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there is beauty all around us

Month: December, 2016

ABSTRACT LANDSCAPES

Vienna, 30 December 2016

My wife, son and I have just visited a show on Georgia O’Keeffe at the Kunstforum in downtown Vienna. I suppose O’Keeffe is best known for her big, close-up paintings of flowers
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or of animal skulls floating over desert landscapes from the American Southwest.
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But personally I find that, after a wow moment on first sighting, these pall quickly. Seeing them now, I find them somewhat twee.

What I prefer by far in O’Keeffe’s works are her paintings of New Mexico’s landscapes. Two in particular in the show caught my attention, Purple Hills from 1935
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and Rust Red Hills from 1930.


It’s not all her landscapes that I appreciate. It’s those where she has cut away much of the detail to reduce the landscape to its essential shapes and colours. For me, this kind of painting is a form of abstract art. In fact, it’s the only form of abstract art that I really appreciate, where the eye is captivated by the interplay of shape and colour but where there is still a recognizable subject.

Even as I write these lines, I gaze at two prints of paintings hanging on my wall, by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris, who worked in the same way, painting quasi-abstract landscapes. In his case, though, his subjects came from Canada’s far north. The prints I have are his Lake and Mountains, painted in 1928
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and his Mount Lefroy, painted in 1930.
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Harris is part of the Group of Seven, a grouping of seven Canadian painters who believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature and who concentrated on paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. Perhaps the most iconic painting of this group is North Shore, Lake Superior, painted by Harris in 1926.
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I first came across the Group of Seven as a teenager, when I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I loved their paintings, especially those of Harris. The pared down monumentality of his paintings seemed to reflect so well the huge, spare landscapes I was seeing around me.

The only other time I have come across abstract representation of landscapes is in Australia, and more specifically in the work of Rover Thomas, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The example I gave there was the painting River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.
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I also gave there an example of another quasi-abstract landscape, this one by the Australian painter Fred Williams, again of a river system.


Interestingly enough, Georgia O’Keefe painted a similar scene, It Was Blue and Green.
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It seems to be the case that painters are drawn to these types of “abstract landscapes” in the remoter, more rugged parts of the world. I wonder if there are North African painters, or painters from the Sahel countries, who have painted in abstract form the landscapes of the Sahara desert. Or how about Scandinavian or Russian painters who have painted their far north in abstract form? Who knows, maybe there are even Argentinian painters who have depicted Patagonia in this way.

But O’Keefe shows that actually it is possible to extract the abstract from the more homely parts of the world. Here is her Winter Road 1, from 1963, also in the Vienna show.
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Perfect: a dark brown to black line curving across a white background, but also obviously a road across snowy hills. I have seen this exact scene several times in my life in places no more remote than North Yorkshire.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, flower: http://de.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/05/what-do-you-see-in-georgia-okeeffes-flowers/
Georgia O’Keeffe, animal skull: http://www.marissamuller.com/blog/2015/7/3/skulls-flowers
Georgia O’Keeffe, Purple Hills: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=1935
Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hill: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/my-faraway-nearby
Lawren Harris, Lake and Mountains: https://www.ago.net/the-group-of-seven-and-the-art-gallery-of-ontario
Lawren Harris, Mount Lefroy: http://www.artcountrycanada.com/group-of-seven-harris.htm
Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/canadian/The-Group-of-Seven.html
Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
Fred Williams, Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Georgia O’Keeffe, It Was Blue and Green: http://www.oocities.org/moondarlin/artokeeffe3.html
Georgia O’Keefe, Winter Road 1: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/the-walk-to-laggan-cottage-ruins-and-ancient-footfalls/georgia-okeeffe-winter-road-1-1963/

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FULL OF SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Vienna, 29 December 2016

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Nice, isn’t it? It’s Karlskirche, Charles Church, fronting the square of the same name, Karlsplatz, in Vienna. In this picture, the church is reflected in a large pool situated in front of it, making an even prettier picture of it all.

It’s also very nice-looking at night, when cleverly-placed lights dramatically illuminate the facade and dome.
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It really looks like the backdrop of some Mozart opera.

It so happens that we pass through Karlsplatz every time we take the tram into the city centre, and I always give Karlskirche an admiring look as we pass by.

It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI who ordered it to be built, in 1713, just after what turned out to be the last great plague epidemic had swept through these lands. He had it built as thanks for the pestilence having spared him and his family. He dedicated the new church to San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan, who not only was his personal patron saint but was also revered as a healer of plague sufferers. The church was completed by 1737.

Karlskirche was built in pure Baroque style. A few quotes are in order here, to hopefully answer the question “what exactly is the Baroque style?”:
– a style “characterized by new explorations of form, light and shadow, and dramatic intensity”
– a style which “used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur”
– “Baroque architecture and its embellishments were on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Church” (as well as of the secular Princes, I should add)

Well, Karlskirche certainly produces drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur on the outside. We have that dominating dome with its green copper sheath, along with the two columns flanking the front.
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Those columns are modeled on Trajan’s column in Rome
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but substitute tales of Trajan’s victories in the Dacian wars with pious scenes from the life of that great “Prince” of the Church, San Carlo Borromeo.
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We have the pediment crowning the front, where we see the cardinal virtues sucking up to San Carlo standing on the apex of the pediment.
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So it is in a state of high tension and of great exuberance that one enters the church – only to find oneself in a small chapel. It is really the strangest feeling: all that architectonic might and majesty on the outside, clothing a really very modestly-sized internal space.
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Oh, I grant you, there is also dramatic intensity on the inside: the fresco in the dome, for instance
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or the altarpiece portraying the ascension of San Carlo.
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But the overall effect is: “Really? That’s all there is to this church? This tiddly little space?” I have to say, the only time I went in I felt quite cheated.

In the name of full disclosure, I should state at this point that I am anyway not a great fan of Baroque decoration. My general feeling about this style of art can be summed up in Macbeth’s words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Even if the scale of the church’s interior had been on a par with the outside I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I find Baroque decoration, especially in Catholic churches, pompous and overblown. On top of that, for a religion that claims to value poverty, I find Baroque’s in-your-face glitter – gold and silver everywhere – particularly offensive. There is a toe-curling example of this blingy over-the-top quality in Baroque in Vienna’s Jesuit church, whose interior was completed some five years before Charles VI decided to have Karlskirche built.
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All this being said, there is one example of church baroque that I have come across which I really loved, and that was in the cathedral of Saint Gall in the Swiss canton of Saint Gallen. Our visit to it was completely serendipitous. We were driving from Vienna to my parents’ house in France, and Saint Gallen happened to be a good place to stop for the night. The next morning, I decided that we should take the occasion to visit the cathedral and dragged a rather unwilling family with me. What a revelation!


There were the usual dramatic and intense frescoes on the ceiling, but the rest of the church was quite bare. Instead of the glittering gold, the marble, the overwrought statuary, we found ourselves in a space of mostly bare white walls carrying only a few highly curlicued decorations painted a lovely pale blue-green. It was so wonderful that it put me in a good mood for the next nine hours of driving and the thought of having to spend a long weekend with my parents.

The cathedral was remodeled into its current form in the 1750s-60s, so some 20-30 years after Karlskirche. That lapse of time might explain the more rococo style that was used, along with the fact that the cathedral stood at the border with Protestantism – literally, since the town that had sprung up around the cathedral and its abbey had turned Protestant while the abbey itself remained Catholic; Protestant baroque tends to be more restrained than the Catholic version.

Whatever the reason, Saint Gall Cathedral has partially reconciled me to baroque. Since that magic moment some 15 years ago when I first entered the cathedral, I have been inclined to simply grimace and shrug at excesses like those in Vienna’s Jesuit church rather than dream of taking the iconoclast’s hammer to it all. Or maybe I’m simply getting older and perhaps a little bit wiser.

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Karlskirche panoramic: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Karlskirche
Karlskirche at night: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlskirche
Karlskirche dome: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13006441_dome-of-the-karlskirche-st-charles-s-church–vienna-austria.html
Trajan’s column: https://www2.bc.edu/~kenth/honors4.html
Karlskirche columns’ detail: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karlskirche_column_detail_-_Vienna.jpg
Karlskirche pediment: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/93052486
Karlskirche interior: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/lecture-21/deck/5993225
Karlskirche dome fresco: https://www.pinterest.com/soledadvilchez/monumental-ceilings/
Karlskirche altar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57669468@N00/3252233159
Jesuit church, Vienna, interior: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/18903468079
Cathedral of St. Gall, interior: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St-gall-interior-cathedral_1.jpg

GLÜHWEIN

Vienna, 18 December 2016

Christmas cheer is all around us here in Vienna! Hordes of tourists wander the streets, the shops are doing good business, the more popular streets have their bright decorations, the town hall is graced with a large Christmas tree, Christmas markets have sprung up in various squares, selling the twee and the bling for last-minute Christmas presents … and then there are these little huts dispensing with brisk efficiency the German world’s equivalent to mulled wine: glühwein (which translates as glow wine; I thought this referred to the glow it imparts to the drinker, but apparently not. It refers to the original way of heating the spiced wine, with glowing pokers).
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Aaahh, now that’s Christmas cheer for you! After a mug (or two) of glühwein, the world seems a cheerier place, the early grey dusk of a December day not quite so drear, the people around you considerably pleasanter. And what’s more, the cheer can start quite early. Normally, my wife and I wouldn’t pour ourselves our evening glass of wine until at least 6 pm, but we have no qualms in hitting the glühwein bottle at 4 pm, as the early dusk deepens around us and the cold begins to bite. I, for one, am then in a much better mood for the slow wandering through all the other elements of Christmas good cheer: people, shops, Christmas trees, bright lights, etc.
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It seems that many if not all European countries have their local equivalent of mulled wine: glögg, gløgg, glögi in the Nordic countries (the different spellings no doubt caused by the mental confusion brought about by too much quaffing of said glögg, gløgg, and glögi), bisschopswijn (bishop’s wine) in the Netherlands (I presume this is a post-Reformation slur by the Dutch on the drinking habits of their old Roman Catholic bishops), and many, many names which are variants on the temperature of the wine: hot or heated wine (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey), which seems reasonable; boiled wine (Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania), which seems excessive but perhaps due to too much cheer in the kitchen and consequent inattention to the stove; and even burnt wine (Italy), which seems frankly contrarian (but the Italians’ name for the drink, vin brulé, is French, so perhaps something got lost in translation as the fumes of delicious mulled wine circulated the translator’s brain).

In this day and age when so many Europeans shout that they are different from each other, it’s nice to point to common traditions. So let’s lift up our mugs of steaming glühwein, mulled wine, glögg-gløgg-glögi, bisschopswijn, vin chaud, vin brulé, kuvano vino, vino caliente, vinho quente, греяно вино , svařené víno, forralt bor, karstvīns, варено вино, grzane wino, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, Sıcak Şarap, and I’ve missed a good few, and wish ourselves a good 2017 – we surely need it.
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Glühwein: http://www.chowhound.com/recipes/german-mulled-wine-gluhwein-30925/amp
Christmas lights: http://styleture.com/2009/12/22/beautiful-2009-christmas-decorations/
Toasting with glühwein: http://www.laurelkallenbach.com/lkblog/tag/eiserloh-almonds/

AMBROGIO DA FOSSANO DETTO IL BERGOGNONE

Milan, 13 December 2016

A week or so ago, I had an appointment just off Milan’s corso Garibaldi, to discuss a possible presentation that I could make on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how companies could incorporate them into their CSR programmes. Since I had grossly overestimated the time it would take for me to walk there, I found myself at the meeting place with half an hour to spare. Looking around for some way to kill time, I spied a venerable-looking church across the road and decided to go and have a peek, to see what hidden treasures it might contain (every church in Italy beyond a certain age – 250 years, say – contains treasures to be discovered).

The church in question was the Basilica di San Simpliciano. As its title of basilica suggests, this is a very venerable church indeed. It was one of four basilicas wanted by the great Saint Ambrose, Doctor of the Church and bishop of Milan from 374 to his death in 397 AD.
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Ambrose planned to have one such basilica on each of the four main roads leading out of Roman Milan.

The church was completed by his successor, Saint Simpliciano, who also had himself buried here; his bones have been venerated ever since, lying under the main altar but now clothed and masked – a skeleton is not quite the thing anymore.

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Unfortunately, very little of this original church remains. I say unfortunately because I happen to be very fond of early Christian mosaics. I’m sure the church’s interior would have been covered in mosaics like the one whose photo I give above, itself a mosaic shard which has survived because tucked away in an obscure corner of an even more venerable Milanese church, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. Cluniac Benedictines took over San Simpliciano in the 800s, and by the 1200s they had completely renovated the church in the styles then all the rage, Romanesque with a little bit of early Gothic. These styles have stamped themselves on the church’s exterior appearance.
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Unfortunately, hardly anything remains of this period’s internal decorations. One imagines that the walls would all have been frescoed; all that is left is this hand raised in benediction, tucked away in some obscure corner of the church.
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Thereafter, with each passing artistic phase various alterations were made, in the process destroying the harmony of the whole. Here, for instance, a side chapel in the Baroque mode was added.

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To all this was added more obvious vandalism. The church and the adjoining cloisters were turned into barracks by the occupying troops of Revolutionary France; no doubt the church was turned into stables for the troops’ horses (a fate common to many churches, it would seem). I’m sure the French soldiers would have taken pleasure in destroying the church’s decorations, much as ISIS troops have taken pleasure in sledgehammering and dynamiting every non-Islamic work of art that has fallen under their control, and much as Mao’s Revolutionary Guards took pleasure in smashing anything they could lay their hands on from Old China. But bad as all this was, the nadir for San Simpliciano was the 1820s, when some artist who will remain unnamed stuccoed over everything and painted scenes of a painfully sucrose sentimentality – one side chapel in this style has been kept.
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After the Second World War, it was decided that there was nothing left to do but to strip more or less everything away, down to the brickwork. This has given the church a certain rough simplicity, very pleasing to the eye (to mine at least).
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We have to remember, though, that this is a very modern style. None of the original builders or later fiddlers would have dreamed of maintaining such a naked simplicity. Churches were built to demonstrate the glory of God, and naked brickwork definitely didn’t make the cut.

All this I learned from some posters tucked away in a corner (so tucked away that I nearly missed them). I knew none of this on entering the church. What immediately struck me instead was the fresco in the apse behind the main altar.

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Even though it was much obscured by the 1820s main altar (something that was already much criticized when the Artist who will Remain Unnamed installed it), its brilliant blues and reds amid all that raw brick jumped out at me and beckoned me to come closer. Which I did, threading a passage between the main altar and the outer walls of the church. The view was well worth the threading.
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It is a fresco (I later learned from the posters) from 1508 celebrating the Incoronation of the Virgin Mary, painted by il Bergognone (or, to give him his full name and title, Ambrogio da Fossano detto il Bergognone). We see Mary, meek and mild, being solemnly crowned by her son Jesus, God the Son, in a ceremony presided over by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, within a rainbowed arc of seraphims, cherubims and angels

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and with saints and others laypersons (no doubt donors and other Very Important Persons) looking on.

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Thank goodness it was placed high off the ground, otherwise those French revolutionary soldiers would no doubt have destroyed it. With my heart well warmed by its beauty, and my mind well primed by the posters, I hurried back to my meeting, arriving a little breathless but just on time.

I have to say, Bergognone is not a painter that I am at all familiar with. In writing this post, I have mugged up on him a little. He was active primarily in Lombardy, and although works of his have leaked out to many major museums in the western world the bulk of his output is still to be found in and around Milan. Since Saint Ambrose initiated my description of San Simpliciano, let me throw in here a painting Bergognone made of that saint

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which hangs in Pavia’s monastery complex, the Certosa.
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Bergognone was particularly active in the Certosa di Pavia. My wife tells me we have visited it, but I have no memory of doing so (a situation which is becoming alarmingly common). I think I will add it to my ever lengthening list of places around Milan which we will go and visit, once Spring beckons us forth like hibernating bears from the apartment.

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Photos: mine, except the following
Saint Ambrose mosaic: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Ambrogio
San Simpliciano exterior: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano
San Simpliciano interior: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d1899819-i87445764-Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano-Milan_Lombardy.html
San Simpliciano Bergognone fresco overview: http://www.italiamedievale.org/sito_acim/contributi/simpliciano.html
Bergognone’s Sant’Ambrogio: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergognone
Certosa di Pavia: http://www.pavialcentro.it/monumentos/monastero-della-certosa-di-pavia

A WALK ON THE WILDER SIDE

Sori, 10 December 2016

It’s a sad fact that the coast of the Riviera – as well as that of the Côte d’Azur, which takes over at the Franco-Italian border – has been much overbuilt. Ever since this part of the world – harsh, inhospitable land, from which generations of peasants had barely eked out a living – was discovered in the late 19th Century by the growing middle classes of Northern Europe, who were attracted to its mild winters and dramatic rocky landscapes, brick, concrete, and asphalt have been poured with wild abandon over a narrow strip of land following the shoreline. Sometimes, when I look out over this mass of houses, shops, supermarkets, banks, roads, railway lines, bridges, and all the other infrastructure of modern life, and when I hear the continuous background noise of traffic, I wish I could travel back in time to see these places when they were more pristine and unspoiled, or wave a magic wand and make it all disappear.

At such moments, it is time to pull on the hiking boots and head for the hills. For the overbuilding dies away quite quickly as one ventures up into the deep, narrow valleys giving onto the sea, valleys which are the defining geological feature of this part of the coast. Thus it was that a few days ago, all booted up, we boarded a small bus in front of the village school. At the appointed time it left, taking the road that initially follows the valley floor, jumping from bank to bank of the stream that runs down-valley, before it begins to climb, with the road at this point becoming horridly narrow and sinuous. We climbed through a couple of small villages before being dropped off at the head of the valley. Since this was still a hundred or so meters below the crest, a 3 km tramp up the road was required before we finally arrived at the top. The view of the sea, glittering far below, was magnificent.
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We popped quickly into this restaurant
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to say hello to the owners. In earlier days, when the children were young, we would come up here quite regularly to have a magnificent plate of lasagne al pesto and go for a short walk or let the children kick a ball around. This time, we could only manage hurried greetings. Normally, this is a place patronized by very local people – it was here that I was first exposed to the local dialect in its pure, undiluted form – and the number of diners is manageable. But this day was a public holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the restaurant was crowded with foreigners (the term “foreigners” covering even the citizens of nearby Genova) and everyone was in overdrive.

A short walk down the road brought us to the start of the trail we were taking today. The aim was to walk along the southern crest of our valley to Sant’Apollinare (the starting point of the first of this trio of walks) and so back down to the village. This panoramic photo taken a few days’ later from our balcony shows the crest we followed.
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The walk was all I desired to get away from the madding crowd. Almost immediately, most signs of modern life disappeared. As we tramped along what was probably an ancient mule track, we met hardly anyone; it was just us and nature. The track took us through woods
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where small flowers unknown to me still grew in this late season on the trackside.
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The track took us across high pastures, bereft of animals at this time of the year
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and past numerous hides – hunting being a particularly popular pastime in the autumn, with the excuse that the ever-increasing populations of wild boar need culling.

At points, the vistas opened up, towards the sea on one side
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towards the other side of the valley, whose side our bus had climbed, on the other
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back towards head of the valley, start of our walk
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and way over the range of valleys to our south and north.
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As we neared our destination, we got a lovely view of Monte di Portofino, the location of the walk in my previous post.
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We were tiring by now, hoping for a smooth final leg. But it was not to be. The ground got very much stonier, the path harder.
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Civilization also came butting in. Two men on noisy, smelly motorbikes suddenly appeared on the path, wanting to get by, while the dull roar of the motorway, which was passing under our feet, wafted up.

We reached a monument to Christ the King, put up by enthusiastic parishioners decades ago. We thought we had finally more or less arrived, but 20 minutes of hard and confused slogging over rocks and through woods awaited us still.

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But we finally made it to the small church of Sant’Apollinare, just as the sun was beginning to sink.

Bone tired, we headed down the last stretch in the gathering darkness, down
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down
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down
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back into the coastline’s overbuilt environment.

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photos: all mine

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

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The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
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In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
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we wended our way through woods
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through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
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We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
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The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
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But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
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It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
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as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
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I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
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Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
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finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
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motored past forbidding headlands
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until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
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where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
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Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
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a somewhat less ancient watchtower
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and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
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His main, in fact only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains should not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
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for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

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All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html

focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

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We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
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and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
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and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
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We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
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When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
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Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
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We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
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We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

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arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

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into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
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while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
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The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

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By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
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When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
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We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

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all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

OF ZEN GARDENS AND MISO SOUP

Milan, 3 December 2016

Back from Kyoto, and still with a bad case of jet lag (it’s 4 am and my wife and I are sprawled on the living room couches, wide awake), it’s time to review the three weeks we spent in that city. Apart from the misery cause by the American presidential elections and the pleasure derived from teaching a course on sustainable industrialization to a group of eager youngsters not yet affected by the pessimism of old age, what else will I take back with me from my three weeks spent in Kyoto?

Ever since I first visited the city thirty years ago, Kyoto for me is first and foremost the place of Zen gardens. I have already written a paean to these rock gardens in a previous post, so I will not repeat myself. I will simply mention the pleasure I derived from visiting several rock gardens which I had not seen thirty years ago (or even five years ago, when we came for a brief visit from Beijing). My wife and I decided that our daughter, who came to visit us for Thanksgiving, just had to see a couple of these glorious creations: “he (or she) who has not seen a Zen garden has not lived”, to surely misquote someone famous. We took her to the gardens in Tofuku-ji Temple as well as those in Kennin-ji Temple, both at the foot of that range of hills which runs down Kyoto’s eastern edges and which is constellated with temples. The garden in Tofuku-ji was laid down a mere 75 years ago, in the last years of the 1930s. It gives one pause to think that these so very peaceful gardens were created when Japan was ramping up its war effort towards the disastrous conclusion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years later.

The garden was designed by Mirei Shigemori. This was his first major work and it made him famous (at least in the small world of landscape gardening). The work consists of four gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The largest, and best known, is the south garden.
tofukuji-south-garden-2
It is dominated by four clusters of massive rocks. Standing imposingly at one end of the garden, they represent the mythic, far-off isles of the immortals.
tofukuji-south-garden-1
Their shores are “washed” by a sea of raked white gravel, which leads the eye to five moss-covered mounds at the other end. These represent the five main temples in Kyoto of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, one of whose temples is Tofuku-ji.
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This garden obviously has its roots in the design of the far more famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji.
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Shigemori’s departures from the classical zen garden style were far more radical in the other three smaller gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The north garden has a checkerboard pattern, with square paving stones embedded in moss, that gently fades off into randomness, thus drawing the eye to the stand of Japanese maples beyond.
tofukuji-north-garden
The west garden repeats the checkerboard motif, but this time with a dense array of square-cut azalea bushes.
tofukuji-west-garden
The small east garden departs from the usual use of rough stones, inserting instead seven truncated stone cylinders (recycled from the temple’s old outhouse) into the usual “sea” of raked gravel surrounded by moss. Shigemori set the pillars out like the stars of the Big Dipper, Seven Northern Stars in Japanese.
tofukuji-east-garden
These last three gardens caused much frothing at the mouth by the traditionalists but also drew much praise from the garden landscaping avant-garde. I leave it to readers to decide in which camp they want to be in. Meanwhile, I will move to the second zen garden which we visited with our daughter, the gardens in Kennin-ji. These gardens are a good deal more venerable, as befits the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.

The same design of gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall is found here. We have here the main garden, where, in contrast to Tofuku-ji, the monk-designer allowed a fringe of vegetation along the far border of the garden.
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On the other side of the Abbot’s Hall, we have a smaller garden that invites the visitor to step over it to a beckoning tea house.
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(unfortunately, the path is off-limits, but the determined visitor can reach the tea-house through a more circuitous set of stepping stones).

We have a moss garden enclosed between buildings and walkways.
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Finally, squeezed in between several buildings, we have the small, compact “circle-triangle-square” garden
Kenninji Circle Triangle Square Garden
so-called because it is said that all things in the universe can be represented by these three forms (at the risk of being irreverent, though, I see the circle and square in the garden but I don’t see a triangle).

Switching gears dramatically, these three weeks in Kyoto also reanimated the love which my wife and I have for miso soup, that most Japanese of all soups.
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Readers may think I lack gravitas turning in this way from the glories of Zen gardens to the humble miso soup, gentle handmaiden to the flashier main courses of countless Japanese meals. But I feel there is a strong affinity between the two: spare simplicity in the assemblage of the constituent elements, yet delivery of intense pleasure to the senses.

What is it about miso soup’s ingredients that give it that unique taste, to be found in no other soup? It is a question which I have asked myself every time I sip on its delights, yet it is only now, in my jet-lagged haze, that I turn to the Internet to find out.

The answer is the miso paste. It is this paste which, mixed with the traditional Japanese stock “dashi”, is at the heart of all miso soups. Other ingredients that are added, such as silky tofu cubes, finely chopped spring onions, and seaweed, are – if I may mix my culinary metaphors – merely cherries on the cake. Digging further, to my mind the magic of miso paste, what gives it that so very special taste, is the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. I should perhaps explain that miso paste is the product of a fermentation process; here we have the fermentation taking place the traditional way.
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Our friend A. oryzae works its fermenting magic on a mash of soybeans and salt (to which other grains such as barley and rice are sometimes added). This is what the little critter looks like through a high-powered microscope.
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My internet searches have also turned up the interesting fact that there are many kinds of miso paste, depending on the length of fermentation. At the less fermented end of the spectrum, we have white miso, lighter in colour and taste, at the more fermented end, we have red miso, darker and with a stronger flavour, and we have different colourings in between.
miso-pastes
As one might imagine, there are regional preferences in the colour of one’s miso paste and, by extension, one’s miso soup. We must have been eating white miso soup since that is the preferred colour in Kyoto (while red miso soup is preferred in Tokyo, for instance).

After all this, my eyelids are beginning to droop. Maybe I’ll be able to get in a few hours of sleep before the new day dawns and have sweet dreams of visiting Kyoto once more. There are more Zen gardens to visit and more miso soups to try.

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Tofukuji-south garden-1: http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.it/2010/04/tofukuji-temple.html
Tofukuji-south garden-2: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3930.html
Tofukuji-south garden-3: https://www.artflakes.com/en/products/japan-kyoto-tofukuji-temple-landscape-garden-1
Ryoanji garden: http://www.123rf.com/photo_21419380_zen-garden-in-ryoanji-temple.html
Tofukuji-north garden: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toufuku-ji_hojyo7.JPG
Tofukuji-west garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832697
Tofukuji east garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832672
Kenninji gardens-1: http://www.yurukaze.com/tag/kennin-ji/
Kenninji gardens-2: mine
Kenninji gardens-3: http://www.wa-pedia.com/japan-guide/kenninji_kyoto.shtml
Kenninji gardens-4: http://asian-images.photoshelter.com/image/I0000NbQQcA_e4yM
Miso soup: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/lH7pgsnyGrI/maxresdefault.jpg
Aspergillus oryzae: https://sites.google.com/site/microbiologiecours/support-de-cours/mycologie
Miso pastes : http://www.thekitchn.com/the-best-type-of-miso-for-miso-soup-tips-from-the-kitchn-215117