Monday, 21 December 2020

Winter solstice and light

 Today marks the winter solstice of 2020, the shortest day of the year and the longest night in the Northern hemisphere. There would normally be celebrations at Stonehenge by modern pagans and modern Druids, the only time when people are allowed inside the monument, which is looked after by English Heritage. This year thanks to Covid19 no one could  congregate at Stonehenge but English Heritage live-streamed the sunrise, which you can see in the video below.

This year the solstice is very special because on this day there is an unusual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, apparently merging to form a very bright star. In reality, they continue to be billions of kilometers apart, it is an optical phenomenon, due to their alignment. This is an effect known as the 'Christmas star' and it happens every 400 years or so. 

The solstice marks the absence of light and its gradual return  - the sun 'dies' today but it is also reborn. From today onwards, days will get longer till the summer solstice in June which marks, again in the Northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year , with a  'mature' sun (in the Southern hemisphere it is exactly the opposite). The deep spiritual meaning of the solstice is precisely this rebirth. All is dark, but newborn, newly gathered energy will shine forth, allowing us to make changes and proceed on the path to enlightenment. We must not fear the winter of the soul, it marks a new beginning for us.

It has been a difficult year for most of us, because of the pandemic. It has also been, personally, a difficult year for me, with tantalising, unfulfilled  promises and enforced containment. I can but look forward to a renewal. I love the Tarot, which is part of Western esotericism,  and its deep symbolism - I would choose two cards for me: Death and the Sun. They are cards I shall reflect upon in the coming  weeks, hoping to get some insights (on the Tarot I shall soon post separately).

The whole month of December is marked by celebratory moments in which spiritual enlightenment is hinted at. On December 13th Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is celebrated in Sweden and in Italy too. It seems that according to the pre-Gregorian calendar December 13th was, in fact, the day of the solstice. Santa Lucia is the day of illumination. Christianity appropriated a likely pre-Christian  tradition. The iconography of Santa Lucia (Lucia was a Christian martyr whose eyes were torn by her torturers) is that of a beautiful young woman with a pair of eyes on a platter. Those eyes symbolise illumination, a Christian concept roughly equivalent to the Eastern enlightenment.

On the day of Santa Lucia (Lucia was also my mother's name) a friend of mine sent me a message which included the Hannukah lamp and which I took very lightly, saying I did not celebrate Hannukah being a non-Jew and saw no connection. I was  tut-tutted  for my superficiality. The connection is Light. My friend told me that December 13th meant much to him, precisely because of the spiritual meaning of light.

 In a way we could say that throughout December light, its absence and its return are variously celebrated by different festivals. Even Christmas is a celebration of light, as baby Jesus is the light of the world.

As we come to the close of 2020, I can only wish that 2021 may be a year of deeper insight and growth for all of us.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Being young and growing old

 By most of us, ageing is still perceived as a downward spiral - and in many cases it is, when one's health is bad - I personally hate seeing images of my late mother when she was ravaged by her illness and have made it a point to collect pictures of her in which she can be seen in her glorious youth.

I recently had a spat with a friend because after telling him I wished I had the same emotional engagement I had when I was twenty-three, I asked him what he missed the most about his youth. He regarded my question as being a bit daft. 'Why I miss being young, it's obvious". No, actually it is not obvious. A lot of people think of their youth as a period of intense suffering or hardship and are happy to have overcome it. Some other people, like me, do not wish for a younger appearance - I like myself and my body now, though I wish my knees were a bit stronger and that it did not take me so long to warm up when exercising.

Children by Lana Jo

 But I miss the intensity of the feelings I had when I was twenty-three. I was very much in love, back then, the kind of love that envelops you, and makes you wake up every day feeling intensely happy and thinking that life is indeed most wonderful. It was my own experience of love, not the relationship itself - to be honest, my then-partner was happy to be with me but did not feel the same intensity and a couple of years later we split up. 

I never felt like that again - of course, I have loved many more times, but never with that all-consuming passion that I felt back then. And that is what I associate with my youth, a freshness in the way one approaches interpersonal relationships, the sense of wonder one feels concerning the world. 

Perhaps feelings about youth and growing older are best expressed by the poem 'After a while', attributed to Veronica B. Shoffstall but which is apparently a part translation of Jorge Luis Borges' 'Aprendiendo' 

After a while you learn the subtle difference,
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning,
And company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts,
And presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept your defeats,
With your head up and your eyes open,
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child.

And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn,
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth,
And you learn and learn,
With every goodbye you learn.

There are grace and beauty in growing older, and we should aspire to the serenity of old age even while appreciating the turbulent passion of youth. And those of us who retain a sense of wonderment and a child-like quality even in their older years, are blessed.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Podcast for Sabinna and interview for Jakarta Fashion Week 2021

I am unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, here, thus this will be a short post. 

Yesterday 25th November, Sabinna. com released a podcast on ageism, a discussion of ageism in fashion, with myself, Venus Apovo and Jacynth Bassett.

You can listen to it on Spotify and also on Apple Podcasts.

Yesterday was also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020.  Journalist Julia Suryakusuma has written a piece for The Jakarta Post,  of which she is a regular columnist, to mark the day. It can be read on my Facebook page.  If you are using beauty products containing palm oil (or even food) , it might be a good idea to think of the conditions in which the women that work in palm oil plantations, where exploitation, including rape, is rampant.

Finally,  I am really happy to share the video recording of my interview with Subkhan J. Hakim, managing editor of Dewi magazine, for Jakarta Fashion week 2021, which started today. 

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The colourful exploits of a beautiful Renaissance aristocrat


Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala

You may be familiar with Gina Sanseverina, the Duchess portrayed by Stendhal in his masterpiece, The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), a novel  praised in turn by Honoré de Balzac, Lev Tolstoy, André Gide and Henry James, as groundbreaking.  It seems that Stendhal's inspiration for the character of Gina was Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala, a Renaissance woman for whom the celebrated poet Torquato Tasso (he of The Jerusalem Delivered, 1581)  composed a  theatrical prologue, and passionate sonnets, a woman of great beauty known for her ability to stage elaborate games, involving masquerades and more, in the spirit of Renaisssance court  entertainment. That the games included bedroom antics is to be taken as a given. The Duchess of Sala behaved rather freely and was a most charming, refined, sophisticated companion. Renaissance court life was lascivious, and a noblewoman's ability to entertain at all levels was highly prized.

Gigliola Fragnito

In a new biographical account, the Italian writer and academic Gigliola Fragnito, a specialist of this period, author of countless studies  and of a  biography of Clelia Farnese, set in Counter-Reformation Rome, tells us the story of Barbara Sanseverino, her penchant for and ability to entertain, her love affairs and, most of all,  her tragic death by decapitation, on a charge of lèse majesté, due to her alleged participation in a conspiracy against the ruling Duke of Parma, Renuccio.

Fragnito has a personal investment in presenting to us the multi-faceted, unconventional Duchess of Sala. From her mother's side, Fragnito is a Sanseverino of Bisignano, a branch of the family. Barbara Sanseverino, from the Caiazzo side,  had no issue, thus Fragnito is not a direct descendant. But Fragnito was always greatly fascinated by the Duchess, and indeed wrote the book while staying in a small house located in the grounds of the Palace, currently belonging to the Caiazzo family. Thus, as she says, she wrote in the knowledge that whenever she went for a stroll in the beautiful gardens she treaded on the Duchess' steps. 

Among the women of the day,  Barbara Sanseverino shone for her beauty and her ingegno (wits), living a life of unusual independence from male control and always willing to push boundaries. Several princes were infatuated with her.  Energetic and resourceful, she was a first-class reveller and an indefatigable organiser of games, which were indeed all-important at court.

As for her role in the conspiracy, this may have well been inflated, bolstered by her ludic persona. Her death was marked by indignity. The executioner failed to kill her instantly and had to change weapon, the crowd demanded that her dress be lifted and the executioner slapped her naked bottom before using a smaller axe, normally employed for animals - there was no guillotine (a French invention)  in those days. 

Severino was a pioneer and paid a high price for her freedom. As  Fragnito says,  in the sordid conspiracy affair she was a  loser,  above all, for her challenge to social conventions, despising all conformism,  and adopting behaviours that did not suit her gender within the rigid constraints of her time. It will be a longtime before  a woman will be  allowed to cross the boundaries of the narrow perimeter that social norms had assigned her and that Barbara Sanseverino repeatedly overstepped. 

This was her real crime. Today, we salute her as a strong-willed woman who asserted her independence at a time when most women had none.

Gigliola Fragnito La Sanseverino. Giochi erotici e congiure nell'Italia della controriforma  Bologna, Il Mulino, 2020

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Gentileschi and other Italian women painters of Renaissance and Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Head of Holofernes'

Before the second lockdown, I was fortunate enough to be able to view the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery. It's a great exhibition, which of course cannot be seen at the moment, but hopefully the Gallery  will reopen to the general public when this lockdown is over. 

Of Artemisia Gentileschi I have written in several blogposts, such as this one (you can do a search for the others) thus I will not repeat myself. A friend I met at the exhibition -  did not recognise him at first, it is difficult when people wear masks - wondered whether there were other famous women painters prior to the 19th and 20th century. Was Artemisia an exception? She was definitely very talented, a star among painters, but no, she was not unique. There were other women in Italy and beyond, who painted. The point is that art history books have,  by and large, been written by men - or perhaps I should say were - so it took a while for female talent to be acknowledged. 

Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self Portrait '

But women were indeed very active as painters during the Renaissance and the Baroque. In Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (1997) with 'picturing' meaning both women who painted and women as they were represented in paintings, a number of art historians of both genders discuss the phenomenon of nuns as artists, and noblewomen as patrons, and write about the celebrated Lavinia Fontana, a Renaissance painter from Bologna, daughter of a painter, who achieved fame for her portraits of nobildonne, gentlewomen, to whom she had privileged access, by virtue of being a woman. The volume highlights the role played in early modern Italian culture by women as subjects, producers, patrons and viewers of art.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque is the title of an exhibition held in Washington DC in 2007. I did not see it, but I have with me the catalogue with a number of illuminating essays. The exhibition comprised the work of 17 artists, starting with the 15th-century abbess Caterina Vigri, from Bologna and ending with Elisabetta Sirani, also from Bologna but separated from Vigri by two centuries and painting in a very different style. The others are Properzia de Rossi, Eufrasia Burlamacchi, Plautilla Necchi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lucia Anguissola (her younger sister), Diana Scultori (aka Ghisi), Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia, Lucrina Fetti, Chiara Varotari, Elisabetta Cattanea Parasole, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia e Giovanna Garzoni. All these women were figlie d'arte - daughters of art - in other words, born in a family in which painting and sculpture were the main activities. They showed talent and began to receive commissions, but their work was always regarded even by themselves as 'that of a woman', except in the case of Artemisia. In her interactions with patrons and would-be-patrons, she emphasised that hers was  a male brain (and talent) in a woman's body.  It was this perceived extraordinariness that valorised these artists' work, the underlying principle being that women, as women, could not produce excellence. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Detail Birth of the Virgin 

I am particularly interested in the women painters who made work in Naples and the South of Italy. We know that Artemisia Gentileschi was most productive when she established her bottega or atelier in Naples and we also know from art historian Ornella Scornamiglio of other women painters from Naples and surroundings such as Mariangela Criscuolo, Luisa Capomazza, Annella De Rosa, Caterina de Julianis. These are women mentioned in passing in works that discuss known male painters and one wonders about the many others who collaborated with their fathers or husbands and whose work is now lost. 

Elisabetta Sirani. Portia wounding her thigh

As Scornamiglio writes, Rosalia Novelli, Mariangiola De Matteis, Angela Maria Beinaschi, Cristina Beltrano, Angela Siscara, Angela Mansini, Elena Recco are almost totally unknown. Nothing is also known of other daughters of painters,  even in the case of the daughters of  Artemisia Gentileschi and Teresa Del Po, nor do we know of the pupils of Mariangiola Criscuolo or of Sister Maria de Dominici and many more.  The Neapolitan Baroque saw the rise of practitioners from the whole of southern Italy, among them De Rosa, Ribera, Giordano, Solimena who are regarded as part of the Barocco Leccese - but of the women of their household who worked with them, as that was the practice at the time, nothing is known. 

Why do we want to know about women artists? Clearly to redress the balance and understand that artistic talent should not be gendered, without denying that issues of gender do affect visual culture and in turn the visual culture of a given time is affected by them. 


Thursday, 5 November 2020

Alice and Peter Pan: take 2

Alice in the 2010 movie

I have been writing this blog for so long that I sometimes forget what I have written about.  As I began this post about Alice and Peter Pan,  I realised halfway through that I already wrote about them ten years ago. Not to worry, this is going to be a complementary post. 

In the intervening years between my two posts, Peter Pan as a character got a bit sullied by the association with Michael Jackson, whose ranch was called Neverland and who identified with Peter Pan. His alleged paedophilia was discussed in Leaving Neverland (2019).  I am not going to add to that discussion, it really does not pertain to this post. 

I would like to point out, at the risk of stating the obvious,  that Peter Pan has nothing to do with paedophilia, even though there have been allegations that Barrie, author of the famous play (which then became a book), had a sexual interest in young boys. Similar allegations have been made about Charles Dogdson aka Lewis Carroll, in connection with his photos of a seminude Alice Liddell, upon whom the Alice of Alice in Wonderland is based.  But as Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, comments  “the most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual” and this would be in line with the Victorian idealisation of children and childhood.

The existence of a so-called Peter Pan syndrome (not a medically acknowledged one) also turns Peter Pan into a rather unsavoury character, whereas I would like to think of Peter Pan as a free spirit. Forget the syndrome and the charges of immaturity. You can interpret Peter Pan in a more positive key. A good friend of mine, who is in fact a responsible person,  definitely not lacking by way of commitment and maturity, tells me that he feels, in his heart of heart, like a teen. A Peter Pan, in other words, as he is a free spirit, a bit of a rebel, someone who tries to live in the moment and does not worry too much about the future. For him, life is for living and experiencing and there should be room for improvisation and the unexpected, rather than plan everything in the minutest detail.

Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

There is no reason for believing, that Peter Pan could only be a boy -  traits such as those described can also be easily applied to girls.

Do I then identify with Peter Pan? No. In my case the character I identify with is  Alice, from the celebrated Alice in Wonderland.  Alice is curious and embarks on an adventure in search for knowledge and identity. Through her journey she matures and grows; she is a young woman with agency, unusually so for a Victorian girl.  

Wonderland is not Neverland. It is none other than the mad world of adults. In Wonderland, Alice learns to be herself. When she says 'you are nothing but a pack of cards' Alice displays her autonomy and agency. Alice teaches you how to go through life, approaching it with curiosity and inquisitiveness and making up your mind about who and what you encounter. It applies to me at all levels. Even my penchant for research, as an academic,  is Alice's style curiosity.  

My favourite Alice quote?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” How very true.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The 40 rules of love of Shams al Tabrizi


A page from The Works of Shams Tabrizi (‘Dīvān-e Šams-e Tabrīzī’reblogged 

It is with some trepidation that I write about Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī and his spiritual master  Shams al-din of Tabriz, as there is already so much material available and written by people with a more in-depth knowledge of Persian poetry than I have. 

 However, Rumi is not just a Persian poet, he transcends boundaries. Nowadays he is one of the most quoted poets to be found on the internet, everyone seems to have read snippets of Rumi's poems. There are websites with the 'best quotes from Rumi', and you can even get them by email every day if you sign up.  New Age gurus have appropriated Rumi, divesting him of his Islamic cultural roots, as pointed out by Rozina Ali in a 2017 article in The New Yorker.  There was even a Hollywood movie planned in 2016 about Rumi, with Leonardo Di Caprio favoured for the role - it sparked a controversy about whitewashing Rumi, but Di Caprio's agent issued a disclaimer.

There are interpretations of Rumi's love for Shams al-din of Tabriz as being homosexual physical love,  which of course have been amply rebutted.  Rumi and Shams were very close, and Rumi addressed many of his love poems to him, feeling bereft by his disappearance, when Shams was no longer to be found, possibly murdered. But their relationship was based on a spiritual bond, underpinned by Shams' allegiance to Sufi ideals of ecstasy and divine love, which he passed on to Rumi. In any case, what does it matter if they were lovers? Shams inspired Rumi who went on to be a true poet from being just another religious scholar, as a result of his meeting with the much older mystic.  Shams unlocked the poet in Rumi.  

A midsummer night's dream by William Blake

Here I cannot help thinking of another great poet and supreme playwright who sang of love, from a different tradition, that is, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's  sonnets were addressed to a young man, variedly identified by scholars.  Sonnet 20 holds some vital clues as to the sexuality of the narrator, William Shakespeare himself. 

Love was also the subject matter of another Shakespearean work A Midsummer Night's Dream and despite the comedic format, there are disquieting undertones and a depiction of the clash between dream and reality. 

(Titania's infatuation with Bottom should be a point of reference for all women  who dreamily fall in love with unsuitable men, only to wake up from their 'slumber' and  find out they have been  loving someone who was uttterly unreal. It happens to men too). 

Rumi has often been compared to Shakespeare. Some scholars have found similarities between Rumi and Shakespeare, the common thread being the influence of Neoplatonism on both.  But there is no direct connection between them even though some writers have been at pains to demonstrate that Shakespeare had read Rumi.

Source: Iran Territory

But back to Rumi and Shams in particular.  Shams Tabrizi formulated 'The 40 Rules of Love', also the title of a contemporary novel by Elif Shafak, soon a Netflix series, which focuses on the transformation brought about by love, interweaving the narrative of Rumi and Shams with that of an American housewife, part-time literary agent, who falls in love with Zahara, the author of a manuscript about the Persian poet that she had been given to appraise. Shafak intersperses the rules throughout the book.

The rules were elaborated after the two men spent a period of 40 days of intense meditation in a cave. There are beautiful Persian miniatures illustrating the 40 rules, it is a subject matter that has been amply exploredin this genre of painting. 

 Rule 11 particularly resonates with me.

"The quest for Love changes users. There is no seeker among those who search for Love who has not matured on the way. The moment you start looking for Love, you begin to change within and without".

As I said,  there is much you can find on the internet about Rumi and Shams Tabrizi from scholarly  works to blogposts.  The blog Iran Territory (link above) lists them all. 
I would recommend you do your own search. You will find something written about Rumi and Shams that speaks to you. 

Monday, 5 October 2020

When 'polemical' becomes synonymous with 'tendentious and somewhat shoddy'

I am a bit late in joining the discussion, but having finally read Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age. The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) and a significant number of its reviews,  I feel compelled to add my comments. Nixey's book is definitely engaging though a tad controversial.  It continues to sell steadily, having now been translated into five languages - you'd hardly believe its subject matter would be so popular, but there you are!

I got hold of the book after a good friend of mine,  greatly interested in this historical period,  having read it in its Italian translation, mentioned it in conversation. I am not a historian by training - I am an art historian - nor do I have in-depth knowledge of this period of history but if you mention to me an interesting book, I am game, I will read it. Moreover, Nixey discusses,  among others,  Hypatia of Alexandria, the famous philosopher and mathematician of antiquity whose fictionalised story found its way into a movie, Agora (2009),with the wonderful Rachel Weisz in the title role. As an aside, I will add that about four years ago I modelled for a painting of Hypatia. It was the artist who gave me the DVD of the movie, so that I could devise some appropriate poses for the portrait. Unfortunately, that painting was never completed, so I missed my chance of being immortalised as Hypatia.

Catherine Nixey is a journalist, not an academic, though she read classics at Cambridge University and taught in schools for a while. Her book, her first, is a polemic essay, a point that must be borne in mind when reading it and when wading through its many reviews. Nixey argues that Christianity is largely responsible for  the crumbling of the classical world and its culture.  Early Christians showed a high degree of stubborn stupidity and total inability to appreciate philosophical arguments; they destroyed and destroyed. The parallels with Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS, responsible for the destruction of Palmyra, in Syria,  are obvious. The book actually begins with a very evocative description of Palmyra being torn down by fanatic Christians, just like it was in 2015 by fanatic IS militants. 

The style of narration is idiosyncratic. Nixey is relentless in her condemnation, she hammers her point home with constant repetition and after a while, it gets rather tedious. You begin to wonder why the argument has not been nuanced, why it has to be drilled into the reader that Christianity was highly pernicious and that the tales of Christian martyrdom were largely fabricated by overzealous bishops.  

Then as Choam Goldberg notes in his Italian blog, one spots a couple of factual errors, particularly with regard to the library of Alexandria and you, the reader, begin to wonder whether there is further flippancy in Nixey's treatment of historical data. In other words, you begin to doubt. And when the death of Hypatia is described, in a rather cinematic way, you get the sense of a non-fiction work that is actually a fictionalised account, a written equivalent, but way less sensitive, of Agora. 

Rachel Weisz in Agora

There is a dearth of good popular books on history and yet there is, on the part of readers,  a desire to engage with the historical past, so books such as The Darkening Age easily fill a gap. But even though such books are not meant as academic studies, the responsibility of being thorough and unbiased in the way historical data is researched and treated weighs heavily on the writer's shoulders. 

I felt somewhat dissatisfied when I reached the end of the book and I began my own research. I found reviews written by several scholars and one in particular by Dame Avril Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antiquity and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford, who points out that Nixey is rehashing the views of  18th century English historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon's historical interpretation of the 'fall' of the classical world gave rise to the very objectionable notion of 'Dark Ages'  a period, says Dame Avril,  "when the glories of classical civilisation were supposedly obliterated for centuries until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made possible the triumph of Western European liberalism and secularism". Dame Avril had hoped this notion of dark ages had finally been rejected, thanks to the work of dedicated scholars. But no, the idea is back with a vengeance, apparently, wholly embraced by the likes of Nixey.  

Hypatia 's death from Agora

Katherine Kelaidis, a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, and a historian, provides an insightful corrective: " while Nixey is quick to cite the anti-classical sentiment of early Latin fathers, particularly Saint Augustine (who famously never mastered Greek) and Saint Jerome, she is strangely silent on the great Eastern patristic writing on the the subject of pagan education... It is a telling omission and speaks to a wider shortcoming of The Darkening Age. In a completely worthwhile attempt to expand the conversation and correct the record surrounding early Christian engagements with pagan learning and culture, Nixey falls into the same reductive trap that has shaped Christian understandings of the period."

My sentiments exactly. I applaud Nixey's attempt to throw light on a period of history that is not often discussed and which remains shrouded in mystery in the popular imagination but I cannot help reiterating that one has to take care in verifying the information gathered, undertake multiple cross-checks and make sure the sources used are credible and reliable.  Also, a less pugnacious approach would help to make the book more pleasant to read. As it is, it sounds so much like an invective against people and events that are long, long gone. Historical writing and historical research cannot be conveyed in a tone of recrimination, it defeats its purpose.  

(Should you wish to read  reviews of this book I would suggest you look up the following:

The Guardian  (a quick roundup)

Graphomania (for Italian speakers)

Great Antiquity (with links to published reviews)

Discourses on Minerva

Γεγραμμένα (in English, despite the title)

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Twisted roots, attachment and monsters

Image from Wikimedia

I have a phobia of contorted tree roots,  I really fear them. I cannot look at them, when I encounter them in real life or in two-dimensional images, a physical sensation of aversion grips me and makes me feel like running away or, at the very least, shut my eyes.

 (Choosing the visuals for this post has involved confronting this fear and I think I have managed, in  the space of one afternoon, to allay it, just about). 

At the same time, I am deeply fascinated by them, it is the appeal of monstrous beauty, as discussed by Umberto Eco in his Bellezza, storia di un'idea dell'occidente, 2004 (translated into English as 'On Beauty. A history of a western idea'). I remember my visit to Angkor and the Bayon in Cambodia, back in 1998, and the effect that Ta Prohm (also known as the 'Tomb-Raider ' temple, because it features in the movie) had on me, with its crumbling walls strangled by overgrown century-old fig, banyan and kapok trees. Strangely, I was not repelled but watched mesmerised, caught up in the eeriness of the place, the strange trees mingling with temple towers and façades. I even fantasised about living in a place like that, picturing myself as a modern-day dryad. 

Photo by Emiel

I have often read that growing wisteria indoors might lead to it swallowing up your walls in a similar manner. I vaguely remember that this was happening to my childhood home where at some point my father quickly got rid of the invasive wisteria on the large, front balcony of our house as it had shown signs of threading itself into the wall cracks, thus dislodging the masonry. I am currently growing wisteria on my modest balcony and am secretly hoping it will spread exuberantly and who knows, perhaps, slip through the wrong side of the balcony door? (I am JUST kidding).

'Roots'  have such a significance in our psychological makeup and our sense of identity, it is likely that seeing twisted roots evokes fear in me because the image reflects a complex, disordered, turbulent inner landscape. A recurrent nightmare of mine is me having to walk through twisted tree roots that keep on changing shape. I wake up in the middle of the night stifling an Edvard Munch-style scream. It is not pleasant. I have such a dream when I am particularly anxious and insecure, I feel suffocated. (When I was training as a psychotherapist and had to undergo an obligatory period of therapy myself, it was suggested that this might have been because as a young child I could have been locked up in a cupboard. I have no recollection of such an event, but I cannot rule out it happened).   

Edvard Munch 'The Scream'

I connect roots to attachment, the theory formulated by Bowlby in the 1950s, and further expanded upon by Lorenz, Harlow and Neufeld. The latter talks of the six roots of attachment which need to be cultivated in a baby, as the emotional attachment between babies and their main caregiver constitutes a blueprint for interactive relationships in their adult life, wholly dependent on non-verbal bonding. Insecure attachment, write  Segal and Jaffe, can variedly affect our adult relationships "The powerful, life-altering lessons we learn from our attachment bond—our first love relationship—continue to teach us as adults. The gut-level knowledge we gained then guides us in improving our adult relationships and making them secure."

There is a lot you can read up on the topic of attachment, from light-hearted articles to more serious essays. I mentioned it in passing; it was not the main point of this post.

Hieronymus Bosch 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'

What matters to me - and I think I am getting there -  is conquering my aversion to twisted roots and learning to see them as beautiful, because the divide between ugliness and beauty is permeable - think of the Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, where the creatures of Hell are even more beautiful in their complex, monstrous forms than the angelic beings of Paradise.     

Sunday, 20 September 2020

'Laocoön is the name of the figure'

Like millions of people around the world and across centuries I have always been awed by the Laocoön and his sons marble in the Vatican, attributed to Agesander, Athenodorus and Polydorus of ancient Rhodes. The agony of the two young sons attacked  by the serpent demons is palpable and Laocoön vain attempts to fight the serpents off only magnify his suffering. 

The myth is well known, recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid: Athena conjured up the serpents when Laocoön tried to persuade fellow Trojans to burn the horse left by the Greeks on the seashore. The Trojan priest utters his famous lines: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (I fear the Greeks even when they bring presents), a warning not to trust those who are notoriously untrustworthy (such as Odysseus, the most treacherous among the Greeks). In other versions, the serpents are sent off by Poseidon, whom Laocoön had deeply offended. 

Bust of Athena, copy of a bronze by Kresilas

 The myth can also be given a metaphorical meaning. The serpent demons are our own demons coming out and suffocating us. To me, the Laocoön has often been a signifier of my own inner landscape and the sense of choking always felt very real, just as it is so masterly depicted by the Rhodian sculptors.

The Trojan horse. Movieclip from Troy

Recently, I came across a beautiful reprise of the myth in a poem by the American  Marge Piercy , also known as a feminist novelist, as part of the collection Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) which is about the loss of an old love and the beginning of a new one, partly autobiographical (or at least drawing on the intensity of her experiences), articulating the emotional spectrum of a failed relationship in an original poetic voice, rich in imagery. 

The poem, first published in 1981 runs thus:

"That sweet sinewy green nymph /eddying in curves through the grasses: /she must stop and stare at him. Of all the savage secret creatures/ he imagines stealthy in the quivering night/, she must be made to approach, /she must be tamed to love him./ The power of his wanting will turn/ her from hostile dark wandering/ other beyond the circle of his/ campfire into his own, his flesh,/ his other wanting half. To keep her/ she must be filled with his baby/, weighted down./ 

Then suddenly /the horror of it: he awakens, /wrapped in the coils of the mother,/ the great old serpent hag, /the hungry ravening witch/ who gives birth and demands, and the lesser/ mouths of the grinning children /gobbling his substance. He/ must cut free. 

An epic battle /in courts and beds and offices, in barrooms and before the bar /and then free at last, he wanders. There on the grassy hill, how the body moves,/ her, the real one, /green/ as a Mayfly she hovers and he pounces." 

It is a  powerful reworking of Laocoön  as a  metaphor of the feminine and of the relationship between the sexes. 

"I think I pretty much exhaust much of my impulse toward autobiography in my poetry" says Piercy. And , as a piece of advice to would-be poets, she adds "Hold on to your politics and your identity. Don’t take critics seriously. They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not on what you want to do".

Even more to the point is what she writes in an article for the Poetry Society of America:
"Sometimes when students call me up or send me emails that ask, what does this poem mean? I despair. I say it means what it says, what it says in words, in sounds, in rhythms, in silences, in images. That's what it means".

This is precisely why a poem such as 'Laocoön is the name of the figure' immediately works. I read it, enjoy its  musicality and am able to superimpose the anguished image of the Vatican Laocoön onto Piercy's words. And I weep, as it resonates and touches me, the reader, to the core.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The myth of Marilyn's size

I had a conversation this morning with R***, an old flame whom I did not realise I had deeply offended (well, conversation via text,  all of us don't seem to use the phone much these days, except my sister and I, who are constantly calling each other).
I have known this guy for so long, since the early 1990s, and have had epic fights with him, some of which have crept up in past blog posts, with me duly changing details (I am mindful of other people's privacy and right not to be recognised).
I take it for granted I can say to him anything that crosses my mind, especially now that we have long gone our separate ways.  To me, he is a friend. But obviously, I must have overdone it,  because for months he gave me the silent treatment and finally responded only today to a birthday wish message saying he had forgiven me after 382 days, which totally miffed me.
I asked for details - what did I do? -  and got no reply, so I sent him a quote from the one and only Marilyn, the one in which she said " I am selfish etc etc. but if you can't handle me at my worst, you do not deserve me at my best".   I am very fond of this quote and I occasionally send it to people, in fact, I sent it to someone else too, also recently -  and if YOU are reading this, do not be so vain, as Carly Simon allegedly sang of Warren Beatty, this post is not about you at all!

Anyway, the Marilyn quote elicited a response and we got involved in the silliest possible argument about her death, which my friend maintains was a murder, and I tend to believe was a suicide, as the official version goes, the desperate act of a troubled woman who took too many barbiturates. In those days doctors would prescribe them like sugar candies to everyone and anyway, a movie star of that calibre would not have trouble in getting them.  Said friend and I could not agree on this, so we ended the conversation (and hopefully I will not be given the silent treatment for another 382 days. I think this explains why we never managed to be together for longer than a few months, infatuation notwithstanding).
As a result, Marilyn was very much on my mind for the rest of the afternoon, so much so that I began to read about her.  Her impact on contemporary popular culture has been phenomenal and my take is that dying when she did and the way she did, magnified her and really turned her into the legend that she is. Much has been written about her, her struggle with depression, her sense of being unloved, her love affairs, her failed marriages, her discontent, her desire to be taken seriously. A recent biography by Charles Casillo puts her in context,  highlighting that she suffered from bipolar disorder, which was unknown as a condition at the time and the miscommunications that led to her tragic death. 
But I also came across a range of articles that discuss her size. These are most bizarre. It was comedian Rosanne Barr who began saying that Marilyn was a size 16 (today's size 16!) . You should not trust a comedian to tell it like it is!  Somehow it has stuck and it did not help that Liz Hurley said she'd rather kill herself if she had been as fat as Marilyn.  Liz Hurley never struck me as capable of saying anything remotely engaging, therefore I will not comment on her pronouncement.  But this idea that Marilyn was big is ludicrous. She was slim and well proportioned. Today's sizes are not those of the 1950s and today's bodies are definitely different. Marilyn had a 22-inch waist, without a girdle, which is incredibly small by today's standard (I am a  size 8 and my waist is 26 inches).  She had the perfect hourglass figure, with 35-inch hips and 35 bust. She had a bosom, definitely, it seems she had a 36 D cup. But she was not a size 16! She was also 5'5.5 in height, which is on the small/medium side by today's standards but was above average in the 1950s.

There are thousands of pictures of Marilyn, some of her naked and one can see she was not at all big.
I wonder why people have started this rumour. My take is that in an attempt to establish being large as normal and counter negative body image and weight-based discrimination, it may have been helpful to reclaim an icon of Marilyn's renown to breathe greater confidence in women (and men) who are trying to overcome the stigma of being chubby and corpulent.
At the end of the day, Marilyn was Marilyn. Immortalised in fashion, in art, in music she will always be as paradigmatic as Helen of Troy was in antiquity. Her size pales into insignificance, what stays is the image of this beautiful and troubled woman, whose wit and intelligence were never sufficiently recognised. It begs the question: would you want to be Marilyn Monroe?

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Saturday, 5 September 2020

The mysterious death of Adrienne Lecouvreur

Photo: Royal Opera House.

Today, while looking for something else, I chanced upon the copy of an old programme of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I saw in Paris in 2015 at the Opéra National (Opéra Bastille). It was a great performance by the soprano Angela Gheorgiu and I was delighted to have the opportunity to go, as a guest, to the opening night of this international co-production, involving the Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille,  Gran Teatre Del Liceu and  Wiener Staatsoper.
I mentioned my personal encounter with the music of Adriana  Lecouvreur in a post I wrote at the time but I did not tell the whole story, I simply talked about the DVD which I bought when I returned. How did I end up in Paris on the opening night?
As I recall, I was engaged in some major spring-cleaning and decluttering, in preparation for my going away to  Indonesia a couple of months later, to research my book. I had decided to rent out my place while I was away.  I could not get a tenant without doing that thorough massive cleaning and I had to do it myself rather than hire someone to do it for me.  I have books everywhere and cannot bear other people touching them without due respect - my books are my best friends, I am dead serious when I say so.
While engaged in this less than glamorous activity,  I suddenly got a text message from my then ballet teacher - I used to go to Pineapple Studios for ballet classes, I had only just started sleeking and had not switched to it completely.  He was in Paris at the time to work on the choreography of the opera, which he had once danced himself. I had seen some images of him in Paris with the artistic team and liked them, the way people do on social media. I even said I loved opera (mildly, I should add)  - people say all sorts of things when commenting on social media, they like, love etc sometimes in a very overstated way.
Anyway, in that text, my ballet tutor said he had spare tickets for the opening night and since I liked opera,  would I consider travelling to Paris to attend? It seemed a waste not to use them, as the seats were right at the front.  It was a no brainer,  I said yes, thinking of the wonderful seats which I would not normally be able to afford, and me being me, I immediately started listening to the music on YouTube,while carrying on with my springcleaning,  just to get more familiar with the opera, which I had never seen and of which I knew so little.
I have friends in Paris, which helps, as I could crash out at theirs. I went for the day and spent the morning at Père Lachaise, where I felt the need to pay tribute to the divine Maria Callas, whose ashes are preserved there. Then in the evening, I made my way to the theatre. The seats were as good as could be, I was close to the stage and was able to enjoy the wonderful music and watch the action unfold - and loved the dancing!
At the end of the performance, I lingered on to meet a few people and had a glass of champagne, to celebrate the evening and then went back to my friends' as I would be leaving by Eurostar the following day.

Opéra Bastille
 The details of my personal encounter with the opera (thank you again, Adam, for your gift) now out of the way, let's talk a bit about Adriana Lecouvreur as this is a rather unusual story to set to music, inspired by a real-life person. Adriana (Adrienne) was a French actress of the Comédie Française who lived in the 17th/18th  century. Adored by the audience, praised by Voltaire, who fell in love with her,  and by Diderot, Adrienne had, apparently,  a stormy affair with Count Maurice of Saxony and a tug of war with the Princess de Bouillon for the Count's affection.  She was poisoned by the Princess, so the story goes,  and died very young,  but the murder was never proven and she may have just died of exhaustion.
Francesco Cilea, originally from Palmi, Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, set his opera to the libretto by Scribe and Legouvé, highlighting the mingling of tragedy and comedy,  the varied action and the passionate love of the protagonist for the Count.  Cilea's work is usually regarded as part of the 'verismo' opera but it has great sophistication and powerful élan. The music is very nuanced, pleasing, and soulful,  duly dramatic in all the right places.
Actresses of the Comédie had an official role to play within an organisation of international renown. They were powerful women, influential public figures, equal to men (and unusually so, in those misogynistic times) whose lives were constantly scrutinised - the most terrible accusation levelled at actresses was that of a loss of virtue, and their moral position constantly oscillated in people's opinion. Their task was to bring the theatre to the people and they were mandated to do so by the King. They did not adhere to the stereotypical views of the time of constrained femininity and they were active participants in public culture. As women, they had unusual agency.

The opera by Cilea is well-loved and it has been performed by great tenors and sopranos, internationally. The romantic twist makes it a favourite of audiences worldwide. It also has a soliloquy by Adriana which is powerfully delivered.
I particularly love the final scene: Adriana forgives her lover for his affair with the Princess, declines to marry him because she is wedded to the theatre and then dies in his arms.
Writing in 1957, Roland Barthes talked of 'la combustion de l'acteur', the actor's combustion, which Adrienne so aptly symbolises: "the actor gives himself over to the demon of the theatre, he sacrifices himself, allows himself to be eaten up from inside by his role".
I prefer seeing Adrienne in this light rather than going along with the story of romantic intrigue: to me, Adrienne is the actor who metaphorically dies for the art.

"Sans aucuns soins, sans étude, sans fard,
des passions vous fûtes l'interprete.
O de l'amour adorable sujette,
n'oubliez  pas le secret de votre art"

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Citizens of the world and the taste of words

Interior of Santa Caterina Church, Galatina

Back from my trip to the Salento region, I am having some time off, before embarking on a new, much shorter trip which this time will take me to the North of Italy, on strict family business.
With time on my hands, I can indulge in reflection, my favourite activity.
I enjoyed revisiting the land of my birth, meeting people I had not seen in decades - now all grown up and shouldering newer responsibilities and yet having retained their youthful charm.  I relished that strange feeling of knowing and yet not knowing, the sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which kept on alternating, whenever I met old friends and saw 'old' haunts.
Nothing ever stays the same and I was mesmerised by the changes brought in by the passage of time  and the ubiquitous impact of globalisation. Wherever I went, images from other trips to other lands superimposed themselves on what was before my eyes: I recognised the thrust of tourism, with its network of hotels, bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, shuttle busses, organised tours and the mushrooming of restaurants and cafés. I saw places that reminded me of other places, because that part of Italy is very ancient and very mixed, with cultural and artistic elements of Greek and Middle Eastern origin, obvious in the architectural details of many of its buildings, in the local dialects and in the local food.
I enjoyed the conversations I had with everyone I met and the overlap of languages in my head and on my tongue. I also experienced a clear sense of belonging to very different places simultaneously,  and it was a joyous feeling.

Leuca, Salento

In this day and age, the idea of being a citizen of the world is occasionally ridiculed, in the wake of an ugly form of nationalism. You may remember former PM Theresa May's contemptuous utterance, at the Tory party conference of 2016,  about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere. I could not disagree more: like the writer Elif Shafak, whom I deeply admire, I see myself as a global soul as well as a world citizen, it is a condition I embrace. It is possible to love and feel part of different communities and different countries, to adopt a diversity of being, to be rooted and also routed, as explained by Paul Gilroy in his discussion of place attachment and mobility in the context of identity. I have never been an either/or person, I see myself as an advocate of  'and...and', in everything I do - well, almost anything.
Thinking of Elif Shafak, whose prize-winning novel 'The Forty Rules of Love' I have downloaded, led me to watch, this morning,  her wonderful TED talk "The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought", a passionate plea for pluralism and diversity - no, I am not going off-topic, among the many marvels I saw in  Salento, I also witnessed, as elsewhere, the ugliness of antagonistic attitudes to migrants and the presence of racism, which revealed itself in small, everyday occurrences.
For example, I was sitting at a café in Lecce, with a friend who, though originally from one of the nearby small towns, actually lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. An older lady with a neurotic little dog sat a few tables away from us. Suddenly, the dog rushed forward and attempted to bite the ankle of a  Pakistani looking man, in traditional dress, who happened to go past the lady's table.  It was one of the waiters who rushed to help the passer-by and apologised, the lady said absolutely nothing. 'What rudeness' commented my friend, loud enough for the lady to hear. We wondered whether her behaviour would have been more solicitous had she not been confronted by 'otherness'.
Elif Shafak opens her talk with a wonderful reference to the taste of words, how some words have a flavour and a smell - some spicy, some sweet and from there she goes on to ask about the taste of the 'motherland', which to her tastes like cinnamon and rose water and yet with a sharp tang. Shafak's motherland is Turkey and to her, it tastes sweet and also bitter. Shafak goes on to remark that many more people around the world share such feelings about their motherland, their culture of provenance, their food,  increasingly frustrated by politics and politicians, who manage to add a bitter, unsavoury taste by manipulating atavistic emotions.

Elif Shafak. Photo reblogged

Inspired by Shafak, I have been thinking about the taste of words in connections with 'my' places - London, my current home, has a complexity of tastes intermingled with delicious smells because London is a truly international hub. When I think of London, I am reminded of the spicy balti of Bricklane or the vivid colours of the Brixton food market. The Salento region has the taste of seafood and olives. But ...xylella has destroyed its olives, metaphorically too.
There are quite a few threads in this post which I would like to explore further, but I shall have to do so in future.
Meanwhile, I have a lot to catch up with and am binge-watching 'A Suitable Boy', the current Mira Nair's drama adaptation of Vikram Seth's long novel, not to mention the several books I have on the go.  'Time keeps on slipping into the future', sang Steve Miller Band.  I shall end on that note.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Nostalgia or the disease of longing for home

We all know instinctively what nostalgia is because we have experienced moments of longing for the past and for specific places which are associated with our past, often what we think as 'home'.  And yet we do not know the first thing about it.
I am about to embark on a short trip which will take me to the land of my birth and a series of circumstances have heightened my expectations and also increased my nostalgia for virtually unknown places which are meant to be 'mine', part of my 'heritage'.  How do you define that? 
After living in London for over forty years, I have a strong attachment to my tiny home (where I have lived for thirty years) and to this amazing city that never fails to excite me.  I really grew up and wisened up, as a person, in London.  I studied in London,  fell in love in London, met (and parted with) my husband in London, I had my son in London. What else? I taught in London, became a model in London, learnt about life's ups and downs in London, became a grandma in London. Of course, I travelled (and extensively too) but always came back 'home' to London. 
One of my fondest memories is of the one time while doing my postdoc,  I went to meet a young  Dutch professor at UCL, for a one on one tutorial, and he suggested we had it at the Globe, which had just opened. 'I am in love with London' he said. 'You know the saying by Dr Samuel Johnson? He who tires of London is tired of life. I have just been posted here and am exploring'. And off we went, the tutorial unfolding on the District Line and then at the Globe. It was a warm spring day and this was one of the best tutorials I ever had. And no, I was not in love with the professor!

The first 19 years of my life were spent in Italy, in Apulia. I will be going there in a couple of days, I suddenly got the urge to see again Leuca, which my mother absolutely adored,  and something quite peculiar is happening. I am most excited to be meeting people I have not seen since I was 18 with whom  I fortuitously reconnected (I dislike Facebook intensely but there are some good things about it). I think I know them well,  but then again I do not, how can I? None of us is as we were at 18!
 I keep on asking my sister, who knows the area I am travelling to much better than me because she only left it for good when she was about 40 in order to move to the North of Italy, where I should go. She even checked out the places where I will be staying and gave me tips on how to get around, saying wistfully that she wished she could accompany me but unfortunately her work duties do not permit her to take time off at present.
I like digging into things. The peculiar emotion sweeping through me at the moment is clearly heightened nostalgia. I decided to read about it, to understand it - I am a very rational person, I have to know what is going on, exactly. I found the book Nostalgia; Sanctuary of Meaning  (2005) by Janelle L. Wilson very helpful. 

Photo: Jasper James

Feeling nostalgic is similar to being in love, apparently; Harper states that in both love and nostalgia "a wave of presence swirls around with a wave of loss". 
But it was the pairing of nostalgia and home that intrigued me.  Quoting Svetlana Boym, Wilson writes: 'To feel at home is to know that things are in their places and so are you; it is a state of mind that does not depend on an actual location. The object of longing, then,  is not really this place called home but this sense of intimacy with the world; it is not the past in general but that imaginary moment when we had the time and did not know the temptation of nostalgia". 
It's all much clearer, is it not?
So here I am, ready to experience, nostalgia, love and belonging all at once. 
I shall further report on my return.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Love letters and love in old age

Do you remember Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City reading out Mr B's letters from a collection entitled Love Letters of Great Men? Well, the book does exist,  there are two volumes of these letters, one edited by  John C. Kirkland and one by Ursula Doyle.  I recently stumbled on the letter by Ludwig van Beethoven mentioned  by Carrie Bradshaw and I felt an intense curiosity to browse the letters written by the other great men, from Napoleon to Goethe and Lev Tolstoy. So I bought the book from Audible.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the audiobook. These men definitely bared their souls to their beloved with page upon page of stirring prose, revealing the depth of their emotions.
Do people write love letters these days? I am not sure...people exchange messages, emojis and memes, and photos, plenty of them, but old fashioned love letters? I do not think so.
Yet, who would not want to be addressed as Beethoven does his beloved? "Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you…"

Have I ever received a love letter? Now that I think of it, no, I did not, certainly nothing like one of these missives. (Big sigh).
All right, I did receive billets doux from spotty schoolboys when I was an awkward schoolgirl (littered with mispellings and grammatical errors, which never left a good impression and was the object of endless mirth when I shared them with my girlfriends  - note to would-be love letter writers: please make sure your prose is flawless).
Then as an adult, for years I punctually received on my birthday an anonymous card with a (very bad) love poem, often a rehashing of a Shakespearean sonnet, which had the effect of putting me off entirely and again made me laugh.  I knew who was sending it. I finally joked about such poems with the 'anonymous' author who never actually admitted to being the sender and I never again got another one. I later thought that maybe I had been a little cruel, however, I could not bear getting those cards!
But letters such as the ones collected by Kirkland, no, I never got one. I guess I have never been the object of such overwhelming passion (now I do feel somewhat slighted). And no, I have never met a Beethoven or a Napoleon or a Lord Byron... I am definitely not an exalted muse.
Yet as I read (listen to) these letters, I cannot help feeling that yes, they were addressed to their beloved (in Beethoven's case it has been suggested his Immortal Beloved was actually his music, not a woman) but these men were also thinking of people who might come across their letters in the years to come. In other words, they were written for posterity. And there is a strong element of narcissism, in the way these men announce, often with fanfare,  the strength of their passion and how devastated they are, unable to endure separation.
Then, when you read what King Henry VIII writes to Anne Boleyn whom he subsequently did not hesitate to behead, you feel a little queasy as you think of her fate (incidentally do read the magnificent Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, it is definitely worth the effort).
"1528, London. My Mistress and Friend, I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to recommend us to your good grace and not to let absence lessen your affection...For myself the pang of absence is already to (sic) great, and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh intolerable but for my firm hope of your unchangeable affection..."
Thus spake King Henry.

I would like to introduce, as a counterpoint, another set of love letters, the ones written by the octagenarian Mrs Piozzi aka Hesther Lynch Thrale, at one-time a friend of Samuel Johnson with whom she fell out when she married the penniless Italian musician Gabriele Piozzi.  At the age of 80, she fell in love with William Augustus Conway, at least 48 years her junior, and embarked on a one-sided love affair with him, writing him beautiful letters that Conway kept until he died (by committing suicide). Mrs Piozzi was well regarded on the literary scene. When she fell in love with Conway she was always aware of their age difference and wrote poignantly about her feelings. Her letters are wonderful, yet immensely sad. I would recommend reading them.

Even today older women loving younger men are not regarded kindly.  If there is anything to learn from Mrs Piozzi is that love transcends age. Hesther is admirable because she refused to be constrained by social norms. 
Regardless of your own age and that of your lover, it is important to acknowledge that growing old does not imply a loss of feeling. Thank you Hesther Lynch Piozzi, from the 21st century,  for your wonderful lesson.  Love, like beauty, is ageless.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Dior Cruise 2021 runway show: an invitation to see Lecce

Dior Cruise Show 2021: look 1 Vogue

I don't normally get emotional about fashion shows but the one presented yesterday night (22.07.2020) by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior was different and it made me shed a surreptitious tear or two. It took place in Lecce, capital of the Salento region in Southern Italy and a city (relatively small) to which I have a strong attachment because my father hailed from there. When I was a teenager,  we lived in a villa near Monteroni, a mere 12 Km from Lecce. I did not actually live there, I spent my vacations there till I moved to London - my 'liceo' was in a different city, quite far from Lecce - it would have been impossible for me to commute - and during term time I stayed with my godmother in Bari.
But my parents lived there, with my younger sister, who began secondary school in Lecce. The villa is still there, somewhat dilapidated; at some point, it will be sold. Anyway, all this is to say that when I learnt of Chiuri's selection of location for the cruise show I got rather excited and almost booked a flight to be there. I changed my mind when I realised the show was  'phygital' and for a while there were quarantine restrictions when returning to the UK - not anymore.

Villa Saetta circa 1960 Source: Comune di Monteroni

The show took place in Piazza Duomo , by the cathedral, with large 'luminaria' created specially for the occasion. It's a space often used for open -air concerts, I remember going there to see La Traviata on a hot summer night, many years ago, with my mother.
There was no audience, as these are post-Covid19 times - just a few people, family and friends, but none of the usual VIPs, nor were tickets being sold to watch.The show was live-streamed and was accompanied by a series of short films highlighting the location and its breathtaking beauty. The clothes could also be previewed online, to appreciate their fine workmanship.

Cruise shows (or resort wear shows) are usually presented in exotic locations. They are always one brand shows, and before the pandemic, it was usual to invite special guests to sit in the FROW. The special guests would always be put up at some gorgeous hotel and there is plenty of sightseeing trips and lavish dinners, with the fashion show usually held on the last night, the cherry on the cake. If I am not mistaken, the format was more or less decided in 2006 by the late Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.
Chiuri's father was a Salentine, from Tricase. Chiuri loves the region and with this show, which was originally meant to take place in May, but was then postponed due to the pandemic, she wanted to zoom in on the craft offerings of the region, with beautiful embroidery traditions, also rich in music and traditional dancing.  Music and the dancing were an essential part of the show. The dance is known as pizzica or tarantata (not to be confused with the Neapolitan tarantella ) and is century old, a spiritual practice meant to provide healing. The dance is supposedly caused by the bite of an imaginary spider (taranta) and the person bitten, usually a woman, can't stop dancing,  totally possessed, for days. A healer (who sings) comes along and slowly, after hours of incessant rhythmic dancing,  accompanied by a tambourine, the person bitten by the taranta reemerges purified, usually with little recollection of what has occurred.  It was a dance practised in remote villages, a dying tradition researched  in the 1950s by the anthropologist De Martino. I never actually saw it in its rural setting but my father would tell me about it. It was then revived, on a big scale,  in the 1990s and is now choreographed and performed by professional groups - you can even learn it in London with the group Amaraterra! Usually, at the end of August, there is a now famous Night of the Taranta in Melpignano, a festival often involving competing groups. I am not sure it will go on this year, it usually attracts thousands of people and this obviously counters the current Covid19 social distancing regulations.
Notte della Taranta 2018, Melpignano . Photo: Maria Ponticelli

Chiuri's clothes were beautiful, with a country, gypsy feel, long flowing embroidered skirts, kerchiefs to cover pushed back hair, low heeled sandals. The models were as diverse as possible, but young and slim: Chiuri found herself under fire for a previous show in which the majority of the models were caucasian but on this occasion, she tried hard to spotlight models of colour, one of whom, Mati, acted as a hostess in a short film (in English) about the city of Lecce and what to do and see there. She spoke accentless Italian, I believe she was a local girl. 
The inhabitants of Lecce were ecstatic about being spotlighted thus, in a series of short films that are being viewed globally: people in Italy have been badly hit by the pandemic and the Salento needs more tourists, half of its income depends on the hospitality industry. Now everyone around the world has seen beautiful images of Lecce and the Salento and no doubt many people will feel like venturing on a trip. I certainly plan to go there in early September, going to Leuca, which is at the very end of the imaginary heel of Italy, shaped like a boot. I had meant to go there for some time, it's been years, but now I feel even more motivated. I will make sure to have plenty of pictures!

(My break was short but it helped me to see things in perspective: I blog because I enjoy it!)