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Joan Bakewell

Inspired by The Dream of St Ursula, by Carpaccio.

Carpaccio's Dream of St Ursula, 1495.



I enjoy my bed, in my room: sometimes I can't tell whether I'm asleep or not. In the strange world between, she keeps coming to me. The door flies open and suddenly there's a rush of air. And she's there: is she an angel? Are angels 'she' ? She's certainly welcome, even though I'm not used to expecting her. Oh, yes, do come in.

I'm glad to see her whoever she is. I have had a hard day of it. Not in the sense of hard labour, like the market women, on the fish stalls beyond Rialto Bridge. Their hands all red, scuffed from the scales of the fish, No, my hands are smooth and white: from being washed in urine as we ladies do. I'm a lady now. But the days are still hard to bear.

I enjoyed being young in Venice. My parents weren't rich but they doted. I was their only child, and though I was only a girl, they still doted. And I grew strong and happy. The city was full of visitors, there was music, parties, fancy clothes, masks: I had a dress of gold tissue and shoes of pale kid. Even though I was chaperoned I got around a good bit. The young men were handsome. One day we would all have to marry. But not yet.

Oh, here she is, standing tall at the door. Swaying in the perfumed air. The perfume she brings with her. She reminds me of the days of my youth.


The tourists go up and down the Rialto Bridge, just to see the view from the top. They bring colour and noise, laughter and cameras. They visit the paintings in the Accademia; they fall silent and try to make sense of the stories. They don't know that I am the model for St Ursula.


I wanted to be like Cassandra - She's a real person, not an imagined saint. She is famous even beyond Venice. She has a monk as tutor, and has made speeches in latin which people admire. They say she's a prodigy: she was allowed to speak to the senate of Venice: She was just 22 at the time: she spoke about the education of women - the education she has had. I admire her: She piles her hair stylishly on top of her head. At least I can try and be like her when I coil my hair.

I've been a lady since my marriage. That was planned by my parents: Carlo's family had connections with the Doge's council. We got favours. A fine house on the Grand Canal far better than my family home. Marrying Carlo meant I was well provided for - a cushioned life you could call it. Yes, the house on the Grand Canal had cushions, and velvet curtains, tall goblets of gilded Murano glass. It was what I wanted: what I thought I would enjoy.

But sometimes there are murders: behind walls or in churches. People get killed. Martyred. It happens in Venice, around the Doge's palace mostly. Rivals for power. Carlo isn't caught up in all that. Not directly. He imports spices and silks from the east: there are lots of merchants: he is middling successful but wants to be more so. It makes him surly.


How old are angels - do angels even have an age? Floating in the doorway she looks about twenty years old. Aren't they eternal? Eternally 20 years old. You need to be young to be noticed.


I was noticed by this artist. One day he asked me along to his studios with big canvases against the walls. One on an easel. He had met Carlo when he was buying rare colours for his paintings: a particular blue, he needed. It comes from the east. Carlo agreed I could model: he thinks it will bring him influential friends. But I doubt it. I thought I might meet Cassandra, - artists meet all sorts of clever people. But it didn't happen.

What has happened is altogether different. Carlo and I, we've been married 20 years. All that time he's waited for a son. I'm sad I haven't been able to give him a child. He's very disappointed. He stopped coming into my bed: I hear from gossip in the market that he goes with other women. Many men do: and their wives expect it. I didn't mind - he bought me velvet gowns instead. But I need more consolation than that: I need comfort for myself.

I met this other painter at the studio He has dark eyes and graceful limbs: at first we only met to talk. But in the summer heat and rooms of cushions and silken sheets we soon tumbled together. Rules are different for women: families don't like it to be known. So we have to meet in secret. We've been doing that for some five months now.


How lovely she looks in the doorway: a celestial figure .... perhaps a visitation. Why has she chosen to come to my door? I wonder how she keeps her wings so clean. I wish she would tell me.


I take to my bed in the afternoons. I missed the carnival. I was glad to be away from all the whirl and laughter. My high spirits have deserted me: I've begun to think there's something wrong. Not wrong exactly. I have stopped bleeding each month. I am thinking about this as she leans in through the doorway. The palm in her hand reminds me ... yes I've seen her in paintings, of course I have, I remember now. She's always there to bring a message, a message called 'Good tidings'. Could that be her message to me? A message in a dream? Perhaps it is. And if it is ...

if I have a girl, I shall call her Cassandra.


Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Number 154,
Spring 2022.

RA Magazine, Spring 2022.

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