by Aldo Magagnino
In Remembering Man, Norman wrote that everybody talks about art: historians, philosophers, teachers, psychologists, auctioneers, critics and archaeologists. Surely, he continued, artists also have got “something to say about ART. Maybe, but their contribution to the discussion could be minimal. Turner is reputed to have said that art was ‘a funny business’. Artists are usually very busy and when they are not at work, the last thing they want is to talk shop.” After all, either you produce art or you stand watching in admiration and wonder. “Meraviglia tutela” (“Wonder protects”) was a saying he would often repeat to remind us that only our ability to be amazed by the wonders of nature and man could save human kind from brutalization and precocious extinction.
Norman Mommens was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on May 31, 1922 (his father was Flemish and his mother was English) and he died at Spigolizzi, Salve (Lecce – Apulia – Italy) on February 8, 2000. Art was his daily occupation, the physical and mental effort to give body and substance to his visions, weaving colours and lines on canvas and papers and quarrying out soft forms, like “rising matter” from the cold Carrara marble, the Salentino tufo, or the stone of England, Catalonia or Greece. Norman had studied at the School of Architecture and Visual Arts of Amsterdam with H. Th. Wijdeveld, but the World War II and two years of forced labours during the German occupation of Belgium prevented him from continuing his studies. During those years he developed a passion for drawing, probably inherited from his father, an engineer at the Kromhout car factory (the manufacturer of the famous Minerva car), later acquired by the British Leyland. When in the 1980s Norman decided to buy a new Land Rover, the car dealer asked him whether he wanted a special optional device, some servo control. At first Norman was perplexed, considering it an unnecessary cost, but then he remembered that his father had worked to develop that kind of device and decided to have it included.
In 1949 Norman moved to Britain and decided to devote himself to sculpture, but drawing would accompany all his creative life, especially during the last ten years, when his drawings became an essential part of his intellectual activity and meditation. In England, he married Ursula Darwin, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Ursula was also a descendant of Josiah Wedgewood, the founder of the world known ceramics factories, and she would become a celebrated ceramist herself. Maybe, before deciding to become a sculptor, for a short period Norman cultivated the idea of working at the potter’s wheel. But the “Man of Stone”, as Pietro Verri used to call him, could not elude his destiny. Stone had already cast its spell on him. Ursula and Norman split up after a few years, but they remained in contact for the rest of their life, though, as one friend said, Ursula never forgave Patience for taking Norman away from her. For the rest of his life, Norman would also be a great admirer of Charles Darwin and his writings. From a certain point of view, much of his meditation was inspired by Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Ursula was a friend of Leonard Woolf, the great English essayist and writer, one of the leading personalities of the London intellectual circle known as the “Bloomsbury Group”, and the husband of Virginia Stephen, better known as Virginia Woolf. It was through Ursula that Norman met Leonard, who commissioned him the “Goliath”, a marble statue for the garden of Monk’s House, the country residence that Leonard and Virginia had bought in Rodmell, East Sussex. The statute is still there.
For Norman, work was essentially joy, inner and outer joy. The outer joy was plain. You could tell it at a glance, just looking at him while he was drawing or carving, or while he was absorbed in the act of working out elaborate calculations to produce geometric creations using a pair of compasses, or silently filling dozens of pages with a minute and ordered handwriting. I have seen some black and white old photographs of him, with hammer and chisel in his hands in front of a block of raw marble. His face is always relaxed and a light seems to shine in his eyes, as if he is already anticipating the joy of drawing another creation out of amorphous matter. He sold many statues and drawings that now distill his joy in so many corners of the world. Artists have to live, too. But it was not for money that he worked and, after all, his lifestyle was of a “Franciscan simplicity” as our common friend Bernard Bickey used to say.
Each one of his creations was, actually, a tribute and a contribution to the beauty of the Earth. And to the Earth, exploited and raped on a daily basis, Norman tried to hand back beauty and inspirational capacity. And he managed to do it. You only had to look at Spigolizzi, and not only at the carvings that tells of his art around and inside the “masseria”. Even his way of tending the land was a sign of the joy that art can create. I have photographs of the field in front of the farmstead, just across the road, taken from the top of the “tower”. The plants of legumes and vegetables were bedded in concentric circles around the great stone “Fool”, gentle round lines in all the shades of green that seemed to draw a great spiral, reminding those that were so dear to Patience Gray, the kindred spirit he had met in London in the fifties and who would share forty years of her life with him.
For thirty years Norman and Patience were the enthusiastic lovers and guardians of the maquis, the Mediterranean “macchia”, and of the remains of the ancient civilization of Salento, of the poetic beauty of mastic trees and “sarsaparilla”, the creeper known as Smilax aspera that that often appears on the bronze age pottery produced by the Messapians, the Salentino Bronze Age ancestors. Patience had developed a unique ability to detect fragments and tiny tools of Neolithic flint. Her collection of arrow heads would be the envy of every museum. Norman had created a cartoon, signing it with the pseudonym of Nimbo. The character was a Salentino lizard, “Coppula Tisa”, inviting, with barbed irony, the Salentinos to awaken and take action against the disasters caused by the criminal greed of a few and by the callousness and the conspiracy of silence of so many.
Work was joy for Patience, too, in her room overlooking the “stone lake”, where she was always busy creating jewelry or writing articles for British or American newspapers or working for hours on the manuscript of one of her books, some of which are now international bestsellers. She was born in Shackleford, in Surrey, not far from London, on October 31, 1917, the daughter of Olive and Herman Stanham. Her maternal grandfather, Johann Warschawski, was a Polish rabbi who had fled to England during the 1861 pogroms. It was Herman’s father who decided to change his Polish family name into Stanham, before entering the British Army, in a mounted artillery regiment. Patience started to travel when she was still very young. At sixteen she was in Germany to study German and Economics, though she favoured art and history. In 1938 she and her sister Tania, who would later become a talented photographer, travelled to Romania. There, Patience wrote her first article, for a Romanian newspaper, on the occasion of the death of Queen Maria of Romania. The director of the paper became infatuated with her and started courting her, flooding her room with flowers, whose penetrating perfume made her sick. To elude her too persistent suitor, she and Tania fled to Balcic, on the Black Sea, on a four-seat monoplane flown by a Romanian prince.
Patience loved to say, recalling Gertrude Stein, “I write for myself and strangers.” We, the strangers, are glad she did it. For those who have at home a copy of Honey from a Weed, her book of Mediterranean cookery and culture, of “ritual fasting and culinary feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia,” even preparing a simple dish of chickpeas is a life experience, an immersion into a world of peasant wisdom and civilization that Patience’s book contributed to keep alive for future generations. When Patience had to choose a title for the volume, Norman suggested a verse by William Cowper, “They whom Truth and Beauty lead/Can gather Honey from a Weed”. The book, splendidly illustrated by Corinna Sargood and published by Prospect Books in 1987. As Patience wrote,
“A vein of marble runs through this book. Marble determined where, how and among who we lived, always in primitive conditions … The Sculptor’s appetite for marble precipitated us out of modern life into the company of marble artisans and wine growers in Carrara and into an isolated community of ‘Bronze Age’ farmers in Naxos. The friendship of a Catalan sculptor and his wife and the incitement of a golden stone in a Roman quarry near Vendrell revealed – a summer long – the frugal and festive aspects of Catalan life. The recipes in this book accumulated during this marble odyssey in the ‘60s, and went on accumulating when in 1970 we settled in the vaulted workspaces of a ruined ship farm in the Salentine peninsula.”
A couple of years later MacMillan published a paperback edition of the book but Patience never liked it (“the margins of pages were too narrow”). Today, Prospect Books still publish Honey from a Weed, in the original hardback edition and also in paperback.
Honey from a Weed also saved my life (as well as my daughter Alessandra’s). After the sudden and premature death of my wife I found myself charged with the need to feed myself and a nine year old girl. I remember serving her horrible things to eat (which the little angel always said they were good!) though I tried to experiment the recipes provided by some friend or colleague. But when a few years later I met Patience and she gave me a copy of Honey from a Weed, the quality of our food prodigiously improved, to the supreme wonder of friends and relatives. I even learned to give advice about how to cook a chicken or fish or legumes. Patience often laughed when she heard me talking with neophyte enthusiasm.
However, before Honey from a Weed, Patience had published another fundamental book for British women (and not only British), who were busy working and, at the same time, had the responsibility of a family. In 1957 Penguin had published Plats du Jour, a French title for a book which soon became a classic all over the Anglo-Saxon world. Written by Patience in collaboration with Primrose Boyd, and illustrated by their friend David Gentleman, Plats du Jour is an extraordinary collection of inexpensive recipes of pasta, rice, soups, fish, meat, all of them a main course that could feed a family and help out of her predicament a woman who had to divide her time between house and work. But the aim of the work was also another one.
“In this book I have tried to set down the recipes for a number of dishes of foreign origin, in the belief that English people may be stimulated to interpret them, and in doing so find fresh inspiration in the kitchen.”
For thirty years, in the quiet of the Spigolizzi farmstead, the life of Patience and Norman was marked by the different occupations dictated by the passing of seasons: ploughing, seeding, the olive harvest, the great celebration of the wine harvest, when all their friends would come and help producing the new wine, working in the candle lit “palmento”, the room where the tank for the treading and the fermentation of must is traditionally located in Southern Italy farmsteads. At the same time Norman continued to cultivate his art in the studio, also finding the time and energy to exhibit his works. Some memorable exhibitions were held in Matera, at La Scaletta (“Materia Sorgente”, 1989) in Casarano , at Palazzo D’Elia (“Costellazioni, Terra e Pietre”, 1986, and “Crocevia”, 1992 and in Cambridge, Broughton House, 1991).
In the meantime, Patience kept chiselling words in her room, a cigarette perennially lit between her index and middle finger, bent on her Olivetti 22, which sometimes I would take to Gallipoli for repairs or maintenance, leaving her my Olivetti 32. This daily routine was sometimes interrupted by the arrival of friends and visitors from all corners of the world, Americans, English, Germans, Swedish in addition to Italians and local people. Often, round the kitchen table conversations would interlace in two or three different languages. Because, Norman and Patience were polyglot and could speak perfectly Italian, English and German and, with various degrees of fluency Spanish, French and Catalan. Norman also spoke Flemish.
Conversation with Norman and Patience was engaging. Norman had developed a fascinating series of philosophical and anthropological analysis, only partially included in Remembering Man (Edizioni Levante Arti Grafiche, Presicce 1991); the rest was left in the form of notes and were never published. He was convinced that the problem of fighting poverty and finding an answer to the needs of mankind has little to do with technological progress.
“The conferences, seminars and media coverage that wage our war on want and greed leave us with the uneasy feeling of having perfected our ballistics, only to be supplied with blank shots. Machines and money can no more save us from poison and poverty than improved meteorology can save the farmer’s fortunes from the vagaries of the market. The solutions offered are technical and financial; nothing happens because the problem is cultural.”
That is why, he concluded, it is necessary to “remember man”, that is to allow the resurfacing of specific traits of humanity, joining
“First and last things, fear and joy, mutually tempered by wonder, finding essence of things and seeking above all, not ‘The Truth’ but truthfulness. He [Man] himself is the most shining manifestation of Creative Imagination, a perfect embodiment of its power to qualify all things while retaining its essentially unqualifiable nature. He is, in this sense indeed, made in the image of his Creator”
I loved listening to Patience when she recounted to me her life in England in the fifties, in London, a city that was not very different yet from the one I had known at the beginning of the ‘70s, before everything changed, before the corner shops disappeared, and so the spice shops in Soho, the bottle of milk in front on the doorstep every morning and the ubiquitous red telephone booth. Sometimes, overcoming her natural reserve, I could convince her to tell me about the people she had met and one evening I discovered that she had met the great T. S. Eliot at a cocktail party in a country mansion in Sussex, a few years after the war. Patience described her conversation with the poet in “Meeting Mr. Eliot”, one of the pieces she kept writing over the years, the “fascicoli”, often inspired by episodes in the daily life at Spigolizzi. She will later include a selection of these pieces in Work Adventure Childhood Dreams (Leucasia Edizioni, Presicce 1999). In Summer 1994, during one of the many afternoons we spent chatting under the giant fig tree in her garden, she showed me a tiny little book, Fred Uhlman’s A Moroccan Diary, published by Penguin in 1949. She told me about her friendship with Uhlman, dating back to the early fifties. Once, when she and her two children were staying at the same hotel in Wales with Fred and his wife, Patience decided to take the kids on an excursion in the mountains. While they were away a storm suddenly broke and Fred ran to rescue them, bringing the trio safely back to the hotel.
In January 1995, Patience edited and published a private reprint of Uhlman’s Moroccan diary, at her own expense, to commemorate her friend on the tenth anniversary of his death. I translated the booklet and sent the translation and a copy of the English edition edited by Patience to the Italian publisher Guanda. A few months later the general manager of Guanda phoned to tell me that they had published Uhlman’s Moroccan diary in Italian (Marocco, Guanda, Parma 1996), but that it was not my translation. Because of some hitch, on the editor’s table only the English version of the book had arrived and they had hired one of their translators for the job. Later, someone had fished back my translation, which was good but … too late. He was very sorry, and so was I, but then he asked me: “Would you translate something else for us?” So, a translation never published brought me good fortune anyway and was the real start of my career as a literary translator. Patience was overjoyed.
Patience often repeated that living on the margins of the world does not mean living on the margins of civilization. From this perspective, she was a forerunner of the best cultural globalization. In many lecture halls never passed so much culture as it passed on the kitchen table of Spigolizzi. International radio and TV journalists came down to interview her. On the web, on the fourth radio channel of the BBC, it is still possible to listen to one of these interviews.
Patience died at 88, after a short illness, on March 10, 2005. A few months later The Centaur’s Kitchen was published by Prospect Books, edited and illustrated by Patience’s daughter, Miranda Gray. It is the first edition of a small volume that Patience had written many years earlier and it has a very particular genesis. In 1964, the Blue Funnel Line shipping company, whose ship Centaur travelled back and forth from Singapore to Western Australia, carrying goods and passengers, asked the writer, at the time already famous for her bestseller Plats du Jour, to write a manual, more than a simple recipe book, that could be used by the Chinese cook on the ship to prepare meals for the crew and the average two hundred passengers travelling on each crossing. The recipes have been recovered and beautifully illustrated by Miranda Gray. The result is a fine volume, a feast of colours (and taste!) for gourmands and a posthumous homage to a great lady.
I am indebted to Patience also for the discovery, or rediscovery maybe, of Greece. She and Norman spent one year on the Island of Naxos around the half of the sixties. On the Aegean island, Norman carved the local marble, while Patience wrote, collected recipes from the local peasant women and, of course, cooked. Sometimes she would “start something off in a large black pot on a driftwood fire, then Norman and I go and bathe. In June the sea is empty, rough or smooth, and the beach is ours.”
Their house, outside of Apollona, was a “double cube … on the marble cobbled edge of the bay… At first sight it is difficult to distinguish between a house, a stable and a store.” Norman and Patience soon made friends with the peasants living or working near them. Ringdoves and Snakes (Macmillan, London 1988) was born out of this experience.
Patience recounts the idyll with a still wild environment and their involvement in the life of the island. But she also describes the darker side, which sometimes emerges, suddenly and threatening, when you happen to live in a place and among a culture you cannot penetrate completely, the “snake” always lurking. In the end they were forced to leave. They never understood what had happened, their behaviour, their habits may have aroused suspicions or they might inadvertently have done something or seen something. They never knew. Of course, when they decided to leave, or to flee from, Naxos, they took with them the statues that Norman had carved and, both in Apollona, before boarding the ferry to Athens and before leaving Athens for Venice, they had to sweat blood before obtaining all the authorizations and permissions and stamps required by the Greek Byzantine bureaucracy and by the Greek ministry of cultural heritage. The officers at the customs needed a certification that the carvings were Norman’s work and not another stealing of the masterpieces of ancient Greece. When in the end everything was settled, thanks to the intervention of a Greek lady friend, while they “swept on board with the ‘exonerated’ carvings glinting on a luggage trolley, someone in the crowd of onlooking Greeks, furiously called out: ‘Look! There go the Treasures of Greece!’”.
Patience also lent me a few books about Greece to read. Among the others there were The Flight of Icaros, by Kevin Andrews, Greek Myths, by Robert Graves and, last but not the least, Prospero’s Cell, in which Lawrence Durrell narrated his own life in Corfu, with his beautiful young wife Nancy Isobel Myers, between 1935 and 1939. Later I returned the books, but then I bought all of them at Waterstone’s in London. I particularly loved Durrell’s book, and when several years later I visited Corfu I went to see the house where the couple lived bohemian style down Kalami, by the seaside, now a sort of a museum with a “kafeneion” and was delighted to sit on the veranda, sipping a cup of coffee while scribbling a few notes.
I also went for a swim in the little inlet by the lovely St. Arsenius shrine, where Lawrence and Nancy used to bathe naked. Sometimes, Lawrence would throw cherries in the crystal clear water, which went down “to the sandy floor where they loom like drops of blood. Nancy has been going in for them like an otter and bringing them up in her lips.”
Norman was utterly convinced that every single thing, every work of art, every object, created with love and joy could incorporate these qualities and return them in time. “They are spores,” he would say, “Quiescent spores. Sooner or later they will be able to accomplish their mission.” That is why, sometimes, he would give away his creations, or he would sell them at a nominal price. That is why he planted some of his works of art in places known only to him. I know that there is a little statue planted on the rocky shores in the Orkney Islands. Sometimes, on the façade of the houses of Salentino peasants there is a niche lodging the statue of a saint to whom they are particularly devout. In Presicce, one of these niches host the statue of St. Anthony, that Norman surrendered in return of a demijohn of wine. Another niche host a statue of St. Vitus. As a payment, Norman accepted a five-litre demijohn of olive oil.
But Norman’s gifts also had a symbolic value. He once gave me a nice statue of “Lecce stone”, on a base of “Mater Gratiae” tufo.
One evening I had gone to see them and, as usual, Patience asked me to stay for dinner. But, that evening, Norman was sad and Patience, always eager to talk, was strangely silent. Their friend Arno, a German Jew who lived in a nearby farmstead with his British wife Helen Ashbee, was dying of cancer. He was already in his eighties and had fled to Spain during the Holocaust and then migrated to Uruguay. But Norman was particularly sad because he had the impression that Arno could not die yet, not without something that he seemed to be waiting for, maybe. Not that Arno was conscious of it, he was quite confused most of the time and had difficulties to speak at times. But Norman had the impression that he was lingering in his suffering, as if he were not yet ready to depart. “Maybe he should talk to someone of his religion – he said – maybe a rabbi”. “Yes, darling – said Patience in her dark sweet voice – the perennial cigarette burning between her fingers – but where are we to find a rabbi in Salento?” I thought about it, sipping a glass of red wine emanating dark ruby reflections under the Aladdin lamp on the marble-topped table. “I could try – I said – maybe I can find someone in Naples or Rome, where there are large Jewish communities.” Norman and Patience looked at each other, smiling.
In the morning I woke up early and called the telephone company to ask for the phone numbers of the nearest Jewish Community offices, namely in Rome and Naples. The operator told me there was no Jewish community listed in Bari. I tried Naples first, but they took on a bureaucratic approach: they told me that the man was not included in their lists and there was nothing they could do. So I tried Rome. The man at the switchboard listened carefully to my story, then he told me. “Maybe it’s better for you to talk directly to rabbi Elio Toaf. ” I was amazed that it could be so easy to talk to the most eminent member, not only of the Roman Jewish community but of the Italian Jewish community. Elio Toaf was the Italian Chief Rabbi. I had seen his so many times on television, in interviews and in various programmes. I had seen the pictures of his meeting with Pope Wojtyla in Rome. He was extraordinarily famous and, of course, extraordinarily busy.
A few seconds later I heard his voice at the other end: “Hello, I am Elio Toaf.” Simple as that. Has anyone tried to talk to an Italian Catholic Archbishop? I explained once again the case. When I finished, no sound came from the other end, so I said, “Hello, are you still there?” “Yes, – the rabbi answered – I am here. I was just thinking that in a world where bursts of anti-Semitism are still so violent and frequent, it is incredible that there are people who worry and go into so much trouble about the death of an old Jew. I’ll send down one of my rabbis. I’ll pass him your contacts. Thank you so much.”
I could not believe it could be so easy. The following morning I rushed up to Spigolizzi to announce the good news. Norman was so happy and Patience, the grand-daughter of a Polish rabbi migrated to Britain during a pogrom, was thrilled at the idea of receiving a rabbi at Spigolizzi.
The rabbi arrived early one morning at Brindisi airport and I went to collect him. Of course I did not know the rabbi and I was expecting to see someone wearing a kippah or a black hat or some other item that could help me identify him. But no one of the passengers at the arrivals hall looked like a rabbi to me. I waited until most of them left the airport and when the last five passengers were about to go out on the footpath to queue up for the bus to Lecce, I started going round asking: “Excuse me, are you the rabbi I was waiting for?” From the puzzled faces of the first two gentlemen I understood they had never heard of a rabbi, and a rabbi coming to Salento, of all places. However they were very kind, though they kept exchanging alarmed glances as I proceeded on my quest. The third gentleman was my rabbi. I was so happy, we shook hands and then I took the luggage near the rabbi’s feet and started walking with him towards the glass sliding doors of the exit. But before we got there someone behind us started yelling: “Hey, that’s my luggage!” I froze and when I looked back I saw a man running towards me and two policemen approaching. I explained that the luggage was the rabbi’s and then, overcome by doubt, I asked: “Because you are a rabbi, aren’t you?”. And it was then that the rabbi opened his lips for the second time, to say that, yes, he was my rabbi, but had no luggage. I apologized with the legitimate owner and the policemen for the inconvenience, of course it was a misunderstanding and all that, while the policemen patiently listened, nodding their head, as if to say “don’t you dare do that again in my airport, buddy!”
While driving to Arno’s place, I tried to think up of a plan of action. I had told in advance about the visit of the rabbi to Helen receiving a perplexed look. She was a convinced atheist and was not sure that Arno could talk to the rabbi, or to anyone else for that matter, since his conditions were rapidly deteriorating. And of course, though she did not say it, she considered the whole thing a nonsense. I had to explain the situation to my rabbi, including another fact, a lie actually: I had told Helen that the rabbi was just visiting Salento and, having learned that an old Jew lived here, had asked to visit him. The rabbi was very understanding.
When we got to Arno’s place, Helen received us with cold kindness and led us directly to Arno’s room. Arno was reclining in an armchair, wearing a pair of brown trousers, a shirt and a brown waistcoat. A light cotton blanket was on his legs, despite the sweltering heat. He was looking tired and emaciated. And the problems began. Arno, who could speak several languages, including German, Italian, French, English and Spanish, had been refusing for days to speak any language but German. I could speak all his languages except German and the rabbi could only speak Italian and French. Helen, who could have helped us in German had disappeared and had clearly no intention of cooperating. We tried to start a conversation in Italian, English, French and Spanish, but only managed to extract a few indistinct words form Arno. But he understood that his visitor was a rabbi and he asked in English “Why aren’t you wearing a kippah, then?” I translated for the rabbi and he he immediately produced his kippah, that he kept neatly folded in his pocket, and put it on his head, saying a few words in Yiddish. Arno’s eyes shone for a moment and he answered in the same language. They kept speaking that ancient language of the Jew, I could not understand a single word, but that was not important. My presence was no longer needed. Silently, I left the room and went out in the garden.
About forty minutes later, my rabbi reappeared, escorted out by Helen. She smiled, shook hands and retreated. I drove the rabbi to Spigolizzi where Patience had prepared a kosher lunch. But the rabbi could not linger, he had some business in Brindisi before departing on an evening flight to Rome. We sat down under the giant fig tree just outside the house for some time and the rabbi said how moving his meeting with Arno had been. They had prayed and sung together and he had left Arno peacefully sleeping. Before we left, Norman managed to slip an envelope into the rabbi’s hands, with an offer for the Jewish community, and a note to thank Chief Rabbi Elio Toaf in Rome.
Under a fierce afternoon sun I drove the rabbi to Brindisi again and then came back to Spigolizzi, where Patience, Norman and I ate the kosher lunch for dinner.
Arno died the day after.
Some German friends criticized the initiative, saying that it was a sort of intrusion into Arno’s life and an imposition on Helen. They said that the Jews do not have an end-of-the-life rite as the Christians do. Patience listened silently and then placidly answered with her usual enigmatic smile: “But the rabbi has come.”
That same evening, after dinner, Norman took me in his studio and presented me with the statue that he called, “the fledgling”, the unfeathered bird still unable to fly away from the nest. The statue represented a human being with sketchy arms and immature forms. I think it was a sort of allegory of what I was like at the time, a human being still a bit amorphous, despite my forty years, as a bird that could not fly yet but was learning, because if I could bring a rabbi to Spigolizzi, maybe there was still hope.
Ten years later, when I told him that I wanted to buy one of his “Angels”, Norman smiled and nodded silently, his white hair and beard framing the fine head, in one of his characteristic attitudes that will remain in the hearts of all those who knew him. His “Angels” are among his creations I loved most. Once, in Belgium, during the Second World War, he helped a group of people who were trying to rescue a mother and a little girl trapped under the rubble of a house hit by the bombs. A group of men was supporting a heavy beam while others were digging among the collapsed stones: when they found them, they were both dead. The episode was indelibly impressed in Norman’s mind: those rescuers with their arms high up to support the beam with their hands suggested him the image of angels with their wings folded behind their back and he kept reproducing that vision in countless versions and materials, wood, stone, marble, aluminium.
Over the following weeks he started to fiddle with an old wooden angel he had carved several years earlier and that still preserved shadows of its original coats of paint. He stripped and repainted it in white, red, blue and gold. But I noticed that he was taking the thing a bit too easy. Every time I went to visit him I passed through the studio to see what I already considered “my angel” and Norman would nod and smile, caressing the smooth surface of the little carving. But he did not say anything.
Then, one evening he did something that took my breath away. While we were sipping a glass of the “Spigolizzi wine” with its fruity taste and a hint of myrtle, thyme and rosemary, to accompany a piece of “pecorino” cheese and a few slices of salami, he suddenly offered me his “Fool”, the only copy he had made in bronze, a faithful reproduction of the giant stone Fool dominating the yard of the masseria. It was a unique work of art, priceless, and he proffered it as one would offer a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, saying: “Keep it at home for some time and see if you like to have it there.” I knew from that very moment that I could never part from it. And he knew it as well. So I understood that the Fool would be a precious substitute for my angel.
I sometimes wondered why the “Fool” and not the angel. Maybe for Norman I was that Fool at the time, as I had been the fledgling ten years earlier. Actually, I was not really “Fool” yet, but maybe Norman had foreseen that I would be one day. I had not awaken from my slumber yet. The awakening had begun over the years, with so many words eaten and drunk under the fig tree, with the long conversations that now appear to me like a gift “before the end of time”, to quote the title of a fine book by Suzy Gablik that Norman gave me. As Kahlil Gibran’s Fool, I still had to lose masks before the sun could kiss my face.
Norman died on February 8, 2000 and it was on the evening of his funeral that I saw it. In the evening, like cats. When I came back home I sat in front of my computer trying to chase off a sense of loss heavy as a boulder. I uncorked a bottle of wine that Norman had given me a couple of months earlier, as a Christmas gift. It was the last wine we had made together. The ruby colour under the lamp on the desk looked even more intense. I tasted the intense flavour, the aftertaste reminiscent of the perfume of the maquis, thinking again of that day, a few months earlier, when we had squashed the grapes and, after leaving them to rest with their juice, we had worked at the winepress for hours, before pouring the must in the casks, closing them with a bunch of herbs, instead of a cork. It was at that moment that I saw it.
It was leaning on the bottom of the monitor. It had been waiting there for years. Norman had given it to me to celebrate another Christmas: a small figure painted in soft shades of blue on a little wooden board, with an expression of wonder on the face, a long Modigliani neck and a flowing hair. But now, for the first time, I could see that behind the figure there was something: two wings, piling high like a cascade of feathers which reappeared behind the hair and the back. It was my angel and he had been looking at me for years, and I, the “fool” had not noticed it. Every time that I think to my Guardian Angel, now I know what he looks like. And I know that now Norman is among true angels and I am sure he will find them very similar to the ones he imagined and painted. Patience reached him five years later and now they both rest in the cemetery of Salve, a few metres form one another, in the land they had chosen to continue together, until its earthly conclusion, the true romance of their destiny.
Many thanks to John D M Arnold for editing the English text.