“When the artist no longer focuses on mountains
or ink quality,
or on ‘sages’,
Only then can he fulfil empowerments.”
Shitao, Enlightening Remarks on Painting
Table of Contents
Black is merely a concept, fleeting and fickle, within which all other colours vibrate. My gaze sinks into its complex darkness, which multiplies to infinity beyond a bank of cloud, in the same way black will retreat on a canvas, generously moving aside to bring out the subject. Just minute touches of white lead break through the dark, similar to the light within the iris, the touch of the brush which is indispensable to bring a glance to life.
Leaning on the stern rail, I don’t feel the cold, despite the December wind puffing out my light cloak. It’s sweat, though, mixed with the sea spray that makes my skin glisten, a slimy salty film forming on my face and neck as the hull plunges between the smooth hollows of water.
The foremast sways, tracing wide semicircles, and the boat’s roll rocks me with an unreal lightness, as if I were walking in a dream.
I sit on the rail and look beneath me. A female figurehead, smaller but almost identical to the one on the bow, looms over the keel, motionless above the whirlpool of foam far below. There is something slightly hypnotic in the perfection of that dark vortex. Its primitive beauty, which welcomes and rejects, invites me to lean out even further.
The ship gives an unexpected jerk, which brings me to myself with a jolt. My feet feel for the firm planks of the deck, but a cable comes loose, cracking and lashing wildly like a whip. I raise my arms to protect my face, but, struck by a metal hook, I lose my balance and fall overboard. My hands grasp the figurehead and for a few seconds I hang on
to her, struggling to keep my hold on the wet wood, then I realise I’m losing my grip. A flash of lightning lights up the proud profile of the roughly carved face; my fingers slide over the shape, unable to get a hold; then I close my eyes and let go.
My flight is stopped by a powerful grip on my arm. Suspended in mid-air like an injured seagull, I feel a stab of pain lacerate my shoulder and I scream out. A voice calls me and a hand stretches out towards mine. With an effort I manage to grab it and it takes my weight until I can collapse onto the deck.
“For heaven’s sake! What are you doing up here?”
The cold and pain penetrate beneath my skin, my body shivering uncontrollably. A black hole rises from my stomach upwards, overwhelming my limbs and dimming my senses. Then just darkness.
1532 – 1559 Cremona
In the beginning there was colour. And the tepid light of late afternoon which filtered through the rose window, warming its hues. I was a little under six years of age and I held tight onto my father’s hand as I crossed the threshold into Cremona cathedral.
I was convinced I had walked into a temple of wonders. Its walls glowed with a life of their own, telling stories in a feast of bodies, faces, robes and adornments that bewildered and excited the senses. At the front, above the altar, the huge figure of Christ, cloaked in midnight blue, blessed everything from on high, encircled by a light of such purity that I had to half close my eyes.
I let my hungry gaze run the whole length of the central nave and over the two smaller naves at the side, where the recesses opened up, like an enchanted casket, to reveal other stories and other colours. Then all at once I saw it: a corpse laid out, surrounded by a wailing crowd. The grief was real. It flowed from the wretched faces, the pursed lips, the upturned eyes. A movement of limbs, glances, lights and shadows which drew me inside it, leading me to the centre of all the tension, beneath the waxy cloak of the Virgin, towards the stillness of Jesus’ body. It was so real, with those feet emerging from the wall towards me and the orange drape on which I could count every fold. I couldn’t help but stretch out my fingers to touch it.
My father placed his hand on my shoulder. When I lifted my face, my eyes were full of tears.
“Sofi, are you ready?”
I smiled. Only my father called me that.
“Coming, father.” I flew downstairs, my heart singing.
My sister Elena moved to one side just in time, giving me a look of disapproval.
“Sofi… hurry up. We’re late.”
I didn’t have to be asked twice. The appointment was the highlight of the week. The day when my father let me follow him to the church of San Sigismondo, where he was appointed to recruit the artists who were to decorate the temple.
He had noticed my flair for art a few years earlier and when he was appointed trustee for the church renovations, he had tried to make me a part of the routine of his visits; at first just occasionally, then almost as a regular thing, until I had gradually become a familiar presence to nearly all the artists.
“Signor Amilcare, I see you have brought your charming assistant once again today.” Giulio Campi welcomed us with a huge wave from the top of the scaffolding. I looked up at him, giving him one of my broadest smiles. Though I was trying really hard, I could only really see a small part of his work. A flash of whites, yellows, greens and blues, irresistible in their sparkling purity.
“Good morning, Giulio.” My father moved forward while I tried to peep through the boards. “You have worked miracles. It looks as if your Pentecost is taking on its final shape.”
“Yes. It still needs some touches here and there but it’s more or less finished.”
He leant over to look down. “Sofonisba, you’ll never manage to see it from down there! You’ll have to wait for the scaffolding to be removed, unless….” A smile lit up his face. “Signor Amilcare,” he flung out an arm pointing to the steps. “I formally invite you to be the first person to admire the finished work.”
My father had just put his foot on the first step when he added, “Naturally the invitation is extended to your daughter too. Her graceful and discreet presence has always brightened up our workplace. From the expression on her face I would guess she wouldn’t be satisfied with hearing a mere verbal description of the work.”
My eyes shone and my heart missed a beat. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to be allowed up onto the scaffolding that I had always admired with upturned face from below.
The look my father gave me was a clear reminder that at thirteen I was no longer a child and young ladies of a certain class did not normally go climbing up ladders. However, my disappointment must have shown so clearly that he didn’t have the courage to express his disapproval.
He came up to me, looked around and whispered, “As a truly exceptional circumstance… and only for a few minutes. If your mother knew, she certainly would not approve.”
As I shinned up the ladder, refusing my father’s helping hand, I thought I was flying. I got to the top and sat down, thrilled at the different view I got from on high.
I lifted my eyes to look at the fresco and was awestruck. It was as if the church roof had been ripped open to reveal a view from below of bodies in motion, so real and alive that I could almost feel the air shifting as their garments stirred. I felt drawn upwards, beyond the figures and the outstretched hands, in a whirlwind which broke through space and the confines of reality, projecting me towards the divine and mysterious. My father too looked rapt by the power of the images.
I broke the silence. “Giulio… it makes me want to climb inside. How do you make it look so real?”
“It’s called perspective. It’s an optical illusion. The things that must look as if they are up close are painted larger and the other things get smaller and smaller the further away they are. It’s done following precise rules, just as our eyes see things in real life.”
“It seems like a form of magic.”
He laughed. “Well, in a certain sense, that’s just what it is.”
On our way home, just before the carriage drew up in front of our door, I looked at my father and said in all seriousness, “Father, I’ve decided. I want to become a painter.”
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