Monday, August 24, 2009

Italian Lessons

Seeing Michelangelo's David and his unfinished Captive Slaves at the Accademia on Saturday made me think of this little scene in my (alas) unpublished novel, Italian Lessons:

They made their way through the crowded streets to the Accademia, where the line stretched the length of the building and around the corner. It moved steadily, though—and there was good people-watching to pass the time. Young lovers, rambunctious clusters of college students; families with bored, impatient children; married couples leafing through their guidebooks; middle-aged women, like themselves. Near the entrance to the museum, there was a mime draped in white muslin, with a white muslin headdress and white makeup on her face and hands. She stood perfectly still on a low white base, infinitesimally moving her head or a hand each time someone threw a coin into the hat offered by her assistant.

Once inside the museum, they had to thread their way through a crowd of people to see the David, which stood, gleaming, at the end of a long gallery. He had been placed high on his marble pedestal, surrounded by a wrought iron barrier that made him safe from the touch of careless tourists who would have worn him away, given the chance. Five American girls, blond, giggling, leaned against the barrier, and a man they had pressed into service stepped back to snap photographs with each of the five cameras that his wife handed him, smiling. When he’d finished and handed the cameras back to them, the girls moved on, never turning to look at the sculpture. Instantly, a group of Japanese tourists took their place. The repeated clicking of shutters was audible; people walked slowly around the sculpture, their video cameras capturing it
from each angle.

Lucy and Isabel stood and looked at him a long time, circled round to see him from every angle. Light fell from the domed ceiling, casting parts of him into shadow, making other parts of him gleam. The marble was so white, whiter than any marble Lucy had ever seen.

“He’s such a boy,” Isabel said finally. “His hand, it’s like my boys’ hands. God, and did he get it: the way boys stand, the way they are their bodies at that age. I don’t care what the copy looks like in the Piazza Whatever. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”

Lucy agreed. But what she loved best were the Captives, four figures for the Julius tomb that Michelangelo had begun and abandoned. They were nothing like the David. The most nearly finished of them was bearded, his eyes closed, his head bent with the weight of the stone still upon it; his raised arm strained to lift it away, but it was only half made. There was no hand at all, just rough, pitted marble.

This was a middle-aged body, fit, but thickening in the torso and waist. Not glorious, like David’s. Hard work, the kind of brute force this man exerted now against the stone had made it strong, and, looking at him, Lucy couldn’t help thinking that, even if he were real and free, the world would not make an easy place for him.
The David seemed to have appeared in the universe by some miracle of birth, she thought, bearing no visible evidence of his creator’s hand upon him. But in these unfinished figures, you saw the stuff of the earth from which they were made, the mark of the chisel, the way the artist worked his way through parallel planes of marble in search of the figure deep what each of us might be, strains and goes weary captured, bound by the limits of what real life brings.

The cares of the morning fell away, and it seemed to Lucy that even if she saw nothingelse the whole time she was in Italy, even if life with Delia, Sydney, and Eileen in the next days continued to bring forth every doubt she’d ever had about herself, the trip would have been worth taking because it had brought her to this place.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Florence: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

(Not necessarily in that order.)

My daughter Jenny and I arrived in Florence Friday evening and we've pretty much been walking nonstop since then. We started at the Baptistry, where I was amused by this happy trio above
one set of the Ghiberti doors..

At the Accademia, we saw Michelangelo's David and his amazing unfinished sculptures that look like they are bursting out of the marble--with Robert Mapplethorpe photographs displayed near many of them, which looked like sculptures themselves. Then on to San Marco, one of my favorite places in the world, with its beautiful Fra Angelicos and the monks quarters above, a fresco in each tiny cell and Savonorola's own personal cell complete with desk and hair shirt. Afterwards, we climbed (seriously climbed) to the cupola of Brunellschi's dome for the view--both into the dome and out over the city.

We saw the Giottos at Santa Croce--and the Cimabue crucifix that had been damaged during the 1966 flood. But my favorite was this annoyed-looking adolescent angel, just a detail from a larger painting. (In which she's holding Mary's foot. I mean, who wouldn't be annoyed?)

Modern art can be fun, too. We saw these in a gallery, meandering through the city.

Things got really crazy in the evening! As we neared the Ponte Vecchio, these "newly-weds" strolled into the street...

With their beautiful baby. Yikes!

Shortly followed Hare Krishnas singing and chanting and wheeling around.

And, finally, this amazing sunset.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Feast of the Assumption

Saturday was the Feast of the Assumption: more bells than usual, the Basilica closed to tourists for two hours during mass, a true feast at the Hotel Giotto and--

Monks and nuns partying. No lie. We went for our passagelato after dinner and, meandering back to the hotel enjoying our pink grapefruit gelato, we followed the sound of rock n roll and voices to a little church. Next to it, down a passageway packed with parked cars, there was a lit courtyard full of people of all ages...dancing. It was a live band, the kind that gets hired for weddings--not very good, but who cares because the party is what it's all about.

The song that drew us there ended. A voice cried out, "Let's twist!"

The nuns (in their long black habits and their starched white wimples) and the monks (in their brown St. Francis robes) got down. They twisted (with vigor).

And did the tango.

Then they formed formed a conga line.

Who'd have thought?

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Years ago, in a difficult time, I spent an unscheduled hour or so at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where a Canaletto caught my eye. I’d seen it many times before, but never really looked at it. So I stopped and…looked.

The more I looked, the more intrigued I became by some kind of tension that I felt but could not explain. I had (and still have) no formal training in art, and assumed that was why I didn’t understand it. I put “Learn about Canaletto” the long list of things I wanted to do when my life returned to normal. Meanwhile, I spent the time I had standing in front of the painting jotting down things I noticed about it.

Months later in the art library, reading about Canaletto, I was astonished to realize that the observations I’d made pretty much mirrored those in the art history books. It was one of those turning point moments for me: suddenly, I understood that I could trust my own eye. If I looked hard enough and objectively enough, I would see what was important about a work of art.

This insight mattered so much to me for a lot of reasons—not the least of which was that I am not an academic person and am often intimidated in academic settings, where people talk about beautiful, heart-stopping works of art in technical language that I don’t understand and that doesn’t address or even acknowledge the intensity of beauty and emotion that makes it worth talking about. Nor, except in very technical terms, does it address how the work of art is made.

Seeing the Canaletto gave me permission to trust my eye. It also gave me permission to look at paintings in a variety of ways. Once I did a jigsaw puzzle of a Vermeer I loved—which made me realize how much of it was not blue. For two summers at Art Workshop International, I made playful paintings out of the Byzantine hats in Piero della Fancesca’s Arezzo Cycle.

My painting challenge to myself during these two weeks in Assisi has been to look at some of the Piero’s paintings by way of painting them myself, Not really painting them. I mean, I know I’m not Piero and never could be. But isolating some aspect of their architecture to consider.

I traced the Madonna della Misericordia, then painted only the shapes, trying as well as I could to replicate the color values—and I got this.

It showed me the rhythm of the penitents, which was good, but not enough. I needed to push the painting to learn the next thing, but I didn’t know how.

So I let it sit and moved on to paint the shapes of St. Augustin, and let it teach me—

About the painting itself, which had more black in it than I would have thought. And about myself. Who knew I could have painted the detail into the scarf as well as I did! (Especially that little painting in the left bottom square. I am really quite happy about that.)

Anyway. That black I learned from St. made me look at the Madonna in a new way. I went back at her and darkened everything, I made a kind of haze with black and white pastels. I used yellow-gold pastel to give the blue behind her some texture and design. And at the end of the day, when I stepped back and looked, she felt more like the real Madonna della Misericordia. Well, to me.
I’ll never capture her, of course. Ever. No matter how hard and well I look. No matter how well I might learn how to paint.

It’s the Catch-22 of any work of art, after all. The more you look, the more intelligence you bring to that looking only makes you realize that its deepest meaning is and always will be a mystery. Which is exactly as it should be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Giotto Blue

One of the many pleasures of being in Assisi for Art Workshop International is that I can look at Giotto’s fresco cycle about St. Francis’s life any time I want. Sometimes I look at them—that is, I sit in a pew for a while and look, look, look, look, look. Sometimes I just take a turn through the Basilica on my way to someplace else. It’s the color that draws me back to them, and there is particular quality of blue-green that I love

Wednesday—along with my walking pal extraordinaire, SJ Rozan—I hiked an hour-and-a-half straight up Mt. Subasio to the Hermitage, St. Francis’s retreat. The cave-like dwelling is set into dense forest, and there’s a narrow, winding path that leads down from it to the grottos where the monks went to meditate and pray.

As we walked, we began to notice crosses everywhere we looked. Made from twigs and branches, tied together with everything from bits of plastic bags to ponytail holders to leaf stems and twine, they had been placed on ledges and boulders and in the hollows of trees.

But the really amazing thing was that, as we went deeper into the forest, it became the blue-green in the frescoes. Eight hundred years ago, Giotto had walked the path we were walking; he saw the blue-green we saw.

I imagine him returning to the Hermitage again and again during the years he was at work at the frescoes, descending to the grottos to stand in the silent, working out the problem of that blue-green in his mind. Probably thinking, I’ll never be able to capture this.

But he did.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Seatmate Vinnie

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking up the street (you’re always walking up some street in Assisi) on my way back to the Hotel Giotto with a stash treats I’d bought from the little grocery store nearby, when I looked up and saw a bunch of people at the edge of the parking lot laughing and pointing at me—one with his index fingers cocked like two guns.

“Stick ‘em up,” he said.

I was totally disoriented for about two seconds and then I realized it was Vinnie, my seatmate on the flight to Rome. Along with his wife, Melanie; his mom, Ida; and his son, Mario.

Vinnie and had chatted about a million different things during the flight—including the fact that his wife really wanted to go to Assisi while they were in Italy. “You should take her!” I said, in my usual bossy fashion. We figured out there was a good chance it was more or less on the way to where they were going to visit family after a few days in Rome, so I said, “You should stop and spend the night—and I know just where you should stay, too. The Hotel Giotto!”

And darned if they didn’t take my advice.

Even aside from the fact that I love it when people take my advice, I was truly happy to see them. I sent them down to the Basilica, where (they reported to me at breakfast this morning) they spent several happy hours. They were heading out to explore the town until it was time to leave on the next leg of their trip, but before they left I took them on a tour of the studio so they could meet some of the painters here and see their works-in-process. Then, of course, we had to take some pictures.

“Only connect,” E.M. Forster said.

And this delightful chance connection with Vinnie that played out in Assisi made me think (again) that he was right.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Eight Accordians, Red Rover, Pompelmo Rosso and the Bell Tower of San Pietro

Here is the view from my window in Assisi. I got here for Art Workshop International on Wednesday—the good news/bad news of the trip being that I missed my 5:00 p.m. connection at JFK because of bad weather in Indianapolis and had to take the 7:20 flight—on which I was bumped up to first class.

(I know why they put the curtain between first class and coach: they don’t want the peons to see how much different it is—champagne and little dishes of mixed nuts, nifty little traveler packs with cozy socks and sleep masks. Not to mention miniature quilts and real pillows.)

However, when I got to Rome and found myself the one and only person watching two bags go around and around on the luggage carousel I had to face the fact that my luggage had not come along on the trip. That was Wednesday morning. It’s Friday night here, and my luggage is allegedly being delivered tomorrow morning. The amazing thing is that I totally did not freak out about this. I had packed enough to get by for a few days, and I have. The truth is, just a few more things and I’d have been fine for the whole time I’m gone.

I feel like this has been an excellent lesson for me. But I also know that the next time I travel, I’ll probably still start throwing all kinds of stuff in the suitcase at the last minute—just in case. It is my great flaw as a traveler.

I’m great on wonder, though. Everything here astonishes me.

Last night, after a fabulous dinner on the terrace at the Hotel Giotto, a bunch of us walked up to hear a student concert, which would have been wonderful even without the accordion octet. Yes. Eight accordions playing Piazzolla’s “Libertango.”

Afterwards, we walked on up to the piazza outside Santa Chiara, where a bunch of Italian kids were playing what looked a lot like “Red Rover.”

And on to the only gelato place in town that has my absolute favorite: pink grapefruit. Pompelmo rosso. Saying it is half the pleasure. (Alas, the only pleasure last night, since they were closing down and had already put the pompelmo rosso away. I had limone instead—an excellent substitute.)

Then to sleep, the lit bell tower of San Pietro framed by my window.