We went to Carinola after I read in a guidebook that there were some charming fifteenth-century houses and a Romanesque cathedral there. To be honest, I was more interested in the cathedral, despite my training in fifteenth-century art; I figured that at best the palazzi might have some handsome stone portals and window frames, but given the general quality of Romanesque churches in the area, the cathedral would be the most worthwhile part of our visit.
I wasn’t at all prepared for what I found.
As I photographed the ruined castle that the guidebook hadn’t mentioned, a man driving by on a scooter stopped to tell me that there was a small church down the street, and that if I wanted to see it, I should ask his mother, who had the keys. I doubted that I would because I was anxious to see the cathedral, but a house with what looked to be a medieval arch incorporated into its façade drew me halfway down the street, and from there, chasing after Pata brought me right to the steps of the church.
Looking up, I saw, in the lunette of an elegantly simple portal, a faded fresco of the Annunciation, Renaissance in style. I’ve had a longstanding interest in the iconography of the Annunciation, and among the projects I abandoned when I left my old life for my new one was an examination of the semiotics of a few fifteenth-century Italian depictions of the theme. Every Annunciation I see reminds me of the euphoria of first conceiving of the idea, and the heartache of having given up such intellectual pleasures. Of all my abandoned projects, it is the only one that I could take up again at any moment. But I dither, and push it out of my mind, telling myself that working on it would get me nowhere.
While I trained my camera’s lens on the portal, I overheard a conversation spilling out from the open windows of the house next door.
“Are they here? Has the signora arrived?”
“Yes, yes, she’s already here.”
I didn’t realize they were talking about me until, looking away from the church, I saw N and Pata walking toward a very small, elderly woman holding a key in her hand. Unlocking an old wooden door, she led us into a room adjoining the church, an oratory, I think. As she indicated the entrance to the church with a wave of her hand, a flood of memories came over me, memories of other churches and other keys, of anticipation and wonder at seeing something for the first time, and of frescoes, frescoes most of all.
I remembered the sensation of my eyes poring over cycles whose scenes unfolded across entire walls of chapels while my heart beat impatiently, and fighting the inclination to glance hurriedly here and there because I couldn’t wait to know what I’d find. Inside the darkened church, I took a deep breath and scanned the walls of the nave for frescoes. And there they were: a couple of them fragmentary and faded, others darkened, and one completely unexpected.
Fictive marble, shadows “cast” by the painted framing pilasters, the figural style a bit clumsy and thin, but all of it beautiful enough, and so clearly fifteenth-century. And in the summit of the arch, in a lunette, an Annunciation. (Someone was trying to send me a message that day.)
Outside the church, the woman, pleased with the tip that N had given her, told us we could come back whenever we wanted. As I photographed the bell tower against the blue sky, I contemplated new possibilities, and Pata stepped in a patch of wet cement. I washed her shoes in a fountain at the top of the street, and, back at the car, placed them in a sunny spot on the dashboard. We left them there to dry, deciding to walk around the town for as long as Pata would tolerate being carried.We didn’t get to see the Romanesque cathedral. It didn’t matter.