'I think images are worth repeating, Images repeated from a painting......'
John Cale and Lou Reed, 'Songs for Drella'.
It was an October in the early 1980s - '82? 83? It doesn't matter - when I first visited Italy. The final flourish of the era when travel really could be an adventure: especially if it was only your third time abroad, and the first time you had gone solo.
The first hint that we were going somewhere properly different was when the plane landed in Rome. All the Italian schoolkids on board shouted, yelled and almost threw an impromptu party at getting home. This would never happen with children from Chingford touching down at Heathrow, I mused.
I staggered out into the Roman evening. It was deserted. Eventually I found a bus that would take me into town. Soon we were bouncing along the arrow-straight streets at breakneck speed; the suburbs of Rome flew by. A short time into the journey, one of the few other passengers, a middle-aged man in a grey coat and trilby hat to match, got up from his seat and began speaking to the driver. Soon there was an almighty argument taking place at the front of the bus: hands gesticulated wildly before generally flailing around all over the place; voices became ever louder, and we nearly ended up in a ditch. Welcome to Italy indeed.
My purpose in heading south of the Alps was not to see Italy at all, really. It was to see the art of Italy. In fact, it wasn't to see the art of Italy in general: it was to see the art of the Italian Renaissance. And if truth be told, it wasn't Renaissance art as a whole. It was to see the art of Michelangelo.
I went to Italy for Michelangelo, and Michelangelo alone. Such was the focus, the single-minded direction, the depth and narrowness that has characterised my life (I feel that it has become tempered in more recent times, but that may be wishful thinking). It has been boon and bane in equal measure.
Michelangelo. The power of the image was nothing new to me. A decade beforehand, my attraction to Buddhism had been fuelled by a book. It was not a conceptual book, about the rational basis for Buddhism - impermanence, suffering and the like. It was called 'Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism' , written by one by Lama Govinda. Centred around the magic and the mystery of the Five Jinas, focal 'archetypal Buddhas', it pulled me irresistibly in. I didn't understand very much of it, but knew that it was onto something very important. It spoke to me. A few years on, now as a fully-fledged Buddhist, I had bestowed upon me a sadhana, a meditation practice centred on a particular Buddha figure, complete with verses of petition and invocation, mantras eliciting Voidness, and so on. While some of my contemporaries
struggled with this manifestation of higher realities, I took to it like a duck to water, practicing daily what was typically the high spot of the day. There were many occasions when, while everything else in my life seemed to be falling apart all around me, the Buddha/Bodhisattva visualisation practice kept me intact.
It was through the influence of my Buddhist teacher that I first started looking at pantings. He insisted on the connection between art and spiritual life; I felt he was onto something there. I began with Monet, Van Gogh, Turner, all relatively accessible I felt. But I soon graduated to the art of Renaissance Italy, where the resonance that I experienced with images (and by 'images' I mean those of 'forms', be it of humans, goddesses, Bodhisattvas, gods, angels, denizens of the underworld, or whatever) once more came into play. Through an image wrought by the hand of an artist in touch with 'Soul' so much could be said. In Michelangelo I sensed the coming-together, the synthesis, of archetypal universal forces which normally stood in oppostion. Heaven and hell; Apollo and Dionysos; light and dark; reason and emotion; water and fire; masculine and feminine: for all these, a transcendent element was invoked, conferring upon the attentive student a higher state of consciousness and of being. All of which was precisely what I craved.
Three days in Rome was more than enough, thank you. Life there was crazy, chaotic, hellish noisy, and precarious. What's more, there's not a lot of Michelangelo to be seen in Italy's capital anyway. I headed north, to Florence, in search of calm, and of David.
In the event, Florence was less of a disturbing experience than had been the capital city. The Michelangelo was fine, but I was moved more completely by the Botticelli. With nerves still feeling jangled, however, I decamped to a yet smaller city, tucked away in the Tuscan hills, Siena. No Renaissance giants here: both art and architecture predate Leonardo and co. A curious peacefulness and grace exude from the buildings in this beautiful place, and in bucketloads from the images painted - we can only imagine with love and devotion - by Duccio and Cimabue. Madonnas, saints, even dodgy Ducal tyrants seem to radiate a supernal quality. They won me over.
The magic thread of the image has woven its way into and through the phases and disparate elements in my life. A couple of years down the line I fell in love with the art and images of the Venetian Renaissance - Giorgione and Titian above all - and I even gave a series of illustrated talks at the Buddhist Centre on the theme of Renaissance art and its imaginal significance in spiritual life. Some people liked it, anyway. A decade on, I undertook an intensive period of shamanic journeying, during which a host of wizards, princesses, animals, and the occasional demonic figure, appeared as companions, guides, teachers, and tormentors. And the thread leads inevitably to the present, and the Tarot. I feel at home with its multiplicity of images.
An image, whether in a painting, a meditation, a shamanic journey, a Tarot reading, or seen walking down a mountain hillside, can communicate far more than words. It bypasses (without necessarily negating) the conceptual mind, and speaks directly. Its language is not that of the solely rational, but touches what can be called our Emotional Intuition, or our Soul Intuition. Direct transmission of secrets, mysteries, hidden treasures, through the medium of the image.
Images: Delphic Sybil
Both from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling