L’ALBERO NASCOSTO, TRIESTE

There was the usual bottle of wine in our room at L’Albero Nascosto in Trieste, but also a notice pointing out that hotels.com take 18% commission from hoteliers and that the best way to support independent hotels like this one is to book direct. In fact we’d done so.

On the afternoon of our arrival we saw an elderly gentleman sitting in the courtyard with a glass of wine. The next morning we saw him clearing the breakfast tables. It was the owner, Aldo Stock. The hotel has his personal touch and is full of things he’s chosen – antique furniture, paintings by Trieste artists and books. There’s also a lounge with an art and design library.

You get a taste of the hotel from its own description: “Our boutique hotel is an eighteenth-century building, without a lift. In its rarefied silence you will be able to appreciate the white stone of Istria, the wood of the walnut tree, of the elm and the cherry, and the precious column from Roman times.”

Aldo used to be an antique dealer, still does some dealing and has a store which you can visit on request.

We went with him to see it a few blocks away. “Dealing in antiques was an elegant occupation,” he said, “But I got tired of it and I prefer to be in the hotel, meeting different people every day.”

His passions are glass and wood. There are items by Gallé and Venini and furniture chosen for its beautiful veneers. Each of the ten rooms is named after a tree.

“Have you lived in Trieste all your life?”

“Except for the first few years. My parents were Jewish and we escaped to Switzerland when I was a baby.” Trieste, which has one of the largest synagogues in Europe, then had a Jewish population of 5,000, now reduced to 500.

He also spent a couple of years in London as a student. “What did you study?” “That wasn’t the important thing: I was in London to learn English.” His English is fluent and his staff speak it well. Spanish, German and French are also spoken.

THE NEAPOLITAN MAID

This plate caught my eye on an antique stall in Trieste and as it was pretty and unlike any Italian ceramic I’d seen before I bought it. It’s painted in overglaze enamels, not maiolica colours, and is made in a cream body, not pink terracotta.

There’s no makers mark. The Facebook group for Italian pottery and ceramics kindly identified it as made either by the Giustiani factory or the De Vecchio factory in Naples sometime in the early 19th century.

TRIESTE CATHEDRAL

We climbed to the Castel San Giusto in Trieste to get a view over the town and the seaport. A cruise liner had docked, dwarfing the surrounding buildings. The Cathedral was an afterthought.

Trieste looks like a central European city even a century after being detached from the Austro-Hungarian empire and there are remnants of its former status, from the Orthodox church of St Spyridon and the offices of Generali, the insurance company born in the city, to restaurants serving strudel and sausages with sauerkraut.

The Cathedral of St Justus, a 14th-century basilica on one of the highest points, is from a pre-Habsburg Trieste. It is simple but, on account of its wall paintings and Byzantine mosaics, not austere, and there is a beautiful afternoon light.

A POSTCARD FROM ITALY

A postcard from Lake Garda.

Some of my friends aren’t on Facebook or Whatsapp so I like to send them holiday postcards. It’s now practically impossible to do that from Italy because of the difficulty of buying postage stamps

There are few post offices, they’re not always open, they have a complicated queuing system which requires you to go to the correct counter and when you arrive you may find that that one doesn’t sell stamps.

The old system under which licenced tobacconists sold stamps appears to have broken down as they’re in dispute with the post office. I tried six, all of which gave a curt “Finiti”.

There’s an alternative private postal service for tourists called the Global Postal Network, but it has few post boxes and if you can find one it may not be emptied for weeks.

Apparently fax is still widely used in Italy, which may be understandable.

GIARDINO GIUSTI, VERONA

After a few days in hectic, commercial Milan we were quickly seduced by Verona’s quiet charm. Of course it’s also built on commerce, wool-dyeing to be exact. We visited Giardino Guisti, the property of an ancient wool-dyeing family, made on land where they once had their dying vats and next to their palazzo.

The garden is maintained all’antica, preserving the Renaissance tone, with architectural features and references to Classical mythology. There are few flowers or shrubs and the more recent additions of exotic plants have been removed. The garden makes clever use of the hilly site, with a path up to a grotto from where you can look down over the house.

Part of the house is open to the public as The 20th-Century Apartment. It has the slightly shabby, under-curated air typical of private museums.

From 1921 until it was damaged in the war it was the residence of Giovanni and Nora Guisti and their children Francesco, Alfonso and Carlo Alberto. It’s been restored as it was during their occupancy and the style is not of the 20th century but the 19th. Among the silk hangings and ornate furniture are letters from Gabriele d’Annunzio and family photos – albums of holidays in Cornwall captioned in English and this uncaptioned fancy dress party.

THE DE CHIRICO MOMENT

Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings captured the uneasy feeling of abandoned urban spaces that are uncannily full of absence.

There’s a similar feeling in the work of other artists: Eric Ravilious’s interiors and some of Munch’s and Carel Weight’s paintings. It’s also conveyed in Hitchcock’s scene in The Man Who Knew too Much where James Stewart, in search of Ambrose Chappell, walks down an empty London street with footsteps echoing behind him

Anyone who visits Italy will soon have a de Chirico moment in an empty square in strong afternoon sunlight between three and four in the afternoon, like this place (above) that I happened on in Verona.

OXFORD COMMA

There was a time when writers separated every clause and phrase with a comma, but it’s now common practice to reduce commas to a minimum and to eliminate semicolons and colons. The effect is to make prose more informal and fast-moving. Lynn Truss, in her funny and clever book, Eats Shoots and Leaves, is generally in favour of the low comma-count.

As the purpose of writing is to communicate – or it should be, because some people write to impress and bewilder – the only purpose of punctuation is to improve communication. It also aids rhythm, but as the purpose of rhythm is to aid understanding, that amounts to the same thing.

Rules of grammar can help tyros who don’t know how to write. In every field of activity, the absolute beginner doesn’t know the rules, the inexperienced person keeps all the rules and the experienced person breaks the rules.

Apart from the distraction value of Therese Coffey’s laying down the law about the Oxford comma, her instructions suggest a lack of writing experience. Her exhortations to civil servants about clear writing are anachronistic, since Ernest Gowers’ guidance revolutionised official communications sixty years ago. Good writers don’t bother about rules like this.

THE KING OF FRANCE

Crowds at Versailles throng to see the King’s Bedchamber.

When I was looking at some ceramic plates commemorating the Storming of the Bastille and the Execution of Louis XVI on a brocante stall in France, the stallholder leaned across to me and said in good English, “We don’t have a queen, you see.”

A similar spirit inspired Yasmin Alibhai Brown to tweet mischievously, “France, a Republic, gets ten times more tourists than the UK.” As most people care nothing about politics, it’s unlikely that there’s any connection between visitor numbers and a country’s political constitution. And it’s rather more significant that one of the most popular visitor destinations in France is Versailles, the symbol of absolute monarchy.

As it happens, I visited it myself recently. One of the most crowded places is the King’s Bedchamber, the focal point of the royal cult. Since the King embodied God’s will, the King’s body had a divine quality, and among the most important moments of the day at Versailles were the King’s rising from bed in the morning and retiring at night, which were always performed publicly.

The atmosphere in the King’s Bedchamber when I was there was reverential. The places it most resembled in my experience were the Sistine Chapel, the rock at La Verna where St Francis received the stigmata, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the room in the Topkapi Palace displaying a hair of the Prophet’s beard.

Music plays in the popular gardens at Versailles, by the way. One of the pieces is Handel’s Coronation Ouverture.

NEW CAROLINGIANS


Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with optimism. The war had ended, the dictators had been defeated and the country looked forward to prosperity. Attlee’s government had introduced irreversible improvements and although the NHS and free secondary education are associated with Labour they were Conservative policies too.

The cheerful mood had been deliberately created by the Festival of Britain and was symbolised in the architecture of the Lansbury Estate, the modernity of the Dome of Discovery and the quirkiness of Roland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. The watchwords were reconstruction, town planning, full employment and health for all.

With the Festival came the Contemporary style, that tamed British modernism that William Feaver described as “Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule.”

Other symbols were the Royal Festival Hall, the New Towns and the New Universities. The most famous and most fashionable of the new universities was Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, who had worked on the Festival of Britain and had designed the new Coventry Cathedral.

Coventry, a modernist building rising symbolically from the ruins of war, made modern art prominent: Jacob Epstein’s St Michael, Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, stained-glass by John Piper and candlesticks by Hans Coper.

People knowingly called themselves New Elizabethans. New Elizabethans believed in science. They were wowed by Sputnik, the Comet and the Avro Vulcan aircraft. Food manufacturers boasted that their products were made in modern factories and that they had scientific ingredients. There was no Hovis-style nostalgia and no fear of chemicals. The Two Cultures were united in textile designs based on molecular structures and X-ray crystallography. This was Modern England.

Charles begins his reign in a more insecure, doubtful, and self-critical age. A dictator is waging war in Europe. Many people think the active state that made post-war Britain does more harm than good, that science is a conspiracy of experts and that what we thought was progress will kill us.

Charles himself has channelled much of this doubt. His sincere concern about the environment is why many people like him. He ran a company promoting organic food. His hatred of modern architecture is legendary. His style of dress makes him look older than his father.

But every change creates the hope of a better future. The mood of the country is bound to change. Perhaps we will become New Carolingians.

ARNOLD MACHIN AND THE QUEEN


One of the constants in our lives that will have to change now – the postage stamps, which have carried the same image since 1966. These almost unnoticed works of art – said to be among the most reproduced in history, with 320 billion copies made – have a connection with the pottery industry, having been designed by the eminent Stoke-on-Trent modeller, Arnold Machin.

The image is a photo of a clay bas-relief, reminiscent of reliefs on the ceramics of Wedgwood, a firm Machin once worked for. He also designed the image of the Queen on the decimal coinage introduced in 1968 and seen on all British coins until 1984.

The Portland Vase, Wedgwood’s first successful use of bas-relief sculpture, now a cliché of Jasper ware.


Machin started as an apprentice china painter at Minton’s at the age of 14, studied sculpture at Stoke-on-Trent College of Art and in the 1930s moved to Royal Crown Derby. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art and later taught there.

Machin’s choice as the official stamp designer is interesting because he wasn’t an establishment figure at all, having been imprisoned as a conscientious objector in World War II.

In 1947 he was elected ARA. At his death in 1999 he was the longest-serving member of the Royal Academy.

It was suggested to the Queen several times that Machin’s image be replaced, but she never agreed.