New York City, at seven a.m. on a Sunday, is one of my favorite experiences in life. It’s like that girl you always wanted to talk to, but never could because you’re always with her in large groups of people- and then you finally get the chance to steal away to a quiet place. I’m sitting at the Grey Dog cafe on University Place, sipping a coffee, staring out the window- a scene so picturesque, I feel like I’m in some corny movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But it really is that nice here, on a crisp autumn morning.
It’s the Washington Square Outdoor Show, and I’m back in the city showing my paintings. I’m sitting here, pondering how today might go.
But, there’s another story that’s swimming in my mind. I have no reason to connect it to this blog, except that this morning has elicited similar feelings in me, feelings I had on a day three and a half years ago in Florence. A feeling one gets in a city empty of tourists, if only for a moment.
A sea of tourists had just passed through the city of Florence, and like all good hostesses, Florence had accomodated them with a cordial smile and entertaining small talk. But, high tourist season was over, and like any good hostess, Florence breathed a sigh of relief and bolted the door behind the last Rick Stevens tourist to leave her dining room.
So the city was empty, and I was walking around with my palette and easel. I set myself up in an alleyway around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio. As I mixed the paints and watched the alleyway take shape on my canvas, I began to realize that this was “one of those paintings.” Things were just working out, from the very first strokes. I was pleased. This wasn’t a pretty painting, in the typical Tuscan vein. There was grit from diesel engines on the wall of the alleyway, walls were cracked and peeling. But there was a medieval street chapel in the middle of all of this, and the light hit in a particular way. The scene was incredibly beautiful.
A man came up and watched me paint for some time. After five minutes or so of observing, he exclaimed (in Italian) “Brilliant, I love it, well done. How much?” Many people will ask me similar questions, but seldom do they do anything. I gave him a rather high price, as I didn’t really believe that he would buy it, nor was I willing to part with it for a low price. He said, on the spot, “SOLD. Come to my house. It’s right there. Signore Mazzini is my name.” And then he pointed to one of the doorfronts on my canvas. “That’s your house? It’s beautiful.” “Yes, it is. You painted it well. The building is believed to be fourteenth century. Come by when you are finished, and I will buy your painting.”
The man was old, and I watched him slowly trudge up the hill, using the cracked plaster walls to steady himself.
One hour later, I knocked on his door. “Chi c’e? (Who’s there?)” “L’artista.” “AAAAH, veni, veni, veni (come)!”
His apartment overlooked the whole city of Florence, with the Arno crawling underneath his windows. The walls were covered with art, from fourteenth century wooden panel paintings, to sketches by either Pietro Annigoni or his contemporaries. On these paintings, the frames alone were works of fine art- hand carved wood, with rubbed gold leaf. The pottery looked ancient, and his household utensils looked like museum pieces. I was so flattered to even have made this man pause in his footsteps. This was one of those secret Florentines, the people who you always dream of meeting, but never get the chance. They are nearly impossible to befriend- they survive the tourist culture by a defense mechanism of detached elitism. And here I was, in Signore Mazzini’s dining room. He had prepared a beautiful spread of food and wines- Tuscan and Neapolitan meats, cheeses, olives.
His wife stayed in the kitchen the whole time, preparing dishes. (She’s happy there, Signore Mazzini told me.) In his home, at his dining room table, Signore Mazzini transformed into an extroverted entertainer. He spoke no English whatsoever, and so I had the opportunity to hear him paint his many stories and life tales in his colorful Florentine dialect. He was so curious where I came from, where I learned to paint, why I chose his street. He wanted to know what New York was like, he hadn’t been there for decades. He wanted to know why we declared war in a desert in the middle east. He was thrilled to see me painting in the vein of naturalistic painting which he thought was thoroughly dead. He had been an art dealer, and so this was his passion.
Conversation went on like this for two hours. In one of those rare events in life, we were able to talk as if we had been friends for a long time. As it was dark, and as Margaret was waiting, I had to say goodbye. Notwithstanding the Chianti and limoncello, we spoke for a short while longer, and said goodnight to eachother. He urged me to come back soon.
A few days later, I found out that my wife, Margaret, was pregnant. My head was spinning, and I found myself a short while later, with Margaret, on the Queen Mary II, heading back to New York.
I sometimes thought of Signore Mazzini as I painted in New York. I felt so bad that I never let him know that I had left the city.
A year and a half later, Margaret and I were back in Florence, with our little baby Liam. When Margaret was asleep in the apartment, I scooped up my little boy, and headed up the hill to Signore Mazzini’s house. I couldn’t wait to show him my little boy, ask him how things were, apologize for disappearing.
I rang the bell. Nothing. I rang again. Nothing. I rang again, and an old woman’s voice angrily said into the speaker “Chi e?” I explained I was the artist whose painting hung on her dining room wall, and would like to see Signore Mazzini. She paused, and said “Signore Mazzini… non e. Signore Mazzini… e morto.” He had died.
And so, if my kids are studying painting in Italy, and want to trace my footsteps there, I hope they read this story and somehow manage to get Signore Mazzini’s grandchildren to have them over for an entertaining dinner, and to possibly see a little painting of mine in the Mazzini dining room.