What a pleasure it is to be once again reading John Updike!
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1954, John Updike set out to be a graphic artist. Toward that end, he went to London and attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. His actual aspiration was to be a cartoonist. In the introduction to Always Looking, he exclaims: “‘How I did love Big Little Books!’”
Upon returning to the U.S., Updike moved with his family to New York. He began contributing regularly to the New Yorker; thus, his career as a writer, rather than an artist, was launched.
Updike begins the collection Always Looking with a brief, lively, and cogent essay on some of the high points of American art with “…the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley.”
Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner.
This portrait of Paul Revere is probably Copley’s most famous work – though not, in Updike’s view, his best: “The shirt is splendid, but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful.”
On the other hand, Copley’s portrait of Epes Sargent “…shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth.” Updike adds: “The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Sargent’s shoulder from his powdered wig.”
I love this portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, a woman I’ve not previously heard of, although I should have:
Of Winslow Homer, Updike tells us: “Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. Specifically the Civil War, at the behest of Harper’s Weekly. One of the illustrations that he produced for that periodical is entitled The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty:”
Updike notes that Boys in a Pasture “…gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet–we can feel the grass tickle them.”
Was ever a work of art so succinctly and gracefully summed up!
Twenty years later, Homer produced this masterwork:
From the vantage point of his cottage on Prouts Neck, in Maine, “Homer wrested images of untamed wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated.” Updike goes on to say of Homer’s famed seascapes in general:
…we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean in action and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representative of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.
Sunstruck straw…dabbled and stabbed…Updike effortlessly transforms prose into poetry.
In the New York Times, in November of 2011, Andrew Delbanco noted that Higher Gossip, a posthumous collection of essays and reviews, serves as a “… reminder of what a prodigy we have lost.” How sad and how true. Always Looking does likewise. (John Updike died in 2009.)
The full text of the above essay, entitled “‘The Clarity of Things,’ can be found on the NEH website.
Naples Declared, A Walk Around the Bay. I’m grateful to Benjamin Taylor for this in depth look at the colorful and at times, awful history of this fascinating, unique, and under-appreciated city. My sojourn there in 2009 remains a vivid memory.
**Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French; *People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up; by Richard Lloyd Parry; and Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun. It was a good year for true crime narratives, especially historical ones. Kate Summerscale made a notable contribution to this genre in 2008 with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Summerscale’s latest is Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The book does not center on a crime; rather, it’s the story of a hapless woman’s tangled love life and marital misadventures, all of which occur in the context of a rigid, highly judgmental society.
It occurs to me that the above description of Isabella Robinson could likewise apply to Florence Bravo, the equally hapless protagonist of James Ruddick’s book Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. I first heard of Florence Bravo while watching a set of DVD’s called A Most Mysterious Murder, in which Julian Fellowes presents five of Britain’s most notorious unsolved killings from the past. At the conclusion of each segment, he states his own theory of what actually happened at the crime scene. Each episode is meticulously enacted. The production values are what we’ve come to expect from the BBC: beautifully appointed interiors and superbly costumed actors.
I came upon A Most Mysterious Murder at the library, quite by accident – I believe I was looking for Midsomer Murders at the time. At any rate, this is a first rate production, conceived, written and narrated by Fellowes in 2004. I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known, especially now that Sir Julian himself is rather a hot property, thanks to the huge success of his creation, Downton Abbey.
I found Death at the Priory while researching Florence Bravo. It’s a tight little page turner, highly recommended. (And isn’t that what you’d expect, given the book’s subtitle?)
Two books on current affairs captured my interest this year. In Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler bewails the state of – well, pretty much everything. Although his primary concern is the profligate use of energy, which he sees as a finite resource, shale gas and shale oil notwithstanding, he also excoriates the financial system, land use, misplaced faith in technology, and a host of other collective missteps. At times he reminded me of a trope often seen in New Yorker cartoons. Some of Kunstler’s rants seem a bit over the top; nevertheless, the book is both entertaining and thought provoking.
Kunstler began his career as a gadfly in 1993 with The Road To Nowhere, a blistering criticism of suburbia, strips malls, and the idiocy of overdevelopment. I learned a great deal from that book. In Too Much Magic, Kunstler returns to this theme with a vengeance, denouncing suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” (author’s italics). He goes on, with almost gleeful outrage:
There’s no way to calculate exactly how much money we misspent building the far-flung housing tracts, strip malls, big box ensembles, office parks, muffler shop outparcels, giant centralized schools with gold-plated sports facilities, countless roadways of all sizes, vast water, sewer, and electric systems, and all the other accessories and furnishings of that development pattern, but anybody can tell it was an awful lot. And it came out of the richest society in the history of the world.
I think there is much truth in this observation:
As the geographical spaces rapidly filled in with ever more subdivisions and strip malls, even the scraps of undeveloped landscape were erased as casual play areas. Boys especially were prevented from the adventures of roaming and discovery that are so crucial to their development as sovereign personalities. They could not easily venture beyond the obstacles of the six-lane connector boulevards; even if they did, what was there to discover besides the parking lots and other bewildering subdivisions of identical houses?
Well, you get the idea. This spare tome is fairly bursting with similar pronouncements. You may not agree with all of Kunstler’s assertions, but they’ll stimulate your thinking nonetheless. As you can see, they stimulated mine: (I love the phrase “sovereign personalities.”)
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel examines the extent to which various transactions have been monetized. This book was a real eye opener for me, starting with the introduction:
There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:
• A prison cell upgrade: $ 82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations— a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners. …
• The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $ 6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States. …
• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $ 150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species….
Sandel also enumerates some new and unusual ways to earn money:
• Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $ 777. Air New Zealand hired thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand…”
• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $ 15– $ 20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up….
Sandel’s book is a hugely provocative and very accessible. And like James Howard Kunstler, he makes you laugh from time to time as he expounds on the vagaries of human nature. But Sandel is less judgmental than Kunstler, in that he sets the facts before you, examines them from various angles, and lets you the reader draw your own conclusions.
This was an excellent year for books about great artists and their families and associates.
Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Anthony Bailey. Bailey had his work cut out for him in tracing the movements of the elusive Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As the jacket copy states: “Though his professional career as court painter is fairly well documented, letters and accounts about how he felt, thought, and lived are nearly nonexistent.” ( The court, by the way, was that of King Philip IV of Spain, 1605-1665). Bailey met a similar challenge, very successfully in my view, in Vermeer: A View of Delft.
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. The film based on the lives of these fascinating and gifted individuals is slated to open in the UK in May of next year. Among the performers featured in Effie are Dakota Fanning (in the title role), Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi,and David Suchet. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay; if it’s anything like the stellar work she did with Sense and Sensibility, it ought to be outstanding.
**The Last Pre-Raphaelite , by Fiona MacCarthy. This book produced the kind of total immersion reading experience that I treasure. MacCarthy brings an entire world to life, and what an amazing world it was, fairly bursting with prodigiously gifted – and in some cases, wildly eccentric – artists and writers.
*included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2012
**included in the Washington Post list of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2012
Finally, there is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra. When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I also knew that I’d get much more out of it if I reread Portrait of a Lady first. Now, having done both, I can say with confidence that this is the right way: first, Portrait of a Lady; then, Michael Gorra’s biography of the writer and his first real masterpiece.
Henry James does not need my praise, but I do want to say that this time around, Portrait of a Lady was superb: riveting, suspenseful, filled with beautiful imagery and fascinating characters. I was completely drawn into the world so vividly created by one of America’s greatest writers.
Toward the novel’s denouement, there is a scene between Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer that made me so upset, I had to put the book down. I wanted Gilbert Osmond to materialize before me at that very moment, so that I could pummel him with my fists. I was seething! It took the entire length of the novel – some 550 pages – to invigorate this situation and make these characters live for me. It was worth every page, every word. Not long after this scene, there is another so heartbreaking, it’s hard to bear. Michael Gorra simply says: “I cannot read this scene without tears.”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Lady:
The lamps were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: ‘Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Novel; Michael Gorra writes about the death of Henry James’s mother:
He believed it impossible to describe “all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity.” Yet in that loss he also felt himself possessed by a memory so powerful that it amounted to a sense of her presence, and he could not believe that death alone might bring an end to her love. Her being was immanent still. Henry James had nothing like an orthodox religious faith; no child of his father did, or could. But as William would write about the belief in an unseen world in his Varieties of Religious Experience and test the claims of psychics in a way that grew steadily less skeptical, so with the years the novelist defined his own sense of the numinous in a series of extraordinary ghost stories. The dead may exist only in the psychology of the living; that doesn’t make them any less real.
I don’t have enough superlatives at my command to praise Portrait of a Novel. It brought me back to my English major days in the 1960s, to the work of great literary critics like I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate, and F.R. Leavis. I am somewhat dismayed that Michael Gorra’s book has not made any of the “Best of 2012″ lists that I’ve so far seen. Has literary criticism, even of this caliber, become so marginalized in our culture, even among the cognoscenti? I want to shout it from the rooftops: This book is a triumph!
Click here for the concert that I was privileged to attend on Sunday the 9th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine assembled before this magnificent Christmas tree, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. (You can toggle back to the first screen and gaze upon the tree, while listening to the music.)
For more on this music, and on Christmas in New York, click here.
It’s been many years since I was in Manhattan at Christmas time. I was there last weekend. Wanting to be as close to the Metropolitan Museum as possible, I stayed at a small hotel on the Upper East Side. There were some delightful decorations along Madison Avenue. The windows of Ralph Lauren’s flagship store were gorgeous!
(The building seen at 00:28 through to 00:34, a French Renaissance revival edifice completed in 1898, is called the Rhinelander Mansion.)
What I was most excited to see was the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each year the Museum puts up a Christmas tree decorated with eighteenth century figures from Neapolitan Nativity scenes. It’s been many years since I’ve seen this moving and beautiful display.
(Thanks go to my husband Ron for creating the above video montages.)
Sunday night my friend Helene and I attended a concert at the museum. Directed by Kent Tritle, the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine presented a program of sacred music entitled O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery’). In all my years of going to the Met, I’d never been there when the museum was not completely open. Certain galleries were lit, especially those that led to the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the concert was to be held. Others were roped off and dark. We came in through the Roman Sculpture Court.
This was the set-up for the performance: . The choir entered from the right; we heard them before we saw them. They were singing a Gregorian Chant entitled Veni, veni Emanuel. They entered slowly, grouping themselves directly in front of the Christmas tree.
Here, the chant is sung by the Christendom College Choir and the Schola Gregoriana:
Neither photography nor videorecording were permitted on this occasion, so I have selected some YouTube videos of several of the pieces performed by the choir. This setting of O Magnum Mysterium by Tomas Luis de Victoria is sung by The Sixteen:
Several of the pieces on the program were by twentieth century composers. I was especially taken by this Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a composer with whom I was not familiar.
And I was delighted to find a video of Chanticleer singing this luminous work in the very same space where Sunday night’s concert took place:
This performance is by the King’s College Choir, King’s College, Cambridge. It’s accompanied by these comments from the poster:
Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!
The piece that I heard at the Bach Concert earlier this year is called”Dirait-on:”
Can music be too beautiful? For me, “Dirait-on” comes close…..
At the close of the concert, the choir, once again singing Gregorian chant, made its stately way out of the Medieval Sculpture Hall, to the gallery at the right.
Here is Conditor alme siderum, sung by the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensus of Milan, Italy:
How could something be so magical? We were transported. O Magnum Mysterium, indeed.
As Governor O’Malley has observed, we here in Maryland were spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive rampage. Not so the people of New York and New Jersey, as you no doubt know by now.
I spent six of my childhood summers in Deal, New Jersey, in a large and stately home that we rented for the season. I remember that the house was furnished with a large library that included a great many Nancy Drew mysteries; I naturally read each and every one of them.
(Stylistically, the house in Deal resembled this Tudor revival edifice featured on the borough’s website.)
Deal was a sleepy, albeit beautiful, little place. For livelier entertainment, my parents would take us to Asbury Park, where we would stroll the boardwalk, shoot skee ball, and much on peanuts purchased at the Planters store. I fear now that all of that is gone.
Click here for some ways in which you can contribute to the recovery effort.
In her new book Glittering Images, Camille Paglia pleads eloquently for the return to primacy of the visual arts. “We must relearn how to see,” she urges us. Paglia continues, her tone is almost imploring:
Children above all deserve rescue from the torrential stream of flickering images, which addict them to seductive distractions and make social reality, with its duties and ethical concerns, seem dull and futile. The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception— best supplied by the contemplation of art. Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquillity.
Here are some images that may contribute toward that tranquility – or at least, toward a sense of mystery.
In February 2008, drunk on a new found – or rather, reawakened – love of Britain that was the byproduct of two terrific trips, I took out a subscription to Country Life Magazine. Country Life is a weekly, and if I got it every week, I’d be buried (albeit happily) in a mountain of back issues. Instead, I receive one issue per month.
Here are some highlights from the April 4 Easter issue. To begin with, this cover image sent me scurrying to find the artist. He is Edgar Hunt. Biographical information on this painter is somewhat hard to come by. There’s a brief bit about him on Artnet, where we learn that he was ‘of retiring disposition’ (such a felicitous phrase!).
Country Life does not place much of its content online. A pity, really. “Creating a Poultry Paradise” by Matthew Rice was utterly delightful, featuring exceptionally beautiful photography and art work. The following are images of several of the breeds highlighted by Rice in his article.
This exercise brought back happy memories of our sojourn in the Hudson Rover Valley four years ago. Our B & B was located next door to a farm, so we took the opportunity to “…make the acquaintance of the local poultry.” More recently, we encountered some attractive fowl at the Shrine of Saint Anthony. (“A Little Assisi in Maryland,” this lovely and peaceful haven is but a short distance from our house.)
In this issue of Country Life, we learn of the dire situation of the Wedgwood Museum. This distinguished institution may have to sell off its priceless collection in order to raise funds to satisfy a pension related obligation. This seems a somewhat bizarre and complicated quandary, but the danger is real enough and was made more so by a legal ruling that was recently handed down.
The article is entitled “Is This the End of the Wedgwood Museum?” It begins thus:
It would take a novelist to do justice to the disaster that has engulfed the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. In the words of the Minister for the Arts, Ed Vaizey: ‘We are almost, as it were, walk-on parts in an obscure Dickensian novel, in which a complicated piece of legislation has the most dramatic and unintended consequences.’ The sequence of events to which he refers recalls the nightmarish legal web of the great case Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which pervades Dickens’s novel Bleak House. The consequences of these events are, however, brutally simple: the Wedgwood Museum, one of the most significant collections and archives of its kind in the world, must be sold.
A vigorous campaign to save the museum has been launched.
While searching for news on this topic, I came across a review of a newly released title that sounds quite wonderful: The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson.
It’s worth noting that over the years, in addition to master potter and patriarch Josiah Wedgwood, the Wedgwood family has accrued many distinguished members, the most famous among them being Charles Darwin. (You’ll also find Geoffrey Keynes, brother of economist John Maynard Keynes, and a composer much beloved by Ron and me: Ralph Vaughan Williams.) Here’s a family tree provided by the ever helpful folks at Wikipedia. If you click on it, you should be able to read the names without too much difficulty:
A piece entitled “The Shrines of Saints” features that of Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282. We had the great privilege of viewing this shrine last year, when we visited Hereford Cathedral, which also houses the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library.
A regular feature that I always enjoy is “My Favourite Painting.” The work highlighted in this issue, Portrait of the Artist’s Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, was selected by actress Anna Chancellor. (For each issue of Country life, a different person chooses the work of art; then art critic John McEwen provides additional commentary.)
Last year, one of the feature works, Simone Martini’s Annunciation, dated 1333, was selected by Rory Stewart.
Stewart, an amazingly accomplished individual, is just shy of forty years old and looks to be about half that. (See the Wikipedia link above.) Here are his comments on the painting:
Country Life have, this week, published a brief description of my favourite Painting – The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Asano by Simone Martini. Martini portrays the resistance of the Virgin, the angel Gabriel moves towards her like a hawk, his damask plaid alive like a third wing behind him. I remember a sheet of flat gold, the filigree columns and the metal blaze of the gothic arches and the etiolated elegance of the olive and the lillies. But above all it is the Lady turning away, drawing her cloak across her as though rejecting an importunate suitor. So much was lost with the Renaissance.
Priceless, that last sentence.
There’s an invariably insightful essay by Carla Carlisle at the back of each issue. Naturally I was exceptionally pleased to find that this time she’d written about her idol and mine, Dorothy L. Sayers. Writing about Sayers’s depiction, in Gaudy Night, of the first wave of females to storm the barricades of Oxford in the early years of the last century, Carlisle exclaims, “Oh, those brainy, educated women.” They are indeed a joy to spend time with, both in the novel itself and in the film version starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. Happily, “Goodness gracious gaudy nights” is available online.
Benjamin Taylor begins his book about Naples by describing two miracles that he he witnessed there. One involves the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro (Januarius), the city’s patron saint. The other has to do with the author’s lost passport. The stories are connected, and he tells them both in this video:
I love the way Benjamin Taylor describes the geographic and geological attributes of Naples:
What has escaped no traveler is that this oval bay, arms reaching out irregularly into the Tyrrhenian, islands beautifully situated to either side of the mouth of the harbor, makes the loveliest of geologic settings–not least because it is equipped with a reminder of how provisional all loveliness is: Vesuvius, this coast’s incomparable emblem of uncertainty, in whose shadow a hundred fifty generations have lived: ‘Vesuvius, which again and again destroys itself,’ as Goethe says, ‘and declares war on any sense of beauty.’
(British paleontologist Richard Fortey writes with great eloquence of the significance of Naples in his book Earth: An Intimate History. “The Bay of Naples,” he informs us, “is where the science of geology started.” He is referring to the precise and dispassionate eyewitness account given by Pliny the Younger of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.)
In the front of Naples Declared, Taylor has placed a detailed chronology of the city’s chaotic, eventful, and often harrowing history. When I began my reading about Naples in preparation for my journey thence in 2009, I recall being astonished to learn that it was first settled by the Greeks around 600 BC (although there’s evidence that other Greek explorers reached the islands as early as 1800 BC). I like Taylor’s wry observation: “The wonder of the place is that it has not been annihilated by so much history.” His deep admiration of the ancient Greeks informs his love for ‘Neapolis:’
At Naples, from which it spread to Rome, the Greek response to life–natural, canny, sensate, disabused–persists in subtle and overt ways, despite the centuries of permutation.There is, in Naples, a living interdependence between Christian and pagan emotions. It is said that the land is Christian but the water pagan. On land, the Mother of God has her dominion; but Sirens rule the Bay.
(I recently encountered a very similar sentiment, expressed in an almost flippant manner, in the short story “The Lotus Eater” by Somerset Maugham. The events of the story take place around the turn of the last century, on the Isle of Capri. A visitor to the island asks a long time – and rather world weary and cynical - expatriate resident about a street festival that appears to be some sort of religious celebration:
‘Oh, it’s the feast of the Assumption,’ he said, ‘at least that’s what the Catholic Church says it is, but that’s just their hanky-panky. It’s the festival of Venus. Pagan, you know. Aphrodite rising from the sea and all that.’)
Taylor’s sojourn on Capri was, for me, a revelation. (A short time after you arrive in the Campania, you’ll be pronouncing ‘Capri’ with the accent on the first syllable.) I now fully realize how much I did not see in 2009, and how much of the island’s fascinating history I was ignorant of. I particularly regret missing the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, with its spectacular majolica floor:
I knew that I wanted to see if the Villa Rosaio, a house once lived in by Graham Greene, was still there. I did not get to do that either. Basically, we tour members were deposited in the shopping district and left free to roam. Not that that in itself is a bad thing; it’s just not the only thing. I was pleased to read of Taylor’s conversations with Shirley Hazzard, whose Greene on Capri I loved.
For anyone who’s writing about Naples, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is virtually inevitable. The great German polymath first arrived in Italy in 1786. He spent two years there and was especially taken with Naples, writing innumerable letters about his experiences there and his impressions of the place. These were later collected, along with his other Italian correspondence, to comprise the book Italian Journey. (The blog The Solitary Walker graciously provides some direct quotes from this volume.)
Of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Taylor tells us: “This artist, nowadays equal in interest to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Monet or Cezanne, went all but forgotten for three hundred years, his art a comet that astonished and then disappeared.” He goes on:
Still, Caravaggio’s heightened chiaroscuro, somber glowing blueless palette, concentrated action, and meaty naturalism persisted thereafter in painting as a kind of underground song, anonymously nourishing artists who did not know they were his legatees.
(I love “meaty naturalism.”) Caravaggio was rediscovered in the early twentieth century when his praises were sung by English painter and critic Roger Fry.
Three great canvases by this master are to be found in Naples:
The Seven Acts (or Works) of Mercy was painted circa 1607 expressly for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a church located in the historic center of the city. The church was founded in 1602 by group of young noblemen, as a charitable enterprise. The painting still hangs in that church.
The Flagellation, circa 1607-1608, resides in the Museo di Capodimonte. (When I realized what treasures were housed in that edifice, originally a palace built for King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily in 1738, I was amazed anew at what we did not see in 2009.)
The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, painted in 1610, was one of Caravaggio’s last completed works. It is currently housed in the Banca Intesa in Naples. There’s an interesting story about how it got there.
Taylor’s ability to discourse with equal eloquence on history, music, art, and other subjects is one of this book’s most appealing qualities. In Naples Declared, he’s packed a great deal into a relatively short space. Even so, there was a bit more about the city’s convoluted history than I could readily take in. In addition, Benjamin Taylor recounts his personal struggle with religion and spirituality. Some readers might find these passages irrelevant. I did not, being a veteran myself of similar struggles. And finally, his author is a man of strong opinions, freely expressed. Although I found this startling at times, it did not really distract from my overall enjoyment of the book.
Taylor addresses the question of why tours and tourists tend to give Naples a miss. The fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1860 was followed by an appalling cholera outbreak in 1884. From that time to this, Naples was increasingly left off travelers’ itineraries:
Called the most beautiful of cities in Greco-Roman antiquity, in the High Middle Ages, and again in the eighteenth century, Naples will never again exercise its old allure. Venice must have ten thousand sightseers for every independent soul who seeks out the inner secrets of this place. It is Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Positano that are the shining destinations. Naples hides its glamour from the hordes on their way to such watering places….Here is a metropolis that has not become a boutique of itself–for painful reasons, it must be said: underemployment, bureaucracies of legendary ineptitude, widespread exactions by the criminal rackets (the ubiquitous and damnable Camorra).
After I returned from the tour of Naples and the Amalfi coast, I wrote about the experience. The title I gave to my first post about Naples was “Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced…and sublime.” The place frightened me. At one point my friends and I decided to slip into an building with an odd and forbidding facade, just to get away from the noise and chaos in the streets: . Once inside, we heard beautiful music – if memory serves, it was the Miserere by Allegri – and we saw this: . (We were inside La Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.)
Well, that is Naples in a nutshell, a city of vast contradictions that most assuredly has not, as Benjamin Taylor so sagely put it, become a boutique of itself.
All my posts on the trip can be accessed via this link.
All in all, Naples Declared – subtitled ‘A Walk Around the Bay,’ – is a fascinating read, and I recommend it highly.
I will close by saying this: I have a powerful longing to return to Naples and the Campania of which it is the capital city.
It’s taken me a long time to get though the June 16-17 Review section of the Wall Street Journal. I feel as though the editors sat down, put their heads together, and came up with article after article that would fascinate Roberta. Yes I know: it’s a very egocentric conceit. And yet I have rarely come across so much truly neat stuff crammed into a relatively small space.
Some of the highlights:
“I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings,” in which Caitlin Moran describes with almost scary precision what it feels like to be a compulsive eater:
People overeat for exactly the same reason they drink, smoke, have serial one-night stands or take drugs. I must be clear that I am not talking about the kind of overeating that’s just plain, cheerful greed—the kind of Rabelaisian, Falstaffian figures who treat the world as a series of sensory delights and take full joy in their wine, bread and meat. Those who walk away from a table—replete—shouting, “That was splendid!” before sitting in front of a fire, drinking port and eating truffles, don’t have neuroses about food. They aren’t “fat,” they are simply…lavish.
No—I’m talking about those for whom the whole idea of food isn’t one of pleasure, but one of compulsion. For whom thoughts of food, and the effects of food, are the constant, dreary background static to normal thought. Those who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter—not even tasting it—until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning and swallowing.
In this trancelike state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations—physical discomfort and immense regret—make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whiskey or dope. Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration.
(Why, just this morning I was devouring my beloved morning bowl of cereal while reading the Sunday paper, when I suddenly looked up and thought, Where have I been? This actually happens to me every morning!)
Moran is equally perceptive on the subject of the shame that attaches to overeating and its lamentable consequences.
There’s the usual quota of eminently engaging book reviews: Jonathan Karl, on David Maraniss’s new biography of Barak Obama, was especially insightful. It’s a good example of a review that, for me, will suffice without recourse to the book. On the other hand, David Stuart’s piece on Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code and Moira Hodgson on The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray sent me immediately to the online library catalog.
Tom Nolan is a veteran critic of crime fiction for the Wall Street Journal. In addition, he’s the author of a fine biography of one of my favorite writers, Ross MacDonald. In this edition of the WSJ Review, he contributes a lively overview of the Inspector Montalbano series written by Andrea Camilleri. In other genre fiction news,Tom Shippey informs and entertains on the science fiction front with “Cyborg, All Too Cyborg.”
I’ve mentioned before my delight in the column called Five Best: A Personal Choice. In this issue of WSJ, novelist Richard Zimler selects “tales of pariahs and misfits.” Once again I’m reminded of books I’ve always intended to read but haven’t (and oh, is that ever a long, long list!), Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist and The Story of a Life, the memoir of Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. Two of Zimler’s suggestions are titles new to me: Sirius by Olaf Stapledon and The Story of Harold by Terry Andrews. Finally, there’s Home by Marilynne Robinson.
I read Home for a book group discussion. I was somewhat reluctant to tackle it, as I’d had a hard time getting through its predecessor, Gilead. For this reader, Marilynne Robinson writes short books that take a long time to get through – sort of the opposite, say, of Wolf Hall. The characters at times seem more like archetypes than flesh and blood human beings. Robinson is a writer of formidable intellect who, I believe, is best serves by the essay form. (Her latest collection is the rather quaintly entitled When I Was a Child, I Read Books.) In fairness, I have to concede that her writing is beautiful. And in the case of Home, something so redeeming happens at the conclusion – the place where so much contemporary fiction stumbles – that it pretty much made the effort worthwhile.
Stuart Isacoff, author of A Natural History of the Piano, contributed an article on Maurice Ravel’s famous – some might say, notorious – work, Bolero. Many find this piece numbingly repetitive. Ravel himself did not have much respect for it, declaring it to have been simply a technical exercise:
Ravel had simply set himself a technical task—a study in musical minimalism. The piece would consist of a theme repeated “a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” If the description sounds mechanical, that was the idea; he even imagined its performance in a factory setting. The music “constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything [more],” he told the Daily Telegraph in 1931.
Ravel set much greater store by Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse. Now I admit, Bolero can have a certain compelling quality, especially if it’s performed by master talents such as Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris:
Okay – now try getting that melody out of your head after you’ve listened to this! On the other hand, the subtle and sensuous Daphnis and Chloe is a true masterpiece. It’s one of Ron’s and my favorite works in the orchestral repertoire:
On the art scene, Margaret Studer takes us to Art Basel in Switzerland, where get the surprising news that the economic downturn has not affected the art market – quite the opposite, in fact. Closer to home, Rachel Wolff takes us to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, currently hosting an exhibit entitled ‘Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.’ (This looks positively delicious; I wish I were there right now!)
Keep in mind: I’ve just presented highlights here. articles that were of particular interest to me. There’s quite bit more on offer here – a great deal to delight and inform, in a mere fourteen pages of newsprint!
When you’ve been immersed in a massive, intricately detailed biography, you feel a sense of loss at its conclusion. You bid farewell not only to the book’s specific subject, but to the cast of characters that enlivened the story, and in many cases, to an entire era. This happened to me with Candace Millard’s riveting Destiny of the Republic, with Donald Worster’s lovely homage to John Muir, A Passion for Nature, and most recently with Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography of Catherine the Great.
Last night I finished reading The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Fiona MacCarthy’s sweeping depiction of a now vanished world has for weeks held me in its thrall. I said good-bye with a heavy heart.
One of the many gifts given me by this book has been an insight into the wellsprings of Edward Burne-Jones’s unique and inimitable genius. Early in his creative life, he fell under the spell of the great artists of Europe’s Middle Ages, especially those who flourished in Italy:
Te next two works, by Luca Signorelli, are from the fresco cycle in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral:
The following two works are illustrations of the life of St.Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio:
Below are two detailed views of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, by Michelangelo:
These works were specifically commended to Burne-Jones by his mentor and friend, the great art historian John Ruskin. It is easy to see how Edward Burne-Jones came to hold beauty as a value worthy of the highest esteem. (For more on these great painters, I recommend the Web Gallery of Art.)
I’ve already done one post on the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones. There is more to come – and more about other riches contained within the pages of The Last Pre-Raphaelite.
As a result of this recent reading, my fascination with Victorian Britain has been reawakened. I’ve written before of the pleasure I derived from listening to The Teaching Company’s course by that name, as presented by Professor Patrick Allitt. In the past, I’ve borrowed this item from the library. Now, however, I have purchased these fine lectures and the richly informative material that comes with them. Once again I am immersed in all things Victorian, starting with the Queen herself!