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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Slip-sliding in Florence


My intent is to keep this column somewhere within the misty township of aesthetics. Today I was going to talk about #nostalgia, murky, turbulent, wonderful topic that it is. But that can wait.


My intent as well is to take my cue from the week I am in. And this has been a week of flagrant #friendship.


First, let me honor #Asheville. We do, we have the best circle of #friends anyone anywhere could hope to have. Bless this city and bless every other point on this earth where other friends live and from whence they write. I swear that I drank enough convivial coffee and beer last week to float a kayak.


But let’s deviate first–to #Leonardo da Vinci and to a renowned painting by him called #Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Lynne and I saw a thrilling exhibition in the Louvre seven years ago. The large painting had just been cleaned (a 12-year process); shown along with the painting was a cartoon (preliminary drawing) known as the Burlington House cartoon; a plethora of sketches by #Da Vinci and his assistants plus infra-red imagery disclosing the phantom layers hidden beneath the surface of the painting. The point, beside showing in full grandeur two of the master’s greatest works, in that hushed reverential atmosphere that only the Louvre can muster, was to illustrate something that Da Vinci himself called #componimento inculto–the intuitive, ever-inconclusive nature of #art, of #creativity itself.


Things change. A boyish St John the Baptist is displaced by a lamb. The Virgin Mary gets younger. The mountains bluer. All the while Da Vinci kept drawing, his #assistants, too, drew like crazy, taking–as one imagines–some quick directive, some verbal crumb, some impulse to emulate, and seeing where it went–very much like an artist now, sitting in a movie director’s board room, sketches a provisional story board almost on a dime. Like this, you mean?–Close, but not quite. Tom Cruise should be looking up. Here, hand me your pencil.–No, that’s totally wrong.


As I talk with my friends ideas #fray. Fixity melts into collaborative improvisation. I used to play racketball. I loved the erratic patterns of the ball. I love the erratic nature of conversation bouncing off the solidity of friendship.


I guess by “fray” I mean what Da Vinci meant by componimento inculto. A beautiful #indeterminacy, a dandelion #profusion of #possibilities you never would have glimpsed on your own, as between Da Vinci and his assistants, or between the installments of ideas within any artist’s own head. Coffee helps. God how you love what your friend just said.


OK, here’s a fraction of #nostalgia. Who can tell if some shy feather of my consciousness was floating around the #cafes of #Paris or Berlin or London when #John Ruskin, #Claude Monet, #Ernest Hemingway, #Samuel Beckett were drinking with friends? I sometimes feel, with an acute roil of nostalgia, that it was. #Conversation boiled. #Courbet was just so pissed off at the Beaux-Arts folks. OK, Courbet, stop whining. Yeah, you’re being shunned so put up a pavilion of your own. In #Paris, I haunted such of those cafés that still exist. I tried to pick out a dim jostle of voices. Virulent #isms usually start among friends.


Like Da Vinci’s biographer, #Walter Isaacson, I think that the preliminary #cartoon is actually more accomplished than his final painting. Funny thing–that painting was never given to the church that commissioned it; instead Da Vinci–being Da Vinci–kept it with him all of his life, never quite satisfied, always tinkering. Among all the joys of friendship, it is for this–this elliptical #slippage of talk, this lavish fraying, this ping pong game of conjecture–that I bow to all my friends this summer morning.

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