The familiar can offer a useful and comforting continuum, and perhaps in the present and so drastically altered world, it can be a presence whose day-to-day encounter reinforces our sense of habitus or environment. We absorb, subliminally, particular details which are accrued over time of this familiar thing. And so, it was that during these last long months, it was a painting of modest claims that seemed to speak to me most.
Rather than any revelation or epiphany it was the slow, almost unconscious, sensation of a gap that appearing between the painting’s representation and my experience of present. Perhaps it was the the realisation that this comforting continuum had been been interrupted and broken.
I have a small painting which was given to me some time ago as a housewarming present. The painting is innocent enough: an anonymous portrayal of the Ponte Vecchio probably painted for the tourist market in the early nineteenth century. This in itself places its topographical depiction in a melange of associations: the notions of travel; the grand tour as a means of education by both geographic and historiographic place, and also artworks of ‘unquestioned’ value; the social hubub of early capitalist mercantile activity which was concentrated on the bridge – originally butchers and general merchants, then by decree in 1595, jewellers and sellers of objet d’art, an interesting shift in itself, from utility to luxury.
This is, of course, a continuity that has been taken for granted over the last few decades with the rise in business and tourist travel. On the one hand a democracy of travel and experience, and on the other, a polluting globalisation. But however we see it, all of this has been put into question of late, and such a painting could be seen to present Florence, and this might stand for all Italy, as an economy needing the bustling exchange of the market, the tourists seeking ‘experience’, the selling of luxury objects. This rather celebratory but low key representation becomes a site of loss as, at the time of writing, most of the shops and Botteghes of the bridge are closed. Both in local and broader terms the question of travel as a means of access - of widening one’s experience - seems more fragile than ever. Yet the image of this bridge can offer a sign of resilience – of survival. On a literal level it has survived plagues, bombings and the disastrous flood of 1966. The bridge itself (in its first incarnation in 1237) was originally the drive for paving the roads of Florence and a move towards increased sanitisation. So in a strange way this unassuming little painting has become both the sign of loss and resilience: a lament (for now) and a potential future hope.
© Sharon Hall 6th August 2020
Reflections in 2020: Living with Art
by Sharon Hall