The Pictures in the Cellar

(Eugenio Montale — I Quadri in Cantina)

The north-easter was beginning to blow. B. and I had come out of the Revoltella Museum, and were making our way towards Café Garibaldi when a tall, thin young man, in a gabardine raincoat half turned inside out by the wind, passed next to us in a hurry, crossing our path, and turned to greet us with a wave of the hand. There was nothing notable about him, but I asked B., ‘Who’s that?’

‘Oh, no one in particular,’ B. replied casually. ‘A futurist.’

Two or three years later, in Trieste again, I visited the exhibition of a certain Giorgio Carmelich, who had recently died of consumption in a German sanatorium. The catalogue gave various bits of information about the artist, who had departed this life at the age of twenty, and about the small number of works he had left. I had before me his entire oeuvre: about thirty pieces, including pastels, gouaches and drawings, but mainly pastels. I didn’t think the dead man’s art especially interesting; nor do I enjoy searching out new talent, at least in painting. Nonetheless, I asked my guide to Trieste what he knew about him. The reply surprised me.

‘Don’t you remember that boy,’ said B., ‘that futurist whom we met two years ago in the square? That was him, Carmelich.’

I say that the reply surprised me because I remembered the encounter very well, and I didn’t understand how the two of us could have had such a clear recollection of it. I looked for a long time at what the young man had left us. They didn’t exactly fit familiar definitions of works of art; in style they hovered between the Munich Secession and recent Mitteleuropean expressionism, and they had a literary character in their topics and motifs. There was in them the macabre obsession with realism, ‘the smell of horsemeat’, which is particular to Kafka, Ungar and other Prague storytellers much read in Trieste at that time: skulls, deformed figures, abstract still lifes, and landscapes — metaphysical, of course — all mixed together in little pastels rather shrill in tone and chalky in texture. But the painter was dead, his story had ended; from the general effect of his first (and last) one-man show there emanated something of pathos and sincerity which went beyond the often meaningless problem of art and non-art; he was dead. I had seen Carmelich, the futurist, fully alive, passing us by in the teeth of the north-east wind, waving his hand; I had asked about him and I remembered him, I don’t know why… How could I get that dead boy out of my head? The result was that half an hour later I left the exhibition with two pastels under my arm, costing a mere nothing, even by the standards of prices at the time. Thus began my career as a patron; and it has almost finished there, at least in the sphere of art. And I was sure that I had taken the best of the exhibition.

The two pastels migrated with me to a city where art had and still has other roots and a more human face. They immediately clashed both with the house and with the general ambience which was to receive them; they were reluctant, these pieces, to adapt to walls which were too far away and too different in character. But then we found, the pictures and I, a sort of modus vivendi, of mutual toleration. The bigger of the two pastels — the one which showed Prague buried under snow, with a few little men in top hats and swallow-tail coats sketched in pencil beside the great monument to Giovanni Huss, and the houses with pointed roofs painted in strident candy and confetti colours: this gaudier pastel found its place in a back room, where the radiator was always off for reasons of economy, and where only Agata, the cook and maid of all work, sometimes set foot. On the other hand, the smaller pastel, with a gondola before a Venetian palazzo, all frills and mullioned windows, and to one side the shadow, just the faint suggestion of an equestrian statue, I bravely put in the basement where I slept, but where I never went in the daytime. It was hung under a shelf full of books, and no other picture competed with it. The serious pictures, those by De Pisis, and later a Morandi, were on the floor above, where visitors had access to them. The little Carmelich was ‘out of bounds’, as the English say, although the English weren’t yet in town, or were there as guests. I was the only one who saw it, at night, if I turned on the light. One evening I noticed a white cat sleeping next to it on the platform of a little stepladder. But usually, on other nights, if the nightwatchman didn’t wake me up going into the garden, even I didn’t see it. And the cat didn’t come back again to keep it company.

Several tranquil years passed for the two Carmeliches. Then I moved house, for complicated reasons, and from the basement I switched to the fifth floor of a building which here in Tuscany seems like a skyscraper. I had many books, some other pictures, and trunks, boxes and cases; and space in the new place was somewhat more limited. When everything was organised, I realised that the two Carmeliches were no longer present; they had gone, the indispensable Agata told me, to the cellar, along with a lot of other useless stuff. I felt a little pang of remorse, but a new event soon came along to soothe my feelings: the war, the second great war of my life, induced me very quickly to amass in the cellar furniture and pictures and books which mattered a great deal more to me than the two pastels acquired so many years before. I was trying to salvage something from the bombs which squadrons of droning planes were dropping on the outskirts of the city (and in fact I have succeeded). Campo di Marte station was nearby, and the bomb-aimers had only to miscalculate by a centimetre… Best not to think about it. Only the most essential furniture stayed in the half-empty apartment, along with heaps of remaindered books, almost all presentation copies and books of verse. But the most valuable things, together with the De Pisis pictures and the little Morandi, were down there in the cellar, wrapped up as best we could manage. Who gave a thought to them anyway? Other anxieties, other hopes filled our hearts. The problem has resurfaced now, after the liberation and after a desperate period which drove even the occupants from a building and from an neighbourhood where for eleven months bearded and unclassifiable men had slept, equipped with false papers and charged with the most secret missions. I have been down to the cellar, I have helped the redoubtable Agata to carry up furniture and bookcases and papers; I have opened boxes, overturned heaps of dusty books, and a mousetrap has sprung in my hand, in the dark, imprisoning my fingers. Slowly, slowly the empty apartment has filled up; the books, the better pictures, the Manzú prints have come to light. Left down below, at the bottom of a trunk, their glass cracked and their passepartouts stained with damp, are Carmelich’s little Prague and his even littler Venice.

(And now, ‘So what do we do with these?’ asks Agata impatiently, wiping her hands.) What do we do, Agata, you old battleaxe? I wish I could give her an answer. I bless the day when I parted with the big Bolaffio picture to a respected collector of that artist’s work; he gave it a dignified and secure home, even if for that act of ‘blind indifference’ he shot a dart at me, a verse written in anger, since he was a famous poet from Trieste, a poet and therefore understandably touchy. But what to do about the little Carmeliches, Agata? Can I, perhaps the last depositary of that noble boy’s secret and his sadness, let them die in this way? Or must I insist (it’s my constant misfortune) on a final attempt to rescue that which Life, in its cruelty, has rejected, has tossed aside from its wheel ruts? I lean on the pantry door and stand motionless in a draught. The gondola and the monument to the great reformer glimmer from the bottom of a travelling case. More than twenty years have passed, and it seems a day. A tall, slim young man across the square battered by the wind, the folds of his raincoat flying around him; a wave of his hand follows us and I carelessly ask, ‘Who’s that, Bobi?’

‘Oh, no one in particular; a futurist.’ And we haul ourselves towards the café.