In search of the art of enchantment

Deep within the town of Arezzo stands the conventual late-medieval church of San Francesco. Its raw, unfinished façade and inner miscellany of paintings give no clue to what lies beyond the side chapels. But if you should venture into the Cappella Maggiore, you will come upon the loveliest surviving example of frescos by Piero della Francesca. This cycle is called The Legend of the True Cross. The paintings recount the history of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Made from an olive tree growing at the time of Adam's death, the wood, so the story goes, was returned to Jerusalem in the seventh century.

My own discovery of these frescos began 50 years ago, in my home on the island of Sri Lanka. In those days I had not even heard of the Italian Renaissance, let alone the name Piero della Francesca. I was seven years old, a much-loved only child, as yet unmarked by the tragedy that would soon engulf my home and my family.

At the little local school there were only two subjects that interested me. One was English, a subject that hung like a precious thread within the country's curriculum. As nationalist hysteria began to mount, and the survival of the language was threatened, I defiantly told my parents that one day I would become a writer. The other subject I loved crossed international boundaries too: the weekly art lesson. However, the main reason for my interest here was my curious fascination with a girl who joined us from another class.

She was, I imagine, about my age, silent and very lovely, with deep, dark eyes and a face of inexplicable stillness. Unlike me, with my tomboy behaviour that gave me the appearance of having rolled in dirt, this girl was perfectly turned out. I used to stare at her mesmerised while chewing on a broken fingernail, puzzled. The boys were nice to her because of her docile ways, and the teacher loved her because she could draw like an angel. Every Friday afternoon as the sun turned gracefully in the tropical sky the girl would slip into our classroom, settle down at her desk, a box of crayons, and painstakingly copy an image from the lid of a biscuit tin she brought with her. Rumour was that she had relatives in Rome, rich Catholics connected with the Church, forever sending presents. The tin was presumably one of them.

One day I decided to go over and see what all the fuss was about. It was how I first set eyes on the Queen of Sheba as she knelt at the Sacred Bridge. No one, not even our teacher, knew the name of the painting on that tin. For in this Buddhist country biblical references to Adam and olive trees were unknown and confusing, while the waterless hills of Tuscany were as distant as the moon. But the beautiful child with the unruffled face had reproduced with uncanny skill the scene in front of her.

I stood transfixed. I was not to know then what I know now, that children like me, products of an irresponsible Empire, often had their first glimpse of Western art on the lids of imported biscuit tins, on calendars, trays and fabrics. Or that these images would forever be connected in their minds with the objects on which they were imprinted. All I knew was that the faces of these women, with their empty gazes, symmetrical features, and stillness, held my attention.

I had quite simply seen nothing like it before. I remember there was by contrast a black horse, mouth open, eyes wide in terror staring at ... what? A ghost? On that long-ago day, with the noise of crows cawing and coconuts being scraped, I knew nothing of the Queen of Sheba's premonition. But looking back over the years, I see again the inexpressible beauty of the scratched image on the biscuit-tin lid. Much later I learned the reason for the extraordinary quietness of the immaculate girl who drew so logically and with such little effort. She had been born dumb. Drawing was her way of communicating with the world.

The years of turmoil began soon after this incident. In less than three years my life would change forever. My father would leave the island and my mother, broken by events, would accompany me on a boat bound for England. The Queen of Sheba and her unknown creator were forgotten. When, on a grey Sunday, my heartsick father took me to visit the National Gallery, the trip, planned with the intention of educating me, was not a success. My father knew nothing of Western art or its context, and the grand old building housing the nation's treasures served only to remind him of what was discarded in his own country. "We are careless of our history, Roma," he said sadly. "Not like these people here."

He must have been depressed and I, predictably enough, was bored. Once or twice I asked him if we could find the painting of the lady with the empty face but, having only a vague idea of what I meant, it was a hopeless task. At some point I did return to the National Gallery, with my school. But by now, in the way of immigrant children escaping from an unhappy past, I had lost all focus. So that for some time the images of Piero's faces vanished from my internal sightline.

Until one day, soon after my eldest son was born, I took a brief trip to Italy. In the small hill town of Frascati, in the flush and excitement of new motherhood, I chanced upon a postcard. It was a close-up of a woman's face, serene, enigmatic and with a glimpse of the blue dress she was wearing. Something about the perfect oval face, the stillness, the heavy eyelids, caught my attention. Holding my wriggling baby in my arms I stared, unable to comprehend my vague familiarity with the image. I turned the card over. Madonna del Parto, I read. (Detail) Monterchi. Piero della Francesca.

I bought and pasted the card on my studio wall, leaving its memory to fade. In those days, as my family grew and flourished, I was more interested in the stable present. The West and its heritage merely reminded me of what was lost. Another decade passed, during which my parents died and my father's words on that day at the National Gallery came back to haunt me. "An immigrant is just a ghost, Roma," was what he had said.

If this were so, in what context could a ghost approach a painting? What use is art if its context is not yours? By now I was writing, and the long reach of memory, both my family's history and that of my homeland, began to assert itself over my imagination. Another kind of person was emerging from sleep.

I turned my eyes back towards Italy to take a longer trip and found a place of utter enchantment. Here was a land like no other, as close in spirit to the home I now knew I could never see again. Here too was the transparent light I had lived without for so many years. Here were lines of azure horizons and sudden openings between buildings that let in glimpses of dazzling sea. Now I turned my footsteps towards that ancient church touched with Arezzo's gold. And entering the cool dark interior of San Francesco, I stared upwards to see, for the first time, Scipio, dreaming through eternity. Outside a white dove fluttered in the sleepy heat as I gazed, spellbound, at the Queen of Sheba, walking among her olives. A little late perhaps, but still, how glad I was that we should meet again.

The light folded through the ancient glass. Time stood still. Later, in a nearby restaurant, I saw a woman's face emerge as though from four hundred years of history as she drained her coffee. And in a bus queue there she was again, and again. The Renaissance was whispering to me through the faces of these people while, all around me, was the landscape made immortal by the painters.

Here it was, distilled down through centuries; that history my father had talked so passionately of. In the last years of his life, he had said that escape was not enough. Escape only left you looking in on other people's treasures. With these words echoing in my mind I travelled on to Monterchi and saw the Madonna del Parto in her new museum. Sixty years previously, during the Second World War, the people of the village cared enough to wall her up for safety in the little cemetery chapel. Suddenly, in the enigmatic face before me, I saw again the image of that dumb girl from long ago, head bent in silent concentration. What had been lost was being recovered. And in that moment, gazing out across the Tuscan hills, I knew one day I would write a novel. About my home, and how I felt about the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born novelist and film maker living in the UK. She left Sri Lanka with her family, at the start of the civil unrest during the 1960s. She has written four novels. Her fifth, 'The Road To Urbino' will be published by Abacus on 5 July.

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