Saturday 18 April 2020

1987 Italy

30.8.87 San Gimignano

The sort of place you could spend a lifetime in – looking at every stone: The Stones of San Gimignano. Every part of every building seems to have a history: like Venice, where every stone is part of its palimpsest.  Everything has been fitted over, on top of, together: you can see windows filled in, old arches, lintel lines, roof hips.  And the vertical rules.  The towers: they are the essence of rectangularity, verticality.  Medieval they may be, but time has not softened their edges.  It is said they were built partly because of noble rivalry: that pride endures.  They conquer all horizontals; they lift the town.

The faces of the buildings are ancient, timeless and modern.  Ancient in that they are old and crumbling, weathered; timeless because they suggest granitic immanence; modern because their rich textured patchwork looks like nothing so much as some modern art – a sort of cross between a happier Soulages, the Boyle family, and Giacometti.  You could easily imagine them as cut up and hung on cool impersonal museum walls.  This denies their substantiality: they could be all surface, albeit with a rich impasto.  The piazzas become like those Western towns built for films: all facade.  Except that San Gimignano is, through its massive stony solidity, anything but surface.

Towers mean bells.  And bells are perfectly suited to a stone city.  It is the perfect hard acoustic, sending off scads of sharp reflections.  And against that sharpness there is the sheer unplaceability of the bell's tone.  We tend to forget that although bells were for centuries one of the few instrumental sounds, that sound is of an impossible richness.  The overtones cause the note to shift and sway dizzyingly.  And the physicality.  No other musical instrument requires so much effort, total bodily input.  And the striking of the bell is brute force: a literal blow.  Which makes it easy to attribute something magical to the disembodied sound which ensues.  Thor's hammer.  Watch the bells in the bell-tower: they loll like huge puppies' tongues, languorous.  The sight is as hypnotic as the sound.  San Gimignano is built for bells.  

You need the blue Tuscan sky to define the towers: it acts as a perfect seamless backdrop.  With clouds or any blur in the air you would lose that unique edge.  And you need the piazzas.  The towers loom from behind buildings.  Without open spaces height does not exist.  

In its medieval purity, San Gimignano is like Venice.  Apart from the postcards outside the shops, there is little to disturb the illusion.  There are no roads, just streets.  Cars are practically non-existent – making San Gimignano uniquely quiet – like Venice.  But San Gimignano has something that Venice can never aspire to: hills.  It is built on a hill and its streets wind and wheel away, up and down, taking the buildings with them.   

From the tower: roofs, harmonious yellows and ochres – everything very flat.  Sounds rising up from the piazzas which form gaping holes in the sea of roofs.  The herringbone patterns of the bricks look almost too neat.  There is a violinist with accompanying tape: his clear, acidulous tones cut through the hum of the town sounds.  Roundabout, a patchwork of rolling hills and fields.  And trees – woods, forests almost.  This is another Tuscany.  From the tower: people's verticality is emphasised: as in Florence, from Giotto's campanile.  Towers of San Gimignano answer this.  But with very little sensation of height.  That comes inside: there you have the fragile metal staircase, which maps out height.  It is also possible to see through it – so you are more conscious of being suspended in the air.

This is Benozzo Gozzoli's town.

31.8.87  San Gimignano

In the early morning, the low glancing light catches the rough face of the main tower.  The surface boils with rock and its texture. 

Most people know the Tuscany of Florence.  Some perhaps know the Prato-Pisa-Lucca railway line.  A world of neat but midday-dead stations; hot and dusty; airless cities sweltering in the Po valley.  There is another Tuscany, a hidden Tuscany.  It lies to the south, among the rolling hills and mountains.  It is not a flat, arid plain shimmering in the heat; scrubby vegetation on one-street town along the main routes.  Fields are hunched shoulders of land, their coarse rich earth ploughed in huge gobbets of mud; from a distance they look like crops of boulders.  Gaunt square farmhouses like castles stand in isolation amidst the fields, the land cultivated to the doorstep.  The roads are quiet and wind endlessly around hills.  Trees abound.  And along the way, as you pass ridges, there are hilltop towns hugging the rise of the land, spilling down slopes.  Volterra is the king of these,  San Gimignano the queen.

There are two main piazzas in San Gimignano: Piazza della Cisterna, and Piazza del Duomo, secular and sacred centres.  In both you need to be an artist to capture them, or even part of them.  The windows are stacked three or four high; they form a kind of contrapuntal essay, with now one, now another voice dropping out.  As the threads of the windows move round the square, so the tonality of the buildings changes: rusticated stone, brickwork, crumbling plaster, dark green creepers; but just as a fugue will modulate and vary its themes, so the essential, organic unity remains.  It is squares like these which rudely expose the crass insufficiency and poverty of modern buildings.  First, they lack detail, and in particular the human scale; secondly, they arrogantly fail to acknowledge their older neighbours.  Such discourtesy always gets its comeuppance.

Towers need piazzas: but piazzas benefit from local towers.  As the sun moves round, great slabs of shadow creep across ground and walls, varying the scene constantly.  And generally, the old stone facades turn like flowers in the sun, changing their face in response to the shifting angle.  Especially when the sun is high: all the joints and scars of the bricks and stones are picked out as if with black ink.  The scars of seemingly impossibly high buildings, testimony to the other one hundred or so towers that have been lost.  The verticality of the towers is emphasised because their lines descend fully to the ground.  Just as the height of Gothic spaciousness in cathedrals was achieved by running pillars from floor to ceiling in one long swoop.

San Agostino has the simplest possible brick exterior.  It is in a small hot square which gives back the heat San Agostino radiates.  Inside comes as a delicious shock: cool, slightly suffocating air, the smell of old incense, old wood, old religion.  Gozzoli rules OK.  The frescoes of Augustine are extraordinary.  Nearly invisible – especially in the neck-craning upper regions, in the small apse behind the altar are certainly some of his best works, and in expression and humanity rarely matched elsewhere.  Above all, it is the faces which linger: so completely personalised and individual.  Timeless and thus modern, surely they were all done from life.  And Saint Augustine himself: a noble-looking man – not your usual bumptious self-righteous prelate, or wimpy proto-martyr.  Thus San Gimignano matches (almost) the great frescoes of Arezzo.

The cloister of San Agostino is delightful – so nice to come across living green in this stony place.  Even the park at the Rocca is poor stuff. Here there is a rich privet hedge, four majestic trees, and Mediterranean palm trees.  Birds chirrup – no hunters here – and there are even huge dragonflies.  

Details: the front-on staring at us; the man with a canker and boil; the small dog.  And the men have shaved – real men.  And the last San Augustine: I have never seen anyone look so calm and mature – except perhaps in Michelangelo.  

Songbirds' cages fixed permanently to the wall – like prisoners exhibited – just food and water, no shelter.

San Agostino's bells – two completely out of sync – like a holy Steve Reich composition – only better.  The way they tail off – then the long plangent reverb. 

Room with a view.  The sun has started sinking westwards: my room faces east, and is now in the shade and delightfully cool.  Before me, the wonderful patchwork of irregular fields.  A noisy cranking combine harvester finishes off a field – most have already been ploughed up for next year.  Others are neatly planted with rows of various bushes.  Now the familiar Da Vinci sfumato thickens, casting a deepening haze over the landscape.  This morning it was real mist.  The sun, rosy-fingered dawn, lifted through it, sending huge horizontal rays between hills.  It reminded me of Kashmir

A musical city – for buskers, anyway.  Violinists, flautists – and now a virginalist.  This one in the courtyard to Museo Civico.  A delightful place: herring-boned bricks, frescoes everywhere.  And also a performance artists.  With whited face, and to the accompaniment of a rather random recorder, a youngish lady strikes a histrionic pose – and holds it for several minutes.  Her main achievement seems to be keeping her eyes open.  Ah, all this easy symbolism in a city barely changed for 500 years…

Sala di Dante – a good presence helped by old wooden furniture.  Lippo Memmi, a terribly stern Mary in state, with flocks of unbending saints around.  Rather Spanish.  The sprung floors bounce delightfully: truly a spring in your step.  In the pinacoteca, various Byzantinesque numbers: one by the "master of Clarissa" quite fine.  Other bits and bobs: two by Filippo Lippi, an unusual separated Annunciation in two tondos; a very Peruginoesque Pinturicchio – with 'orrible disembodied cherubs plus two quite impressive figures, a pope and a saint.  A Benozzo Gozzoli – rather dark – but the men's faces are individualised again.  Otherwise just anonymous lot vaguely connected with San Gimignano: Sebastiano MainardiMemmo di Filippuccio (what a name).  

Best of all is Taddeo di Bartolo's polyptych with San Gimignano himself.  Confidence is not inspired by the first scene: "during prayers San Gimignano is forced to leave the church for a call of nature; the devil, who is waiting for him outside, is driven away with a sign of the cross".  Some saint.  His other miracles seem to be driving out the devil from the Greek Emperor's daughter, an apparition of the Bishop of Ravenna, Saint Severus, at San Gimignano's funeral, and a couple of salvations from Attila the Hun.  Still, San Gimignano is only a small city…

At the northern corner of La Rocca, an old woman has a tiny, tiny house.  Outside, she has a small lemon tree.  It is all totally picturesque.  When she comes out, she glares at the tourists who presume to peep into her life.  As the sun sinks, the furrows in the fields deepen and darken; the chaotic and coarse tiles on the roofs echo; the contours of the land show themselves more fully.  

Even down San Matteo, traces of former glory remain: the impressive, monumental remains of a palazzo, scarred by all the siblings it has lost around it.  From the tower of the Palazzo del Popolo: Via San Giovanni and its smaller siblings cut through the roofs like clear swathes to the main gate.  I'm the last down from the tower.  Bells ring, voices command.  A warm evening breeze stirs.  At the bottom, the virginalist is still there.  Typically Italian: an Avanti-PSI festival, held in the entrance hall to the town hall, Piazza del Duomo.  

The best rear view of the towers is from La Rocca, at sunset.  As the sun sets behind the high hill to the west of San Gimignano, only the flat gaunt towers catch the light.  They shine out like slabs.  Their grey stone picks up every hue, and gradually turns pink.  And with the night, the swifts come out, like something out of Leopardi, swooping elegantly and unoriginally in the air among the towers and palaces.

1.9.87 San Gimignano

A different sunrise.  The sun comes up as a cool pink disc, turning paler as it rises through the bands of invisible clouds.  Great pools of mist hang in the valleys, making the most distant mountains white.  Cocks crow, but unlike yesterday, there is no morning chorus of dogs.  Smoke rising from odd fires throughout the landscape produce a white, coarser veil.  

The dogs have started, as have the bells.  Obviously very religious, these dogs.  The sun is now an almost perfectly white, perfectly round disc.

Piazza Luigi Pecori – nestling behind the big tower, alongside the duomo – a tiny haven of pure peace.  Yet more buskers – a plangent guitarist, with a shrouded harp in waiting – is there no limit to the varied musicality of this place?  It must be the stone: a perfect acoustic.  The Museo Etrusco.  Signposts on squared notepaper.  Handwritten notes of explanation stuck on with sellotape.  Italia, a roomful of paintings by "ignoti" – who clearly couldn't paint.  Long explanations about the Etruscan collection – mostly to do with who the superintendent was, all in long, flowing, parenthetical Italian prose.  Il Duomo – a very Catholic church.  Every surface within covered with gaudy frescoes and designs.  The arches black and white like La Mezquita.  A big Gozzoli – San Sebastian.  

Can you know a town?

I have a problem with experience: too easily it feels like a memory.

2.9.87 Volterra

Volterra is as if San Gimignano made the mistake of growing up.  It has the same impressive position, the same sense of antiquity – greater, since the Etruscans were here for centuries more.  But it is a dump.  All the grace has been worn out of it: instead, it is dusty, hot and smelly.  It surveys the surrounding landscape wearily.  The old Palazzo dei Priori is impressive in its gnarled glory: the square that surrounds it is fairly squalid.  The old duomo is gaudy inside and unspectacular outside.  The poor old battistero looks woebegone and battered.  Even the great Etruscan gate is rather pathetic: four stumps of worn stone.  The main pinacoteca is similarly threadbare – but provides a wonderful ambience for the motley collection of paintings.  Below a certain level early Italian renaissance stuff looks gawky and lurid.  The best things there were two Signorellis; but even these looked ill-proportioned.

As it turned out, the heart of the city lay in its Museo Etrusco.  On three floors and filled with an enormous collection of funerary monuments, it is a testament to the scale of Etruscan Volterra – over three times the size of the present-day town.  But however wonderful they are, you can only see so many.  Questions arise too: why are most of the inscriptions in Latin?  And why Latin myths?  Perhaps the best thing there was L'Ombra della sera: a curious, very thin statuette – with a face of extraordinary frank and childlike simplicity.  The description – as of a shadow before you – is d'Annunzio's. 

3.9.87 Montepulciano

If Montepulciano is hell, San Biagio is clearly a vision of a perfectly-ordered heaven.  This masterpiece is so unexpected, its clarity such a shock after Montepulciano: it is like a perfect exposition of classicism.  Half pillars and pilasters, various cornices to the windows – and all done out in the amazing, pitted, living stone.  The campanile fits snugly into one of the Greek cross's gaps; it too is perfectly balanced, standing miraculously as if held by magnetism there.  Inside is less spectacular.  Things have been spoilt somewhat by the over-ornate decorations over the altar.  Like San Giorgio Maggiore, pure cool simplicity is needed for such a building.  Externally, everything is on a massive scale: even the triglyphs.  Everything is perfectly proportioned: double cubes and a square cross.

Where San Gimignano appears finite and knowable, Montepulciano is like some maze, a monstrous joke on the hillside.  Getting in is no problem – but getting out is.  There are no roads, just paved streets; few signs; and everything is steep.  A crossroad may present you with a choice of five narrow paths.  Imagine this place in the rain, at night.  During the day it was deathly quiet.

Montepulciano itself seems attractive enough – an imposing situation, a neat main square (Piazza Grande).  But it lacks the purity of San Gimignano.  The palazzo municipale is of the standard Tuscan design.  Its chief point of interest is the tower.  You can go up inside – if you dare.  No modern appurtenances: it was like climbing back 500 years.  Rotten wooden rails, crumbling stairs, little light, old bricks.  Wonderful.  And the whole things was free.  You just walked in – past all the administrative offices, and up the stairs to the top.  The duomo had a unornamented west front, a bit like San Lorenzo in Florence.  Inside it was cool, bare and simple.  The square outside looked very suitable as a scene for the music festival.  Opposite the church, a loggia by Sangallo – obviously the patron artist of Montepulciano.  Quite a nice building – except that the man put square columns above round ones – which doesn't work.  

From Montepulciano to Lago Trasimeno.  Unfortunately, by now the weather had turned entirely to heat haze, with thunder in the offing.  The lake itself is not particularly impressive.  The surrounding hills are more so – though rather obscured.  The general effect is of an enormous pond.  But pleasant enough to have a cappuccino or two by.

For the drive back, mostly mini-motorways – no crash barrier, which is disconcerting – especially as I passed one car which seemed to have managed to end up on the wrong side.  Soon the rain came.  Great big splodges of it.  This suddenly made all those boring signs about "pericolo in gelo o in pioggia" terribly relevant.  My entire route seemed to be filled with them.  But worse was the lightning.  This was none of your namby-pamby British "one clean bolt and let's call it a day".  This stuff forked around the sky – horizontally even.  And I was climbing up the landscape in my little tin car.

I obviously made it, but it was interesting.  As was the view from my balcony when I got back.  The eastern part of the Tuscan hills from San Gimignano were laid out before me.  A huge thick pall hung over it.  Great nets of lightning – often multiple – flickered over it all like a serpent's tongue.  You could see how myths were formed.  It looked like El Greco's picture of Toledo.

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