My introduction to Italian art was in the form of an imperious and shocking painting that my mother cut out from a book of art she had brought to Australia from Italy in a shipping chest. My father framed it in a veined wood veneer all shiny and orange-brown.
It was purpose-designed to cover our blackened brick fireplace that my parents had decided was too troublesome and smoky to maintain. The painting, by the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio, portrayed St George attacking a horribly familiar dragon: a bat winged creature with the body and head of a dog but with a long serpent-like tail that almost curled beyond a rocky fastness on the left of the painting. This dragon’s open jaws occupied the centre of the painting. Full as they were with serried ranks of long pointed teeth, they had already been violated by a fine, cruel and bloodied lance, whose tip, thrust between them, had already broken through the back of the creature’s skull in a panoply of spurting blood. At the other end of the lance, coming from the right at full gallop on a dark muscular war horse was square jawed St George; clad in tight fitting, smooth and black armour of the latest Milanese style. In a fit of pique, supreme confidence, or even vanity, St George had foregone his helmet, allowing his tightly curled blonde locks to stream behind him in the impetus of the charge. Above and behind him stood demurely and in a pose of confident prayer, the maiden he was well on the way to saving. She was brown haired and draped in a flowing red cloak that covered just enough of her curvy flesh to entice both the dragon and St George. In the background stretched distantly a small walled medieval city atop a hill, its towered pennants fluttering in an imagined breeze. The doleful maiden represented its burgher’s sacrifice to the dragon for the salvation of their body politic. All of this would have been quite enough for my child’s eyes, was it not for one more detail: the dismembered bodies that stretched in varying degrees of decomposition in the field between them. Unlike the rest of the painting, these leftovers of the dragon’s repasts appeared realistic and gruesome. They had clearly been etched from the memory of a painter who had witnessed the battlefield.
The theme of St George and the dragon has variously represented the victory of good against evil in all its various sauces: against the forces of nature, against the barbarian, against the Other. Now in my child of migrants’ mind, it told of the throes of migrants defying the maws of economic necessity and seeking their St George in the Promised Land. The slaying of the dragon represented the fearsome quest ahead. For some of the migrants, those from Reggio Calabria, St George was their city’s patron saint; he would continue come to their rescue, or at least remind them of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. I wonder how many of these migrants realised that he was also the patron of the English, for whom the darkly mysterious Calabrians arriving on their colony’s shores were all potential dragons. The slaying of the dragon, or success as a migrant, could only happen if one was not someone else’s dragon.
This was my introduction to Italian art, a metaphor for life as it really was, both a representation and a veil cast over the lack of confessable realities of migration.
This was not only the story of the anonymous migrant; it spoke much more closely to home. We had all been thrown into the maws of the migration dragon. As a proxy bride my mother had been sacrificed to provide a bridge of salvation for her siblings, most of who would never cross it. My father spent most of his life challenging an iron dragon in its fiery lair, without ever quite defeating it, until he too was devoured. And I, destined to be their St George, would never be able to save them.
This trinity grew within me, this child of migrants. Every day and every night the dragon roars, the maiden wails and the saviour comes galloping in. As in the Carpaccio painting, the dragon is always on the point of defeat but not quite, nor is the maiden really safe, and St George himself cannot be sure of his ultimate victory. In the painting the story is captured and framed at its very climax and repeats itself, eternally played out in the mind of the child I once was, and of the adult I am now.
It is only after writing this that I recall my memory of the painting closing the hearth was mistaken. In reality it framed Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, with Archangel Gabriel, alighting from the right on half-plucked chicken wings, bringing good tidings.