Of Liberty and Tolerance

Did I manage to go to all the five events I mentioned as worthy of attending in my last post? Well, not all. Four, in fact, and I still managed to snatch a pisolino in the Saharan heat that is gripping Italy!

The first event was the publication of the original version of Benedetto Croce’s speech delivered in Bari’s Teatro Piccinni  in January 1944

There were significant contributions by Michele Olivari professor of modern history at Pisa University and Giampietro Grosselle, legal forensic graphologist at Livorno’s Court of Justice. I discussed the issue of contemporary word processing with Grosselle afterwards suggesting how much more difficult it is now to be able to interpret the writer’s character and mood from a printed sheet. Yet there is still a lot to learn in a word-processed document; for example in its layout, choice of font and it’s possible to uncover crossings-out and insertions easily by using the appropriate options. So all is not lost.

(Prof.  Marcello Cherubini of the Fondazione Montaigne introducing proceedings)

Why should Croce’s notes be of any interest except to specialists? It’s because Croce’s broadcast laid the foundation of the Italian republic and its constitution as we know it today.  OK that’s fine but why should Bagni di Lucca be involved? It’s because in September 1943 the Cassibile armistice was signed which (unfortunately theoretically) ceased hostilities between the allies and the Italian government. The allies had invaded Sicily and the Italian government arrested Mussolini for misconduct of a disastrous war. The northward thrust of the allies was not quick enough for the Third Reich to prevent sending panzer divisions into Italy and capturing Rome. The royal family escaped to Bari and for the next two years Italy was involved in one of the cruellest civil wars Europe has ever seen, with a puppet Nazi-fascist government in the north and a provisional government in the south. Even Rome’s eventual deliverance in 1944 did not stop the bloodshed and the war for Italy did not finish until April 25th 1945 – a date which has become a national holiday – the ‘giornata Della Liberazione’. (For more information on the context see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/amazing-find-in-greenlees-archive-at-bagni-di-lucca/ )

(Exhibition in the library associated with Greenlees and Croce)

Ian Greenlees, (see my post on him at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/an-aesthete-in-bagni-di-lucca/ ) was director of Bari radio between 1943 and 1944: critical years in which the King of Italy declared the armistice and in which Croce made his seminal speech.

(Portrait of Ian Greenlees in Bagni di Lucca’s Library)

Benedetto Croce was one of Italy’s greatest twentieth century philosophers and one who did not disdain to enter into politics. I suppose the nearest equivalent in the UK would be Bertrand Russell and in many respects their ideas had similarities. Like Russell Croce quit Christianity for a spiritual and moral philosophy of life. A pacifist, Croce quickly turned against Mussolini after political activist Matteotti’s murder by fascists in 1922. He invented a term which he applied to the Italian government and would be equally well-applied to the present UK government: ‘onagrocrazia’ or ‘government by asses’.

Amazingly, despite many threats and the ransacking of his library, Croce survived fascism and was appointed a minister without portfolio in Badoglio’s post-armistice government. Strangely, Croce voted for the retention of the monarchy in the constitutional referendum of 1946 which turned Italy into a republic, and regarded the peace treaty, which removed a large part of Venezia Giulia including Trieste (which only became part of Italy again in 1954), as humiliating.

Croce, who was the only survivor when, as a sixteen-year-old, his family was wiped out in an earthquake, remains to this day a somewhat complex and ambiguous figure. That’s why his friendship with Ian Greenlees and the documents exchanged between them, which were only re-discovered last year in Bagni di Lucca’s library Greenlees archive, are so telling.

In the ‘sketch’ there are some significant crossings out and word changes. For example, the Allied government must be ‘loyal’ rather than ‘generous’ to Italy. In another part fascism does not just ‘destroy’, it ‘corrupts and destroys’.

Croce was, above all a liberal philosopher, politician and historian who was greatly influenced by the Italian illuminist philosopher Giambattista Vico, so significantly revalued in recent times.

Above all Croce prized liberty and tolerance. It is, therefore, with some considerable preoccupation that I hear on the news today that a tit-for-tat attack by a white van driver has left one person dead and seriously injured ten others.

I think of the civil war in Italy, which came so close to Bagni di Lucca with its ever-present fortification remains  (there was also a visit on Sunday to the gothic line dividing axis and allied forces and whose anti-tank wall passes just south of local Penny supermarket. You can see my visit to this wall at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/catching-the-train-at-borgo-a-mozzano/ ).

I also think of the UK as a divided country too: divided by that ghastly brexit nonsense whose negotiations are to start today. I also think of the division in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea where the average wage of the better–off is over five times greater than that of the less well-off and where the difference between the average life expectancy of the two wage-groups is twelve years. Indeed, I remember as an unbelieving six-year old being driven through the shabbier parts of Kensington by my parents and my mother mockingly reading aloud a street name sign with the inscription ‘The Royal Borough of Kensington’. (Chelsea was added in 1965).

I just hope liberal tolerance will win through. After all, Italy was in a political psychosis in 1945 and has managed to keep itself together despite continued political instability and discontinuity, so much so that Italians are now declaring to me: ‘we thought we had to put up with an impossible government ‘all’Italiana’ but we think your country’s government has beaten ours in being even more ‘all’Italiana’!

I wonder what broadcast Benedetto Croce might have made on RAI TV and radio today…

(Every important occasion in Italy, like this book presentation,  ends with a nice ‘rinfresco’)

 

 

 

 

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Shelley House’s First Birthday!

It’s one year since Rebecca and Luca have opened their enterprising bookshop in Bagni di Lucca and a couple of days ago the occasion was celebrated with gusto. Miraculously Shelley House seems to have doubled in size but this is only because the proprietors have now added what used to be a butcher’s shop to their premises and done it up beautifully.

This extension is an enormous improvement as it truly gives more light and space in the shop and enables the books to be much better presented.

I am so pleased for Luca and Rebecca, They have the support of the local community in their very creative initiative and there were certainly plenty of buyers for their books including me, of course.

Have you visited Shelley House yet? You’ll be really spoilt for choice with books in both Italian and English and also for children’s books.

I truly wish Luca and Rebecca a fantastic start to their second year in Bagni di Lucca and, of course, a Merry Christmas!

Festival Shelley Comes to Town

A literary salon may evoke scenes of powdered ladies and gentlemen in a rococo chandeliered room with flunkeys at the door in the minds of some. Happily, of course, this is a hopelessly hollywoodian scenario.

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The Festival Shelley, run by that indomitable couple Luca PB Guidi and Rebecca Palagi, has a much more informal and relaxed attitude to literary salons. Proof of this was last Saturday when the mini car-park outside that precious addition to Bagni di Lucca’s scene, the Shelley House Bookshop and Gallery, was cleared of cars and turned over to chairs with Shelley house becoming a stage to an open-air auditorium in a newly acquired piazzetta.

Rebecca talked eloquently about her great love for Keats and in particular concentrated on his letters which are truly the lake out of which the precious gems of his poems are discovered. It’s clear that Rebecca is deeply versed in her subject and, thanks to her enthusiasm, the English romantic poets will, no doubt, become rather more than just names associated with Bagni di Lucca. Rebecca did remark, however, that Byron was somewhat dismissive about Keats. But then he wasn’t exactly a very agreeable person except when he was planning his next amorous conquest.

There was also the chance by Joseph Bottone, an American with roots at nearby San Cassiano to read a poem from his collection ‘Wild Honey’. We look forwards to more poets participating in the ‘salotto’, both Italian, English and, perhaps, other languages as well.

Meanwhile, the Festival Shelley, which is now in its seventh year, has a full and fascinating series of events in several locations from Viareggio, to Bagni di Lucca to Milan to Rome

Here is its programme:

You can also consult the Festival Shelley facebook page at:

https://www.facebook.com/ViareggioLaCittaDelCuoreDiShelley/posts/1094439680591296?comment_id=1094795373889060&notif_t=feed_comment_reply&notif_id=1467012008478130

Last but not least the good news about the Festival Shelley is that it has now received official patronage – a true honour. Well done Luca and Rebecca!

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Divided between Body and Mind

If you wanted to know anything about Matilde – not the one who told such dreadful lies but the great mediaeval countess who built ninety-nine churches, the extraordinary Ponte Della Maddalena at Borgo a Mozzano and brought an emperor to his knees in winter snows at Canossa to ask forgiveness, then 2015 was the year to swat up on her. It was ‘Matilde year’ since the grand lady died nine hundred years before in 1115 at Bondanazzo in Reggio Emilia aged 69 – a remarkable longevity at a time when most women were dead before they were thirty. It’s said that eating a large amount of pomegranates helped to lengthen Matilde’s life. In fact, the pomegranate became her emblem:

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Throughout the country various conferences and exhibitions celebrated this exceptional woman who wielded the greatest power and influence at a time when the majority of her sex was regarded as mere chattels. Indeed, such was the fame of Matilda that she is one of only two women buried in Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome – the other being Queen Christina of Sweden.

In my posts at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/who-was-matilde-di-canossa/

and  https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/borgo-a-mozzanos-matilde/ I talked about the extraordinary person of Matilde di Canossa, (described by one as the Angela Merkel of her time, although the latter’s  power seems apparently to have diminished over the United Kingdom as a result of the UK’s recent referendum).

The original conference was held at Borgo a Mozzano on November 15th last year and among the speakers was Emilio Tampucci, director of the education department at Borgo, who didn’t describe himself as an academic but whose knowledge of the subject, in his forthcoming book, was extraordinary.

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That book has now forthcomed and it is a highly enjoyable (Italian) read which really gets into the psyche of the formidable woman that Matilde was. The book is also beautifully illustrated with photographs of places associated with her.

The book’s late afternoon presentation opened in the courtyard of the palazzo Santini which now houses Borgo’s library. It was just as well we were outside since the weather has been stultifying hot thanks to anti-cyclone Juno. Mayor Andreucetti, as befits a government official with an academic background in history, gave a very full exposition describing the importance and the life of Matilde. He emphasised the fact that, despite her powerful position, she had essentially a sad life and, indeed, was of a melancholic disposition.

(Emilio Tampucci, Mayor Andreucetti and the presenter)

We, too, felt somewhat melancholic because a great speaker from the November conference, Domenico Maselli, was no longer with us. Domenico was one of the most important figures in Italian Protestantism, emeritus professor of Christianity at Florence university and emeritus pastor of the Valdensian church in Lucca. Without a single note in front of him, without a hesitation and with a superbly clear voice his account was nothing less than gripping. It was truly a joy to be able to understand everything Maselli said and to be wrapped up in his enthusiasm of the subject. Sadly he died on 4th March this year at the age of 82.

Emilio Tampucci’s book is a must for all those interested in Matilde di Canossa (and can read Italian). The book’s subtitle ‘divisa tra corpo e anima’ reveals Matilde’s constant battle between temporal and spiritual forces and is most charmingly and fascinatingly written.

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(Tampucci explaining Matilde’s Signature)

After the presentation there was a very tasty rinfresco and plenty of time to meet and talk to the many interesting and learned people present. At least it got Brexit off my mind for a bit. I wonder what Matilde di Canossa might have thought about that. As a Europeanist, not much I feel.

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On Indian Ink in Art

The subject of large-scale migrations is a very topical one in Italy. As a country which has in the past exported so many of its inhabitants to the Americas and, closer at hand, to Belgium’s mines and Scotland’s cafes, the theme is particularly close to the nation’s heart. At last, Italy is relieved to know that the European Union realises that migration is not a phenomenon/problem peculiar to Italy but is affecting the whole continent, indeed the whole world. In particular, the boatloads of human merchandise at the mercy of criminal gangs of scafisti (the Italian word for those extortionist criminals who man the fragile craft facing the Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe) which have inflicted their desperate human cargo onto its shores since the 1980’s are now recognized to be a European rather than just an Italian issue.

The theme of migration is such a massive question in Italy (over two thousand drowned in the Med since last Easter) that it is deeply affecting many artists. In last year’s Bagni di Lucca arts festival Anna (Sharane) Darlington’s take on the issue was particularly poignant (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/bagni-di-lucca-arts-festival-three-times-lucky/ ).

The issue has affected the recent exhibition by Antonella Prontelli at the comune’s Atrium (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/a-new-artist-reveals-herself-at-bagnis-town-hall-foyer/ ).

In Vezio Moriconi’s exhibition entitled ‘Sulla China dell’arte’ (on art’s Indian ink), which has just opened at Villa’s Shelley House and continues until the end of June, the migration theme is again all-pervading. The theme of the huddled masses, transported like so many egg-cartons and squashed in the depth of ship holds (where they are often left to drown) is paramount in Moriconi’s exhibition.

There are also allusions to the caporalato (work gang bosses) illegal work system whereby clandestine workers are subject to slave conditions at subsistence wages and without any hope of escape in mafia-run farms and factories.

Even when some kind of home is found the refugees are thrusted together in tiny spaces. Here the Corbusian dictum of houses as machines for living becomes transformed into boxes for ‘living’.

There is even a quasi-humorous hint of possible future migrations to exo-planets with bodies climbing up ladders to get their place in the salvation space-ship.

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A few of Moriconi’s works move away from the huddled masses theme and concentrate on lonely figures:

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(Phantasy to Power – Don Quixotte and Sancho Panza)

Others reduce the number in the multitudes until individuals are able to dance, Matisse-like, and have some fun in increased space, like animals released from zoo cages:

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The figures are drawn in a particular semi-grotesque, cartoonish style and their prevalent nudity emphasises their vulnerability and exposure in an unpitying world. Even the appearance of a tie on males and a bra on some females just increases this sense of human defencelessness.

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All Vezio’s works in the Shelley House exhibition are done in Indian ink (which in Italy is called Chinese ink). There’s a pun here on the Italian word ‘china’ which means ‘descent’ as well. There’s also an allusion to the restorative quinine plant which is used for certain Italian aperitifs.

A few words about the artist: Vezio Moriconi was born in 1971 in Camaiore where he lives. He graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti of Carrara and also studied sculpture at nearby Pietrasanta. Vezio has exhibited in several European countries and many of his works are in private collections.

Vezio’s facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=vezio%20moriconi

 

 

My English Masters

It’s not often that there’s a meeting with one’s old English master after more years than one cares to remember. I use the word ‘old’ meaning ‘former teacher’ when I was at school. Naturally, we are both older now but there’s less than ten years’ difference between Brian and me.

A disciple, at Downing College Cambridge, of one of the most formidable twentieth century critics, F. R. Leavis, Brian has had a distinguished teaching career starting with London’s Dulwich College (where he had me as one of his pupils) and ending with Bristol’s Clifton College. Brian Worthington remains the chair of the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society who benefit greatly from his fine prose style in their monthly magazine.

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(Brian and Carlotta)

It would be quite correct to say that Brian has helped me perceive what is truly worth reading and what isn’t. My critical judgement, however, differs from his in a few instances. For example, at school, when gaining a form prize I opted for the complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley who isn’t exactly Brian’s cup of tea. I remember Brian devastating, for example, Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’, one of the poet’s less successful lyrics, it must be admitted.

At King’s I became friends with E. M. Forster whose ‘Passage to India’ remains one of those few novels I have to re-read at regular intervals. Again, as a representative of the Bloomsbury school, anathema to Leavisites, this might have been a questionable activity.

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(Forster in his rooms at Cambridge)

On most matters however, I don’t differ from Brian as to what constitutes profitable reading. Dickens has been re-established as an author that far transcends that caricatured word ‘Dickensian’. ‘Little Dorrit’, for example (which was one of my A-level texts) contains views on nouveau-riche British travellers abroad that still trenchantly describe the situation today. D. H. Lawrence has also been my companion both in reading and in travelling. My visit to Tarquinia, for example, was largely inspired by the author’s posthumous ‘Sketches of Etruscan places.’

I sometimes have had lapses in good taste when, for instance, I overpraised Restoration heroic drama which is just a poor mirror of the great French seventeenth century dramatic tradition and I do enjoy reading some of Edith Sitwell’s poems and listening to them too – as in Walton’s ‘Façade’. Which brings me to music. For an English master to lend his Bernstein recording of Mahler’s Sixth (it was vinyl then) to a messy schoolboy was some risk but clearly Brian trusted me and the symphony was listened to (for the first time) and the two discs returned in unscratched condition.

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Mahler unites Brian, my wife and me in a special way. For it was at a London Royal Festival Hall concert where Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth was heard that I had my first date with Alexandra. Brian complemented me on choosing such a beautiful girl for that date the following morning during my English lesson. To me she ever remains beautiful, of course.

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(Teenage Alexandra) 

Some years later I wrote this poem on that premonitory event:

 

CONCERT

 

It was the tenth (we started at the end

and then worked our way to the beginning):

searing chords of tremendous sound ascend

darkly overlaid like the death-bird’s wing.

 

Suddenly a trumpet screams out on high,

siren-like, cutting our souls to the bone

of thought, collapsing in a yearning sigh

as we shiver before the feared unknown.

 

We found refuge in flowering of nature,

the last slow movement of the third,

God-given harmonies that reassure

like the ethereal song of heaven’s bird.

 

This music is a scene-change to our lives:

beyond our loves transcendent sound survives.

 

Brian was also the first teacher to take us out to visit the then Dulwich College Picture Gallery, now simply the Dulwich Gallery, and help us appreciate the value of good and great art.

Again, some years later I wrote this about the visit to the Gallery – a jewel-like collection in the world’s first purpose-built gallery. I’ve inserted a few of the pictures alluded to in my poem.

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WEST ENTRANCE: DULWICH PARK

 

Three iron gates conclude the day

and lawns are left alone

to twilight ducks and passing birds

and thoughts that lie unknown.

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Green sashes kiss sear autumn light

and mirror naked years

while fingered village signposts weep

new ice age fountain tears.

 

Upon the sacral mountain slope

the God sucks on her teats;

Amalthea rises, hornèd proud,

as bees drone round their sweets.

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Red house upon dusk’s park unfolds

its emptied living room

with frozen sounds of half-heard pasts

and failing roses’ bloom.

 

In furze-brown taverns clay-pipe smoke

embraces heaving breasts

as sanguine, wide-hipped country girls

consider sly requests.

 

The evening road winds past wild fronds,

declining columns and stone tombs

while draperies unfurl their toes

against the night’s perfumes.

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And could I rise like waxing moons

upon this painted scene;

reflect in crystals of the mind

on what has never been?

 

The pictures inserted are, of course, by that supreme French Classicist, Nicolas Poussin.of whose works the gallery possesses a dozen examples).

It was a particular pleasure, indeed a privilege, to have Brian and another of his Dulwich pupils with his wife for lunch a week ago. In a sense it was like an unofficial Old Alleynian lunch (old Alleynians are what former pupils at the school founded by Shakespearian actor Edward Alleyn in 1616 are called).

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(Dulwich College London SE 21)

Which brings me to Shakespeare himself. No bard of Avon will do for Brian. There were real hints from this pointedly charming and erudite teacher that Shakespeare hailed from the part of the world I am now residing in. In that sense my piece on the man himself at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/heres-to-will/ may have greater resonance than I first imagined.

How wonderful it is that I met my English master again in the romantic wilds of the Apennines. Surely I fulfilled the tenet that Brian had of me at school, that I was a hopeless Italianate aesthete.

(In the last photograph Brian is holding a print featuring the Surrey railway network in 1856. Included in the print is a drawing of the old college at Dulwich. Surprisingly, i found the print at Lucca’s antiques market).

But then I also met another of my unforgettable English masters in the exotic orientality of Saigon not that long ago….

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(Bradley Winterton – Lincoln College Oxford – at Mũi Né, Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan, Vietnam earlier this year.Far East journalist, reviewer and author of ‘The Mystery Religions of Gladovia’)

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PS Incidentally there’s a good Shakespeare festival at nearby Capannori. See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/shakespeare-festival-at-capannori/ for more on that.

PPS Dulwich gallery now has three more Poussins. See http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2016/may/poussin-the-sacraments/

 

 

 

 

Sunset with Shelley and Respighi

This Saturday at 5 pm there’s a lyrical moment at Bagni di Lucca Villa’s new bookshop and gallery, Shelley House.

Painting, poetry and music will mingle together in an evocative way. Michelangelo Cupisti’s art works return to Bagni di Lucca, and the English poet Francis Pettitt and actress Rebecca Palagi will read a little-known poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley called “The Sunset”.

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(PB Shelley 1792-1822)

‘The Sunset’ is a gothicky love story dating exactly two hundred years ago. Francis will read it in the original language and Rebecca will recite it in Italian (a translation from the beginning of the last century).

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(Luca PB Guidi and Rebecca Palagi who run the Shelley House bookshop)

After the reading we will listen to “The Sunset ” very beautifully set to music by Respighi for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (although other arrangements also exist) and first performed in 1918. Incidentally, it is not generally known that Respighi, famous for his ‘musical postcards’ of Rome’s fountains, pines and festivals also set three Shelley poems. (The other two are ‘The sensitive plant’ and ‘Arethusa’).

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(Ottorino Respighi 1879-1936)

It’s also interesting to note that Shelley wrote some of his poems to have them specifically set to music e.g. ‘With a guitar to Jane.’

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Do drop in if you’re around. It’s going to be a short but very attractive event.

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