Nonfiction / R G Pagano
:: Like a Polaroid Transfer ::
I Along the Way.
The point of living in Italy the first time was to write a novel, something that had escaped me. So I had this idea that I would try again, not knowing what would emerge while following Nancy wherever she might wander and learning more Italian along the way.
“Only a kitchen is missing,” Giovanni emailed, “which could be installed in the entrance. I could close the entrance with a glass wall and separate it from the stairway. To get to the flat you would go through the garden, our living room, and up the stairway to the second floor.”
“Grazie,” I replied.
Around Independence Day, several weeks before our departure, Nancy received her sabbatical, along with a letter from the superintendent of schools, who outlined all terms including what Nancy wanted to do most — paint and live in Italy.
I met Nancy in Boston on my way to the Museum of Fine Arts. On that snowy day, we talked about our lives — looking skyward, catching snowflakes, floating with the wind.
Nancy told me about All Soul’s Day in Venice, and the Lido where she found a green-tiled Hungarian hotel among palm trees and overgrown vines. Her description of its empty patio and three-door entrance at the top of crescent stairs made of cement engaged me.
Ten months later, we were married.
At the edge of Bassano del Grappa, near the baby Dolomites, we live on the top floor of a large home with a garden. Exotic plants and old pine trees commune with a Belgian Sheepdog named Gedi, several cats and ducks, and five ducklings promised to a friend after the summer.
Chicca, the mother duck, likes to go inside the house, mostly for Gedi’s water but also to be in a cool place away from the August heat, not a bad instinct except she’s not trained.
I’m not sure you can train a duck.
She doesn’t know, so I carry her outside to the pond where she pretends to walk on water.
Once during dinner in the garden, Chicca tossed my napkin on the ground, more than once. I carried her to the pond, but she returned after I carried her back again until I locked her in the laundry room by the garage, which worked except she’s not trained.
We’d bicycle with traffic, signaling with our hands or using the sidewalk to the old hospital, then entering the old part of Bassano past medieval walls and our favorite pizzeria, against more cars and around people, by a statue of Giacomo da Ponte in a private square. Coasting downward took us by Palazzo Roberti, where Napoleon Bonaparte stayed twice before the end of the 18th century, and into Piazza Garibaldi.
Bicycle racks waited alongside a 13th-century church across from our usual stop for espresso before continuing through Piazza Libertà toward a statue of San Bassiano, our way through the center past buildings with colonnades and a Zodiac clock across the top of the town hall. Former flour, oil, and salt warehouses sped by, and ceramic and antique stores and places to buy grappa.
Ponte Vecchio, a wood-covered bridge designed by Andrea Palladio in the middle 1500s, never disappointed. During summer, we saw men in the Brenta River swinging fishing rods, causing their lines to arch in the wind. Swans glided upstream. Behind us stood the back of a yellow building scarred with bullet marks left from the Great War.
Late in the afternoon, overlooking the Brenta Valley and its hills, we’d sometimes pause under the umbrella trees with black crosses and the names of men or the unknown who were hung on September 26, 1944 for resisting the occupation.
On an Intercity train, we left the rain storms after weeks of intense heat.
Gray clouds hung close to the hills.
Nancy opened a small box of 12 watercolor cubes, and with six brushes, a white palette, and water in a yogurt cup, proceeded to paint. Her initial work formed a tower with high voltage wires and purple mountains along the top, and brown fields and trees along the edge. The wires appeared to fall off the paper.
The train climbed hills before going into a tunnel; then came out as high as the clouds in the distance floating through valleys and above fields of sunflowers.
The initial wash of another watercolor showed a woman titling in front of two large windows. Nancy added color — red to her dress, pink to her face, brown to the tile floor, and blue around the windows.
“This is a woman waiting at a train station,” Nancy said.
Atripalda is nestled in a green province, with vineyards over hills alongside tree-lined roads over more hills, and villages winding around the tops of other hills, and in the distance, pine-covered mountains.
Atripalda had been my first home in Italy. It was where I learned Italian — where I wrote Italian words I had heard in conversation or overheard or read in the papers, and their English meanings later. Reading was easier. The words did not move into each other the way they did in conversation to produce a rhythm that did not discriminate between beginnings or endings.
I was there for six months several years after the 1980 earthquake, and six months two years later, not far from the birthplace of my grandfather near the church of Sant’Ippolisto.
Before the wedding, Nancy and I stepped inside Sant’Ippolisto.
We inspected the restoration, looking up at what was saved after the earthquake and what was not, and how the two were joined with post-modern lines and shapes to balance what had severed the symmetry. Below, we saw crypts with bones of early Christians in cases of glass and bronze in a chapel with frescoes on its ceilings and walls, and beyond the chapel, other frescoes of baby angels holding flags, staffs, and flowers.
The baby angels were above us, above the bride and groom too, injecting joy into the celebration out of the choir and throughout the church, with Sant’Ippolisto and San Sabino, the patron saint and protector of Atripalda, giving their blessings.
They were mostly butterflies whose broad wings were still yellow and orange and purple on slender frames, next to wasps and other winged insects, black with antennas longer than their bodies, and metallic beetles.
Giovanni started the collection in his teen years.
We were in the garden that afternoon. It was afternoon for us in Bassano.
On canvas, Nancy was painting red flowers inside scrub vegetation with white palms on long stems under pine tree branches, and in the back, a fence with vines.
I was writing.
Chicca, Drake, and Duck, and the five ducklings, almost fully grown now, were bathing in a pond behind us and Gedi, asleep in the sun and dreaming I suppose.
“That’s the cellphone,” Nancy said.
I looked down and reached for the phone from under the newspapers. It rang again, and inside its window, ANSWER? appeared.
“Pronto,” I said. “Ciao Carmelina.”
“Hai sentito Riccardo?”
“… into the Twin Towers.”
“You’re breaking up.”
II Seeking Cover.
The sky was almost white. The morning mist obscured the horizon and concealed the mountains, but in the garden enriched the greens and yellows to create an illusion that nothing else existed.
Birds awoke on pines taller than the house.
Rain started to fall.
After flapping his wings, Duck settled down and fell into a kind of meditation. He was still except for his breathing. By the end of the morning, Duck was standing on one leg, leaning and stretching it in some yoga way. Then on the other leg, he extended a wing, pointing and holding the position.
A small statue of Saint Anthony of Padua saw us off. From his niche on a stone column, which along with its twin marked the way to our neighbor’s cornfield, he looked as we walked past him and baby Jesus that he held next to dried roses in a worn vase behind a wire screen.
I carried a French easel, oil paints inside of it, a Plexiglas square and canvas, sometimes two, along with my writing notebooks. Nancy had the rest — brushes in a jar and turpentine in another, both inside a Grand Marnier tin, and rags.
Nancy painted outdoors at Ca’ Cornaro, before the cold when the day began to draw back.
On one canvas, she interpreted a stone pathway covered with vines. Autumn vines, casting their shadows, lined across the stones moving over the edge of the path and turning up and slanting on the grass towards a gray wall and the evergreens behind it. Beyond the vine covered walkway, a statue enters the painting.
The statues watched over us — Apollo and Artemide among the ferns and cacti on our way up the stairway, Pomona in the courtyard, and three children of Fatima, but most of all Virgin Mary, who accompanied us out of this Renaissance villa designed as a country residence for rest and agricultural works among a forest of cedars and pines.
I wonder if most artists have a sense of what they want to express, or if their instincts guide them to create and recreate before finishing, then seeing how far their work has moved away from the beginning and what has happened along the way. The process, alive and discovery-filled, might be more important than the result.
Like an instant out of a Polaroid. Like a Polaroid transfer.
The emulsion, lifted from the instant and transferred to watercolor paper, conveys an emotional content creating art that reveals who we are. Sometimes the images are barely recognizable and sometimes they are too familiar.
If art reflects humanity, what does it show? What did it show before September 11th? Did it warn us, cry out for help? Or is it impossible to say knowing what happened will bend the explanations making them seem something else — making the symptoms obvious and easily foreseeable, causing us to feel guilty as if we could have changed something, done something to prevent it, speculating in “what ifs” to bring back our fellow Americans, then feeling angry and afraid and sad and wanting to understand the holes in the family of man.
At the 49th Venice Biennial, South Korean artist Do-Ho Suh installed a room filled with miniature carvings of people underneath a glass floor. These figures look up with outstretched arms and hands pushing against the bottom side of the floor, wanting to get out but confined to support the floor on which we walked.
It was Dante looking for farm mice who chased the ducks out from under the bushes and their home, except for Chicca knowing that cat too well to be bullied.
Drake regained his balance.
White Collar, one of the five original ducklings, used his beak to throw water on the other ducklings, except for Grey. I wasn’t at all sure if Grey was part of the five or adopted, but I couldn’t see Chicca adopting any duck.
I saw light in the studio at the top of the house.
I could see Nancy painting.
“The colors are working,” Nancy told me.
She filled the paper with watercolor — a bright strip around the edge to frame the softer tones against nine trees bending with the wind she could not paint the way she could paint the sky. The leaves intertwined to cast a place in the shade.
From the writer
:: Account ::
During the 2001/02 school year, I accompanied my wife on her art sabbatical in Italy. While Nancy painted in her studio, I hand wrote impressions about our experiences.
The unpublished collection includes past visits to Italy, primarily about my Italian heritage. The impressions acknowledge the animals, even a baby mouse or topolino. They reference heaven and hell, Dante’s tower in the Valle di Santa Felicità. They are stories about the Great War on Monte Grappa, the 49th Venice Biennale on humanity, Padre Pio and his stigmata, September 11th and understanding why while recovering from bronchial pneumonia.
“Like a Polaroid Transfer” is a small slice of that collection. The slice is more subtle, more flash in its structure; yet still conveys the inflection point after the events of 9/11, which moves the work from observations to seeking out simple places of peace.
This work, like the unpublished collection, combines aspects of a journal, memoir, and reminiscence.
Rich Pagano lives in Newton, Massachusetts. His writing is sometimes lyrical and often visual but always in the direction of meaning-making. He resided in Italy for a period of time and frequently travels there with his wife, drawing on those experiences for his creative work.