29 September 2023

The Magic Mountain

To step lightly, lightly....

Fresh from an early morning dip in the clear calm sea at Viareggio, my cousin whisks me up to her home above Camaiore, where Henry Moore once lived.

This is Tuscany, under the Apuan Alps, from where sculptors have extracted their stones for ever......

And this is Tuscany, a large region of central Italy which ranges from the Tyrrhenian sea to the heights of the Apennines, from the riches of Florence to humble villages where the light of life is slowly dying as traditions fade and incomers invade.

This is rural Italy, where the house and garden merge quietly into the steep wooded slopes of surrounding hills. Outhouses serve as workshops,

Where an artist may work undisturbed,

Or as storerooms to hold the fuel for winter warmth.

A little way uphill there are the remains of the Castello di Montecastrese, a 12th century castle that was used to monitor traffic from and to Lucca on the Via Francigena.

The hills are dotted with tiny villages and isolated smallholdings, indicative both of the resilience of the local people and of some deep-rooted love of the natural environment.

The nearby town of Pietrasanta was frequented by Michelangelo in his search for the finest marbles (and where, allegedly, he assisted in the construction of the staircase within the Campanile).  It is a town that is still dusty with the chippings from creative artists, and which, this summer, hosted a show by Jake and Dinos Chapman (The Blind Leading the Dead) [though I am not going to say you absolutely need to make the trip.....]

It's a three hour drive, or so, to the top of Monte Amiata (1,738 m or 5,702 ft) but I am still in Tuscany, a central Italian region covering 23,000 square kilometres (8,900 square miles.). Its summit is crowned with a 22m iron cross, first raised in 1900 at the behest of Pope Leo XIII to celebrate the Anno Santo. It was seriously damaged by the Germans in retreat in 1944, but rebuilt in three months by local people in 1946.

Looking south from the top you can see Lake Bolsena (20 kms away) and just make out the hills around Lake Vico beyond which is not far from where we used to live.  On a clear day you can (I know; I have;) see the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to the east and Corsica to the west.

Close to the cross there is another monument. The Madonna degli Scout, a marble statue inaugurated in 1961, and frequently adorned with neckerchiefs and woggles....

The slopes of this sleeping giant are clothed in dense woods - beech trees up high and then chestnuts and pines lower down.  

And at about 600m above sea level there are olives, and vines, where my 90-year-old friend Corrado used to farm, but where now his 50-year-old son, Giacomo, harrows the ground around his olives,  to control the grass and allow rainwater to seep into the earth rather than run off.

It is over fifty years since my friends bought the remote farmhouse that Corrado was born in, and forty-seven since I first visited. It is a beautiful and tranquil place, nicely evoked by Eugenio Montale (1896 - 1981) in his poem Notizie dall’Amiata (News from Amiata)

There’s woodworm in the beams
and an odour of melon oozes
from the floor. The soft
smoke that ascends the valley
of elves and mushrooms to the transparent cone
of the summit fogs the windows,
and I write to you from here, from this table,
from this honeyed cell
of a sphere hurled through space....

It is barely touched by the modern world, though every year there are more twinkling lights in the view to the west after sunset.  

It is a place to relax in the shade of a walnut tree with a book, or to walk the stony tracks amongst the field maples,

And the oaks,

And then, as the sun begins to slip away behind distant hills it will be time for a glass of local red wine, and perhaps something to eat, such as grilled fegatelli on an open fire, or Tuscan bread and sharp pecorino cheese.....

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling.
The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.

The Journey

by Rabindranath Tagore

24 September 2023

Lipstick Sunsets

 Sundown on the Riviera

Camogli:  Giuseppe Pesa (1928 - 1992)

Not much has changed.......

Camogli:  Richard Gibbs (1951 - )

It is summer's end, and the Italian Riviera, or the Riviera ligure, or Levante Riviera, calls me down.  I want to bathe in both the water and the light, to wash off the dust of a certain sense of hopelessness that seems to affect both my life and that of my native land.  

There is something about places by the sea, where, day by day, life is influenced by the tridental vagaries of Neptune, and the diurnal passage of Helios in his chariot, rather than the whims of self-serving privileged individuals whose one aim is to preserve their own well-being......

In Camogli there are fishers and makers of focaccia and those who rely on passers-by like me to rent an umbrella.  And there are young lovers, who have a future, and have hope....

The locks on the chains may be universally a bit naff these days (I've seen more in Cologne and Paris, and it does seem to be a passing fancy....) but as the sun goes down on another day of my hurried holiday away from my duties as carer, a little ear worm stirs and I think of John Hiatt's memorable 1987 album Bring the Family, recorded in just four days in a flurry of post-alcoholic dependence:

There's a lipstick sunset
Smeared across the August sky
There's a bitter sweet perfume
Hanging in the fields
The creek is running high

And I left my lover waiting
In the dawn somewhere to wonder why
By the end of the day
All her sweet dreams would fade
To a lipstick sunset

Yes, I wish I could bring the family.  John Hiatt isn't a Nobel Prize winner and maybe neither his words and voice nor Ry Cooder's slide guitar will be to everyone's taste, but we all have our weaknesses.....

Well, a radio was playing
And that ol' summer heat was on the rise
I just had to get away
Before some sad old song
Brought more tears to my eyes

And Lord I couldn't tell her
That her love was only killing me
By the dawning of the day
All her sweet dreams would fade
To a lipstick sunset

Oh, yes, it is heartbreakingly beautiful here.  No wonder W B Yeats enjoyed some peace here, dropping slow.  Though quite what the irascible Pound found in nearby Rapallo I am not so sure.  But I can relate to Shelley and his funeral pyre on the nearby beach at Lerici.  Is that his spirit out there in his 'Don Juan?'

Camogli is a very pretty little place, with a stony beach and a cluster of houses backing the fishing port and the church and castle.  In the Castel Dragone, Giuseppe Pesa's pictures hang on the bare walls in an exhibition entitled Memoria di una bellezza inifinta (Memory of infinite beauty)....

It is indeed very beautiful, and as the sky darkens and the world turns I slip into romantic nostalgia, a glass of wine no doubt partly responsible, wishing my love was with me.....

Well it's pretty as a picture
Red and blushing just before the night
Maybe love's like that for me
Maybe I can only see
Take away the light

Hold me in the darkness
We can dream about the cool twilight
'Til the dawning of the day
When I make my getaway
To a lipstick sunset

Giuseppe Pesa became enchanted with Camogli some seventy years ago, about the time I was emerging into this confusing world, and he recorded the blues and greens of the sea, the multicoloured houses that rise from the shore, and the chiaroscuro of the sunset luminescence.  His canvases still show the energy and vitality that reflect his passionate and emotional engagement with the world.  For this I am grateful..... thought I also hope that

There will come another day
And I'll make my getaway
To a lipstick sunset


John Hiatt


19 September 2023

Genoa for Special

Ecce Homo - You win some....

The last time I passed through Genova I was marshalling a group of students who had managed to evade the sniffer dogs in the customs bays.  We were on our way back to Rome from a crazy trip to Barcelona, when the Sagrada Familia was still a building site, and the sun going down over the Pyrenees couldn't be photographed without flash.....

Anyway, I'm back, and this is my staircase (don't ask, it's too hot.....)

Oh Lordy, things have changed..... The last time I stayed here the only tourist was me, and that was a mistake.  I came to look for traces of Byron and Dickens (I had a thing about literary freaks).  I found them, I think, but I have lost them again.....  It was a good trip, however. I was young, and the city was crumbling - a juxtaposition that has now begun to reverse, but, hey!  Green mould was the flavour of the day and the palazzi on the Via Garibaldi (the Strada Nuova) were sinking into their own drains.  What's wasn't to like?

Now there are Palaces a plenty to explore, by yourself, or, as the majority will have it, with an oh-so-knowledgeable guide who will suck all the art out of every statue or painting counting the minutes before the next bus-load. 

In Via Garibaldi, the Musei di Strada Nuova  connects three important Genoese palaces: Palazzo Doria Tursi (Palazzo Grimaldi Niccolò) which is the seat of the Town Hall; Palazzo Bianco (Palazzo Grimaldi Luca) and Palazzo Rosso (Palazzo Brignole Sale Rodolfo and Francesco), which is decorated with frescoes by the greatest painters of Ligurian Seventeenth century and enriched with precious furnishings.

There's understanding to be had, of course, but it's exhausting.  Once Genova was a great city, importing spices and teas and coffees and chocolates and the smartest set became very very rich, sipping exotic beverages while their servants fought off the rats.....

One thing does stand out in this feast of renovation..... I always knew there was a connection between Jimi Hendrix and Paganini (my theory of karma and rebirth and all that....) and, what do you know, but the outstanding exhibit in this parade of wealth and bad taste is Paganini's guitar? {Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa (then capital of the Republic of Genoa) on 27 October 1782, the third of the six children of Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini}. 

If only they could have played together......

Anyway, that's by the way. Genoa (nowadays Genova) is a city with determined links to that outpost of Europeanism, once known as Great Britain. The flag of St George was initially borrowed from Genoa by the English. Earlier on Genoa, once a powerful maritime city, adopted the St George’s Cross as its flag and St George as its patron saint during the Crusades (getting on for a thousand years ago). Then the symbol was adopted by England toward the end of the religious wars, in the 13th century, with English ships flying the flag of Genoa as a deterrent to enemies and for that privilege, the English monarch paid an annual tribute to the doge of Genoa, or ruler of the Republic of Genoa.....

And then, to turn the tables, perhaps, the English founded the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, commonly referred to as Genoa. The club was founded on 7 September 1893 as Genoa Cricket & Athletic Club. In its earliest years, it principally competed in athletics and cricket. Association football was only a secondary concern. The club was set up to represent England abroad, and at first Italians were not permitted to join.

You wouldn't know this on September 7th, 2023, when a vast crowd assembles in Piazza de Ferrari, with fireworks, flags and fierce fanaticism......

I am the only Brit in the throng and I feel discomfited by the demonstrations of mass enjoyment that have elements of something I would rather not recall....

On 10 April 1897 the footballing section of the club became predominant thanks to James Richardson Spensley. Italians were allowed to join and found a new ground in the form of Ponte Carrega. 

James Richardson Spensley (17 May 1867 – 10 November 1915) was an English medical doctor, footballer, manager, Scout Leader and medic from Stoke Newington. He is considered to be one of the "Fathers of Italian Football", due to his association with Genoa CFC and his contribution to the modern day variation of the game in Italy.

There aren't many occasions these days when I feel anything like a spark of pride to be British, but I have to seize the day....

It is quite something to be in a huge crowd and not to be worried, but here the people are genuinely focussed on their sense of community and you cannot help but feel good that they have something to believe in....

The city is older than all of us put together, and GCFC, at exactly 130 years old, is old enough to be all of our great grandfathers, if not greater.  But there is an inclusive zing to the celebrations.

Of course there is much more to the city (at the least that is an opinion) and I take time to ascend the funiculars and the lifts to see the views, including that of the Lanterna di Genova, the main lighthouse for the port. Besides being an important aid to night navigation in the vicinity, the tower serves as a symbol and a landmark for the City of Genoa. Built of masonry, at 76 m (249 ft) it is the world's fifth tallest lighthouse and the second tallest "traditional" one.

And I note the antique beasts that guard the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Lawrence.  It is dedicated to San Lorenzo and was consecrated by Pope Gelasius II in 1118 and was built between the twelfth century and the fourteenth century 

Up the 130 (or so) steps to the tower a relaxed guide instructs visitors in his lessons about life and all that......

Back in the port the people are continuing celebrations of the 130th anniversary of their beloved football club, introducing the youth and hopes for the future that form part of the business of the enterprise....  Genoa for Special!

And special Genoa is.... through there are times when things don't go quite right and the other team may win.... OK. Good luck to them. Antonello da Messina (Messina, 1426 circa - 1479) understood this and in his picture, Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), one version of which is on display in the Spinola picture gallery in Palazzo di Pellicceria. The scourged and mocked Christ is shown wearing a crown of thorns placed on him by the Roman soldiers. In some versions of this his wrists are tied and a rope is knotted around his neck; scourge marks are frequently emphasised, and his face expresses compassion toward his accusers. 

It is the picture of a man. A man in agony. Someone whose team has lost. But, given faith, someone whose team may one day win the cup....

One day.  

We must live in hope.....

Genoa for Special.....