Everything changed when I walked into that hotel room and encountered the putti.
From the Vulgar Latin puttus for boy, putti are small human children, usually male, often naked with wings. Putti grace many Italian Renaissance works of art. And 22 of the disembodied cherubs grace the size 10, circa 1908, sterling silver, slightly out-of-round Stern Bros. Co. thimble I fell in love with in room 2030 of the Society Hill Sheraton in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the night of August 28, 2008. At least, that’s how I’ll list the thimble when I catalog my collection.
“Catalog your thimbles as soon as you can,” insisted Virginia Weaver, my 85-year-old roommate at the 2008 Thimble Collectors International Convention. “I really mean it,” she said. “You’ll want to have as much information on them as possible. For your own pleasure, yes, but especially in case you want to trade up on them later.”
At the TCI Convention in Philly, I had wanted to soak in the atmosphere of thimble collectors, digitabulists, as they’re also known. In observing these strange creatures in their natural habitat, I had intended to insert myself very little, to remain at an objective distance in order to maintain a proper anthropological perspective. I had no intention of becoming a collector myself. All was going as planned. Until … putti. Something about the 22 tiny cherubic faces circling the bottom band of the double-banded thimble drew me to them. Embossed against a dark finish on the bottom band of silver, the faces became an audience of grotesques, their baby visages both helpless and hopeful. The faces evoked the tragedy and comedy masks of ancient Greek theater, where the ritualized performances of human connection and disconnection played, the audience rising above the orchestra circle, extending that circle into the sky. Like stone cherubs in a graveyard, the creepy putti both repelled me and piqued my curiosity about the mystery of a place as certain as death. Finally, looking at the darkness beyond the faces engaged me to imagine the unlit parts of the tiny figures’ bodies – particularly their two wings, their two hands, and their two thumbs. For a thimble that weighs only 3 to 4 grams, I poured a lot of subjective meaning into its knurled dome.