Saturday, March 1, 2014

MY WORLD WAR II NOVEL - it's long history

It's long history

"Well written, but we daren't publish it," was the typical response of editors who read my book when first completed in 1950. Living in New York City at the time, I made the round of numerous publishing houses, only to hear variations on the same thing -- profanity was censored, could not be printed; and not only language used by men in combat, but the story itself touched on subjects too raw for print. Having published articles and short stories in newspapers and a few magazines, and won a Superior grading in Creative Writing at Biarritz University, France, the rejection of the manuscript was huge disappointment for someone who'd believed since childhood that he'd author books.

I made no attempt to revise the manuscript. Yes, it contained a few words which one didn't often hear in public at that time. And which the young man who penned them had never heard before entry into the military as an innocent youth. The events of the story, if alien to civilian readers, were nevertheless based on some happenings I'd witnessed, others which had been related to me by fellow soldiers, a few which were rumors that could easily be believed as truth in that madness of the savagery in Europe. I'd not written to shock but merely to express haunting recalls seldom, if ever, revealed by veterans of that mid-twentieth century maelstrom -- we returning warriors sometimes dubbed a silent generation. Eschewing compromise to soften what was written, resigned to the fact that it would never be published, I put the manuscript in a drawer where it remained for 50 years.

Writers are unable to not write. Through the years there was publication of other books, short stories and articles, a four-year stint as newspaper columnist. But it wasn't until the new millennium, using technology, that I began to reconsider the manuscript buried beneath clothing in a bureau drawer. Books-on-demand were a news item, and among my e-mails were solicitations from online publishers. Did And Come to Dust merit the time it would take to reread it? I did so, and quickly realized that the person who'd written it no longer existed! Like the editors so many decades ago, I was shocked -- but not at the language or story, we lived now in a society where foul language was heard and printed everywhere, and where no event was too notorious or salacious not to be reported, even celebrated, in the media. I was shocked remembering the young veteran, who and what I was at that  time, who'd written the manuscript, his need to expunge trauma never vocally revealed by himself or other comrades. Through undergraduate and graduate work via the GI Bill of Rights, I'd had daily contact with scores of veterans taking advantage of the opportunity to study. We gathered frequently in our rented rooms or dorms, in bars, at games. Bonded brothers sharing drinks, comfortable with each other as we could never be with American civilians. Discussions through many long nights, yet seldom a word about the war. I knew a few who seemed seriously disturbed despite affected bravado, and whom I mutely considered Walking Wounded. Was it our silence regarding what we'd seen, human dissolution negating speech, which drove me to the typewriter?

On-line publishing with books on demand -- not printed until ordered -- was in its infancy in year 2000. Dust was accepted by the first firm to whom I sent the manuscript, Writers Club Press, an imprint of Work was involved. Though I elected not to revise, convinced that a septuagenarian hadn't the right to alter words written by a youth, hours were needed to correct typos in the first proof sent me. Much time, too, on the cover design incorporating one of my drawings. These tasks were but partially finished as the date approached for a long-planned trip to Italy to which I was committed as tour guide. Telephone conversations to the editor with whom I was working concluded with my accepting her assurance that proofing of text and format would proceed well during my absence, and that the cover design already submitted would be used. Alas, that first edition (published 2000) retained some of the uncorrected typos and sported a cover which was not the one I designed, utilizing merely a small vague detail of the full drawing. All authors are thrilled to hold their printed book in hand, as I was, despite disappointment that its printing was not all I'd hoped it would be. Though sales were modest, initial reader response was mostly positive, not surprisingly from veterans but unexpected from women who considered the book a love story, not a war story. (In later years, two more of my novels were issued by the same publisher, printing of both excellent).

That first edition of Dust, however, drew one harsh echo of the censorship objections which had come from publishers to whom it was submitted in 1950. And cost me the loss of an internet friend, never met, of whom I'd grown fond after years of correspondence focused on mutual interests in the arts, travel, genealogy, and mysticism. She'd owned and read others of my books, and was familiar with photos of my paintings and sculptures posted on the web. Following an abrupt halt to her frequent communiques, I enquired, concerned, if she were ill. The reply was caustic and damning. How could a man whom she'd believed wrote with grace, and whose graphic works she thought betrayed spirituality, were indeed in churches throughout the land -- how could such a man pen what she'd read in And Come to Dust? I was instructed not to contact her again. I did not, sadly aware that she was possibly but one of other reader/friends who'd pose the same dilemma.

2010. E-books had arrived. Contacted online by the publisher Smashwords, I studied their submission guidelines and began what was for me a steep learning curve of turning the Dust manuscript into digital format which could be downloaded. Hand-held readers and tablets by various manufacturers and online booksellers requiring different specifications necessitated strict adherence to the Smashwords guide successfully meeting these demands. The e-book was finished and distributed without the typos in the original paperback edition, and with the cover I'd always wanted it to have. That cover, however, was only seen by subscribers who downloaded the book, did not appear on newsstands or was something that could be handled as well as seen. On the Smashwords profile page, I created a brief video book trailer, which also appears on YouTube. The lower price of e-books over printed one widens readership, and for Dust won enthusiastic comments. Again surprising me with appreciative e-mails terming it a love story rather than war story. Offered free for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by Ebooks for Troops, the downloads by men and women in service there elicited Thank Yous which I value highly.

In 2013, Smashwords announced formation of a program with The Educational Publisher, Inc., Biblio Publishing to produce printed books from e-book manuscripts. Though I'd not previously considered a third edition of And Come to Dust, the opportunity for a book without the typos and disappointing cover of the first edition triggered correspondence with the President of The Educational Publisher. Submission of the e-book manuscript for conversion to print was soon followed by reading proofs, being once again engaged with fictional characters created 63-plus years ago. The re-acquaintance this time came with recognition that the protagonists and events were indeed honestly founded on what a war had bequeathed the generation which Roosevelt proclaimed "has a rendezvous with destiny."

Many things -- more than I'd ever have believed possible -- come late in life. Now in its second print edition as well as being an e-book, Dust forces me to look at the youth who wrote it and the man he's become. That long journey, paths taken, fellow travelers. If gladdened to be free of the demons which produced chapters scribbled decades ago, I believe or want to believe that the Second World War for me helped foster compassion for the human condition which has bestowed riches garnered later. Not displeased with where I am today, must it not follow that every step along the way brought me here.

(Of the two printed editions and the e-book, my favorite format of And Come to Dust is the last. All three editions continue to appear, and likely will remain, on internet sites. If interested, my recommended choice is the Biblio Publishing's 2013 paperback at

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


St Ouen de Breuille, France - 1944

Snow today this winter of 2013-14 in Santa Fe. To be greeted enthusiastically since local falls have been scant this year and the area is experiencing continued severe drought. But in these so-called Golden Years of advanced age when I can no longer shovel the huge drifts on the north side of our home and gallery entrance -- and hired help never do removal to my standards -- I can't help but wish that the moisture was rain here in the city, snow restricted to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the skiers would love it and from where the spring runoffs benefit all of us here below.

A sun-lover, I not only think but dream of warmer climes during the cold months, envying the snow birds headed south, remembering long bright days in the Yucatan, in Greece, southern Spain, the Amalfi Coast. Once while on burnished sands under a palm tree on an island beach of Oahu, I considered whether the citizens of Hawaii were the wisest of all Americans. Blessed by the sun!

As boy and teenager, after-school and Saturday jobs frequently meant working in the cold -- assisting an uncle at his stall in open Broadway Market, peddling pendants and pins at football games in Oriole Stadium, hawking Christmas ornaments for a merchant of same in downtown Baltimore. Hadn't it sometimes felt invigorating then, and did the aversion to winter wait until senior years. Ah, no, one is fairly certain when it all began.

There'd been many days and nights when we'd not had quarters, were bivouacked in a wooded area near the French-Belgian border. Foxholes and pup-tents, continuous heavy snowfalls, knee-high drifts to slog through, meals from canned tins while sitting on frozen stumps or the ground; all fires, even cigarettes, banned because light might attract strafing Wehrmacht planes or snipers. Attempts to sleep while shivering in full uniform during nights upon the frigid turf. Consumption of confiscated calvados by those who "liberated" it did little to warm. I'd been alerted by a medic that my toes were developing frostbite. On a hill above us was a deserted chateau, off limits because its approach had been mined by German soldiers before they'd abandoned it during their retreat. More than the lure of a seductive woman, it offered sheltering embrace and warmth if it could be won.

The soldier beside me in our shared pup-tent uttered profanities through chattering teeth about our unit's inability to move forward, seek cover in appropriated farmhouses. I barely heard him, aware that numbness was claiming me, that though bombs and shelling had not struck, the cold winds were hissing Casualty. When I managed to sit up, my tent mate, alarmed that an attack might be underway, fearfully demanded "What?"
"I'm going to the chateau."
"You can't. It's mined, Off Limits. Orders."
Never one to risk the Brig by disobeying Orders, or to voluntarily seek peril to life or limb, survival instinct determined that the landmines were less a threat than oblivion in the snow. I crawled out of the tent and started up the hill.

Stakes and colored ribbons had been set into the ground by US Army Engineers ascertaining where the mines were buried. I inched slowly, cautiously forward, uncertain of every step. No thought of turning back -- moonlight silhouetted that chateau on the hill, a lighthouse at the end of this immense rough sea of white. A sudden noise behind me broke the silence. Turning apprehensively to look, I saw my tent mate crawling on his belly. Luck was with us. Either the engineers' markings were absolutely correct or most of the mines had already been defused, and we arrived safely at the chateau. Easy to gain entrance, despite boarded doors and windows and signs posted by lawful owners and our army that the property was Off Limits.

Mostly devoid of furnishings, the salons and many rooms of the multi-storied abode held clear evidence of recent Nazi occupation. With found candles, we observed obscene crude drawings scrawled hugely on walls, empty bottles cluttering floors, even a few personal items left behind by soldiers in hasty withdrawal. Chairs had obviously been sundered for use as firewood in the grand salon's large fireplace, and by collecting scattered remnants we soon were standing before blazing, healing warmth. My comrade's canteen proved not full of water but calvados he'd been hoarding, its scalding intake a wondrous flow through innards too long wracked by chill. I found a rug or coverlet made of sheepskins and laid it on the marble floor fronting the fireplace. Stripped of wet uniform, warmed by fire that burned through the night, the war went away for a while in blissful sleep.

There was no Disciplinary Action the next morning. Instead, I saw a few of our Headquarters' officers and non-coms being led up the hill by engineers with mine detectors monitoring their advance. Obviously, our absence had been noted and smoke from the chimney indicated where we were. Once inside the chateau, no officer or the First Sergeant questioned me. They began a thorough inspection of the stately structure. Before the day was over, a road had been cleared to the chateau, army trucks arrived with gear and furnishings -- desks, filing cabinets, field switchboards and phones, cots -- and the building was officially requisitioned as Battalion Headquarters.

That was there not here, then not now. Comparing reaction to winter's cold that time in that place to Santa Fe today is pointless. The mind insists that New Mexico's known a mild season, been spared the onslaught of arctic air which has plagued much of the nation. Granted. But the body argues. Then was youth, now is old age.

Friday, January 31, 2014


acrylic and fabric on board

I can't look away from the warmly bronzed tourists in my gallery this cold Santa Fe winter day. They've obviously come from somewhere warm, possibly hot, their golden flesh a sunny testament. Middle-aged, fit, both man and woman silver-haired, their English betrays them as Americans, and I wonder if even from Miami or San Diego, such tans could possibly be acquired in the US during this month of rampant low temperatures across our land. Curiosity prompts the question usually reserved for foreign-accented visitors to the gallery: "Where are you from?"

Montana! Certainly not the sunbelt! Amused at my blatant interest in their coloring, they say they'd spent the past two months in the Mediterranean, flew from there to visit a son living in California, are now motoring back to harsher climes. Any mention of the Mediterranean pushes all my buttons, and conversation flows.
Where exactly in the Mediterranean?
I direct their attention to my painting Aeolia, completed after a storm-tossed, overnight ferry crossing from Messina to Naples, and my first glimpse of the Aeolian Islands.

I'd been in Messina with my family to accompany an Italian business partner from Milano who was restoring mosaics in the ancient Sicilian cathedral. We'd spent the summer traveling through Italy in a Volkswagen bus, which had to be lashed topside on the bow of the ferry for the trip back to the mainland. Within minutes out of Messina's harbor, a fierce storm had the crew forcing all passengers to remain below decks, one of the sailors warning me that the huge waves crashing over the bow could mean the loss of our bus overboard. The boat and we passengers were so severely buffeted and in such critical danger (we learned next morning that another ferry had been sunk during the storm) that I couldn't have cared less about the loss of a vehicle in those hours, was concerned only about keeping curious children -- anxious to witness the havoc above -- in our stateroom.

The night was long, the majority of the passengers sick, the corridors and rooms below deck increasingly foul. Attempts to evade crew and go topside for fresh air were thwarted by inability to maintain balance, being thrown against bulkheads or knocked off one's feet, trying to crawl back to quarters. The few times we were allowed on deck were when the ferry pulled into one of the islands' harbors, was safely out from the open sea, to disembark arriving locals and take on new passengers for the mainland. At such times those of us not bedridden by nausea crowded the railings to watch not only the colorful, frantic exchange of passengers but to gaze at the incredible, if intimidating, beauty of Volcano and Stromboli, fiery lava pouring from the crater atop the latter, descending in scarlet streams down the side of the mountain, crashing into a blazing sea. I'd never seen skies the color of those before me -- not black in this dark night, but a red for which there was no palette pigment, and could possibly never be duplicated. Nevertheless, I silently vowed to try to remember and paint it.

Back at sea, again below deck in the maelstrom, we waited for the next calm of the boat's tremors to suggest we were entering another safe harbor. On deck as we approached Lipari, I was joined by our friend from Milan, who'd suffered grievously from seasickness since departure from Messina. I'd checked on him once in his stateroom, found him ghastly pale, cold-sweated, too weak to stand. He'd finally managed to quit the stale confines of below deck, seek fresh air. We looked on Lipari through a shrouding mist, its great resources of pumice and obsidian making it appear a white ghost afloat on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  My friend clung to me for support and balance, and I regretted that he'd changed his departure date from Messina because he wanted to travel with us. And I told him so. But with neither of us able to take our eyes from that mystical white vision of Lipari before us, this gifted artist beside me, too sick for stronger speech, bade me be silent, whispering "Ah no, Andrea. Guarda, e poesia."

"So you painted the red sky," the woman from Montana says about my painting, "but what are all those figures about?" I do not know, they started out as abstractions, mere line and form, then took on lives of their own. "And that white vision of Lipari you speak of," the man asked, "Never painted it?"
Yes, I tried. And considered the work a failure. But it sold quickly, before I'd photographed or documented it and to a collector whose name I don't remember. Perhaps he saw in it the thing I thought I'd not captured, the poetry which made that horrendous sea crossing so memorable to my sick Italian friend, lover of beauty. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014



This week in which I observe something of an anniversary -- my induction into the US Army, January 1943 -- I've also been awaiting news of a first great-grandchild to be born more than 700 miles away. It's been the usual days of now and then, here and there, past and present which pervade the thought and action of those in the 9th decade of their lives. Could I possibly have considered when I crossed my heart and swore allegiance at age 19 to combat Hitler's madness that I'd be around when and if Peace came, much less for the new millennium. Afterall, many high-school friends and young neighbors were already on distant shores and the high seas, the windows of some of their neighboring homes displaying the Gold Star mothers' banners denoting casualties. No point in speculating about what the future might hold.

But I'm here, I'm Still Here as aging chorus girl Carlotta furiously belts out in Stephen Sondheim's great musical Follies.  Here, and frequently awed that life can yet hold so many surprises, not least that of acknowledging that some of us don't know or concede of when to quit, relinquish the daily challenges and merely rest. Haven't we seen it all -- the good times and bad, health and illness, loyalties and betrayals, success and failure, the whole enchilada? Just last week, a younger friend (he's barely 65) suggested a Retirement Home would be wiser than to continue struggles at maintaining the family home, better to sell or lease the business with its demands for your hand-made products, safer to stop driving, depend on taxis or senior services transportation. Why should his advice trigger counter argument when chronic lower-back pain, labored breathing, treacherous balance requiring a cane, all of which he's observed, support the concern? Yet a few days after that unsolicited counsel, a long-time friend a few years older than myself, visits with two of his children. He is frail and badly bruised from a recent fall but in high spirit, delightfully interested in catching up on all our news, observant, intelligently discussing the arts and cultures, obviously savoring la vita bella regardless of the trials of later years. Another one who doesn't know when to quit. Our embrace is warm.

There have been times in recent years when our corrupt politicians, a weakened Washington, and a society grievously wounded by lawlessness, profanity and pornography, have driven me to find order and beauty only in the arts -- the best of literature, painting and sculpture, architecture, music, the performing arts. But, of course, that is fallacy. One has but to look on loved ones, the gift of family -- and on places and peoples one's loved -- to have disharmonies lessen. Perhaps saints have always known this. Perhaps many of we sinners must come of age before sharing it.

There is a season for all things. And maybe surprises in all seasons. Sixteen months ago I was gifted with a new, lovely if late granddaughter, Makenna, child as sunny as the coast of California where she was born. Now comes word of the first great-grandson, Marcello, born two days ago in San Antonio, Texas. Thinking back to that uniformed young man entering service to his county 71 years ago this week, I know he couldn't have imagined -- and certainly didn't believe -- that a long life weighted with rich gifts was in the offing.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Encounter Last Day of Year 2013

Encounter Last Day of Year 2013

It seems not a particular or special day of the year this New Year's Eve as I work in my studio. There have been few tourists in our Canyon Road shop.  Those visiting the numerous galleries on Santa Fe's Art and Soul walk seem primarily interested in the ambiance, not serious study of works on exhibit.   I note their interest in the adobe structures, the gardens, outdoor displays of seasonal holiday decorations, and, as always, the colorful transients, dog-walkers, skateboarders, cyclists and exhibitionist-strollers who come from all over town to Do The Road. We're not in Kansas anymore.

Out studio/gallery being the one longest in business on the Road (founded 1956), and I at 90 likely its oldest artist-owner, I'm accustomed to its various moods and changes, adept, I think, at evaluating interest or sales possibilities from the out-of-staters and foreigners who cross the threshold. One of the biggest challenges is not to give too much time to the many people who want to speak to the artist him/or herself, not a gallery director. Especially one so long in the tooth who can spin stories of an unpaved residential Canyon Road before it exploded into the famed Art Colony of today.
A few uninterrupted hours this afternoon furnished hours for considerable paper work, including the start of year-end reports for inventories, gross-receipts taxes, etc. Tasks resented for the time they steal from creative stabs at drawing, clay-modeling, manuscripts. And the tasks today, paging through calendar months, inevitably had me reviewing sober events of 2013 -- Ben Ghazi, the Obamacare debacle, our divided Congress, my own painful convictions that the news media cannot be trusted, that our politicians, indeed Washington itself, has betrayed us. Refuge from such drear thinking came as ever in the arts -- I opened streaming music on the computer, listened to opera as I worked, and was delighted to hear my canary Giorgio lustily accompany the tuneful arias!
Shortly before closing time, a man and woman came into the shop and I immediately detected an accent. Not Italian, French, Spanish or anything that I could determine. Risking conversation about anything other than exhibited work, I asked the gentleman if he were from Europe. Yes, Belgium. And of course I had to add that I'd been to his country, liked it very much, had made friends with its citizens. He wanted to know which areas I'd seen, and when I mentioned the Ardennes, studied me attentively. I saw his youthful eyes take in my silvered hair, the shawl giving warmth to bent shoulders, the cane on which I leaned. "World War II? The Bulge?" he asked. When I conceded, he impulsively crossed the room, swept me into his arms and muttered "Thank you, thank you very much."
Not much more was said before he and his companion departed. But I've wondered since how a person so young -- he couldn't have been forty, and was trembling with emotion as he embraced me -- would have exceptionally strong feelings about the horrors in his country which he'd never seen. Stories told by grandparents? History teachers? A fine farewell to 2013, afterall, this spontaneous gesture to we elders who often feel that the indelible world events of the 20th century which we experienced are irrelevant to today's youth. I am grateful to the stranger from Belgium who ended my year with the recognition and acknowledgment we frail humans desire. 


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Among the visitors to my studio this April 2013 was a man from Colorado requesting that I tell his female companion "the vision you wrote about more than 10 years ago." It took me long minutes remembering to what he was referring. When I did, I refused to try recalling or speaking those written words; and silenced his insistent urging by firmly stating that I've always preferred to write rather than speak about exceptionally personal experiences. He asked if I had copies of the newspaper in which the essay had appeared and if so could I possibly send him a duplicate. I wasn't sure I'd find a copy among decades of voluminous files, but the next day did a search.
Originally published as First Place Non-Fiction under the title The Sound in The Santa Fe Reporter's Writing Contest Edition, 5 December 2000, the feature had wide distribution and gained enthusiastic response. But, like most works of the past, I'd put it behind me, moved on. The Colorado man's request prompted finding copies, one of which I'll forward to him. And share with new readers of the Social Network.
* * *

As a child of the Great Depression, I often sought escape from that impoverished world by resisting surrender of sleep and dreams -- fantasies -- in the early mornings. Better in the pre-dawn to lie abed, listen to the chirping of birds or to my mother softly singing to herself in the kitchen as she prepared modest breakfasts and bag-lunches, to the chugs of nearby trains or the distant moans of foghorns from the Chesapeake. Why rise to another day of streets crowded with unemployed gruff elders, schoolmates in tatters, dire radio newscasts and newspaper headlines one couldn't fully understand, the relentless need to earn pennies which drove children to after-school and Saturday odd jobs?
I shared a room with a bachelor uncle, his large bed at right angles to my cot wedged into a wall niche. The uncle was one of the fortunate ones: employed, working in a waterfront market as a butcher, essential to our family for the meats and fresh produce he frequently brought home from the job, paying modest rent to my parents. A chain-smoker, the acrid scent of cigarettes reliably betrayed his approach to our room in the wee hours following his nightly rounds about town. Fortunately, as I was often at a forbidden vice, reading instead of sleeping, off in realms of adventure, fantasy, far-away-places-with-strange-sounding-names, heroes and heroines, the initial intoxicating discoveries of great books and sustaining literature. The smell of an approaching cigarette gave me time to douse the shaded bed-lamp, secure that my nocturnal misconduct would not be reported to my mother. When Dumas, Defoe or Dickens so engrossed me that I failed to detect the oncoming cigarette, I could anticipate Mother's greeting in the morning -- "Your uncle says you're ruining your eyes reading all night again."
Despite late hours, my uncle was a hard worker and early riser, his first cigarette of the day and ritual hustlings more often than not shattering the dream -- or daydream -- I'd been enjoying. With closed eyes, I followed his movements by the sounds of his actions, the coughs, the traipsing back and forth to bathroom, the snapping of buttons and buckles, the innumerable tonal accompaniments to his fastidious wardrobe -- finally, his tread down the stairs, the slam of the back door, the engine of his car in which he took such pride and which was the envy of the neighborhood. And only then I had the room to myself, luxuriated in the privacy and in those beguiling strains of birdsong, train whistles, foghorns, the city slowly stirring to life.
But one morning, even before my uncle rose, I was aware of a new and different sound, unlike anything I'd ever heard before. It wasn't Mother in the kitchen downstairs singing along with the canary, my most cherished wake-up call until then. It wasn't music, nor words, wasn't the wind or rain or any other natural beat of tempo I well knew. Wasn't of this world. And was incredibly, infinitely beautiful, flooding me with total peace, purity, happiness. Acutely aware of that, I embraced the Sound, hugging it to me, wanting to keep it forever. When I opened my eyes, His face close to mine, there was the Christ. For just an instant. Then gone, and with Him the Sound, never in a very long life to be heard again.
How does a boy of the Depression Era deal with such an epiphany? You keep it to yourself, tell no one. For already you've been advised that "you've more imagination that is good for you," that a nascent interest in literature and the arts is impractical, that one's youthful obligation is education for a wage-earning trade, that manliness is hanging out with the good 'ole boys, not nurturing solitude lost in thought. And as the 20th Century matures, clobbers you with intolerance, persecution, wars, as societal values crumble, though you ache to once again hear that Sound, know its deliverance, you often suspect that you never heard it in the first place, that visions don't exist, that those Children of the World are right in condemning the Children of Light as irresponsible fantasizers, day-dreamers.
But I'm spared total disbelief in that childhood experience because of my mother's greeting when I came to breakfast that morning. The quizzical look she gave me was one I knew well, that addressing the mystery of this unconventional son she was struggling to understand. Abandoning her brutally demanding chores of care for a large family, she sat at the table and spoke to me as I ate. My uncle had talked to her before he left for work. "That kid is spooky, he said," she reported. "Said you seemed to be sleeping this morning with your eyes wide open. He thought you were awake and spoke to you, but you didn't answer. You eyes stayed open, but you didn't look at him."
I ate in silence.
"And he said that even in the dark, no daylight yet in the room, your face glowed like an electric light-bulb. Said 'That kid reads too much.'"
I like to remember her remarks when troubles, doubts, torments mount. Nearing fourscore years, acceptance of the fact that I'll not hear again the Sound in this world, my mother's words help me believe it wasn't all imagination, not a dream, that something profound actually did happen when I was a little boy. And hasn't left me since.
* * *
Not edited, updated, otherwise altered from its original publication
in the Santa Fe Reporter, 5 December 2000

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Michelangelo - Giant Among Giants

Michelangelo For Me

The Giant Among Giants -- 1475-1564

That's a self-portrait on our left of Signor Buonarotti -- Signor Michelangelo Buronarotti -- a detail from his great monumental sculpture The Florentine Pieta. Michelangelo portrayed himself as Nicodemus in the act of lowering Christ from the cross, this Deposition begun before the year 1550. In that same year, the French traveler Blaise de Vigenere saw the artist at work and wrote: "He had passed his sixtieth year, and although he was not very strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very heavy block of marble than three young masons in twice or thrice the time. No one can believe it who has not seen it with his own eyes. And he attacked the work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly at the point marked, that if only a tiny piece of marble more had fallen, he would have been in danger of ruining the whole work." It is a quotation by a contemporary which for me perhaps best expresses the passion I see behind all of Michelangelo's work.
Though I've stood and studied, on many occasions, all of Michelangelo's four Pietas -- the most famous one, and most known and loved by the public, at St Peter's Basilica, Rome, executed when he was 24 years old; the Florentine Pieta now at the Museo del Duomo, Forence; the Palestrina Pieta, after 1555, in the Accademia di Belli Arti, Florence; and the Pieta Rondanini, 1555-1564, at Milan's Castello Sforza -- my favorite has always been the Florentine Pieta.
I first saw the Florentine Pieta in 1950 while living as a graduate student in Firenze. The monthly subsistence check from the Veterans Administration (under the GI Bill of Rights for World War II vets) did not go very far, and during that time of La Miseria in Italy, most buildings, including the impoverished pensione where I lived, were without heat. When not at school, I did what the Italians did to keep warm -- went into the streets, walked the city, lingered in sunny piazzas.
Most days, on return from these long hikes, I stopped at the Duomo, that great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, only two short blocks from my room in Via Ginori. I could rest, delay return to the room (even colder than the Cathedral), and of course, look again on the great treasures of art within that architectural marvel. For me, the finest treasure was Michelangelo's Deposition or Pieta, at that time standing in a dark side chapel. Visitors could not enter the chapel, the light was very poor, but even restricted viewing revealed the strength and sorrow of the masterful composition. Denied access to the chapel, I could not study the marble from the side or back, but came to know every line, contour, expression of its front. Some days, by tricks of light entering the chapel or the reflection of candles, I detected golden rays moving over its surface. On rare occasions, these rays would touch the face of the dead Christ, or of Nicodemus lowering Him from the cross. Eventually, daily visits to the Pieta became something I had to do -- even when Spring arrived and the weather turned warm. If anything kept me from it, the day was somehow not complete.
Firenze, of course, provided the finest opportunity for familiarity with other Michelangelo works. The Accademia housed the great David and the unfinished Prisoners (sometimes referred to as Slaves) struggling to free themselves from the marble. In the same hall with the Prisoners was the Palestrina Pieta, compelling, infinitely sad. During breaks from classes, I could go to the Rotunda, look again on these marvels. Five minutes from my pensione was the Medici Chapel with its magnificent sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, the Medicean Madonna and the great tomb groupings of Day and Night, Dawn and Evening. My treks about the city took me to the Bargello, where several of Michelangelo's youthful works -- the Faun's Mask, a smaller and softer David, the imposing Head of Brutus, the bas-relief tondo Madonna with Book, and a drunken Bacchus -- display the genius which Lorenzo de Medici recognized while the artist was still a teenager. And there was Casa Buonarotti, where Michelangelo once lived, and which still today shelters his reliefs The Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna on the Steps. At the Uffizi Gallery, one could study the only existing easel painting ever finished by the master, his Holy Family.
Limited funds prohibited extensive travel during my year of graduate study in Firenze, and I saw little of Italy other than the city and, occasionally, nearby Tuscan towns. But subsequent visits to Italy have always led me, intentionally or not, to more works of Michelangelo. Once in Bologna, visiting a friend at the monastery of San Domenico, I was surprised to find in the chapel, statues of Proculus and Petronius, and the Kneeling Angel with a Candlestick, previously known only through reproductions in art books. I also "happened across" the four statues of the Piccolomini altar, attributed to Michelangelo and assistants, in the Siena Cathedral. At Castello Sforza in Milan, I saw the Rondanini Pieta, unfinished, abstract, tortuous, a testament to the fact that he was working on it in the days before his death during his 89th year. In Rome, I sought out the Risten Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva -- poorly stationed and lit, but the strong and expressive face of the Savior was luminescent in the darkness. And in Rome, of course, one goes again and again to the Vatican, and -- despite the crowds -- always stops before that first and most acclaimed, most loved of the four Pietas. I've seen strong men weep in its presence.
The Sistine frescoes today -- after the long-term meticulous cleaning, freed from centuries of dirt and grime -- are newly glowing glories, even to those of us who've gazed on them countless times over half a century. For me, more than ever, Michelangelo's figures and forms on ceiling and altarpiece, though masterfully painted, are sculptural, endorsing his lifelong insistence that he was not a painter but a sculptor.
In Paris, I went to the Louvre to see as much as possible, in limited time, the famous masterpieces of that renowned museum. But when I stumbled into the gallery containing Michelangelo's The Dying Captive, I found it difficult to move on.
But I haven't seen it all yet, and particularly not one of the greatest works, the Moses. On three different occasions on three different visits to Rome, I went to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli determined to finally see this celebrated marble. Each time, the church was closed. Photo reproductions convince me it's a "must," I can't really claim knowledge of Michelangelo without studying this monumental, significant work. If rationale is needed for still another return to the Eternal City, that's one for me.
My love for the works of Michelangelo -- and of the man, because his works are the man -- could be threatening to my appreciation of other painters and sculptors, other genres of art. Could be, but isn't, as I continue to stand in awe beore so much which other masters have given us. Perhaps another lesson from Michelangelo, who's taught me so much. Afterall, wasn't he the first to exhalt the work of Ghiberti, to name that artist's superb doors of the Baptistery in Florence "The Gates of Paradise." Even so, enamored of all that's good in art, I esteem Michelangelo above all others. My Giant of Giants.
Decades after I'd completed graduate work (sometime in the Seventies, I think), I read that the Forentine Pieta had been moved from Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze to the Museo del Duomo, just behind the cathedral, in the shadow of the great dome. Remembering my visits to the cathedral to visit the sculpture, remembering mystical moments before it, I was disappointed to learn of the move. But I've seen it many times in subsequent years, and the new location is excellent. The Pieta stands on a spacious staircase landing, brightly illuminated with natural light from an adjacent window, imposing and arresting as you first view it from the bottom of the staircase. And what a thrill to ascend the staircase, slowly approach that wonder in marble. The landing is large enough to allow one to circle the sculpture, view it closely from front, sides and back, observe the rough chisel marks, that characteristic conclusion so often seen in his late work, the insistence that once the form was as he wanted it, Michelangelo felt no need to "finish," "polish" the work. And the dim golden glow I'd once observed in the dark cathedral now floods the entire sculpture, as the stone itself is of that hue.
Italians have told me that Michelangelo carved this Pieta for his sacophagus. True or not, his portrait in the figure of Nicodemus shows not only tender compassion for the dead Christ but an intense yearning for oneness with God. I can't stand before it without contemplating the words spoken by Michelangelo on his deathbed: "I regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul and that I am dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession."