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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

19. EXCITED AND AFRAID

"I’m glad we’re alone at last," Nancy said with a sigh. "I mean I truly liked being on the dig and I liked the crew, except for the damnable Lucy Shoe. But Fred got so tiring with his mind games about who knew the workers better and who had found the finest works of art and whose notebook was more pristine than the others (you all were rather crappy in my opinion). Please don’t become an archaeologist. Let’s become a ‘tomabaroli’ and find some more Nanni-pots."

"How are we going to get up to the boat? We have two weeks."

"Eventually through Rome, Venice and the north to Rotterdam and the boat but first through Trani, Barletta and Manfredonia."

"Manfredonia of Marx Brothers fame?"

"That was Fredonia, but from what I read you’ll find Manfredonia just as nutty," Nancy said, laughing.

"Why are we going to this Marx Brothers’ town, dearest?" I asked.

"For the Monte Sant’ Angelo church, named for Saint Michael Archangel, known throughout the world for its ex-votos."

"You mean stuff like the ‘Amazing Big Toe of the Cittadella?’"

"Exactly."

"Swell."

It was.

This miraculous curing place was a crypt, dating to the 9th century. We descended by a winding, broad stairs deep into the ground. The walls of the stairs were covered with photos, casts and wax models of wounded body parts. There were wax molds of hands and feet, a sculpture of a badly broken arm, a model of a bleeding hand cut by an axe, and a plethora of paintings in primitive style illustrating accidents, catastrophes, near brushes with the Grim Reaper, illnesses and violence of all kinds, all ending happily with the persons involved being cured or having escaped unscathed. I they had visited the sanctuary.

In the crypt the priest grunted at us and extracted two small pieces of quartz from the ceiling. "Relics," he intoned. I paid a small fortune for the privilege; with these in hand we’d never have to ship our casts or molds down there to hang on the wall.

The weather began to sizzle as we approached Rome and we suffered, especially Nancy who was rapidly gaining weight and who needed lots of rest, which she couldn’t get in the heat. She was a brave girl and I loved her for never complaining. That’s when I first recognized that, like her stoic mother, in the face of pain, she simply gritted her teeth and marched on. Not me, for I have always been a low-pain threshold guy and something of a minor hypochondriac.

In Rome we teamed up with my sister, Petie, and her husband, Buddy Durand. Petie, a talented retailer, fell in love with Italy and art, which she’d never given a damn about before. My sister started talking about quitting retailing and taking up art seriously. While Nancy took care of mundane tasks like arranging for our mountain of luggage to be sent back to Princeton, Petie and I examined the city’s treasures and I was delighted, and surprised, to be getting so close to my sister. We have never been as close since then.

We said good-by to our Roman home and proceeded on to Florence for a whirlwind tour, mostly of the Uffizi. We had a hilarious formal dinner at count Giorgio Giorgini’s. To be polite, the Giorginis and their guests were struggling away with English when I spoke out rapidly and confidently in Italian and suggested that we all speak Italian.

A look of horror came to their faces. It was my thick Sicilian accent, which must have sounded to them like someone from Flatbush dining with Pauline.

We stopped briefly in Bologna and then careened on to Ravenna for a last look at what we’d loved before and we stayed for three enchanting days. I remember vividly that for three hours of the time I stood in the small museum contemplating and peeling with my eyes the ivory chair of Bishop Maximianus dating to the fifth century A.D. Venice was the best of all, not the least because my sister, expanding her expense account, got us into the luxurious Danielli Hotel. I recruited a blond, blue-eyed and amiable gondolier for a four-day package and we spent day and night slipping through the canals. He picked up a friend at one of those inner-canal local Venetian restaurants, who played a deft accordion, and so we cruised home with song or we’d lie up in some romantic spot, listen to the music and belt down chilled wine.

The Durands flew back to New York while Nancy and I drove to Amsterdam through Vienna, Germany and Belgium checking out every top work of art in every museum and sanctuary. I was getting to be particularly good at spotting only the tops and sweeping by the footnotes.

We stayed in Salzburg just to hear Mozart’s "Idomeneo" and lingered in Munich for three days. I developed a taste for the Bavarian city and would return dozens of times. Pound for pound, masterwork for masterwork, it is one of Europe’s highest points for the fine arts. The graceful and primitive pre-Parthenon marble sculptures of Aphaia at Aegina, brought back virtually intact by pillaging archaeologists of the 19th century, are jaw dropping. As is the huge 5th century Attic plate by the Penthesilea painter, showing Achilles shoving his sword deep into the breast of the beautiful Amazon queen whose eyes are closing in death. It ls clear she adored the man who was killing her.

We careened through the matchless Alte Pinakotek and reveled in the Dürers, the Altdorfers and the masterworks by Peter Paul Rubens. We swung through a series of Modern Art galleries, fascinated with the hoary Expressionists from Otto Dix to Alfred Kubin and Kokoschka in between and Nolde and Mutter and much more.

On the way to Cologne, in Bad Gottesberg, we contacted a couple we’d met skiing in Sant’ Anton and they graciously gave us the guest room for several days. From there we made side trips to Cologne, Wurzburg and a Ruhr town, Recklinghausen, where we stumbled upon a show named "Verkante Kunst," "Degenerate Art," the Impressionists, Matisses, the Expressionists, Max Beckmanns and other "trash" that the Nazis had auctioned off for pennies to rid the country of them. Hitler was represented by an over life-sized portrait in silver armor on a white charger holding a giant Nazi flag.

Wurzburg, still badly chopped up, was a gem and the Tiepolos in the majestic Residenz -- both those on Baldasthar Neumann’s Grand Staircase and in the main reception hall -- were stupendous, especially when we learned that he’d spent only two years creating the vast cycle of frescoes. The breadth of the main ceiling of the Residenz, the color, the lightness of touch, above all the spirituality of the paintings overwhelmed us. Every scene was exquisitely finished whether a single bright face, a lion’s paw, a relaxed, an unmuscular arm or the soft, brown striped fabric of some oriental costume.

I told Nancy that seeing the expansive ceiling made me realize even more that my talent in art history was looking rather than scholarship or theory.

We devoured the museums in Nuremberg and I became acquainted with several new loves of my art life, the late Gothic sculptor Tilmann Riemenschneider and his startling contemporaries, Michel Pacher and Veit Stoss. For the rest of my life in art I would track down their works no matter where they were.

Our European trip ended with the marvels of Frankfurt’s Master of Flemalle’s Crucifixion in Frankfurt, and Jan van Eyck’s overwhelming Saint Bavo altar in Ghent and, in Holland, the Dutch masters from Frans Hals through Rembrandt to Vincent van Gogh.

Our last evening in Europe we splurged at Amsterdam’s finest restaurant. We agreed that our trip through Europe had been the best time of our young lives and that we had matured in many ways. Our love had strengthened perhaps because we knew each other far better and were willing to excuse each other’s weaknesses and flaws. That love had also solidified because of my wife’s pregnancy.

My gluttonous devouring of thousands of works of art had positioned me for a rollicking re-entry to the world of academic art history. I had, thankfully, worked my way out of the febrile dream of becoming an artist. Yet, I still fantasized of becoming a professional writer one day.

"What of the tons of stuff we saw is on your final, final ‘to-steal’ list?" I asked Nancy.

"The Ghent altarpiece by the van Eycks. My God, you could see reflections of things in the tiny, tiny seed pearls of the Almighty’s crown! But, the amazing thing was that this hyper-real thing wasn’t obsessively painted small, you know? Second, that Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden in Beaune. And your beautiful terracotta head from the dig. And the Jewish Bride by Rembrandt we saw this morning. And .  .  .   oh, I can’t stop. You?"

"Best of all best? I’m with you -- the Ghent Altar. And the Caravaggios in San Luigi and his Saint John from Malta. For architecture? Chartres. For sculpture, Gislebertus of Autun."

"My! I forgot the really best one -- Piero’s Resurrection."

"And our little Angel."

"Right."

"God, what a time!" I said over a second cognac and a cigar.

"We’ll never equal it," Nancy said. "We did everything we wanted to do. It may never happen again. We were young then. No longer." She hesitated and patted her stomach lightly. "I’m excited and a little afraid, too."

"What’s next?"

"Our baby. And new worlds to conquer."

This is chapter 19 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email