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Your hands tell you how things are

At five, my niece Francesca, when showing me her wonderful, colorful drawings, believed that I could feel their colors by touching them. She had strikingly explained this belief of hers: "your hands tell you how things are." They say children are of a kin with poets: surely, they use synesthesia as a way of exploring reality through hyperboles, metaphors and symbols. In fact, color is by its nature intangible, so that, even if the thin coating of pastel wax on paper, or the paint strokes on a canvas can be touched, different hues cannot be told apart by touching them. A synesthetic approach to color can be achieved through smell, taste and hearing. Mazzeo writes: "Phenomenology of taste is more similar to that of smell than hearing; hearing possibly shares more with sight than touch (for instance, distant perception), and so on." (p.292)

What about my own attitude to colors? As a child, I played all the time with felt tip pens, colored pencils, wax pastels and finger paint. I loved to smell the pigments, especially those of magic and permanent markers, and to touch the stains that colored pencils and felt tip pens left on the paper. I had normally sighted schoolmates: L. 517/77 on scholastic integration was quite new when I started primary school. I believe that my special teacher regarded color not only as a means of integration with the normally sighted, but also as a specific tool to develop my manual ability. She made me color a dotted shape, and I had to fill the whole surface carefully and uniformly. This is a very effective exercise to learn how to spread a substance, coat a surface, explore small spaces, and be aware of margins.

It was only in high school, though, that I consciously developed my notion of colors, after some Art classes on the distinction between primary and secondary colors. I realized that I would never be able to study and understand the lecture, unless I managed to match the colors with something more familiar to my experience. Of course, the match should not be random, but rooted in my background of readings, heard things, and still unnamed, unconscious feelings. Since then, the structure of those matches has changed very little, and contributed to make colors into a conceptual, plastic and icastic reality within my mind, as well as a daily presence, in turn stimulating and challenging. For instance, I match my clothes in neutral combinations, for fear of some odd mishmash, and I feel uneasy going out without at least some very light make-up.

Here are the personal matches I have worked: 

  1. BLACK: it sticks to the fingers, rough like coal. It smears, like coffee spilt over you. But it is stylish too: it makes you look thinner, charming. It sounds like Nick Cave's music
  2. WHITE: soft snow, just like a fluffy wool blanket. Warm in winter, and hushing noise. Or else, cream, milk, the Milky Way, flooding light. I could never wear white: I would be afraid of smearing the light; it would feel like wearing crystal: a perfection too easy to spoil. It sounds like Debussy, white and black keys between the fifth and seventh octave on the piano
  3. RED: a baroque, flouncy, ornate, and most elegant color. It has the luscious flavor and texture of Rossana candy. But it is also the sickly color of blood, the sour taste of revolutions and barricades. Like Locke's blind scholar, I too link it with a trumpet's scarlet sound
  4. YELLOW: endless expanses (so long to drive across) of sunflowers, ripe wheat, and tulips. Also the color of illness, more so than pallor. And this is why I don't like yellow, I don't like to talk about it, and I link it with some deafening sound
  5. GREEN: the scent of mint and grass, a fresh color, with a feel of rebirth and blossoming life to it. "Things are greening up", we say: a symbol of new beginnings. And, since it is doomed to fade, a color for longing, too. To me it sounds like Vivaldi's Spring
  6. BLUE: I like pale blue better. Dark blue I find a little gloomy. It may sound like Bach's Toccata and Fugue, magnificent and solemn, but it lacks pale blue's crystal lightness. It tastes like blueberry tea: strong, lasting and not always pleasant
  7. BROWN: scent of pitch, of chestnuts, of tree trunks in a thick wood. It makes me think of autumn, a season that so suits me, seeking warmth, closeness, safety. Of the brown color I like the practicality, the down-to-earth pragmatism: making life good by enjoying what the present day offers, even when it seems unfriendly. It sounds like a Mountain Infantry choir.
  8. GRAY: the color of cigarette ash. It seems hard to catch, somewhere between white and black, yet it is, and stays, there. It speaks of faraway landscapes: "gray sky up/ yellow leaves down." I cannot say it cheers me up: it reminds me of certain dull, boring days, gray days indeed, when you long for a gone past, or hope for better times
  9. PINK: gentleness itself. I used to know a girl called Rosa, so vibrant, and lively: that pink-colored name suited her perfectly. I cannot help associating the pink color with roses, and their scent. A combination of pink and black, seemingly so bold, sounds highly sophisticated to me. And of course, it sounds like La vie en rose
  10. PURPLE: I never thought it an unlucky color, as show people will say. I link it with the scent of violets, that will make a room feel larger. And yet, it does not cheer me up: it makes me think of someone clutching hard to life, and knowing they will have to let go. I know that chrysanthemums are the flowers of death, and yet to me there are violets and the purple color on the border between life and death. I link purple with its namesake instrument, the viola
  11. ORANGE: since it is done by mixing yellow and red, I say that never was a union happier! Red took away yellow's watery look, and yellow mellowed red's stubbornness. Orange is rough like orange peel, spongy like a mushroom. I like it, it feels amiable and pleasant. To me, it goes together with the voice of the oboe
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