Day One: Overture (En Route)
For the travelers, the essay begins on a plane:
—a plane towing its shadow over a cloud, then slicing into it (inside the plane, this is like the rush of a mood: abruptly elsewhere) and sinking while mist breathes past the windows, swirls in the jets;
—a plane creaking and yawing over Chicago, en route to New York, en route to Rome;
—a plane invaded by the yellow midwinter light pouring through a sliced-through cloud, which makes the travelers feel, for once, like travelers in a photograph in the in-flight magazine, the timelessness of which suggests … well, timelessness;
—a plane that fails to plunge or to explode, a plane that instead of plunging or exploding lands in a city of bridges-like-blue-skeletons, a city in which telephones are located and used—an act which, for the writers, marks the beginning of the essay;
—through this city, in which, for the writers, the essay begins, there walk the travelers—who are on their way to Rome, another city, in which another essay will begin (beginning being something open to question), in which, perhaps, the essay will truly and finally begin:
—for who is to say where what begins, beginning is open to question, perhaps the essay truly begins in Rome, and the essay that begins on the plane over Chicago, the essay that begins in New York, are impostor essays;
—perhaps we need to slice through the impostor essays to the real ones:
—in any case, the travelers, having used telephones, walk through the city, which was, and still is, home;
—now they think back to the plane rising over a cornfield of stacked clouds and strings of sun and sprinklers and distant pickups trailing dust;
—now they think back to the plane landing in a city of bridges-like-blue- skeletons;
—now they turn left, now right, now right again, by memory;
—now they ascend the stairs to an apartment, which is where the writers wait for them:
—they enter the apartment; they stay a while, then the travelers and the writers leave the apartment, they retrace their steps, they locate telephones, they board a plane, they sit for seven hours in cramped seats in the darkness and the light until finally they arrive in Rome, which is where the essay— for the travelers? for the writers?— begins.
Day Two: Beginnings
Morning: A1 Autostrada, Rome
Cellini was the Norman Mailer of the Italian Renaissance. He punches Michelangelo in the nose. He jumps out a window to attack a rival with a dinner knife. He admits to the assassination of at least three innocent men. His life is a series of scrapes with hotblooded Spaniards, beastly Frenchmen, rascally priests, choleric bishops, prostitutes named Faustina, insane jailers, and capricious popes, all of whom he outwits with ease. He survives being poisoned with a powdered diamond and being struck in the chest by a chunk of castle during the sack of Rome. (“I came to life again by the means of more than twenty leeches applied to my buttocks,” he writes of that incident.)
I wonder if Norman Mailer ever read Cellini. On the highway north of Rome, a statue of the Virgin Mary leans up into a clear blue sky, unusual (they say) in January. Behind her the trail of a jet spreads, flattens, floats away. Like the fog this morning over the runway: like breath. On the horizon, mountains like overlapping felt. Headlamps gliding along the strada bianca far below.
Afternoon: Sant’ Andrea di Sorbello, Umbria
Hairpin turns and a steep grade: The rented Golf snarls and stalls in the gravel as we wait for a woodcutter’s truck to lumber by. Your ears pop during the climb; two of the four of us are nauseous: “Mmmh.” Then, weeds tick along the panels beneath our feet, we crest the mountain into a cleared space, on one rim of which there squats the house.
All my love’s in vain, someone in the back sings, sickly.
But isn’t this a view. To the west, the sun flinging blood and taffeta across the sky; a line of clouds advancing. The stone house with seven chimneys and the sunset banging off the panes. And a woodpile, and a cat with a pushed-in face.
Day Three: Sant’ Andrea di Sorbello, Umbria
Gray-blue watercolor fog.
A single star down in the valley.
The others inside.
In the unseeable leaves, wind.
Day at home, sitting outside; coffee: a drive into town to change money, pick up food.
Night of fire wine and wind.
Goethe, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982): “Everything in me is suddenly beginning to emerge clearly, why not earlier? Why at such a cost?”
Day Four: On the “Piero Trail”
Morning: Sansepolcro, Toscana
Light planes in triangles and rectangles from the facades, flutters down onto the head like cloth. Not hard to see how Tuscany produced the painters. And we are here, at the Museo Civico, to visit one: Piero della Francesca, whose heavy-eyed Madonna della Misericordia and rising Christ are modestly roped off in a bare room. (And a relaxed Sebastian, enduring his arrows.)
“Look at their feet,” you say.
Afternoon: Monterchi, Toscana
At the shrine of the Madonna del Parto, which includes an exhibit detailing the painting’s restoration, I agree that Piero neglected feet.
Evening: Sant’ Andrea di Sorbello, Umbria
“Mmm … that’s good. Now do the other one.” A second real white foot appears out of the darkness.
An owl, or some other gloomy hooting thing, sounds off.
In the yellow thread of light from the window, fog.
Day Eight: Sant’ Andrea di Sorbello, Umbria
The valley piano with fog: one green felt ridge floating in midair. Above, cerulean sky.
Birds. Murmuring inside the house. Steps on stone (you), flies and bees; the bamboo loggia ticking overhead. The cat frozen halfway up a post.
Huge silent watercolor sky. Fog wafting gray over the valley.
Goethe: “The night of the ninth and tenth was clear and cloudy by turns and there was a constant halo around the moon. At about 5:00 A.M. the whole sky had become overcast with grey but not heavy clouds, which disappeared during the day.”
The day spent wrestling with the fire, exclaiming at the view, cooking lunch. My attempt to learn to drive stick-shift, on steep winding blind-turning roads enveloped in opaque fog.
Day Ten: Sant’ Andrea di Sorbello, Umbria
In 217 BC, on the shores of Lago Trasimeno, 16,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered by Hannibal’s army, which had run them down these mountains into the lake. That stretch of beach, from which battle remains are still being recovered, is now marked off by two towns named Sanguineto (Place of Blood) and Ossaia (Place of Bones).
What mountains are these? The guidebook left on the kitchen table: I thought I’d want to get away from maps and names for a few hours.
Shoes popping and sucking in the mud.
Humid; I loosen my scarf.
The mud: it is—is it sandy soil? A kind of red-yellow … grainy. Rainwater is yellow in the tire marks, the footprints.
The trees and bushes close in (what kind of trees, what kind of bushes?), then open, then recede: a clearing, air; the house below me; the valley, the tiny church, a car moving along the road. The trees and bushes close again.
My shoes are sinking into red-yellow mud. I am too warm. Warm body air pours from my collar.
Another clearing. A ruined castle on the ridge opposite, its walls gnawing the sky.
Church bells. Wild pig tracks. Oak trees?
I pick up kindling as I go.
Our upstairs neighbor is named Dante, is not Italian, is from Chicago. He listens to the third movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony several times each afternoon. At night, we dim the lights (electricity is expensive), set to flailing and choking on the fire. The logs are so wet it takes an hour, and then they hiss viciously, moisture foaming like saliva from the ends.
Wild pig tracks. Pig hunters.
Hannibal’s army ran the Roman legions down these mountains, they surprised them, all was chaos, they grabbed their stuff and ran clanking down these mountains. To the lake where they were hacked to blood and bones. The massacre took several hours.
How many hours?
What kind of trees, what mountains, how many hours.
In Arezzo, to the north, three of the four of us are trying to see Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the church of San Francesco.
In Arezzo, to the north, three of the four of us are finding that Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the church of San Francesco are hidden from view for restoration.
In Arezzo, to the north, three of the four of us are walking through the great antiques fair, at which the guidebook sneers.
Up here on the mountain, bare rock and mist and silence.
Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross (1452–66) depicts the discovery of the cross near Jerusalem by Helena, mother of Constantine, and its subsequent adventures.
There are battle scenes (“… the chaos of Renaissance warfare”), an Annunciation (“… its aura of serenity is typical of Piero’s enigmatic style”), and a rendering of the Death of Adam (“… illustrates Piero’s masterly treatment of anatomy”).
Up here on the mountain, wind.
Up here on the mountain, the sun is swallowed by a huge gray surf.
“We couldn’t see the frescoes, they were covered up. Did you see any pigs?”
I sit on the stone wall next to the house, gouging mud from the treads of my shoes with kindling.
The Place of Blood, the Place of Bones.
The yellow mud. From Goethe: “Tuscany … lies so much lower, the ancient sea has done its duty and piled up a deep loamy soil.”
The trees: “Olives … look almost like willows …”
The cold hard light up on the mountain.
The flashing light—an ambulance?—that inched along the road down in the valley.
The fire I lit and choked on when I returned.
The heroic orchestra hurling itself from Dante’s windows.
The baroque sunset.
The hissing logs.
The blood-soaked beach.
Three of the four of us returning from Arezzo.
Curls of mud springing from my shoes.
“We couldn’t see them.”
The clanking running down these mountains, the several hours.
How many hours?
Day Eleven: Torgiano, Umbria
The photograph is a photograph of air. The sun a tiny white hole punched into the center of a mottled cloud: darker near the left edge, somewhat lighter at center, and an ominous charcoal near the right edge, where it overflows the frame. Part of a mountain at bottom left. And if you look closely, tiny bits of blue among the cloud-rags. You might imagine the entire sky revolving on the pin of the sun, revealing now serenity, now rage.