24 October 2013


An Oggsford Man...........

Oxford: "That sweet city with her dreaming spires" (Matthew Arnold, Thyrsis) from Christ Church Meadow

I am in the New Theatre, Oxford, and Henry VIII is cheating on Anne Boleyn, attracted to Jane Seymour after Anne has produced a daughter.  Henry looks a little like a cross between Mick Fleetwood and Bill Bailey, and he has a neat chain-mail cod-piece, which makes it seem as if he is wearing his underpants over his trousers.  He is clearly a bad egg, and our sympathies rise with the Treorchy Male Voice Choir's maelstrom chorus as Anne defies history with her brave, untimely death. 

I exaggerate a little.  It wasn't the Treorchy Choir; it was the Welsh National Opera, performing Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena.  And I am ignoring the importance of male heirs.  But underlying the interest is that in the 1530s Henry VIII drove through more radical reforms than Michael Gove ever dreamed of.  In some ways Henry VIII was to England what Ceausescu was to Romania, or Gaddafi was to Libya:  on the face of it a much-loved leader with the greater good of his country at heart, concerned about the stability and the future of his independent realm, but in reality a mean, selfish, twisted, callous figurehead of a short-sighted and biased regime that was responsible for the one of the greatest acts of vandalism against the arts ever perpetrated.  The dissolution of the monasteries was not just a political move designed to remove power from the extremely rich religious barons, but it was also the destruction of superb architecture, and thousands of extraordinary works of art that were contained within those buildings.

King Henry VIII

I am in Hertford College, in the rather dark lobby outside the chapel, and Helena gropes for a switch behind a great wooden frame.  Suddenly William Tyndale, famous for his translations of the Bible, is standing before me.  Born in Dursley in the Cotswolds, in 1494, he was a student at Magdalen Hall, which later became Hertford College.  He then left England in 1524 and wandered Europe, learning Hebrew (something that was against the law in England), writing, and translating the bible.
I am visiting Hertford because my father was a student here immediately before and after the second world war.  And here is Tyndale, another Oggsford man whose life ended in strangulation and conflagration in 1536, in Belgium. He had been betrayed by a spy from Oxford, Harry Phillips, sent by the Holy Roman Emperor to track down the man who translated the Bible into English (about 90% of the King James' Bible was translated by Tyndale). 
William Tyndale: Hertford College

Tyndale was influenced by Erasmus and by Luther and was one of the greatest scholars of his age, which was one of extraordinary technological development:  the printing press was the iPhone of its day, and it became impossible to suppress the circulation of ideas when they were in print form (and they were in the vernacular).  At one point the Bishop of London bought six thousand copies of Tyndale's New Testament and burned them on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral in an attempt at eradicating the smuggled blasphemy. 

Old Buildings, Hertford College

Anne Boleyn, who was probably better read than her husband, was a fan.  And Henry himself was impressed by the Obedience of a Christian Man (1528) which attacked papal authority.  But then in Practice of Prelates (1530) Tyndale condemned Cardinal Wolsey and Henry's divorce.  So he lost his Royal Favour.....

From the staircase in Hertford College

And speaking of Cardinal Wolsey..... he was appointed Lord Chancellor and Chief Councillor on Christmas Eve 1515 and was enormously powerful for fourteen years, during which he suppressed an Augustinian Monastery in Oxford, in 1524, and founded in its stead Cardinal College. 

Tom Quad: Christ Church

After Wolsey's fall from power in 1529, which came about essentially because his position as a Roman Catholic Cardinal linked him too closely to Rome for Henry's comfort, Henry himself renamed the College as Christ Church. Then, not long after, in 1546, he created a Bishop of Oxford as one of six new Bishops to consolidate his supremacy over the last embers of resistance in the ruins of the monasteries.  An outcome of this is that the Cathedral Church of Oxford is the smallest Cathedral in the country and is also Christ Church College Chapel.

Oxford Cathedral - Christ Church

The Church is essentially twelfth century, and is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, but much of its interior was redesigned in the 1870s by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the grandfather of Giles, who designed the red phone box,a(mong other things.....) The Church also boasts stained glasses by Edward Burne-Jones.....

Stained Glass by Edward Burne-Jones in the Cathedral

And this College also draws innumerable tourists inspired by such names as Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson both studied and taught here), and Harry Potter.....  Not to mention six Prime Ministers.

Great Hall, Christ Church

Teaching began at Oxford not long after the Norman Conquest, but in 1167 when Henry II banned students from going to Paris it became very well established. It had achieved world renown by the fourteenth century, and Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenforde was perhaps a typical student of the time.

The School of Divinity

In the fifteenth century all teaching and examining took place in the School of Divinity, which is now a part of the Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian Library

As the University's fame and fortune increased, the Colleges, replacing the religious houses that had existed before Henry VIII, developed and embellished themselves.  Hertford copied the Bridge of Sighs (or rather the Rialto Bridge - some confusion there!) from Venice:

The Bridge of Sighs - Hertford College

All Souls College employed Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose rebuilding of the North Quadrangle is one of Oxford's splendours:

All Souls College

While Christopher Wren provided the University with the Sheldonian Theatre:

The Sheldonian Theatre

Which has an extraordinary ceiling, made up of 32 painted canvas panels (the work of Serjeant Painter to the King, Robert Streater, in 1668/9) which have been recently restored:

The painted ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre

And just nearby, drawing considerably on plans by Nicholas Hawksmoor, James Gibbs produced the Radcliffe Camera, one of the iconic buildings in the city.

Radcliffe Camera

In the meantime, following the death of Henry VIII, his daughter Mary I attempted to re-establish Catholicism and so tried Bishops Latimer and Ridley, and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin; found them guilty and burnt them; if nothing else continuing in her father's tradition of being unreasonable and a little on the cruel side.

Convocation House

Less than one hundred years later, during the civil war, Oxford was the choice of Charles I as a place to hold his counter parliament, with the Lords sitting in the Convocation House and the Commons in the School of Divinity.

And in the meantime, the people of Oxford, and the students and visitors and drinkers and talkers, gather in their own parliaments to debate the world and its paradoxes.  One favourite haunt of my father's was the Turf Tavern:

An institution almost as old as the University

Which is almost impossible to find and harder still to get out of, but which is recorded to have been serving beer since at least 1381, as Richard II is known to have taxed it.

The High Street

Oxford bustles on in the 21st century. In its books and buildings may linger much of the history of this world, and in its industry there may be some of the future too.

Students still dominate, the click and whirr of bicycles in the morning filling the brass rubbed streets around the centre, the slap of flat-soled shoes, the brush brush of thick stockings, the very slight squeak of hinges on heavy spectacle frames that are just a little loose.....


The jiggle of saddle springs that are just a little too low....

While the museums attract others who may wish to study in a more individual way:

Work in Progress - The Ashmolean Museum

In the windows of the colleges, and framed by their arches, we see ourselves, and our pasts, and our futures.  Some of us were privileged, or gifted, or coached, or goaded, and made it to spend some 72 weeks within these sheltered courts, becoming fine china rather than clay pots.  Some of us perhaps could have made it, but never found the key, or the lock, or the door....  Others, like Jude the Obscure, dreamed of the advantages and the glory, but fell back and died of the cold world behind.

Reflections, Peckwater Quadrangle, Christ Church

Others, like Harry Potter, perhaps, or Jay Gatsby, dreamed different, or bigger, dreams. They wanted divorce from the world of the Muggles, the world of the everyday, and dreamed so hard that others caught that dream, and wound into it to develop their fortunes, elegantly billowing like Daisy Buchanan or ashily overseeing the road to riches like Dr T J Eckleberg.  Lying high to avoid deception.

As seen in Harry Potter - Christ Church stairs

Jay Gatsby, did extraordinarily well in the war. He was a captain before he went to the front, and following the Argonne battles he got his majority and the command of the divisional machine-guns. After the Armistice he tried frantically to get home, but some complication or misunderstanding sent him to Oxford instead.
And so the fixer, Wolfsheim, boasts of Jay Gatsby, He's an Oggsford man.....  He went to Oggsford College in England......

Is it chance, or fortune, or the willing cooperation of the underclass, that does this? Gatsby was a fake, a fraud, a slender fraction of a man. Was Henry VIII something similar? His dreams started with his brother's wife. And when he could not have her, he moved the goalposts.
Ultimately my confusion is between my culture and my instinct.  I leave the theatre and its grey hairs and the streets are punctuated by children playing with alcohol and tobacco, laughing in cross-legged groups within darkened doorways.  Police cars parade like overconfident migrants.  I am in a dream.  I wander the college gates, the market stalls, the rainy park.  The night kisses me goodnight with an early moon, and I take my weary leave of the real world, the world of kebabs and clubs and youthful excitement in company.
I wake in my college room, a sepulchral quiet weighing on me like the guilt of accusation.  I tiptoe out into the garden. Anna Bolena turns her back on me, attending to her hair.
I know it is not my fault. 
I need to ride my bike.  To fudge my muted colours in the mix.


Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

Dio che mi vedi in core,
mi volgo a te...

The Boleyn Cup, Cirencester

19 October 2013

Tesserae - 7 - Lucca, Tuscany

"O Soave Fanciulla......"

In Puccini's opera La Boheme, Rodolfo, a poet living in a freezing garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris, meets Mimi, an embroideress who lives in the same building.  He is struck by her pale beauty, and having held her frozen hand for a moment, sings:

O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso
Di mite circonfuso alba lunar,
In te ravviso il sogno
Ch'io vorrei sempre sognar!

(Oh! sweet young girl! Oh, sweetest vision,
With moonlight bathing your pretty face!
The dream that I see in you is the dream I'll always dream!)


Puccini, who was born in Lucca in 1858, lived a bohemian life himself as a student in Milan, and was something of a womaniser, so La Boheme reflects some of his own experience.  But in a different way, the city of Lucca herself is a sweet girl.

She is not a grand city.  She has a population of approximately 90,000, but not all of these live within the 16th/17th century walls which surround the old town in an undamaged tree-shaded ring of 4.2 kilometres.  These walls, pierced by seven gates of different ages, provide a circuit to walk, jog or cycle, places to sit and rest, to chat, and the views over the city and out to the mountains beyond.  Nowhere in the world has quite such a facility and perhaps this accounts in part for the seeming well-being of the inhabitants.

Within these walls crowd churches, palaces, shops and streets, all on the flat at 19 metres above sea level.  With very little traffic allowed, the bicycle is a favourite means of transport, and for visitors there are hire shops, and hotels provide bikes free for their guests.


The streets sing with people during the day, both on wheels and on feet, and these ravines offer respite from the Tuscan sun.  I can imagine Puccini, who only lived fifteen kilometres away at Torre del Lago at the height of his fame, puffing on a Toscano cigar, strolling about the town, dropping into a café for a glass of wine, casting an approving eye across the passing ladies, and humming O soave fanciulla! to himself.....

And not only those in the bloom of youth would have caught his attention.  Lucca is not young herself, and her people, and her visitors, all pick up a lightness as they relax in la dolce vita that imbues this place. 

Even when carrying a heavy gold bag filled with goodies from the market!

Or resting in the peace and shade of the Botanical Gardens.

This is a graceful town.  Tiny touches like these pots of basil on a window-sill (below) catch the Keatsian romance of the place.  Elegant shuttered windows embellish the buildings, and you can see how Puccini might have thought the whole town earned the adjective soave, with its meaning of gentleness, or delicacy, as well as with its connotations of the fragrant wine of the north.

The city is set amongst gentle hills, with a backdrop of rugged mountains.  The defences were planted with plane trees and chestnuts, holm oaks, beech and pine to hold the earthworks together within the red brick walls.  Even on top of the Giunigi tower, which was built in the fourteenth century, there are oak trees - lecce, or quercus ilex - planted by the family to symbolise regeneration.

Wherever you look, the red brick and marble, the green and blue shades of trees and distance, the scene is gentle.

Whether St Martin's Cathedral dominates the view (above) or you stand before the church of San Michele in Foro by day:

Or by night:


Or you look down on the buildings which have grown up in the shape of the Roman amphitheatre:


Or you stand within it:

Or you admire the raked rooftops and slender streets.....  Wherever you look, Lucca is indeed una soave fanciulla!

As an aside, Lucca has changed hands in terms of its rulers many times, from the Etruscans to Napoleon for example, and the delights of the area were particularly appreciated by the French, when Napoleon's sister, Elisa Baciocchi, found that the  nearby thermal baths, at Bagni di Lucca, some 20 kilometres from the city, suited her and her court.  However, after the 1814 Congress of Vienna, the Duchy of Lucca became the property of the Bourbon family, and for a while was favoured by the English.


And although the resort of Bagni di Lucca still thrives, it was in a house such as this, below, that Shelley spent some time in 1818, translating Plato's Symposium, while Byron may have gambled in the Casino. 

The river Lima flows past Ponte a Serraglio to join the Serchio which winds around Lucca on its way to the sea, 150 metres below.  This is beautiful Italy, and it is not surprising that poets have wanted to stay here.....

But back to Lucca herself.  The evening light strikes shadows down the streets:

And it is time to dine:

And the Trattoria da Giulio (Via delle Conce, 45) is the place to go.  A family run establishment (Giulio himself is now retired, but still drops in to see that all is well) this is gentle Italy at its very best.  I don't try the Tartara di Cavallo (Horsemeat Tartare), nor the Pulmone di Vitella in Umido (Stewed Veal Lung), nor even the Testina di Vitella Lessata (Boiled Veal Head) as a starter, but we do enjoy a caprese (mozzarella and tomato) salad, panzanella (bread and tomato salad), Tagliatella alla Contadina (home-made pasta with raw tomatoes, olives, olive oil and basil), Maccheroni Tortellati (flat pasta parcels filled with ricotta and spinach and served with a tuscan beef sauce) as well as local sausages with cannellini beans and Verdure Fritte (slices of courgettes and aubergines with courgette flowers, fried in a very light batter in the family's own olive oil).  And we try the Terre di Matraja Costa Toscano Bianco from the Fattoria Colle Verde, and finish with Vino Santo con Buccellato (Lucchese aniseed cake). 

And then it is time to wander home.  The full moon bathing the city in her light, Puccini's o dolce viso/Di mite circonfuso alba lunar .

The dark streets lit subtly to highlight points of interest such as this fresco on the Porta San Gervasio:

And the façade of the Cathedral lit to guide us safely across the piazza:

With a different angle on the idea of una soave fanciulla:

Which reminds me of Ilaria del Carretto, whose marble effigy lies in the Cathedral. She was the second wife of the wealthy merchant, and ruler of Lucca, Paolo Giunigi.  She died in childbirth in 1405, and her tomb was created in marble by Jacopo della Quercia.  Some twenty five years after her death Paolo was driven from Lucca and the tomb was removed and damaged.  The effigy remains, however, and in the moonlight it is a most fitting representative of the soave fanciulla that is Lucca.

Lucca - Ilaria Del Carretto

The Sicilian poet, Salvatore Quasimodo (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1959) paused before this likeness and wrote Davanti al simulacro d’Ilaria Del Carretto in his collection Ed e subito sera (Suddenly it's evening) in 1942 the title poem of which is:

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.
(Each one stands alone at the heart of the earth
transfixed by a ray of sunshine:
and suddenly it's evening.)

Quasimodo's musings before the likeness of the young bride are tender but his thoughts fly up, and out, to the paradoxes of love and life, and the sadness of death:
Sotto la terra luna già i tuoi colli,
lungo il Serchio fanciulle in vesti rosse
e turchine si muovono leggere.
Così al tuo dolce tempo, o cara, e Sirio
perde colore, e ogno ora s’allontana,
e il gabbiano s’infuria sulle spiagge
derelitte. Gli amanti vanno lieti
nell’aria di settembre, i loro gesti
accompagnano ombre di parole
che conosci. Non hanno pietà; e tu
tenuta dalla terra, che lamenti?
Sei qui rimasta sola. Il mio sussulto
forse è il tuo, uguale d’ira e di spavento.
Remoti i morti e più ancora i vivi,
i miei compagni vili e taciturni.
(Under the gentle moon the hills that were yours,
girls in red and turquoise dresses
move lightly along the river bank.
As in your time, dear, Sirius
pales, and drifts further away each hour,
and the seagull rages on the abandoned
beaches.  Lovers stroll happily
in the September air, their gestures
underlining echoes of words
that you know.  They have no pity.  And you
trapped here on earth, why are you sad?
You are left alone.  My tremor
is perhaps yours, equally angry and afraid.
The dead are remote, the living more so,
my companions mean and speechless.)

The idea of una soave fanciulla is not such a simple one.  The tinge of regret here beautifully captures the tranquillity of the effigy, and the stillness of Lucca under the moon.
Lucca is very much una dolce fanciulla.

[But there are also other metaphors within this..... 

Dammi il braccio, o mia piccina... ]

O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso
Di mite circonfuso alba lunar,
In te ravviso il sogno
Ch'io vorrei sempre sognar!

Amor, amor, amor!

For an interesting take on the effigy of Ilaria del Carretto:


And Mirella Freni as Mini and Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo: