Golden Legend, Holy Bible, Vasari and Others

On the top shelf of what is more or less a guest room, overlooking the valley below, The Golden Legend and the Holy Bible sit side by side. Not far away is Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and a dictionary of art terms. You might think this black-bound bible – now why is it always bound in black? – is an unusual book for someone who grew up without religion of any sort to have in her library. Yet it is an old friend and its voice comes through clear.

My dear child, what I have to say has its roots in the distant past and you are not asked to believe it all literally just as you are not asked to believe the stories of saints in The Golden Legend. Remember when you were in the third grade and naively argued with a playmate when she said that God was everywhere and you countered with the fact that one couldn’t see him. The teacher used to start off the day reading a page from me. You particularly liked the twenty-third psalm for its poetry. And later, since you went into art history, how could you not know of the stories I had to tell, of Christ and Mary and Moses and Joseph. Remember the vision of the twenty-four elders?  Most of my readers probably don’t know it at all. But you do because you can see yourself sitting on a bed with Leo as he explains it to you. So much of the art that we know is based on what is written on my pages, as well as on those of my companion, the Golden Legend.  It’s hard to imagine what the great artists through the centuries would have painted if I hadn’t been around.

I’m sure Vasari agrees. After all, he sits right next to you. Yes, I know Vasari, you were the founder of art history, giving us the lives of your contemporary artists and of some that came before. Not that you always give proper due to some of them and definitely have your favorites. Let’s say you were at times rather prejudiced and it took generations for other scholars to recognize their real worth and place in history.

Whatever we may think, no other book has been as important as the Bible in the way in which Western civilization evolved. Of course if I were to get into other cultures, well, they each have their own story. Mine however is European – even though you, Bible, didn’t play such a large part in my upbringing. Yet all of you, dear books, reflect me and my life.

You, dear Bible, are certainly full of fantasy, even though some take you literally as truth. Other books are pure fantasy but remain alive as reality in my mind. Of course you are on another shelf in another room but somehow you books are all related. Take Dino Buzzatti and the The Tartar Steppe. Strange how one falls in love with some of these chance encounters. Not sure how I discovered you, Dino,  but your observations of timbers creaking during the night in the inn where your young liutenant stopped on his way to his first assignment somehow makes me think of when I was a young girl on the farm,  lying awake at night and listening to the wind rustling through the branches of the enormous hickory tree in front of the house, or the pitter patter of mice or squirrels under the roof tiles, or the beams creaking as they settle in for the night.  I must ask you, Lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, as you wait in vain for that last glorious battle, whether you truly expect the Tartars to arrive. “They are coming,” you answer, “can’t you see that line of black dots, like ants, slowly advancing? We must defend the fortress”. Yes, you believe just like some believe in the stories in the Bible.

And you, Tabucchi, my children certainly read you way before I knew you even existed. But now I keep returning to your reflections where you take paintings as your point of departure. Fra Angelico and those strange angels. The Multipla Seicento that reminiscences on her past, when she was a true family car, as she prepares to be euthanized. Which of your books shall I turn to next? How many of your stories are there waiting for me to discover them? 

Sometimes you may be strange bedfellows, as they say. Reality and fantasy – where is the borderline between the two? Tabucchi you rather vie with Calvino whose titles take one to unknown lands. The Baron in the Trees – now what kind of story could that refer to? Or best of all there is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – I want to accompany that traveler to find out what he is doing – but then find myself lost in a labyrinth of possibilities. Perhaps you do provide a clue, Calvino, when you tell us to keep in mind the various styles of writing throughout the centuries for they have been paraphrased here. And how about your Invisible Cities, which may very well have been my introduction to you. I have read you in English and in Italian and admire William Weaver, your translator, no end. There are parts of Invisible Cities which seem descriptions of Orvieto and I always quote them to students newly arrived here. Reading your books makes me realize how delightful this profession is, how satisfying when you find just the right word.

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