In his memoir Iris John Bayley describes the “sense of high achievement” he and Iris Murdoch felt after seeing the Resurrection by Piero della Francesca in Sansepolcro: “for who can see a great picture or read a great book without taking some of the credit for it himself?” I know just what he means, and if the great picture is difficult to get at, the achievement feels all the higher.
I was in Parma in October, where there are great paintings in churches and museums, easy to get at, sometimes even free. You couldn’t always see them very well; I should have brought binoculars, as the best Correggios are on domes (how could he see what he was doing? How could anybody see them at all before electric light?). At the tourist office I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition in an art museum outside the city, Fashion Posters in Italy from 1850 to 1950, not the most inspiring subject in the city of Correggio and Stendhal; it was also half an hour away by bus. The museum itself was interesting too, they said, and gave me a bus timetable which showed one bus every two hours, then advised against it: too complicated, all country roads, too far for a taxi.
After two years of not being able to travel one becomes wary of things going wrong. So far nothing had, but this seemed an invitation for disaster: I saw myself out in the countryside, alone, beside an empty road, as darkness fell and all the buses in Emilia Romagna had ground to a halt. Still, it was a fine looking timetable, and this was my last day in Parma; I decided to go, partly because the tourist office thought I couldn’t. I was at the bus stop so early that I had time to look at the flea market beside it, and spotted a souvenir plate from Atlantic City, New Jersey. A friend of mine’s husband spent his summers there as a child; I took a picture of it and sent it to her.
At the bus stop I found that one could follow the bus on an app as it approached; I stood in brilliant sunshine – it was a very warm October – and watched the no. 12 arriving, stop by stop, almost exactly on time. No difficulty in getting out at the right place, I could see myself on the app, always slightly ahead of the bus, presumably with superior GPS.
The driver let me out by a ditch, nothing was visible but trees, a ploughed field and in the far distance a coach. But there, hidden behind the trees, was the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, a villa full of wonderful paintings, one man’s collection, his Goya, his Titian, his Morandis, a whole private museum.
The fashion posters were striking, the women more mature than models today, their outfits often set off by elegant hounds. These are still in fashion in Italy, I saw several real ones in the city. Between them and the Titian I bumped into a couple whom I had seen the previous day in Parma, who had clearly cheated and come by car. Like Bayley and Murdoch I too saw the Resurrection in Sansepolcro before it was part of the Piero della Francesca Trail, and I have never forgotten its effect; you stepped into an unassuming building, I remember it as a kind of shed, and were immediately floored, struck dumb, by the painting. Here, just outside Parma, the effect was cumulative: almost alone in the museum I went from one wonderful painting to the next, hardly able to believe I was really there, or that they were real. Not having known what to expect was part of it, also that it was one person’s collection, and of course the journey there, an adventure on a glorious day, for which I take all the credit.
On the way back the app showed the little picture of the bus at the end of the line, about to set off towards me, then the picture vanished. A moment of doubt, but then the bus came, nothing was going to go wrong now. Just before I reached Parma my friend messaged me from America about the plate: Buy it! I tracked down the stall, the plate had been packed up, was retrieved, it was mine for fifteen euros. I got it for ten.