by Dian Parker
Ten small tables, dimly lit, encircled by four green plastic columns; smooth Italian tenors piped in the background; deep burgundy walls hung with oil paintings of young girls seated demurely on velvet cushions with tiny white lap dogs; complex aromas of garlic, oil, and spices from the old country drifting through ‒ all of this makes for an unparalleled romantic setting. Through the years, I’ve taken many men.
And yet. In a dark corner at the back of the dining room, propped on an old wooden easel, is an oil painting completely out of place for this traditional Italian restaurant. On the canvas is an ivory-skinned, naked woman with long flowing black hair, bound by thick rope around her hands and feet. Onto a cross. Crucified.
The story goes that Eugenio, the owner of the restaurant, had lived all his life in his generations-old, Sicilian family house. Before moving to the States, the house had to be cleared out and sold. In his grandmother’s upright piano, that took six men to move, they found the crucifix painting sealed and nailed inside the piano’s back panel. No one in his family had ever seen or known of the painting. His grandmother, long dead, like all his relatives, had been devoutly religious.
Studying the painting with a magnifying glass, I found a barely discernible square stamp in the corner, with a squiggle inside. I looked up the insignia but found nothing. I imagine it’s circa 1600s. From the first time I saw the painting and every time I go to the restaurant, which is once a week, I beg Eugenio to sell me the painting. He always refuses.
There are a number of reasons why it is imperative I own this painting. The first and foremost is because it is stunningly beautiful, masterfully painted, and obviously very old. The woman’s long luxurious black hair falls across a serene face and lightly over her ample breasts, the skin pale and translucent. The naked body is backlit in pale yellow, with the rest of the painting in a dusty absinthe green. The oil on canvas is crackled, like an old Renaissance painting. The woman ‒ serene in torture.
Another reason I need the painting is because it represents for me the female program that I’ve so diligently tried to rid myself of. A woman, not nailed to a cross but bound in rope to the wood, accepting her tragic fate without protest. I’d like to give it to my mom. We’d sit in front of the painting, sipping wine, and discuss our lives as women in a male-dominated family of four towering six-foot-three men. Without a voice. Unheeded. Ignored. I’ve never discussed this topic with my mom. I need to. I think she does too. The painting would help break the ice.
The third reason. The painting was nailed inside the back of a piano, hidden for a century. A crucified woman nailed to the inside of a piano; I can definitely relate to that. The whole time I was growing up my dad, a consummate jazz pianist, played a 1918 Steinway grand piano that his aunt had given him. I also played that piano. It was the center of our family and my only solace in a tyrannical household. After my dad couldn’t play anymore because his fingers grew arthritic, he gave the piano to me.
When I left home, my mom and dad eventually moved to an assisted living community. My father wanted to ship the piano to me but there was no way I could keep one in a drafty yurt heated by wood in rainy Washington State. The damp weather would have destroyed the fine instrument. I told him to sell and keep the money. We both cried, separately I might add. And, my father made a fraction of what the piano was worth.
A few months after my father sold the piano, I got a job homeschooling a family’s three kids. The parents asked if I’d help them pick out a piano, knowing I played. At the piano store, the oldest girl wanted to buy a particular piano because she liked the blond wood. I said it wasn’t a good piano and recommended others in the store. She had a temper tantrum, eventually getting her way. Afterwards, driving back to their house, I wept. The incident triggered my mourning for the most beautiful and well-made piano, for me, in the whole world ‒ our Steinway grand. Here was a spoiled child choosing a piano because, she insisted, “It’s just so pretty!”
Another guy I dated owned a white grand piano and played like Keith Jarrett. Whenever I heard him play, I vowed I would never date again. That didn’t stick, but the thought of owning Eugenio’s painting always has, deep in my soul.
I’m a painter now, working with oils on canvas. I’ve tried to paint the tormentedly gorgeous painting but always come up short. How did that mysterious master painter manage to show such beauty and vitality amidst such torture and death? The thick rope tightly binds her hands and feet onto a splintered wooden cross yet her face remains calm, as if focused on another world. Beauty and tragedy, majestically held aloft. A Moby Dick painting. Madame Bovary and Isabel Osmond trapped forever. My mother and I, mouths wide, screaming without a sound.
When I lost my Steinway, it felt like a crucifixion. I dream of it still. My dad is dead now but the tyranny continues, inside of me. As you can see, the female crucifixion painting covers so much – a dead woman nailed to a cross and to a piano.
I’m dating a terrific guy now. I’ll take him to the restaurant. Show him the painting. Maybe Eugenio will sell it to him. You know, a guy thing.
Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in Adelaide, The Rupture, Critical Read, Epiphany, Westerly, Channel, Tiny Molecules, Capsule and Deep Wild, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She writes about art and artists, including color essays, for Art New England.