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.





Le Pareti di San Lorenzo

The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome con...
The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Lawrence to death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trans: The Walls of Saint Lawrence

If, as a significant proportion of we tourists do, you head from the fountain, opera house and economic muscle of Piazza Ferrari down towards the old port, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll pass the Cathedral of San Lorenzo along the way as Via San Lorenzo is the widest and most direct of the routes leading from the harbour.  And yet, if you take this route, named after la cattedrale, you could easily pass the great church without realising it.  Approach it from the opposite direction and you can’t miss it.

This is because whilst Via San Lorenzo is broader than the narrow alleys of Maddalena, it’s still far from spacious, and so the towering walls of the cathedral become just a sea of greyness towering above you to the right, whilst a range of colourful shops and cafés draw your eye to the left.  What decoration there is is high above your head and so for many goes unnoticed, and because the piazza at the grand western entrance is quite small, you could well be past without further thought.

Perhaps it is fair that those toiling up the hill should have the greater reward.  From this direction the façade is unmissable with its bands of grey and white striped marble.  Whether true or not, I overheard a guide explaining that the use of this pattern was closely regulated by the city’s government so only those with real wealth and influence were permitted to use it.  No problem for the church then!

Striking as it is when standing back (as far as that small piazza allows), the true beauty is discovered when you get closer.  The masons who fashioned this marble in the 14th century seem to have believed it was a sin to leave the stone with a smooth surface, for there are carved flourishes wherever you look.

And then you start to notice more, at least if you’re facing the right way!

The side walls have interesting features too, yet these seem more randomly placed, as if they weren’t intended to be where they ended up.  Perhaps these pieced weren’t good enough for the facade, or were moved to their current locations when something better came along!  There’s an interesting parallel between this loose approach to the construction and the story of St Lawrence’s martyrdom.

He is usually portrayed with a gridiron, representing his supposed fate when martyred in 3rd century Rome, where he was one of the seven deacons of the city.  As such, his status would normally have meant his execution would have been by beheading (Latin passus est).  Some scholars believe that a slip of the pen rendered this as assus est, meaning “he was roasted”.   Like Magdalene the harlot, a legend was born.

But I digress.  As you look at these misplaced elements you realise that even the textures of that grey marble are beautiful, but then no one would ever pay sufficient attention to a grey church would they?  Back to the masons and their decorative façade then.




…was a Renaissance sculptor who worked in Italy and was heavily influenced by Michelangelo.  Surprisingly, given his name and that he was responsible for the city’s most famous artwork, he wasn’t born in Bologna.  He wasn’t even Italian.

Born in what was then a part of Flanders, but now sits in France he was named Jean Boulogne, so it’s easy to see how the transition came about.

His greatest works have a classical influence, and having his workshop in Florence he completed many works for the Medici, and it is said that Cosimo Medici prevented his leaving the city so that he could be the sole beneficiary of Giambologna’s talent.  The Boboli Gardens in Florence were a home of many of his works.

It is his first commission that is most famous to those visiting Bologna.  His bronzes are the figures at the heart of The Fountain of Neptune.  The Pizza del Nettuno is ordinarily dominated by the great sea-god (though when I visited the citizens of Bologna had chosen to dwarf it with their Christmas tree).

Given the Papal commission that led to its construction I was a little surprised at the female figures around the base, though their impact was lessened by the nipple jets being out of action when I saw it!  They aren’t the sole providers of curvaceous flesh however.  My guide book referred me to the popularity of photographing Neptune’s shadow as it fell on the Palazzo Communale; I’m not sure of any other significant reason but it does highlight that the old boy has an outstanding pair of buttocks.

Trident of '07 Maserati Quattroporte
Trident of ’07 Maserati Quattroporte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One last thing that we should thank Giambologna for;  Neptune would be virtually unrecognisable without his trident, it symbolises his power. He had already been protecting the city for over 350 years with that trident when a local car company took it for their logo.  Maserati seem to have done fairly well with that power.



Saltings & Maltings

I promised in my last East Anglia posting that the Orfordness Light was my next objective, and indeed the next day it was, but first I needed to find my accommodation for the night, necessitating a journey up the coast a little.

Along the way I stopped off at a spot that clearly has some significance for a little-known writer of wizarding adventures.  JK Rowling named one of the most important characters of her Harry Potter novels Snape after the village which marks an important crossing on the River Alde.  There has been a settlement here at least since Roman times (evidence of salt pans from then has been found on the river), but it was the production of another ingredient that gave Snape greater significance.  Malt.

Barley had long been exported from the area and Snape’s position on the river made it an obvious choice to load barges with the grain, but in the mid 19th Century a complex was built that would malt the barley for the production of beer in London and the continent.  The Snape Maltings would operate in this way for over a century.

Eventually the market shifted (much as the nearby shingle) and the Maltings went into liquidation, and might have been demolished but for the vision of a local farmer, George Gooderham, who bought the derelict site and began a remarkable transformation.

Snape Maltings today is an internationally recognised concert venue, but also comprises holiday and residential properties, shops, rehearsal rooms, galleries, and places to eat and drink.  It is a thriving tourist attraction set in beautiful grounds where Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and an uncontroversial Sarah Lucas, vie for your attention.  What’s more some of the complex remains undeveloped so there is still untapped potential.

I couldn’t get into the concert hall to take pictures.  It didn’t seem to matter though.



I talk a lot about feedback in my job, and how we frequently dismiss the feedback we receive as we experience denial and then emotions such as anger or embarrassment.  Then all the words pour out as we make excuses.  We don’t want to accept our imperfections or listen to others describe our strengths.  Far better that we should be calm and reflect.

My best friend described me as an angel some time ago for my ability to bring a sense of calm into her life at times of crisis.  I laughed it off; far too aware of my sins and failings to even consider it.  Someone else that I met on a date, whose accomplishments overawed me described me as “too good for her”.  Our own view is often so different to the way the world perceives us.  The world sees the mask that we present to it; behind that facade we see the cracks, or as that friend put it; “Our personal and professional personas can be very different”.

I’ve done so much writing this week that I was struggling for words to post here this weekend (which might surprise some!) so I’m going to listen to that friends feedback and join her in calm serenity.

This picture that I took yesterday fits that mood.  The Angel of the North is a photographic icon that challenges photographers to find a new angle.  Yet for me it’s not about the Angel.  The Angel remains constant.  His partner the sky provides the beauty.

Spend all your time waiting
for that second chance
for a break that would make it okay
there’s always some reason
to feel not good enough
and it’s hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction
oh beautiful release
memories seep from my veins
let me be empty
and weightless and maybe
I’ll find some peace tonight

in the arms of the angel
fly away from here
from this dark cold hotel room
and the endlessness that you fear
you are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
you’re in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort here

Sarah McLachlan – Angel


Click the image to enlarge – it’s worth it!

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Flying North


I’m staring right into the light
And I’m drawn in like a moth
And I’m flying North again…

Thomas Dolby – Flying North

To be fair, I wasn’t flying.  I’d driven to the first of my three stops this morning, but the moment I stepped from the car into wind ripping along the North Sea coastline, becoming airborne was a distinct possibility.

My “home” beach is of course the elongated bay of Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, but since moving away I’ve visited a number of other stretches of golden sand in search of something to point my lens towards, so this morning took me to spots that I’ve never visited before, despite being a resident of the North East for all of my life.

Emerging from the Tyne Tunnel I began in Whitley Bay, a town famous in my youth for its amusement park; the Spanish City immortalised by Dire Straits.  When I worked in Whitley Bay 20 years ago it was closed and decaying; the seaside resort becoming better known for its pubs and clubs.  This era too has passed, Newcastle greedily snapping up the Geordie Shore element in its endless maw of happy hour bars.  My objective was a little north of the town, the island of St Mary’s and the lighthouse upon it are iconic to photographers, so it was an obvious target.

The lighting and sea conditions weren’t going to provide anything truly outstanding, but I managed to snatch a few HDR shots before the wind was joined by rain and this was not the place for a camera to be abroad.APW_5400

I stopped next at Seaton Sluice, but have been here before so grabbed a single image to evidence my return, but with the driving rain continuing took little persuasion to hurl myself back into the shelter of my car.APW_5413_4_5-2

By the time I got to Blyth, the rain clouds had been pushed out to sea and the sun was shining.  I’m far less familiar with Blyth, though in the past its residents have been notorious for drug use, providing a steady stream of residents for HMP Acklington a little further up the coast.  Attempts to regenerate the town, have focused on the beautiful stretch of coastline that it possesses, and the installation of two rows of beach huts has generated more interest than could possibly have been imagined.  I felt obliged to shoot them, but it was the shore that I loved so much.

Blyth, Beach Huts
Blyth, Beach Huts

The lighthouse, breakwaters, and wide open skies were beautiful.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

But there was more to explore still.  Newbiggin boasts an artwork which required a far greater degree of investment than Blyth’s wooden shelters, yet it has proved to be highly controversial.  Sean Henry‘s Couple, a painted bronze of a man and woman staring out to sea seems innocuous enough, and even though they represent a view of North Easterners that some feel falls a long way short of aspirational,  his work Man with Potential Selves in central Newcastle draws very little criticism, or indeed attention.  What makes Couple so different is the scale.  The figures are set on a large white platform on the town’s sea wall, making them hard to ignore if you are looking out to sea as so many of us do, hard to ignore because each of these figures is as tall as a double-decker bus.  APW_5646

Sadly it was one of those artworks that left me unmoved, though the sculpture has featured in some beautiful imagery, though inevitably it is the sea and sky that provide the drama and the pictures work in spite of rather than because of the sculpture.

Nevermind.  My memory card already held something truly beautiful, at least to my eye.  It features the first of my pitstops, but shot from the third.  Even the iconic St Mary’s can provide a shot that stretches way beyond cliché. (It’s worth clicking to view as large as possible)

St Mary's Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach
St Mary’s Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach

Beyond First Impressions

On our drive home my daughter Meg was expressing her passion for conservation, and at snow point questioned the value of space exploration when we have so much work to do to preserve our own planet. On the face of it, a reasonable question, but the issue is more complex.

For me, exploration of any sort is about pushing into new territory and learning from the experience, both from what we discover on achieving the goal, but also from the journey itself. Consequently we have so many products and technologies in our lives that would not exist without that striving to achieve the impossible or improbable. How would Meg be as aware of the extent of global deforestation without satellite monitoring and communication technologies for example?

I have a similar view about modern art. I don’t always appreciate it or understand what the artist was trying to achieve, but the reflection that it provokes is enough in itself.

Yesterday I visited the Baltic again, and viewed the work of three artists. Salla Tykkä had shot and edited a number of video works; the one I viewed being about Romanian gymnastics. I could write in detail about the architecture of the training facilities, the disproportionate investment, the rigours of the training and the messages they conveyed in a country beset with huge financial challenges so in that respect the artwork had an impact. Did the video constitute art or was it documentary? The lack of commentary perhaps rules out the latter, and my response to it suggests it achieved a goal as the former.

On another floor a large construction predominantly of glass and metal, represented a collaboration between artist, Sara Barker, and a firm of architects Ryder Architecture. It left me completely cold, and though on a greater scale, reminded me of a piece if sculpture that I produced without any thought whatsoever as a piece of homework back in my schooldays.  I smiled wryly at a book title in the gift shop later; Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained

APW_5304-EditThe final artist, Thomas Bayrle, was for me the most interesting, not because I’d be rushing to give a home to much or indeed any of his work, but it was the work that he had put into his art that inspired me. I was fascinated by his techniques more so than his subject matter, which ran the gamut from quirky portraits to graphic sexual imagery, building both images and sculpture from small pictures and objects into larger pieces that occasionally resemble the component parts, but at other times are transformed completely. Portraits for example that are made up of distorted photographs of church interiors. Very different to my approach to portraiture as in this image of Pauline.

I was clearly inspired in someway by the experience, looking more closely at some of the mundane details around me.

Ultimately however, despite my reaction to Sara Barker’s piece, it was an architect working with glass and steel that gave me the image I was seeking.

Sage, Gateshead
Sage, Gateshead