Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Invisible Cities

When I was in Venice, I found myself thinking about a book I had read many years ago, "Invisible Cities" by the Italian author Italo Calvino. In the book, Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan the various cities he has seen in his travels. It isn't a novel so much as it is a collection of poetic prose pieces, a catalogue of imaginary places. There was something about the eerie, misty beauty of Venice, especially at night, that made me think of Calvino's book. I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Italy. I knew I was in Venice, but it didn't feel like part of Italy. I figured this feeling made sense, given the old line about how Italians are loyal to their town first, their country second. For much of its history, Italy was a series of city/states, feuding with each other and anything but united. Venice is different from Rome which is different from Naples which is different from Sorrento. It made sense that an Italian would right a book about various towns.

On Saturday morning I am killing time, waiting for the Uffizi museum to open. I walk around a plaza, turn a corner and what do I see? A sign advertising an art exhibit based on..."Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino. "That's an interesting coincidence" I think. Later that day, I stop in a bookstore that stocks English language books. I stop in every bookstore I pass anyway. It's how I know I'm more bibliophile than reader. I like to look at books, even if I can't read them. In any case, I find a copy of "Invisible Cities." On the back cover, a critic is describing the book and says "but Calvino is really only writing about one city: Venice." Another coincidence, although I chalk this up to Calvino's evocative skill as a writer and my lucky guess as a reader.

Today while wandering around, I pass the "Invisible Cities" exhibit and decide to stop in. The artist, Pedro Cano, has created a different watercolor painting for each city described in the book. As I walk along, one of the paintings looks like Morocoo. Interesting. Another is of a fortress that resembles the castle ruins I hiked along in Sintra, Portugal. Okay. But one picture stops me dead. It is exactly like a photograph I had taken while climbing the stairs in the Guadi Cathedral in Barcelona. Not similar, but exact. The same composition, as if the painting was done from my photograph. I notice more Arabesque-style buildings, the type that I saw in Morocco. But I'm used to, and enjoy, odd coincidences, so I shrug it off.

When I see the painting of the Nazarenes, I get a little freaked out. (See my entry of October 15th, in which I discuss my fascination/obsession with the Nazarenes). It doesn't say "Nazarenes" but the two eyes, peering through holes surrounded by white, with a white triangular figure in the background, make it obvious that that's what they are. Next to it is a watercolor that features the head of a baby doll. When I was in Rome, there was a secondhand shop that had filled their window with the parts of babydolls. Some arms and legs, but mostly heads. I took a picture of that.

I was beginning to feel like I had wandered, by chance and odd coincidence, into a gallery that depicted pictures of my travels for the last two months. It felt seriously weird. Yes, many of the paintings had no connection with my trip, but the ones that did were very close.

There is (thank God) a rational explaination for this. I discovered the artist was Spanish and had travelled a great deal, doing the pictures from his travels. So he might know about Nazarenes, and Moorish architecture and Moroccan culture. But the sequence of chance events that led me to this gallery were too eerie. The similarities were too close. The way that it seemed to sum up my trip, at a time that I am also summing up my trip, was too unsettling. This dissolving of the line between the inside and the outside, between what I am thinking about and what exists outside of me, was just a little too much.

I've had similar experiences in the past, and I've learned to live with them and enjoy them. There is something about a pattern in your life that transcends your own control that's...interesting? Something to contemplate? But while it is happening, it is creepy beyond compare.

I'd like to point out at this point that no, I am not insane. Yes, walking into a gallery with pictures that depicted what I've been seeing for the last two months did happen to me.

12 comments:

Julie said...

So you had a "killing me softly" experience at the art exibit? I've had those at times, too. Feels like someone's reaching into your brain. At least your's sounded aestheticly pleasing. I also agree with you and Paglia about the sexual content being the central theme of many religious art works. I've always that the erotic or violent content of some religious themes is what made them so popular with artists and patrons alike,i.e. St. Sebastian, Susannah & the Elders or Judith & Holophernes. I guess if they'd had slasher flicks back then everything might have been different.

Carol said...

Not insane, just incredibly well-read and open to the possibilities. We wouldn't want you any other way.

Iva said...

Your experience was very interesting, John; I wonder though, judging from your narrative and Julie's response to it, if it is not something that people who use their left brain experience more than us right brainers. I certainly do not mean for that to be any kind of a criticism...on the contrary, it is a statement of highest admiration. I know that us "Marthas" would see something like that and say, "Wow! What a coincidence, but those exibits could really do with a good dusting!" I am happy that you are enjoying your visit. I love you,
Mom

the hanged man said...

Julie -
Yeah, St. Sebastian is VERY big over here, as is Judith and Holophernes, and Leda and the Swan.

I've been thinking about doing some writing about the theme of "interesting murders" as seen in both fine art and slasher flicks.

Carol - thank you. Much appreciated. It's a good thing you wouldn't want me any other way, cause I don''t think I'm going to be doing a lot of changing...

Mom - I've been thinking a great deal about right brain vs. left, and rational decisions vs. intuition. I think you would have enjoyed the exhibit, coincidence or not. They were beautiful watercolors.

Julie said...

I'd be interested in anything you had to write on sex and violence in art and movies. As someone who loves history, I'm fascinated by those who see modern times either as a downward spiral or upward evolution. I think that, technology aside, people are what they've always been, good or bad.Oh, and Maureen Murray said to tell you hello. I ran into her while taking TJ shopping Sat. TJ mumbled a quick "hello" and ran into the dressing room while Eric entertained her with his life story. Surprised, anyone? P.S. Mom, you ,a right brainer?

Iva said...

Question for The Hanged Man...are you still in Florence or are you back in Rome? Did you get to Assisi? Lovely spot! I'd highly recommend it and St. Francis is such a dear man...no violence there.
Julie, maybe not left or right brained...sometimes I think "no brained."
Mom

Julie said...

No, you're never that, Mom!

the hanged man said...

Julie said:
I think that, technology aside, people are what they've always been, good or bad.Oh, and Maureen Murray said to tell you hello.

Hmm...are you drawing a connection between people being bad and Maureen Murray? You wouldn't be the first one...

One good thing about studying history is that it gives you a perspective that helps you transcend your current problems. After 9-11, one thing that "comforted" me was remembering that the British went through the equivalent of a 9-11 every night during the Blitz, and they got through that. There's an interesting documentary called "Hell House" about a horror house run by a Christian Fundamentalist group every Halloween that depicts, instead of ghosts and witches, the horrors awaiting those who sin. At the end of the film, there's a teenage girl who makes the statement that the world is at this time, probably the worst it's ever been. Uh, excuse me, but have you ever heard of The Plague? The endless wars in Europe in the Middle Ages? WWII even?

So, yes, studying history helps you keep things in perspective. Having said that, however, let me just point out that George Bush is probably the WORST president America has ever had.

john

Molly said...

Come, now John...don't you think you're being a bit...KIND? "'PROBABLY' the worst president..."? Let's just be kooky and state the obvious. Okay, sorry, you got me started....

I really wanted to point this out last time when you mentioned 'Zen-like' experiences, but now I must..are you familiar w/ the concept of 'synchronicity'? The whole idea as I understand it is that there really are no coincidences, and these moments are like sign posts that you're where you're "supposed" to be exactly at that moment...not to suggest that we don't always have choices, but that you have followed your natural instinct to bring you where the universe/God/spirit (enter what you're comfortable with) has supported you to be...just a thought, don't mean to be all pontificate-y, it's just that I love those moments, they make me feel like I'm not just always in my head, that I am connected to something way bigger and I'm trusting it and going w/ it. So, cool for you!! I also agree w/ Carol that it's a reflection on what a great eye you have.

the hanged man said...

Molly -
I am well aware of the concept of synchronicity. I've had enough significant coincidences that I no longer get freaked out by them, but accept them and try to integrate them into my life. Go with the flow, as Californians like to say. What surprises me is that there are periods of time when my life is thick with such occurences, and other times months or years will pass without any interesting coincidences.

As someone who likes stories, novels, fiction, etc., I'm not going to get too upset about feeling like a character in Someone Else's larger story. Especially since, let's face it, I've had a good life. No major complaints.

By the way, you might be interested in a book about sychronicity called "There Are No Coincidences." It's full of such stories, and is easier reading than Jung.

Molly said...

Thanks for the tip, John, I'll definitely pick that up...know the author? The last time I did some Jungian reading it was on the subject of goddess archetypes and my head did spin for long enough to hurt...

Molly said...

never mind...I found it....