Sunday 12 June 2016

Italy Part 5: Out of town

The view from the hill-top village of Selci
Charles Dickens writes enthusiastically of the trips he made out of Rome into the countryside. He could have said just the same thing today. We did three great jaunts, all in a northerly direction: to Viterbo, to Anguillara (by Lago di Bracciano), and to a friend’s house at Selci, in Sabino. Having arrived on the local train at Fara, our friend Giles (he’s English, with an Italian partner) took us to look at the hill village of Poggio Catino – not a tourist to be seen (apart from us of course), and remarkable for a great limestone solution hollow. After he prepared the sort of impromptu lunch that I have never been able to master, we got back to Rome by taking the train at Poggio Mirteto. Working out the train times and the stations where the trains actually stop was a bit of a nightmare – the timetables are not all that intuitive, and having got to the station you have to remember to validate your ticket before getting on the train. Failure to do it leads to a hefty fine, a great source of income from tourism. All these trips offered photo opportunities, or perhaps more accurately opportunities for photographic clichés.

In fact, I’ve in fact taken the same photograph several thousand times – a narrow street or alley turning off at an angle in the distance, a street lamp projecting from building artfully silhouetted in the foreground, slightly sinister gathering shadows, preferably a few ‘authentic’ locals, a street sign or two to fix location, a predominance of colourful washes on the buildings themselves, stone steps or balconies or flowers in tubs welcome. London, Rome, Florence, Istanbul, Havana, Riga – through my camera they can all come out looking rather similar. (Hard to do the same thing in New York. Or, these days, in over-planned modern Singapore.)

Viterbo - or Anguillara?

Earlier I mentioned the state-of-the-art train between Florence and Rome. For the Viterbo trip we took different routes there and back; the outward journey was on a service that’s still privately owned, separate from the main network. The trains were a throwback to half a century ago, showing no great evidence of maintenance, at the cosmetic level anyway. In fact, looking at people going about their lives in Rome (and in Florence too, I think), you could see the impact of the economic problems besetting the country over the last twenty years. People don’t dress with the same flare as in the past; they’ve lost much of the old swagger. Service in Rome was always haphazard and disorganized, but this time there was an air of disillusion and general grumpiness that I don’t remember noticing in the past. Grafitti are everywhere; it’s obvious that public budgets are being squeezed. If you knew London in the 1970s, you would recognize the signs. The Metro was obviously built on the cheap, and maintenance is clearly limited to operational essentials. It’s gloomy.

The train arrives at Viterbo station. Some Italian public architecture of the 1930s has Fascist associations, but it works very well, even so.
 The atmosphere of Rome couldn’t be more different from the manicured, controlled Singapore to which I returned. Living in Rome might drive me nuts – it’s hard to say without trying it, and anyway I think I would have enjoyed it more in my thirties than in my sixties. But I left Rome with a great sense of regret, and anticipation of the next trip.

Italy Part 4: South to Rome

You're never far from a church, in the old centre of Rome.
We took the train from Florence to Rome, a Red Arrow service fully the match of any long-distance train I’ve used in Europe. Arrival at Termini was followed by a laborious, exhausting, panting, suitcase-dragging trek to a hotel further away than it looked on the map. I say ‘hotel’ – it was originally just an apartment in a fairly modern block. The bedrooms were a good size, and each had its own bathroom. Sadly they weren’t adjoining (en suite, as the daytime TV programmes put it), and a night-time pee meant opening and shutting doors as silently as possible and crossing the common corridor – and the need for some form of clothing.

Detail of the Colosseum. The brick reinforcement on the left was added in the 19th century. An earthquake of 1349 led to the collapse of much of the outer wall, and the whole site was used as a quarry for building materials for many centuries.

I’ve been to Rome many times. I can’t claim to be a Rome expert. My travelling companion knows a lot more about it than I do. But I can find my way around.

In a ten-day visit, It’s impossible to absorb more than a tiny fraction of the variety of Rome’s historic art and architecture. Charles Dickens wrote about the city in his ‘Pictures from Italy’. After describing some of the ‘holy’ relics housed in many of the churches, he says:

‘The rest is a vast wilderness of consecrated buildings of all shapes and fancies, blending one with another; of battered pillars of old Pagan temples, dug up from the ground and forced, like giant captives, to support the roofs of Christian churches; of pictures, bad, and wonderful, and impious, and ridiculous; of kneeling people, curling incense, tinkling bells, and sometimes (but not often) of a swelling organ; of Madonne, with their breasts stuck full of swords, arranged in a half-circle like a modern fan; of actual skeletons of dead saints, hideously attired in gaudy satins, silks, and velvets trimmed with gold: their withered crust of skull adorned with precious jewels, or with chaplets of crushed flowers; sometimes, of people gathered round the pulpit, and a monk within it stretching out the crucifix, and preaching fiercely: the sun just streaming down through some high window on the sail-cloth stretched above him and across the church, to keep his high-pitched voice from being lost among the echoes of the roof. Then my tired memory comes out upon a flight of steps, where knots of people are asleep, or basking in the light; and strolls away, among the rags, and smells, and palaces, and hovels, of an old Italian street.

Pope Francis doing his stuff of a Sunday morning. The window is quite distant, seen from the Piazza, and you need a longer telephoto lens than anything I had in the bag.

Above (all three): frescoes on the ceiling and dome of Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits.
Over-the-top literally and aesthetically, but quite spectacular.
Detail of Bernini's 'Four Rivers' fountain in Piazza Navona. This is the River Plate.

Religion’s lost much of its hold these days, and anyway most of modern Rome was developed well after Charles Dickens’s time. Outside the historic core, a lot of it looks like any other big Italian city. But it’s not hard to make a connection between his account and what you see today. Perhaps one of the differences is the vast number of foreign tourists. Dickens describes tourists in Rome in satirical terms, but in the 19th century there were not that many of them. On a Sunday morning, when today’s Pope makes his appearance at the Vatican balcony to bless the crowd, I would judge that Italians are a relatively small minority. The impact of mass tourism is everywhere, with vast quantities of globalized tourist tat indistinguishable from the stuff you see in London. Made in China or wherever, certainly not in Italy.

Mosaic decoration in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome  (1140-43).

Of course, those parts of Rome dating back to the Renaissance and mediaeval times, not to mention ‘Ancient Rome’, carry the most potent historical message. But many of the streets we now see as typically Italian were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Nevertheless they are sufficiently different from their London contemporaries that we see them as ‘typically Italian’, particularly those big apartment buildings planned around a courtyard with a grand, communal street entrance, generally with a formal classical façade.

Tourism is getting bigger all the time.
Prices have shot up. In the early seventies you could get a pretty good lunch with wine for around 3000 lire. Rome was cheap. Now the prices are comparable with London, much of the décor homogenized vaguely international, and the quality not always reliable. A bit like Paris in this respect. I’m very much in favour of the UK’s membership of the European Union, but the Euro currency is a different thing: almost anyone in Rome will tell you of the sneaky price increases that took place on the transition from the Lira to the common European currency. The same thing happened in the UK, although perhaps not as brazenly, when we moved from pounds, shillings and pence to decimal currency.

Mass tourism, destroying the very target of its attentions.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Italy Part 3: Florence

Florence, from San Miniato or thereabouts
Before this trip I hadn’t been to Florence for more than 20 years. I had memories of dark, narrow streets, and high, forbidding palazzo façades. Essentially, that’s what I found this time.

Florence was on the agenda because I had signed up to join a small watercolour tuition group travelling out from London. The plan was for seven of us, plus teacher, to stay in a villa between Florence and Fiesole, paint in the gardens at the villa and nearby during the mornings, touristificate in the afternoons, and meet for dinner back at the villa in the evenings. I hadn’t painted for over 50 years, and, sadly, I didn’t rediscover any particular talent now.

But the group was terrific company, all around the same age (late 60s/early 70s); Rea, our teacher, was endlessly optimistic; and the food, cooked by the villa owners, was fantastic. Not a dud menu in the whole week.

Our villa at Palmerino, between Florence and Fiesole. In fact, this is one of the minor buildings in the complex.
The villa was interesting – Il Palmerino, owned during the late 19th/early 20th centuries by one Violet Paget, one of those northern European, Italy-loving literati. Her pen name was Vernon Lee. According to John Pemble, she was given to ‘quivering effusions’ on Italian art (I don’t know, I haven’t read any of her stuff, and must). According to Wikipedia, she habitually dressed à la garçonne. She had a number of special lady friends, and Ethel Smyth describes the performance of one of them, Clementine ‘Kit’ Anstruther-Thompson as she approached a statue of Apollo in the Vatican: ‘In dead silence she advanced, then retreated, shaded her eyes, and finally ejaculated “Look at that Johnny! How he sings! How he sings!” ‘ I’m not sure who, or what gender, Johnny was, but you get the tone.

Vernon Lee’s now the subject of much academic beavering-away on both sides of the Atlantic. The Florence artistic/literary community of her era (they sound ghastly) would make the subject of a great film.

The garden of the Villa Peyron, where we went for a painting session.

So back to Florence. The weather was cold and grey initially, but cheered up. We covered several of the compulsory outdoor sites – Santa Croce, the Duomo, baptistry doors, Ponte Vecchio. We risked heart failure climbing to the Piazzale Michelangelo and the church of San Miato, and got the view that every visitor to Florence for the past six centuries has got, the subject of millions, even billions, of photographs. We took cabs to Fiesole, pretty enough it itself, with another great vista, this time more distant, and seen the other way, from the north.

The Roman theatre at Fiesole (which my computer keeps trying to correct to 'fissile').

Yes I admit it – when it comes to art galleries, my boredom threshold is low. Within five minutes, my feet hurt, my back aches, and I can’t decide which pair of glasses I should be wearing. I need to look at sights with a purpose in mind, and find it difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to appreciate art fully for its own sake. If I had to write a guidebook entry, say, I’d be forced to concentrate, and then I’d get more out of gazing at paintings. Perhaps an art history course, for which I had to write a few essays, could help.

But then, tourism isn’t conducive to art appreciation. The pressure to ‘do’ everything, to gawp for a few seconds and move on, is overwhelming. And we saw plenty of people doing just that. John Pemble writes of 19th-century visitors, ‘Travellers with less than ordinary stamina were compelled to retire from the gruelling exercise overcome by frustration and fatigue.  “I am too old in head, limbs and eyesight for such hard work, such toiling and such straining”, moaned the sixty-seven-year-old William Wordsworth, turning homewards with an immense sense of relief.’  I’m sure many earnest pilgrims to Florence end up saying the same thing to themselves.

The main façade of the Duomo (cathedral) at Florence, and the campanile attributed to Giotto.  That of the main building dates back only as far as 1887 – the original was demolished in Renaissance times as 'outmoded', but it took several hundred years to replace it, due to squabbles and corruption. At least the two buildings match, reasonably.

 So the nearest thing to a ‘gallery’ that I went into was the San Marco museum, with its monkish cells and frescoes. To the extent that there was an art-historical theme to the trip, I guess it was frescoes. You can’t help admiring not only the result, but the skill of the artists in overcoming the technical challenges: they had to work fast, painting onto areas of plaster while it was still wet, section by section. How they achieved seamless, unified compositions I don’t know. Not all the Renaissance masters were great at anatomy though – there are plenty of weird body proportions, distorted limbs, and fingers like bananas. It’s not original to say that Michelangelo was in a class of his own, but even I can see that he was.

And of course there are tombs, funerary monuments and cemeteries, some of the most interesting features of any western city. The church of Santa Croce’s a five-star target for that alone, with tombs of and memorials to Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, Marconi and more. Naturally, we tried to visit the English cemetery on the one day when it was closed.

Michelangelo's tomb, in the church of Santa Croce, Florence.

If you’ve seen the film of ‘A Room with a View’, you might expect the River Arno to be something special. Yes, well, maybe. The Ponte Vecchio is what it is, and the other bridges make a nice visual progression in a photograph, but this isn’t the Grand Canal in Venice, and I find even the view along the banks of the Tiber in Rome more interesting.

The Ponte Vecchio, over the River Arno. Well, it's a compulsory photo. Shortly after our visit, the pavement along the bank on the left collapsed into a great void, taking cars with it, as a result of flooding and consequent underground erosion.

After a week, it was time to head for the railway station and the train to Rome, a city I know rather better. And as a lover of cityscapes more than paintings, I was happy to be heading further south.

Friday 10 June 2016

Italy Part 2: Guidebooks

I always take a guidebook. I promise myself to do serious homework in advance, so I can spend my travel time looking at things of interest, and not the guidebook. When it comes to it, I fail to do the preparation – and even on the trip itself, give only cursory attention to the guidebook. From that, I conclude that my interest in the minutiae of art history etc. etc. is superficial.  The key things in guidebooks are good maps (essential), checklists of key sights, and opening times.  For deeper stuff, a slow assimilation of information works for me, best after the event. Guidebooks make most sense after the return home, when I can visualize what they are talking about. 

The danger of this approach, of course, that you miss things. On this trip to Florence and Rome, I took a heavy-ish guidebook that I already had, and bought two more small ones. They weighed down my suitcase and I hardly used them.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome.

Italy Part 1: Thinking about Italy

From the passing train, north of Rome. Ripe for gentrification?
Earlier this year, I read ‘The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South’, a history of the love affair between northern Europeans (which for this purpose includes not only Brits but also Americans) and Mediterranean life and culture (notably Greece and Italy). An entertaining read. Recommended. As author John Pemble says, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British were ‘familiar with Mediterranean history and infatuated with Mediterranean art, landscape, literature and religion.’ The tradition went back to the Grand Tour and earlier. The Germans and other northerners were equally enthralled – Goethe is big on the subject. A more liberal moral atmosphere that that of Victorian Britain was a further attraction to some. The mutual appeal of north and south is centuries old, whatever the ancient Romans may have thought of British weather …

I inherited an interest in Italy from my parents. My father, a doctor, was in Italy during World War II, running a field ambulance unit at the Battle of Monte Cassino, among other things. Despite that unpleasant experience (it probably led to his increasing tinnitus and deafness in old age), he was captivated by the country. He and my mother travelled to Italy several times in the 1950s, leaving us kids at home. It wasn’t until 1960 that we got to go – a source of resentment and frustration at the time, as several of my schoolmates made the trip before I did.

Anyway, since then I have missed no opportunity to visit Italy. It has helped that an old friend of mine taught in Rome for 16 years, a great host and guide. This year, we joined forces once again, and spent a week in Florence, followed by another week in Rome.

Street life: further north, it might not look so picturesque

Saturday 2 January 2016

The Singapore River a century ago

Until the 1970s-1980s, the river was the commercial heart of Singapore, where coolies loaded and unloaded goods between the warehouses lining the banks (known as 'godowns') and lighters, small boats acting as a link to the larger ships anchored in the harbour beyond the river mouth.

This image is taken from a tiny snapshot no more than a couple of inches across, and dates from around 1910, from the look of it. The buildings on the left were government offices, and now house the Asian Civilisations Museum. Many of the those facing us in the centre of the picture have been replaced by high-rise blocks (mainly banks), although a line of godown buildings to the right of this shot (outside the frame) has been preserved. A promenade runs along the bank, lined with restaurants and bars. All the boats disappeared in the late 1980s, as part of a clean-up exercise.

The Singapore River in the early 1900s

The blog awakens: a book published in November

Well, the previous post was in May 2015 and now it's the beginning of January 2016 - just the sort of gap that I promised myself to avoid. So what has happened in the interim?

On the work front, November saw the publication of my latest book, Transformation of a River: The Singapore River and Marina Bay. It was commissioned by Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the design and production were handled by the company I worked for until 2008, publisher Editions Didier Millet.

The book cover, with an aerial photo of the barrage by Richard Koh. Seen from this angle, the channel to the Singapore River is the left-hand branch of the water body; the right fork leads to the Kallang River basin. Virtually all the land you see here is reclaimed.
When first conceptualised, the book was to focus on the history of the Singapore River; as it developed the emphasis shifted, giving equal prominence to Marina Bay, an artificial, freshwater reservoir  created by reclamation and the installation of a barrage, keeping the reservoir water separate from the seawater beyond it. The reservoir is fed not only by the Singapore River but also the Kallang River further east.

Two pages from the book. This is the story of Singapore's first civil airport, built on reclaimed land at the mouth of the Kallang River. The site of the airfield (in green on the map) is now a modern sports stadium.
The whole bay project is a massively ambitious planning exercise. It has taken some 40 years to complete. From the book's point of view, this broadening of perspective meant that we covered not only the commercial and social history of the rivers, but also the water supply and sewerage system, pollution control, and the development of all the waterfronts as a place for people to visit and enjoy.

It's quite a big book, full of information and interesting photos (old and new), and graphics.

The book's on sale at the URA office. I am not sure at this point when or how they intend to distribute it to the public at large. Lets hope. It's ideal reading for anybody coming to live in Singapore, or doing business here, wanting to know how and why the city and its waterfronts look as they do today.

The buildings around Marina Bay, under construction in 2008 (top) and today. The upper shot was taken with a Pentax DSLR with Sigma 17-70 lens; the lower one with a Panasonic GX7, with 12-32  lens. Both consist of multiple images stitched together with Autopano Pro.
The second half of 2015 wasn't all work and no travel. In fact I made two visits to London, one to Bali, and three to Thailand. Can't complain. More on all of this shortly.