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John Palcewski's Journal

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Never What They Seem
forioscribe
 A Friendship II


Dear Jack:

I know you love riddles, puzzles. So here's something for you to chew on. What do you think and feel when you look at these two pictures? What kind of story do they tell? I mean, beyond the obvious.

I encountered them yesterday when I was trying to put my chaotic picture files back into order. Don't ask me why, but they reminded me of my visit to the old convent near Ischia Ponte, and those dark, soot-stained frescoes of saints that hang in a small chapel. In the paintings are many layers of meaning. An inpenetrable mystery, especially if like me you're largely ignorant of Christian iconography.

Things never are what they seem, eh?


 A Friendship


It's no accident that the convent's chapel is full of female saints, since the frescoes were commissioned in the 16th century by Costanza d' Avalos, Vittoria Colonna's aunt. Now, as you know, Vittoria and Costanza were tight. Whispering conspirators. They were able to move freely in a patriarchal society because they kept their subversions allegorial and metaphorical, beyond the understanding of their literal-minded masters.




These women were the prototypes of the Italian “crypto-matriarchy” that Luigi Barzini speaks of. Also, Vittoria understood that her active participation in the shaping of language was empowering, and she thus skilly offset the established "heirarchy of gender," as contemporary feminists call it, and became the equal of the men around her.

I can see you shaking your head, Jack. You're wondering, what in hell does all this have to do with the current struggle with my own Vittoria, who remains silent and out of reach?

Patience, lad. Patience. I will reveal the connection in due course.

Where was I? Yes. Vittoria Colonna wrote in the Petrarchian style, and even though her husband was a jerk, and her love for him had died, she nevertheless wrote convincing, passionate love poems addressed to him, because that was the convention of the time.

She assumed the persona of an adoring wife because she understood its dramatic potential. And it became Petrarch with a twist: A widow’s grief. An almost religious expression of undying love for her absent and then dead husband. This was much better than saying, “Good riddance! Now I am free!” The latter is ignoble. The former is...uh, more marketable.

No, Jack, I jest. The former is an excellent “mask” to hide behind. An external projection of piety and allegiance to family, to lull the watchdogs. Vittoria told them all what they wanted to hear. Which freed her to think her own thoughts. And to smile at the deception. She knew perfectly well the subversive and polemical texts of other less skillful woman writers of the age led to their ridicule, persecution and even martyrdom.

Remember, Vittoria’s was an arranged marriage. It was agreed upon by the Colonna and Avalos families when Vittoria was only three years old. So subsequently her writing flattering poetry about this Avalos rogue was a brilliant smoke screen.

On the surface hers was a great affirmation of the existing order, how things were supposed to be. Such sentiments from the lips of a woman were simply taken at face value. Who would ever find fault with a system they had invented? One that served the interest of the nobility so well? Hmmmm?

OK, Jack. Here, finally, is the connection.

Vittoria Colonna wore masks. My Vittoria wears masks too, because she knows how well they work. They're a means of personal expression, of empowerment, of sly subversion. Of tweaking the nose of the male establishment. Finessing their linear power. Manipulating them with such skill they aren’t ever aware of it.

You've often said that she plays me like a harp. Well, I guess you're right.

But this ability to control and manipulate has been in women's bag of tricks since the beginning of time, hasn't it?

Enough. More on this theme later. Take care.

And don't forget to tell me what the two love-birds mean to you.

James