For my A level in English Lit, I studied a play called ‘Pentecost’, written by David Edgar. The story revolves around a fresco discovered in the remains of a church in a former Eastern Block country, somewhere around the Baltic region. If the fresco is genuine, then it rewrites the story of the European Renaissance. An American expert and a British expert meet with a local expert to examine it and decide what to do with it.
There’s a lot of examination Western cultural and intellectual imperialism in the play, which, frankly, passed my nineteen-year-old self by. My thirty-two-year-old self shall have to remedy this.
However, what struck my equally-long-haired former self was the arguments in the play about restoring the fresco.
The British expert, Oliver, believes that the obvious thing to do is restore it to its original self, make it look like it did when it was finished in some time in the thirteenth century. At the time, there was a lot of talk of restoring old frescos. Maybe I just noticed it. But it all made perfect sense to me. As the British expert Oliver, very sarcastically, says:
Michelangelo took five hundred years of candlegrease and overpainting into full account when he painted the Sistene ceiling, and thus actually intended it should turn a dark brown.
Surely we should see these paintings as they were originally painted. As the artist intended them. That’s just common sense.
I don’t know what I was expecting as a counter-argument, but I didn’t get it. Leo, the American, says:
Whereas the problem with scrapers,– Gabby, is that for all their spritz about the artist’s intentions they, too, have their prejudices, which is for things to look as bright and bland squeaky clean as television. And if they believe there’s no real difference between a quattrocento Venus and a pin-up, and the Sistene’s back wall is just a billboard, then why not strip ‘em down and make ‘em look that way.
Later, he says:
That’s what paintings are, stars, of the Hollywood variety. With tours. And fans. And franchised merchandise. And — entourage. And as such, they are, they must be, universal and eternal. Not allowed to change. Most surely, not allowed to fade. To crumble, to grow old. And of course, they’ll never die.
But paintings do grow old. Their history is written in their faces, just like it is on ours.
It’s taken me over a decade, but I’m beginning to see Leo’s point. I’m on the verge of agreeing with him. Things accumulate history and crumble and fade and… And that’s okay.
But what’s fascinated me for those tenish years is the idea of all the dirt and candlegrease being the history of the painting. Of it being as tactile a record of the painting’s life as the creases on our faces. Of the painting slowly and accidentally recording its life story as it interacts with its environment.
So, yeah. I’ve grown to like the smell of old books. That strange aroma that tells you of a life lived, of the thumbs that have turned pages and the shelves that have held it. That reminder that I am one link in a chain of owners, that I’m a part of the ongoing history the pages are accidentally accumulating. That this book has had many special someone’s, but right now, it’s special someone is me. We will share pleasure, and then pass it on so someone else can share it.
History and life and all of us are messy, complicated things. I’m happier acknowledging and growing to love it than I ever was wanting nothing but the smell of fresh glue and new paper, wanting everything to be as clean as a television screen or a billboard.
So, thanks, David Edgar. Maybe one day I’ll get to see the play actually performed.