Duccio’s Madonna and Child is in a little room on the second floor of The Met Museum. If you were to go straight from the Met’s large front door, past the information booth with its elaborate flower stand and on towards the grand staircase in the middle of the room, you’d be going in the right direction to find it. Except you can’t do that, because the bag inspection lines either lead you left, towards the Roman coins, or to where most people are, to the right, in the direction of the mummies and the alabaster jewelry. Straight ahead takes a bit of effort, as it turns out. You have to backtrack a bit. But if you do that, and you head up the stairs, it isn’t that far past the large scale portraits in the foyer to the small room with the small framed Duccio. There isn’t much to catch the eye in that room, and most people just pass on through. I like to spend time in there, though, and I try to return as often as I can, which is never quite enough. This is a painting that I like to come back to.
I won’t say that this is my “favorite painting,” because I don’t know what that means. But I will say that I like to spend time with this Duccio, and that I like to observe the details. You can’t tell from the picture up above, but there is a rich texture to the painting in person, with its crevices, and creases, and cracks along the surface edge. There is a patina. Mary has a halo of course, but that is hard to see unless you are standing there. And she seems to have an expression that says “You are my Son, and Very Special, and I Love You a Ton and Forever, but I can tell there will be Trouble, and I am Ready for it.” At least that is what I think it says sometimes. On other days I might see a different gaze. The Little Man reaches up to pull back the headdress hanging around her for a fuller look. He wants to know better. I like that. There is a connection there. And also to how her left thumb rubs his robe as his opposite foot brushes gently against her other hand. There is a sensitivity to their movements, and an emotional relationship. These are not detached objects. They are still against the general run of time, but not in the fullness of their gestures.
There are grander paintings in The Met, and in the world. I know of several. There are gaudier paintings. There are whirling dervishes, and there are dramas on a bigger scale. Many paintings are more famous. Most call more attention to themselves. Multitudes are more technically competent, or better preserved, or more perfect. There are Noted Masterpieces and Hallowed Works. But I find that I like the feeling of the Duccio, and when I can get back to that sense again, I do. I have read that this was a devotional piece, viewed by those who came to pray beneath it, and that the burns in the bottom of the frame were left by the candles that had been lit to better view the figures. I think I can understand that.
Yesterday we had a special dinner at the restaurant.
The occasion was a study of Chave Hermitage Blanc and we opened up 25 vintages, most every release since 1981.
The 1990 and the 2005 were the most powerful and impressive. The 1984 and the 1983 were the grandest reaffirmations for the reputation of the wine. The 1991 showed the most promise. The 2004 was the most mineral. The 2007 may have been the most lavishly oaked. The 1981 was the most distinctive, with cool wintermint fruit. The 1992 may have brought the most immediate joy.
But it was the 1993 that I returned to.
It used to be that I served the 1993 when I first started as a wine buyer. The gregarious Bob Zahn, who always looked out for me, called up the restaurant one afternoon. “I have something special for you,” he said. “They just found a couple of cases of Chave Blanc during inventory. Old stuff. Nobody at the warehouse knows what it is. I’ve got it hidden under your customer number, ‘cause I know you know. Want it?” Of course I didn’t know, not back then, and not firsthand anyway. Back then I had just read about Chave. But here was my chance to find out, and I took the delivery the next day. The pricing was nothing. I mean really nothing, I think we had that wine on the list for like 73 bucks. And that was apparently too much, because we hardly sold one. Merlot, sure. Back then we could sell Merlot for a hundred, no problem. Merlot was what everybody wanted. But Marsanne/Roussanne wasn’t the first thing that came to people’s minds. If they ordered the Chave they were in the business, or just passing through, or else I pushed it on them. Which usually didn’t work out so well, because to tell you the truth, back then the 1993 was lanky. Overgrown. Gawky. Keeping mostly to itself. You know how Northern Rhône whites can be. They go through their oxidative phase. What I think of as their punk adolescent period: always tired when the grownups are around looking at them. You feel like something is wrong with them because they don’t behave when you ask them to. They can be troubling, and they make you suspicious. They are not for polite company, and they often get sent back to their rooms. We had two cases of that wine to start with, and I saw more than a few bottles turned back.
But here was my 1993 after a decade more in its old green glass: hair combed back, tender, a bit portly in the middle. Gentle in demeanor. Pairing well. Showing a developed patina with rich hues on the nose, and a fine drapery of flavors across the palate. In that bottle was not the greatest of the liquids that we saw that night. Not the grandest, nor the most famous. But it was the bottle that I had a relationship with. That I had returned to again and again. That I had worried over. The one I had searched my feelings about and decided to believe in. That had turned out to be, for me, the most pleasant to be around. This was the one that I was the happiest about.
I had had a chance to go back and spend some more time. To admire. To change my mind. The chance to take a new look and be surprised. Sometimes that is, for me, what is most important.
Privately, I gave thanks.