Monday, July 19, 2010

`Another Waits for Manna'

A fortuitous convergence of books from the library:

Owls Head by the photographer Rosamond Purcell (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2003), is a portrait of William Buckminster, an eccentric collector/junkyard proprietor in Owls Head, Maine. What attracted me was the compactness of the volume among all the swollen photography books flanking it (770.92 PUR) and the elegance of the typeface on the pale-gray spine. A blurb on the back from Lawrence Weschler helped too. I’ve only just started reading it but was sucked in further by the epigraph for “Breaking Ground,” the first chapter:

Don, lo cauecs vos ahura,
Que tals bad’en la peintura Qu’atre n’espera la mana.”
[Sir, the owl warns you:
This one gapes at the painting, another waits for manna.]
--Marcabru, L’autrier jost’ una sebissa
(troubadour pastorela, twelfth century)”

The other book is Food and Feasting in Art (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006) by Silvia Malaguzzi (translated by Brian Phillips), another small volume dwarfed by its surroundings (704.949641 MAL). I enjoy art books arranged by theme and this is a gem – generously illustrated chapters devoted to beef, artichokes, legumes, beer and melons. The one on bread (I had already noted Marcabru’s mention of manna) is especially good, much devoted to the obvious religious connection, with paintings by Giotto, Dieric Bouts the Elder, Gerard David, Vermeer, Gennari and Lubin Baugin, but the centerpiece is by an unknown Florentine artist:

The Flour Bolter of Francesco Ridolfi, called Il Rifiorito, 1653, Florence, Accademia della Crusca [Academy of Bran].”

This is a rare case of a reproduction of a painting of food – roast beef on a hard roll? – rendered toothsome enough to stimulate salivation at three removes. Malaguzzi glosses the picture like this:

“This is among the works commissioned by the Accademia della Crusca in the 17th and 18th centuries. By tradition, each academician chose a nickname associated with flour, breadmaking, or the uses of bread.”

And this:

“The bread shown here is linked to the custom of using the soft part of bread for polishing intricate metalwork. The quote at the top is from Dante: `That his proficiency may be displayed’ [Paradiso, Canto XXV].”

Manna, like bread, is a metaphor for all sustenance, culinary and spiritual, body and soul. In the Marcabru fragment, one awaits art, the other food, jointly necessary for sustaining human life. In his essay “Carasau Bread” (The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets, 2005), the late Aldo Buzzi tells an uncomprehending Italian master-baker: “You see, bread is a topic of universal interest.” Zbigniew Herbert wouldn’t argue. In his poems and essays the Pole associates bread with the fundamentals of our existence. In “An Answer” (Elegy for the Departure, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1999), he writes:

“this will be night after hard reality
a conspiracy of the imagination
it has a taste of bread and lightness of vodka
but the choice to remain here
is confirmed by every dream about palm trees”

1 comment:

joshamy said...

How splendid! The photograph on Purcell's homepage is inspired by:

It is the frontispiece/cabinet of curiosities from Museum Wormianum, 1655.

Thank you for the post!