Friday, November 27, 2009

The Stones of Assisi (and Urbino)

Between Bologna and Firenze, the Eurostar crosses the Appenines, the spine of mountains that runs the length of the boot of Italy. The mountains rise and fall like the waves of a green and rocky sea. The peaks of these mountains are craggy and erose; buildings cling to their sides or crown their peaks.

The Veneto and Emilia-Romagna were grey, grey, grey. Grey clouds, grey fog, grey light. The Eurostar enters one of many tunnels cut through the mountain; when it comes out on the other side the bright Tuscan sun floods the hillsides with light.

I am on my way to Assisi. I change trains at Florence Santa Maria Novella. No more Eurostar; I am now on an Interregionale which stops at every stop. It took two and a half hours to travel from Venice to Florence. It will take another two and a half to Assisi, half the distance. But if you grab a window seat it is a ride well worth enjoying. Descending into Umbria, the train winds between the base of the mountains and the Spoleto Valley at their feet. You skirt Lake Trasimeno, which is vast and beautiful, ringed with hills and grassy plain. Olive trees are everywhere, and the strange cachi -- persimmons -- whose fruit hangs like orange bulbs on the bare and skeletal limbs long after the leaves have fallen.

The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi is one of my favorite places. What strikes me, each time, is how festive the interior is. Even the dark lower basilica is decorated for a party in geometric pastel festoons painted in wet plaster seven hundred years ago.

The last time I was here the apse behind the altar of the lower basilica was hidden by scaffolding, undergoing restoration. Today it is finished, and beautifully lit. Like the basilica itself it is peculiarly brilliant, unlike anything else. The colors appear freshly painted. It is amazing that pigments mixed with wet plaster seven centuries ago could become this durable. In many places, almost entirely in Venice, they have crumbled or faded; it's a matter of microclimates. When an earthquake shook this basilica several of the ceiling frescoes in the transept collapsed. The fragments were gathered to the last speck of dust, and they were lovingly restored as best as humanly possible. Fortunately most of the frescoes were spared.

The apsidal fresco in the lower basilica is much later than the Giottos upstairs. There are heroic Renaissance figures amid the late medieval throngs. Veronese meets El Greco in a painting that stylistically would not look out of place amid the Orozco and Sequieros domes painted in Guadalajara six centuries later. Stylewise. But the messages could not be more opposite. Orozco painted fiery hells, but they were the lurid industrial furnaces of capitalism; the angels and saints were Marx and Engels and Lenin. Here, Hell and Death writhe at the bottom. Above, amid bugles and trumpets and angels hovering like birds, is Christ triumphant. The two worlds meet along the center meridian of the fresco, which draws an arc around you. That is the point of tangency where heaven meets earth, and it is mediated by friars of the Minor Order which Saint Frances founded. The Franciscan brothers are lowering ropes down into the torment of purgatory, to rescue lost and desperate souls.

The oldest stone in Assisi, pink stone hewn from Mount Subasio, has never seen plaster. The stonework is solidly medieval but inextricably commingled with the earlier Roman masonry. The medieval stones are eccentrically well put together. These stonemasons were bold and imaginative, amusing themselves with clever, ever shifting patterns to make the walls more interesting.

The basilica of San Francesco was built upon a rocky spur of steep hillside, like the prow of a ship cutting into the flat plain below. It required an immense superstructure to create the flat floor of the upper basilica. The floor of the lower basilica, directly beneath, slopes down like a ramp toward the apse. As a result the side chapels are reached by increasing numbers of steeply pitched stairs. What they lacked in light they made up for in a mad profusion of painted color and stained glass, as brilliant today as it was in 1330.

Both basilicas, upper and lower, are decorated inside with frescos; the outside is simple, with masses of stonework only around the portal and the rose window above it. It is utter simplicity, and it is close to perfect. You have to stand back and see it in context to appreciate the scale of the imagination required to build. You can best appreciate its splendid audacity from high above, from Rocca Maggiore, the castle fortress high above the town.

Ruskin was right that you can read the stones like a book. They tell the story of a place and time and were intended to do so forever.

Ruskin was a Christian moralist and this colors his thinking, but his eye was invariably clear and true. One of his assertions in this vein is that the ratios and proportions of classical architecture -- Egyptian, Greek, Roman -- their rigid regularity and symmetry, results from the fact that they were built by slaves. The artists were not free to indulge in flights of fancy; their imaginations were as fettered as their limbs.

That is why he maintains that the peculiar glory of the Gothic is that the artisans were free, both in the material circumstances of their lives and in the lives of their minds. They were free to sculpt and carve whatever they loved and found beautiful and amazing in the natural world. It was a sublime exercise of free will. This was certainly true in Venice, par excellence, which is Ruskin's point. The stones of Assisi, however, tell their story differently, and, perhaps most importantly, their interior surfaces are still plastered over with some of the most amazing pictorial art ever conceived and drawn by human hand.

The Porziuncola is a stone church the size of a suburban dining room. It was given by the Bishop of Monte Subasio to Francis and his band of brothers if they accepted it as the seat of their order. It was in ruins on the plains below the city; they were effectively banished from the life of the city to practice their vocation in splendid isolation. Francis and the brothers restored it with their own hands, stone by stone.

The silhouette of the Porziuncola is such perfect gothic that Ruskin could have built it himself. The doorway arch is pointed ever so gently; the outer roof is a sharp high gable and the inner roof is a stone barrel vault. It is the humblest of structures.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is a meretricious baroque basilica that sits atop the Porziuncola. It is like a Faberge easter egg, a gaudy outer shell encasing a perfect gem inside. This easter egg demonstrates quite vividly what Saint Francis was originally and what the Church quickly turned him into. Once the Porziuncola stood alone, a beacon of saintly poverty. Now suburbs sprawl around it, and the train station and MacDonald's, and, encasing it, S. M. degli Angeli with its parklike surrounds.

Walking along the flank of S. M. degli Angeli, taking its measure, I crossed the street to see it better; on the wall beside me I saw a stone plaque with the Medici coat-of-arms: a shield with a circular arrangement of six balls. I thought I must be mistaken. We are in Umbria, not Tuscany. I crossed the street to see a fountain running along the basilica wall. There were 20 or 30 spigots and at the end, embedded in the wall, a small plaque: Fonti Medicee sec. XVI-XVII. The Medici fountains, high renaissance. The dynasts left their imprint in the holiest of places.

These walled hilltop towns were built for defense; the hillsides and the plains below were cultivated, the farmers dependent upon the military power and prestige of the city above.

The medieval city of Assisi was literally built upon the Roman city whose foundations and street levels can be seen in many places, nowhere more clearly than the Museo del Foro Romano, the Roman Forum museum, located under the present Piazza del Comune. Here you see the original foundations of the square, with the temple of Minerva at its center whose facade still fronts the piazza above. High above the square stands the fortress, then as now, refortified as a bastion of the Papal State in the 14th century.

The Roman Forum Museum has sculpture and fragmentary remains of Roman stonework, but is distinguished by the Roman masonry itself. From the signage:

East monumental fountain
Placed in the East part of the terracing wall, the fountain consists of two rooms with a connecting archway. The walls are built in travertine opus quadratum with barrel vault. The front face shows two arches and a large monolithic travertine slab.

The Tetrastyle
The tetrastyle, an aedicule [a platform framed by columns] made up of four pink limestone columns holding the statues of the Diosscuri dates to the first half of the First Century A.D. It completes the central terracing building project which took more than a hundred years to finish.

You can only marvel at the elegance and precision with which these stones are laid, how strong and sound they still seem two thousand years later. They were built to last, and they did.

Elsewhere in the museum they have computer generated simulations of the Roman Forum, both still photos and a video walk-through. There you can see how the medieval city fits atop the Roman like a porcelain cap and intermingles their stones. The existing Roman masonry, uncannily precise, impossibly strong, is rigorously regular. Later, the gothic stonemasons made their walls in complex and irregular patterns pieced together from smaller stones and bricks; in comparison, they are infinitely varied and felicitous.

Ruskin was right.

Urbino is located in Le Marche -- the Marches -- the province bounded on the north by Emilia-Romagna, on the west by Tuscany and Umbria, on the south by Abruzzi, and on the east by the Adriatic Sea; it is in the approximate center of the eastern coast of the boot.

From Assisi I took the train to Foligno and transferred to an InterCity to Falcone Marittima. The train follows a pass through the Appenines down to the sea at Faro which was the key Roman port on the Adriatic. At Faro I transferred to Pesaro and from Pesaro I took a bus.

I am standing high on a hilltop surrounded on all sides by a sea of hills and mountains; there are no plains here, only variegated hillsids and scarps of granite. This was the seat of the Montefeltros, the dynasts who ruled these hillside towns, orchards and vineyards for several hundred years. The current city owes its fame and its form to Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino from 1444-1482. He built the massive Palazzo Ducale and Duomo which dominate the town and are its distinctive landmark.

The city is also the site of the University of Urbino, founded in 1506. Today Urbino is the college town par excellence, filled with students, the university having taken the place of the Ducal court as the center of its vitality.

The Duomo, of later date, rotated 90 degrees from its medieval predecessor, is straight Palladio in inspiration. But its interior walls are paneled in pastel pistachio stucco. It makes the place feel more gay than somber. The pulpit, positioned above the nave on a stone pier, is covered with baroque stucco work like white icing on a cake of pale pistachio marzipan. It is perfectly way-too-much.

I sit. But for me, the place is deserted. The images and impact of the past few days collapse inward and I am face to face with the bare essence. The place itself, its design and its imagery, compel me to think about religion; the duomo posits a dogma with a Counter-reformation Baroque sugar-coating.

In all cultures, at all times, the loftiest and lovliest work was put into the temples and the basilicas. At its best, it is a gesture of gratitude to the spirit that animates the universe; at its worst it enforces a rigid code of exclusionary clauses demanding strict adherence to its own language and rituals.

But no, I think... Did only St. Francis get it right? Religion -- worship -- should begin with joy, the joy a child feels watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and flutter up into the sunlight on jeweled wings.

Religion should be the safety net, the unbreakable skein, supported by the understanding that suffering can not, and need not, be justified or eliminated; put simply, it is. It occurs on every level of sentient life and is part of a continuum with ecstasy at its opposite pole.

Religion should begin in joy and it should end in forgiveness, forgiveness of all things. That's a really tough proposition. It is much easier to envision excruciating hell for those who have harmed us, but we have to be able to let that go, too. It is all, Buddha said, a veil of illusion. The most difficult and the most rewarding peace arises not from justice -- however conceived and delivered -- but from compassion, infinite compassion.

As I sit here scribbling this in my notebook a choir of monks somewhere beyond the apse are singing plain chant. It echoes softly in the baroque faux-Palladio vaults, hanging in the air like a soft breeze.

It brings tears to my eyes and induces a feeling that I would like to last a long, long time, a kind of euphoria, the ecstasy of simply being alive, sentient, capable of experiencing and appreciating such beauty.

Ruskin believed that the beauty of the greatest works of man, the gothic structures and ornamentation, were so precisely because of the joy the artisans felt in their freedom to create the most beautiful stonework they could imagine. They could not rival Nature, but they could pay it homage, devout, humorous, sensual, mundane, from the angel blowing his trumpet on high to the loyal dog at the portal base baring his teeth. That is what Ruskin believed they were doing.

We might imagine that we are, each and every one of us, stonemasons. Our task in life is to fashion and to embellish it, to make it rich and beautiful, filled with love and gratitude. The work is so fulfilling and exhilarating that we can endure the pain and the sorrow life inevitably brings. We really aren't in this alone; we are in it together. We carve more than just our piece. My piece fits with your piece to build an exceptional piece neither of us could have built alone. Then multiply that by everyone you know and everyone they know.

That is how a gothic cathedral was built, over the centuries, by generations of families who lived and died without ever seeing it completed. The greatest buildings freely-built consumed lifetimes in their construction and decoration. That is why they are neither uniform nor symmetrical; they are as varied and complex as life itself.

Here is how it works for me: I am sitting in an outdoor cafe down the hill from the duomo. I am having a caffe macchiato and a brioche al cioccolata. I am surrounded by university students who have finished classes for the day. The air is charged with their ebullience. Across the street are two stupendous renaissance stone portals. Downhill the square is teeming with people chatting, waiting for buses, hanging out. The Christmas lights just went up and are switched on for the first time. It is also going-home-from-work time, which is inherently festive. It is an absolutely perfect moment. Is it all there is? No. Is it all I want? No. But it is the moment I have, and it is perfect. I want to share it with you, and this is how I do it. I am carving my stones.

The strange turrets of the Palazzo Ducale, the iconic image of Urbino, are tall and pink and slightly effete. I understand what Ruskin means when he speaks of the masculine energy of the best architecture. He is not being a sexist. To him it was clear that although the urge to build was shared, the task of building fell on the men. The women sent the men off to carve stone that would last throughout the ages, to shelter them and to celebrate them. It was men's particular genius. When she was a brilliant thinker, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia made the same point throughout the long arc from ancient Egypt, through classical Greece, to Imperial Rome.

Ruskin says it best. In judging if a building is good, "First, see if it looks as if it had been built by strong men; if it has the sort of roughness, and largeness, and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness which seems always to be the sign-manual of the broad vision, and massy power of men who can see past the work they are doing, and betray here and there something like disdain for it."

Masculinity is an interesting quality. It is cultural and it varies. The Italian brand, for example, is far less aggressive than American macho. The Italians seem a quiet breed given to heights of passionate hysteria. Theirs is a softer, rounded masculinity, buffed by history and time. It allows for the physical closeness and open affection men routinely display toward one another, from the gentlest camaraderie, holding hands and kissing, to the most exuberant horseplay. It is a coat of many colors. They queue patiently, they argue passionately, they carefully savor a tiny cup of espresso, dress with attention to detail, and speak musically, drawing the logic with their hands like a conductor. It's when you see this that you can understand what Ruskin meant by the masculinity of great architecture.

Raffaello Santi was a greater painter than his father Giovanni, but seeing Giovanni's work reveals a direct line of artistry. Raffaello's genius did not burst from nowhere, comet-like. He was his father's son, but a generation later, freer, more sensual and closer to the reality of the natural world which is the archetype of all beauty. Giovanni's best figures look like particularly well-executed waxworks. Raffaello's breathe. Giovanni worked within the formal constraints of early Renaissance perspective. Raffaello reinvented them in voluptuous curves and swirling fabrics.

A bit further on in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, located in the Palazzo Ducale, is the "Flagellation" of Piero della Francesca. First and foremost, Piero had style. His work is instantly recognizable. Yes, for all its complex perspective, what truly speaks are faces and expressions, so much more alive than the architectonic composition. It represents the transition from an earlier, freer medieval style of painting -- the Giotto frescoes at San Francesco for example -- to the highly composed and ordered style of the renaissance.

Was the gothic the Golden Age? Was the Renaissance? Was there ever really a "Golden Age"?

It seems there were many Golden Ages, in different times and places. In all cases what they shared in common was the momentary flowering of human genius in all its forms of expression. We make fetishes of these moments, forgetting that in all times and in all places something is arising and something is dying. Which is what is often only clear in retrospect.

The virtue of architecture and of art is that it fixes these moments, so that in other places and at other times we can read the story of genius in flower, of its rise and fall, and perhaps better understand our place in the big picture.

This seems perfectly clear to me, sitting deep in the basement of Federico da Montefeltro's Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. It was blindingly clear in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.

A multimedia show is being projected on the low vaults of the service basement beneath the ramparts and towers, projected all around, evoking the glories of Federico's court, which was, by all accounts, an exceptionally brilliant one. Wit, intellect, genius, all gathered; the library was full of gorgeous books, the walls emblazoned with art, the rooms filled with brilliant minds. Its particular genius was local, rooted in these craggy mountains and green hillsides. Wisdom and virtue, greed and lust, war and politics did their dance until greed and lust, war and politics, blew out its light and the light appeared elsewhere, as surprising there as it was here, and as brief.

"Golden Ages," like perfection itself, are simply ideas. History indicates that all efforts at perfection are doomed to fail. Perfection is an ideal that dwells in the realm of the mind. It provides something unattainable to aspire to. We may never get there, but we can come dangerously close, in our art, in our buildings, and in our minds and hearts. Like all greatness, it begins with love and ends with compassion, and is an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to experience the sublime.


Larry Mellman
Assisi | Urbino | Venezia

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nightscapes, Castello

There was a bit of fog. The water was still and the tide was high as I wandered through Castello around midnight.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Villa Pisani | Xanadu on the Brenta

Alvise Pisani, the 114th Doge of the Republic of Venice set out to build, on the green banks of the Brenta River, an earthly paradise to showcase his wealth and power.

He built his Xanadu at Stra, only 15 miles from Venice, but it was fraught with peril and filled with intrigue. Every Eden has its serpent with the power to bring the whole house down. In this case, the house stood, but the Venetian Republic crashed down around it. Villa Pisani was built as the thousand-year old Republic teetered on the brink of financial, political and historical collapse. Napoleon merely knocked over a house of cards; it had already collapsed from within.

Napoleon made his stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, the Prince of Venice and Viceroy of Italy, and gave him Villa Pisani. The villa was Napoleonized, although Napoleon only stayed a night or two. The gardens remained much as old Alvise Pisani had wanted them, a fabulous playground to rival the gardens of Versailles in fascination if not in size.

The facade of the villa, the first thing you see as you round the bend along the Riviera del Brenta, is conspicuously modeled after the Palace at Versailles, on a smaller scale. It represents a sad reflux, where Italian structural genius, so apparent in Venice itself, stops being original and begins aping its imitators. It is a poor imitation, not without grandeur, but lacking integrity, the soul stroke of genius the four caryatids that flank the portal. It is entirely devoid of the animating spirit of Venice's greatest buildings, first and foremost the Ducal Palace, the basilica of San Marco, the great Gothic palaces, then the Palladio churches, Santa Maria della Salute and Longhena's baroque palaces. Those buildings were innovative and brilliant both in scope and in conception. In comparison, Villa Pisani is conservative, imitative, frivolous: it represents exhausted wealth. The economic engine had run out of gas, or, more accurately, the great wealth was changing hands, first to Napoleon and the French, then to the Austrians, and, finally back to the Italians themselves, somewhat depleted. Villa Pisani represents the bella figura, the glittering mask with which the tottering Venetian Republic attempted to hide its bankruptcy.

Of course everything is relative. Pisani was rich enough to bribe the 41 electors to elect him Doge. But in periods of decadence, which precede the fall, the wealth is so concentrated that everyday life is strangled and the extremities wither while the center still decks itself in jewels.

There are, in reality, several Villa Pisanis: the Villa of Alvise Pisani, a rococo fantasy extravaganza; the neoclassical Napoleonic villa, filled with imperial pretensions; and the Villa of the Austrian monarchs who got it from Napoleon, who enjoyed it, and who made it into a complex of bourgeoisified vacation apartments. It was also the site of the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini. Imperial pretensions are all of a piece.

The particular beauty and the brilliance of Villa Pisani is the 30 acres of gardens. Here Pisani succeeded in creating a stately pleasure palace of immense proportions. The long reflecting pool, as at Versailles, extends from the rear portico of the Villa to the stables, the broad central axis of the gardens which surround it, containing "everything which gives pleasure to the sight and gratifies our taste," Pisani said.

There is, for example a coffee house, a small pavillion set atop a hill. But the hill is fake, and just below its grassy green surface are the arched ceiling vaults of an ice-house. It is said that during the summer the Venetians enjoyed sitting in this pavillion to cool their feet in the air vented up from below.

The kitchen gardens, later upgraded to French-style orangeries, provided a selection of citrus year round, so that the Pisanis never wanted for a glass of fresh orange juice.

The gardens are decorated with arches and statuary set amid the trees and shrubs. Every where you look is a view. No corner is simply a corner, each is a pavillion, a triumphal arch, a marble niche, a grape-covered arbor.

The purpose of this garden was to divert, to dazzle, to amuse and delight. This is most perfectly seen in the maze and the exedra.

The maze is a labyrinth of hedges with a two-story tower at its center, topped by a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The gardens and the maze were built before the Villa itself; they were the essence of Pisani's dream.

Composed of nine concentric circles, the maze surrounds the tower. You can see it, but getting there is not so easy. The statue of Minerva atop the tower was an essential point of reference without which even the most intrepid gamester might not find his way. And Gerolamo Frigimelica, who designed the maze as well as the stables and the exedra, thought of everything. A double-helix stairway winds up and down the tower. It is a brilliant conception. The twin spiral stairs are the twisted end of the maze itself, offering an infinite number of vistas as you ascend and descend.

The exedra is another clever concept with no purpose but to entertain. It is a playground structure for adults, comprised of six arches from which six paths lead into the gardens. A stairway within its central turret leads to a terrace embellished with twelve classical statues and offering garden vistas in every direction.

And there are vistas. Vista after vista. Everywhere you turn. Just when you've gotten over one swoon, you're into another. I visited on a chilly autumn day. The baroque trees were on fire with color, orange, red, yellow and pink. The sun was hot and the sky a flawless Tiepolo blue. (If you wanted to check you could go inside and look at the ceiling of the ballroom, a vast fresco by Tiepolo representing the Triumph of the Pisanis.) Many of the buildings are covered in marmorino, a stucco of marble dust or painted delicate pastels. Much of the stonework and statuary is first class, dating to the original building, though none is particularly brilliant in the manner of Bernini or Canova or the Gothic artisans of Venice's golden age.

Strolling through these gardens on such a day is a walk through Paradise, no doubt about it. The interior, however, is not so brilliant. There are some fine frescoes besides the ballroom ceiling, and some interesting details, but inside the sad lesson of history is evident. The villa is filled with imperial pretensions and Grand Gestures, and its relatively empty state is eloquent comment on those pretensions. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Bedroom of the Viceregent, Amalia of Bavaria, stepdaughter-in-law to Napoleon, is especially beautiful. The walls are covered in a silk fabric of the Pisani period, 1735 or so, which the Austrians probably discovered in a storage bin and recycled. It is called "Indian," sprays of roses, peonies, liles and parrots, and exhibits Pisani's taste for exoticism so characteristic of the rococo period.

Decadence so extravagant brought to mind Shelley's "Ozymandias," which I quote in full because it is short and because it says everything about the men who build these Xanadus, monuments to their own glory, from the perspective of history.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Boka Bence, Lute Player

Boka Bence, Accademia Bridge, night

I have been hearing him for the last four years, always in surprising places. I didn't know his name, and dubbed him The Lute Player. I always asked other people who live here if they have heard him; everyone had seen him somewhere at one time or another. Often on summer warm autumn nights I would hear him at the apex of the Rialto Bridge, elegantly bent over his lute, playing renaissance dances to an obliggato of boat wake and heels on the grey stone stairs. For one season he played frequently in Campo San Aponal and I would see him there often.

Usually I was going from one place to another and suddenly there he would be, tucked in a niche around a corner behind San Salvador or in the shade of Ca' Franchetti's wall crowned with fragrant bushes in the spring.

One day last week he was playing near my apartment, and I bought his CDs. His name is Boka Bence, he is Hungarian, and in addition to playing music from the Hungarian renaissance he plays his own dances, composed in the style of the Hungarian renaissance. It is a unique and enchanting sound.

What struck me most was how deeply he had mastered the renaissance style, and yet his own dances were not slavish imitations; they were subtle variations filtered through a modern sensibility, traditional and not.

First and foremost, they are dances. They lilt and leap and glide and sway and if you have a soul, they make you want to dance.

"You have so thoroughly mastered the style and idiom of the renaissance," I commented to him, and he spontaneously burst into a big grin. He appreciated the compliment.

"I have heard a lot renaissance music," I said, "but never Hungarian."

"They are..." He struggled to find the words in English, his Italian being on a par with mine. "Not so..." He touched the air and paused. "Not so far. Is that right? Far."

Different but identifiable, sharing common genes with the rest of the renaissance, which was already mature in Italy by the time it reached Hungary, but with a flavor all their own. Far not only in distance but in time. Far, but not so far. They still speak to the modern mind.

He started to play. The music echoed nicely on the brick and stucco walls of the tiny campiello just beyond the Guggenheim. Tourists walked by clutching maps and barely heard a note. Wheeled luggage clattered across the paving stones. Strollers stopped to listen and throw money in the lute case. He wore wool gloves with the fingers cut off so that he could play in the autumn chill.

He has two CDs. One is with a small instrumental and vocal ensemble devoted entirely to songs and dances of the Hungarian Renaissance. It is a piece of vanished time and Bence's solos are exquisite. But his own music on the CD entitled Dances is individual and poetic.

These renaissance tunes were the popular music of their time. From the streets to the royal courts and back to the streets again, they were defined and refined and transformed, driven by the rhythms of complex dance steps. They can be joyous, carefree, melancholy, sensual, simple, complex, sublime.

Between two of the dances I said, "I guess my question is this: do you think you were born in the wrong century?"

He laughed and nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Very much."

"Me too," I said, "I just haven't found my century."

I asked how long he has been playing the lute. He said he played guitar for a long time first, and about ten years ago he switched to this lute which a friend had made for him.

There is a lot of music on the streets of Venice, especially when the weather is fine. It ranges from accordion players to rockabilly to gypsy fiddle jazz to the virtuoso of the water glasses to the man who plays the violin so badly that it is hard to believe he does not do so intentionally, because it is impossible to play an instrument that much and still be so bad.

Bence is at the head of the class. He offers something fresh and historic at the same time. Relativity soup, the renaissance channeled through a twenty-first century talent. It is rare and original, something you never find often enough.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Venice at Night

This is about images, not words. These are a few of many, zone by zone. See VENICE AT NIGHT.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rubelli | In a word, sumptuous

IF you ever find yourself needing to reupholster a chair or cover a wall with a fabric as sumptuous as those in a Renaissance painting, go to Rubelli.

Rubelli is located at the Sant'Angelo vaporetto stop in the 15th century Palazzo Corner Spinelli, designed by Mauro Codussi who, along with the Lombardi family, introduced the language of the Renaissance to the stones of Venice.

And you won't just find traditional fabrics of silk brocades and cut velvets. There are plenty of those to choose from, but Rubelli also maintains a design studio in Marghera where modern fantasias on traditional themes are created. Within the last few years Rubelli has also acquired other lines of thoroughly modern fabrics and, in the case of Donghia, striking modern furniture as well. You can flip through the collections on their website.

It was hard to concentrate on the fabrics with such splendid views from the balconies outside the showrooms. My first visit was last week, with my friend Pip and two of her friends from Paris. We were given the Cook's Tour by Francesco Caradonna. Pip is a regular and regularly brings people there, and Francesco graciously opened all the doors and drawers for us.

In the office, with its Sansovino fireplace and intricately carved and painted wooden ceiling, Francesco pulled out swatches of historic luxury fabrics, pieces of extraordinary clothing centuries old, ancient ecclesiastical vestments. He showed us particular patterns, such as sprigs of caper berries, that Rubelli reproduced from these ancient fabrics in modern cut velvets, stressing the continuum not only of beauty but of quality.

I forgot my camera the first time, but not the second. When Pip called to say she was going back to Rubelli to pick up the fabric her friends had ordered, I grabbed my camera.

Francesco opened doors and turned lights on and off for me and then left me alone to take pictures. Every ten minutes the daylight seemed to change in those mysterious and enchanting late afternoon ways, reflecting off the Grand Canal and through the florid stonework tracery. It was hard to focus.

The fabrics themselves are striking in their range and extraordinary quality. Although Rubelli is traditionally a purveyor of tessuti per arredamento, upholstery and drapery goods, I have seen their fabrics used for costumes in baroque opera and they looked even better on bodies than they do on sofas and walls. With a little imagination, much of it could be worn to stunning effect. The instant Charlotte saw the silver linen she knew it would be a fabulous skirt.

The Donghia sofas, chairs and love seats are upholstered simply, but dramatically. I was particularly struck by the Donghia because I remembered them from LA, where years ago I had often admired the arresting designs in their West Hollywood showroom. The marriage of Rubelli and Donghia is certainly inspired, as are the scarlet or silver cut velvets and brocades that make the old chairs and walls shimmer like Veroneses.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Rainy day, San Marco

I ended up crossing San Marco on a rainy day. Much of the square was flooded, as was the atrium to the basilica. You entered on passarelle, the raised walkways over the water, but the line was short and I decided to see how it looked.

The experience is always astonishing. I had some questions I knew only Ruskin could answer and so I began rereading "The Stones of Venice," which is where I came across this which I have begun to truly understand:

""This looks somehwat like pride; but it is true humility, a trust that you have been so created as to enjoy what is fitting for you, and a willingness to be pleased, as it was intended you should be. It is the child's spirit, which we are most happy when we most recover; remaining wiser than children in our gratitude that we can still be pleased with a fair colour, or a dancing light. And, above all, do not try to make all these pleasures reasonable, nor to connect the delight which you take in ornament with that which you take in construction of usefulness. They have no connection; and every effort that you make to reason from one to the other will blunt your sense of beauty, or confuse it with sensations altogether inferior to it. You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight. Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance; at least I suppose this quill I hold in my hand writes better than a peacock's would, and the peasants of Vevay, whose fields in spring time are as white with lilies as the Dent du Midi is with its snow, told me the hay was none the better for them."