Manual of painting and c.., p.15

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 15


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  Once again I shall see Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the Basilica di San Marco, the Church of Santa Maria Novella and the Cappellone degli Spagnoli with its exquisite frescoes painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto; I shall stroll at my leisure through the Duomo, storing up memories to cherish after my departure; I shall seek out the sculptures of Donatello in the Bargello Museum like someone putting his lips to a glass of cool water; I shall discover (never having been there before) the Archeological Museum and, after making a return visit to the Medici Chapel, indulge my admiration for Michelangelo in the Biblioteca Lorenziana, where architecture achieved a perfection which has never been surpassed.

  Time to leave. Evening is drawing in. I gaze upon the Tuscan landscape, countryside beyond description, because to speak of “hills, shades of blue and green, hedgerows, cypresses, peace, infinite horizons” would be meaningless. Better to contemplate this stretch of landscape which appears in Botticelli’s tondo, entitled La Madonna del Magnificat: this is Tuscany.

  And now Siena, the beloved, the city which truly fills my heart with joy. Such a friendly place, where everyone appears to have drunk the milk of human kindness. Siena, I shall always prefer you to Florence. Built on three hills, the city has no two streets alike and not one of them observes any geometrical pattern. And then there is this wonderful color in Siena, the bronzed tones of bodies exposed to the sun, of the crust on a loaf of bread. This wonderful coloring which can be found on stones and rooftops softens the light of the sun and erases all anxiety and fear from our faces. Nothing could be more captivating than this city.

  Since this itinerary of mine also (or, above all) takes in famous museums and monuments (I shall never distinguish between men and their works), I look at the Duomo, built where there was once a temple dedicated to Minerva. Who was the first person to invent this blending of pink and dark green stone which covers the entire cathedral with horizontal bands and forces us to look closely at the architecture? Who was courageous enough to choose colored stones and arrange them as if working on canvas?

  Inside, the floor is like an enormous book of illustrations. There are forty-nine squares made of embedded or engraved stones, sgraffiate or inlaid with detailed designs which distract the visitor’s attention from anything overhead. One travels within an art at once robust and delicate, and this aptly defines the spirit of Siena.

  In the Museo del Duomo I take another look at Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà and the scenes of Christ’s Passion displayed, illuminated and protected with overwhelming affection. Impossible to enter this room in the museum without lowering one’s voice to a whisper, as if the Delphic Sybil were present, alive and prophetic.

  From here I go to the Pinacoteca. There Sienese paintings from the twelfth to the sixteenth century await me, the best work produced by this school over five hundred years. Numerous pictures by Guido da Siena, an entire room dedicated to Duccio di Buoninsegna and his pupils, and paintings by the Lorenzetti brothers (Pietro and Ambrogio), by Sassetta and many others. In my opinion, the two landscapes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti are “the most beautiful in the world,” two miraculous pictures painted at a time when landscapes were not yet seen as themes exclusively for painters and were treated as something one associated with dreams: a castle, a city, an anchored boat resembling an olive branch, the odd tree here and there, in shades of gray, cool blues and greens, all bathed in a luminosity which comes from the eyes of the artist, overwhelmed by what confronts him.

  I go into a café and order a coffee. The waiter serves me with the voice and smile of Siena. I feel I am outside this world. I go down to the Campo, a sloping square, curved like a shell, which the builders decided not to level and thus it remained, truly a masterpiece. As if cradled in the middle, I gaze upon the ancient buildings of Siena, old houses where I should be happy to live one day, where I could have a window all to myself and look out onto those rooftops the color of terra-cotta, onto the green window shutters, trying hard to decipher the secret Siena whispers into my ear and which, although I may never understand it, I shall go on hearing to the end of my days.

  IN MY OPINION, everything is biography. I insist with even greater reason, as someone in its pursuit, that everything is autobiography (autobiography? reason?). It (which of them?) enters into everything like a thin blade being inserted into a slit in a door in order to spring the lock and force entry. Only the complex diversity of languages in which this autobiography is being written and unfolded allows us, but with some discretion and considerable secrecy, to move among our disparate fellow men. Yet I can see all too clearly that this last chapter of mine has little to do with biography. Between Florence and Siena there was no gap in which to insert a blade. Everything remained in those shadows projected by works of art, sometimes between the rough brushstrokes or the almost imperceptible grooves of polished stone, and I have obviously been much too preoccupied with capturing vibrations which constantly elude me and, because of this preoccupation, rather than because of those elusive vibrations, nothing or almost nothing of me remained. Unless—and this possibility consoles me—I am finally revealing myself through the traditional methods of autobiography, concealing less than is customary, although I somehow see myself as the loser of the initial challenge, which was to talk about myself without appearing to do so.

  I have slept badly. And I am alone. The telephone has not rung for over a week. I have dismissed my cleaner. “Only for a short while,” I told her. “Right now I don’t have much work and I shall manage somehow on my own.” Adelaide listened. Not a muscle moved in her face, but her right foot twisted slightly, became heavy, painful, afflicted. She left without saying a word, or simply muttering, “Until you need me.” Until I need her? Until she needs me? How would one say this in a painting? I do not know, but the difference would certainly be (I am mentioning it for a second time) one of two shades of the same color. Painting has no such ambiguities, but it has others, not forgetting certain insoluble problems which led me to take up writing. To prove beyond any shadow of doubt that there is justice in this world, the ambiguities and insoluble problems of writing would have to drive me to painting. Or something in between. I have already invented the theory of the hundredth second, which I do not know how to apply. I would now have to discover write-painting, this latest and universal Esperanto which will transform all of us into writer-painters and, with any luck, into practitioners of those blessed artemages. In my sleep I go on searching: artemages, bartemages, barthes mage, cartemages, karl marx, dartemages, eartemages, and what about art?

  I am so certain of this that I do not need to write it. But since I have decided to reveal almost everything which permits one in ordinary speech to eliminate the almost, I hereby swear on my heart that it is not Adelina’s absence which robs me of sleep, because, frankly, I do not even miss her. My problem is not absence but some sort of presence. Lying on my back in my attic room, which has given pleasure (I am referring to the room, not to those sexual acts people usually perform behind closed doors) to certain women of good taste, which does not mean that all of them slept here, I probe within myself, patient as an insect using its claws and feelers to remove the obstacles keeping it from its food—clean bread, excrement, motionless larvae, blood pulsating beneath the skin—I probe and try to define this tension inside me, or somewhere inside the room, or circling all around me whenever I move, this tension which is like a flexible back, arched and undulating, perhaps like a snake’s, although this is much quicker in comparison, or an atmospheric ridge in the wake of a hurricane, which is why I speak of tension.

  I could speak of premonitions again if I wanted to. But since I am the one who is writing and at the same time feeling, I have decided I do not want to, with the double power I exert in my dual role of seeing and being seen. However, something is surely about to happen. An earth tremor? A fire? Another woman on the horizon? Or is it simply, as I am inclined to think, this writing, all these pages piled one on top of another with considerable weight, pages which from lin
e to line project curves and loops and chains—and all this is tugging between its extremity and someplace within my body, the father/mother of this lengthy discourse. I repeat: another woman? I doubt it. At my age there might still be other women, but for the moment I am not looking for them. Not because of any aversion to love. Not because of love or any aversion. If I wished, and I do not, to stage a little romantic comedy, where would I find an audience? Where would I find people to applaud? None of my many friends is around. And here in my room there is no one. And if, as I once read, it is true that heroes in romantic novels give vent to their woes by mourning over the portrait of their ungrateful beloved, this is not likely in my case, even though I do have a photograph of her right here. Besides, I am the one who is grateful, as I have already explained, and let me take this opportunity to reaffirm that I am not writing a novel.

  Meanwhile, something is approaching. I understand that glorious moments are heralded with trumpets we humble mortals cannot hear because such loud vibrations of sound escape our rudimentary organs of hearing. I have also been led to understand that dogs can hear them and that we humans should pay attention, for when hounds bay they are not simply baying at the moon but being sent into a trance by the sound of trumpets. They howl in desperation, incapable of telling us what these omens foretell. And so they pass unnoticed, because we were either not present at the right moment or fast asleep when we should have been listening. All that reaches us (I speak of myself, without probing, for example, what might reach Adelaide, my cleaner) is this tension, this extended back of a snake, this sudden blast of wind, unleashed in a great flurry.

  The distance is already quite considerable. The average life span of people is much more than these fifty years or so of mine, or those years still to come, ever less, however many we may count. I am not contradicting myself. However many years the future may have in store for each and every one of us, nothing is greater than our infinite prehistory. I am not referring to a collective prehistory but to one that is purely individual. Suffice it to say that each day has eighty-six thousand and four hundred seconds and each month almost two million and six hundred thousand, and that they are launched on us not all at once but one by one, so that nothing may be lost and everything gained. (The words of Lavoisier, who lived for fifty-one years and no more because they sent him to the guillotine.)

  I shall go to sleep, it will not be long now, it cannot delay much longer. Through the half-opened door of my room I notice that the studio window which looks onto the street is no longer black: the gray hours commence, which will gradually pass from total darkness to the light of day. But for this it is still too early. Part of me is already asleep, while the other part writes. That is why I have before me, spread out like the map of the world, my entire prehistory, so close that all I would need to do would be to copy the names—graphic, hydro-, and oro-irregularities. Thus one can see that it was the sleeping married man or married man fast asleep, what does it matter, today simply asleep, while on top of the crumpled sheet (do not forget he dismissed the cleaner) his fingers unconsciously count the years, so many of them, that journey took across the map of the world. And that earlier prehistory when life got easier for his parents and there was no more talk of renting rooms. The old alcoholic woman died and people began defecating in the privacy of their lavatories, without any beauty, that processional beauty of bygone days, which consisted of restoring to the earth what the living had extracted from it, until they were ready to offer themselves. Hosanna. There are so many ways, and the conditions of production are as varied as those of excretion. In my dream I see a huge woman pass by, tall, broad and strong, carrying a chamber pot covered with an embroidered cloth, while angels hover overhead. Hallelujah.

  Sometimes parents can be extremely foolish. They know nothing, could scarcely be more ignorant, make wild gestures no one understands and use words to be found in no dictionary. And since they no longer carry, or, to be more precise, the wife no longer carries the fecal offering through the corridors of the universe, they both decide in a moment of mental crisis, gentle, invisible, even smiling, without the assistance of a doctor or straitjacket, that their son should go to art school. There are two (excellent) reasons for this decision: the boy has an eye for drawing and the neighbors will be green with envy. “Green with envy,” said Mother. And Father, while appearing to dismiss this female pettiness, agreed, nodding his head paternally. How sleep weighs upon us. So heavy that there is no need to add an exclamation mark; it is enough to say so. While we are asleep, I wrote, the silent world of statues and paintings keeps vigil. Just as well. Otherwise what would become of us? These are the people who keep the world safe, transformed in sleep by the possibility of recovering prehistory, these mysterious sheets of paper, for example, not the map of the world, but these sheets of paper I see in my dream, covered in writing which I read as I dream, striving to wake up reading, because I know that those pages were not written by anyone, nor were they written by me. In what other country of some other world is Portuguese written? What forests gave these sheets of paper, rags or embroidered cloths? One part of me is asleep, the other writes, but only the part which is sleeping could read what is written on the sheets of paper, only in my dream does this gentle breeze exist which sends them fluttering past, one by one, allowing me just sufficient time to read each page. Morning will soon be here.

  To climb the slope also means descending it, or falling down just as the foot stepped on the last stone and one’s eye suddenly took in the hidden landscape. Let me remind you that the sleeping man was married, not because it is important but lest anyone should say they have forgotten just because it was mentioned only once. It is a question of climbing the slope once more, of fingers unconsciously counting the years of one’s journey on top of a crumpled sheet, of putting one’s foot on the final stone on reaching the summit before beginning the descent on the other side. Could landscapes be lives waiting to be painted? Could someone who has only painted faces, so badly and without any expression, learn anything from Lorenzetti (Ambrogio)? In one’s dream, certainly, but only therein, just as those prodigious sheets of paper can only be read in a dream, perhaps the sixth and true Gospel, perhaps the lost writings of Plato, or all that is missing from the Iliad, perhaps what was written by those who died before their time? This landscape, however, is simultaneously outside and within the dream, the landscape itself is both dream and dreamer, the dream and the thing dreamed, a painting with two sides which shuns the thickness of the wood.

  I am whispering in my dream and write down that whisper. I do not decipher it, I write it down. I seek phonetic symbols which I put down on paper. And so a language comes to be written which no one can read, let alone understand. The prehistory is so very, very long. Men and women go around there entering and leaving caverns, and the history which will count them (enumerate them, narrate them) remains to be written. Unconsciously those fingers are already counting in my dream. The numbers are letters. It is history.

  CARMO CAME TO visit me. However, before writing about his visit and our conversation, which will reveal little about me and a great deal about him, I feel it might be useful to turn back to the last pages, much too contrived for my taste, having foolishly allowed myself to indulge in virtuosity, which contradicts the firm rule I established to narrate the facts and nothing more. On earlier pages there might be other infractions of this rule, but they are minimal and stem from the author’s incompetence rather than from any deliberate contrivance. That these last pages might be deliberately intricate I cannot swear, but it is clear that at some point I became fascinated by word games, playing my violin on a single string and using extravagant gestures to compensate for the absence and elimination of any other sounds. I recognize, notwithstanding this self-criticism, that there is something ingenious about “one part of me is asleep, the other writing.” This is only a tiny and by no means risky somersault in terms of style, but I am pleased with the result.

  Artifice has its meri
ts: by means of artifice I was able to simulate the dream, to dream it, to live the situation and witness all this, while remembering things from the past with the expression of someone pretending to be asleep, who speaks in order to be heard while calculating the effect of what he is saying. I now see it as an expedient which gets me out of two lengthy explanations: how my parents managed to avoid having to rent out rooms, prospered somewhat and sent me to art school, and how I came to get married, the reasons for my marriage and its eventual breakdown. These are obviously chapters of my story. But are they really necessary? Art school did not make me a painter, nor marriage and fatherhood (something I omitted to mention) make me any different. It is not the external facts which are important but those seen from within, the dead bird, the hard smack and many other facts, all of them external but having already passed inside. If that was artifice, I can justify it and by pursuing it make it legitimate, if not for the sake of truth, for the sake of verisimilitude. I should make it clear, however, that those last pages were written when I was wide awake, and anything described there about dreams is not simply one dream confined to one night but the loose fragments of recurring dreams, some invariably repeated and, for present purposes, deliberately organized here into coherent incoherence. I know a fair amount about painting and now know enough about calligraphy to perceive (and try to put into practice) that the expression of incoherence demands a great deal of organization. I am speaking of expression, not simply about revealing oneself.

  Carmo came to visit me. He turned up after dinner. He had startled me when he rang up to say he was coming, I had become so unused to hearing the telephone ring. From the tone of his voice I could tell he had something to confide. My suspicions were soon confirmed. Being someone’s friend is not easy. What I am trying to say is that we never really know to what extent we are genuinely someone’s friend. My friendship with Carmo was casual and relaxed. People meet once or twice, chat, perhaps confide in each other, become a little more intimate, then find they have become friends, are surprised they did not become friends sooner and take it for granted they will be friends forevermore. This was the kind of friendship I had with Carmo: not much to it. That we are any closer now I cannot be sure, but there is undoubtedly a qualitative difference (a nice adjective) in this sameness, even though the friendship may not last long, even though it may only have existed in order to exist no more.

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