A Grim Parade

The specimens entered Giotto’s workshop, in a slow, shambling line. Bound by ropes around their bony wrists, they were lead by a burly man in a smoking bird mask. A medico della peste. A plague doctor. Giotto wore no mask, but kept his distance. He had a job to do, one he would be paid well for, but he could not spend his earnings in the afterlife.

Without a mask, the stench was immediate. Overpowering. Giotto had encountered corpses in advanced decomposition, everyone in the city had; it was unavoidable in times like this. But even the worst week-old, rotting, and sun-baked corpse could not compare to this malodour. It hit him like a wall of death and suffering. Giotto fought the urge to vomit, holding a delicate, heavily perfumed handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Gagging, he waved them to walk around the room, so as to see them from every angle.

The specimen must be perfect.

The plague victims followed the bird-faced doctor obediently, either uncaring in their misery, or possibly unknowing in a delirium. Shuffling along, groaning with the pain of moving wasted and starved muscles. A grim parade. Giotto stared at them intently, judging, weighing up their value. As people they were useless. Worthless. As subjects for his art though… well subjects he had use for. They had value, worth.

The medico knew his work well, and the best specimens were at the front. Giotto gestured, indicating the third in line.

“That one. Remove the others, give me that one.” Number three looked closer to death, but starvation had stretched its mouth, and clenched its teeth into a skeletal rictus, and so it looked almost as if it were smiling. It was also the tallest in the room, and height was important in this game.

The ropes were unlooped and number three was left standing in the middle of the studio, naked except for some filthy rag serving as a loincloth. The parade of death left, probably taken to be dumped in the poor quarter.

Giotto walked around the subject, poking at it with a long stick, forcing it to move its limbs as he wished. Poke – lift the arm. Poke – move the chin. Poke – look to the left. Poke, poke, poke.

He found that he was completely unable to determine the specimen’s gender. On quick reflection, he decided it made no difference. There were also a worrying number of black stains under its armpits, either filth, necrotic tissue, or buboes. But Giotto didn’t care. Flaws like this could be painted out, painted over, or simply excluded. He was an artist, after all.

He poked the wasted creature cruelly until it held the pose he desired, at which point he reached for the hat. The hat was delicately placed on the specimen’s head, so as to ensure there was no damage (to the hat of course, it was both expensive and well made). When he was satisfied that all was to perfection; the pose, the hat, the lighting, Giotto approached his easel, and picked up his brush. He started to paint.

He worked quickly. The hat might start to smell if left on the subject too long; or worse, the subject might expire before he finished, meaning he would need to pay for someone to prop up its body.

But he smiled as he painted. The picture was perfect. The hat was displayed on a page along side the text explaining where it was made, what it was made from, the sublime skill and supreme experience of the Milliner. And of course, the price and where it could be bought from.

The subject coughed, a deep burbling and phlegmy cough. He did not have long.

Adding the final touches, he stood away from the picture as the subject collapsed. It gasped like a fish, once, twice, then stopped. Giotto looked at the completed work.

This Winter’s fashion catalogue would be the best yet.

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