Signore Giuseppe's Secret to Creation


“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet 

In the mid-nineties I was living in the Lombardy region of Italy, at the northeast corner of the province of Bergamo, in a place called Albino; a town of less than 15,000 souls (at the time, she's grown a bit) hidden away in the valley of the river Serio (Val Seriana) from which you can basically see the foothills of the Italian section of the Alps.

I have literally too many memories from my life at that time to recount in a single newsletter. If we were stuck, say in an airport terminal overnight, I could talk your ears off and only scratch the surface. I landed in Albino through a series of fateful moments and happenstance that I've long since chalked up to cosmic realignment. Long story short, I was working in an advertising agency for the older brother of one of my high school friends (not my best high school friend, mind you, but a good friend who was a fixture of my social group).

That period of my life is an essential part of who I've become and the stories... well, let me share just one.

The agency I worked in was comprised of a handful of Americans (including my friends brother, the boss) and another handful of Italians. When I landed at Milan-Malpensa airport I spoke about as much Italian as any American who's seen all the Godfather movies. As in none. Media Artists, Inc. had been in business for a little over a year when Joe, my high school buddy, whipped down the cobblestone street and parked next to a Gelateria (a place that would become my Mecca).

Amongst the Albinesi our small group of expat Americans enjoyed a modicum of celebrity status - Albino is a town you pass on your way from Milano to Venezia and, though they've undergone major efforts (to my chagrin) to up their tourist game, twenty years ago an American walking down the street (or living around the corner) was a rarity indeed.

I learned that I assimilate languages quickly when immersed (our boss even insisted on conducting meetings in Italian) and that when I'm hungry I'm even more motivated to do so. And so I did. In a few month's time, I had the basics of ordering paninis, un cafe affogato, pizza con mele e gorgonzola down and maybe I could holler at a bella donna if I was feeling bold.

After a while, I'd greet the locals on the street as I walked to work. "Ciao Bello!" "Allora?" One of my frequent stops along the way was to chat with an elderly man named Giuseppe, a carpenter who appeared to have been renovating "downtown" Albino perpetually since before the United States was formed ―  As a side note, it really used to flip my lid that the apartment I lived in was, at its core foundation, older than the union of states that comprise the country that I was born in. Can you imagine? ―  and who smelled of garlic and fresh bread no matter what time of day you encountered him. Delightful, really.

About a year into my life in Albino, Giuseppe invited me to dinner at his house. This was big for me because although I had plenty of friends (and a few girlfriends... when in Rome, capiche?) and we Americans operated as a family unit, I missed my family dearly and I just sort of lumped all that emotion into accepting Giuseppe's kind invitation. Not to mention that I'd learned the kindly statesman was something of a recluse AND a legend around town though I hadn't ascertained why (and my boss, with whom we had a love-hate relationship had been trying to get a dinner with Giuseppe forever).

I should mention here that Giuseppe spoke almost exclusively in Bergamasco which is the dialect of the region. It is decidedly not Italian which I had assimilated (though I have a heavy Bergamasco accent I'm told). The sounds are germanic, influenced by countless conquerings of the region by tribes from the north in times of old. This is all to say that Giuseppe and I communicated via an entirely different language than either of our native (or adopted) tongues. We spoke the language of beauty and art.

Signore Giuseppe was a widower and he lived in one of Albino's hidden gems. The facade of most buildings in Albino (again at the time, I'm told its been modernized much to my chagrin) was that of ancient Roman ruins, crumbling and hidden behind ubiquitous scaffolding. Stepping beyond Giuseppe's foyer my mouth hung open in awe. Behind the humble brick and mortar was a palatial spread with columns in a circular pattern that I'm still kind of skeptical was even possible amidst the single-family dwellings in the center of town. But there it was.

One of the elder carpenter's daughters was preparing dinner (just imagine the smells, careening around the circular courtyard... aglio and olio and fresh pasta) and as he passed me a glass of red wine he grabbed my arm and drew me toward an unassuming door about midway around the circle. This door was windowless and locked with a contraption that might have been passed down to Giuseppe directly from Da Vinci himself. I'm just saying.

As the door creaked open two sensations hit me simultaneously; the utter lack of luminescence from within the space beyond and the distinct aroma of old (really old) oil on canvas. We (well I) fumbled around in the void for a moment while Giuseppe whispered away into the room. There was a click and a buzz and because I'm a jaded American I had maybe a two-second panic attack and Caligula flashback before no less than four halogen tripod worklights (the kind used in construction) flooded the cavern.
I was standing in the middle of a domed room with nondescript concrete walls surrounded by paintings. Oil and canvas in every direction; stacked against the wall, propped up on ancient wooden easels, and one large - we're talking 5 foot x 5 foot - monster leaning against a stack of empty wine crates. Giuseppe was in front of the big one, hands on hips, pondering as though he had just seen it for the first time. I only asked if he had painted any of them. He just shook his head, "no."

I kick myself because I took art history long after I lived and worked in Italy and I cannot tell you now if any of the paintings in the room resembled those of history's masters. To be honest, I don't think that would have mattered to Giuseppe. It certainly didn't matter to me in the moment. Here's this man, a craftsman who lives and works in the small town he was born. In a country so very rich with works of art that patriots and travelling idiots take for granted routinely. He's never been outside of Italy. He's never even been to Venice or Rome (he tells me). And deep inside the confines of his home he has collected works of art that never see the light of day. The enormity of the revelation led to a prolonged sharing of silence between this man and myself. We just stood in the room and... appreciated beauty and art.

I do not know what led this man, this recluse and legend among the Albinese to invite me into his home and share his secret with me. It could be that he wanted to repay the kindness of attention I willingly gave him each morning on my way to crafting with far more modern and way less elegant tools (mid-nineties Macs, Netscape, QuarkXpress). Or (most likely) he was just ready to share and I was not from there. I wouldn't ask him why. I think he knew that.

I do know that it wasn't the wine that buckled my knees when those tripod lights flooded his treasure trove. It was something else. Something that anchors me in the rolling foothills of the Italian Alps for the rest of my life. Appreciation. The ability to take in a sight or sound and be content to just experience that moment. That small eclipse of the everyday. That fortunate window into creativity that makes us unique on planet earth as human beings.

I keep that dark alcove of unknown art and Giuseppe's coveting of creation with me to this day. It sits somewhere between my heart and mind, lodged into a corner of my soul. Even as I (we) are bombarded with new creations daily, wonders of technology, science, art and design, I reflect on Signore Giuseppe's hidden works of art and wonder how deeply we appreciate what is made.

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