to night

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Time Travel, by Way of a Tiny Painting


 MADRID — Crowds at the Prado, disgorged from tour buses, in couples and on private pilgrimages to the great art temple of Spain, jostle and murmur before Velázquez’s large and labyrinthine masterpiece “Las Meninas.” Guides with headsets preach with one eye toward the picture, the other on crowd control. Just around the corner, in a nearby gallery, a tiny landscape, paperback-book size, painted by Velázquez as a young man in Rome around 1630, shows the gardens at the Villa Medici. Few tourists pause or notice it.

It’s a summer scene, gazing from the ground up at a workman looking down from a rooftop at a pair of chatting colleagues, distractedly holding one end of a rope he has apparently dropped for them. He stands on a broad, low, whitewashed building with a large arched entryway blocked by scaffolding. Caught in the early morning light, the rope he has dropped glints like the silver thread of a spider’s web. It is almost imperceptibly fine. Draped absently over a balustrade, like bunting, a white sheet also shimmers in the sun, reflecting at intervals on the stonework like patches of spilled milk.
This is the picture I always go to see at the Prado, moved by those unearthly dexterous painterly touches, the most ingenious of which may be the evocation of faded stucco, which Velázquez managed by scraping away paint from the spandrels flanking the arch; underlying brickwork is implied by the natural weave of exposed canvas.
Art-historically speaking, the picture, “View of the Garden of the Villa Medici,” broke ground as an exercise in pure landscape, rare for Spanish painters during the early 17th century. The work is ostensibly about light and atmosphere, not gods or heroes or particular people. But all that seems rather abstract when I’m actually standing in front of it.
I find myself wondering instead what’s behind that scaffolding, as if maybe this time I’ll finally figure out how to peek through the boarding. Tall cypresses, nearly a dozen of them, slender but massive, towering in the background like a Greek chorus, hold their darkness as if close to their hearts, as Italian cypresses do, even in broad, high summer sunlight. This sight casts my mind back to the first summer I visited Italy and marveled at those trees and the umbrella pines that stood like ancient ruins in silhouette against the Tuscan sunrise.
I was on my own then, as a teenager, and fell in love. I fell in love with the great works of Italian art, with the joy of discovering them in shady churches and neglected museums, cool, silent retreats from the hot days, and it was as if a whole universe opened up just to me.
So that’s what the Velázquez summons up when I visit the Prado: that lost, first flush of youth and endless possibility, which now includes the memory of waking into the heavy, sweet morning air that smelled of rosemary and honeysuckle. Time seemed to stretch toward infinity back then, as it does for those idling workmen.
And I become grateful to Velázquez when I see his picture for causing me to retrieve those feelings, which arise as such things do unbidden but inevitably, the way certain sights or smells or people jog specific but not necessarily related memories. And for a few minutes the picture makes a ghost of the present, the crowds at the Prado evaporate, and even “Las Meninas” seems unimportant and far away.

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