Monday, January 26, 2015

Telling a Story in Stone: Bernini in the Galleria Borghese

Youthful Self-Portrait

This past Thursday, for the second time in two years, I visited Rome’s Galleria Borghese to worship the works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Here is the text of an email I sent to an Italian friend while I was there.  “All well here.  Hotel very nice.  Bernini is God.”

By now, you are sure I am exaggerating.  I hope to convince you otherwise.  Sort of.

A little background

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598.  His sculptor father got work on some important Papal projects and took the family to Rome when Gian Lorenzo was eight years old.  Inspired by the classical sculptures of antiquity, he was soon earning commissions of his own.  At the age of just 23, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV for his artistic genius.  Over his lifetime, besides great sculptures, he produced paintings, wrote plays, created surpassingly wonderful buildings and outdoor spaces, and designed theater sets.

The whole story in one moment

Bernini began his sculptures with one intention.  For his portrait busts, he chose to portray the exact second when the subject was about to speak.  You see it immediately in their faces—their eyes, their mouths.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese

Constanza, more about which anon 

For his magnificent monumental sculptures, he chose the most dramatic vision of classic or biblical stories, chiseling into the faces and the bodies all the energy and emotional intensity of his characters.

In his Rape of Proserpina, he gives us the very moment Hades gets hold of her, at the peak of her struggle to get free.

See how tightly he grasps her.  This is stone!

His David is not like Michelangelo’s contemplating his battle with fear, determination, and strategy (for which my admiration does not wane for a nanosecond).  Nor is it Donatello’s, at the moment of triumph.  Bernini’s is in the act of launching the stone.

How does one get rid of everything but the open rope!!

Then there is the work that made me fall in love—Apollo and Daphne at the point where he catches her, but she is already turning into a tree.

Those leaves!
Those fingers!
That extended leg!

My blogmates here and I have often been asked at conferences and book presentations to describe our process.  “How do you go about it?” people ask.  Most of us find the question a bit daunting, because the steps we follow, how we talk to ourselves about the act of creativity seems so shallow compared to one’s experience of doing it.  But looking at Apollo and Daphne, I found myself wondering the same thing, because I was stupefied by how Bernini could have done it.  I wish I could have watched or asked him.  Faced with a block of one the hardest substances appearing in nature, where does one put his chisel first?  Oh, he must have made drawings and likely a clay model to work from, but really?  How does one even contemplate achieving such perfection when there is no possible way to revise, to correct one’s mistakes?  Once the hammer strikes the chisel, there is no delete key!  It fills me with awe that he could do it at all.  Getting to his level of achievement seems positively divine.

A couple of days after this recent visit to Rome, at dinner, a friend and I were talking about the facts of Bernini’s life.  His most reliable biographer was his son Domenico, but according to what I could discover, Domenico sanitized some of his father’s activities. For instance, I imagine he would have wanted to leave out the more scandalous details of his father’s youthful love affair with a married woman, inaptly named Constanza.  When she threw Gian Lorenzo over for his younger bother Luigi, the great man’s behavior was anything but god-like.

Mature Self-Portrait

This got me to thinking about one of my pet peeves—that some people deny the worth of artists’ work because they don’t like the way they conducted themselves privately.  My conclusion is this: When an artist’s output inspires awe, we should embrace their real-life flaws.  It is only because of their human frailties that we can be sure that mere humans have achieved such wonders.  There’s a lot to celebrate in that.

I still have the feeling, though, that my next visit to the Galleria Borghese will inspire nothing short of worship.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, January 25, 2015

New Days

Winter is upon the UK good and proper. I arrived home to tales of wild and unpredictable weather, power-cuts and general transport mayhem. If it isn’t the airports hit by thundersnow, it’s the Channel Tunnel hit by truck fires and electrical problems. It all seems a far cry from the balmy hills of Tuscany.

Getting away to Italy over New Year was an opportunity to take a deep breath, absorb some stunning scenery along with the history and the architecture, and get my head back into a writing space.

There’s something about the landscape that encourages calm in a way I haven’t found in the UK. Possibly it’s the scale of it, or the fact that although it was bitterly cold for the first few days, after that it became more like an English summer than the midst of a European winter.

I am more of a summer person than a winter person, I’ve decided. It’s not the temperature so much as the lack of light. I like to make an early start on the day, but getting up in the dark has always seemed somewhat depressing.

The small Derbyshire village where I will be cat-sitting for the next few months has not escaped the unsettled weather while I’ve been away. It’s had some wild winds, to the point where one of the huge trees in a nearby churchyard blew down, lifting one of the old gravestones in the process. If I’d been of a more macabre turn of mind, I might have ventured over to peer into the hole it left behind.

But I didn’t.

We’ve also had quite a bit of localised snow.

Makes me glad I swapped from my summer tyres to my winter tyres before Christmas. The grip is wonderful, although I still have to remember that I’m driving something rather low-slung, and if the snow has built up into a frozen ridge down the centre of the road, my car has a tendency to scrape its dangly bits as I drive along.

And nobody likes having their dangly bits scraped.

However, the upside of snow – particularly the slightly damp kind of snow that scrunches up into a hard-packed ball when you squeeze a handful – is that it’s ideal for building snowmen.

Or, in my case, snow dolphins. Three of them.

I’ve said before that I think doing something practical and manual really helps the subconscious part of the mind problem-solve, and I still firmly believe that to be the case.

But it’s fun, too.

By the time my next blog is due, I’ll be in another cold place – Chicago – for the Love Is Murder conference, where I am privileged to be one of the Featured Guest Authors. I hope the winter weather hasn’t hit too hard in Ilinois, but if it has I know a place to get the best hot chocolate in all of Chicago.

Meanwhile, I was honoured to be invited to take part in the 9mm Interview with New Zealand reviewer and blogger, Editor KiwiCraig, who also published a wonderful First Tastes overview of my Charlie Fox series written by another New Zealander, the ever-enthusiastic Karen of Takapuna.

OK, BSP (that’s Blushing Self Publicity) over, and all that remains is this week’s Word of the Week, which is nuncupative, meaning oral, i.e. spoken rather than written. Its English usage can be traced back to the 16th century and it usually refers to a will or testament made in extreme circumstances when someone was terminally ill or mortally wounded. Under Roman law, a nuncupative will could take the form of a spoken declaration in the presence of witnesses. Such wills are supposedly still admissible in some US states.

PS May I also take this opportunity to say "Hi!" and "Welcome!" to our two new blogmates, Jørn Lier Horst and Susan Spann.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Magical Hosios Loukas

Tomorrow, all of Greece goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament, but I’ve said all I intend to say about that here last week except for one thing: kali tihi. 

Today, I want to take you to a place that represents the sort of inspirational magic that perpetually draws me home to Greece.  

It’s perched on a western foothill of Mount Helicon, twenty miles east of Delphi, a mile and a half from any sign of modern times—aside from the narrow paved road that winds through hillsides covered in fir, cedar, myrtle, arbutus and pine; high above a broad green valley filled with cultivated olives, almonds, and patches of grape, all running off toward distant limestone mountain slopes.

Mythology describes this place as a favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses, and from the way it still looks today, who am I to disagree?

1743 Woodcut of Monastery

Hosios Loukas
But the history that drew me to this place is of more recent vintage, only eleven centuries ago.  In the early 10th Century, a holy and pious hermit (osios in Greek) Loukas (896-953), born in what is today modern Delphi, endured a life marked by raids by Slavs, Arabs, Saracens, and Bulgarians, before finding his way into this valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty.  There he began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the tenth-century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age, and adjacent to Greece’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Courtyard with front of Church and Katholikon to right

Front (west side) Katholikon

Rear (east side) Katholion (left) and Church

Beneath the Katholicon is the Crypt of Saint Barbara, the monastery’s oldest church and a place of massive stone pillars erected to support the domes of the Katholikon above—and to which it is said monks once chained psychopaths until cured of their madness.  Here, too, lay the tomb of Hosios Loukas (sainted as Luke of Steiris) beneath an oil lamp kept burning for ten centuries by monks devoted to him.  But don’t take for granted the answer to, “Who’s buried in Hosios Loukas’ tomb?” for in 1011 his remains were removed, and now reside in a glass-enclosed reliquary beneath its own perpetually burning oil lamp in a place of honor off a passageway between the naves of the Church and Katholikon. 

Crypt of Saint Barbara

Crypt of Saint Barbara and Tomb of Hosios Loukas

Saint Barbara
In keeping with the teachings of Greece’s ancient temple builders, the monastery sits in harmony with its natural surroundings. Terra cotta roof tiles, above classical Byzantine cloisonné-style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone, enclosed frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of the place’s precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings lost to time and plunderers.

Come here at sunset, when shadows are long and light practices its magic upon the monastery’s rusty earth-tone architectural jags and juts, contours and edges.  You’ll soon lose track not only of time, but of centuries.  A thousand years old, the Monastery of Hosios Loukas remains an isolated sanctuary of tranquility, one of the Mediterranean’s most impressive monuments, and a World Heritage Site.

A wave from another saintly Barbara

Perhaps because I’m a mystery writer, each time I visit places of such sustaining great beauty, I can’t help but think of what haunting secret intrigues, betrayals, bloodshed, and accommodations to the times through which they passed allowed them to flourish while others vanished from the earth.  Sure, there’s a bit of luck involved in averting disaster, for in 1943 Nazi planes tried to destroy the monastery but failed. Or maybe it was answered prayers.

But to me, Hosios Loukas brings a very specific memory of unanswered prayers to mind, one that I and many Greeks will never forget.  To reach the Monastery, you first pass through the farming villages of Distomo and Steiri.  Distomo is a name known to every Greek of a certain age.  A place of execution, of massacre, where for two hours on June 10, 1944, Nazi SS troops went door-to-door, murdering 214 civilians, bayonetting babies in their cribs, beheading the local priest.  Slaughter haunted this place…and is remembered—as it should be—so that no one forgets how brutal can be the results of unchecked political myopic madness. 

And so, permit me to close with a translation of the two Greek words I used to open, “Good luck.”


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hyde Park; A December Afternoon

During our recent visit to London the south side of Hyde Park was full of noise, very loud disco music and equally noisy small human people. The sort  of noise the word cacophony was invented for.

 It was the Christmas Fayre.

Free to get in but once inside, every thing cost a lot of money. The organisers - a company that seem to specialise in setting up the same Christmas Fayre format in every town centre - were hell bent on scaring the kids with terrifying rides and frightening the parents  with the fact the ticket gate took credit cards. The noise emanating from the ghost train was worthy of Stephen King. Or a proctology clinic.  The small people were whipped into further frenzy by the burgers, hot dogs, gallons of cola, and fir tree sized candy floss. All to a backdrop of  deafening disco music. This was rubbish disco music, not good disco like we had back in my day- the days of Saturday Night Fever when we danced round and round our handbags and John Travolta had hair..

We did enjoy watching the Dads and the kids doing the German cake walk. Team Dad having had a few more beers than was good for them and staggering all over the place trying to hold onto the contents of their stomachs as the three year old kids danced along the moving platform like Nureyev.
Mum and senior kids were videoing it all on the phone from safe ground.
Being of a criminal mentality, I did sneak round the back. Does everybody  that  goes in, actually come out? Did I identify with the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a little too much?


Walking away from the fayre, but unable to escape the noise, we went in search of the third memorial after Albert and Diana. It was the only one, to use popular parlance, that was 'fit for purpose' to my mind. It was the only one that served as a memorial to those it was built for, it was the only one where people stopped and took a moments silent contemplation, where  people remembered.
And remembered why it was there.  Even with the ongoing boom boom of the Christmas Fayre, the screaming from the ghost train, the smell of chestnuts roasting on the open fire,  this tiny corner of the park was an oasis of peace, tranquility and reflection.

It was the Holocaust Memorial garden.


It lies to the east of the Serpentine Lake, and it was the first public memorial in Great Britain dedicated to the memory of the victims. At the unveiling on 28th June 1983,  the memorial was  described  as "a reminder of the past and a warning for the future."

It sits cosy in a copse, a garden within a garden within a park.


The memorial itself is simply two boulders on a gravel bed sitting in a garden setting that seemed natural and informal.  The memorial and trees  compliment each other.
They both, just are. Because they are.

The main stone carries the words, "For these I weep. Streams of tears flow from my eyes because of the destruction of my people"

On the far side of the path, but still in earshot of the awful din  was this little garden, full of performance squirrels and storks that could have given any living statue a run for their money.

                                              ( Very ) Fat squirrel pretending to be hungry.


                                               Very fat squirrel.

                                                  There are at least five fat squirrels in this picture.

                                                   And one bear who likes Marmalade.

As we walked away, back past the memorial garden the music blasting from the Fayre stopped and we were treated to Bing Crosby and David Bowie doing their  Peace On Earth, Little Drummer Boy and you know, it really is time for men of good will to live in peace.
For once!

Caro Ramsay  23/01/2015