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Thursday, 28 July 2016

34 ...

Degas turned over the paper to reveal a drawing of a man reclining on some kind of bench, one arm draped over his eyes to protect them from bright sunlight, feet crossed, quiet repose. Beside him on the ground lay the small, rumpled heap of a nondescript jacket of some sort, and a well-worn pair of leather shoes. The drawing looked effortless, timeless, beautiful. It reminded me of Degas' many drawings of his friend, Edouard Manet. I heard an astonished gasp and immediately realized that it had come from me – confused, surprised, speechless. In another breath I managed to stammer, "What ... what?"

Edgar Degas, Study for a portrait of Edouard Manet, 1864-5

"Mais oui, mon ami." By now both Frenchmen were laughing aloud at me, and with me. Degas clapped a reassuring hand over my shoulder. " It seems that when my sketchbook and I arrived in Venice for your event a few years ago, I had with me several pieces of my drawing paper from home. This little sketch is my way of saying merci, David. Although I have been miserable here in Firenze, I am often a miserable man; and I cannot say that my stay here has been entirely without pleasure, and enlightenment. But more than that, I never had the chance to tell you how much I enjoyed Venice. To sit in a café beside a Venetian canal and share conversation over coffee with Ingres and Della Francesca at the same table ... such a great honour ... among many such encounters during that week. It was such a delightful experience.

"But, I am becoming maudlin. Much more comfortable to be gruff. Now ... in both Venice and Florence I have noticed here and there some reproductions of my paintings and drawings, so perhaps people still enjoy my work. Who knows? Maybe this sketch is worth a little something. So, keep it or sell it, as you wish. I made this in the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti. Do you know the small stone amphitheatre there? It's often littered with young people resting and sunning themselves on the ranks of bench seating ... like this fellow." He waved the back of his hand over the the drawing.

"But, Edgar, you have no idea ... this is priceless. What I, uh ... I mean to say that ... No! This is too much. How can I accept this?"

"You do not like the drawing?" asked Degas, a twinkle in his eye.

"Oh! Of course I like the drawing," I managed. "It's wonderful, thank you Edgar. I'll always cherish it. My god, how awful that no one will ever believe how it came to be in my possession. Whew. Thank you."

"You are most welcome, my friend. As I said, it is a small gift of my thanks to you. I had only a few pieces of this 'old' paper, so now you own a Degas, on original paper. There are only a handful of others like it."

"Wait", I said. I felt as though I'd been hit with a brick. "Others? There are other drawings on this paper circulating in Florence?"

"Well, some here and one or two in Venice, I believe."

Monday, 25 July 2016

33 ...

Degas had been carrying his box of sketching materials since Donatello and I first met the two earlier in the day at the Santa Maria Novella train station. Measuring roughly 18 x 14 inches and 4 inches deep, its wooden surfaces were randomly stained and polished smooth through years of use. Now he rested the box on the flat concrete railing that overlooked the Arno, unsnapped its two latches and raised the lid. Inside were a variety of drawing materials: sticks of pastel, charcoal and conté crayons, all of which looked to be of a much older vintage than my own.

"I've seen conté listed as a drawing material for work of the Impressionist period; but I suppose I've never really thought about when it came into common use," I said.

"Pah!" spat Degas, "that label – impressionism. I don't like it at all. Idiot art critics. As if all of us who worked in Paris between such and such dates were either too drunk or too drugged to record anything more than hazy impressions of what we saw. It's ridiculous." He wasn't finished."And lumping us all together under one name," he continued angrily, "they do it for themselves, you know. They want to fit us into neat categories, so that they can explain their vaunted insights to the rest of the world, whom they must consider to be morons."  He took a breath and calmed himself. "Sorry David, I know that you have been delivered this label as a fait accompli." He shook his head, and paused. "Instead, let me answer your question.

"Conté came out of the Napoleonic era. The British fleet had blockaded France, and one result was a shortage of graphite. So, a smart fellow named Nicholas-Jacques Conté devised a method for combining charcoal or graphite with clay, et voila, this wonderful drawing material was born and has been in use now for more than two hundred years. Marvellous stuff, non? But I have something here ... something for you."

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 

With that, he reached into the slot inside the box's top and withdrew a single piece of paper.

Friday, 8 July 2016

32 ...
"Well," said Gauguin, "if you can figure a way to send us home, Degas and I will buy you dinner. Agreed, Edgar?"

"A small price to pay for one's sanity. Of course we'll pay."

After a pleasant meal, the three of us crossed the Piazza Della Signoria, paused outside the Uffizzi to listen for a moment to a classical guitarist who was entertaining the evening crowd of tourists,

D. Newkirk and V. Holland © 2013

and then watched the few rowers on the river Arno as we enjoyed the approach of sunset. Below us on a small patch of grass a pickup soccer game was under way.

D. Newkirk and V. Holland © 2013

D. Newkirk and V. Holland © 2013

D. Newkirk and V. Holland © 2013

D. Newkirk and V. Holland © 2013

It had been a very pleasant evening; however, there was no getting around the undercurrent of frustration that consumed both men. "You must be anxious to get back to your studios," I said.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

31 ...

This is terrible; something I did not foresee happening when we were in Venice, of course," I offered.

"No, no of course not, David," Gaugin insisted. We've done this to ourselves, but we would like to conclude the experiment now."

"I certainly understand that," I said; after all, you've been stuck here for nearly three years! How on earth did you survive?"

Degas slumped and sat heavily on the steps. "Three years? Three years? But how can that be? It seems that any logical sense of the passage of time has abandoned us. I suppose this is fortunate," he sighed. "But, three years. Had we been aware how long it's been, we'd have gone mad long ago."

Placing a sympathetic hand on Degas' shoulder, Gaugin explained. "Well, as you know David, I trained as an accountant and a stockbroker, and one can always find people who need help untangling their personal finances for a reasonable fee. And Edgar has been busy on most sunny days setting up on different street corners and in piazze around town drawing portraits for a modest price. The tourists seem to find it amusing that this fellow who looks and dresses like the famous Edgar Degas will also sign his drawings with that name – drawings I need not add, that look remarkably as though created by the hand of the real Degas. We have managed to stay housed and fed all this time in a small hotel near the Duomo. But my god, lousy father that I might be, I do hope to see my children again soon."

Gaugin's description of the new drawings his friend had been making stirred the memory of my recent encounter with the Guardia di Finanza, in Rome. No doubt more than one naive and greedy tourist will claim to have discovered unknown Degas drawings. The paper, however, will be impossible to pass off as old, and these people will be scoffed at and disappointed. If the art dealers they approached only knew the facts of the situation, they would be salivating at the thought of getting their hand on Degas, but that can not happen. Still, I wondered if the Guardia officers I'd met would hear about the new Degas drawings.

Alert now, I offered the only comfort I could. "I can only assume that my being here in Firenze is the solution you have been waiting for. I don't mean this in any egotistical way, but it seems to me that all of the variations of this collision of time periods originate in the event I created in Venice, and that they can only be resolved if I am present. Oh ... that is so confusing, isn't it? This is my fiction, my fantasy, I guess, and I'll have to see that you two get home. This is how it was in Venice, and again more recently in Rome. Look, it's getting late and I for one am starving. Could we go somewhere for something to eat?"

Friday, 1 July 2016

30 ...
The train pulled in to the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, and we made our way through the crowds to the main exit. As we descended the steps in front of the station, I caught a glimpse of two familiar-looking men in rather unusual clothes. One of them waved frantically and they began to make their way toward us. Dumfounded, I realized that these were Paul Gaugin and Edgar Degas. Both men looked weary and distraught. Shaking hands, they greeted us warmly and desperately. I introduced them to Donatello.

"Yes, of course," said Gaugin. "We saw you from a distance in Venice during David's event there, but never had the opportunity to speak. It's a great honour."

"The honour is mine, I assure you," replied Donatello, gracious as always. " I do hope that we'll have that chance soon, however I must rush off I'm afraid. I do apologize. I've been away from the studio too long, and I must see to several projects that are urgently ongoing. Please make arrangements with David to get together soon." And with that, he bowed and was gone.

I turned to Gaugin and Degas. "You two look awful. What's happened? What are you doing in Firenze?"

"Comment dit-on?" Degas looked sheepish. "We screwed up."

"Mais oui. We definitely screwed up," agreed Gaugin. "Let me try to explain, David. We are here at the train station trying to get out; but so far it has been impossible. It's like we are prisoners here. You see, when we met you and all the others at Venice a couple of years ago, Edgar and I were so enthusiastic about the idea that we thought: if he can do it, so can we! And then we went to the cinema to see that Woody Allen film called Midnight in Paris. We saw ourselves – well, actors playing our characters – saying that we thought that the golden age of art was the Renaissance, rather than our own time in the second half of the 19th century. Kaboom! That's when we had this bright idea."

"Yes, yes," Degas continued. "If David can bring us all to life in Venice in 2013, we thought, why should we not be able to try out life in the Renaissance if we wish? And where should we live during that period? Why Florence, Firenze of course, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance.

"And so we converted the few francs we had left into Euros and went to the train station and directly from Venice to Florence, naively imagining that we would then be able to "will" ourselves back in time to the quattrocento. After what we had seen in Venice, it all seemed like such a simple idea."

Gaugin picked up the narrative: "And we've been here ever since, stuck in this city in your present, and unable either to find a way to the Renaissance, or to leave here and just go home to Paris in our own time. Each day we come here to the station to buy tickets to Paris, and each day when we pass through the doors, we find ourselves standing stupidly among the throng of tourists in line outside the Uffizzi. It's enough to make one crazy. it's exactly like another film we watched one evening at our hotel: Groundhog Day. This is no longer amusing. You must help us, David. You must help us."

"Now we just want to go home!" said Degas. "I never want to see this city again. I feel as if I've been trapped inside a bell jar, hermetically sealed in a single time period. Firenze is Renaissance; Renaissance is Firenze. Do you have any idea how many times now I have seen Michelangelo's David? It is enough! Get me out of here! Please!"

Monday, 27 June 2016

29 ...

"You surely have compared these poses. I looked through a marvellous book of images – fotografie, no? Si ... photographs; how wonderful – anyway, I saw images of the holy figures at Reims Cathedral. I understand that these are well known examples of the Gothic sway pose; lovely, and masterfully crafted, but ...

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Unknown artist, Madonna and Child, Medieval, ivory

"But that is an unnatural way to stand. Try it yourself. Plant both feet firmly on the ground and stand straight. Now sway to one side so that your hip is out-thrust. Does this feel like the relaxed position you might take while waiting for example, in a long line at the bakery? No, it does not. In that case you would naturally assume the contrapposto pose, supporting virtually all your weight on one leg. The ancients knew this, but for some reason – modesty? perhaps; is the natural pose too sensuous? – sculptors or the Church decided that a sway was better. Either that or they simply forgot how to achieve the contrapposto. And of course nudity was certainly frowned upon by the Church, for all those hundreds of years. Imagine. What a silly waste.

Statue of one of the Dioskouroi. From the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek collection

Apoxyomenos, after Lysippos. plaster cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Donatello takes a deep breath, smiling. "Listen to me! I am preaching to the converted, no? I get carried away sometimes. The point is that with my bronze David I was privileged to shake the dust from these essential conventions. My David is a life-sized, lost wax bronze, nude and natural, and in the contrapposto pose – the first such sculpture since the time of the ancient Romans. What a thrill this was for me."

"Well," I added, "for Western art, and for all of us.

Donatello, David, c. 1440-50
This image, which was originally posted to, was uploaded to Commons 
using Flickr upload bot on 21:59, 24 September 2008 (UTC) by Amadalvarez

"I know what a challenge this must have been. It is such a complex process, the lost wax technique."

"Ah, but this was the fun of it, David. If you like to make things with your hands, and to solve complicated problems, to invent, to work with tools, to have the help of dedicated craftsmen, to enjoy the physical aspect of your work – this is so much fun

Saturday, 25 June 2016

28 ...

“You’ve seen how Michelangelo respects you Donatello. I would say even that he worships you and your achievements; however, in Michelangelo’s case, I think his own ego precludes the worship of any other artist. You should also know that many generations have envied and admired your accomplishments, and those of your friends and acquaintances. 

         St. George  (c. 1415-20)                                                                                                 David (early 1440s)

Given the choice, many would gladly join that circle of artists if they could live in Firenze in the early Quattrocento, or perhaps at any time during the Italian Renaissance. Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Ghiberti – these are just a few of your many friends, all creative geniuses, giants to people like me. In my opinion, these are the direct ancestors of modern Western art. And I must say, it’s a testament to your good nature and your talent for gentle diplomacy – a skill we saw in action last night at dinner with Michelangelo – that your list of friends includes all of these sometimes prickly artists.”

Donatello smiled graciously. “Such kind words, David. Thank you. I have been blessed in so many ways, not least by having so many good friends. It is certainly gratifying to feel that I belong in such company. The inventiveness I have witnessed – and in some small way that I have been part of – this has been intoxicating, and so enjoyable. To see my good friend Filippo, come si dice, crack the nut (?) of perspective – a solution that has eluded others for centuries – this was explosive for all of us in Firenze.”

“It was explosive for the world, my friend,” I added.

“Well, yes, I have seen this now, thanks to your invitations to Venezia and Roma. The Baroque painters – Dio mio – such drama, such uh … how can I put this? ... such life-like illusions. It’s breath-taking, no? 

Andrea Pozzo, Apoteosi di Ignazio, c. 1685, Church of San Ignazio, Rome

And then to see what painters like Pablo Picasso have done to turn all of it on its head; che una mentalità straordinaria! This thing, perspective drawing, has however, been a mixed blessing for my dear friend Paolo. You are familiar with his work?”

Uccello? Why yes of course. He did amazing drawings and paintings demonstrating the intricacies of perspective.”

Paolo Uccello, perspective drawing, early Renaissance

Paolo Uccello, perspective drawing, early Renaissance

“This is true,” replied a wistful Donatello. “ Such a good friend. He has a boy now; the boy is named Donato, for me.” He smiled. “ But Paolo … he obsesses over his drawings. He’ll stay awake all night plotting vanishing points. I have tried to counsel him to be more moderate, but I may as well talk to the cobblestones … poor fellow.” 

Waking from his reverie, Donatello turned to look out at the passing countryside and steered the conversation in a different direction. “You know, travel is so important, is it not? Travel educates us and inspires us. It teaches us that we are not the centre of the universe. It was my travels to Roma with Filippo that I credit with the discoveries we both made, or in my own case perhaps I should say the re-discoveries. While Filippo was off making complex drawings of the ruins, I found some beautiful sculptures, standing figures in what we call the contrapposto stance. I feel pleased to say that I helped to return the naturalism of this pose to the world. That earlier pose people refer to as "the Gothic sway" ... it just never felt right to me.

Friday, 1 August 2014

27 ...

The evening was winding down. Coffee had been served, and finally Donatello and Michelangelo were chatting quietly, while Mondrian was trying to answer my questions about Broadway Boogie Woogie. Having seen the painting at the Museum of Modern Art earlier in the week, I had been struck by the edges of the painted squares, rectangles and lines. 

"Your edges are not especially sharp; I mean that they could have been much more precise, yet you chose to leave them slightly rough, less defined. Common practice in the past few decades, if one wanted crisp edges, would be to tape around the area to be painted, seal the edges of the tape with a polymer medium or gel, and when that is dry, apply the paint and remove the tape. The edges are razor sharp. Why, and I suppose how, did you leave your edges a bit fuzzy?"

Mondrian leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "You must remember David, that I was working with oils, not acrylic paint. So there was that limitation – it is a little more difficult to use a method such as you describe to define edges in an oil painting. But, you are correct; it was a conscious decision. If I had wished to make crisp edges, I'd have found a way. No, that was never my aim.

"I am a painter David. Like you, I enjoy the physical properties of the paint, and I make decisions intuitively. People see the structure of my later paintings – the neo-plastic paintings – and because of the vertical and horizontal regularity of these works and perhaps after having read something about my particular nature, they assume that everything about the paintings is rigid and fastidious. That simply isn't true.

"Now I grant that it's easy to make this mistake; but in fact I love the properties of paint. I enjoy the painterly use of brushes, and I have never intended that my touch, as they say today, should be invisible.

"I used strips of paper to define the edges of shapes. And then sometimes I would later add a little 'kerf' to those edges by laying down another strip of paper and repainting. Or I might paint to the edge freehand if necessary. Either way, one can see my hand at work. After all, this is a human process, is it not?"

It was time to go. 

Noisily pushing back our chairs, we stood, stretched and left the restaurant. It was dark now, but the streetlights, restaurant windows and passing cars were enough to suggest a twinkling Roman liveliness. Pausing on the sidewalk, Mondrian lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Traffic had quieted somewhat, and the smell of the evening air carried the promise of rain, as well as that nostalgic aroma of tobacco. Across the piazza, the empty theatre awaited its next performance, tomorrow. 

Mondrian had decided to head home straight away. I planned to accompany Donatello back to Firenze in the morning, and Michelangelo had chosen to stay here in Rome. We shook hands, exchanged good wishes and parted, and again I wondered where each of them was really going, and whether they had been here at all. Nevertheless, Donatello and I arranged a time and place to meet at the Termini in the morning.

The hotel Rex on Via Torino was just a few short blocks away. Still preoccupied, I found the nondescript entrance, climbed the few stairs to the reception desk where I picked up my key, and made my way along the hallway to the left. 

The room was almost satisfactory, if predictable. It was just a hotel and no more, a room that showed signs of wear and tear: the dark carpet was spotted in a couple of places, paint was chipped here and there, and the bathroom appeared to have been cleaned by someone who years ago had grown weary of the cleaning routine. But I was only here for a few nights, and the hotel was a short walk from the Termini - Rome's main railway station. 

My laptop woke quickly. I googled “Donatello,” found the Vasari biography, and refreshed my memory. Tomorrow’s train trip, I thought, should be very interesting.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

25 ...
The doors of La Matriciana opened in 1870, here in this same location. Its name translates as 'the woman from Amatrice,' a central Italian village closer to Spoleto than to Rome. It opened a year before Rome would become the capital city of the Kingdom of Italy, three years after Canada became a nation, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, five short years after the end of the American Civil War, and the year of the first ever international football match, this one between England and Scotland (it was a tie game at 1-1). The restaurant was here when the Costanza Theatre rose across the street, later to become the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Just sitting in the dining room transported one back to the 1930s, when the restaurant was last renovated. Did Mussolini dine here following a performance by Tito Schipa or Caterina Boratto? What other luminaries leaned over this very table, whispering scandalous secrets to one another?

There was something reassuring about the interior of the place. The decor said "I've seen it all, so get comfortable" and at the same time "not too comfortable, grazie." High vaulted ceilings hovered over marbled floor tiles and panels that extended several feet up the walls. Creamy stucco extended from there back to the vaults above. The spotless antipasto buffet table looked rooted to its spot, veteran of decades of use. And occasionally an enticing whiff of grilled pork or ossobuco would escape the kitchen. This particular evening was warm enough that the glass doors to the small patio on the sidewalk stood open, the chatter from the outdoor tables carried in to us by a refreshing breeze.

Mondrian wanted the stracciatella; the rest of us were content to pick and choose our antipasti. A rather stern-looking waiter took our orders for primi piatti, and we chatted aimlessly about the ancient monuments of Rome, St. Peter's, the Galleria Borghese, and the weather. Donatello and I shared a plate of seafood fettuccine. Mondrian sipped his wine, happily looking on. From the list of delectible-sounding secondi piatti, each of us chose something that no one else had ordered, promising a taste of each dish to everyone.

Piet Mondrian (

Dinner with others around a table is an opportunity. It's a chance to observe people who are engaged in the most ordinary of activities, often when their guard is down. Donatello’s quiet graciousness with the boisterous Michelangelo confirmed what little I knew about him. It is said that he routinely left in his studio whatever money he could spare for the use of anyone in need. All accounts describe him as a gentle and generous early Renaissance master.

Beside him sat Michelangelo, bursting with self-importance, enjoying the food and wine unreservedly, interjecting outrageous comments but also surreptitiously absorbing the collective intelligence of the conversation – the appearance of a bull in a china shop with the cleverness of a chess master.

"A performance art piece," I continued, "often has no dance component at all. We're not talking about a particularly recent art form either. Piet can confirm that. Artists were creating performance pieces in the early 20th century ... and some argue that performance art has a lineage we can trace as far as back the Renaissance. But without a doubt, about 100 years ago now, the Dadaists, the Futurists, and others really got the ball rolling. 

Hugo Ball performs, 1916

By the 1960s, what was written or said about art had become as important as the art object itself – in effect the underlying idea became the focus of discussion, and for many, that idea was the art. As the art object fell from favour in those circles, art as concept – conceptual art – was a natural fit with performances that were transient presentations of ideas. 
Artists like Yves Klein ...

Yves Klein applies YKB (Yves Klein Blue - an ultramarine he copyrighted) to 
models whose bodies then become instruments for mark making. ca. 1960

... and Sol LeWittYoko OnoJoseph Beuys and Chris Burden and a host of others really put the spotlight on this idea." ... 

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965