Like so many English writers (Keats, Lawrence, Byron, etc) who longed for warmer climes, Rachel Cusk took flight from England recently for a three-month sojourn in Italy. She writes about her experience in The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. She left with her two daughters, age five and six, and photographer husband from Bristol where she had grown increasingly dissatisfied with its noise, grime, malls, traffic and general ugliness.
“I wonder what became of the human instinct for beauty, why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly, why our race should have fallen so totally out of sympathy with the earth.”
She says her friends were sorry to see her depart but that they did not believe we would find a place in Italy that we liked better, for it seemed to them “that we were afflicted with restlessness and with a love of the unknown that in their eyes was a kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found…”
The Last Supper is as dazzling and absorbing as everything else I’ve read by Cusk. The casa colonia in the province of Arezzo, where she settles for the longest period, is captured with all the beauty and sadness of Italian life. She befriends a Scottish emigrant who in turn introduces her to local residents and arranges activities for her family in and around the local villages. She proceeds to learn Italian and study in depth the paintings of its artists, as well as the “art in daily things.” She writes most provocatively about this aspect of Italian culture.
“Reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, one begins to notice a minor consistency of an unexpected sort. The artists of the Renaissance, almost without exception, profited early in life from their fathers’ help in the recognition and exercise of their talents.”
And she reminds those of us who find it difficult to fully appreciate the art of that period that, “There must be an offering of the self before the painting will open.”
For Cusk the art of the Renaissance reminds her how physically ugly the world has become. She looks at a Perugino, “in order to digest the supermarkets and shopping malls, the litter and landfill sites, the pylons and traffic jams and motorway service stations that otherwise fill the eye.”
One wonders how she was able to get her daughters to visit all those Italian museums and churches to say nothing of making any sense of it. Throughout her account, however, we scarcely hear a word about them or, indeed, her husband other than the fact that he joins her in tennis matches in the hot, blazing mid-day sun. How she manages to play tennis at that time of day also puzzles me.
She concludes her observation of art by saying its real glory is the art of survival. "That which is human decays and disappears: only in art does the quality of humanity favor survival. Only in art is a record kept of an instant that the next instant doesn’t erase."
I believe it was its art that she loved most about her three months in Italy. Not the beauty of the countryside or the joyful Italian personality, or their lifestyle, or its literature and surely not its tennis games, but rather the beauty of its art. She realizes that living there would really involve the same things as living anywhere.
“There would be all the ripples of effect that are sent out when people establish themselves among other people….To live in another country requires a fundamental acceptance of things that are true in all countries.”
She remarks that Lawrence lived everywhere until he grew to hate the place whereupon he moved on, never finding peace anywhere. I recall a passage from Horace: “We change our skies but not our souls.”