“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”
– James M. Barrie
I texted my dad the other day about our upcoming art lesson, and we mentioned, or rather marvelled at the fact, that we’d been doing these lessons for almost a year now. Almost a year! The lessons themselves are rather simple: choosing an artist and a work of art, then spending the next week or so looking up all of the information we can find about that person, digging through articles and watching videos online, trying to learn as much as possible in a week’s time. And then, when we are ready, we gather for a video call: Antonello, my dad, and me, us sitting on the living room sofa and dad in his office under posters and photos of family, moments that I know well. It’s a time to join in, to talk in length about anything and everything — dad speaking in Italian and Antonello occasionally jumping in with an English word here or there — and then to go in depth and talk about whichever artist we’d chosen for that day. Sometimes we uncover truths that we hadn’t thought about before — thoughts on the tense relationship between the artists Lanfranco and Domenichino in Baroque Rome for example, or about Correggio and his unknown genius trapped as it was in his frescoes found in lesser known corners of northern Italy, or about the role that women, like the Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola and her talented sisters, have played in the long and storied history of art. One thing leads to another, a new artist is chosen, and every week we pick up something new, we study a bit more, we prepare. Maybe more than talking about art, we just talk — not like we’re miles away, but like we’re there together, maybe in Indianapolis, maybe here in Macerata, maybe in Rome, sitting around a table with a glass of wine like we used to do, chatting and telling stories in the dim kitchen light.
And when I think about it, it’s natural to have these conversations with dad and Antonello. So many of the moments in which I’ve learned something about art — the little epiphanies over time — I’ve shared with them. I remember standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid on a June day, right next to my dad, shocked and unexpectedly moved to tears by the sheer magnitude of that painting, by its shades of black and grey. Or walking around the Orangerie in Paris with dad on an early Sunday morning — not another soul in the room — stopping in front of Monet’s waterlilies, massive and rich, the water shimmering, like you could walk right in. And all of us — dad, Marilyn, Antonello and me — and our strolls through Roman streets, stopping at churches that called us in with their light, discovering Borromini and Bernini on a long street near the Quirinale, in January — as if we were the first ones to ever set foot inside. Antonello and I have walked through so many museums, tiptoed through so many churches, spent the early days gazing wide eyed as we moved through villages that were museums in their own right: church facades and the views into the countryside their masterpieces, me learning how Italy’s art and its landscape sometimes melt together, becoming one.
Maybe that’s why I wanted to visit the town of Monte San Giusto so much. Tiny Monte San Giusto, just a twenty minute drive from Macerata, is quiet and serene and up in the hills, and it’s rich with art and history. In the church there, you can find one of the masterpieces of an artist that we’ve been following for a while now — the Crucifixion by Lorenzo Lotto. Dad and Antonello and I have all visited Lorenzo Lotto’s art together, all three of us, on various occasions. I remember the first time, finding his Annunciation in the small museum in the town of Recanati — Mary almost frightened by the Angel, her little grey cat running off at the flapping of the Angel’s wings — and the discovery that it was. A revelation! There’s art like that here, in Le Marche? There was lots of it, it turned out. We visited churches here in Le Marche, small town museums in the region, and then farther afield: a museum exhibit on Lotto in Rome that was filled with his treasures, then the northern town of Bergamo, just to find fragments of Lotto’s frescoes in the quiet churches there. His art is part of the tapestry of Le Marche: Lorenzo Lotto, the Venetian Renaissance painter who moved to this region to continue his painting during the latter years of his life. These paintings and altarpieces that were once unknown to us were all of the sudden revealed, like opening a book, and here we had been flipping through its pages — a whole exhibit on his art in Macerata, frescoes at a church in Recanati, an altarpiece in an earthquake damaged church in Mogliano — one by one.
I’d already been to the village of Monte San Giusto once this year: the briefest of journeys. I’d parked right outside the city walls, found my way to the church that I’d been to a thousand times in the past, but it felt, for some reason, like new. It was closed then, and I was determined to return. This past year has brought such a change in me: the things I want to do are clearer to me now, and I am always looking forward to days like this — to a quick visit to a small town, to wandering around, to the way things were all of these years ago, when I first arrived. The way Antonello and I explored all of the hill towns around, and it felt like I was discovering not just Le Marche, but Italy as a whole. Maybe it’s the restrictions, the art lessons, the new rules, the homesickness, but I tend to think it’s more than that. All of those years of postponing, of putting off the visits to all of these small towns that I thought I could see anytime I wanted — they’re right here. And yet I haven’t. I’ve visited places once or twice, and other places I’ve skipped over entirely. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s time to get to know where I am, this countryside and its coasts, this patch of land that I’ve chosen as my own. To rediscover it, one place at a time.
And so I drove out there a second time. A Monday afternoon, before school started again and the busy days of work approached. It was a fine day, early spring, and the sky was a pale grey this time — not the golden shades of pink and yellow that had blessed the last trip there. The sun was clearly out, sunlight filtering through the greys of the clouds, opening up at times to reveal huge expanses of bright sky. I drove past the river with its trails of water cutting through the riverbed, tumbling through the valley. And even with the sky so grey, the water shone and glimmered from below, jewel-like on a Monday afternoon. I was on my way.
Monte San Giusto is a splendid little village. I parked right outside of the city walls, the same exact place I’d parked just the week before. From the steps of the city gate you can look out and see so much of the countryside, the towns in the distance — you can name them: Montegranaro, Mont’ Urano, Fermo in the distance — as if all the small towns in the area had locked arms to form one big unbreakable chain of a town, winding its way through the hills and valleys of the Chienti and Ete Rivers. They are hard to tell apart, but they are punctuated, all of these towns, by walled fortress like villages with gems inside: here, in Monte San Giusto, I walked right into the town hall and saw the courtyard with its Renaissance arches in amber colored brick, its white marble columns, its windows peeking out above. I stopped for a moment in the stillness and took it in. Quiet and peaceful and all mine.
A few steps later I was around at the church. I’d been here with dad and Marilyn a year or so ago, and we’d explored a bit more, we’d walked through that courtyard, we’d climbed up to other churches. But the labyrinth of streets always led us right back to the main square — that’s how these towns are. Just a tangle of cobbled side streets, buildings stacked one upon another, windows looking out at the world. This time, at the church door, I pushed without hesitation. It swayed open easily. Inside, down the nave at the altar, stood Lorenzo Lotto’s altarpiece.
There was a man standing in the church when I arrived, and he greeted me with an unusual nod, watching me warily as I walked up to the altarpiece. I’d wanted so much to be there alone, to stand right in front of the painting, to get close and really see it. But as I pulled out two Euros to drop into the light box (two big spotlights came on overhead, flooding the room with a bright glow), the man came right over and didn’t hesitate to tell me everything he knew. Did you know that Lotto made that frame himself too? A masterpiece, the man began. And as I nodded in agreement, he pointed out other parts of the church. The frescoes over there, that were painted in the late Renaissance. Or the carved Pieta under the altar, a tender scene of Mary and her son: that stone was painted to look like wood back in medieval times. Twelfth century. I let him lead the way all around the church. You could see the frescoes — they’d been uncovered during renovations on the church. And from a distance, when I looked back at the Lotto, listening, as I did, to the man and his commentary on the entire collection, I saw it splendid and colourful and rich. The man went on like that — just a proud local resident, listing off his knowledge of his own home, telling it word for word, memorised and complete. I nodded and smiled, but I stared ahead at the painting once again. It was almost too big for the room itself, and it was strange to ignore it, to focus on anything else. After all, even with all of the other treasures, it was the reason I was here.
When the lights switched off, the man swiftly walked away, ducked into a side room, and he never came out again. I shook my head: was he just a restless spirit present only when the lights came on? Who could say. But no matter — the painting was almost as visible now: just a little bit darker. I walked up close to it. The faces — all of them so busy from a distance — looked intimate and full of expression. Mary was in such grief, Jesus was looking down at her from his place on the cross. The other crucified souls looked restless and in pain, but Jesus looked only at his mother, grieving like her. The painting was divided in two, just the white horse, looking down at Mary, and the eyes of Mary Magdelene, staring up at the three crosses, created a kind of connection between them. One man, under the cross, was looking right back at me. Some say it’s Lotto’s own self portrait — fitting himself into the frame. But really this was the story of a woman losing her son, and the very human emotions that came along with that — the sadness, the mourning, the collapsing into the arms of friends, of family. The standing there, witnessing all of it, helpless to what was to come.
And so I did just that. I stood there in silence, in the empty room. I thought of home. In that moment, I missed it immensely. I thought of these paintings and the stories they tell. This was a page too, and here I was, bookmarking it. I couldn’t wait to be back here with Antonello, with dad. Looking up at the painting and finding, like you always do, something new. Exploring again all of these stories together, going back to the pages that you love the most and flipping through them. I couldn’t wait for our art history lessons to turn into real moments — not just on the phone, but walking through these small towns together, finding in each of them, some treasure that fit — some brand new discovery, or an old one at that, that we could look at, with new eyes, all of us right here.
It was late by the time I left. The man from Monte San Giusto never came back out, and I walked out of the quiet church myself, looking back for a moment to see all of it, in the frame where it belonged. In town the sun had come out. I walked through neat piazzas and up alleyways, finding myself right back in the main square, as always. I smiled as I went along. That was Monte San Giusto. With its little roads all criss crossing, its pigeons gurgling in the afternoon, its pretty window shutters open onto the squares and the cobblestone streets, and its treasures — an entire jewel box church full of them — hiding deep within.
Today I’m listening to: I’ll Stand By You by The Pretenders.