An image that has been talked away is not seen again.... the second time the image will be accompanied by a new set of thoughts, or the idea will have new implications. --Sigmund Freud
Gazing at the life-sized altarpiece of Mary Magdalene was like looking into a mirror. Six-feet tall with long, curly, blonde hair and a corpulent body after six months of Tuscan cuisine, I ignored the sober lessons that colored my Catholic girlhood. "Mortify the flesh." "Feed the spirit." "Lust indulged starves the soul." Emboldened by the Magdalene's sins, I was--and remain--unrepentant about Italy's sensual temptations.
Brought to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo by Luciano Sabatini, my self-appointed and silver-tongued tour guide, who spied me in the Capella di San Brizio an hour earlier, I was regaled with a learned lecture on Orvieto's art, which he peppered with savory compliments on my uncanny resemblance to Luca Signorelli's tempera-painted Magdalene.
"You are my fantasy, my dream," he crooned, in lyrical, broken English, "mysterious and beautiful as this Magdalene."
Surprised by the unlikely compliment, I smiled at the sacrilege. To embody the Magdalene's corporal sins is a lapsed Catholic's fantasy.
But as the afternoon light receded into the invisible layers of liquid size, the endless coats of gesso grosso and gesso sotille, and the charcoal under-drawing of Signorelli's painting, I was merely a pentimento to my enamored guide. A sublimating technique, pentimento is form of repentance, of changing one's mind. Or in this case, of forgetting. As Luca's Magdalene, I was something to repent.
When Freud journeyed to Orvieto in 1897 he visited the famous San Brizio Chapel, where Fra Angelico began in 1477 and Luca Signorelli completed in 1504 the hauntingly beautiful fresco cycle of the end of the world: erotically chiseled bodies crawl contortedly up from their graves for final judgment; the damned tumble into the gaping mouth of Hell, while the elect ecstatically walk into Paradise. He also toured the labyrinth of Etruscan caves, wells, and grottoes beneath the Piazza del Duomo--an underworld of pre-Christian history. Freud climbed into one of the narrow burial chambers, alongside two large, male skeletons, burying himself alive. But reemerging into the city's sunlit surface, he was exhilarated; he faced and conquered death! "If you must rest in a grave," Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams three years later, "let it be the Etruscan one."
His experience of Signorelli's memorable frescoes left an even bigger impression, ironically instigating his famous theories of repression. In September 1898, a year after his Italian tour, Freud took a carriage ride between Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recommending Orvieto to his German travel companion, he vividly detailed the paintings in the San Brizio Chapel, right down to the serious mien and folded hands of Signorelli's self-portrait. He had forgotten the artist's name, however, "ordinarily so familiar to me, remained obstinately in hiding."
Trying to recall the hidden name, Freud began a complex process of word associations and metonymic substitutions he later dubbed the "Signorelli parapraxis." Remembering "Luca," Freud had repressed the painter's surname. He linked the first half of Signorelli's name, Signor, with the German Herr, both meaning "Sir" or "Mister." But as Herr is also the first syllable of Herzegovina, it automatically followed his travel itinerary back to Bosnia and its prefix, Bo. Freud accordingly attributed the frescos to Botticelli and Botraffio. Tormented for days by his memory lapse, he was relieved to encounter a cultivated Italian who provided the cryptic appellation.
When I arrived in Orvieto in May 2006 to see the newly restored Signorelli frescos, I didn't realize that I was following in Freud's footsteps--or that such a memorable place could invoke such forgetting. I stepped off the train from Castiglione Fiorentino at Orvieto Scalo, the lower, residential level of this lush, Umbrian town. The thick air masked my face as the sun branded its insistent fingers into my shoulders. Dizzy from the heat and the anticipation, I rode the cable-operated funicular up the craggy cliff to the hilltop's historic town center. An American literature professor touring Italy for three months, I couldn't help but notice the archaeological irony of my pilgrimage. Orvieto's layered, volcanic structure welcomed me into an epic journey akin to Dante's Divina Commedia or Milton's Paradise Lost, where I could step into the midst of its life--in medias res-- choosing to ascend into the present city or to descend into its past ruins. What other city boasts a tour of the afterlife?
I walked across the wide, unshaded piazza on the uneven cobblestones toward the Cathedral. Opening the enormous brass doors, I was welcomed by its cool threshold. I reached into my leather messenger bag to retrieve a moss-stippled shawl and covered my scorched shoulders. How odd it seemed to hide my skin so modestly when I would be ogling the erotically writhing flesh of the damned. As I approached the ornate, iron gate of the Capella di San Brizio, two tourists slipped in just as the nonchalant attendant closed it tight, wordlessly, in my flushed face. Unsure of his Italian and even less so of my own, I concluded it was siesta and wandered off in search of refreshment served with better manners.
Though teaching was my professed reason for travel, I left home to forget the past. I was still reeling from a ten-year relationship that ended six weeks before the wedding the previous summer. Shouldering my grief like a cocoon, I felt nothing but a lumbering numbness. I went through the motions of living, but was never present. I avoided friends, dodged suitors, neglected hobbies, stopped writing, ate little, drank much, and anestheticized myself with endless hours of Netflix. Lost, I found myself unmarried and childless, starting over again at thirty-eight. Planning my escape from what still feels like the foreign land of Texas (where I had lived for nine years after relocating from my native New York), I decided to teach abroad. Titling the courses "The American Grand Tour" and "La Dolce Vita," I followed my own pedagogical lead. I would lose myself in Italy's sensuous abundance, awakening my senses so I could feel again with my heart.
Lunch was a private communion. I stepped down from the street into a serene, whitewashed restaurant, cooled by the brick, barrel-vaulted ceiling and floor. Like an altar, the table was set with layers of crisp, white linen. The apricot-tinged roses, carafe of Orvieto, ravioli with black truffle, and succulent pineapple mingled in a transubstantiation of color and taste. I didn't need to see the blood-soaked cloth from the Miracle of Bothsena in the Duomo's Cappella del Corporale to prove the divinity of my meal. I was a believer.
After lunch, I walked along the corso and resumed my disrupted pilgrimage. I donned my ritual shawl and returned to the San Brizio chapel's auspicious gate, which I found, miraculously, open. I hadn't noticed the man just beyond the chapel's entrance or that he had been standing in that very place three hours earlier. For that matter, I hadn't spied him tailing me through town throughout the three-hour siesta.
And so I met Luca ....
He sidled up to me as if dancing the pizzica, his mute steps initiating our unlicensed courtship. Almost a foot shorter than I, with the same olive skin, coffee-colored eyes, and receding hairline as the other middle-aged men crowding the chapel, Luca made up in nerve what he lacked in height. I already had my fill of cliched come-ons after five months in Italy. And this joker was about to chat me up in church? I refused to return his gaze, but he was utterly undeterred. He began narrating the dizzying fresco cycle from the chapel's center to its outer vaults in an impassioned, yet measured tempo. Detail by detail, part by part, Luca whirled me into an apocalyptic frenzy, spinning me around to view the saints and virgins by one turn, and the tormented figures reeling from eternity by another. His impressive knowledge and poetie recitation of Signorelli's genius stopped me short. Now he had my rapt attention. Pointing downward, below the big scenes to the wainscot, he rehearsed Virgil's tour in Dante's Purgatorio in the four roundels that surround their portraits. Luca had become my guide by analogy.
To my surprise, however, he was neither the seasoned art historian nor epic poet he appeared to be.
"Lei lavora qui?'" I finally interjected, my eyes stubbornly fixed on the pornographic murals.
He slid casually toward me; I sidestepped his advance, annoyed at his presumption.
"No, madame," he replied in equally stilted English, "but I return every week to study the frescoes. I see something new each time."
We resembled the marble altarpieces of Francesco Mochi's Annunciation group we would later view in the Palace Soliano: the swooping messenger with wide eyes and wild curls, his robes an orbital tangle around his earnest body as he points heavenward, interrupting the woman's quiet contemplations; startled, she looks away, defensively pulling her shawl with book-clasped fingers across her uncovered shoulder.
Luca's sideways glance turned again to my reddening face, but I stood sculpture-still.
"Dunque lei e uno historico dell'arte?"
"No," he answered for the second time. "But I am very proud of my town's artistic heritage."
He inched closer. I retreated farther, maintaining the separateness in Mochi's tableau.
Like the Virgin Annunciate, I doubted my intruder. Did he think I was another romance-starved American under the cliched Tuscan sun? And where exactly did he imagine this tour was leading?
Luca watched my quizzical profile, cleared his throat, and triumphantly announced:
"I am the chief of Orvieto's tire department."
Looking at him for the first time, I was speechless. When Luca isn't extinguishing Orvieto's tires, he routinely revisits the blazing catastrophe of Judgment Day. Maybe it's the sacrificial nature of fire--and fighting it--that lures him back. Of perhaps it's the romanticized torch he carries for his namesake's Magdalene. For it is to this Mary rather than the Annunciate that he returns each week.
My insistent docent for the remainder of the afternoon, Luca escorted me from the Duomo to its Museo in the adjacent Papal Palace and Palace Soliano. I tried to follow the museum's choreography, but Luca interrupted, twirling me quickly through the medieval period, around the Renaissance, and into the nineteenth century, stopping only intermittently at his favorite installations: Simone Martini's Orvieto Polyptych (1321) (where Mary Magdalene and the Virgin appear in succession), Ippolito Scalza's white marble Pieta (1579), and Mochi's Annunciate (1603-9). Like a well-placed preposition, he stood behind, beside, and just beyond me, giving me the once over more than twice. I could feel his prodding glance, occasionally catching his eye. He smiled and looked away almost boyishly. Surveilling in his attentions, Luca studied me study the art. And strangely, I felt safe.
I was in reality a fragile pentimento: underneath, I was the very stereotype I scorn, touring Italy to mend my broken heart. More than time, I've learned, forgetting requires a subtle balance of suppression and replacement. Like a careful overpainting, it obscures loss by experiment, texturing alternative futures. I bristle at the dictum of getting over one man by getting under another, but I find the layers instructive. For years before and after my breakup, I receded into a muted version of my self. As my fiance gradually withdrew his affections, I lost all contour, concealing my grief and sublimating my desire in unfamiliar layers of flesh. Claiming the added pounds as the cause rather than the effect of his cumulative rejections, I authored my own pain. But I couldn't see beyond it. Though I buried myself in hardened defenses, Luca saw me on first glance. Gentle and seductive, his eyes coaxed me back into my skin.
His seduction was artistic. The paintings in Orvieto's galleries were his canvas. His words were careful, yet hesitant brushstrokes, alternately hatched and stippled. We walked first to the works of Simone Martini, his favorite painter. Luca detailed the soft, Sienese style, the sinuous lines, and decadent gold leaf, romancing me with the same hagiographies I've treasured since childhood. Before leading me around the corner to Luca Signorelli's magnificent altarpiece of Mary Magdalene, he stopped, and stuttered:
"I--I--don't ... uh ... want ... um ... to insult you."
Here it comes, I thought defensively, some perverse confession poured safely into a stranger's deaf ears. I stared at him.
"I--I--I--want to show you ... something ..."
I hope he's not going to expose himself.
"Something very beautiful ... by Signorelli ... but ... I don't want to offend ..."
Relief suffused my peaked shoulders. We rounded the corner and there she was, towering above us, penitently.
Crowned by a lucent halo casting a slight shadow over her downcast face, the monumental Magdalene seems lost in lonely thought. Arched eyebrows and dark hollows encircle her eyes as her lips descend into a hushed pout. Curling blonde hair cascades like sunlit rivulets across her breasts. An embroidered and bejeweled garment reveals her gently curving clavicle and extended hands--one gesturing toward and the other clasping the iconic unguent jar at her left side. A verdant-lined, red robe falls from the Magdalene's right shoulder. It pools like a penitent's tears at her sandal-strapped feet. Turning outward, her feet are poised to step down from the wooden altarpiece into the present moment. Hatched in the brushstrokes of Luca Signorelli's masterful hand, the still icon moves.
What is she thinking of? Those forty years in the desert when angels descended and lifted her naked body into heaven each day for the nourishment of holy manna? The relief she felt when Jesus cast the seven demons from her suffering body or her dismay at entering an empty sepulcher when she arrived with sweet spices and ointments to cleanse His bloody corpse? That the risen Jesus chose to reveal Himself to her before his Ascension, appointing her the apostle to the apostles because of her singular witness? Of her new ministry in guiding followers in Christianity? Or perhaps she muses about the Gospel she has written, instigating the misogynist fictions of the early Church Fathers who conveniently cast her as a prostitute in order to create a model penitent for emulation.
Or rather than remembering the past, perhaps she imagines the future....
Could she have foreseen that her Gospel, written in the second half of the second century, would disappear for over fifteen hundred years, only to be rediscovered in a fragmentary, Coptic translation in an Egyptian antiquities market in the nineteenth century? That the Church's fabrications would not only continue her misattribution as a prostitute, adulteress, and generic female sinner, but also conflate her with other Biblical "Mary"s: the mystic from Egypt, the sister of Lazarus, and the woman who intimately anointed Jesus' feet with her tears and luxurious hair? Is it possible that the Magdalene sees beyond the myriad ways she was typecast and forgotten to the ritualized remembrances that continue today: the veneration of her relics by pilgrims in France, particularly to the Church of La Sainte-Baume's grotto, which houses her consecrated head; her role as the patron saint of Orvieto and as the dedicatee of a Dominican convent that settled there during the Middle Ages; and her repeated presence throughout the famous fresco cycle in the Capella di San Brizio, which attracts global tourists to contemplate the end of the world?
As Luca and I stood side-by-side before Signorelli's monumental Magdalene, he pointed and whispered, "This is you."
"I beg your pardon?"
He faltered, offering his adoration like a supplicant before a holy statue or a courtier declaring with sprezzatura his unrequited love:
"You ... she ... my ideal woman."
"Mary Magdalene is your ideal woman?" My twelve years of Catholic school thundered in a single, Mosaic moment. We were warned repeatedly against the Magdalene's bedevilment. The Virgin was the proper Mary to emulate. Besides, wasn't she a brunette? I always fancied a likeness to the martyred St. Agnes with her little sacrificial lamb, to St. Theresa of Liseux in her shower of red roses, or even to St. Flavia, who I was told meant "The Blond One" or "Yellow-Haired One" in Latin. Always the good girl. And he sees me as his Magdalene?
In my uncertain attempts at resuming intimacy after my wedding engagement ended, I exclusively dated bad men. Did this make me a plausible Magdalene?
"You're sweet, darling," one purred. "Though I have to warn you. I'm a good man, but I'm a baaaaaaaad boy."
"I'm not looking for a relationship," another reasoned. "I don't want love, but progeny. And I can easily purchase a bride through the Internet. I'm sure you understand."
Still another fled to Spain for his father's supposed funeral and his own suddenly failing business, promising to return soon to me, his small son, and a wife he failed to mention.
I'm not sure if dating bad men made me a bad woman by association, but imagining myself as Luca's Magdalene made me feel suddenly desirable.
"You are my fantasy," he whispered. "Tall, blonde, shapely; shy, powerful, mysterious."
The adjectives trickled languidly from his tongue like drops of the Magdalene's aromatic oil. I blushed several shades of red, blending with her crimson robe. Too transparent to be mysterious, my heartbreak was making its way to the surface. Luca saw it, but mistook a commonplace pentimento for a mystery.
We soon left the Magdalene to her thoughts as Luca rushed me towards Mochi's Annunciation group. Set widely apart as opposing altarpieces, Mochi's alarming angel and elusive woman electrified the gulf between them--and between Luca and myself--implicating us in their baroque dance.
Unaware of his parodic stance at the altar, Luca asked, "Have you seen such emotion--such tension? Her resistance is so real, so powerful."
I thought about the Annunciation scenes I had encountered during my five months in Italy: the Virgin's relative hospitality imagined by da Vinci, her modest resignation at Fra Angelico's hand, and her demure retreat into Botticelli's canvas. Despite their shared reservations about Gabriel's intrusion, each Mary faces him. But Mochi's Annunciate dares to look away.
"I would like to put you on a pedestal like a sculpture so you will always be worshipped," Luca murmurs.
I scoffed incredulously, "How many times have you said that?"
His sweet talk seemed a well-practiced rosary. Was I one in a litany of broken hearts hunted weekly in Orvieto's chapels? Did he peg me as the next martyr to his Italian charm? Discomfiting and trite, his seduction, however transparent, was not without allure. Its urgency was honest. Luca seemed to record each moment of the day in painstaking detail. Stalling time, he approached every painting as a new discovery and retreated with the incipient nostalgia of a tourist. Steeped in antiquities, Luca was living passionately in the present tense.
We exhausted the museums and then ourselves on a whirlwind tour of Orvieto's other historic sites and unknown treasures. Luca ushered me through town, down side streets, unsuspecting alleys, and then along the main corso, waving like the local celebrity he clearly was to the other citizens. Women nodded, men smirked. Heads turned. Did they, too, see me as Luca's Magdalene? Which sins had I committed? I've never enjoyed the spectacle of parades: the crowds, the noise, the movement unnerve me. Being the primary attraction in this tableau, I longed to escape into the canvas that Signorelli's Magdalene seemed so eager to leave.
By late afternoon, we reached the Pozzo della Cava. An enoteca and a museum, it invites patrons to gorge on the past. Tables are arranged over ancient, glass-covered wells, affording a view of history while indulging in modern gustatory delights. The fathomless wells not only conclude in a series of cisterns ordered by Pope Clement VII in 1527, but also branch into a maze of caves overflowing with Etruscan, medieval, and Renaissance artifacts, kilns, and tombs. Among these artifacts are extensive wine cellars, which keep curious palates guessing and drained glasses full. Outside is a charming, enclosed courtyard cut from the medieval walls of volcanic tufa rock with climbing vines, window boxes of sweet alyssum, and ceramic pots brimming with brilliant red geraniums. Luca and I sat alone in the courtyard, sipping wine and talking in broken versions of each other's language for hours.
"Salute." We touched glasses and toasted the day.
"Grazie mille, Luca," I began, and lapsing back into the comfort of English, "for your generosity today."
"Prego. It was my pleasure," he responded, eyes twinkling.
"Di mi, bella. You are so quiet--a mystery to me."
An open book, I saw myself through Luca's eyes, taken by the mystery he imagined.
"You are so beautiful. Why are you not married?" Not exactly my idea of small talk. "I was almost married ... last year ... but it was called off."
There is no simple response to such a direct question or to the searing dissolution of a ten-year relationship. Why I didn't walk away sooner or why he walked away so late. And I came to Italy to forget the past, or at least to move forward from it.
"It's complicated," I sidestepped, and redirected the question, "have you ever been married?"
Luca hesitated. He adjusted his cocktail napkin, centered the wine glass, and pushed a stray blossom from the table. "Yes."
Asked and answered. The conversation halted.
"Are you married now?"
His fidgeting escalated. "Oh, bella, I wish to lie. But when I look into your eyes, the innocence, the sweetness, I cannot. Yes, I am married. But we are unhappy," he quickly qualified, "and planning to divorce."
"We stay together for our children."
I paused for a moment, wondering about Luca's marital status. Had I been enjoying an adulterous tour of Orvieto's art? Was I like the misunderstood Magdalene after all? His wife, I decided with relief, only contributed to the day's enchantment. She unwittingly sanctioned what I hoped to remember as a beautifully platonic romance. I had nothing to repent.
Changing the subject, Luca confessed, "Today has been magical. I don't want it to end."
I smiled complicitly.
"You are a blessing. I saw it when you walked into the Duomo this morning."
"You mean this afternoon?"
"No, when you first arrived."
Puzzled, I nervously shuffled my feet under the table.
"I was standing behind the guard that turned you away."
I swallowed uncomfortably. "I--didn't notice you."
Absorbed in his recollection, Luca overlooked my renewed suspicions. "Your hair, your flushed face, your quiet steps."
Evading his flattery, I reasoned, "I was grateful for the welcoming respite from the sun."
"And then you enjoyed lunch at Ristorante Giglio D'Oro."
"How do you know?"
"I followed you."
"You followed me?"
"I watched you along the corso, looking into shop windows," he answered frankly. "You liked la ceramiche."
"You followed me," I repeated in consternation. "What are you--a fireman or a spy?"
Sipping his wine, Luca choked and sputtered, "I was a spy in the Italian Navy, keeping the peace in Lebanon."
I was speechless for the second time that day.
As his latest pronouncement whirled through my wine-woozy head, I tried to regain my bearings, but the conversation became dizzying.
"You are so beautiful, bella. Di mi, why are you not married?"
I looked at him strangely. "I broke my engagement."
"I'm sorry. What happened?"
I gulped my wine and waited.
"How could anyone leave you?"
Still I waited.
"I saw you were special right away, when you walked into the Duomo."
More than talking in circles, it seemed we had stepped back into our day in medias res. Like all things in Orvieto that rise and fall, so do its firemen.
"Mi dispiace. I repeat myself," Luca realized.
"Allora," Luca said, leaning forward in explanation. "Last year I had an accident."
I listened intently. Another surreal confession?
"It was a terrible fire. In my hurry, I rushed up the ladder. My men were yelling. Too much smoke. I couldn't find them. And then.... I don't remember what happened before I fell."
I held my breath.
"I landed on my head. I didn't have my helmet that day so the damage is great."
"I'm so sorry, Luca. How are you now?"
"Better, but ..."
"But?" I exhaled slowly.
"I cannot make memories."
But he remembers the fire. And he detailed Signorelli's murals like a savant.
I considered how unlikely our entire day had been, and decided his story was too outrageous to be untrue.
Luca has post-traumatic amnesia. Distinct from Freud's diagnosis of traumatic repression or the Signorelli parapraxis, Luca's forgetting is physiological--and permanent. While his long-term memory remains unaffected, remembering life before his accident, Luca is incapable of forming new memories. Anterograde amnesia leaves him without a short-term memory and me with a host of questions. What is it like to wake up each day with no recollection of yesterday? How past is the past when it is no longer accretive? Is forgetting a peculiar gift, even a blessing? Perhaps this is why Luca revisits the San Brizio Chapel each week, viewing Signorelli's frescoes as if for the first time, like an awestruck tourist. How does he imagine the Afterlife when "after" no longer exists for him? If experience precedes memory, then isn't memory the afterlife of experience? But without memory, what is the afterlife? Will Luca ever experience it?
I can't help but wonder, then, if Luca's fascination with Orivieto's art stems in part from his memory loss. Signorelli's altarpiece, I now realize, has spatial dimensions that are distinctly temporal, if not mnemonic. I remember it for its monumental beauty and as the place I was romanced, but most importantly, as a template for understanding Luca's amnesia. His short-term memory occupies his brain's frontal processing area in much the same way the colossal Magdalene dominates the painting's foreground. A visual gerund, the foreground sustains a persistent and unrehearsed present in Luca's recurring trips to the museum. Its background, an evocative metonym for Luca's long-term memory, remains distant, situated, and unchanging. All the times he studied the altarpiece before his accident and before we met are swept into those enduring brushstrokes. And the Magdalene herself embodies what phenomenologists call the "just-past" that frames the present moment. As the just-past, as Luca's short-term memory, she makes him repent. For since his fall, he has had a definitive change of mind.
The fresco cycle in the San Brizio chapel is also an object lesson on Luca's tenuous memory. Working in buon fresco, Signorelli applied a water-based pigment to freshly spread lime plaster. He quickly painted in sections called giornata, or "day's work," making a lasting, colorful impression before the mortar dried. Luca's frantic seduction was much the same: knowing our day wouldn't take hold in his memory, he hastily absorbed every momentary pleasure. Each new memory, like successive layers of paint, contributes to what the phenomenologist Edward Husserl calls an "imperceptible sedimentation" that pushes short- into long-term memories. But the sedimentation of Luca's memory stopped four years ago. Excavations of Orvieto's volcanic strata continue to unearth its Etruscan past, while Luca lives only at the surface. And any memory of me lays long buried beneath the scrapes of forgotten pentimento.
The way that Luca's memory and Signorelli's frescoes foreshorten time with texture beautifully illustrates Freud's famous parapraxis. During his trip between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Freud conflated Trafoi, a later stop on his itinerary, with Orvieto. Poised to discuss the Orvieto frescoes with his travel companion, Freud received at that moment the tragic news of a patient's suicide in Trafoi. The contiguity in time and the harmonic resonance of Trafoi and Boltraffio (to whom he had previously misattributed the frescoes) made him forget Signorelli's surname. He consequently "wanted to forget something," Freud explains in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, "I had repressed something." Collapsing the past and present into a single day, Freud unwittingly created his theory of repression, "of keeping something away and keeping it at a distance," according to Signorelli's method of giornata. And during that day's work, he was able to remember the artist's first name on his own. When I remember my Luca, I relish the fleeting abstraction of his affection. Mixing time and place, I recall that Herzegovina's prefix, as others have noticed, is also Herz, the German word for heart. Luca Sabitini fell in love, and loved me sweetly for a day. Una buona giornata.
Night fell without our notice. We left the Pozzo della Cava and descended to the train station, reversing the epic journey I had embarked on that morning. The train station was virtually empty, excepting some grungy, sharp-tongued, chain-smoking boys.
"Thank you for walking me to the train."
Luca nodded. "I would like to wait here with you."
"It's getting late. Shouldn't you get home to your wife and children?"
"Won't they be expecting you for dinner?"
"There is time."
But the train was late. Fifteen minutes.... Thirty minutes.... One hour.... Two hours....
"Luca, you really need to go home."
"But I don't want to leave you."
"I'm fine. Please go."
"I would like to see you again."
"That won't happen."
He wrote his phone number and email on a business card for Pozo della Cava's enoteca, insinuating it into my closed hand.
"Please come back to Orvieto before you return to America. You must call me. I have to see you one more time."
I stood silent. With prolonged salutations and regret, Luca left.
The swiftly fleeting day dragged its tired feet. Exhausted by the unrelenting heat and claustrophobic from the boys' circling advances, I moved into the adjacent cafe. I was there for just minutes before I felt someone approach me from behind. I turned angrily, launching my messenger bag ... directly ... into Luca's unsuspecting chest.
"What are you doing here," I asked, startled at his return. It seemed we stepped back into the Mochi tableau, as he came upon me, like the Angel Annuciate, from out of nowhere.
"I couldn't leave you," he cooed gently, looking shyly down at his shoes.
I studied his face, his hands held mysteriously behind his back.
"I have a gift for you."
"A gift? But why?" I replied. "Today was your gift."
Luca ceremoniously presented a book of Simone Martini's paintings.
"Simone Martini? ... How beautiful."
"There were no Signorelli catalogs at the museo," he explained.
Perplexed by the substitution, I thanked Luca for his thoughtfulness. But I entirely misread his gesture.
"Grazie mille. Grazie tanto, Luca. You shouldn't have."
Smiling, Luca took my hand and pledged, "I give you this book because I don't want you to forget me." His third puzzling announcement of the day.
And maybe that's what this story is really about. Me remembering Luca. Looking back, I find myself approximating Freud's famous parapraxis. I've made my own metonymic substitutions between Luca Signorelli and Luca Sabitini; between the former's artwork and the latter's memory; between Mary Magdalene and myself. Remembering Signorelli was a tradeoff for Freud: once the surname emerged, Signorelli's vividly painted face faded instantly--and permanently--from his memory. The singularity of my day in Orvieto, between a fire chief and his Magdalene, was precisely because it was forgettable. As I finish this story, I've thumbed through my travel journal to check my memory. Tucked into its seam is the business card for the Pozzo della Cava, and I'm tempted to contact Luca. Have I accurately recorded the details of the art we viewed? Is the Magdalene as I have recalled? Have I remembered our conversation correctly? I hastily returned the card to its crook and shoved the journal back into my desk drawer. What if Luca does remember me? Freud wanted to forget something. And I have wanted Luca to forget. More than his attentions, more than my new book, more than the frescos and altarpiece, the knowledge that he'd forget me by the next morning distinguished the romance. Remembering me would break my heart. And for that I would always repent.
Carrying my new book in clenched fingers, I walked outside with Luca and sat on a bench overlooking the tracks. There was a slight breeze, wafting the memorable scent of Orvieto's perfumed flowers across my face, already familiar from the morning. Side-by-side, as we were earlier in the Capella di San Brizio and again at the Museo
dell'Opera del Duomo, we sat silently. Luca reached over and touched my chin; pushing a curl from my eyes, he drew my head to his left shoulder, close to his heart. Like the passionate dance of the pizzica, based on unspoken emotion rather than physical contact, his heart thumped its rhythm. It was only the day's end, like the dancer's sudden unity in the pizzica's conclusion, which licensed that solitary touch. We had come far from those first evasive steps before Signorelli's falling figures. But there was no more falling--into hell or off of ladders. There was no afterlife for us. Slowing my breath to follow his heartbeat, I heard the train in the distance.
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|Author:||Stabile, Susan M.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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