Monday, 31 December 2007

Happy thing

To 2008, Switzerland, Germany & Turner

For Tom and Everyone Else

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Monday, 5 November 2007

As may be clear

The view from Bad Ragatz

I am writing. Betwixt's quest begins again soon, but for now the journey in between is one of words not footwork. I'm reading in preparation for Switzerland and Germany, and I'm in search of a Grail Sword to scythe the book text that grows daily: I''ve written seventy pages and haven't got anywhere near Paris yet.


Friday, 31 August 2007

Fire in the sky-ai-ai (part one)

Over the top of the pass and not so far away Wagner and his brand of booted thunder is waiting: this morning's storm is just a reminder of things to come. What is less predictable is that Cha Cha Cha Town will be offering up its own metallica within 12 hours. But then this is Lynchian Land, and already I am wondering if they put something in the water...

I am sitting with the Moleskine around 8.30 pm writing a movie, as you do, with the ole boys talking Nesta, Carnivarro and Adriano over coffee. From downwind comes a punk thrash of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World...only a bit of it, this is a rehearsal, so there is a lot more une-due and drum rolls. I ask the elderly couple next to me what gives. Rock concert says Mrs Football-widow.

Opposite the Municipal offices four young men have set up in the parking space of the Orlandini ice cream and booze-u-like (beer)cafe. Yup: in the spa town of the Brambana valley there are Marshall amps, turquoise Stratocaster guitars, singing drummers and wi-fi connections. Rock and Roll is here to Spray.

"We're abusive," the lead singer shouts to me. "Abusivi."

The crowd is not particularly expectant, the youngest streches out in his pram, whilst his mother orders a Machiatto coffee. The band warm up by sitting down to strudel, followed by beer, and then ham and cheese plates. They don't look phased. Mrs Machiatto rather likes the pre-show music, jiving away like it is Prince on New Year's Eve 1999 to a reggae version of "Everything that I Own." After this Steve Tyler sings that apocalyptic one about saving the world and his daughter, Liv: and I don't want to miss a thing. Abusivi seem to like this one, they sway as they snuffle, until the CD jumps and we move onto Italian chick-skiffle, KT Tunstall meets Carla Bruni - but not in a good way.

Abusivi's lead singer gives punk baby a big grin, but the young lad seems more interested in the lights of the pharamacy opposite. Some late arrivals have monkish bald pates and nice pale blue cardigans.

The lead guitarist can riff, play chords, and smoke. But never all three at the same time. The first song is named Spirato.

Song two has a bit that goes: cook cook caroo, ay ay Cadaver. It ends with the half-line, "like a lonely song." Next up "Speedy Gonzalez" as a Green Day purgation. But half way through the heavens open and that's it. Bar staff rush out and help to get everything inside. Three songs: over. Suddenly reading the Corriella del Sporto is the New Rock and Roll. I head for bed, wave at the old football men, and turn on one of those terrible buddy-buddy, black-white, cop films that lose something in translation in any language.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Cha Cha Cha...changes

The hills are alive with the sound of thunder, lightning, not very frightening - but a few of the "Freddy" moustaches are. (They are Swiss or German - sure aren't Italian this year).

San Pellegrino makes a sparkling debut after the smaller towns of the Brembana valley. The local bus from Bergamo costs about £1.20 and after 35 minutes climbing and falling through winding roads and towns of no obvious glory drops off passengers (me) betwixt a three hundred metre long Grand Hotel (closed: dangerous), a casino (closed, now a conference centre) and a Thermal Spa Hotel (closed: renovation). The two complexes: the hotel and casino-thermal are divided by a gushing river which plunges off to the Pellegrino factory down the road. Not everything is branded with the drink's red star here, but it feels like the drinks corporation owns quite a lot. Say: Lombardy.

If the Hollywood product placers were looking for sponsors to finance its high-tech remake of Last Year in Marienbad (perhaps with Nick Cage and Keira Knightly) then here with the art nouveau mittel-europa fin de etc. vibe would be a greta place to start the pitch. "We see this movie as being about bringing the sparkle, and bubble, back to life..."

You can't miss the factory - refinery, distillery, whatever - and other SP buildings fleck the town, but this isn't a Woolfsburg (Volkswagen home) because it feels like the setting for a De Maupassant novel. Even a tiny touch of Proust.

After the "old city" high on a hill in Bergamo and the "learning the robes" somewhat confused cultural tourism of Brescia, San Pellegrino is both a step forward and back. It has long been known for its spa water, but only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did it become an upmarket destination. So, whilst there are no Renaissance masterpieces, or Venetian tropes, it somehow feels easier to imagine than some of the more famous Italian towns. Even if its brief emminence was Belle Epoque this doesn't diminish the faded ravishing-ness, and makes the vauguely grouchy mood understandable. The setting is amazing.

They have afternoon tea dances for the old ladies, in the evening cha cha cha lessons for the young (women) led by a Dirty Dancer in tight red trounsers with tassels. Music via a Korg synth is riffed out by Belmondo's long lost cheeky younger brother, whilst Swayse 2 shouts "uno due trei quattorse" and limbs flail around.

I should be higher now but the weather wiped the ATMs for a while this morning, so I am thinking about a belle epoque day of baths and lunches, aperitifs and assignations and chest complaints. Faro and whist and chess for the older men and younger boys learning the arts of war and whatever. This may not be "Como" but it wouldn't take so many Clooneys to re-invent San Pellegrino (should it wish so to change). Oh yes, there's is a red double decker 159 Bus that wanders around the town, amazing vistas from the bridges, clouds, hills, blue remembered or not, impossibly high villas in the distance (there was a funicular here once), and from time to time a HGV with that water passes down, as if chased away by the falling clouds, to take a tiny part of the valley to Rio or Reading, Naples or New York.

I lost this post first time around because of the storms. Outside the library linen-sodden for the first time since Padua all thoughts of mountain passes go awol and I settle down to write a screenplay. And the echo in the valley, a growling bark of displeasure for all that summer sun on Como late last week, perhaps, is enough to persuade even a two-time believer in Dawkins and his Delusion that somewhere above the clouds the God's are waiting. Maybe it is the Swiss.

Across Italy The Venice Film festival is previewing Atonement. The novel by Ian McEwan that isn't quite as bad as Saturday, but it is a close run thing...Here the only book in English in the stationary store (closed) is a hard back copy of a book called "Blog"...Really: life is strange. Even without the divine apple. My writing bump grows: soon it will be a conker.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Re Boot - now just for walking

Up into the hill villages on the way to the Splunga pass, Switzerland and beyond. I am at last Tom, because the Apple is not booting up, and Genius Bars are few and far between. In fact the closest one is in England. So like an older generation of travellers I am now down to pen and paper: if there is an internet cafe up high I will post. There is a ton of back material too. And photographs. The lump on my writing finger grows daily. Travel 3.0 seems a way off right now.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Apple and Moleskine not Compatible

The laptop is very poorly, and that makes posting a little difficult. It's all going down on paper: pencil and the Moleskine, the red hot blogging tools. Hope to find computer doctor shortly.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Irene Grandi - Bruci La Città

This song is everywhere in Italy...

Tommy in Venice (I)

"…The first place of Venice that was inhabited, is that which now they call the Rialto, which word is derived from rivus altus, that is, a deep river, because the water is deeper there then about other Islands. And the first that dwelt in the same Rialto was a poore man called Joannes Bonus, who got his living there by fishing….

The Citie is divided in the middest by a goodly faire channel, which they call Canal il grande. The same is crooked, and made in the form of a Roman S….also both sides of this channel are adorned with many sumptuous and magnificent palaces that stand very neare to the water, and mae a very glorious and beautifull shew. For many of them are of a great height three or four stories high, most being built with bricke, and some few with faire free stone. Besides they are adorned with a great multitude of stately pillers made partly of white stone, and partly of Istrian marble. Their roofes doe much differ from those of our English buildings. For they are all flat and built in the manner as men may walk upon them, as I have often observed. What forme of roofing is generally used in all those Italian cities that I saw, and in some places of France, especially in Lyons, where I could not see as much as one house but had a flat roofe….

…Every Palace of any principall note hath a prety walke or open gallery betwixt the wall of the house and the bricke of the rivers banke, the edge or extremity whereof is garnished with faire pillers that are finely arched at the top. This walke serveth for men to stand in without their houses, and behold things…Somewhat above the middle of the front of the building, or, (as I have observed in many of their Palaces) a little beneathe the toppe of the front they right opposite unto their windows, a very pleasant little terrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the main building: the edge wherof is decked with many prety little turned pillers, either of marble or free stone to leane over. These kinde of tarrasses or little galleries of pleasure Suetonius calleth Meniana. They give great grace to the whole edifice, and serve only for this purpose, that people may from that place as from a most delectable prospect contemplate and view the parts of the City around them in the coole evening. Withall I perceived another thing in their buildings…The foundations of their houses are made after a very strange manner. For whereas many of them are situate in the water, whensoever they lay the foundation of any house they remove the water by certaine devices from the place where they lay the first fundamentall matter. Most commonly they drive long stakes into the ground, without the which they doe aggerere molem, that is raise certaine heapes of sand, mudde, clay, or some other such matter to repell the water. Then they ramme in great piles of wooded which they lay very deepe, upon the which they place their bricke or stone, and so frame the other parts of the building. These foundations are made so exceeding deep, and contrived with so great labour, that I have heard they cost them very neare the third part of the charge of the whole edifice….

…it is said there are in the City of Venice at the least a hundred and twenty goodly Palaces, the greatest part whereof is built upon the sides of this great Channel.

…There is only one bridge to go over the great channel, which is the same that leadeth from St. Marks to the Rialto, and joyneth together both the banks of the channel. This bridge is commonly called Ponte di Rialto, and is the fairest bridge by many degrees for one arch that ever I saw, read, or heard of. For it is reported that it cost about fourscore thousand crownes, which doe make four and twenty thousand pounds sterling." [2.789 million now – a decent sized house in Hampstead]

Friday, 17 August 2007

Is the Earth More Free?

“…Watch the manoeuvres of the week-end hikers
Massed on parade with Kodaks or with Leicas…”
Letter to Lord Byron

At the beginning of this trip I wrote of W.H. Auden’s poem, “Dover” which caught so well the essential nature of Kent’s port town - and gateway to Europe – seventy years ago. Shortly before the poet’s stay there with Isherwood in 1937, Auden visited Iceland. Which produced the long state of the nation (seen from away, home thoughts and all that) poem: “Letter to Lord Byron.” It is a (highly sophisticated) kind of blogging in transit, and conversation across time.

“For since the British Isles went Protestant
A church confession is too high for most.
But still confession is a human want,
So Englishmen must makes theirs now by post
And authors hear them over breakfast toast.
For, failing them, there’s nothing but the wall
Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.

…I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.

I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,
And talk on any subject that I choose,
From natural scenery to men and women,
Myself, the arts, the European news:
And since she’s on a holiday, my muse
Is out to please, find everything delightful
And only now and then be mildly spiteful."

Auden celebrates in imitation (though not content) a man, a style, and an approach that doesn’t appear to resonate so well with our times. He echoes both Byron’s “Don Juan” and “Child Harold”.

Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know, represents the spirit of a different age, and though his “idea” has had many revivals since the early part of the nineteenth century, I reckon his stock is low at the moment. Or as Auden wrote of his own time in the mid 1930s:

“The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils
Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True
Still fluctuate about the lower levels
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts”

At my school in the 1970s Byron’s fellow “Romantic poets” Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge got a better press; Byron was always thought a little “light”. Reading Byron later in life his poetry comes across as remarkably modern: worldly, serious and yet effortless. His life – and certainly his loves – speaks to that rock and roll lifestyle that might have happened in the sixties and seventies, whilst his work reflects a high and subtle intelligence utterly lacking the ponderous emphasis of a Wordsworth; these days a McEwan. “Child Harold” gives us the fully rounded, fatally flawed “Byronic” hero, filled with ennui, in search of something.

Child Harold is a long verse drama; its protagonist is an English nobleman making a Tom-style grand tour of Europe, albeit with a little more action with the ladies. More than this the places he visits give up a little of their stories as he wanders, post the Napoleonic wars…

“…Gaul may champ the bit
And foam in fetters; - but is the Earth more free?”

…in search of an elusive way to be. One academic writes that these places are “a sequence of geo-historical spots with pre-existent narratives, spots that in some sense speak for themselves. Looking at it this way round Byron might be seen as a brilliantly individual amanuensis to whom the European landscape is dictating its histories, while his psychological interiority is an effect that the poem’s places produce as their histories are articulated.”

That’s the hope for all writing which encompasses the idea of travel and the individual consciousness: Tom Coryat being the “first”, and – in the end – not prepared to reveal the personal side of this journeys, preferring the studied and the observed, is rarely, save for Venice, possessed by place enough to let it dictate to him. To free his mind.

“What exile from himself can flee?
To zones though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where’er I be,
The blight of life – the demon Thought.”

Only when this “possession” takes place; is the starting point of observation and then communication, can what I think of as a “lost” Europeanism be grasped. It is not just the churches, (I have seen a lot in Venice, without joy, they are backdrops to photo-shoots and audio guides), the art (collected at auction, or on memory card for one-day download to I-Photo), can any description be meaningful. Or rather, can be helpful.

And all this is done in “Child Harold” without seeming effort: neither this quality, nor the light and the subtle that are Byron’s stock in trade are not high-priority in our zeitgeist now: we prefer more stolidly laboured prose; something tied far more closely to either complete fantasy or the grimly suffered; or linked with celebrity for its own sake, rather than artistic excellence. I am sure Byron would have enjoyed Richard Dawkins crusade for atheism. Would have enjoyed his celebrity though, no doubt of that.

As he claimed to have slept with 200 women in 200 days in Venice (and Italian critics still often refer to him as a homosexual: an interesting definition) what is, perhaps, most surprising is the final impact of Venice on Europe’s leading Romantic ‘trouser snake”. Venice tamed even Byron

“But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endured,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less,
Of all that flatter’d, follow’d. sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!”

Instead of the wild, womanising figure we know Venice turned Byron into a somewhat formal character; he takes up an almost “courtly” role as a “cavalier servente.” This was a very Italian institution in form, convention, pragmatism and infidelity. He became the approved “partner” of a married woman, Theresa, with the utter acceptance of her husband: his duties included carrying her bag, standing behind her at the Opera. Whilst he could write of marriage: “That moral centaur, man and wife…” he became part of the bureaucracy. Yes, Venice neutered even Byron.

It is no surprise that today Venice neuters pretty much everyone and everything.
More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Venice: Had 'em all

“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices…”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile

If you type “Venice, Loneliness” into the database at the British Library there is one result: Leo Damrosch’s fantastic biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you type in “Venice, Love”, there are many more options, many of them Mills & Boon fictions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in Venice for over a year between 1743-4. He worked as Secretary to the French Ambassador, a man named Montaigu. “I made my duties my sole pleasures,” Rousseau writes in “The Confessions”.

We are the stories we live in, as well as the ones we tell. And discovering that the Rousseau I imagined, or ignorantly created, in Chambery, a picture of a man communing with nature and his lover at “les Charmettes”, is as close to a “story” as it is a truth, isn’t a shock, but it is a reminder of how easy it can be to believe the propaganda: in this case the local tourist literature in France.

Rousseau stands to some as a romantic hero of the individual trying to find a route into “honesty”: to find him living in the Querini palace, in the Canareggio district of Venice, busily and rather badly drawing up official letters, and making the diplomatic gestures required of the de facto head of the French Embassy is strange. Strange and for me somehow rather human, proving that almost nothing is as black and white as it might seem.

Venice had lost much of its status by this time, was not the powerful trader nation of the fifteenth or even sixteenth century, nevertheless it must have fascinated Rousseau. Venetians refused to meet foreigners, its nobles were forbidden to speak outside the Republic. His employer, the Ambassador Montaigu, “wrote ineptly and spoke no Italian,” so Rousseau had a free run at many things. For six months in 1744 he ran the Embassy, whilst Montaigu was in a country house on the Brenta. His greatest pleasure here was to listen to music: perhaps it is not well known that Rousseau was an acclaimed musician, and lyricist, as well as everything else: one of this operas was played at the wedding festivals for Louis XV and Marie Antoinette. How many “revolutionaries” can claim that, I wonder?

A while ago I decided that it is the “Betwixt” that must be central to the remainder of this journey, and so I return to Rousseau here in Venice because the creation I found in Chambery is less than half the story, in fact is almost an irrelevance, however easy it is to be beguiled by the idyllic location, and the perfect house with its glorious Alpine views. Here too are such things.

Reading his works, and academic texts about him, what is striking is how much he achieved, given a late start: Rousseau’s artistic life doesn’t begin until he’s around 32, 33. Since strong claims can be made that Rousseau: developed a political theory which deeply influenced the founding fathers and the French revolutionaries; that he helped to invent modern anthropology; that he wrote highly influential theories of education; that “The Confessions” virtually created what we know as “autobiography”; and that modern psychology owes him an immense debt, then half pictures won’t suffice. And this entry is just a start.

Who would have thought of Rousseau and Venice; even more, who would have thought of Rousseau, like Tom Coryat, meeting with beautiful courtesans – and failing miserably. With one named Zulietta, he gets to her bedroom, where she shows him two pistols…”I endure their caresses, but I don’t intend to endure their insults, and I won’t miss the first one who behaves like that,” she warned him. Unsurprisingly given Rousseau’s complex sexual landscape – he enjoyed being beaten, and being “submissive” – things didn’t work with Zulieta, despite her charms, she told him: “Little John, leave the ladies alone, and study mathematics…” the thing is: Rousseau writes this in his Autobiography (the word Autobiography was not invented until the C19th) : a confession so honest as to be painful.

What sets Rousseau apart from his Enlightenment contemporaries – he was friends with Diderot, Hume and Voltaire later in life, though would fall out with each – is his social Betwixt-ness. His humble, poverty-wracked nomadic wanderings through France from an early age – which brought him twice to ChambÈry - his jobs working on a Land Registry, for a Police chief in Lyon, copying music; his being sent by his eventual lover, Madame de Warens, to a hospice in Turin (which means he made the same journey as Tom and I, over the Mont Cenis pass and down through the Susa valley) where he was probably abused, all add to the texture of a man who became a major European literary celebrity, and then a political refugee. And now – I think - something of a forgotten man. A restoration of this very “European” sensibility is required, I feel.

“Mobile and rootless, cut loose from the ties of kinship and locality, he was very much a modern, and a fundamental aspect of his modernity is that he relied on friendship to create a personal equivalent of community. But though he yearned for intimacy in friendship, he was never much good at it.” Leo Damrosch writes.

“Rousseau was unhappy all his life because he sought the kind of friend of which ten or so, perhaps, have existed from Homer’s time until our.” Stendhal said.

Casanova remembers him differently, as: “equally undistinguished either in his person or his wit…the eloquent Rousseau had neither the temperament to laugh nor the divine talent of calling forth laughter…”

One of the things this trip teaches is that everywhere has somebody, or something, they can commemorate. From the fallen Australian soldiers whose graves fleck northern France, to the mystic Hildegarde of Bingen in Germany (to come). On the other hand Venice, like Casanova - one of its more colourful sons - appears to have had them all. Not only this but Venice’s stories encompass, (or are on my mind this morning) law, race, art, sex, travel itself, music, trade, and Islam (there’s a show on now at the Duke’s Palace about the relationship Venice has enjoyed with Islam). It can throw up a Guggenheim birthday celebration (later this month) and Bob Sinclair, a famous dance DJ, doing something on the Lido.

So too the lives of the great: they are full of stories that pull interpretation one way or another. I often feel this tacking sensation when trying to appreciate Tom Coryat, who is a minor player in all this, but was the first English tourist – and that is important as I face the Venetian Tourist “experience”.

Rousseau believed that paradoxes were puzzles that exposed contradictions at the heart of experience. Much more than this, he gave us at the end of this life a stunning psychological last act, an autobiography that defines a new moment in literary honesty.

In his biography of Rousseau, Damrosch argues that: “Contemporary America talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life.” By which he means that Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography “encourages readers to construct a public life, while Rousseau’s confessions challenges them to make a journey into the self.” And “These are the fundamental tensions in modern life, and their first great analyst was Jean-Jacques Rousseau”.

The relation of the public and the journey into the self is one of the major paradoxes of Venice too. Perhaps even of blogging itself.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Guess Where

The sons of their fathers

“The only way you know you’re not in Italy, not in Venice, when you’re at The Venetian hotel [in Las Vegas]? Easy. The water is blue, not that muddy brown green of Venice, and the Gondoliers are black.”

In Padua they call Luca the “Americano”, because his girlfriend is from California. He is 25, from Treviso originally, part of the new generation of Italians who speak more than one language. A political science student, he’s finishing on the “Six Day War,” sometime soon. “It’s sad when I study to think that my subject is 40 years old now, and still there is no change there in the Middle East, there’s just no desire for a settlement, and the worst thing, the people who fought then, they’re gone, now you have new generations who are born and grow up to hate.”

It’s raining again, and Padua’s [now] famous reluctance to brave a few splashes is once again on show. “Stay at home and watch a movie, that’s what we do,” Luca says. But it is more than that, one key demographic is absent: like Tom I have missed the students, in August they are away; in term time they dominate the Piazza delle h’erbe. “Especially Wednesdays,” Lucia says – she’s a sociologist. “On Wednesdays they go mad, drinking in the streets, smoking, drugs, music. There are plans to move the students out: there’s a group of bars down by the river, the “residents” here would like to see the students moved out of the ancient part of the town and kept to the outskirts.”

“That’s the thing about the central square, it’s never really the students, nor the old people who drink here: it’s the rich. Walk around these tables on a sunny evening and you’ll see billfolds and portfolios with hundreds of Euros in them. I call these people the filli di Papa, you understand? Sons of rich fathers. They come here to show off, to be seen, to talk to other filli di Papa. That’s why there’s nobody around tonight, they’re all frightened of getting their Versace shirts a little wet.”

I tell Lucia about a scene from via Altina, two hours ago: a young woman sitting in the driving seat of a Mercedes 4x4 doing her nails whilst – inside a cosmetics shop – her boyfriend is buying goods. “Yes, that’s them,” Lucia says. “It’s a conservative town, and this is what you get for that.”

But Padua also has a radical reputation: its university is famous for politicized students. “A few months ago there were new arrests,” Luca says. “Another generation of our Red Brigade,” he shrugs. “If things are too easy then people react…”

One of the effects of cafÈ culture, I realize, is that it solidifies status: it is hard to meet anyone sitting at a table unless you approach another, and – Italians in general, certainly on this trip – are stand-offish. Now I understand the social make-up of my crowd, wealthy, pampered, a little smug (all cities in the world have them, of course) I see the problems not just for an equally pampered traveller like me, but much more importantly, for the hosts of newcomers to Italy, trying to make their way. Trying to integrate.

With the rain comes standing in the courtyard, what is now called “smirting” in London – smoking and starting conversations outside. Here we are always outside, but the rain pulls everyone together under the porticoes. It’s interesting that when I start taking to Luca or to Lucia, other Italians are listening; laugh at the jokes. Appreciate that I know who Gattuso is, or Nesta. Football: the great global leveler. But they don’t join in.

“The difference in ten years is amazing,” Luca says. “When I was at school, maybe one or two in each class were not born in Italy. Today it is like eight or nine, and many of them can’t speak English. It’s a real problem. And it’s only going to get worse.” And in Padua, otherness is more invisible than in the towns I’ve traveled through, as if – like the students – Padua’s authorities would rather keep its minorities out of sight and mind. I can’t say this is true, but it seems that way. Close to the railway station in the morning I meet a Moroccan taking the train to Verona, he shows me the way. In French he says: “They look down on us, we have our way, we still have a King. But they don’t want to know. I think they will have to learn that Europe is about, how do you say, ‘moving’?” Mobility? “Yes, if you want to make money, to live a life, you have to move to find it sometimes. At times like this. I could live in Morocco, but to do what? Work for tourists, from Italy?”

“Padua’s racist, sure,” Lucia says. “Look at these squares, old people live here, they think about their history, they don’t want anything new.” In fact there are laws: what I’ve thought of as a “scholarly” discretion with music, and entertainment in general, is on the statute books. “The ‘syndicatto’, the local government, they try to stop everything. That’s why there are no umbrellas, that’s why little music, that’s why everything finishes very early. We must be closed by 12, it’s the law.” Almost five hundred years ago Henry VIII’s “people” used the law faculty here to discover how legal their King’s divorces might be: Padua was the centre of what these days might be called “International Law.” It trained two centuries of diplomats, and it gave us not just Galilei, but the master-pieces of Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel; Donatello’s sculptures, late Renaissance riots in support of the “rational”. Today, without its Rabelesian students (I’m guessing) and with many of its inhabitants on holiday (in Morocco?) it sits Betwixt not just its seasonal rhythms but its social mix. And while around the corner in the Observatory and its modern faculty building next door some are still looking at the stars, we’re all – literally – in the gutter making something of our evening with the braver of the filli di papa.

Atalanta has a big Afro haircut. She works in a store in town: she has good English because she took an exchange year in Yorkshire. “It was horrible to start with,” she says. “I’d go to the pub and get out my book, pretend to be an intellectual, and I’d watch these men drink pint after pint. I was in a town, Tewksbury: I didn’t understand anything. Then I got it: beer, beer, beer.” Atalanta says going to London for a week – she was in Yorkshire for 15 months – “was like coming home to Padua, suddenly there was culture, and people were alive.” Perhaps that is all I am experiencing: an inevitable non-cosmopolitan zeitgeist away from the big cities: it’s as true in England or Germany or France. Or America. “I like San Francisco,” Luca says. “It’s – you know – European. New York as well. But in the middle…”

Atalanta likes to practice her English, “I’m not like most Paduans, they’re shy or too proud or arrogant to talk to strangers. But I’m half black; I have this hair. I’m different, I like to met new people.” Is that hard? “Yes, often, but I’m used to it now.”

What do young people do after midnight? “They drive out, go to some dancing place. Or else to someone’s house. That’s the way here.”

Lucia has studied sociology in Venice for five years now. “It’s the greatest city, “ she says, “but you must get away from the tourists. And from the idea of going somewhere. Just imagine what you want and start walking, that way Venice is yours. Go to the fisherman’s quarter, if you can, sit in one of their cafes: that is heaven. But don’t look for Venetians, they are gone: moved to Mestre, or just on long vacation.”

I finish another Campari-spritzer. “You know we invented this drink in the Veneto,” Luca says. “Some like it sweet, others bitter. But the big thing is that it is fashionable now. A decade ago, Campari was for old people. Now everyone drinks it, 15 years old to 70. It’s our invention. I took two bottles of the spritz to my girlfriend’s mother in California, she thought it was so sophisticated, so European.”

“I don’t know why people are so reserved,” Luca says, “I think often it’s just fear of the new. Italy is still a very old-fashioned country.” I wonder how many of us can say something different? What is for sure is that remaining “old fashioned” is increasingly a recipe for social disaster: a walling in, a “gating” of society. A claim, increasingly tenuous to sustain, that we would rather not look through the telescope thanks, we don’t know what we might see.

“I made my aboad in Padua three whole daies, Tuesday being the eleventh of June, Wednesday and Thursday, and went away hence in a Barke down the river Brenta the twenty fourth of June being Friday, about seven of the clocke in the morning, and came to Venice about two of the clocke in the afternoon. Betwixt Padua and Venice it is five and twenty miles. This River Brenta is very commodious for the citizens of Padua. For they may passÈ forth and backe in a Barke downe the river from Padua to Venice, and from Venice again to Padua very easily in the space of foure and twenty houres. When they go to Venice they passÈ downe the River secundo cursu; when they return they go adverso flumine, their Barke being drawn with horses all the way betwixt Lucie Fesina and Padua, which is twenty miles.

When I passed downe the River to Venice I saw many goodly faire houses and Palaces of pleasure on both sides of the River Brenta, which belong to the Gentlemen of Venice.

When I came to the forsaid Lucie Fessina, I saw Venice, and not before, which yeeldeth the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that ever any mortal eye beheld, such a shew as did even ravish me both with delight and admiration. This Lucie Fesina is at the uttermost point and edge of the lande, being five miles this side Venice. There the fresh and salt water would meete and be confounded together, were it not kept asunder by a sluce that is made for the same purpose, over which sluce the Barkes that go forth and backe betwixt Venice and Padua, are lifted up by a certaine crane. At this Lucie Fesina, I went out of my barke, and tooke a Gondola which brought me to Venice. Of these Gondolas I will write hereafter in my description of Venice.”

Friday, 10 August 2007

Transmission time @ the Cappella degli Scrovegni

The strangely scientific logo for the Scrovegni museum...

It is very hard to look honestly at Giotto’s art after reading Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”. It is not hard to let yourself immerse in the frescos of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua and feel a sense of pleasure – though the emotion is perhaps better expressed as a nice engagement with image, colour, space, history, memory (for Giotto is not a new find, he’s an old friend, we’ll always have Assisi), moment – it is possible to shut out the 24 other people present, especially if being anti-“tourist” isn’t part of the aesthetic experience – and, most of all, faith. Faith, that is, in art’s capacity to mean something personally, and collectively.

From Padua's Disney store

But it is hard after 840 brutally rational paperback pages – that’s a double read – not to question just exactly what that something might be. Just what is being transmitted to us? And is this “thing”, to use a Dawkins word, a “meme”? Even without Dawkins forceful clarity about the improbability of God, the terrible power of religion to encourage belief without reason, there is a huge gap looking at this “masterpiece of European civilisation,” as the literature has it. That gap is an understanding of the source material, that’s to say, God: alive, non-existent, Old Testament Patriarch or Great Software Designer; Jesus, son of Man, and God; or deluded first century Jewish martyr. The lacuna is religion: even if we believe in “n” something, what we’re looking at here isn’t it. Not unless we believe in a highly literal Christianity, that the word of the Bible is how it is, and was.

Oh yes: people still do.

In the courtyard of the British Library over the past few weeks American groups sit before a man who looks like Michael Moore after the Atkins diet. From a Photostat hymn-sheet he “explains” – with the Library as backdrop and cultural reinforcement – how the Bible, indeed the King James Bible of 1611, is, to paraphrase, more accurate than the faggy-commie BBC. “There are doubters,” he says, “But they just don’t know. They are WRONG.”

The effect of the Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni chapel is a marvellous cinematic punch: an obvious observation, but nevertheless true. Wide and multi-screen, with a giant Day of Judgement on the south wall: all eyes turn to “hell” in the bottom right hand corner, because – frankly – that’s where the action is. But I keep thinking of Dawkins’ “My red is not your red, my blue, your blue…”. And the words of Giorgio Agamben, Professor of Aesthetics at Verona, the man recommended to me by Shaun, the “prodigy”, one night in Bloomsbury.

In his “The Man without Content” Agamben writes:

“When we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by aesthetic judgement…”

Not for a minute can I feel a connection with fourteenth century visions of Heaven & Hell, grasp the early Renaissance zeitgeist; the only point I feel is that the rich Scrovegni family built the chapel to help ease their dead father’s way through Purgatory. He was a usurer, and was going to have to pay his debts before rising up to Heaven. It sounds so stupid, doesn’t it? And it led to this magnificent giant spectacle of “meaning”.

On the other hand I can place Giotto on a page with Cimabue; can chart his influence on Raphael, Michelangelo, Mantegna…I can know about the market value of Giotto’s; and which museums own some.

Dawkins makes the point that artists have always had to make money, and the church, and religious scenes, was the only patron and the only subject for painters and sculptors in the middle ages and most of the Renaissance. And they believed. People did. And so these geniuses painted biblical scenes, and took their money. But what, Dawkins wonders, if it had been the Scientists who had the money? What if Copernicus or Galileo, or Cremonini had been the Patrons, not another Pope?

Perhaps in a parallel universe that is the case.

Kiss of Judas by Giotto

Because we can’t understand what these paintings meant, or the emotions or intellectual feelings they induced; their traditional function to transmit a message in fifteenth century Italy. Not clearly. Suddenly I feel close to Tom Coryat, copying out his Latin texts, noting down, collecting without purchase: as we do today with Leica and Sony, seeing but not. Every sign and signifier and symbol and allegory can be studied, of course: but not standing in the Scrovegni chapel: here we have 20 minutes, and most of the work is still too far away. Here we are consuming just to consume. It’s not all bad: I leave uplifted, but confused. It doesn’t help.

Agamben puts it all much better than I can:

“For, contrary to what one might think at first sight, the breaking of tradition does not at all mean the loss or devaluation of the past: it is, rather, likely that only now the past can reveal itself with a weight and an influence it never had before. Loss of tradition means that the past has lost its transmissibility, and so long as no new way has been found to enter into a relation with it, it can only be the object of accumulation from now on. In this situation, then, man keeps his cultural heritage in its totality, and in fact the value of this heritage multiplies vertiginiously. However, he loses the possibility of drawing from this heritage the criterion of his actions and his welfare and this the concrete place in which he is able, by asking about his origins and his destiny, to found the present as the relationship between the present and the future. For it is the transmissibility of culture that, by endowing culture with an immediately perceptible meaning and value, allows man to move freely forward toward the future without being hindered by the burden of the past. But when a culture loses its means of transmission, man is deprived of reference points and finds himself wedged between, on the one hand, a past that incessantly accumulates behind him and oppresses him with the multiplicity of its now-indecipherable contents, and on the other hand a future that he does not yet possess and that does not throw any light on his struggle with the past. The interruption of tradition, which is for us now a fait accompli, opens an era in which no link is possible between old and new, if not the infinite accumulation of the old in a sort of monstrous archive or the alienation effected by the very means that is supposed to help with the transmission of the old…the accumulated culture has lost its living meaning and hangs over man like a threat in which he can in no way recognize himself. Suspended in the void between old and new, past and future, man is projected into time as into something alien that incessantly eludes him and still drags him forward, but without allowing him to find his ground in it.”

Yes, that’s just what I meant to say. Good man, this Agamben. Dawkins too.

Postscript to the Rain

Last night it rained for eight seconds, which still briefly emptied the square. One brave couple sat it out. I asked Luca, a waiter, what the problem was. Why were there no umbrellas. "We don't have a licence. And to get a licence is a big deal, you have to talk to the local government. And then the fucking bureaucracy begins...Italy: capital of bureaucracy. You want another Campari-spritzer?"

Why not, it is only rain.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Stream of rain and consciousness

Shaun believes the English novel died in 1943 with the “Establishment’s” rejection of “Finnegans Wake”. Especially Virginia Woolf; and she was dead within a year. He is 27, tells me quickly he is “precocious”: next term he starts teaching literature in England. Somewhere coastal. His PHD, just completed, is on a group of English authors from the 1960s I’ve never heard of. Experimental sorts, Shaun says.

He will republish them sooner or later: new media makes small print-runs easy today. I tell him about my pursuit of Thomas Coryat across Europe. “All been done,” he says. “Very bourgeois. What? Do you live in Hampstead as well?”

Shaun tells me to read Giorgio Agamben, an Italian intellectual, who has a line on such things. He also did a number on the American Patriot Act in a volume on Government and the Law called “States of Exception.” Not a rant, it’s mostly about the Greeks, the Senate and all that. Agamben believes that the twentieth century was about governments everywhere declaring “exceptional” circumstances to ignore their own laws. He teaches at Verona, perhaps I’ll meet him there.

“The problem with the experimental novel,” Shaun says, “is that nobody wants to read it. I like that.” His friend, a dark haired Ursula from Iceland, is “comparative literature”, finishing on James, Foster and de Maupassant, soon enough. “Bourgeois,” says Shaun, rolling a last cigarette...

At late there is a minor Paduan renaissance; perhaps fifty have made it to the central square. A biker or two turns up. But the noise is still like a BBC Radio play: a pre-recorded mumble of commentators. The occasional dog-walker passes by with thunder-frightened Spaniel in tow. Tomorrow is Giotto, God & Richard Dawkins and I was hoping to be thinking of more than the Death of the English novel conversation of weeks ago. But it comes back anyway. Probably something to do with reading "The God Delusion" yesterday; not much room for experimental novels in that.

You’re bourgeois, Tom Coryat: you probably knew that already. I hear from Shaun that there’s an Australian who has done a lot of good work about the colonial discourse in nineteenth century travel writing.

I’m betting it’s not in stock at the station newsstand in Padua. Hoping, to be honest.

Padua Requiem

“There is one speciall thing wanting in this citie, which made me not a little wonder; namely, that frequency of people which I observed in the other Italian cities. For I saw so few people here, that I thinke no citie of all Italy, France or Germany, no, nor of all Christendome that countervaileth this is quantity, is lesse peopled: so that were the students removed, the number of whom is sometimes abouve one thousand five hundred…this citie would seeme more than halfe desolate: yet their Praetorium or Senate house that I have before described, I observed sometimes to be pretty well frequented with people. It was tolde me, having inquired the reason of this scarcity of inhabitants, that most of the nobler Patavine families doe live out of the citie, partly in Venice, and partly in their villaes and Palaces of retrait in the countrey, and doe very seldom make their aboad in Padua. But the reason why they abandon the citie, and preferred other places before it, no man told me…”

If Padua is the equivalent of, lets just say, Bath in England, or Chambéry in France, in terms of size and scope and history, then it comes third of three in dealing with the weather. Officially Paduans are bad in the rain. And tonight there is big rain: I’ve brought it from England, no doubt.

Crowds the size of an Inquisition-survivors self-help meeting circa 1610 are on the streets; the mood is sullen, as if Francesco Totti has just missed a penalty in the world cup final. Africans try to sell umbrellas, but listlessly: in Paris, and in far worse May-time conditions, the umbrella business was spectacular. Here there’s not even an attempt at marketing.

Sure Padua has Galileo on the books, then Bath has Jane Austen, Chambéry makes a decent claim for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and how those three Canon-giants stack up is harder to decide. But for a town with a magnificent six hundred year old fresco drama on time and the seasons, it seems very ill-prepared for not-sun. Here I watch the down-side to outdoor culture: climate change, I suppose. I wonder: will all Italians be tucked up at home on front of the computer screen playing online games in two generations?

An hour after the worst of the storm there are precisely 17 people drinking in the main square. I turn around and it is 13. At the next table a woman experiments with a long black cigarette holder: it brings the first laugh of the night. August: out of season Italy. Joy-riders take to driving around the square in their Italian Job 2 Minis. And now I think about it, where are the restaurants anyway?

I’m back in the living world, not the library and I’m reconfiguring my imagined Padua minute by minute. I’m guessing the town hasn’t had its cultural make-over yet. Thus the architects visions of modernity and “future” in the Palazzo della Ragione. Yet I can’t believe I am so close to Venice. Where are the kebab suburbs, and the Chinese restaurants? I’ve walked the town quite well, and seen perhaps seven restaurants: five for the coach-set by St Anthony’s Basillica.

I ask the waiter where the restaurants are. “What you want?” Food. “Go right, right again, then left.” He says. I go right, right, left and expect to find queues. Instead a small place half-full of locals, mostly not eating. There are roly-poly men at the bar talking the talk; and two women describing unspeakably bad male behaviour. It’s barely ten at night and the mood is down-beat.

The plates at the tables are empty, and though there is conversation there’s little volume save the bar-side Bards. I spy a nose ring and feel like Galileo spotting a new planet. Is it the legacy of history, the fact that once these streets were the very fulcrum of intellectual Europe, which makes for such a torpor now?

“No, they’re not in the centre, on the outside more, you have to walk,” says Lucia, a dentist. She thinks I am looking for a university first of all: I’ve done enough of those for the day. She laughs at her friend’s text message, then puts on a pink leather jacket, grimaces at the weather and reminds me not to eat here as she leaves. “There is a place near the centre, but it’s very expensive,” she warns. “If you want Italian meat you have to walk.”

The line sounds like an early Lou Reed lyric, from a song that turns up only on limited edition 4CD boxed-sets. I finish another Campari-spritzer, smile at the roly-poly men, and don’t go in search of Italian meat, but wander home. I feel as if I’ve entered a very private family grief.

Post rain music

After the first storm twenty minutes of pleasure: Ravel, Vivaldi and Bach outside the Palazzo Bo, empty streets suddenly fill, as if in reconnection with some other time when music was everywhere in the streets. The violins remind me of other northern towns: Cremona, Mantua, Vercelli. The violinists’ case is quickly full of Euros, two musicians who have spotted a gap in the cultural market of this cultural town.

“…I heard that when the number of students is full, there are at the least one thousand five hundred here: the principall faculties that are professed in the University, being physicke and the civill law: and more students of forraine and remote nations do live in Padua, then in any one university of Christendome. For hither come in, many from France, high Germany, the Netherlands, England, &c. who with great desire flocke together to Padua for good letters sake, as to a fertile nursery, and sweet emporium and mart town of learning. For indeed it hath bred many famous and singular learned men within these hundred yeares, and a little more…”

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Time out in Padua

"There is one moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First freedom, and then glory – when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption, - barbarism is last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page"

Byron, Childe Harold

This morning I am summoned by bells. And if the clock tower is on time then I wake at 148 o’clock. Back on the Tom-track the issues of time and rhythm seem important today: where last night the central palazzos were quiet, almost discrete, centres of Campari-spritzer drinking, this morning they are bustling market places. I am returned to the rhythm of “squares” with their daily dialectic between commerce, communication and cold-beer-contemplation. That is to say, betwixt the fruit stalls and the evening cafés and gelato shops, and the mid-afternoon longeurs of siesta-time, there is a sense of “time” that drifts back from today, and the Sisley store and Vodaphone shop around the corner with its lone busker playing lounge versions of “Layla”, to a medieval Padua, long before Tom. It is the sense of Italy “time” and its permanence as the way of life here outside the big cities.

Because I quite dread the NASDAQ of Venice I feel quite strange saying that the absence of foreign tourists last night – it was pretty much a solid Italian I heard spoken all over town – was disappointing. But it was: Padua has given us so much in its long and distinguished history; it’s a lovely town, “faire” as Tom would say. So where is everyone? Venice, I am sure.

Close to the hotel is the Palazzo della Ragione, the first stop. This morning is a riot of peaches and barter, haggles and oranges. Climbing marble stairs above a vaulted market the sound of a battery powered amp playing acoustic Nirvana sounds out above the din of commerce. The single first floor room of the Palazzo is big: not Fontainbleu big; but plenty enough. Once this was where judges held court. For a hundred years or so the high ceiling was a riot of “real sky” complete with the stars and planets as they were known in the 1300s. Design was by Pietro d”Abano, professor of medicine and natural philosophy at the University; actuality by the genius Giotto. All was lost in a great fire in 1420.

With Renaissance restoration and a raising of the ceiling came what I see now – give or take a myriad of smaller restorations. The effect is stunning: four walls, north, south, east and west covered in frescos that tell the story of “time”. They show what we’d call the human archetypes depending on the season, the month – the time. For Middle Age Humanity, that is. August (Leo) is depicted as a young woman with ears of wheat: she’s wearing a long dress. The month is about fruit picking. [I note my month, November (Sagittarius) is described: “this allegory probably represents a boar hunt.”

There is a man playing the bagpipes, a woman on the guitar. Scholars in their studies, religious scenes, and enough visual story-telling to keep JK Rowling in plots for decades. And three visitors.

Everything in the hall is about looking up, except the modern exhibition by a group of modern architects of mock-ups for a new Paduan theatre. These are displayed on Plasma at ground level, and most of the simulations look like the kind of buildings that are destroyed in episodes of Thunderbirds, in the 1960s. There’s a big horse with big balls, as well.

Without a map we get lost; without a guide-book we don’t know what we look at. Without a text book we don’t know what Palazzo X or Basillica Y has or means. Without sitting down for weeks with many text books we can’t know if that Meaning is Significant. I look at the frescos in the Palazzo della Regione with bemused wonder: as spectacle they work, as visual narratives I actually need to be on a ladder just to get at the details – or looking at a book. And once I can see them I have a million ways to misinterpret those details – the bagpipes, for example.

“December: this month shows a peasant slaughtering a pig. Capricorn: the sign is shown, in Medieval tradition, as a rampant goat. Saturn: this planet is depicted as an old man biting his fingers, in the first of his two houses.”

I wonder how much scholarship time I would need to put in just to understand those three sentences in any meaningful way? And would it help anyone?

Across the square and around the corner is the Palazzo Bo, home to those rioting Bovistas that ran naked in protest at the Jesuit college in 1591. Here is some of the university, old and new. A modern abstract sculpture involving Galileo isn’t as interesting as a wooden frieze which reminds me of an art work I once saw in the ruins of Sarajevo’s post-Yugoslav wars library. I can imagine the students running around as I make my way through empty side streets towards the location, if not the house, where Galileo lived. There is a modern sign on the Via Galilei, and, a few buildings down, a nice store selling “Sanderson” fabrics. Behind the gates to what was once the medical faculty of Renaissance Padua’s university is a 60s housing block.

Americans in skull caps are finally sighted near what was once the Jewish ghetto.

“Padua provided one of the richest opportunities for Jews to familiarize themselves intellectually and socially with some of the best of European civilisation. From the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth, Jewish students came there from all over central and eastern Europe and returned to serve in their communities and elsewhere. The experience not only provided socialisation among Jews from varied backgrounds but also required them to interact with Christians from all over Europe.”

Today one man says: “Don’t bother going inside [St Anthony’s Basillica] just get the brochure and look at the pictures. Inside the – inevitably huge – tour-bustling basilica the same thoughts of time and rhythm are augmented by a nagging question about looking at anything religious. The thoughts of time lead me to write my first ever mathematical equations. I don’t think they would impress Galileo.

T + Tr + RL = H
T + RL – Tr = P

Where T = Time, Tr = Tourist, RL = Religious Location, H = Hell, P = Purgatory.

This leads on to the more advanced equation T + Tr + D + RL = CH squared

Where D = Digital Camera, and C = Complete

As I don’t believe, I look to religious art or architecture for other things: occasionally, as say with Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi, they are highly moving – but for aesthetic, that’s to say, humanly constructed, reasons. As I wander St Anthony’s carefully trying to avoid relics and Saints, for goodness sakes it is the twenty-first century, after all, and half a mile away Galileo’s house merits a meagre brown sign, I try to imagine if Tom’s belief system allowed him access to something more like understanding here.

In the circular ornamental park, the Prato della Volle, complete with narrow canal and dinky bridges, and surrounded by basilicas, and ancient buildings of all kinds, another American, a woman, shouts: “I want that old building in the picture.”

In a way I’m sort of with her, though I’ve been looking at “Old buildings” for eight weeks now; and by now Tom had been looking for over twelve. I imagine a world to come when the camera, when pointed at an object, identifies it using GPS and a global database of “place”, so that once downloaded a tourist, or a scholar, or an exile, can say: “that’s me in front of the “Osservatario Astronomica” in Padua.

It’s closed, of course, when I get there. Open only at weekends. Next door in the modern Astronomy Faculty the receptionist is online and engaged with a roll-player game that involves headphones. He points leftwards, but doesn’t say the building is closed.

Edwin Muir writes: “One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchical notion of the human self…individuals during the Renaissance looked inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties.”

Most of all: “the sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “Enlightenment”

It is strange how “sight” is now so greatly the “superior faculty,” seeing or photographing, posing or rebuilding the body – to be looked at. The difference betwixt 1608 and today being that while we all look through the telescope these days, we often have absolutely no idea what we are looking at, merely that we have. That we look, and are looked at. Anything else is just talk…


Those Pictures