The Portrait-Sitter: Poverty, Intimacy, Paint, & Naples

Panoramic view of Naples


In midlife and more, with a long marriage gone bust and a career going nowhere, I began taking my father’s family up on their many invitations to visit Naples. I’d been over to the ancient city before, I knew the language, and I could always find a cheap flight. As for food and drink, that was cheaper yet, often free, like the lodging. I mean, to spend three weeks or a month walking my father’s old Gulf-side blocks, his centro storico — especially since the old man was dying, during those same difficult years — well, it made as much sense as holing up and hammering away at my so-called “career:” some sort of writer, some sort of teacher. I mean, might not Naples offer a solution? For the dwindling remainder of my own life? To suss out answers, yea or nay, took me a good decade of over-and-back. I found help in this country too, naturally, some of it coming from my father himself. Once, I’m convinced, I heard from him after he passed. Just now, however, while there’s no ghost to interrupt, I ought to admit that there remains plenty I haven’t solved. Plenty of mystery yet, no question. Even towards the end of my Neapolitan changes, a few years into the present millennium, I still knew so little that, when I took my shirt off in a good-looking young painter’s apartment workspace, all I could do was wonder.

The woman had asked me to strip down, I knew that much. The undershirt as well, she’d specified, though I was to keep my pants on. I was to pose topless, all part of a session for which she’d freed up an entire summer afternoon.

Also she’d freed a corner of her two-room walkup, uncluttering. She put me on a stool, and from that end of the place, I couldn’t miss anything. Not the bed, a futon of course, right here beside the stool. Handy, yes, but in need of some pick-up and put-away. It wasn’t cleared for action, or not yet. Then there was the woman’s own top, a tank top, sweat-stuck to a bra of that beige called “nude” and a stair-climber’s midsection. Just reaching her place, five worn flights between narrowing walls, had taken the wind out of me. But then the painter suffered maybe fifteen years less wear and tear, overall; I couldn’t miss that either. As for “the angel in the marble,” well, the metaphor comes from Michelangelo, right? So maybe Michelangelo could’ve found the angel, amid my kudzu body hair and sagging avoirdupois. Not that my friend — I’ll call her Anna — was some sort of dilettante. For years now, I’d been seeing her work around the city. Today’s piece, she’d told me, was part of a series: all men, all artists, in paired panels. In one they appear them fully dressed, in the other topless.

And what workspace did she have except her home? Her bedroom?

No place for a dilettante. That breed prefers a divan to a futon. Out on the street, they prefer a Gucci outlet and top-of-the-line pastry. Anna’s vicolo, though only four or five blocks uphill from Spaccanapoli, the UNESCO-honored Greco-Roman thoroughfare that splits the center of town, had nothing but a hole in the wall, pizza at a Euro a slice. Indeed, as I watched her swivel and dip before me, I began to think that, some days, a slice might be my host’s whole diet. This when the rent couldn’t be much. In New York the building might’ve been called a tenement, but here the bottom three floors went back a lot further than on the Lower East Side. Anna’s palazzo at least had a courtyard of packed dirt. Formerly a goat- and chicken-run, maybe a stables, now it combined space for engine repair and outdoor washing with a scrap of playground. The scruffy kids included a couple barefoot, when I arrived, and an oil-smeared “mechanic” sat grunting in one doorway. The scene comes to mind every time I revisit the sorry creatures of Elena Ferrante and her Naples quartet. Those novels’ mob-sickened blocks actually lie elsewhere, past the sunrise end of Spacccanapoli, in the neighborhood known as the Vasto. Nonetheless Ferrante’s battered strivers would’ve felt at home around any number of local intersections. Among them, too, would always have been those few with some gift, some reason to believe they might not tumble into the city’s long-festering ruts, like “Elena” in the novels — or like Anna, here.

Her reason to believe stood stacked all around us: more paintings than she had cups and saucers, and knives and forks too, in the kitchenette. The largest canvases, if they ever sold, would have to be cut off their mounting before they went out the door. Today’s were smaller; here on the top floor, where the main room had a double-window, each fit neatly within the sun’s parallelogram. Still, the paintings would mean two more sardines for the tin, by the end of my sitting — that is, if a sitting was all Anna had in mind, when she’d assured me we would have “hours alone together.”

She went hard, her top bunching as she prepped the first canvas. Nearby I spotted another set of shirt-&-skin, a pretty boy I’d say. Sleekly semi-bearded, he was an actor, Anna told me. She explained the lack of finish as well, the way the semi-nude turned to a stick figure below the nipples. The sitting was for the details, she said, the face and musculature. After that she took it “into a personal thing.”

Personal, amica? Plenty of mystery remained, and I tried to think it through as I sat for the take with my shirt on (nothing formal, Hawaiian rather, splashy). My portraitist had a fidanzato, I knew. The word no longer meant “fiancé,” exactly, but it carried a similar weight. I couldn’t use it myself, for instance, though back in the States I was seeing someone and I nursed hopes of taking it further. I’d gotten through some changes, as I say, by this time. Or pretty much: the woman in my life wasn’t yet a fidanzat-a. She couldn’t be, not so long as — in a reminiscence such as this, I can’t be coy — she was still married to someone else. Here in Naples, shifting on my stool, alone with a consenting adult and her mixed signals, I could only wonder.

As for Anna’s man, he was older, perhaps as old as I, and he’d achieved the Southern Italian nirvana of a lasting job. Un posto fisso, yes, though nothing you’d think, nothing executive level. He was only a kind of shop clerk, but then what he could do for her wasn’t what you’d think, either. Anna had something other than a sugar daddy. Her lover instead factored into a complex calculation such as you’d expect from one of Ferrante’s women, in which another all-important variable was the fact that the artist came from out of town. She wasn’t Napoli D.O.C., the expression locals use to establish their bona-fides; rather, she worked without the net of parish and neighborhood. Over a lifetime, that net might suffocate a woman, but it might also save her — it might well do both, over a lifetime — and so to ally herself with a homeboy, especially one long in place, provided Anna a lot more than, let’s say, a full pizza rather than a slice, and a full litro of good wine besides.

Yet though the most significant of the boyfriend’s contributions were intangible (here he put in a word, there he made an introduction), he also picked up some of the rent. Not that I asked, I don’t think. I perched there owlish, quiet, watching her swivel and dip. But she declared it was only right that the fidanzato help with rent, since there were nights he slept over. And could it really be as many as four nights a week? Could they work out the logistics? Getting the futon to cooperate would be difficult enough, and then come morning you had to organize breakfast.

My inner Q-&-A grew more serious between the first painting and the second. The artist allowed a coffee break, firing up the macchinetta although by then the heat had me down to my undershirt (another portrait: Stanley Kowalski Goes to Pot). But a couple of single shots didn’t take long, and then as she stirred in the sugar, my friend began to speak of an earlier lover.

This, I know I never asked. She brought him up out of the blue: her first lover, a Napoletano. They’d gotten together during her first months in town. At this work too, Anna went hard, swiftly sketching an entire dead dream. A life with another artist, that was the dream, because the boy played marvelous guitar and when he sang, davvero, truly, he was an angel. I put in a murmur or two, sympathetic I hoped, and meantime did the math. Figuring from our first encounters a dozen years previous, and from what I knew about art school in Italy, my friend hadn’t been that young at the time of this primo amore. She’d been into her twenties, late for this day and age. Then wouldn’t that put her past puppy love? Virgin or no, wouldn’t she have toughened up, some? Just listening to her story, freshly espresso’d, I could see the dream’s collapse all the way from here to the harbor. Anna’s Renaissance Man turned out to have more than one woman. He’d lied and lied again, and then another time and another, and finally — despite twenty years and more of toughening up — the woman had taken a knife to her wrist.

“Right here,” she told me, hoisting her hands into the sun’s parallelogram.

The way she put fingers to arm suggested something else, actually, a junkie shooting up. I didn’t see scars, either, though today’s stains may’ve covered those up. What I noticed was how she gripped her cup, all knuckles, and how she perched on the edge of her one clear patch of futon. She’d done it wrong, my friend went on. She’d slashed the wrong vein or something, and she hadn’t expected so much blood or pain or something, so she’d fainted and been discovered.

Discovered? She’d done this where she’d have company? Even as Anna confessed, she was raising more questions.

For her, though, there was nothing but certainty, locked in like her grip on the cup: if she’d stayed awake she’d have finished the job.

I had to ask: davvero?

“My first love,” she repeated. “There is nothing else to say.”

True that, Anna. I offered what I could, condolences, plus I think some feeble attempt to lighten things up. When I caught myself looming too close — the stool left my legs spread before her face — I scuttled back and straightened. Her posture too was changing, regathering, and then she gave her head a shake, firm. Break was over. My friend returned to her easel, checking sightlines and palette with such concentration that it was all I could do to catch her eye, as wordlessly I did my own checking. Was she through? Was that it, whatever she’d wanted? But she wasn’t talking, and so I too clammed up, pulling my drenched scoop-neck over my head.

We continued in silence until her fidanzato called. From the first ring-tone, that descending Nokia ring-tone, out of date by then, it was obvious that Anna didn’t care for the interruption. The way she got her back up, her chest straining against its soaked layers of cloth, you’d have thought she was calling attention to her nipples. But she set her man straight. She’d told him about this session. She’d known he’d be at the shop. Again I did the math, figuring from the midday riposo. After that, once businesses reopened, they didn’t close again till 8 at least, and meanwhile here at Anna’s the sun’s parallelogram stretched out almost wall to wall. After lunch, in summertime anyway, she could finish a first draft and more.

“I told you,” she repeated.

Before she closed the phone she had to wipe the sweat from its face. She swabbed her ear too, with the ham of that hand, frowning, in fact muttering. With that I could no longer keep my mouth shut. Even now, maybe ten years further along, I can’t sort out my nobler motives, like compassion, from the nastier promptings: Baby, ain’t your man makin’ you happy? Sorting all that out could take another ten years. At the time, there on the stool, at least I maintained my posture. I wasn’t a rookie, as an artist’s model; I knew I could talk, and she could answer. So too she continued working, frowning more neutrally, as she revealed that her boyfriend had another apartment he wanted to show her. He was hoping they could see the place before nightfall.

Then she added: “We’re going to marry. This next place, it’ll be our place.”

The fidanzato had made a formal proposal. It wasn’t a secret, among the people we had in common, though apparently I hadn’t been talking to the right people. As for the ring, Anna left it off when she was planning to paint. But then, I’m not sure I’d have noticed a ring, or made anything of it if I spotted one. The woman was never one for convention. Yet here she stood, still sizing up my half-nakedness, telling me she and the man had agreed on a date for the wedding. They’d marked it on the calendar, along with the day by which they had to be in a new home. And Madonn’, it was so much to organize! They had family coming out of the woodwork!

“You have no idea,” Anna told me, “how difficult it is in Naples.”

Again she was shaking her head. Then suddenly, last thing I expected, she broke off working with a big, excited smile.

“But look what came to me,” she said, gesturing around. “Just look!”

Somehow the wallop of preparation had given her an idea. Diptychs, all men…

My eye fell on the other one, the pretty one, the lower part of his portrait still sketchy. Again I had to wonder, differently this time. I found myself imagining a string of paintings never finished, all the boys she’d never have, all these samplings of intimacy before she settled into one intended to hold her for a lifetime.

naples two

About John Domini

John Domini has won awards in all genres, with fiction in Paris Review and non-fiction in The New York Times. The Times praised his work as "dreamlike... grabs hold of both reader and character," and J.C. Hallman, in The Millions, called his latest book, MOVIEOLA!, “a new shriek for a new century.” Grants include an NEA Fellowship, and this piece has been adapted from a memoir in progress, Cooking the Octopus.
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One Response to The Portrait-Sitter: Poverty, Intimacy, Paint, & Naples

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