Wednesday 21 August 2019

Chris Fitzpatrick: 'Those whom we entrust to lead us must look beyond the words on the page, the lines on the map, the bricks in the wall... Just like Lyra McKee did'

Enigmatic: A woman passes by an enlarged reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' at an exhibition in Colombia.
Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GETTY
Enigmatic: A woman passes by an enlarged reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' at an exhibition in Colombia. Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GETTY

Chris Fitzpatrick

On the day when President Emmanuel Macron called Notre-Dame "our history, our literature, our imagination", and Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said in London that our invisible Border was more important than a UK-US trade deal, I was in Turin, visiting a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and paying my respects to the memory of Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi.

Flying back to Dublin later that night, the coincidences of this day took on a profound significance for me - like disconnected images in a painting by René Magritte.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said imagination was "the living power of all human perception". Albert Einstein said it was more important than knowledge. Call it an opinion, or a revelation, this is a story about the need for imagination.

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It was my last day on a short city break in Turin. I had already seen most of the sights. Arriving early at the Musei Reali, I was first in the queue. It was the opening day of 'Leonardo da Vinci: Designing the Future' - an exhibition of the Renaissance polymath's drawings and notebooks. I was keen not to miss it.

Before the museum doors opened, I checked the latest from Paris on my iPhone. Mr Macron was promising to rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral "even more beautifully" within five years. He spoke about division and unity, history and destiny. I also read Ms Pelosi's defence of the Good Friday Agreement. She said it was much more than a treaty, that it was an "ideal" and a "value" and "something that is a model to the world".

These were powerful words in anyone's language. Those who criticised seemed to focus only on bricks and small print. Thinking about all this, I entered the Leonardo exhibition.

With a museum map to guide me, I immediately made my way to a section of one of the large display rooms. There was something I wanted to see first - ahead of the crowds. Before I knew it, I was there.

Awestruck. Transfixed. Words fail to express how I felt. This was a man I had known since my first European history book in school. Now I was in front of his self-portrait. There was just the two of us in that part of the room. The 500 years between us were nowhere to be seen.

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Executed lightly in reddish-brown chalk, Leonardo's eyes drew me in. I was on his wavelength - magnetised. After some minutes, a museum official tapped me on the shoulder. The selfie-takers were lining up. They wanted Leonardo in their photos. Who could blame them?

I moved through the rest of the exhibition in a trance, overwhelmed by the magnificence of Leonardo's imagination. I saw the world as he imagined it - how light enters the human eye, the fragility of an insect's wings, the grace of bird-flight, the possibility of flying machines, the aesthetics of architecture, the ingenuity of engineering, the pure joy of invention, the unlimited potential of human imagination.

I had never seen anything like this before - in the flesh. Exhilarated, I left the museum into the warm midday sunshine of Turin. There was, however, one place left to see, before leaving for the airport. It was a very different place.

When I arrived outside the apartment building, I was surprised there was no commemorative plaque on the wall. A person entering an adjoining building didn't seem to recognise the name. "Did Mr Primo Levi live here?", I enquired in Google-translate Italian. Having come this far, I rang the doorbell. The concierge agreed to let me in. This is where Primo Levi was born and where he tragically met his death. Deported to Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 24, he later wrote one the great literary masterpieces of that horror, 'If This is a Man'.

In 1987, Levi fell to his death from a stairwell of his third-floor apartment. Reported at the time as suicide, it may have been an accident. Head bowed, I stood at the bottom of the same stairwell, remembering what he had once written: "Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud. It is a Polish sun, cold, white, distant and only warms the skin, but when it dissolved the last mists a murmur ran through our colourless numbers, and when even I felt its lukewarmth through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun." This was a pilgrimage I needed to make. These were words I needed to hear again. When I stepped back into the street, the sun was still shining.

On the flight back to Dublin, in the darkness over mainland Europe and Britain, I reflected on the events of a single day. I also thought about the troubles in Europe - and those closer to home and further afield. "Never forget that this has happened," I could hear Levi say.

It is time to design a future more just and beautiful than our past, based on ideals and values and the unlimited potential of the human imagination. Those whom we entrust to lead us must look beyond the words on the page, the lines on the map, the bricks in the wall - higher than the highest cathedral spires. Just like Lyra McKee did.

Chris Fitzpatrick is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in the Coombe Hospital, and clinical professor in UCD. He is co-author with Richard M Berlin of 'The Fall: A Play about the Holocaust in two acts', an excerpt of which was published in 'Psychiatric Times (US)' in September 2016 to commemorate the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. The play was inspired by the writings and experiences of Primo Levi and JD Salinger

Irish Independent

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