Monday, May 4, 2009

In which the fish, upon hunting in the art cupboard for a cutting tool, happens upon an old Italian schoolbook and sits down to read it.

Girl in a pageant, near Assisi


Up near the roof of the Uffizi, it seems another storm is brewing over Fiesole: I can thus maintain an unbroken record of every single day that I have ever spent in Florence it has rained. It hangs just on the edges in an indigo bruise, and the bursts of violet push at the edges of the golden air.

Suddenly the campanile of Santa Maria del Fiori falls into shadow, yet the red Duomo still shines with its own light. Rumblings of thunder yet again.


I walk in a straight line through the halls of the Uffizi, all the painted faces looking as I pass, my heels making a satisfyingly solid clack on the parquetry, reminding me, I am here, I am here, I am really here. 

 Sitting down  just past Corregio I find myself looking at the Portinari Alterpiece. I am again struck by Margherita Portinari,  so small and pious.

Look at her hands, her pale eyelids. The Infant Jesus lying there so much like a naked chicken, she gazes on ith her grave and solemn face: serious business, as if she knows what is in store for Him. And it's so cold there in Brugges, unlike here in Florence. Such a good girl, so composed. her fingers must have frozen, held in prayer like that for so many hundreds of years.

I am smitten still with Margherita,

I draw her. I make etchings of her. Where are those etchings now? I can’t find a single one.


The Duomo is in shadow, now the Bargello, the storm creeps closer, closing off the light, everything in  its path falls into the violet shadow, slowly, slowly.


The Uffizi: how on earth do I say this? My hands would be paralysed if I were to write all the thoughts I have in this place. The cold, sickly light of Tintoretto giving way to the soft golden Venetian  light of Canaletto? The sudden cold pang in the chest of Mannerism, the Renaissance skies so full of secret yearning. The weird elongated grandeur of  Parmigiano, against the beauty of Titian. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Lucrezia. I love her more every time I see her. 

I speak to Caravaggio’s Bacchus his rudely pale body, his impudent face,

Tavern boy, I say, look at you, you pretty villain, here for ever for all the world to see, immortal here.

I wish to reach in and pinch his waxen flesh, see how quickly he might bruise, but I know how quickly I would need to dodge the slap from those dirty-nailed hands.

ponte vecchio, firenze


Drawing by the Arno with my back to some sunshine: I almost knock my pastels into the water. The river is olive green, the sun shines onto the chalks. Vermilion, violet, gold, green. I am leaning on the wall, looking all the way to the bridge in the moment before the golden light falls behind that burst of storm, I have olive green dust on my fingers.

 I remember the first time I came here: a polite Florentine boy informed us it wasn’t customary to drink cappuchinos in Florence after morning time: we laughed, and informed him that in Australia, it was customary to drink it whenever we pleased.



I go to the markets to look for a nice notebook, but end up buying a child's schoolbook.

As I look longingly at some leather bags, I hear  cultivated voices behind me, asking questions of the bagseller, and I can’t help but turn around and answer.

Next I am being asked to judge the merits of every leather bag on the stall, and instructed to choose three, which I do. They are duly purchased, and I wish desperately one was for me.

I find myself having coffee with this pair, John and Michael, painters from Melbourne. Having just had a sellout show, John is cashed up, he’s going completely apeshit in the markets. He says I have a lovely accent and that I am extremely  well spoken "for a Sydneysider"  I’m not sure whether to be puzzled or flattered. hmph.

As it happens, he is on his way to Arezzo to stay with Jeffery Smart, whom he describes as a “grand old queen”, who, he informs me would never tolerate my female presence. This amuses me, since John is so camp I had been thinking what a grand old queen he himself was. (I suppose any old queen would still buy bags for his three daughters.)

I wish badly to be invited to Arezzo. They ask to see my drawings, so I show them: John loves them, and gets rather excited about them, which of course I am pleased about. In fact I am so pleased that I decide I will have lunch with them and allow them to buy me lots of pizza.


I have arranged to go to Siena and San Gimignano with John and Michael. I like the company, and the flattery, and besides, John is hilarious. I am still trying to score an invite to Arezzo with no luck at all. If I was a boy, I could go.  I consider binding my breasts, but somehow I don’t think it would be successful, and the lack of breath might be a problem also.

While I am waiting for them by Santa Maria Novella, surrounded hy hoardes of dreadful old ogres selling holy cards, I am targeted by an American girl who says she hasn’t spoken English in three days and is about to go insane. (why do I attract these people?)


Thinking it would be mean not to invite her along, I secretly pray that she isn’t on the verge of a psychotic episode, and rely upon John’s good manners when I introduce her.

She is the source of much amusement to John: why is she here? What is she doing? She appears not to know anything about art but she is a very jolly smiley girl, he says.

A car! How novel.

We wind up and around San Miniato al Monte and head along the winding road to Siena. Green and gold, fields with great gashes of rich earth. (Burnt siena, how about that?) As if the ground is going to crack open at any moment. In a way it is hard to reconcile buildings such as Siena Cathedral, or Santa Maria de Fiori,  with this rustic landscape. And yet it seems so proportional, everything seems to be of the right scale in its own way.

landscape, Italy, near Assisi


Siena: I cannot even begin to take it in, let alone draw it. Voices fade away, the spires soar far and away into the sky, and  I just want to sit somewhere and draw.

John is cackling and gesticulating as he walks about: I am still miffed about not being invited to Jeffery Smart’s place, but John buys me the biggest fattest gelato, which I suppose , under the circumstances, will have to do.


Margherita Portinari’s face still stays with me. That cold northern landscape surrounding the Adoration is so distant from this, I wonder about the Portinari family, and what they must have made of Brugges, having left this place of golden light and purple storms. Perhaps that is why Margherita's face is so grave? I read somewhere that she is related the Beatrice so beloved by Dante. The real Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

Maria ( or Margherita ) Portinari
Detail from the side panel of the 
Portinari Triptych
Oil on Wood 253x141
c. 1477-1478

(pen and ink sketches of tuscany: present whereabouts unknown. Landscape and girl pictured were drawn in Umbria, Ponte Vecchio drawn in situ in Florence)






Anonymous said...


I really love this "ponte vecchio, firenze" too.


ganching said...

Another very fine essay.

(I went to the Le Corbusier exhibition last week and I thought 'here is a man who can turn his hand to anything'. Well, I think you might have something in common with him.)

Mary said...

I am actually too stunned by these words and drawings and paintings of yours too write anything sensible.

I love so much coming to your world here.

alice c said...

In which I am distracted by your beautiful words and completely transported to Tuscany and memories of visits past overwhelm me.

Thank you.

BumbleVee said...

how strange......any "old queens" I've ever met usually enjoy female company. They laughingly, but incidentally, also mean it when they say they enjoy the 3 "F's" of it.... being able to share thoughts on fashion, food and feelings ....

I love stopping in to see what the fish is up to .....

Ampersand Duck said...


Eating this post with a spoon.

Red Hen (dette) said...

In which the hen had to return in order to read this post at a more leisurely pace in order to absorb it...And feel positively green about it. You are right about the baby chicken! I love the landscape, Italy, near Assisi it almost looks to be alive, as if it's breathing.

Regulus said...

I think you should look at Bryan's blog. I don't know if that is for real but I am going to try to find out tomorrow.

Regulus said...

Hi Fifi ... I think it's for real and that Bryan has died. Apparently his dad found him in his house in Trenton, New Jersey.

meggie said...

Oh! I wish you would write a book, & I could just keep it, & keep on re reading it.
The gifts of your words make my day.

Anonymous said...

Italy is such a romantic place!

I could fall in love with a goat if I met it in Florence. I have been there several times and on each occasion I have fallen in love with someone unsuitable - not a goat as yet.