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A Revelation in Arezzo

In response to:

Gorgeous Writings of a Wanderer from the August 18, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

Ingrid Rowland’s fine essay on Zbigniew Herbert [“Gorgeous Writings of a Wanderer,” NYR, August 18] perpetuates a partial truth I can augment from personal experience. The partial truth is that it was the breath of tourists that caused the Lascaux paintings to deteriorate. But it’s also true that when I went there in 1952 or 1953, I watched in horror as tourists paid the guard to hose down the walls, thus intensifying the colors for them to photograph. I was so upset I wanted to complain to someone; but I didn’t know whom to turn to.

Also, I first saw Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in its original setting in 1956. I drove with a girlfriend to Monterchi on a rainy spring morning, when the town was deserted except for a few boys kicking a soccer ball around in the piazza. They were so young that when I asked them where the local cemetery was, they had no idea. But eventually I found it, on an adjacent hill, up a steep road slippery with mud.

It was kept by an incredibly old crone, who looked, I thought, much like Piero’s aged Eve in the Arezzo fresco. She led us stumbling across a number of broken tombs, holding a large key that in my memory seems almost a foot long. Finally we came to a little shed-like structure (not really a “rustic church”—rather, a sort of tomb); she inserted the key; and suddenly, in the most stentorian voice she could muster, as she dramatically flung open the door, she announced, “ECCO, SIGNORI, LA MADRE DI DIO!”

Walter Kaiser
New York City

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