John Singer Sargent, Boboli Gardens. Opaque and translucent watercolor with graphite underdrawing, 10 x 14in. (25.4 x 35.6cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription, 09.818 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).
This summer heat reminds me of my first summer in Florence, when I lived in Oltrarno, just beyond the Boboli Gardens. I had been told that Florence, in summer, can be unbearably hot, and I needed to organize my life around the heat. I listened, but I did not understand.
Rome had been hot. Venice had been hot.
But Florence had a different kind of heat, at once damp and tinder dry. I could not stand to be out in the white heat of day. I woke early and wrote in the cool hours, before anything was open, and then crawled from interior to interior, clinging to shade. Then, I understood.
In my letters and journals, I grasped for words to describe that heat–how it buzzed and rasped, and radiated off the stonework–but then, like a serpent coiling its tail, relented in the evening hours, so that suddenly being outside was a joy, and I could enjoy my gelato and passeggiatta in the evening light. We say the blue light of evening, but in Florence–and, I suppose, in my home state of California as well–the blue takes a long time to arrive. Until nightfall, the light is tinged with gold. It wavers in the shadows, deep into the dusk, tints of gold and rose and burning red. The last of the day’s embers.
I had never really considered how to describe weather, how to translate each particular set of sensory experiences into something communicable and intersubjective, until I went on my first trip to Taiwan.
I was very young, then, and knew only the Midwest and New York. I left New York with my grandparents, passing through Tokyo, and landed in the damp heat of a subtropical summer.
Midwestern summers can be hot and damp, the heat cresting with afternoon thunderstorms. But nothing of my Midwestern childhood prepared me for Taiwan. I tried and tried to find words for these experiences. I did not know the phrase “white heat” yet, or I might have defaulted to it. Curiously, in those years, when I reached for a way to describe my experiences, I found the closest analogues in painting, not writing. It feels, I thought, like a Van Gogh. The light, bright and flat, recalled the light in Pissarro’s watercolors.
Vincent van Gogh, Cypresses, 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 3/4 x 29 1/8 in. (93.4 x 74 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 49.30.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses. Oil on canvas, 28 7/8 × 36 3/4 in. (73.2 × 93.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1993, 1993.132.
Only later, much later, and after a lot of reading, did I learn to translate weather into words.
Describing the weather seems such a simple thing, and so integral to descriptions of place. That ability to describe the feeling of a place with clarity, to do it without falling into cliche–I suppose this is one of the reasons why we keep returning to certain writers, who can, with words, bring us to a place with such sharpness and presence that the representation is more real than the real.
Images have a way of giving form to memories and desires, shaping them, so that the real and the fictive begin to meld. When I say, “Sargent painted my summer memories,” this is what I mean. He painted my dreamworld–that dreamworld twinned to my world of lived experience. I never danced the tarantalla on a rooftop in Capri, yet Sargent’s painting of Rosina Ferrara captures, perfectly, the sense of a summer evening–many summer evenings–in Italy or California, passed beneath that same rose-gold light.
John Singer Sargent, “Capri – Girl on a rooftop (Rosina Ferrara doing the tarantella on a rooftop),” 1878. (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.)
When I think of my childhood, when I conjure the quietest, sweetest, most tender moments, jewel-bright and precious, I often recall a Sargent painting.
John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86. Oil on canvas. Tate, Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887, N01615.
It brings back, in full force, the sense of those soft Midwestern nights–fireflies and flowers, soft scents in the garden, roses and lilies, and a well-ordered world.