me to Florence?” my
master asked, spying my sheep.
Just ten, I said, “Yes,
“I will “I will
not forget.” “You will,” teach,” Cimabue
old Scrovegni scoffs, then turns promised, “painting.” “I’ll finish this
away. “Please. Restore first. Please. Step out of
my name.” my light.”
“My name The light
is in your hands,” he dimming, he can still
exchanged with the gold. Giotto picture when their forms began
smocked the son’s orders to jell: flowing gowns
and tears. and tears.
ing the fresco, he
presents his gift to Mary.
The father doesn’t
by Greer DuBois and Wendy Vardaman
We began writing this poem at the end of a semester in Florence, having spent several months traveling and studying the amazing medieval and renaissance fresco cycles throughout Italy. Both poets with an interest in visual art, Greer (the daughter) and Wendy (the mother) studied and wrote about these paintings individually over the months. When qarrsiluni’s call for collaborative pieces came out, we thought that the subject of fresco would be exciting to take on, since fresco is itself a collaboration among many artists—masters and apprentices, sometimes over decades and among more than one master. Although the Sistine Chapel in Rome is probably the most famous example of these artworks, the earlier, more intimate Arena Chapel of Padua, by Giotto, may be the most moving, and after much discussion, we agreed that we would like to try writing about it.
Both of us entered into the project with larger artistic ideas that we wanted to explore through the collaborative project. Greer, who had previously been moaning about conventional ideas about the place of the artist within a work and art as a whole, looked on the project as a way to challenge current ideas about poets as individualistic “loners.”
Meanwhile, Wendy wanted to create a form that would somehow capture and imitate the way that individual paintings in a fresco cycle stand on their own as narratives, but connect with the other paintings to create a larger story, sometimes playing off pieces painted above, below, or across from each other. After some thought, she came up with the individual, syllabic stanza units used in “Arena Chapel,” which she called giottos after the painter that inspired them. These units fit together architecturally, one beginning with the same two syllables that end its predecessor, reflecting the multi-voiced, collaborative nature of this project. Although we chose to put the giottos of this poem together in the round, any number of alternative spaces, or chapels, could be created this way, and in fact, the poem already does continue in a number of other directions.
We each wrote three of the individual stanzas in this piece, beginning with a stanza of Wendy’s that was pulled out of a sample cycle she composed to illustrate the form to Greer. After deciding where to start, we divided up the remaining stanzas, and then worked together at several sittings to put them together and revise, commenting on each other’s words and characters, enjoying the sometimes serendipitous interplay of opposite lines, and actively working to create a unified story about two father/son pairs: Cimabue and Giotto, a master and apprentice, and the two Scrovegnis, immortalized both by Giotto’s chapel and by Dante in the Divine Comedy. The brevity of the form we agreed to use, as much as the collaboration, shaped our work. Both of us found the form pushed us toward saying certain things in fairly telegraphic ways and prevented us from saying others; we had to keep renegotiating with each other the direction the narrative would take, how that would happen, and which individual giottos did not fit our shared vision. We have also talked about the possibilities of the form in performance with more than one voice, and would like to develop multiple ways of reading/delivering these pieces as we continue working on them.
What’s displayed here is a section of what, we hope, will eventually be a long poem that tells more of the story of the Arena (Scrovegni’s) Chapel.