Meanwhile I know you will be pleased
if I leave with you
to chew over in your own time,
a small question of interpretation
which arouse out of my visit to Orvieto.
The cathedral contains a chapel,
now know as the Signorelli Chapel,
decorated in 1499 with monumental frescoes,
painted pilasters, panels of grotesques
and false windows
by the famed Luca Signorelli
for a fee of 180 ducats paid pro rata.
Around the lower walls of the chapel
Signorelli has added
series of grisaille medallions
illustrating scenes from Dante's Commedia
They are monochrome,
eerie in appearance
one medallion depicts the scene from Purgatorio III
where Dante is accosted by a mob of souls.
They are demanding an answer.
Dante's text makes clear
that it is Dante's shadow
which has mastered the attention of the whimpering shades,
for throughout the Purgatorio (you well know)
as a living man,
casts a shadow.
Dante makes no mistake
about what the laws of optics require here.
Shadow is a matter of interception of light.
The dead intercept nothing. Capisco.
Much less clear
is Signorelli's rendering of the scene.
He had given everyone a shadow.
The standard guidebook explanation
fails to nourish me:
'...Signorelli has assigned shadows
to all figures unable to supress
his naturalistic training
even at the expense of poetic veracity.'
There are three ways to master death.
Here is the third one (the one
Anna Xenia told me
on the way home from Orvieto).
Signorelli is painting late in his studio
when they carry in his son,
killed in a riot.
He sits up all night with the body,
making sketch after sketch
and throwing them into a pile.
From that time
all his angels
have the one same face.
Anne Carson, Glass and God, Cape Poetry, 1998