What is true of two very special women of Venice may be true of any woman one is attracted to – they are known only by representation. The first I spotted on the island Cemetery of San Michele in Venice. She emerges in high relief from what I swore upon seeing her for the first and second time was green alabaster or marmo verde more precious than many a gemstone. In reality, she is cast from mere bronze, but some how made alabaster or marble scrumptious by the patina of oxidation and the startling detail: obviously gorgeous hair piled, piled, circled, and pined; slender, oh so very appealing body draped in a gauzy, but permanent negligee sufficiently modest for a tomb. She lies upon a divan, the almost breathtaking beauty of a young woman in light repose; head turned toward you with lips that practically speak: “kiss me”, “wake me, Dear Lover”. She makes one believe the story of Pygmalion, where the poor fellow chipped, chiseled, and sanded so much love and beauty and heart into ivory that even Venus took pity and gave it a life of womanhood, motherhood, and death. Or the story of Daedalus using quicksilver to give his statutes voice. One aches to hear her voice, to know her womanhood, to age with her into death.
The representational facts are sparse: “Sonia” is engraved on the stone accompanied only by “Born 20 Febbraio 1885 a Za Bomgewka, RU. Died 6 Febbraio 1907 a Venezia”. Below, on the flagstone is Russian writing. Merely sharing her story and a picture was sufficient to convince several Italian University friends to join up for a second trip and to bring along a Russian speaking colleague to help ferret out more facts. Miscommunication prevented the rendezvous, but a mid-twenty something Italian woman named Mariagrazia accompanied me. She was intrigued by my effusiveness and desirous of visiting the grave of a recently deceased friend for whom she had made all the arrangements.
Mariagrazia looked at Sonia while I was waxing eloquent about all the poetic, romantic possibilities. She looked for awhile and said: “she committed suicide and drank something to do it”. I was not dismissive, but it did make me laugh for its ingenious inventiveness. I was skeptical, but it was an intriguing idea. Given all my predilections, this Sonia and that scenario seemed just too implausible. The next day I received an email from Mariagrazia with Google search results showing the astounding, surreal nature of her intuition. Sonia Kalinskey was, by one account, of Russian aristocratic origins who came to Venice during carnival and died from a self-administered dose of laudanum in the magnificent, Five-Star (then and now) Danieli Hotel “due to a disappointment in love”.
There is another whole story about the deep intuitive soul of Mariagrazia, but best left for a separate episode. I now wish I had asked her who she thought loved Sonia so much he dedicated his own, smaller version of Taj Mahal riches in order to realize such a careful, oh so very loving, homage. I say “he” because I was convinced from the first glance that no one but a lover would have scoured the Venezia Terra Firma for a modern Pygmalion. Perhaps that lover was the sculptor himself, though the evidence speaks against it. We know he was Enrico Butti (1847-1932). His age, the other sculptures he was creating throughout Europe at the time speak of solely a commission. Some patron, someone ensured that mere bronze was imbued with something so close to Sonia, so very close to a woman who would break any man’s heart that, like the Ivory Girl, she too emerges almost capable of being palpably touched, kissed, and very tenderly loved; A beauty who would otherwise have merely taken her forgettable place in that common parade of aging, birthing, laughing, suffering and disappearing into just another Mausoleum shelf – the kind of shelf where her long gone, loving representer resides unknown. But, his caring and his obvious love has left her to me these one hundred years hence – a dynamic specialness, a ravishing hint of companionship.
It is entirely possible, of course, that my conviction was entirely wrong. Perhaps longing obscures the deeply loving father or mother wounded the wound that life will never cure; parents forever diminished at the loss of so precious a child, at the loss of their young Darling on the cusp of bringing those deeper joys adult children bring into the life of the aging. Perhaps their sorrow was the love that gave her her last form from which she might well be saying: “Wake me to the day Dear Papa”. “Oh Mama, kiss your girl into life”.
Continued . . .