“That which is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I only knew him very briefly before his 1997 death. In my home I have two objects d’art that were used by him in setting up still lifes. One a woven basket that resembles a duck, and a pot that was burned in an open fire in the way that Southwestern and Middle American pots were fired. I treasure both of these for having been his possessions and the subject of works that I could not afford to own.
He shared with me a story of being selected to work on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel while he was still a student at Brera Liceo Artistico. He was clearly and appropriately deeply honored to be asked to do such historically important work.
It was painstaking, slow and exceedingly careful work that seemed to go on and on, days on end, weeks pouring into the next endlessly. One day he was high up in scaffolding, and to steady himself he put his hand against the fresco and his hand slipped right into an existing hand print in the ceiling, the hand print of Michaelangelo, who it was said was the only one who had worked on the fresco. It wasn’t exactly duplicating the subject matter of the ceiling, but it did seem instructive to me in the way that follows.
As you can see exemplified in the illustration, the color was eventually restored to the frescoes, and while there has been great controversy about whether or not these colors should have been used, we will not embroil ourselves in the arguments of art historians and restorers of great works. Roberto Lupetti worked on the penultimate restoration about which there are no longer any arguments.
There are two principal ideas that I think we can take from this story. The first being that history does reach over time and touch us in ways that are incredibly important for us. For Roberto it was the lineage of his artistic style reaching through the ages and affirming his life’s work at a time when he was very young and the encouragement of being selected to do this work in one of the most historic and beautiful places on earth, and then to have that sacred experience of slipping his hand into the handprint of Michaelangelo, as if a sacred trust was being passed along to him. Through the years as a teacher he passed on ancient techniques and knowledge as a result of the culmination of his experiences as a significant artist himself, always remembering that moment of realization high up in the scaffolding as he carefully worked to return the fresco to its early glory.
The second idea that I want to share is that Roberto was always willing to be inspired. It was as if he was a clearing in the forest awaiting the light of day to shine upon it, illuminating all upon which the eye could fall. He was not embarrassed to be so inspired or to teach others to allow inspiration into their hearts as they worked alongside him. Each of us, has the opportunity to live as he did, as a man who opened himself completely to the artist that he was, to the experiences that presented themselves and who was willing to go far from his home in Milan to live on another continent if it meant that he was able to express himself fully as an artist and a teacher.
He was a very humble man in failing health when I met him near the end of his life. I understand from mutual friends that he had always been a warm and simple man with a wicked gleam in his eye, just as he was when I briefly knew him.
Through the years I remember sitting at the kitchen table at Dr. Bill’s house talking with Roberto and his telling me that story, and I was struck by the lightening, as if I, for that sunny afternoon, was one of his legion of students, enlightened by my brief contact with the story of his realization.