October 6th, 2002

A West Wind

  Sylvia’s Veranda

I’m with Sylvia, on her jungle-like veranda. She goes inside to find her photo album so she can show me her family’s house in Germany, and her grandparents, and great-grandparents, and pictures of her various residences in Paris, New York, Philadelphia.

In the vertical mirror on the far wall I see a reflection of a circular terra-cotta figure with bulging cheeks. Zephyr, the west wind. Which reminds me of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. In that painting Zephyr and Chloris appear together, as a couple embracing, floating to the left of the lovely young woman standing on an open scallop shell. I must ask The Professor about Zephyr next time I see him. He’ll certainly have something interesting to say about the history of that image, won’t he?

Sylvia sits next to me and turns the album’s pages. Sepia toned photographs meticulously mounted on black paper. Captions on the photos’ white borders in India ink, faded brown. Yes, she says, my grandfather and his father before him were soldiers in the German army. No, he was not an officer. He hated the military. He was captured by the Russians in the first war, spent the whole time in a prison camp. He always had good things to say about the Russians. They treated him and the others of his unit decently. Not like what Russians did to the Germans in the second war.

Here, this is where we lived in Paris when I was eighteen, she says. I’d run across the street to this café to meet my friends, and my father would stand on the balcony with binoculars. See? He’d spy on me, to make sure that I would remain a virgin. He was a very strict man.

“So this was your husband?”
“Yes,” she replies.
“Egyptian? Armenian?”
“No, Italian. But he looks dark, like an Arab.”
“What part of Italy was he from?”
“Here on the island. Barano.”
“Really? My Vittoria is from that area. Buonopane.”
Sylvia nodded. “Yes, I know.”
“So is your husband still alive?”
“Of course.”
“Where does he live?”
“Over there, in the back. But I never speak to him, and he never speaks to me. He showed up at my door five years ago and expected to resume where we left off. Ha!”

In the three years I’ve known Sylvia she never mentioned a husband living here, and I have never seen him. But then this place is a walled compound, with a number of two-storied buildings clustered within, which she rents to various people, her husband among them. The man obviously keeps to himself.

And he is from Barano. The area where my Vittoria was reared. An incredible coincidence. But then why should I be surprised? Forio is full of them.

* * *

I showed The Professor the photo I had taken of Sylvia’s veranda, with the terra cotta Zyphyr reflected in the vertical mirror.
“Yes, I can see why you thought of the Botticelli,” he said. “But there’s another intriguing thing going on here.”
“The green leaves that nearly surround the figure.”
“What about them?”
“It’s like the decorative image that’s plastered all over churches in Europe, and especially in England. In 1939 one Lady Raglan named it, ‘The Green Man.’ It’s a representation of a male face surrounded by foliage, or with leaves or branches sprouting from his mouth. He is found on capitals, corbels, choir stalls, bench ends, fonts, screens, roof bosses—virtually any surface open to ornamentation. Its origin is pre-Christian, likely Pagan, although scholarship on the matter is scanty.”
“Harold, I just knew you would be able take this thing far beyond the Italian Renaissance.”
“That’s me! But let’s revisit the Renaissance for a moment, shall we? Did you know that in the 1480s Botticelli was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici to produce illustrations for Dante’s Inferno?”
“No, I did not.”
“It was to have been 100 drawings depicting Dante and his guide, Vergil, in their traversal of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Botticelli executed them with a metal stylus on sheep's parchment, and went over them with a lead point similar to a pencil, and finally reinforced the strokes with ink.”
“It must have been quite an intriguing book.”
“No, the project was never completed to that stage. Over the centuries the drawings were scattered. Only recently have 92 of them been gathered from collections all over the world. They were shown last year at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London.”

I looked at the photograph again.
“Wait a minute, Harold. What does all this have to do with Zephyr?”
“Patience, lad. I was getting to that. You recall the puffed cheeks in the Venus painting?”
“Well, in one of the Inferno drawings Botticelli makes a deliberate allusion to it.”
“In what way?”
“You must remember that all these scenes are meant to convey the utter horror of Hell and eternal damnation. So if you look carefully, you will see a devil’s raised bare arse. And from the anus embedded within those swelled cheeks comes an enormous noxious fart, which spews directly into the face of one of the condemned.”
“Oh, my.”
“A most foul and putrid west wind, one might say.”

I pinched my nostrils. “Utterly grotesque,” I said, sounding as if I had a cold.
Harold laughed. “That’s the whole idea of hell, isn’t it?”

  Sylvia’s Veranda Detail