Book Trailer for Pilikia

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lessons from Italy

Mary Fran and I recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to Rome and Florence. Visiting those two storied cities, the fount of our civilization and the birthplace of the Renaissance, I could not help but reflect on art, history and culture. In Florence, we had the good fortune to have a guided tour of Uffizi Museum, established by the Medici family to house their collection of medieval and Renaissance art.

You could spend a significant part of your life in the Uffizi taking in all of the art. Our guide, Elena, did not try to show us everything. She had an agenda, a story about art she wanted to share with us. We began in a room of altarpieces from the middle ages. All of them represented the Madonna with child; one of them was by Giotto. The Giotto was beautiful, but also typical of medieval painting. It was flat, completely lacking in perspective. The Virgin’s face was detailed, but a blue robe, under which no anatomical features were discernible, represented her body. Because of this Giotto is sometimes considered a primitive painter.

We moved from Giotto quickly to other painters who continued the theme and then to Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and Michealangelo. The paintings gained perspective and the themes became secular. The Michelangelo was the last painting. The Tonto Doni, also known as The Holy Family is the only Michelangelo painting in the Uffizi. It is a family portrait of a Florentine nobleman, his wife and child. Like Giotto’s, it has three central characters, mother, father and child. The woman is even draped in blue like Giotto’s Virgin. But unlike Giotto’s, Michelangelo’s painting has perspective, the anatomy of the central characters is clearly defined, and the theme is secular, though resonating to the spiritual.

Elena’s message, which she had repeated several times during the tour and again at the end, was that without the middle ages there would be no Renaissance; without Giotto, there would be no Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

I brought along a couple of books for the long plane rides. One, which I read on the way home, is by Steven Torres, The Concrete Maze. It is a compelling and disturbing mystery story about a man’s search for his teenage daughter and the person who abducted her. Torres is a fine writer who has not received the recognition he deserves. Maze is only his third book and I believe a breakout book is not far off. At the end of the book, the publisher included some questions for book clubs, an interesting feature I’d like to see more of.

The first question grabbed my attention because it melded with my thoughts on this trip. It asked readers to consider how the story fit into the hardboiled, noir tradition of Chandler, Hammett, Ken Bruen, James Sallis and Sara Gran. It was the same point Elena made, only different. Without Chandler, Hammett, Bruen, Sallis and Gran, there would be no Torres.

It seems like a contradiction that art, which results in original works created by artists, writers and musicians working alone, depends on communication and sharing among a community of artists, often across generations and even centuries. Artists study each other’s works. They know the classics of their genre and they know the cutting edge.

Picasso famously said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a quote that was stolen by T.S. Eliot and Steven Jobs, among others. Don’t get me wrong. Stealing another artist’s work isn’t a good thing, but great artists and writers use other people’s work as a starting point from which to take the idea to a new place and to a new audience. Just as Michelangelo did with Giotto, Torres takes Chandler to a new place. I think that the next time any of us find ourselves discussing writing with other writers, we should be asking, not What are you writing, but What are you reading?