The World’s Masterpieces: Italian Painting
One September night, running home from dinner to meet a babysitter, I took off my heels and hopped barefoot—it was raining—up Crosby Street, and so home. Hepatitis, I thought. Hep-a-ti-tis. I reached my building bedraggled, looking like death. The doorman—who’d complimented me on my way out—blushed and looked down at his smart phone. In the lobby, on a side table, sat a forlorn little hard-backed book. The World’s Masterpieces: Italian Painting. Published in 1939, not quite thirty pages long, with cheap marbled endpapers and a fond inscription in German: Meinem lieben Schuler…. Someone gave this book to someone else in Mount Carmel (the Israeli mountains? the school in the Bronx?) on March 2, 1946.
The handwriting suggested old age. Whoever wrote this inscription was dead now; whoever received the book no longer wanted it. I took the unloved thing to the fifteenth floor, in the hope of learning something of Italian masterpieces. Truthfully I would much rather have been on my iPhone, scrolling through e-mail. That’s what I’d been doing most nights since I bought the phone, six months earlier. But now here was this book, like an accusation. E-mail or Italian masterpieces?
As I squinted through a scrim of vodka, a stately historical process passed me by: Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo, Raphael, Michelangelo. Dates of birth and death, poorly reprinted images, dull unimpeachable facts. (“The fifteenth century brought many changes to Italy, and these changes were reflected in the work of her artists.”) Each man more “accurate” with his brush than the last, more inclined to let in “reality” (ugly peasants, simple landscapes). Madonnas held their nipples out for ravenous babies and Venice was examined from many different angles. Jesus kissed Judas. Spring was allegorized. The conclusion: “Many changes had taken place in Italian art since the days of the great primitive, Cimabue. The Renaissance had opened the way for realism and, at last, for truth as we find it in nature.”
To any reader of 2013 the works of 1939 may seem innocent. Though how jaded, how “knowing” we can think ourselves without knowing much of anything at all. I’ve worked my way through surveys like this before, and am still no closer to remembering who came first, Fra Angelico or Fra Filippo. My mind does not easily accept stately historical processions. But golden yellows and eggshell blues, silken folds of red and green, bell towers and lines of spruce, the penises and vaginas of infants (which, for the first time in my relationship with Italian masterpieces, I am able to judge on their veracity), the looks that pass between the Madonna and her son—these are the sort of things my mind accepts. And I was making my way through these details pleasantly enough when I was stopped short—snagged—by a drawing…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.