Cinema Italiano

The museum of modern art in Bologna (MAMbo) has all the things you would expect to find in a contemporary art space; large sculptures of an almost industrial nature, paintings in monotone blocks and thought-provoking ceramics.  I make no pretence to understand it; when the Turner Prize took up residence at Gateshead’s Baltic a few years back I would have ranked the four finalists in almost the complete reverse of the eventual result. I do appreciate it however, for it can make me think about composition, texture, colour and light in ways that could influence the way I approach photography.

This being Italy, and more particularly Bologna, there is also a political element in several exhibits, and in the large ground floor space I found a special exhibition dedicated to a single artist who combined all of these and more, Pier Paulo Pasolini.

Italy in the 20th Century was a fertile breeding ground for film directors.  If you’ve seen the film Nine (stellar cast, mediocre film) you’ll see a stereotype of the model portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis; stylishly dressed entirely in black & white (to match his output), riven by personal anxiety and highly promiscuous.  It’s a musical version of Fellini’s masterpiece  8½, but you could apply the archetype to Roberto Rossellini (infamous for his affair with Ingrid Bergman), or Michelangelo Antonioni (whose Blow Up featured David Hemmings doing his best David Bailey impression).  Bertolucci shocked the world with Last Tango in Paris, Visconti gave us Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice and Zeffirelli the definitive Romeo & Juliet with Burton & Taylor.  There there are the genre directors:, Dario Argento for horror, and far more significantly Sergio Leone for his westerns (and of course Once upon a Time in America).

But back to Pasolini.  Creating a static exhibit on the director of the moving image isn’t easy, nor is trying to convert that through photography!  The museum did so with mannequins wearing costumes from his films and then creating zones around the gallery for each film, with clips shown above stills, letters, scripts and other material relating to each one.  Personally I never feel that a costume conveys much without the performer inside it, but I found the remaining material fascinating.

Pasolini’s life (and death) were eventful; son of an army officer and gambler who seems to have been aligned to the fascist right, Pasolini was taken to the country by his mother, the more significant influence in his life.  He became a writer and poet, a political activist of the far left, and of course a film director whose works are renowned for their sex, nudity and farce. (Little wonder that he inspired a Monty Python sketch)  He was murdered at the age of 53 in what appeared to be a mafia-style revenge killing, though the man convicted claimed it was because the Pasolini had tried to sodomise him.  (He was openly gay and his relationship with a young boy would be illegal under UK law).  Decades later the “murderer” retracted his confession, claiming that he had been under duress because of threats to his family, and that those responsible referred to Pasolini as a dirty communist.  Another possibility is that it was an extortion claim gone wrong; rolls of film from his last movie having been stolen.  That film was Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom._PW_4849

The man was certainly an intellectual, but based solely on some brief and unsubtitled clips of his films I can’t comment on his value as an artist.  The names of those who claim to be influenced by him seen around his portrait at the end of the exhibition suggest there are plenty who would.  Meanwhile my emotional sensitivity remained un-disappointed._PW_4851

A Church Within a Church Within a…

I was probably spoilt by my first visit to Piazza San Stefano in Bologna, for two reasons: first it was a Sunday and so the flea market was in full swing, and second it was in a cafe here that I first tasted “tortellini in brodo” so the memorability of the afternoon is guaranteed.

The irregular space of the piazza was home to all manner of stalls selling rugs, antique furniture, military memorabilia, paintings, glassware and more, and there was such a friendly and relaxed ambience arising from a blended sound of the busking musicians and the banter of the traders across the space between displays.

I would have been happy to have visited the square even if I hadn’t ventured into the church that gives the place its name, but then I would have missed out on a real treasure.

Actually to say that San Stefano gives the square its name is a little misleading for the monastic complex here has a number of names to spare; the clue is in the name of the cafe where I dined, or to be more accurate caffe!  Sette chiese means seven churches, for San Stefano once comprised this number, though as a result of some inconsiderate remodelling by the citizens of Bologna in days past there are now only four.  Even so the contrasts they provide makes for a worthwhile visit.

Through the first door you enter a small and relatively unremarkable church, but for the light which streams in from the windows to the south.  A photographer’s dream.  This is the Church of the Crucifix, and appropriately enough the building is dominated by just such an artefact suspended from the ceiling._PW_3884

The unusually raised altar is built on a mezzanine to accommodate a crypt below, or given the event that the church recalls, is it supposed to represent that “green hill far away”?_PW_3896

There are differing theories about the development of the site; some claiming that each of the seven churches was meant to represent the locations of the passion of Christ, whereas other believe it to have been a purely organic development spreading from an old pagan temple that Petronius the patron saint of the city converted.  The first theory gave rise to another name for the complex – Holy Jerusalem, with some postulating that it was built to replicate the buildings that the Roman Emperor Constantine erected over the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ.

Fittingly the pagan temple was dedicated to Isis, an Egyptian goddess appropriated by the Romans, now re-appropriated to become the Holy Sepulchre, and designed to resemble the church of that name in Jerusalem.  Whatever the theory this is an entirely different structure to the first, not so much a church as central high pulpit with a tomb incorporated below where Petronius rested before being decanted to the cathedral that bears his name.

After this the links to the passion are a bit harder to recognise.  Pilate’s courtyard is… a courtyard.  The 4th century Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola doesn’t seem to fit with the Jerusalem theory, and the other buildings all seem to medieval to be replicas of any Roman originals, which is not to say they don’t have charm; the Church of The Trinity with it’s wooden nativity scene, the frescoed ceilings by the Chapel of the Bandage, the well at the centre of the cloister, and the coloured brickwork designs of the courtyard.

There is plenty to explore here – I just need to return to the city to do it justice._PW_3938

Senza Spaghetti

The TV Chef, and one-man Padstow Tourist Board that is Rick Stein is spending long weekends in locations renowned for the quality of their food for his latest series.  Whilst I totally understood his decision to visit Bordeaux and Vienna, I was surprised that Reykjavik was on his itinerary and Berlin, though it probably says more about me that I envisioned a lot of cod and sausages respectively, however I would have been more outraged if he had omitted Bologna.  Thankfully he did not.

It isn’t just the Bolognese ragu that gives the city its culinary fame; the baloney sausage also originates here, and when seasoned with myrtle berries becomes mortadella.  The administrative region of which it is capital also includes Parma and Modena, where great hams, parmesan and balsamic vinegar are produced.  This is a food-lover’s paradise.

Stein’s visit included learning witnessing the methodology for producing an Italian staple; fresh egg pasta used for tortellini, lasagne, tagliatelle and ravioli.  Notice anything missing from that list?

I still recall on my first visit to Italy being served spaghetti bolognese in Rome and, it being a school excursion, being taught how to eat it correctly.  The long strands remain one of my favourite shapes; the twirling fork action required probably playing some part in my enjoyment, but really it should never have happened that way.

I ate a lot of delicious food in Bologna but not so much as a forkful of spag bol passed my lips.  Why not?  Well for one thing the sauce that we would refer to as Bolognese is referred to simply as ragu here, whether stirred into pasta or baked between sheets of lasagne.  (With justifiable arrogance, locals also refer to parmesan as cheese, as if to say “Is there any other?”).  Whatever you call the sauce however you still can’t have spaghetti bolognese for the simple reason that spaghetti isn’t a pasta from this region (I believe it comes from Napoli), it’s made from a different type of flour, and of course it’s sold in a dried form.  Here in Emilia-Romagna the emphasis is on fresh pasta, and the weapon of choice is tagliatelle.  (According to Rick Stein the perfect ribbon should have the same dimensions as the Torre Asinelli, which seems entirely plausible).

So if you should visit the city, don’t waste too much time looking for spaghetti bolognese.  Order tagliatelle ragu and you won’t go wrong, but for the fact that there is local pasta dish which is even more delicious.

Tortellini in brodo (in broth)
Tortellini in brodo (in broth)

Tiny tortellini stuffed with a mixture of ham and mortadella and served in a bowl of exquisitely seasoned chicken broth.  Tortellini in brodo.  As ubiquitous here as spag bol is in every Italian restaurant everywhere else in the world.

Food is treated with respect in Italy and certainly in Bologna.  I think framing it might be a step too far however!


Gymnasium of the Mind

Running alongside Bologna’s cathedral is a street of shops and cafes aimed at the well-heeled visitor (of whom there are plenty) but if this were all that caught your eye you would easily bypass one of the city’s gems as you missed the archway into the courtyard beyond.

Actually street is a word that always feels like a misnomer in Bologna where the ubiquitous colonnaded porticos give every thoroughfare a sense of importance.  (They did justify a post of their own after all!)  This then is the Via dell’Archiginnasio, and the gem in question is the Archiginnasio, also known as the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, or nowadays the Biblioteca communal dell’Archiginnasio, none of which gives much clue as to the building’s importance.  The last name refers to a library, and the building is home to some 35000 manuscripts, pamphlets and illustrations, but before you decide that sound dull read on.

I’m not sure of the meaning of Archiginassio.  Certainly if you google the term all the results will refer to this building, so perhaps the usage is unique.  Ginassio is Italian for gymnasium, but the building’s history has been one of mental rather than physical development.  From the mid 16th Century, this was the main site of the city’s famous university, and it remained so for nearly 250 years.

Take the time to visit and the building will repay you in two ways.

The first is the decoration that covers every wall and ceiling.  Here you will find a multitude of coats of arms in frescoes and reliefs; a heraldic representation of the students who represented their nation whilst attending.  So many qualified that in order to find space the less scrupulous would damage existing displays to create an opportunity for their own.  With seven thousand here, it’s an impressive sight.

Venture up to the first floor and there’s another treat.  The anatomical theatre that was installed in 1637.  Even were it not for the macabre stories this room can tell (I was fortunate enough to eavesdrop as a group of international surgeons were visiting with a knowledgable guide) the decoration of the room is fascinating.

_PW_4489Wooden statues of significant individuals in the development of medicine, astrological symbolism, and two carved figures who have been flayed to reveal the muscular structure beneath the skin.  Gli spellati, (the skinned ones) were designed by the Baroque painter Ercole Lelli, a native of Bologna._PW_4498

We are fortunate that the room is here at all.  In January 1944 it was devastated by Allied bombing, but using the many paintings and photographs that had captured the room over the years the theatre was painstakingly restored.  Let’s hope that these images won’t be needed for a similar opus._PW_4481


Petronius of Bologna

In my Venetian postings I commented on the plethora of saints that are recognised by the Roman Catholic church, and the symbolism that accompanies them; St Anthony of Padua being a prime example.  Bologna introduced me to a new name in the list of the venerated – St Petronius.  Never heard of him?  No me neither._PW_3657

Perhaps that’s because he lacks some of the trappings we associate with other saints; a gruesome death like Santa Lucia, a track record of miracles like St Francis of Assisi, an act of heroism like St George, or even some great symbolism like St Peter with the keys to heaven.

Petronius lived in the 5th Century when the Roman Empire still existed to some degree (though it’s western half was in decline), and in fact his father had been a high ranking official, so Petronius came from a noble background.

So what is his claim to fame?  Well he is the patron saint of Bologna, a bishop of the city who died in the mid 5th Century and whose greatest act seems to have been to order the building of the church of San Stefano about which more in a subsequent posting.  _PW_4626-Edit-Edit

He doesn’t seem to have been celebrated as a saint until the 12th century when after nearly seven hundred years his relics were conveniently discovered (I’ve written before about how a good relic can guarantee income from visiting pilgrims).  Churches were then built in his name culminating in the present basilica.  If it looks a little underwhelming that is because during it’s construction Rome feared that Bologna was building a church which would rival St Peter’s and so cut off funding, which is why it is clad in marble only at lower levels._PW_3734

It’s still worth a visit though – containing as it does the aforementioned relics, some remarkable sculptures, and an astronomical calendar designed by Cassini that was sufficiently accurate to lead to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and the leap year.  (There is a tiny hole in the ceiling and a marble channel on the floor that shows the date where the corresponding dot of light appears at noon)


There are plenty of images of the saint around the city and he’s usually easy to spot.  St Peter may have had his keys, but St Petronius carries something a little more obtrusive.  He is usually portrayed carrying the whole of Bologna._PW_4702

Twin Towers

I used to have a beautiful photograph of the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano (I think by Andrea Rontini) bathed in the golden hour light of the setting sun.  Sadly in “the great divide” my ex won that particular toss of the coin and the image of a town known as the “Medieval Manhattan” because of its multitude of towers that sprang up in a kind of one-upmanship.  (When the town imposed a height limit to curb this, one family then built two!)

Bologna has its own claim to being New York’s twin however.  The skyline of the old city is dominated by a tower both taller and more slender than those of San Gimignano.  Get closer to it and you’ll see that it has a partner, a squatter and somewhat stunted neighbour._PW_4058

The city once sported 180 such towers, but now only about twenty remain and none so notorious as these two.  Their proximity to one another is one factor in their favour, their location at the junction of five of the main routes of the walled city is another, yet they are emblematic of the city for another reason.  They both lean.

Torre Asinelli is the taller, and much straighter of the two, but having ascended the 498 worn wooden steps to the top it would definitely benefit from some right angles. It’s diminutive neighbour, Torre Garisenda, leans at an altogether more precarious angle, which when combined with the diagonals of Asinelli creates a disturbing visual effect.

Built in the early 12th Century both towers began to list shortly afterwards, with Garisenda quickly assuming it’s present stoop, inspiring Dante’s description

As when one sees the tower called Garisenda from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud passes over and it seems to lean the more,thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze as I watched him bend…

Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140


Originally 60m in height, it was shorn of 20% of its stature in the 14th Century as a result of safety concerns.  How much greater must the contrast of the two sets of angles seemed before that?_PW_4695-2

I have seen artists impressions of the city bristling with 180 similarly tall structures, yet surely this can’t have been the case.  The rivals that remain around the city lack the same impact, but there is another clue that suggests these two were always the dominant pair.
It was customary in religious paintings for the city’s patron saint to be portrayed holding Bologna safely in his hands.  In all of these the two towers stand proud, almost as an early form of trademarking.

Perhaps they feared completion for the tourist market from Pisa!_PW_3472_3_4


Portico Quartet

English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, p...
English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, playing at Cully Jazz Festival 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago I came across the music of Jack Wylie, Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick and Nick Mulvey; a modern jazz sound which was given an exotic touch by Mulvey’s choice of instrument – the hang.  Together they were known as The Portico Quartet until Mulvey (and then his replacement Keir Vine) left the band.  Unsurprisingly they are now known as Portico.

I’d never given much thought as to the origins of their name until I visited Bologna.  The city is famous for its food, its university, its political history, and it’s jazz festivals.  The first clue.  When you visit you realised it has another speciality, the architectural feature known as a portico, a sort of extended porch where a roof supported by a colonnade runs alongside a building to provide a covered walkway.  In Bologna you cannot escape them, which is good news for photographers._PW_3751

We love a good portico because in one feature it provides so many things that create great composition and interest.  Contrast where light spilling between columns loses its power as it reaches further into the space, light broken by the shadows cast by those same columns.  _PW_3432There there is the repetition of identical or near identical objects which can be used to create a surprise when the pattern is broken, or simply to lead the eye further into the picture.  This being Italy you also have the wonderful ochres that colour walls and columns, given further interest by the patina of grime that develops over the years.  I must have photographed dozens of examples while I was there._PW_3421

I don’t recall it raining while I was there, but the truth is in a city of so much cover I might well not have noticed, which takes me back to the band and the origins of their name.

In Bologna to play an open air gig they were rained off, and so grabbing their instruments they regrouped under the nearest cover and began to play and improvise in this alternative venue.   As soon as you visit Bologna it becomes apparent that there could be no other explanation.

So here is my Portico Quartet, four of my favourites from the many I could have chosen.