I'm back from Umbria, "the green heart of Italy," as the tourism literature very justly calls it. Such beautiful landscape, and yes, very green, with rounded hills, and the thick woods where they find the truffles. And those lovely towns and cities: Perugia, Gubbio, Assisi, Spoleto. And Urbino, in the nearby Marche.
And everywhere, the most wonderful art. I particularly love early Sienese and Florentine painting: Giotto, Simone Martini, Ghirlandaio, Uccello, and Umbria is a feast of work by these artists, and many more. Beautiful buildings abound, too: churches, medieval town halls, and palaces. Among the most memorable was Urbino's Palazzo Ducale, which is also the regional art gallery. Here I saw for the first time Raphael's Portrait of a Gentlewoman, known as La Muta; thought to be a widow whose grief compelled her to silence.
It is so much more luminous, so much more alive, in real life than in reproduction. It is the kind of painting you want to gaze at for a long while. To look at her hands, the way the tensile fingers grasp her wrist; at the shadow of the necklace cord against her skin. And she, La Muta, with those eyes of sorrow, regards you coolly in return.
While I was in Umbria, there was the atrocity in Nice. So many lives lost, so brutally. People shattered by raw anguish far from La Muta's sad composure. The kind of anguish shown in the many paintings I saw of the death of Jesus, where his mother's face is deformed by the horror of it; for of course most pre-Renaissance paintings in Italy tell the stories of Jesus's life and death, and those of his followers and saints. Agony down the centuries. Inexplicable cruelty. St Lawrence on his gridiron; St Agnes with her breasts on a plate.
This often gruesome Christian iconography is, of course, not the whole story; it also bears a message of hope about life after death, and a testimony to miracles down the ages. But this is too unscientific for many of us these days to believe. (I try).
Art has always grappled with the awfulness of death, how it suddenly extinguishes life. Just the other evening, I went to a marvellous event run by independent bookshop The Suffolk Anthology. Sam Guglani (doctor, writer, and director of the annual November conference Medicine Unboxed) talked to author Sarah Moss about her latest book, The Tidal Zone, in a way that illuminated its themes and feel and impact. In the novel, she looks at our fears full on, especially that worst parental fear, losing a child. I haven't yet read it, but those who have done so say that despite the unflinching gaze, it's a wonderful read. One of the topics discussed that evening was how fiction, and by extension other kinds of art, can have a consolatory rôle in the face of darkness, but that the consolation comes in the form of the art itself, rather than in platitudes.
I'd forgotten till this moment, as I look up the second passage she read, that her book mentions Mary's face and the shadow of crucifixion. It comes in a section about the West Screen in Coventry Cathedral (which I saw once many years ago, and now long to revisit). This is what her character Adam says about John Hutton's magnificent sheet of glass with its etched angels and saints:
"Look on St Mary from the new building and you see the young mother, but from the other side the agony of the cross has fallen over her face. It is not all right.
It is not all right, but there is beauty. We have ways of saying that it is not all right, that there is death and suffering and evil, and they are the same ways we have had for hundreds of years. Buildings. Glass. Weaving.
What happened in Nice, what is happening in so many places, is very much "not all right". Call me callous, or cowardly, but I focused on the treasures around me in Italy, instead; works of art that use formal beauty to transmute horror, so it can somehow be borne. I could not bear to know any details about Nice.
In the same palace in Urbino is another portrait, a small painting from the late 1400s, attributed to Bramantino. (Findable online, though it isn't the same). It shows Christ lifting his hand in blessing. The image is partly damaged, but the face remains, the red tunic, the blessing hand. And the extraordinary eyes. The painting is hung low enough that even a short person like me can look straight at it; and suddenly I felt, more than with La Muta who remains slightly distant, that the eyes were truly looking right back into me. Gazing at me; with such a compelling depth of expression that—I hesitate to say this, but it happened, and I don't know why—actual tears came into my own eyes. It's just a painting; but that light-brown heavy-lidded gaze seems to know and understand all the sorrow in the world.