A world of poverty, violence and prostitution, where a pimp claimed his profits in cash and in favours, where knife fights and scarring were common, where the girls were both the victims and perpetrators.
Phillida mia, più che i ligustri bianca,
Più vermiglia che ‘l prato a mezzo Aprile
She may have shared a name with a pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked, golden-haired shepherdessly love-interest in Jacopo Sarazzano’s seminal pastoral poem Arcadia —a prose poem considered to be the first literary work of the Renaissance which was wildly popular at the time of its publication and whose influence can be heard in the work of, among others, William Shakespeare, John Milton and Philip Sydney (who wrote a version of his own)—but Caravaggio’s model Fillide Melandroni, at home among the drinking dens and brothels in the medieval heart of sixteenth century Rome, was an altogether more streetwise creature.
Although she was born in Siena, Fillide had been in Rome since she was a youngster. When she was barely in her teens, she was put to work as a prostitute by her mother. The traces of her that can be found in the archives and the court records show that she was frequently in trouble with the authorities, and not simply for prostitution.
Frisson. A ladybird walks over the back of your hand. A chickadee feeds straight from your palm. A deer brushes by close enough for you to feel its breath on your skin. You’re filled with a rush of joy (if you are a ladybird, finch, deer loving kind of person, that is) and something akin to love, and the whole thing tickles slightly, and you want to laugh from the unexpected wonder of it but you know that if you do, the moment be spoiled, so you hold your breath and watch in fearful anticipation and hope that it lasts. Someone is running a feather over your heart and you don’t know whether to smile because it feels good or squirm because it is distinctly unsettling.
Frisson. That’s how I think of it anyway. That feeling you get from a piece of music that thrills you, from a poem that resonates perfectly, from a work of art that leaves you speechless.
Recently, I read a couple of articles on exactly this subject and it got me thinking about the physical and emotional responses that we have to art in its various forms. Andrew Scull’s article in the Times Literary Supplement gently mocked the idea of the enlightened connoisseur being overwhelmed by the sublime, their extreme sensitivity a measure of their delicacy of taste, of their elevated cultural discernment. A sensitivity not dissimilar to religious exaltation and taken to an extreme in Stendhal’s Syndrome.
But my measure of frisson is on a less dramatic scale. I’m not talking about fainting attacks in front of Florentine frescos or falling to your knees before a breathtaking view of an unfamiliar dramatic landscape as experienced by 18th century enlightened tourists on their grand tours (landscapes, incidentally, unappreciated by the vulgar and loutish peasants who are too busy actually having to work the land to contemplate the scenery). I’m talking about those small moments of everyday ecstasy. The intro to Space Oddity. The tension of unsaid words Continue reading “Frisson”