Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bologna Diary

I took this photograph of a building visible from our hotel bedroom in Bologna.
Look carefully and you'll see there's nothing here we Londoners don't have also. Bricked-up windows? Got 'em. Peeling paint? Got it. Scavenging pigeons? More than we know what to do with.
Yet somehow, as you can see, it remains attractive.
Doubtless, a large part of what seems pleasant to us is just the typical Italianishness of it, such as would presumably be lost on an actual Italian.
But we can still be objective, and presumably even an Italian would see instantly that this is a more welcoming sight than the featureless architecture of England. Buildings are given personality with shutters and balconies, and painted in rusty orange or citric yellow (which looks pretty even when peeling). There is a delicacy and humanity even to civic architecture, softened with exterior paintings or stone carvings of flowers or birds. And this is when they aren't trying to impress you!
This is when they are..!
The fifth century mosaics of the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, poised between worlds as antiquity meets the dawn of the modern, are unlike anything else I've ever seen.
The Germans may write the music, the Russians the literature, the French may have the best-looking film stars... but the Italians do religious art and architecture.
St Paul's is like a McAlpine rush job next to the Chiesa della Steccata in Parma. Every scrap of space on the walls and ceiling, every collumn, is adorned with sculptures and hung with tapestries, alive with paintings too detailed for the naked eye to comprehend; there is polished marble and stained glass and everywhere the glint of gold. Compare such unapologetic papal excess with England's weaselly puritan tradition!
Ah, yes: anti-puritanism. I don't know if you've seen any Italian television, but I don't mind admitting we sat slack-jawed through a considerable quantity. In fact we did something which still strikes me as inexplicable behaviour: had an early dinner so as to be back at the hotel in time to watch the final of their celebrity ballroom dancing show.
Our excuse is that Angela is learning Italian, and so she enjoyed being able to understand it. But I found it equally compelling for opposite reasons; that it was infectiously wonderful to immerse yourself in a tv show you cannot understand, peopled by celebrities you've never heard of, making incomprehensible jokes. (After one dance, a judge said a bunch of Italian stuff and then, suddenly, "Strangers in the night, Fred Astaire", to which the contestant responded "Fred Astento!", and everyone cracked up. I hope I never find out why.)
True delight is to watch game shows where you have no idea of the rules or what the questions are. I love it when the audience responds warmly to stars I have never seen and no idea of what they do. (Though two of the celebrity dancers I did recognise: one was Catherine Spaak from Argento's Cat O'Nine Tails, another was Anna Falchi from Michele Soavi's Dellamorte, Dellamore. Anna danced a nifty cha-cha-cha and worked the crowd like Sammy Davis Jr. She was the obvious winner from the start; the Italians clearly adore her, and she turned up on tv in one context or another every night we were there. Here she is enlivening some sporting event or other.)
According to an Italian acquaintance of mine, Falchi has an annoying regional accent, which is obviously something my ears could not possibly detect. Even under normal circumstances.
Which reminds me. I have never heard Italian spoken in an American accent before. I may have even doubted such a thing was technically possible. The idea that there could be circumstances in which a native Italian might even wish to put on an American accent was something I had never considered. I suppose on reflection it is no odder than British people doing it, as, for instance, Elton John does.
But then I heard the announcers reading out scores on game shows. And oh, the exponential hilarity of hearing the scores on the dancing show being yelled every ten minutes or so by what was clearly an Italian faking American vowel sounds, so much weirder than American-accented English, vastly weirder even than a real American trying to read Italian. And oh, the fun of joining in whenever the score-board flashed on screen: "Lamberdo Spozeeni: Settay!"
Other odd things we noticed: Adverts often use English language songs, but indiscriminately, since they are designed to be heard by non-English speakers. So Nutella was plugged with the enigmatic lyric "we can make the shadows turn to light", surely the most audacious claim ever made on behalf of chocolate flavoured peanut butter.
Television shows are full of people older than twenty who smile when they talk. No ghetto wall divides old presenters, or audiences, from young ones, who all sit cheerfully on the same sofas. The weather forecaster on one of the morning news shows was some sort of retired military man in full uniform. The comedy guests on prime time shows are often very old men indeed who have obviously been at it for decades.
And most of the prime time shows seem to run for about three hours.
And they are full of gorgeous women in swimwear.
Even quiz shows of the Deal Or No Deal kind of sobriety find room for girls in sexy costumes to dance about between rounds. A report on a morning news show about drunk driving was accompanied by a line of girls in swimming costumes in the studio, each holding a glass of wine and a crudely cut out carboard steering wheel. Throughout the report they simply stood there, while the cameras tracked up and down and across them.
This is a specifically Italian kind of earthiness, cheerful and vulgar but pretty much harmless, I'd have thought. Certainly there is none of the opiate languor and ghoulish, underfed pastiness of our sex idols, nor any of our sinister misogyny. Healthy voluptuousness is the fashion here, perhaps it never went away since the days of Loren and Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale. They have a woman here called Juliana Moreira. For some reason unknown to me, she is not an international film star. Perhaps she can't act. But then, neither could Lollobrigida.
It reminded me of the New York Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of Italian film posters, where well-known Hollywood stars and films are given just that extra brush of European knowingness by such considerable artists as Luigi Martinati, Anselmo Ballester and Alfredo Capitani. Capitani even manages to make Rita Hayworth in Gilda sexier than she was to start with (by taking her famous black-gloved, arms-raised pose and making it look as if she is reclining). It's the quality that Visconti added to James M Cain in Ossessione, unquestionably the sexiest film ever made under a fascist government.