Late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, I walked through an almost empty Uffizi. Coronavirus was then a Wuhan phenomenon. Our temperatures had been taken at the airport, but there were no restrictions on travel and those wearing masks looked eccentric. I congratulated myself on finding Florence so quiet. Off-season, I thought smugly. That’s the way to do it. Heaven knows it’s empty now.
The painting that caught my eye on that distant-seeming visit was a long, low cassone-shaped painting on the theme of the Thebaid attributed to Fra Angelico (c.1420). The Thebaid is a collection of texts telling of the saints who in the first centuries of Christianity retreated to the barren lands around the Egyptian city of Thebes. In the Uffizi painting we meet a mass of isolates, each man declaring: ‘I want to be alone.’
They crouch in caves, pray on rocky outcrops, immure in huts and make nests in trees. Some prostrate naked under beards that come down to their knees. If at first glance the painting seems almost comically crowded, a wilderness like Piccadilly Circus, once you allow your eye to rest on the scenes in sequence, you discover that each one is discrete, entire and interior. There might be a million miles between them. Extreme social distancing.
Six weeks on and we are all holy men and women. Our way is the way of the ascetic and the anchorite. Isolation is glorious if it is sought, but not if it is imposed. Many of us, even those used to the solitude of the study, the man cave, the shed, are lonely and spooked. As flights, trains, meetings, exhibitions, ballets and birthday parties have been cancelled, I have sought solace in images of hermits in the desert and saints in their cells.