The Story of Mr. Renato, April 3, 1996
In the Spring of 1996, I finally made it to Italy. While lots of people go to Italy, I had an unusual mission: I wanted to find out if I could be a painter. And since I'd made my living as a painter all my life, this was a rather odd quest.
The day started with rain, and after standing patiently in line at the Uffizi for over two hours, my Gortex was failing. A lovely Japanese man took pity and offered shelter under his even lovelier umbrella. I offered the only Japanese word I knew, "Arigato," I said, and we all laughed in our shared, drenched camaraderie.
Once inside, I spent the usual amount of time moving through the galleries, but more than anything, I wanted to see the drawings. My disappointment was so great at finding the drawing exhibition closed that I followed instructions pasted on the door. The note said to go to the museum office for special admittance to the drawing archives contained within. I did this, and was told that having no prior status, I would have to go to my Consulate, introduce myself as a professional artist with scholarly interests, and attain a formal letter of introduction. This would have to wait for morning.
In the morning I set out, off the tourist path and into the surrounding neighborhood to find the Consulate. I made my request, showed my passport and business card, and was told to return later. After a bookstore, a luncheon table shared with two Italian ladies, and a visit to a church, I was left with time, to meander, one of my favorite things to do, sketchbook and paints in hand.
In this intriguing neighborhood, each house had an open doorway offering a glimpse into its mysterious space. Being overly curious, I wanted to poke my head into each and every one. Finally, there was one that had an open invitation that I couldn't resist. Hanging from a red, velvet rope was a modest sign that said "Art Gallery," with an arrow pointing to the right. Feeling very much like Alice, I followed it, up one set of stairs, and then another, to a glass door revealing the interior through a lacy curtain. I opened the door.
There sat an elderly and elegant gentleman who sported a patch over one eye and beautiful, full, pure white hair. He sat on a simple wooden chair waiting for someone, anyone, to come to him to talk about his paintings. I lost, or rather found, the next two and one-half hours of my life. His name was Dello Strologo Renato and this is what he told me.
Mr. Renato was Jewish, born in Algeria, married and had a lucrative advertising career. But his wife was French, and when the Algerians expelled the French in 1954, he and his wife had to flee, leaving everything. They emigrated to Italy, settled in Livorna, a town renowned for has its history of tolerance. Over his wife's objections, he started collecting the paintings of local artists, and it was this collection that was now hanging on these walls. There were perhaps thirty Impressionist style landscapes and still lifes hung at eye level, in two white walled rooms. For Mr. Renato, they represented the sum of his retirement, his investments over his life, that were now for sale, to take care of the two of them in what was now their old age.
After chatting in a mixture of Italian, French and English, in the late afternoon I showed him several pictures of my work from a recent exhibition. He gave me a challenge, and an unexpected answer to the question of my quest, the reason I had come to Florence.
Writing about the experience in my sketch journal later that night, and quoting from my words then,
“He said that I draw very well. I am a drawer. I draw too well. My eyes see too much, so much that they camouflage my heart. He said that the more impressionist painter can’t always draw- they see differently. They don’t draw the details because they can’t see the details. There are painters and there are drawers and they are like apples and oranges. He said it would very difficult to cross over. But what I do now is copy. I only copy- I don’t interpret. I know this and I know I can copy anything. But how do I get beyond copy? He liked my gesture pieces best. The honesty. Almost midnight.”
At first I was crushed that he said I couldn't be a painter, or at least that kind of a painter. But after I left this charming man, and had given what he said some thought, I realized that he was right. I had a level of skill that had kept me from interpreting, not just what I see, but what I seek. I left Mr. Renato, with his gift of insight, and I'm only sorry that I didn't keep in touch.
The very next day, at the Uffizi Gabinetto Disegni, I held an original Michelangelo in my hands, and I saw that authentic power of gesture. But that's a story for another day.
A day with Michelangelo, April 4, 1996
“Friday Uffizi Ganinetto Disefni E Stamp 5-4-96 by special recommendation of the U.S. Consulate. The scholar’s room where volume after volume of facsimilies of all the master drawings line all four walls. I am looking for the passion and gesture in the drawings. I’m not looking for the drawings that are copies of the figura, but rather, the interpretation, the passion of the artist. Signorelli, Masaccio, Durur, Fra Bartlolmeo, Pontorno, Andrea del Sarto.”
There is a special room at the Uffizi in Florence, a secret room. Secure doors protect and cherish the drawing collections of the Uffizi. I passed through a vestibule into a room about 25x25,' lined with common, blue binders containing facsimilies of all the great masters of the Renaissance: Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Durer, da Vinci, Giotto...
On this Friday, there were seven serious scholars scattered around a number of large library tables with various documents spread out before them. Several of the scholars had large architectural drawings. I wanted to spy, but resisted. I didn't want to call attention to the fact that I was an imposter, merely very curious, with a gift for persuasion. I was told that the major artists were only available as reproductions, but that the "lesser" artists were available as originals. All I had to do was find an artist, pull the binder, and pick an image with it's corresponding identification. The document would be retrieved for me, and I could study it as I wished.
I was interested in gesture of the figure. I wanted to feel that authentic response the artist had to the subject that can only be revealed spontaneously, without thought or intention. I picked a small gestural drawing by Michelangelo. As by some miracle, the librarian brought me the original. And “there before me, under my fingers- I’m afraid to touch, lies paper upon which Michelangelo has drawn.” I'm touching the very paper he touched, because what I had asked for was so small, so insignificant a sketch that it was on the backside of another sketch. With reluctance and a deep respect, I turned it over with the very tip of my finger.
“Three drawings overlap in 3 different mediums- pen, pencil & cont or sienna. It must be real as I can see the texture of the paper & it’s drawn on both sides. I study the strokes, how hard he pressed and when he lifted lighter. I feel the power of his strokes & the commitment to the subject & the paper. I have picked a study piece. And I try to feel what he felt as he drew.”
This was a day when time stood still, a moment brought forward, a gesture, a thought. In painting and drawing, there is technique, yes, and then there is a primal response to a particular time and place, to materials, to the subject, captured. It's that authenticity that makes me cry.