More than One Masterpiece

In my wanderings around Milan some sixteen years ago (!!!!) I went to see The Last Supper. I didn’t care much about the painting. I felt I’d seen it a million times already in fifty million kitsch reproductions, but when I got there, and I did see it, I realized I had been wrong. I hadn’t seen the painting ever before, just tawdry gestures in its general direction.

History class in high school had informed me that Italy and the US were, for a time, enemies in WW II. I processed that fact, probably answered something on a test, and moved on from there to other things that interested me. My opinion of world history at that point in my life was that it was irrelevant to me. I told my teachers this and watched them shrug or listened as they attempted to explain why I had to take this class. Pretty much the whole rest of my life has finished those lectures for them. As Aristotle said, and someone engraved over the door of the library at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”

The painting is more than a painting and all the attempts to restore or destroy it are unlikely to succeed in eliminating its mysterious essence. It is a force. I’m not the only one to see this or feel it. In Goethe’s day, people who wanted to see the painting were lowered on ropes through a hole in the roof. His assessment was the same as mine.

In my World History class in high school I didn’t learn anything about one important aspect of the  reality of bombing. It wasn’t until I saw The Last Supper and then saw photos of it during WW II, and saw Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale that I understood that some of the casualties of war are not human beings, but human culture.

The Allies repeatedly bombed Milan because it was Italy’s second largest city and a major industrial power. The Italians, at the beginning of the war, knowing this was coming, set out to protect precious, irreplaceable, world treasures — among them The Last Supper.

When I first saw these photos I was stunned because I had visited the church, seen the painting, and had no idea that the church had been — essentially — reduced to rubble and then rebuilt around this painting, a painting that people once thought so little of that they cut a door into the bottom of it and then, in a later iteration, stabled horses in this room.



If you wander around Milan today, you will not guess the devastation of WW II or all the other wars, centuries of wars. But you will see The Last Supper. The painting is a masterpiece, but the sandbags, scaffold and drapery that saved it from bombs? A masterpiece, too.

Dewey Decimal System

“…create three 3-digit numbers using your selections from the first step. Next, visit this Dewey Decimal System website and find the subjects that match your three digit numbers.  If one of your results turns up “not assigned or no longer used,” you may create a new 3-digit number to replace it from the original four you selected.”

1952, the year of my birth. 529, 195, 291 Let’s see what happens now! (Sorry, I couldn’t see any point in making multiple four digit numbers, bpuppies)

529 = chronology

195 = Modern Western philosophy; Italy

291 = Comparative religion

Anyone looking at the chronology of human culture is going to find themselves staring into the looking glass tunnel of world religion. Like ocean waves, the themes recur and recede. Here humans worry about caring for the poor; here they worry about salvation; here they worry about the exact meaning of whatever scripture they follow. The study of comparative religions shows this, even with its intrinsic philosophical flaw. Comparisons are, by definition, the search for similarities, so over and over we find virgin births and baptisms. These facts emerging through the chronology of the development of human culture become “evidence” for one argument or another. The central assumption on which the comparison turns — that there is a supreme being — is often ignored. Since comparative religion is used to bolster arguments, we forget that religion is also humanity’s attempt to make sense of chaos, to fence human experience within the chronological parameters of a human life. It’s difficult to accept that while our lives begin and end, they are not complete sentences. They are fragments of something larger and, perhaps, eternally incomplete.

In Milan, in the Stazione Centrale, I’ve had some of the greatest moments of my life. I didn’t know much about the station and its history until I bought a tourist guide (in Italian) and read that the station had been built by Mussolini as a testament, a monument, a palace to “liberty ed eclettismo.” Pondering that bit of modern Italian philosophy, what is liberty but eclecticism? And what a world that would even think of that? And isn’t it in that eternal incompleteness that we find liberty? In eclecticism we find the most possibility? The irony is that this was part of the philosophy of Italian fascism.


Daily Prompt All Grown Up When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?

Because being grown up is learning not to let ones interior world obscure the exterior world — in other words, knowing the difference between feeling/perception and objective reality — I’m posting another section from a novella Il Treno. I’ve posted other sections from it here, here, and here.


“In every parting there is a latent germ of madness, and one must beware not to tend it and let it ripen in one’s mind.” Goethe, Italian Journey

My last morning in Italy dawned grey, ambiguous, defeated and melancholy. I nursed the slim hope that, in the outside world, I could escape the pitfalls of my character, for the interior world was empty, tired and very, very sad.

The undulation of my moods during these two weeks had become predictable; a day up, a day down; a day of philosophy and joy, a day of stupefaction and ire. Two days before–a day of stupor–Elisabetta came home for lunch. I had done nothing, stayed writing e-mails to people at home. I wrote copiously and thoroughly, knowing I deserved sympathy and that I would get it from people to whom I had given sympathy. As we ate, I told Elisabetta that I was sad and angry, and no matter how I tried to master my emotions and forget everything, I couldn’t. “Those feelings are natural,” she said, “you can’t forget it just because you want to.” I strove hard not to talk to her about it. Dario was her brother and who, after all, was I? And so my conversation had gone into epistolary monologues. I knew the answers would not arrive until my mood had left this trough and reached the crest of the next wave. Everything was out of phase.

On this last day I had little hope for rejuvenation; there was no more Italy ahead. In the convoluted labyrinth of regret were places I’d allowed to slip past me on the Venice train; destinations I had not pursued. Why I did not leave Milan that day I do not know; we’d had plans, there was that. They fizzled out as the three of us sat over an apathetic breakfast. Discussing alternatives, I surveyed the mood of my hostesses. I wanted to leave them alone to pursue their own lives, but beyond that I did not think of anything. I could have gone to Vicenza and Verona, but instead I wandered the now familiar streets of Milan, mapless, walking to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in the grey of low pressure and drizzle. The church was closed; I entered instead the Museum of Torture.

In the Castello Sforza I had seen an amazing utilitarian sculpture, the head of Satan carved in wood, painted blood red, fastened in front of a machine used for sharpening knives. When the knife sharpener operated the machine with his foot pedal, wheels turned moving gears. Smoke came from his nose and his eyeballs whirled. Then, Satan’s mouth opened and he “spoke” to the people in a diabolical voice. Considering the substantiality of Satan to the people paying the knife grinder, this must have been a mesmerizing advertisement. I had been fascinated, too, though the Devil stood silent and subdued in a sanitized museum, surrounded by furniture of the period.

My last day in Milan, as I stood in the midst of three floors of Torturous Implements of the Holy Inquisition, I saw what competition my smoking, growling Satan had had on the streets of his day. Only the Devil could have distracted the crowds from these tools of hell used to punish the ungodly. Death by filth and septicemia, slow dismemberment, disemboweling or castration seemed to be the most “effective,” in other words, the slowest and most entertaining, means of torture. The appropriate devices were made of wood and painted with happy rural scenes of farmers plowing and girls on swings.

There was a rack on the top floor of the museum. “Very popular during the Spanish Inquisition,” said its description, “The rack was excruciatingly painful.” This one, as the sign to the left pointed out, was particularly cruel. As the person was stretched, his joints painfully pulled apart, a roller beneath his back, covered with knife-edged points, scraped his skin away; when the stretching stopped, his body weight pushed the points more deeply into his flesh.

The pillory, used to discipline chronically arguing spouses or neighbor women who disturbed the peace of their neighbors, left only permanent scars, assuming the wounds were cleaned and treated after the heavy wood and iron apparatus had been removed.

In the three floors of this, the most terrifying exhibits, to me, were the sepia toned reproductions of old paintings, book illustrations and drawings of the implements IN USE. Artists rendered these scenes beside the loving innocence of the Virgin Mother and her Child. In this painting was a man, his genitals weighted with lead balls as he hung, tied by the wrists, to poles shoved into the ground. This dark side was a vital part of the worlds and times I had been striving to see all week. I talked for a moment with the pierced and tattooed docent who asked me what I thought.

“They are terrible, but what is more terrible than their reality,” I said, “is that they were thought of in the first place.”

“That,” he said, “is precisely the horror. Do you think it will rain?”

Loss and Ignorance in Milan

Il Cenoculo

“Could there be a more appropriate or better conceived subject for a painting in a refectory than a farewell supper, which was destined to become eternally sacred to the whole world?” Goethe quoting “Giuseppe Bossi: On Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Milan”

My first breakfast in Milan was a solitary bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. I washed the dishes. Taking my map, I left, securing doors and gates behind me with strange Italian keys, sideways skeletons, serious locks. At the bottom of three flights of worn marble tiles–the wearing down of which fascinated me–I stepped into the bright day through a doorway built to admit horses into the courtyard of this 18th century building. Sunday. Quiet streets. I had marked my map with a yellow highlighter, leading to my destination, La Ultima Cena, Il Cenoculo, the masterpiece which competes with the Mona Lisa as Leonardo’s most famous painting. “Dove Il Cenoculo?” asked Elena the day before.

“Sant’Ambrogio,” answered Elisabetta. That basilica was my destination.

“You can ride my bicycle, or you can take the tram, and the subway is just up that street, turn right, then left, then right and it’s there. Remember, the stop is Porto Romano so when you come back you know where to get off.” My first thought–which I rejected–was the bicycle, but it’s difficult to navigate on a bicycle unless you know where you are and where you’re going, and then there were the grooves of the tram tracks. Intimidated by the subway, and wanting to see the city, I walked. Self-consciously solitary, hesitant to publicly read my map, I was a black hopeful shadow on sun-drenched streets, seeking shade beneath the trees along Via Beatrice Este. I wandered past a Byzantine church, breathtaking, mysterious and–to me–irresistible. I walked around it but became confused when I was suddenly on a medieval street. Out of odd uncertainty, I retraced my steps. My goal was to see the one painting I would find at Sant’Ambrogio, nothing else.

Seeing a subway stop, I went down to ask directions. I was kindly informed that the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio was directly across the street. I ran up the stairs and emerged in a driven frenzy to find the entrance to the church; still, I couldn’t find it. I walked around the block looking for a likely entrance, and finding none, and further and further from where I wanted to be, I turned back. Each moment increased my self-doubt. This was not, for me, the simple confusion of a stranger in a strange land; for me, all this was failure. I was proving something to someone, to Dario? To his sister, his parents? To myself? That I could do everything myself? That I could give myself a good time, a successful time, that I didn’t need Dario or the realization of his promises, and so I was determined to see La Ultima Cena.  I had to do this without asking any of the questions I really needed to ask, or noticing anything around me.

I should have understood then. I didn’t find the door until I gave up possibilities which (to me) seemed reasonable and went in the only open gate, a spiked iron-clad foot-thick wooden monster that could have confined Satan. This was how I discovered that the entrance to this historic church is through the gate of the tower dungeon which houses Milan’s Museum of Torturous Implements of the Holy Inquisition.

I entered a small square. A one-eyed beggar from Africa sat on one of the benches that lined the courtyard. A couple of punk-rock kids sat kissing on a stone animal (lion? lamb?) outside the church door. The age of the place and its silence struck me; I entered without speaking to anyone. I did not imagine that others would understand even my poor, very poor, Italian, though only the day before I had spoken Italian the entire day, and the day before that, and the day before that and the day before that; my four days in Italy had been–except for the abysmal interludes of broken English with Dario–lived in Italian. Entering this church, I felt excruciatingly, self-consciously, foreign. Church bells rang the half hour.

“A combination of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio marked an important transition in style,” I was told by a coin operated recording just inside the doors. The recording said nothing about La Ultima Cena. I walked around the sanctuary, looking at the chapels and the paintings, puzzled that I did not see what I came to see, or a line of people waiting to see it, or any indication that it was here at all. I was momentarily entranced by a statue and shrine to a saint called Satiros, and nearly bought him a candle based on the painfully appropriate prayer asking for his help in overcoming “egoismo e indeciso.” The long line of suppliants waiting for a chance to buy these candles and prayers indicated something fundamental in human nature.

I continued to walk around the church, looking, but absently looking; occluded as I was by egoism and indecisiveness, I was paralyzed. All I REALLY saw was that I didn’t see what I set out that morning to see. I did not want to ask, “Where is Leonardo’s painting?” when clearly what WAS all around me was amazing. Finally, I bought a guidebook to Milan from a woman running a kiosk inside the church and from the book I learned that what I wanted was the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Sant’Ambrogio was the simply the closest subway stop. I walked out of the church moments before mass began. I missed that, too.

A destination serves best as a reason to venture out. Until I learned this, I endured the pathology of frustration. Knowing where I “wanted” to be, it became impossible for me to stay where I was, to see the random beauty of a place like this one. A week later, after I had learned how to ask useful questions and how to be somewhere, I tried to return. Sant’Ambrogio was closed for mass, and all that remained for me was to wander through the three dismal floors of torture, perusing devices representing the nefarious side of human nature, diabolically vindicated by “Church” and “Justice. The irony is this. Hell is exactly that, not to be where you are at any given moment. I had damned myself.

Des Lebens labyrintisches irren Lauf,” wrote Goethe in one of his prologues to Faust. “. . .life’s labyrinthine chaos course.”

I continued, through small streets and down some larger ones, reaching, finally, the monastery in which Leonardo had painted to pay for food and shelter.

I could not get in. “We are sorry. There are no more reservations today. Call this number to make an appointment.”

Tourists who were in Milan for only one day crumpled in disappointment or paced in frenzied agitation. “What if someone cancels? Then can we get in?”

“No one cancels.”

I looked around. There are tours in English and Italian; a Korean tour group had all the tickets for the next English tour which was also the last of the day. Next to the door a table was set up selling souvenirs of the Cenoculo experience; posters, maps, postcards, banners, all kinds of junk.

Per favore. Di mi il numero.”

Siamo ciusi domani, e martedi non ne piu prenotatti, mercoledi e il primo giorno.”

Va bene. Sono qui per una settimana.”

“Bene. Qui,” and he handed me a small card with the number printed on it. “Chiama un giorno di anticipo. Abbiamo un tour in inglese cinque volte per giorno.

Grazie. Grazie tanti. Arrivederci.

Clearly, my Italian wasn’t very good, or were there things about the painting I would understand better if they were told to me in bad English? The fact was, I didn’t care if I saw this famous painting or not; I preferred a tour in Italian because, at least, I would improve my listening comprehension. I had seen this painting–as we have all seen it–in reproductions everywhere on everything. My grandmother, in her little house on its gravel street in Billings, Montana had, hanging above her sink, a china plate on which was printed The Last Supper. When I was a kid, I thought that was funny since no one ever actually ate supper off the plate. I inherited it, as it had been a gift from my mother, and when it broke in a move, I felt no loss, either of the artifact of my grandmother’s life or of this painting. The plate was kitsch; the painting, by default, was kitsch. Seeing The Last Supper was just the thing you did in Milan. From my frustrated visit to the Basilica Santa Maria di Grazia, I had a story to tell the girls at dinner, “There were so many people, I couldn’t get in.” I knew I would say that and they would ask me when I could go.

A nineteenth century tourist had raved about Milan, calling it the beautiful progeny of a marriage between Zürich and Rome. I loved Zürich; I had not been to Rome. Today Milan is a city that, apparently, does not attract tourists, only those who want to hear opera at La Scala–which, during my visit was playing West Side Story–or who are passing through to real destinations like Rome, Florence or Venice, but Milan ultimately gave me unhurried, uncrowded experiences in intriguing, beautiful places. I was heading in the direction of downtown, toward the Duomo. Relieved of Il Cenoculo as a destination, I looked in my small book on what I might find on the way. My feet were burning from blisters I’d gotten the day before walking barefoot in hot black shoes, around the Naviglia, and though I was now wearing socks, they were too heavy, and pressed on my blisters.

I continued walking, past a building whose street door was flanked by ancient statues. I entered only the courtyard. I glanced at hacked up dismembered marble arms and legs, thighs without knees or hips, half a face with an ear, scattered in the yard, covered with dust, or resting on fat-legged marble tables like fossilized cadavers of titans; the ancient, presented like this, didn’t interest me. I turned away.

I was on the Corso Magenta. I really wanted lightweight socks. It was Sunday. What would be open? I decided to find something to eat and continued toward the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II.

I got lunch in an autocafe, one of a chain throughout Milan–all of Italy, for all I know–the equivalent of Denny’s. I found no seat except in the smoking section, across from a junkie who had piled his plate high with ham, pasta, salad and fruit he didn’t touch. I had rigatoni bolognese, worse than American pasta which is notorious in Italy for being overcooked. The bread was stale and my soda was expensive. As I ate, silently looking past the junkie out the window, I decided not to eat there again, even though it had a bathroom. A tourist on foot becomes preoccupied with accessible public toilets, and in the course of that day I remembered reading a description of the convenient public toilet behind the Duomo, complete with showers, run by the Tourist Bureau.

I set out in search of socks. The streets were now packed with people, and I shuffled and jostled my way along, past refugees from everywhere selling everything; Senegalese selling purses, Chinese selling cheap electronic toys, Angolans offering braided bracelets, Filipinos selling truly lovely handmade jewelry made of fishing line and glass. I was ignored; I looked either too destitute or too Italian to approach, and was left to go my way while those more obviously tourists were plagued and pursued down the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. I found a store open and entering, looked for socks. Milan IS fashion; and the clothes in this store were gorgeous, but in the self-consciousness of my solitude, I had difficulty looking. I found the socks and bought them. I crossed the Piazza delle Duomo, and went for the first time to a cafe that became from that day on my resting place.

Mi dispiace, ma, non posso cambiare,” the man behind the counter was saying to the young Korean woman ahead of me in line who had ordered ice cream and cappuccino and handed him a 300,000 lira note. “Aspetta un momento, per favore,” he continued, then looked at me, “Mi scusi, signora, si può cambiare questo?”

Si. Aspetta.” I gave him change (lira, back then), then I ordered an espresso and soda water. In solidarity with the Italian style, I put two cubes of sugar in my tiny cup of coffee, though normally I take it black, and stirred. It was better sweet. I felt triumphant that I could change that note; I felt that I was more than an imbecilic parasite lost with blistered feet, marching on the streets of Milan purposefully to erroneous destinations, who had come to Italy in pursuit of a man who had turned out to be a lying sociopath.

Sitting with my coffee, listening to an orchestra playing in the background and looking at the pigeon and tourist filled square of the Duomo, I understood all of it. I opened my book and looked at all the places I could go; I had no destination, I had only to enjoy myself. My one certainty was a plane ticket taking me back to California in three weeks. I did not want to stay so long, but I couldn’t change my ticket at that moment, that day; it was Sunday, and I was in Milan. That reality finally penetrated; I was in Milan, on my own, independent, in one of the world’s great, oldest cities. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and saw with excitement how little I knew of anything, especially of where I was. I was filled with the sense of magic possibility that is freedom. Adventure; (advent, the beginning or coming of something important).

After a change of socks I decided to see the paintings hanging in the Sforza Castle. I crossed the Galleria and found myself in a medieval market square with posts and rings for tying horses. Families of Italian and eastern European tourists ate picnic lunches on the raised platform of the market; it was a beautiful spot and I was able with my new wisdom to enjoy it, to marvel at it, to picture in my mind the horses tied and merchants bargaining beneath the watchful gaze of burghers and officials looking from the merchant exchange offices above. I bought a gelato, and crossed a traffic circle, entering the drawbridge gate over the dry moat that surrounded a castle from a fairy tale.

Castello Sforzesco vista dallalto

I wanted to see paintings, but the first entrance led me to carefully labeled marble body parts. Outside again, I saw a sign, “Pinocateca.” Painting gallery. The Castle Sforza IS medieval, but inside, the museum is ultra-modern and spare; it’s perfect. The European time machine–of which I had only seen scattered samples in museums–needs somehow to rest within a space so barren of context that each comprehensible jewel can be savored, relished, seen. The Sforza Castle was made — in many places —  into just such spaces. I passed through the first two in which tapestries hung above mammoth medieval chests and chairs, into another, with a vaulted green ceiling on which frescoes of zodiac signs were painted; it was splendid, set off by itself. From there I walked into the next perfectly Spartan room. Narrative and symbolic paintings of the Virgin, St. Sebsastian, St. Gregory, St. Benedict began their education of my eyes. I needed to be taught; I did not know how to see; I was tuned to subject, numb to form, blind to technique. At first I saw only that the paintings were virtually the same; the same subjects, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, insufficient representations of the Biblical reference I love most, the Garden of Gethsemene. There was the first Christmas, the infant Jesus on Mary’s Lap, the child Jesus, then sorrowing, brave Mary holding up the body of her dead son, and on and on and on over and over again from one room to the next. Goethe wrote that these artists, painting for patronage, limited by their patrons to these same subjects, were imprisoned, but there was none of the joylessness of imprisonment in these works; at least, I didn’t see it. All seemed to have been painted with patience, faith and love–and hope, of course, for a few dollars.

But I was learning. Learning of saints, and which ones cried out most for depiction–St. Sebastian with his arrow-pierced young body, his agony. Later, a strange image emerged; a levitating knife, poised to penetrate? or decapitate? There was no clue anywhere as to the significance of this airborne blade. Did it denote martyrdom? I posited this theory hoping to find the blade in a painting of the one man my Protestant background recognized as a martyr, St. John the Baptist. “That,” I thought, “will tell me.” I didn’t object to my ignorance; it was the force behind discovery. Looking for a flying blade seeking John the Baptist, I gasped to see his head on a plate, tongue hanging out, eyes rolled back, complete with blood, veins, nerve endings and a severed spinal chord.

Within these rooms of time I saw the discovery of fixed-point perspective and the effect it had on Christ’s formerly precarious balance on his mother’s lap. I saw men and women of Italy’s streets painted in the backgrounds of the familiar Bible scenes, replacing the anonymous paper-doll faces of the early middle ages. Intricate brocade on the gowns of painted archbishops was accomplished in the same way I use lace paper to create pattern and texture; through a stencil. It was all astonishing; I saw the palpable difference in the floating, light reflective surface of an oil or casein painting and the infused radiance of a fresco; plaster inoculated with color. I fell in love with its passionate immediacy, the vividness of a moment of life, the movement of existence. From that day, I sought them everywhere and yearned to try my own.

At the end, there stood Goethe’s passion, the plastic arts, a statue he could have seen in Rome, but didn’t. Starkly, simply exhibited in a replication of a sculptor’s workroom, without the fastidious self-consciousness of a set design, stood Michelangelo’s unfinished standing Pieta Rondanini. The great work was spot-lit from four directions with benches making a small amphitheater in front. I sat down. I had loved this piece since I saw photos of it in high school art history class.


Pieta Rondanini

There in front of me it appeared to be the fruition of ALL the paintings; in a relative sense they were complex sketches, studies spanning centuries, practice for this exquisitely unfinished work.

I had spent three hours in this palace of delight; I was surfeited.

On my way back I bought a strawberry gelato (é soltanto una fragola) and, savoring its sweet temporality, I slowly returned to Via Atto Vanucci. I had not seen La Ultima Cena, but when I did, three days later, all of this had prepared me for what is much more than a painting; as a work of art, it is a force transcending its many mangled restorations, a force of beauty reaching beyond beauty, a destination. Il destino. Destiny.

“The presence of works of art, like those of Nature, makes us. . .wish to express our feelings and judgements in words, but . . . in the end we return to a wordless beholding.” Goethe Italian Journey

Night Out in Milan


“The pair introduced me to a young lady from Milan. . .the Milanesa had light-brown hair, a clear delicate skin, blue eyes and was more outgoing, not so much forward as eager to know about things.” Goethe, Italian Journey.

“She’s my best friend, but she’s kind of married, you know? What about you? What do you like, men or women?” Nicoletta snuggled against Tina, who looked dishy in a white gown. Elisabetta, in black silk parachute pants and a skin-tight yellow t-shirt, sat beside me. I don’t remember what Nicoletta wore; only that she arrived on a Vespa and when she took her helmet off, in a graceful, elegant gesture, honey-colored hair fell to her shoulders, then we all had entered the restaurant under a blue neon representation of a cuttlefish.

“Men. But I think this way. I don’t think we fall in love with a gender; we fall in love with a person. I think I could love a woman, and if I loved her, I would want her. It hasn’t happened, but it isn’t impossible.” It’s only a polite theory. Though I have had women friends I loved, I couldn’t, well, I couldn’t. Close contact with female bodies in crowded gyrating rock concerts has already told me how repelled I would be embracing that plowed field; its proper role is the germination of seeds. I know this in my own animal heart of biological morality.

“I am in love.”


“It’s agony. You know about that, don’t you?” Nicoletta looked into my eyes. I wondered what she had heard of me, if anything.


The little “train”, as Elisabetta had described it, passed by my right. Its “cars” were small plates carrying sushi. I was worried about dinner because it would be expensive and I had no idea–yet–what the money in my purse was worth. I said something about it, and Elisabetta quickly said, “You are our guest.” That didn’t make it better, but I would return the favor another night. I took a small plate of nigiri sushi–hamachi–from the train. Tina took some, too.

“Is this what you want to do? We can order, we can order the big boat. Tina, do you want to do that, or this way?”

The boat was ordered. So much for the train.

“Tell me your love story,” I said to Nicoletta who continued to look at me with a focused inquisitive earnestness. It was the easiest way out of telling mine.

“For a while we were friends. Then, he fell in love with me, but I was not in love with him. After a while, we were friends again, but then he fell in love with someone else, and I fell in love with him. Then he finished with her and fell in love with me, but I was not in love with him any more and was with someone else.”

“And now?” I asked.

“We have decided to try.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s on Capri.”

I smiled, thinking of Tiberius. “When is he coming back?”

“In two days. You know what I feel, don’t you?”

“I do. I know exactly.”

“I see it in your eyes. You must have stories.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to tell my stories. None of them were happy, anyway. That love is endlessly, consummately, interesting is not surprising. It is always the missing piece. It is the missing piece of contentment for the lonely; the missing piece of contentment for the miserably paired. “Soltanto una fragola” that easily smashed, quickly rotted, juicy, sweet, biting, heart-shaped, inimitable, longed-for fruit, inedible when picked too soon, regardless of its enticing red color; that strawberry, love.

“How old are you?”


“That’s impossible. I thought you were, thirty-three, thirty-five at most.”

“You’re my best friend forever.” I grin at her. She is 28 and beautiful; she shames the models in Vogue.

“No, Christine, listen. I’m not making a compliment to you. Elisabetta, Tina, doesn’t she look much younger? Did you know she was so old? I don’t believe it! You don’t have any wrinkles!”

I don’t mind that she is flattering me. I need to believe it, so I do.

“I lived in America,” she says, “in New York.”

“Doing what?”

“I’m a photographer.”

“Did you like it?”

“Very much. It’s an exciting city. I was going to stay there. But, I came back.”


“Oh, you know. I was in love with the man I was working for, but he didn’t feel the same. We shared an apartment, see? Because I had very little money and you know, New York is expensive. Anyway, I worked for him. One night he was out with a woman and he didn’t come back. I couldn’t stand it. I put everything in a bag, walked out of the apartment. I got in a taxi and went to the airport. My mother was shocked, you know? I was wearing pajamas!”

“How long, Nicoletta? How long did you live with that?”

“Two years. Are you in love now?”

Elisabetta looks at me, concerned. I’m disconcerted. I take a deep breath before I answer, “No, not now. I’m not in love with anyone.” Perhaps I lied or perhaps I was only trying out the sentence for the future, when it would be true.

Unpurged Images, Venice

Part of a non-fiction, novella length work, based on experiences on a journey of hopeless love in 2000…

“. . . seek out in works of art only the artist’s idea. . .the life of the original moment when the work was created, and think of it. . .as pure and isolated from all that the universal conditions of time and mutability have done to it. . .”  Goethe, The Flight to Italy, Diary

I can only stare, stunned and dumfounded by the gold, lapis and cloisonné altar screen above St. Mark’s bones.  My mind searches for something to unlock even a small part and stumbles into Yeats, “But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make, Of hammered gold and gold enameling. . .”  Exactly what I’m seeing, the shapes of saints, hammered into, then enameled onto, all this gold, more heart-wrenching than the dark cells in the Doge’s prison next door.  Beyond this altar screen, I see the artists.  One works to feed a starving family, is grateful to be handed a piece of the labor; the next adds yet one more layer to his fame, but there is no name inscribed here; that man labors for the salvation of his soul, and his name, were it inscribed here, would shame him.  Was the family fed?  Of fame, nothing remains, that’s clear.  I am the future, and the past is mute.  And salvation?  Of course, there is the annoying problem of the “heart sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal,” but art IS desire, and I have sailed into Byzantium.

To work for ANYTHING without WANTING to?  The merely MECHANICAL, for a man to to work without desire.  But a machine?  No desire, yet, working, furthering the desires of its maker for earthbound immortality?  Extending the purpose for which the artist was born?  Good God. Yeats’ golden bird chirps into infinity.  A soulless, animatronic, singing mechanism, like this Byzantine labyrinthine basilica, a curiosity for which I waited in line 48 years.  Yeats himself left only the immortal idea, there is no bird, only songs, “. . . images that yet, fresh images beget”  Inspiration; the animating breath.  In a corner, in a dark and quiet shelter from the gold, the devout kneel, noiseless, before a painted statue of the Virgin.  Her sweet face, compassionate and gentle, the child on one arm but the other open ready to succor another, offer mournful man what he needs more than God’s glory–God’s mercy; she models, inspires, love.

I look at the ceiling and for the first time notice how living stories suffuse each voluptuous arch.  The fish of the sea and the birds of the air struggle to life in a segment between archangels.  The sea is crowded with fish; in their midst, a dragon.  A golden eagle dives from one corner; a goose, a swan, a gull, a heron, an egret, a duck and a raven fill the rest of this compressed and golden sky.  “All mere complexities of mire and blood.”  Nearby, Noah releases a dove.  St. Mark crosses the Mediterranean and is hauled up the Adriatic. His corpse sits on the boat like a living entity; the sea is rough; three men struggle to bring in the sail while a fourth, the animate soul of St. Mark, holds the rudder steady in the “gong tormented sea.”

I study this “monument to its own magnificence” as well as I can–though to do a decent job would take me YEARS; I am that ignorant.  I buy postcards, step outside and wait for my eyes to adjust to the light of the pigeon tormented piazza.  In Yeats I had found not just “a” key but the key.


Some of the people I met and talked with in Milan were Buddhists, Italian Buddhists.  From these Italian Buddhists, I heard the argument that mastering desire is enlightenment.  One handed me hand-rolled sticks of incense from Tibet as I stood in the doorway of the shop in the Naviglia.  “If you do not WANT anything you are free.”  This, I guess, is peace?  The thin young woman who pressed the sandalwood sticks on me had an earnest not beautiful face; passionately and with consummate desire, she tried to get me to change my mind without knowing my mind.  For me, God is inexpressible, inutterable.  Awe.  God is the force that pushes me beyond myself.  I am his “golden handiwork;” his “golden bird upon a golden bough”–this earth.  I WANT that song with all the burning ferocity of lust.
The tranquil slow evening, the leisurely shutting down of businesses along the street, a new bottle of Italian spring water, I stood holding my incense; that was my first night in Milan.  Tomorrow will be my last.  I see all of it already in my mind as a form distilled and perfected through time, emerging.  I loved that fervent girl standing there, color for my yet unpainted picture.  I smiled and told her that yes indeed I do know the terrible pitfalls of desire (who would know better?) that I even saw the Dahlai Lama, and when? You were six or seven I tell her.  It isn’t that I did not believe that what she told me is true.  That desire makes us miserable is ONLY logical, but logic isn’t sufficient. “Hey, you guys overcome desire, you can reach Nirvana; you can become divine.”

Christ didn’t ASPIRE to become divine; he was. He didn’t struggle toward divinity; there were moments when he struggled to escape it; divine LOVE made his struggles, and ALL love YEARNS.  I believe in desire.  My Christ didn’t want to die, my Christ longed for God, my Christ was overcome with pain at the sight of suffering, my Christ was exhausted from his pain at the sight of suffering, my Christ had the courage to suffer and submit, my Christ had the courage to sit on a mountain and explode truth, out of his DESIRE that men see God, see the Truth.  But I am not a “Christian.”

“It is not that I am anti-Christian, or even un-Christian,” said Goethe almost speaking for me, “I am simply not Christian.”  Yet he loved–and I love–the man Christ.

Christ’s yearning is thoroughly recorded in art through time.  For days I’ve walked through a world peopled with Jesus, saints, Mary painted over and over and over again.  Christ’s transmitted yearning, Yeat’s golden bird.  In the paintings which were the destinations of my long walks in Milan, the images sometimes seemed chains of paper dolls cut from folded paper.  The artists knew what to paint, always; that the “what” was no issue left them free for the “how.”   I realized that what Goethe regarded as the “prison” of the subject matter allowed the exploration of technique and mirrored the development of the human soul.  Couldn’t a painter be pushing against his surface trying to improve the representation of man’s relation with God?  For centuries it seems Jesus was ready to fall off Mary’s lap, then, suddenly, her lap was flat and Christ was safe (well, for the moment).  It was wondrous to see this, repetition, decadence. . .and then. . .the struggle again, to do it BETTER.


This struggle ended for me and probably not only for me, absolutely, in Leonardo’s work where Christ sits–was meant to sit–in the room breaking bread with the human beings who lived in the monastery.  THERE IS NO BOUNDARY.  He was but another man in the room with them; he was, for the moment, ME.  I saw the whole drive of art for those five or six hundred years or MORE was to express the essential divinity not only of Christ but of Man without glorifying man.  And I hadn’t even wanted to see this painting…

Christ as man; man is driven by desire, suffers from doubt, resolves it with the courage demanded by faith.  I saw all this while I was inside myself smoldering.  My favorite painting of all was a fresco of Vulcan in his workshop assisted by his golden maidens.


Miracle bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud,
In glory of changeless metal,
Common bird or petal,
And all complexities of mire or blood.

My eyes adjusted to the bright light of a Venetian summer day, I continue, this time, to find a nostalgic espresso in the Piazza San Marco, looking at the lagoon, beneath the shadow of a lion where once Pietro stood to take me home.  Oh how I wish I could myself so scorn the complexities which tear still at my heart, but mire and blood, a common bird, I cannot, and when the cocks of Hades crow tomorrow, and I am no longer in Venice, I plan a final sad peregrination of Milan to find in the external world some mercy.

Bialetti! Gotta’ have it/Daily Prompt

Daily Prompt: Ingredients: What’s the one item in your kitchen you can’t possibly cook without? A spice, your grandma’s measuring cup, instant ramen — what’s your magic ingredient, and why?

6 Cup Moka

I would have no interest at all in my kitchen if there were no Bialetti “Moka Java” express. Along with that I need Lavazza Crema e Gusto and cream because I like hot, strong coffee in the morning.


That’s simple enough but not much of a story. It could be, but…

Milan near the Duomo. I am standing, waiting, at an espresso counter for my turn. A young Asian girl is in front of me. The barista is frustrated. He sees me standing there (“Oooooooo!”) and says, “Signora, per favore, dille che costa dieci mille lire.” Something like that. (Now you know how long ago.) I am a dark phantom on the streets of Milan, and this guy has seen me many times. I tap the girl on the shoulder and ask if she speaks English. She does. I say, “The coffee is 10,000 lire.” She bows several times thanking me and pays the barista. My turn arrives.
Tanti touristi,” he says, then blushes, suddenly remembering I am one, too.
Fa niente.”
Cosa lei piacerebbe?”
Un espresso, anque acqua minerale, con gassa.”
Fa caldo oggi, no?”
Si, troppo. Grazie!” I open my wallet.
Ma, no, no. É gratis. Buona giornatta!”

My last day in Milan that bizarre, infuriating, humiliating and heartbroken summer. I was sad to leave. I could have stayed much longer, wandering the streets, each day revealing to me more of the labyrinthine mystery of time.

“Could you tell her the coffee is 10,000 lire?” then “So many tourists.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What would you like?”
“An espresso. And carbonated mineral water.”
“It’s hot, no?”
“Very! Thanks!”
“No, no, no. It’s ‘on the house’. Have a nice day!”

Random song allusion:

Essential tools and ingredients:

  1. Simple Dublin Coddle | Exploratorius
  2. The perfect mixture | A Teacher’s Blog
  3. Keep Me Out of the Kitchen | Under the Monkey Tree
  4. Lazy Mom’s Stuffed Peppers – It’s All About the Soy Sauce | The Pinterested Parent
  5. Painting Beaks on Marzipan Chickens! Aberystwyth Blogs… | alienorajt
  6. The Kitchen Witches Creed | My Little Avalon
  7. Can’t Cook Without It: A Haiku; Sunday, February 9, 2014 |
  8. DP Daily Prompt: Ingredients | Sabethville
  9. Ingredient? | Hope* the happy hugger
  10. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | A Room of One’s Own
  11. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | The Wandering Poet
  12. Nuking 500* | thoughtsofrkh
  13. | preethikarthik06
  14. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | Basically Beyond Basic
  15. Hunter | Perspectives on life, universe and everything
  16. Hunger games (in colour) | Perspectives on life, universe and everything
  17. Oh sugar! | Perspectives on life, universe and everything
  18. Vampires worst nightmare… | My Weigh To Lose
  19. What is cooking?? | Phelio a Random Post a Day
  20. Jumpstart Your Creative Mojo | Pairings :: Art + What Goes With It
  21. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | A Day In The Life
  22. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | thoughts and entanglements
  23. SPICY Sunday
  24. If You Don’t Have Bacon Grease, Then You Ain’t Cooking! | meanderedwanderings
  25. Kitchen | Purple Rosemary
  26. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | tnkerr-Writing Prompts and Practice
  27. Daily Prompt: Ingredients | Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss
  28. My Must Have | Flowers and Breezes

Rainbow: Daily Prompt

Daily Prompt: Roy G. Biv: January 7, 2014 Write about anything you’d like, but make sure that all seven colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet — make an appearance in the post, either through word or image.

“Let the sun stay in my back, unseen!
The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing.
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strive:
In many-hued reflection we have life.”
Goethe, Faust II, trans. Walter Kauffman

m-EkoN8lNLXW1r_M7xjEIgAWe were just girls, nearly women. Young women. It now seems very long ago and very far away. “A secret, fraternal, Masonic organization for girls of teen age.” Love, religion, nature, immortality, fidelity, patriotism and service. The two offices I held during those brief years were Nature (yellow) and Service. Sweet prophecy? I couldn’t know back then, aged fourteen, that love of nature and service to others as a teacher would turn out to be my life.


Denver's pridefest parade through downtownWe sat on a grassy hillside in Cheeseman Park looking down toward Colfax. We couldn’t see the street, but we could hear the commotion, yelling and music.
“You wouldn’t march in that? Why?”
“It’s ridiculous. If ALL they are is the way they f… then they need more than a parade to save them. I hope I’m more than my ‘sexual preference.’ Preference? Who’d choose this? I’m shut out from the basic, most natural, most common unit of human society. I won’t have a family. I won’t have a wife and a house and all of the things other people take for granted. I’m not ‘proud’ of it.”
I knew this was true. I knew that however much I loved him — or he loved me — that love was not going to change a certain basic and elemental fact of his nature.
“You’re not ashamed of it, are you? That’s…”
“No. What is there to be ashamed of? It’s a simple fact of my existence. I have to make a life around it. Everyone makes a life around something. Come here, life.” He pulled me toward him. “You know those guys marching in that parade? They wouldn’t understand this.” He kissed me long and hard. “It’s all one or the other for them. They’re more narrow minded than straights.”


sspaceRainbow flags hung over balconies with the big word, “Pace” printed on them. Italy was “on our side” in the fracas in Iraq. It didn’t occur to me what that meant until I wandered around the Pinacoteca of the Castello Sforza and found galleries that were open in 2000 were, in 2004, closed.

A scaffold surrounded the cathedral, too, and I wasn’t sure if it was for repair and restoration or for something more sinister. The sanctuary was shut to everyone but people who were there to pray. There was no wandering around its cavernous interior, visiting chapels and looking at paintings, sculptures, reliquaries and puzzling over their makers and the aspirations or sorrows of those who loved them in centuries past. 

I was relegated to the crypt and there I saw the place where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine. I tDuomo_di_milano_sivualttarihought about that. In writing Martin of Gfenn I’d developed a kind of friendship with St. Augustine. Martin’s Commander refers to St. Augustine often and the Rule of the Order of the Knights of St. Lazarus is based on St. Augustine’s rule for life in a religious community. I had read St. Augustine’s Confessions and pieces of The City of God and overall I’d come to like him, too. I went down the narrow stone steps to the bottom of the cathedral, the bottom? I was sure that it was not. I was sure that if there were steps I would go down and down and down until I would find myself at the beginning of time.