Like a Polaroid Transfer 

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.