NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Giotto, Me, and the Perfect Circle

Every Christmas Eve, my father, Eugene Cutuly, and his brother, my Uncle Dom, retold the stories recounted by their father throughout their childhood. Every year, Dad and Uncle Dom embellished the stories which encouraged audience participation as all family members remained seate around the table following dinner, cheering the heroes, booing the villains, and offering raucuous commentary on the embellishments to the stories which got evermore elaborate and hilarious over the years. The most popular was called "The Bahns."

"The Bahns" was a variation of the prodigal son. This story was Uncle Dom's specialty. As this tale went, the wise father made the prodigal son promise that when he'd spent all his money and his friends deserted him, the young man would go down in the basement and hang himself. The prodigal one promised while also scoffing at the thought that his friends would ever leave him. When the young man had spent all his money and the betrayal came, he was desolate and remembering the promise to his father, went down in the basement, stuck his head in the noose awaiting him, and jumped off the stool. Except he didn't swing because the rafter collapsed and out fell buckets of gold. Aahh! The wise and all-knowing father.

The young man, now himself made wise, invited all his so-called friends to dinner and had his servants bring to the table, grand silver platters covered with silver lids. The mouths of the old friends watered. But when they lifted the lids, and what did they find? "Bahns," the family would yell. Bones, if you're not replying with my grandfather's Italian accent.

The moral of the story was, of course, Father knows best.

My favorite of the four stories, all of which you will learn should you decide to follow my blog, was the story of Giotto. To make a long story short, Giotto was sitting in the desert one day when the king rode on a horse with a great entourage. Now you may ask what the hell the great artist Giotto was doing sitting in a desert when there are no deserts in Italy. However, you may comment and criticize all you want because when it came to Grandpa's stories, father always knew best.

Anyhow, beside Giotto in the sand was a perfect circle. "How did that perfect circle get there?" the king asked. When Giotto said he'd drawn it, the king threatened to kill him for lying. No one can draw a perfect circle! When Giotto insisted, the king instructed artist now cowering under his regal rage to draw another such circle.

Giotto suddenly filled with confidence, sat up, erased the circle, and not only drew another perfect circle in the sand, but drew it with his elbow. When my dad told the story, the dinner table before him was cleared free of dishes so, in imitation of Giotto, he could swipe his hand over the imaginary sand and then make a swift and confident circular movement with his the elbow. The crowd, of course, would go wild.

And the moral of the story, Dad would ask?
"Father knows best," the family would cry in unison.

Huh? you ask. Don't. Father knows best.

It wasn't until I started planning for this trip to Italy that I found that this story had some basis in fact. Pope Boniface VIII was looking for an artist to create some special paintings for St. Peter's and sent an emissary to interview Giotto. Giotto dipped his brush in paint, drew a perfect circle, and handed it to the pope's rep who was sure Giotto was just being a smartass and asked for a painting. Giotto said that he should put it with drawings collected from his other competitors and see if the Pope got the message. The Pope did. Giotto got the job.

Moral of the story: You decide. But the way I see it, Father knows best.

In my next several blogs, I will tell you how my impending trip to Italy came about and how the trip grew from a simple plan to travel to a quest. You see, since I began considering the trip seriously several years ago, much has happened. In a nutshell, I have a book I am longing to write, two actually, which will form a trilogy. But I've found myself trapped in a creative logjam. I know I'm not a Giotto. Genius always finds a way. There will be no emissaries seeking me out for my artistic talents. But somewhere inside me, I know there is a perfect circle waiting to be drawn in the sand...not to be confused with drawing the proverbial line in the sand. I'm going right-brained here, not left...unless, of course, we are talking politics.

Now, I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure what those last couple sentences mean. If I did know, the direction for the next stage in my life would be clear. I do know my quest has something to do with eliminating all the extraneous beliefs and misperceptions from my life so that I might better be able to discover what I love and how to give my time and energy to whatever that may be. I'm sure it sounds ridiculous to admit that I'm not sure of what I truly love. But as I approach 70, I find myself stunned by the swift passing of the years and how the choices and struggles that were filled with such passion now seem to be only shadows on the wall. Certainly, my teaching and writing show very clearly my commitment to promoting social justice, the importance of the individual, and the power of the creative spirit to transform. While these ideas are very real and very important to me, I am lacking in the personal wisdom to guide me in the implementation of my values. Oh, I could write the books. But the world is not in need of more books but of a new paradigm. We are the midst of a technological transformation. On the other hand, while recent revolutions spread through the social media, they began with one fruit vendor getting so angry that he incinerated himself in protest of government injustices.

I realized that the very work I did as a teacher in the eighties and early nineties is no longer relevant. And yet, I will not allow myself to believe that I am irrelevant. And I will certainly never believe that the natural world has more to say to us as a species than the grandest of technological devices. While those devices will facilitate what we we learn from here on out, I will never stop believing in the power of the individual and the creativity of the human spirit. This idea was born in Florence in a period known now to us as the Italian Renaissance. Dante, who bridged the gap between the dark ages and the birth of humanism told us 700 years ago that we reach paradise by committing ourselves to what we love. And the quality of what we love and our commitment to it is important.

I'm going to Florence with the hope of finding the way into my own future though the past.

I invite you to come along. I will be studying Italian in an immersion program and only allowing myself several hours a day of English so that I can record my thoughts. They will be unedited and likely rambling. But hey, I'll be in Florence. And I've been told recently that chocolate gelato is an erotic experience. So there will be a lot of molto cool things to ramble about.