Monday, 4 October 2010

Piranesi and Dinsdale

Venice and Thoughts

We had planned to go to Padua today but a quick check in the guidebooks showed us that several places would be shut because it's Monday, and since Padua is smaller than Venice the effect would be disproportionate. So we switched and went back into Venezia instead.

We walked round to the train station.... I could see my ghostly schoolgirl self hurtling through this place in about 1962, on a schooltrip to Greece by boat-train. Now the station is bigger and modernised, but the old architecture and old concrete is still there. I dimly remember being nudged into excitement as we went through – 'We're nearly there!' Then we went across that magic bit across the lagoon and to my childish mind this was one of the great crossing points of my life up to that time. The ricketty old couchette train glided and almost flew across the still and calm morning sea into the magnificent station, and then we emerged onto those amazing steps and saw water, water where a road would be in any other city. It was stunning then and still is today, when our journey was on the top of a nice modern double-decker train, with ergonomically designed seats and electronic communications. The station at Venice still has huge rippling bronze columns and mosaic ceilings in keeping with its Deco styling. It is really magnificent.

We bought vaporetto tickets (16 euros each for 12 hours use and great value). We nipped into the church beside the station – like a migraine inside, all swirls and nonsense – and then onto a No2 vaporetto to go to San Marco. We hadn't planned to go the long way round – but the waterbus took us first to Tronchetto, and then along the Giudecca Canal, so we saw the sun shining on the Venice's southern face, and took a longer view. At San Marco and hopping ashore, we turned east and wandered along to Arsenale, the huge medieval (and still secret) naval base, where there is at the entrance a fantastic collection of statues of lions of various ages...the symbol of Venice, of course, and here clustered round a marvellous formal iron-fenced portal in gnashing, smiling, superior, wonky, simpering white stone variety. We wandered on, through alleys and squares, over little bridges, peeping into shops and boutiques, listening and watching. We held hands a lot too.

We stopped for a decaf coffee, and used the loo, which the proprietor had to buzz open for us. We saw a lady in a wheelchair passing along sedately enough, but we wondered how far she could actually go before she came to a bridge or more water. Still, she smiled as she went back and forth. We heard a gondolier serenading his passengers... or maybe it was a singer accompanying them as there was accordian music and I guess you can't gondol and play squeezebox at the same time.

We wanted an internet cafe and found one, as you may know, not too far from Santa Maria Formosa, which is in a delightful piazza of complex shape, with fruit stalls and artists, and various palaces and arcades around. Very nice and not too crowded. We posted up yesterday's bulletin and then found lunch – disappointing compared to yesterday's meal but tasty and filling... it was lasagne, and some sort of 'Milanese' escalope but really it could have been shoe-lining. We don't often choose bum places but this wasn't great. It was however full of happy-looking Chinese diners. Venice, it must be said, is full of Australians, West Indians, Chinese and Japanese visitors as well as Russians, Americans and N Europeans.

We went back across the main canal to San Giorgio Maggiore to see the Piranesi exhibition – and WOW! if you haven't had a look at his work then do! He started off in Venice and learned to do etching, then went to Rome in about 1740 and learned engraving and discovered all the antiquities still lying about the place and devoted the rest of his life to studying them and passing on the good news about how they were all built in a series of realistic but also fantastic engravings and designs. Sadly he only managed to see one of his own designs brought to fruition, but modern technology has created (for the first time) items he claimed to have found in various Roman and Pompeii ruins – urns, tripods, altars, etc – and whose whereabouts then and now is a mystery. Here we see lions morphing into crocodiles or columns or griffons or tortoises.

He also made a huge portfolio of fireplace designs... he had beeen friends with Robert Adam with whom he spent happy hours measuring, surveying and drawing ruins - and learned that fireplaces were popular in England – and crucially for his free spirit – realised that there were no fireplaces in antiquity so he was FREE to design them however he wanted.

The exhibition ends with a fascinating coda – a series of photographs commissioned from a modern artist called Gabriele Basilico who was sent round to take pictures of the very same Roman antiquities which Piranesi recorded. The effect is remarkable because a lot of the buildings are almost the very same. Whatever impressions we had that P had fantasised and embellished his views is utterly crushed... the tumbling, wild, phantasmagorical landscapes must have been true and maybe still are. It is odd how very 'externalising' Basilico's photos are... you get all these facades, while Piranesi somehow had a kind of psychological insight into his buildings... With Basilico all you get is the outside, with Piranesi anything might happen, in or out. The attendant in this part of the show was utterly delighted to find we were English. He said “England 64 Nobel prize winners, Italy 6”. Quite.

Back to Piranesi... Especially when looking at his fantastic/imaginary prison designs, I thought he must have been doing drugs of some sort and was pleased to find Coleridge and de Quincy thought the same thing. The gallery also had a literally fantastic video show put together by a French artist called Gregoire Dupond, using the hellish images from the Prison Engravings, and with computer animation taking us on a sort of 3-D journey through the buildings. I also liked very much Piranesi's engineering drawings, which are analyses of how the Romans built their bridges etc – as much stonework UNDER the ground or water as visible above it, if not more. Fascinating.

One of the truly inspiring things about this show is the marriage of the old art with absolutely up-to-the moment modern artistic technology – the video made in France, the 3-D replicas of the urns, tripods, altars and a magnificent fireplace, done by Arte Factum in Madrid in lovely materials (bronze, porphyry, marble, some plated in gold or silver), and so on. And another thought is how fantastically restrained Robert Adam was when he came back to Britain. I grew up visiting Kenwood all through my childhood, and thought the library was a bit of a romp in colour and swaggery, but it's NOTHING compared to what his friend Piranesi dreamed up.

Julian Mannering (in Faversham) has a very lucid way of comparing 'Old France' with 'New France' but the same idea could not really be applied to Venice which is one continous stream of repair, revival, research and renewal. There are modern grotesqueries, including all the tat shops, but also some stupendous and loving work on the buildings and the people themselves seem all of a part with it. They seem to say 'We ARE Venice'. However, nothing, nothing could have prepared us this morning for the sight of a cruise liner nosing its way into the Giudecca Canal heading for the terminal at Tronchetto. It was VAST, towering over everything in the landscape, taller, wider, more massive. Do you remember in Monty Python that huge hedgehog which appeared over the skyscrapers growling out 'Dinsdale, Dinsdale'? This monster ship, like the Starship Enterprise, did a sort of peekaboo act round the corner of the buildings. It was horrible, shocking. 'New Venice' with a vengeance.

Now we are back in the flat, having bought some stuff to make supper – pasta and spinach and garlic. I am thinking back to the middle of last night, when a mosquito woke me up. I was wondering whether it had actually flown all the way up here, ten stories high to the top of this block of flats, or had it come up in the lift? We will never know.

A final thought. As you know I like writing this blog, and have thought of it as 'writing'. But my chosen reading for this trip is Virginia Woolf's 'A Writer's Diary' (been on my shelf for about 40 years and never opened, shame, shame, just like Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals which are rivetting). So now I have to take a smart step backwards and concede fully and completely that this is not writing, it is journalism. Not the same thing at all.

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