We arrived in Rome on a Tuesday. On Wednesday we visited Edith Schloss, my mother’s boyfriend’s mother. She was part of the New York School of painting in the 50’s, when New York City was first beginning to be known for art. Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock were changing the definition of abstraction by studying gesture in painting. Edith, a woman of about 87, wore shades of orange, pink, and blue. Her hair was cut in an efficient bob. Every word she spoke was infused with a profound love for art. She told us stories of the artists she knew, yes, but at the core of her reminiscences and arguments lay a primordial perspective on creativity itself, and the creative process, the depth of which revealed a lifelong dedication.
Her apartment was made up of a kitchen, living room, and a smaller bedroom linked by a long dark hallway that held three windows facing the court. She led us down this hallway to a closet where she produced cut outs of levitating gods making love. Not many people know this work of hers. Not many people know her work at all. Women didn’t get shown like that when she was young. The dusty room in the presence of simple, non-gravitational cut-outs was transcendent. The kitchen was full of old ceramic dishes painted with thick brush of pastoral scenes.
I got feverishly sick the first of our trip to Rome. My mother got in a fight with her boyfriend-at-the-time. Despite all, we forged out to tour Rome’s museums. This was hopelessly draining, especially for an invalid. But if you are going to be anywhere, you may as well be at a museum, regarding sculptures in a stupor. A marble man sat in indignant contemplation with a nymph galevanting on a pedestal behind. You are in a daze watching this until you realize you’re sliding down a wall and a man yells at you in Italian so you have to pop up really fast. But maybe he wasn’t yelling at you in the first place. Maybe he was just an Italian guy. But it’s too late now because your mother and her boyfriend are already rambling out of the room. You lunge to follow them, past the headless and armless maidens. And you wonder to yourself if this is all a dream.
The Villa Borghese is a park that is shaped like a heart, with lakes, fountains, and gardens. A heart shaped park in Rome is a joke: too aware of itself, lying embarrassingly like an open organ in that Northern section of Rome. It was a Thursday between Christmas and New Years when we drove to the Villa. My cold had subsided. I was only hacking up lemon colored goop that lined my lungs.
There was a boy who I had fallen in love with, but I left him in Paris. I was good at being lovesick. However, I believe I knew the fragility of his affection at the time. When you see stories you connect with, you can help yourself. But not until then. We went to the museum in a decadent baroque mansion called the Galleria. Like many places in Rome, it held a vast amount of sculptures of the specific Greek myth category: gods and goddesses galavanting. The steps up the Galleria were opaque white marble lined with veins of dark grey. A rough looking man with a curved back told us we had an hour to tour the building. Within the Galleria lay room after room of velvet chairs and sculptures, vaulted ceilings, and paintings. The sculptures were pocked throughout, each an explosion of white against the deep baroque colors.
There was one room with a single Bernini in the center. The sculpture was derived from the tragic myth of Apollo and Daphne. The story goes that the God is enamored with the nymph whose advances she abhors. In his adoration he chases her, as she runs she appeals to her father, a river god, for help. He responds so that the moment Apollo overtakes her, she unfurls into a tree.
The sculpture portrays the young nymph in mid step, her fingertips and hair becoming branches and leaves, while her toes and feet are beginning to protrude into the ground. Apollo’s arm is wrapped around her middle, he has caught her, and yet... From one angle she is already a tree, from another angle she is still mostly in human form. The tension and sensuality of this moment reveal a waning hope for Apollo. The figures are expressive as dancers, her arms raised above her head in horror and shock as she transforms before our eyes. Yet there is a deep sadness in her change. She has been taken too far. His lust for her was the last she will experience.
The most evident analysis of this chase is the story of a sexual assault, from which a woman will be forever changed. But the tragedy can be taken apart in a couple of different ways. From a fundamental point of view, it is a woman’s dismissal of ownership by a man and the punishment therein. She is the female version of Peter Pan. The pubescent woman denies men until she becomes a tree. Her own convictions have led her to a hard heart, and rough skin. Ironically, it is her father who turns her into the tree (Freudians can go to town, I’m not adding fuel to this fire).
From a young man's perspective, the chase is the experience of lust, and once grasped, the woman becomes inanimate, undesirable. She is like a dream to him. Most of us know that sometimes men who dream eventually wake up alone in a forest of their previous desires.
I felt like a plant in a heart shaped park in Rome, blossoming like the rose next to me, only I didn’t know it, because the process was so involved. I think sometimes you’re meant to feel alone. I was a ripe young woman of 20. The garden was glorious, even in the Italian winter. Unfortunately, we are on the opposite end of the rise of an Empire, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Obama was president. And all of Europe was about to face and interesting series of events. But no one could see any of this, and if they did, all I cared about was a specific kind of longing that only a person in their early twenties can undergo (and they do – bless you if you are in your twenties, you are a wild creature).