Via Gaetano Sacchi, Rome; January 28, 2013—
HERE IN THIS not very clear photo you see a pair of street performers just off the Via Corso. We're used to seeing Living Statues by now, folks dressed as the Statue of Liberty or some other recognizable statue, standing absolutely motionless for long minutes at a time, waiting for passersby to photograph them, or better yet drop a coin or two into a box or a hat.
Last night, though, during the passaggiata, we saw this double living statue: identical twins, perhaps, in Buddhist-priest orange robes — saffron? — sitting motionless, one on the pavement, the other on a post held by his friend. Only rarely did one or the other twitch, betraying that yes, they do seem to be alive.
"Seem to," because on first glance, and even after a minute or so of watching them, the upper figure must surely not be real. He couldn't possibly balance motionless on that stick. Besides, he'd be far too heavy for the lower figure to sustain, absolutely still, on the top of a post held in his outstretched arm.
Furthermore, both figures had absolutely identical and featureless complexions. Are they plastic, or latex, or something? Then are the occasional twitches the result of some ingenious hidden mechanism?
We watched them for quite a while, among a number of other fascinated viewers. I thought about street theater. I don't think it existed in my childhood, at least not in the United States I knew. Break dancers came along in the 1980s, I think, but chiefly in the big cities: I met them only through television reports.
Picasso painted a number of Saltimbanques in his Rose Period: circus acrobats, I always thought. The word came into French from Italian: salta in banco, leap from (on) a bench (bank): and I imagine these saltimbancchi lept first from places set up not in circus tents but on the street.
But these saffron-robed fellows didn't seem to be acrobats. Far from leaping, they are motionless. At length a couple of assistants threw a black cloth over them and for a number of minutes they were hidden. Clearly, now, they are both real living people; we watched their heads and arms moving around under the cloth. What are they doing? Changing places, probably. Finally the cloth was removed, revealing them in exactly the attitude they'd been in before.
Real or fake? How does the fellow on top balance; how does the other hold up his weight? Lindsey figured it out, and I'm sure she's right: but I'm not about to tell you and spoil your fun.
They are not acrobats, but fakirs, I think, using that now-dangerous word somewhere between its original and its vulgar senses. Faqr: a poor holy man; faker: a hoaxer. These fellows are not what they first appear to be. And yet they are holy, in a sense, occupied with a completely impractical dedication whose only social utility is to awe, fascinate, ultimately entertain. We probably need more of them.