‘What we ought to do is live.’
- Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays
© Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved
Milano. Early May 2018. The spots the sun hits are warm. Elsewhere on the sidewalk, in the shade, winter feels like it has not been gone too long.
Most of the stores have not opened yet but the panetterias are just slowing down, as the cappuccino, caffè, and brioche rush at their bars reaches the morning’s finale. On the path leading to them and from them little flaky crumbs and cigarette butts are sprinkled. A napkin here and there, likely dropped by a tourist in too great a hurry to see the sights.
Along the well-trodden vias pedonales, the herds now flock to the city’s center for walking tours, souvenirs, and photos taken with immortality in the background. Of the thousands who built the great Gothic duomo over centuries, no names remain, and the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele only seems to remember his.
Nameless people twirl countless heels three times clockwise over the mosaic balls of a bull in the ground. It brings good fortune, the guide books say. You will return to Milano.
A photograph: the same cliché pose, different face. Then the souvenir shop and some gelato while the next tourist does the same. Tomorrow, the souvenir will be misplaced. In minutes, the gelato consumed. The photos, promptly shared and immediately forgotten. Like these footsteps, already, by the street.
Down an alley to the side, the crowds are much thinner at the Ossuario de San Bernardino. Understandably so; the chapel’s walls are plastered, floor to ceiling, with human skulls and bones. Piled one on top of the other by the thousands, like jars in an apothecary, the remains of all these people – names, facial features, stories gone… discomforting proof of finity.
Few tourists will make it off the beaten path and onto narrower, quieter streets. There, the sights are more mundane: people opening stores, sweeping courtyards. Walking children to school and stopping by the market for a few tomatoes, to be had on crusty bread with fresh basil and olive oil for lunch.
No grand immortality in the redundancy of the everyday and everylife. The locals know better than to waste time seeking it; the gelato is melting, the tomatoes ripe.
Milano. Early May 1499. The spots the sun hits are warm. In the vineyard at the end of the garden though, the shadows are still long. The air is brisk. He walks briskly too, up and down the few short green rows of fragile vines climbing up wooden frames. They are young but they will grow.
The man tends to them patiently, adjusting, clipping, aligning. In September the minuscule plot of land will hopefully have a few grapes to harvest. Enough for a case or two of Malvasia di Candia; a crisp, dry white wine. Not meant for greatness, but to be served by long conversations with close friends.
He crosses the splendorous garden back and into the casa degli Atellani. His hosts, the Atellanis, are still sleeping. He drinks his coffee alone. Leonardo da Vinci then walks his beaten path to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, just across the street, where for the past three years he has been working on a masterpiece.
The Last Supper, 4.6 meters high and nearly nine meters long, painted by this provincial Tuscan artist directly on the refectory wall. One of the greatest climactic moments in religious history, and a revolution in perspective, detail, colour, and technique. It would become one of the most admired, studied, and reproduced paintings in the world. Some would call it his greatest work, his claim to eternity.
But centuries later in Milano, early May 2018, few of the original brushstrokes remain; the painting has deteriorated. Tempera paints could not protect da Vinci’s work from the effects of moisture and time. And yet, across the street, through the house and down the garden path, there are fresh green buds on the vines.
Leonardo’s vineyard, this September, will yield Malvasia di Candia grapes. Not too many, just enough to fill a case or two of white wine. The same wine he used to make, love, and serve proudly more than five hundred years ago. Perhaps immortality is just incidental to a life fully lived.