Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 14
Could it now be time for the desert? And why the desert? Because Adelina, too, has walked out of my life, as that familiar and silly saying goes, which presumes someone can be inside another’s life? And what is the desert, after all? The one Lawrence of Arabia contemplated all night long as in the film? As films go, the scene certainly makes an impact and is skillfully done, but on reflection, not very original. To reenact the famous Gospel scene at Gethsemane might be effective, I concede, but shows little imagination. It was written: “And he came out and went, as he was wont, to the Mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him./And when he was at the place, he said unto them: Pray that you enter not into temptation./And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and knelt down and prayed,/Saying: Father, if You be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done./And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him./And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood falling down to the ground./And when he rose up from prayer and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow./And said unto them: Why are you asleep? Rise and pray lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39–46). Transposed and without the disciples (who were twelve in the episode quoted), this is the scene with Lawrence, eyes turned in anguish toward the desert all night long. By night, not by day, because the sun would not permit this dramatic moment, or would make it dramatic in a different way, with Lawrence dying of sunstroke, thus jeopardizing British policy in the Arab world and obliging the British to wait for some other Lawrence less given to contemplation. The same is true of Jesus. If Jesus had died on the Mount of Olives from that hemorrhage which turned out to be benign and not fatal, would there have been any Christianity? And without Christianity history would have been altogether different, the history of men and their deeds; so many people would not have been immured in cells, so many people would have met a different death, not in the holy wars nor at the stake with which the Inquisition tried to justify its own relapsed, heretical and schismatic nature. As for this attempt at autobiography in the form of a traveler’s tale divided into chapters, I am convinced it, too, would be different. For example, what would Giotto have painted in the Chapel of Scrovegni? Arcadian orgies of a mythology which persisted into the Middle Ages, if not to the present day? Or would he simply have been a house painter who was there not to paint the chapel but simply to whitewash the walls in the Scrovegni household?
Desert—to desert. The dictionary defines the first of these as “noun: desolate, uninhabited, uncultivated, solitary place. Abandoned, unfrequented. A place where no one wishes to go. jur. The willful abandonment of a loyal or moral obligation. n. desolate or barren tract: a waste: a solitude.” And the dictionary says of the latter: “v.t. to leave: to forsake. v.i. to run away: to quit a service, as the army, without permission.”
I ask myself how writers and poets have the nerve to write hundreds or thousands of pages, millions upon millions if you put them all together, when a simple dictionary definition or two would suffice, if carefully pondered, to fill these hundreds or thousands or millions upon millions of pages. Today I am of the opinion that writers have shown far too much haste: they micrometrically complicate sentiments without probing the various meanings of words beforehand. Take these two straightforward examples of mine, which resulted from a conjectural premonition which led me from desert to desert after having passed via T. E. Lawrence (Thomas Edward, 1883–1935), born in Tremadoc, a British Secret Service agent in Arabia and Asia Minor during the 1914–1918 war, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1928); and via Christ, which means the Messiah or the Lord’s anointed, a name given to Jesus, who, according to the venerable manuscripts which are capable of revealing everything apart from their ignorance, was born in Belém (situated between Pedrouços and Junqueira) on the twenty-fifth of December in the year 4004 of the universe (4963 according to The Art of Verifying Dates), in the year 753 of Rome, in the thirty-first year of Augustus’s reign. This authoritative source claims that the year of Jesus’ birth was almost certainly established by Dionysius Exiguus. But according to other calculations no less worthy of trust and respect, the date of the aforesaid birth (without sin, pain, carnal copulation or tearing of the hymen) has to be referred back to the twenty-fifth of December of the year 745 of Rome, six years before the common era. Therefore Jesus would have lived for thirty-nine years instead of thirty-three. Fortunate man.
Here I am then, abandoned and in the desert. Seeing things as I do now, Adelina was merely that last shadowy form which, not so long ago, although already remote, could still be seen on the steep slope of a shifting dune, a blurred double shadow or the double blade of open scissors cutting into themselves, becoming ever smaller and then a mere sign on the crest of the sand where the wind blows minute chippings (loose substance, powdery and vitrescent, produced by the crumbling of siliceous, granitic or argillous rocks) and suddenly, in the time it takes to open and read a letter, she has disappeared onto the other side. Are we the desert or are we deserted? Abandoned, forsaken, lost, or are we responsible for this wilderness and solitude? As someone who has never been a soldier and therefore never had the opportunity of absenting himself without leave, I must confess that I have always been fascinated by ranks, that plural entity; I have always dreamed of having my own force and at the same time all the military force of the Tetrarchs multiplied, a thousand times four, four thousand times one, and my intelligence multiplied as well, and sensibility and sweat and labor, yes, labor, four thousand times one. However, if every regiment has its ranks, all those ranks do not make a regiment. And since the desert can have inhabitants and still be a desert, inhabitants are not enough for the desert to be no longer desert. With all my festive friends here in the flat, or out there while I think of them as my friends, no desert of mine (or I the desert) has been populated. I became conscious of this when I began writing. In the end I put all my effort into recovering the desert, (trying) to understand afterward what might have remained, what did remain, what might come to remain. Solitude certainly, but perhaps not sterility. Uninhabited, I concede, but not uninhabitable. Dry but with water inside, the terrible water of tears, perhaps that fresh feeling pouring over one’s hands. H2O. Primordial water and whatever is suspended therein.
THE PORTRAIT OF THE COUPLE who are about to marry off their daughter will not be painted here in the studio where so many people, from A. to S., have already been. Where I had Olga the secretary on the divan. And Adelina. Only a deep love of the picturesque (however mistaken) or sheer necessity would induce anyone to climb those four awkward flights of stairs. People with a daughter of marrying age need not be old but this couple is, either because the bride-to-be was a late child or because respectability has aged them prematurely. So off I went then, to that grand, solemn and silent house in Lapa, and there I painted the portrait. I began by positioning the husband and wife in the actual space their bodies continue to occupy, and then in the unstable space of the canvas. During the second session I told the husband he could go while I painted his wife. The perfect lady. Polite but distant, icy behind the thin veneer of courtesy, or because of this very same veneer, which, like the one I use in my profession, is glossy, smooth and cold. On the third day I was introduced to the daughter, on the fourth (day) to their future son-in-law. She crossed her legs ostentatiously, he came to examine the effect. It is obvious that neither of them (from my point of view, since I neither marry nor unmarry them) attaches any real importance to the portrait, which is simply a foible of the middle-aged or a convention being played out in a house in Lapa, a district where there can be few people left who indulge similar whims. The mother remains quite still, unbending, scarcely says a word however much I try to get her to relax; she looks as if she were in a state of shock. The daughter approached the scent of my frontier while the clouds of smoke from her fiancé’s cigarette and her father’s cigar passed over it. “I used to smoke Havanas, but now . . .” The he
It is so easy. The hand captures from afar what is in the face while one’s mind wanders. The painter takes another look, using his eyes in a different manner as they pass from the face to the canvas; he can see once more the currents of the lagoon, sluggish and turgid in the underlying mire, divided into greens and blues, with lighter veins breaking up the large strips of color, and several white boats resembling tiny lice in that realm which is more vegetal than aquatic. I run my brush over the canvas with the same slow movements as that of the lagoon’s currents; it is not the face I paint, but the lagoon in my mind’s eye. I wonder how this portrait will turn out.
At home, I paint the saint, I copy (from the postcard) the architecture of the prison and the tiled floor in Vitale da Bologna’s painting, and I am going to put on that floor and in the shadows of that grating my statue of Saint Antony, without any child, halo or book. I discover that the Bolognese painter long before me used the measure I defined in passing as the hundredth second. Otherwise he could never have achieved this particular effect of unreal perspective and time which successively recedes into space or this advance of space on time. But since I shall not use any of the figures from the original picture, I shall have to find some other way of putting the saint into my picture with the same distortion of space and time, the same fluid dimension, which subsequently makes everything as solid as the texture of tiles and the molecular consistency of iron. These are the daydreams of the solitary painter, devious means of approximation and discovery, weightless gymnastics, movements in slow motion, capable of being decomposed and repeated, the providence of those anxious people for whom this is one last chance of duplicating life. To turn everything back in time, not in order to repeat everything but to be able to choose and pause from time to time. To take Saint George’s horse as painted by Vitale da Bologna and lead it away, heading for Lisbon or coming from Bologna, through Spain and France, through France and Spain, to Paris, to the Latin Quarter, to the Rue des Grands-Augustins, and to say to Picasso, “I say, old man, here’s your model.” At that time in Lisbon, a child who knew nothing about Guernica and very little about Spain except for the Battle of Aljubarrota was clutching some soggy leaflets in his hands and unwittingly distributing the political manifesto of the Portuguese Popular Front, which for a time lived up to its name in word and deed.
Death and destruction. At a much later date, counted in years, I shall learn about the battle cry of the pro-Franco general Millán Astray. And even later, I shall finally come to know almost by heart the words of Unamuno: “There are circumstances in which to remain silent is to lie. I have just heard a languid cry devoid of any meaning: Long live death! This barbarous paradox revolts me. General Millán Astray is a cripple. I mean no discourtesy. Cervantes, too, was a cripple. Alas, in Spain today there are far too many cripples. But it appalls me to think that General Millán Astray could lay down the basis for mass psychology. A cripple without the spiritual qualities of Cervantes tends to take comfort in the mutilations which may inflict suffering on others.” And much later in life I would blush with shame when I read the words of the Spanish National Anthem for the first time: “I believe in Franco, all-powerful man, creator of a supreme Spain and of a well-organized army, crowned with the most glorious of laurels; the Liberator of a dying nation and the Architect of a Spain born under the protection of the strictest social justice. I believe in the Heritage and Glory of a Spain which will continue to uphold traditional values for all Spaniards to follow; I believe in pardon for the truly repentant, in the revival of the ancient Guilds for the organization of labor, and in lasting peace. Amen.”
I am now repeating this so that everything may be corroborated by the missing witness: me. Me, Portuguese, painter, alive in the year 1973, in this summer which is almost at an end, in this encroaching autumn. Me, alive, while men are dying in Africa, Portuguese men whom I sent to their deaths or consented should die, men so much younger than me, so much simpler, and with so much more to offer than me, a mere painter. The painter of this saint, this Lapa, this martyr, this crime and complicity. In 1485 Niccolò dell’Arca had already understood so much: from his Lamentation of Christ, which only appears to mourn the death of a god, one can remove Christ and replace him with other corpses: the white corpse blown up by a land mine with the entire lower part of the abdomen torn out (farewell, son never to be), the black corpse burned with napalm, the ears cut off and preserved somewhere in a jar of alcohol (farewell Angola, farewell Guinea, farewell Mozambique, farewell Africa). There is little point in removing the women: weeping is always the same.
On reflection, I have achieved very little.
Fourth exercise in autobiography in the form of the chapter of a book. Title: The Two Hearts of the World.
Florence is a hundred kilometers away from Bologna. Leaving the flat fields on the eastern side of the province of Emilia, the autostrada goes up as far as the Pass of Monte Citerna, and, after passing through tunnels lit up like Christmas trees and across viaducts resting on giant legs, it bridges valleys and deep gorges, then descends for what seems an eternity before finally reaching Florence. And when I write “for what seems an eternity,” this is no mere rhetorical flourish. Entering Florence, as that Frenchman I met in the tavola calda told me, is a traumatic experience: the poor road signs, the apparent confusion of innumerable one-way streets, so that trying to find the city center or the Piazza della Signoria, for example, is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Florence must have a great deal of confidence in herself to play such havoc with any traveler who ventures there without the assistance of a guide.
And now that I have arrived, I am living in the Via Osteria del Guanto, two paces away from the Via del Corno, where I am not certain that Vasco Pratolini was born, but where most of the action takes place in his Cronica dei Poveri Amanti, and also very close to the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia dell’Orcagna and the Museo Bargello (the National Sculpture Museum), which has works by Michelangelo, Donatello, not to mention Della Robbia, that admirable Luca who “reinvented” the art of ceramics so that it might become at once sculpture and painting.
As I sleep, this silent gathering of statues and paintings, this surviving parallel humanity, continues to keep vigil over the world which I renounce when asleep. So that I, older and more fragile, encounter it once more on walking down the street, for, after all, statues and paintings last longer than this frail flesh.
Florence for two days, two weeks, two months? Florence for the duration of a sigh? But this city is as vast as some inexhaustible continent or universe. There is a certain air of remoteness which does not simply stem from the reserved and condescending manner of the Florentines, perhaps weary of tourists or, even more likely, because they know they will never again have the city to themselves. The traveler leaving Florence goes away feeling frustrated, unless he is just an ordinary tourist. However much he may have seen and heard, he knows that the inner core of the city has escaped him, that place where a common blood pulsates and which, if discovered, could make the city his, too. Florence is the heart of the world, but closed and inaccessible.
I take another stroll through the Uffizi, a gallery which has succeeded in retaining a human dimension and, for this very reason, one of my favorite museums. What could I possibly write about those hundreds of paintings? List their names and titles? Copy out the catalogue word for word? I would never finish. Suffice it to say that the collection includes the magnificent portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza, painted by Piero della Francesca. In their presence I lose all sense of time, and I much prefer them to the Venus and Primavera of Sandro Botticelli, whose work I am probably not mature enough to appreciate, for I concocted a whole episode of science fiction while contemplating the Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes (the Child Jesus lying on the ground was obviously put there by some
I decide to forgo a second visit to the Pitti Palace, a prodigy of museological teratology which never fails to irritate me (waste is always irritating), for there the paintings and sculptures are treated simply as decorative objects gathered within a sumptuous setting which only stops short of repelling the visitor because he finds himself constantly submerged amid a seething multitude. I prefer simply to wander along this embankment, and I shall only cross the Ponte Vecchio one evening to watch the Arno flow between the city walls and to recall that these gentle waters turned into a horizontal flood six years ago: they burst their banks and, erupting like a groundswell, inundated streets, houses and churches, leaving havoc and pollution in their wake and bringing Florence to its knees as if the end of the world were nigh.
I shall form a clearer impression of the damage when I later pay a visit to an exhibition about the restoration of Florence. There I shall examine a diagram showing the scale of the disaster, see photographs of the damaged paintings, wooden sculptures saturated with water and greasy mud, the interior of the Church of Santa Croce like a cavern invaded by every imaginable wind and tide. I shall see, to my dismay, what remains of Cimabue’s Crucifixion, and will finally come face-to-face, after so many frustrated attempts, with Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, now stripped of the many layers of gesso and dirt which had been covering the original paint.
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