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A Tale of "Coincidence" and Discovery


By Lyall F. Harris


The Montréal Review, June 2011



Drawing of Properzia de' Rossi by Lyall Harris from Giorgio Vasari


"...that villain time cannot consume what you have written."

These were Paolo Giovio's words in a letter to Giorgio Vasari after the 1550 publication of Lives of the Artists. (1) This prediction by Vasari's historian friend proved enduring indeed: 2011 marks five hundred years since Vasari's birth in Arezzo, Italy, and his writings are making news as much as ever.

In 2010, a controversy exploded in Italy regarding the shady sale of Arezzo's Vasari archive for 150 million euro to an unnamed Russian. News then spread of unpaid inheritance tax on the archive. The Italian government stepped in, blocking the export of the papers; then the mysterious Russian died. In another strange twist, the Italian inheritor of the archive subsequently died. The as yet unresolved story revealed a bizarre trail and generated crucial questions, principally: How is it possible that such an important archive risked sudden sale and export? Weren't the days of Bernard Berenson wrapping up Renaissance masterpieces in blankets and shipping them off to American collectors a thing of the past? The bottom line (for the moment) is that the archive is still in Arezzo where it will hopefully remain for Vasari's quincentennial and well beyond. As the employee at Vasari's house in Arezzo proudly announced to me last summer: "Qui è e qui rimane." The archive is here, and here it will stay.

I first read translated excerpts from Giorgio Vasari's famous book nearly twenty-five years ago as a budding art history major at Northwestern University. During my freshman year in an upper-level Renaissance art history course, his book was heavily referenced, from Giotto to Michelangelo. My art history professor worshiped Michelangelo and could not wait to illustrate, with Vasari's help (because Vasari, too, worshiped Michelangelo), how the great Florentine surpassed the earlier, awkward Giotto. For me, on the other hand, the pictorial world of Giotto captured and conveyed nothing less than the inner architecture of spirit and beauty. The grainy slides were my introduction to the formal tension between Giotto's Gothic verticality and linear perspective-the flat planes, strategic overlappings, and suggestions of deep space. The dynamic organization of elements supported and heightened the intense emotionality of Giotto's subjects. But it would take me several more years to understand that more than a desire to be a historian of Giotto, I wanted to paint like he did. Later, I would travel many times to Assisi and Padua, continuing to discover further layers of the fresco cycles' complexity and richness.

I remember my Northwestern professor pacing in front of the slides, talking about Vasari's biographical accounts and quoting from them, rolling his r's every chance he got. These r's were a far cry from the r's we practiced in the Francophile household in Central Virginia where I grew up. There, my sisters and I-as extensions of our mother's passion for everything French, from sauces to fabrics-memorized the spelling of half-pronounced French words and attempted throughout our youth to locate the exact place in the back upper palette of our mouths that would allow us to properly say words like merci or je vorrais un verre de vin rouge or, most importantly (as our mother would have us believe), les escargot au beurre, s'il vous plaît. The Italian r's, on the other hand, rolling over the tip of my Northwestern professor's tongue like sunflower fields in southern Tuscany, were completely foreign to my ear. They toppled and traveled in melodic waves, spilling through names and words in what seemed to me then like a language made up of uninterrupted, watery sounds. Yet when I tried the r's in the privacy of my dorm room, Michelangelo's last name sounded like a bad spaghetti dish from the local Italian restaurant. My Italian pronunciation notwithstanding, a lasting spark for the paintings of the early Renaissance was kindled and the achievements of Giorgio Vasari, too-not least of which that he could be called the West's "first art historian"-were seared in my mind.

However, I put Vasari and Giotto on hold for Dérain, Matisse, and Bonnard during Northwestern's junior year study abroad program in art history in Paris. I lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine with a traditional and strict French family that required their young children and me to dress up for dinner. There was a lot of "vousvoy-ing" going on, even between family members. By now I had mastered the guttural "r" and had moved onto more pressing translations of what exactly it was I was eating at dinner, soon discovering that all of the items sounded much better in French: boudin (blood sausage), langue du beouf (beef tongue), raie (stingray), lapin (rabbit). (At the end of my year in France, I became a vegetarian.) But a girlfriend and I did visit Florence over spring break. It was 1989, my first time in Italy.

Green shutters, mustard-colored stucco walls, weathered orange roof tiles, cobblestone streets with patches of wobbly stones that made a hollow sound when cars bumped over them, sidewalks that began two feet wide and were only a few inches by the end of the block, wafts of tobacco smoke and the bitter, delicious smell of espresso seeping from ubiquitous cafés onto the via this or the borgo that, croissants replaced by the more diminutive and sugary cornetti, bicycles and mopeds zipping by in all directions piloted by grandfathers, teenagers, and businesswomen alike (in skirts and heels with children dangling off the back), tiny truckbeds propped atop three-wheeled versions of motorini, Paris Renaults further shrunk into Fiats, men in neatly pressed shirts with sunglasses and cigarettes whose DNA would not permit them to get to work without pausing to greet my tall, blond and blue-eyed friend, "Ciao, Bella!" (she was proposed to in Rome the following week), medieval streets that hinted at past mystery and intrigue but whose narrowness also represented the "human scale" of this monumentally important city-a narrowness that seemed to warmly embrace us as we walked through a Macchaioli painter's palette of earth tones, and the sleek grey Arno, like an Armani suit, coolly and confidently separating north from south.

The week in Florence left enough of an impression that three years later, after my degree and two years of studio art study in San Francisco, I was packing my bags for a yearlong art course in Florence. It didn't matter that every time I tried to speak or even repeat what I heard in my pre-trip language class, a jumble of French-sounding words ushered forth. Within a few days of my arrival, I found an apartment, buried my tennis shoes in the bottom of my closet, enrolled in a six-month intensive Italian language course, added two more wheels to the local transportation system by buying a used bike, and met Florentines I still count among my close friends today. By the end of the year, I could roll my r's like Vasari himself and had met the person I would marry and move to San Francisco with six years later, in 1998.


Increasingly, in the years after the birth of our children, I wanted to finally dig my teeth into more substantial schooling in the arts. I had been painting steadily and exhibiting my work for years, but for the Master's I wanted to turn my focus to areas I'd been quietly and somewhat privately exploring: poetry and book art. I soon discovered that a degree combining these very things was being inaugurated the following academic year at Mills College (just 18 miles from where I lived) and there was still time to apply.

A little over a year later in February 2010, now a full-time student at Mills, I found myself in the Heller Rare Book Room, working on an assignment related to early letterpress printing from book art guru Kathleen Walkup. We were to select one or more books printed before 1700 as the point of departure for the creation of a contemporary artist's book produced in a small edition that explored, explicitly or implicitly, the lasting impact of print. At Mills, there is an unusually rich cache of rare books for a college this size and my initial catalogue search revealed a large number of volumes in this pre-1700 category. Needing to rein in the scope and given my background in Italian culture, I naturally found myself digging around for pre-1700 Italian books. Of the thirty or so books I located was an original copy, containing all three volumes, of Vasari's 1568 second edition of the Lives. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it, but I knew instantly I had my book.

As I began paging through the three separately bound sections, the serendipity of the circumstances came into full focus. It was one of those times when a convergence of events is almost palpable, events which, before ordering themselves in front of you in that moment, were otherwise sprawled disconnectedly across many years or, in this case, decades. I'd had this feeling before, when the decisions and consequences over a lifetime ultimately puzzle together in such harmonious (or poignant, or tragic, it depends) ways as couldn't be planned. Sometimes it feels like coincidence, sometimes, like my day in the library, it feels like tapping into the inner workings of your life's hidden plan.

Here I was-twenty-five years since my first art history course at Northwestern with six of those spent in Florence-at a small women's college library in Oakland, California, that just happened to have all three volumes (in excellent condition) of Vasari's seminal book. And I could read it, not effortlessly, but I could read it. At the time of his 1550 first edition, it would still have been fairly common for a book to be printed in Latin, but the mass appeal of Vasari's book and my ability to read it are linked to the accessible language in which it was published, a vernacular largely cemented as the official Italian language thanks to an earlier Florentine, Dante.

In this second edition, Vasari added more artists as well as woodcut portraits for each new chapter; when he didn't know what the artist looked like, he made it up or, occasionally, left the oval blank. The male faces stared back at me in succession as I went from chapter to chapter, until, quite unexpectedly, I was arrested by the book's sole image of a woman: the portrait of Properzia de' Rossi, a sixteenth century sculptor from Bologna. It is true that each page of this massive art historical work is chock-a-block full of text, but at three and a quarter pages, her chapter is slim any way you look at it. Furthermore, clumping artists together under one "Life" was an organizational method Vasari used for minor artists throughout the book and in these few pages, Vasari also includes three additional 16th century female artists: Lucrezia Quistelli, Plautilla Nelli, and Sofonisba Anguissola. But the achievements of these four female contemporaries are not all he packed into this tiny chapter: he managed to cover the whole of female artistic contribution from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance. He did make mention of a few more female artists elsewhere in the volumes, but the space cumulatively dedicated to women is, by today's standards, ridiculously limited. However infuriating this notion was to a twenty-first century female mind, I of course recognized that for the world in which Vasari lived it would have been highly unusual to dedicate any pages at all to female artists. The Renaissance women artists he wrote about must have been extraordinary.

For my project, I conjured a book where all of the male artists would be missing-Giotto, Leonardo, Raffaello, the all-important Michelangelo: gone!-and only Properzia's chapter would remain. The book would be the same size as the original but would contain hundreds of empty pages with just a blip of print in the third volume, the sprinkling of words indicating the few female artists found elsewhere, and letterpressed scatterings from his exhaustive table of contents listing the works' locations. I also wanted to poke fun at Vasari's descriptions of the women and some of their work (for example, Vasari tells us, "not only in household matters" did Properzia excel: she could fold laundry and wield a chisel). But in the end, time constraints did not allow me to realize all three volumes as I'd imagined. Instead, I created a much-reduced interpretation, identical in page size to the original, but of just the one chapter dedicated to women. And I did poke fun of Vasari, perhaps too much fun given how unusual it was for him to write about women in the first place.

Within minutes of discovering the Properzia chapter at Mills, I found myself copying Vasari's woodcut portrait of her in my notebook. Later, I developed this sketch in order to make a polymer plate, which became an image in the book and the cover image, very lightly printed in this latter case to imply women's absence throughout art history. I copied Vasari's self-portrait and used it as well. (Someone in Italy told me that I had improved Vasari's looks considerably.) In terms of the text, I reproduced a few of Vasari's phrases in the original Italian, such as the one about Properzia's household duties, or another in which Vasari states of Plautilla Nelli, "Her best work was that which she copied from other male artists" or Vasari's recognition of Properzia's physical beauty (what did that have to do with her creative output?).

It just so happens that three months after locating the Vasari books in the Heller Library, I was traveling to Florence with my family to visit my Italian in-laws. A few days before leaving, I decided to arrive in Florence armed with a letter from Mills certifying my scholarly status in order to access libraries there-the letter being a necessity to view rare books in Italy, as anyone who has been to as much as an Italian post office can imagine. I was certain that multiple copies of the Vasari editions were housed in his favorite city and I was determined to hunt around Florence for the books. Inside what was propelling me forward was not furtherance of a graduate assignment but the many personal and cultural stories and histories that, especially for me, bridge Italy and the US. The graduate work had showed me a door, a door into history via the history of print. In Italy, it turned into an inquiry that not only tangibly intersected history, but one where history felt like an active agent in the present.

Over dinner the very night of our groggy arrival, my father-in-law told me about a recently restored painting by a 16th century female nun. I immediately recognized the name, Plautilla Nelli, as one of the four artists Vasari featured. Within minutes, my father-in-law and I were on his computer looking up information about the restoration. He knew there had been an American woman involved, but he wasn't sure about the particulars. Indeed, we discovered the restoration and others like it had been funded by Indiana native, Jane Fortune (known in Florence as "Indiana Jane"), an arts-loving philanthropist turned art historian who, like me, has strong ties to Florence. But there was more: she had recently come out with a book, in November 2009, entitled Invisible Women, Forgotten Artists of Florence.

The next morning, my children lovingly ensconced with their Italian grandparents, I made a beeline to Paperback Exchange, a primarily English language bookstore I'd known since 1992, confident I would find her book there. And within a few hours, I was well into the volume, feverishly taking notes. On the cover of the book is an image of Artemisia Gentileschi's mid-seventeenth century painting, David and Bathsheba; the book's title obscures part of the face of Bathsheba. Both the title and the image are a clear statement of absence, similar to what I had been after in my own project. Unfortunately, there is nothing particularly new about underscoring the common fact of women's absence throughout history, but something about finding Ms. Fortune's book at that particular moment held some magic for me, like one of the dots along my life's connective tissue. (The title graphics that obscure Bathsheba's face are actually covering an area of the neglected painting that is too far gone and cannot be restored, a fact that more devastatingly remarks on the absence of women's contributions throughout history.)

Among the body of research and the many essays in Jane Fortune's book, there is also a map that locates known works by the female artists inventoried. So before I'd even stepped into my first library with my letter from Mills, I had places to go and paintings to see.

During my time in Florence, I managed to obtain permits to look at books at three different libraries. I went to see the smattering of known and viewable paintings by the women Vasari mentioned and several others noted in Jane Fortune's book. I went to Arezzo to visit Vasari's house there. I was even able to obtain a lifetime permit to the famous Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe in the Uffizi where, as one of the highlights of my research, I examined the entire collection of sixteenth century drawings by Plautilla Nelli as well as two drawings by another Vasari artist, Sofonisba Anguissola. (Thanks to Jane Fortune's book, I knew they were there.) But the real zenith of my research into Vasari's book itself occurred in the third library I visited, the Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze.

As hot as Florence is known to be in the summertime (after one August there, I swore it would be my last), the first half of June is almost always characterized by cool weather and thunderstorms. This year was no exception; in fact, it was cooler and rainier than usual. Upon arrival at the Biblioteca Nazionale, I quickly locked up my bicycle (the same one acquired in 1992) and sprinted to the impressive portico, seconds before an enormous downpour. From a glass-encased counter at the entrance, an employee monitored visitors as they swiped their library cards and stuffed lockers with everything but the barest essentials: writing implements, paper, eyeglasses. I was directed to a side office where, as in previous libraries, I presented my Mills letter and passport and was instructed, as usual, to fill out a form. This form was just the first step; from here I was told to go upstairs to the rare book room to determine the kind of library card that was to be issued. I wasn't sure what this meant, but often in Italy it is not necessary to understand every detail of a bureaucratic process; you simply comply.

The Biblioteca Nazionale is an enormous early twentieth century building with a huge atrium in the central lobby. Grave-faced employees sit at the distribution desk checking out books for consultation in the adjacent reading room. I climbed the wide, stone staircase with short risers-the kind, so typical in Italy, that give an illusion of effortlessness to the reality of hoisting your body to higher elevations. Just beyond the extraordinarily heavy glass door (was it bulletproof? I wondered) to the rare book library sat a woman at a small desk to the right. Telescoping behind her was a series of narrow rooms with high ceilings and walls lined top to bottom with books-not the rare books, of course, those lurked in what I imagined to be shadowy chambers behind the walls, in a sort of parallel but secret universe.

The woman at the desk was a dottoressa, which means she holds a university degree. But to simply say she has a "university degree" doesn't begin to describe the accomplishment behind the title. Rigorous and highly subject-specific from the start, the Italian university system (this is true in most of Europe) has little in common with the American one. In addition, from tender young ages, children in Italy must pass both written and oral exams, the latter in front of both the teacher as well as the entire class. This practice progresses and becomes more demanding throughout a young student's (public) schooling. At fourteen, before entering Italy's high school, students must decide the course of their future studies (math and sciences, humanities, languages and translation, a vocational school, pedagogy, fine art, etc.) and consequently, very often, this determines the course of their lives. In order to graduate from high school (which is five years instead of four) in the fields of sciences or humanities, students must pass a series of astonishingly thorough exams, especially by American standards. The final oral exam is given by teachers from different schools, teachers entirely unfamiliar with the particular students they are testing. (No wonder adults with "only" high school degrees in Italy seem so well educated.) University studies continue in this same format but with increased intensity and focus, culminating in the equivalent of a Master's thesis. To complete high school in Italy is considered a very big deal; to complete university earns you the enviable title of "dottore" or "dottoressa." (Perhaps the enchanting charm and self-assurance that comes so naturally to many Italians stems from their lifelong practice of public speaking.)

It is likely that many of the librarians I met also hold a PhD in their field, a feat that should surely have us calling them "dottorissimi" or something like it, but, instead, they too are "simply" dottori. I would discover that the closer I got to the internal organs of the library's collection, the more dottori I would encounter. Indeed, the inner sanctum of the Biblioteca Nazionale is swarming with them.

At the entrance to the rare book room, to this first dottoressa, a kind, soft-spoken woman, I explained that I needed to determine the type of tessera, or library pass, to obtain. (I wasn't even sure myself what the categories were.) She asked to see my Mills letter. After she had looked at it, I told her I was interested in consulting as many copies of the Vasari editions as possible. She brushed that off, saying, "Oh, yes, of course, you can see those, but maybe there are related manuscripts that might interest you? The manuscript room is just beyond those doors." Related manuscripts! This possibility had not occurred to me. "Why, yes, certainly, related manuscripts. I'll look into it." I crossed the room and pushed open one of the oversized coffered doors; it revealed a narrow room with long tables down the middle and heavy wooden chairs with backs that curved into full semi-circles; placed in front of every chair was a carved tabletop bookstand. The room was completely silent with roughly ten people seated at the tables pouring over browning pages propped on the small lecterns. There were several dottoresse (all women) at desks lining the room: two at the big entrance doors, one at the side of the room, and one at the far end of the room near a vertical window that stretched almost to the ceiling. I stopped at the table by the entrance to summarize the purpose of my visit. The Mills letter was requested and reviewed. The dottoressa then sent me to the table at the far end. On that desk, I noticed a small wooden contraption with slots, in the slots were Italian ID cards and passports from around the world, several were American. These, I understood, were being held in exchange for manuscripts. I sensed I was near one of the inner sanctums.

The dotoressa smiled up at me; again I conveyed what I was trying to undertake, indicating that I did not know if there were any manuscripts related to Vasari's Vite. After consulting my letter, she got up from her seat and walked around the desk, sweeping her arms in a Vanna White gesture before a grouping of shelves that contained the catalogue system for the library's manuscripts. I should say "systems" or maybe "the collection of systems," or perhaps it would be more accurate to say she showed me the vast array of books, of all shapes and sizes, where reference numbers and notations correlating to the actual manuscripts were kept. I pulled one out. The problem was-as I would find common also in the rare book library catalogues-that there was no overriding standardized system for reference information. Furthermore, most of the reference information was itself a manuscript, handwritten and photocopied over the years. I could barely decipher the letters in most of the entries, much less know what it was I was looking at. But I had gotten this far into the Biblioteca and I didn't want to ruin my chances. I continued leafing through the scrawled catalogues.

Almost all of the librarians I interacted with in Florence (all but one) were immediately friendly to me-more than friendly, they were helpful and even encouraging. (The one exception would prove later that day to be the key player in the most memorable research experience I was ever to have, and in the end she even warmed slightly.) It wouldn't normally be worth noting that librarians can be friendly, but this is Florence, insular-cliquish-Medici-banking Florence, a city dogged by tourism for centuries. And there I was, the umpteenth visiting American, clumsily groping for information. Even when it was fairly clear I was somewhat out of my zone of knowledge, the librarians treated me respectfully and graciously.

The kind of tourism that has been assailing Florence in recent years knows no limits in its-for lack of a better word-grossness. Hoards upon hoards shuffle through tight, medieval passageways. Busses park on the edges of town and release into the cramped streets clumps of people, led by guides with colorful, raised umbrellas and voices cacophonously overlapping (often with microphones), spitting out the languages of the world. Endless clusters and packs of tourists entering or exiting the city can be seen throughout any given day. Churches like Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce now charge an entrance fee. True, these are among Florence's most important churches-Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo are buried in Santa Croce, along with many others, a priceless crucifix by Cimabue hangs in the refectory. On a side wall of Santa Maria Novella, Masaccio's pivotal crucifixion is painted. But, in a way, these are also neighborhood churches, previously frequented and intimately known by the residents who live in these sections of town. In churches that now charge an entrance fee, residents of Florence may still attend Mass without paying, but this church service is almost always performed in a cordoned-off side chapel. What if a Florentine just wants to dip into a church for a few minutes and meander from tomb to tomb in Santa Croce, for example, or sit among the central pews and say a prayer, or show a grandson a remembered and cherished detail-from a fresco, a sculpture, the carved floor, a window, a chapel's nook? Or enjoy Giotto's frescoes in the Cappella de' Bardi as a meeting point mid-way between apartments, as my future husband and I did in 1995 on our first date. Tourism is trampling much of the living and lived history for Florentines themselves-tourism and the need for Florence to pay for maintenance because of it and maybe make a buck or two off of it. In fact, many Florentines now live outside the historic city center, fleeing the car- and moped-choked streets and, most of all, the meandering, ubiquitous rivers of foreigners.

After some time spent paging through the manuscript catalogue entries, I was summoned by the dottoressa. She'd taken pity on me and was in the process of looking up Vasari manuscripts herself. She was consulting a book that, she explained, was part of a recently printed set of volumes attempting to inventory all known manuscripts in Italy. I would quickly learn that the notion of a definitive manuscript inventory is a utopian idea since the discovery of "new" manuscripts is an ongoing enterprise in Italy. In any case, the book she was looking at included manuscripts authored by "V" last names and, printed in legible fonts, it held enormous appeal for me. I sat at a nearby table to review the list of all documented manuscripts by Vasari. His handwriting is well known by scholars via the folder of his manuscripts housed in the archives at his 16th century house in Arezzo. I came to an entry regarding the Lives, which stated that there were no extant documents from this monumental book, no rough drafts, no proofs-nothing.

The time I had spent in the Biblioteca Nazionale so far had been aimed at determining which kind of library card I would be granted. Now, I felt fairly certain that there was nothing from the Lives buried in the scrawled catalogues I'd been trying to interpret earlier, as those predated the newly published inventory book. Also, I reasoned, going through them would take me all summer, and there were still paintings to see and Chianti to drink. But as I got up to return the book to the dottoressa, it occurred to me that it would still be very interesting to see Vasari's handwriting in the flesh, so to speak. Maybe I could try to see at least one Vasari manuscript, even if it was unrelated to the Lives?

Something to note about government employees in Italy: there are a lot of them. And they often go on break. In the minutes I'd been sitting with the printed inventory, my helpful dottoressa had been replaced by a stern, official-looking one. As I handed over the book, I explained that her colleague had loaned it to me to facilitate my manuscript search, that I had not in fact found the manuscript I had hoped to find, but, I continued, I would still be quite interested, if possible, in viewing something penned by Vasari. As I was trying to get out this last part, the dottoressa abruptly cut me off. She'd like to see my letter from Mills, per favore. I pulled out my now dog-eared letter. This time, she spent a full couple of minutes reading it. (Was she really able to read English that fast? She certainly seemed to.) She then looked up at me with a pinched, exasperated expression: "What is it you are researching exactly, Signora?" Until this moment, it had not been necessary to expound upon my particular interest in the female artists discussed in Vasari's book, nor had I had to describe the precise nature of my studies at Mills. I had not had to reveal that I was not a historian or an art historian, or that I was not, in fact, a Vasari scholar of any kind.

As a way towards explaining why I hadn't mentioned my Mills studies yet, it is important to know that in Italian universities, there is no such thing as a creative writing major. It simply does not exist as a viable avenue of study, not on the undergraduate or graduate level. Poetry (and story telling, for that matter) is everywhere in Italy, even in the proverbial post office, and, like public speaking, it is part of the very fabric of Italian culture. Maybe to study it would be to shine a rude light on its mysteries and scare the Muse out of her secret grotto, I don't know. And the contemporary concept of "book art" is even more obscure. Even in the US it is a field that eschews fixed definitions, encompassing instead a very wide range of possibilities. It goes without saying that, despite exhibitions and dedicated websites, book art in Italy is not a formalized field of study. It wouldn't help to tell this dottoressa that the Mills MFA is the first of its kind in the US, that it is a course of study bringing together the naturally marry-able disciplines of creative writing and book art. It wasn't so much that I couldn't describe it, it simply would not have made sense to her.

But before I could attempt an answer, she continued impatiently: "Signora, there have been countless publications on Vasari's Lives; scholars have written and rewritten about it and him: Vasari the art historian, Vasari the architect, Vasari the painter, etcetera. Surely you must know..."-and here she rattled off at least five names which all blew passed my ears like speedy lyrics from The Barber of Seville, then continued, "... certainly you are aware that here in Italy we have volumes of research, books, essays, papers- documenti su documenti. What, Signora, do you possibly have to add to the canon?" In an instant, my fairly thorough knowledge of the Italian language evaporated, as if I had just swallowed an Alice in Wonderland shrinking language potion. The full realization of my utter lack of preparation and qualifications hit me like a ton of Carrara marble.

Looking back on it, her scorn so complete, I am not sure what possessed me to press on; maybe it was the awareness that things couldn't get much worse, or maybe the sheer humility gave me the courage to squeak out a phrase, or maybe it was a deeper knowledge I have about Italians: they are a creative and spontaneous people. And even though the dottoressa sitting before me didn't exhibit this latter characteristic, I opened my mouth, as surprised as she was by what came out: "You see, what I am doing here is not trying to make new discoveries about Vasari's Lives. Of course, the scholarly discoveries worth making have likely been made and the research written. I, on the other hand, have come back to Vasari through a consideration of the female artists he writes about and a study of the location of his famous publication on the history of printing timeline, from the point of view of the history of the printed book, the history of typography. And what I wish to add in the end is not more documenti, but a creative project, a creative reinterpretation. In short, I am not a scholar, I am an artist."

I don't know which of these words caused her grimaced faced to soften, but in a flash she looked years younger. A glimmer crept into her eyes, even the potential of a smile hovered closely. "Ecco! Allora. Bene," (Aha! Well. Good,) she said, "The history of the book, the history of typography! I have a colleague in the back who made a discovery several years ago. I believe it relates to Vasari's Lives and to the history of printing. I will go and ask him right away." She leapt up from her chair and disappeared behind her desk through a second set of heavy, creaky doors. Within moments she ushered me into a room that I knew was ever nearer the heartbeat of the library. She introduced me to Dottor Scapecchi who was only half-visible behind a desk loaded with papers, boxes, magazines, files, books, and a computer teetering near a corner. Then she backed out of his office, pulling the doors closed.

Dottor Piero Scapecchi was a small man, about fifty or so, with a mop of jet-black hair and glasses. He was casually dressed in a striped short-sleeved knit jersey shirt with a white collar. The frosted glass doors of inbuilt cabinets stretched across the wall behind him. Another of the oversized windows was next to his desk, slightly ajar. Gray-black clouds and the Arno were distorted in the leaded glass and I could hear mopeds splashing through the puddles as they sped by. Only the haze of cigarette smoke was missing; surely it had swirled around this room right up until the day the recent smoking ban was finally enforced. From his glasses, Scapecchi did not look up.

The dottoressa had told him I was interested in the history of typography as it related to the Lives, he said. Feeling some courage at having won over the stern-faced dottoressa, I decided I would try to flesh out my project to him and introduce the concept of contemporary book art. I didn't get very far. Regarding book art, Scapecchi merely stated, " Perchè," but it wasn't really a question. (What are you going to tell Italians, after all, about making books?) So I decided to talk a little bit about the female artists. Again, he cut me off, "Oh, no, I don't know about that," gesturing as if to brush a mosquito away from his face. He continued obliquely, "I'm not interested in the text." What? Not interested in the text? Wasn't he a specialized manuscript librarian in one of Italy's most important libraries? Wasn't text his thing? But I could already sense that Scapecchi was a man of few words. I didn't push him to explain. I simply "complied."

I inquired about his discovery in the library. "I came across a document from the Lives in 1998 when I was cataloging a miscellaneous stack of papers in a box from Palazzo Strozzi," he said. "I wrote an article about it." He tapped on his keyboard for a minute and read me the long, winding title. He was vague about where I could find it, but he did mention the publisher, a German Institute in Florence. He was equally aloof and brief regarding what the discovery actually was, stating matter-of-factly that it had to do with the printing of the Lives and that there were handwritten corrections in the margins. He did not describe any detail of his finding, nor did his voice communicate even the slightest enthusiasm about it. He half-remembered the catalogue number for the manuscript, saying I could check it out with the librarian at the desk. I wasn't sure how I would find it since I had just read that there were no known manuscripts connected to the Lives, but, again, I didn't press him. He stated flatly that I should know about a 2005 book entitled, The Life of The Lives. Then, gazing at some speck on the granite floor, he waved in the direction of the manuscript room-my cue to leave. Perplexed by his uncommunicative manner (uncharacteristic for most Italians I knew) and unclear about what it was he had found, I exited through the double doors. Back in the manuscript room, I whispered my thanks to the formerly scornful, now smiling woman, confirming to her that there was in fact a document of interest.

Finally, the time had come for the issuance of a library card. More forms had to be filled out and taken to another desk where the passport and letter were again required. I would have to return to the first floor to reconfirm information and there I would, at last, pick up the actual card. I was told that the manuscript library card also allowed for consultation of anything in the rare book catalogue and, in fact, anything else in the library. It did not, however, permit me to take books out of the library, not even a recently published paperback. As I was filling out the forms, Scapecchi unexpectedly reappeared, having remembered the full catalogue entry for the manuscript, which I quickly jotted down. By this time, it was late in the day. I would have to return the next morning in order to check out his mysterious 1998 finding. Prized green tessera finally in hand, I left the library. That evening as I thought back over the curious and ultimately fortuitous encounters, I tried to picture Scapecchi's document: was it a printed page from the Lives with handwritten corrections in the margins?

The following morning, June 16th, my jeans were drenched by the time I reached the library doors. I locked up my backpack, swiped my card like a pro, and took the stone stairs two at a time. It was humid and warm inside. I was prepared for innumerable obstacles when I saw a new face at the manuscript request desk, but, to my amazement given the norm for this country, things went very quickly. Within minutes a rectangular box with a hinged cover was produced. The (new to me) dottoressa said she didn't know where inside the box my document was or if it was really in there, but I could stand at a corner of her desk and con attenzione (carefully) look through it. I knew I was on the right track when I took out the handwritten inventory list and saw Scapecchi's signature and the date-November 1998-at the bottom. I realized this was the very "Strozzi box," unchanged since Scapecchi had catalogued its contents fourteen years prior. Three-quarters the way down the inventory list, I saw the Vasari entry. I began lifting out the files one at a time, scanning each document inside. When I determined the Vasari document was not in a particular file, I would gingerly replace the file in a stack next to the box. I was struck by the randomness of the box' contents: papers from the 1970s and others, undated, clearly from centuries earlier, letters, notations, and even what looked like an astrological chart of some kind. (Surely many of these documents would be in frames on museum walls had they been in the US.) Other than flimsy folders (almost certainly not acid-free), there was nothing protecting these papers. Had I not felt the gaze of the dottoressa, I would have lingered over the more intriguing papers, like the astrological chart, but I maintained a purposeful sifting, fearing she might interrupt me just as I now felt so close. And then, all of a sudden, floating inside the Strozzi box-no protective file, no identifying marker-there it was: a manuscript with the title "Raf. da Urbino" at the top.

Mamma mia.

This was a draft of some portion of Raphael's chapter (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) from the Lives. A shot of electricity running through me, I said breathlessly, "L'ho trovato." I found it. The dottoressa quickly snapped the box shut, took my passport and sent me to a nearby table with what I determined must be among the rarest art historical documents in the western world.

After sitting in a stunned state for a few minutes, my first inclination, similar to my rendering of Properzia's portrait in the Mills library, was to copy the document. As I did so, the handwriting-the e's that looked like i's and the long s's-came alive for me. There were the written corrections Scapecchi had indicated, clearly by another hand, in the margins. As my eyes adjusted, I still could not quite believe what I was looking at. On the recto and verso of this single linen page in almost perfect condition was a draft of Vasari paragraphs on Raphael, written nearly five hundred years ago. The room was hushed as I sat composed in my curved chair, but on the inside I was as ecstatic as I had ever been, a sound rising inside my head like a screaming crowd of World Cup soccer fans. I didn't have to be a Vasari scholar to appreciate the thrill of the moment. And, like so many things in Italy, it had all happened because of such a chance set of circumstances.

Quite a while later, after I had been studying and staring at the manuscript, Scapecchi happened to walk by. I caught his attention (not his eye) and indicated the document before me. "So this is it," I said, standing up. "You found actual paragraphs on Raphael!" " Sì, sì," Scapecchi said. And in the most complete sentences I ever heard Scapecchi utter, he added, "This manuscript is a copy of Vasari's original. It was done by a monastic scribe from Rimini. The corrections in the margins are by Giambullari." (When I read Scapecchi's article many days later, I learned that Giambullari had been Vasari's main editor on the project.) So although it wasn't directly penned by Vasari, Scapecchi had found the only manuscript from the Lives.

Now that I comprehended the importance of Scapecchi's discovery, I wanted to know everything about it, including all of the extraneous details: What time of day was it when he actually found the manuscript? Was it raining or was the sun shining? What had he had for breakfast? What circumstances had led him to that particular box on that particular day? What was this priceless 16th century document doing in a box of miscellany? Why was it still in there? Are there more boxes like it lying around the library?

But I didn't, of course, ask these questions of Scapecchi, except for one I couldn't resist: "Were you able to keep yourself from hopping around your desk when you realized what the manuscript was?" Finally, he cracked a Mona Lisa smile-the most I would ever get from Scapecchi-which I just caught as he headed for the ornate doors to his office.

In subsequent days at the Biblioteca Nazionale, I consulted (but could not check out) the book Scapecchi had told me to look up, The Life of the Lives by Carlo Maria Simonetti. It is an exhaustive account, as yet untranslated into English, of everything known regarding the printing of both editions of the Lives. It contains, for example, a modern-day inventory of the editions and where most of them can be found. It also confirms that the Raphael document discovered by Scapecchi in 1998 is indeed the only known manuscript related to the printed text, the assumption being that all manuscript drafts were destroyed as the metal type was set.

Still more days later, I learned that Piero Scapecchi, author of several books and articles, is an expert in the area of incunabula. It dawned on me that what he must have meant by "the text doesn't interest me" was that his deeper curiosities were riveted to the transformation of the first manuscripts into the revolutionary and lasting form of print. For Scapecchi, perhaps it wasn't so much what texts were about, I pondered, remembering how he'd waved off Vasari's female artists, but that the texts were among the first to have made it into the medium of print at all.

I also went to the rare book section of the library and spent several days deciphering that card catalogue. I ordered copy upon copy of the Lives, going through each volume, page by page. I remembered the good condition of the Mills copy as I noted that every single Florence volume bore signs of water damage, surely due to the 1966 flood. I delighted in details such as marginalia from the 17th century, in discovering one copy that had considerably larger pages, in a hand-drawn portrait in one of the ovals Vasari had neglected to fill. During my final afternoon in the library, as I examined the last volume in my pile of copies, I found a red ribbon sewn into the spine, marking none other than the first page of the Properzia de' Rossi chapter. The research was circling back around. With this serendipitous omen, I set out on my next quest: to follow the works of art on Indiana Jane's map.

The June weeks in Florence were rife with "coincidence," intriguing trails, and memorable discoveries. The few Plautilla Nelli paintings I was able to see were exceptionally lovely works by a hand that struck me as more closely aligned with an early 15th century Renaissance execution rather than the High Renaissance period during which she painted. My timing in Italy was such that I was also able to see a temporary exhibition of Caravaggesque painters at the Uffizi, which included an entire group of paintings by Artemesia Gentileschi, an artist born decades too late for inclusion in the Lives.

And eventually, thanks to my in-laws, I got a copy of Scapecchi's article from the German History of Art Institute in Florence. I had been waiting to find the answers to some of my questions about the circumstances surrounding that November day of his discovery-whether the light, for example, had shone in through the window, dust hovering above like Galileo's distant moons. Instead, his article was as dry and technical as a bone. That's when I realized the story of his finding, with the necessary accoutrements, was still waiting to be told. And I knew when I told it, I wouldn't forget to mention that the morning of June 16th I'd had a brioche con crema and a cappuccino for breakfast.


Essay and artwork are the copyright of Lyall F. Harris.

©2011 Lyall F. Harris


1 Boase, T. S. R., Giorgio Vasari, The Man and the Book, 50.


Lyall F. Harris is an award-winning painter and published writer. She holds a BA in Art History from Northwestern University (Phi Beta Kappa) and is currently the inaugural MFA candidate at Mills College in the United States' first MFA degree in Book Art and Creative Writing. In 2011, her poetry was published online and in print in  The Prose Poem Project, received the Honorable Mention for the Mary Merritt Henry Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the Bunchgrass Poetry Prize at  Basalt. Her artwork is forthcoming in  La Petite Zine  (July 2011).


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