An Aesthete in Bagni di Lucca?

An harquebus shot by a member of the Vicaria di Bagni di Lucca, (our local renaissance re-enactment society), heralded the start of this year’s major conference: “Un esteta a Bagni di Lucca: Ian Greenlees ed il suo Mondo”, organized by the Bagni’s own cultural association, the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne under its president Marcello Cherubini.

In case you didn’t know who Greenlees was I’ve written a post on him at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/.

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It’s sometimes said that one’s ambition in life is to have a square named after one. If Greenlees ever nurtured that ambition he certainly achieved it, as the parking lot next to Bagni di Lucca’s branch of Conad supermarket is named Piazza Ian Greenlees. Since Ian was a bon viveur, with a particular soft spot for good food and wine, the choice of location may be more apt that it seems at first.

Marcello Cherubini introduced the three-day proceedings with a definition of what an aesthete is. We are familiar with the term through such writers as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater who, too often, can conjure up some affected and often caricatured images (as Gilbert and Sullivan did in their operetta “Patience” with its character of Bunthorne). Unfortunately, the word” aesthete” is too often confused with that of aesthetician, referring to someone who studies aesthetics or the philosophy of beauty, most succinctly epigrammed in the famous opening line from Keats’ Endymion: ”A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

In Ian Greenlees’ biography, written by David Platzer, with a substantial input from Robin Chanter and others, (see my post on Robin at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/ians-right-hand-man/) and now available in a hundred specially printed copies through the courtesy of Robin’s widow, Laura, who is graciously attending the conference and gave a moving description of her youthful introduction to the Greenlees “set”, the man comes through as both an aesthete and an aesthetician. Ian loved to be surrounded by beautiful things (or things he considered beautiful). These included paintings (Luca Giordano figured among those in his collection – I wonder what happen to it), books (22,000 of them), and  (I subsequently discovered) a huge collection of recorded music – presumably vinyl LPs – which lies languishing in some vault inaccessible to all not armed with the required permesso.

Ian also loved living in beautiful houses in beautiful places and his Casa Mansi residence, in Bagni di Lucca’s old hill-top quarter where he lived the last decade of his eventful life until his death in 1988, epitomises this love with its inordinate number of rooms and elegantly large sale di ricevimento.

The mayor, Massimo Betti, delivered a heart-felt reminiscence of his experiences as a young man when he interviewed Greenlees for an early edition of his still running paper the “Corriere di Bagni di Lucca” in the 1970’s. The elegantly dressed, suited and booted figure of Greenlees, with his papillon and his boxer dog, was once a familiar sight in Bagni di Lucca.

The substance of the conference started with a paper by Prof Christopher. Stace on Ian Greenlees: gli anni di Guerra taken largely from Platzer’s book and which amply demonstrated Greenlees’ tactful diplomacy and modest heroism in the difficult days of the Italian civil war

This was followed by Bagni di Lucca’s own librarian, Dr. Angela Amadei’s paper on “La wunderkammer di un bibliofilo: il lascito di Ian Greenlees” which dealt with the logistical problems of the Greenlees bequest of books to Bagni di Lucca’s library in 1991. A catalogue is the nexus of any library and the problems of cataloguing Ian’s huge collection were legion. The books had to be stored satisfactorily as several of them had already begun to show signs of decay. They had to be separated into chronological order of publication (which not unusually coincided with their intrinsic value). In addition, the books had to be distinguished from their archival value. Here Angela showed how many of the books carried dedications from distinguished Italian writers contemporary with Greenlees: Moravia, Morante and, in particular, Soldati. Several of these dedications evidenced how intimate the ties between Greenlees and the cultural milieu and intelligentsia of post-war Italy were.

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This intimacy was further developed by Tommaso Maria Rossi’s paper on the archival aspect of the Greenlees collection. This brilliant young man, who has already worked on other notable Luccan papers, emphasized the complication of having both bibliographical and archival aspects intermingled in the bequest Greenlees left Bagni di Lucca.

Fabio Carapezza Guttuso’s contribution on the relation between Greenlees and the great Italian painter Renato Guttuso was a tour-de-force. Delivered without notes or hesitation and in the clearest and most impeccable Italian, Fabio, (who is also a major political figure in Rome’s prefecture) emphasized the warm relationship between the two men: a relationship which led to Guttuso’s portrait of Ian, the only portrait of someone in uniform he ever painted. In addition, through the Greenlees connection, Guttuso painted the portrait of one of the provosts, of my Cambridge college, Noel Annan:

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(Guttuso’s study for the portrait of Noel Annan)

Guttuso also had one of his paintings bought by the Tate, years before his supreme artistic worth was recognised there. Rome’s prefect discussed the problem that Guttuso and other painters (including Picasso) had with the post-war western European cold-war situation in being accepted when they were card-carrying communists.

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These problems were elided by the extraordinarily connecting character of Ian Greenlees. Like Janet Ross a hundred years previously, he was the “royal exchange” of Anglo-Tuscan, even Anglo-Italian, relationships. In a pre-facebook page this role would have been particularly necessary and quite outstanding. Ian had the knack of getting like-minded (and not-so-like minded) people to meet each, connect and discuss their ideas and develop positively and valuably. For Ian, Bagni di Lucca was an essential place in which to develop these networks. It was, in his words, “my favourite place in Italy” and he envied those who were actually born there.

In this respect I find a parallel between the kind of person Ian was and the kind of person other distinguished Italophiles were, in particular Kenneth “civilization” Clark. Here was a person all too rare today: someone who hardly ever lost their temper, someone who could listen to and guide his guests’ conversations, someone who charmed both Italian and English society, who contributed valuably towards restoring anglo-italian relationships soured by WWII, someone who my wife remembers with affection as he frequented the Italian Institute in London (where her father was secretary-general and where they lived), someone who was both empathic and “simpatico”.

How desperately lacking today is Bagni di Lucca in such men!                                                                                                        –

 

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