The Endurance of Things

Newsletter 38 (9 July 2018)

Waking at the dawn of an early summer day, I committed myself to trying to get back to sleep, with little hope. There was a Cuckoo calling, and a Hoopoe, and I don’t remember ever hearing them call at the same time before. A deer was barking a long way off.

   Camigliano’s three roosters had been crowing sporadically all night, excited perhaps by the gibbous moon, and now sounding exhausted. Crowing, I hope, to welcome the sun, and not to rejoice in the fact that poultry amounts to 70% of the world bird population, with wild birds making up only 30%. These three sounded ok, but the short and miserable lives of most chickens on our earth don’t bear too much thought.

I am in the so-called ‘green room’, for some thirty years now white except for the painted green skirting board. In a decade or two I wonder who will enjoy waking in this room to listen to the birds tuning up in the valley below.

   Houses are the solid autobiographies of their inhabitants, with most objects standing for something or telling a story. For anyone else the meaning of things is most likely to be opaque, as anyone knows who has had to clear the house of a deceased relative.

   In this room there is not much. A chest of drawers with books on it, including a surprising number of detective novels set in Florence (by Magdalena Nabb); bedroom furniture mostly given by neighbours; a small desk covered with a piece of Indian embroidery (the kind with little mirrors in it), an impulse purchase made in India but I can’t remember where or when; and a rickety chair. On the wall to my left in the dim light there is a large picture, perhaps five foot tall by four foot wide, oil on canvas. 

   It depicts a tree. It is in fact a mulberry tree which used to stand outside a small farmhouse on the Castelgiocondo estate. The painting captures with some success a tree surrounded by tall grass, shimmering in hot summer sunlight. The painter was a genial Italo-American called Larry Trombetta. A landscape gardener in Cape Cod, he’d come to Tuscany to pursue his dream of becoming an artist, and was squatting in this empty house. The rumour was that he’d plastered a $100 bill into the kitchen wall, for his journey home, if things didn’t work out. People regarded him as a harmless eccentric, useful as a child-minder or expert at getting a pizza oven going. We all laughed at his story of sitting up all night with a bow and arrow to kill the porcupine that was laying waste to his vegetable patch; after hours of moonlit waiting, the creature arrived and, sensing danger, it riffled its spines – and so frightened Larry that he retreated ingloriously, abandoning his lettuces and tomatoes to the greedy brute.  

   After a couple of years of arduous and lonely country life (no running water or electricity), he’d completed perhaps twenty paintings that satisfied him, nearly all depictions of the mulberry; he had a small exhibition and we bought this painting. We liked Larry, the tree, and the picture. Larry then went back to the US and showed his remaining paintings to galleries who told him, yes, they could sell his works very successfully but he would have to produce a large number every year. It was not his style to churn out paintings to order, so he relinquished his fine art dream. When last heard of, he was a painter of theatrical scenery in Vienna, no doubt including the occasional tree.

The fifteenth-century Sienese painter Sano di Pietro is generally despised by art historians for having lived a long life churning out colourful and sweet Madonna-and-Childs (red haired!) by the dozen. There is also a Sienese painter called the Master of the Osservanza whose few identified works are highly prized and given pride of place in galleries. Recent research suggests that Sano and the Master are almost certainly one and the same person. For artists (Giorgione and Raphael) and poets (Keats, Shelley, Byron) an early death can be a saving grace as well as a tragedy. For most of us, with only miniscule achievements in which to take satisfaction, soldiering on is good enough.

   What if Larry, the Master of the Mulberry Tree, had thrown himself upon the art market? I think he was right not to: the relationship between art and value and money is always vexed and vexing. He had taken the chance of elaborating his talent; the market had beckoned, but he preferred to turn his back on it, with pride rather than despair.

   And what of the painting as an object? It is very flimsy, the frame on which it is stretched being neither perfectly rectangular nor flat. It could only be moved or stored with care. It will survive on this uneven wall for the time being, and then I can imagine it stacked in some cobweb-strewn cellar until faded and torn beyond repair. Not such a bad end, having given more than a modicum of pleasure for many decades.