Cool, dry air slips under my bedroom door.
Daylight cracks through the blinds.
Coffee beans whir, their smooth rounded perfection perfunctorily set in motion at 7 AM.
But I remain motionless.
The timber planks that buttress the eaves above -- which normally seem so lofty and infinite -- loom closer, enveloping and constricting, like bars on an inmate’s cell.
I grope for yesterday’s paper on the bedside table, smooth out the wrinkles creased from the back pocket where I’d tucked it the day before, and settle back, propped up against a pillow.
I immerse myself.
As one mimics the way their parents hold their knife and fork or butter their bread, I find myself reading the Rome Times cover to cover like my father had -- a quick skim of the headlines, followed by a first, sometimes second, read of the editorials. However, our line of demarcation cut deeply: he read the conservative base, and I read those who very much – oh so very much – were not.
It was a line that only began with the editorial page; it was a daily tug-of-war. When I was in high school, it had defined who sat where in the car, what books lined the bookshelves, and who was invited for dinner (and even where they would sit).
I’m appalled by all of this. But the tastes and smells of those days are coming back to me vividly now because of a curious encounter I had last night as I was poring through the headlines.
The editorial appeared under a stark headline on page nine in the Friday arts section -- a slice of the editorial division which had been, for the last several years, ablaze with the fiery tone of art critic Hermina Jorgensen. While other newspapers offered positive reviews of visiting exhibits at local art museums, the Times column invited debate, hoping to ignite heated scrimmaging between readers and editor.
It was for these reasons that the Friday arts column was the most highly read section of the paper. Hermina Jorgensen drew the readers in by the masses. She challenged their knowledge and integrity -- and sometimes even their existence. (She once accused a fellow critic of writing in under a pseudonym just so he could challenge her knowledge of Modigliani. He postulated that since she was not Italian, she had no authority “postulating” about Italian art.) She had created a cult following, with the most dedicated followers being, ironically, her harshest critics.
The Times art column was considered almost strikingly adversarial, even. Some said it was because Jorgensen was the paper’s first female art critic in an industry predominated by men and her overly defensive tone about her work had nearly reached the point where her impulsive, explosive hand undermined her credibility. So, while it was not so hard to believe that she had not made many friends since coming from Finland to teach a course at the University of Rome and to take on the editorial position at the Times, her popularity at dinner parties was overwhelming. Over glasses of Sangiovese and rounds of herbed Parmesan Hors d´œuvres, everybody wanted a piece of her fiery tongue.
And so it was Hermina’s editorial that had drawn me in last night. But it was not because I was lured by her flagrant, absorbing introspective. It was because she oppugned on a subject about which I am hauntingly familiar.
Now, as I rub the sleep out of my eyes, I recall being abruptly shaken to consciousness in the middle of the night by her commentary that had come back to me vividly in a hostile, hovering nightmare. I lean my head back and recall how only a few hours ago my imagination had run wild:
I am in a museum with hushed white walls and gleaming floors. I look up, far up at a painting with gold scrolls carved in its frame -- the subject matter I can’t quite make out -- but the colors seem to morph before my eyes. The black melts into blue, which inks into purple, shimmering reds, and burnt umber.
Suddenly, a docent’s steps echo in another gallery, then his form appears in the doorway. His footsteps echo louder as he approaches the center of the room where I stand bracing myself, looking around for some sort of object as defense. The ricochet ends as the feet come to a stop in front of the morphing painting that rises up along the wall, just inches from my body. A rancid heat blows from some unidentifiable source. It is overwhelming.
The man turns from the painting to look at me. My body is rigid. The man’s temple flares. I can make out a taut cheekbone and severe eyebrows, but I can’t put it all together in a drawn face.
The man’s mouth contorts as his jaw tenses, his lips purse. Not a sound comes out. Apart from his mouth and throbbing temple, nothing stirs. The docent’s glasses reflect the piercing glare of a light coming from some unknown place; it almost blinds me as I stare back at him.
Not a sound is uttered in the room, empty but for this ephemeral, undulating canvas and this man with the cavernous mouth, scalding breath, and starched dark suit. My ears sear from the silent inquisition.
I know the silent words. I had heard them before.
I open my eyes. I fumble for my glasses on the side table.
My hand tremors, knocking the glasses to the floor under the bed, far out of reach. I splash my face with the dregs of water from a tumbler. I sit a moment to collect myself.
Maybe if I reread the article now, in the daylight, the haunting images seared into my mind would forever recede.
I pick up the paper and hold it close to my face to absorb the lines of the far left column of page nine. “Baroque and Art Nouveau: Mirror Images Separated by the Centuries?” I feel my head move like a typewriter return.
"In March 1898, Adolphe Retté attributed the advent of the Art Nouveau movement to artists´ spiritual anxiety around that time. Yet, he could have been equally describing the advent of a liberal faction of the Baroque period, and most specifically with Caravaggio, given his extreme spiritual anxiety (he practiced a most scurrilous lifestyle). With his powerful use of shadow and chiaroscuro, Caravaggio created an almost choreographed drama with the subject that broke with the tradition of piety, innocence, and deference to a higher being prevalent in most Baroque paintings. A singular work that defines this anxiety is the wildly provocative Beheading of St John the Baptist, which is housed in the Oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St John, Valletta, Malta. Having never before signed his name to a painting, Caravaggio inscribed it in the ´blood´ that seeped from St John´s severed neck.
But let me further explain.
Baroque, which emerged from 17th century Mannerism, was a dramatic visual interpretation of classical language. The period was based on dynamic manipulation and exaggeration of classical form. However, under the guise of a movement that was attuned to the delicate and sensuous portrayal of the human form with emphasis placed in asymmetry, gentility and natural form, Caravaggio was a renegade -- he pushed the limits even farther as he used street urchins as models to represent the body of Christ, and street whores with soiled feet as the face of Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, as the movement was embraced by wealthy landowners and owning such pieces of religious art may have served redemptive purposes, Caravaggio’s works flourished.
Fast forward to the fin-de-siècle of the 20th: Art Nouveau designers exploring the “long, sensitive, sinuous linear form that reminds us of seaweed or of creeping plants” turned to elements of the Baroque and Rococo and mimicked neo-Baroque designs in the extrovert curves of architecture such as Charles Garner’s Paris Opera House and the Palais de Justice. The swollen vitality in Antoni Gaudi’s furniture design was patterned after the Baroque style -- perhaps mimicking the response Caravaggio’s Baroque had received from critics aghast by its harsh, sensuous appeal.
Baroque and Art Nouveau: the two movements are clearly mirror images, only separated by centuries. And we have Baroque’s poster child, Caravaggio, to thank."
I reread the column in its entirety twice more. I fumble under the bed to find my glasses, and then, throwing on a robe, I plod through the cold stones of the hall to pour a cup of coffee. I look down and notice that the tremor in my hand has not receded.
Balancing the cup precariously in one hand and a pot of cream and jar of sugar in the other, I tuck the paper under my arm and move to my desk in the study. I pick up a pen and thumb through a pile of stationery. The panes of the window above slice geometric patterns across my desk as I carefully place pen to paper.
Dear Ms. Jorgensen:
I am taken by your editorial entitled “Baroque con Art Nouveau: Mirror Images Separated by the Centuries.” While you do not explicitly state it, I assume that you believe that both Art Nouveau and factions of Baroque both pushed wildly beyond the soft curves and simplicity that characterized the movements that preceded them. And with this, I agree.
However, as a casual observer of the two Caravaggio pieces in the Co-Cathedral in Valletta, I’m not certain that Caravaggio’s works support your thesis.
From what I understand about the Baroque master, he was less interested in pushing the limits of Mannerism and creating a renegade faction of Baroque, but in making sure he could support his opium addiction. Ironically, this entailed appeasing the art commissioners -- which were, for the most part, churches and cathedrals. Accordingly, his style was much more reserved than other Baroque artists (even though his use of subjects was questionable). Conversely, Antoni Gaudi, and others within the Art Nouveau movement were out to decry convention and created hideous, striking pieces, more for the furor and fallout.
Caravaggio reigned himself in because he had to fulfill a duty to remain pious in the eyes of the church to keep his financial stream alive. Gaudi and other Art Nouveau artists had no such restrictions.
Your thesis assumes that it was Caravaggio’s raucous personality, splayed on the canvas, that created the parallel between Baroque and Art Nouveau, and yet you are linking the two movements based on one artist’s work. By separating Caravaggio so much from his own movement, one would wonder if Caravaggio was even a part of the Baroque movement? That would seem to turn art history on its head, don’t you agree?
Thank you for your time –
I vacillate about whether or not to sign my real name, a pseudonym, or just “A Reader,” but I settle on a nebulous term -- unisex, apolitical, almost clandestine -- A Reader From Malta. Then, with a flourish of the pen, I add:
P.S. Have you ever visited the Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta? Our excellent docents give tours you may find illuminating.
Was that last part too condescending, assuming that she’d never visited, only pulled the Co-Cathedral reference out of a textbook? Was it too forward? Too provocative?
I light the wick of a copper sealing wax. Acrid fumes permeate my nostrils as the slow, waxy drip suffuses into a coin-sized pool on the back of the envelope. From a velvet drawstring bag I pull out a metal seal and quickly press it down to make the wax spread out into a neat ring around the metal.
One, two, three…
I hold it up to examine the imprint.
The little seal is imprinted with a fig with one small leaf curled around its stem -- as delicate in its features as Veronique was on that first trip to Sicily when we were just newly married. She had bought the seal at a street fair there and had kept it hidden in her jewelry box until Christmas when she presented it to me wrapped in crinkly gold paper with a red bow. Since then, it has become as indispensable as a comfortable pair of well-worn slippers. I still have the gold paper and that shimmering red bow tucked in a wooden box on my end table; the soft velvet is now out of shape and worn thin from daily caresses.
EPILOGUE: THE IMMENSITY OF THE PLACE
Dear Hermina –
The day started cool and damp, with the clock tower at Ta’ Pinu striking five minutes past nine o’clock. I would be late for the boat, but it would wait.
Finally, we embarked. The sail flapped in the wind, urgently drawing us on to our first stop of Valletta. Once there, Argentini said that we would be delayed two hours. So I lunched with old men on the wharf, drank spirits, and cursed the weather.
Then Argentini turned two hours into two days of waiting. (This time in Valletta was beginning to seem like an eternity.) Thunderstorms blew in and I turned my head under my coat as I sought refuge from the pelting rain and cold mist that enveloped me as I walked among the streets. I had nowhere to go, so I turned up the street to the glow of the Co-Cathedral.
Not in twenty years had I stepped foot inside the apse. Odd that I had no feeling -- none whatsoever -- as I breathed warm air into my bony cold hands and stepped inside the heavy oak doors. Burnt wax filtered through the air as my corneas adjusted to the smoky haze. An electric shock zipped down my spine, probably from the warm and cold fronts in my body meeting in a frenzy and creating a violent clash of internal lightning. My feet were propelled forward, as if something was moving me into the belly of the church; I was a small ship eaten by a large whale. Surprisingly, my hands did not shake -- no internal rattles. As I moved my head swiveled back and forth, up and down, to capture the imagery before me. The gold cornices rose up, the mulberry carpet dove forward, pulling me, pulling me. It resembled a tongue, leading only to one place, to the back of the throat, the nave of the church, flounced by blackness.
The immensity of this place was overwhelming; I felt as if I were on a hill under a brilliant black sky pierced with golden cherubs for stars. To the left, I spotted the vision of my youth, the eternal apparition that had haunted me for years. But as my eyes met the smooth composition, the tingle in my neck melted away. The apse, framed by that huge portrait of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, was truly unlike I had remembered it.
This was the object that had haunted me since a child?
It was no longer austere, daunting, clawing at me, pulling me in. It was simply what it was, an art piece meant to move and writhe in the mind, ears, and gaping mouth of the observer. I now realized that for all of these years, I had adopted my father’s cold impression of the piece: His contempt for the artist’s interpretation of Saint John was the basis for my fear.
But here, now, I let the painting take hold of me. I succumbed. It was magnificent. It portrayed a man who was a leader of the people, despite his soiled feet and dirty raiment. His countenance was austere and regal, despite the adulterated form of a human.
How could my father not have appreciated this piece for the pure artistic impression? He had revived an age-old controversy; the blasphemy of religious icons representing purity while wearing dirty raiment. His anger at this subversion of faith drove me to fear these paintings.
I reached up to touch the painting, to stroke the gold gilt frame that kept it from bleeding out onto the cold stone wall. It was liberating! I felt at once in awe of the artist, the subject, and my father -- despite his contempt for it. His choice to denigrate the artist was his choice alone. This realization seemed to bridge the gulf between us. I was proud that he was passionate about his opinion, regardless of the fact that it was different from mine.
Now, years after he had died, he had finally stated his case. Or perhaps I was just man enough now to accept it. I had to revisit his world twenty years later in order to come to grips with this.
I moved away from the painting and stepped out of the church, completely illuminated.
I’m sorry to be so long-winded in this letter of apology. It is not exactly the rhetorical form that we both adopted and grew to love.
I do not know how you will receive this letter. It is an apology of my failing to attend your lecture. Since I am not able to see your face or hear your voice, I may never know if you were disappointed, sad, or indifferent to the fact that I did not arrive in Italy. I still cannot explain to myself why I turned back.
I can imagine that your talk at the university was focused and groundbreaking. I can only imagine the applause as you stepped away from the podium.
Magnitude: How clearly I have rehearsed the definition over the last several months. I realized that all of the problems that loomed so large over the past months and seemed to untether me from my post were actually liberating! I used to be safe in the security of routine, but these miniature “juggernauts” if you will, threw me into situations that challenged my relationship with my daughter, my orchard. It is almost as if now I have climbed up to the sky and am looking down.
If you are ever three hundred kilometers northeast of Tunisia, or ninety kilometers south of Sicily, your compass has found me. I would delight in your company and in showing you my universe.
All of my best,
Later that evening, as I round a bend near my house, Ta’ Dbiegi looms masterfully. I tear off the road (after all, what was keeping me on a straight path?) trampling down grasses as I beat a new path, and then fall straight into a thicket, scraping my legs and arms. The parched clumps of clay make it difficult to pedal, but I get back on my bicycle and push with my right foot, hard, until the bicycle lurches forward. The newspaper clippings of the columns on Page Nine that for months I had kept stuffed in my backpack and read countless times up on the hill were weighing heavily -- and what use were they anymore?
I reach behind me into the backpack. The bike swerves and nearly throws me into a nettle bush as I pull a paper out and toss it. It catches an updraft and rips apart, sailing up into the atmosphere like paper airplanes. Then I reach in again and toss another. And another. I try to catch up with the pages that had caught a drift toward Ta’ Dbiegi hill, and I chart a rough path to the squared-off peak.
Up on top of the hill, I fish out the letter that arrived today (dated the day that I had written my last letter to Hermina). By some twist of fate, the letters had crossed in the mail. Sliding my finger under the upper crease of the red envelope, I hesitate. The familiar, cursive handwriting, set off with a large script “PIETRI” -- reminiscent of the intricate scrollwork at the magical beginning of a medieval beloved fairy tale -- always gave me a slight tingle. I relive the feeling and then I open the letter at the fold.
Argentini, your friend from Gozo arrived yesterday, here in Rome, quite out of the blue when I was expecting you. We sat amongst the clatter of tourists and white lights at a café on the Duomo. He told me that you had chosen to stay behind and begged my forgiveness. I can easily forgive you, but I don’t know how to forgive my broken heart.
We talked over biscotti and I reeled stories of people here and life in general. He told me a lovely story about a Chinese Emperor and his orange blossoms. It was quite odd for me, his being here. I didn’t know how to act. It’s been so long since I’ve discussed anything other than my work with someone. I shared a recipe for orange clafoutis, but since he told me he has a kitchen "the size of a lampuki trap," I can only imagine his rare use for it (and what is a lampuki?). I must have seemed a bit naïve, even childish, do you think?
He has no plans to return immediately, and says that Rome is a lovely city…
I also wanted to send you a recent note that I received from a colleague. On behalf of the University of Rome’s Art Guild, he praises my “fresh perspective” and “innovative approach” to art criticism. Perhaps I’ve broken into their “vicious circle,” as you once referred to it. Whether that’s good or bad, I still haven’t decided. I’m still not entirely certain that it was a war that I wanted to win -- I thought at first I did, but now that I’ve earned their respect, do I really want to rub elbows with the very people who I once thought were my enemies? It leaves me wondering how long I’ll remain in their graces. I suppose in my field I’ll always be walking a tenuous line -- one puff and I fall.
I can only hope that you received my previous letter and that all is well with you. As much as it pains me, I sit here at my desk overlooking a wash of grey on the square, watching the dissonant din of street traffic rush by. I’ve thought of a thousand excuses why you have not written in so long. But it is not for me to guess. I suppose I could strike up an imaginary pen pal, considering the quite curious nature of our rhetorical friendship and address bright red envelopes and pretend to send them but place them in a cedar box instead, forever sealed. But then I think that wouldn’t be much fun knowing no one was out there, somewhere, just reading my thoughts.
Perhaps we have lived out the classic saga of strangers passing in the night, corresponding back and forth over a wide expanse of water and land, between sultry city and open fields, haze, and lucid clarity.
And where do we stand now? At the very, very least, in a very different place than when we first met.
At least we have moved.
With love, Hermina
I stand on Ta’ Dbiegi hill under the stars reading and rereading the letter for posterity, I suppose. Then I thrust it with its bright red envelope ceremoniously into the wind, along with all of the other colorful letters collected -- dall´ aeroplano italiano -- over the past three months. They dance across the fields, ripping up the quiet of the night, and are kicked up by the majjistral as it blows, high and mighty, out to sea. I take the long route home.