One of the perks of studying painting abroad on Temple Rome’s campus is that every student gets their own little studio on the second floor of the building. I spend time in there almost every day looking and thinking and listening to audiobooks, dutifully preparing my paintings for the next in-class critique. Recently I’ve been making work about time. Time is a pretty strange thing. It is a force of nature that none of us have control over. In one way or another we must always be subordinate to it. Young people complain about having too much time to kill and old people complain about having too little of it. The earth orbits the sun over and over again, and any number of lives are created and taken away. Children lose teeth, and dogs get run over by cars, and angsty teens gets their braces removed, and elderly people move into assisted living. Babies are born and babies die. Adults turn their lives around, and people commit suicide. The earth doesn’t care, it just keeps on circling the sun over and over again. Time is ruthlessly inhuman, and time is generously kind. It is perpetually dichotomous.
This past week one of my homework assignments was to go to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Barberini and draw art from the Baroque period. I ascended a wide staircase decorated sparsely with bees and the keys of St. Peter (which are known as symbols of the crest of the family Barberini). Upon entering a huge hall, I found my sensory flooded. Every ceiling was decorated with dramatic frescoes of biblical, political and mythological characters in exaggerated poses and bedecked with gold leaf. I walked back to the end of the hall and took a right into a very dimly lit room only to find myself standing in front of Caravaggio’s infamous Judith and Holofernes. It depicts the young and beautiful Jewess, Judith, slitting the throat of an enemy general, Holofernes. After a long night of strategically wining and dining him she takes her chance and murders him. Standing at her side is an ancient maidservant, watching in what appears to be either terror or wrapt excitement. To the left of this painting, hanging in stark narrative contrast, is Caravaggio’s Narcissus. The young blonde is bent over at an extreme angle, staring lovingly at his own reflection in a pool of water. In mythology it is written that he does this, forgetting eating or drinking, till he dies away.
It is so human to attempt to quantify a force of nature. How long is an eternity? Perhaps only Narcissus truly knows. He died staring at his own reflection. And now the flower’s that bear his name grow by water, staring at their own reflection until they too die. Or perhaps it is the ancient maidservant aiding and abetting Judith in her murder. She can tell us in quantity how long she’s lived and all she’s seen. How many deaths and births have her eyes witnessed? I shall follow suit with the drama of the Baroque and say that studying abroad is its own kind of eternity. I have felt great happinesses and sadnesses in my time here already. Every day I wake up, get dressed, brush my teeth, make my lunch and head out from my apartment to take the train to school. On my way there I order “un caffè doppio e uno cornetto cioccolato” from my favorite cafe and walk the rest of the way to campus to attend my classes. I go through my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; then I do it all again! I constantly marvel that I am living in this happy pattern. In some ways it is like a version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Only it is even more happy because I know that this is only four months of my life. I get to live, and love, and explore another country, and then I get to go home to Philadelphia. There I may share what I have learned here with the people around me and the places I inhabit.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s timeless novel, Slaughterhouse-Five he writes, “I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” I have memorized this verse and keep it in my mind like a charm, a talisman, a prayer, if you will. The clock is always ticking. There is never a moment that we can ever truly recreate, no memory that we will ever get back just as it was the first time. However, I believe that if we keep our wits about us, and do our best as people to truly know ourselves, we have the power to write our own stories. I paint as a way of problem-solving. It is a great balm to my mind to feel as though I can duke it out between myself, over a pile of canvas and paints. I paint to rewrite my past, and in doing so am in the constant process of painting my present and future over and over again. Perhaps that is what eternity is.