“Creating art allows us to express our deepest feelings and ideas without having to put a name to them.” – Robert Dalton
My eyes darted around when I walked in; I had no idea which way to look first. There was stuff everywhere in the tiny space. Glass cases to my left, paintings and sculptures along the wall to my right, tools and gadgets to the back, and odd, whimsical touches every which way. He sat in the back, dwarfed by his surroundings while at his jeweler’s bench. “Buongiorno,” I said, but he barely glanced up at me.
The small, unassuming shop in Venice sits right off one of the slightly less busy streets (if there really is such a thing in Venice), and the lines, curves and rawness of a small sculpture of a couple in an intimate embrace caught my eye as I walked past. I wanted to buy it. Those little metal figures were the smallest thing in the window that held an assortment of beautiful and interesting designs, the first clue that this was not just another tourist shop.
The sculpture that I wanted? Not for sale. But that initial question led to gesticulating conversations of few words, and we formed a friendship, Piero and I. I visited the shop several times in so many days. He was fascinating. His workspace was full of things that I had never seen before, each more interesting than the last. He had a case full of medallion rings, made in the likenesses of Greek gods and goddesses, and I fell in love with his version of Aphrodite. His limited grasp of English was far better than my Italian, and as he swept his arm around the room, he told me he made everything that was in there. I asked if I could make his photograph. His eyes grew wide, his hand went to his chest, and he said, “Me?”
One of the many items on display were some funky eyeglasses, perched on a sculpture adorned by two large shells, acting as headphones. He told me that the glasses were for painters, so that they could see colors—or something like that—and then he modeled them for me.
Hidden behind those glasses, he was bold. When I asked him to make eye contact with me, he asked to see the LCD screen on the back of my camera. “Terrible!” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t like me in photos.” I could relate; whenever a camera is remotely pointed in my direction, I scatter like a cockroach at midnight when the lights unexpectedly come on. He pulled out a photo of himself and held it up in front of his face. “Better this way.”
He reached beneath the case and pulled out a scrapbook. As he opened it, faded photographs and notes from years past slipped freely between the pages and spilled onto the counter. I knowingly asked, “Is this you?” in that methodical tone—that rhythm—that magically appears when there is little to no language comprehension. He smiled and nodded. He was a photographer, and I was seeing some of the beautiful places he had visited through his eyes. Those mischievous eyes. Earlier photos of him were unmistakable: his expressions remained exactly the same.
I shopped, tried on jewelry, and we spoke—as best we could—about life and about art. He shared his photographs and his memories with me. For not speaking the same language, we were having a fantastic chat; he was wildly interesting. He intimated that he knew that his style was unconventional (in much smaller words), but that he had always been that way. He took the few steps from where he stood to his workbench and returned with a photo. Piero, as a young military man, holding a doll and a cigarette. He gestured and told me a story, but this one I didn’t grasp as easily as the rest. Whatever it was, it was serious, lighthearted, sad and happy all at the same time.
We said our goodbyes. I was leaving in a couple of days and, given the Italian lifestyle of who-the-hell-knows-when-or-if-that-shop-will-be-open-next-time-I-walk-by, I wasn’t sure I would see him again. I asked for a business card; he said he didn’t have any, so he made one for me. I gave him a hug and told him that I would happily return for more conversation. And an Aphrodite ring. “Come back anytime, Chin-zee-ya. Anytime at all.”
“These gems have life in them: their colors speak, say what words fail of.” – George Eliot