This month I had the great fortune to travel to Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. This marvelous stroke of good luck was sponsored by a company–sending a friend of mine on business, and me as a lucky and grateful plus one.
Honestly, I didn’t think much about if the trip would change me. I was too busy tying up loose ends at home and preparing for the trip to think about it. And finishing a large commission for a restaurant, curating an exhibition, and exhibiting a show of my own at the hospital all had me busy to the point of distraction right up until the night of.
We began the long journey to Switzerland the next day–a taxi ride, and a 7 hour flight, two hour train ride, and another taxi. We arrived at night, tired and jet lagged, and didn’t get a chance to see the full impact of the city until the next day. We were staying in Bern, Switzerland, what is called the city of fountains, for its hundreds of preserved and working fountains found throughout the city. From where we were staying, you could see the Swiss Alps rising above the green hills beyond the rooftops, the river winding through and reflecting the sky as it has for centuries. From the rose gardens you could see the red clay rooftops of the city pile up on each other in neat, twisty rows, little tendrils of smoke wafting up into the sky. It was brisk weather, but enjoyable–I spent hours painting the landscapes from the gardens, and down in the city, the cathedrals. What I found the most interesting about each of the places we visited was the way that they felt. Each country, and even city, seems to have its own unique flavor and culture, a mood that you get walking through it. I noticed how the Swiss acted: they were quiet, but seemed happy, not an especially boisterous people, but with a great deal of personal dignity. Talking with some of the citizens there, most of the people seemed extremely happy with their life, and happy with thier government. For all its gingerbread, fairy-tail beauty, though, Bern was a practical city. People in suits rushed about during the day, and the tourists were not obvious. It was not particularly artsy, either, at least as far as I could see. There seemed to be a celebration of commerce in modern life, and art was mostly relegated to the museums and postcards, a historical novelty. I did happen across one particularly wonderful exhibition in a gallery tucked out of the way–an Asian influenced artist, Tran Phuc Duyen, who recently died, leaving an attic full of undiscovered works. He lived in the attic of a castle within Bern for forty years of his life, sponsored by a wealthy patron, working in gold leaf resin. His early works were detailed and magical, his later works, inspired by meditation, were simple, stunning, luminescent.
Venice was the next stop. When first coming off the train and seeing my first glimpse, I thought I must be looking at a painting, or a movie set. This place couldn’t possibly be for real. It was too ornate, to unbelievable, sitting over the turquoise waters with its arches and parapets. But it was real, and as we rolled our luggage through the puddled streets, I realized that it was ALL like this, not just a small part. It truly felt like stepping back in time. A city built starting in the 5th century A.D., it was quite old, and you could feel the ancient history pressing in on you as you walk through: the windows that have seen a million things, good and bad, the revelers, the masked mobs, the wars, the loves, the corruptions. It was almost eerie how little in the place was modernized. For the few days we stayed there, I soaked up as much of the city as I could. There seemed to be endless things to see. The museums alone could take up a month of days. For me, the strongest impression came when I visited the Doge’s Palace (another name for their government) and St. Mark’s Basilica in one day. First, St. Mark’s Basilica–unbelievably ornate, with four marble horses perched atop its high balcony. When I stood inside, I felt as though a thousand years were housed there, in this church, and the heaviness of the feeling struck me. It was hard to breathe in there, and one felt a certain atmosphere of mystery. It was dark, the ceilings high and patterned with millions of reflective tiles, and yet the shadowy feeling was strong. I felt like Indiana Jones–like I might step on the wrong tile and a trap door would open up, or the bones of Mark the Apostle would be revealed (they are housed there on the altar). I can still go back there to that hushed, heavy atmosphere in my mind. It was there that I started to realize just how old the city was, and feel the weight of the ages on me.
In the Doge’s Palace, I went through the rooms not knowing what to expect. I went through room after room elegantly carved and painted, reading the plaques of what happened there, what bodies of government, and certain historical facts. One particularly interesting fact was that with certain jury bodies in Venice, everyone was required to wear masks. I had always thought of the Venice masks as more of a party, revelry-style accessory for fun, but to learn that government bodies used them for hundreds of years in order to protect the judges from identification, was fascinating. As I walked through the halls, I came across a small drawing of a fire that happened in the palace. It was drawn from the square, and showed fire coming out of the windows and buildings cracking and falling, and people running. It was so detailed and felt, that all of a sudden I realized that THIS HAD HAPPENED, not just in history books, but this city had a history of centuries and centuries before me. All these people had lived and died here, people like me, who worked and dreamed and loved and fought and hoped. I realized I was connected, like the people who had gone before me had lived, and had passed the baton to me, to you, to this living generation. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like my mind and body realized all at once how long history was, how many people had lived, and actually felt and realized it, not just knew it in my head. It’s as Lera Aurbach says in her book “Excess of Being”, “Time doesn’t change. Time stands still. We change. We pass. We are passing time.”
I was still wondering from this revelation as I wandered into the next room, and stared in awe. It was the most ornate, overly-decorated, mammoth of a room I had ever seen. The ceiling, even though it was high, seemed to press down on you, because of the amount of gold leaf, carvings, and paintings on it. I turned around and saw the staggeringly huge Paradise painting by Tintoretto, his last major work. I stood marveling at the magnitude and quality of the artwork surrounding me, and was humbled by the realization that this was done hundreds of years ago. Could we, with all of our mobile accessories and distractions and Netflix and computers and technology, come close as artists to the passion and dedication needed to complete such a task as this? Perhaps, it is because of this lack of distractions, that work like this could be completed with such intensity. And what will I, what will you do, to bring value to the human race as this has? The question I asked myself not harshly, but gently, for when much is given, much is required of us. We are blessed with a more cushioned life than most in the US in this century–longer lives, healthier bodies, more education, easier transportation and workload. What, then can we give back to others, to society, to make the world even better? This is the question I ask of myself, and of everyone else alive today, to make use of the time we have been given, while we hold the baton.
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