Sublime to Ridiculous and Back

Somewhere into the second week of a recent trip to Italy I stopped taking pictures. I was overflowing with wonder at the beauty and antiquity everywhere I turned. Marble statues crowded frescoes cheek by jowl with paintings surrounded by fine marquetry carvings and giltwork. And that wasn’t necessarily in the gallery!

Farmers markets on cobblestone piazzas teemed with ripe tomatoes and green beans and pomegranates. Beside the farmer his neighbour nimbly carved from a roasted boar’s head for a hungry lunch crowd. Craggy faces and sun browned arms waved greetings across the way. But for the sleek modern wheels – Mercedes and Vespas scooting up and down and along tiny laneways flanked by high ancient walls, the scene could have been 500 years ago.  It is sublime.

History matters here. Beauty matters here. Art matters here. Life matters here. We in the west know that shops close for lunch and siesta in Europe, but we may not understand the significance until we experience the frustration of not shopping at will. We in our world of twenty-four hour drug stores and supermarkets have a major adjustment when we see something savoury or lovely in a window and we can’t get at it.

Shops open and shops close – sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Posted hours in the window are merely suggestions of hours of operation. If you want it you will come back. Maybe you’ll discover you don’t even need it or want it by the time you get back and find the shop open. So much in our world of instant is impulse. We are a disposable culture here. What I have to have today I will toss in Goodwill tomorrow.

Pharmacies there, interestingly, are also in most cases homeopathic. Shelves are not chock a block with rows of bright packaging with warnings, but offer a few selections of small number. Shelves are spare – suggesting that ‘here is what works for most people’. And over there – essential oils, scented soaps, waters, salts and all that makes us feel better – all over. What imbues the quality of a mundane moment with memory or sensuousness.

Sensuousness pervades Italy. The sky – deep cerulean blue – touches down on sleek white marble figures reclining in the sparkling waters of a tumultuous fountain; on stone towers dark with centuries of dirt; on municipal buildings arching up curved shoulders of pistachio green or soft ochre pocked with age and the glamour of years.

The kaleidoscope of fields – grapes, olives, lavender undulate over the rolling hills – verdant green, silver blue and purple graced by this same blue sky with high white clouds. The hills recede into pastel mists and lean into the faint mountain scape beyond. Cypress march up hills and pose in silhouette. Umbrella-like Stone Pine trees and lush oleander hedges grow with exuberance.

Soft hued stone villages spill, perch or cling to hillsides each with its ubiquitous church spire, castle tower and central piazza. But in their absolute charm and head turned from modernity, they cannot hold their young who, charged by the media, clamour for the faster pace of a brisk age – paved roads, glass towers. We travellers marvel at the ancient doors and window boxes spilling with geraniums and herbs – lace blowing in the breeze.

If you stop for a moment at the base of stone steps racing up and disappearing around a stone walled building, you can almost hear the hoofs of horses sparking off the stones. These walls breath ancient. Age is venerated. Old men and women, white haired with canes navigate long walks straight up or down 45 degree inclines from piazza market or church to home. They glance with annoyance or wonder at the throng racing from one site to another – video camera raised overhead on ‘auto’. They must wonder what we are in such a hurry for. These sites have been here for centuries and will continue for centuries more.

Buildings are made of stone – older than time itself. Their building required the vision, tenacity and patience of generations. Even the Medicis had to start small and wait for the trades and the slow boat bringing Chinese silks and tapestry for the walls of the palace. Roads had to be built after the drawing was done and the marble chosen from the quarry. Horse or mule-drawn carts dumped raw Carrerra marble outside Michelangelo’s studio. Marble is natural and flawed on occasion. One wrong tap … Start again. Patience, perfection, reverence.

Pigments of paint were made of crushed semi precious stones and minerals of the earth – including gold – eternal elements. When cleaning some of the ancient and medieval art, restorers were at first worried that the process had somehow altered the pigment into unnatural brightness. Further studies showed that these gorgeous rich shades will outlive any Giclee print’s claim to a mere 200 year integrity.

My most sublime moment challenged my slight vertigo and got my heart pounding. Rounding a corner of a lovely wide walkway curving along a mountainside in the village of Spoleto, I glimpsed the edge of what would take my breath away. It was an aqueduct of ancient Roman style. Nearly seven hundred feet across and three hundred feet high over ten arches, it was truly a monument to time, patience, engineering, ingenuity and grace. I walked across it to the crumbling monastery on the far side. Gushing from the hillside was a cascade of water that spilled down the hillside to the river far, far below. I was at once humbled and lifted up.

And what is ridiculous? I returned home to the very trendy heart of Toronto, the village of Yorkville where I live – in the middle of TIFF week – the Toronto International Film Festival. From our sixth floor window we watched a rooftop parking lot transform with red carpet, lights and silver candelabra to a media hub – replete with champagne accessorized little black dresses.

Paparazzi from all over the world stopped traffic for twenty minutes to surround a tinted windowed car to furiously snap pictures – only to shout when the SUV moved on, “Did anyone see who that was?” Streets were shut down and the onlookers struggled to get a glimpse of someone – her? Anyone! Do I deny the beauty and allure of these stars? Hardly. But I do question our cultural rampage after something as transitory as a film about manlike machines that wreak havoc and destruction.

Sure, films can have a message. Avatar did, but the one about the war won greater honours. The irony is that both these films are now available on DVD. Their shelf – theatre – life is over. Their message – yesterday’s news. And what of beauty? Once ‘whatshername’ ages, she will be discarded like a scratched DVD.

We live in cities of smooth straight streets and towering mirrors. Concrete. Glass. Rigid. Cold. Reflective. But what exactly does all this reflect? Our preferred interiors are stark and monochrome. Our art? Whatever matches and is inexpensive so it doesn’t hurt to send it to Goodwill when we are bored or change the scheme.

For me? My life is my own eternity and personal history. Do I want a Botticelli on my wall? Not necessarily. A work of art is a moment in time. Sensuous in its movement from heart to hand to brush to canvas. Give me a stroke on canvas made with passion, a colour not maybe true to nature but true to the artist’s heart. Let an artist tell me a story in which I can share. Warm my rooms with colour and life; my every moment with wonder and delight. Beauty is its own worthy pursuit. If I can age surrounded by beauty then I can age with grace and pleasure.

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