Sunday, June 16, 2024

Affogato and Averna with a Sicilian Surrealist

Our time at the dinner table was over. Giorgio motioned to me and his wife that he was moving to the drawing room. His wife said she would prepare the affogato. Meanwhile Giorgio foraged in his liquor cabinet for a bottle of amaro. “Seeing as we are all Siculi, shall we have some Averna with our dessert?” he suggested. As long as it wasn’t Cynar, I was fine with it. I’d been plied with the artichoke amaro in Palermo with every family visit. Averna was a relief.

“Isa was visiting a friend near Piazza Navona and brought back some gelato from Tre Scalini.” Isa had a sweet tooth, I gathered. Giorgio too. Fine with me. I was 20, skinny and ready for whatever came my way. I could handle amaro and gelato.

As we enjoyed our dessert, Giorgio got up and went into another room. He brought back a small bound volume. “Take this as a gift. It is a book of poetry I wrote.” I was never one for poems, but it was a kindness. “Perhaps your Sicilian grandmother can read it and tell you about the lines. Or you can learn Italian better and read it yourself.” Yes, in fact I was going to take first year Italian when I returned to university in the fall. I would make it a goal. “Thank you, sir. I look forward to reading and digesting it.” Giorgio laughed. “You’re going to need some more Averna back home in order to digest what is in that book,” he guffawed. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But, again, I was 20.

We talked about art, or rather he talked about art and I listened. He had many paintings on his walls in his house. And in this room the walls were filled with works by him and other artists I slightly recognized from my modern art history class. I was a bit overwhelmed. And curious about what this elderly artist saw in hosting a newbie like me. What on earth could I add to his world of depth and breadth?

Then he began. “What is it you are seeking within the confines of the space you look at though your camera viewfinder?” I was like, “What?” in my mind. “Are you looking into another world? Is the world you see here? Or might it be a construction from your mind and your camera is manifesting it?” I told him, slowly and carefully, that I thought artists like him had that power, as they were re-creating the world on a canvas. But that I was recording actual events. “Are you sure?” he asked. It was a serious question, and one which I have asked myself for over 50 years now, as I look into my viewfinder. I told him, “Even the word, viewfinder, is a bit of a conundrum. What am I viewing? And what am I finding?”

“Exactly!” he responded enthusiastically. He was opening a door into a world that I would walk in for the rest of my life. What a gift.

Little did I know the darkness that awaited me.

I didn’t bring my camera that night, thinking to be respectful. But Giorgio brought out a Polaroid camera, an early model, with bellows and a viewfinder (of course!). It was the one where you had to coat the picture with a foul-smelling preservative that reeked of acidity and vinegar.

“Let’s take a picture together, to remember this evening, shall we? Isa, come in dear and take our picture please?” And so, we took a picture together and he put it on his bookshelf, next to an etching by Max Ernst.

As the evening was coming to an end, Giorgio asked me where I would be going tomorrow. “I have two days left in Rome. And then I return to California to go back to college.” He then gave me a list of places I should try and see, to photograph. “I’m sure you will recognize them when you see them. I’d be interested in knowing what your viewfinder sees.” He really seemed interested. Maybe he was just humoring a young person. But I don’t think so. He didn’t want me to fail, I could feel that coming from him. Hope, it was. Hope.

And so, I took the walk back to my room, late at night. I looked at his list and saw that one of the places on it was on my way back to the pensione. I wished then that I had brought my camera along.


Perhaps the end. Perhaps, not….

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