Friday, July 31, 2009

And the winner is...

My old friend Johnny, a brilliant autodidact, had an interesting theory about Renaissance art which we discussed over way too many drinks in the bars at the Danieli and the Gritti, at Caffe Florian, and assorted enotecas around Venice one long-ago weekend in 1993.

The theory went roughly like this. The greatness of the artist could be indexed to the beauty of the babies in the Madonna's arms. There are more beautiful Madonnas than truly beautiful babies; the baby was the acid test. Without fail, the greatest artists, Rafaello, Lippi, Bellini, painted the most beautiful babies. In other paintings there were admirable qualities, but the babies were unappealing, unconvincing, and certainly not truly beautiful. They were truly beautiful only when painted by the few, the best.

The other day I stopped by the Mestrovich Collection, scarecely more than a score paintings, each one outstanding, in the "Browning Mezzaine" of Ca' Rezzonico, the Museum of the 18th Century. It was here that I happened upon the "Sacra Conversazione" of Bonifacio De' Pitati (Verona, 1487 - Venezia, 1553).

I would never argue that De' Pitati is the greatest of artists, although he exists in rarified company. But he painted what is arguably one of the most beautiful babies anywhere.

John Wesley Retrospective

John Wesley Retrospective
San Giorgio Maggiore
presented by Prada Foundation

In 2009 the earliest works, from the early 60s, look visionary. Seen in retrospect it is an uncanny mirror into a future that has already passed.

He is a symbolist in the true sense. He uses symbols iconographicallyl-- a post office badge (for years his "day job" was at the Post Office), a profile line of large-breasted women, Whoopee! girls who look like their ubiquitous echoes seen on the mudflaps of tricked out trucks and muscle cars. The part speaks for the unseen whole. The images are nostalgia-filled and makes one better understand the beginnings of the sensibility that made Warhol a very rich man.

The cow framed by a repeated pattern of naked dancing ladies (1964) predates the Warhol cow wallpaper by two years. By 1969 the Mod Gernreich vision is explicit. He works in a consistent style that is witty and elegant, with a restrained palette always colored within the lines. Although they lack the bite of the best contemporary work they are beautiful in the Japanese manner ("Tour de France," "Egg"), as flat formal compositions. "Good Appetite" and "Gluttony" are sly. In "Plague," a naked woman in the Drop Drill position is rained upon by a deluge of bouncing diapered babies.

I prefer the lurid hot house of medieval frescoes and the complexly imagined dreams and nightmares at the Punta della Dogana. But each of Wesley's works are painted with a masterful stroke that is entirely controlled, not filled with drama.

An electric charge enters the show with the late erotica, Blondie giving Dagwood a blow job in bed or Dagwood's wet dream of a libidinously drunk geisha ("Utamaro Washing, Dagwood Sleeping).

In the vast and quiet almost deserted space, Wesley makes comic book pop into a John Updike erotica, pastel and clean and explicit. The erotica is late, closing the show, like Picasso's minotaurs or Yeats's Crazy Jane poems. Does this happen to all men if they live long enough, the late blooming of a wild and mature sexuality, the autumnal exaltation of physical passion?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Most Beautiful Song in the World

Is this the most beautiful song in the world?

Poem by Friedrich Rückert
Music by Gustav Mahler

It certainly is in my book. In fact, it stands alone. There are plenty of beautiful songs in the world, but there is nothing else quite like this.

It is frequently referred to at the saddest song ever written, but I think that is based on recent performance practice, and not on the essence of the song. The poem which Mahler set to music is simplicity itself and yet easily misread:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

It is often sung in a valedictory manner, a sad farewell to life, but that also misses the point. The poet is describing an ecstatic state, in which the noise and vanity of the world ceases to matter and all that matters is his heaven of love and song. It is a farewell in the same way awaking is a farewell to a troubled sleep. Good bye, yes, but to everything that doesn't really matter in order to embrace what really does. That is why the music is quiet, intensely spiritual in character, as simple as sunlight on water and as gorgeous. It is so beautiful it makes us cry.

Deby once wondered aloud why beautiful music that is not dramatically sad makes us cry. I suggested that it is because it plugs us directly into that which is greater than ourselves and our consciousness, with other worlds if you will, what the Romantics referred to the Sublime. We are humbled and exalted in the same moment, and that moves us to tears just as an intense orgasm can move us to tears, and certainly not from sadness. We experience ecstasy.

When Nature, the foremost teacher of all great art, presents us with the sublime -- the first glimpse of the waterfalls tumbling into Yosemite Valley, the extraordinary blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea seen from Tiberius's villa on Capri, Big Sur or the Dolomites at dawn -- it is without affect; it has no emotional content. It is a pure expression of the beauty and majesty of creation. It takes your breath away but does not necessarily make you cry.

To the pure light of Nature's beauty, Art applies the prism of human consciousness and emotion; the beam is refracted into its component colors and woven into patterns for particular effect. Humanity is added to impersonal nature and it is this experience of our humanity, of or our common emotional life, that is so particularly powerful and touching. We know, in that instant, that others have trod the same path, that our planet is inhabited by others with hearts like our own, that we are not alone in the universe. The message makes our souls dance.

Recently this song has been sung very slowly. The mournful oboes and clarinets against the soft harp arpeggios, the muted strings, are elegiac, quietly dirge-like. Jessie Norman and Zubin Mehta take an inertial 8 minutes. Janet Baker clocks in at 6:47, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at 7:13.

An earlier generation of artists took a faster tempo. Kathleen Ferrier's version is 5:38. That seemingly slight change of tempo changes the entire mood of the song.

Irmgard Seefried clocks in at a mere 5:10 in a performance that is a revelation. From the opening bars the song has more in common with the innocent rapture of the last movement of the Fourth Symphony, where the light childlike soprano sings Das himmlische leben (Heaven's life), than it does with the truly mournful Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, its twin sister in line and orchestral texture.

Seefried's voice is immediate and unaffected; she is in touch with the source of this music and she is clearly on a spiritual journey as she sings. At the end she is not sad at all; she is filled with radiant joy. Her smile says it all.

So why do I cry?

An exquisite flower fills me with joy and does not make me cry. But at the end of the song I am filled with joy and I am crying. It is because this heady emotional cocktail is suffused with gratitude and wonder at being alive and able to experience such beauty. That is what the song is about: being set free from the squalor and the madness of the world so you can experience its beauty and express that joy.

As the poet says,

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Something Strange Happened Here

The odd thing is, something strange did happen.

I started out to go to the part of the Biennale you reach from the Bacini vaporetto stop. Robin had told me about some interesting things there, including another video from the Russians who kicked out the jambs in 2007 with a stellar three-screen video event.

There is no easy way to get there; it is a remote corner of Venice, and you take the 41 or 42 depending on which way you are coming from. On the way, the motoscafo stopped at Certosa and I thought maybe I should get off there, since I had never been there and Robln had also described some interesting things there. But I stayed onboard, figuring that if I had the energy I could swing by on my way back. It was very hot, the sun brilliant, and not the best day for trekking outdoors.

I also neglected to eat anything this morning. I had coffee, and that was all. I was getting very thirsty and hungry, and was completely annoyed at myself when I got off at Bacini and realized that as part of the Arsenale half of the Biennale, these exhibitions, although geographically separate, were also closed on Tuesdays.

I was on the motoscafo back toward Certosa when it happened. I was feeling very good up to then, but a wave of anxiety swept over me, small at first, intensifying as inexorably as a Rossini crescendo. I felt anguish and uncertainty about the future, a good sign that some bad waves were generating deep down my brain stem. The motoscafi are not like the vaporetti; they are smaller, narrower, and closer to the water. The 41 cuts through the lagoon where it is often rocked by serious wake from the heavy boat traffic around it. It was hard to stand. I felt woozy and weak-kneed and had to sit down. I tried to be rational and remind myself that I was alert and breathing albeit dizzy and a little seasick. But for those moments, everything seemed to be closing in a tight vortex, Sartre's nausea. I was tempted to get off at S. Pietro, to stand on solid ground, but stayed seated; as the boat neared Certosa I stood, unsteadily, and climbed to the deck where the fresh air was brisk and reinvigorating.

I started feeling better as soon as I got off the boat. The breezes on Certosa dried up my cold sweat, and as I walked the long jetty the other symptoms seemed to pass. I was hungry and thirsty but the intense dizziness dissipated with solid ground under my feet.

Which is when I thought: that's how it happens. It. The big one. The 9 magnitude on the mortality scale. It doesn't come announced; it comes in the instant and totally blows your mind as well as whatever other systems fail.

I counted back from ten, went through the days of the week, named as many presidents as I could, recited the No. 1 vaporetto stops from P.le Roma to Lido and back again. I knew who and where I was, and I was beginning to ease back into the beauty of the afternoon and the peculiar landscape of Certosa. But the hot breath of mortality, the most intense anguish, leaves its imprint, like the time I choked on a piece of candy and was fading to black before the Tootsie roll was Heimliched out of me. It startled me, and then it passed, like the waves. It made me think differently.

As you approach on the very long jetty from the vaporetto stop you notice three things immediately: the enormous elephant, trunk raised, wading into the lagoon; the chrome ring that frames the view like a circular silver frame, and the rows and rows of expensive boats cued up along the fondamentas, people in bathing suits working on them in the fierce lagoon sun.

I walked through the fancy hotel complex and explored several of the paths leading into the island. Certosa is rather large, and having no idea where the footpaths led, and given the temperature and my persisting unease at whatever had just happened, I headed back to the vaporetto stop, caught a 42 to Arsenale, and had a rolled pizza vegetariano and an acqua frizzante under the shade of a pale umbrella. I had sat under the same umbrella in San GImignano, and in Firenze. The waiter asked me about Richard, and I stopped by Paolo's to tell them "ciao" from Riccardo.

Everything was the same, but the view was different. The moment was different. The past was different. The future was different. And finally having regained something of a sense of well-being, I headed home to record it here, because it was a trigger point, one of those reminders one stumbles into whenever one assumes one knows what is really going on.

The message: you never know. You do your best.

There were some splendid views on Certosa; juxtapositions of nature and utility that raised the question: what is art? Can it be something utterly unintentional, that viewed in a certain way becomes extraordinarily beautiful; a sort of found art. Is art, like beauty, truly in the eye of the beholder?

I am not becoming a solipsist, an unreconstructed relativist, but from what little I understand of the quantum physics, we change things by experiencing them, the past and the future interpenetrate the present, and sometimes nature collapses into one moment the full impact of our mortality, to humble us and make us greatful, and if we are smart, we listen.


Gli uccelli cantono nel giardino

I am a complete idiot musically; I cannot read a score and often cannot follow the inner lines. But music moves me to distraction. It is the one constant in my life and I know it will never fail me. It has always been there, and always will. I can honestly say that the Faure Requiem has saved my life.

That being said, sometimes I turn the music off, open the windows and listen to the birds.

I am at the moment quite lucky. I have two immense windows that open onto a walled garden lined with trees. These are mature trees, old like me, huge and leafy in summer and spectral skeletons all winter long. I have never lived among trees this large, and at night the wind through their branches sounds like rushing water.

There are other trees nearby, in gardens and on terraces. This is something of a green oasis in brick and stone Venice and the result is that birds love to hang out here. The got drunk on strange berries; nested in the palms all spring. You don't see them as much as hear them. And often, for hours, they converse from their hidden shady bowers.

There are no seagulls here. When I lived in Santa Croce I heard seagulls constantly. Sometimes they sound like they are laughing loudly; other times they imitate cats or babies. They are clever imposters, loud and ballsy, and hang around the garbage cans in the campo. A big seagull with a roost on a high chimney swoops down, lifts plastic bags of garbage from the cans, drops them on the paving stones, and proceeds to tear the bag open with his beak and scatter the luxurious horde of orange peels and coffee grounds and table scrapings. Then the pigeons move in, feasting on the leftovers. The pigeons are mostly silent; the seagulls raucous, garrulous, comical. They can also be macabre, as when I saw two seagulls feasting on a dead pigeon.

The birds that hang out around the garden are different; no pigeons to speak of, no seagulls. They are songbirds and at various times of day differing choirs of them sing and chatter. I know less about birds than I do about music, so I cannot tell you what kinds of birds they are, except for the small grey and brown sparrow types. But I know there are many different kinds, even though I don't see them. Their songs are distinct and musical, madrigals, arias, choruses, duets and trios; dolce, agitato, con brio, con amore. It is easy to hear the direct line from these songs to human music.

When I listen to them I often think about St. Francis, who preached to them as an integral part of creation and, reportedly, they swooned and soared and sang their responses. It was not a matter so much of Francis "understanding" them, as in "I Talk to the Animals," or as we converse among ourselves as humans. It was about embracing them as brothers and sisters in the great circle of life. He reached out to them and they responded; it was all about the vibes.

Like music.

In the realm of human art the birds can speak our language, issue somber warnings from the mysterious gods, they can soar and ruffle their feathers and sing, and when they sing, a character like Siegfried can understand and reply. The Forest Bird tells him fabulous secrets that are steps in the footpath of destiny. As he lies dying he sings the music of the Forest Bird and the poignancy of this music is matched only by the return of the music of Brunnhilde's awakening.

But that's opera; another story completely!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Festa del Redentore 2009

The Festa del Redentore is spiritually centered in the Church of Redentore, one of Palladio's masterpieces. Started in 1576, the church was built ex voto for relief from an outbreak of plague. It is a triumphal statement of humble gratitude and grandiose self-glorification.

But socially the Festa is centered on St. Mark's Basin, where thousands of people crowd in boats for a long evening of partying, and along the fondamentas of the Giudecca canal, and on any balcony or altana with a view.

A pontoon bridge is erected across the 300m canal which is closed to normal traffic. From the opening of the Church until the dissolution of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon, the Doges crossed a bridge built on boats in a solemn procession from San Marco to the Redentore.

But the real highlight of the weekend now is the midnight fireworks display in St. Mark's Basin, over the heads of the boats crowded below. Traditionally the boats were decorated with flowers and lanterns and the kind of kitsch Italians love to distraction; today one sees a preponderance of plain rented boats filled with kegs and watermelons and sandwiches; the people eat and drink and party, loud music blaring and at dawn there are beach parties on the Lido.

Frank and Liesl's altana is the perfect place to watch the fireworks. Their top floor apartment is on the west side of the Church of the Redentore; their altana has a sweeping view of Venice, from Marghera to Lido, to say nothing of the fireworks. Above the noise and below the fireworks, their altana is a place of enchantment.

I went with my new neighbor, Erika, who is an old friend of Liesl. Maestro, Erika's miniature pinscher, young and unschooled in the ways of Venice, made it on foot along the Zattere but when we hit the pontoon bridge he went into his carrying case. At 8pm it was still broad daylight, the fireworks hours off and the partying just beginning to crank up along the fondamenta.

Liesl served a five-course sit down dinner on the altana; she gets a Great Hostess Award! The tuna mousse was an absolute knockout, and everything on par with it. Dolci finished just in time for the fireworks.

The show is long and spectacular. It begins at 11-30 and the grand finale is a fireworks-filled hour later. The Venetians have been playing with fireworks since Marco Polo visited China and they have perfected the art of beautiful displays. This year's show had moments of spectacularly blazing beauty.

Fireworks are an art of the moment. They do not last. They explode and disappear in an instant and tell a whole story in the process. Watching them, adults become children. The children, who had been anxiously waiting all day, fell into a deep and exhausted sleep before the show ever ended, but the adults gazed in open-mouthed wonder.

If there is a perfect expression of bliss, triumphant bliss, it is fireworks. They soar and sparkle and dance. You cannot fix them in time nor cling to them beyond the moment in which they happen. It is a singular instant, now, to be savored and let go, like an amuse bouche for the soul.

Afterward, before fighting our way back across the crowded pontoon bridge, Erika bought a big white fluff of cotton candy. Children. Children of all ages at the Fair. Tired and dazzled and exhilarated.

My attempts to capture the elusive are in the FIREWORKS GALLERY.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Punta della Dogana ROCKS


I just got back from my first visit to the Pinhault collection at the Punta della Dogana. It is the best Biennale-related art I have seen to date.

Francois Pinhault's eye, whoever that may be, is brilliant. Here, on a triangular point of land between the Giudecca and Grand Canals, in the shadow of Santa Maria della Salute, Pinhault waved his magic wand -- i.e., a vast fortune and the vision of his architect -- and conjured a masterpiece from the derelict Customs House.

This applies not only to the art collection but to the choice of building, its location, and its restoration by Tadeo Andao. Seeing certain pieces framed by the structure in brick arches, perforated concrete and plate glass enhances them; the building provides endless points-of-view for looking.

The exterior has been rubbed and scrubbed and is a delight to see in full once again; the interior probably could not have been done better. The appearance of the old brick walls and carved structural timbers is pristine. The elegant grey concrete is a soothing complement. The lighting is spot on, from the natural light through ample windows and skylights to the artificial light which is only in a few instances obtrusive. The exterior views, some of the most gorgeous in Venice, surround: Zitelle and San Giorgio, the Grand Canal, the Piazzetta and the Basin of San Marco.

Secondo me, the best of modern art, like the best of old art, tells stories with equal parts artistry and vision. What makes Guernica so outstanding, the story it tells, its apocalyptic vision, is what makes Jake and Dinos Chapman's "Fucking Hell" such an astonishing vision. Intricate yet epic, it has all the power of the bottom portion of a Last Judgment. Thousands of figures of wretched and demonic soldiers are engaged in apocalyptic battles in 9 glass cases, from a battle on the Acropolis to prison camps straight from Apocalypse Now via Hieronymous Bosch; from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, from Marathon to Armageddon, all raised to the Nth degree, a catalog of hell as complete as Dante's populous Inferno. In the central case the volcano upon which the battle rages erupts in a mushroom cloud that can be seen from every angle in the room.

At the other end of the visionary spectrum, Murakami's "Lonesome Cowboy" is an exuberant spin (literally) on Donatello's insouciant bronze David at the Bargello, with the addition of a raging hard-on and a stellar ejaculation that swirls around his head like a cloud. His eyes literally twinkle.

Between and among these works, there is craftsmanship and vision; along with the anguish there is giddy exaltation, and flights of pure fantasy. In a darkened room imaginary cities are sculpted from orange and lime and grape jello lit from within (Mike Kelley, Kandors Full Set, 2005-2009, mixed media). Between the miniature cities enormous glass jars reflect orbits of light.

It was rather startling to realize that the shrouded bodies on the floor of one of the galleries, which could have been plastic or plaster, were carved from Carrara marble and glisten with a satin sheen (Maurizio Cattelan, All, 2008). Nine pieces, each different, the end of a unique human life.

If contemporary art speaks to you at all, the Punta della Dogana is certain to blow your mind. Having very recently spent innumerable hours looking at medieval and renaissance art in Venice and Padova and Florence and Assisi and San GImignano, I can say that Murakami's Lonesome Cowboy is very much in the spirit of the renaissance, only here the homoeroticism is explicit. The piece, and its companion, a vixenish sex kitten squeezing whipped cream from her enormous breasts, are very much in the tradition of the equally lifelike painted wooden figures of saints and martyrs. But Murakami's spirits have been set free from the constraints of religious and artistic convention; they are paradigms of pure sexual delight. The Lonesome Cowboy's affect is simply joyous, from he delirious smile to his spiky yellow hair crowning his head like a feathery halo.

Matthew Day Jackson's Dynamaxion Kinfolk (2009) is a construction, in a mirrored glass case, of a double file of marching skeletons reflected to infinity and composed of tree branches, bones, metal, shoes (officially "aluminum, lead, iron, mirror, wood, mechanical replacement joints, plastic, lights, formica"). In a case on the opposite wall a simple black pyramid ("painted wood, burnt wood, glue) is morphed in 21 brilliantly colored stages into a human skull.

I made two tours through the galleries before leaving, but first I had a coffee in the cafe and climbed up into the Belvedere for the 360-degree panorama glimpsed through the metal latticework that covers the windows.

As in all shows, everything is not equally good, and what thrills me may not thrill you; however, something will. It's that kind of collection. It is far ranging, incorporates a broad gamut of styles, and each is eloquent. It was an exhibition that was hard to leave, and one I will be returning to.

Bringing the outside in


Monday, July 13, 2009

San Gimignano | Towers and Walls

The Historic Center of San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by virtue of satisfying the following three of UNESCO's criteria:

Criterion (i): represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.
Criterion (iii): bears unique (or at least extraordinary) testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation, either currently existing or from the past.
Criterion (iv): is an exceptional example of a type of construction or architectonic or technological or landscape-related complex that bears witness to important steps in human history.

This largely refers to the towers. At one point there were seventy-two towers in San Gimignano. The tallest, the Torre Grossa, is 180 feet, the others are shorter, at varying heights. The towers are iconic, the trademark, the brand, if you will, of the Theme Park, but it was the walls that spoke to me.

The hills are steep and the walls are crooked, at odd angles. It is extremely difficult to discern their age; some of the bricks may in fact be Roman although the bulk of the construction is medieval, built during a historically brief burst of commerce and fortune between the eleventh century and the Black Plague.

These walls represent a time when a city could keep the outside out and the inside in with brick and stone. Inside the city walls are the interior walls, the walls of the buildings themselves. They are densely textured, their colors variegated. They have been ravaged by war, disaster, and time and repaired by men's hands as often as they were ravaged. They stand today almost as capable as ever to perform their original function although the world in which that had value no longer exists. Today they are an object of admiration for the beauty of their construction and their miraculous endurance. Once we built well, for the ages.

The other day I had drinks with my friend Ann from London. She said, slyly and seriously, "I won't get out of bed unless a city is at least a thousand years old." There was no hint of snobbery in her tone. She spent her entire academic career as a classicist; her ideal of beauty is ancient Greece. When she retired she volunteered as a guide at the British Museum because she enjoyed sharing her knowledge of the Parthenon marbles and other treasures. She knows what she likes and can choose where she goes; that road leads to places rooted in the deep past.

It is not just the art of these ancient places that speaks. It is the walls themselves, the walls and arches, the towers and portals and gates which tell the marvelous story of ingenuity and artistry evolved over time in response to the specific characteristics of place.

The walls of Assisi are pink from the pink stone of Mount Subasio. The walls of San Gimignano range from deep brick red to wheat and sand. They tell the story of how a certain spot, by virtue of its natural endowments, its geological DNA, became an Etruscan settlement, a Roman camp, and then a city. These cities sat on hilltops because from there you could see the surrounding valley, the movements of downhill neighbors and the encroachment of enemies. They were walled to enclose them and crowned with fortresses to protect them.

In the shadow of these structures rose centers of culture and commerce and, in the case of Assisi, religious pilgrimage. All of these strands of history are woven into the fabric of the walls, and can be read there, like runes embroidered by time. The stories they tell are seamed with the mortar of our shared humanity. But the march of progress no longer leads through their steep rocky streets, and they are vestigial places turned into Theme Parks, tourist centers. Still, they stand as they have stood for almost a thousand years.

How will our cities fare in the future, the cities built in the nineteenth and twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How will they look in eight hundred years? Will they be as proud, ambitious, and beautiful as these walls and towers, as the Parthenon or the Pantheon or the Pyramids? Or will they be grotesque ruins of unsustainable hubris, collapsed and deserted like the homes with the mortgages that became unpayable and were abandoned the way a hermit crab abandons its cast-off shell?


Florence | Verdi Requiem

They charge a lot of money to get into the Boboli Gardens and there's not a lot of garden to show for it. The formal structure is there, outlined in tall shady trees, stone stairs and terraces, but there are no plantings, no flowers. It is certainly different from what it must have been in centuries past, either as a home to Medicis or as the chief residence of the ruling families of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, as an ornamental Napoleonic redoubt or as a gaudy Austrian belle epoque showplace. How rich they must have been to afford these sprawling acres of gardens and ponds and fountains, and yet, even with them, their reach habitually exceeded their grasp and the landscape is littered with unfinished Grand Projects. (The same holds true, notoriously, for the Capella Medici in the San Lorenzo compound.) Everything has limits, but every Prince needed to create, as nearly as possible, an earthly paradise as monument to his grandeur.

The arena is in a far corner of the Boboli Gardens by the Porta Romana. It is the sort of pipe-and-tarp construction you see at a rock concert, with a short parterre and a long slope of bleachers on a grassy lawn encircled by very old trees. Here and there niches are cut into the surrounding hedge housing weathered baroque sculptures, traditional Roman busts mostly, except for the whimsical trio of goofballs, three grotesque figures sticking out their tongues and making faces, and, across the gravel footpath from them, a pair of fellows who appear to be blown backward by the wind as they try to fly kites; but there are no kites. Above the tall hedges you see a roofscape of stucco and tile, altanas and television aerials.

An international summer festival crowd has gathered for this performance of Verdi's Requiem; you see everything from long black dresses to jeans or short skirts with skimpy tops as well as everything in between. My fifth row seat in the parterre is almost too close for comfort. The crowd around me is well-heeled and bourgeois; hand-kissing is as unaffectedly natural as saying "ciao." It appears that one cell phone is no longer sufficient. A nattily dressed gentleman standing in the aisle wields two, one in each hand. On the cool lawn to the right of the stage the musicians and smokers mill around before the performance. A lone trumpeter stands off in a corner practicing his licks; it is a big night for the brass section.

It is also a big night in Florence.There is a white-haired gentleman of a certain age in a white linen suit, blue shirt, red bow tie, and a red carnation in his lapel (despite the wilting heat). The men are wearing gorgeous suits, the women are wearing jewels, and everyone seems to know each other, including the big, fabulous American-speaking blonde in the front row who I assume is Mrs. Mehta.

Photographers, presumably the local press, are taking pictures of them all and seem to know exactly who they are. It takes a while for everyone to settle down for the real purpose for being there: the music.

To Wagner's complaint that with his Requiem Verdi had dragged the opera house into the church came the reply came that Wagner was no one to talk, having dragged the church into the opera house with Parsifal. But performances of the Requiem, like all the big symphonic liturgical events, inspires a certain reverence. Maestro Mehta made a short speech in Italian dedicating the performance, from all of the musicians' hearts, to the victims at Viareggio and Aquila, and to a Florentine of note whose name I did not catch, recently dead. He asked the audience to please refrain from applause and to leave quietly at the performance's end.

As with an opera, a successful performance requires the best of both the orchestral forces and the quartet of vocal soloists; there are arias, certainly, but this is an ensemble piece par excellence.

The tenor, Fabio Sartore, is a huge man, Pavarotti huge, with a huge voice whose cruising volume is loud and whose loud is very very loud. He sang touchingly in the quiet moments, with his voice under control, but there was no middle between that and very, very loud; consequently the duets, trios and quartets in which he participated were unbalanced, his voice dominating.

The soprano, the mezzo and the bass were more finely tuned, and among them the ensembles were well balanced. Each vocal line could be heard, and their voices blended naturally at delicately nuanced volumes.

I had heard the soprano, Anna Samuil, in Berlin as Donna Anna. Here as there, she is an attractive women with a lovely voice. She wore a diva glam gown and was beautifully made up. Vocally she was convincing and musical, but nothing sent shivers up my spine until the closing Libera Me when her voice exploded into technicolor. On the other hand, the mezzo, Anna Smirnova seemed to be wearing no makeup, was anything but glammed up, and sang with a deeply convincing conviction, eyes often closed. Freed from the dramatic constraints of the opera stage, which, on all but rare occasions, the big moments are thrown to the soprano, in his Requiem Verdi was able to indulge in his love of the mezzo voice, and he gives her stupendous music that Smirnova sang with Verdi in her heart, from a whisper to a full-on torrent of glorious, beautifully pitched sound.

If you ever wondered what a Rafaello angel or stable-boy looked like in his thirties, watch bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk. He is as handsome as his voice, tall and imposing onstage, his instrument as dark and silky as the black satin lapels of his tuxedo. From his hushed "Mors, stupebit," to the urgently lyrical Confutatis, to the bone-crushing climaxes of the full-tilt "Rex Tremendae" he sang with poetry and with soul.

The opening was so hushed as to hover like a fine mist over the stage. As in his Gotterdammerung in May, Mehta incited barbaric splendor from the orchestra, as well as the softest sighs and soaring melodies. He has grown as an artist I have heard over many years; his Gotterdammerung and Requiem, both eschatological extravaganzas, were served up with equal amounts of gravitas and splendor.

There were no bravi, although there should have been; and as the audience crowded out silently, the whisper of "bellissima" was ubiquitous.

A Monday morning

Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti
Headed out for the John Wesley show on San Giorgio Maggiore and realized halfway there that it was probably closed today.

One my way I stopped in Palazzo Loredan, part of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, in Campo S. Stefano. I was lured in by a small video installation for the Biennale (L'Anima della pietra by Fabrizio Plessi), but the rooms that described the history and function of the Istituto were were much more interesting. Unfortunately, the rest of the Palazzo is only open to look at for Culture Week in April. The renaissance building was done up extensively inside in the baroque style with 18th c. frescoes.

The Istituto is devoted to promoting and protecting the sciences, humanities and the arts and it has tremendous historical archives; its online databases are considered among the finest in Europe.

They have programs and prizes in everything from lung cancer treatment to the ecology and future of the lagoon to art and literature, and the history and current state of Italy.

San Moise
The first time I saw San Moise its time blackened facade transformed its swarming statuary into photo-negative. Now, clean, in the bright sunlight, it is easy to see the intrinsic ugliness which Ruskin abhorred. But the altar sculpture, Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai, is strangely stunning and there is beautiful baroque stonework inside.

San Giorgio
As I suspected, the John Wesley show was closed, but between vaporettos I had time to notice how the great Palladio church has a sand-blasted appearance; it's smooth, clean surfaces make you wonder what the original stone must have looked like, sharply cut in shiny marble, bright white Istrian stone. Today's buffed surface, absent edges, is a clean but mute testimony to the erosion of time. It also makes me long to see the facade as conceived and designed by Palladio, with the porch thrusting in true Roman style toward the water of the bacino; a design the conservative Dominican friars scrapped as soon as Palladio died, reducing his concept to an echo of the superimposed facade of Redentore.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gotterdammerung at La Fenice

I saw the world end twice in two months, which is a lot. But each time was radically different.

The Zubin Mehta-Fura dels Baus-Maggio Musicale Cirque du Soleil / Star Wars version of Wagner's Gotterdammerung was higher on spectacle but lower on psychologtical depth, while the Jeffrey Tate-Robert Carsten-Fenice production was lower on spectacle and profoundly moving psychologically.

I only saw the Florence Gotterdammerg, so I don't know how the first three operas of their cycle were handled. But I have watched the Fenice Ring grow and develop, stumbling through cast changes and delays and still without a production of Rheingold, the first part, which they skipped. But the vision has been consistent, both musically, in the hands of Maestro Tate, and dramatically, in the hands of Robert Carsten.

The sets and costumes are realistic, a war-torn mis-en-scene in which Valhalla was a fabulous penthouse and the Hall of the Gibichungs a monolithic fascist-style office, a totalitarian nightmare 1950's style.

As the opera opens the Norns, three blind sisters who weave the fabric of destiny, find that the rope has snapped and the future of their universe has ended. In Florence they were suspended, floating above the stage, eerie and magical. At Fenice, they were caretakers in the basement of the universe in which Valhalla was the penthouse, arranging the detritus of the world, wrapping the rope of fate on on picture frames and furniture and bundled slabs of the World Ash Tree as they lament "the eternal knowing is ended."

As the scene changes to the Valkyrie rock, Siegfried, Stefan Vinke, and Brunnhilde, Jayne Casselman, are still entangled in passionate sex as the sun rises. You get the feeling nothing could stop them, that they are so happy that the world could end without their noticing. Unfortunately, it doesn't let them.

Siegfried resembles a buzz-cut Marine bear in fatiques, chunky and frisky. Brunnhilde is a blonde vixen, part biker girl, part earth mother, cut from the Jessica Lange mold. Once a demigod, she retains some of her former grandeur, but for the moment she is all human, a woman passionately in love. They cannot keep their hands off each other. And when she gives him her beloved steed, he reacts as if he had just been given the keys to a magnificent new Harley, every boy's dream come true: the woman he loves and the ride to match.

Nothing this Siegfried did matched Lance Ryan's singing suspended upside down, or the astonishingly soaring ease of his final scene after four hours of singing, in Florence. But Stefan Vinke was splendid, always convincing, agile and impetuous and passionate. His energy never faltered and he sang his final scenes with the same gripping intensity as the first act duet.

La Fenice loved their voices; at the climax of their duet, they rang true and clear over the orchestra. The size of the space did not extend beyond the effective range of their instruments. They could sing more naturally, less pushed. And Jeffrey Tate is a considerate conductor, always scaling the orchestra so that the voices can be heard. If I were a singer, I would love him. You only realize, at the peak non-vocal moments, just how loud the orchestra can play with the governor off. At the great orchestral-vocal climaxes the voices could be heard as the final layer of a complex sound, but did not dominate, as they could and, sometimes, should.

In Florence's Teatro Communale the orchestra did overwhelm the voices at times, but Zubin Mehta has grown as a conductor since his earlier days when I considered him something of a lightweight. He shaped the music beautifully, and the brutal chords of the Funeral March were shattering. Tate's reading was less cataclysmic, but beautifully and deeply musical. The orchestra expressed the emotional subtext as the singers acted out the wrenching human drama. Tate and the orchestra got the biggest ovations of the night, a nose ahead of Brunnhilde who was loudly adored.

Jayne Casselman's transitions from ecstatic bride to abject victim of brutal betrayals were filled with physical detail and musical nuance. By the time she reaches bottom and betrays Siegfried, who has betrayed her, she is Blanche DuBois. Siegfried, drugged with a magic potion, honestly does not remember her; and she just can't believe it. The horror grows as she realizes that everyone in the room is on the same page as Siegfried and she stands alone, completely and utterly betrayed. Is that not the essence of madness, perceiving the world in a way that everyone says is fantasy? To Siegfried's fierce oath that he has never seen her before, she swears even more fiercely that she is his bride and he has betrayed her, even though no one believes her and everyone thinks she is crazy.

But it is only drugged Siegfried who doesn't believe her; the other main characters all know exactly what is going on, which makes Brunnhilde's apparent paranoia even more siniser. There is, first and foremost, Hagen, who gave Siegfried the potion and conceived the plot against Brunnhilde. In Florence, Hans Peter Konig as Hagen had an amazing barrel-organ bass that was capable of lifting you right off your seat. He was gripping and compelling and his voice is a force of nature. The Fenice Hagen, GIdon Saks, was suave and insinuating, both sly and ominous, handsome and fearsome, but his singing did not surpass the memory of Konig.

The Fenice production did not need gimmicks, laser lights, bungee cords or floating aquaria in which the Rhine Maidens sang, actually submerged, in Florence. This was a fourth wall production and what we watched was taken seriously, literally, and was starkly real.

So how, in that framework, do you handle the end of the world? The stage directions are impossible-- as Brunnhilde rides her horse into Siegfried's funeral pyre the fire rises up, the Gibichung Hall collapses, on high Valhalla burns, and then the Rhine overflows its banks, everything dissolving in primal chaos. In Florence it was a 60's-ish son et lumiere affaire, with a magical constellation of bodies writhing in mid-air.

But Carsten did something I have never seen before.

Brunnhilde stepped forward to the front of the stage and a wall slid down behind her. She stood alone in the spotlight, and delivered Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene as if it were a Shakespearean monolog, a confidence between her and us. It is a mad proposition; everything rides on how convincing the performance is. Nothing is more exposed than standing alone on the stage bearing the entire weight of the drama, stripped of the usual theatrical shenannigans. The miracle is that it worked.

Casselman took us along with her every step of the way, and when the singing ended the curtain rose on an empty stage swathed in mist. Brunnhilde walked stage center, raising her arms as a purifying rain fell. The orchestra told the rest of the story, how love is the ultimate redemption of the world. In Florence at that point they pushed two massive blocks onto the stage upon which "L'amour" was written when they met in the center. You didn't need that reminder at La Fenice. You felt it in Brunnhilde's exaltatation, as she, along with the music, disappeared.

Monday, July 6, 2009

San Gimignano | The medieval laundromat

Imagine you live in a town of a few thousand people, located on a hilltop, encircled by walls and miles distant from the nearest river. Include in your imaginings that there is neither electricity nor plumbing, your only vehicle is a beast of burden and, if you're lucky, a cart, and that you live in a strange tower hundreds of feet high with an interior space of at most 30 square feet, no windows, no toilets, no running water.

Where would you do your laundry?

That accurately describes life in San Gimignano between the eleventh century, when the home of choice was a tall, narrow tower, to the end of the 14th century when, decimated by the Black Plague, the city was annexed by the Florentines and its independent existence effectively ended.

There was, of course, a solution to the laundry problem, a solution so enchanting that it belongs in a fairytale.

The solution is known as the Fonti Medievale, the medieval springs. To get there you exit the city through the Porta delle Fonti and head downhill.

Here the city built a series of arcaded pools in a cool spring-fed grotto.

In my imagination it is not all that different then from today.

It is a hot summer day; the hills are green. The air smells green. Across from the Fonti is the biggest fig tree I have ever seen, covered with figs still too small to eat, and creating dark bowers of shade. Further down the hill are berry bushes.

The unpaved path from the Fonti leads through gently sloping vineyards and scrub-covered hillsides into a valley between these hills and a the next range. The ranges recede in the humid summer mist like waves on the sea. Distant thunder rumbles occasionally, but there is no other sound outside of the buzz of bees and the soft burbling of water.

Three women, who appear to be French school teachers, come, admire, take pictures, and leave to do the walk around the city walls. The fonti are deserted, except for the golden orange fish that swim there now.

I imagine that in 1330, when the frescoes in the Duomo were being painted, it was a different scene. Women gathered around the Fonti to wash their laundry and, probably, themselves. The may have let the clothes soak in the pools while they sat under the fig tree eating ripe figs and drinking spring water or, perhaps, cool white wine.

They gossip and sing, washing their clothes and rinsing them, wringing them as dry as possible. Then they spread them out on the low bushes or hang them from the outer branches of the trees so that they are dry in less than two hours in the heat of the mid-day sun.

Winter was a different story, but I would venture that a lot more laundry was done in summer than in winter.

When the sun passes into the western sky, casting shadows over the hillside, they would take down the dry laundry and fold it, and load in onto their donkey, or into the sacks they may have tied to their own backs, and trudged back uphill toward the Porta delle Fonti.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

San Gimignano: Theme Park with Towers

I can hear the man behind me but I can't see him. I am quite certain he looks much like the man in front of me: bermudas, sandals (or sneakers with high white socks), a corny hat; he carries a map in one hand and a camera in the other. His backpack is stuffed with liter bottles of tepid water. His teenage daughter looks bored, Junior wants another gelato, and Mum is looking for cheap souvenirs in the shop windows.

Dad says, in fine British English, in a high moral tone as though setting Junior straight: "If it hadn't been for America I wouldn't have met Mummy and if I hadn't met Mummy you wouldn't be here." Junior, who has been dragged through three cities in as many days, looks like that mightn't be such a bad idea.

This could be a Theme Park. It is a Theme Park. Welcome to San Gimignano. The theme is Towers. Of the original 72, only dozen remain, but that's all it takes.

In the Piazza Duomo, the central square, people sit on the stone stairs of the Basilica. They are eating take-out sandwiches and taking pictures of each other. I stop in a bar for a wild boar salami sandwich with tomatoes and greens and chat with the waitress. I ask her how business is?

Terrible, she says. Nobody is buying anything except sandwiches and bottled water. The restaurants are empty. I tell her it is much the same in Venice, a larger theme park, but a theme park nonetheless, hit by the same downturn in tourism.

I ask her about walking to Certaldo, an even smaller town 11km away; not a bad walk, if it's not all su e giu, up and down. No, she says, it's all downhill, but, allora, uphill all the way back and the only bus is on Thursday. Besides, she says, it is too hot. Do that in April, she says. Not in the summer.

San Gimignano is barely three miles long and half as wide, a narrow swath of brick and stone atop a hill encircled by ancient walls. I had planned the walk to Certaldo the following afternoon. I wonder if there is enough of interest in San Gimignano for two full days?

San Gimignano was an Etruscan town in the 3rd C. BC, and history picks it up again in the 10th C. From its hilltop overlooking the Val d'Elsa it became key link on a major trade and pilgrimage route. The burghers of San Gimignano became rich, and as they became rich, each put up a tower until the town resembled a stone porcupine. The Duomo was consecrated in 1148; it is plain, forthright, unadorned; but inside, the high stone walls are covered with frescoes. The Old Testament Cycle on the left was painted by Bartolo di Fredi between 1356 and 1367. The New Testament Cycle was painted by Barna da Siena and Lippo Memmi.

Here you exit the Theme Park and enter the heart of the medieval imagination in full flower. I am slow, impatient and easily distracted. It sometimes takes a while for that transformation to sink in.

I quickly take the measure of the Duomo, scanning the nave frescoes and check out the Chapel of S. Fina. Frescoed by Ghirlandaio in 1478 the chapel is centered around a monumental gilt and marble altar/reliquary. (S. Fina, a local girl, died young, had visions, and was fast-tracked to sainthood so that San Gimignano could have one of their own.) The background of the fresco on the left is a grand Roman apse, open, in front of the towers of San GImignano. An angel hovers like a hummingbird near the belfry arches of the Torre Grossa, the big town hall tower which set the height limit and above which no private tower could go, looking then exactly as it looks now.

The chapel is pure renaissance, arranged like a theatrical event. The frescoes on the right and left walls flank the reliquary altar; polychrome stucco and marble curtains are swagged back like a proscenium to reveal the reliquary. In the center of the gilded marble is a small glass pane. Behind the glass is a lifelike painted wooden bust of a young girl; the saint's brain is supposed to be inside.

When I exit the chapel, the New Testment frescoes broadside me. I sit on a pew and stare in mute admiration. Admittedly most people have a low tolerance for these images, but I could look at them forever.

The first one that catches my eye is a panel depicting the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. It is a simple waterscape in greens, aquas and greys. In the panel below, Christ sits at its center like a deposed Byzantine emperor in a robe of gold silk lined in aqua over a garnet tunic. The vicious anger of his mockers dissolves in the calm and peaceful center of his blindfolded face. Next to that, the procession of the cross is a mad cacophony of jagged lines formed of crosses, spears and ladders, agitated, like lightning. This defies any stereotype of medieval art. It is a totally unique pictorial language, a dynamic medieval expressionism I have only seen here, par excellence, by Barna da Siena and Lippo Memmi, painted around 1330.

SPQR is embossed on the shields of the Roman foot soldiers while angels spin like pinwheels in the lurid crimson sky above the crucifixion. A haloed saint in imperial robes rides a horse whose hide is pink satin brocade. The silver designs on the soldiers' leather shields form spider webs around Christ being kissed by Judas. The prayer in the garden is visited by echoes of Rousseau and Rivera from the future. The last supper is a cubist arrangement of simple objects laid upon a white table surrounded by apostles.

By comparison, the Old Testament frescoes on the opposite side of the nave are more restrained and conventional, still fanciful and lovely in their approach to storytelling. But high up in the lunettes the story of Adam and Eve comprises a universe and a language all its own. It begins with a placid representation of Creation, almost abstract in its formal symbolism. Adam being given dominion over the beasts resembles a richly embroidered tapestry with lush and fantastic floral detail and a phalanx of animals -- a whole zoo -- massed behind him. Eve emerges from Adam's side whole, as from a womb.

The frescoes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are among the crown jewels of Italian art, running through Italy like a vein of pure gold. Taken as a body of work they are a wondrous fabric of art and imagination. They are festive and provocative, humble and exalted, profoundly touching and always fascinating to look at.

The Byzantine ideal was to reproduce endlessly the same perfect image, hence the extreme stylization; the style left little room for personality. In the renaissance, individuality gave way to idealized forms and classic beauty. In the medieval frescoes that ushered in the renaissance, personality prevails. The pathos of Jesus mocked is beyond words; it lives.