Thursday, March 12, 2009

Florence Diary

Monday, March 2nd: London to Florence

The last thing I see before leaving London is an advert, either for cars or phones or something else I'm not interested in. It's a picture of Hugh Grant; the infamous police mug shot taken when he was caught with a prostitute in his car in Hollywood. The caption is something like 'Don't get caught with the wrong rental'.
A joke adopting a carefree attitude to the decadent media elite's exploitation of the sexual underworld that traps millions of women in lives of degradation and despair being used as a means of selling something.
Goodbye and good riddance for seven days, England.
The first thing I see after landing at Florence is also an advert. It's at the airport, written in English so as to attract me: a picture of a bottle of Filippo Berio olive oil, against a background of some charming natural scene. The caption is 'The World's Finest Olive Oil'.
Just that: a product, a claim, a simple and attractive image.
A yawning chasm divides the two ways of doing things, and every attitude informing them.
As soon as we get to the hotel we walk, proprietorially from memory alone, down the Via San Gallo, past the Duomo and the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, over the Ponte Vecchio, and up through the Piazzale Michelangelo to the Chiesa di San Salvatore, reckoned the most romantic in town.
Arrived just in time for the daily Gregorian chant of the monks who live here; more than merely beautiful. These people must be halfway to something, even if it isn't strictly the truth. Such power, beauty, simplicity and above all consolation; it was inexpressibly moving, even to we godless. Why do I live in England again?
Tuesday 3rd: Fiesole

We walked all the way to this hillside town overlooking Florence.
Bewitched by the naive charm of a crypt museum under one of the churches, an eclectic and certainly heretic assortment that included an extensive collection of Japanese art, prints and artifacts, an Egyptian mummy and mummified cat, and bits of pottery, excavated from the extensive Roman excavations at the centre of the town. Outside the church a sign requested silence in this sacred place, but here in the museum the attendant had a small portable tv that filled the rooms with the sound of Italian game shows.
Not that we don't like Italian game shows. Best is L'Eredita with our favourite television presenter Carlo Conti, a man with the fakest tan ever and no compunction about making the contestants suffer if they've lost foolishly. And Ballando con le Stelle is back, too. Last time I was here the contestants included Anna Falchi and Catherine Spaak. This year they've got Corinne Clery from Moonraker and Story of O. As always, the pleasure for me lies in not understanding a word of what is being said, and of not feeling a part of what I am being shown. Angela does understand it, and so enjoys it on its own terms. My pleasure lies in being excluded from its terms of reference but welcomed nonetheless by its warmth and sincerity - the exact opposite experience of watching television in England.
Struck again by the strange attitude this country's tv has to its female hostesses. It is more blatantly voyeuristic than the equally relentless sexual obsession of British culture, yet somehow vastly less creepy. Something is missing - is it prurience, is it cynicism, is it the sense of crass disrespect? Or is it something added rather than taken away? A kind of innocence because it is so frank, because it does not hide its true self? It seems open, healthily vulgar, somehow; not at all threatening. Others may well disagree. I'm male so I don't think about it too much.

Wednesday 4th: Florence

At the Uffizi Gallery, Angela pointed out the fact that these endless variations on a narrow range of Biblical and devotional subjects never become tiring, either to us or the artists, and how each are able, somehow, to impart their individual styles and maintain a freshness and originality that pleases the eye, despite this narrowness of range. This is a telling point, I think.
These artists were not consumed above all else by the need to project their own subjective vision: the point was the subject. The only thing that makes them individuals is their talent. That talent is itself as much a calling card as a form of expression - after all, there is always the need for the next commission. Yet theirs was the truest creative fulfilment, a far more important kind of self-expression than the kind of deluded artist who thinks his own neurotic take on the world deserves our rapt attention.
We checked off the milestones in this journey from vision to myopia - Turner, the Impressionists, Constable, when individual vision and technique are combined, then on to Duchamp, where meaning is all and technique unnecessary, and, finally, to the moment when both are rejected, and Martin Creed starts screwing pieces of paper into balls. Just the thought of it sends us rushing to Caravaggio with the urgency of drowning men clutching at floating wood.
So much of the modern stuff fails even on its own measly terms. Nothing Jake & Dinos Chapman have ever accomplished shocks like Caravaggio's Medusa, or Gentileschi's version of Judith Slaying Holofernes. Possibly because they have the added dimensions of seriousness and sincerity. But that doesn't mean that Judith isn't horrible: it is compellingly brilliant, perversely beautiful and utterly, utterly vile. Odd that Argento didn't it as well as Medusa for what I still think is the best work he has ever done: the opening fifteen minutes of The Stendhal Syndrome. Perhaps he thought its sheer monstrousness would distract from the point of the sequence - that Asia is being overcome by vividness of talent, not horror - but such restraint surely does not come easily to him.
Thursday 5th: Arezzo

The Church of St Francis contains Piero della Francesca's magnificent fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross. Begun in 1447 by another artist, Piero took over the work in 1452 and finished it fourteen years later. The cycle follows the history of the 'wood of the cross' from its creation as a tree grown in Eden from a seed placed in the dying Adam's mouth in ten scenes that span the full length and height of the church with vibrant colour and vivid intensity. The images even survived a period in the nineteenth century when the church was used as a military barracks. Now they face a different kind of obsolescence: not the physical but the intellectual. As the guide to the pictures on the wall notes, the images abound with allusions and allegories, in a visual narrative told via "signs and symbols so sadly neglected in our contemporary culture." And this in Italy, they mean.
Vasari tells us that Piero spent his final years in total blindness, an unimaginably cruel fate. Vasari's own house is in Arezzo too, and preserved as a museum. Each room is decorated in elaborate and different high style, by Vasari himself and others, testament to a man who spent his every waking moment in the pursuit, contemplation, articulation or creation of visual beauty. Many of the rooms are small but there is none of the sense of confinement or eclectic disorder of, say, Sir John Soane's house. Each single image is perfectly integrated into the whole, so that the design becomes a kind of externalisation of its owner's mind. The effect is inviting, soothing, as well as merely impressive.
Piero also contributed the magnificent Mary Magdalene to the nearby Cattedrale di San Donato, dominated by Guillaume di Marcillat's gorgeous stained glass. We were lucky enough to enjoy an organ recital during our visit; again, an unexpected glimpse of the sublime, almost uneasily moving.

Friday 6th: Lucca

Lucca is a walled city, hiding behind 40-foot 16th century ramparts. Only a few spires are visible above them as you exit the station just outside, and entrance is effected through a winding, dripping tunnel cut into the fortifications themselves. As you pass through them, you move from one world truly into another. Once inside, it becomes virtually impossible to think of a single good reason for ever leaving again.

We are here to pay our respects to Puccini, born here a few days before Christmas, 1858. His relationship with the town was not always harmonious, as the charmingly broken English of our concert programme explains:

Giacomo Puccini loved Lucca and adored all its corners and secluded places: far worse relationship linked Puccini to the local establishment, due to his very ebullient character on one side and, on the other, to the very bigot, mentally-restricted and bourgeois Lucchese society, quite unwilling to accept the rising of a genius really coming from the middle-lower classes. This is why, when success came in 1893 (with the first triumph of Manon Lescaut) he decided to live good part of his life in Torre del Lago (near the town of Viareggio) where he had his villa built, despite coming to Lucca many a time but never staying overnight. And this is why everybody in Lucca, since the Maestro's death - which happened in 1924 - seemed to have willingly forgotten Puccini's fame and power of attraction towards millions of people all around the world.

Since the eightieth anniversary of his death in 2004, however, they've certainly been making up for lost time. There are Puccini shops, his birthplace house is open as a museum (closed at the moment, alas), and every street corner seems adorned with hoardings alerting visitors to the concerts held every night of the year in the church where he was baptised.

Puccini has his photograph taken next to a visibly clapped-out Londoner in a Ronald Reagan t-shirt: another first for England

Now, I'm a sucker same as anyone for the cliché of the tortured artist, compelled to create at the cost of health and wealth and love and well-being; body wracked and brain fevered as each new masterpiece is torn from within. But once in a while, someone like Puccini, who loved women, cars, boats and poker as much as music and died worth four million, or Rossini, who made his reputation and his fortune in his youth before enjoying 38 years of relatively unproductive but entirely contented retirement, make for a refreshing change. It's not like the work lacks gravitas, grandeur, beauty, though doubtless the pleasure he took in his artistry accounts for much of the suspicion Puccini engenders in those who like their composers' brows damp with sweat and lined with torment. (He once said that art was "a kind of illness".) Puccini was always a little too melodic, a little too sure of his effects and a little too easily in command of his audience's emotions for such as these. His operas are consummate works of theatre with which he constantly tinkered and revised to accommodate audience response; he once wrote that "Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said, 'Write for the theatre - mind, only for the theatre,' and I have obeyed the supreme command." Certainly he is formulaic, his best work all seemingly informed by Poe's dictum that the most poetic topic of all is the death of a beautiful woman. (When he abandoned the formula for La Fanciulla del West, set in the California gold rush, something immediately seemed awry; as William Ashbrook notes, "not a single character dies, and the spectacle of Italian comprimario 'miners' shouting 'Allo' and ordering 'wheesky' struck many of the earlier viewers as disaffecting, if not downright grotesque.") Yet the power of his greatest and most typical work is undeniable, albeit often somewhat guiltily acknowledged, as per Victor Gollancz in his classic memoir Journey Towards Music:

I have never greatly cared for anything by Puccini except Bohème. You can enjoy pretty music for its prettiness, sparkling music for its sparkle, witty music for its wit, and even sentimental music, provided you do not get too much of it, for its sentimentality... But for music to give a higher sort of pleasure, not to mention the highest, there must be an element of what the Hebrews called 'Hin in it: an untranslatable word, but meaning something like grace in the religious sense, or an inwardness of which sacraments are the outer manifestations... Why then, it may be asked, have I gone to these operas so often? For two reasons: first, because Tosca, Bohème and Butterfly, at any rate, are superb vehicles for vocal display, and secondly because Puccini was a rare musical dramatist... The human voice, particularly a woman's, is not only the most beautiful of musical instruments but the most beautiful of all things on earth and probably in heaven: and... a composer who writes perfectly for the voice can be a means to the revelation of what in its own kind must be called supreme beauty. 'Vissi d'arte' is, heaven knows, nothing of a masterpiece: but I am grateful to Puccini for having written it, if this was the best he could manage, for he allowed Destinn to give us, in that miraculous change of register, a moment of rapture that blotted out the world.

Stravinsky dismissed Puccini's work as "treacly violin music", Giacomo for his part declared The Rite of Spring to be "the creation of a madman". There's room for both on my shelf - but it's Butterfly that tears your heart out.

Saturday 7th: Pisa

The last time I was in Pisa I bought a Betty Boop badge from one of the stalls by the Leaning Tower. A while later I was wearing it in a favourite restaurant in Bologna, where the manager and staff would occasionally launch into impromptu song sessions on the accordion, not to delight tourists, of which we were the only two, but genuinely for their own amusement. A waiter, slightly the better for vino rosso, asked in fractured English if Betty was Frankenstein.
Nothing if not rabid for tradition we decide to buy another this time, but time, it seems, has moved on, and Betty is no longer to be found in the racks of badges. We are almost out of the city, at the last market stall, when we find one, the very last they have. The original was a full-face portrait on a red background. This one is on a black background, and she's looking over her shoulder blowing a kiss. We are both very pleased. I wear it to dinner but nobody comments, even though, to avoid any possible confusion, we also bought one of Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster from the same stall.

Sunday 8th: Siena
Realise too late that we waited until the last day to come to Siena last time we were here: the place is now inextricably associated with a sense of things coming to an end. The winding streets and Santuario e Casa di Santa Caterina seem more beautiful than ever; the walk from station to town again achieved, most pleasantly, from memory. But over all looms the ever-lengthening shadow of Britain, tomorrow.
(All photographs except this one by Angela Levin)