I loved the word chiaroscuro from the moment I first heard it, back in 1979, sitting in Prof. Michael Fink’s Italian Art course as an undergraduate studying fine art in Rome. In his inimitable style, Dr. Fink elucidated the term (an Italian word that roughly translates into “light-dark”) as an artistic technique that captivated some of the most renowned painters of the Renaissance. Employing extreme lights and darks, chiaroscuro offered artists a novel way to illuminate volume, dimensionality, and beauty.
Drawn to its smooth sounds juxtaposed against those hard C’s, I’d practice saying chiaroscuro silently and aloud. I still do this. There’s something in the cadence of the word that sounds like music to me and, more broadly, I’m drawn to what the concept intimates, even now. Maybe especially now.
This eventful year, with its immeasurable darkness and its persistent, promising light, comes to a close here in the States in less than six hours. London, Wagga Wagga, and Shanghai have already bid 2020 adieu. What are we to do with the many shadows left behind as this passing year departs for good?
It might be helpful to remember that the Italian Renaissance was historically preceded by the Dark Ages, a time when the country found itself gripped by war, famine, and the Black Death pandemic that killed 20 million people across all of Europe. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that the Dark Ages were responsible for the birth of the Renaissance, bringing with it the philosophical, intellection, scientific, and artistic contributions of da Vinci, Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo.
Civilization has been here before. Might it be possible for us, as a nation, as a planet, to harness those shadows that 2020 leaves behind, offering us a kind of motoric force that could carry us across the threshold to a renaissance all our own, one with global proportions and possibilities? As wombs and mushrooms and history have taught us, darkness can give birth to so much unprecedented life.
May your new year bring you and your loved ones plenty of life and light, health and hope. I thank you for being here with me for another year—we’re all with boundless reading options and so your time and your attention mean so much to me.