Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Millions or Dreams?



Tycoon: how to turn your Dreams into Millions” is a new book currently being heavily promoted in England it seems. Its author, Peter Jones, is a rich man (I hope) who is now getting richer by fronting reality television about “business” – there is some kind of tie-in with Simon Cowell, the music and media entrepreneur and Pop Idol gürû. I’ve never seen “Dragon’s Den”, one of Peter Jones’ shows; his next venture, I read, is a series called: “Tycoon”. Hence the tie-in book: “hugely inspiring” Amazon writes. Peter lives with his wife and children in Surrey.

Standing in the 80 foot high, fresco-covered, sixteenth century “Room of the Giants”, just one room in the vast Palazzo Te on the outskirts of Mantua, I’m reminded of this book, and of a more pressing question. Not: how to turn your Dreams into Millions; but how to turn your millions into dreams. In this context buying a £50 million diamond encrusted Damien doesn’t quite make the cut, I feel. Nor fronting the “Dragon’s Den” and living in Surrey.



It isn’t just the effect of time passed that makes the cathedral at Amiens, or the octagonal church in Lodi; the mountain valley house of Jean Jacques Rousseau in Chambéry, or indeed the Gonzaga family’s Palazzo Te in Mantua such operatic sensory experiences, it is their spatial and social harmony, their meaning: the dreams they inspire, not their cost. (Though that these are not the tourist-heavy set-piece city splendours of Milan or Paris or Venice probably does help.) Towards the end of my visit I stumbled across three executives waiting for a meeting in a private room. “Are you a tourist?” asks the fourth, a guide. “Not so much a tourist, more a traveller,” I say: and so sophisticated remains this palazzo that everyone politely laughs. I feel quite Horace Walpole.



Whether renaissance, mannerist, baroque or gothic, at core these spaces conform to the Bauhaus edict of function and form; and then add a little “dream”. If we understand that part of this function is the making of wonder. (Meraviglia, is the word which Claudio Monteverdi uses when writing - in Tom’s time - of music’s capacity to create a similar sense – a controversial and modern(ist) idea for 1608). Seeing any of these creations does not induce envy, only awe. Awe to be in their presence; and awe for those who commissioned, designed and created them. Whoever they were. Beauties or beasts; Venus, Mars or Gonzaga.

Most of all, perhaps, is a sense of appreciation that these are public spaces now; not the hidden fortresses of a modern mogul or master of the universe with wall-to-wall carry-out from this year’s Venice Biennale. Or, indeed, a sixteenth century member of the Gonzaga family.

Much of the fresco art at the palazzo Te is overtly sexual, and in an interesting irony, Giulio Romano, the artist who commissioned and supervised the works for Frederico Gonzaga, only escaped imprisonment (unlike those who published the images - more soon) by arguing that they were for private consumption.

In the Palazzo Te, as in, say, Fountainbleu, the money is certainly on and “in” the walls – but frankly that is the easy bit. As Ulrich Ruckriem told me here (we both loved this Palazzo, especially its gargantuan frescos – not so much for their supreme artistry, as their meraviglia), “modern architecture is so much about the vanity of the architect, not the space or the art itself.” What works here so brilliantly is that art and architecture join forces to overwhelm us at vast scale.



But to prove history no barrier to such vanities, up the “secret” Gonzaga route from the palazzo back past the city walls and on to Mantua’s grand central squares and Palace, there is Mantegna’s home, a perfect and classical town house built with mathematic “classical” precision as a square with an internal circular courtyard. It is a spatial masterpiece – and also a very overt statement of Mantegna’s own sense of his worth as a painter. Perhaps, as a blogger, it just safer to say that “all is vanity”.

The equivalent now would be for, say, David Bowie to commission a Norman Foster town house located on the corner of The Mall and Whitehall in London; or 50 Cent to finance a Frank Gehry creation somewhere between the White house and the Senate in Washington. In this regard the Palazzo Te is Mantegna’s house times about a hundred.

“This Citie is marveilous strong, and walled round about with faire bricke wals, wherein there are eight gates, and is thought to be foure miles in compasse: the buildings both publique and private are very sumptuous and magnificent: their streets straite and very spacious. Also I saw many stately Pallaces of a goodly height: it is most sweetly seated in respect of the marvailous sweete ayre thereof, the abundance of good meadows, pastures, vineyards, orchards, and gardens about it. For they have such store of gardens about the citie, that I thinke London which both for frequencie of people, and multitude of howses doth thrise exceed it, is not better furnished with gardens…”


But Mantegna is for tomorrow. As Chris from Odcombe says, it really is impossible to do any sense of justice to Tom’s places in the time he spends there. And when so many forces, radical, “new” and changing the way we see things, are around every corner. Mantegna’s perspective, and Virgil’s poetry and the saucy secrets of Il Moda are – still – yet to come. Operas too.



Constructed between 1524-34 for Federico II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, the building of the shell of the Palazzo Te took less than two years. Being located outside the city walls on the site of the family stables, it is able to combine architecturally the best of city palace and country villa. Designed as a “pleasure palace” it is also known as a “villa suburbana.” Small town suburbia has never quite looked this good before. And probably won’t ever again. Not with Tesco and Walmart and McDonalds having bought up all the land.

“…Truely the view of this most sweet Paradise, this domicilium Venerum & Charitum did ever so ravish my senses, and tickle my spirits with such inward delight, that I said unto my selfe, this is the Citie which of all other places in the world, I would wish to make my habitation in, and spend the remainder of my dayes in some divine Meditations amongst the sacred muses, were it not for their grosse idolotory and superstitious ceremonies which I detest, and the love of Odcombe in Somersetshire, which is do deare to me that I preferred the very smoke thereof before the fire of all other places under the Sunne…”





Once the shell of the Palazzo Te had been built a creative team of plasterers, carvers and fresco painters worked for ten years on the interiors. – until little wall space was left undecorated. Olympian banquets; the prime Gonzaga horses in the Sala dei Cavalli, perhaps most impressive of all the giants and grotesques losing out to the Olympians above in the Sala dei Giganti. Sex, sex, sex: with Cupid and Psyche.



Here, privately then, and today for everyone to consume, are painted myths with a social purpose, it seems. Myths as part of a relatively small body of “ancient” and, usually Greek, stories about “figures of origin…images of ‘inventors’…scenarios of oral performance by musicians and poets”. Stories that had returned to pre-eminence with the growth of Renaissance printing and scholarship, as Stephen Campbell writes, were now the basis for an art that was part of a knowing social process in creating brand new myths of status. As Alasdair McIntyre writes in “After Virtue”: we are all the stories we inhabit.

Campbell believes that these works have a precise social target: to translate the contemporary power and status of their patrons into something that appears to have “always” been there, and to locate it in a domestic, non-religious setting. Thus are the smaller foundation myths of the individual self established. More of that with fellow Mantuan, Virgil, soon enough.

In “The Cabinet of Eros,” Campbell writes of art from sixteenth century Mantua:

“Myth is to be distinguished from history (and sacred history) not only by virtue of particular kinds of subject matter and style, but through its identification with parts of the enclosed domestic sphere: the study, the gallery, the collection, as well as villas and garden loggias, all spaces associated with privileged leisure and private life and defined by their difference from both public and sacred space. This is not to say that mythological imagery is absent from city streets and civic spaces, where especially in the later sixteenth century, it takes the form of allegorical spectacles of princely power and its legendary origins…”


What Campbell argues is that even then, at the time of this Gonzaga art-boom in Mantua, such powerful, often erotic, paintings are “framed as works of artistic fiction…the often sensational presentation of pagan eros, rhapsody and violence…is protected by an insistence on their trivial, marginal, escapist – above all non-exemplary – character.” Which is not to say that experienced today they don’t shout out both: Saucy and look at me (or “amount to an attempt at cultural self-definition” in Campbell’s words) in ways that are all too familiar – and democratized – now. Reading Campbell I find it hard not to think of the Beckham marriage with the golden crowns and chairs; Sting riding to his second wedding on a white horse…

And to continue the theme, just as modern myth – let us say of the “tycoon” or the “celebrity” – is as much about word as it is image: column inches, “Hello” magazine lawsuits, and massive web-stats; so too in the era of mythological paintings. [The paintings need…] “…to be understood in relation to the world of books [especially those of Virgil, a fellow Mantuan, and Ovid, the first century Roman poet], on some occasions mediating between a reader and a text, and on others between the text and the world.”



But in simple terms, these paintings are all about size, and not just their vast scale: penises are not the classical acorns; neither are they always asleep. Bacchic revels have the look of big-budget hard-core. Clothes are optional, and the sensual is not disguised very well.

What Campbell describes - when confronted with the massive mythological art productions of sixteenth century Mantua - as “not merely a reassuring sense of self-legitimation [for the Gonzagas] , but a productive self-estrangement, a reinforcement of alternatives for thinking about human nature…the alternative is offered to the confessional model of Christian devotion and to the disciplinary/theraputic model of Stoical meditation,” seems strangely contemporary. Seems “having it all”. Turn your dreams into millions, be self-estranged enough to have a country estate, be a baron of your own surburbia; have more sex. Beat the status quo, go solo: produce the Powerpoint and woo the investors and soon you will be “different”, away from hoi polloi, beating the opposition…or something like that. I think I read somewhere recently that the “west” now has its greatest income disparity in 200 years. I am looking forward to seeing some of these new Gonzagas’ dreams, not hearing about their billions.

I think.

In sixteenth century Mantua building this Palazzo was part of a process about creating an ideology of pleasure, reflected upon and located as part of the “thoughtful life” by a tiny, artistically acute, elite that didn’t – in fact - have long to go. The French equivalents lasted a good deal longer. Only here today, wandering the vast palazzo in a fever of enjoyment, the creators and patrons of this secular, modern–seeming pleasure-principle ideology appear to be more versed - better read, perhaps - in the dreaming, than in the making of the millions. Today we can all enjoy the space. And learn a little about the geometry of art, and love.

Footnote for “Tycoons” everywhere: in 1630 Mantua and the Palazzo Te was sacked by 36,000 mercenary members of the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire: they brought the plague as well. The palace was rooted from top to bottom. The Gonzagas, already weakened, and now joined hyphenetically to the Nevers family, lost pretty much everything. And Mantua was taken over next by the Habsburgs in 1708, was crushed by Napoleonic siege in 1796, given back to Austria in 1814, and joined the “United Italy” in 1866. Two years ago it was voted the best place to live in all of Italy. It’s a hell of a town.

And to think Shakespeare sent Romeo here in “exile” from Verona. I haven’t seen Verona yet, but it better be bloody good. Then again, the closest Shakespeare got to Italy was Dover. So he can wait until Padua at the very least.

8 comments:

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Toby, it's the old, blurry line between truth & "the facts." Sometimes, they overlap, but often, they don't.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent six months flat on my back with a dislocated disk, unable to much of anything but nap & read. One day, my once-a-week cleaning woman was dusting my bedroom, and she paused as she picked up a paperback copy of "Bleak House" that was lying near my sickbed. She looked at the cover, which showed a painting of a woman in an somberly decorated 1880s interior, then looked around. "Looks like this place."
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She made sort of a face. "So it's just made-up storying..."
"Well, yes, basically."
She put the book back down & wiped her hands on her apron, like they were soiled and looked at me like I was a spoiled child. "Then I wouldn't be interested. I don't read things that aren't true." If she could have sent me to bed for the day, she would have, but I was already there.

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Appal Khan said...


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Toby, it's the old, blurry line between truth & "the facts." Sometimes, they overlap, but often, they don't.

Appal Khan said...


plasterer surrey
Toby, it's the old, blurry line between truth & "the facts." Sometimes, they overlap, but often, they don't.

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