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Vale Lutetia

Giorgio de Chirico

Translated from the Italian by Stefania Heim

Against the great backdrop of fog, so tenderly gray and mysterious like the backdrops of a photography studio where the equal light raining from up high isolates every being and every thing strangely in space, the suburbs of the avant-city appeared to me suddenly speckled with singing colors, papered with charming surprises. It was the early hours of a November morning. I had left Turin the metaphysical the day before, in the afternoon (Turin is the afternoon city par excellence); after a long rest at the border station in front of that gloomy Modane—suffocated by the overhanging Alpine cliffs, tortured by the continual dripping of the waters, resounding with the endless din of the falls—the train resumed its westward course and all night, in dark spasms, it rolled up along France’s soil. I still had the Piedmontese capital in my mind; the monarchical city with its piazzas inhabited by scientists and kings, by politicians and by warriors motionless in tired and solemn poses on their pedestals of stone, I still had in mind all of the strange lyricism of its fateful geometric construction. Turin is still an Italian city and, despite certain deceptive Nordic and Occidental aspects, a Mediterranean city. The Mediterranean sky covers her and is often revealed showing itself above her like that disturbing mask that appears on the bedroom ceiling to the man about to abandon himself to sleep. The Mediterranean sky, the anticeiling par excellence; men destined to live below that sky experience the need for a square house (anti-Gothic)—not for a tall house, but for one well affixed to the earth. From the Greeks to all the Italic peoples, rectilinear construction has been necessary as a shield against the terrible menace of the implacable sky. And I still say that the more astute and cunning peoples, like the Greeks, reached the summit of square solidity especially in the construction of their temples and sanctuaries, which for men threatened by demons must have been, with regard to defense and protection, the last resort. And cross-eyed and pusillanimous peoples like the Etruscans, their heels bitten by the demons of the North, sought refuge even in the darkness of underground chambers and became moles in order to flee the triangular eye of their sky.

But for he who moves north or west away from the atmosphere of the Mediterranean the sky becomes more clement. It is like an alliance between sky and land. Outside of his house man no longer feels lost; he finds himself as though in a second house with a higher ceiling and thus his architecture rises; builder acquires a taste for the play of the trapezium, becomes ogival and triangular, the roofs lengthen, the builder enjoys himself working; in his hours of rest he becomes sentimental, in those of meditation, protestant and metaphysical. Such were my thoughts as I watched, through the window of my second-class compartment, the first French country houses appearing and disappearing among the Verlainean gardens and the parks made golden by autumn, while the express, accelerating and flying past Neuilly and Eaubonne and Tremblay and Marly-le-Roi, was approaching Paris.

After leaving the station and entering the heart of the city the landscape becomes ever more magical; one has the impression of being in a giant jack-in-the-box; of finding oneself before the open curtain of a marvelous theater: the background scenery is the tenderest gray of the fog that connects the sky to the earth and to human constructions, which are gray as well and rising curious and inviting, solemn and surprising right and left like enormous curtains from which emerge, similar to magic lantern figures, hurried throngs of men and of vehicles—strange and multicolored herds (I think of a line from Apollinaire: bergère ô tour Eiffel…). And I think also about the great mystery of color and of its infinite surprises; I think of the strange lyricism of those colored paintings like the colors of pictures by Zeuxis and Apelles and that appeared to me one evening on the screen of a movie theater where they were showing that marvelous metaphysical film The Ten Commandments. The magic of color was even more surprising as it would appear after long scenes of gray or dull brown. The rainbow of the warriors’ armor and of the horses’ rumps would then show itself in all of its magical mystery and, at the same time to a contrasting effect, would reveal the mystery of the neutral color that preceded it.

Such is Paris. Every wall papered over with réclames is a metaphysical surprise; and the gigantic cherubic child of Cadum Soap and the red colt of Chocolat Poulain rise with the disquieting solemnity of ancient divinity.

At night the mystery does not die. The shops close their doors but their windows, like theaters during gala evenings, remain lit up.

And there are entire scenes, dramas of modern life reconstructed in the brief space of the window-theater. Strolling through the Boulevards in the dead of night you see all the romanticism of modern life parade before you; and here the houses with golden gates, and the parks and turreted castles of France, and ocean and Riviera beaches inhabited by phantom mannequins in gymnastics leotards; and the halls of the international palazzi with their funereal and spectral inhabitants like companies of ghosts about to depart and surprise the Brutes who meditate in their houses during sleepless nights. At times metaphysical realism is brought to its height with the clever tricks and sophistications from an old routier of metaphysical surprise. Thus in a window in which a group of gentlemen and women with their children were depicted on a Riviera beach, I thought of The Odyssey and of wandering Ulysses, because a piece of fabric placed in front of the scene and artistically painted in ultramarine and veronese green represented the extreme lip of water that wets the beach, while in all directions little piles of sand offered themselves up to the construction games of the baby ghosts, and a few well-distributed iridescent spiral shells completed the lyricism of this Homeric vision.

The spirit and love of man tend toward the west. In a city, in a country, in a house, in a garden, the part that is always most pleasant to me, toward which I look always with more love, is the part turned toward the horizon where the sun sets.

Therefore it is always with a mysterious sadness that I set out toward the east when, for whatever motive, I must take that direction. So in Paris, the most Western city of Europe, the breaths of all that which has taken place and will take place die out, and objects of all kinds and the most loving peculiarities migrated from the three remaining cardinal points reach you and shine upon you in a light full of the most tender mystery. Beneath the arches of a peculiar passageway that is adjacent to the Boulevard des Italiens, and which, not even on purpose, is situated on the west side of that Boulevard, I discovered the strangest rifle shop: in the window lit up like an aquarium, among old revolvers with rotating cylinders for capsule cartridges like those used by gold prospectors in America during the Civil War, I saw displayed the strangest weapon: it was a kind of giant toy, a black light cannon from whose mouth, similar to the spear of an ancient warrior, protruded the point of a harpoon tied to a fine tarred rope that unfurled in a luminous spiral through the wheels of the childlike cannon. Beside it was a highly dramatic and suggestive picture: amid a dark and stormy sea strewn with icebergs, drifting in the currents of lacy silhouettes like the ruins of bombed cities and white like sepulchral stones, a ship carrying several bearded and anguished Nordic fishermen was dragged by an enormous cetacean that carried in its side, plunged up to the metallic feathers, the fatal spear; the appalled fishermen were hastily unrolling the rope in order not to be drowned by the terrible tugboat. Below an inscription read “Couleuvrine avec son projectile-harpon pour la pêche à la baleine.” The same gun dealer also sold wool sweaters and bottles of Provençal wine.

Modernity, this great mystery, lives everywhere in Paris; at each corner you run into it coupled with that which was, pregnant with that which will be. The image of Pallas Athena that rises, stone sentry, to the right of the ancient Bourbon palace is as solemn as certain solemn representations of the great modern metaphysical painters and as that other image of the same god that near the Propylaea of the Athenian arches would awaken leaning upon her staff, motionless amid the crooked flight of the common swifts that were shrill in the sultriness of the summer dusk, during that evening in which not so far away, there below the low vaults of a prison dug out of the rock, Socrates was awaiting death speaking of mysterious things to his weeping disciples.

Among these encouraging and exciting aspects the Parisian moves and works. The Parisian is the strangest animal. This does not mean only a man born in Paris to French parents. There are individuals of each race and from each country who live and work in Paris, and the transformation that they undergo has nothing dishonorable about it like some too-zealous patriots might malignantly observe. The man endowed with creative faculties, the artist born in Paris develops and becomes complicated. The forces that might be latent in him in other countries and other cities bloom and flower in Paris upon contact with that powerful rhythm of life with its thousand aspects and thousand colors. Even works of art born in other countries increase in beauty and mystery in Paris on account of the mysticism and the curiosity that surround them and that most mysterious light that bathes and softens them. Seen at the Louvre, the same masters of the Italian schools made an impression on me more profound than the one I experienced seeing them in Italian museums; and in the hypogea of the ancient palace of the kings the Greek sculptures appeared to me with the mystery that must have surrounded them when they sprang up in the shadows of the sanctuaries. And at the feet of the large stairway that leads from the basement to the art galleries a strange decapitated statue appeared to me: it was an ex-voto by Tessaglioti; it depicted a man with his shoulders covered by a cape similar to those worn by our infantrymen, his right leg stretched forward a bit and spread; he was in a strange attitude of meditation; looking at that decapitated statue I thought of the profound and melancholy sound of the word: revenant.

In Paris love and curiosity for all that which reveals spirit, intelligence, lyricism, and talent increases continuously. I, who, when I left Paris in 1925 knew only German speakers, people who en masse and garishly, as was the custom for some hysterical muddlers in Italy, would condemn any German creation, have now found very many French artists full of curiosity and love for German art and (oh miracle) I have even found admirers of Böcklin; one of whom, the writer Maurice Fels, goes every year to Berlin and Monaco to see the great Swiss painter’s originals.

Nowadays in Paris the cult of lyricism and metaphysics is huge. Naturally this signals the definitive condemnation of all of that stumpy painting, of all that literary foolishness, of all those banalities that in Italy unfortunately continue still to struggle along amid yawns and hysterical grimaces. One understands how in Paris, that very selective environment, art might acquire such a lyrical and spiritual appearance.

Schools arise one after another, passion grows, production assumes striking proportions. And wherever you turn you meet smiling and affable faces, friendly hands that clasp your own, intelligent and serene glances that rest upon you with admiration, curiosity, and sympathy. Like Athens in the time of Pericles, Paris is today’s city for artistic and intellectual excellence. It is there that each man who can be called an artist must claim recognition of his value. It will not be denied him, especially because in Paris men are made more serene by the very work that absorbs them and makes them happy and satisfied, and are therefore less prone to be hysterical. Less prone I say to poison and to create obstacles of every kind and to bombard with every kind of dissatisfaction those persons who have the grave defect of quite surpassing the common standard. Amen.

Stefania Heim is the author of the poetry collection A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback). She is a poetry editor at Boston Review and a founding editor of CIRCUMFERENCE: Poetry in Translation.


About the author

Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) was an Italian painter and writer. His early metaphysical paintings were championed and beloved by Apollinaire and Breton and the French Surrealists, and had a profound influence on modern artists and poets. His novel, Hebdomeros (Exact Change), has been called the “the finest work of Surrealist fiction” by the poet John Ashbery.

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