“Pata,” I said, “let’s go for a walk this afternoon, we can go anywhere you like.”
“Okay, Mommy,” she replied.
“Well, where would you like to go?” I asked, thinking she would tell me that she wanted to go to the playground.
“The cathedral,” she said.
Though it wasn’t the answer I was expecting, it didn’t surprise me. Pata has lately become interested in architecture. Looking through my books, she turns their pages with an air of anticipation, and gasping at the beauty of each building she finds reproduced therein, she is never disappointed. “Ooh, Mommy” she says, pointing at the pictures, “look at this! And this!”
At first I thought she was drawn by brightly colored stones and the gold of glimmering mosaics, but once I came upon her looking through a book that had only black and white photos. “Look, Mommy,” she said, tracing the forms of an early Christian basilica with her index finger, “it’s so beautiful.” Eagerly I pointed out its columns, capitals, and arches, giving her words to describe what she saw. Now I wondered whether it was a memory of my excitement that day that made her choose the cathedral over the playground.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Yes Mommy, yes,” she answered, annoyed.
“Why do you want to go there?”
“Because I want to see the arches and the sculptures of the animals. And that thing, like a box, where the people went up,” she said, raising her hands and drawing a large rectangle in the air. “I think the king and queen went up there,” she added, nodding.
“No, baby,” I told her, “priests climb to the top of the pulpit to read from a big book.”
“Well, that is where I want to go.”
We meandered through the winding streets of the old town on our way to the cathedral. I thought it might be fun to take a new route this time.
“Are we going to the cathedral?” she asked whenever we turned a corner. By the time we reached Via San Nicola, I had used up all her patience. “Mommy, where is the cathedral?” she demanded.
“We’re almost there,” I reassured her.
Just past the house with the dragon portal, which she did not care to examine because her heart was set on the cathedral, I caught sight of the retaining wall of the field behind the apse. The sound of children playing soccer there reverberated through the narrow street. “We’re almost there,” I said again. “Soon you’ll have a surprise!”
“What surprise, Mommy?” she asked, her curiosity piqued.
“Look, here it is! It’s the cathedral!” I exclaimed, pointing up at the apse, forgetting in my excitement that someone half a meter shorter than I wouldn’t be able to see over the retaining wall. Looking down at her, I saw that she was perplexed.
“The back of the cathedral is up there,” I explained, pointing beyond the wall. “We’re behind it!”
She was not impressed. I realized that approaching the cathedral from a different direction wasn’t much of a surprise for a five-year-old, even one who likes architecture.
Around the next corner, she spied the small grocery shop opposite the steps that lead up to the piazza. “I’m hungry,” she said.
“You should have finished your lunch,” I told her. Then, remembering that I still owed her a surprise, I said,”Let’s go inside. You can have whatever you want.”
She chose an iced tea and a bag of potato chips. We climbed up to the piazza and sat on a bench near the bronze pillar. A hornet buzzed in and out of the holes in the sculpture, drawn by the garbage that people toss inside it. After taking a few sips of tea and eating a few chips, she asked me why we weren’t going inside the cathedral.
“You have to finish your snack first,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. In a hurry, she drank the rest of the tea, swallowing it in one gulp. She handed the empty can to me, together with the open bag of chips. “Can you put these in your bag please, Mommy?” she asked.
Once inside the cathedral, we walked up the north aisle and crossed the nave to where the pulpit stands. “Look at the lions!” Pata said. “They’re so cute. Why is one of them looking a different way?”
“I don’t know why,” I admitted.
“The mosaics have so many colors!” she said.
“Have I already told you how they’re made?” I asked.
“With tiny pieces of glass and stone called tesserae.”
She had already moved on to something else. “The floor is so beautiful, look at all the shapes! There are squiggles over here,” she said, pointing to a large medallion in the cosmatesque pavement.
“This kind of floor is called ‘cosmatesque,'” I told her. “It’s made with pieces of polished stone.”
“It’s like a big mosaic, Mommy.”
“Yes it is,” I said, smiling.
“Mommy, I want to go up there,” she said, pointing to the elevated choir.
“Alright, I’m going to take some pictures of the pulpit.”
After a few attempts to photograph the owl, who had lost nearly all his character in a recent cleaning, I called her back to the pulpit. “Would you like to see the animals up close?” I asked her.
Holding her in my arms, I walked around the columns so that she could see the details of the capitals, omitting the three without sculptures of beasts at their corners.
“Mommy!” she cried out, pointing at one of the capitals I had passed over. “I want to see those persons!” After inspecting the pair of tiny human figures, she turned her head and looked at another of the capitals I hadn’t shown her. “I want to see those little birds now. They’re eating berries!” With a glance, she had noticed a detail that I had missed several times on my first visits to the cathedral, despite its being exactly at eye level. I brought her closer and she leaned in to get a better look. “Ooh,” she cried, “look how small the berries are!”
When I was a professor, one of my most important tasks was to teach eighteen-year-olds how to look at art with mindful eyes. Watching Pata as she leafed through the pages of my books, I wondered whether I would be able to do the same for a five-year-old. But it turns out that she already knows, and all I have to teach her is how not to unlearn it.