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Marmeladov’s Second Style

(Eugenio Montale — Seconda Maniera di Marmeladov)

A few dark cypresses in the background; to the fore a haystack and two or three yellowish sheaves thrust onto a lettuce-green field; to the right, by the most annoying of the sheaves, a little dog is sitting, raising its head towards a streak of white lead, the cloudy sky. I hate the cypresses and I detest the sheaves. All trees planted by human hands, with the exception of the oak, the laurel and the willow, leave me worse than indifferent; haystacks, sheaves, long expanses of ploughed and cultivated earth suggest nothing of worth to me. Nature says something to me when it is overgrown and neglected; but when it appears in the form of opima, rorida gleba, forced into being by the labour of man, it finds me distinctly hostile. I prefer a meadow full of couch grass and thorns to a field of ears of golden wheat; I intensely admire the Tuscan landscape, but only around the abbey of San Galgano, where you still meet a few marten hunters, do I feel truly at ease. I prefer the vegetable patch to the farm, the wood to the sown field. And if I were to reprint Foscolo’s Le Grazie, confronted by the uncertainty as between ‘i colti di Lïeo’ and ‘i colli di Lïeo’, I would certainly come down in favour of the second alternative, without worrying about the original manuscript (which is in any case barely legible).

So how had I acquired a painting which portrayed — and rather poorly at that — aspects of nature I find unbearable? The picture was there, somehow, in my room; I had had an expensive silver frame made for it, within which the bradawls of the cypresses and the yellow indecency of the sheaves seemed even more offensive. The colours jarred, the drawing was clumsy, with a few ill-disguised traces of pentimento (a gas-holder at the bottom had been hurriedly painted over but still showed through); the painting had irritated me for many years. I rarely slept in that room; I had left Florence a long time before, but when I went back there the picture of the cypresses and the sheaves made me miserable the moment I saw it. I tried hiding it with a newspaper, with a towel, but the painting was still there, fermenting and fidgeting under that temporary covering.

There was no doubt that I had bought it, for five hundred lire, from the painter Zoccoletti. It was the best piece in the exhibition, I had stopped to look at it, unwisely saying, ‘Beautiful, beautiful… I’m almost inclined to…’ and Libero Andreotti who was with me had encouraged me: ‘Why don’t you take it? You can pay by easy stages. It’s cheap.’ Zoccoletti, who was standing next to us, had seized his opportunity, clinching the affair: ‘I’ll deliver it to your house; you can give me whatever you want.’ And so one fine day the painting had been brought to my house, unframed. Libero Andreotti was a refined soul; I dare not attribute to him — now that he’s dead and can’t defend himself — an intense admiration for Zoccoletti’s art; but at that time Andreotti was in full reaction against his bohemian years in Paris, and probably cypresses and haystacks in paintings didn’t arouse unpleasant feelings in him. I should add that Zoccoletti was an innocent, a man incapable, let alone of painting, but of earning money from art or any other racket. I saw him twice a day in the café, and if I hadn’t accepted Andreotti’s suggestion-cum-instruction I don’t know how I could have borne the dumb rebuke of those eyes of his, half protected by shaggy eyebrows.

So, the painting ended up in my room, but from the first day it firmly refused to bond with its surroundings. It was ugly, positively ugly. Not even Millet, not even Fattori could have succeeded in getting me to tolerate that subject, that style, that attitude. Imagine thankless, unhappy Zoccoletti’s chances of success!

I tried to forget the painting and I lived for gloomy months under the spell of that landscape. A few cypresses, a few strips of cultivated earth: I saw them too out of the window. A cypress more, a cypress less… I decided to convince myself that Zoccoletti took nothing away from and added nothing to my life. And a long time passed…

Until one night, by the light of the lamp, the painting seemed to me particularly horrible and I decided, more or less off the cuff, to free myself from it. There was no question of throwing it out of the window; and the business of getting it out of its frame was beyond my powers. It seemed to be positively immured in silver, and I didn’t feel up to the task of dismantlement, which would have required the right tools and a mortician’s consummate skill. Besides, I was afraid of ruining the frame, which had cost more than the painting. Lastly, there was the problem of what to do with the unframed painting. Thrown out onto the street, it might perhaps have been taken back to its creator; burnt, it would have stunk the house out. Wasn’t there an intermediate solution?

Yes, the answer was there, and it flashed across my mind like a lifeline. Zoccoletti’s painting wasn’t protected by glass, and another picture could be painted over it, taking immediate advantage of the beautiful silver frame. Under the new painting, the old one would continue to live its own life, not destroyed, merely buried. Dying, I might say to my descendants, ‘There’s another painting underneath; with patient sponge work you could bring it to life.’ And if in the meantime (who knows, anything is possible) Zoccoletti had become famous, his painting, enriched by the vestiges of my touchings-up, my besmirchings, would probably have gained in value, losing something of its original offensiveness. A painting done by four hands, the most valuable, the rarest of the Zoccolettis…

I jumped up, opened the wardrobe and found an old palette, a paintbrush and a few tubes of dried-up colours; luckily, there was plenty of white lead. I squirted a good dollop onto the palette and smoothed a white shroud over the detested landscape. The result was immediately encouraging; the frame breathed, freed of its oppression; perhaps the new picture would take shape by itself.

I began to sketch a few marks on the white-leaded background. I was trusting to chance, trying to wring out a few tubes of colour which had already been heavily squeezed. Soon I had before my eyes an inextricable tangle of lianas, surmounted by a reddish globe which might pass for a setting or rising sun. But nothing meaningful appeared on the canvas, no smudge, no mark to say, ‘I’m here, take me and develop me.’ I was out of luck; the painting refused to be born. I had nothing to inspire me: neither vases nor bottles; only the bed and two chairs. At two in the morning I stopped work and fell asleep, discouraged. The next day I left Florence and thought no more about the unfinished painting.

A few months later I returned to sleep in that room and was awakened before dawn by a distant barking: distant but irritating and incessant. I opened the window and looked into the street; I went into the kitchen and looked into the nuns’ vegetable garden. There was no dog to be seen or heard there; the barking was coming from my room. There were no dogs in the house; could it be that the barking was coming from the dog in the Zoccoletti, which I had buried under a layer of white lead? I rejected the idea as absurd, but when the event repeated itself the next night and I, having put my ear to the canvas, became convinced that the barking came from there, I decided immediately that if I could I would free the imprisoned dog, and with a rag soaked in miscela I began energetically to scrub the unfinished picture in a south-south-westerly direction, looking for the dog. I worked hard and at last, in an exposed patch a couple of centimetres in diameter, round like a coin, the dog appeared, gave a final whimper and stopped there, amongst that tangle of lianas, without moving, without jumping out of the frame. Tired, I threw a towel over the canvas and thought no more about it. But from that night on I could sleep in my room without being disturbed by barking. And not even the announcement of poor Zoccoletti’s death, which I read in a local paper, would have reconciled me with his obscure artwork if, returning to Florence for a couple of days, I had not received a visit from a well known collector and historian of contemporary art; this man, sitting down in my room and seeing a big painting leaning on the wall, but with its back to him, turned it round, looked at it for a long time, quivering, and said to me, ‘Interesting… beautiful… indeed very beautiful. Who did it?’ The canvas was signed with a single letter, M, but after Zoccoletti’s death I could look at that painting, saying to myself like Prince Calaf in Turandot, ‘My secret is hidden within me,’ and so it only took a moment for me to invent a name and to answer, with a confident air, ‘It’s a Marmeladov in his second style, before the artist joined the “primatist” school. But the signs of that are already there, as you see. It’s more than twenty years old now, but I’ve recently had it restored.’

‘Impressive, most impressive,’ said the critic. ‘I’d like a photograph, so I can feature it in my magazine. This primordial dog, this Urhund introduced into a tropical forest, leaves a slight hint of representationalism in the work, but no more than a suspicion. I like these transitional works, these links between one period and another. From whom did you get it? Marmeladovs, especially Marmeladovs in this style, can’t be very common. I’ve seen two in Berne, mind you, and I don’t say that this is the best, but if you want to part with it we could come to an arrangement. With a bit of goodwill… meeting halfway…’

The picture was glistening in a ray of sunshine. It was very beautiful. A few multi-coloured arrows, a fiery globe and, almost impaled on a zig-zagging skewer, there was the small black dog, its snout turned upwards, the dog which had barked for so long before returning to the light in its new ‘primatist’ existence.

‘Fine,’ I agreed nervously, ‘and it doesn’t bark any more.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘There was a flaw or, if you like, a peculiarity in this picture: the dog barked all night… But now it’s been corrected; it hasn’t barked for a long time. But I need to keep an eye on it for a while longer. Would you mind if we postpone the deal?’

He left dissatisfied, suspicious, shaking his head; and he was probably later informed that the primatist school didn’t include any Marmeladovs, in any style. When I returned to my room, the ray of sunshine had died and the painting had gone to sleep; it had become cold and unexpressive. But I realised that I could no longer throw it out of the window, nor bury it in the cellar. Poor Zoccoletti’s dog had found a master and, while waiting to consign the little beast to some ultra-modern museum, that master, unfortunately, was me.