The Ballerina’s Hammer and Caravaggio’s Bones


vol. 1 of 2

Urgency Day 427

500 Things Items 73-74:  2 Art Books Not Making the 250 Cut

  • Both from my days as an art history student
  • I tend to Google and I still have Janson (and more)
  • Too cumbersome to be ambivalent about them
  • Donate

I think I know what happened:

In the itty bitty blurb space allotted in Real Simple’s “Suggested Summer Reads” feature (I know! Two consecutive references to Real Simple. What can I say? It’s a good issue.), someone who hadn’t read the book and wasn’t aware that it really isn’t a comedy it just has some funny moments, extracted the reviewer’s toss-away comment about the book’s humor and ran with it.

Excuse me? What book? Huh?

Sorry. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, one of the best books I have read in years, and really really not a comedy.

But you know how these things work. A magazine or newspaper editor wants to distill a review down to the bits that will attract the most attention. Currently what would those reliably appealing features be? The evidence suggests humor and, of course, vampires. No vampires in T.S. Spivet and wry observations rather than humor, but the review did its job. I immediately rushed to check out the book from the library.

I wish I owned it.

But what does this fabulous book have to do with this blog post’s promised Caravaggio and ballet?

I’m connecting some dots here. I hope you’ll stick with me.

I love art and I love ballet. I love art about ballet, which Caravaggio certainly didn’t create—him of Thomas skeptically sticking his finger in Christ’s bloody stigmata just to be sure fame. No tulle-bedraped Degas, he. But Caravaggio and ballet shared news space in the last few days, all of which reminded me of T.S. Spivet.

On Wednesday, The New York Times “Arts, Briefly” section reported on an attack on famed Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova as she was leaving the Met after a performance Monday night. She wasn’t badly hurt, but her bag was stolen which contained a pair of pointe shoes and the small hammer she used to shape them.

On Thursday, the same “Arts, Briefly” section contained a report on the positive identification of the remains of Michelangelo Merisi, the artist known as Caravaggio. His burial had been “a centuries-old mystery” which was solved through DNA analysis. The small article was accompanied by a fairly odd if not downright gruesome picture of a smiling scientist carrying a glass box containing the artist’s very visible bones.

The ballerina and the bones. Actually, the ballerina’s hammer and the artist’s bones. I couldn’t get these two juxtaposed images out of my head, especially as I was finishing The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet and processing its profound effect on me.

Many people are unaware of the significance of the tiny tool, the hammer, which was stolen in the dancer’s mugging. Over her career, a ballerina spends countless hours pounding the stiffness out of the hard boxes of her pointe shoes. While she goes through dozens of shoes a week, her hammer is unique, often selected very early in her training, personalized and prized for its precise heft and balance in her hand,  and its ability to persuade her slippers both to mold to and support her feet.

I am sure the muggers were disappointed in their cache. I know Ms. Osipova was devastated at her loss. She probably has other hammers which will suffice; they will have to. As she said in a longer article which was printed today, the crime was more shocking than physically damaging. Only her nose was bruised, for which she was grateful, but a sense of vulnerability remains.

Vulnerability, indeed literally “vulnerable remains,” shadows the scientific triumph of identifying Caravaggio’s bones. Certainly he will now get a proper burial and deserved monument, and no one more than I support scientific progress.

But those are his actual bones in that picture. His femur and, what are those? Bits of his skull and pelvis? I’m not usually squeamish about bones—no really! About gore, absolutely, but not pristine bones!—so, it’s not a bit of skeleton with which I’m feeling discomfort. It’s the overwhelming vulnerability permeating the scene, of a complete disconnect between his human life and the ignominious parading of his remains.

And so, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. I think there must be different book jackets for this book, because the one I checked out of the library varies from the one shown in the Real Simple article. The one that has hardly left my side in the last two weeks depicts the skeleton of a sparrow and a cartographer’s sextant. Bones and tools. Each plays a significant role in the coming-of-age story of a gifted twelve-year old map maker and grieving child.

I won’t give away more; I’m so glad I didn’t know more before I read this amazing book. I urge you to make time for this wondrous, baffling, triumphant novel.

Bones and tools and maps; artists and ballerinas and dignity. It’s a heady mix for a “humorous summer read.” I hope you find out for yourself what happens.


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