My Vaphio cup and memories
The Vaphio cup with its scene of the domestication of wild bulls. The one I have is of course a reproduction of the over 3000-year old original in the museum in Athens and is not gold and I doubt that any metal cleaner would make it look as if it were. I wonder where Carolyn got it, for she is the one who gave it to me when she handed on her teaching at Gonzaga in Florence. My husband Mario, who had been her professor in archaeology, had died a couple of years earlier, leaving me with two children to take care of. Carolyn, the first of many students who had stayed with us and worked on his dig, had finished her studies in Florence and couldn’t wait to go elsewhere.
I remember the day I went to Palazzo Antinori for the interview. I had to wait a while for the director to be free and wandered around in the library. A good library, but I was nervous and was dripping sweat by the time we had our chat. However the interview went fine, yes, I’m healthy, no I don’t have to worry about my children if I’m away a couple of days, yes, I can take the train, or drive from Orvieto, art history? That’s what my masters is in from Columbia. Of course it wasn’t that kind of art history but Carolyn had given me her course notes and I figured I could manage. Which I did, staying up till midnight at home to prepare my lectures and slides. I had to bone up on periods in art I had never studied before. If I had to do it now, how differently I would approach the subject. I taught several semesters although I was never as mesmerizing a teacher as Carolyn. It was when she left Florence, left that part of her life, that she gave me the Vaphio cup, a sort of talisman. And that was almost fifty years ago.
The Vaphio cup. And Mycenae. The year we went to Greece. My second husband’s son and daughter, me and my two boys, and Alessandro who was afraid of sleeping alone even though he was in the last year of high school. Then there was the Petrangeli family, Valentino and Rossana and their son Luigi and the turtle Valentino had picked up but then fearing the gods might not approve had set it free on one of the islands. All to be lifelong friends, although now it is only the younger ones who are still around. Claudio was perhaps 17. He was overwhelmed when we got to Mycenae and sat by himself on the hill, looking out over the olive groves and fields, site of the kingdoms of the ancient Greek heroes. How small their worlds were! I thought then that perhaps my son was destined to be an archaeologist, to follow in his father’s footsteps.
In one way or another the Vaphio cup kept turning up. One year Claudio, in university by then, asked if he could borrow it. He and other students were working on a dig in Cannicella on the slopes of Orvieto. They wanted to play a trick on the young woman in charge, not their usual professor but a greenhorn, and plant it together with pottery shards for her to “discover”. Would she have been taken in? I don’t quite remember how it went, but I’m sure they told her it was not for real before she made a fool of herself.
After that my reproduction of the cup was returned to its site on a windowsill next to a medieval pitcher, where it remained until I moved from the country to town, waiting for me to resuscitate the memories triggered by this gift from Carolyn.
The cup. Any object. Any object whatsoever. Or it could be a song, or a word. They all serve as launching pads to the past, to a store of experiences and memories. True, an object has a life of its own, a story to tell. But even those stories have to do with others. Interactions. An object is never isolated from its context. And in the case of my Vaphio cup and its story here in Orvieto I am part of that context. What would the cup be without me writing about it?