Gaither Stewart

Fruity Summer grins his silly grin and looks off in the distance, berries on his head and an artichoke in his lapel. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s name is inscribed on his collar, the date 1563 on his shoulder. I was staring at the colorful reproduction I had studied for years. A procession of wild thoughts filed through my mind – poetry, great canvases and crashing music. I still have the hope of someday blending the arts.
     I was searching in the famous painting inspiration for the creation of the pièce de résistance for my new collection, which this year should guarantee me the exclusive contract for the entire jewelry line of the famous Rome stylist, Adriana. 
     I consider myself an artist. Each of my jewelry creations is a work of art. The secret reason for my success, I believe, is because I envisage my necklaces as paintings. And colors, I am convinced, contain a celestial music. I believe in the existence of a musical necklace. I haven’t yet found it. But I know it’s there. It just has to be uncovered. That’s why I study and even dream of Arcimboldo.
     “What the fuck are you doing, figliolo,” my father Romano suddenly asked, peering over my shoulder at the art book on my work table and, as he does every day toward noon, putting a shot glass of cold grappa in my hand. His breath was heavy with its usual late morning mixture of garlic and grappa.
     “Plagiarizing Arcimboldo, are you?” he said.
     The bearded man, with his famous long silky gray hair, put a firm hand on my shoulder, and said, “Have a drink and then take a look at Autumn instead. Its colors are richer … and more inspiring.”
     I looked up at him in surprise. Arcimboldo was the major source of my creative ideas that swam around all winter, inchoate in my head. I knew backwards and forward the story of that mad genius. Each year when I began my new collection I turned to the same Arcimboldo catalogue. Creating a piece of jewelry, I believe, has a close affinity with painting and thus, as Arcimboldo believed, also with music. But where had my wandering father picked up that information?
     “You know Arcimboldo, do you?” I said, and drank off the grappa. Only since my father’s return had I begun allowing myself a morning drink. Admittedly I was easily led into temptation; but I had the excuse that it was not only because I am an artist, but also because of heredity.
     “Well, you’d have to see the originals in the Louvre to appreciate the colors in the Seasons series…. Maybe I never told you that I once worked for a summer in the Louvre, in a section near old Giuseppe Arcimboldo. We became good friends.”
     He slapped me on the back and burst out into a loud laugh that quickly turned into a hoarse cough. He cleared his throat several times. I heard the phlegm roaming around in his chest.
     It’s all that wine, I thought. Yet my prodigal father never ceased to amaze me. What has he not done in his years of wandering! From Hamburg to Teheran, from San Francisco to Moscow, from New York to Paris, from Mexico to Odessa, from Macao to Aruba. According to him he has done everything, seen everything, speaks over ten languages – he says he has forgotten how many -- had women in every country, and above all, he claims, he has tasted every beer in the world.
     My father abandoned us when I was 12, but he regularly sent money and a letter to mother and me the first of every month. His poetic letters of over 30 years fill a whole cabinet in my studio. I believe they constitute an important literary work. When he returned to Rome six months ago, two decades after mother died, he brought a young woman with him. Marina is a good-looking and energetic Russian woman the same age as my wife, Angelica.
     Ours is a crazy household today. Vodka and grappa flow freely mornings and evenings and Russian language sounds up and down the stairs of our spacious house. Little by little Romano has occupied our lives.
     Sometimes the noise and the uproar, the music and dancing and the thumping of the bed from upstairs resound through the house. But I don’t care. I like it. So does Angelica. We prefer our new lives to the staidness of the old one. Marina, who grew up in Siberia, is already speaking Italian, so our dinners are usually like travels in exotic foreign lands.
     My father prefers to be called Ramón. He claims that his father called him by the Spanish name in memory of his 8 months in the International Brigade the Spanish Civil War. Angelica calls him Romano. Marina sticks to Ramón. I call him alternately Romano or Ramón, according to place or circumstance, which seems to satisfy him. Yet, I think just to confuse me about our relationship, he still calls me figliolo, son.
     I quickly came to adore this rowdy, undomesticated, untamable and unpredictable man. He’s not a father at all. He’s more a companion in arms. In these months we’ve become drinking companions and nocturnal urban wanderers.
     “You finished early today,” I said to him over my shoulder. He claims he is writing the story of his life and spends the morning hours in their rooms upstairs, refusing however to even look at his own letters. Water under the bridge, he says.
     “Early? I’ve already put in three hours. Six pages! All edited and cleaned up – except for all the foreign words! Got to learn to express myself clearly in Italian alone. Or maybe I could just write the whole story in whatever language pops into my head. I once met a German-Russian in Mexico City who did that. You had to know seven or eight languages to read it. Never sold the book but it was an interesting experience.”
     I don’t know if he makes up the stories he tells at the dinner table. Nonetheless the heterogeneous nature of his knowledge fascinates us. I suspect that the truth is that the old man just knows a little bit about many things and simply overwhelms his audience with quantity.
     Like last night at dinner just before we went out to a Testaccio jazz cellar. “Ironic,” Romano began another of his Rome anecdotes, “that none of Rome’s popular dialect poets were born in the heart of Rome – I mean in Trastevere, where by the way I lived as a boy.”
     “You lived in Trastevere!” I said. “I always thought you were from the north, Trieste or someplace like that.”
     “Oh, that was earlier – or later,” he said evasively. “Anyway Trilussa was born across the river. And also the great G.G.Belli – he used the poet’s initials in a non-Italian way – was born on the rive gauche.
      “But you would never guess who was born in Trastevere! None other than the famous French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. Yes, really. He claimed he was the son of a Vatican prelate and some people even believed he was the great-grandson of Napoleon. In reality he was the natural son of Angelica de Kostrowitzky – the daughter of a Tsarist emigrant in Rome – and Franz d’Aspremont, of a Swiss noble family and an officer in the Bourbon army in Rome…. That’s all neither here nor there, but Trastevere is in my blood.”
     “But when is your birthday, Romano? For once in my life I want to celebrate it with you.”
     “Ah, birthdays. So relative. So subjective. I think I told you that I was born on All Saints Day, November 1, 1941. Tout saint, c’est moi!”
     After making a few calculations, I exclaimed,” That’s ridiculous! I’m 48, so you would have become a father at … at 12 years old.”
     Romano frowned. “Well,” he said, “to tell the truth my father claimed I was born the day Madrid fell, on March 28,1939.”
     “But that would have made you only 14 when I was born!”
     “OK, OK, why should I hide it? Fortunately for the world I was born on October 29, 1929. In case you don’t know, that was the day the stock market crashed in New York – and Fascism began arriving in Europe.”
     He claims to have discovered the jazz band in Le Vieux Carré in New Orleans. We stayed in that Via Galvani cellar until the end at 3 a.m. All evening Ramón spoke Cajun French with the band, who gathered at our table during the breaks, drinking and laughing and inviting Ramón to sing one of their old French songs, which he did at about 2 a.m. after liters of wine and countless cognacs.
     You never knew with Ramón. For some reason he told the Cajuns with a perfectly straight face that he was a Canadian from New Brunswick and that he once worked out of New Orleans on a Russian cargo ship sailing under a Panamanian flag running guns to rebels in Guatemala.
     Maybe he did. More likely he had told the story so many times that he believed it himself. When I asked him bluntly if he was really a gunrunner, Ramón just laughed his hoarse laugh and sputtered, “life is spicier that way.”
     In the early afternoon that day, Romano retired to his rooms, for his usual two hours of reading, he said. I suspected the old guy was simply worn out after the late night, all that wine and his spontaneous stage performance, his busy morning, the matinal grappa, and a heavy lunch with lots of red wine.
     Today, I thought with relief, we’ll both have a long siesta.
     Instead at about 6 after I had slept soundly, Romano ran down the stairs shouting triumphantly “et voilá le collier musical.”
      “Barely audible, barely audible,” he said. “But if you listen to the colors you can hear the music. “Tang teng ting tong tung – tung tong ting teng tang. Ta ta ta taaa, ta ta ta taaa,” he hummed the bars of  Beethoven’s Fifth and spread the richly defined necklace in front of me across the pages of the Arcimboldo catalogue now opened to Autumn.
     “Chromatic perfection!” he shouted. “Oh excuse me, son, your face displays a bit of Katzenjammer!”
     I did have a slight hangover from the morning grappa and the long lunch. But I was getting used to having hangovers at strange times of day. I stared at the piece of jewelry. Incredible! It looked like a painting. It was the harmony of colors - the mature mild shades of brown, tan, beige yellow, gold, orange – the symmetry of grains, grapes, fall fruits, leaves and melons – the inventive combination of semi-precious stones, smooth plastic, soft metals – the natural fall from the shoulder line to the center like the musical theme running through Beethoven’s masterpiece.
     “Perfect harmony,” I muttered. I recognize genius when I see it. Then I saw it. “It looks like the face and figure of a woman.”
     “Now turn it upside down,” he said, “and tell me what it is.”
     “For Christ’s sake,” I said. “It looks like … like a waterfall or … no, it’s you, with your long hair and beard.” 
     “Like words become color,” Romano whispered, “color becomes images, color becomes music.”
     “You’re a complex man, Ramón. You should take over the design department here.”
     After a pause while I gaped at his creation, Romano broke into his usual hoarse laugh. “Ah, figliolo, it’s just a shutka, a little joke. I liked the idea of relating paintings and colors and sounds, but it’s not really serious. Despite symbolism and Baudelaire and Rimbaud and all the rest, I don’t believe for a minute that there is a correspondence between sounds and colors.”
     With my head in my hands, I turned toward Romano- Ramón.
     “Who cares about all that?” I said. I felt reckless. “Screw Baudelaire. Screw all the Symbolists. Poetry, painting, music! Fuck’em all. I just need a new necklace. This is it. This model will make us filthy rich.”
     Figliolo!” he said, perplexity written in his face. “You know what you should do? You should take a long trip. To Siberia or Tierra del Fuego or even New Orleans. The great secret is distance. Distance from what you’re looking for. Out on the road, look for the bizarre. For the bizarre leads you to the masterpiece. Then, like Arcimboldo, all you have to do is copy it in as many variations as you can come up with. That’s genius!”

© 2001 Gaither Stewart


Home  is where I long to be