Sunday, 25 September 2016

Puck's Song

As you do, I was sitting around, idly wondering which of half a dozen potential "projects" to take forward, when I suddenly remembered that I'd already put a book together from the photo-collages I'd made illustrating / interpreting Rudyard Kipling's poem "Puck's Song" earlier in the year, but forgotten all about it. I had intended to improve both them and it, but other things attracted my attention, and the impetus has gone: I think it will now have to remain pretty much what it is. It's still a good piece of work, though, I think, and if you're interested here's a link to the book preview on Blurb:
I've only made a paperback available this time but, as usual, there are also PDF and e-book versions, both identical to but considerably cheaper than the book (and in some ways better, not least because more profitable for me!). The e-book is presented on Blurb separately from the paperback and PDF, and Blurb claim it is now "available for Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple iPad, Android devices, and Mac or PC computers", but I haven't tested this claim. Don't blame me if it doesn't work... It's definitely fine on my iPad 2.

Link to paperback and PDF
Link to e-book

I then realised that, conveniently, "Puck's Song" has twelve verses, so this year's calendar has sort of made itself. Each year I have a dozen or so of these calendars made by Vistaprint, and give them away as Christmas/New Year gifts to a select set of recipients. However, if you'd like to grace your walls with one next year (an artist friend living in the Dordogne always deploys his in the lavatory, where he says it can be given appropriate concentrated attention) then let me know via email (see "Since You Ask...", top right) and, provided the demand is neither too great nor too small, I will sell you one for £15 plus postage, payable via PayPal.


Among the potential projects I referred to above is a recent fascination with the look and format of traditional broadside ballad sheets. I've had a lifelong interest in traditional folksong, particularly those songs and ballads which deal with the supernatural and lengthy enforced holidays in the land of the Fair Folk, an interest which was given a boost a few years ago when, doing some family history research, I discovered my paternal line comes from the Scottish Borders, not the Highlands, as I had assumed. It seems previous incarnations of my Y-DNA had been shepherds and farmhands, hanging around precisely the landscape of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Indeed, a cousin of a direct ancestor was one of those peasant versifiers that Scotland seemed to breed like midges.

A further nudge was given by a visit to the recent Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library, where some prime examples of Georgian and Victorian popular typography were on display. Ballad sheets, in particular, I find very compelling. There is something about those long, narrow strips of paper, often topped with a woodcut illustration, that appeals to the illustrator and graphic designer in me. Kipling, and in particular "Puck's Song", seemed an obvious place to start.


Talking of Scotland and the supernatural, some years ago I heard a brief account on a radio programme of the "Brown Seer", a semi-legendary figure, a man with a Nostradamus-like gift for ambiguously-phrased foresight, whose main instrument of divination was a stone with a hole in  it. Intrigued, for years I tried to follow this up, but could find no trace of him. I then discovered, completely by accident, that he is actually known as the Brahan Seer, and everything fell into place. It's a fascinating story.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Deal


St. Catherine's Hill, September 2016
"Something occurred to me when we were making that film," says Swinton, "about the relationship of love to loneliness." The latter is, for her, "the last great taboo of modern western civilisation. Capitalism is built on the idea that one can go out and buy another scented candle and get less lonely somehow. But I think the deal is that you are fully lonely, and the sooner we accept and embrace our loneliness, the healthier we are. And that real love has nothing to do with that romantic idea of oneness, of distracting and healing each other from our loneliness, it’s about witnessing each other as individuals and saying: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours."
Tilda Swinton (interview with Catherine Shoard, Guardian, 1/4/2010)

Old Winchester Hill, September 2016

Monday, 19 September 2016

Truthiness

I was back on campus last week for the first time in several months, to carry out some errands and to catch up with the news. It seemed I could barely turn a corner without bumping into someone I used to work with, as they scurried about the place getting ready for the looming October invasion. It does no harm to remind myself of the pressures of the world of work, and I won't pretend it didn't feel rather good, to be a man of comparative leisure.

As usual, building work was everywhere; as usual, it looked like it was running over schedule. To get to one of my favourite windows (third picture) I had to negotiate a barricaded-off road (first picture). I find it interesting that the truthfulness of photography means that the second and third photos are contained in the first, and the first in the second (and probably both of the other two are somewhere in the third, if you were to look closely enough at the reflections) even though this formed no part of my intentions as I "worked" the scene.






One of the most characteristic and compelling things about "straight" photography is its truthfulness, that visual truth in depth, as opposed to the selective "truthiness" of most visual art. Sure, you can frame and exclude and edit, but the medium's essence is to show whatever fell within the chosen angle of view, without prejudice or censorship. You might say that getting the camera's truthfulness and your own agenda of truthiness into alignment is in large part what the art of photography is about. Somehow, that seems important, in our allegedly "post-truth" world, where politicians can assert that "we have had enough of experts", and in which merely repeating something often enough – particularly something people want to be true – can make it true, or at least give it "truthiness".

Although the central paradox of art remains: that a package of artful and even contradictory lies, distortions, and misrepresentations can convey more truth than a plain account of the apparent facts. With appropriate emphasis on the "can", of course. Nothing is ever simple, and point-of-view is everything.
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent — of Miss Vincy, for example.
George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871, chapter XXVII

Friday, 16 September 2016

Really Real


Not the real thing?
(B&W conversion from Ricoh GR)

I've tried to put a lid on my photo-book addiction since retiring, but just a little one now and again can't hurt, surely, can it? (I know, I know, that's what all addicts say...) But one I couldn't resist and which you might like to consider is the re-issue of The Window of My Studio by Josef Sudek, published by Torst. It's both a remarkable body of work – a true reminder of why photography matters – and a beautifully made book. It's the real thing.

Too few people seem to know about Sudek, which I always find surprising. I mean, how many one-armed Czech photographers of genius have there been? In the 1980s I came across a Sudek portfolio in the Czech Profily series; the real thing, actual prints made from the negatives, though not the really real thing i.e. not printed by Sudek himself, who died in 1976.  I bought it, if memory serves, for just £25 (I did actually check with the seller that some zeros weren't missing from the price). I immediately became a fan, especially of his panoramic images of Prague, and the "Window" series. Luckily, I was too lazy to frame any of them, as the intact portfolio of eighteen prints is now quite sought after. I'm never sure why, as the choice of printing paper really doesn't do them justice.

Back then, of course, monochrome was still very much the "real thing", as far as most amateurs and artists were concerned, although the challenge from colour was gaining strength. Aesthetic considerations aside, the main point was that you could control and fine-tune the entire process, end to end, and – better still – it was relatively cheap and could be done pretty much anywhere. However, if you've only ever seen reproductions in books or mediocre black and white printing on plasticky paper, you probably have no idea of the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from a richly-toned monochrome image well printed on a classic fibre-based paper like Agfa Record Rapid. It's the difference between, say, Cadbury's Bourneville and Lindt Excellence 70% Dark chocolate. Air-dried and split-toned in selenium, the comparison is with, well, name your own choice of organic, fair-trade, single-estate cocoa chocolate.

I bought my first enlarger, a Czech-made Meopta, from a junk shop in 1984 and set up a darkroom in the corridor of my flat, working at night, often into the small hours and, like thousands of other enthusiasts, developed my own film in the bathroom, hanging the rolls of negatives to dry from a clothes line over the bath. To advance my skills, I attended a "black and white exhibition print" course given by Mike Skipper of the Oxford Darkroom, and developed a reasonable level of facility in the black arts of making test strips, judging paper grades, and dodging and burning highlights and shadows.

Sort of the real thing...
(scan from 6x6 colour negative)

But, much as I loved classic monochrome work and that of contemporary exemplars like Thomas Joshua Cooper, Fay Godwin, Raymond Moore, and John Blakemore, I could never quite raise my own game to a satisfactory level. It was only when I made the move to colour that I really started to get anywhere. It was then, "Goodbye, Fay and Ray; hello, Martin Parr and Jem Southam". Sadly, it was also hello, shrinking bank balance. Anyone who has attempted to process and print colour negative film will know why I was only too happy to pay for someone else to do it, but with the arrival of young children and an even more rapidly shrinking fund of time and money, it looked like my output would soon be reduced to the occasional roll of family snaps.

Then, of course, digital happened. I still have the first little colour print I made on the original A4 Epson Stylus Photo printer, which has much the same personal significance for me as Fox Talbot's image of that latticed window at Lacock Abbey does in the history of photography. Nothing spectacular in itself, but containing within it the promise of a whole new era. In the case of digital, an era of colour prints made in daylight, with complete control over exposure, contrast and colour balance, and – incredibly – with all those adjustments saved in an image file, so that multiple identical prints could be run off while cooking the kids their evening meal. People forget how, when using film, each of those essential adjustments and fine-tunings had to be found by making systematic test prints, and then the whole lot repeated every time a print is made. All of them, every time! You'd better have made good printing notes, and have plenty of time, patience, and printing paper to spare. Digital was truly a revolution in quality, convenience, and expense, especially for those of us who favoured colour.

But...  The sense that monochrome was the real, authentic thing persisted, like a guilty conscience. There is a belief in truth to materials that pervades most artistic production, whether it be ceramics, print-making, painting, photography, whatever. Post-modernism has undermined this, certainly, but most true makers still have a strong feeling that certain practices are honest, in that they respect both the nature of the materials used and the necessary skills one must acquire to use them, and that other practices – and in particular shortcuts that enable the unskilled to mimic, without effort, the end-results of mastery – are not. However, when we talk of the authenticity of monochrome, it can only ever be film (or some other light-sensitized substrate) and chemical processing that we are talking about. In digital image-making (where things like instant "watercolour" or "charcoal sketch" effects filters are exactly the sort of shortcut that serious makers reject) monochrome photography is, ironically, only achievable by means of precisely that sort of filter and off-the-peg preset. It's all about creating the look without undergoing the process. How could it not be? A digital image is captured in colour, electronically, in regular rows of pixels. The attempt to render the effect of light on randomly-distributed silver halides (not to mention that tricky repertoire of darkroom skills) can never be anything other than fakery, or, in our current favourite ugly-but-useful word, a skeuomorph*.

Does this matter? When I look at the work of Josef Sudek, I naturally feel the urge to replicate it. Imitation is, after all, one of the surest ways to raise your game. But, as any good forger knows, to make a decent copy you need to use the same materials as the original. Wood-effect veneer on MDF isn't going to convince anyone your bookcase was made by Sheraton, or even Ercol. Though it might nonetheless be entirely adequate for your purposes (for example, for putting your books on)**. So, let's just say that I'm ambivalent about "digital monochrome". No, it's not the real thing, judged by past standards, but we're now in a time when the nature of  many "real things" has changed, and under constant challenge from radically new means of production, reproduction and distribution. Nothing much is the real thing any more, is it? But the fact remains that I'm still a lot more successful with colour than with black and white. Which is hardly a problem, but annoying, and flipping the pages of The Window of My Studio makes me want to do something about that. But, given that I have absolutely no desire ever to set up a darkroom again, I suppose I'll just have to figure out how to fake it better.

The real(ish) thing: scan from B&W 645 negative
New Year storm, Pembrokeshire 1991
(Did I mention I like Thomas Joshua Cooper?)

* Getting strong competition from "euhemerism", though... "The theory that gods arose out of the deification of actual historical heroes".

** IKEA claim to sell one BILLY bookcase every ten seconds, somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Entomology



I've been doing a lot of clearing out, packing up, and throwing away lately. This takes a certain physical toll, obviously. Heaving crates in and out of cars and and up and down stairs in the heat and dust is definitely a job for a younger man, and I find I tire more easily than I used to. But it has also been emotionally exhausting. Unexpectedly so, although I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising. Our children are moving out of the family home, which is as it should be, but the imminence of an "empty nest" does draw your attention to the accumulated stuff of 25 years of family life, which fills a house several times over with a compacted tangle of memories and associations that is, at the same time, a precious legacy and a substantial obstacle to moving on. You know that you shouldn't and can't keep all that stuff for ever, but dealing with it requires a degree of ruthless unsentimentality which is hard to summon up in sustained doses. In fact, that effort is actually far more exhausting than humping the dusty boxes down to Oxfam and the Recycling Centre.

An attachment to inanimate objects is a natural human tendency, but one which can get out of hand. I accept that I have what we might call an advanced tolerance for clutter, though not to a pathological level. Mind you, it is curious, isn't it, how the opposite tendency – to continually discard stuff as if it were toxic – is not popularly regarded as a bad thing? Hoarding and a fear of clutter and disorder are doubtless two sides of the same neurotic coin, but I'm not aware of any TV programmes dedicated to filling the anaemically-minimalist houses of the super-hip with remedial clutter. That could be fun to watch, though, I reckon. Oh, come on, just a couple of piles of books over there, where's the harm? And, hey, why not leave the washed-up dishes on the draining board for a couple of days? You're only going to use them again, after all... And I want to see that pair of socks on the banister still there when we come back next week! We could call it How Sterile is Your House? or maybe Does Anyone Really Live Here?

I suppose the truest test of emotional steel, though, is when it comes to dealing with your own sentimental objects, especially those things you have kept close by you for most of your life. I had a dramatic illustration of this just recently.


A very long time ago, in my pre-teen years, I was a keen collector of moths. A teacher at my primary school was a serious amateur entomologist and palaeontologist and, spotting my love of natural history, he turned me on to both hobbies. For a few years, I was a full-on moth-nut. I'd sling a lightbulb and white sheet over the washing line, and net anything that stumbled drunkenly into my trap. With the guidance of books from the library I constructed my own entomologist's kit; a net from a coat hanger and a bamboo cane, a killing bottle from a ground-glass jar with ammonia-soaked plaster in the bottom, a relaxing tin from a tupperware box, setting boards from balsa sheet and tracing paper, and so on. Like the naturalist-collectors of the Edwardian period, who shot birds out of the sky and skinned them to get a proper look at their plumage, I was slaughtering and preserving the very things I purported to admire. My generation may have been the last not to see the inherent contradiction, though the hands-on skills in miniature taxidermy and species identification we developed in the process were not negligible. We were probably also the last 12-year-olds to be able to enter a High Street chemist, ask for a bottle of ether or ammonia ("For my killing bottle, mister!"), and walk out unaccompanied by the police or social services.

The one item I did not make myself was a double-sided "clamshell" wooden box, about 18" x 12", bought mail-order from Watkins & Doncaster – still in business after 140 years! – in which my collection was kept. Despite giving up the hobby in my teen years, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of one of those paths not taken, which say as much about us and who we are as the paths we did choose – and it has followed me loyally as part of my material entourage over the years. However, until a few weeks ago, I hadn't actually opened it for decades.

Yikes. It seems my skills at preservation, or the air-tightness of the box were not quite as good as claimed. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, and I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the rich metaphor I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I heaved the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre that afternoon.

I suppose a proper artist would have made something more of this, though goodness knows what. Certainly more than a thinly-veiled blog-post about the piercing sadness of throwing out your children's old toys. Although... Being of an inveterate post-war waste-not-want-not stripe, I did keep some of the tiny, beautifully hand-written labels – annotated with species, date and place of capture – removed from the delicate pins of a small, antique collection of butterflies I'd acquired to augment my collection. It struck me that, hmm, with a bit of scanning, there might be the germ of a photo-collage project there, maybe even a little artist's book...


Friday, 9 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 5: Guardians


Pirate limb-replacement has advanced
since the days of Long John Silver

Oh, look, here's one more, final postcard, the one that always arrives late, long after the sender's return, like a message from another dimension. Whenever was I in Florence? Oh, yes... It seems like a long time ago now.

As in most places with pretensions to grandiosity, there seemed to be a lot of lions around. The so-called "Medici Lions" are quite famous, I believe, and widely copied, but look to me suspiciously like the logo of a football club, though, curiously, not one used by ACF Fiorentina. Maybe the reference is to a particularly butch Florentine ball-game known as calcio fiorentino which is still played each year on June 24, pitting the four quarters of the city against each other. Apparently the match proper only begins after a wild brawl between the equivalent of the rugby forwards, intended to incapacitate as many of the opposition as possible, in which punches, head-butts, and choking are allowed. This may go some way towards explaining some of the inexplicable outbreaks of aggressive behaviour in supermarkets I observed, although the oppressive heat and a certain impatience with visitors from the Far East are probably also factors. But as a decorative and apotropaic motif signifying overweening pride, aggression, and determination to be at the top of any food chain, literal or metaphorical, lions can't be beaten, I suppose.


Now, I'm not saying Italian men are vain, but let's just say there are probably a few more mirrors in their police stations and barracks than would be considered appropriate in Britain. This Russell Brand look-alike paratrooper is guarding the Baptistery, a prime tourist site immediately in front of the Duomo. I was hoping to get the Duomo reflected in his wraparound shades, but he kept turning his head the wrong way, no doubt so that I would get his good side.


The Duomo and Baptistery are an impressively strange sight, close up, especially at night. Entirely clad in creamy-white marble outlined geometrically with green marble, they look like enormous but temporary stage-sets made out of sheets of painted plywood; the complete opposite of the intended effect. In the case of the Baptistery, being octagonal doesn't help: you are inevitably reminded of an Elizabethan playhouse. The overall impression is rather as if someone had decided to "improve" them with two different sorts of marble-effect sticky-backed plastic. Which, in the case of the cathedral, is more or less what did happen.

"Two households, both alike in dignity..."

Guardians come in all sorts of guises, of course. Girolamo Savonarola was a self-appointed guardian of public morality in Renaissance Florence, rather à la Taliban, and got himself burned at the stake for his trouble. It seems people just don't appreciate having their morality guarded.

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo
in the Museo di San Marco

Of course, we all know who really looks after stuff, anywhere in the world, all the time. It's a tough, dirty job, with not much scope for moral scruple, dandified posturing, or leonine pride. Enough said.


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Top Tips on Photographing Autumn Colours


Moscow State Circus van, Bristol October 2015

It's that time of year again, which always seems to come round at this time of year, when photographers desperately in need of something – anything! – to photograph turn their attention to death and decay, deep in the woods. No, not dead bodies – what are you, nuts? (or Sally Mann?) – we're talking about leaves. Yes, up here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere we're about to get yet another window of opportunity to make some perfectly competent pictures of dying foliage glowing in the sun, just like the millions of other identical pictures that have always already been out there, ever since the unboxing video of God's first roll of Kodachrome.

Not sure how to proceed? Here are our Idiotic Hat top tips:
  • Don't. Just don't. Really: don't bother.
  • If you must, however, why not assemble all your "autumn colour" images into a handy portfolio, album, or even a self-published book? This will make it easier for your children to discard them all when you die, and they're going through your photographs looking for family memorabilia.
  • Or why not photograph other photographers doing "autumn colour"? There will be plenty around if you research your locations properly (look for trees, for example) and, who knows, maybe you will embarrass a few into some kind of satori? What am I, of all people, doing out here, taking photographs which are nothing but soulless, second-rate copies of photographs of photographs of photographs? They'll thank you for it!
  • Maybe ask yourself, "Why do I feel compelled to document these particular colours out here, right now, when I generally walk straight past other, equally interesting colour combinations during the rest of the year?" Do you really need permission to notice colours? (see our – I'm afraid rather similar – "Top Tips on Photographing Sunsets").
  • Don't be content with insipid "natural" colours, especially as found in our pathetically drab British woods! They're not really "beautiful" enough, are they? If you can't afford a trip to New England or Japan for a proper Fall Color Workshop, why not simply exaggerate those lacklustre colours in processing? All sorts of techniques are available, from HDR to simply going a little crazy with the curves and sliders. Behold: I bring you autumn on planet Hyperbole!
  • And, by the way, NEVER cover your child in fallen leaves up to the neck for that cutesy album shot when out in the woods! Just don't do it, you idiot! Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks, is a serious business. Much more serious than any me-too autumnal snapshot.
Does that help? I hope there's a takeaway in there somewhere for everyone. Especially that last one. You're welcome!

Calibrating a tree for peak autumn.
Yep! Nearly there!

Sorry... I shouldn't be so cynical. If anything, it is a matter for celebration that so many people can derive so much pleasure from something so matter-of-fact and yet so mysteriously unpredictable as the turning of the seasons. It's an instinct that runs very deep. And yet...  Just as the Japanese haiku tradition ossified into seasonal tropes, keyed by conventional "seasonal" words ("moon", unqualified, always means "autumn", for example), so photography has a tendency to settle around a number of banal themes, of which "autumn colour" is just one.

Or, I should say, photography as a hobby. Photography as an art practice, for want of a better expression, is bedevilled by its own clichés, of course, but I think it's true to say that most hobbyists are conformists by nature, and want nothing more than to reproduce as closely as possible perceived models of excellence. Why else build yet another model of HMS Victory, or dress up as Luke Skywalker? There is a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in achieving an acknowledged benchmark of skill; it's how trades have traditionally operated, and the true underlying meaning of the word "masterpiece". About photography as a profession I have nothing useful to say, though, other than that if someone were to offer me good money to provide them with "autumn colour" pictures, I'd be only too happy to oblige. You want leaves, I got 'em. And you can always use someone else's kid for the "buried in leaves" shot...

People have a right to point their cameras at whatever they like, and to imitate whatever models they choose, obviously, although I personally have an instinctive dislike for groupthink, and its tendency to sneer at anyone who chooses to be different. I prefer outliers, oddballs, misfits, and weirdos (though, naturally, I am myself none of the above). I would like to think that we can all, to our own limited capacities, in William Eggleston's words, be at war with the obvious. In fact, there's your Top Tip for Autumn Colour: this year, why not be at war with the obvious?

Obviously autumn
Bristol October 2015

Monday, 5 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 4: Encounters with Art



If you have the slightest interest in art history you can't really go to Florence and not visit the Uffizi. Well, you can, obviously  – I have visited Paris a number of times, but so far failed to visit the Louvre – but the Uffizi is different from most famous European art collections: the Uffizi is Renaissance Florence. The vast, rich collection belongs there, even if it was in the main assembled and commissioned by a megalomaniac family of banker-gangsters. It's not some imperial treasure-house of random looting like, say, the National Gallery in London.

As I said in a previous postcard, getting in during high season takes some effort, in the form of pre-booking and queueing. Getting around the gallery takes effort, too, in the form of leg-work, neck-work, and at times elbow-work. It's a big, busy, palaceful of art, and there's an awful lot to see spread over several floors, with quite a few hotspots which are always crowded and bristling with cameras, phones, and selfie-sticks. I wonder if there is ever a moment – perhaps 10 seconds long, perhaps early on a rainy day deep in midwinter – when you can actually see the whole of Botticelli's Primavera? Quite possibly not. It's all a bit too reminiscent of the January sales, an exhausting succession of people jostling in front of paintings, people surrounding statues, people aimlessly milling about in front of more paintings, people gazing over each others' shoulders into cabinets, people queueing for the toilets* and the coffee bar, and I have rarely felt so comprehensively arted-out as when, finally, hours later, we stumbled out into the fresh air, only to be assaulted by the gigantic statuary arrayed about the Piazza della Signoria, bustling with yet more crowds of people with their cameras, phones, and selfie sticks. Noooo....



Frankly, I'm not wild about Renaissance art. All those Biblical scenes and martyrdoms, all those classical myths and legends, all that drapery and idealised anatomy... You need to have a much firmer grip on your Ovid and your Christian symbology than I do to make sense of it. So which Mary is that, anyway? The blue one or the one with the hair? Or is it some Greek goddess? Or maybe it's that nymph Wotsername who was turned into a whale by Zeus for refusing to have sex with him? No, you're thinking of Douglas Adams! What, Douglas Adams refused to have sex with Zeus? (OK, fine, suit yourself, insert your own humorous-facetious Renaissance art sketch... Not as easy as you think; why, even the cartoons are unfunny – ting!).

The most surprising thing I learned, by listening in on a tour guide's spiel, was that the woman surfing on a half-shell in Botticelli's Birth of Venus – over on the other side of the crowded room from his Primavera – is rumoured to have been modelled by Simonetta Vespucci, wife of explorer Amerigo Vespucci, after whom Vespucciland is named. Although, according to my fact-checkers, she was actually only very tenuously related to Amerigo by marriage to the son of a distant cousin, which just goes to show you shouldn't believe tour guides.

Trapped in a Palace of Art, they gazed
longingly upon the Real World

A couple of pictures did stop me in my tracks, though. In particular, a Crucifixion with Mary Magdalen by Luca Signorelli (1460-1523). The official description says, "The figures of Christ and the Magdalen stand out starkly against the sky" but, unless Signorelli had access to aerial transport of some kind (admittedly, something Florentine tinkerer Leonardo da Vinci had been working on) what we are looking at is not just the sky, nor is it a cloudscape seen from above – something no-one other than angels had ever yet seen (though angels were much more common in those days, if the paintings are any evidence) – but is, surely, a snow scene? At least, that's how it looked to me – white hedges casting long winter shadows across a field of unbroken snow – and the imaginative juxtaposition of the Middle East and a snow-covered field somewhere in northern Europe literally gave me the chills.


Most of all, though, I enjoyed the corridors, with their veiled views of the city outside, punctuated with Roman statuary and Renaissance busts and portraits, underneath a ceiling decorated with the most extraordinary and inventive 16th century "grotesque" mannerist frescos by Alessandro Allori. If you're ever in the Uffizi, don't forget to look up: otherwise you'll miss some of the best painting in the entire palace.


If you want a more intimate encounter with art which was, after all, intended to be a contemplative experience, and not a contact sport, there are better places. Many people recommend the Medici Riccardi Palace, which is certainly worth a visit, but we preferred the Museo di San Marco. This is an extraordinary place, originally a Dominican monastery which housed in its heyday, inter alia, a strong candidate for Best Painter Ever (Religious Category), Guido di Pietro a.k.a. Fra Giovanni da Fiesole a.k.a. Fra Angelico, not to mention the intriguing figure of Girolamo Savonarola. Having a painter of the quality of Fra Angelico arrive in-house was clearly an opportunity not to be passed up, and he seems to have been encouraged to decorate every flat surface available. In fact, I suspect surfaces may have been specially flattened just so he could decorate them; it's a bit like a highly-sophisticated indoors tagging job.


Remarkably, the individual monks' cells have survived intact; they're larger than I'd imagined, and certainly bigger than a typical student residence – Savonarola had a suite of two. And each cell has been given a personalised painted aid to contemplation, many by the Angelic Brother Giovanni himself.


Most amazing of all, there is so much painting and fresco about the place that you can stand, unsupervised, within touching distance of unprotected artworks and painted plaster dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. No queues, no crowds, no selfie-sticks. Just you and the angelic brushwork of various richly-talented brothers who, in another time, would have been strutting their stuff in quite different ways and places.

Inevitably, I suppose, it brought to mind Robert Browning's poem "Fra Lippo Lippi" which, though long, is well worth a read if you don't know it, and is as interesting a meditation on the nature of art and its uneasy relations with the monastic life and religion as you'll find anywhere.
... Six words there,
While I stood munching my first bread that month:
"So, boy, you're minded," quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, 'twas refection-time,—
"To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce" . . . The mouthful of bread? thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
Have given their hearts to — all at eight years old.
Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
'Twas not for nothing — the good bellyful,
The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
And day-long blessed idleness beside!
from Fra Lippo Lippi
Drawing by Fra Filippo Lippi
on the reverse of a painting
(Medici Riccardi Palace)

* Worst. Gallery. Toilets. Ever. Srsly! Apart from being a lengthy walk down into the dungeons, I have never, ever encountered male toilets in a major tourist attraction before WITH NO URINALS!!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 3: Tuscan Sunshine



Come on, we've spent enough time indoors! Outside the sun is shining. Tuscan light, painter's light... Probing, bathing, basking, baking everything, everywhere, all day. Most days, anyway.



A bus-ride through the Florentine suburbs, up into the hills – Fiesole, say, or Settignano – and then you're out in that classic Tuscan countryside, marinaded in sunshine, so beloved of the Euro-elite, the wealthy and well-connected, the ones who don't have to show up for work during the summer and who spend the silly season in a villa with a pool and, for the really top-drawer folk, accommodation for the staff and the personal protection detail. It may be different further away from Florence but here, where you can look down onto the apartment blocks, red-tiled roofs and tourist attractions of the city, it's very quiet, and very private, and there is absolutely no way to go off-road and go for a roam through the olive groves. Another Browning poem comes to mind, "Up at a Villa – Down in the City", though the polarities have reversed for the "persons of quality" since Browning's day.




It is also, of course, the countryside beloved of the photographic workshop, and I felt the dead hand of cliché on my shoulder at every turn. Which is why I take the X-20 on holiday... It's totally adequate for holiday snaps and collage material, but relieves the pressure of expectation for anything more substantial. That's what being on holiday is all about, isn't it? We never dress for dinner in Tuscany, darling. Totes de trop, babe! Solo quattro gatti!



Although, after a good day's sunshine, it can be a relief to get back indoors, close the shutters, and fire up the wi-fi... And, when it comes down to it, some of us are Night People by temperament, anyway.



Thursday, 1 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 2: La Specola




La Specola? No, not a fizzy drink, or some form of bribe paid to opticians, but a museum. Florence is full of galleries and museums, of course, from the Uffizi on down. On a city-based holiday in a hot climate, restricted to walking or public transport, a good supply of air-conditioned interiors is an important feature. Shops will do, but you can only pretend to be browsing the upscale goods for so long. Museums and galleries are perfect.

We had booked Uffizi tickets weeks in advance – you have specify a day and a half-hour entry time-slot – but still had to join a queue to collect our pre-booked tickets, and then queue again to enter the hallowed precincts. Ditto all the major attractions. At peak times the centre of Florence looks like an amusement park, with lines of fun-seekers going round the block for the most popular rides. After a bit, you begin to suspect that Stendhal Syndrome* has less to do with being overwhelmed by too much art than with the effects of excessive queueing in Italian sunshine.


It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover a museum that required neither pre-booking nor queueing and which – having grown weary of endless Annunciations, Crucifixions, Lamentations and Depositions – contained no art. At least, no art of the kind that turned Stendhal's brain to dizzy jelly. Although if the idea of brains turned to jelly makes you feel even slightly queasy then La Specola – or, to give it its full title, The Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence, Zoology Section, "La Specola"("The Observatory") – is probably not for you. Frankly, normal people do not travel to Florence with the aim of admiring cabinets of ancient stuffed animals and especially do not relish the prospect of examining one of the world's great collections of wax models of human anatomy and pathology. But then you and I have never pretended to be normal, have we?

Taxidermy and taxonomy are standard museum fare, of course, though I was never going to pass up an opportunity to refresh my cast of crows, hawks and any other beasts that might come in handy for photo-collages. In La Specola I was particularly taken by an array of snakes and amphibians bottled in formaldehyde. If you admire the museological photography of Rosalind Wolff-Purcell then you'll understand the attraction. There's something strangely peaceful and almost mystical about these pale, preserved individuals dreaming away the centuries in what appears to be suspended animation, like voyagers in deep space. And where else are you going to see the truly badly stuffed hide of the Medici's pet hippopotamus?



Detailed wax anatomical models are rather less common, however, and this is a particularly spectacular collection. There are 1400 items copied from dissected corpses in the 18th century and, although originally created for medical teaching purposes, it has also been open to the public since 1775, in a very bold project of Enlightenment. Goethe himself is said to have visited, though I can see no mention of it in his flying visit to Florence in 1786 in the Italian Journey ("Also visited La Specola. No queue! But, eewww, icky and totally gross!")

It is certainly not for the squeamish. My partner wisely opted to visit the nearby Boboli Gardens instead, while I and my daughter boldly ventured inside. Now, these wax models are in a different league of accurate representation to those blank-eyed shop dummies in Madame Tussaud's, I can tell you. They're realer than real, like all the best illustrations. The trick is knowing when not to look. It's easy enough to glance away from a lovingly recreated diorama of the Plague, with the intestines of rotting corpses being eaten by rats, splayed on the stained bedding and dirt floor of a Florentine hovel, or to let fascination overcome revulsion when studying entire bodies reduced to 3D wiring diagrams of nerves and blood vessels, apparently floating in space. It's rather less easy to spot the dissected sets of genitalia pinned to boards for what they are before recoiling in horror. And there are some truly unmentionable things in there which may haunt your nightmares if you gaze on them for too long. Apparently the Marquis de Sade was another celebrated visitor. That's all I'm saying. Enlightenment is a mansion of many rooms, some of which are best kept shut.

Phew, I think they're just feet...

* a.k.a. Florence Syndrome, i,e, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations caused when an individual is exposed to a concentration of great art.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Postcard from Florence 1: Unsalted Bread


The Duomo is around here somewhere...

My partner is brilliant at researching our holiday trips, and well in advance. She can always find a suitable gîte or flat to rent, the best flights and road routes to get to it, and will already have identified some likely days out and decent restaurants from the guidebooks and websites weeks before we've even left the house. I, by contrast, find even the best guidebooks utterly baffling until I've been "in-country" for a few days. I need to get the feel of a city or a region – literally get its dust on my shoes – before I can start to think of it as a place, made up of sites of interest, galleries, restaurants, and famous streets and squares.

As a consequence, I hadn't really thought much about Florence before first opening the shutters and double glazed windows of our apartment onto the cacophony and brilliant chiaroscuro of an Italian city street, four floors below. Wow! Italy! Florence, no less! I have mentioned before that one of my favourite images is a sketch by Tischbein of the young Goethe, leaning out of an apartment window in Rome, just taking in the view outside, while idly waggling a slipper on one foot. I keep it on my bedside table, as I need to be reminded of the reality of that feeling, those Tischbein moments, awash with the optimism and open-ended possibilities of travel, strange lands, and new languages. It's great, at 62, still to be able feel it, now and again.

After a few preparatory days of walking around in a passive stupor of familiarisation – getting the measure of the streets and the crowds, checking out restaurant menus, trying out my phrasebook Italian, and taking a few exploratory snaps with the Fuji X20, now established in its role as the summer holiday camera – the guidebooks came into focus, with their codes and maps and jargon, and items of interest (to me, at least) began to emerge. One thing I noticed, in particular, was how many cultural figures had lived, and often died, in exile in Florence. And, of those, the names Browning and Tarkovsky leapt out at me.


I suppose I must have known that the Brownings lived in Florence after their elopement, but that knowledge had drifted down, over time, to those lower strata of memory where things like simultaneous equations and Latin grammar are now buried, not needed for many years and beyond instant recall. But when I read that their apartment near the Palazzo Pitti had been preserved intact and could be visited  of course, the Casa Guidi! – I was excited.

For those of a literary bent, there is probably no more formative encounter than the one we have with the books we study at school in the years we are preparing for university entrance; what in England we refer to as the "sixth form". At that romantic, terrible, turbulent age we are open to the poetry of the world in a way we probably never will be again, and I had the good fortune to study Robert Browning's Men and Women as a set text, with a good teacher who happened to be a Browning enthusiast, able to persuade a class of 17-year old boys to take seriously some very adult love poetry, and I have retained a great affection for his work. And the romance between Browning and Elizabeth Barrett is, of course, a cracking good story in its own right.

Wot, no Bob?*

So we went and had a look. It's not exactly easy to find, the Casa Guidi. Luckily, there's a plaque over the street door to commemorate Elizabeth Barrett Browning, more famous as a poet in her day than her husband, and a great and vocal supporter of the cause of Italian unification. You find Piazza San Felice no. 8, ring the "Casa Guidi" bell, and you are let up to the first floor apartment by a housekeeper. It now belongs jointly to Eton College and the Landmark Trust – yes, you can rent some of the rooms – and has been restored to something like its original condition, stuffed in the Victorian fashion with memorabilia and decorative clutter. It doesn't take long to go round, but for a Browning enthusiast is enchanted ground. This is where Men and Women was written! Right here! And, blimey, that is the actual couch from Wimpole Street where EBB languished as an invalid for so many years! Neither my partner nor my daughter have ever studied either of the Brownings, so we didn't hang around for quite as long as I might have wished, not least because there was a genuine sense of intrusion into a private space. Amazingly, according to the visitors' book, we were the first to visit for several days. I hadn't expected a queue, even in August, but I didn't think we'd have the place to ourselves.


Just a 20-minute walk away at 91 Via San Niccolò is the apartment once occupied by exiled Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, also hard to find, but also marked with a plaque. The Prof and I are both long-standing fans of Tarkovsky's films, but although this is allegedly the base of the Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute it was resolutely shut, so all we could do was gaze up at the shuttered windows and admire the letterbox, which still bears a tiny metal "TARKOVSKIJ" nameplate. Again, no queue, no tributes on the step, just a door in an Italian backstreet. We paid our respects – amazing how quickly three people gazing reverently up at a wall can attract attention – and went for an ice cream.

**

By contrast, one of Florence's own most famous sons, Dante Alighieri, was forced to live out of the city in exile – something to do with Black and White Guelphs, whatever they are – and Florence still doesn't exactly talk up the Dante connection to its tourists. In fact, you'd be forgiven for not knowing there was one. Gucci, yes; Dante, no. We did spot a cafe with the odd name of Sasso di Dante (Dante's Stone) in a little square near the Duomo, and only later discovered this is actually the site of a rock where Dante used to sit each day to watch the construction of the cathedral. I'm not aware of anything in his oeuvre equivalent to "I like work: I can sit and look at it for hours" (Jerome K. Jerome), but on the subject of exile Dante famously had this to say:
You shall leave everything you love most:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
Of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Ascending and descending others' stairs ...
Paradiso, XVII (55–60)
Now there's yet another thing I didn't think I knew but must surely once have known. But, having done some supermarket shopping on the first day, I discovered that regular Tuscan bread is indeed made without salt and, to this English palate, anyway, is pretty much inedible. Ugh, talk about the taste of exile!  Although I did develop a liking for a very thin, unleavened bread with a crispy, cracker-like texture, seasoned with salt and rosemary, and sold in packs of foot-square sheets in local stores. I suppose exile in Florence might not be so bad, after all...

As to the stairs, though, ascending and descending, after our experience with the ten flights of ten stairs up to our Lisbon apartment last year, this year we made sure we had a lift! Or, at least, my partner did: she's good at that sort of thing.

Florence at night, by summer lightning

* 
Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barret[t] Browning
who in her womanly heart combined
the science of the scholar and the spirit of the poet
and made of her verse a golden ring
linking Italy and England.
This memorial was placed here
by a grateful Florence
1861

** 
Andrei Tarkovsky
sublime director of a
spiritual cinema
exile in Florence
in this house spent
the last years of his life
guest and honorary citizen
of the city of Florence