When his wife called from Paris, Adriano was sitting at a table in the dinette of their San Nicola home sipping Pernod and examining Dürer’s Melencolia 1. The lamp pointing at the framed engraving hanging on the wall in front of him was the only light on. The tenebrous depths of the rest of the room intensified his pleasant isolation from the world.
He jumped slightly when in the darkness a shutter banged. The familiar north wind suddenly began pounding against windows and doors, its blasts soon shaking the whole house. He turned his eyes away from Dürer to listen to the ferocious tramontana wind that he loved, nodded approvingly and took a distracted sip from a tall glass of Pernod.
From time to time he shifted his eyes from the engraving to contemplate his own shadowy reflection in the wall mirror hanging alongside the framed picture—gaunt face, pale forehead, lower lip projected, chicken neck, long hair and full beard, one slim arm lying stretched across the table. He thought he resembled an old portrait molded by time that had left a permanent melancholy in his eyes, in his reflection shiny like the eyes of the sad woman in the engraving.
For a brief moment Adriano had imagined that he was somewhere inside the art he was studying, inside the polyhedron, inside the sadness of the despondent woman with light eyes and the look of one mourning for the death of an angel. Yet even from that dreamy conceptual position inside the engraving, he still found the art psychologically disturbing.
Maybe it was a coincidence, he thought, that precisely at the moment he felt he was about to make some sense of one of the most puzzling works of art in existence, his art dealer wife telephoned to recite more of her existential fabrications … a reflection on the very art she profited from. The ring blasted him out of Dürer’s tumultuous sixteenth century atmosphere: melancholy woman, countless beings and objects scattered around her.
As ever more frequently, Margot was hysterical. Their Paris apartment had been ransacked … in broad daylight. And the idiotic concierge didn’t see a thing. ‘Thank God I wasn’t there,’ she yelled. ‘They took everything. Your computer. Our Bose radio stuff … and the Dürer engraving. Oh, I don’t yet know what all. We should call a condominium meeting and fire that spineless woman who never sees anyone come or go as she’s supposed to! I still think she’s receiving male clients in the backroom of her loge ... she’s… that bitch … she’s’….
‘No problem, Margot,’ he reassured her. ‘It’s all insured anyway, Tesoro. Just call the agent. His number is in the file. And please forget the concierge. She has to have some additional income … considering her miserable salary.’
‘Alors, en tout cas, I can’t possibly return to Rome tomorrow as planned. Unless, uh, well, I’ll call the agent and maybe fly out in the afternoon. Got to report it to the police first and then … and see ….’
‘And see to things,’ Adriano finished the sentence for her in the same dismissive way she always did. ‘Of course you do, Tesoro.’
‘Alors, à la prochaine, Cheri,’ Margot said, audibly relieved by his understanding.
‘Once the love of my life,’ he mused, ‘Margot is the personification of an effrontery to human intelligence.’ Adriano smiled painfully, but with the satisfaction of a clever man when he uncovers his wife’s betrayal. Then, automatically, he corrected himself aloud: ‘I AM A LYING SON OF A BITCH … for she still is the love of my life.’
It happened every time. Every time she went to Paris some disaster befell her and their pampered apartment overlooking Les Invalides and Napoleon’s cannons. Misadventures that happened only to her ... if they even happened. It’s her theatrical style of life, Adriano knew. The way she desires things to be become for her reality. Her cosmic world view.
Outside, the wind blew. Shutters banged. The whole house shuddered. Pensively he took a long drink of Pernod, then held the glass to the lamp and contemplated the cloudy and milky color it assumed when he added water.
Actually, he knew what was going on in Paris. She knew he knew and he knew she knew. Their relationship had become a charade that exhausted them both just to keep alive a spark of what once was. Though he was sick and tired of living so much alone in the Rome suburb while she did whatever she did in Paris, at times he still felt that tickle of desire for her. Especially now, after her phone call and the dream image of her of the night before. Of their spring meeting on Via del Corso seven years ago, she in her shortest miniskirt, in Rome researching the artist Masaccio for her dissertation and he the up-and- coming journalist … and three hours later they in bed in a Piazza del Pantheon hotel.
‘That is,’ he reminded himself, ‘the dream returned this morning at two a.m.’ Tired of work, tired of googling wildly, he’d thrown himself on the bed, stared at the ceiling, listened a bit to Brahms on the boom box, when in the first phase of falling asleep, in a sort of trance, more imagination than the dream he kept having, he again saw themselves as newlyweds, barely in their twenties, hand in hand on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum that Margot the arts graduate had so wanted to see. In the great entrance hall—now deep in the dream—just next to the ticket counters hung a row of copies of Melencolia 1. He counted ten copies ... maybe more. ‘But they’re not alike,’ she cried. People gathered around. The ticket seller wanted to be paid if Margot even looked at the prints. ‘Each one’s different. Fakes, Adriano. They’re all fakes. Where can we see a real Melencolia 1? There are only six in the world. But not here. Where oh where can we see one? Just one. Where?’ He woke in a sweat, gasping for air. He didn’t know where they could see a real one either.
Yet, he told himself, he too had other options. He didn’t have to play the eternal fool waiting for her. There were alternatives to Margot. He was not obligated to live alone, nor did his friend Raffaella have to live alone, either. She was there for him, only a few hundred meters away in San Nicola. He cared for her, too. Yes, he would go over to Raffaella’s place tomorrow morning. She had lots of comfort and solace to share.
But what held him to crazy Margot? Or was it that one thing in her? Her madness! He knew. And her ever present innocence about the most obvious situations which prompted her childlike fibs. Yes, it was that, too. The quality, Adriano believed, without which no person was whole.
A gust of wind again shook the house.
He took another drink of milky Pernod.
Adriano grimaced in a sudden sensation of Schadenfreude for Margot’s situation. Well, let her work things out. Come and go as she likes! The fundamental problem, he concluded as many times before, was that Margot was a pathological liar. From the start her attempts to be many persons in one had misled them both. The problem with Margot was Margot. A month ago he’d brought back to Rome the Bose audio set, his Paris computer, as well as her framed copy of Melencolia 1 that he was now trying to interpret for his weekly magazine column. And she hadn’t even noticed the absence of her beloved masterpiece. Her non-presence at the apartment at Les Invalides was so conspicuous.
Now, however, his fascination with this small engraving so packed with symbols—weighing scales, a 4x4 magic number square, a sad putto, a sleeping dog, a hand saw—drew him back to the gaze of the unhappy woman staring at the block of wood in the shape of a polyhedron. Dürer’s woman is sitting with her chin in her hand, her arm propped on a knee, her eyes sharp but despondent which again reminded him of Margot. She has angel’s wings. And with a ladder standing behind her reaching toward heaven. She is sitting there as people with afflicted minds do, people carried away by absurdities. But that strange block of polished wood thwarts her desire to climb the ladder to heaven. The three dimensional polyhedron with sharp edges and corners and flat face that stares back at her … stared at Adriano as well.
The unhappy woman’s melancholy shines forth: if the great artist that was Dürer put it in this engraving it must be significant. Abruptly, Adriano saw it again. He jumped to his feet and leaned closer to the picture when all at once the face of the polyhedron looking straight at him seemed transformed. The geometric face had metamorphosed into the face of many-sided, egocentric, closed-on-herself Margot ... the same gleam in her eyes as in Dürer’s melancholy woman, the same sensuous resistance of her body, her hair free and uncontrolled.
In recent times Adriano had begun to see more clearly into the dark side of his wife, the shadow in her that wouldn’t let her go … or that she wouldn’t let go. He didn’t know which. But it was there. He knew it was always there, the shadow. During the first two or three years of their togetherness he’d been only vaguely aware of that obscure side of her. But as time passed her dark side had ploughed its way forward, emerged, and now seemed to dominate both their lives. Moreover, the shadow had tried—with some success, he admitted—to suck him too into its orbit.
Although Margot’s shadow looked out at him from the polyhedron, in no way whatsoever could he link Margot’s real life image to the melancholic woman inside the artistic enigma. Most certainly Margot was not Dürer’s unhappy winged angel. His Margot was not an angel. Nor was she depressed. So why did he see her there? Had he misread his Margot? Or Dürer?
And also there was that number 1 to confuse matters: Melencolia 1. Many interpretations of its meaning existed: number one of a series of engravings, the first of three types of melancholy, the first of the four temperaments, And the one Adriano had settled on, the number 1 stands for nigredo, the first stage of the alchemical process, the blackness that alchemists considered the first step in the pathway to the philosophers’ stone—the most sought after goal in alchemy in Dürer’s times—the legendary substance that turns base metals into gold, the elixir of life, perfection, immortality, and heavenly bliss. And Dürer included the ladder to get there.
It happened that in that period Adriano was reading the psychoanalyst Mario Trevi’s book, Controlled Invasions, struck by the analyst’s words that not everyone who suffers is necessarily depressed. ‘Like Job,’ the Jungian wrote. ‘In all his suffering, Job was not depressed; he was unhappy, yes, but not depressed. He was unhappy because he felt abandoned; despite wife and friends, he felt alone.’ And Job, the writer noted, became wise and lived unhappily to an old age. Trevi reminded Adriano of Dostoevsky who wrote in Crime and Punishment that pain and suffering are inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart and that great men must have great sadness on earth.
Now Adriano was both depressed and unhappy. And his Margot said the same of him as did Job’s wife: Adriano was sad without reason; he enjoyed success in his work, was praised in the intellectual world and had a beautiful French wife. Yet one question in particular plagued Adriano and it concerned Dürer’s work, the primary reason he’d carried the engraving to Rome: Can melancholy be linked to creativity? Some art historians think so. For Adriano too the light eyes of Dürer’s female figure reflected the value of artistic creativity. But then he also concluded that if most creative people experience inexplicable melancholy, that doesn’t mean that every person who experiences melancholy is creative. Adriano’s fear was that he belonged to the latter.
‘That must be why I hold onto concrete things. The things of life that offer salvation.’ He looked around him. The unused computer from their Invalides apartment. The photograph of their kitten who’d vanished. A black and white photo of a beggar in the Santa Novella station in Florence. A Dutch-Spanish dictionary. A boom box he’d taken with him on a trek in the Alps when he was eighteen. An African face mask he’d acquired in Mali.
‘Some of my things vanish,’ he mused. ‘But other objects remain. Perhaps destined to remain ... so that I can pass them down to my heirs. I hold onto those things, the objects whose destiny though different from mine are also me.’ Yet he thought it’s paradoxical that while I crave for the old things of the normal, I may submit to a new-normal that could permanently deny me any chance of ever returning to the old-normal I long for.
Again reviewing the things around him, Adriano concluded that foreign agents, agents outside our control, agents with their own vested interests—politicians, media, businessmen—construct our reality, much as a film-maker makes a movie or a writer constructs a book or as an artist designs an engraving. They guide our gaze in certain directions and not others. What we think of as “the real world”, the “normal” world, is almost entirely manufactured for us. Clearly our attention is the plaything of others. That “real world”, as it is presented to us, is merely a set of political, economic and social priorities that have been devised for us.
Turning back to the engraving he jerked himself out of his contemplations and realized that despite the stillness in the woman’s melancholy, total chaos reigned in the scene just as it did in his own scene. In the darkness behind him the wind raged. Shutters slammed. The house shook. A glance in the Mexican mirror reflected his own blanched eyes. And again his restless gaze stopped on the mysterious light source illuminating the whole engraving now in movement, especially the melancholy woman’s gleaming eyes. Then, as each time, he zeroed in on the banner born by a bat-like creature and spelled aloud the word Dürer had inscribed on the banner: ‘M e l e n c o l i a’, still followed by that enigmatic number 1.
Margot counted the bronze cannons aligned along the moat in front of Les Invalides. ‘Twenty!’ she exclaimed. ‘The same as last time.’ The cannons had fascinated her since she heard them fired as a greeting to the new President of her country. And she’d studied the history of the cannons positioned practically under her front windows: sixteen captured from the Ottomans, three Chinese, one from Indochina, most of them bearing the inscription ultima ratio regum, the last argument of the kings.
She shrugged, turned away from the window facing the Esplanade and began another inspection of the third-floor apartment that she loved passionately. If only Adriano would agree to living here! Their problems would be resolved. He could forget that silly Raffaella affair and she wouldn’t need arrogant Lucien anymore.
“Quel bordel we’ve created in our lives,” she muttered just as Lucien appeared from the bedroom, buttoning primly his perfect jacket, which somehow irritated her more than she was at herself for her weakness of character.
‘Bonjour, Lucien,’ she said sarcastically.
‘Bonjour, Margot, bonjour’, the tall, good-looking man said joyously.
‘And au revoir until the next time,’ she added, the first realistic words she’d spoken to him that morning. ‘You know, Lucien, I don’t love you any more than Adriano loves that Italian woman.’
‘So why continue?’
‘You know why,’ she admitted. ‘You know my … uh, you know me well.’ Too well, she thought.
For Margot, sex was the problem. She didn’t even like perfectly dressed Lucien or his snobbish friends. But he did introduce her to his rich friends who became her clients. Sloppy and careless Adriano couldn’t care less about his dress and made his best friends among plumbers and electricians and carpenters. She loved that in him. Their common problem was that Adriano needed “creativity” more than he did sex. For him, she knew, his Raffaella was merely a sounding board for his mad ideas.
A normal life together here at Les Invalides would bring some balance into their abnormal relationship. For she loved Adriano and she was sure he loved her. They had a past together. Common goals. Yet normality was not the issue either. The real issue was that after their seven years together she still didn’t know if he was mentally deranged or if he just chose to be … living in his own fixations.
Lucien put on his dark blue cap in his self-satisfied manner, opened the door, turned, and said: ‘By the way, where is that Dürer engraving that hung there next to window so long? A friend told me it was quite valuable and that he himself would buy it for 500,000 euros.’
‘Insane! A half million for the copy of a print I bought from a bouquiniste near the Pont Neuf for fifty euros. And now you tell me it’s real! Do you really think so, Lucien? I bought that one simply because I like it … and even had it framed. Do you think it’s really worth … why, of course if it’s an artist’s copy it’s worth many millions. Even a copy of one of the handful of prints the artist made is worth a lot more than that half million. And I thought it only had sentimental value! Now some fucking burglar has it and doesn’t even know what he has in his hands … he probably took it only because it’s framed.’
She remembered that the Met once had hundreds of copies of Dürer’s Melencolia 1. Copies of other copies of copies that is. Museum store stuff. But the number of real copies in the world seemed reduced to the ten of Adriano’s dreams or more likely to zero. ‘Oh, if they would all vanish except mine. As the last one extant it would truly be worth millions. Why, the world’s great museums would all bid for it. Still, authentication is always a problem.’
She knew that impressions of the print change as the printing plate is repeatedly sent through the press. Adriano had suggested that Dürer’s printing plate wore down and impressions just got lighter and lighter until the cutting no longer existed. Still, no one knows how many impressions Dürer was able to make! It was true that in her copy—a copy of a copy of a copy of some museum copy, she’d always believed—there was a strong horizontal scratch on the saw lying in the foreground under the sad woman’s feet, a mark in the printing plate itself that occurred later in the printing. She wondered if that scratch gave her copy some legitimacy.
‘Neither in heaven nor on Earth,’ Adriano had said poetically. Margot loved him for that quality. But that familiar scratch now seemed like proof that this could be a genuine copy of a master print; that son-of-a-bitch Lucien’s information made sense.
Two a.m. No pleasant thoughts to soothe his seething mind occurred. No Metropolitan Museum memories returned. No trips this year to the Cinque Terre where he always found peace and inspiration. Melencolia 1 kept bobbing to the surface. Might as well make my own magic square, he thought. A 4x4 like Dürer’s. If he could do it so easily I should be able to figure it out with time. Try number 25 as the goal. Row one horizontal: 7-5-9-4=25. First vertical column 7-6-8-4=25, then the rest. But the numbers of the diagonals are another story. Palindromes of words you can read from either direction are simple in comparison. Ah, those diabolical diagonals! Now how the fuck did he do it? Well, first of all, Dürer was a genius. Or he hired a numerical genius to plot it for him. But no. A cheap solution like that was for the herd. That was an age when a genius was a giant. They didn’t go for specialists who did only one thing. No stooping to shortcuts. No gaslighting the public. No false deeds. Anyway, the rows and columns are regular. A piece of cake. Got to work on the diagonals. They’ll get you every time.
‘So what the fuck’—he said aloud in English, imitating his rough-speaking wife who loved that international phrase—‘what the fuck can I do with our framed Melencolia 1?’ First: a burglar allegedly stole it. Second: if she can prove it has value, there will be a settlement. Third: Nah, she can’t prove it. No one can. Authentication of art work is complex. Big money moves that world. And I don’t believe it’s worth much anyway. It’s just a copy like those we saw at the Met that time. Jamais de la vie a half million. And who cares? We’ve got enough. It’s only money. Better to get our lives in order.
In any case Signor Dürer, your puzzling work can’t stay here. You don’t know my Margot. And you never know with her. She comes home tomorrow still thinking the burglar in Paris stole it and she reported the theft of a valuable artwork to the insurance agent. So I can’t leave it here on the wall … even if the engraving is worth no more than the price of its frame. So for now I’ll stash it away and someday it can resurface. Willy-nilly, as she likes to say.
That night an image of Margot walking into their house in San Nicola flashed across his eyes. She stops in confusion, then explodes in a fury at the sight of the engraving hanging next to the magic Mexican mirror, Adriano leapt from the bed and to his surprise found that he was still fully dressed. It was nearly three a.m.
A gust of tramontana again shook the house.
He ran down the stairs barefoot, downed a half glass of Pernod straight, unhung Dürer’s masterpiece, and stopped to contemplate his shadowy self in the cracked mirror grimacing back at him. Raffaella was in for a surprise: she was about to become the keeper of a copy of a copy of a copy of the legendary Melencolia 1.