28 June 2013

Pictures from Italy 1

Oci Ciornie..... (Dark Eyes)

Очи чёрные, очи страстные
Очи жгучие и прекрасные
Как люблю я вас, как боюсь я вас
Знать, увидел вас я в недобрый час

Oh, these gorgeous eyes, dark and glorious eyes,
Burn-with-passion eyes, how you hypnotise

Andrew appears in the November mists and amongst his olive trees, his eyes hooded, his hands expressing concern. His sheep wait to be milked. His background, as a city worker in London, may not obviously be the CV expected of a Seggiano sheep farmer, but he took it seriously, spending almost thirty years here, occupying and renovating three poderi, before moving to Corfu where he now lives, with his wife Yvonne, in an old olive mill.

An August Corrado looks hard at me and presents a fox he had kicked to death for terrorising his chickens. Corrado has lived his entire life (excepting a brief period on National Service, when he went as far as Livorno, some fifty kilometres away) within about ten kilometres square. He was born within fifty metres of this photograph and still lives about five hundred metres from it.

Corrado recommended that I kept the fox in the running water of the stream until I was ready to eat it. I passed on that and buried it, shallowly. When David, my friend who owned the house, arrived, the summer putrefaction was not concealed, and he conducted a more robust reburial.

Carlo, who saw action in the second Italo-Ethiopian War, stops for a moment on the way back from Seggiano to his home up the hill, a walk of at least one hour in the summer heat.  He peers at the camera, slightly wary, not quite sure. Carlo was an engaging and patient man, and, despite his years, put me to shame with his daily toil and passive demeanour.

Carlo's wife, Gina, awaits her husband anxiously at their home.  There were perhaps times when Carlo's conviviality would interfere with her culinary timings, but she herself was hospitality personified.  For this photo she covered her feet with a shawl as she felt they wanted for elegance, but then gazed unblinking at me and the view behind, searching for her Carlo.

Another local contadino, who may also have lived most of his life within hundreds of metres of this photograph, indicates the valley below, staring out from the shade of his hat.  His kind, with tiny plots of land and antique skills such as weaving willow twigs, is rapidly becoming a faint and imprecise memory.

In the meantime Corrado's wife, Concetta, who came under contract from Calabria, poses for me with her bunch of zucchini flowers and daughter Maria, since married (possibly by contract) to another contadino some three times her age from a village at least ten kilometres away.  Concetta's open face reflects her kindness and patience, one who is never failing in hard work and care.

While another young lady, my wife, Amanda, elegant, refined, aristocratic (as befits), poses with a delicious bunch of zucchini flowers which Concetta had presented as a gift.  The strong Tuscan sun does not catch the eyes - it is too strong, so instead it casts deep shadows.  In case zucchini (courgette) flowers are not a common ingredient in your kitchen, just dip them in a light batter and fry quickly (though you do need to check for ants and earwigs first, as my children will aver!)

Autumn evening light, Tuscany

You cannot see these women's faces, but mark their headgear. Those are sacks of marroni, the mature and largest edible castagne (sweet chestnuts). Life in rural Italy used to consist of so many annual and seasonal tasks, tough, but valuable, and everyone played a part. Again, below, the hat shades the eyes, though not the stare.  Even the dogs.....

Cane da pastore Maremmano-Abruzzese

At the other end of the spectrum, in a certain way, is the excess of the Carnival, a period of extravagance that precedes the austerity of Lent. Here the mask masks the face, to protect and disguise.

By the Doge's Palace, Venezia

Carnival: Carne (meat/flesh/food) vale (goodbye/has value) is a farewell to feasting, and has become also an opportunity for parading in finery and disguise.  In Venice, in particular, it is a masquerade, with the typically long nosed white masks that, herbal nosegays within the nasal cavities, pretended to save one from the pestilence.  Here below are some empty masks - no eyes at all.

Masks for every occasion - Venezia
Which connects quite neatly with certain other images of Italian life, Benito and Old Blue Eyes himself, Hitler, both of them caricatured with piercing gazes. In the late seventies I stopped for a coffee at the Aquila D'Oro Hotel (Golden Eagle) in Aquapendente on the Via Cassia (the main road from Milan to Rome before the autostrade) and noted on the wall a framed newscutting celebrating the fact that Adolf Hitler and Eva von Braun had stayed there on their first trip to Italy.....

The old brutalism on display in Venezia

The Carnival in Rome is a slightly different affair, with  less posturing and more individual expression.  Here children are at the centre of the festivity, some impossibly young infants being dressed in improbable ways and labouring within meaningless suits, but then older people take to face painting and young girls and boys dress in ways that they themselves feel shows something of their personality.

Via dei Fori Imperiali


It is not just the carnival period that brings people out on parade. Every evening there is the Passeggiata, and every day there are those who just want to be seen, and be seen at their best at that, so paint the eyebrows and lashes.

Preparing for a shoot by the Spanish Steps

Even if it is a professional engagement, under a blooming hat:

Waiting:  Piazza d'Espagna

Or a performance in the open air, eyes masked by mascara:

Dancers pausing during filming in Piazza del Popolo

Of such performances there are innumerable examples: this picture below was taken on the island of Giglio some years ago, in the town of Castello, when a group of friends would meet every evening, every summer, to belt out dixieland jazz classics 'til the sun was gone. Strange coincidence that only last year I met one of these musicians in a village not far from Rome, who told me that sadly the clarinettist (a fine musician) had recently passed away.

Jazz on Giglio

On a slightly different tack, children are the street performers par excellence in Italy. The climate (and cramped housing) has encouraged outdoor play and interaction wherever you go. These three chose to be cheeky (though their hooded eyes show some sense of shame) in a narrow lane somewhere above Amalfi, brimming with glee, the giveaway clue to their real interest in their hands and tucked under an arm - lemons! But not lemons such as you would slice into a gin and tonic - these Sorrento lemons (cedri) are sweet enough to eat raw.

The Sorrento Peninsula

And children, of course, are the real centre of Italian life, with bright, brilliant eyes. Your passport to everything is a little child. Here Matthew Mawer, son of novelist Simon Mawer and his wife Connie, takes the air somewhere on the eastern slopes of the Apennines enjoying life to the full and looking the photographer boldly in the eye.

Gran Sasso or thereabouts

And here Hannah slips down a slide outside the Carabinieri barracks in Orvieto, averting her gaze with a touch of coyness.


Closely followed by her sister, Sarah, a twinkle in her eyes.


And sleep is another theme in Italian life. In the sun, or in the shade, the eyes closed:


Young man, or old cat......

The Ghetto - Venezia

And there are friends, and colleagues.  On a trip to Stromboli (a petulant, active volcanic isle) with some thirty teenagers we were nearly stranded by high winds.  Stromboli (one of the Aeolian islands) has no harbour, and the normal docking procedure is for the ferry boat to back up to a pontoon quay and embark passengers in a bit of a hurry. On this occasion the steamer had to hove to several hundred metres from the shore and we had to be rowed out in open boats which were launched through the breakers from the shingle beach by sturdy islanders.  We made it, but were then tossed about upon the briny for several hours while we negotiated all the Aeolian islands on the way back to a windswept Milazzo on mainland Sicily.  My colleagues, ever optimistic and caring for their charges, took a dim view of the weather, their stares concerned at the wind and the waves.

Michael and Isabel on board ship

Other associates had different outlooks on life, as is natural. Dr Nick Henson, seen here with a head of hair like a rough crow's nest and the beady eyes of a woodpecker, is a brilliant naturalist and biologist, and I recently had the pleasure of studying his latest book, "Uccelli nel Parco del Circeo,"  ("Birds of the Circeo National Park"), which is a beautifully presented bird-watching guide.  

Dr Nick on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, some years past!

Then there were those amici who had not a care in the world, for whom the phrase "La Dolce Vita" was invented. Here Gerry and Maria take their duties of caring for the swimming pool most seriously (in a fashionable Roman suburb) during the Caddy family (FAO employees)'s summer absence in Canada.

Casal Palocco

And there were work colleagues, with whom a brief snack or light lunch was a part of the daily duties.  This trattoria and bar, at a point sixteen kilometres from the Ponte Milvio in Rome, was a staging post and restaurant for travellers to and from the Holy City.  It was also at the site of St Ignatius of Loyola's transforming vision and just across the busy road is a little chapel to commemorate this, as well as a large building which was once a Jesuit Seminary but which is now the home of St George's British English School.

The colleagues pictured have long since moved on, as have I. Franco Fornasieri and his wife, Maria Pia, are no longer with us, though son Massimo still runs the bar, and the trattoria is not much changed.....

Trattoria del Quarto Secolo, La Storta, Via Cassia Km 16

Every picture tells a story, and this one tells of a trip to Siena at Christmas in the late seventies.  Siena can be blisteringly hot in the summer, but can be bitterly cold in the winter. However, there is a local grappa which is well known for countering sub-zero temperatures (as used by ski instructors).  Here Lindsay, caught in the striking winter light, is seen wondering where the next grappa will come from, his eyes cast to heaven for assistance.

In the years between the second world war and the turn of the millennium  many faces (such as Carlo and Gina's above) masked experiences probably best forgotten.  The war had passed up peninsular Italy with extreme pain and suffering. No one had been exempt.  The food of Italy reflects the poverty of those years (and before) when meat would have been (a) a luxury and (b) possibly of suspect origin (a scene in Liliana Cavani's 1981 film "La Pelle" showed a hungry diner reconstructing the bones of a human hand at the bottom of his bowl).  This tough cookie in a street market had seen life, and would take no nonsense.

And these two old girls, in a village to the north of Rome, could giggle at me in delight, but would have stories to tell if pressed.

And this chap, a fisherman in Fiumicino, communicated a certain enjoyment of life which looked forward, rather than back, though he didn't see Berlusconi coming!

And then there are faces cast in stone.  There is something very Italian about the process of chipping human heads out of stone, perhaps inspired by the Ancient Greeks, but perfected by artists of the Roman Empire.  It is still something that you see practised, though this one, on the Island of Favignana off the coast of Sicily, shows bold strokes but limited refinements.

A very different example is in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where John Keats is commemorated in relief.

And everywhere you stumble in Italy there are faces, faces, faces.  They may be fountains, or statues.  Ancient or young, they seem to express character whichever way you see them.  Here is a baroque fountain over a Roman bath, not far from the Ponte Sisto in Rome.

Here is the pose of authority:

Here is the face of disapproval:

Here is the surprise of innocence:

Monte Amiata

And here a sense of confident independence:

The Gulf of Genova

And here the absolute love of sunshine, good food and wine, and of "dolce far niente!"

Here's looking at you, kid.....

No, not sad am I, nor so mad am I;
All my comforts lie in my destiny.
Just to realise my life’s worthiest prize 
Did I sacrifice for those ardent eyes!

"Oci Ciornie" is a film made in 1987 with Marcello Mastroianni and Yelena Safonova, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov.  The title come from a Russian song ("Dark Eyes") which has been a jazz standard, interpreted by artists as wide ranging as Django Reinhardt, Al Jonson, Gloria Jean (in the W C Fields' film "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,") Bugs Bunny, Danny Kaye, Louis Armstrong and Judy Morris (in "Happy Feet.")

Dark eyes.jpg

I love the song, the film and those dreamy deep pools that are people's eyes.  These few photos (all taken between twenty and forty years ago in Italy) perhaps convey some of that?  The thing about Italian eyes is that they have to be protected - hooded, shaded, covered, shadowed - so that in fact Italian eyes are seeing but not always seen.  Only the children in their innocence have bright eyes.  The rest, are dark.  Oci Ciornie.


20 June 2013

Anthony Soprano - The Beast in Me

RIP James Gandolfini 1961 - 2013

james gandolfini

It may be ironic to mourn a mobster, but for some years "The Sopranos" gave me support through a difficult time.  To hear of the sudden death of James Gandolfini, on holiday in Italy, is almost as disturbing as hearing that Tony Soprano had died in the last episode of the HBO series (though he didn't, did he?) which is not to say that the death of a character in a TV series is as important as the death of a real person, but it is to say that the two were inextricably and irrevocably fused together in my mind at least.

James Gandolfini came to public attention as a hit man in "True Romance" (which is a top film) in 1993.  Then David Chase created "The Sopranos" for HBO and a star was born. 

For those who may not have had the pleasure or perhaps the stomach to follow "The Sopranos" on TV or DVD a very brief outline is this: James Gandolfini plays the Head of an Italo-American crime syndicate which he has inherited from his brutal father. His Uncle is not happy about this and there is tension in the family over the leadership. Tony's mother, a demanding and unsympathetic character, lives through the first few episodes, and Tony's two sisters appear from time to time, one of them complicating issues by getting involved with one of Tony's rivals.

In the meantime Tony lives in New Jersey and has a wife and two children and all the domestic cares of you and me, more or less, with growing children who get into trouble at school and with their friends.

Within the family and business world Tony has a number of close followers, as well as some enemies.  The series sees the working out of territorial and business conflicts with other bosses and other families, with a particular squabble over the waste disposal firm that is Tony's most legitimate source of income.

As a husband and as a role model for his children Tony is ambiguous, though he lives by certain codes and works hard, within his sphere, to care for and protect his family.

He also has a personal problem, which takes him to consult with a Psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.  This is, of course, a tense and also a secretive arrangement, as Mafia bosses do not normally fare very well if they start disclosing their private thoughts and actions to a third party.  At the same time it is hard for Dr Melfi to observe the confidentiality of her case, and she is troubled by the relationship.

Where it became personal for me was when Tony passed out at a summer BBQ in his garden.  He had grown fond of a family of ducks which had taken to resting in his swimming pool (ornithologically unlikely, but none the less a distracting symbol) and we are given to think that their flight from the pool leads to his syncope.

Another episode of loss of consciousness moves him to consult the Psychiatrist and so begins the theme of psycho-analysis which unravels something of his past and leads back to a singular act of violence by his father.  An uneasy mafia boss sits across from an uneasy psychiatrist.  She asks if he is depressed, and he answers that he, "Had a semester and a half of college, and so [I] understand Freud and I understand therapy as a concept, but in my world it does not go on....."

At the time I was watching this, a member of my close family was attending sessions with a psychiatrist who was investigating a seemingly inexplicable series of sudden losses of consciousness - very similar to Tony's - and the very methods of inquiry, even the welcome into the consulting room, were uncannily similar to Tony's experience.

OK the similarity ends there, in that (I don't think - or if I did I wouldn't tell) I have mafia connections and most of the circumstances were different.  But the core theme, that even a mafia boss can have psychological problems and that perhaps all of us can be helped by careful and sensitive therapy, was ultimately both fascinating and reassuring.

And none of this would have worked without an actor of the class of James Gandolfini. Perhaps Al Pacino could have carried it off, but even he might have shown less humanity within the violent and abusive framework.

Yes there are some horrible crimes in the name of Soprano, but also there are some endearing touches - so much so that we named our black cat after Tony's daughter, "Meadow;" (our first cat, who had a rather high mew, was called "Soprano"). The episodes, many written and curated by different directors, are superbly made, with many different story lines and themes interwoven.  Dark humour pervades the scripts, and horrors are counterbalanced by touches of humanity where all humanity seems to have been lost.  "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," repeats Steven van Zandt (ex sidesman for Bruce Springsteen) whenever someone needs cheering up.

It must be a platitude that we have forever enjoyed and benefited from the arts, and that from Greek Tragedy through Shakespeare to Arthur Miller and Howard Brenton, we are willing spectators in the downfall of villains but also enthusiastic followers of flawed heroes   Who cannot watch fascinated as Macbeth and his wife slip down the slippery slopes to hell.  Who does not feel sympathy for Lear as he causes his own world to collapse?  Is not the tragedy of Othello both his own and Iago's?  And isn't Willy Loman a bit like all of us?

The Greek idea of catharsis is something to do with it, but also it is the spell-binding attraction of observing how things go wrong in a society which is not at all perfect.  As Tony himself said, "We are soldiers; we live by a code."  To understand the Italian mob, or indeed the Chinese Triads, or the Russian 'mafia' is to understand a little more of our real world.  Just as to understand the Nazis might help us avoid the recurrence of such a nightmare.

I am reminded of the poem, "Vultures" by Chinua Achebe:

...Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate
for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy's

Tony Soprano may have been a criminal monster, but he was also a loving father and a living human being.  It is not better for us to look for the good in a man than to damn him for his material crimes?

51 is too young to die these days, but perhaps there are worse ways to go than to collapse suddenly in Rome on holiday?  Who knows?

The Sopranos actor James Gandolfini

Sleep with the angels, James.  You deserve a long and peaceful afterlife.

"Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eye....."

I beg everyone's pardon for borrowing these pictures.  I know it may not be quite right, but in the grand scheme of things I wanted to pay tribute to James and hope that the mob will understand.