Altar of Santa Croce Basilica, Florence, Italy

The walk tasted great. It wasn’t a dazzling aesthetic or spiritual revelation. It didn’t teach me anything about color, inspiration, or the merging of another world with our own. But that’s what it led to in 1979.

The time it took to polish off a jumbo scoop of stracciatella topped by rainbow sprinkles was how long it took me to get from the gelateria to the Basilica. Once there, from a front-row pew, towering grids of illustrated saints and stories filled my view with frescos, mosaics, stained glass windows, polyptychs, and, hanging in the center of Santa Croce‘s altar, a man with outstretched arms and stigmataed palms. Slowed by visual overload, I took in the Basilica more fully. Likewise, the altar took in sunshine streaming through lavish windows. Then clouds and haze.

Over and over again, the sky changed: until it was brand new. Or I was. Suddenly, the warm gleam of day stirred the interior. Its kaleidoscopic drama even seemed to move the centralized figure on the cross who, in turn, stirred all the surrounding colors. He became a painter mixing paints, an alchemist transforming pigment, tile, glass, wood, and stone from substance to spirit. Brightness, grayness, and mixer blended, as did representation and abstraction. Transfixed, I could no longer name the elements that decorated the altar because I no longer saw elements or altar, only their cumulative effect. Architecture and strict geometry dissolved beneath colored vibrations that lit the air and lit me. And they lit the paint-mixing alchemist whose work began boogying to the rhythms of the rays. I thought, “Damn, what was in that gelato?”

This new burst of Santa Croce light was not the powerful 16th-century, 3-D chiaroscuro of Caravaggio; it was the all-over quiver that happens when this weaves through or bumps into that. Becomes that. It was the hectic color patterns of a tapestry, the tiled walls of a mosque, the rush of a Bonnard landscape.

Pierre Bonnard, The Garden, Oil on canvas, 50 “ x 39 3/8”, 1937, Musée du Petit Palaise, Paris, France

Pierre Bonnard, Landscape in the South, Le Cannet, Oil on canvas, 25” 1/4 x 28”, 1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Pierre Bonnard’s staccato inventiveness enlivened by the legato of his brilliantly crazed brush layered Santa Croce’s grids. It was as if the French painter had rollicked into Italy, taking his centuries younger brushstrokes back with him more than 500 years in time to the Basilica’s consecration. Or did the altar shrink, zip forward, and blaze onto the French painter’s palette?

Pierre Bonnard, Palette of the Artist, paint on wood

I imagine a hiding Bonnard biding time in one of the Basilica’s numerous chapels, not well hidden because a Bonnard painting is as colorful in shadows as it is in sun. I imagine the painter sometimes popping up with a bang, Jack-in-the-box style, other times appearing soundlessly, like dawn, offering a few fortunate souls a taste of life before it’s divided into thises and thats. Forms in the French painter’s images play hide-and-seek: now you see them now you don’t. The day the sublime hider and his work had their luminous way with me, he tiptoed into sight. Sure, in a more literal, more linear world, Bonnard died the year I was born, but that fact had nothing to do with where I presently found myself. Bedazzled walls, arched windows, and a vaulted ceiling swayed, before sprinkling down in slow motion, like rainbows of summer snow. Red and blue became made-up limitations, mere three- and four-letter words that meant nothing. Or it meant something far more than what those words ever meant to me before. Then there were no words. And no religions.

But there was a holiness to the moment, holiness in the sense of embodied awe, which muted the sound of clicking shutters by people around me going from here to there in short sleeve shirts and sandals. They didn’t seem to notice the transformation of this tangible place into intangible, coming-and-going patterns, this floating hallucination of an altar that, for me, became an all-encompassing mixed-media painting. Once in a great, non-denominational while some of us luck out and see such things — and then we don’t. Happily, rare, immersive experiences like these stick, even when they’re no longer visible.

Who knows why one time in one place we are deeply moved but not in other times or places. Unlike my first (beginner’s luck?) Santa Croce visit, during many subsequent trips there I barely glimpsed the colored vibrations of boogying rays. On some of those very days, I suspect that other art lovers saw their own inspirations overflowing the altar while I sat there savoring my hunger for the great treat I once tasted.

Although my strolls follow the same route to and from the Basilica, returning from always tastes even better than going to it. Having ingested the altar’s color and light makes the difference, every time . . . gelato or no gelato, Bonnard or no Bonnard.

Barry Nemett, Vaulted Altar of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy, 20″ x 8″, pen and pencil on paper, foldout sketchbook, 2017

Barry Nemett, View from Montecastello Tryptich, 83″ x 67,” Gouache on paper, 2017, Collection of Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation

Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and Japan.