Four letters that bring to mind the Roman Empire and which are equally commonplace around the modern city, but how many of those familiar with the abbreviation know what it represents? Even forty years after my school years I remember Senatus Populus Que Romanus, which simply means The Senate and People of Rome, and for once is a good literal representation of my topic.  (Ironically it was a statement about democracy in a city that was ruled over by despots in various guises for centuries thereafter)

Like the UK, the Italian Parliament consists of two houses; one of which, the senate, is located in a 16th century former Medici palace; Palazzo Madama, though in these times of heightened terror threats you notice the security measures before you take in the 17th Century facade. Besides which, this post isn’t about the Senate.

Nor is it about the nearby Pantheon, arguably the most impressive Roman building in the city. Completed in the 2nd century it has been in continuous use as temple and now church, and boast what is still the world’s largest roof made from unreinforced concrete.

Between these two grand edifices is a more modest enterprise (especially on my visit when much of the exterior was boarded up).  A caffé in what is little more than a back alley of the Senate building that when opened in the 1930’s was probably very modern, but which is now very not.  But you’re not there for the decor.

You might be there for the location; for if you’re a reporter its a good spot to buttonhole a politician on his or her way for lunch, and if you’re a people watcher much of the flow of human traffic between Pantheon and that other great tourist magnet the Piazza Navona will pass this way.

But really you should be there for the coffee.  Caffé Sant’Eustachio (named after the nearby church) treats its coffee differently.  They are passionate advocates of ethical trading and source their coffee carefully in South America, predominantly Brazil, but then there is a secret to how they make it.  I should stress at this point that I’m talking espresso at this point, for though you can purchase all the usual suspects there, it is the espresso that is something special.

Clearly displayed on the walls are warnings that if you don’t want sugar you need to say so.  I don’t usually add sugar to my drinks, but espresso is the exception as I believe that the rich black intensity needs to be sweet too.  Here in Sant’Eustachio it is intrinsic to how they make it, and though the process is shielded by the positioning of the coffee machines, somehow they beat the sugar into the coffee to produce not only a delicious caffé, but one which has a thick foam at the top.  Not just a crema, but something more akin to a cappuccino foam; thick and firm enough to survive the consumption of the coffee and needing the intervention of a spoon!

A great place for people watching, and perhaps the caffé is the real reason there are so many here.


Scarlet Women…

Time to conclude my look at some of the Palazzi of Via Garibaldi (Strada Nuova) which means Palazzo Rosso, the Red Palace. 

Maria de Brignole-Sale, Duchess of Galliera

This again was owned by the Brignole-Sale family, though the matriarch in my last Italian post, and who is represented here, bequeathed the palace to the city in 1874 a few years before her death.  Built in the 17th century, this is the most sumptuous of the three, and features an array of artwork including some Brignole portraits by Van Dyck which must have accompanied them from one of the other palazzi that they owned.  Here you will also find Veronese, Dürer and more.  One of the rooms from her residential area in the palace is the header to this piece.

There was one painting that stopped me in my tracks however, for no other reason than that I thought I recognised it from a programme I’d seen looking into the provenance of UK artworks, yet here was the same image in Genoa.  The attendant in the gallery spoke no English so I was unable to confirm that the BBC had been here, and my subsequent online searches linking it to art historian Bendor Grosvenor proved fruitless, and yet I knew I was familiar with this work by Jan Wildens.  That bum hanging over the frozen water is unmistakable!Leaving the artworks to one side, this is a remarkable building.  Frescos, stucco, gilded statues, trompe l’oeil…  In bequeathing the building to the city the Duchess said she was leaving “artistic splendour”.  She might have added opulence.  Even the floors which were only recently discovered after the removal of worn out carpeting are spectacular.

There’s another woman who plays an important part in the history of the palazzo. Until her death in 1976, Caterina Marcenaro was one of Italy’s leading art historians, and she supervised the restoration of the Palazzo Rosso, removing many of the 18th and 19th century features to reveal the glorious baroque excesses below.  She moved into the building and commissioned rationalist architect Franco Albini to design an apartment for her in the loft space.  This open plan living space might have been considered stark and minimal, but the addition of a few items from the museum’s collection has transformed it.  The private staircase which Albini installed for her has become a major exhibit in itself.

Now if the title of this piece led you into expecting something salacious, perhaps I should tell the tale of another Brignole who lived here.  This is Via Garibaldi, a name that either means biscuits to you, or the Royal Family of Monaco.  Maria Caterina Brignole was no baker and was once referred to as “the most beautiful woman in France”.  Though she wed Prince Honoré III of Monaco, that relationship didn’t get off to a good start when on her arrival there he didn’t come to meet her, launching a stand-off where each party refused to go to the other due to their respective levels of nobility.  An affair with a French prince ensured (Louis Joseph Prince of Condé).  Following the French Revolution she escaped with Condé to London where they married in secret.  She died in Wimbledon.

But I digress.  Back to the Palazzo Rosso and that staircase…

Well, Well, Well.

£2 for England’s smallest map?

Fans of the Blackadder TV series will be familiar with the Bishop of Bath & Wells as a ruddy-faced sadistic pervert who eats babies!  Whilst there appears to be no historical precedent for this in the roster of clergymen who have filled the role, they do seem to have been an unsettled bunch for the county of Somerset has seen its bishop moving between Wells, Glastonbury and Bath over the centuries, and though Bath is the most prominent of these three, it has no cathedral, since plans to refurbish the abbey were interrupted by Henry VIII.  Consequently the City of Wells is now the Bishop’s home, and being even smaller than Ripon holds claim to be England’s smallest city by virtue of its cathedral which will feature soon in another post.

It also has three holes in the ground; one in the market square and two in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace dedicated to St Andrew.   Why would you dedicate holes to a saint?  Because these are the wells that give the city its name.

The place is a goldmine for film and TV location scouts as it features a number of historic buildings, including a whole street of medieval houses.  The pub where I stayed, The Crown, saw William Penn (as in Pennsylvania) preach from its windows, yet the pictures displayed give this second billing to the stars of Hot Fuzz (which was filmed in Wells) and Nicholas Cage who owns a property nearby.  Oddly enough, the cathedral, which was the draw for productions as diverse as Wolf Hall and Doctor Who, had to be digitally removed from the skyline in shooting Hot Fuzz as the city was supposed to be just a small market town!

That market still flourishes beneath the defensive gates that mark entry into the Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral compounds.  The fashions have changed since medieval times, and much of the produce too (no food stalls offering dead baby) but you sense that these scenes have changed little since then.  Commerce at its simplest and best.

Of course if you really want to capture the spirit of the the place, then removing the cathedral from the skyline would be a travesty, especially when reflected in one of those “holes”.


Marshall McLuhan, Casual Viewin*

*Broadway Melody of 1974, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Lyric by Peter Gabriel

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs.  Too much time.  I look for interesting locations to shoot, inspirational techniques or shooting angles, creative ways to process images, striking poses, dramatic lighting, inventive models and more.  I even look just to enjoy the image sometimes.

I’m not alone of course, and this post follows yesterday’s as a reflection on the power that images play in our lives.  Marshall McLuhan’s birthday was recently honoured with a Google Doodle (explained here), and though the intellectual’s ideas fell from favour in the latter part of his life, they now seem particularly prescient.

I don’t have a Facebook profile for reasons described in my previous post.  As a medium for promoting the “look at me and what a great time I’m having” message it creates a distorted view of the world which is frequently cited in mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders and associated body image.  The medium is the message indeed.  Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has recently published a book about how we present ourselves to the online world.  It’s called Everybody Lies.

I’ve been a member of a number of dating sites since my divorce, and this is another area where image becomes important as part of the message, and in interesting ways.

I’d originally planned to illustrate this post with some example images from dating profiles (anonymous of course) but even then felt that the people concerned might be unhappy with my interpretation of the message they presented, so this will be a post without pictures (other than the pixelated header) where I share my philosophy on why people might use images that singularly fail to show them in their best light to a possible suitor.

  1. It was shot somewhere nice.  For this reason the picture brings back happy memories and so there’s a “halo” effect that obscures the fact that the subject is too small in the image to be actually seen, or so backlit by bright sun that they are reduced to a featureless silhouette.  (And at my age, most of our silhouettes aren’t what they used to be!)
  2. I look really cool in this shot.  Yes those sunglasses look stylish.  Your hat is wonderful too, but you are now completely unrecognisable.
  3. I look really young in this.   The lines in your face have miraculously disappeared because the shot is overexposed, blurry, or you have processed it through an app on your phone.  Perhaps the reason is because you’ve posted an old photo where you were young!  Assuming that the viewer of your profile doesn’t see through this subterfuge, they are in for a real disappointment when they meet you.  I usually do see through it and ask “what are they hiding?”
  4. I’ll apply some Snapchat filters.  Presumably to show what a fun and “down with the kids” type your really are.  Sorry but making yourself look like a dog, a deer, or a hula girl is ok for teenagers.  They’ll grow out of it.  You don’t have that excuse and it has the same effect as #2
  5. I’m still really hot so I’ll flaunt it.  This is an interesting one.  I’m not one of those who believe that a rape victim in a revealing outfit was “asking for it”, but reading many women’s profiles they almost always feel the need to explain that they’re not looking for one night stands or casual sex, which suggests that there are a lot of guys who have that expectation.  That being the case, the bikini shot, the low-cut top or the short dress and fishnets might not be the best opening gambit!
  6. I look really miserable in this.  The excuse for such an image is usually “I haven’t got anything better”.  Sorry but we all have camera phones these days.  If you can’t do a decent selfie (that includes me) ask a friend.  The message this conveys is of someone who can’t make the effort.

So if you’re planning on any online dating beware – a picture is worth a thousand words. (Or about 750 in this case!)

Which brings me to another finding from Seth’s research, and one which perhaps belies my claim to be applying a photographers eye to this process.  The biggest factor in whether a man wants a second date with a woman is her appearance when they first meet.  And for women?  Men should shut up and let them talk about themselves.   If only it were so easy!


NSFW (Not Safe From Williams?)

Be warned – this post features nudity.

I wasn’t intending to post any of these images to my blog originally, but they seemed to take on a life of their own as you shall see.

A couple of years ago a woman I met on a date contacted me later to commission me to shoot some pictures of her, including some nudes; she’s been a yoga teacher for many years, and although nearing 60 was still in good shape so wanted to record this before time caught up with her.  We left the nakedness until the end of the day’s shooting, and despite capturing some shots earlier in the day that I was very happy with, these final shots were poor.

I was disappointed in myself and for my subject, but there were a number of reasons for the failure:

  • By leaving it to the end of the day my model was tired
  • The location we had chosen, whilst dramatic, was very cold
  • We hadn’t fully agreed what sort of shots she would like beforehand

In these circumstances I think she just wanted to get it over with and so did I!  The failure got under my skin, if you’ll excuse the term, and so with the freedom of being single this year, it was an aspect of my photography I wanted to nail and so I’ve worked with models several times this year leading up to a session with a model called Joceline a couple of weeks ago.  Though she has a YouTube channel entitled “Joceline’s Twilight Years” she still has a couple of decades on my unfortunate client, but with a background in ballet, she too is in excellent shape.

This time I was prepared.  Heavily.  I had ideas aplenty for what I wanted to shoot, so much so that in four hours we didn’t get through them all, and I’d planned sets and lighting too (all in my lounge!).  I was largely delighted with the results.

There was a small exception though.  I’ve long been a fan of an image by Rudolf Koppitz that I saw in Bradford’s National Media Museum featuring a nude set against a dark background provided by three women cloaked in black.  On the day I aimed to recreate this with a composite of 4 images of Joceline, but I wasn’t happy with the result.  Sitting at my Photoshop screen I was determined to produce something a little more creative, and it occurred to me that some shots featuring an outfit straight from IKEA (lampshade and curtain) reminded me of ladies day at the races.  It wasn’t long before I’d produced this spoof image.

And that might have been the end of it were it not for a conversation with a superb floral artist at the other end of the country initially about a series on BBC 4 about Japanese art, including Ikebana, which she also produces.  Our conversation initially focused on serious elements of composition, minimalism and negative space, but at some point I shared the nudes above, including my Ascot pastiche.

Which is when she threw down the gauntlet of producing something for the forthcoming Wimbledon championships, without copying the famous 1970’s tennis girl poster.  Naturally I responded.


Sex & Doges & Rock & Roll

Mention a Doge’s Palace and most people’s minds will jump to Venice (mine included), but the concept of a Doge (or Duke) as political leader wasn’t confined to La Serenissima.  The same was true of Genoa.  I’ve already referred to the Palazzo Ducale as the setting for the G8 summit, but this large building is more than just a conference centre.

There are traces of its days as a palace, but really these are few and far between and so the building will never merit the attention of its Venetian counterpart.  Consequently many of its more decorative elements have been sacrificed to make the most of one of its other assets; space.

The atrium is given over to the usual suspects; cafe, ticket office, gifts and crafts, but above and below the palazzo has become one of the city’s main event and exhibition centres.

When I was there there were two exhibits, both from internationally known artists with a degree of notoriety.

The big draw, the one emblazoned on posters and banners that screamed for attention in the brightest of pinks, was for the “The King of Pop-Art”.  There are key theme’s that we’re all familiar with from Warhol’s output; the screen prints, the recreated packaging, but the works on display showed there was so much more to him but… I can’t share any of it with you.  Once you entered the exhibition space photography was prohibited.  I managed to bend that rule because although it would have been good to capture some aspect of what I saw there was something else to view beyond the formally displayed work.  The rooms themselves.

I’ve encountered this before of course at a gallery in Venice; maintaining the fabric of these impressive buildings needs a degree of commercialism, but in creating suitable spaces for the display of art, and particularly more contemporary art, the fabric is hidden behind screens and curtains.

That was less of an issue in the other exhibit, which was held in what must have been a basement or cellar area, approached through a smaller entrance to one side of the building’s great facade.  Here I was allowed to take pictures, appropriate since the work on display was of one of the 20th centuries most notable, perhaps even notorious photographers.  Here were photographs of Italian villas, haute couture fashion, and portraits that included Margaret Thatcher.  Of course Helmut Newton is best known for his nudes.

Shots like that above were demonstrated that much of his early work in this area was financed by others; the shot on the left a fashion shot for Yves Saint Laurent, that on the right a piece of personal work that Newton shot making used of the fact that he already had location, models and lighting.  He also tried to recreate a lot of poses from classical art.

Perhaps a natural follow on to these beginnings, he shot a series of images where he tried to recreate exact duplicates with the same models in the same poses both clothed and unclothed, and though these were generally well received he gave up on the idea because it is technically very difficult to achieve.  This pairing demonstrates his approach, and perhaps the matching of poses might have been easier had the models kept the same footwear between shots.

Of course photographing other people’s photographs requires very little in the way of creativity, but if you wait patiently the opportunity will present itself.  Who is looking at who in this…


Brandon On The Up

I don’t know whether it was the clarification of the meaning of “gate” in my recent Ripon post but I found myself musing on another place-name that is common in the Durham area, where we have  Framwellgate Peth,  Crossgate Peth, and Peth Lane in the vicinity of the city, and just a little further afield the village of Brancepeth.

If you’re familiar with the accent in the North East of England you wouldn’t expend much effort in guessing that “peth” means path, but you’d only be half right; it also implies that it’s a steep path.  Given that Durham, like Rome, is a city on seven hills the frequency of the word is explained.

And so on one of the recent uncharacteristically sunny spring days I set out for Brancepeth with camera bag and trusty copy of Pevsner (the book is older than I am!).  I’ve passed through the village many times but never stopped.  Time to put that right.

On those earlier trips I used to enjoy the glimpses of the castle visible in the distance, yet no such reward awaited me this time.  Had I just missed it?  Had the road been slightly rerouted? New properties built to obscure what Pevsner referred to as “one of the greatest thrills one can experience in the county”?  He is less complimentary about the castle itself (which being largely 19th century he describes as “operatic scenery” than he is about that view.  Consequently I was relatively unconcerned that the stronghold is in private hands and closed to the public.  (Nice tea room in the barbican though!)

My object was much smaller; the nearby church of St Brandon.  “Aha” I thought; “Brandon’s Path – Brancepeth”.  Maybe, but a local legend tell of an enormous “brawn” (wild boar) that terrorised the area in 1208.  A stone was placed to commemorate the slaying of the beast, so there could be some truth in it, but as the church predates this I’m sticking with my preferred view.  The church tower is 12th century but there’s evidence of Anglo-Saxon origins.

With my new liking for all things carpentry I was looking forward to discovering “the glorious woodwork” in a Gothic Revival style.  Installed mid 17th century, Pevsner states that there is no better place to study the style than here in Brancepeth, which is where the age of my copy becomes a problem.

On September 16th 1998 fire swept through the church, doubtless fuelled by that glorious woodwork, and temperatures reached 1200°.  Estimates suggest that the church was 20 minutes away from complete destruction when the fire was brought under control.

Astonishingly in these days of falling attendances the building has been restored, and with craftsmanship worthy of the structure’s history.

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There has even been a silver lining.  Medieval decoration has been revealed by the loss of plaster coverings and a multitude of medieval grave slabs that had been repurposed as window lintels were discovered in the debris and now displayed prominently on the church walls.

The imagery of these slabs used to cover graves is interesting.  All bear a central cross running the length of the slab, though some of these crosses are elaborately decorated, perhaps to resemble a “tree of life”.

The additional engraving of a sword to one side of the cross is clear indication that the man beneath the slab was a warrior, but several also bore a smaller symbol on the opposite side.

At first I thought these were mason’s compasses, but I later learned they were shears symbolic of a woman being buried beneath the slab.  Men as protectors, women as providers of clothing.

Sexual stereotypes of the middle ages!