Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button








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

12. INTO UNKNOWN TERRITORY

When I told Fred Licht about Panofsky's annoyingly flip remark, he said, "You kids have to get to Europe and see the real thing! You're free to go, so go before it's too late!"

Elliott and Amelia Bell encouraged us and at Christmas two envelopes pinned to the Quaker Hill Christmas tree contained not the usual cash, but for Nancy, a ticket on the Holland-American Line steamship over to France and, for me, the return trip.

Weitzman approved that I go to Europe for a few months and said he would try to get me into a seminar on early Christian archaeology given at the American Academy in Rome by New York Institute of Fine Arts Prof. Richard Krautheimer, a legend in the field. The tipping point was when archaeologist Eric Sjöqvist told me that in March of '57 he'd be conducting a second archaeological season in Sicily at Serra Orlando, the location of an ancient Greek city. Would we like to come? Yes! Nancy loved the idea of actually excavating ancient things.

We decided to go -- our finances were meager but sufficient and we found loving homes for our animals. How long would we stay? We had no idea.

To celebrate we threw a party, this time not only for our fellow grad students but for the professors and their wives, too. The bash took place on that island on Lake Carnegie where I'd spent so many happy, drunken days as an undergraduate. We trucked to lakeside tables, chairs, turkeys, hams, salads, desserts and a 10-gallon stainless steel milk can loaded with pre-blenderized "Brownskin Gals," half fruit juice and macerated bananas and half Babancourt rum. Guaranteed to ossify you in two cups.

The get-together started at five, gathered speed with the food and went on until dusk. Almost everybody got blasted, including a few distinguished professors. No one drowned. I got a kick out of locking eyes with several of my professors and their dignified wives clinking plastic glasses as we grinned sloppily at each other.

We went to France on the Maasdam of the Holland-American Line. The cabin was an outside, double-decker-bunked, cramped hole just above the water line. Nancy went into a claustrophobic shock our second night out and I had to hold her tightly for hours stroking her until she came out of it. We were lucky with our dinner sitting. We drew a high spirited and congenial bunch of folks who became our inseparable companions for the voyage. The group included two TV comedy writers and a young artist, Phyllis Yampolsky, who would loom large at an amusing point in my later life. We dined at 8:30 pm followed by an instant dash to the bar where we stayed later and later each night. Finally we were staying up all night and sleeping all day.

After what seemed like a month of sailing we arrived in Le Havre, breezed through customs, lost our bags which had been put on the Paris boat train, found them seconds before the train departed and dashed through reckless, horn-blaring traffic towards Paris.

An hour out we suddenly we found ourselves at the facade of the flamboyant, spikey-traceried Late Gothic church of Saint-Maclou. I choked, for here I was looking at the real thing and not some paltry black-and-white photograph. We hugged each other in joy.

From our first day in Paris until the end of the exciting sojourn in Europe, which lasted a year and a half, we zigzagged around like the nutty youngsters we were. Our trips were far from orderly. We'd drive halfway across France or Italy just to look at one work of art or the works of one artist. Or, we’d drive three hours off the route to go to a particularly fine restaurant. By this haphazard system we saw more of Europe than if we had meticulously organized a series of trips. During our exciting time in Europe, we traveled to eight countries, learned Italian, brushed up on our French and gained a smattering of German. We ate divinely, eager to seek out every culinary pleasure. We drank the finest wines, cognacs and liqueurs. My wife became a first-class chef in Rome. We made lifelong friends. We learned that the American perspective was not always the keenest. We hugged and yelled at each other, laughed like hell, spat out obscenities from time to time and occasionally cooed at each other.

Through the early Christian seminar in Rome, the amazing days digging in Sicily, constant reading of art history and the penetrating study of thousands and thousands of original works of art, I became -- on my own hook -- a professional art historian and a budding connoisseur.

We had some sad moments, a few illnesses, but no disasters. The money we had -- the G. I. Bill monthly stipend and the Trust "fuck-you" money -- more than covered our living expenses. We "ate the menu up and down" as they say in Rome if you’re so rich that you don’t even look at the prices. We have never before or since lived as beautifully.

It took a while to learn the ropes, of course, and find our way with unfamiliar currency. For our first lunch in Paris, not understanding the star system, we casually sashayed into one of Paris' premier restaurants, La Rotisserie Perigourdine. Looking at the bill we realized we were over our heads and the trip had just begun. We were saved by a couple, Helen and Mario Avati, whom Papa Elliott had told us to contact. They not only told us where the splendid cheap eateries were but became close friends and remain so today. Helen Avati was a Business Week correspondent and Mario was an artist who specialized in monotype still-lives and other magical images of Parisians.

"They're great!" my wife exulted. "I didn't know what to expect from one of my father's McGraw Hill staffers. I adore her sexy gravelly voice! God, he's like a movie star with that dark skin, delicate features and coal black hair. Helen told me that the first day she came to Paris three years ago -- when she was 25 -- on one of her first evenings in Paris, she went to a bar with friends and spotted this devilishly handsome man at the bar sitting alone. When her friend left she had a few aperitifs with the stranger. She went back to his flat and eventually married him."

We consumed the visual glories of Paris as lustily as we consumed the fine wines and launched an attack on every museum and church in town. When we got to Chartres we learned that there'd be an evening concert of Mozart's Coronation Mass. We sat at sundown with the magnificent Rose window exploding with light just above our dazzled heads. The dulcet music seemed to surge from every gorgeous stone and window.

Fred Licht showed up in Paris and instructed us further on how to live cheaply in Europe. Always go to 3rd class hotels and restaurants, but in Italy go to the 4th class ones, he advised. He had a gimmick which transformed a 3rd or 4th class hotel into something first class -- "boules quiesses," cotton filled with wax to be molded into the ears. Fred explained that some of the best really cheap hotels in France and Italy were at railroad stations but they were uninhabitable unless you used these stuffings to wipe out the roar of continual trains and he was right. After the Avatis’ and Licht's tips we lived nicely in France on 5,000 francs a day (except when we splurged for a stunning meal or a thumping wine, which was often).

On the way to Rome we visited every monument that had survived time and started to make a list of the best of the best. We found our first stunner in Dijon, the heartland of the Burgundian Renaissance -- the famed sculptures by the master of masters, Claus Sluter. He was a Belgian hired in 1383 by Philip II the Bold, the founder of the Carthusian monastery of Champmol at Dijon. Three of his works had survived the French Revolution. The finest was the Well of Moses in the cloister. In each of the six niches stands a prophet whose words predict the coming of Christ. Moses starts the parade. Daniel jabs at his written prophecy as if making a point in some political speech. The amazing marble drapery -- almost glacial in weight with huge swooping folds -- looks like stratifications of the rock of ages. Above each prophet are pairs of life-sized mourning angels which are about as beautiful a bunch of creatures as we’ve ever seen.

Then we took a circuitous route to Beaune to see Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment in a museum on the grounds of the medieval hospital. Before the paintings were moved the suffering terminal patients had nothing to gaze at all day but going to heaven or hell. I almost fainted when I caught first sight of this immense oil on nine panels about twenty feet long and twelve feet high. It looked as if had been painted with liquified gems.

In the central panel Christ, garbed in a magnificent blood-red cloak, is surrounded by bursts of yellow-orange flames and fiery clouds, which roll ominously through every panel.

"An atom bomb!" my wife whispered.

Christ sits on the rainbow of heaven balefully blessing the onlookers. And, to indicate that this is no beatitudinous, lovey-dovey Christ, the sword of destruction hangs above his head. Below Christ is the Archangel Michael weighing two souls who have just emerged from the graves. A little naked guy on the right -- kneeling like someone being knighted -- looks up to Christ in joy. The stunted guy on the left grips the chains of the scales and grimaces in pain, looking like he’s going to Treblinka.

The slender upright panels on the far right and left show an angel leading the blessed to a spectacular Gothic portal, the gate of the heavenly kingdom. The malevolent orange bomb blast stopped right there. Hell is on the left where a bilious yellow-orange cloud surrounds a disgusting mouth that devours all who enter.

At the bottom of the six panels are twenty-five naked males and females who have just crawled from the opening graves. They are about a quarter of human scale and cute as hell. Those on the right are on their joyous way to heaven. The damned on the left are in various postures of disbelief and dismay with horrified looks on their tortured faces. The men are thin, courtly looking and the women quite fetching.

"I wish we could scoop up the prettier women in this naked gang and take 'em along with us. They look like party types."

"Okay, if you want to travel with a bunch of women with protruding bellies and fat asses," Nancy observed.

As we were leaving one of the custodians closed the outer wings of the huge altarpiece to reveal two "grisailles" -- images in the most stunning milk grays -- depicting St. Sebastian and some cloaked saint.

"Look at that Saint Sebastian," I cried out. "He looks like a practiced courtier in some elegant court, hanging so languidly naked on a tree in a pose that looks like he's gonna start dancing."

Nancy retorted, "He might once he gets those pesky arrows out of his stomach. Hit our nice guard with a few francs."

I do.

At Autun my wife was struck dumb by the power and simultaneous delicacy of a sixteen by fourteen inch panel depicting the Nativity, painted with ineffable delicacy around 1450 by the Master of Moulin.

There wasn't a guard in sight. "Let’s just take it," I said.

"How far do you think we'd get?"

"Good thinking."

We decided not to steal it -- only after some soul searching.

At Autun’s cathedral of St. Lazare, I explained, "This is the luckiest medieval church ever. In the 17th century an unknown church custodian begged the elders not to destroy the 12th-century façade of the Last Judgment by the great medieval sculptor Gislebertus in order to build a ‘modern’ new façade. Simply brick it up and build over it. Someone might even like these primitive works some day, he said. And thus these vibrant, figures of Gislebertus bursting with quirky energy were saved."

Saved, too, were several capitals by the same artist and an amusing relief that showed an angel literally tucking the three Magi into one huge bed, all wearing their heavy crowns, all side by side under the same blanket.

"Fourth class hotel," my wife drawled. "Wonder if they're wearing ear plugs."

On a whim we decided to drive over to Nimes and Arles to see the spectacular Roman remains and especially the Maison Carrée, which had so fascinated Thomas Jefferson. We walked across the Pont du Gard with Nancy inside the covered part and I -- rather stupidly in a heavily gusting wind -- cavorting on top. I made it, trembling with fear. We ate one of our best picnics at the base at the base of the bridge and the Chateauneuf du Pape made us pleasantly woozy.

In late June we struck out from Marseilles for the Italian border through Cannes and Nice. Seeing that we had 750 francs left, Nancy got the idea of stopping to buy a bottle of Courvoisier for that exact amount. In line for Italian customs we cracked it open and made a toast to La Belle France.

We loved Italy the moment we got in line for customs and immigration checks. The officials, all wearing white gloves and garbed in splendid uniforms of red and blue, smiled beatifically at us, didn’t inspect anything and didn't make snide remarks about our lack of Italian.

We bought something called "buoni touristici," gas coupons which allowed us to buy premium gasoline for the price of regular, something like 45 cents instead of 80 cents a gallon. We happily filled up at the first station with a huge sign, "AGIP, Supercortemaggiore," on which was painted a black creature, half dinosaur and half wolf, with a long, flaming red tongue and six running legs. Nancy bought a little felt AGIP creature, which became the talisman of the trip.

Our first night we stopped at San Remo at a fourth class hotel. I tried to ask how much for a room with bath and a really big bed and when the proprietor seemed to quote a very low price I didn't believe him. He confused me by seeming to ask about our marital status, asking something about "letto matrimoniale." I had left our marriage certificate at home. I tried to assure him that we were married. He could not have cared less. The "letto matrimoniale" turned out to be a bed the size of a soccer field. He pointed to the sticker under the glass top of the bureau with prices including breakfast and, yes, it was only $4.35 a night. Dinner was tasty and inexpensive -- with espressos and cognac it was half of what a meal in France would have cost. Our budget for Italy was 11,000 Lire a day and the first day it had come to only 6,300. We stayed in fourth class hotels from then on.

The trip down the coast was breathtaking, not only because of the gorgeous views but also because of the switchback two-lane road through the five seacoast villages along La Spezia. We encountered dozens of hairpin turns looking hundreds of feet down to the rocks below. The traffic was intense; huge trucks hauling double trailers careened around the hairpin curves well over the centerline, so I had to skitter along the side of the road. The klaxons sounded like they were wailing, "KILL YOU, KILL YOU." I beeped back plaintively.

The Florentine representative for Bonwit Teller, Count Giorgio Giorgini, gave us a whirlwind tour of the city -- the Duomo, the Palazzo della Republica and the Loggia dei Lanzi. I managed not to snicker when it became clear that the Count wasn’t sure if the huge bronze David in the Loggia was the real one by Michelangelo. Up to San Miniato al Monte and down through town, driving at a breakneck pace, the Count never slowed his animated pitch, on to the Baptistery and the golden doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti then into Santa Croce to see the lavishly decorated tomb of one of his ancestors and on to lunch at his private Palazzo built against the city walls of Michelangelo.

On the way to Rome through Siena we stumbled into a dashing and perilous bareback horse race called the "Palio" that took place once a year. The magnificent Campo was ringed by a one-lane track of dirt pounded into the rough cobblestones. Bleachers decorated with brightly colored banners of the fourteen competing teams had been erected over the shops and restaurants and cafes. We grabbed seats. A human sea of vendors of food and drink surged through the audience and we ate and drank all we wanted. The riders wore flashy "medieval" costumes with the colors of their district and rode bareback on young, nervous mounts. The course went counter-clockwise -- European style.

Bang! A giant firecracker went off, a million pigeons and sparrows rose into the air and an enormous roar came from the thousands of spectators. They're off! Like Italian driving, there were no rules. Jockeys slugged, whipped or kicked any other. There were three turns around the Campo. On the final one, a guy fell and I heard his bones crack as he hit. A few citizens rushed out and tossed this poor soul around like a rag.

We entered Rome in mid afternoon and went to a Swiss-run pensione, the Bella Vista Milton, and insisted upon and got a "letto matrimoniale." We hit the famous Donkey Bar on the via Veneto for a couple of Cinzanos and iced espressos (do they fire you up!) and had a fine dinner at the pensione.

The day before Richard Krautheimer’s seminar on early Christian archaeology, the Fourth of July, a Sunday, we drove all day around a surprisingly deserted Rome. We dropped in on the Pantheon which I had been told by Erik Sjöqvist was the mandatory first monument to see in the Eternal City. The magnificent dome, 142 feet high, with its blinding open-to-the-sky oculus in the center rose with such speed that our spirits were truly zoomed to the stratosphere as the architect surely intended.

We visited the Trevi Fountain and after lunch had the siesta which every Roman takes every day from 2:30 until five. I liked it, for it meant I could drink lots of wine at lunch and sleep it off. Then we wandered over to Santa Maria Maggiore to have a look at those fifth century Old Testament mosaics I had agonized over in Weitzman's seminar on early manuscripts.

We went to bed early because the seminar would start at nine. I was apprehensive because the other seven students were all NYU Institute of Fine Arts hotshots who had already had sessions in New York on the subject. I knew nothing and feared I’d make a fool of myself.

My sweet wife said, "You probably will screw up, but do you give a damn?"

I laughed. "No, I don't."


This is chapter 12 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