"Silence in Florence" by Ian Creasey — story background

The chamberpots held only dust.  Maria picked one up, and sniffed a faint tang of rose-water from the last time she had cleaned it — three days ago, before the visitors arrived.  Did the foreigners think themselves too good to piss in a pot?  How could they?  Under their fancy robes, everyone had the same bodily functions.  Maria had emptied the pots of princes and cardinals, ambassadors and artists; the more wine they drank, the smellier their urine became.  But now — none?

Maria shrugged.  If the pots were empty, she'd complete her rounds quicker.  She needed to finish all these apartments while the occupants toasted the Feast of St John the Baptist downstairs.  To remove the dust, she gave the chamberpots a quick wipe with a jasmine-scented rag.  Then she left the visitors' apartment.

On her way to the next stateroom, she met her daughter scurrying down the corridor.  "What is it?" she asked, no longer hoping for an answer in words.  At eleven years old, her daughter had still never spoken.

This story was inspired by a newspaper article about an exhibition devoted to portraits of servants.  One 17th century picture showed a woman whose job was to scour out chamberpots, depicted wielding her broom in a similar style to martial portraits of dukes and generals.  It reminded me of how often fiction concentrates on so-called important people, the movers and shakers of their era, while relegating servants to mere background props.  I wrote this piece to redress the balance, and give the chambermaid her due regard.

In the story, Maria works as a chambermaid in the Pitti Palace in Florence.  She is accustomed to seeing all sorts of guests and visitors; Galileo makes a cameo appearance.  (When writing the story, I realised that including a well-known name provides the reader with a reference point and some grounding in a specific time period.  I felt it suited my purpose to give Galileo a minor role in Maria's tale, when the reverse would usually be the case.)

One morning, Maria realises that the visitors in a particular apartment have not used their chamberpots since they arrived several days ago.  Who are these mysterious guests, and why don't they have ordinary bodily functions?  Influenced by the religious paintings that fill the palace, Maria forms her own conclusion about the visitors and decides to beg them for help....

This was the first story I wrote with a historical setting, and I had to do a lot of research for it.  Indeed, the research significantly influenced the story — I originally imagined it taking place in mediaeval England or France, but it ended up in Renaissance Florence partly because of the availability of material, and partly because the more I read of the period, the more interesting I found it.  I do enjoy reading history, but I find it slightly intimidating to write historical settings, both because of the amount of research required (on a time-value basis, it's hard to justify reading half a dozen books and myriad websites just for a 4,000-word story) and because of the risk of making an egregious error.  I haven't yet had anyone point out a significant mistake in one of my stories, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

After its original publication in Asimov's, this story was selected for inclusion in Year's Best SF 12 (edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer) — my first appearance in a Year's Best anthology.  The story then also appeared in a Polish anthology, Steps Into the Unknown — the first time my fiction was published in translation.  So, all that research really did pay off!

Page last updated: 2 September 2015