Post #867 • September 11, 2006, 8:41 AM • 3 Comments
Five years ago, on September 11, I was visiting Perugia. My girlfriend and I awoke to a beautiful city of Medieval architecture, Perugino, and chocolate. We went downstairs and greeted the hotelier, who described to us some kind of fantastic scenario involving planes flying around and towers. Actually, it only sounded fantastic because my Italian is so poor. "Mi dispiace, non capito," I apologized, and we went out.
Italian newsstands put the headlines on sandwich boards. This morning they said, "Apocalisse a New York." Uh oh. We scampered over and bought the last International Herald Tribune. We sat down on the steps of an ancient church and joined the others doing the same, reading the news in tearful shock.
Authorities halted international travel, so we effectively became refugees in Italy, which I highly recommend as a refugee destination. I still feel strange about it - 3,000 people died violently (we thought it was 5,000 at the time), and as a consequence I had to extend my vacation. We went to see the Peruginos. We felt guilty, but what else would we do? Not see the Peruginos? If I were about to die, in New York or anywhere else, I would not want to prevent someone from seeing Peruginos on my account. But some moral considerations, even when decided according to scruples, make you feel unclean afterwards.
Perugino's style employs crisp outlines and understated modelling, almost cutting out the shapes. I've thought about that modelling for a long time. He used just enough of it to round the forms, and where shadows lie on flesh, they are cool and airy like the dusk sky. His saints looked pristine, unsullied by human troubles even in the midst of impending martyrdom. You've seen more death than I have - grant me your equanimity, I said silently to the frescoes.
We pressed on to Assisi. My government had not yet squandered international goodwill, and the Assisians treated us with great sympathy as Americans. (They likely would have anyway. The people of Assisi live in a baseline state of Franciscan beneficence.) A shopkeeper overseeing a store of Catholic tchotchkes explained to us, with a warm smile, that they believe that even great tragedies like this one create opportunities for good. Miraculously (we were in Assisi, after all), my Italian kicked on and I understood every word. But that's not the whole story - simply to live is an opportunity for good.
It has been asked more than once how art might react to 9/11. I have not entertained the question, knowing by instinct that it is incorrect. Art is the opposite of terrorism: unleashing firestorms of beauty upon the world, unasked-for, heedless of targets except en masse. Art persists in ways that exceed the limits of human life. It is in itself, for its own sake, response enough.
Related: Modern Kicks.