Quattrocento

Inside the bus the strangled air, stuck windows, and then,
hours later it seems, we are delivered from our confinement
into the stunned, barren streets of Borgo San Sepolcro,
noon and no one anywhere, July heat blistering the stones,
smoldering the dust of the bus station. In the one open trattoria,

the only bad food in Italy, and on the TV, pinned high to the wall
like a TV in a hospital room, the image of an American movie star,
and in Italian we can’t make out, we think we hear a word
that sounds like crash — maybe she’s dead, we think, though later
we’ll discover, in the yellowing pages of a tabloid curled

in a Roman gutter, that she’d only given birth. Outside,
we emerge into the afternoon’s conflagration to find the streets
still deserted as a blank-faced town in some science-fiction movie
from the fifties, a movie where something evil, unimaginable —
the Bomb, the Blob, the Thing — has vanished every sign of life.

But this is only Italy, siesta, months before jets scream
across the sky from Aviano to Belgrade, end of a century
in which we’ve managed, so far, not to blow the world away.
It could almost be the Quattrocento, so little seems changed
in the empty piazza, the same sunstruck stones, the same

shut eyes of the houses Piero saw every day, easy to imagine him
just a boy hidden in a shadowed corner of the blacksmith’s shop,
damp curls bent over his drawing, the black mare’s filigreed nostrils,
the way they flared when the metal seared her hoof. But here,
in the present, the museo’s open at three, though today

we’re the only customers. This is what we’ve come for,
our pilgrimage, stifling room giving way to stifling room
until at last here we are in his presence, hers,
Madonna della Misericordia, larger than life the Virgin
spreading her blue cloak — blue, color of mercy — to gather

the faithful inside, spreading her mercy everywhere, mercy enough
to envelop the whole world’s misery, the Quattrocento must have thought.
Now, again, what I feel — here, everywhere — in the street,
sipping an aperitif at a table under the winged maples, or watching
an evening’s passeggiata in the wine-gold summer light, walking

up the streets of Cortona, passing the houses with their little doors
for the plague dead, even strolling Venice’s watery glamour,
touching piles of Fortuny silk, purses heaped in the colors
of every spent dream — everywhere, I feel in my ear the breath of all
who have vanished. Everywhere, the terrible lost present of the past.

Who was that girl who posed for the Virgin, the one
with the placid, lovely face who wore a clock with its lining soft
as gray doves, a bunch of cabauchon rubies blooming at her throat?
The painter must have loved her, I think, he’s painted her everywhere,
in every Virgin’s face, in the sad face of Mary Magdalene, too,

though she’s even lovelier there, more alive — Virgin or Whore,
it doesn’t matter, she’s still his beautiful ideal. I think
he must have forgiven her, whatever she did to him, betrayal
braided into obsession’s silken chord. Who is the one kneeling
at the Virgin’s feet, a child, no more than thirteen, a rich girl

in a high-waisted, long-trained gown, the height of fashion?
Bareheaded, she’s still a virgin — so everyone thinks —
since long ago red-coated cardinals of the church decreed it:
because the angel appeared to Mary and whispered in her ear,
that delicate, pink shell — its labial folds and furls — must be the organ

through which the Christ Child was conceived; so woman’s ears,
in modesty, must be ever after covered. And even now
the girl’s father is out looking for a rich husband old enough
to tame her. Piero might have had her pose like that for hours, alone,
on her knees, on the cold stone, before he toppled her like a statue

falling in a garden, a flutter of goldfinches rising around them,
the scent of oranges and roses. And that man so sinister
behind the confraternity’s black hood? Perhaps he is watching the girl,
her ripening breasts. Perhaps the painter means for him to represent
every secret desire we hide behind the mask of three AM. It’s hard to say.

But I wonder what desires candled in their eyes, brush-fired, burned out
in their hearts? Perhaps the plague passed through them, a lingering storm
blackening their skins, swelling their tongues. Maybe some enemy,
some Guelph or Ghibelline, rode down on their valley, torching
the village, flaming the burnished fields. Their sorrows were certain.

As here, in the museum’s last room, in Piero’s Resurrection,
where he must have seen salvation, I see Christ bursting from the tomb
as a figure sufficient unto himself, the overpowering body, the eyes
cold, arrogant even, eyes that don’t see the soldiers asleep
at his feet, oblivious, ignorant of what has happened,

that the one they were sent to guard is free, that he will hide
his face from them, abandoning them to a future in which
they will surely die for allowing him to flee. One of the soldiers
is dreaming of his beloved, the way her thick black hair falls
across her face. What am I really mourning, time’s patina washing

over everything, the past’s weight heavier on my shoulders
than a plowman’s yoke in some muddy Quattrocento field? What is it,
the vanished before me, the long line of the lost, or my own
inexplicable vanishing, my fifty-third year? Outside,
in the heat-stroked afternoon, the past is still lying everywhere,

even in the dusty patch of ground next to the bus station,
where the town’s old men have clustered their fragile lawn chairs
to watch the passing scene. It’s too late or too hot for them, and so
we occupy their chairs, waiting for the last bus to shuffle us
back across the hills to Arrezzo. It could be the Quattrocento now,

the procession that crosses in front of us, the priest swirling the dust
with his long skirts, a few men in shabby suits, the best they have,
bearing the coffin, and behind them a scraggly group of mourners,
looking neither left nor right as they walk slowly forward.
It could be the Quattrocento, except for the intersection,

which has come to a standstill, the little cars thrumming, dazed,
impatient to be on their way, dreaming of home, soccer
or a game show on TV, maybe a meal, a glass of red wine, perhaps
even a kiss, a lover’s soft breath brushing an arm.
Even now, evening presses her cool cheek to the earth.

—Susan Wood

Image by Mark Slone
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Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 2:21 PM  Leave a Comment  
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