The Cathedral of the Old City (or Ciutat Vella) of Valencia is bordered on two sides by wide cobblestoned squares in the beating heart of the ramshackle teetering plaster apartment forest that comprises the district. The squares, one larger, one smaller, provide breathing space amid the choked alleyways; when one leaves those alleyways into the sunny expanses, it is as though, having forgotten that they were outside at all, they have rediscovered the sky. The smaller square is centred on a fountain of a reclining classical god. Its placement just outside the door of the cathedral speaks to the strange syncretism of the country—Roman paganism and Catholicism now aesthetically complementary, if not recognizant of each other, and the architectural legacy of the Moors grudgingly acknowledged without given much credit. The statue faces away from the arcades and colonnades that frame the stained-glass eyes of the church, as though the building is staring at its recalcitrant back, willing it to eventually turn to Christ. The filth of birds blankets the statue’s shoulders and upturned knees. That no-one scrubs it clean in its heathen nudity and languor, perhaps, says something as well. Perhaps it is because Valencia is a beautiful bastard of Iberia; neither Catalonia proper nor Castile, not Andalusia either—its own former kingdom in the Crown of Aragon, as a city smaller than both Madrid and Barcelona, but proud still of its former stature.
Daylight hours see the statue and its fountain teem with tourists spooning gelato to each other in the heat and locals sipping coffee at the shaded tables set out by the cafés, tutting about their foreign counterparts. The late afternoon, as elsewhere in the country, is a period of hush closings of storefronts and rest before the long night. And then, as the sun becomes long and low in the sky and the shadows crawl over the two squares, those store and café and restaurant fronts are thrown open again, their tables invading as far into the squares as can be gotten away with. Native Cava and imported beer flow in equal measure as the well-dressed come to while away the evening and brush away the desperate flower peddlers. Great flat pans of paella! Oiled charcuterie boards piled high with hard musky cheeses, Catalan-style ham sliced paper-thin, plump queen olives, balsamic vinegar and cloudy bread with hard floury crust! Mussels sighed open in buttery sauces of white wine! These smells swirl in the light breeze like the raucous conversation which swells in volume to combat itself. Hours later (for this is Spain, after all) the meal is finally finished, for it began late and lasts far longer than it needs to. But finally, after the innumerable bells in the plenitude of churches throughout the Ciutat have bellowed midnight, the dining crowd disperses. Exhausted busboys and servers remove all trace of their employers’ property from the public space, stowing it deep within their restaurants as the chefs dispose of the night’s grease down sewer grates in the backest of the back alleys.
A large segment of the crowd, searching further for their kicks, relocates to the more modern, trendier, chrome-and-glass neighbourhoods of Valencia. But some stay to wander within the labyrinthine Ciutat Vella, flushed orange with the dim incandescence of outdated bulbs in gothic streets. Shadows are long, faces softened. It is like the deep diffuse of candlelight made unnervingly still by the absence of the flickering life of a flame, steady instead, flat, filling everything and everyone with a quiet sense of tone; tone selected by the painter, the monochrome and its subtle variations that hint at intentions, at a certain mood that should be sustained and inhabited by all so painted, who all feel self-conscious and unsure if they are out of step with the artist’s vision. In the second, larger square is where the canvas is stretched, primed, and awaiting its subjects.
This second square has no central feature. It is simply broad, bordered with descending steps that give it an amphitheatre-like aspect, and paved mirror-smooth with wide granite slabs. The steps are well-lined with these converging nocturnal souls who entered the plaza out of the labyrinth slowly, filtering in like dazed and mismatched couples a-wandering in Oberon’s forest. The drops of petal-juice in their eyes seem at first to guide them astray, until, arriving in the square, they feel a sense of destination has been fulfilled. A mixed crowd, to be sure. Young skateboarders use the smooth surface and the bemused crowd to practise their tricks and flips in front of an audience. A lone guitarist fingerpicks a doleful cançó on his dull nylon strings, not standing out enough from the countless other street musicians throughout the Ciutat to be anything more than background noise. The crowd is gathered but their attention is not faithful. They are by and large more interested in each other than they are in the scattered performers in the square.
He enters meekly in full garb, laden with a large stereo and a small trunk. He doesn’t struggle with the weight, but his white-painted face with the small black inverted triangle beneath each eye makes him seem burdened in other, deeper ways. North Americans in the crowd point him out to each other; in their countries, the tradition of busking is moribund, or at least far enough underground that the sight of a man clothed in baggy, shapeless, white coveralls with matching satin gloves and a conical hat atop his shaved, uniformly whitened head is cause for suspicion and not entertainment. But the locals and other continentals know from his garb that what is in store is neither buffoonery nor sinister. The guitarist winds down his playing according to whatever code may exist between street performers. Does he recognize that while people might enjoy his music at all hours of the day, this harlequin’s act is best employed at only this time, in this tone, in these dog days of summer? The skateboarders feel the hush descend. Some pick up their boards and sit as well, while others, caring more for their craft than for any sense of audience, wheel off back into the labyrinth.
He doesn’t speak. No introduction, no call for attention. He lays a CD in his stereo, presses play, and then kneels down behind the trunk. He unlatches it, lifts the lid. The contents are hidden from the onlookers. The music begins, but first only as a low hum swelling in volume in no particular hurry. The tone of the hum is unusual, like the singing of a crystal wine glass, but so low as to suggest not a glass, but a whole basin or vat being stroked. The harlequin monkishly reaches within the trunk and with the pious reverence due of some saint’s skull lifts out a single heavy crystal sphere the size of a small grapefruit. The look on his face is not one of concentration, nor one of incitement towards the audience. Indeed, he seems oblivious to the audience, as though he would be here doing the exact same routine with no divergences were the square completely devoid of people. His expression actually matches many of those in the audience: a serene bemusement coupled with interest in what’s to come, as though he himself does not know.
Another layer appears in the music: higher, clearer. The instant it emerges, the harlequin begins to roll the sphere from the base of his palm up to his middle knuckle, smooth on the satin of his glove. It takes a full rotation or two for the audience to fully grasp the intended effect. The focal point of the rotation is perfectly tuned to the sphere’s precise position in space. It hangs dead still in midair. His hand flows beneath and around it and even over it without shifting it an inch in any direction. Its surface, which, from the audience’s distance, can appear to one observer lens-like and to another reflectory, betrays not the rolling and manipulation it is undergoing; it merely is, and the illusion of its stillness manifests as an equally illusory centripedal force on the harlequin’s hand, which begins to radiate outward, hypnotically encompassing the whole square into its orbit, all eyes pulled by inwards by its gravity.
Then, all attention captured by the one sphere, the harlequin with his other hand reaches back into the trunk and withdraws another sphere identical to the first. The music gains a new harmonious layer, the glassy melodies melancholic and veering into and out of each other, like liquid stalagmites and stalactites in a windy cavern. The twin spheres hover in plane with each other, the harlequin’s hands dancing a complex ballet around them. The only movement on the stone steps is the occasional sip from wine and beer bottles. Passers-by skirting the edge of the square on their ways home from elsewhere in the Ciutat hush as they go, not staying long enough to be trapped by the trance of the spheres, but enough, at least, to feel the tug.
Then the harlequin alters the effect. Seamlessly the two spheres fall into circumambulation with each other on one hand, then the other, twin planets in each other’s pull. Then the orbit widens as the harlequin extends the rolling up his arm, across his clavicle and down the other, the spheres equidistant and opposite, never slowing or speeding in relation each other. The centre of gravity, of enchantment, has shifted from the single sphere itself to some crux within the harlequin’s body. And at will, he brings them together again, touching and rolling against each other in his palm, and then apart once more. The music, while still glassy and lulling, has intensified in its melancholy. The whole show has pierced each observer. They see within its constituent parts something painful and true and revelatory about their lives, though this is revealed in feeling and impression and not words outright, but if they were to try, then, perhaps, the best guess would be something like this…
The music infusing the scene is ungraspable and wholly conceptual… whatever meaning it contains is subjective, base to the human soul. That tones, and their changing relation to each other, should have some sort of significance universal to all who hear them is absurd. And yet they do; the sound of the minor scales and the subtle chord progressions within larger changes of key strike one and all with an eerie sense of melancholic insight into the nature of being, as though the sound of an imploding star or of a light-crushing black hole or of a sinking ship or of a breaking heart all fall within that calculus of frequency. And within that frame, that colossal, cosmic scope stands the sad figure of humanity, all humanity, painted and adorned as Suffering, but Suffering detached and accepting and bemused at the fates in his hands. And those, those spheres, those atoms of tiny solidity in this miasmic realm of concept and tone and vastness, those are what create the greatest effect upon the spirits of the observers. They reflect, they focus, and they distort what is seen in them. They are manipulated by the figure of sadness who wields them but they seem to act upon him in illusion. They are our loves, our losses, our obsessions, our guilts, our memories, our fears, our hopes, and our disappointments, all brought out and spun for our absorption by the satin-gloved harlequin of our own Suffering on earth, who disappears into the scenery as his hand in the matter becomes tenebrous and ethereal. Rotating, devoted to one another, inseparable, the spheres build static from the fabric of his glove, and then are flung apart from each other, back into gulfed hands but threatening always to once again be involved in life’s pitiless, despairing circularity.
The crowd as one ponders. They think back to old loves in the sequences of rapprochement between the spheres, just as they think on current loves as they are torn apart. They look into the spheres within themselves and see that face; that caked, whitened face with the inverted black triangle beneath each eye staring back at them, distorted in the convexity of its surface. Some rail against his presence within themselves; others resolve to dispel him like a curse upon their name; but the wise among them recognize him not as a foe, but as a mathematical constant to be accepted and even embraced.
The show is over. The spheres are returned to the trunk, the stereo switched off, the small hat laid at the harlequin’s knees for any coin come what may. The crowd is quiet. Some try and renew conversations where they’d left off, but this is done out of a vulnerability they are not prepared to admit. Many drink deeply from their bottles, changed not a little by what they have watched and what they have seen in themselves. A scant few open their wallets and leave their spare change in the dainty felt cap, which is left looking like a pathetic cornucopia. Off into the labyrinth they go. Tourists who had been smitten with the quaintness of the Ciutat and with each other look at both with a saddened eye, seeing the satin hands behind it all for the first time.
The harlequin himself departs the square as he entered: meekly, little noticed. Does anyone watch him go, and wonder, aloud or to themselves, who he is when he has removed the paint and the getup? What awaits him back at his home? His daytime hours, what do they entail? Does he possess any more or less insight than any of his observers? Was his message and effect carefully designed and executed, whether by his own hand or through some proud lineage of busking harlequins of centuries past?
No. Nobody wonders. They are too deep within themselves to see him for anything but the symbol as which he dressed.
The Cathedral stares down with stained-glass eyes on the downturned faces of the leaving crowd. The reclining god in the fountain smiles his knowing smile through the filth of the birds.
Photo credit: Melanie Winter