Yesterday I visited the Brooklyn Museum and had the time of my life. On exhibit was a show of John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors. It was magic! I felt joy erupting inside of me in ways that had been at rest for a long time. A fellow spectator was upset that a bulb had blown out making a particular painting just slightly more challenging to view in its full and utter brilliance.
At one point I felt like I was going to begin weeping. I could barely contain my feelings. The paintings were so alive in me and so familiar and I wasn’t sure why. I was deeply uncertain of the precise reason behind their familiarity to me. Was it because I had seen these paintings before or because I had seen these sites and/or fallen so deeply in love with both? I was overcome.
I had lived in Florence 25 years ago. How remarkable is that? It was there that I had grown many aspects of my own self simply by being and living there. Not knowing the language but being immersed in it. Not knowing the city, but needing to find my way around it. Not knowing anything about traveling in a foreign country, but finding Italy so magnificent.
It was there that I fell in love with my solitude.
It was there that I fell in love Churches. With Cathedrals . With art. With things I didn’t understand. With sites which are now tattooed in my memory. Places I know I could probably walk directly to and find again without a map.
So as I stood in front of a painting either I had seen before, or a city or site I had visited and found so breathtaking, a woman next to me said, “You should go to Florence.”
I had thousands of thoughts all at once from funny to tragic to angry to sardonic. I thought about the people who really had money like the Rockerfellers and the families for whom it was a sport to ask, “Where will you be ‘summering?’” And how her comment would translate in an Edith Wharton novel as “One must always find a way to visit Florence in one’s youth!”
I thought “Are you paying for the trip?” I thought “How lucky am I that I LIVED on Via di Ginori and could take myself back there anytime I want?” I thought “Florence lives inside of me.” I thought “I am going to be buried there (unless I have my Will changed).” I thought “What an ignorant thing to say.” I thought “Bless you for saying that.” My thoughts went on and on and on and on.
I said nothing to this woman even though I spoke to many many onlookers. Those of you who know me, probably find the latter part of that statement extremely hard to believe! (Especially Madge!) Many of us were overcome by the beauty of the work. Just absolutely overcome. So much so, it was as if we needed to lay down underneath a parasol.
Again, why was this work so familiar to me? Had I been with his paintings at the Uffizi (I don’t think so)? It seemed that the Boston Museum owns most of them. Or had the places I loved been living so deeply inside of me that seeing them come alive brought a part of me back which, all these years was only a beautiful but distant memory?
I just don’t know.
But nevertheless, how beautifully and wonderfully evocative to uncover this memory chest.
That time in Florence was the loneliest and happiest time of my youth. I grew myself and was so happy even as the rain poured down on my face for the first three weeks of my time there. I was happy.
The souls of some of the most remarkable people were alive in the cracks between the cobblestone streets and in the silences in the gigantic Duomo you could hardly see all the way up inside of. I walked the same streets that Michelangelo walked and I felt his worn feet beneath my own. Hundreds and hundreds of years of history crept into my heart as I found my way through my youth there. And I am so grateful to be reminded of how much it is still alive in me.
Thank you, John Singer Sargent, for bringing that life back to me.