The Man in the Turban

From 'Fortuny'

Pere Gimferrer

Illustration by Michela Caputo

The long black hair of the odalisque unfurls in the dense, stagnant air. Her nude body reclines over a white sheet that spreads outward, engulfing the fabric beneath it, of a profuse and vivid red. Further up, high over the head of the odalisque, there hangs a dark green curtain. The odalisque offers up her body, as she offers up the open palm of her hand. An Arab in a turban sits at her feet. A bangle winds around the odalisque's ankle and she gazes upward, scrutinizing the emptiness of the chamber. The crestfallen Arab strums a stringed instrument in the parsimonious darkness. Despite the shadows cast by the turban, the milky glinting of light, and the murkiness of the chamber, the viewer seems to see the Arab's face. As one approaches, the face seen up close gives the effect of a face seen from afar; but seen from afar, we know it to be nothing more than the idea of a face. The oil, a bit darkened over the desiccated cardboard, lacks the brilliant, waxen clarity of fresh varnish.

A painting is an autonomous space; but this autonomous space also lives in another visible space, in a concrete location. There are curtains there and brocade tapestries and dark, heavy velvets thick with the suffocating layers of dust from a luxury now centuries dead, built upon petrified splendors and one day paralyzed. Thus the light of Rome crosses the garden with its classical statuary and settles on the white hat of the young woman—we know she is young, but we do not see her face—seated on a rocker, leafing through an album while speaking courteously to the other woman seated before her, both vast and tenuous in her aeriform crinoline. In the half-light of the chamber, with glimmers of flame at once faint and terrible, burns the jagged assemblage of lances and helmets, the feudal glimmer of a suit of armor, a shield, and an axe, the harness, blind and immobile, of a tartar horseman, seasoned in the open air, sun-dark from the torrid or snow-capped sands, come down from the flickering depths of centuries to rest beneath the shelter of shawls overlaid with Coptic imagery and the carved wood of the paneled wall. There is an iron stove of periscopic bent, and a painting in the manner of Goya embedded in the wall with its suffocating tapestries. The chisel of visible space has also chiseled into time, in the luminosity of the morning in 1870.

We didn't see, or we thought we didn't see, or we saw and didn't realize it, the face of the Arab seated at the odalisque's feet; nor do we see now particularly well the faces of the two other Arabs. There is a courtyard with one wall of ochre and another of white; or rather, a white barrier and the ochre ashlar stonework of a larger building, perhaps the tower of a Moorish castle. An Arab in a bluish hat holds up the hoof of a mule while another Arab, kneeling on the parched swale, brick-red and fissured, nails on a horseshoe. The standing Arab is little more than a nude, bronze in color, grading into olive green; the face of the Arab blacksmith under his red turban is scarcely more than a smudge the arid color of a stump of chestnut. More or less like the other Arabs of today; but whereas the sky in the courtyard where they are shoeing the mule was of a milky white like mist, here, on the other hand, it is a broad horizon with traces of blue and thin clouds that vacillate from white to mauve, half-blended, at times, with the more diffuse bursts of smoke from the confusion of musket-fire and the dust kicked up by the Arabian horses thrown into a gallop on the mountain-ringed flatlands of Tétouan.

The jacket of the Spanish cavalry uniform is blue; they wear red pants, golden epaulettes, and brandish the white streaks of their unsheathed sabers, slicing the thin, dry air over an immutable background of imperious blue. Plunging in a single breath, never seen clearly, down into the desolate and rancorous scree, this incongruous multitude of volumes arrested in instantaneous movement, this band of Arabs dressed in white or green or red or yellow, or in a color that seems violet under the reddish standard blown about by a flamboyant blast of wind, is also a mass of people not quite endowed with faces. Terse in the incandescence of motion, they are all moment, rapture of fulgid colors.

The movement demands enormous patience with a minuscule paintbrush. The man who is painting it—the man who, when he dies amid the exotic, malarial luminosity of the environs of Rome, will not yet have finished painting it—we see in profile, bent over the easel which holds up a canvas of diminutive size; grander, perhaps, because of its small size, as though the last redoubt of color. The man—Mariano Fortuny y Marsal—is seated in the same rocker where the young woman in the white hat was seated before. In the hovel of the odalisque's bedchamber, in the purlieu where the mule is being shod, amid the anfractuosities of Tétouan, the Arabs are faceless. The contino can have a face, the count-in-waiting, languid in his riding jacket with his small sword and blue gaiters, under a whisper of clouds exalting themselves against the backdrop of a balustrade in the park and stone carved with the faces of grotesques, a harlequin of silk in an Italian garden, rendered in watercolor as if he himself were entirely made of water. Mariano Fortuny y Marsal may have a face as well: not attired as a Roman, or disguised as a moor with a musket and leather boots, or dressed in the eighteenth century manner contemplating a vase from Arabia, or in the sepia luminosity of photos, but rather in the canvas painted by Federico de Madrazo, the father of the young woman in the white hat. Federico de Madrazo is a slender man with a dour moustache and eyes that form a precise bulls-eye under the gelid rondure of his spectacle lens. In the canvas of Federico de Madrazo, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal has black hair and wears a black jacket; the collar of his shirt is white, and a thin gold watch-chain trails from his vest pocket. Mariano Fortuny y Marsal looks back at his viewer from within the painting, his head askance. His hair is tangled from a powerful unseen wind; under his collar, nearly grazing the picture frame, his cravat is a scarlet smudge, a yellow haze, and a mingled tempest of indistinct colors set alight.

We are living in the ephemeral glory of clarities of the Roman November, which from time to time gives promise of the sweetness of May's light. The naked bust of a goddess, in the background, suffuses the garden with whiteness; under the chaste velvet spears of the cypresses, the young woman with the white hat, sheltered by a parasol, is run through with fluid clarities in transverberation. Only a few years back, amid the satin of the September sky in Paris, with parchment-yellow lighthouses on the bridges waylaid by green or blackish waters, Federico de Madrazo also painted a portrait of his daughter Cecilia, the young lady in the hat so white. From outside, all was compact and golden in a gloom of conic roofs and chimneys of sacred soot and imperial cornices stripped bare by the solemnity of daybreak under a cold white sky, dense and untrembling. Not a quiver in the stifling golden light of the Parisian September, which grazes—indeed, as if we were plucking a smooth string—the bobbin lace adorning the picture window.

Cecilia de Madrazo in Paris, around September of 1867, has somber, tender eyes and a golden cameo on her breast, and a white blouse with trim, and a red shawl with green markings that covers up her shoulder, and a black scarf over her neck. On her lips, on her cheeks, a slight, pure touch of pink.  In days to come, this face will be another face. In Granada, with spurs of calcerous light in the coruscated gardens, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal would paint the lady of the Castle on her deathbed. Over the blue cushion is a yellowed face which edges toward olivaceous; in the depths, the fabric is red, but the chamber turns dark and purple around the inanimate noblewoman with the black hair. Now—many years later—on her deathbed, Cecilia de Madrazo, wrapped in the suffocating luxury of ornamental tapestries, will be nothing more than whiteness beneath the coruscated flowers:  a lily suffused with flickering ice.

The man who photographed Cecilia de Madrazo takes a few steps backward in the desolate chamber, imposing in its silent immensity. The man who photographed Cecilia de Madrazo so many times may also take a few steps back in time. He has a face, we see his face: he is wearing a turban. The Arab from the odalisque's sordid and suffocating seraglio, the ruddy-skinned Arab who was shoeing the mule, the Arab with the musket riding horseback through the outskirts of the tumult of Tétouan, are all now one man, with a man's face, painted and unpainted countless times in the radiance of the ancient Roman studio. The man with the turban, in this photograph, is not an Arab: he is a European, with black eyebrows, white beard, and a kerchief knotted around his neck, and a black-and-white striped djellaba, very broad and roomy in the shoulders. The man with the turban and the djellaba looks at us: he is Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, in the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, in Venice, around the year 1945.

translated from the Catalan by Adrian West


The translator would like to extend his sincerest thanks to Pau Damià Riera and Carla Pascual Roig for helping with this project.



Read the original in Catalan

Pere Gimferrer is the author of numerous books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, both in Spanish and in Catalán. His writing is notable for its visual power, the range of its references, and its extraordinary lexical refinement, as well as a profound concern with the role of the artist in his engagement with his forebears and the historical responsibility of the intellectual.

Adrian West is a contributing editor at Asymptote. His translations include the long poem cycle Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer and Büchner-prize–winning novelist Josef Winkler's Natura Morta and When the Time Comes. His essays, translations, and short fiction have been published in numerous print and online journals, including McSweeney's, 3:AM, and Words Without Borders. He lives with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.



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