Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~La Tempesta~~

“They always say about the soldier that he’s detached. That’s true, for he’s been in the eye of the storm, his heart has been broken, and he doesn’t even know it.”


picture-SoldieroftheGreatWar-Helprin“And wrong about the painting. Like everyone else, I backed off. I said, ‘We’ll never know about La Tempesta, it’s a mystery.’ I retreated to the visual elements, the technique, its strange contra-historical power. I thought it was a dream, because it has the lucidity and freedom of a dream, a dream’s unburdening, and a dream-like truth.”
The scholar agreed. “I think it’s a dream, a great dream, with – as you put it – the lucidity, freedom, unburdening, and truth of a dream.”
“No.” Alessandro said. “Though it could be a dream, it isn’t. I know now exactly what it is, and I know the source of its power.”
“Dare you tell?” the scholar asked, only half sarcastically, hoping that a stricken soldier might have taken from the fire of his affliction something of value that someone else might use in his essay on Giorgione.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Alessandro said, “but I’ll tell you, and you can do as you wish. For all I care, you can be the chief of the Academy. I’ll go back to the front. My blood will wash into the Adriatic before the ink on the pages of your fucking article is dry. It doesn’t matter. You’ll join me sooner than you know in a place with no academies and no illusions, where the truth is the only architecture, the only color, the only sound – where that which we sense merely on occasion, and which takes us up and gives us the rare and beautiful glimpses of the things we truly love, flows in deep rivers and tumbles about like clouds in the sky.”
He stepped closer to the painting. Just to be near it seemed to give him satisfaction.
“I believe that Giorgione was painting for a patron, and that he started out according to a pattern customary for his time. Look, you still have the remnants of it – the raised platform with a long view of a river and a town. The bridge reiterates the platform. The river disappears leftward. It’s a windowed view: the buildings in the town are framed by nearer masses, to block them, for, at the time, perspective was not entirely out of the woods. On the platform, a woman feeding a baby – all Flemish in inspiration, quite standard.
“But what of the soldier, so tremendously out of place, so distant, so jarring, and yet the master figure of the painting? And what of the approaching storm?”
“He’s not a soldier,” the scholar said, “He’s a shepherd.”
“Like hell he’s a shepherd. Shepherds have never been as clean-cut and well dressed. If he were a shepherd he’d have a crook, not a staff. Shepherds don’t stand like that. And look in his eyes. Have you not seen the eyes of a soldier? Have you not seen a shepherd?
“I’ll tell you how this strange coalition came about,” Alessandro almost whispered. “Giorgione was going to paint a conventional scene. I’d wager my life that other pastoral figures were intended for the foreground, another nude, perhaps, or a satyr, or who knows? To me, the soldier looks as if he were painted-in late.
“While Giorgione was working on this scene, with the Academy and patrons in mind, a storm arose. It was a great and unusual storm, as he has depicted it. Lucky for him, because you can’t know history unless you can see it as if it were a stupendous thunderstorm that has just cleared. Light and sound speak clearly then, as if to sweep away illusions and lay down the law. The clouds went straight up in mountainous walls of gray and green, the trees bent in apprehension, the lightning was so thick, supple, and young that before it attacked the town it played in the clouds and lit up the world, just as young horses gallop in a field just to feel the wind.
“As the world darkened before him and the wind rose, Giorgione felt his own death and the death of everyone and everything he loved. He understood dissolution. He saw ruin and night. He saw the future of prosperous and proud cities, of the arches, bridges, and upright walls. These broken columns are his vision of the Academy, of rules, and rivalries, and opinion.
“Only in the lightning and in the foreground is the light active. The woman and the soldier steal the light and color from everything that is in ruin. Unclothed and unprotected, with her baby in her arms, she defies the storm unwittingly. Entirely at risk, she shines out. Don’t you understand? She’s his only hope. After what he’s seen, only she and the child can put the world in balance. And yet the soldier is distant, protected, detached. They always say about the soldier that he’s detached. That’s true, for he’s been in the eye of the storm, his heart has been broken, and he doesn’t even know it.”

La Tempesta by Giorgione

La Tempesta by Giorgione


1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Literature

One response to “Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~La Tempesta~~

  1. Mark Helprin was born in Manhattan, New York on 28 June 1947.
    “A Soldier of the Great War” was published in 1991.
    The story has Alessandro Giuliani visiting the ‘Gallerie dell’Accademia’, a museum gallery of pre-19th-century art in Venice, northern Italy.
    ‘La Tempesta’ was painted by the great Italian painter Giorgione around the year 1508.

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