Monday, August 25, 2008

Blue Butterfly

One of the weird and wonderful things about travel is what I think most about when you come home. It always surprises me. Having lived nearly three weeks in Assisi, where seeing the Giotto’s magnificent frescoes was a simple matter of strolling down the street to the Basilica of St. Francis (which I did countless times), what I can’t get out of my mind is a blue butterfly that I saw when I took a walk to the Rocco Minore one day.

The walk was, predictably, up. I followed a tree-lined path, delighting in the view of silvery olive trees to my right as I went. The Rocco Minore was blocked off by orange construction fencing, but I could still climb around the edge of it well enough to see the spectacular view promised by the other walkers in our group.

I had the vague idea (wrong, as it turned out) that if I kept following the path up, I would eventually get to the Hermitage, another of the many St. Francis “sites” in the Assisi area. But when I’d walked about twenty minutes and came to a fork in the rocky path, neither option seeming more or less likely to be the way to the Hermitage, I decided I’d turn back—after a long drink of water and a little rest. I sat down on the path, taking note of my surroundings: blue and yellow wildflowers, butterflies dancing over them; the whine of cicadas; the scent of pine; and, through the trees, a glimpse of the green and yellow patchwork of fields in the valley far below. It occurred to me that this was the kind of path people must have walked all the time during the Renaissance, maybe leading a mule laden with their belongings. Piero himself walked such paths in his travels through Umbria, and surely stopped to rest in shady spots like the one I’d found.

I sat a long while, daydreaming, and in a while the butterflies that flew away when I first sat down began to return and settle on the flowers near me. They were small, with intricate brown markings that reminded me of Oriental rugs—so close, so still that I could capture them in the lens of my camera. There were Madonna-blue butterflies, too, but they wouldn’t light—or so I thought, until one of the brown butterflies opened its wings to lift off and I saw that the insides of its wings were blue. (Look closely, you can see just a slice of it.)

The brown butterflies were the blue butterflies. This seemed to me like a secret revealed.

Home since Thursday, it’s the blue butterfly that stays in my mind. It’s what I want to tell people about when they ask, “How was your trip?”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Piero's Hats

What I have been doing for the past week or so here in Assisi is painting hats. Piero della Francesca’s hats, that is—beautiful Byzantine hats, mostly from “The Legend of the True Cross,” his fresco cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Not much is known of the artist’s life, which is part of what makes him so interesting to me, so ripe for puzzling over and imagining. Born in 1411 or 1412, Piero grew up in San Sepolcro in obscurity, (probably) the oldest son of Benedetto, who set his sights high and made it to the middle class from his beginnings as a leather worker. He couldn’t have been happy when his son decided to forego the family business to be craftsman, a painter.

It isn’t known who Piero’s teacher was, or when he finished the necessary apprenticeship—just that he worked as a painter of banners and candle shafts in the early 1430’s and with the regional painter, Antonio d’Anghiari, on an altarpiece for the church of San Francesco that was never completed. He shows up in Florence in 1439, working with Domenico Veziano on frescoes at S. Egidio that are now lost.

1439 is also when he would have seen the hats. John VIII Palaeologus, Eastern Emporor, and his retinue had come to Italy the year before to take part in a council that was debating the union of the eastern and western Christian churches. In 1439 the council moved to Florence, where a religious accord between the churches was ratified on July 6, at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiori. There were processions and celebrations; almost certainly Piero was among the crowd that saw John VIII and his retinue in their exotic costumes.

I imagine him, a dreamer, standing on the cobblestones as a procession passed by, marveling at the fabulous hats, taking them in to the swirl of stuff in his head, the way artists do, where they floated around along with madonnas and flagellants, memories, faces, the geometry of the city of his childhood, paintings he had loved—bits of Sassetta pink, Fra Angelico blue, the quiet of a Tuscan morning, the view to the hills from Porta Libera near his family home…until they emerged from his brush years later, as he worked on the frescoes in Arezzo.

Just as I took in his fabulous hats the first time I saw the frescoes and they entered the swirl of stuff in my head.

I’ve read dozens of books and articles on about Piero’s work and his life, often repeatedly, trying to find the key to what I want to write and how he’ll figure in it. I’ve traveled to see his paintings in San Sepolcro, Monterchi, Arezzo, Urbino, Perugia, Rimini, Florence, Venice, Milan, London, Paris, and New York. I’ve walked the streets of his hometown. But painting the hats is what has made me feel closest to what I believe must have been the essence of him and what I think has coaxed the ghosts of characters in my head begin to speak.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Looking For Piero

One day last week, I took the bus down to Santa Maria degli Angeli and caught the train to Perugia, where I changed to the local train that took me San Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca’s hometown. I walked along the city wall on a street lined with Linden trees and entered at Porta del Ponte, then made my way by trial and error to what was, in Piero’s time, the Piazza Communale, once the industrial center of town (now the Piazza Torre de Berta, with kids on bikes and skate boards). It seemed cosmic that the first thing I came upon, walking out of it was the arched entrance to the Camaldolese monks’ quarters where Piero is buried.

I stepped up in to a cool, dim arcade lined with fragments of frescoes from the life of San Benedetto, who founded the order, and walked where Piero undoubtedly walked countless times on his way to visit his brother, Francesco, who served as the abbot there for a time. At the end of the arcade, down a corridor on the right, was a door to the monks quarters and another one to the Capella di San Leonardo o Monocato, which houses Piero’s tomb. Locked, alas, but I stood there a long time and breathed in his presence.

This is my favorite part of writing about history: being in the place where it happened— especially when it is a real person’s life I am writing about. Walking the streets Piero walked, standing where he stood, seeing what he saw, it is as if I can almost be him—for fleeting moments.

There is his family home, from which I suddenly realize he could see the steeple of the church of S. Francesco. He could walk to the church in less than five minutes, passing the Roman fountain from which I filled my water bottle. Or turn left instead of right and go through the Porta Pretorio to what was then the Abbey. Walking maybe seven minutes in the opposite direction from his house, jogging left then right he’d have reached the Confraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia, now, sadly, in total disrepair.

I wonder what he’d have thought of the park nearby named in his honor with a statue of him, palette in hand, looking right down Via Piero della Francesco. This street was Via Borgo Nuovo in his time. It led past his school to Graziani Crossing at Via Maestro, where San Sepolcro’s wealthiest, most powerful families lived. Looking up and down the street, you can still see can still see the palazzos they lived in, with their fabulous doors. Most are apartments now, with businesses beneath—everything from gelato to lingerie to real estate.

I walked more than four hours, looking, thinking, imagining, snapping photos of anything that caught my eye—highlighting the streets on my map to remind me where I’d been. I’d forgotten that the museum and churches would be closed all afternoon, so there was nothing to do but walk—which wasn’t such a bad thing, after all. I felt like a pilgrim, which I was.

Near the end of the day, I sat on the steps of S. Giovanni Battista, waiting for it to open so that I could see where Piero’s “Nativity” had once been. I was hot and thirsty; my feet were killing me. Then I glanced up at the blue sky, floating with clouds just like the ones in the painting, and time fell away. It didn’t seem a stretch at all to believe that Piero himself glanced up and saw them as he stepped into the church, adding them to his vision of what the work would be.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gelato to Accordians

Last night after dinner, I walked up to get pink grapefruit gelato with S.J. & Lola. (This after a dessert made, essentially, of cream.) But the pink grapefruit gelato is wonderful—it tastes exactly like pink grapefruit, with just the right amount of sugar. Pampelmo Rosso. It is even good to say.

We walked up toward the Piazza Communale, eating our coni piccoli, stopping at shop windows to look at what was on offer: giant meringue shaped like hamburger buns, some striped with chocolate; linens, brightly colored leather sandals, ceramics, jewelry. The usual tacky souvenirs: San Francesco crosses, San Francesco statues, San Francesco rosaries, San Francesco fans (it’s beastly hot here.) The winning juxtaposition of goods was a stack of alarming-looking toy pistols displayed next to cheerful little San Francesco figurines dressed in the traditional brown robe tied with a cord, and sandals peeking out at the bottom.

The irony of Assisi is sometimes astounding. You can’t help but think San Francesco would be aghast if he came back to his hometown. All this stuff.

We walked on up the crowded street into the Piazza Communale, where there were people everywhere enjoying the cool evening air—lots with gelato themselves. Near the fountain, we found some others from the workshop. They’d been looking for an outdoor concert,concluded that it had been canceled, and were considering gelato to take the edge off of their disappointment. Any excuse for gelato! Sometimes I just like to look at it—all the beautiful flavors lined up like blocks of watercolor.

By this time it was nearly 10:30, most of the shops still open and the streets still packed with people. I saw a little girl sitting on her grandma’s lap outside a shop wearing black and white striped tights that I loved. There was a guy talking on a public telephone, his bicycle propped on the wall beside him; countless others talking on their cell phones. There were young couples, kissing; older couples holding hands. Monks strolling along, chatting.

Winding back toward the Hotel Giotto through narrow streets that feel like canyons at night, we heard a soprano voice and soon came upon the deconsecrated church where we’d attended a concert the night before—students from a summer music program in the town—a plethora of clarinets, two cellos, and three magnificent vocal pieces. We peeked in the door and saw one of the vocalists from the night before, Eduardo Manetti, came onto the makeshift stage (once the altar) and sang an aria from “Rigoletto” in his beautiful tenor voice.

Then an accordion sextet. (Yes, six accordions!) How could we not stay for that? I had no idea what I was listening to, but it was lively and (even I could tell) very difficult to play. The best part was how they became the music, how they so clearly loved those cumbersome instruments that went out of fashion years ago. As we left, near midnight, music followed us down through the street.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Assisi Redux

Okay. I said I was going to blog during my time in Assisi, so here I am—just about a week after the fact. So far I’ve been too busy being happy to think about anything else. But I said I was going to blog, I want to blog, so…

I arrived at the Rome airport late last Sunday morning, caught the train from Rome, dozing on and off until Assisi appeared high above me, framed by the window. I wrestled my luggage down to the platform, and pondered whether I should pay fifteen Euros (about $25) for a taxi up to the city or take the bus for a Euro and a half (about $3)…then drag said luggage up two hills to the Hotel Giotto. Feeling intrepid, I headed for the bus. Standing room only! At least I didn’t have to worry about my luggage tipping over. There was no place for it to go.

The hills were…serious. Not to mention the luggage. There was the big rolling suitcase (51 pounds), the smaller rolling suitcase, with computer, books, and everything else I figured I’d absolutely have to have if the big suitcase got lost. So it was pretty heavy, too. Then there was the backpack. And the fact that it was, maybe ninety degrees out. It was slow going. Walk, stop, heart pounding; walk, stop, heart pounding. Switch hands. Walk, stop, heart pounding. Finally, I dragged my luggage up the few steps of the Hotel Giotto, opened the door to the cool lobby—and there it all was…again.

(For a little background on my first experience at Art Workshop International this time last year see blog post “Assisi,” 3-23-08. For now, it’s enough to say that it was wonderful, and I really wanted to come back—but I was a little afraid to come back, too. I mean, can something be perfect twice? It can, actually. At least, so far.)


I have the same cozy room I had last year. The minute I closed the door behind me, I went to the window, and here’s what I saw.

Could anything be more inviting? Wouldn’t you just love to float down into that little cloistered garden with its pillars and cypresses and have a glass of wine?

I turned slightly, and there was a view of the bell tower of San Pietro and its round cupola, the whole valley stretching to the mountains beyond.

I took a walk through the city, down to the church of Santa Chiara for good luck, since it was there that I saw her cloak and one of San Francesco’s and began to understand what it was like to have a visual idea. I sat awhile in the sunny piazza, breathing in Italy. Then headed up through the Piazza Communale, and down again toward the Basilica of San Francesco, stopping for a lemon gelato on the way. There were the Giottos in the Upper Basilica, just where I had left them last August. And the most beautiful of S. Francesco’s cloaks, the one I painted last year, in its glass case in the room of the saint’s relics. The Lower Basilica, dimly lit, every surface frescoed so that it seems as if you’re walking through a dream.

Later, there was dinner on the terrace—the sky turning pink, a fingernail clipping of moon appearing.

And then I slept.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Plate

I think it came from Canada: a rectangular china plate, hand-painted with pink and blue cornflowers, edged in gold. I remember it from the house on Garfield Street, where we lived from the time I was five until I was nine. I see the dining room of that house, but where the plate was kept in that room, I can’t remember—if it was even kept there at all. I remember looking at the plate, though: the way I felt filled up looking at it, believing one day it would be mine. When or how it was broken is something else I don’t remember, just that terrible sense of something done that can’t be undone—and feeling cheated and angry, as if something had been stolen from me. One beautiful thing, the only beautiful thing in our house and now it was gone.

Years later, I’m in Chicago, visiting an eccentric woman who befriended me at a writers’ conference. It’s the early Eighties, and she’s heavily into the various spiritual opportunities currently on offer: mantras, meditation, rapture workshops, connecting with prior lives.

“We’ve got to do the float tank,” she said the minute I arrived. She had an ecstatic experience when she floated a few weeks before, she told me, emerging as if into a whole new world pulsing with color, shot through with light. She wrote madly for days afterwards, visions she had in the tank tumbling on to the page.

The same thing will happen to me, she says. She’s certain of it.

The float tank place is in a strip of storefronts in a seedy Chicago neighborhood, the El clattering above it. There’s a desk at the entrance, tended by a Zen-like guy, who gives us some basic instructions then directs us through beaded curtains to our separate rooms, where we will each climb into our coffin-like tank, pull the top down over us, and float in eighteen inches of saline solution, in utter darkness for an hour.

“It’s black, black, black, black, black,” my friend says, as we part. Then, suddenly, it’s like your mind becomes a movie screen.”

I climb in. Wait.

There will probably be a moment of panic, the attendant warned. There is. I breathe deeply, as he suggested. Then all the tension in my body rushes to the base of my neck, and I can’t get comfortable, can’t trust the water to hold me. I keep breathing. I play the little mind game I play sometimes when I can’t sleep, starting with “A” and going through the alphabet, letting a word float up for each letter, surprising myself by the patterns my mind seems determined to make.

No images come, nothing the least bit ecstatic is happening. Am I doing this wrong?

Tentatively, I stretch my arms and legs to find the edges of the tank, I make a kind of fish-like move to let the soft, slick water slosh over my body, and finally I start to calm down. The stillness surrounding me starts to feel good. I like the way I can’t quite tell where my body ends and the water begins. The way odd memories float up and dissolve.

Then, suddenly, the plate appears as real as anything, touchable, in my mind’s eye: the pink and blue cornflowers, each edged in gold, each with a raised gold dot at its center. The paint is laid on unevenly, some of the cornflowers thick with it, others nearly translucent. I can see the drag of the painter’s brush in the gold paint along the plate’s perimeter.

I look and look, drink it in as I did as a child, marveling, full of joy—until a crack appears at the top of it. I watch it move in slow motion down through the center, watch the plate split cleanly in two, dissolving into darkness.

I feel punched by grief. For days afterwards, at the most unlikely times, the image of the plate breaking appears in my mind’s eye and overwhelms me all over again. Like my friend, I’ve come from the float tank into a different world, but mine is one in which even the smallest things seem unbearably sad.

Years pass again. I am in San Sepolcro, Italy, standing before Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna della Misericordia Altapiece,” paralyzed by the disconcerting mix of happiness and longing I feel. I’ve been studying Piero for months now, but I can’t remember a single thing I know about the painting. I feel drunk by the color. The Madonna’s pink gown glows. She’s monumental against the hammered gold background, gazing down through heavily lidded eyes upon the penitents crowding at her feet. The pink of her gown is repeated in their capes and gowns and collars. It accents the blue gown of the woman kneeling closest to her.

It appears again and again throughout the altarpiece, in the robe thrown over the shoulder of John the Baptist to the right of her, and in the book held by the saint at his left and in the garment draped over his arm. It’s there in the smaller annunciate angel above her. His lips are parted slightly, as if whispering. He’s in profile against that same gold background, his right hand raised to gain attention, his back foot arched, pitching him into forward motion. His blue gown blouses beautifully at the waist, where it’s held by a slash of pink. He has pink shoes, too, and a pink headband holds back his hair. Across from him, on the other side of the crucified Christ, Mary leans ever so slightly toward him, her right hand emerging from her blue cape to press, fingers splayed, against the drenched pink of her dress.

The colors shimmer: blue and pink and gold.

The colors of the cornflower plate.

Once I realize this, I see them everywhere along the Piero Trail. In Pilate’s pink tunic in “The Flagellation,” in the Madonna’s pink gown, the angel’s blue blouse in the annunciation panel of the Perugia altarpiece, in the Arezzo cycle’s marvelous Byzantine hats.

I am flooded with happiness at this sudden understanding. No wonder I am in love with these paintings, I think. No wonder I want to drink them in, to memorize them against that old loss I only half remember. I appreciate the genius behind the paintings, of course: the elegance of the architecture, how the power of color sits in balance with it, the control Piero brought to the craft. But what they bring me near tears to contemplate is, ultimately, myself.