Newsletter 46: Can it really be Thursday already?

(December 2020)

The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and lo! The Bird is on the Wing

The colours of autumn were at first brilliant on the trees and then for a couple of days just as bright on the ground, till they turned dark brown and dry. Now those that remain are dank and sodden with rain. Nature’s colours are locked into the procession of time. It was all over too quickly. And now it is the year’s midnight and the world’s whole sap is sunk, with the bleakest months still ahead, and a bleak year behind us.

It seems I am not very good at calculating time, and in the current year this tendency has worsened. Planning for the future has been impossible, and in me this has prompted a lot of looking backwards. Socialising — of which there has not been enough — keeps a person in the present and future; relative isolation makes getting lost in the past only too easy and habitual. Since the first trip to look at the works of Piero della Francesca (in 2010), eighty-nine people have participated in four holidays centred on Città di Castello, travelling to Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Perugia and Urbino. This year in late October twenty-three participants were ready to travel, but were frustrated by the pandemic. I study the peculiar ratio of 89:23 as if it might contain some mystical meaning, but I can make nothing of it.

I have been fascinated by Piero’s paintings since I first saw them as a student. At one point ‘Piero’ was going to be our son’s middle name, but then we lost our nerve and opted for a safe family moniker. Piero considered himself chiefly a mathematician, so he might have had something to say about 23 and 89. Experts draw nests of geometric lines, explaining the exact configuration of his perspectives, or the absolute patterns of symmetry in his paintings. And yet they are intensely human pictures, if this is not too vague a designation; I showed a large reproduction of the face of the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi to a friend and he immediately fixed on an aspect quite other than any surrounding mathematical design: ‘Look at the lovely modelling of the face.’

And yet commentary on Piero’s art often draws attention to its tendency towards abstraction. There is a city in the background of one of the paintings in The Legend of the True Cross cycle, a vision of Arezzo as Jerusalem, that is extraordinarily redolent of Cezanne’s Cubist depictions of hill towns. (Hill towns, whether in Italy or France, are indeed Cubistically made up of a muddle of walls, buildings and towers presenting as cubes, squares, blocks and triangles, so perhaps they were both just looking at the same thing.)

Città di Castello is a market town in the upper Tiber valley, a very agreeable place to be centred for a week. The church opposite our hotel was the original home of Raphael’s exquisite ‘Marriage of the Virgin’, now in Milan’s Brera, so the greatest painting attached to the area is a blank frame. And there are no absolutely compelling masterpieces in the diocesan museum or the Palazzo Vitelli gallery, pleasant though they are. However Città has a son famous in the world of twentieth-century Italian art: Alberto Burri. If you have a taste or a tolerance for abstract art — and many do not — there is a gallery dedicated to his early and middle career; but the most extraordinary place to see his works are the tobacco drying sheds. Italy used to produce much of its own tobacco, for the infamous Nazionale

cigarettes and Toscano cigars, but now the industry is small. The defunct sheds are enormous structures like wooden skyscrapers, worth seeing just for their own sake. They were much in use to help dry books rescued from the Florence flood of 1966. Now the lower parts of their inner walls are dedicated to art works by Burri. He is a poly-materialist, always experimenting with different substances, fabrics, wood veneers, metal, burnt plastic. In the sheds the works on display are all large, and lots of them feature a fake wood insulating material called Cellotex, a synthesis of glue and wood shavings. Different textures and flat painted plains of jet black or bright colour are set in contrast with each other, or with the naked board. Everything is defiantly abstract. Indeed, wandering around the sheds I am always struck by the effort it must take for this kind of artist to avoid anything that might veer towards the representational. That desire to interpret into different meanings, to see something a bit more than presents itself to the eye, is always frustrated. Pattern and contrast there is in plenty, but never more than pattern and contrast.

Artists seek to establish what you might call the degree of interpretation. My mother, who was always making things, put together a wall-hanging depicting how she imagined our summer family life in Italy. This was in her favourite medium, appliqué, which insists on rough contrasts of texture, pattern and colour, and uses up scraps of material of whatever size and shape. This endeavour was put together on an old green blanket. However, she was displeased to discover something like a face in the background architecture, which she did not intend and which should not have been there. She felt itspoilt her efforts entirely.

Burri had been an active surgeon in the Second World War, and his first paintings were all in red and white. (Never give red and white flowers to an Italian, because they are thought to stand only

for blood and bandages.) Perhaps he required to be abstracted from the horrors that he’d seen. Piero has two battles occupying opposite walls in his Arezzo chapel, but though there is mayhem, the figures are strangely hieratic, even wooden, and there is no gory field hospital visible.

After working as a war surgeon for the Red Cross, my brother also took to painting abstracts. Robin favoured mandalas, symmetrical patterns and colours which aspire to aid calm and thought.

On the Cambodian border dealing with the results of skirmishes with the Vietnamese; in Peshawar patching up Afghan mujahideen brought across the border after battles with the Russians; Bucharest during the coup against Ceausescu; Somalia; Sarajevo: Robin was in many of the twentieth century’s nastiest war zones. By contrast in retirement he came on seventeen Learn Italy trips (another prime number), and as some of those who receive this newsletter will have met him, I feel it’s not inappropriate to mention that he died in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago, of covid and co-morbidities.

It would be untrue to say that things can only get better in 2021, but nonetheless let’s hope they do. Already the hellebores are surprising me with their Christmas blooming (at last I’ve managed to remember their name). Days will soon lengthen with astonishing speed. Sap will start rising in the trees. Buds and leaves and flowers will emerge, shy enough to start with, but then rampant. I am longing for another wonderful spring like the last one, with dry woodland paths and the birds going mad with song, so we can wander, notice and enjoy.

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