Grandi Cru della Costa Toscana THE CURATOR
by Nicolà Mazza deʼ Piccioli ♦
«As a child, I would sneak into the town museum and spend my days gazing at the art. There, I learned to love every nuance, every secret and signature the authors hid in it. I could have stayed in there forever, but unfortunately, I hadn’t turned eighteen yet when my parents decided I would leave to try my luck in the States». «And they were right, judging from the view from this studio. New York is literally at your feet. And this leads me to my next question. Do you think you have finally found the masterpiece that will bring back your desire to work once more?». «I thought so. But after such a long time, I’m afraid such a masterpiece just doesn’t exist».
The interview ended when the secretary brought him the usual stack of requests. Among them, hidden, was an anonymous letter that would shake the rest of Anthony Pontecorvo’s life; the life of the most powerful art curator in the world.
A few minutes later, the journalist published the preview of the story, using the interview as a mere backdrop; six whole pages full of culture dedicated to the successes of a man who, for half a century, set the rules in the world of art.
The day after, readers would discover that, in carrying out his profession with rigorous expertise, Anthony had never had any scruples about taking down illustrious collectors, uncovering false Michelangelesque attributions or unearthing Caravaggian jewels in nameless parlors where the possessors were unaware of the value of the treasures they owned.
With his trained eye, just as one look was enough and so was only one word, in his judgement. All leading galleries in the world were willing to abandon an artist they had, up to the day before, deemed extraordinary if Pontecorvo thought that artist wasn’t worthy of attention anymore. A single raised eyebrow could put one of Christie’s auctions out of business or, vice versa, make it thrive.
But after so many years, nothing surprised him anymore, nothing fascinated him like when he was a boy, sneaking into the town gallery. Then, one day, while still at the peak of his radiant career, Anthony announced he would no longer dedicate himself to his work until someone presented a masterpiece to him that was truly worthy of his attention. In other words, until a painting or a sculpture could make him fall in love again.
Since then, Pontecorvo started going to his studio, completely empty of all furniture, waiting for Donna, his loyal secretary, to give him the new requests.
Among the most frequent senders were directors of prestigious museums and ambitious art dealers, but also young artists seeking notoriety. Usually, Anthony would archive most letters with one mere glance. And even more rarely, his secretary would catch him putting on his glasses in order to give it a more accurate look. But never, until that day, had she ever seen an expression dawn on his face which, albeit still masked by his natural demeanor, could be considered a true and actual sign of intrigued interest.
«Could I see as well?» she asked, getting curious.
«There is nothing to see. It just says that the piece cannot be photographed in its entirety and that the only way I can understand it is to go there in person».
The curator allowed himself some pondering, meditative silence, and then continued: «Book me a flight».
«When would you like to leave?»
«Immediately. And the flight back too, as soon as possible».
Outside the international arrivals terminal, Anthony was welcomed by a warm, out-of-season sun and by Michele, a small, kind, chatty man who introduced himself as his personal driver during his stay in Tuscany.
«Please, take a seat» he said, opening the car door for him. «You must be tired after such a long trip. Have you been away from Italy for long?»
Pontecorvo didn’t know what to respond. Instead, he hastily stated that he didn’t have any time to waste, and that as soon as his mysterious host showed him this phantomatic piece, he would fly back to the States in a heartbeat.
And as the car left behind harsh, concrete intersections of the areas surrounding the airport, the pastel-colored countryside unraveled in front of Anthony’s surprised eyes.
«Why didn’t you take the freeway? I told you already, I’m in a hurry».
Michele replied with a faunish smile that there was too much traffic there, but the famous art curator had already stopped listening, drowning in the dreadful feeling of having made a terrible mistake in leaving so abruptly. What if it was a scam? Or a way to use his name for publicity?
The car ran alongside the soft bends of a brook, then pulled over and stopped. Pontecorvo put on a pair of dark sunglasses to protect his eyes against the light and shook his head. «Why have we stopped?»
«We must continue on foot».
«What about the suitcases?»
«Do not worry, consider this a holiday, mister Antonio. Now, follow me, we’ll go through the quarry».
Looking up, Mr. Pontecorvo could not see where the tuff walls ended, towering above his head in each direction. The long, narrow path was wet and bumpy, but also managed to exude such a natural charm, as light, soft winds blew across it.
Mule tracks on the ground caught his eye, an indelible mark of ancient transits.
«This is an Etruscan land» the driver stated, right before starting a detailed speech about all the great adventures that happened right there, along those paths, once considered sacred. And who had dug up those tracks, and why, would forever remain a mystery.
They walked quite a lot before finally reaching the town. Anthony leaned against the Welcome to Pitigliano sign to catch his breath. His bones were tired, much more than his spirit, but this wasn’t going to stop him from complaining to Michele for having lied to him. There it was, an extremely convenient road that would have lead them straight to town without any problems. He would complain about this prank with his host, as soon as he showed up.
You can imagine Mr. Anthony’s face when the owner of the establishment, where he was supposed to meet his host, told him that whoever had sent him the letter wasn’t going to show up before evening.
Pontecorvo had never been mocked like that in his entire life. A joke in very bad taste, a waste of time and money for which, they could bet on it, he would even press charges.
The restaurateur nodded, admitting he was right, although adding that he had seen with his own two eyes the masterpiece Anthony had crossed an ocean for. He swore that, if only he could find the patience to wait just one more day, he would not regret it.
Words, just words. Pontecorvo called Donna, back in the US, to have her book him a ticket back on the first possible flight.
When the lunch was over, Michele recommended the Italian-American curator to visit the synagogue before going back.
«A synagogue, here?»
He followed his advice, perhaps a little curious and most likely simply appeased by the wine he had tasted, which somehow smelled like the quarry winds.
He surely could have never imagined so many stories and cultures intertwining in those small towns perched on the hills of the lower areas of Tuscany.
He was still thinking about this when Michele, who was diligently driving him to the airport – taking the shortest route – shared his disappointment for his sudden departure. «There was even a reception planned for tonight in Lucca…»
A real shame, he was right. Besides, despite still maintaining a certain physique, two close intercontinental trips, at his age, were extremely tiresome.
This is what he chose to tell Michele – and himself – to justify granting his host a chance for redemption.
In his beloved United States, the nation Anthony had chosen as his adoptive one, there were no ancient villas like the one that had welcomed him that night. The air seemed to have a different energy as well, coming straight from the past and from a sea not too far off.
He indulged in a glass of wine to keep him company as he wandered in awe through opulent rooms. Afterwards, it seemed necessary to grab a second glass to sip while strolling in the garden lit up by the moonlight, right next to the very land that had birthed that same wine. He got lost in the park, walking aimlessly, simply enjoying the moment. When he came to the shore of a small, quiet lake, he leaned forward to gaze at his reflection. He seemed to see the face of a gorgeous woman, but only for an instant.
He got startled by the sound of quick steps approaching him from behind. It was Michele, panting. He had searched for Anthony everywhere, as he had an urgent message to give him.
«Don’t tell me,» Anthony said, allowing the man to regain his breath, «the mystery man won’t be here tonight. Am I right?»
«Yes, you are».
Pontecorvo smiled sneeringly.
He walked back unhurriedly and asked his new friend if he knew of any stories about the villa where they were staying. Michele seized the opportunity to tell him of the legend of Lucida Mansi; a beautiful woman, so in love with herself that, to avoid getting older, made a deal with the devil. He gave her eternal beauty but in exchange he took her down to hell with him.
«How beautiful was this woman?» Anthony asked.
«As beautiful as the hills surrounding us, or so they say. Who knows, maybe we’ll see her, since some people say that the devil will, once in a while, show some compassion and allow her to come back to visit her beloved land. But only those able to see beauty with their eyes closed can see her. What can I say… Folk tales».
The old curator nodded, choosing to keep the fleeting meeting he had had on the lake shore to himself.
The following morning Anthony woke up feeling lighter, perhaps younger. A handwritten ticket had been slid under the door of his room, begging him to forgive all the postponing and unforgivable behavior. It promised that everything would be remedied that very night, near Bolgheri.
Antonio, as Michele called him, opened the window and breathed in the fresh air. The sudden, rude noise of his phone vibrating annoyed and startled him.
It was Donna.
She happily informed him she had booked his flight back as requested, and that a taxi was already there waiting for him.
Pontecorvo thanked her for her zeal and changed topic: «Have you ever heard of Carducci?»
At first the secretary wasn’t sure she understood the question. Of course – he thought – Donna was raised in the US, while he, instead, had studied in Italy, and those tall, blunt cypresses were still etched in his memories.
If the infamous host wasn’t going to show up that night either, then that day was not going to be wasted nor disappointing. He asked his secretary to please cancel his flight and hung up before she had any chance of expressing all her pains for the continuous change of plans.
After having generously tipped and then dismissed the driver booked by Donna, Anthony loaded all his suitcases by himself in the car, got Michele to give him the keys and sat in the driver’s seat. He would be the one to choose where to go this time. After all, he wasn’t in a rush to find out that he was going to be stood up, again.
He drove aimlessly, following his instinct and the smell of the road.
He didn’t need to think, as he admired the landscape flowing by like in a movie scene.
He didn’t need to think while talking to Michele, who was curious as to what had convinced him to take a step back from his work.
He didn’t need to think, when the road ran along a gigantic circular sculpture. He recognized it as one would an old friend. It was one of the famous circles by Mauro Staccioli. Years before, from his studio in New York, he too had contributed in promoting Staccioli’s success all over the world. He had always loved those powerful shapes, though now that he could see one of them in its natural environment, in its creator’s homeland, he could feel a new, vivacious energy seeping through the masterpiece itself.
As if framed by Staccioli’s circle, the vines wrapped themselves around the whole hill, forming a mantle of vineyards for the city of Volterra.
Anthony understood then and there where he would stop for lunch.
After eating a generous, satisfying meal, the art expert allowed Michele to take the wheel. They traveled the last leg of the itinerary to reach the mysterious guest. Along the way, Anthony slept like he hadn’t in a while, and dreamed.
When he opened his eyes, he found two rows of cypresses indicating the way to the castle.
White and dusty pebbles in a lively green setting. Even the cobblestone paved roads named after “Nonna Lucia”, grandma Lucia, and all the women in the poet’s life shone of natural, living light, and almost looked drawn by the magical brush of a painter. But that landscape, with its red horizon upon which the sun rests, much more than any canvas can portray, smelled like the salty Tyrrhenian sea and tasted like the wine born right there.
Anthony sat comfortably, staring at the sunset. He didn’t ask Michele what happened to his host, that would have been pointless. He let him speak of his family who, like many others there, had planted and looked after those grapes. He let him speak and in the meantime kept looking around, feeling as he did when he was a boy, in his town’s gallery, in love with the beauty all around him.
Michele talked until his words were drowned by the cacophonous noise of a four-wheeled carry-on bag approaching from the castle’s grand arch, through which one had to necessarily go in order to access the town center of Bolgheri.
It was Donna. When she saw him her worry was momentarily replaced by just a hint of relief. Anthony was holding a glass of wine, a ruby red Cru born and grown in that very same Tuscan coast. As to what her employer was doing there, it was still a mystery to her.
Anthony signaled her to come closer, so she picked up her already quick pace.
«What a nice surprise! How did you find me?»
Donna wasn’t in the mood for compliment.
«Ah, yeah, I thought I had turned it off».
«The GPS works anyway. Everyone in New York knows about this trip, they have many questions for you, they want to know… I bought you some time, but we can’t postpone forever».
Michele offered her his wine, but she refused with a polite but firm gesture.
«Is he the anonymous one from the letter?»
Anthony shrugged. Who was to say?
«And what about this amazing work of art? Do you know anything about that, at least?»
The curator smiled and invited her to sit down.
«We don’t have much time, the plane will leave in a few hours».
«What if we take the next one?»
«In the same way I was able to find you, someone else will too. Sooner or later, you will have to answer to someone. You can’t postpone the inevitable forever, the States are waiting for you».
«All right, fine». Anthony looked at Michele, at his loyal secretary, and at the horizon. He knew that, sooner or later, he would have had to give in and leave. He also knew that he would have never been able to express in words what the treasure he had discovered was, or perhaps re-discovered. «Now though, sit down for a second. Let me say goodbye to this place».
Her shoulders against the wall, she too sat down to stare at the secret masterpiece her boss couldn’t take his eyes off of. Antonio looked deep in thought. He could hear his parents’ voices as they discussed the possibility of sending their only son to the New World. He once again saw the paintings of the town gallery, where he had learned to love colors, and felt a kind of burning in his chest in remembering the day in which he was forced to abandon them. His parents had made that choice for him.
Michele opened another bottle of Cru.
There it was, an explosion of all the flavors of that land, of that sea, of that air and of that sun that Donna, too, would soon learn to love.
There was no need to speak. Suddenly it was all clear to her: they would never leave.
Translation by Julie and Nick Porcellato