In Pisa’s Campo Santo

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Stand in the green field where Pisa’s Leaning Tower, Cathedral and Baptistry pose like static black and white chess pieces. Turn abruptly left and find the long low colonnade of the Campo Santo or Holy Field. Campo= field. Santo=holy. Within this huge colonnade of carved marble tombs in the Roman fashion used to reside a fresco which ran the length of a wall. Once exposed to the air, it is now enclosed. “The Triumph of Death” haunts my dreams: one of the most unforgettable dream-images of late medieval Italy.

A beautifully costumed hunting party of men and women approach a stench. The women with their crowned or brimmed hats lift handkerchiefs to their noses. Their lap dogs flatten their ears and lift their lips. Horses snort, and paw the ground. At one end a falconer subdues the gray, hooked-beaked bird clutched in his gloved hands; at the other end, the master of the hunting party points to three coffins open to the air.

How sanitized death is for us! We know nothing of decomposing bodies or coffins pried open to be plundered. Yet, there they are in various states of disarray: from a skeleton picked clean to a freshly placed corpse still in relative finery. Snakes flare from the guts. Can this be possible? Do snakes really eat the inside of the dead? Go see “True Grit” with Jeff Bridges to find out for sure what rattles from the belly of a the Coen Brothers’ gold mine.

We should run shrieking from the scene. So should the hunting party. Yet they pause; the women daintily cover their nostrils; the falcon is subdued. This is the Middle Ages: Death holds court and the courtiers pay homage. Even those gorgeously arrayed, enjoying the hunt as a spectacle, must contemplate the end of earthly life, while beyond them in the hills, monks pray for heavenly redemption.

It is this essential pause which holds us forever in thrall. The artist, supposedly Buonamico Buffalmacco, neither exaggerates the horror nor ignores it. The living retain all their elegance, restraint, and lively response; the dead stay put. Only the snakes, those symbols of temptation, writhe in the air. Typical of other late medieval works, the animals capture the lively response more fully than do the humans–horses’ nostrils dilate in their lowered heads; ears twitch back and forth. A lap dog crouches further into encircling arms. The falcon raises its wings ready to spring away. There is simply no avoiding the truth of this message: at the end of life, we enter the ground, our ribs a final cage.

Yet in the other direction along the fresco, exists a world of pleasure unalloyed by death’s odor. Seated in an orchard, a party of women play psalter and harp. No doubt they are singing to one another, inviting their paramours to recline on the grass. In their laps, their little dogs rest comfortably, indicative of fecundity. The air is fresh, perfumed with lemon and orange blossoms.

I love this scene for its recognition of women as artistic partners to their beauty and fertility. Yes, apples may hang from the trees, but they have long been plucked, and still the grove provides its soothing freshness. Death waits at the end of life’s journey, yet it is still important to enjoy the pleasures of art and love even as we recognize our corporeality. We are not banished from paradise; we suffer no guilt. Only pleasure and warning. There is something deeply sane about this point of view.

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