Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 9
I WAS BORN in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England we are now called, nay call ourselves, and write our name, Crusoe, and so my companions always called me. I had two elder brothers, one of which was a lieutenant-colonel in an English regiment of foot in Flanders, formerly commanded by the famous Colonel Lockhart, and was killed at the battle near Dunkirk against the Spaniards; what became of my second brother I never knew, any more than my father and mother did know what was become of me.
Since starting to write, I have copied texts on a number of occasions for one reason or another: to reinforce or contradict some statement of mine, or because I could not have expressed it better myself. Here I have done it to keep my hand in training, as if I were copying a picture. By transcribing and copying, I learn to narrate a life, moreover in the first person, and in this way I try to understand the art of penetrating this veil of words and ordering the insights words provide. But once having copied out a text, I am prepared to affirm that everything which has been written is a lie. Deceitful on the part of the copyist who was not born in 1632 in the city of York. Deceitful on the part of the author whom he copied, Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1661 in the city of London. The truth, if it exists, could only be that of Robinson Crusoe or Kreutznaer, and in order to recognize it would have meant proving its existence from the outset, that his father came from Bremen and passed through Hull, that his mother was in fact English, and that his first name was her family name, that two more sons were born to the couple and that what we stated really happened to them. The same truth would require confirmation that Colonel Lockhart and his regiment actually existed and, obviously, confirmation of the battles he fought, especially the one of Dunkirk against the Spaniards. (About the existence of the latter there is not the slightest doubt.) I do not believe that anyone could unravel these tangled threads, untie them, distinguish the genuine from the false and (an even more delicate task) define and register the degree of falsehood in the truth or truth in the falsehood. Of all that Daniel Defoe–Robinson Crusoe (the youngest of the three brothers) wrote and left behind I need only quote a few sober words: “Just as my parents were never to discover what happened to me.” Because I myself abandoned them? Or because they abandoned me? Willful neglect during their lifetime or orphanhood brought about by their death? For none of these reasons. Simply because any one of us could say these things about our parents or our children about us. Because I, the painter of portraits and the author of this narrative, have no descendants, or do not know them if they exist, or will exist in some future which still has to be written. Robinson Crusoe (we are told on the penultimate page of the story Defoe narrates on his behalf) had three children, two boys and one girl: useless information for any understanding of the text, but which confirms my belief in the importance of the superfluous.
I was born in Geneva in 1712, the offspring of citizen Isaac Rousseau and citizeness Suzanne Bernard. A most modest patrimony divided among fifteen children had reduced my father’s share to almost nothing, so that all he had to live on was his craft as a watchmaker, at which he truly excelled. My mother, the daughter of Pastor Bernard, was more affluent: she was bashful and comely. . . . I almost died at birth and was not expected to survive.
From the outset, these parents have the enormous advantage of being real and therefore promise greater veracity than all of Defoe’s fiction. No less real is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was born in the city of Geneva in 1712. But on faithfully copying down these lines with the honest intention of learning, I cannot see any difference, other than in the writing, between reality and fiction. I am convinced that for my life as narrated here (how could I narrate it elsewhere?) I can only rely on what someone later told Rousseau (for he himself was not conscious, or sufficiently conscious, to have known it then): “I almost died at birth.” Nor could I have known it when I was born, but unlike Jean-Jacques, I did not need anyone to come and tell me. Having been born, I was born at the beginning of my death, therefore, almost dead. The midwife who helped to deliver me from my mother’s womb probably remarked, “The child is full of life.” But she was mistaken.
Officially a Roman emperor is said to be born in Rome, but it was in Italica that I was born; it was upon that dry but fertile country that I later superposed so many regions of the world. The official fiction has some merit: it proves that decisions of the mind and of the will do prevail over circumstance. The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself . . .
Someone narrates the life of a person who never existed or did not exist in this way: Defoe invents. Someone narrates a life as if it were his own and trusts in our credulity: Rousseau opens his heart. Someone narrates the life of a historical character: Marguerite Yourcenar writes Hadrian’s memoirs and becomes Hadrian in the memoirs she invents for him. Confronted by these examples, I, H., remain incognito with this initial as I studiously copy out and try to understand, inclined to affirm that all truth is fiction, basing myself on evidence of suspect veracity and convenient falsehood from six witnesses who go by the names of Robinson and Defoe, Hadrian and Yourcenar and Rousseau twice. I am particularly intrigued by the geographical game which jumps from Italica (Spain, near Seville) to Rome, from Rome to London, from London to York, from York to Geneva and from Geneva to the place where Marguerite Yourcenar was born, a place I neither know nor am ever likely to know. Tossing words over centuries and distances inferior to centuries, she herself made Hadrian write: “The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself.” So where was Defoe born? Or Rousseau? Or Yourcenar? Where was I born, painter, calligrapher, stillborn until it was decided where, when and if I had cast an intelligent look over myself? It remains to be seen whether once our place of birth has been discovered, we shall be able to recover and sustain that look of understanding or lose ourselves in new geographical locations. Most likely they are all fictitious: the real life of Hadrian is gradually crushed, pulverized, dissolved and reconstituted in another guise in Marguerite Yourcenar’s fiction. We may confidently wager that something of Hadrian is still missing, perhaps simply because it never occurred to Defoe or to Rousseau to write their own biography of that Roman emperor who was born in Italica but who, according to the official fiction, was born in Rome. If the official fiction is capable of such things, then we can expect something even more extraordinary from individual fictions.
Close observations of these subtleties (do they really exist or only in my head?) make me aware that there is not much difference between words which are often colors and colors which cannot resist the temptation of becoming words. And so my time passes with the time of others and the time invented for others. I write and think: What is time today for Defoe, for Rousseau, for Hadrian? What is time for someone who is dying at this very moment, without ever having discovered where he was born through the knowledge that comes with understanding?
First exercise in biography in the form of a traveler’s tale. Title: Impossible Chronicles.
The very title puts the reader on his guard, a warning not to expect wonders from a narrative which begins so cautiously. It would be quite pretentious to think that a rapid journey through the regions of Italy gave anyone the right to speak of them to anyone other than interested friends, who are sometimes skeptical, never having been there themselves. I am convinced that there are still things to be said about Italy, although little remains for the ordinary traveler armed only with his sensibility and who, because of some avowed partiality, is almost certain to close his eyes before inevitable shadows. For my part, I can say that I shall always visit Italy in a state of total submi
Once having marked out my own little space and prominently displayed the flags indicating the points of departure and arrival, no one can argue that Paul should not write where Peter has written, or that where better eyes have seen, all other eyes must remain closed. Italy must have been (forgive the exaggeration if no one agrees with me) our reward for coming into this world. Some deity or other, solemnly entrusted with distributing justice and not sorrows, and with a profound knowledge of the arts, should whisper into everyone’s ear at least once in his lifetime, “You’re born? Well, go to Italy.” Just as people head for Mecca or less contentious places to ensure the salvation of their souls.
But let us leave these thresholds and enter Milan. For one reason or another Milan had been excluded from my map of Italy, as if two million inhabitants and an area of almost two hundred square kilometers were unimportant. However, it is also true that large cities do not appeal to me very much: there is never enough time to get to know them properly, so that we remember them as if they were tiny boroughs consisting of no more than a square, a cathedral, a museum and a few narrow streets which time has scarcely changed, or we think has scarcely changed, for they are old and silent and we do not live there. Unless the traveler expects from a city what he has found in others he has visited (shops, restaurants, nightclubs), whereby everything becomes even more restricted since he is simply traveling inside a protective sphere and safe from any adventures.
The same is true of me but for different reasons. I limited myself to taking fleeting possession of a tiny section of Milan, a polygon of which the closest apex was the Piazza del Duomo, a cathedral in a flamboyant Gothic style which for all its splendor (or perhaps because of it) leaves me cold. The other apexes of this geometrical figure into which I crammed the whole of Milan were the Brera Gallery, the Castello Sforzesco, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. I doubt whether anyone is expecting me to provide them with a catalogue or guidebook of the city’s art treasures, let alone attempt to confirm or contradict opinions already expressed, directly or indirectly, by others. But a man advances through spaces dictated by the architecture, through rooms crowded with faces and forms, and he certainly does not come out as he went in, otherwise he might as well have kept away. This is what prompts me to run the risk of expressing in plain language what the privileged may have explained in the style of a historical pageant or, more profitably, in the discreet whisperings of a catalogue.
Here in Portugal we visit our castles as if they were national shrines. But our castles are usually empty shells from which every trace of life has been scrupulously removed lest there should be any trace or odor of a human presence. Inside, the Castello Sforzesco is more palace than fortress, but few buildings give such an impression of might and power; few castles are so manifestly warlike. The solid brick walls seem more unassailable than if they had been hewn out of stone. In the vast inner courtyard cavalcades and military parades can be staged and the whole edifice, surrounded by a great tumultuous city, suddenly emerges amid the silence of its other tiny courtyards or apartments transformed into museums, like some paradoxical place of peace. But in one of these rooms, an exhibition of works by the Belgian artist Folon is an insidious tentacle of the octopus outside: men-buildings, men-roads, men-tools advance over barren hills as the skies become covered with curved arrows, crisscrossed and pointing simultaneously in various directions.
But there is also a luminous and strangely terrifying happiness hovering there in the Museum of Ancient Art, installed in the castle’s Sala delle Asse. One enters by a low and narrow arched doorway, and looking straight ahead, all you can see are what look like columns painted all the way around the walls. It is simply another room until you raise your eyes to the ceiling. We pity those visitors who do not feel a sudden shiver go down their spine: they must be blind to beauty. The entire vault is covered with intertwining foliage, forming an inextricable network of trunks, branches and leaves where no birds sing, where only a murmur descends, perhaps the phantom sound of Leonardo da Vinci breathing as he stood on a lofty scaffold to paint a tree-cum-forest. Not even Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini several rooms further ahead (on which he was still working four days before his death, an unfinished statue which seeks yet shuns our hands) can efface the memory of the paradise created by Leonardo da Vinci.
And now I shall say something about the Brera Gallery, where Raphael’s Nuptials of the Virgin is on display and the awesome, rigorously foreshortened Dead Christ by Mantegna. But the painter whose work intrigues me most of all in this museum is Ambrogio Lorenzetti, especially his tender Virgin and Child, her mantle unexpectedly adorned with stylized flowers. Two remarkable landscapes by the same Ambrogio Lorenzetti can be seen in Siena, “the most exquisite pictures in the world.” I shall return to them when the time comes for Siena to open “the doors of her heart” to me, as she promises all travelers without ever disappointing them.
Then there is the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Alongside, at the spot where the refectory of the Dominican convent stood, is Leonardo’s painting of The Last Supper, already doomed to perish as the painter applied the final brushstroke, for the dampness of the site had already begun its work of corrosion. Today, dampness has transformed the figures of Christ and the apostles into wan shadows, has covered them in mist, pitting the picture all over where the paint has peeled, a constellation of dead stars within a luminous space. It is a question of time. Despite all the careful precautions being taken, The Last Supper is perishing, and besides the qualities of Leonardo’s incomparable artistry, perhaps it is its encroaching demise which makes this magnificent painting even more precious. As we come away, we feel twice as apprehensive that we may never see it again. Even if there should never be another bombing to demolish the building, reducing it to rubble, protruding beams, debris and bricks pulverized to dust, The Last Supper seems inevitably destined for some other fate.
And now before departing, time to visit the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. By no means large, the museum is half hidden away in the Piazza Pio IX, which, in its turn, could only conjure up a piazza in the Mediterranean mind, but it is here one finds the somewhat rustic profile of Beatrice d’Este (or is she Bianca Maria Sforza?), her hair tucked into a net covered in pearls which any modern hippie might envy. The portrait was painted by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, a Milanese artist who lived in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. But the main attraction in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is the enormous cartoon of the School of Athens, which is exhibited in a special room. Lit to perfection, Raphael’s drawing with its spontaneity and almost imponderable lightness of touch, more chiaroscuro than line, foreshadows the wisdom and dignity of the figures in the room of the Vatican, momentarily glimpsed by tourists passing through.
This was what Milan meant for me. And then at night, groups of people in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, youths engaged in heated arguments with their elders, carabinieri keeping a watchful eye, tension in the air. And the walls of the buildings all along the Via Brera, covered with graffiti: “The Struggle Goes On,” “Power to the Workers.” Several days later, when I was already traveling around Tuscany, the police invaded the university. There were scenes of violence; demonstrators were wounded, imprisoned, dispersed with tear gas. And the right-wing press, conservative, fascist, or with fascist sympathies, triumphed.
I CALLED WHAT I have just written my (first) exercise in autobiography, and I do not believe I was deceiving myself or deceiving others (strictly speaking, to deceive oneself or deceive others must surely come to the same thing?). After all, Rousseau’s confessions and the fictitious reminiscences or memoirs of Robinson Crusoe or Hadrian respectfully observe the rules of the genre: they all start from a common point which goes by the name “birth,” and if we examine them closely, they are transposed biographies which could just as easily have started off in an even more traditional
I have (or have had since adolescence) an obsession with death—well, not so much with death as with dying. I am not sure if I should put it so bluntly, considering no one likes confessing to cowardice and this is the greatest cowardice of all, precisely because it assails us when we are alone, in silence and settling down for the night in the safety of our own home: just as we are about to fall asleep and our bedroom loses its dimensions, when not even the furniture offers any threat, and there is no enemy pointing a gun at our head or drawing a knife. Probably I would not. But this first exercise in dissembled biography betrays me at once: death and dying are mentioned five times, one dies but once. This reveals my nature, sets me apart from my fellow creatures, and not only me, since this black mesh is common to many others. And so, through successive appearances, I should come (shall come?) to find myself individualized, a unique human being defined once and for all, and fully justified in cautiously and methodically putting one last period to this calligraphy. Even though motivated by sheer scruple, I would have to begin all over again to explain the movement of the period itself, once having squared and focused that tiny point where the eye and the message transmitted from the brain to the muscles of the hand converge so that the pressure put on the paper produces only a dot rather than a blot or splash of ink. From an imaginary brain which has nothing more to say about itself, from a brain as white as a sheet of paper, which is not really white. Because white does not exist, as I who am a painter always knew. Only what exists can exist.