I’ve travelled for men. I’ve travelled for beaches. I’ve even travelled for particular Airbnb apartments. This is the first time I travel for a book, for a story that isn’t mine.
The book is Ali Smith’s How to be Both, a novel that takes its reader back in time to meet Francesco del Cossa, a fifteenth-century fresco painter. Smith has made up a story for someone history tells us little about. She is spurred on by the physical manifestation of del Cossa’s life: his surviving frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.
How to be Both is a cruise through centuries, a cruise through Europe, and a map of love in various forms. It takes us into a world of art history that few have noticed: del Cossa is not a familiar figure. But Smith’s contemporary characters keep engaging with del Cossa’s paintings: first, there is swiping on a green-glowing iPad screen in Cambridge; later, on a whim, George’s mother takes her to Ferrara to visit the palazzo that houses Salone dei Mesi frescoes. Del Cossa appears again as the subject of an Internet search, aiding the romantic connection between two teenage girls. Our last encounter with Del Cossa is in the plaster-flesh, at the National Gallery in London, where an altarpiece depicting San Vincenzo Ferrer is held. 13-year-old George/Georgia (s/he is both) skips class to gaze at the piece, counting how many seconds gallery visitors spend in front of it, as a way to hold on to her now late mother. When someone finally spends more than 18 seconds, it is Lisa, a woman whom George uncomfortably knows to have been deeply in love with her mother (George has previously tried to get rid of Lisa by texting her dramatic I-am-married-you-know-so-goodbye-and-thanks-for-everything messages from her mother’s phone.) Del Cossa is a time machine for both of them, a material memory of what their missed loved one was like: artful.
Like Smith’s characters, I am unable to find out much about del Cossa online. The only recent art history I find is written in German I can’t read. I take out the British Library’s copy of Alberto Neppi’s monograph from 1958, desperate for some reproductions that beat my Google Images search. I open the beautiful burnt-orange folio to find 48 pages of black and white images. Internet 1, Collezione Monografie 0.
Now, George’s mother is the kind of woman who travels to an unheard-of town in Italy, two children under arm, careless of her husband’s absence, to check out some walls she’s come across online. If a character can do it, why can’t I? I’ve no children to complicate the journey. Looking at the black and white reproductions once more before handing back the book to the sweet-smiling Goth librarian, I know I have to travel to Ferrara. I have to see the real frescoes, beyond the screen. The journey might take me to the heart of Smith’s novel and place me in the midst of its casual crossings of space and time. Maybe standing in the room that inspired the novel will galvanise me too.
The Palazzo Schifanoia was built for the Este family, a princely dynasty and one of the most ancient of its kind in Europe. It was erected in 1385 to serve as a banqueting house; a pleasure villa avant la lettre. This is reflected in the very name of the place: Schifanoia means to escape from boredom. A hundred years later, del Cossa was called in to do the frescoes in the Salone dei Mesi, a grand hall that was to depict the months of the year on three levels: the divine, the human, and the in-between. At some point during a renovation of the palazzo, the frescoes were washed over as sacreligious with white paint. Only recently, when someone came across a letter detailing payment to Francesco, were parts of the frescoes revealed. The white paint veil was removed, the frescoes restored. One of the walls in the hall stands out as startlingly colourful, apparently defiant of its own history. Others still bear the white veil with which history concealed them.
Del Cossa’s recovered frescoes mark the very term of the culture they originate it: Renaissance. Yes – they almost caricature rebirth. Here I am, says del Cossa, I am born again, but only because you didn’t know I was here all along. But these thoughts are all premature as I ride the bumpy train from Venice to Ferrara. Resurrection, fresco, fresco secco. How about a soft bed and some air conditioning. My grey-streaked host Giovanni, a born-and-bred ice cream shop owner, picks me up at the humble train station. From the passenger seat I benefit from air conditioning while Giovanni recounts his student years in Reading, UK. Youths on vintage cycles fly by like feathers, hot dust falls and rises from the ground. We pass a castle surrounded by green water, thick as liquid clay, and dozens of 1980s shops installed in 14th-century buildings. Giovanni points and comments that the town grew to prominence in the 13th century under the rule of the Este family, a heritage which protrudes. I notice that in Ferrara, doors are gates and parks are grassy bastions.
Giovanni shows me around his apartment, introduces me to his very pregnant girlfriend. I drop my bag in what will be the baby’s room; the crib is here though not assembled yet. I pass out. It’s the heat, it’s the broken tear channels provoked by first-time hay fever.
Doors to apartment buildings measure six to seven metres as though designed for horses or minotaurs to walk through them. The citizens of Ferrara seem appropriate to this ancient scale. They drink aperitivos outside the Duomo in the compact city centre and ride their bikes down ancient Corso della Giovecca on almost equally ancient bikes. They park against pastel-coloured walls and close frail locks around their tires, merely symbolic mechanisms, telling of low crime rates and a darkness that is relatively safe. I’m trying hard to convince my body of this fact, but strolling around town at midnight I can’t help but feel that the Dark Age is still a harrowing presence here; more than just an architectural remnant of times past. My skin shivers as I turn a corner and find the Castello Etense laid bare within its rim of green chalky water, projectors directed at its walls to recall previous grandness.
Ferrara’s silent history is a living thing, actively colouring the streets, the trees, the houses. The density of the air is different here. The air I am used to in London is heavy with pollution; metropolitan and leaden. Here, every breath is crisp in a way that demands nostalgia for the past. It is clean and it is unknowing of the future, resistant to the passing of time. It is now and it is then, it is not now and it is not then, it is definitely not tomorrow. Like Smith’s novel, Ferrara is a place that bridges centuries. It is a town that resists the passing of time by celebrating the bygone in defiance of the new. Reading Giorgio Bassani when I return to Giovanni’s baby room, I’m convinced that my experience of Ferrara mirrors Bassani’s description of the place in the 1930s. We eat the same food, drink the same wine, admire the same gardens and gold-rimmed glasses.
I sit down on one of the two wooden benches on the stone floor of the palazzo. Studying the frescoes, I try to make out Smith’s deductions, her writing. I try to visualize how what she saw in this room directed the strokes of her pencil, or, probably, the keystrokes on her MacBook Air.
Francesco painted a horde of toddlers. He painted a swan-led sleigh. A trio of voluptuous naked women, like an early and tripartite version of Botticelli’s Venus. A fancily dressed lady hovering in the air above a goat in mid-flight. The painter’s imagination is comparable, though soberer, to that of his Dutch contemporary Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s paintings from 1470-1505 are otherworldly, wildly fantastical, at once cartoonish and pornographic, and seem to belong outside the context they were painted in. In her novel, Smith asks: What comes first — what we see, or how we see? Critics are puzzled by Bosch’s work because his paintings (what we see) don’t fit with the customs of his period (how we see). Alan Woods writes:
From a stylistic point of view, Bosch’ work does not seem to resemble either medieval art or the art of the Renaissance. Although elements of both these are present, Bosch’s art strikes us as amazingly modern. The images are so surprising, even shocking, the juxtapositions so contradictory and unexpected, that one would have to look to the world of surrealism to find anything remotely similar.
The Palazzo Schifanoia, like Smith’s novel, raises the question of what comes first. It speaks the language of layers, asks us to look beneath, prompts us to consider that what is visible is never unbiased, is never not political. What we see is, more often than not, curated and directed. Bosch’s paintings suffered oblivion for almost three centuries only because previous generations didn’t understand what they saw. Schifanoia puts me in this mind: we are unlikely to curate the ungraspable.
Smith’s words guide me in the Salone dei Mesi. She sees things I can’t on my own. Her words take me there, show me the goat in mid-flight. Her words pre-empt my experience of this place, direct me in mid-flight. I glance over at the middle-aged attendant standing by the entry. Maybe she was here when Smith was, too. Maybe this woman is the only person in the world Smith and I have both looked at in the flesh. Thinking that thought, studying the woman’s face for signs, I have no idea how plausible it is. Maybe we have looked at hundreds of the same people, and the only difference between them and the attendant is that I’m calling it out, claiming the connection, even if it was always lost to begin with.
In months to come, I will look Smith in the eye. First in May, then in August. Watching her introduce Mädchen in Uniform in the basement of the London Review Bookshop, all I will be able to think about is the attendant at Schifanoia. Smith will read from her tiny notebook marked A B C, switching back and forth between two pairs of glasses, always keeping the pair she isn’t seeing through in her free hand. Eyes and letters all around. I will try to imagine what the attendant might do after a shift at the palazzo — maybe ride her bike through town, lean it against a wall somewhere, and prepare herself a simple meal before going out to meet a friend.
How to be Both mentions a restaurant in the garden. I almost miss it, but spot it through a gate as I’m walking away from the palazzo. I walk back in through the garden, follow the path to the resto. It’s pretty, allotment-like, romantic, bohemian. I order a coffee. On the counter, there’s a photograph of the owner standing next to Smith. It’s dated April 2015, one year before my arrival.
The restaurant sells knick-knacks. Gemstones, an old watch, used books in Italian. There’s also a Roger Waters concert DVD, medieval medallions, a worn collection of Rimbaud poetry, a transistor radio, ceramic candlesticks, an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls, including a vibrantly coloured painting of the owner. The menus are stored inside books; fragments of wallpaper adorn their pages. It seems that everything in this strangely curated and seemingly personal collection of items is for sale. I buy a poster of del Cossa’s month of April and go sit in the sun. The tables are either cut from wood or made from old glass mirrors laid in brown tiles. Red velvet cushions are nailed to the heavy bench I’m sitting on, suggesting that it never rains in this garden. I stay here for a while watching the modernist brass sculptures. They remind me of the public art in my Danish hometown. It’s the kind of art that doesn’t provoke the want to touch. By the door is a kind of low furniture dressed in red flowers and the cover of How to be Both, laminated, is attached horizontally to its centre. Possibly a print job executed by one of the many anachronistic print shops near my lodgings.
On my first day back in London, I find myself ambling towards the National Gallery. Not yet unpacked, I want to see del Cossa’s Saint Vincent Ferrer. Standing there before the gold and the open Bible and Ferrer’s long black cape, I’m amazed at Smith’s straightforward approach to the beauty of something that so often excludes. Maybe I haven’t spent more than 18 seconds before a Renaissance altarpiece before, at least not on purpose. Its humour and the out-of-time quality make me stay. Compared to other works in the room, del Cossa’s is playful, lively, near-cartoonish without being ridiculous. It is also the most stunning. The Italian title is Polittico Griffoni. I find that out on Google, because the plaque only reads ‘Saint Vincent Ferrer. Francesco del Cossa. Probably about 1473-5.’ How ironic that polittico means altarpiece. Remove a ’t’, and it means politician. Politico. I copy-paste the Italian etymological description of polittico into Google Translate.
The altarpiece (from the Greek polu- “many” + ptychē “folds”) is, originally, and by definition, a sacred art form, an altarpiece made up of individual separate panels, enclosed in a frame in order to give the work an architectural structure, Google says.
Denise Rose Hansen: With teeth like François Mitterrand’s, apparently.