by James Foritano
(artscope magazine’s one-of-a-kind art reviewer James Foritano recently visited Italy with his wife, Maddy; he kindly shares his memoir of the journey here)
When my sister and I were children, we delighted in assembling in the family room where our father would set up a folding screen and projector, and our mother would draw the curtains. Then we’d watch ourselves living as large as the American 1950s would permit, giggling and pointing at people we thought we knew cavorting in more vivid colors and stranger poses than we’d noticed when we were embedded, pell-mell, in full-throttle action.
I didn’t realize when my wife, Madeleine, and I headed for Italy last month that we’d be re-experiencing that inside/outside feeling of being both embedded in swirling action and, at once, distant observers. But we did.
I had explained to my skeptical but resigned traveling partner that we would, thanks to my meticulous planning, see Italy, without the nudging, ducklings-in-a-line pace, the noisome apron strings of a scheduled tour. I would be the ‘Dad’ and our exotic travels would unroll seamlessly before us.
Well, yes and no. Take Venice. We did drop into a comfortable B&B, picturesquely pastel, seeming to float just by the side of a broad canal in the Dosoduro section of Venice — just outside of, but not remote from those ‘must-see’ sights.
And, yes, we did pilot our course, choose our vistas, but then Venice, La Serenissima, wrapped Herself around our solid vantage points in a whirl of sight and sound just as intimate and as alienating as any family movie.
In the guidebook I complimented myself on choosing, James Stourton’s “Great Smaller Museums of Europe,” Venice’s Casa Rezzonica unfolded itself in stately grandeur, ballroom by boudoir, overlooking the Grand Canal. It would be, I thought smugly, a nostalgic re-play of those 1950’s family movies — only upscale a social stratum of two and exotically tinted.
Yes, but. Baroque art worth its salt does not sit still for contemplation. Everything in the Ca’ Rezzonica swirled and pirouetted, from floors to furniture to the walls and ceilings. Inside gilded stucco cartouches on high ceilings, Tiepolo and his assistants made sure that every scene you saw was only a glimpse — a swaying glimpse.
Gods and goddesses kicked their heels at you; biblical personages declaimed with sweeping gestures words you could almost hear. The very clouds seemed to darken and lighten as different weathers swept through them. And there you were, embedded, without an umbrella.
The Scuola di San Rocco, another recommendation of author Stourton’s, didn’t let up on the action or the camera work. If it was French auteurs who first wielded hand-held cameras about mid-way through the last century, eschewing the relative stasis of Hollywood’s dolly-mounted cameras, it was Tintoretto, on the walls and ceilings of this well-endowed charitable organization, who showed them the way.
Tintoretto’s outlines — or is it his color, or his composition — sits demurely for a portrait of this personage, that event, but only if the viewer doesn’t move. You move and they follow. And not just the eyes, like those trick wall portraits, but arms, legs, torsos, crowds, whole eras thunder around your ears, following you stairway to stairway, floor to floor.
Think of those scuba divers on educational TV swimming in a world where up is down, and vice-versa, depending on where the action is. You look at their world through a scuba mask, darkly, and their world looks back at you: the observer becomes the observed in the flick of a tailfin — or painter’s brush.
Architects cooperated with painters so that when the painted action bulged with drama, so did the walls. In Rome, our next stop, whole streets looking straight on the map took different directions, dropping several eras to reveal times long past, or pausing to twirl with the baroque façade of a church or palace before letting you go with wandering, slow tread.
Destination, in Rome, wasn’t a place somewhere over there, but all around you. Sometimes it was behind you, tapping you on the shoulder, turning you around, just as you were sure that your plans pointed ahead.
You’ll have to experience Florence for yourself, since by that third stop on our Italian tour I had stopped counting and just let it happen in its own profoundly odd, profoundly homely way. Like a movie you have to watch both because it’s all about you, and because it’s not.