‘All was exotic—or nothing.’
Roberto Calasso, Tiepolo Pink, trans. by Alastair McEwen, London: Penguin Classics, 2020 (2006)
My reading has changed in the pandemic—I read for enjoyment now. Reading is something I have always done, since I was a small and watchful child, and is something I believe I will always do. But only in recent times has it shifted from an activity of duty or obligation to one of fun. Instead of grinding my way through books due to critical commitments or for study, I have been reading what I want, following my whims. And out of this act, especially while in lockdown, I have experienced moments of rapture.
I can count on one hand the times in my life I have felt profoundly and truly enraptured. Some of them: being so tired and drained after a work shift that I got home and laughed myself to sleep. The first time I had a short story accepted for publication. Lying in my partner’s arms in a villa in Bali; after she fell asleep, I left her on the bed and read a book by Inger Christensen on the room’s floor. Witnessing a pet parrot, wings clipped, look up at a flock of birds in the sky. Irrespective of the time or place, connecting these experiences is simple, naive domesticity. They all took place in the context of a home—they took place inside.
I am determined to ground my writing in the situation because so much of my life since the beginning of the pandemic is untethered from the reality beyond my front door. I spend all day working in the second bedroom. I watch the trees through the window, swaying in the breeze, the leaves, the play of light, birds when they appear. I ask myself if it’s true that a life can be lived in contemplation of a stone, or of nature, if true joy can be had in waiting for a lizard to appear in a courtyard at a certain time of day to drink from a certain dripping tap, and then hurry away until it appears at the same time tomorrow. I spend a lot of my time wondering, can you have a religious experience at home?
One of the books in my pandemic bibliography, Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso, provides an answer: yes, you can. Like a drug, the act of reading it carried me away—into the mind of another as he turns over the artworks and legacy of another. Calasso frames the discussion of the artist by beginning the book with a brief exploration of sprezzatura, a distinctive quality which emerged in the Italian Renaissance, in which true art is that which does not manifest as art; Tiepolo’s bold and even gaudy paintings and frescoes are the perfect example, but the artist’s life and character have been erased. The disconnect is unfathomable—hence, Calasso’s fervent curiosity which, in turn, became mine. He writes: ‘The removal of the altarpieces in San Pascual Baylon marked the beginning of the removal of Tiepolo in toto from the European psyche.’ Yet he has no intention of restoring Tiepolo to any sort of glory, he is simply intrigued by one man whose existence has, with time, been elevated to myth.
Calasso’s chief areas of interrogation are the Scherzi and the Capricci, singular and inexplicable etchings from the mid-eighteenth century which Tiepolo, who regularly worked on commission, appears to have executed for himself in a fever dream. ‘In over two hundred years, all attempts to define what is happening in these images have proved invariably inadequate.’ The sets of etchings tell a secret narrative containing snakes and skulls and magi and altars and owls and corpses and satyrs and nymphs. Scherzi means jokes but none of the etchings in the set possesses anything resembling humour. Calasso has a simple desire: to pick at loose ends he finds in the catalogue of this man’s output, and see if he can uncover something substantial enough to understand without ruining any of the mystery. He is a mischief maker, not a vandal.
Calasso quotes Goethe: ‘Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not than looking.’ He decides that the most powerful element in Tiepolo’s work is that his paintings are not merely representations of a scene, they are paintings of people looking. Tiepolo’s audience view an audience. Calasso writes of these figures: ‘They never intervene, they observe. And we cannot even understand if they approve or condemn what happens. But their presence points to the fact that something is happening.’ The world is a mad place, Tiepolo knew that, and so did Calasso. One painted what he saw, the other looked at what the other saw and it made his mind spin. The author admits it: he finds Tiepolo intoxicating. Calasso’s intoxication is itself intoxicating—beautiful and heady and pure. I read Tiepolo Pink with hunger—like the best books, it presents the secret opulence of life. A journey without actually going anywhere.
But a book has to be closed. Reading is not doing. Reading is not experiencing. Reading is an opium dream. It is looking at looking.
When you read this, I will be out of lockdown. I will have made trepidatious steps back out into a world I was hiding from and be expected to pick up from where life was left off. Another question I am asking myself, does life start where a pandemic ends?
A call from outside, in the dark and empty street, beyond my window. This itself is already jarring, more so when it goes unanswered. We are in curfew, no one is allowed out, we cannot go anywhere. How quickly things become a fixed reality.
The call is not repeated, the world is quiet again.
See below for The Dreamer, Part 2