Category Archives: Art and Architecture

Chichester: Art in the Cathedral

I am not a frequent visitor to churches and cathedrals but I make an exception for the 7thCentury Chichester Cathedral because it contains art that speaks to me.  The Cathedral is a classic Norman building with round arch windows and west facing twin towers and is the only English Cathedral with a surviving detached medieval Bell Tower dating back to 681 when Saint Wilfred brought Christianity to Sussex.

Medieval Bell Tower, Chichester Cathedral

It was raining heavily on the day after the theatre performance so we spent most of the time before lunch and our departure, in the Cathedral.  I wanted to re-visit the Arundel Tomb, subject of a poem by one of my favourite poets, Philip Larkin.  I have been re-reading Larkin recently and that particular poem has being going round and round in my head and I knew I could only dislodge it by visiting the tomb.

The Arundel Tomb

The Arundel Tomb was brought from Lewes Priory sometime after its dissolution in 1537. It is a chest on top of which lies the figures of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster. The tomb was restored at the beginning of the 19th century bt Edward Richardson, a well-known sculptor of the day.

I know the poem off by heart and I was able to sit there for a long time and listen to the music of the words in my head and ‘see’ what Larkin saw when he wrote the poem.  Without his words, I would have walked by this tomb and missed what he saw “what will survive of us is love”.  If copyright allowed, I would have liked to add the poem here, but it wasn’t possible.

I also wanted another chance to see the Chagall stained-glass window and the Gustav Holst plaque.  The Chagall window, installed in 1978, is unusual in that the glass is predominantly red when Chagall usually worked in blue.  It is absolutely gorgeous and I could have stayed longer just drinking in the beauty of the luminous jewel cololurs.

Stained Glass Window by Chagall – Photo by David Spender CC.

Gustav Holst, one of the greatest figures in British 20th century music, had a special connection to Chichester Cathedral and on his death aged 59, on 25th May 1934, his ashes were interred in the Cathedral.  The composer of The Planets Suite, was a friend of Chichester’s Bishop Bell and worked with him on the Whitsuntide Festivals.  Under the plaque on the floor in the North Transept , his ashes were buried near to a memorial to his favourite Tudor composer, Thomas Weelkes. 

Plaque in Memorium Gustav Holst

I shall no doubt visit again on my next trip to Chichester because there is more art to be seen in the cathedral.  There is a John Piper tapestry on the High Altar, a vividly coloured work which I have yet to take to: there is a Graham Sutherland painting and there are various sculptures worth searching out.   

But Chichester has lots of other attractions to tempt one.  Here are just a few.

The Festival Theatre along with its sister theatre, The Minerva, has a continuos programme of first-class productions, most of which transfer to the West End after their run in Chichester.  There are also two really good restaurants on the site (booking essential).

The free Novium Museum gives an in-depth insight into the history of the City and wider district and it is built over the remains of a vast Roman bath house, which can be seen from the ground floor.

The internationally recognised Pallant House Gallery (rated second only to the Tate for modern British art by the Guardian) explores new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now.  It is housed in what is considered to be one of the most important 18th century townhouses in England, one of very few Queen Anne houses open to the public. 

The 200-year-old Chichester Canal is another of Chichester’s hidden gems. This secret waterway was once part of the former Portsmouth and Arundel Canal (opening in 1823) with carrying regular cargoes of  gold bullion from Portsmouth to the Bank of England – with armed guards on the barges! 

There are free drop-in guided tours of the Cathedral at 11.15am and 2.30pm Monday to Saturday, which last approximately 45 minutes.

CESENATICO AND THE LEONARDO DA VINCI CANAL

Leonardo da Vinci Canal

For years now I’ve been totally in love with the region of Emilio-Romagna in Italy, mostly, I admit, because of its food, but my first flirtation with the area came when I visited Cesenatico.  It was here that I discovered that the canal that runs through the centre of the town, was designed by Leonardo da Vinci and I was immediately charmed.   That the genius who produced so much art could also put his mind to something so mundane, seemed so wonderful. Is there nothing he didn’t design?   How had it escaped me?

Canal and Port

Cesenatico has been a popular seaside resort for Italian visitors since the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War when people began to seek pleasure in sandy beaches and sun that its tourist trade really took off :  Cesenatico’s beaches stretch for over five kilometres.  More recently, the town has seen an influx of visitors attracted by the beaches and shallow waters of the Adriatic, the bars, bistros, elegant shops and gelateria that line the canalside, and the near perfect weather. 

Outdoor Museum of Boats on the Canal

This is as medieval as it gets and it rings with names from history.  The ancient fishing harbour was designed in 1502 by da Vinci on the orders of Cesare Borgia, two names to set the mind racing. One part of the canal has been closed off to accommodate the Floating Museum of Marine History in which eight perfectly restored boats of the type that were once used locally for trade in the upper and middle Adriatic are on display.  Painted in the natural colours that were used in the past, each sail represents a different fishing family from the area. This was done originally so that the boats could be recognised at a distance: today they are a lesson in maritime history. 

Alongside the canal the indoor Maritime Museum houses artefacts and documents dating back to the prehistory of navigation. As the port supports today’s fishing industry the canal bustles with working boats, many of which sell their catch from the boat. Weaving in and out are small yachts and leisure craft for the canal has an attraction for all who love messing about on boats.

If it’s a sunny day and being indoors is not to your liking, then admire the collection of medieval boats on the canal while sitting at a nearby café with a glass of the delicious local wine.  If you are there on a Sunday expect to see elegant ladies tottering about on their Louboutins, tiny dogs clutched in their arms, impeccably dressed young men making the passagieta with or without their girlfriends, and old men sitting outside the bars nursing espressos and smoking.   

Cesenatico was the first Italian town to erect a monument in honour of the great Liberator of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, to signify his connection to the town and this statue can be seen in Piazza Pisacane. In August of 1849, the great man, his wife, and other patriots fleeing from Rome were hunted down here.

There are a few other monuments to visit if you can drag yourself away from the port and its charms or the beach and the calm waters.   The birthplace of the poet Moretti is now a centre for the study of 20th century Italian literature with a display of his books and papers, and the Theatre built by the architect Candido Panzani which, having survived damage sustained during the Second World War was restored in 1992, is architecturally very interesting.

But Cesenatico is really a place made for relaxation, for doing what the locals do, chill out with a coffee and grappa, lunch al fresco with local wines, or dine elegantly while watching the world go by. 

The region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy has many lovely towns and villages but none, apart from Cesenatico, has a canal designed by Leonardo da Vinci, running through it.

POMPEII

Most people know about the tragedy that was Pompeii so it would be presumptuous of me to write a post on its history.  I will, therefore, content myself with posting some images I took when I was there in June last when I struggled in the heatwave and the crowds that had disembarked from the 3 cruise ships in the Bay of Naples.   Here are just a few essential details.

It wasn’t until 1594 that the architect Dominico Fontana, discovered the ruins while digging a canal but serious excavations didn’t begin until the mid 18th century.  Of the city’s original 66 hectares, 44 have now been excavated but not all of this area is accessible to the public.

Pompeii wasn’t destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79: it was buried under a layer of burning pumice stone which means that much of it is remarkably well preserved.  Today the visitor can walk down Roman streets, peer into what we know were brothels and bath-houses, snoop around houses, temples and shops and sit in the amphitheatre and pretend to be an ancient Roman.  Some of the frescoes are in a remarkable condition, the colours vibrant and the figures well defined. Those in the the brothel are quite explicit as they were there to provide visual inspiration for the clients and they were a cause for scandal in the Vatican when they were first revealed in 2001.

There had been severe earthquakes in the area for two days previous to the volcano’s eruption so many people had left the town for safety, otherwise the number of lives lost would have been a lot more.  Nevertheless, 2,000 men, women and children perished. Plaster casts of some of the bodies that were excavated are on display but some are still under renovation.

My first visit to Pompeii was many years ago in late autumn and I would recommend that time of year.  The number of visitors visiting the Naples area in late spring, summer and early autumn and ticking Pompeii off their bucket-list makes it a less enjoyable tour for the serious lover of history or archaeology.  Besides the crowds, there is the heat, and Pompeii offers no shade whatsoever.

Recommended Reading

There are many histories of the destruction of Pompeii but the best must surely be Robert Harris’s Pompeii (2004) published by Hutchinson which reads like a thriller and is a true page-turner.

The original account is by Pliny the Younger who was there at the time and most accounts are based on this, another very exciting read.

Photo by king kurt, Pixabay
Photo: Pascal, Pixabay

ROME – STILL ETERNAL

My trip to Rome coincided with the heat wave which, although welcome in that it meant I didn’t need to carry around a shower-proof jacket (just in case), did mean I had to carry a paper umbrella bought from a street trader who must have thought his birthday and Christmas had come along at the same time, so many were the customers queuing up to buy his parasols.

Rome is wonderful in any weather but walking in 34ᵒ heat this time made sight-seeing a trifle difficult.  It did, however, allow for many more granitas and gelato stops, even as it cut down on the photography.

Part of the Forum

We stayed at the wonderful Forum Hotel, so named because it faces the Forum.  To wake up every morning and look out on the sprawl of ancient pillars and stones glowing from the rising sun, was magical.  We had the same view from the breakfast terrace on the rooftop, so although I usually forego breakfast, in this case it was a must. 

Part of the Forum

The Forum was ancient Rome’s showpiece centre, a site originally developed in the 7th century BC from a marshy burial ground which grew into the social, commercial and political hub of the Roman Empire.   It was a handsome district of temples, basilicas and bustling public spaces which, with a little imagination is easy to people with toga-clad inhabitants going about their business accompanied by their slaves.

Forum by Night

Part of the Forum is open for wandering around but to see it all one needs to pay.  However, I would say leave this until the end of your stay, because a) you can see some of it without charge and b) there is so much else to see in Rome and you can always return to it if you wish.

The Colosseum by Night (Photo Solange Hando)

It is but a short walk from the Forum to the Colosseum, the hugely impressive, troubling monument to Roman imperial power and cruelty.  Inside this emblem of Rome, behind the serried ranks of Tuscan, Iconic and Corinthian columns, and three storeys of superimposed arches, Romans for centuries cold-bloodedly killed thousands of people for amusement, and sent gladiators to their death as they fought wild animals like lions, tigers and leopards for the amusement of the rulers and the populace.

Inside the Colosseum

The Colosseum is now a mere shadow of its former self as only about one-third of the original building still stands, its glistening marble and stone having been carried away and used in the building of palaces and churches by Roman popes and aristocrats who coveted it. Nearby Palazzo Venezia and the Tiber’s river defences are just two examples of this.

Looking down at the pits from which the animals would emerge

Originally the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, a pleasure palace built for the people by the emperor Vespasian (69-79) to a design worked out before the building began, it was capable of holding 50,000 spectators,  

It is difficult not to quote sizes and quantities in such an undertaking, suffice to say that drains were built 8m beneath the structure to take away the streams that flow from the valleys and hills that surround Rome: the foundations under the outer walls and seating are 12-13m deep while under the inner part of the arena they are only 4m deep.  The spoil dug from the foundations was used to raise the surround level by over 6m. 

Sometimes quoting facts and figures like these can take away from the brooding power of the Colosseum, but I never fail to be moved by an atmosphere still inside those walls. 

The Victor Emmanuel Palace. 

Vittorio Emmanuel ll Palace

 Also known as ‘Il Vittoriano’ and sometimes referred to as The Wedding Cake Palace by the locals, this monument to King Victor Emanuel II, is a bombastic monument of sparkling white marble decorated with numerous allegorical statues, reliefs and murals.  At the center of the monument is the colossal equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel, and on either side are fountains representing the seas that border Italy, the Adriatic Sea and the Tyrrhenian Sea.  At the foot of the statue Guards of honor, selected from the marine, infantry and air divisions, guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier day and night.

The Vittorio Emmanuel ll Palace

Inside the monument is the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, which charts the events that led to the unification of Italy, with a display of paintings, documents, photographs and memorabilia, the entrance to which is to the left of the monument, at the Via di San Pietro in Carcere.

During the 1930’s, the Italian dictator, Mussolini, delivered his speeches to the populace from the terraces and balconies of this building.

The Victor Emmanuel Monument cannot be considered one of Rome’s most beautiful buildings and its stark whiteness does not fit well into the soft ochre color of the surrounding buildings.  Nevertheless, it is well worth the visit if only for the great views from the top (which is also connected to the Capitoline Square which may also be on your list).

A useful tip for visitors:  You will see lots of advertisements – everywhere – to buy tickets that “skip-the-queues” and indeed you do skip the line for tickets.  But unfortunately, after many years of this, the queue for the “skip-the-queue” line is much longer than the normal one to buy tickets at the office, so take my advice, ignore this (and ignore the touts who will offer you tickets for immediate entry), join the queue for tickets and you’ll be through in no time.

Next post:  Piazza Navona, The Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.

SYRACUSE, SICILY

My recent trip to Syracuse gave me lots of material for posts but as I have written before about this Sicilian city I thought that this time I would hone in on the Archaeological Park of Neapolis which holds Syracuse’s most important Greek and Roman remains.  The Park covers approximately 240 square metres and the Greek and Roman periods are divided by a green, tranquil oasis in the midst of the ruins, called Viale Paradiso.

p1030461
Between the two cultures, through the Viale Paradaiso.

The Park came into being between 1952 and 1955 with the idea of bringing together all the monuments, pillars and stones which previously had been located on various private properties and were not accessible to the public.  The result has been an outstanding success.

The Roman part dates back to the 3rd century AD and the Amphitheatre (seen below) is the largest in Sicily at 140 x 190 metres, and it is recorded that the first performance of Aeschylus’ Etnean Women was performed here in 476 BC.  To avoid this turning into a history lesson, I shall leave the images, with captions, to speak for themselves.

Not only was the amphitheatre used for drama: political life was played out here too, especially the assemblies in which all citizens participated.

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

CC David Hill
Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

Whitehall Palace – Banqueting Rooms

MARI'S TRAVELS WITH HER CAMERA

To London last week with the British Guild of Travel Writers for our Annual Summer Outing which this year included a visit to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a tour on a Big London Bus and a Cruise on the River Thames with City Cruises, the boat that allows you to get off at any stop along the route.  The open-top bus tour and the river cruise took place in blazing sunshine and although London sights are familiar, the landmarks and historic sites never fail to thrill.

London Bridge

The Banqueting House is the last surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall*.   It was once the greatest palace of its time in Europe, almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698, but I knew nothing of its history until this visit.

The Great Hall © Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens…

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Whitehall Palace – Banqueting Rooms

Re-blogged because I have now accessed some images from Historic Royal Palaces which help flesh out the text.

To London last week with the British Guild of Travel Writers for our Annual Summer Outing which this year included a visit to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a tour on a Big London Bus and a Cruise on the River Thames with City Cruises, the boat that allows you to get off at any stop along the route.  The open-top bus tour and the river cruise took place in blazing sunshine and although London sights are familiar, the landmarks and historic sites never fail to thrill.

London Bridge

The Banqueting House is the last surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall*.   It was once the greatest palace of its time in Europe, almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698, but I knew nothing of its history until this visit.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens at the Banqueting House. The ceiling canvases were commissioned by James I’s son, Charles I, in 1629-30 to celebrate his father’s life and wise government. They represent the only scheme painted by Rubens to remain in its original position

The Banqueting House was created for King James I in 1622 by architect Inigo Jones.  Inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Rome it was revolutionary at that time, standing it is said, head and shoulders above the ragbag of buildings that composed Whitehall Palace.  At the time of which we are speaking, a banquet was composed of little snacks and desserts, eaten after the main course when diners were waiting for the entertainment to begin, and was consumed in a separate little house or room, highly decorated and situated a short walk away from the main dining hall in order to aid digestion.  The Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace was the biggest and grandest of them all.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the ceiling of the Great Hall.  The canvases were commissioned by James I’s son, Charles I, in 1629-30 to celebrate his father’s life and wise government. They represent the only scheme painted by Rubens to remain in its original position

It was during the reign of King Charles l that the magnificent ceiling paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (which today can be viewed from comfortable leather cushions laid on the floor) were installed.  Under these ceilings over 400 years ago, royalty and courtiers, ambassadors and aristocrats took part in some of the most exuberant and decadent masques every performed; today it is more likely to be celebrities and fashionistas who parade beneath the sumptuous ceilings as The Banqueting House has proved a popular ‘Events’ venue.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great throne in Banqueting House and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li.                                                                                                                   A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens at the Banqueting House. The Banqueting House is the only remaining complete building of Whitehall Palace, which served as the sovereign’s principal residence from 1530 until 1698 when it was destroyed by fire. Designed by renowned architect Inigo Jones for King James I and completed in 1622.  It later became the scene of King Charles I’s execution which took place on 30 January 1649

* Whitehall Place was for many years the property of the powerful Archbishops of York, who needed to be close to the monarch.  The first was built in 1241 and was originally known as York Place, passing through time to Cardinal Wolsey who extended it greatly.  As we know, he was deprived of his properties by Henry VIII who took it over in 1530 when it became Whitehall Palace.  Two great fires saw the destruction of Whitehall Palace, the first in 1691 and the second in 1698 when it was almost totally destroyed.

Opening times: Monday to Sunday 10:00 – 17:00 (last admission 16:00).                Admission:  Adults £5. 50   Concessions £4. 60:    Children 5-15  £0

What follows are images of London taken from the top of the Big Red Bus.

The following are pictures taken from City Cruises boat which carried us from Westminster Pier down to the Tower of London and beyond, passing some very innovative architecture whose positioning evoked some heated argument amongst us, as well as the always sombre Traitors’ Gate leading into the Tower and almost certain death.

 

Dr Samual Johnson said, “…..when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”   Even after the long gap in time, I agree with him, every word.

 

In the Footsteps of The Impressionists

Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France.  The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.

Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.  With these aids, their style of painting could now evolve and they were able to paint ordinary subject matter outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds.

Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur.    As we stood facing the church from the opposite side of the square from where Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls.  But Monet had painted many rain-washed scenes of the Cathedral so that was good.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Rouen
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen

The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why so many were painted in the rain.

Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages.  Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century buildings, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.

Joan-of-Arc-Place
Place Joan d’Arc, Rouen

Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine.   Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.

Honfleur 4

It is here that Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement.  Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint on to wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours.   Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.

Honfleur

The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another to the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.

The scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille
This is my picture of a scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille 

A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next.   Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace.  To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France.   Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.

The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat where the spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village.  They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves:  they came also to paint the beach scene, for Etretat was a fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.

La Porte d'Aval with L'Alguille (needle)
La Porte d’Aval avec L’Alguile (needle)

(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre).  From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.

Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.

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The Beach at LeHavre 

Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known.  Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses.   Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum.  The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.

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LeHavre 

I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine.  If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints.  Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.

Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement.  Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.

Notes:  I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings.  It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).

If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.

Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.

Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture.  The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.

My favourite putti
The Playful Putti

Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city.  The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple.  Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.

Cherub from Serpotta's stuccoes

I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli.  As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place.  It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.

Notice the devil above the statue
Two allegorical figures sit ledges while all around are figures, faces, leaves, fruit.

Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.

In his use of stucco, he created a new art form.   Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.

Icons

One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.   The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.

Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls;  life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.

End Wall of Oratory.
The Battle of Lepanto panel. Below the ship sit two boys, one Christian and a victor, the other an Infidel and a loser in the battle, but they are alike in their sorrow.

Above Lepanto scene - one cherub foot missing, one crying, one supporting
A less-happy trio of cherubs, one has already lost a foot, one is supporting him and one is crying.

These could be today's urchins in Palermo
These could be today’s urchins from the streets around Palermo, clothes, stance, everything. In the middle the detritis of war.

The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.

Centrepiece on a wall

The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity and the last major engagement fought between more than 400 rowing vessels.  A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras.   Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.

I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays in this work, an anti-war sentiment, or if not anti-war then a compassion for the enemy unusual at that time.

Window wall with playing cherubs

The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls.  It was originally famous because it held a masterpiece by the great Caravaggio, a Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609),  but this was stolen in 1969.  It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered.  It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.

In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.

And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.

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*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze,  This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble.  Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.

Address:  Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo.    Tel: 0921 582370