Site for Sore Eyes (Pt III)

The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.

But I won’t be sharing it with you.

The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.

I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue.  (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway).  By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic.  I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.

Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment.  Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.

Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard!  Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom?  The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.

At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast.  Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view.  On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders.  Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself.  I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.

The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir.  Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way.  The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.

Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity.   Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within.  Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery.  No one was telling what happened next.

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A Site for Sore Eyes (Pt II)

The second location from the UNESCO seven that I want to write about didn’t move me to tears, but probably only because it followed so soon after the Cathedral of Monreale.  All the same it is an absolutely astonishing space.  I use the word space because it’s part of a building rather than the structure itself,  and I’ve already introduced you to the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Palermo’s royal palace naturally has a private chapel where the kings, viceroys and their families could worship.

Roger II of Sicily commissioned the construction two years after he became the island’s first king (I know, the name is confusing in that respect).  Eight years later in 1140 the structure was complete, though the mosaics that decorate it weren’t finished for a number of year after that.  Hardly surprising when you see the complexity and beauty of some of  the designs (those completed in the later decades of the project were probably local rather than Byzantine in their construction and are poorer quality).

Here though it wasn’t the mosaic artistry that caused my astonishment.  Like Monreale there are a number of architectural styles at play here; the doorway is typically Norman  and there are other Romanesque features to be seen.  The Byzantine influence is seen not just in the exquisite mosaics and the dominant image of Christ Pantocrator.  

The archways in the aisles are Arabic but rest on classical columns.

The feature that I found so fascinating was purely Arab.  The Muqarnas.

No, I didn’t know either, but it refers to a type of vaulting, though that hardly does justice to a work of wizardry in mathematics, art and architecture.   Known to some as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting” the muqarnas is a method of transitioning different levels of a building’s ceiling, by encrusting them in a three-dimensional pattern that in some ways works like the jumbled patterns of a “dazzle ship”.   The style originated in the Middle East a couple of centuries before the chapel was built, though sadly one of the earliest and best stone examples is believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.   In an ingenious blending mosaic 8-pointed stars, that are Muslim in design, are grouped in sets of four to create a Christian cross.

Again I was hampered by low light and the difficulties of trying to capture images with a zoom lens but no tripod, but I was determined to see more of the detailed script and illustrations that adorned the ceiling.   Michelangelo is famed for the decoration of a chapel ceiling in Rome.  Sadly the artists responsible for the Palatine Chapel in Palermo did not achieve such fame, though in my book they would have been worthy.

As our world seems to grow ever more intolerant we see that almost 1000 years ago things were very different.  A commemorative plaque just outside the chapel records in Greek, Arabic and Latin the building of a clock in 1142.  Collaboration beats conflict any time.

So look closely at the muqarnas where Christian figures are surrounded by Arabic script, and hope that that spirit can be rediscovered.

All Greek to Me

Of the various places that I stayed on my tour of Sicily it would be fair to say that Siracusa was my favourite.  It had an unfair advantage in providing me some of the best weather of my trip but there were far more reasons that the temperature for my response to the city.  Perhaps my view will change when the motoring fine that I incurred catches up with me!*

Whereas Palermo wore its Arabic history proudly, Siracusa, on the opposite side of the island, was colonised by Greeks at the same point in history.  There have been many other cultures present in the city since then, but for me the Greek influence was the one that I remember most strongly.

There are plenty of rival distractions from other points in history and I’ll begin with these.  At the very tip of the island of Ortygia, which was the heart of the original city, stands the Swabian fortress of Castello Maniace, built by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th Century, yet the name is derived from George Maniakes, a Greek general who had taken the city on behalf of the Byzantine empire two centuries earlier.  Ok, so not an ancient Greek, but a Greek nonetheless and he built a fort here first!

A little further from the coast is the Piazza Duomo, a sumptuous open space with classical Italian architecture, a cathedral with a magnificent baroque facade, and a nearby church that features a Caravaggio painting The Burial of St Lucy, who was martyred in the city.  What could be more Italian?   Well Santa Lucia’s mother was called Eutychia, a Greek name, and though her father was Roman, this is no clue to his geographical origins.  Even so Lucy was half-Greek.

Then there’s that cathedral, which features frescoes that would not be out-of-place in Rome itself, but the body of the church feels different somehow.  Perhaps it’s the muted lighting you might think, but no. Take a walk around the side and you see an interesting feature in its construction; fluted columns.  This was the Temple of Athena in the 5th Century BC, the period when Athens was at the height of her powers, and yet Siracusa, which was allied to Sparta, was equal in size.

Perhaps a trip to the archaeological park where a great cave once held prisoners and was named The Ear of Dionysus  by that man Caravaggio, because of the acoustic phenomenon that allowed guards stationed above to hear every word spoken in the cavern.  Except that it’s not a natural cave.  It was quarried out as a water storage facility in Classical times.  Ah, but perhaps the Romans did this, after all there is a Roman amphitheatre on the same site?  Sadly one dwarfed by the Greek theatre that is also here, and which remains in use to this day.

 

But above all there is one man responsible for my seeing this as a Greek city, a man who pioneered mathematics, invented war machines to destroy invading shipping, and designed a water pump for large vessels whose design is still used in irrigation systems.  You probably know him more for his bath however.

Archimedes of Syracuse.

*It seems to be recent trend in Italy to create camera controlled pedestrian areas and I’ve no problem with that, but the SatNav companies haven’t caught up.  If you’re planning to drive around the country then Google Italian Motoring Fines and be afraid!

Rock Follies

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Studley Royal water gardens, and how they were created by John Aislabie when he retired from government in disgrace at the end of the South Sea Bubble Affair.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was greatly responsible for the scheme which was intended to refinance public debt but lead to the financial ruin of many and enormous damage to the economy.  (As Britain faces Brexit we have a Chancellor who is luke warm about the process but seems powerless to prevent it – will he suffer a similar fate?)

Perhaps suffer is the wrong word to use in conjunction with Aislabie however because though his mansion no longer survives, it is clear from the expense he incurred developing the gardens at Studley that he was not financially ruined.  What I did not know was how much the reverse was true until I discovered recently that the 18th century leisure park developed by Aislabie and his son was far more extensive.

Continuing the down the watercourse from Fountains is the Seven Bridges Valley, where small stone structures criss-cross the stream running through a steep-sided gorge with more follies along the ridge.  It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Studley (which is perhaps why the National Trust don’t include it) but Aislabie’s guests would enjoy carriage rides across the little bridges as part of the whole experience.

But then I discovered Hackfall Woods, six miles away as the crow flies, but another steep valley populated by small stone structures which was also part of the Aislabie estate.

Arch Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father published a book describing how influential individuals might prosper in a future world of financial chaos, and his son seems bent on bringing that to fruition.  Taking the long view, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new in this world.

My own financial situation has changed for the worse of late when I was made redundant, but all of these sites had something that is still free to me and is far more beautiful.  The natural world.

I’ve nothing against the stone follies.  I do object to the political ones.  But I managed one of my own.

Studley is a deer park home to three herds; fallow, sika and red deer.  And visiting in the autumn means the deer are in rut.  The stags are pumped with testosterone, and far more aggressive than usual.  Recommendations are that you keep at least 100 metres away.

Walking along the Seven Bridges Valley the air resonated with that growling belch that stags make at this time of year, but I thought they were all up on the ridge above me.  Until I rounded this tree and got a bit of surprise.  I stopped dead and let him move away though I didn’t take my eyes of him for a second.  I was glad of the metal cages that protect some of the trees trunks as I figured they would give me a start if I needed to climb.  Luckily he didn’t see me as a threat.

 

Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been less than kind about my home town of Sunderland’s attempts at public art and architecture, though the posts were so long ago that I feel safe in raising the issue again, because the town’s decision makers just keep doing it again.

The Millennium may seem a long time ago now, but it was a time when many cities around the UK marked the occasion with new constructions, and many, perhaps seeing it as a metaphor for the passage from one period of time to another, chose to build bridges.  London has its famous crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Glasgow built the Clyde Arc and the Tyne was crossed once more by structure known to many as the Eye.

None of them were actually open on 1st January 2000, and in fact they all needed extra work to stabilise or protect from shipping but each has become a landmark.

The Eye “winking”

Sunderland opted to join this bandwagon by announcing an international design competition in 2005, which among the entrant included one from Frank Gehry, whose buildings around the world are icons of design (Guggenheim Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture) to the extent that there is a phenomenon of economic regeneration that such buildings produce called the Bilbao Effect.

Tees Infinity Bridge

I’ve no idea what his entry was like, but he didn’t win.  Instead a design from Spence Associates was chosen.  I’m not really up on who the power players are in the world of architecture apart from a few (Rogers, Foster, Lloyd-Wright, Hadid, Piano and of course Gehry) but I’d never heard of Stephen Spence.  He played a part in the design of the Tees Infinity Bridge (another in the spate of white bridges) though his input was bitterly disputed by a partner firm at the time.  I suspect Gehry’s design was too radical (missing the point Sunderland).

Even the Spence option scared them, so they commissioned a design for a cheap and basic option, then sat on their hands for three years before inviting the public to choose between the two.   Spence won and the council backed the extra expense on the grounds that an ambitious design would attract more business to the area.  Years of failing to secure funding and willing contractors followed and it seems the council lost their nerve again.  In 2013 they dropped the Spence design.

Five years later they have a bridge; The Northern Spire.  The council website makes no mention of the designer.  It’s the tallest structure in the North East of England (size isn’t everything guys) but that’s about all that can be said for it.  I don’t see people flocking to the city because of it and bringing that regeneration.  Perhaps voting Remain to protect their biggest employer (Nissan) might have been smarter.

Funnily enough, just upstream from the bridge is a reminder that big ideas involving concrete aren’t always money spinners.  Slowly (very slowly) decaying on the riverside is a concrete boat.  Yes, a boat made from concrete.  It never caught on.

Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt I

Having moved home in the last year I have a new area to explore and of course that includes some new National Trust properties that I’ve visited before, and even despite my disagreement with their drone policy two of the houses in North Yorkshire won me over with some special exhibits.

The first was Nunnington Hall; a largely 17th Century country house which was hosting a display of work by the finalists in the British Wildlife Photography Awards – how could I resist?  The images are all copyright of course so I can’t show them here, but they gave me some impetus to explore a new area of photography which I shall expand upon in the second part of this post.

Many of the shots were captured by the intrepid “camp out all night to see hares in the dawn mist” type, who must surely be professionals with bottomless pockets to fund the long telephoto lenses used in most of these shots.  I’m not denigrating their skill or commitment, but as these are shots that I don’t envisage myself ever taking I was happy to admire them but not inspired to follow suit.

In contrast the category that really did impress me was macro photography with incredible close up shots of insects revealing incredible detail but seemingly achieved with quite ordinary equipment.  I went straight out into the ground to shoot close ups of their flowers!

My second “new” discovery was Beninbrough Hall; a much grander Georgian mansion set in sprawling ground where cattle and sheep graze freely.  Beningbrough has a close relationship with the National Portrait Gallery, and so continually displays pictures from that collection, though these change in line with important themes.  In timely fashion this year is focusing on creative women, and so there are paintings and photographs of the likes of Judi Dench, Darcey Bussell and Amy Winehouse, though my personal favourite had to be one of the smaller works; Neil Wilder’s photographic portrait of JK Rowling.

With no opportunity to take that inspiration outside and begin photographing famous authors I was off to the gardens in close up mode again, but with one exception and act of rebellion.

A walk along the River Ouse gives an opportunity to view the Hall in the context of it’s grounds, though even at some distance it is difficult to capture a truly representative shot because of the many trees that can obstruct the view.  Time to get airborne again!

 

Revisiting the Past

The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.

Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).

There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).

Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me.  That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).

The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch.   Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe.  The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.

Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”

All of which just left me time to lap up the baroque elements, jump on my return metro and kill time before leaving the city on some other notable steps when I left the station.

In Piazza di Spagna.

 

Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me.  Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less.  A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history.  Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604.  Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself.  Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.