Cold and wet are good news for some!

Before I began my rudimentary Italian lessons online I’d never heard of Cefalù, yet it is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Sicily.  Perhaps my apathy towards beach holidays is at fault.  In any event when I arrived there in late March, the island was still at the mercy of “The Beast from the East” or one of its variants and it was cold, grey and wet.

My sunglasses and swim shorts were untroubled.

So why did I make the journey along the coast from Palermo to begin my trip here, when the rest of my intended stops were in the opposite direction?  Well naturally, because the place has history.  Now you good be forgiven for thinking that it was originally a Greek settlement.  Even had I not given you its Greek name as my title, Cefalù (pronounced Cheffaloo) still looks a lot like Kephalonia, yet there is no mention in Thucydides, the bible of my long forgotten Ancient History lessons.  Kephale meant “head” in Classical Greek, and the headland may have been home to no more than a fort or lookout post.  It’s clear to understand why this may be so when you see the enormous cliff (La Rocca) that overshadows the little town.

I was here for more modern fare.  Not quite as modern as the chemist’s shop on Corso Ruggero, though it did have a quaint appeal, nor the church of Santo Stefano whose baroque facade dominates a tiny piazza.

It wasn’t the medieval wash-house located well below street level where the basins used for the laundry remain supplied by fresh running water.

No, the clue was in the name of that main street.  Corso Ruggero.  The course of Roger.

Following the Norman invasion of 1063, King Roger II of Sicily moved the settlement down from the headland to the small harbour below and began construction of a cathedral.  Though built in the Romanesque style, this is a very different building from the great Normal cathedral in Durham that I grew up with.

Externally the twin towers at the west end provide some echo of its English contemporary, but internally there are no vast load bearing columns (though as I clumsily clattered about with my tripod they may have been glad of them).  It has something that Durham does not.  Decoration.

Like so many of the churches in Sicily the Byzantine influence is here in golden mosaics and the vast figure of Christ Pantokrator looks down on all.  This was the first example that I’d seen.  By the time I left Sicily two weeks later I’d lost count!  Between the Greeks and the arriving Normans that small town on the rock had been Roman and then Arab.  The unique mix of influences that is peculiar to Sicily was suddenly tangible.



Levels of Recognition

Perhaps the young amphibian martial artists of New York’s sewers are to blame, but when it comes to the artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, some getter a better deal than others in the public eye.  Perhaps Caravaggio was just a syllable too many to be a catchy name for a super hero, but no more so than Michelangelo who did make it to turtle status!

I’m being flippant of course and wonder how many of the public at large appreciate why Raphael and Donatello might be names that they recognise when   Giotto, Cimabue, or Brunelleschi might not.  How does one differentiate between levels of genius?

You’re probably well aware of Bernini if you’ve ever visited Rome;  the grand colonnade that fronts St Peter’s, the bronze baldacchino over the altar within are probably on a par with Michelangelo’s dome above the basilica and his Pieta inside in terms of public recognition.  Michelangelo holds the trump card with the Sistine Chapel of course, but Bernini has other works to offer.

Why is he as a sculptor and architect any less worthy of recognition?  It can’t be down to his patronage for Bernini enjoyed the favour of popes, cardinals and European royalty.  He lived in a different era of course so perhaps he lacks the glamour of being a pioneer in his field.  Bernini was a master of the Baroque rather than the Renaissance.   All the same he fares better than his contemporary Borromini.

Most visitors to the Piazza Navona stroll the length of the former arena and pause either to partake of the many caffés or to pose for the obligatory selfie by the attention grabbing Fountain of the Four Rivers; one of Bernini’s more famous works.  The fountain stands outside a fantastic baroque church, Sant’Agnese in Agone which was partly designed by Borromini.

Located elsewhere the church would have real presence, yet here it is relegated to backdrop.  (There is a popular myth that Bernini’s fountain exacerbates this by having the statues which personify the rivers turn in horror from Borromini’s facade, though the story is not consistent with the construction dates of both).

Then there is that baldacchino.  Actually a joint enterprise by both men, it has become known as “Bernini’s Baldacchino”.

St Agnes, Borromini

My visit to Sant’Agnese was curtailed by the church clearing visitors, presumably ahead of some daily service, but not before I could take in the frescoes and interior decoration which draw the eye with their bright colours, colours which Borromini’s design did not include.  His vision was one of white stucco throughout but a change of pope saw him lose favour and he resigned the commission, a decision he may have regretted when he saw the results.

Whether real or perceived, Borromini was probably a depressive for whom such slights can easily take on great significance.  He took his own life at the age of 67 which doubtless further impacted his reputation.

It’s not all about the work.




The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

Praecipua (Part two)

So how did these marble reliefs that had been scattered around Italy and beyond come to be reassembled and displayed in a custom-built museum off an alley-like stretch of Via di Ripetta?

Mausoleum of Augustus
Mausoleum of Augustus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be fair, the location is fitting.  The Via di Ripetta (road of the little bank) has followed the Tiber here for about as long as the altar has been in existence, and also gives access to the Mausoleum of Augustus (sadly closed for renovation when I was there) just opposite the Ara Pacis.

Despite this there is controversy surrounding the Ara.  Quite literally in fact.

Those remains of the altar that had not been collected by the most influential remained buried not far away beneath the Cinema Nuova Olimpia just off the Via del Corso until it was suggested in 1937 that they be excavated and restored to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.  Not a bad reason per se, but of course this was during the regime of a man who saw himself as a modern-day Roman emperor; Benito Mussolini.  The term fascist derives from

Fasces (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

fasces, the bundle of rods that was a symbol of legal authority for the ancient Romans, and before them the Etruscans.  Interestingly it’s a symbol used internationally since to represent justice – and features on the Golden State Coach used by the British Royal Family.  Mussolini sought to inherit that authority and the glories of Rome by association but in doing so created new meanings.  Just as Augustus had built the altar as an act of symbolism, so Il Duce restored it.  Rome had a new Augustus who once again sought to demonstrate power through association with important things.

Aiming to create a park dedicated to ancient Rome (what was wrong with the Forum?) Mussolini commissioned the rationalist architect Vittorio Morpurgo to design a pavilion which was built around the Ara, resulting in the demolition of many buildings to accommodate it.  Damaged by shrapnel and filled with sandbags during the WWII the pavilion was subject to proposals and counter proposals for its future for decades thereafter.  (This is Italy after all!)

Finally the Fascist structure was demolished in 2006 but the controversy wasn’t over.  American architect Richard Meier‘s replacement is seen as unsympathetic to the surrounding buildings (the baroque church of San Rocco for example, and of course the Roman ruins of the mausoleum), but for me it’s just a bad building that isn’t fit for purpose.

In November 2013 the roof leaked!

At its opening protestors filled the fountains with green dye, and though that was long gone when I was there, the spray from those same fountains made the marble of the steps slick and slippery with black ice on a December morning.

I know the light is lower in the sky during the winter months, but is it acceptable that there are some months when your view of the Ara is striated with bands of blinding light contrasting with deep shadows cast by the structure of the building itself?  It’s as if the artefact has been painted in dazzle camouflage, a technique that deliberately makes things hard to see.

In an odd, but nevertheless welcome piece of juxtaposition the building was also hosting a fantastic exhibition of the work of Hokusai, including his iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and so I bought a combined ticket at the entrance.  Once I’d had my fill of Roman art I spent some time looking for the stairway that would take me to the Japanese.  Silly me expecting it to be within the building.  Instead I had to leave and return to the Via di Ripetta where another entrance existed beneath the main structure.

Schoolboy errors or Praecipua?


666 is no longer alone*

* Genesis – Supper’s Ready


People attach special significance to certain numbers whether they’re religious, freemasons, or just seeking the advantage of a little luck.  Depending on which sources you read, any number from 1-25 (and many more beyond that including the number of the beast in my title) has special meaning in the bible.

One such person was the recusant Sir Thomas Tresham, an Elizabethan nobleman who constructed a number (sorry, couldn’t resist) of properties where his obsession with symbolism took shape, and significant shapes at that.  The numbers 3,5 and 7 were particularly important to Tresham, three because Christ rose on the 3rd day, because of the Holy Trinity and perhaps because it has parallels with his surname, which is of Norman origin.  The five may be more significant to Islam (Five Pillars), but for Tresham related to Christ’s wounds, the Pentateuch, and was symbolic of God’s grace.  Seven is used so commonly within the bible: there are seven deadly sins, seven trumpeting priests bring down the wall of Jericho, there are seven pillars of wisdom, and so many references to seven in the book of Revelation that that alone would justify the number’s importance.

All of this is necessary as background to another National Trust property visit; this time to Lyveden New Bield, an Elizabethan Garden Lodge, designed by and built for Tresham, but never completed.  Tresham was a catholic at a time when this was injurious to your health, but despite this sought ways to proclaim his beliefs to the world in tangible, but obscure ways as an architectural way of giving the authorities the finger.

Whilst the building may resemble a burnt out shell, the truth is that it was never completed because Tresham had problems with some other numbers; 12 children, including 6 daughters requiring dowries, numerous fines imposed and the financial impact of long periods of imprisonment due to his religious beliefs (catholics were seen as a threat at a time when Philip of Spain had designs on removing our protestant Queen) meant that he died with huge debts.  Hearing that the estate was bankrupt the builders walked off leaving the structure much as we see it 400 years later.

Seen from above, the perfectly symmetrical structure forms a Greek cross with bays at the end of each arm comprising 5 windows (the dimensions of these bays feature the same number but my memory fails me at this point).  There are 3 rooms on each of the floors, the fourth arm of the cross being used for a staircase.  Taking into account the basement servants area there are 3 floors.  Now so far this could all be seen as coincidental, but look more closely at the exterior.

There is an incomplete inscription at the top of the building (Gaude Mater Maria) and a little lower a frieze of 7 repeating panels, each of which features a religious symbol (Judas’ bag of silver, a chi-ro featuring the 3 nails of the crucifixion, the IHS monogram incorporating the ladder used at the crucifixion, and some that remain a mystery).

At the bottom of each wing are sets of three shields; none yet carved with arms, some still rectangular.  The perimeter of each wing is 81 feet (3×3 squared), and were I more expert in semiotics I could go on.

There’s plenty more here too including the graffiti of visitors throughout the centuries who left their own inscriptions, and Elizabethan gardens which are still being investigated (recently discovering a labyrinth).

Despite being seen as threat for his Catholicism, Tresham’s resistance went no further than these symbols.  His son Francis was more active.  He took part in the Gunpowder Plot, but that’s a whole other story!

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…

Red, White and… You’re Letting the Side Down

The crown jewels of the magnificent buildings of Genoa’s Strada Nuova could be said to be the three palaces run by the city’s museum’s service.  The buildings themselves are magnificent, but with the added incentive of some interesting contents I was keen to visit them early in my itinerary.  In common with many Italian museums they are closed each Monday, and having made that mistake some years ago when planning to see Florence’s Uffizi I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, so made them my first objective of day one.

That said once I’d bought my ticket I was tempted to delay my entry.  The woman in the small gift shop near the first of the palazzi where tickets are sold was stunningly attractive and I was loathe to leave… But I digress.

All three buildings are on one ticket so I began with Palazzo Bianco as recommended.  Across the road sits Palazzo Rosso, and next door is…  Palazzo Verde would have been nice to complete the Italian tricolore but no, the third is the Palazzo Doria Tursi.  Not quite so picturesque, but I suppose it does prevent any confusion with types of vermouth.

Built in the 16th century for one of Genoa’s most important families, the Grimaldis, after whom the street was originally named, the property changed hands over a century later, but the new owner soon fell into debt and local aristocrats the Brignole-Sale family took ownership and early in the 18th century refurbished the building, giving it a distinctive look (at least internally) and the name by which it is now known.

As you enter and ascend the great staircase ahead of you the name becomes appropriate, though surprisingly there was little explanation of the two enormous statues awaiting your arrival at the top.  The figure on the left is Neptune, not surprising in a maritime city-state, but who was on the right?  The atrium beyond is closed off so the statue can’t be viewed from there, but stand to the right and crane your neck.  You’ll see a second face on the back of the head.  This is Janus, whose name gives us January (Gennaio in Italian) but also Genoa.

The contents of the building are some of the city’s greatest paintings and sculptures which for the most part I won’t reproduce here; I’m no art historian (though a Caravaggio will always jump out at me) but I still appreciate the use of light and shade that can give a two-dimensional image shape and texture.

And yet I was to encounter something more beautiful than the art, the architecture, and even the ticket seller.

Between Bianco and Doria Tursi is a first floor garden area with a balcony that overlooks the Strada Nuova below.  The garden in itself wasn’t particularly spectacular (though well designed) but as I completed my circumnavigation the sun began to break through and as it did so a busker began performing in the street below; a soprano singing arias from Italian opera, her voice reverberating from the walls enclosing the thoroughfare.

My knowledge of opera is probably on a par with my knowledge of art so I can’t give you a playlist, but it was exquisite.  Here in this garden, warmed by the morning sun was a perfect Italian moment.  It may be a photogenic world, but a photograph can’t capture everything.  (I do still have disembodied voice on my instagram feed here though!)