10 December 2023

Something I wrote 35 years ago.....


Monte Amiata



Amanda and I have just stopped by for a night to light the fire.  It is decidedly autumnal here and yet we have been lucky with the weather. We were in the Dolomites briefly and the sky was stark blue, like a gothic vault, and the air as crisp as toast.  At 1000 metres the nights are now well below zero, and the car was a block of ice for a while in the mornings, but the inn was double-glazed and feather-duveted and we were good and snug.


On the way down we came via Garda, but couldn’t see the other side for mist.  We spent a night at Sirmione, a curiosity that Catullus would surely now avoid, but peaceful at this time of year:  the morning was sunny, the lake soft and transparent and the olives on the headland, with no one about, created one of those timeless Italian scenes – grey-green trees, pale blue water and sky, white and pink rock – but still the visibility was poor and the lake remained a mystery.


The Pianura Padana was worse, though not dangerous, as it had been on the way up, veiled in thick gauze, with the occasional disc of sun and the looming poplar trees.  In a way it is effective, and one can easily imagine the lumbering Gonzagas riding out from Mantova to hunt, but it’s a tiresome light, and it clings – it reminds me of Manchester, when I lived in Levenshulme.  I never saw my street in sunlight and whenever I went out, even for just a paper from the corner shop, I had to wash the grime off my face and hands when I got back.  There aren’t many similarities between Italy and Manchester, but that raw humidity that sticks to you and eats into your skin is something I am glad to have left behind.


We called briefly on Guido Reni in Bologna. The city teams with life, and prospers.  I know of no market area as appetising as that just off the Piazza Maggiore, the Via Pescherie Vecchie rivalling its Spanish and French counterparts. The civic and tourist information office, also on Piazza Maggiore, is also a marvel, and the comparison in efficiency, design and welcome with Rome and the South is startling.  Here you can consult computers or people, and reliable information about travel or accommodation is given, even with a smile!


Anyway, there’s a major exhibition of the work of Guido Reni in Bologna, at the Pinacoteca and the Archiginassio.  There has been much talk about this artist, who lived quite a bit of his life in Bologna and who died there in 1642; it’s as if he’s been rediscovered and ‘talk’ ranks him very highly.  Perhaps his effect, in his time and after, was very great?  This is where I wish I knew so much more.  I have learned to appreciate many things, about Italy and otherwise, by learning what was going on: the development of the portrait from the idealised, or stylised, picture, for example, the particularisation of light sources, the introduction of perspective and modelling, the idea that in the Mona Lisa Leonardo was trying to express, through her smile, ‘Her complex inner life.... caught and fixed in durable material,’ (Kenneth Clark).  But what is it that makes Guido Reni so important?


As Amanda and I wandered round these galleries, we quickly tired of Madonnas in puce silks gazing upwards with anguish and awe in their faces, and of painful deaths, and saintly poses.  One feature that struck us was that the babies were all chunky, rippling, blubbery infants as far removed from Roman-occupied Nazareth as if they had been Cantonese or Peruvian – not that that matters, though, as nobody seeks ethnic authenticity in Italian painting.


But what do we look for?  Guido was a ‘religious’ man, that seems obvious, even if a lot of his paintings were commissioned by the church and hence it was his job.  He communicates the pains of martyrdom and the glory of the Virgin in a way that would be effective and impressive on a gloomy church’s candle lit altar.  One has only to think of the acres of billowing dresses on Titian’s ‘Assumption’ in the Frari in Venice to understand the power of colour in a dark place; but Guido’s colours are more acidic; they are the colours of pale death, and his people suffer from anaemia, and they have cadaverous eyes.


The three paintings in the whole exhibition that did make an impact on us were: the corner of the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ (which they use as a poster); here the young mother twists to protect her child, is moving to evade the killers and is imploring God on High to be merciful.  In the context of the painting as a whole there is structure, geometry, power in the design, and in the face of the fleeing girl there is humanity.  


The second painting we liked was Guido’s portrait of an old woman, who might have been his mother.  If she wasn’t his mother, she was certainly someone’s and you can see the natural pride and preoccupation that makes her come alive.  She is thinking; she is worrying about whether her boy is getting enough to eat and about whether she looks ‘decent.’  She doesn’t like to bother the painter with all this fuss; she’s just an old woman, but she is proud that someone cares enough to think so well of her, though she’s still not convinced that she is really worth it.  And she is worried that if he takes much longer, she will miss the shops and she has nothing in the cupboard for supper.


The other picture we were impressed by is not by Guido:  it is of Guido.  Here we see the earnest, intelligent expression of the man who has striven all his life to express his fear of God and his adoration of Mary, using the utmost ounce of his skill from his God-given talent, and he is not sure that he has got it right; he still hasn’t cracked it.... perhaps he should have used a deeper red, or perhaps that Saint Jerome should have faced to the left and down?  You can imagine that he too would be impatient to have the portrait finished: ‘There’s work to be done; I’m not worth all this fuss and bother!’ (Like his mother.) It is the face of a man, too, who would have been much embarrassed by the streams of school children and professors, tourists and housewives, bank clerks and football players, all paying homage to him. That’s not what his art was for, most of it should be in churches, where the silent eyes of restless mortals can contemplate the stories, the mysteries and the glory of strong faith.


Of course, I am probably quite up the creek.  But there was one other thing that caught my eye, and that was the duplication of a large canvas on a classical subject.  On the left of the picture the naked Atalanta stops to pick up an apple, moving left; on the right, the little figure of Hippomenes stretches out of the frame to escape.  Who amongst hoi poloi would know what is going on here?  And why on earth are there two identical (?) versions of it?  And why the dickens don’t they tell us something in the exhibition?  I guess, and I shall look it up in a minute, but I will guess, that even the most devout artist must get sick of virgins and saints sometimes, and the development of any artist depends on at least two things: one is progress in technique and the other is people buying your work (even posthumously, à la van Gogh). Presumably this was an experimental work, for intellectual reasons (inspired by the popularity of Ovid’s ‘Hippomenes and Atalanta’ - a clever story of a suitor outwitting a girl in a race by dropping golden apples – as you probably well know?) And it proved popular.  So, if you can sell two of the same, why not?


Last night we stayed at Greve in Chianti.  It was dark, and it had rained, and we didn’t feel we could make it further.  Besides, neither of us knows the Chianti area very well, so it was a new experience.  The arcaded triangular piazza is very attractive and we found a warm and quiet room in the Albergo Giovanni da Verrazzano. This has been a locanda for about two hundred years and the beamed ceiling and private terrace gives the accommodation charm, although this is somewhat spoiled by cheap modern cupboards and an awkward juxtaposition of a photographic poster and an African batik.  We thought of having supper in the hotel, but it didn’t open ‘til eight and looked costly, so we went out to explore.


The keeper of the enoteca is a wary contadino on to a good business; his shop is very attractive, leading back into store rooms or stables where most of the different labels of the Gallo Nero (Chianti Classico) area are displayed, ordered in different years.  He wasn’t very forthcoming at first, but when we took his advice on different names to try, and started buying and talking, he became very friendly, giving us a wealth of information, including where he buys his loose wine, and finally the name of a trattoria to try nearby.


So, we drove up the hill in the damp dark night and found ourselves in the echoing alleys of Montefioralle, a medieval castle just above Greve.  Here we found the Guerino, a family trattoria with a painted ceiling and a beautiful terracotta stove, though this unfortunately was not lit.  We did soon warm up, however, with excellent village wine and a steaming bowl of ribollita.


It was one of those places that wouldn’t give you a menu (though one was posted at the door) but we trusted our advice and the son who served us was very gentle and helpful and, when we had finished washing home-made cakes down with Vin Santo, we were perfectly happy with a bill of forty-two thousand.


This morning was heavily frosty, but bright, and, when we had warmed up the car, we headed off for a tour of a slice of Chianti.  The autumn colours may be past their best, but the yellow and ochre tints of the spent vines and the turkey-oak woods had a muted beauty in the clean, low sun.  The shaded ground was frosted, white fringes on the blacks and browns of the undergrowth, the road and the sun-struck fields steaming gently, swathing our path in a rustic fragrance. How different from the close humidity of the Po Valley!  These defiles and gradual undulations exude well-being, and their produce is immediately recognisable as bottled health, combining Keats’s Nightingale with his Autumn


We by-passed Siena and raced down the Via Cassia and over by Castiglione d’Orcia to have lunch with Andrew and Yvonne Brown.  As we got nearer Monte Amiata, we became more and more blown about by gusty winds and up on the mountain we could see heavy storms coming down.  For us it remained dry, but yesterday Yvonne thought they had been struck by lightning and Andrew was only just in time resetting the chimney as it fairly chucked it down.


They are trying hard to sell.  The milk factory in Seggiano hasn’t paid Andrew since March, and is in liquidation at the moment because the region has not paid the compensation for all the milk and cheese destroyed during the Chernobyl panic.  They have had it hard in recent years: it is easy to say that as you make your bed you must lie, but the obstacles of Italian state bureaucracy are mountainous and if you don’t have aristocratic finances or the back-up of another job (as many small farmers, like Corrado, have) or the beneficial network of an extended family to help when times are hard, it is very difficult to survive.


Apart from the delayed subsidies for milk and olives (destroyed in the 85/86 winter) there’s also the natural world to deal with: to warm the house Andrew has to collect and saw up thirty quintals of wood, and only the other day one of his sheep was found headless in a ditch – tracks of some dog (or fox?) all around the barn.


After lunch we sat for a while in their sitting room by the fire; parts of the house they have finished restoring – this room, the dining room, the kitchen and the stairs – are beautiful.  Apart from the furniture that Yvonne has collected, the walls, ceilings and windows are nicely done, either leaving clean natural stone, or in white and black, and relaxing by a blazing stove with a bright Tuscan hillside shining through the glass is a fine experience.


We left them with a good bit of daylight to spare, as it is always difficult getting up here, and making beds and sweeping out when it’s dark.  As it is we stop to greet Corrado and Concetta, and Corrado ushers us in to the dim kitchen, ordering Concetta to fetch a bottle of wine.  We sit at the table, the children perched in the fireplace.  Concetta hovers about, producing some slabs of sponge cake – excellent for soaking up the wine, but heavy.... and we settle into our routine.  I ask about the season and the wine and so on, and Corrado gets on to some political subject, often with a British slant. It is actually very interesting to talk to him, though sometimes it is hard to follow.  His dialect is difficult and his habit of talking fast doesn’t help.  On occasions when I have brought Italian friends they have had difficulty too, so it’s not just me..... And then, if he goes into a monologue about his army service, or fire-fighting (on Elba, for example, where ‘the people must eat stones – there’s nothing else there!’) he can be hard to stop.  His children listen with rapture, though I suspect they also find it amusing, and Concetta butts in with a correction, or translation, at times, though she too appears to be having a whale of a time.


They do make a happy family.  Corrado’s imagination is working on being a funny old man at present, and he has no illusions about the future.  Giacomo is planning to become a Carabinieri, and so the farm will eventually cease to function, unless Maria marries someone who is prepared to work the land (a rarity these days).  When Corrado retires from the Corpo Forestale he is going to buy a few sheep and eke out his days on the hillside.


When we finally extricate ourselves, we have the hill to climb as dusk starts to fall.  Blackbirds crash away from us in alarm, and small rodents flurry in the fallen leaves attempting to gather some last energy before the sun goes.  As always, the last corner of the track nearly finishes us off, but then there’s the flat run, green with untrodden grass where a trickle overflows from the fontana.


In front of the house there are autumn crocuses, pale violet with saffron stamen; just a few, scattered wide, but enough to lend colour to the rather weary aspect the land has this year.  It has hardly rained for months and there are no fungi round here. It has been good for the grapes, but bad for most other things.


Although it is only a month since we last opened up the house, it is amazing how cold and desolate it has become.  I hurry to make up our bed and to lay and light the fire, as even with light outside the sun is not strong enough to penetrate the interior gloom for long now.  I throw open shutters and windows to get the air circulating, for, no matter how dry it is outside, the living foundations always make the air inside cool and damp.  When three families lived here in the old days, three fires would have smouldered permanently and animal warmth from the stable would have contributed, but even then, the back rooms, with their earth floors and lack of windows would have been good stores for hams, and cheese, and wine.


Even in August, as the crossed shadow of the sala window creeps across the blackened red of the chimney breast, the fire is often lit here.  It’s not just the beginning of the chill but we are at 600 metres above sea level, and there’s a need for houses like this to be brightened by the jewel gleam of burning wood, and the smokiness is a natural part of the tang of mountain air.


When we have settled ourselves, and night falls, there are only the sounds of the mountain: the stirrings of the wind, the clatter of a dry leaf on the tiles, the scrabbling of a mouse that needs catching, the distant bark of a dog.....  It is wonderful to sit in the shelter of the red-beamed roof, with a glass of dark wine and a hunk of salty cheese, or a handful of chestnuts.  It seems lifetimes since I panted up the track for the first time, in hot summer sun, and since I first sat at the window in autumn, after sunset, trying to identify the lights I saw, the villages dotted on the maps of the night.


Now when I look out, I know the clusters of fireflies and diamonds: Monticello on the horizon, Montenero in the shadows, Poggio Ferro behind nearby Seggiano, and so on, though nearly every time I look now there’s a new flicker somewhere.  Looking down will soon be almost as starry as looking up; and I think that when this house was built there would just have been the stars, and the night-scape would otherwise have been lit only by the occasional gleam of light from a momentarily opened door.


This afternoon it snowed up the mountain. When we left the Browns’ the clouds had lifted a little and we could see the beeches all white above Pescina.  It won’t be long now before the steely claws of winter clasp this place, but for now Amanda and I are snug, curled up like cats in front of the fire.  Happy days!












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