13. KISSING BRICKS
Within ten days of arriving in Rome we heard of an available apartment. We had been told about it by one of the seminar students. He and his wife were leaving the flat to move into free quarters at the American Academy. It cost fifty bucks a month. What the hell would that look like?
As I wrote the Bells, "Where is it? Who owns it? Who lives there? Who drifts through? Who has water rights? Kitchen rights? Mineral rights? The building is number Seven via Ventiquattro Maggio (commemorating some Garibaldi event). Across the way is an espresso bar (called the Bar Professore, I swear). Downstairs is a modest but excellent restaurant named Il Raimondo -- every restaurant in Rome is excellent. The church of Saint Silvester looms next to the restaurant, so we can get religion as quickly as our lunch. The building, which contains a Pensione on the third and fourth floors, has a concierge, an elderly sweetie with auburn hair and black eyes, who fell in love with me as soon as I entered the establishment. (The gigantic tip I thrust into her bosom may have helped). There’s a narrow winding staircase, which coils around a tiny elevator (three by three feet), which ascends only if you feed it a five Lira coin -- worth maybe a tenth of a penny. Even after I put in the cash I sometimes have to jump up and down to get the thing moving.
"The flat is on the left through a double glass door with a sign, "Offices of Dottore Enzo Migliorini." On entering, there's a narrow vestibule with an upholstered bench on one side, which is the waiting room for the Doctor. His tiny office and examining room is on the right, closed off by an opaque glass door.
"Our part of the fifth floor is to the left and consists of a sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bath. Behind the kitchen are two additional rooms where the owner, Sig. Beltrami and her daughter live. She's the granddaughter of a minister in the Victor Emmanuel government and is all but impoverished. She has kitchen rights. Dr. Enzo Migliorini has full strolling rights to everything (even our bed I was told). He is from Calabria and is lively and garrulous and speaks eight words of English.
"The bedroom is about the size of yours in New York and is furnished with an enormous bed. A pair of doors leads out to a narrow terrace. The view is a dream. You can see across the Tiber to the Janiculum hill. Best of all is the view right down into the Forum. The arch of Septimius Severus is clearly visible as is the church of the Gesu and parts of St. Peter's. To the left is the leaning medieval tower called the 'Torre dei Milizie.' Flashy Baroque domes of a half dozen churches sparkle near the forum, and, bless its pure white, never-to-darken Brescian marble soul, in our face is the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful monument of Victor Emmanuel.
"If you look straight down you’ll see a glass-roofed structure covering humming printing presses. This is the Communist daily, L'Unita. The presses run all night, giving a white sound that supposedly will lull us into sleep.
"Are there disadvantages? Sort of. There’s neither hot water nor heat except for a wood burning stove at the side of the bed. A woodman sells logs for the stove -- except during strikes (numerous and erratic and ever-present). He’s a Communist and is unwilling to cross picket lines. For warm bath water we plan to buy a couple of large tin tubs, heat them on the stove and every three days or so have a bath. The landlord assures us that by November the radiators will be working.
"The place costs $50 a month. No lease papers, no lawyers or real estate agents. As your daughter puts it, ‘has a better view than our Princeton Quonset hut.’"
A handshake with Signora Beltrami sealed the deal.
To celebrate, Dr. Migliorini invited us out to dinner at a legendary restaurant just outside of Rome and called his sweetheart, Claudia Vinciguerra, a short, trim, red haired Roman beauty with a fiery eye and an infectious laugh, to join us. She worked in the British Embassy and spoke perfect English. We drove out in our two cars.
Enzo rolled his eyes at our Renault 4CV and proudly showed off his sleek electric blue Lancia, the only car to own. We went far out on the via Appia to the restaurant Villa Tor Carbone, favored by true Romans, which boasted its own light and airy Frascati and thus we drank far too much, but what the hell. The main dish was a dream -- breast of young turkey cooked in a pound of butter for each helping and "gilded" with a light, scrumptious glaze of the finest Parmeggiano.
Since Enzo’s command of English was meager, Claudia made instantaneous translations. He rattled on non-stop in his Calabrian accent and decorated his conversation by flinging his arms, hands and fingers around wildly. His words, we learned in time, seldom contained half as explosive and violent content as the gestures seemed to indicate.
"I am a medical Doctor -- general practitioner -- and, yes, my patients in the city who come to my office there, where I go only a little, so don't worry I won't be in your faces every minute -- and I like long weekends from work -- my city patients are certain pretty women, at least some of them, and, yes, I do examine them for their state of cleanliness for they do special work, you understand what that work would be? Good! In America this is not done, yes? Not really? Huh! We are the Catholics, I say, we are the ones supposed to be straight and narrow, but it's you Americans who are so -- what is the word I'm seeking, Claudia? -- Yes Puritans. Don't you -- didn't you -- still burn people? But you don't do that anymore, yes? And we Catholics did, too? You ought to know, you are the historian. Amazing. I apologize for that. I am doctor to a bunch of 'putane,' whores, you call them, but okay, they need me. And I like them. My other practice is for the people in a place outside of Rome, what we call an 'Ente. My patients there are farm people who make some good wine you'll have to try. Now we are finished here so let's go back to my apartment for an Anice."
Enzo lived in Parioli, the modern and fancy section of Rome in a somber looking apartment house. But his flat was crisp and low key with a very beautiful 19th century painting of his home village in Calabria.
"That silly little car, where did you get it?" he asked very late in the evening. It reminded him of a car story, the one about the guy who owned Italy's smallest car, a Topolino, or "Mouse," made by Fiat, a two-seater even smaller than our Renault. Claudia translated.
"This guy in the ‘Topolino’ is driving on the autostrada from Milano to Venice where all the cars are roaring by at two hundred kilometers an hour. He ‘va guasto,’ breaks down. Another chap in a souped-up Lancia Super Veloce stops to help. He has a rope and suggests towing the tiny Topolino to the next exit. He says if there's any trouble just honk like hell. As they get ready to go another driver in an even flashier and more souped-up Fiat Spyder Sprint slows down and gives the Lancia owner the Italian sign for ‘race me.’
"The guy in the Lancia cannot resist. Soon the three cars are rocketing down the autostrada at 100 miles an hour with the poor Topolino whipping around behind on the rope, honking like hell.
"They barrel past one of those highway maintenance buildings one sees every 20 kilometers on autostradas and the officer gets on the phone and calls the next station. 'Gotta see this race. There's a Fiat Spyder going 200 kilometers and next to him, neck and neck, there's a Lancia Super Veloce, but what you won't believe is that just behind the leaders, there's a Topolino and he is honking to pass!'"
Enzo confided to me that Berlitz was okay but the best way to learn Italian was to have a minor auto accident and/or get an Italian lover. He taught me the best swear words in case I did have a minor accident. I wrote them all in my journal and used them all. I got so I could string altogether in one devastating curse. But we did go to Berlitz for two months and, at the end of our sessions were surprised that we could get by very well in Italian.
My fears that I would be far behind the other six members of the seminar were unfounded, since I was such a quick learn. Amusingly, my senior thesis on early Christian basilicas prepared me better than I would have imagined and at least I had the jargon down pat. We were split into pairs and my partner was Dora Wiebenson, a perceptive student of the history of architecture.
After the first week I told Nancy over dinner at Raimondo’s what the deal was all about.
"Krautheimer is an amusing wizened little monkey of a man with a scrunched face and a beetle-brow. He wears thick eyeglasses that half conceal a pair of canny, amused eyes. His accent is marvelous -- part German and part Oxonian. There are seven of us. My ‘buddy,’ Dora, is as wary as I am since she, too, has never taken the subject before. The most brilliant student is Norman Neuerberg, who knows everything about Roman topography. Our apartment friend, Howard Hibbard, went to Harvard and doesn’t know much. The others, Al Frazier, Joe Polzer and Joachim Gedda, can quote chapter and verse of books on the subject I didn’t know existed. But I feel confident I can keep up.
"What’s it about? Kissing bricks -- yeah, I mean literally kissing bricks. Our mission is to date the initial building and re-buildings of some early Christian churches by dating all the brickwork. We have to measure the brick courses, even taste them by licking the mortar between bricks. I’m not kidding. Every mortar through the centuries has a different chemical composition and Krautheimer swears he can tell each one by tasting the mortar. All Roman brickwork can be dated because each emperor inaugurated a new style of bricks; essentially they get thicker as time goes on. Once I memorize a couple of dozen shapes, I’ll be able to identify brickwork from early Republican days all the way to the beginning of the Romanesque period. Krautheimer has a pile of photos of brick courses from the time of Augustus through the Carolingian period."
A Raimondo waiter interrupted me to find out what we wanted for dessert. Not knowing what "cake" was in Italian, I groped for a word and blurted out, "Gatto," thinking of French for cake. The waiter cringed and in a few moments Raimondo himself came over with a forced smile and placed the house cat into my lap.
Nancy laughed and reached for the little creature, "That looks to me more like a hors-d’oeuvre than dessert."
The typical Krautheimer session started with a three-hour skull session at the Academy followed by a three-hour break for lunch and a siesta. In the afternoon we’d traipse off to date the bricks in one of three churches, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santo Stefano Rotondo and Santa Costanza on the via Nomentana.
The first field trip was a revelation for me. We gathered at the shining, swirling 18th century façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The grand church had been commissioned by Constantine in 311, dedicated first to Christ and later to John the Baptist. The mammoth structure (the size of one and a half football fields) had been rebuilt throughout many centuries -- in the 5th, 9th, 14th, the 17th by Carlo Borromini and finally by Ferdinando Galilei in the 18th century when the swirling façade was added.
We plunged down into a series of crypts forty feet down in cool blackness lighted only by our flashlights. The Italian archaeologist who had initiated the digs in the mid thirties greeted us and identified the Constantinian bricks, a solid phalanx above stumpy walls for Nero’s Praetorian cavalry barracks. Amazingly the Constantinian brickwork rose as high as the lofty church.
Down there in the depths I was stunned to confront beautiful wall paintings, including one fragment of a handsome, full-faced, Roman-nosed and full-lipped matinee idol wearing a Phrygian cap. "Francis X. Bushman," Krautheimer quipped, mentioning the silent film star who had acted in the original Quo Vadis.
Right then, I realized how much of an enchanted time machine Rome is. Forty feet below the modern level are copious traces of the beginnings of the city dating to the 8th century B.C. At that moment in the depths of San Giovanni, I became hooked on archaeology.
Our discovery of the day was a 17th-century fraud. Architect Borromini, in order to justify his surprisingly high construction costs, had filled several volumes of detailed notes describing his works. He’d written copiously on how he'd carted underground the most expensive fill and concrete to shore up the church so that it wouldn’t collapse. But, search as we did -- for several hours -- we couldn’t find a single trace of this expensive material, only yard after yard of common Roman dirt.
We examined half a dozen early Christian or Carolingian churches over the next three weeks, peeling each one apart like an onion. The drill was to start outside and walk around checking for changes of brick style. Sometimes this entailed odd, meandering travels and vigorous climbs through and over a private house or a shop or espresso bar. We were always welcomed when we explained what we were doing. Only once did we get hassled -- at the round funeral church of Santo Stefano Rotondo.
This round church of the 4th century was intended copies the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Though it is a copy it doesn’t look physically like its model at all. In the Middle Ages a piece of architecture was copied by measurements, never the appearance. Santo Stefano had the precise measurements of its model in Jerusalem, but looked utterly different. The structure was in the process of being totally restored by the Vatican and was thus off limits to the public. We had to obtain a special permit. As we approached with our laissez-passé, the custodian, a leathery "dragon," started shaking her shaggy head -- absolutely no entry. She grabbed the permit and started chewing on it. Krautheimer didn’t stop her as, certain she was foiling us, she swallowed it and smacked her lips over it. Then he whipped out the original. After some imaginative cursing, she let us in, but stuck close to us as we wandered through the ancient structure, measuring the brickwork.
By mid June we were finished with the Roman churches and started towards Ravenna through Spoleto, Pesaro and Fano. Ravenna was vital for the seminar, having the most extensive early Christian and early Byzantine works of art and architecture.
"I love cruising through Italy with Krautheimer," Nancy said, "because he hunts for good coffee and good food as carefully as he hunts for bricks." The venerable professor had developed a crush on my lovely wife.
He amused us greatly by putting on an absent-minded professor act. Once I saw him sitting in a piazza, having an espresso, diligently reading his newspaper, which he held upside down. He was checking out the passers-by. When he took photos of some brickwork with his battered box camera, he’d set the thing down, open the aperture and a half hour later come back and place his passport over the lens, muttering to me that he’d seldom gotten a decent photo in his life. He begged me to take as many photos as I could stand with my fancy camera.
Nancy and I fell in love with Ravenna and we memorized every word about it published in the best series of guidebooks put out by the Automobile Club of Italy (ACI). To cap off our delight I found an addictive local goody called a "bomboloni" a small doughnut-like sugar-bomb filled with egg custard. Yummy.
The task set for us by the professor was to kiss the bricks of six monuments -- the gorgeous tomb of the gorgeous empress Galla Placidia, the Orthodox and Arian Baptisteries, the churches of San Appolinare Nuovo, San Appolinare in Classe and San Vitale. For a final examination Dora Wiebenson and I had been assigned the least interesting church in Ravenna, Santo Spirito, which was so dull historically that the ACI guidebook had a paragraph on it stating only that it was a routine 5th century basilica, enlarged several times and now restored to its original appearance.
We were most eager to see Galla Placidia’s tomb since the guidebook said it was the finest early Christian monument in the world because of its thrilling mosaics and the ancient windows made of thin alabaster. Very romantic.
Nancy had become fascinated with Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius and mother of emperor Valentinian III, who had bestowed upon Ravenna some of the city’s finest works. She found a book on the girl and regaled me with her life.
"She was sweet, bright, gorgeous and conniving. Aelia Galla Placidia was born around 390, the daughter of emperor Theodosius and the half-sister of Emperors Honorius and Arcadius. Intelligent as well as beautiful, her coins show a thin, delicate profile with such a head of hair! In 394 she went to Milan where her father died. The plucky girl picked up a classical education and was awarded the title, ’Most Noble Girl.’ Funny, I got the same at Vassar.
"Well, when Alaric surrounded Rome, Galla was caught trying to sneak out of town dressed as a boy. After the sack, Galla was carried off to Gaul, the land, then and now, of great food, high fashion and higher prices. At twenty-four she was forced to marry some redneck chieftain named Athaulf who happened to hate all Romans. Galla, through her arts of seduction, convinced him to love her and all her Romans friends. Then, perhaps wanting to work on her tan, she traveled to Spain with hubby and had a baby who died in childbirth.
"Then hubby died under mysterious circumstances and Galla -- she’s now twenty-six -- went back to Rome where she married Constantius, a general and something of a brute. She bore him a girl and a boy, Valentinian. Constantius was ‘elected’ emperor in 421 and Galla became empress of the whole wide world. Well, almost. She wasn’t recognized in the East, which is where the real power was.
"When Constantius died -- I don’t know who killed him, certainly not Galla -- she had a serious argument with her brother, Honorius, and she had to flee with the kids to Constantinople where the eastern emperor, Theodosius II, protected her.
"Here’s where the plot thickens. A certain Johannes grabbed power in the West but our girl lucked out because the eastern guys recognized her teenage son Valentinian as emperor of the West. Galla and Valentinian went to Italy, wiped out Johannes and Valentinian was made Augustus of the whole West in 425.
"Galla, now called Aelia Galla Augusta Placidia, was her son’s regent for twelve years and held the reins of state firmly. The first thing on her agenda was to name a supreme general of the West. Galla rejected Boniface, the count of Africa, and opted for a certain Felix, ’Happy.’ But ‘Happy’ was murdered in 430 on the orders of one Aetius. The timing was awkward, because Galla had just persuaded ‘Happy’ to terminate Aetius.
"Meanwhile, when ‘Bonny’ declared his independence, Galla dispatched an army of Huns to kill him, but the Huns threatened to join up with Boniface. Canny Galla sued for peace with both ‘Bonny‘ and the traitorous Huns. Yet, in 432, ‘Bonny’ wandered into Italy and went after Aetius, remember him? ‘Bonny’ was killed. Aetius, a skilled manipulator, was pardoned and when Valentinian became of age, and shared power with him. Galla made it look like she was going to retire but she actually manipulated both her son and Aetius until her death in Rome in 450 at the age of sixty.
"And that’s the story of the astonishing gal whose tomb we’re going to see tomorrow, the gem of early Christianity, that tiny jewel-box with the famous ancient golden alabaster windows."
"You sure that wasn’t the libretto of some Italian opera?" I asked.
"Ought to be."
The only glitch in the story was that Krautheimer proclaimed that the "tomb" was not Galla’s tomb, but a chapel with no known connection with the golden girl. And the world-famous ancient alabaster windows were alabaster all right but were put installed during the 19th century. Nonetheless we found the place to be splendid. It is a miniscule cruciform chapel of solid 5th century brickwork (with slightly acrid mortar possessing a blackberry taste and a sedate finish). The chapel is a central shed crowned by a cute little dome. Inside, there’s an incomparable, glowing gem. The walls and dome are covered by the most lustrous mosaics, which sparkle like colored diamonds. It was, I joked to my wife, as captivating as my stepmother’s famous ring-watch, although perhaps smaller.
The subject matter of the radiant mosaics is somewhat grisly, however. Saint Lawrence shuffles off to his martyrdom by being roasted on a large grill, which has crimson and gold mosaics showing the coals already afire. Above him are a pair of saints and two lovely doves drinking from a great snow-white chalice. In a niche is Christ as the good shepherd surrounded by six fat sheep.
The mosaics of the diminutive dome are magnificent. Four lithe young white-robed angels rise aloft a floral roundel containing the Lamb of God. The background is a tangle of vines in breathtaking greens and blues.
"Galla would have liked this," Nancy said, still annoyed that her golden girl was not linked to the grandiose monument. "Write a paper proving that it is Galla’s and prove our professor wrong."
Impressive as the little shrine was, it paled in comparison to the next church we visited, San Vitale, the most sublime early Byzantine church to have survived, commissioned and lavishly decorated by emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The interior is ablaze with the most refulgent mosaics of all Christendom. Even in the relative gloom they seem to burn like fires.
The apse has an imperial looking, youthful, pudgy-faced Christ who looks very pleased-with-himself. He is garbed in a royal purple toga and sports a halo that looks as if it’s fashioned from precious stones. Two saints are being guided towards Christ by a pair of white-robed angels. One is Saint Vitale whose relics were originally stashed somewhere in the church but have since disappeared. The other is Bishop Ecclesius, who carries a scale model of the great church. Scenes of sacrifice from the Old Testament -- Isaac and Melchisedek -- adorn the walls of the narthex.
Three large windows pierce the wall just below the apse and, flanking them, appear the world-famous mosaics of Justinian and his bride, Theodora. We all agreed that these are amongst the finest works of art surviving from any time and civilization, on a par with the Sistine ceiling and Caravaggio’s sublime works in San Luigi dei Francesi.
The emperor and his queen parade towards their respective thrones for the high mass. The emperor is attended by six soldiers, three courtiers in white robes and three ecclesiastics including Archbishop Maximianus. Justinian, a handsome bright-eyed bravo, wears a purple toga and a small cape loaded down with embroidered jewels. He wears a bejeweled crown and, amazingly, a halo. He holds an enormous loaf of bread, the symbol of the Eucharist.
Opposite him and on an equal status is Theodora surrounded by her retinue, made up of two male courtiers and seven ladies-in-waiting who look chaste and demure compared to Her Highness, the Imperial Clotheshorse. One of the handmaidens lifts a curtain for the parade to start. Theodora is gorgeous. She wears a lofty crown with strings of pearls cascading from the top like a mountain waterfall. She, too, wears a halo. A bejeweled corset as large as a football player’s shoulder pads covers her breasts. The imperious creature carries a golden goblet -- presumably for Eucharist wine. A lovely detail is the wide hem of her purple robe with "embroidered" images of the Three Magi presenting their gifts.
These characters are spiritual wraiths. Only their faces and jewels are in any sense realistic. They walk on air and gaze straight at the onlooker. The mosaics are a riot of colors with glints of gold and contrasting pools of blackness illuminated by darting glows of yellows and reds and lightning strikes of emerald green, white, vermilion, pearl-gray and violet. It looks like a fireworks display frozen for all time.
After that magnificence it was on to our "examination" church for Dora and me -- the excruciatingly boring Santo Spirito. It was nothing more uplifting than a routine 5th-6th century basilica with a porch of five arches supported by six columns. Inside there was a nave and two side aisles with fourteen columns. That was it. Even the brickwork looked dull.
The custodian was friendly and asked, were we really Americans? "Good. I have always wanted to meet some Americans because I remember you from the war. You bombed me out of two houses."
The priest was overjoyed that we wanted to study his church and guided us through his private quarters and his lovely garden, blushing at our compliments, allowing us free run of the place, even on the outside which was plastered over so we couldn’t read any brickwork.
One afternoon, just before leaving the interior before our presentation, Nancy suddenly spotted strange, barely discernible marks in the plastered clerestory walls. We soon saw they were the traces of a series of large pointed Gothic arches, which had been filled in during the reconstruction of the early twentieth century. What a find! No scholar to our knowledge -- and we’d read the entire literature -- had ever written that Santo Spirito had been rebuilt, no doubt in the 15th century, with a series of monumental Gothic windows.
Everybody but the keen amateur Nancy Hoving had passed over this vital detail. Why? Probably because it was deemed too illogical for a 5th-6th century church to possess pointed Gothic arches.
When the seminar gathered in the church for our presentation, I told my colleagues and Dr. K. that Nancy would help present our findings. His bushy eyebrows all but flapped. We waited until the very end when Nancy calmly said, "And you all must have taken notice of the unmistakable outlines of the Gothic arched windows in the clerestory -- there, there and there."
Krautheimer leaped to his feet and embraced her.
We got the best marks in the seminar.
"Bloody luck out," was Nancy’s comment.
At the dinner to celebrate the end of the seminar, I made a toast: "I drink to my brilliant colleagues and my perspicacious wife. I drink to our gifted, amusing, and splendidly garrulous, Professor Richard the K. who sure can pick the bricks and the restaurants. I also raise my glass to those acres of bricks we have counted, measured, peered at, licked and kissed over the weeks. I have learned from them more than I could possibly have imagined."
The morning we were to drive back towards Rome I got the nutty idea to make a zigzag pilgrimage to see the works of one artist, the divine Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. We would wander from Urbino, to the village of Borgo san Sepulchro, to the smaller village nearby, Monterchi and, for a climax, to Arezzo.
Nancy read from the guidebook as we drove into Urbino, the hill town which had flourished under Federigo da Montefeltro from 1444 to 1482.
"We’ll see the famed twin towers of Federigo’s palace -- there! Fairy tale stuff. The palace is known for the hundreds of rooms and kitchens and even an icehouse. Federigo and his wife Batista Sforza orchestrated the most sophisticated court in Italy. He was a successful ’condottiere,’ a gun-for-hire, a slick diplomat and connoisseur of the arts. Under his patronage Piero wrote works on perspective. Baldassare Castiglione, the quintessential Renaissance man, wrote The Book of the Courtier describing the heady intellectual sessions at Montefeltro’s court. There’s a twin portrait of him and Batista in the Uffizi -- I remember them from Art 101 -- and that we’ll have to see. But here Piero’s Flagellation is the gem."
Standing before it I remembered that someone had written once that it was like "a sacred event in some Homeric hall." An apt description because Piero’s classical architecture was pure ancient Greek. On top of a lovely Ionic column on which Christ was bound was a solid gold sculpture of a Greek god, the symbolic of paganism, which Christ would shatter.
Nancy was electrified by the thing. "My God, the way he places these three figures of Pilate’s crew so that the hall where Christ stands seems to rush back hundreds of feet into the distance! It is so cruel and serene, perfect and stately at the same time. The way that guy with the whip moves so deliberately and how Pilate sits there so motionless, so without emotion! And the figures are so fully in the round! God, I can almost reach in, put my hands around them and pluck ’em out."
In Borgo san Sepulchro where Piero was born, two of the greatest paintings ever created in the entire western world were displayed in a tiny gallery in the seldom-visited Palazzo Communale. We were let in by a sour-faced young custodian who limped on a wooden leg. He motioned us curtly into the main gallery where the Resurrection and the Misericordia were displayed. But he started smiling when he saw we weren’t the "quick-see-it-let’s-go" type of tourists. When I told him we had come all the way from New York City to see the two paintings, he never stopped grinning.
The Last Judgment is the kind of awesome monument that has the power of converting nonbelievers to Christianity and came close to converting me. Christ is like some ferocious Zeus striding out of the tomb around which is a squad of sleeping Roman soldiers. His power and intensity were enough to make my blood run cool. That imperious stare! That look of triumphant power and cruelty made me avert my eyes. The long face and the wide, staring eyes came closer to what I consider Christ to have looked like than any painting of the Savior I’d ever seen. The total effect was one of utter shock. The painting is the very symbol of Christianity.
When we finished reveling in the glories of the Resurrection and the altar of the Madonna of the Misericordia, the custodian asked if we wanted to see a recently discovered Piero, which no member of the public had yet seen. He held out his hand casually and I slapped him with a brick of Lire. We hiked a quarter of a mile to an abandoned school and there, looking through a small hole in the wall into a littered room, we were astonished to find the head of a young saint or an angel -- a head with the noble, somewhat pouty look Piero perfected. Huge eyes, stark black hair. In perfect preservation. The workers had been clearing out the interior of the school and found it behind a wall. To my delight, years later that lovely head would become the centerpiece of a spectacular exhibition of Italian Frescoes, "The Great Age of Frescoes," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We next drove to Monterchi, a hamlet on the road to Arezzo, to view the Madonna del Parto, a fresco decorating a miniscule chapel in the graveyard. Unbelievably gorgeous, the painting shows a young, oval-faced Virgin, gently opening her robe to show that she’s pregnant.
In the cathedral of Arezzo Piero’s frescoes depict episodes about discovery of the True Cross. With the help of a gifted follower Piero painted twelve works, six of them large and all knockouts. Thank goodness the sun was blazing so we could see them clearly. We stayed for several hours, silently basking in the glory of Piero, studiously consulting our ACI guidebook to figure out what the hell was going on.
The legend was that a seed from the tree in the Garden of Eden was placed in Adam’s mouth at his death. The tree that grew up out of his grave was chopped down in King Solomon’s time and used to make a bridge. The Queen of Sheba, on her way to a meeting with Solomon, was about to cross that bridge, but recoiled, sensing that this was the wood on which the forthcoming Savior would be crucified. She told Solomon of her mystical experience. The King, figuring that the killing of the eventual Savior would mean the end of his kingdom and even the Jews, ordered the wood to be hidden and buried.
Centuries later the wood was found and became the cross to crucify Christ. Then it disappeared for three hundred years. Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, journeyed to Jerusalem searching for it. The only man who knew its hiding place was tortured to reveal its location. When found, the True Cross brought to life a youth who had died several days before. Three centuries later, in 615, the Persian king Chosroes spirited the cross away. But a Byzantium emperor, Heraclius, defeated Chosroes in 628, took the holy relic back to Jerusalem and carried it around the city, barefoot, as Christ had done.
Every one of Piero’s players was swathed in classical draperies and looked like actors in an ancient Greek play. They all wore such marvelously crazy hats -- towering tubes of white or beige looking like miniature atomic plant silos with colors ranging from russets to lavenders and greens of remarkable subtlety to sparkling blues and silvers.
We came away convinced that our Piero pilgrimage would have been worth a trip from or Princeton just to see his transcendent works.
On the way back to our apartment, Nancy said, "Let’s stay longer in this divine country."
"I’m with you."
This is chapter 13 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.