Monday, October 15, 2007

Va bene cosy? Italy again...

We're just back from a week in Tuscany and Umbria, a country I lived in for a year back in the mid 90's but have seldom visited since, except for the odd art weekend at Shoreditch-by-the-Sea, aka the Venice Biennale. Back in 93/94 I lived at the peculiar and charmingly archaic institution of the British School at Rome(BSR), a boarding-school like base for all sorts of scholars with all sorts of Italian fascinations - from topiary to Roman Republican coins to cottaging in the nearby Borghese Gardens (I had my own share of less welcome sexual encounters with the exhibitionist men of Rome there too - in particular I recall a dismounted motorcyclist clad in waterproofs who didn't mind at all feeling the rain on one particular body part).

My affectionate memories from the BSR at that time are of lengthy dinners, midnight jaunts to the fabulous library and much simmering sexual tension - could have been our youth, the heat or the epic discussions on Piranesi's 'Great Drain' etching, who knows. I shared a studio with Roddy Thomson, whose art-prank, deeply satirical letters in collaboration with Colin Lowe (later published to some deserved acclaim as The Harang-Utang Letters) were just beginning to be devised. The arrival of Colin's drafts by post were a source of regular hysteria and a good reason to postpone getting down to anything like real work. Roddy is still a close friend, and I remember his final BSR show included a straight jacket made out of one of the School's bedspreads - it seemed to say it all ;-)....I know that the BSR has been upgraded significantly since my time - in fact the Sainsburys visited, chequebook in hand, whilst I was still there - maybe a recent BSR scholar can post a comment and let me know what's changed.

Anyway, despite not venturing as far as Rome, it was of great interest to return to a country which had played such a large part in the early part of my career, if not in the way it strictly speaking was intended to. This return was made all the more intriguing by my holiday reading of Tom McCarthy's great novel 'Remainder' and of Duncan McLaren's 'Looking for Enid'. The author of the former I met a few years back during the R & D of an aborted exhibition on re-enactment by curator Sarah Cook. The book is everything it promised to be at that early stage - a creepy and forensic study of the power of memory and trauma.
Duncan I have known for some years and he was a participant in our film 'Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future', during which he met Kate, who features throughout his present investigation of Enid Blyton. Weirder still, Duncan - who has previously cast me as a re-incarnation of John Ruskin in his novella 'The Strangled Cry of the Writer in Residence' (don't ask) - includes the Bata-ville project in his book on Enid, albeit disguised as a trip in the name of Marcel Proust. Both books are mille-feuilles of memory, Duncan's a more robust (as you'd expect from something on the cheery and relentless Enid) confection than Tom's, but each prone to fissures through which glimpses of personal obsessions amid universal experiences can be seen.

My first impressions of Italy this time round were not great - the vast industrial sprawl between each exquisite hilltown seemed to merge each into the next; the roads were just as crazy but now even in towns the pedestrian seemed a rarity (except for for the enduring ice-cream eating flaneur's 'passigata'). It took a while for me to realise that, of course, 13 years ago I had probably arrived at most of these hilltowns by train, and been remorselessly carried along by the erudite enthusiasm of some BSR scholar so that by the time I was in front of the Piero Della Francesco in question, I was blind to anything but the aura of the treasure in front of me. I remember almost nothing of the journeys of these pilgrimages, apart from once when Nicholas May nearly drove into the car ahead in thick Umbrian fog. It can't be a coincidence that this excursion is not one for which I have find memories: Not only did we avoid near death on the autostrada, we also survived the vast Collezione Burri which was the destination of that particular trip - 5 ex-tobacco warehouses filled by the Italian painter before his death with his morbid abstracts. Bizarrely, we chanced upon the place again during this trip (whilst looking for the nearby folk art exhibition which we would have no doubt ignored as young art enthusiasts) - it felt smaller and more interesting, I nearly asked to see their old visitor book so I could be sure what I'd thought of it in 1993. Adam got the giggles over the ludicrously overblown guide text, and when the stern curator (God, what a job) declared that no they didnt have an available copy for us to take away, it definately wasn't for wont of a photocopier.

How different these 'grand tours' felt now, at once liberated by having our own set of wheels and enough cash for a fine lunch each day, and yet so much more complicated and filled with the distractions of maturity, the small portion that Adam and I have between us, that is.
Adam, this being his first visit to this, the motherload of art, was suitably awestruck at each new 14th century fresco we saw, whilst I dallied on the pews, trying to focus - futile, like I used to do before I gave up yoga. Each revisited masterpiece had, for me, the quality of a photograph or a reproduction - not from art history books, it's too long ago that I looked at any of those - but from my own past visits to see them whilst at the BSR. Tom's book resonated strongly in my mind, as I tried to flick backwards through my memory's card index, to re-experience the moment of their impact on me.

After a few days I began to recognise shreds of the old Italy I had been fond of: there are still old women everywhere, still wearing standard-issue flowery wrapover aprons over their huge chests, still carrying buckets (why? have they just cleaned the church?) or arched over a dusty vegetable bed. The infamous inefficiency of the country is still evident in queues of all nationalities all over railway stations, especially at the timetables which bizarrely are arranged by departure time instead of destination. There are still -magically- almost none of the usual high street suspects such as Starbucks or the Body Shop. The Italian teenagers still don't seem to rebel any further than ordering a chocolate wafer on top of their copettas of ice-cream.

Perhaps Duncan McLaren is trying to tell me something, next stop 'A la recherche de temps perdu' ?

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