I am surprised to find that, after the snow storm that met us to our knees last Saturday, today the snow is almost entirely gone. It’s warm now: running outside I wore short sleeves for the first time in months, and you’d be forgiven for thinking we had been plucked up from a snowstorm and dropped into the middle of an April day, with flowers and bright green fields all around. Friday was that kind of day: the sun shining, a long run in the morning, lunch with my niece Valentina and her group of friends, and hopes for a mildly relaxing afternoon. Perhaps art? Perhaps a church? Perhaps a little day trip of my own? All of these thoughts were dancing in my head, and I was ready to begin.
As always, the best laid plans. On Thursday evening I received a text message from a student who needed urgent help preparing for an upcoming test, and he asked if I could meet via Skype anytime on Friday. I planned it for 6:30 pm. Lunch, with my niece and her friends, went long (we got lost getting there, I was even stopped by the police on the way, and once we finally made it, we sat down for endless dishes of pasta and good conversation that took us late into the afternoon) so that, by the time I looked at my watch, it was almost 4 o’clock. Valentina needed to be in Macerata for work right away, so we rushed our way back home. What once seemed like a free afternoon to do whatever I liked was reduced to a little over an hour. One hour to spend before I had to start my lesson. I dropped Valentina off at the book store where she works and I was off: like a whirlwind, headed for the hills, toward the town of Monte San Giusto.
I had checked online the day before (without much luck) to see if I could visit one of the local churches of Monte San Giusto, where one of Lorenzo Lotto’s masterpieces is still kept, in situ, on the altar of the small village church of Santa Maria della Pietà in Telusiano. I had discovered it years ago with my dad, back when we were on the lookout to find all of Lotto’s art in our region, before the art lessons or any talk of them, back when we were new to all of this, still, and just eager to uncover all the quiet secrets of the region. Lorenzo Lotto was a Venetian painter of the Renaissance that came down to work in Le Marche during his lifetime. Frescoes and altarpieces and other paintings of his are scattered throughout the region, and seeing his work feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. You want to see it all, to visit every village church, every small town museum, where you could come across a masterpiece of his. An Annunciation, a Mary and Child, a Saint Christopher carrying Jesus on his shoulders. This time, however, it would have to be quick: I didn’t have much time to spare, but I’d been meaning to go back to that same church for so long. Why not now?
I drove out past Macerata. Past the shoe factories in the valley and the clusters of red brick homes built up near the highway. I drove past small fields with old men gathered in little circles, playing bocce, tossing the ball up into the air to see where it would land. Past the bright white trucks that had signs reading pesce fritto (Fried fish on the first Friday in Lent), past countryside bars, Pizzerie by the slice, and fields that once held endless rows of sunflowers, and now looked freshly ploughed or sprinkled with shades of green. I drove up into the town of Monte San Giusto: the village with its big brick walls, honeyed and golden in that light before sunset. I parked — luckily close to the main gate — and I jumped out of the car. I had a lesson in 45 minutes, and I had no time to spare. I was off for the briefest art pilgrimage ever.
Monte San Giusto is a tiny little pinch of a town: just a quiet gem that you could drive right by and not even notice. It’s mostly built up areas around: shoe factories and old buildings and fancy homes that lean out along the hillsides, pretty little spots to view the mountains. The town itself, the old town, is small as can be, dotted with picture perfect clock towers and steeples and easy enough to walk through in a hurry like today. As I made my way into the center, I noticed noises coming from the bar in the main square. A band, it sounded like. I walked right by. Everyone stared at me as I walked through town. I didn’t have my jacket (and it was getting cold) and I had my camera on me, and I was walking through the piazza with a determined look in my eye. For a moment, I felt deliciously like a tourist: camera and all. Monte San Giusto is that kind of small town. Everyone knows if you don’t belong: they look up from their newspapers or past their cups of coffee, their eyes fixed on the newcomer. Nobody just visits this town: they have a reason to be here. They don’t wander down random streets or get lost unapologetically in the mishmash maze of the tiny alleyways. But I was here, and I was going to do precisely that.
It took me a while to find the church at all. I made a wrong turn and found myself lost among the small roads, looking up at the leftovers from the earthquake (big metal beams attached to the sides of buildings to hold them up), the main square and its loggia, other little squares hidden further in. But one slope of a street looked familiar: if you looked down, you could see one of the city gates, and if you looked up the hill, there was the church, nestled into the side of an ordinary facade. I remembered that church. I walked toward it. All at once I remembered that painting — the Lorenzo Lotto painting inside — the way you remember the flavor of your favorite dish, the way you can conjure it up, bit by bit, in your head, nothing all at once, perhaps just the sense of it. For me those three vertical crosses, the horses all grouped together, one looking back at you. The stretched arms of Mary and the look of grief on her face. The colors: bright greens and brilliant blues and the darkest night you can picture. The church itself always felt too small for such a painting: like if you let it go, the entire scene would flood the space inside. Yet, there’s a feeling when you see the painting in the small town where it belongs, the place it was painted for, the measurements taken and the altarpiece hung just so. There’s a feeling that comes from looking at something that’s been there for centuries, painstakingly brought in, down the same steps you took perhaps, the same jumble of roads, just to find its perfect home in the tiny town of Monte San Giusto.
I opened the outside door easily. Inside, there was one more door. I pushed it. Nothing. I pulled it. Nothing again. I knocked and waited, and read the information about the hours that was posted on a sign on the door: I looked at my watch. The church had closed a mere four minutes prior! I knocked again and waited. Hopeful. Fingers crossed.
But nothing happened. No one came to my rescue to let me see the work of art inside. No one hurried by. Nothing like that. Instead I jotted down the hours and vowed I would return. And I walked the tangle of cobbled roads back to the car. It was time to go.
Driving out of there, I knew I wanted to come back. Part of me was kicking myself: why was I four minutes late? Why didn’t I know better? I’d come there ill prepared to face the day — I had no money for the parking meter, I didn’t know what the hours of the church were, I only had a short amount of time to actually see Monte San Giusto: just a half an hour window sandwiched between a lunch and a lesson. I’d spent many a lazy afternoon on the couch during the last few days, and I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on all of my chances.
But it wasn’t all bad. From my vantage point, as I drove down the hill, I couldn’t help but be taken by the sunset that was happening right in front of me. Monte San Giusto is on a higher hill than Macerata, and the view from above is stunning. Here the sky looked dipped in color and radiant, pink and orange and gold: the entire sky like that. Where the hills were, you couldn’t make out anything but shades of smoky blue, church towers and villages and all of Macerata fading into the horizon line and disappearing. I tried to find places to take pictures. I pulled over more than once. I managed to get a couple of shots, and then I got into the long line of traffic heading out from the highway, no one even slowing down or pulling over to look at that sunset. And yet there it was, like a big brushstroke of pink, right in front of us, begging for us to stop and stare. I wanted to scream: we’re all going to drive right by this? In a year like this? Can’t we just stop and take in the good for once? This sunset? This Friday night? This busy February drive, all speckled with sunset and light? Can’t we just sit still?
But I stayed quiet. And in that moment, I promised not to forget. Even as I was careening down the road, right toward the sunset, hurrying home myself, I promised to remember the colors, the evening, the light. The dose of pink. The golden and the blue. I promised to not let days like this go by without even noticing. To sit still for once. To maybe not rush so much, I thought: my evening lesson just moments away. And I promised I’d be back in Monte San Giusto. And soon. Maybe all of the sunsets would not be wasted after all.
Today I’m listening to: I Know The End by Phoebe Bridgers.
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