I haven’t done much reading on this trip. It’s hard to find the time when there’s so much to see and do: museums, parks, palazzi, beaches, bars. Another day, another Duomo.
Galleries, particularly, take up a lot of my time. Between Manchester, London, Berlin and Florence I see thousands of works covering as many years. From Boticelli to Bauhaus I’m exposed to maximalism, minimalism and lots in between.
It’s no surprise, then, that it takes me five weeks to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I pick up the book — hardcover, weighty, pre-loved — for fifty pence at a Harrogate library sale in early June. It’s a grandiose story, set between New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. The plot revolves around the protagonist’s possession of (and obsession with) a valuable work of art — the titular Goldfinch. The prose are crisp and beautiful, but I lose track of apparent minutiae that turn out to be of vital importance many chapters later. It doesn’t help that I read in snatches of 10 or 20 pages at a time, and in various states of wooziness: over my first cup of tea of the morning, under the tick-tick-ticking of our Florence studio’s overworked fan, and after a long day, four glasses of wine and a takeaway pizza.
Even so, the protagonist’s rhapsodising over The Goldfinch seeps into how I view works at the galleries I visit. I approach paintings with determination, searching for small but revelatory details I might otherwise miss. Despite this effort, though, it often becomes difficult to distinguish one Madonna and Child from the dozens of others I’ve seen. This becomes particularly evident when I visit the Uffizi. The gallery is filled with Renaissance paintings, many of which depict important biblical scenes: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Betrayal, the Crucifixion, the Ascension. Each work is reverently executed, but their nuances fade under a regime of symbolism. (The Madonna? In blue and red? Groundbreaking.)
The works that captivate me at the Uffizi aren’t, generally speaking, those that draw large crowds. I enjoy scrutinising portraits of merchants and nobles that others rush past en route to a Giotto — I find that these paintings, if lacking the splendour of the grand religious works, convey a stronger sense of character. An Andrea del Sarto entitled Lady Reading Petrarch is one of my favourites; the subject’s gaze is inviting but coy, and her left hand points to an unseen passage of text.
In mid-July, the day after I visit the Uffizi, I finally finish The Goldfinch. A paragraph in the book’s final chapter strikes a chord:
“Great paintings — people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like. And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But — if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time. A really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.”
I’m not sure I’ve yet had a painting work down in my heart, or change the way I see, think or feel. But “psst, you”? This whisper is what attracted me to Lady Reading Petrarch; a sense of secrecy and self-sufficiency that I felt compelled to interrogate.
It’s works like this that drive me to collect a dozen or so postcards. The A6 cardboard slabs traverse a hodgepodge of styles and periods, and will never accumulate into an aesthetically consistent portfolio. I hope, though, that they’ll each remind me of a “psst, you” moment.
Some of the works I most enjoy are not deemed popular enough for a postcard run: an Alex Katz at the Serpentine Gallery, a portrait of an eighteenth century beauty at Hampton Court palace, a Guido Trentini in Verona. More works liked those described in The Goldfinch, that only speak to a small minority, but do so at volume.
Numbering 800 pages, The Goldfinch is easily the heaviest item in my possession. The afternoon I finish it I take the book to a shop called the Paperback Exchange, a block back from the Duomo, in the hope of swapping it for something lighter. The shopkeeper forbids this. My hardcover copy of The Goldfinch is unwelcome in a premises, as per the business’ name, devoted exclusively to paperbacks.
Reluctant to abandon The Goldfinch to a fate of neglect in an Airbnb, I lug it to Padova, Verona and Baveno. It’s now en route to Bologna, still taking up valuable luggage space. Until I find a worthy home for it I’ll keep buried in my bag, reminding me to be alert for a whisper. Psst, you.