Some people have studies. Others dens. Or offices. I have a Scriptorium.
In our previous home, H. worked in the spare room, and I at the dining table in the living room. After a while, however, I found it hard to do any of my own writing in a space that was, ultimately, communal, especially outside working hours. So, after the usual period of grumpiness and seething dissatisfaction, I came up with a solution. I bought myself a small, folding, wooden exam desk – complete with pen-carrying groove – and a small, folding chair. I placed them in a corner of our bedroom, between the window and the chest of drawers. There was enough space for a few white fairy lights to give this corner an air of celebration, a candle for inspiration, and, of course, enough room to write. Because, at the time, I was translating an Italian novel set in 11th century Venice, complete with copyist monks and illuminated manuscripts, I began jokingly referring to my little corner of freedom and creativity as my Scriptorium. The term soon became shorthand for “do not disturb”. So if H. asked what my plans were for that afternoon or evening and I replied, “I’ll be in the Scriptorium,” he knew I would be off limits. Consequently, when I grew exhausted, irritable and/or discontented, he would gently suggest “spending a few hours in [your] Scriptorium“.
When we moved to this house, at the end of April, he kindly offered the spare room to me. “Think about it,” he said, “you can have a whole room for your Scriptorium and not just a corner.”
It had been a while since I’d had a space I could arrange to please myself and myself alone. As I stood in the room, surrounded by towers of unopened boxes, I tried to picture it the way I wanted it, constantly reminding myself that it was going to be my room, my space. I could have it look and feel the way I wanted it. I didn’t have to compromise, to ask anyone else if they minded this print or this plant or the furniture arranged this or that way.
A print of Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea had been stored in a box since I’d bought it from the Villa Farnesina gift shop a few years ago. H. doesn’t care for it. It was the first print I unrolled, smoothed, and hung on the wall, almost as a declaration of freedom. Naturally, my beloved Tobias and the Angel, by Verrocchio, took prime position, above a small sofa bed. A small futon that turns into a chaise-longue, covered in a red and black Abruzzo-style woollen throw from my school days. Not really suitable for overnight guests, but perfect for reclining on for an afternoon nap, getting absorbed in a good book, or simply lounging and looking at all the familiar, friendly objects in the room.
A bookcase devoted exclusively to books on medicine and healing, one with a row of dictionaries, a shelf for religion and philosophy, and at the bottom, a collection of world folk fairy tales and mythology. Books in Russian, French, Italian and Spanish. And then a shelf for my guilty pleasure: the crime novels of Donna Leon.
My elemental friends, of course, live with me in this room. Among them, the lemon plant I’ve grown from a pip, the pink busy-lizzy on my desk to cheer my working hours, and my oldest companion, the weeping ficus plant. A Bahamian friend gave it to me in Cambridge, over twenty years ago, before she went back to the Bahamas. At Christmas, I thread white fairy lights through its branches.
Fairy lights, of course. An odd wine glass with white ones. A jar with coloured ones.
Postcards with Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings of learned, inspiring women. Christine de Pisan. Veronica Franco. Photos of favourite trees. A Cedar of Lebanon in Norwich, Maritime Pines in Rome.
Beautiful words. Saint Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, the faith of Julian of Norwich. The term “Joy” cut out from bright yellow paper, pinned to the noticeboard above my desk.
Favourite objects. A toy spinning wheel, a piece of flint with a quartz inclusion picked up on Hunstanton beach. Candles. Things treasured because they were given to me by friends.
A white swan and a black and shimmering blue-green magpie feather. A Schornsteinfeger from a New Year’s Eve in Hamburg. A cartoon from the New Yorker. Christian Dior fashion pictures from the 1950s. Drawings of Commedia dell’arte characters.
On my desk, the books I’m currently translating on the wooden stand, an Oxford Concise Dictionary, a small wooden box with “Fulham SW6” printed on it, found in a bric-à-brac shop – a reminder of my London life – for pens, scissors, markers, calculator, candle snuffer, and other bits and pieces.
And, of course, something on which to play music.
Friends who come in look around, not knowing what to make of the room at first. Then they comment on how “peaceful” it feels.
As I write this, H. has come to sit here too, to read yesterday’s Guardian, while listening to William Byrd.
“What do you think of my Scriptorium?” I ask.
“It’s comfortable,” he replies. “Secure. Snug.”