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May-30-2012 17:33printcomments

Letter From Urbino 5. Piero and I in Room 66 at The National Gallery

'And as I set the heavy blooms in some water I noticed a copy of Piero's ...'
So says the voice of my faceless ghost walking through an unknown spring dawn.

Road to Urbino

(ROME) - Letter From Urbino 5. Piero and I in Room 66 at The National Gallery 'And as I set the heavy blooms in some water I noticed a copy of Piero's Nativity...' So says the voice of my faceless ghost walking through an unknown spring dawn.

Piero's Nativity hangs in a small, windowless room in the National Gallery in London. If you do not know where it is Room 66 is easily missed. I did not find it the first time I visited, age ten. But to be fair I neither knew the name of the artist nor the painting. And my father was too dazzled by so many rich treasures to understand my repeated request.

'I want to see 'Our Lady with the quiet face,' I nagged him. So that first visit disappointed me and it was only later that I made the discovery for myself.

When I did, possibly on a school trip, I was instantly transported back to an incident in that other life we had left behind in Sri Lanka.

I must have been about five or six, sitting in a classroom raked, on every side by harsh, tropical sunlight. With birds cawing and screaming outside. The teacher in a white sari was talking to us in Singhalese. We were I suppose in the middle of an art lesson. The girl opposite me, a pretty dark, neat child whom I envied madly, was copying a picture from a biscuit tin lid. She was a girl from a wealthy family who often brought in strange enticing objects from England. The biscuit tin lid, was one such thing. She could draw well and there was a brand new box of crayons open on her desk in pristine condition. I remember I stared at her. My own bag of coloured pencils was broken, chewed and marked. Somehow I seemed to have more colour smudged on my uniform than on the piece of paper in front of me while that of the girl opposite remained perfectly clean. When the bell rang, signalling the end of the day, everyone crowded around her. The teacher was full of praise. I could now see that the picture on that biscuit tin showed a woman kneeling on the ground looking at a baby. On the roof of the shelter nearby was a lone magpie.

'One bird for one sorrow, we used to say...'

I cannot remember if the child's drawing was any good but what I do remember, to this day, was the stillness and concentration on her lovely face. In that instant the two images, that of the Madonna and the girl herself merged and fused in my mind. Later I heard that she had been born dumb.

It would be some years before I would hear the name of Piero delle Francesca and many more would pass before I would take the long road to Urbino to see him in situ.

Having finished both my novel The Road To Urbino and the film Letter From Urbino, I long to return to the place to look at the paintings a fresh. The intense scrutiny required to make work around this most mysterious of artists has lent an intimacy to the images that are hard to define. For the process of looking is like no other, strangely seductive, imprinting emotion on the mind forever.

'How does a ghost approach a painting?'

Perhaps only by reconnection with its ghostly past.

'An image must be transformed by contact with other images, as is a color by contact with other color. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.'

Notes on Cinematography by Robert Bresson.

Letter From Urbino will be screened at The National Gallery on June 15th. For tickets please go to...

Roma Tearne: Contributing Writer / Author

Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born artist and writer. Her first novel, Mosquito, has been shortlisted for the 2007 Costa Book Awards first Novel prize.

Currently a Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, she has had many exhibitions including "Nel Corpo delle cittá" at the prestigious MLAC ( Museo Laboratorio Arte Contemporanea ) in Rome.

She became the artist in residence at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford in 2002 and while there, worked on "Happenings in a Museum" is extremely pleased to work with this esteemed author, and to be able to utilize her approach in communicating stories about war and ethnic strife that cross all boundaries; those things that make the very soul of our earth bleed needlessly.

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Roma Tearne's Writing Collection

Mosquito (ISBN 0007233655) was published on March 5, 2007 by Harper Collins.
Bone China (ISBN 0007240732), was published in 2008 by the same publisher.
Brixton Beach (ISBN 9780007301560), was published 2009 by HarperPress.
The Swimmer (ISBN 9780007301591), published in 2010, was long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011.

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