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Authors: David Macfarlane

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The Figures of Beauty

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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To Janice, Caroline, and Blake

Table of Contents


Title Page



Part One





Part Two













Part Three











Part Four









Part Five







About the Author

Acclaim for



About the Publisher


The sculptor’s work actually begins before the carving—it begins with the choice of the marble block



, M

, as it often is on such occasions. But eventually a subject brought things to life. It was the sideboard. Everyone had something to say about the walnut sideboard.

They’d all grown up with it. It was as familiar to them as a relative. It came from Milan. Or maybe it didn’t. Some were sure it could command a good price, although some were just as certain it wouldn’t. It was inherited from either a great-aunt whose maiden name nobody could now remember or one of their great-grandmothers, although which one and where she had lived was the subject of dispute. Their parents would have known.

It was heavy and dark and ugly—not out of place, exactly, but certainly unlike anything else in the scoured interior of that bright, modest home. When, as a young girl, I visited the Taglianis, I found the grimace of the upper drawers quite menacing.

The house had always been uncluttered and orderly and cleanly swept. It always smelled polished. But it had possessed
its own spirit. For many years it had been a cheerful, busy place, and for a few moments it was that brightness that returned.

Suddenly everyone was telling the stories that clung, however inaccurately, to the walnut sideboard. There were some arguments about the great-aunt’s second husband. Some stories had to do with a Bugatti he had to sell to cover his gambling debts. Some concerned a grandmother’s deafness. She had an ear trumpet. For a few moments the house came back to life.

There was even laughter. The wine helped, I suppose.

And then, just as suddenly, it stopped. The day’s glum presence returned. Until my mother spoke the room had fallen back to awkward silences.

The living room clock clicked above us like a muffled metronome. The kneeling figure of Mary on its face, the starburst of heavenly rays, and the spread wings of the white dove at eleven o’clock had always fascinated me as a child.

My mother did not share this enthusiasm. She was half-turned, regarding the clock and its dangling electrical cord with the distaste she reserves for the disasters of the modern age. Her arm was resting with the tentative weight of much the same disapproval on the highly varnished curlicues of a mustard-coloured settee. Her hair is silver now but as thick and wild as it was when she was young.

“You see,” my mother announced.

This was in the childhood home of my best friend. We’d been invited back with the family. Clara’s father had been lonely and miserable since the passing of his wife four years earlier. He had been sick for almost as long.

My mother hardly knew anyone there. But she addressed everyone in the room with a full voice. “You see,” she repeated, just to make sure everyone was paying attention to what she was about to say. “Death makes us happy.”

There were about a dozen people in the living room, most of whom were Clara’s older siblings, or the spouses of her older siblings, or the grown children of her older siblings. We had just come from the cemetery where, despite Mr. Tagliani’s ninety-four years, and despite the fact that his suffering, finally, was over, there had been a lot of crying. Some of the ladies were still becoming overcome with grief from time to time in the house, reaching for the linen handkerchiefs in their smart purses. My mother, whose name is Anna Di Castello, has a talent for the unpredictable.

She speaks with the confidence of someone stating the obvious. She is impatient with explication, believing it to be a diminishment of any statement it claims to support. Nothing irritates her more than a request to supply the meaning of something she has said or made or done. “It is what it is” is her usual response.

In this case, however, the speechlessness that greeted my mother suggested—even to her—that some elaboration was required.

“Stories are hidden in objects,” she explained to the silent room. She looked down at the calluses on her own rough palms as if to indicate that she could provide proof of this theory if necessary. “They are hidden like figures are hidden in stone. The dead leave stories for us to find because they know that telling them will cheer us up.”

The clock went
tick, tick, tick

My husband and our two sons had come to the funeral but not to the house after. They wouldn’t have known anyone other than Clara and Paolo, her husband. The gap in age between Clara and the rest of her family was sufficiently great that she had always seemed to be like me—an only child.

I grew up in an apartment in a house just a few doors down Via Maddalena from Clara. My mother, who has always been
stubbornly independent, raised me on her own. Anna Di Castello never knew her own parents, or her grandparents, or her aunts or her uncles, or her cousins. In the absence of much in the way of tangible family history, and in honour of her belief in artistic beauty, she named me Teresa after her favourite piece of baroque sculpture.

In fact, the baroque is not her favourite period. Michelangelo is the sculptor she most admires. But Michelangelo’s most beautiful female figures presented difficulties when it came to choosing a name for me. My mother is even less keen on the Vatican than she is on electric clocks and mustard-coloured settees. If forced to choose, however—and this was a line of inquiry I liked to explore with her when I was a little girl—it might be Michelangelo’s
in St. Peter’s that is her favourite piece of sculpture. But she wasn’t about to be the mother of a Maria.

A word people use frequently for my mother is “bohemian.” It’s a description she doesn’t like very much but does little to discourage.

Just as often, and usually by the same people, she is described as a “free spirit.” She dislikes this term particularly because it seems to have so little to do with her work or with raising a child. She was always a good parent—devoted, in her idiosyncratic way, to making sure that I knew that I was loved. She never sided very openly with school authorities, but she insisted that my education was important. Somehow, there was always money for clothes and books and for school excursions to Florence or Rome. Even so, there was one thing she made clear: a mother is what she is, but her work is what she does.

If she’s free, she says, she’s free to go to bed with aching arms. And if she is spirited, it’s because without spirit she would have stopped years ago putting up with cuts on her fingers and with fists she could only painfully unclench. There’s nothing
easy about what my mother does. In her view, she is the least flighty person she knows. It’s for professional reasons that she does not bother very much with the distinction between reality and imagination. She is a sculptor.

She lives by herself in a rented farmhouse in the hills between the town of Pietrabella and the village of Castello, and she spends her days there carving stone.

When my mother is beginning a piece of sculpture—wearing out her arms and scraping her hands with the glances of her battered old mallet off her point chisel—she hovers. She looks as if she is asking questions of the stone as she moves around it. She addresses the marble from this perspective and from that. She says she is looking for the planes and curves that lie between the various angles of her first strokes. These connections aren’t always obvious. But my mother doesn’t think much is.

Her work is abstract—at least that’s how anyone other than my mother would describe it. She doesn’t see much difference between her sources and what she does with them. Her sculpture is drawn from the valleys and the sky and the mountains of the place where she has lived all her life. I once read that the singer Joni Mitchell sometimes tunes her guitar to the ambient sounds of birds, and the wind in trees, and the falling water of stony brooks, and I remember thinking that’s exactly the way my mother finds the rhythms she looks for in stone. Her work, to my eye, is very good, but—for reasons that have a lot to do with her prickly relationships with gallery owners—her celebrity, like her modest success, has remained local. I’m not so sure this isn’t her preference.

She doesn’t have much money—a condition that has never perturbed her. The pleasures she most enjoys have never had much to do with the precarious state of her economy. We usually ate inexpensively, but my mother has always cooked with
the enthusiasm of someone who loves to eat well. She loves music too—all the more because she never has any money to spend on it. Music was always playing in our apartment, and as a little girl I thought that her badly scratched records were part of her taste for odd, repeated composition. There was a Dizzy Gillespie album that lasted forever, it seemed—until my mother noticed that the same eight bars of “Salt Peanuts” were skipping. On one of her favourite records, the stutter of “I remember you well I remember you well” seemed the vocal momentum Leonard Cohen needed to reach the refrain of “Chelsea Hotel.” My mother always sang along, skips and all.

My mother had many lovers over the years, but she never married. She plans on dying, she says, covered in marble dust with a mallet and a chisel in her hands.

With her carelessly abundant hair, her full dark smock, her loosely woven sweater, her bracelets, and her coils of fringed scarves, my mother was an unlikely presence to find addressing that conventional family in that conventional living room on that conventionally mournful afternoon.

But none of Clara’s relatives disagreed. Nobody appeared shocked by what my mother said. Some of those present were puzzled. People often are by my mother. But there were—slowly, eventually—a few nodding heads. “Yes,” one of Clara’s brothers conceded. “Death is what makes us glad to be alive.”

And he was right. That was all she meant.

I walked her home later. As if to prove the point she had made at the Taglianis’, she was in a cheerful mood. She still strides through the half-hour walk to her house with the energy of a hiker. And as we made our way through the olive grove, and the long grasses, and the patchwork of little fields that lead up through the hills above the town of Pietrabella, she stopped several times to take in the terraces of vines and the slopes of long, velvet shadow.

“Such beauty,” she exclaimed at one point. And then, as if she were more irritated than pleased with her own intensity of feeling, she whisked the scene away and continued walking. “It can be too much sometimes.”

At the edge of the field that surrounds her house, at a place in the corner of the property, just beyond the overgrown hedge that protects my mother’s near-total privacy from the occasional wandering dog and even more occasional passing tractor, there is a marble statue. Nobody knows who carved it. Nobody knows how old it is. By the time you get back to the early twentieth century its provenance already begins to get murky. It had been left to my mother by my father when he died. That wasn’t exactly the plan. But that’s what happened.

Intermittently, the marble figure is a fountain, but that seems to depend on the mysteries of the water table and the runoff from the hills. Sometimes the low, faraway gurgle of approaching water can be heard from the depths of old tile pipes long before any water actually reaches the poised, waiting figure. It is a three-quarter life-size, partially clad woman bending forward to pour water from the jug she is carrying.

My mother stopped, stared at it intently, and then walked toward it. It was about twenty metres off the path that led directly to her house. This was a detour she often made. She would have been no more attentive had she just encountered the piece in the Bargello.

“There,” she said to me. “Look.”

The figure’s upper body is naked. My mother pointed to the crook of elbow and forearm, and then, with a sweep of her hand, she showed me how the folds of the long skirt echoed the same angle, and how this resonance draws the viewer’s eye into the mass of the piece as a whole. As my mother pointed out, you can actually feel the shifting of the figure’s weight as she kneels to
pour. You can actually sense the tipping volume of liquid inside the jug. The statue is carved with such skill you can sense the immediate past and the immediate future in the poise of the figure’s present. You can see motion in its stillness.

My mother had shown me this before. But her repetition seemed to have nothing to do with forgetfulness. It was more a kind of genuflection—one I suspect she made to an anonymous, ancient sculptor every time she came through her gate.

But uncharacteristically, and for the second time that afternoon, she seemed to feel further explanation was necessary. She had something to say that she wanted to make sure I understood.

“Do you think that ever happened?” she asked. “Do you think it matters whether there was a moment long ago when a young woman’s arm and her garment were aligned so perfectly?”

Her hand moved back and forth as if she were polishing the air. Her bracelets jangled.

“She is beautiful,” my mother continued, “because her beauty does not only echo with what was. The carving rhymes with the space around it. Now. Do you see?”

She raised her hands as in a priest’s blessing, although the simile is not one she’d welcome. “Her beauty rhymes with this,” she said. And I could see that by “this” she meant what Clara’s older brother had explained so plainly at the Tagliani house. She meant the present. Not even the improbable coincidence of love ever surprised my mother more than the amazing luck of being alive.

“It doesn’t matter what really happened,” she said to me that day. “Tell the stories anyway. That’s all we ever do.”

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
9.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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