Surprises in Store

“As soon as Cataldo Barbara sees the violin, he practically faints.  Then he plays it, and there can be no more doubt: it’s a Guarneri”

The Voice of the Violin – Andrea Camilleri

The great thing about visiting museums as eclectic as those on Genoa’s Strada Nuova is that you’re guaranteed some surprises. To gain access to the second of the trio you ascend to the third floor of Palazzo Bianco and emerge to find yourself still at street level thanks to the sloping geography of the city, though it’s not a street that you discover.  Another garden awaits, marking the site of a former monastery, and so the first items you encounter within the Palazzo Doria Tursi are fragments from that structure, though these pale into insignificance compared to the grandeur of the palace you’re now entering.

Palazzo Doria Tursi from roof of Palazzo Rosso


Though it would have been nice to have called this the Palazzo Verde to fit with the neighbours, the colour scheme is wrong and the owners of this building had a name to celebrate.  Though originally built in the mid 16th century for the Grimaldis, it was bought by the nephew of the great admiral Andrea Doria (who has appeared here before, and will again) for his son the Duke of Tursi.  Why hide behind a colour when you want to play upon your heritage?

So what treasures are worthy of display here?

Well once you get past the Canova masterpiece (appropriately of Maddalena) then you are treated to  numismatic collections, measuring canisters and pharmaceutical jars in volumes that would satisfy any enthusiast in those genres.

Unfortunately my fascination with such items has its limits but I was more than happy to enjoy the building itself, both for the architecture of its internal courtyard and loggia, and the decoration of the rooms

And so I ambled through the palace absorbed in the decoration of ceiling and doorways when one of the attendants stopped me and suggested I pass through a couple of rooms that I had thought closed to the public.  In the first it took me a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, but when they did, and I adjusted my camera similarly, I was rewarded by the walls, ceiling and flooring.  Understandable that they should wish to protect the room from the sun.  What might lie in the second room I wondered?

At first I was underwhelmed.  Keeping watch in the corner was a large seated statue of a woman not unlike Queen Victoria, a woman who will play a part in the story of the third palace of Strada Nuova,  but what gems was the sentinel keeping watch over?  Some sheet music, a few medals and awards.  A small sculpture.  And two violins.

Their significance might have eluded me were it not for the case that accompanied them.  Here was the greatest surprise.

To describe Niccolò Paganini as a virtuoso seems understated for a man who could be described as the originator of modern violin technique, and if you lived in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s you would have heard Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s take on his music as the theme to arts programme The South Bank Show each week before Melvyn Bragg’s nasal tones began the show.

You might expect the star of the show to be a Strad, but no.  This is a Guarneri, a violin whose tones were a match for those of Stradivarius, tones which caused Paganini to name this The Cannon.  It’s also a great deal more valuable than many Stradivari too.  It has a very special provenance.


Sea and Land

Back in my younger days my inner nerd was satisfied by hours spent on Sunday afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons (coincidentally with the same George Mitchell mentioned in my last Merseyside post). One particular session comes back to me, as a combination of elements gave it added resonance.

Architecture & Morality
Architecture & Morality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lichway was set at the extremity of a coastal basin and aside from the undead hinted at in the title also featured a number of aquatic related beasts, and a great treasure defended by a threatening creature whose breathing noises pervaded a funerary complex and soothed the restless dead found there.  I remember it because that atmosphere continued after the game as I walked home in falling snow, listening to Architecture and Morality by OMD, and in particular the track Sealand, which seemed appropriate both to the game and to my home town on the coast.    (What a prescient album choice too, given the content of much of this blog!)


I was probably aware that OMD were from the Wirral from some music paper interview of the era, but never having been there it meant nothing to me, so I was ignorant of the fact that here too were people shaped by their life on the coast.  Influenced by the game I’d played that day, and the ethereal synthesisers on the track, I’d always imagined Sealand as some fantasy state on a cold northern shore, when in fact it is a real place on the Wirral peninsula, just across the border in Wales.


I mention all of this because my Merseyside trip brought so much of it back to mind (though thankfully not the snow).  Crossing the Mersey through the Kingsway tunnel (not the Lichway) I headed for the extreme tip of the Wirral peninsula, a part of Wallasey called New Brighton, so-called because it was developed as an attempt to bring some of the sophistication of a seaside resort to this area.  (New Brighton was later to be the subject of photographer Martin Parr’s famous series The Last Resort).  However in the year before that development was begun, a threatening creation was installed upon the rocky coast with the intention of defending a great treasure; the wealth of Liverpool that I referred to in that prior post.



This was a fort whose guns were trained across the Mersey to deal with any naval threat before it could reach the great port or its shipping.  Closed to the public except at weekends and school holidays I was unable to access the interior so couldn’t tell if it was filled with calming noises (perhaps the waves lapping against those thick stone walls?), but back in the 70’s a local group gigged there.  Yes, you’re a step ahead of me, it was an early incarnation of what was to become OMD.


Though still a part of the mainland, the journey under the Mersey and the sand blown environment beyond gave the place a feel like an island, though perhaps that perception was created by the fort, which though now joined to the land was once isolated by high tides, and the lighthouse which is so tantalisingly close but still “at sea”.


Once more pursuing my photographic goal of a decent long exposure shot, I imagined a result that would be as calm as those sleeping undead but the incoming tide came faster than I expected and moved my tripod enough to blur not just the waters but the whole image, despite the “snowshoes” I’d fitted to give me more stability on sand.


Retreating to the rocks I tried again.


Now this is how I imagined Sealand.


Not so Green

The designer Wayne Hemingway was born in Morecambe, Lancashire at about the same time that I was born on the opposite coast.  In those days seaside towns were vibrant places with packed beaches, amusement parks, ice-cream, fish and chips and coffee bars.  For a younger me, Morecambe had something that Sunderland lacked; an aquarium that was an essential stop on any visit.

Those days also coincided with the first flights from Manchester to Majorca, and so began the decline of the coastal resort, but after decades of decline Morecambe seems to be regenerating.  Sunderland, to my eye, does not.

I was interested to hear Hemingway’s view that embracing the creative arts is one of the critical factors in encouraging renewal. (He speaks from experience of his own involvement in the rebirth of Margate’s Dreamland for example).

L C Grey
L C Grey

His words were still fresh in my mind when I attended a music festival in North Yorkshire the same day.  Scorton isn’t a seaside town; it’s a rural village that consists of a scattering of houses and small businesses around a large village green, a green that it puts to use every summer with its own music festival.  Two strategically placed trailer units provide the stage leaving plenty of space for the community and visitors to set up their gazebos, coolboxes, and barbecues to sustain them through the afternoon and evening as they are entertained by a variety of local performers.

The event certainly raises the profile of what might be just another village.

Now that phrase “local performers” might lead you to believe that this is an amateur affair, but you would be mistaken.  LC Grey for example played a set of original numbers with consummate musicianship that immediately earned them an invitation to return next year.  The other acts that I saw predominantly performed covers, but this was no karaoke event; the songs were given fresh life through changes of arrangements and instrumentation.

We arrived just as Soft Rush were finishing their set so my apologies to them for my lack of attention while we ferried our food and furniture.  From then on I was fully engaged, because when Grace Gibson took the stage she absolutely demanded it.  Small in stature and armed only with an acoustic guitar she took me by surprise when she unleashed the dynamics of her voice.

Vocal group Achord followed and got the audience on their feet, Heart Shaped Rebellion shared some rock before Riff Raff turned up the volume by several notches.  Their guitarist was described as “the love-child of Angus Young and Jack Black”.  Couldn’t have put it better myself.  Top of the bill were 1two3four who delivered a crowd pleasing set of hits from Queen, The Eagles, Elvis and more, and as an added bonus for me provided a guitarist in Rich who was prepared to deliver all the usual poses.

But in the midst of all of this entertainment was a real surprise.

The Olivia Kate Smith Band played a mixture of covers and originals sung with feeling and originality (well maybe a bit of Adele creeping in).  She’d brought her own fan club to the green, but it would be fair to say there was a buzz of astonishment when in between songs she announced

I’m Olivia Kate Smith and I’m 12 years old

How does someone with so little life experience put so much into her performance?  Surely she has a great future – I even forgave her description of Feeling Good as a Muse song rather than Nina Simone!_PW_3146-Edit



The late 80’s and early 90’s saw Manchester’s creative star in ascendancy, most noticeably on the music scene where Factory Records, The Hacienda, The Smiths, New Order, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and more were part of an explosive mix.  Oasis.  The Verve.  Happy Mondays.  Even Take That drew it’s members from satellite towns.

Those days may have passed though, as this Guardian article shows, there is still much to celebrate here but what gives a city a thriving culture?  Can it be manufactured (perhaps by being awarded the “City of Culture” label), is it a by-product of social changes such as those in Liverpool in the 50’s and 60’s, or can the city itself be a source of inspiration?  I’ve certainly found Manchester to be the latter in my recent visits here, so perhaps others have too.

The city has long valued and celebrated culture, and aside from the architectural gems I’ve described in other posts, the Bridgewater Hall is both home to the city’s Hallé Orchestra and the primary venue for the BBC Philharmonic though of course as the successor to the Free Trade Hall, it hosts concerts in many musical genres.

_PW_2212_3_4At over a mile in length, Deansgate is Manchester’s longest road, running from the cathedral (which will feature in a future posting) at one end to the Beetham Tower and Great Northern Warehouse at the other.  _PW_2232-EditIn between the extremes is another structure that I feel both embodies and encourages the spirit of the city, and I don’t refer to the exhortation that adorns the former Band of Hope building also on Deansgate.

Instead I refer to the red sandstone block which defiantly resists the encroaching steel and glass of the Spinningfields development.  The crenellated roofline of the gatehouse façade suggests a castle, but the rest is more reminiscent of a church.  The building is neither, though it could be argued that it fulfils a both a defensive and evangelistic role.

It’s a library._PW_2249

An impressive library with some equally impressive collections.  In its defensive role it preserves some priceless documents which include a Gutenberg Bible, early print works from William Caxton, and arguably the oldest papyrus fragment of the New Testament in the world.  Its evangelistic role is within the fabric of the building which screams to all the world the importance of the written word.  This is the John Rylands Library, named after a local philanthropic businessman and which opened on 1st January 1900.  Even the date is a statement of intent that this should play a key role in the future of the city, and as one of the first public buildings with electric lighting it married the traditions of its gothic design with the height of modernism.

This is a cathedral of knowledge, with statuary and stained glass which celebrate intellectuals rather than saints.  Here you will find Plato, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Socrates and more in a soaring “nave” whose lighting brought to mind the great candlelit hall of Hogwarts.

It was perhaps appropriate that my visit coincided with an exhibition of medieval texts entitled

Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World!_PW_2278_HDR

Son (Habana 50)

No, not as in a male child.

Son as in the style of music that originated in Cuba of which Salsa is a derivative.

Cigars and rum may be obvious Cuban exports, but when the Soviet Union collapsed the country lost a vital source of overseas income.  Tourism was encouraged as a means of generating replacement funds and so naturally they turned to an example of domestic culture that is know the world over.

When Ry Cooder came calling and encountered the Buena Vista Social Club roughly a century after the style originated (from blending two different Rumba traditions) a phenomenon was created with both a best-selling album and accompanying film catapulting the members of that band to international recognition.

And now it seems that every bar has a band.  Every conversation with a Cubano references the Buena Vista Social Club.  Everyone knows where they used to play or has a connection to this musicians.

Of course you must take it with a pinch of salt, but it does give the place an amazing vibe.



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.



Bologna Jazz

I mentioned in an earlier post the origins of the Portico Quartet’s name, and really where else could they have been to acquire that moniker, for apart from the city’s architectural signature it has hosted an annual jazz festival since 1958, making it even older than me!

_PW_4105The city loves jazz.  On the Sunday that I began exploring I found the central area closed to traffic, an opportunity that appeals to the Italian psyche; time for a market, or sports event, or in this case some jazz.

A small stage had been set up near to Piazza Maggiore and with consummately poor timing I arrived in between sets, but th_PW_3760e mix of music that the sound engineer was playing to crowds of pre-Christmas shoppers was superb.

Jazz clubs like Cantina Bentivoglio host bands most nights of the year
and there are other signs too.  When Bologna born actor and musician Lucio Dalla died in 2012 it is estimated that 50,000 people attended his funeral here.  He is commemorated in a subtle piece of art that adorns a wall at the junction of Via d’Azeglio and Piazza dei Celestini where his shadow plays on._PW_4380

In a Hollywood style tribute to those who have played here, since 2011 _PW_4896marble stars are are placed in the pavement of the “Strada del Jazz” (Via Rizzoli).  Dalla has a star here of course, but others who have already been honoured include Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker and of course Miles Davis.

On the day I visited a group of young musicians were taking selfies with a double bass around Miles’ star (perhaps a hint to the people of Bologna to include Charles Mingus next year?) but most of the passers-by were focused elsewhere, because however you want to celebrate jazz there is one way that beats the others hands down.

Just play._PW_4929-2