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De Chirico’s Ghosts


Douglas Anthony Cooper


Giorgio de Chirico, the Greek-born Italian painter, was the poet of an empty Rome. Piranesi’s ruins tend to be populated, if sparsely. In de Chirico’s early work you find sometimes silhouettes and shadows—a sole figure or a pair at a distance—but often no one. No citizen, no tourist, occasionally the faceless, mostly ideas and absence. Not all of these voids are staged in Rome—he found emptiness in Florence and Turin—but we associate him with Rome, where he lived for the last year of his metaphysical period, then became a lesser artist, then died.

The law permits me to wander this city through the quarantine without being arrested or fined only because I am led by Pixel, an elegant Italian Greyhound. She is my Virgil. I meet mostly dog walkers, when I encounter anyone at all. Rome will likely never be experienced in this way again: the streets peopled only by dog walkers and ghosts. Sacked by a virus.


Because of Pixel, I am allowed to continue my work. I was meant to have an exhibition this month in my adopted city, but like every gallery show everywhere on earth it has been postponed. It is perhaps strange, but cancellation in a season of death has been a gift. I will have something to show. I have had a chance to see and document the faceless empty Rome that de Chirico painted but never saw.

At what point does it become grotesque to wring a refined aesthetic experience from misery and death? As novelists, of course, we do this all the time, but the photographer’s burden is different: we are, in a way that is always something of a lie, said to represent the truth. I often feel parasitic when committing street photography—the lens has its victims—but rendering the landscape beneath the pall of the virus, I wonder whether I should feel more like a ghoul. Finally, I have decided to tell myself that the compulsion to make something in defiance of death is simply the cause and reason for art. Moreover, there is nothing real in these photographs: I am mapping de Chirico’s dreams.