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.
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.