“LA NOTTE”

We watched Antonioni’s 1961 film La Notte the other evening, never having seen it before. It explores the familiar themes of the period — alienation, boredom, meaningless relationships, non-communication, infidelity, the emptiness of bourgeois life — which it conveys in a dialogue of sententious non-sequiturs. If today we think Antonioni’s script, written with Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra, takes itself a bit too seriously and says not very much, his direction and Gianni di Venanzoni’s superlative black and white cinematography are of a very high order indeed and the film is worth watching for those things alone.

Each scene is meticulously arranged, showing the influence of the art of the time, and that abstract perfection, along with the static camera and way the characters carry their elegant clothes, convey a fitting coldness.

The balletic scene towards the end, where Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Moreau and Monica Vitti revolve slowly round one another, each dressed in black and silhouetted against a white wall, epitomises the film.

STRAWBERRY HILL

One of my favourite guides is Visitor’s London, written by Harold F. Hutchinson for London Transport in the 1950s and reprinted many times. My edition is from 1968. The line illustrations include this one of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill by Gareth Adamson. Hutchinson’s practical prose is elegant enough to be enjoyable for its own sake and although the guide is old, it’s still useful because it covers all of London’s important attractions. When it was written, this little Gothic confection wasn’t open to the public “but permission to see this architectural enterprise is always given to the serious student.” It’s still owned by St Mary’s University (once a Catholic teacher training college) but it was refurbished in 2015 following a very long period of neglect remarkable for such a historically important building. Although not a serious student, I visited the other day.

Its odd arrangement of rooms, many of them impossibly small, is explained by the fact that Walpole intended Strawberry Hill as a place to display the collection to which he devoted his life and which was broken up in 1842. The trustees are attempting to trace and reassemble it, and as he recorded his possessions at length the contents of Strawberry Hill are known and there’s a well-illustrated publication by Silvia Davoli, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.

BALLET ROYAL DE LA NUIT

I don’t usually write about theatre arts, but the realisation of Ballet Royal de la Nuit by Sebastian Daucé and Ensemble Correspondences at Théâtre de Caen (2017) which I’ve just seen is so original and spine-tingling that I thought I might say something about it.

The Ballet Royal de la Nuit was a vast theatrical event mounted in 1653 at the Louvre for the young Louis XIV and his court under the direction of his first minister Mazarin. It was performed throughout the night and lasted about twelve hours. It was intended not just as an entertainment but as a demonstration of the king’s power and of French cultural superiority, and although it was ostensibly for the royal court was performed before the ambassadors of every European kingdom. France had come though the convulsions of the Fronde, Mazarin had returned from the exile to which the Fronde had condemned him and Louis demonstrated his elevation by dancing the part of the Sun, who rose in splendour at the climax of the performance. The memorable presentation of The Sun King was was spoken of throughout Europe for the rest of the century.

In this ballet de la cour song, dance, music, costume and theatrical performance are deliciously combined in a total work of art. (Romantics might need to be reminded that Wagner didn’t include dance in his cut-down version of the Gesamtkunstwerk.) It was performed only once. Despite its fame and splendour, the record of it is fragmentary. There are pictures of the costumes but there isn’t even a complete record of the music, let alone choreography. Sebastian Daucé and his colleagues spent three years reconstructing it.

And so the Ensemble Correspondences performance has had to be conjectural, and it is not possible to see the Ballet Royal as it was once performed and performed once only. But what has been achieved is breathtaking and succeeds in conveying the spirit of Baroque in a 21st-century interpretation that is beautiful, inventive and bizarre. Song dance and circus are combined to make a thing of the present as much a record of the past (period instruments, of course). There are three CDs and a DVD.

THE SOUP GIRLS AND THE VAN GOGH


The two girls who threw soup at Sunflowers in the National Gallery certainly got publicity for ‘Just Stop Oil’ but not much support. Good causes often lose sympathy when they turn to vandalism or civil disobedience. In the 1960s the Ban The Bomb movement had sizable support but it declined after the anti-bomb campaigners started sitting down on airport runways.

There were some good jokes about the National Gallery demo: Are ‘Just Stop Oil’ advocates of gouache? Why didn’t they use Campbell’s soup? But their serious point, that life is more important than art, doesn’t stand up for long.

The demo illustrated the Politician’s Syllogism: Something urgent needs to be done. Throwing soup at a Van Gogh is doing something urgent. Therefore throwing soup at a Van Gogh needs to be done.

There’s no dichotomy between art and life. Art is as old as life and life without art isn’t worth living. The Altamira cave paintings are 36,000 years old. I think that’s why there’s been such a pushback against this demo.

As to the soup girls, they lacked the courage of their convictions, unlike Vladimir Umanets, who vandalised a Rothko in 2012. They chose a painting covered in glass because unlike him they didn’t want to go to jail.

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.