely wide; 
These simple things with finest touch she gathers in her pride. 

Next on her head, veiled with well-bleachen white 
And bound across the brow with azure-blue, 
She sets the box-tree leaf and coils it tight 
In spiky wreath of green, immortal hue ; 
Then, to the prompting of her strange, emphatic insight true, 
She bares one breast, half-freeing it of robe, 
And hangs green-water gem and cord beside the naked globe. 

So was she painted and for centuries 
Has held the fading field-flowers in her hand 
Austerely as a sign. O fearful eyes 
And soft lips of the courtesan who planned 
To give her fragile shapeliness to art, whose reason spanned 
Her doom, who bade her beauty in its cold 
And vacant eminence persist for all men to behold ! 

She had no memories save of herself 
And her slow-fostered graces, naught to say 
Of love in gift or boon ; her cruel pelf 
Had left her with no hopes that grow and stay ; 
She found default in everything that happened night or day, 
Yet stooped in calm to passion's dizziest strife 
And gave to art a fair, blank form, unverified by life. 

Thus has she conquered death : her eyes are fresh, 
Clear as her frontlet jewel, firm in shade 
And definite as on the linen mesh 
Of her white hood the box-tree's sombre braid, 
That glitters leaf by leaf and with the year's waste will not fade. 
The small, close mouth, leaving no room for breath, 
In perfect, still pollution smiles—Lo, she has conquered death !