Fifteen years ago I moved from my native Rome to this small town embedded on a hill called Anticoli Corrado. I left Rome not in search of a calmer life but because the daily contrast with the greats of the past pained me. Accepting one’s own mediocrity does not mean having to see it reaffirmed at every step one takes, we can agree on that. Another factor was that living in Rome was very expensive for a man like me, not exactly poor but of limited means.
How would I describe Anticoli Corrado? Let’s see . . . Some hundred kilometers, more or less, from Rome, it’s a tiny place with less than a thousand inhabitants, a lovely little eleventh-century church, and a square at whose center stands a fountain sculpted by Arturo Martini. For the few tourists, it’s one of those weekend excursions when one wishes to breathe fresh air and enjoy a rustic lunch with bucolic vistas. In the nineteenth century, Roman artists would come to Anticoli Corrado to seek out young women with healthy-looking features and shapes who were saints in their paintings and whores in bed. Add to that the fact of dozens of nonentities of painting having chosen the village to live in, and its fame as “the city of art and models” is justified—an additional attraction for the visitors who, after wasting time in the art museum next to my home, rush to their country-style meal.
My routine in Anticoli Corrado is immutable. I work during part of the morning, to take advantage of the light that fills almost every angle of my attic studio, and twice a week have lunch in the restaurant owned by Antonello, a Sardinian who moved here thirty years ago, apparently fleeing from a question of honor in his village (Antonello, a stereotypical islander, doesn’t like to talk about anything, much less about himself, which is why I esteem both him and his restaurant). After lunch I take a nap, and when the sun is lower, stroll to the place in the countryside that affords the best view of the Aniene river and the majesty of the Apennines in the distance. Anticoli, in fact, comes from Latin: ante colles or “in front of the mountains.” Corrado, in turn, was the most revered lord of this small region. He inherited it from his grandfather, the Swabian Friedrich II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the first half of the thirteenth century.
At twilight, back from the stroll, I always sit at the same table in the same bar in the town square to have a glass of wine and observe the contrast between the medieval architecture and the fountain by Arturo Martini—the artist who, when he gave up sculpting, decreed in writing the end of sculpture. On less pessimistic days I find his attitude an act of narcissism. On more pessimistic days I recognize his realism. When seven o’clock comes, I withdraw. I watch the news on television, have some soup, and read in bed passages from some classical author. The most-read in my nightstand has been Dante. Of the Commedia I prefer, as I believe do the majority of readers, the Inferno and the Purgatorio to the Paradiso. But the Paradiso is better for fighting insomnia.
Let me explain. The themes and verses of the Paradiso, with their sanctified Beatrice and all those considerations about divine love, are less emotional than the cantos that precede them—and therefore less inspiring from an iconographic point of view. It is enough to compare the illustrations by the Frenchman Gustave Doré: those for the Inferno and the Purgatorio are far superior. But it is not only because it is somewhat tedious that the Paradiso is effective against my insomnia. It is because its philosophical idealism has the effect of calming my soul:
Qual è’l geomètra che tutto s’affige per misturar lo cerchio, e non ritrova, pensando, quell principio ond’elli indige…
How can the same religion produce a Dante and the spectacle of vulgarity that we have witnessed for two thousand years? I have never had any patience for manifestations by the rabble. Their devil with caricatural features, horns, tail, goatee, red skin, and eyes: I used to laugh at such foolishness, as do men of intelligence. And I still laugh, although . . . When I was still young, Catholicism became for me merely a cultural reference, replaced by that sheepish atheism called agnosticism—but the truth is that, since the occurrence that I shall relate below, my difficulty in sleeping has come to require insomnia exorcisms. Reading the Paradiso is just that, an intellectual exorcism.
I’ll use the exact term, why not? My difficulty sleeping is called fear. Fear of seeing him in the shadows of my room. Or rather, seeing him again—if it was really he that I saw. Even sleeping, I can’t rid myself of the fear. In a recurring dream, the creature enters my mouth forced open, after folding its enormous black bird-wings like those of the angels painted by Ghirlandaio. Horrifying. And to think that until a short time ago the devil was only a light-hearted allegory humorously associated with art. Humorously, and not . . . There was a period in which I took delight in the stories attributed to him, several of them included in the book Il Diavolo, by Giovanni Papini. I found special amusement in the alleged demonic participation in the life of musicians such as the eighteenth-century virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini. Allow me to transcribe Papini’s account:
The devil personally entered the history of music in the year 1713. The famous violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini, then only twenty-two, was a guest at the Sacred Convent of Assisi. One night, while he was sleeping in a cell at the convent, the devil appeared to him in a dream, holding a violin, and began to play in an extravagant and disconcerting manner, succeeding in extracting from the instrument unprecedented effects of virtuosity unknown to concert artists of the time. The devil mocked and writhed as he executed with increasing furor that infernal music, and, when he finished, challenged the sleeping virtuoso to repeat with his own instrument what he had heard. Young Tartini awoke, startled, and, despite being disturbed by the emotion evoked by the dream, tried to reproduce with his instrument, and afterward to transcribe in notes, that to which the devil had made him listen. Naturally, he did not succeed in reconstituting the entire diabolical sonata, but the part he could remember remains among his works even today, with the title Devil’s Trill. The composition contains so many innovations in technique that historians and critics consider it the beginning of a new era in the art of the violin. Tartini performed the Trillin many of his concerts, but it was published only during the French Revolution, in 1790.
It is not a legend. Tartini himself spoke of that strange adventure in a letter, and we find a lengthy account of it in Lalande’s Journey to Italy, published in 1769. That manifestation of the devil seems even more diabolical when one realizes that it occurred in a Franciscan convent, in the very land of the greatest imitator of Christ in whom Christianity takes such pride. Like others, Tartini’s temptation was not totally malevolent and ill-fated, because it assisted the good fortune and glory of the young musician and effected a true advance in the art.
Papini also tells in his book how diabolical fame accompanied another violinist, the virtuosissimo Niccolò Paganini. So much so that in Nice, the city where he died in 1840, they refused to bury him in consecrated ground. I don’t think I’ll be denied a respectable funeral . . .
It was at the start of the winter that’s ending now. I was returning from my evening walk when I spotted a stranger sitting at my table in the bar in the piazza—more exactly, in my chair. As I could do nothing about the undue appropriation other than direct a look of disapproval at him, I occupied a table at the far end of the awning-covered veranda. He must be a lost tourist. I didn’t pay him any great attention and left once I had finished my wine.
The next afternoon, I saw the same man in my space. I installed myself beside him, dragging the chair and table in an irritated demonstration. He didn’t move, but I noticed the shadow of a smile on his lips, which looked as if they had been shaped by a palette knife. That bothered me so much that I decided to forgo the glass of wine.
The third day, the identical scene. This time, however, to displeasure was added curiosity. Sitting two tables away, I began to observe him, under the illusion that he didn’t notice. He seemed a bit younger than I, someone in his late fifties. His hair was ample and graying; his eyes, cerulean; his skin, very white with a lightly furrowed brow. Under his black overcoat, he appeared to have a well-proportioned body. But what most caught my attention were his dark, gaunt hands, with long fingers and thick nails. They clutched the glass and bottle the way an eagle’s talons grasp its prey—and, whenever his left hand raised the wine to be sipped by his delicate mouth, the contrast of its coloration with his pale countenance became more obvious.
I was startled when, transfixing me with his gaze, he addressed me:
“They tell me you’re a painter.”
His voice was hoarse, a smoker’s voice, although it retained a certain velvety timbre. The impression that the sound of his speech wasn’t synchronized with the movements of his mouth caused me to delay my reply:
“Yes, you might say I am.”
“Why ‘might say’? Are you a dilettante?”
“No, I make my living by painting.”
“Then you’re a painter.”
“Yes, I am. It’s just that—Nothing.”
“Would you like to join me at my table?”
” . . .”
“Actually, this is your table. I found out today, from the waiter, that you usually sit here. I apologize for having occupied your place these last few days. It’s because the view of the square from this table is perfect, and I—”
“. . .”
“You owe me no apology; the table doesn’t belong to me . . .”
“Join me. I insist.”
I sat down across from him, yielding to an inexplicable internal resistance merely because of the dictates of simple ceremony. He ordered another bottle of the expensive red wine he was drinking and resumed the conversation:
“I find painting to be a magnificent art form. The most sublime of all, I would say. It’s a step above sculpture and several steps above literature . . .”
“Above literature? What about Dante, for example?”
“Dante. I know him well: he was an artist whose paints were words . . .”
“And music? You overlooked it.”
“Ah yes, music . . . Can one attribute to men the language of the angels, of which they are mere translators?”
“A mystic . . .”
“As you wish.”
“Odd, this talk of music brings to mind a book by Papini, Il Diavolo.”
“The old Catholic . . .”
“Yes. The part where he talks about Tartini and Paganini . . .”
“Good stories. I’m familiar with them.”
“But they weren’t angels, and the devil trained them.”
“A fallen angel is always an angel, don’t you agree?”
“I forgot to mention my name: Agramainio Volo. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Edoardo Arcatella. The pleasure is mine.”
“Signor Arcatella, I’m going to put aside poetic or mystical considerations and go straight to the point: I’m not fond of music. Although there is ingenuity in its composition, in its effects it is merely cunning—albeit much to the liking, I believe, of the angelical entities who surround God. Whatever its style, music conveys to man the illusion of grandeur, makes him feel larger than he truly is, though he be the vilest of creatures. Have a thief listen to Beethoven and soon he will think himself a heroic vigilante . . . Not so with painting. Even if he paints a powerful ruler or a wealthy bourgeois, the artist can embed a comment that reduces the character to his petty, transitory dimension—the true human dimension. With a dozen brushstrokes the work is done that would take a writer page upon page to execute, and not always with equal acumen. I am of the opinion that, as painting is the highest of the arts, a good painter ought to be the most revered of men and a bad painter the most reviled.”
“I fall into the category of the reviled.”
“Perhaps you are too hard on yourself.”
“Rigorous demands on oneself are the best safeguard against succumbing to the ridiculous.”
“You’re right. I myself am quite rigorous in relation to my work.”
“What do you do?”
“I promote talent in art and science.”
“A Maecenas, one might say.”
“And are you in Anticoli Corrado in search of talent?”
“It is the city of artists, isn’t it?”
“But not of talents.”
“To your hidden talent!”
I reciprocated the unexpected toast. He then asked me what type of painting I valued most, to which I replied by praising figurative art.
“Oh, you’re completely right! I too find neither height nor depth in abstractionism.”
We plunged into themes touched upon in the beginning of this account of mine. Agramainio was a man of prodigious culture. His knowledge of painting, sculpture, and architecture made me feel like Quintiliano’s dilettante: Docti rationem artis intelligent, indocti voluptatem (The wise comprehend the reasons of art, the ignorant only its delight). He had trained his vision in the greatest museums in the civilized world as well as in private collections closed to the public. There seemed to be no city in Europe that he had not visited countless times. He knew all the cathedrals, in detail (if he were the devil, wouldn’t he be denied entrance?). He admired the radiance of Chartres, decried the excesses of Milan, held in high esteem the antiquity of Canterbury, waxed eloquent about the proportions of the cathedral in Fiorenza (as he pronounced the name of the city, old-style). Greek and Roman ruins he described in archeological detail. Of the frescoes and salons of the Domus Aurea, exploited by men of the Renaissance when it was still a catacomb beneath the Esquilino, he spoke with particular emotion, as if he had lived during the splendor of Nero’s court. He was, further, a voracious reader. From the classical Vitruvius to the Marxist Argan, the most celebrated treatises and essays on art passed through his net—and, a fact I find surprising, even from writings whose ideological framework history has been left behind he had managed to extract immanent lessons.
Our dialogue about art did not fit into a single afternoon but extended over several others. And also into morning strolls in the areas surrounding the city and lunches in rustic restaurants. It was on the tenth day of that pleasurable encounter that I said to him, by now a friend:
“You’re right when you talk about the revelatory nature of painting. But what about the illusion that it can also provide? Or might not the ecstasy caused by a Botticelli canvas be illusion? The illusion that we are more than a heap of flesh and bones . . . I’m a mediocre painter precisely because I lack that ability. How I wish I could foster something like an epiphany . . .”
“You’re very mistaken, Arcatella! Do you really think a great master seeks illusion when he paints? He seeks reality, even when his theme is illusory. What you call epiphany is not the revelation of the sacred but its opposite: the revelation of humanity. Caravaggio, Michelangelo, tutti quanti . . . I’m going to propose something to you: Use me as your theme.”
“Paint your portrait?”
“No, it would be a disaster . . .”
“For years I’ve dedicated myself to decorative motifs . . .”
“I don’t think it would be possible to go beyond the limits of simple illustration . . .”
“I’m of a different opinion.”
“You’ve never seen any of my work.”
“But I can say I know your soul. And it’s the soul of a great artist.”
“Stop joking, Agramainio.”
“I’ll pay a good price.”
“It’s not a question of that.”
“You have nothing to lose. If you judge the final result to be bad, you don’t have to show it to me.”
“You’ll only pay me if I feel it came out well.”
“Agreed. Can we begin tomorrow?”
A young student on the eve of a final examination could not have been more anxious than I that night. I was unable to sleep, or read, or even masturbate, that natural tranquilizer that men have at hand, pardon the pun, until well advanced in years. I rose at the first light of morning, and after my normal ablutions waited until the bell rang.
Agramainio was extremely punctual, and would continue to be so for fifteen days, the time I took to complete my work.
Yes, it was a work. A unique masterpiece.
He arrived wearing his customary black apparel but had no objection to wrapping around his neck the light-brown scarf that I gave him to provide a transition between the black of his clothing and the white of his face. I had him sit near the window of the studio, with a book in his eagle’s talons. From the options offered him, he chose precisely Il Diavolo, by Papini. “There’s nothing better than a Catholic author. They amuse me with their attempt to reconcile reason and religion,” he commented before taking his place.
Fifteen splendorous mornings marched by. The light filtering through the diaphanous curtain revealed prominences and recesses in both Agramainio’s skin and his clothing—and they, the prominences and recesses, contrasted with the red of the cover of the book, immune to the relief afforded by the morning sun. While my model read, absorbed and smiling, Papini’s chapters on the devil, all the tonalities of the scene were translated by me as if the brushes were the natural extension of my fingers and the pigments imparted to the vertical canvas the lymph circulating through my body. It sounds like an exaggeration, but I never felt so alive. I and the painting were one. And now I know that never again will I experience the same sensation. Today I can say that, in that narrow interregnum, I was a Vermeer. Yes, a modern Vermeer! Modern in character and in theme: instead of women in flower or buxom servant girls, the subject of the portrait was he, the malevolent one, plunged for the first time into a domestic atmosphere similar to those of the Dutchman from Delft. Mine was a devil beautifully melancholy. If he really was the devil . . .
On the sixteenth morning, without Agramainio present, I finished the painting. And stood absorbed, contemplating it for a time I would be unable to specify. I was astonished to be the creator of that canvas. Finally, there was in a work of mine personal submission, sensorial outpouring, and conceptual universality—all those attributes that make a construction, whatever it be, art. Nevertheless, as evening fell, to perplexity and pride were added a strange exhaustion. I felt emptied of something I had never had. I went to sleep without eating dinner.
The next day, early, Agramainio was at my door. Despite my extreme satisfaction with my work, I felt insecure. Would he react with enthusiasm if not equal, then close to my own, before the portrait that he had refused to look at during its creation? Would he be able to hide his disappointment, or at least attenuate it a little?
I left him alone in the studio so he could examine the work free from my inquisitive gaze. In the kitchen, while preparing coffee, I was surprised by applause coming from Agramainio behind me.
“Bravo! It’s magnificent! You captured my soul! There I am in my entirety: I especially liked the subtle smile . . . I knew you would be capable of executing a stupendous painting!”
“Are you being completely sincere?”
“Thank you very much!”
“Here’s your compensation.”
He handed me a brown envelope taken from the pocket of his overcoat. Inside were enough hundred-euro notes to support me for the next two years.
“Don’t you think that’s a lot, Agramainio?”
“No, sir, it’s a perfectly fair amount.”
“Thank you very much! But you didn’t need to pay me in cash. You could have sent a payment order to my bank account . . .”
“I’m opposed to virtual compensation, my friend. There is no greater reward than to feel the volume of a large number of high-value bills, the smell of money that has never circulated among the rabble . . . Lucri bonus est odor ex re Qualibet.” (The smell of money is good, whatever its origin.)
He continued: “We must celebrate. What are you making?”
“Coffee and toast . . .”
“No coffee, no toast . . . Let’s have some white wine in the piazza. We’ll spend a splendid day in the Mediterranean winter!”
When we were immersed in the cold sunlight, he raised a glass to my talent.
“An artist with only one painting can’t be considered talented, Agramainio.”
“If Leonardo had left but a single painting, would he cease to be Leonardo? Or would he become more Leonardo thanks to the uniqueness of his canvas?”
“He surely wouldn’t be a major figure in the history of art.”
“But is that your worry, to be a major figure in the history of art? Because what I proposed to you, and in which you succeeded brilliantly, was for you to be the major figure in your own art. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, I was happy for once, at least . . . But I’ve been thinking how good it must be to reach the sublime with each work, to experience greatness with every canvas one paints.”
“You remind me of Hopper.”
“Edward Hopper, the American?”
“I’ve never seen a painting of his, only reproductions in books. But I admire him: he didn’t fall into the cubism trap.”
“Did you know he only sold his first canvas when he was already past forty?”
“And did you know that, at the end of his life, poor, sick, and practically withdrawn from painting, he was more depressed than ever?”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
“His depression was also aggravated because, in addition to being attacked by the abstractionists, he thought he had turned into a simulacrum of himself. No one ever knew of that fact.”
“Yes. Not even his wife, Jo Nivison, who described her husband’s life in diaries. Both were over forty when they married, and she was still a virgin. I’m not surprised: she was a damnable, controlling little woman.”
“And how did you learn of Hopper’s frustration?”
“Yes, but what matters is that he experienced artistic self-redemption before he died, by means of a totally original work. I’ll tell you the story.”
It was a spring afternoon (he began), colder than usual in New York, when Edward Hopper received in his studio in Washington Square a man who insisted on visiting him. He had telephoned two weeks earlier and, in light of Hopper’s reluctance to set an appointment, had argued that he would cross the Atlantic merely for that commitment—a commitment that, he emphasized, was urgent. Averse to enlarging his limited circle of acquaintances but in need of money, the painter agreed to find time for the foreigner, whom he took to be a buyer of art. Only that, he felt, could explain his insistence: acquisition of one or more of his paintings.
When he opened the door, Hopper found himself looking at a gentleman about sixty, medium to tall in height. His appearance radiated ancient wealth, denarii, aurei, doubloons and florins, an effect reinforced by his lion-headed cane and the woody scent that, in the nostrils of the host, moderated the frosty air of an autumn day.
“Mr. Hopper, it is an enormous pleasure to meet you.”
“Please, come in, Mr.—?”
“Ah yes, forgive me, I’m not in the habit of remembering names.”
“I understand; you’re an artist.”
“No, just absentminded. Please, have a seat.”
“Are you by yourself? Signora Jo isn’t—?”
“No, she’s not here. Does she know you, by any chance?”
“No . . . I’m aware that she’s your right hand, and I was rather curious to meet her.”
“And my left hand as well . . .”
“Yes, of course . . . Well, I’m interested in a painting of yours.”
“I imagined as much. I have some finished canvases in back, if you’d like to see . . .”
“No, thank you. Not for lack of interest, but because the painting I wish to acquire would have to be commissioned.”
“I don’t normally do commissioned work since I gave up being an illustrator many years ago.”
“I know that, but what I’d like to propose to you is neither my portrait nor that of someone in my family. No, sir, I’m not like some seventeenth-century bourgeois. I have no such presumption. I got the idea of offering you a commission, one I hope you will accept, after reading a phrase of yours in an interview.”
“The visitor opened a notebook taken from the pocket of his coat and read aloud:
“‘So much of every art is the expression of the subconscious, that it seems to me that most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect.'”
“Yes, I remember saying that.”
“Right then, it occurred to me that you could paint a self-portrait that was the expression of your unconscious.”
“I don’t do expressionist art, signor Dapertutto.”
“Of course not. Your painting doesn’t resort to tricks of distortion to be beautiful, profound, revealing. You’re at the level of the grand masters of my country, Italy.”
“Thank you. A self-portrait . . .”
“You’ve already done two, I know, but this would be, shall we say, the definitive one.”
“It’s an unusual proposal . . .”
“And I will pay very well for the painting.”
“I’ll think it over.”
“I’m in no hurry.”
Hopper saw in the proposal for a self-portrait a breath of life and a way out of his creative morass. Even though rather weak, he began to do studies of the theme, in charcoal. Because Dapertutto was Italian, he had the idea of representing himself as a character from the commedia dell’arte: Harlequin. But a solitary Harlequin struck him as a commonplace theme. Recalling his visitor’s interest in Jo, he decided to include her in the painting, as if she were a Quaker Colombina, in the bonnet worn by pioneer women. Yes, it was quite different from any painting he had done before. Nothing of New England landscapes or Americans immersed in the solitude of the metropolis. Another Hopper would emerge from it.
Once he had chosen the characterization, he needed to establish the context for the two figures. One of the studies shows the Harlequin-Hopper and the Colombina-Jo holding hands and executing a dance step, next to a pianist and observed by an audience. But that seemed unreasonable to him. Better to place them on a stage. On a stage equally Italian, as if after a show they were thanking an audience invisible to the spectator. That was what he did. On that stage, the white of Harlequin-Hopper and Colombina-Jo’s clothing contrasts with the dark background that seems ready to swallow them up. It is a work out of harmony with the oeuvre left by Hopper. It was his last painting, finished in the fall of 1965 and entitled Two Comedians. In May of 1967, he would die sitting in his chair in his studio. Nine months later, Jo would also depart. End of story.
“What happened to the work?”
“It’s still in the United States, part of a private collection. Angelico paid for it but left it with Hopper.”
“Then why did he commission it?”
“Dapertutto was explicit: so that Hopper could access his unconscious and thus create another great painting. The definitive self-portrait, as he himself said.”
“The scene of the painting, a farewell, the dark background—it’s as if Hopper foresaw his own death and that of his wife.”
“Was it Dapertutto who told you that story?”
“I don’t understand. If it wasn’t he, if Jo wrote nothing about the episode, how do you—”
Agramainio smiled, staring at me with those cerulean eyes, saying nothing.
“Angelico never existed, did he? And you, who are you? You don’t exist . . .”
“And just what is human existence, Arcatella, if not a construct of desire, a more or less artistic representation commensurate with the talent of each one? I exist, because in your soul you wanted me to exist. And in that existence that now comes to its end, I will leave the portrait that you did of me, just as Angelico gave to Hopper, its creator, the canvas of the comedians. Yours was a beautiful construction, you must acknowledge.”
Then Agramainio stood up, looked around as if observing Anticoli Corrado for the last time, inhaled deeply the cold morning air and disappeared in the direction of the countryside.
Since that time, as I have already said, my nights have never been the same. Besides the nocturnal fear, Agramainio bequeathed me the question: if Hopper painted his farewell to this world, have I painted mine, in the form of a demon who inhabits my soul alone and occupies all its hidden places?
I am disposed to believe so: I have never again managed to admire the portrait that now lies in the cellar of my house, covered by a sheet. My great work, the only one, is as if it were an I that could not be revealed—and that wounds me more than if I had never painted it.
It is a blot that would be a figure. It is like knowing you are dead every minute of your life.
Translation of “A visita que Edward Hopper recebeu dois anos antes de morrer.” Copyright Mario Sabino. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.