I missed a happy-birthday wish, a few days ago. One of those “big ones,” too. His 450th. An artist named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
I trust his spirit understands how life -- and all its survival stressors -- can impede a living person’s remembrances of big dates about his sensory time on earth. Even for a woman who, as a child, would stare at his paintings for long minutes, finally alone in a shared bedroom, before going outside to play.
In grade school, I’d ask for “art-people books” at Christmas/birthday. There was so much to see and wonder about. Especially after holding a stick of charcoal above a pad of paper, in some county-sponsored outdoor activity my mother had learned about. Holding soft charcoal and getting to know a stone bridge over a creek, near our house. Drawing a curved line as I looked, then another, a dark patch of shadows between tree branches. Getting to know something, by really looking at it, and making another, intimate version of it, with an eye and hand, however child-sized.
On some Saturday mornings, I’d sit on my bedroom floor with my back against the box-spring, an art-history book in my lap. I would sound out his name: Cara-vaggio!
Not sure how I knew to make a soft “j” sound, rather than a hard “g.” Maybe because of a TV mouse named Topo Gigio? Early memories, a Show called Ed Sullivan?
"The [mouse] puppet stood in a special "limbo" black art stage with black velvet curtains, designed to absorb as much ambient light as possible, which helped hide the puppeteers, who were also dressed in black from head to toe … Careful lighting and TV camera adjustment made the "black art" illusion perfect for the television audience.)" 1
My mouse friend (with no manipulators apparent to me) could hike up to Ed’s shoulder, and talk about his mouse girlfriend, Rosie, ask for a kiss goodnight. I could feel through my fingers the soft, fabric-skin of his enormous mouse ears on a Sunday evening, feeling sleepy myself. I’d wish I could also meet his Rosie.
Anyway, ‘Cara-vah-jee-o’. I knew nothing about his life in 16th-century Italy and all its survival stressors.
Like the fact that by age 11, both his parents had died of the plague.
Wasn’t even sure what “a plague” was. A crater or two on my face remembered how chicken-pox raged through our kid-full household, but. At the time, I knew only the man’s painted people – so lit with life, with warm skin around muscle and bone and easy to imagine touching. Characters mostly biblical or mythical, between which I didn’t distinguish. Learned much later about the man who lived.
One tough biscotto, that one. No parents, and a deadly plague still raging. A street-fightin’ young man. Restless. Painting and stabbing his way into adult life.
His obvious artistic talent and ingenuity meant “success,” in his lifetime. His rages and temperament meant a shorter lifetime. Death from “fever” at age 38, not long after he murdered a man in Rome and fled south.
Back in my bedroom, I knew the pages (and paintings themselves, somewhere) were flat (hanging on some faraway wall). Still, I would touch them. To pet them, comfort them, like the boy screaming out after he got bit by a lizard, hiding among some grapes.
That bitten and pained boy, and all the humans and fruit and fabrics and wood and metal, felt as alive as they looked, to me, from my American bedroom. As pliant and warm, or solid and chilled, as hair and skin, or sharp blade, promised. Easy to imagine as the softness of a mouse’s ears through a TV.
My 450-year-old friend used a technique called “tenebroso”: full of darkness, and mystery. If you’re familiar with “chiaroscuro” – literally light-dark – and its contrast of those qualities … this is chiaroscuro, amplified. Caravaggio remains credited with that amplification.
By blackening the surrounding space of a mythical figure (or lizard in a tangle of grapes) we hold no confusion about focus. Where to look first. What to consider essential. How do these humans relate to each other? And why, do they, do this or that, to, or with, each other?
I could never have articulated these questions back in grade-school, while birds sang and sisters already played outside. I could only look at those high-contrast scenes, so full of feeling. And wonder, underneath it all, how they clearly mattered.
Film-makers today still consult the birthday-boy about his techniques with lighting, his “shadows with fast falloff, and bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.”(2) Leaving no doubt where a moviegoer should look first, or how the relationships matter, even progress, within a scene or moment.
Rembrandt, among others, consulted the birthday-boy about his techniques with lighting. His painted people – including his own selfies – have that tenebroso. I remember visiting Rembrandt’s huis in Amsterdam, as a 22-year-old hitchhiker/backpacker. Standing with and holding the hand of my Australian, Jamie, whose birthday is this very day – hey. HBD, wherever you now roam; hoping you still roam.
In my life before meeting Jamie, I hadn’t been used to touching someone so much, so nearly non-stop. Neither of us went off to jobs or school, we were just curious tramps, far from home, with the dollar exchange hugely in our favor. ($1.00 per night for a room in Paris; we paid for a month in advance. Shared hallway bathroom with strangers, but.)
Jamie was a person who never did not want to be touching me. I’m a person who needs a good bit of alone time.
At least once a week I would say, “I have got to have some time to myself today.”
Some physical space around myself, some time to think about nothing, without the consciousness of another consciousness right there next to me, please? And that, implying no less feeling for him, if he could understand that?
Jamie would make a very sad face. Then say, “Yeah, all right.”
Inevitably, on those days, we would run into each other. On some sidewalk unfamiliar to both of us. He’d clap his arm around my shoulder, or take my hand once again. And we’d explore a new neighborhood, then wend our way back to our cheap hotel on rue Sommerard, near the Sorbonne.
I hadn’t appreciated how less-strange that constant touch became, how I even took it for granted. Or how I would mourn it, as soon as I boarded the plane at Gatwick, when we finally had to return to our countries of origin.
Mourned that touch, his pulsing physical presence. I felt almost beheaded. My brain was irrelevant. My thinking, all fog. The flight attendants left me alone while I wept all the way across the Atlantic.
The day before we left Paris for Amsterdam -- weeks before that airport separation -- we finally bought tickets for the museum right next door to our cheap hotel.
The Musée de Cluny, the Musée national du Moyen Âge (national museum of the Middle Ages). We’d walked past it a hundred times. I would mention now and then, “The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are in there.” The title didn’t register for him; maybe it sounded too bougie.
I remembered them as highly detailed embroideries, from the art books in my lap. The pics might have been black & white.
I had imagined them much, much smaller! That Lady and her animals were very pretty, very well-behaved, and I understood they’d made it into a book about famous art from all the famous art times. But my alive-feeling (holding the books) didn’t resonate like it did with all the Caravaggio. The tapestries’ thousand details, mille-fleur threads, escaped my kid aesthetic.
Once inside the Musée, though. How had we lived right next door to these giant, red beauties, for over a month?
Six enormous and exquisitely detailed tapestries, dedicated to the 5 senses. The slender lady touches her unicorn’s horn. In another, lets him see himself in a mirror, while a lion watches. She plays a kind of table-organ for them. Shares a bite of sweets with a monkey. They smell flowers.
A sixth tapestry, uniquely, includes a shelter, a blue tent. This one, translated “for my only desire,” was understood as loving, or “knowing” another. That 6th one seemed willfully more mysterious.
Loved the mystery about it. To me, that sixth sense felt most trustable, against all odds.
Like having a unicorn, a lion, and a monkey as best friends. Who, somehow, did not express their wild and potentially violent selves toward a delicate Lady.
Caravaggio’s ladies were strong as “all get out,” like people used to say. His ladies were lean but meaty. Grieving mothers, post-crucifixion of sons. Or mythical, sensate monsters, like Medusa.
Medusa! One of three Gorgon sisters. (They had wings. Also, snakes, for hair.)
Medusa? Beheaded. By Perseus. Who then used her head, in particular her eyes, as a weapon. Anyone who looked into her eyes? Turned straight into stone. She was beautiful, at first, considered lovely; then (after being decapitated) she became terrifying, even deadly. Quite the confusing story for a young girl.
Even as a child, I may have understood some part of it as unconscious bias against the female of my species, or a similar mythic species. Medusa felt her feelings and did not hold them back, like most men. But she paid with her very head, in complete severance from her feeling body.
(Have to add the fun fact that many art historians believe Caravaggio used himself as the model for her.)
As someone who has lived alone throughout this modern plague era, I'm most aware of one sense's absence. Why didn’t I rescue a dog?
Because I didn’t know how long the dark and surreal days, pre-vaccine, then vax-but-variant-plagued, would last. Until such time when I’d have to leave a warm, little soul, with whom I had only just bonded. Leave for way too many hours, back to a hellish commute, but without the means to cover a visiting dog-walker, where I live.
On Friday night of this early October weekend of 2021, I learned something from my hair-guy, Tony. We were saying good-bye and went into hug stance. I aimed leftward, toward his right shoulder.
“No, no, toward the right,” he said. “So we’re heart to heart.”
Tony and I reoriented our bodies.
Ah. Like most vertebrates, our hearts skew left of center. No matter if slender ladies or meaty grieving mothers, calm lions or biting lizards -- all with off-center hearts, lungs, cares, emotions.
I wonder, for any of us who’ve lived alone through these many months of modern plague: have our other senses compensated for loss of touch? The way other senses than sight can amplify, for a person who can’t see?
(My eyes are missing either rods or cones – whichever ones help with night vision – from a young age. Ophthalmologists have confirmed the obvious. Backstage in a high-school theater, between my scenes, I could see nothing. People, whose voices I recognized, would say ‘hey, Mary.’ I always startled. How could they see me, to know I was me? I could see only blackness.)
A forgotten thing just remembered: astronomy professor in college who mentioned, almost as an aside, that “the Dark Ages” were actually dark. Meteorologically.
Volcanic eruptions, he said, worldwide wind-patterns of clouding ash. Diminished sunlight. Lack of Vitamin-D.
Failed crops. Years and years of immuno-compromise, before the Norman Conquests (in Western historical context). Darker during literal daylight, as well as for metaphorical, historical well-being.
I could only imagine how un-dark the Dark-age nights must have felt and looked, as well. Even the night sky – presumed as blackness against which bright stars, systems, patterns of connected points into fishes, bulls, twins, lions, mice-puppets – would have looked grayed out, through a thick layer of volcanic ash.
But I digress. Tony taught me something new, Friday night.
Saturday was sunny and mild. I put on my sneakers. Before heading to the woods, I stopped at an art exhibit up the road, called “Touch.”
Patrons were encouraged to touch the works. Many were flat paintings with a kind of topography. What a treat, to trace a fingertip along a shape in a framed piece of art. On one ‘flat’ piece I noticed the artist had signed it both at the bottom, as hung, and at the top (upside-down); I bent over to try to flip the orientation and sure enough, abstract shapes became a human woman.
I touched most of the sculptures, including a wave of thread-joined blue-jeans.
I held a hand’s hand. I petted a conjoined pair of abstract ducks. Then I wandered into an adjoining exhibit, not of “Touch” but no less thrilling or sensory – I mean roses. And magnolias. Many more. Malathi Jayawickrama’s whole garden of paintings to inhale. (And how touching – touching -- to hear from a former med-student later, when I posted one of these flower pics. The artist is her boyfriend’s mother.)
I dropped some ducats into the contributions box, and headed into the woods.
Some leaves had already turned gold or orange. Not many, but enough to notice. Enough to feel the turn of a tilted planet, and with it, the million gifts and losses that a tilted path brings. While we’re lucky enough to be alive, and subject to gravity.
The bark of most trees hold a “black-arts” background; the body highlights, contrasts, illuminates. From even a slight distance, the turning leaves look pure gold, or russet or scarlet.
But if you come in close, really try to know a single leaf, in its own season? A golden leaf holds browning veins, bug-bitten perforations, splotches of age, even some remaining green, just before it drops to its ground.
Gorgeous. The un-golden parts are the true highlights. The idea of “light vs. dark” has never been absolute, or reductive. Even at night, in any earthly Age. A moody moon expresses itself however she will. A sheer net of night clouds can still let bright stars through. A short life may still be remembered, half-a-millenium later. A yard or street to play on would still be there, even if you headed outside a full hour after your sisters, brothers and friends did.
I’ve heard about a ‘seventh sense,’ or various seventh senses. One is proprioception – our sense of body position and movement – sometimes called kinesthesia. (Two American doctors just won the Nobel Prize for teasing out its mysteries.) Another is the immune system, as a separate sense. Another is a sense of networks and their power.
I’ve heard there may be a couple dozen senses. Some say the perception of temperature is a sense. Itching – distinct from touch sensation. Pain – in different organ systems. Even a ‘sense’ of time.
I am none-the-wiser about trying to categorize the full suite of sensory experience in being a singular person alive and in a body.
But I am totes-the-gratefuller for being, and having.
Thanks again for playing with me in this space for wondering,
Your Muffin totes-the-gratefuller
To learn more about Caravaggio: https://www.biography.com/artist/caravaggio
To learn more about the dark Dark (Ages): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/20/weatherwatch-real-darkness-blighted-dark-ages
To dig into the number of senses there might be, Google that much or 'how many senses?'