A new Bagnoregio painting: memories and layers create texture from layering a new painting over old.
The medieval city of Civita di Bagnoregio is a place of mysterious layers, buildings destroyed by earthquakes and time, where you can see the evolution of the centuries of construction and destruction. In the process of layering new paintings on top of old I found metaphors for both the place itself and memories of it. The paintings it inspired in my studio last year became in a way metaphors for the city itself: The Dying City (“La Citta’ Che Muore”) this town is called, though it lives on through tourism.
Our day trip in November 2017 was a beautiful day with old friends. It was the first time we had met each other’s children as it had been many years since we had all been together. Bagnoregio was the second destination of the day, after Mass at Santa Christina in Bolsena and lunch on the picturesque shore of Lake Bolsena.
Bagnoregio (“The Dying City”) inspires new paintings
The littlest children from each family fell asleep on the short drive from Bolsena and ended up staying in the car to nap (with an adult of course). I had forgotten how far the walk was, with many steps and steep climbs, so it was much easier with only the older children.
Civita’ di Bagnoregio had been victim to an earthquake in the 1700s and 1800s. Damaged by earthquakes and erosion over the centuries less than a dozen people now live there. It is mainly a tourist attraction, full of hauntingly spectacular vistas. You can only access this little medieval town via a walkway.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and the sun was getting low in the sky.
As we returned across the walkway towards the parking lot we hit “the golden hour”. The sun’s light gilds the already orange volcanic tufa stone common in that part northern Lazio and southern Umbria.
”Where I am now – whatever failed moment I may have experienced in this place or in the past, has very much contributed to the rich texture of my story.
The atmosphere here is other-worldly; it leads one towards reflecting on the past. You can see the effects of time here: the rest of this Renaissance palazzo has crumbled into the valley, leaving the windows open to the blue sky.
Again these passageways, so many layers of shapes and light and space. Complexities of interior/exterior, reflected light, cast shadow. Passing in, passing through… The possibilities for imagery followed me home to the studio in 2018, where even the construction of the paintings echoed the mysterious palimpsests of the town.
Memories and Layers: Building Texture
One of the ways I build the texture and surface on my paintings is by painting over old paintings. I first began this practice in grad school. I had entered the University of New Hampshire MFA Program wanting to paint landscapes. In New Hampshire, surrounded only by trees, I found landscape uninteresting: what had attracted me about painting landscapes in Italy, Boston and the North Shore was the interaction of natural topography and human-built environment. As I sorted that out I created many mediocre and even downright terrible paintings of landscapes and figures in that first year of grad school.
In my second year at UNH, after a summer painting trip to Ascoli-Piceno in Italy, I began to pinpoint this interest in architecture. When my professor Grant Drumheller said “Paint your memories of Italy” I opened my sketchbook to a line drawing of the interior of a church in the center of Ascoli-Piceno. I then grabbed the first canvas available — a failed NH landscape — and painted darkened arches with a glimmer of light showing through narrow stained glass windows in the apse.
The failed landscape painting became an unplanned underpainting and the beginning of years of paintings of sacred architecture.
I enjoy painting outdoors, but not all the paintings are successful. Whether it’s due to lack of adequate compositional planning, or practical reasons such as weather or the changing light, I don’t always finish my outdoor paintings. When we moved to Ohio several years ago I made some paintings down by the Maumee River. I liked the spot and made several good paintings there, though one large one I never finished.
When I looked at the photo of Bagnoregio there was something about the swooping rooflines that I saw echoed in the riverbank of the Maumee in the unfinished landscape. I felt like there was a conversation to be had.
Past into Present: Old paintings become New
Although I have been practicing this “layering of paintings” for probably ten years, I considered to it to be purely utilitarian. For me it was a technical shortcut to building up the surface texture of the painting. A few months ago my artist friend Marissa Voytenko viewed this painting in progress and commented that I was melding my past and my present. Since that time I have begun to see this process as rich in content as well.
I realized that this painting and others in this series are about memory… Just like that first painting church interior painting in graduate school. Beyond the darkness of this archway in the light beyond memory, bright moments in my past. Those moments of light that pointed me the way to where I am now. Looking through the archway also becomes a glimpse of a future that I have not yet seen but I have faith exists.
Just like this painting, where I am now, and whatever failed moment I may have experienced in this place or in the past, has contributed to the rich texture of my story. Those moments of “failure” can propel us forward to a place of light that builds upon and redeems those choices that came before.