Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Lo scoppio del carro (the exploding of the cart), Firenze

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Ack! I only have terrible photos of this very exciting event that takes place every Easter Sunday in Florence. Do click on the link below to see some phenomenal vintage photos of what happens.

First, let me say Happy Easter to everyone, the believers and the non-believers. And Peace to the world.

Vintage photos on the site of l’Unita’ Italia.

Up-close photos of what happens, in La Repubblicca.

I’ve posted about this before, but a favourite and curious Florence event is that which takes place on Easter Sunday in the Piazza del Duomo. It’s not because of its origins in the return of a Florentine son from the First Crusade, but rather because of its colour and drama that it appeals to me.

According to tradition, it was a Florentine who first scaled the walls of Jerusalem. As a gift, he was given three flints made from wood of the Holy Sepulchre. These flints were retained by the family (Pazzi) for many centuries, but now are preserved in the tiny but lovely church SS Apostoli in central Florence.

The cart that you see above in my grainy television photo and that is shown at the links, is stored in a large opening between palazzi on the road leading to Prato. Whenever we pass it G gestures towards the doors and says, nonchalantly, “That’s where the carro is stored!” What one actually sees are curious, ten-plus-metre high wooden doors (portone) between houses that conceal the space. What else would belong there!?

On the morning of Easter Sunday, the 9.1 m tall cart that has been in use for about five hundred years moves from its storage location to the piazza in front of the Duomo of Firenze, Santa Maria del Fiore. It is pulled by a team of glistening white oxen garlanded with colourful spring flowers and herbs and accompanied by an escort of soldiers and musicians and others in Renaissance dress. The cart has been greatly restored over the years as a result of the use it has undergone and some damage that occurred during the great flood of 1966, so I honestly have no idea how much of it is original. Nevertheless, it has the appearance of something at least a couple of centuries old. (Aside, my German friend didn’t believe me that they use the actual antique cart and light fireworks near it, but that may signal some differences between the Italians and their northern neighbours. ;))

At the Italian Wikipedia site you can see some detail of the decoration of the carro.

The carro makes a first stop at the chuch of SS Apostoli where the flints are used to light the holy fire that is then paraded to the Duomo by, among others, clerics and municipal officials. Historically, the descendants of the family of which the crusader was a member also participate in this ritual, although I am not sure if this continues to be true. I’ve also read that the carro also stopped at the home of the Pazzi family at one point.

The colombina or dove is a mechanical dove that is rocketed from the choir in the cathedral at the beginning of the singing of the Gloria during Easter Mass. A fuse in the colombina is lit by the Cardinal of Florence with the Easter fire and then the dove speeds along to the cart to light the fireworks that it is laden with. Honestly, I’ve never been close enough to see the intricate workings or the moment of contact of the dove with the cart in person, as the crowds are overwhelming, but watching it on tv this is clearly what happens (photo at the top was snapped from the television two years ago, as it was cold and raining and I didn’t want to fight the crowds for hours with my umbrella).

I found the following short video on Youtube which I really like, as the person took it from inside the church as the colombina was being lit with the holy fire. Note that the bells of Giotto’s Campanile are ringing all the while. The declarations of the videographer are priceless:

Other videos show the actual exploding of the fireworks and various ensuing dramatic presentations by the many costumed persons in attendance. I’ve read that historically the event served to provide insurance of a good harvest and a good year.

The event is a lively and cheerful one and definitely not something that we have here in Canada. I always remember Easter Sunday as a very formal event, with a church service and then a nice dinner at my grandmother’s house…and maybe an Easter egg hunt if I was well-behaved!

Speaking of formal, one thing that always surprises me in Italy over Easter is that Good Friday is not a holiday. It’s a regular work day. For us it is a much more important holiday. On Easter Monday, which the Italians call “Pasquetta,” people go with their families to the countryside to picnic or to visit with friends and family. It’s quite informal but very pleasant. In the past, G.’s mother has made an exquisite lasagna – delicate handmade pasta and flavoured with the best ricotta and homemade tomato sauce. She is able to make less and less now as a result of both her advanced age and her health issues, unfortunately, so G.’s sisters have taken over.

The endlessly fascinating surface of Santa Maria del Fiore, where this event takes place.

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My favourite is the recently restored fresco of the Annunciation:

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Never lose your childish sense of wonder

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Bicycle with a pot of lilies on the front, Florence, 2013.

In the morning, in the gleam of a hundred hopes, almost shimmering with impatient expectation.

~ Rilke

I had a little adventure today. I’d seen a teak chair and table that appealed to me in front of a shop last week. I went back with my friend today to buy the chair and the table (my friend also bought a chair and a table). The man who owns the shop was just delightful to chat with. He was probably in his mid-50s, but all I noticed was the way that his bright blue eyes gleamed with life and enthusiasm for life.

When I was younger I often used to have my wrists slapped (not literally) for having spirits that were somewhat too high; emotions too close to the surface. When I was a little girl I played the piano, as had my mother and grandmother. I felt so attuned to the music that I would sway and move my mouth as I played, but I was always reprimanded or gently ribbed for doing so. I also remember being reprimanded for demonstrating the Charleston to a friend of mine on the subway, even though the subway car was empty and I was disturbing no one.

Now that I’m older and I’ve figured out that there is nothing wrong with me, nothing to be ashamed about, and that one can still be a person who meets societal expectations of success AND publicly demonstrates exuberance I ask myself why we so often try to restrain the bubbling joy that comes from that childish sense of pleasure and wonder at the beauty of things. Is it that other people don’t feel these things so acutely, on average, or is it that we’re supposed to be embarrassed by these feelings? I’m not talking about stripping down in public or making noise close to residential housing late at night. I’m talking about expressing the “wow” and the “thanks” and the “I hear you.”

In any case, today was lovely, and my friend clearly enjoyed it. He spends way too much time in his head and he was drawn out by this man, who had travelled widely in his home country. It was a moment of lovely connection.

I’m almost embarrassed to post a link to the following video, because it has been circulated widely on the Internet and has been all over Facebook, and it’s corporate-sponsored film (by Vodafone) but if you haven’t seen it and you’d like to see childish wonder on the face of an exuberant older woman as she rides a roller coaster (so much like my own grandmother!) and then takes a plane for the first time, do watch this. There’s a great study in contrasts between the two women in the video as well. It made me feel less alone and even more willing to expose my joy on a more regular basis!

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
  

Thursday vintage hodge-podge: sewing, knitting, vintage photos, Charles Dickens in Pisa and Carrara

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Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s display, Gilli bar, Firenze, spring 2012

Unfortunately, this has been a very difficult week and as a result I have not had time to put into developing a post. That said, I’ve been thinking about many interesting and lovely things, in part to moderate the sadness in my surrounds, and so I thought it worth posting a selection.

I know that Audrey Hepburn was a lovely woman and a modest person and that the focus on her physical beauty fires the ire of many feminists, but even she would have admitted that she loved fashion and to look lovely…I am always cheered by photos of her. I remember reading once that Roland Barthes, the French philosopher (do read Camera Lucida if you have the chance, for a compelling read about photography) said that her face had been “an event.” That expression has remained with me. It’s not her beauty so much as the energy that she emanated in photos and on film that attracts, I think. Not that I pay much attention to celebrities in general, but I have the impression that these days celebrities mostly pose for photos with horrible pouts of their botoxed lips, angling towards the camera to show their figures at only the most slimming angle. Audrey Hepburn even had charmingly crooked teeth.

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The ascent to Piazzale Michelangelo, Firenze, May 2012

In fact, when I carry this umbrella à pois, I feel a little bit Audrey and more than a little bit 1950s-60s. It brings a swing into my step. (Note sketchbook sitting on the stone wall. Or maybe that’s my Italian study book…)

More umbrellas; thick flow of foot traffic from the Uffizi:

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Superstition has it that rain on one’s wedding day is lucky, no?

Speaking of fashion, for the sewists out there, I was personally drawn into Sarai of Colette’s Wardrobe Architect series over the past weekend. I’ve already sketched out the “capsule collection” that I’m going to sew this summer. Fortunately I have a very well-defined style and tend to be a practical rather than a fun sewist, so it’s more or less business as usual (think Audrey Hepburn in anything, Jean Seberg in Breathless and Audrey Tautou in Delicacy for direct inspiration; that’s all I have posted on my Pinterest Wardrobe Architect page). That said, drawing out what you are going to do makes it all seem real, which means that hopefully my queue of projects will actually shrink over the summer (!?!). Although come to think of it I still have a sketchbook of knitting designs that I haven’t brought to fruition either…

Speaking of which, for the knitters out there, I’ve just discovered that Kim Hargreaves has released a new book: Honey. I love everything about this – from the colour palette to the styling to the fact that she used a relatively voluptuous model (or at least one with hips) who has the most wonderful eyebrows ever (very Audrey Hepburn, wouldn’t you say?). I applaud Kim for employing a model with a shape! Now if only we could start seeing natural-looking women in their forties and fifties in publications (i.e. no hair colouring or cosmetic treatments, etc.) I would be very happy. I do not have much shape myself, especially in the hip department, so I say this in genuine appreciation of a healthy, curvy figure. I do, however, have some grey hair and carry those with pride!

Vintage photos:

A friend of mine, knowing that I love vintage photos, sent me a couple of very nice links from the Guardian this week, including this one. The photo of 1838 Paris, known as the earliest reliably dated photograph of a person (Blvd du Temple, by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre) has been a favourite of mine for a long time. I desperately want to know who that man was and what he was doing on the street at that time. Why is he so intriguing? I don’t know. I suppose I like the fact that he’s taking a stroll all by himself, unaware that he was being watched by Louis Daguerre. Was it the early morning? There’s something lovely about the public privacy of an early morning stroll before the city awakes.

This second article articulates very clearly why I love to look at vintage photos. It is in the seemingly inconsequential details – the vibration of life captured almost inadvertently, isn’t it?

And if you are not familiar with Edwardian street fashion or the Retronaut site (I wasn’t), you are in for a treat here. I adore the photos of the ladies walking and reading at the same time. It could be…yesterday with people walking down the street staring at their phones rather than at other people…except that these ladies are reading actual books! (Of course they might be reading trashy novels. I forgive them. The alternate possibility that they are reading suffragist tracts is even more fascinating.) My favourite of the ensembles is on the stern girl in the striped blouse in London, on the left in the paired photos about half-way down. I also like the strolling children in Paris.

The Art of Looking:

I read this very long but rewarding piece on Brainpickings the other day and very much want to share it: The Art of Looking. It describes a book by Alexandra Horowitz that documents her travels around a city block with 11 different experts, to learn more about what she was missing by viewing her city block through only her personal and professional lens rather than through other frames of reference and/or sensibilities. It’s a wonderful reminder that there is infinite interest and variety to explore even very close to home!

That said, travelling far afield is also very enjoyable…to stare longingly at shoes in shop windows.

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Ballerina flats and ballerinas col piccolo tacco in my favourite (affordable) shoe shop in Florence: Gilardini

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Of course there are also shoes available to suit other, ahem, tastes…

Finally, I read an interesting piece by Charles Dickens the other night, chronicling his journey in 1844 from La Spezia in Liguria (northwestern Italy) to Rome (Pictures from Italy, 1846). The description of marble excavation in Carrara is compelling and disturbing to say the least:

But the road, the road down which the marble comes, however immense the blocks! The genius of the country, and the spirit of its institutions, pave the road: repair it, watch it, keep it going! Conceive a channel of water running over a rocky bed, beset with great heaps of stone of all shapes and sizes, winding down the middle of this valley; and that being the road – because it was the road five hundred years ago! Imagine the clumsy carts of five hundred years ago, being used to this hour, and drawn, as they used to be, five hundred years ago, by oxen, whose ancestors were worn to death five hundred years ago, as their unhappy descendants are now, in twelve months, by the suffering and agony of this cruel work!

…When we stood aside, to see one of these carts drawn by only a pair of oxen (for it had but one small block of marble on it), coming down, I hailed, in my heart, the man who sat upon the heavy yoke, to keep it on the neck of the poor beasts – and who faced backwards: not before him – as the very Devil of true despotism.

…Standing in one of the many studii of Carrara, that afternoon – for it is a great workshop, full of beautifully-finished copies in marble, of almost every figure, group, and bust, we know – it seemed, at first, so strange to me that those exquisite shapes, replete with grace, and thought and delicate repose, should grow out of all this toil, and sweat, and torture! But I soon found a parallel to it, and an explanation of it, in every virtue that springs up in miserable ground, and every good thing that has its birth in sorrow and distress. And, looking out of the sculptor’s great window, upon the marble mountains, all red and glowing in the decline of the day, but stern and solemn to the last, I thought, my God! how many quarries of human hearts and souls, capable of far more beautiful results, are left shut up and mouldering away: while pleasure-travellers through life, avert their faces, as they pass, and shudder at the gloom and ruggedness that conceal them!

And finally Pisa (tower at the far right):

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The moon was shining when we approached Pisa, and for a long time we could see, behind the wall, the leaning Tower, all awry in the uncertain light; the shadowy original of the old pictures in school books, setting forth “The Wonders of the World.” Like most things connected in their first associations with school-books and school-times, it was too small. I felt it keenly. It was nothing like so high above the wall as I had hoped. It was another of the many deceptions practised by Mr. Harris, Bookseller, at the corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, London. His tower was a fiction, but this was a reality – and, by comparison, a short reality. Still, it looked very well, and very strange, and was quite as much out of the perpendicular as Harris had represented it to be. The quiet air of Pisa too; the big guard-house at the gate, with only two little soldiers in it; the streets with scarcely any show of people in them; and the Arno, flowing quaintly through the centre of the town; were excellent. So, I bore no malice in my heart against Mr. Harris (remembering his good intentions), but forgave him before dinner, and went out, full of confidence, to see the Tower next morning.

….Nothing can exceed the grace and lightness of the structure; nothing can be more remarkable than its general appearance. In the course of the ascent to the top (which is by an easy staircase), the inclination is not very apparent; but, at the summit, it becomes so, and gives one the sensation of being in a ship that has heeled over, through the action of an ebb-tide. The effect upon the low side, so to speak – looking over from the gallery, and seeing the shaft recede to its base – is very startling; and I saw a nervous traveller hold onto the Tower involuntarily, after glancing down, as if he had some idea of propping it up. The view within, from the ground – looking up, as through a slanted tube – is also very curious. It certainly inclines as much as the most sanguine tourist could desire. The natural impulse of ninety-nine people out of a hundred, who were about to recline on the grass below it, to rest, and to contemplate the adjacent surroundings, would probably be, not to take up their position under the leaning side; it is so very much aslant.

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Opposite the Pisa Normale:

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On the face of the Pisa Normale:

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Cathedral view at sunset

And my shadow standing before the tower:

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Happy Easter weekend!

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Laundry

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s-227-99 Half way police post with Mounties washing clothes Yukon 19021906

Half-way post with Mounties doing laundry, Yukon Territory, 1902-06. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB. Note sign above door of cabin that reads “Woman wanted.”

Call me crazy, but I enjoy doing laundry and maybe especially laundry by hand (handknit sweaters, delicate blouses, knitted socks)! Saturday is typically my laundry day, when I spend the morning washing and hanging and revelling in the freshness of clean sheets that will soon go on the bed. Sundays I iron my shirts, and even that I find meditative…Maybe I’m a little bit strange…The work that these ladies did was undoubtedly more onerous (the latter two, especially).

na-4172-28  Marge ALlen hanging laundry on line red deer ab 1919

Marge Allen hanging laundry on the line, Red Deer, AB, 1919. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-2607-2Mrs Laura Gardiner doing family luandry Porcupine Hills AB 1896

Mrs. Laura Gardiner doing family laundry, Porcupine Hills, AB 1896. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

What a hat for doing laundry!

na-3731-8 woman doing laundry balzac area ab 1905-06

Woman doing laundry, Balzac AB area, 1905-6. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

When I lived in South Korea I was fascinated by the lightweight, highly-portable laundry machines that you could pick up with one hand/arm and that hooked up to the bathroom tap. The one that we had had a separate, narrow centrifugal compartment that practically dried the clothes completely before they were ready to be hung on the balcony. I’ve always remembered that washing machine and wondered why we have such monster machines here (in general).

In Italy, of course, I find myself looking up at small balconies laden with laundry drying and ingenious contraptions folding out from apartment windows.  I don’t know why I haven’t taken any particularly nice photos of laundry in Italy. Perhaps it’s because there is something rather intimate about a family’s laundry hanging out of a window and the family is still by far the central unit of Italian society. You can read the story of a family through its laundry.

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Courtyard. Florence, Italy, 2012.

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Alleyway, Italy, 2013.

Yesterday, I took the bus to a fabric store to buy some zippers and do some general exploring. A man got on the bus with a garbage bag full of beer cans and bottles. He was clearly collecting them to earn some extra money, and as the man was relatively young I wondered how he had ended up in those circumstances. When he opened his mouth he was missing more than a few teeth.

An older, neatly-dressed man with a beard moved to the front of the bus to await his stop and the young man spoke up: “Nice to see you again.” The older man didn’t seem to know the younger man, who said, “I remember you from years before, from X shelter downtown.” They proceeded to have a gracious conversation about how each were now living in apartments provided by the city, rent paid, and how they were appreciative and that things were going well. When they parted they shook hands. An older woman sitting nearby grimaced and moved back a few seats. I can only speculate what she was thinking, but not everyone is keen on people who are being supported by the state. I have to admit that I always feel differently when I see people like this, as I feel strongly that as a society we have an obligation to help its weakest members. These men had a dignity about them, imparted at least in part from the pride that they seemed to have in sharing that they each had their own apartments now. It’s difficult to know what happened to these men earlier in their lives that robbed them of a strong enough will to make an independent life for themselves. One can only hope that by offering them some respect and dignity they will eventually be able to do something more.

Yesterday evening I started looking at photos of laundry in the archives. Beyond the expected photos of women, I came across photos of working men doing their laundry in the west, as we as a country were opening it up. Many men went west as bachelors, to make their lives and their fortunes. Others left the east to work in the west and returned to their families only infrequently. They were forced by economic circumstances to be independent. Some may have even been content living such a life. Anyhow, before I continue playing amateur sociologist, I’d like to share some photos.

The Canadian west and north-west, late 18th and early 19th centuries:

Cook washing his clothes on half-day off during round up in Belly River area ab 1900

Cook doing his laundry on half-day off during round up, Belly River, 1900. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-3304-17 EP Brown, railway surveyor doing laundry in wheel barrow 1905-07

E.P. Brown, railway surveyor, doing laundry in wheelbarrow, 1905-1907. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

na-2206-8 Canadian Pacific Railway conductors relaxing and doing laundry 1910s

Canadian Pacific Railway conductors relaxing (!) and doing laundry, 1910s. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-1789-4.Bill Herzog washing clothes, left; Roy Erbe churning and making bread. Pigs running around in foreground. 1910-03 Delia area abjpg

Bachelor cabin: Bill Herzog doing laundry, Roy Erbe churning and making bread, pigs running around, Delia area, AB, 1910-13, Glenbow Archives, Calgary AB

(I especially like that Roy is making butter!)

And he looks happy:

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Man doing laundry outside cabin in NWT, 1933. Member of Royal Canadian Signals. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

nc-43-10 bachelor washing clothes, Beynon AB 1893

Bachelor washing clothes outside cabin, Beynon, AB, 1893. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB, 1903.

na-4035-191Man doing laundry on ranch in southern AB

Man doing laundry on ranch in southern Alberta, n.d. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Of course, Chinese laundries began to crop up in the west, and women soon arrived to do the work.

na-1978-1 Wong Yet store, Olds, AB 1904-5

Wong Yet Star Laundry, Olds, Alberta, 1904-5.  Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-2041-1laundry day on Wyman's farm near bon accord ab 1916-1919

Laundry day on Wyman’s farm near Bon Accord, AB, 1916-19. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

One more bachelor for good measure!
na-483-5member of survey crew doing the laundry grande prairie ab 1909

Member of survey crew doing laundry near Blackie, AB, 1909. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

 

Letters; penmanship: twenty to six

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Chère petite maman…pour toi mille bon baisers..à Samedi sans faute” (Vintage (Parisian) post card purchased in Arezzo, Italy)

I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.

~Christopher Hitchens

I came across that quote scribbled in one of my old notebooks after posting my first letter in a long while just the other day. It wasn’t a long one and it wasn’t written to someone I know well. It was a letter to an elderly woman I met on a plane a few months back, who asked me to write to her. I complied.

She had said that she would write first, so I had trustingly given her my home address as we filled out our customs declarations cards on the final leg of our journey. I had suspended my suspicion and any paranoia we’ve grown to have about strangers who want to know where we live. It took a while, but I received a card for Easter from her the other day and I promptly replied on a piece of pretty Florentine stationery with an envelope with matching print on the inside. I included a poem about April flowers by a poet I’d never heard of but encountered in the Edith Holden journal I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve been writing regular morning pages in longhand lately, with a trusty lined pad of paper and an ordinary ink pen. I’ve used up three pens in just the last three months alone. I hadn’t written longhand in years and I’m finding the process of reclaiming that skill an invigorating one. When I don’t write  – and now that I write this it sounds foolish and obvious – my hand muscles become unaccustomed to writing, my handwriting deteriorates and my hand tires when I’m forced to do it. Now I have fluidity again and the writing style I had as a young girl is starting to appear again.

Do you ever look back at old samples of your handwriting? When I was a girl I was obsessed with mimicking my parents’ handwriting and signatures and I would stare at them and practise them for hours (not for forgery purposes, although I do believe I once (or twice!) forged a note to the principal in high school, accounting for my late arrival). Rather, I was fascinated by what my parents’ handwriting said about them. My mother’s handwriting has always been upright with somewhat wide and exuberant loops, and at the same time spatially neat and restrained, controlled; as though she’s measuring each word as she goes along. She was the one who always wrote the gift tags from Santa and I don’t think I was ever fooled after the age of about six. My father’s handwriting was more traditional, for lack of a better word: sloped and long and elegant, as one imagines finding in old letters written with a fountain pen. The “G” (his unused first name was Garth) in his initials was ornate, calligraphic. Their handwritings were from the opposite sides of the spectrum, as were they, which is not always the worst thing. Except when it is. :)

When I was younger and I wrote actual correspondence more often I remember trying very hard to write prettily. I felt it said something about me if I were too slovenly to take care with my penmanship. Many a page was spoiled and then rewritten until I was satisfied with the note. Now, because writing is so uncommon I am not sure what to think of the penmanship I am reclaiming. A moment ago I grabbed a page I wrote this morning to examine it and it feels unreserved. It slopes to the right and there is a certain regularity to it but it is also expansive – as though it is hopping and skipping along as I was wont to do in the April sunshine this morning. It’s maybe the release that I need in a long dark winter involving lots of passages and waiting for passages from life. The end of life (others’, not mine!) is so constantly present in my sphere at the moment that I can easily remind myself of the joy of being smack in the middle of my living each morning. I open my eyes and every breath is a “wow!” and a “thank you!” and a “lovely to be here.”

I went through a long period of intermittent deep sadness in my twenties, which I didn’t understand until well after I had finally conquered it, although its cause was natural and obvious. I remember seeing a counsellor for a brief moment when I was in graduate school and desperately anxious and what has always stayed with me is his extremely compassionate and considered piece of advice: consider this to be a kind of a gift. I knew what he meant then and I know what he means now, because there’s real power and beauty in knowing – palpably knowing – how to see the gifts in the challenges of every day. It took me a long time to learn the techniques of self-sustenance but without the dark I don’t think I would have grown to understand its inverse so profoundly. I’ve read a theory that depressives (e.g. Lincoln, Winston Churchill) make good leaders because they tend to see things more realistically than do less untouched persons. I don’t know if this has scientific validity but on an intuitive level I like the theory.

I’m not sure how I circled from penmanship to melancholy and back out of it again, but there’s an arc to these thoughts that means something. I find I connect to myself on the written page in a way that I do not always do on a computer (although here I am). I felt genuine excitement as I reached into my purse the other day and found the neat envelope I had addressed to that woman and posted it. Well worth the $1 postage! I don’t know if she will enjoy the letter, but the sending of it felt like a good thing. She was a blustery sort with somewhat fixed opinions I thought but she wore a hot pink feather boa and had spiky blonde hair, despite her years (I didn’t mention that part, did I?). I am not entirely sure that she will appreciate the poetry of Mr. J. Kemble, waxing enthusiastically of ladyslippers and larkspur, but I can’t help but think that a pink feather boa hints at poetry. My father was personally reserved and orderly, precise in his scientific work, and yet he wrote poetry, of which I have none, unfortunately. I cling to the hope that there is a little bit of poetry in everyone, even if it only appears in the form of “I am writing to you at twenty to six, this Sunday in 1912.”

What do you think?

Speaking of poetry, perhaps you know this wonderful letter by Kurt Vonnegut to a high school class.

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A post about something…I think

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rosemary hedge at dusk, Vinci Italy, 2012

I’m trying to post fewer posts that are more or less about nothing than my day-to-day quasi-artistic meanderings. That said, I’m also trying to feel less guilt about posting about my meanderings because what is a blog/online diary other than a means to share lovely things and the creaky, squeaky process of navigating a life? Ultimately, that’s why I’m here in this space and perhaps so are you.

I ought to get out of the house more, I think, which is difficult for the introvert in me, as at times life begins to feel like a process of working, eating and sleeping… repeat, as I wait to be reunited with G after a long winter. I shouldn’t complain really, as I live down the street from my best friend of fifteen years, who also happens to work in the same building. We walk home from work together almost every evening, which is a nice opportunity to stay connected (squabble like old married people).

Last night we went to see a film along with his partner and with another girlfriend, which is a welcome change of pace. The film that we saw is an Indian film called “The Lunchbox” and I highly recommend it if it comes to a theatre near you. The premise is that the dabbawallas (who provide a service delivering hot lunches to office workers in the city of Mumbai) mistakenly send a lunch intended for a woman’s neglectful husband to another man. The “other” man is a lonely widower on the edge of taking early retirement and expected to train his replacement.

It’s a kind of gentle epistolary romance, as the woman and the other man begin a conversation by note, but it’s restrained and the pace of the storytelling is sufficiently slow that it doesn’t feel terribly manipulative. What I liked is the sense of authenticity in the sets and costumes, in that when the lead character is cooking her stove is dirty with drips and stains. When the male protagonist is working he is working in a dingy office with exposed light bulbs and heaps of paper files. These people are easily credible as people down the street from where you live, with the same disappointments and quirks.

In perhaps my favourite scene, there’s an exchange by letter in which the male protagonist speaks of his memories of watching his deceased wife watch cassettes of her favourite old television programs, her reflection on the tv as she laughed at jokes she had heard a thousand times and he repaired his bicycle on the balcony. He says he wishes he had spent more time looking. I cherish the fact that as a species we take the time to write and sometimes to speak things like this in the form of art. I am not any different to any other human being in wanting to share the universal experience of beauty and connection but through the specific ways in which those experiences come to me.

I hope you’re enjoying spring. It has finally come to us. There are no flowers yet but the sun is bright and clear and determined and I am persuaded that there is no turning back from here! In any case, I can’t be far off as the latest I ever remember seeing snow here is April 30. Of course, records may be broken.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

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I remember clearly the first time I ever stood in the Piazza della Signoria. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before or since. I’d been to England a couple of times – in fact I’d just run the London Marathon for the second time – and I’d travelled through Belgium and France by train, but this was different. The sensation that washed over me was one of intense marvel that I was actually there, finally, in that place I’d dreamed of so intensely. I was a kind of pilgrim and I knew it.

I’d arrived in Rome by plane from a friend’s apartment near Brussels and made a beeline from the airport to Termini station to immediately catch a train to where I wanted to be: Florence. I’d dreamed of Florence from the age of thirteen and there was not going to be any substitute. It was Easter and the high-speed trains were full of families on holiday, so I settled for a milk run route through the countryside and a fold-out seat in the corridor of one of the older-model trains. I squeezed my backpack under the flip-seat and sat staring out the window as the train began to move, rocking from side to side. The windows in the corridor were half-open and the cool spring air and smells of the city were seeping in. It was glorious.

Along the route, there were poppies growing in every crevice of the rail tracks and in the many cracks in the stone walls that we passed. Italians were opening packages of food and distributing panini and other treats among their families. Everything bore a festive air. I was going to Florence. I was going to Florence! The long train ride was a bit like the wonderful suspension that one can feel on a plane, in the air over the ocean, while everyone else is sleeping for the most part. I remember many long trips over the Pacific to Australia and Japan and Korea and Hong Kong in which I waited in the dark for the moment that we crossed over the spot where below sat the Marianas Trench, or the International Dateline. There’s something electrifying and also tenderly sensitizing about being above or between, if only for a few hours. The facts of life as I am is living it in that moment crystallize into something so clear and so pure that I am convinced I will do better when I arrive than I have done before. The risks I dream of taking seem affordable somehow; the facts of love and destiny so expansive.

The Loggia dei Lanzi sits on one side of the Piazza della Signoria, directly opposite the entrance to the Piazza della Signoria (city hall) and at one side of the beginning of the Uffizi galleries. I don’t even know how many metres are contained in the rectangular space, but on New Year’s an orchestra sits in the loggia and plays a concert. That big!

That said, the loggia has always felt to me like a kind of living room. When I’m there I like to climb the stairs and take a seat on one of the stone benches to watch the people come and go, and to feel the space around me. By day, the piazza is nearly always full of roving packs of tourists and their guides, but fewer venture into the loggia. There are usually vigili standing guard in an informal way (to tell people not to eat or drink in the loggia), but often they are otherwise engaged in conversation with passersby.

The Loggia dei Lanzi (also known as a the Loggia della Signoria) was built between 1376 and 1382 by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti, and formerly misattributed to Andrea di Cione (Orcagna), the brother of Benci di Cione (I believe, though don’t quote me!). It began as a space in which dignitaries could watch important festivals taking place in the piazza (I’ve also read that it was built for purposes of swearing-in ceremonies, or for delivering proclamations, but that public unrest often meant that these official activities didn’t take place). When the Uffizi galleries were built there was a rooftop terrace added. The Loggia bears the name “Lanzi” as a result of the Swiss pikemen (the “Lanzi”)  of Cosimo I, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, being stationed in the loggia in the 1500s.  It’s rendered in a gothic style and the material I’ve read seems to suggest that it predicts later Renaissance architectural masterpieces such as Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti, which is probably my preferred building in the entire city. As you know I am not an art historian and my interest in writing is to describe the impact of the space on me, but that gives you a flavour of the history.

The sculpture garden in the loggia is also a notable feature, apparently first dating to the temporary ouster of the Medici family in 1494. My understanding is that the Florentines had moved Donatello’s statue of Judith and Holofernes from the Medici Palace to the piazza to symbolize the end of the reign of the Medici (Judith is decapitating Holofernes). When, in 1554, Cosimo I placed the commissioned Benvenuto Cellini statue of Perseus beheading Medusa in the loggia, he may have been doing so as a warning to his enemies. (See the bronze to the far left in the photo at the top.)

While the history and the sculpture in the loggia are fascinating, it’s the feeling of the space that I like to reflect on. In the photo below, which I took in the spring of 2012, on an ordinary weekday, you can get the sense of what it is like to sit in the space. Although entirely of stone and marble, it’s not a cold space; on the contrary, it’s a comfortable place for a conversation or to sit and sketch.

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The Rape of the Sabines (1579 to 1583), by Giambologna (a Flemish artist better known by his Italian name), is an impressive serpentine sculptural group designed to be viewed from multiple angles (far right, above and below).

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Close-up:

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Also Giambologna (Hercules and the Centaur, 1598 or 1599):

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I like this photo because it gives a sense of the light that emerges from the corner of the loggia facing the beginning of the Uffizi galleries:

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Nighttime projection of a ballet (cue the music of Tchaikovsky, who also was resident in Florence for a period and a lover of the city):

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Has a particular public space moved you greatly?

PS:

A fascinating sketch of the Cellini statute of Perseus by John Singer Sargent on the Met Museum site.

George Eastman Company photo by Giorgio Sommer, 1880, of the Loggia dei Lanzi.

 

Exuberance and whimsy

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Nothing in my world even remotely mimics the verdance of the gardens of the villa in this photo, which I visited near Lucca, Italy, two years ago April. That said, I feel filled with the exuberance that comes with spring, as nature begins to poke its head out again. On my way to work I hear the twittering intensity of birds anticipating a great melt of snow. The crocuses are lying in wait beneath the detritus left by a positively glacial winter.

Yesterday, I told my boss that I was going to step out for an hour or two in the morning, as the sun was shining and dirty slush was sliding in rivulets towards the street, muddying everything. I stood in a line of people of all ages, waiting for a high-speed bus on a direct route to Little Italy. There, I visited my favourite fabric store. I spent an hour collecting zippers and thread and chatting about coat-making with the lady clerk. It was a wonderful moment of selective absenteeism from the requirements of life that I more or less never take, a way to honour the legitimate coming of spring.

A propos of nothing pertaining to spring, I found some exuberance and whimsy, too - in fact some poetry - in these photos from the 1940s by Stanley Kubrick last evening. I’m not sure exactly how I came across them, as one tends to fall through a rabbit hole on the Internet, doesn’t one? I am particularly captivated by the woman striding confidently away in the polka-dot dress and the shoe shine boys.

Springtime in Italy (where I am not, but will be fairly soon):

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This sonnet just popped into my mind, probably because Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in Florence and I like to visit her gravesite in springtime. I memorized many of her sonnets in my early twenties and this was among them:

Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through,
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Time ticking

I must be officially in a mid-life crisis, or veering towards one :), because I find myself attracted to movies about older people evaluating their lives and finding them wanting - La Grande Bellezza, Le Week-end – and speaking of the latter, was greatly touched by this line from a Peter Bradshaw review in the Guardian that I read today:

Meg and Nick are finding that as they get older, mother nature has played a cruel trick on them. As well as the persistent twinges and pains and agonies of physical decay, they find that they are still poignantly interested in life, interested enough to yearn for more, and to be therefore intensely dissatisfied with themselves and with each other as time runs out, and to find they are still sufficiently compos mentis for this to be almost intolerably painful.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: 70s feminism, Edith Holden, a kind of independence

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I was a weird teenager. Saying that I realize is a bit like that Tolstoy saw about every unhappy family being unhappy in a different way, but I was honestly a bit weird, even for a teenager. On the one hand I participated in math competitions and on the other hand I gobbled up books like this, which someone gave to me when I was about twelve:

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In my teens, I also read biographies of suffragettes and early women pioneers and statespersons and inhaled books by Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence. When I look at it now, it’s evident that I was searching for evidence that women could be more than wives and mothers. Being a wife and mother is great, but I knew from the age of about nine that that wasn’t what I wanted primarily from life and I needed role models.

My mother was a woman who was comfortable being a wife and mother first, so I wasn’t going to get the inspiration there. Through my twenties her main preoccupation was with me getting married, which I assured her I would not do any time soon (or at least not until I had explored the world and sorted out my place in it). At one point she even asked me if I might be a lesbian, given that I had many art photos that were paintings of women on my walls. I pointed out to her that almost all celebrated painters through history were men, so they tended to paint females as models of beauty…ahem. There was eager anticipation with each new boyfriend, but she finally began to believe me when I broke up with my university boyfriend at the end of my 26th year. He was everything anyone would want in a spouse, but I could see the future and I knew I would be bored with the life that he aspired to. So I ended it. As I walk to work I often reflect on that decision as the most important one of my life – the one that gave me the freedom to be and become who I wanted to be. And of course had I chosen differently then I would never have met G., who is my perfect partner in life and adventure. I’m so glad I took the path less trodden and I wonder sometimes from whence that conviction in me came from such a young age, against the tide of opinion from my mother and also my beloved grandmother.

The seventies, when I was a little girl, were a strange time. I had a strongly feminist aunt, my mother’s sister, who was thirteen years younger than my mother and caught up in the sexual revolution and in the feminist ideals of the period. I wished for a mother who was a modern career woman and who could introduce me to the world of woman career power, but at the same time there was always a whiff of something slightly dangerous, licentious and emotionally unhinged about my aunt’s version of feminism. I was unsure. In fact it wasn’t until I got my first professional job that I found my mentor: a ball-busting pioneering female diplomat who had made her career in difficult posts in the developing world. She had the single most powerful influence on my career and life of any woman before or since, because she pushed me to the edge of my abilities. She gave me challenging projects beyond my then-position and did not accept hesitation or self-doubt on my part. She emboldened me and gave me the conviction that my abilities were worth something. If in doubt, find a mentor!

Now of course I recognize that my mother did what was right for her, given her personality. Apart from fourteen years as a stay-at-home mother, she was for some years a kindergarten and music teacher, always telling me both that there were two choices for women in the fifties – nurse or teacher - and that she was fine with that as she loved being a teacher. I used to argue at great length with her about women only having the choice of being a nurse or a teacher, as evidence in my own family contradicts this, but my mother was deaf to this. I take a gentler view of this attitude now than I did when I was younger, as I (hopefully) take a gentler view of my mother and her own life struggles.

So Edith Holden. I am not related to Edith Holden. Edith Holden was an English woman, artist and art teacher born in the Victorian period and who grew up in an unconventional family, studied art and was an eager student of nature. She married late (age forty) to a sculptor many years her junior, which was not an approved-of choice at the time. She died in an unfortunate drowning accident at age 48, in 1920. The country diary is a painted naturalist guide that she prepared not as a personal journal but as a teaching tool for her students. It’s lovely.

I don’t know if Edith was particularly feminist in her leanings, but I have noticed that an undercurrent of my writings in this space is to celebrate women who made choices outside of the approved boxes. Ultimately, it’s about being able to fulfill one’s potential, whether or not that is inside or outside of the home or both. It’s the willingness to choose one’s own path that attracts me, even if one expects sanction from the outside world, which is more often true if a woman chooses not to be a wife and mother first. I yearn to see that jewel of clarity about one’s creative purpose that some have and that for others proves elusive.

So the diary. Even looking at the watercolours of April flowers and insects gives me joy, while it snows outside my window. My best friend just called me to tell me that he is “watching snowflakes.” I imagine him sitting with his nose pressed to the window, as my golden retriever used to do.

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Oh how the spring of love resembleth/The uncertain glory of an April day!/Which now shows all the beauty of the sun/ And by and bye a cloud takes all away. ~Shakespeare, as quoted by Edith Holden

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I can’t vouch for all of the facts on this page, although it seems to be well done, but if you scroll to the bottom of the entry you will find more of Edith’s lovely watercolours. Enjoy!

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