The photographs were commissioned by a music company for the cover of Andrea Bocelli’s next cult album. The last one had sold five million copies. We were visiting the popular tenor at his house in the resort of Forte dei Marmi, and decided to spend a few days at one of the town’s innumerable beach hotels, all equally deserted as the starting gun of the Roman holiday stampede had not yet been fired. As he Nikoned away at his subject with a lens the size of a hog’s head (“Cheeky eyes!” he almost demanded at one point, before remembering that the singer is indeed blind), my friend Gusov kept hissing to himself in Russian a 1960’s hooligan ditty:

Culture for the people, A store where you shop for free!

I thought that in the circumstances this, too, was a bit tactless, but all the same we had a great big elitist cackle about it afterward.

And then the long journey back to Venice on a hot, muggy summer day. I was beginning to feel irritable. Time seemed to stand still, like the hour and minute hands in magazine advertisements for wristwatches, which, Patek Philippe or Wizard of Oz, are always showing either ten minutes after ten or ten to two. The idea behind this universal convention is that the moment is uniquely flattering to the beauty of the watch face, with which the hands are then in perfect harmony, and one may well ask why anybody needs to have any sort of movement inside in the first place, if this is the way time is supposed to look.

This is a political question, more subversive, in fact, than the question of whether the next president of the United States is an onanist, whether the incumbent is a perjurer and a rapist, or whether the Constitution should be quickly rewritten by the faculty of the Yale Law School. If I had the technical and financial means to bring it to the attention of the American people that George Bush, like his father, began his adult life with a ritual sacrifice of Christian dignity to opportunistic careerism, I am convinced that little Dubya would not get to be president. By contrast, a simple convention, such as that upon which the commercial success of a blind tenor, or of a Swiss chronometer, is hinged, is practically unchallengeable, based as it is on centuries of cultural conditioning, ethical as well as aesthetic.

Consider for a moment the convention of the ordinary mirror. When a woman inspects herself in a glass, she wishes to see herself as others would see her, and only a psychologically insensible observer will tell you that her expectation or purpose are any different. And yet it ought to be perfectly plain to the woman that her wish is 100 percent unattainable, that what the glass is reflecting is how she sees herself, that and that alone. Why bother with mirrors then? And yet they are ineradicable, as much part of the mise en scene of our civilization as time and language, music and painting, oil and wine.

In Florence I had to change trains again, and as the Eurostar on which I had a reservation was simply not there, I had to choose whether to kill time chatting to prostitutes outside the station or looking at postcards displayed in the kiosks. The postcards were all of Michelangelo’s David. I counted 14 slightly different versions. By a strange coincidence, when I finally did board the train, there was on nu’ seat a copy of the Times, left there by some absentminded Englishman, with a front-page photograph of the Florentine landmark. “Michelangelo’s David,” read the caption; “The squint means the eyes look beautiful on both profiles.”

The story was that a Stanford University research team, having laser-scanned the head of the marble sculpture, determined that Michelangelo’s hero is crosseyed, apparently “on purpose, because it provided good profiles of David when seen from either side.” Naturally, as the sculpture is gigantic, nobody had ever noticed this before, and in my growing irritation I had to ask the obvious, tactless, Russian question, namely, if realism was the confessed aim of the Renaissance, how come they made their sharpshooter cross-eyed? And what gave them the idea to make their David the size of Goliath?

Culture for the people, A store where you shop for free!

I have already written here, during what I now recall as my years of Florentine captivity, about the parallels between the Renaissance of the Medici and the socialist realism of my native land’s recent past. I’he theme is a vast one, and while its chilling depths hold an attraction for me that is almost hypnotic, what might have remained a private obsession has been dilated and rendered objective by readings in such intellectually disciplined prophets of the universal totalitarian tomorrow as Vasily Rozanov and Pavel Florensky.

I cannot describe Rozanov as the greatest writer Russia has ever produced because, as he himself once wrote, to speak of a writer’s stature is as idiotic as to compare Joan of Arc with a railroad. Suffice it to sa’ that I believe that Rozanov is to the 21st century what Dostoyevsky has been to the 20th, while Father Florensky, who incidentally administered his philosopher friend’s last rites at his death from cold and hunger in 1919, may be described as that balancing intellectual force of counterreformation that the West has been wanting so pitifully since at least the invention of movable type. No Modern Convention, no Liberal Premise, no Child of Enlightenment are safe, thank goodness, so long as a single page of their writings remains unincinerated and unsuppressed.

Take Darwin, for a more or less relevant example. “Darwin never noticed,” wrote Rozanov,

that in nature the eyes glisten. He has depicted nature as opaque, with extinguished, dead eyes . . . He has created filth, not zoology. And the filthy epoch has bowed to his filth: “Wc don’t need music, we’ve got the gramophone.” Such is Darwinism.

“The mouth is for eating.” Pine, wonderful. But all you need for that is an orifice through which “food is introduced.” Instead, the mouth is not an orifice, but—a mouth. “A lovely mouth.” Perhaps, as I think, for kissing? No? Wiry not? It is uniquely human that the mouth should be so beautiful, which is why no other animal likes to kiss. While the one whose love begins with a kiss has been given a uniquely beautiful mouth.

The reader can confirm for himself the truth of Rozanov’s sentiments by gazing for half an hour, as I did on that train spiriting me away from the cradle of Western humanism, into the dead eyes of Michelangelo’s David, those vacant half-globes of marble with holes at their centers that are meant to look, from a great distance and only to a spectator positioned in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, like the Biblical hero’s pupils. If Darwin were God, all men would look like Michelangelo’s David from a great distance.

Uncovering the actual roots of Renaissance art in the theater design of ancient Greece and of the Roman graeculorum, Florensky analyzed both its illusionist, pyrotechnic, crowd-pleasing aims and its assumption of a captive and immobile, almost paralyzed audience with similar mercilessness:

The pathos of the modern man is in ridding himself of all reality, whereupon his naked “I want” would legislate over a new reality entirely of his own construction, phantasmagoric though clearly expressible on graph paper. The pathos of the ancient as well as the medieval man is, to the contrary, in the grateful acceptance of every reality, for all being is goodness and all goodness—being. The pathos of the medieval man is in the affirmation of the reality within and without him; hence objectivity. While modern subjectivism invites illusionism, nothing could be further away from the intentions and thoughts of the man of the Middle Ages than creation of appearances and life among fictions.

I want to end this with a kind of diminuendo flourish, which seems apt and more than a little funny. Mv friend Gusov rang up a few weeks ago, to report that he had spoken with a woman from the recording company, “I asked them what they thought of the Bocelli photos,” he said, already chuckling in anticipation. “‘He is delighted!’ the woman said. I said, ‘How do you mean, he is delighted? . . . I mean, he i s . . . ‘ ‘Well,’ said the woman, ‘you know what I mean. His manager is delighted.'” And then, again, hissing into the phone, that leitmotif of our Forte dei Marmi days:

Culture for the people, A store where you shop for free!