Thursday, January 24, 2013

Then the angel sang his melody

Somewhere between the Medieval Climactic Anomaly and the Little Age Age a nineteen-year-old and not-yet-sainted English king had the notion to found a chapel at Cambridge as a pendant to that of Eton College near Windsor –– a chapel, one of the quieter glories of English Perpendicular architecture, roofed with the largest fan vault in the world, which I had lectured about but never visited. 

Sometime after the beginning of the Age of Global Warming, the Celt and I stepped out of the family car into horizontal rain that, in essence, is winter on the fens of East Anglia during the dark days before the equinox. Loathsome weather but, somehow, masochistically nostalgic.  

We were there for the Celt's brother's fiftieth birthday party – a surprise for the brother, a family reunion for the Celt, and a chance for me finally to visit the College roial of Oure Lady and Seynt Nicholas or as it is more generally known, King's College, whence each year is broadcast the Celt's favorite radio programme of the season – A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.     

"They are buildings of extremely simple exteriors and plans, but with plenty of masterfully executed decoration. The contrast is especially poignant at Cambridge. To design this long, tall, narrow box of a college chapel no spatial genius was needed. There is no differentiation at all between the nave and the choir. The decoration is repetitive, the same window tracery is used twenty-four times, and so is the panel motif for the fan-vaulting. They were rationalists, the men who designed and enjoyed these buildings, proud constructors, of a boldness not inferior to that of the Catalans. Yet they succeeded – and here we are faced with the same problem as in the contemporary German churches – in combining this practical, matter-of-fact spirit with a sense of mystery and an almost oriental effusion of ornament. Standing at the west end of the nave one can hardly think of the supreme economy with which this effect of exuberance has been attained. The fan-vault in particular helps, wherever it is used, to create an atmosphere of heavy luxuriance. Yet it is an eminently rational vault, a technician's invention, one is inclined to surmise. It originated from the vault designs of chapter-houses and their development into the palm-like spread of bunches of ribs towards a heavily-bossed ridge ...

"To translate the fan-vault from the small scale of a cloister into the terms of the height and width of a nave was, it seems, not risked before the later fifteenth-century. A little later, during the years of the sixteenth, the King's Mason, John Wastell, adopted the fan-vault for King's College Chapel."

Pevsner's beautiful, if dry, prose describes the building perfectly – but what he does not impart, rationalist that he is, is any sense of the atmosphere of the place – not that there was room to do that in a wartime paperback of around 250 pages.

Atmosphere, surely, derives from historical and romantic associations, but for me that day any atmosphere, romantic or not, was driven away by my wondering how long I could endure the cold inside the building and trying, as I shivered, to absorb what I could see of the roof – that great geometrical sacred grove, as it seemed to me, eighty feet above my head.

I sat, that afternoon, near the altar above which hangs Rubens' Adoration of the Magi, wrapped in overcoat and scarf, cap in hand (I'm old-fashioned enough to uncover my head in church even as a tourist), listening to the strange and genteel officialese used by people setting things up for the coming festival, and as the day turned from dark to darker there came a moment when the sun shone and the colors of the glass at my back flickered on the walls opposite – colors that only resolved into something recognizable once captured in a photograph.

A quiet glory indeed.

Quotation from An Outline of European Architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner, A Pelican Book, Penguin Books Ltd., first published 1943. Fifth edition, revised and enlarged, 1957.

The title of the post is from here: the Second Reading.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Pinterest of a book

I don't consider myself to be a "fan." I don't seem to have the ability to be passionate, to the nth degree, about much, if anything. I appreciate beauty and talent where I find it, but I rarely find it consistently – it's unusual for me, that is, to be so taken with a designer, or an artist, that everything they do delights me.

Thus, when I say that I am not a fan of Miles Redd, I don't want you to misunderstand me – I'm not not, I should say. I'm not anti-Miles Redd for some of his work I like and some of it I don't care for. Some of it is fun, bold, sassy, a clever pastiche, and some of it is trite, cute, derivative, and occasionally ridiculous. More style than substance in fact.

I am a fan of books, of course, especially books about decorating, so I was delighted to be lent a copy of Miles Redd's The Big Book of Chic. Well, it's certainly big and really makes a statement on the coffee table. But I must confess, leafing through what I can only describe as this tome, I came away unsatisfied. Rarely, I felt, have so many trees been slaughtered for so little purpose.

It's as if Mr. Redd had printed out his Pinterest page. Printed it out on lovely rustly cartridge paper, bound it in wonderful thick wrapped board, and finished it off with a glossy dust jacket courtesy of Assouline. But a Pinterest it remains – droll quotations, notwithstanding.

One half expects to turn the page and find two cute Labrador puppies in a basket, or a four-poster bed in a meadow of flowers ( Well, maybe Salukis would be more chic than Labradors, but you gets the idea.

I am a fan of books, as I say above, and the design of them (perhaps because my first degree was in graphic design) is of interest and concern. An agglomeration of photographs with a small amount of text is, in itself, no bad thing for not all interior design books need essays of pith and moment to accompany imagery – visuals that, sometimes, very clearly belie the text. Yet a book that is all imagery beyond a few words as an introductory chapter is somehow unsatisfactory – we are used to explanations and feel, and are, cheated if they are not there. Mr. Redd's book is more than that but when one is faced, for example, with images repeated as vignettes or with an identical image, but black and white, pairing the one on the opposite page the result cannot help but be unsubstantial and unsatisfying. I'd love see more of Mr. Redd's work and understand more about his design proces and philosophy, but sadly this book delivers neither.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An evening in Rome, an anniversary, fascist architecture, Simon Boccanegra, and a discount

"This place has been around for a few generations, and the marble-lined walls and tiled floors haven’t changed a bit. And the homey old-fashioned setting is one of the things I love best.  Settimio used to be in the back, but is no longer. His wife is though, working in the tiny kitchen, made of Cararra marble, making fresh pasta every day.

"When you go by Settimio it will look closed. They keep the doors shut, and often locked. They’ll let you in, maybe, if they like the look of you."

And closed it looked that wet and cold evening in Rome, a week or so before Christmas – we'd walked from the hotel near the Piazza del Popolo, through the Christmas market in the Piazza Navona, thronged with merrymakers – all seemingly clad alike in lustrous black padded coats – on over greasy cobbles, avoiding umbrellas and restaurant touts, weaving in out of parked cars and scooters – when we arrived at the trattoria recommended by Elizabeth Minchilli.

Determined as we were (when in Rome, etc) to avoid the tourist traps, we set out to have an authentic Roman experience. I know the word authentic is fraught with deceptions, but, notwithstanding, authentic was what we set out to find – and authentic is quite likely what we got.

The door was opened for us by a smiling woman who, surely knowing we were neither regulars nor, judging by our accents, Italians, called for the owner who thrust his head out of the door and let us in – I guess he liked the look of us – explaining as he did so that there was but one set menu. We settled in our chairs in a golden glow of Roman authenticity, marveling to each other that when we spoke Italian he appeared to understand us! So, was the food anything to write home about? Of course, especially if one were writing to nonna assuring her that her tesoro was eating well. Each course, simple both in nature and in presentation, was downright tasty, and much appreciated by two stranieri americani who, by the time they got up to leave, felt they'd had a genuine Roman experience – even to the politely expressed puzzlement from the owner when I asked for cheese after we'd finished our coffee. When it arrived it was not the hideously expensive, preciously presented gobbets dabbed about in quince paste or balsamic treacle of what is known as a "artisanal cheese plate" hereabouts – just a large wedge of excellent cheese on a plain white plate.

In Rome for a week–long, immersion Italian course (no English spoken, with each of us at different levels) after a trying half-year, we played at being locals – each morning setting out in overcoats with umbrellas, bags and books in hand, skirting the Piazza del Popolo; walking alongside the Ara Pacis in its Richard Meier-designed travertine envelope matching the stone of the nearby Fascist-era buildings bracketing the Mausoleum of Augustus; diverging from the Apple-Map-recommended route to walk across Piazza Navona where, one evening, we listened to Baroque music in Borromini's Sant'Agnese in Agone; stopping each morning to look at Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and then wending our way through the narrow streets – one teeming with young priests rushing towards us like a murder of crows; on towards Piazza dell'Orologio and past what became our favorite lunch place after school (Casa Bottega, a bar where we were given a discount because we were "cute" and where, later in the day, the best Manhattans were served) and up the five flights of stairs to class.

One morning, as we crossed Piazza Augusto Imperatore, looking again at the carved inscriptions from Mussolini's time, the Celt remarked that he quite liked the Fascist architecture we were seeing every day. I agreed, but pointed out that it is hard to disassociate architecture from those who commission it – something we discussed all the way to school – not that we came to any satisfactory conclusions.

The visual connection between Mussolini's early Modernism, the massive stripped remnants of ancient Rome, and Meier's Ara Pacis, is obvious. Eighty-plus years has softened the glaring newness of Fascist architecture in Rome, and perhaps its associations with Mussolini have also been softened – for who cares any longer? A few more years will erode the suspicion that the Museo Ara Pacis, as it now looks, is nothing but a chunk of the Getty Center translocated to Rome. Associations, positive and negative, all erode.

Finishing at two, as we did each afternoon, gave us time for a late pranzo, some exploring, a nap, homework, or an exhibition – one such a wonderful show, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, of Vermeer and his Golden Age contemporaries.

Vermeer's "The Allegory of the Catholic Faith" – unexpectedly Baroque – made me think that Rome with its multiplicity of saints and their miracles, for a pagan such as myself, is nothing more than an allegory for the survival of the old gods and goddesses.  Not my favorite of Vermeer's, this painting of a simpering rich gal who, hand on heart, heel firmly pressed on a terrestrial globe, gazes upwards like a silent-movie strumpet masquerading as a Baroque virgin. There is another interpretation, obviously, but one not necessarily less prejudiced.

Verdi's Simon Boccanegra opened the new season at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, with Riccardo di Muti on the podium and with wonderful sets – variations on a theme of Genoese walls and arch – by the husband and wife team Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo. One of the most moving operas I've ever seen. In fact, I almost shed a tear at the finale... almost.

Three years ago on Christmas Eve the head waiter in the hotel restaurant befriended us – he and his wife had lived in England for a few years – and on each visit we catch up with life, love, happiness, and Italian politics. I'd forgotten that I'd happened to mention that two weeks earlier had been our anniversary – forgotten, that is, until he brought a congratulatory wedge of tiramisu to end our final breakfast at the hotel. We've never had tiramisu for breakfast before, and let me tell you, it sure ain't a bad way to begin the day!

I am back to blogging after what I can only call a convalescence: long, slow and introspective. Being mauled by a black dog took the wind out of my sails for quite a while. I appreciate those of you who were kind enough to notice, and bear with, the hiatus.