God exists, since mathematics is consistent, and the Devil exists since we cannot prove it
Arriving in Venice one morning in late April 1936, Maurits Cornelis Escher stepped onto the dockside and walked briskly to the University of Architecture, which turned out to be a rather disappointing red brick building near the railway station. Recent correspondence with his geologist half-brother, Berend, had him wanting to clarify certain ideas concerning crystals and symmetry, and after declaring himself at the portineria he made his way to the library and on the second floor found what he was looking for.
Reading through a summary of the Hungarian mathematician George Polya’s investigations into plane symmetry groups, Maurits transcribed into his notebook, one after the other, the seventeen formulae for the distinct ways of representing two-dimensional patterns. As he did so, he found himself mentally picturing the Islamic designs on the tiles of the Alhambra which he had seen as a young man when touring Italy and Spain fourteen years earlier. On that occasion he had been arrested while sketching the city walls on suspicion of being a spy. This time he had promised to be more circumspect.
The previous September his eldest son had returned home from school announcing that he was required to wear the uniform of the Opera Nationale Balilla, a youth group modelled on Mussolini’s black-shirted Arditi. Over dinner that evening Maurits and Jetta made the decision to leave the house that had been built for them near Rome, and that had been their home since before George and his brothers were born, and move to Switzerland. Before they did so though Mauk wanted to take one last trip around Southern Italy and the Mediterranean, and so he wrote to the Adria shipping company with the proposition that in exchange for board and passage he would produce a series of prints of the company’s ships and ports of call. To his gratification they accepted, and on the 19th of April the following year he set sail from Trieste, with a rendez vous with Jetta set for Genoa in three weeks’ time.
As he completed the final formula his eye wandered back to the textbook, which had examples of each one illustrated. He made a note to thank Ber, but of a sudden was struck by a vivid recollection of his younger brother Arnold, Nol, who had been killed in a climbing accident in the Tyrol ten years since. Maurits had been obliged to identify the shattered body, and as the bruised and broken features appeared in front of him the images on the page began to blur and shift and link with one another, with a frightening sensation that they were getting bigger while simultaneously moving rapidly away from him. A wave of vertigo assailed him and he gripped the desk and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath he looked out of the window to regain his composure and as he did so became aware of a man sitting quite still on the opposite side of the room, looking straight at him. He quickly turned back to the book and closed it, then looked up again. The man had gone.
After a long minute he returned the book to its shelf, then sat down again. Opening a new page in his notebook he took a pencil and started to draw the man, starting with the two perfectly round, perfectly black circles that had covered his eyes. The face was sharp, with tightly angled cheekbones and a prominent nose. A wave of black hair over the square brow met with a neat beard and moustache. The brow itself was furrowed, but looking at the face Maurits realised he had only succeeded in drawing himself. He tore the page out with frustration and hurried from the library. He caught a vaporetto back to the port and, once back on the Rossini, made his way to his cabin and did not emerge until the next morning.
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