Thursday, April 18, 2019

Venice

While the Florentines concentrate almost entirely on their artistic heritage, the Venetians are clearly fans of art both modern and historical. Possibly this is because in most respects Venice is trapped by its history – it can’t change its architecture or industries without ruining its unique character, but that unique character makes it ideally suited to embrace the avante garde art scene and still remain itself.

I’d like to think that Peggy Guggenheim realised this, which is why she set up her modern art museum in her Venetian palazzo, which is now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection that we visited this morning. It’s a glorious collection that only a ridiculously wealthy art collector and patron could amass, featuring amazing works by Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Vasily Kandinsky, Rene Margritte and Ray Calder.

That was just the permanent collection. The museum had just opened a temporary exhibition based around the Dadaist artist Jean Arp, which was surprisingly intelligible and engaging. The Dadaists challenged the prevailing assumptions about art a century ago in ways that can look obvious and therefore amateurish now, but that work was groundbreaking, and the best of it, as included in this exhibition, still looks exciting and beautiful today.

But the high point of the visit came when we overheard an American woman, with the penetrating voice of her kind, drawl loudly to her friend, “Who is this Kandinsky person? I’ve never heard of him, but he seems to have a lot of pictures around here.”

It would have been interesting to ask her how she came to be in a modern art museum when she’d never heard of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, but by then she’d stumbled across the Marino Marini sculpture of a man with a large erect penis sitting astride a horse with a large erect penis, and she was lost for the remainder of her visit in delighted hysteria.



We had a quick break for gelati, then walked across the city to the Ca’pesaro Museo, first for lunch on their gracious waterfront patio, then for a wander around the museum.



The Ca’pesaro isn’t one of the premier art galleries of Venice, so it isn’t on most tourists' agendas, yet it is home to Gustav Klimt’s beautiful ‘Judith II (Salome)’ and also one of the handful of editions of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ (he cast 22 in total).It's well worth a visit.

Of course, there was the obligatory renaming:


Jean-Luc Picard’s Final Portrait at Starfleet Academy, Scipione, 1933



Her Worst Tinder Date Yet, Antonio Donghi, 1963



Werk it, Gurl!, Constantin Meunier, 1905

And Benny got himself into trouble, as usual.



The Ca’presaro is a clearly well-funded art museum, but it still suffers from the same dilemmas of all Venetian buildings; it’s very old, it weighs a ton, and there’s only so much that ancient wooden pilings can do to support it. It’s alarming to walk over to view an Arturo Martini sculpture and find yourself drifting to one side because the floor sags, or standing at the bottom of a grand stone staircase and realising that the left side is markedly lower than the right.

At least Benny found a series of paintings inspired by outer space, which made a perfect backdrop for him to recover from being chased by a killer baboon.



As afternoon merged into evening, I made the obligatory journey to St Mark’s Square. Here the tourists throng as thickly as they do around the Duomo in Florence, taking selfies and buying souvenir teatowels. I’d already purchased my ticket to climb the cathedral’s bell tower, and was rewarded when I found I could skip past the hundred metre long queue like an ersatz VIP. But then it turned out that nobody climbs the tower: they installed an elevator. So I rode to the top with a dozen tourists and an Italian lift operator who looked like he was one whining French backpacker away from killing himself.



The view from the top was magnificent, revealing Venice with all of its slightly leaning towers, sinking palazzos, tourist cluttered piazzas and unique, surreal beauty.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Onward!

Much as I love Florence, all good things must come to an end. And so it was this morning that I dragged my luggage down the four flights of stairs from my little AirBnB garret, trudged them through the streets to the train station, and boarded the Frecciarossa to my next destination: Venice.

I’d heard from friends and acquaintances that Venice is magical. It’s a like a city from a dream. It’s so romantic. It’s a little like a theme park, but you just can’t help but love it.

Which to me sounds dreadful; like a Las Vegas version of Italy. This is why I rolled my eyes and only scheduled two nights in the place. When I eventually got to Venice, I manhandled my luggage to the AirBnb, and went for a stroll around the city to confirm my suspicions.

And it’s magical, like a city from a dream, and it’s so romantic, I can’t help but love it. Dammit!



The innumerable canals are Venice’s most defining feature, but they tend to fall into the background as you wander around. With the exception of tourists being shuttled around in gondolas, the canals are primarily used for commercial or civic purposes: public bus boats, garbage collecting boats, ambulance boats, police boats, cement-mixer boats, DHL boats overflowing with Amazon packages, and so on. For private purposes for which most Westerners would use a car – nipping down to the supermarket, taking the dog to the park, meeting friends for coffee – the Venetians don’t really have a choice but to walk. The narrowness of the streets and the steps on the bridges mean that they can’t even ride bikes or skateboards.



As such, the streets aren’t really “streets” as we know them elsewhere, since they were never designed for any sort of wheeled traffic, even in the days of horses and carriages. It’s more a city of public passages and rooms linking private passages and rooms, like a gargantuan open-air mansion with half a million people living in it.

At night, the lack of mechanised traffic and the noise dampening effect of the many buildings mean that a calm, relaxing quiet settles over the city. The foot traffic is spread across hundreds of tiny alleys and passages, so you meet surprisingly few other pedestrians as you wander about, making the city feel as if it’s full of secrets and mystery. The Venetians also deviate from the normal Italian practice of dining late and staying up - many restaurants close by 10pm, which would be unthinkable in Rome or Florence. As a result, however, the streets clear out at a surprisingly early hour, leaving anyone wandering about in the later evening feeling like the only person in the city. With the people gone and the noise reduced to the sound of water lapping against stone, it feels unreal, like you’ve wandered onto a very ambitious movie set.



Maybe this is why people perceive it as a bit of a theme park. It’s true that there are a lot more shops selling Murano glass fountain pens than selling office supplies or pet food, and the city is almost alarmingly clean, but that’s true of Florence as well. Venice is still a real city, just a scrupulously tidy one with a very specific retail profile. The buildings are worn, there are random air conditioners jutting out of walls, there’s graffiti on the shop shutters and people’s underpants are drying on washing lines outside upper storey windows. It’s no more theme parky than Florence, or Capri, or F*cking Siena.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Siena

Following the success of our visit to Arezzo, we decided to do another day trip. This time we chose the city of Siena, about an hour and a half from Florence. I hoped that it would be similarly enjoyable.

Sadly, I hoped in vain.

Siena is built upon a hilltop, surrounded by ancient fortified walls. The train station is outside of these walls, since the invention of the wall predates the invention of the train. To walk between the train station and the city centre of Siena therefore means you need to walk up the twisting, switchback roads that link the train station to the city gates.

Except that you don’t. There’s an escalator that links the train station with the town, accessed via a shopping mall across a piazza from the train station.

But is there any indication that this escalator exists at the train station? A sign pointing to it? A noticeboard saying “City Centre: This Way”?

No. No there is not. Apparently the Sienese expect tourists to do their research before they come to their town. To add insult to injury, after a tourist wends his way up to the city the long way around, via the roads, the escalator down to the train station is very well signposted. So basically, they make the escalator known once the average tourist doesn’t really need it any more.



Really, Siena?

After wasting 45 minutes walking to a place that would have been a five minute escalator ride away if we’d known about it, we encountered our first Sienese when we stopped for a late breakfast. The waitresses at the cafe set a new high bar in surliness. My barista slammed the saucers down for a couple of cappuccinos as if she was being asked to make coffee for Osama bin Laden. The coffee was, like all Italian coffee, excellent, but the attitude was unusually bad. We proceeded to notice this throughout Siena: waitstaff who are sick to death of stupid tourists and a clueless Australian who wants casata gelato is just the last straw.



But much as they hated it, they still took my money… just like everyone else. Siena seems devoted to emptying tourist wallets of euros at a level unparalleled in my travels. In tourist-saturated Florence, you can still enter the Duomo for free, since it’s a church, and if people want to enter a church and worship God (in between ogling frescoes), it wouldn’t be right to charge them for the privilege. The Sienese hold with none of that nonsense – you need a ticket to enter their Duomo, just like any other museum, gallery or fairground attraction.

Fortunately for the stingy tourist, there are many spectacular churches in Siena that are off the tourist radars, and so can be entered freely. The most impressive of these is the Basilica of San Francesco, from the outside quite possibly the butt-ugliest building the Renaissance ever produced, but inside it’s quite stunning, simply because of the space. It’s basically God’s Aircraft Hangar.





Fortunately for Benny, there were plenty of opportunities to make friends with the less obnoxious locals



After a lunch of quite possibly the worst Pizza Margherita ever (and in Italy! Santi ci preservano!) I was winding down, so I looked for a way to get some wifi so that I could check my messages and confirm the schedule for the next train. Many cities have free wifi in their city centres and train stations, most cafes offer it as a service to customers, and even clothing stores like OVS offer free wifi... in Florence. Does the city of Siena offer free wifi? Is it accessible in the train station? Do the cafes advertise it on their doors? Does OVS Siena offer it? The answer is no, in all cases.

Presumably if people could access free wifi, they might find out about the escalator, and that would never do.

Eventually I found a patisserie on the very outskirts of the old city that was willing to let me use their wifi in return for my purchase of macchiato and pastry. And because I found out about it so late, I then missed the return train to Florence by two minutes.

So I got on the escalator, rode it down to the shopping centre, marveled at the fact that in Italy a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin (14.49 euros) costs less than a knock-off Apple lightning cable (14.99 euros), and waited for the next one. When it finally came, and I was finally able to get away from Siena, I breathed a frustrated sigh of relief.

Since then I don’t think I’ve refered to Siena at all. I have however been heard to speak of a place called F*cking Siena. And F*cking Siena it has remained.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Style

One immediate thing I noticed about Florence is that it is almost oppressively stylish. It may be a defense mechanism by the Florentines to differentiate themselves from the tourists, who are as usual dressed in garish, low-maintenance garments that pack and travel well.

As someone who doesn’t want to stand out as a tourist, I’ve tried to dress as stylishly as possible. I packed some expensive tailored jackets, Hugo Boss polos, and my brown brogues with hard soles that tap smartly across marble floors in galleries or piazzas – nothing quite announces your quality on a hard surface like good shoes with a crisp tap.

However by this stage in my holiday I was beginning to need a haircut, and nothing ruins a smart shoe tap like lax hair. So my job for today was to go out and get a hipster haircut. This I did at Machete, a barber shop on the Piazza Carlo Goldoni owned, apparently, by Nicki Minaj. At least that’s who the woman who greeted me at the door appeared to be. I don’t know why Nicki Minaj would own a barber shop in Florence, but then it’d hardly be the most surprising thing that Nicki Minaj might do, and frankly it’s a lot less unsavoury than most of the alternatives.

Nicki’s staff of heavily tattooed hipster barbers (never trust a hipster barber who hasn’t committed to lots of ink) made me an espresso, then cut my hair, trimmed my beard, shaved my neck, massaged my scalp, moisturised my face, and doused me heavily in unspecified but manly Italian cologne. I emerged significantly poorer but looking schmick as heck.

At least from the neck up.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Interpretation

Since it was Palm Sunday, I decided to attend a local church. In the absence of any better offers, I went Catholic. And if you’re going to go Catholic, I say go Full Catholic. And so I attended the morning mass at San Michele San Gaetano, which was sung, in Latin, by nearly a dozen priests.

It was performed according to a liturgy, which was given to each person in the congregation in a thick booklet. I managed to periodically follow, since many English words have recognisable roots in Latin, but half of the priests were mumblers, and I’m pretty sure that the other half were deviating from the script. Judging by the way that everyone else seemed to be flicking back and forth in the liturgy booklets, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t keep up.

But they were all pretty relaxed about it. The beauty of Catholicism is that the congregation’s role in the service is largely ornamental, so while the priests busily hold aloft candles, kiss bibles, swing censers and occasionally get their robes tangled, the congregation holds muted conversations, checks their phones, and keeps an eye on that one nerdy religious guy who is actually following what’s going on to take their cues for standing, kneeling and saying “Amen”.

I must admit that I didn’t stay for the whole thing. I eventually left after about ninety minutes, and they were only up to the Garden of Gethsemane, so they were probably still going by the time I was sitting down to lunch.

After dabbling daringly with Catholicism, I felt emboldened, so when I sat down to lunch and saw that they had steak tartare on the menu, I ordered it. Raw meat and raw egg, together at last. Take that, nanny state! Of course Benny was horrified.



I was fine following my adventures with Not Cooking Things That Probably Should Be Cooked, although throughout the afternoon I had variations of the following conversation with my stomach:

Stomach: What's this thing you've put in me?
Me: It's steak tartare.
Stomach: It's different.
Me: Yes, it is.
Stomach: I don't trust different. I'm unsure about it.
Me: It's fine. It's a delicacy.
Stomach: I don't know about this. It seems wrong.
Me: Is it actually bad? Is it teeming with bacteria or parasites?
Stomach: No.
Me: Well there you go.
Stomach: But it isn't cooked. Meat is always cooked. This isn't. Why isn't it cooked?
Me: *sigh*.

During all of this, Benny just enjoyed the view of the street.



Following lunch, Benny and I headed out to visit some more museums, and we tracked down a modern art exhibition. The Florentines are not much into modern art. I suppose their logic is, why would we want to look at modern art when there’s a Botticelli over there, somewhere behind the wall of Chinese tourists taking photos of it with their Huaweis?

But I’m an Australian, and we Australians like to look to the future, since our past isn’t very plot-driven, and when it is that’s problematic and triggering for the sort of people who get triggered by things.

After a couple of false leads, we stumbled across a hidden gem; a converted cathedral that houses the life work of famed Italian painter and sculptor Marino Marini. He created bold sculptural and painted works that epitomise the mid-century trend towards raw, geometric, abstracted art; the sort of things that the beatniks embraced and the squares made Dad jokes about in the mainstream media. As a geometric and abstracted figure himself, Benny embraced the exhibition.







Sadly there was only one painting worthy of a new title, but it was a doozy.


How to Horrify a Horse, Marino Marini, 1971

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Arezzo

One of the reasons why I planned to stay so long in Florence was to give me opportunities to do day trips to nearby towns that I would never otherwise get to see. The first of these towns was Arezzo, an exquisite little town an hour by train from central Florence.



The best thing about Arezzo, the thing that makes it charming and relaxing and desirable, is that 99% of tourists haven’t worked out that it exists yet. You can still amble through the medieval piazzas with just a handful of other people, and drink coffee in the outdoor cafes without having to hear some American loudly mispronouncing ‘espresso’ and asking where the nearest Olive Garden is.



After the traditional Italian breakfast of caffe latte and a croissant, we strolled around the town exploring picturesque laneways and tiny piazzas, then walked up to the Medici Fortress that stands on the highest point of the town. If it had been Florence, we would have had to pay to go in, but in tourist-free Arezzo they don’t bother, so we could wander through it to our hearts’ content. It was here that I took my favourite photo yet of Benny.



Then I promptly lost my camera. Fortunately a local man found it and liaised with a local caribiniero to get it back to me. Hooray for Arezzo!

Afterwards we had lunch in a local osteria, then went to a free contemporary art exhibition in the town hall that our new caribiniere friend had recommended. Then we had gelati, and then I discovered, and subsequently raided, the local branch of OVS, an Italian clothing retail chain, very similar in style to H&M and only slightly more expensive, and my new favourite thing.

Meanwhile Benny made some unusual new friends, which seems to be a habit of his.





We had just enough time to have a look at some Roman ruins, again at no cost, then it was time to catch the train back to Florence.

If only every day trip from an Italian city could be this sweet!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Uffizi

My other priority for my journey to Florence was to visit the Uffizi, one of the world’s most important art galleries. It’s been an art gallery since the 1500s, and a public art gallery since 1765. It contains the best collection of Renaissance art on the planet, as well as a vast amount of Roman statuary.

It’s fascinating to track the development of art technique from the primitive, two-dimensional figures of the 13th and 14th centuries to the sophisticated, naturalistic depictions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Or at least it’s fascinating for the first two or three hours. Then you realise that you’re still only on the first floor of the museum and not even halfway through the collection. Your brain is mush, your eyes have trouble focusing, and you’re feeling completely overwhelmed by the full weight of Western Civilisation. Before you know it, you’re thinking, ‘Yes, yes, another priceless 2000 year old bust of the Emperor Octavius… where can I get a beer around here?’

The other way to cope, of course, is to continue the game of making up new names for the artworks.


Perseus Slaying Wallace Shawn, Piero di Lorenzo 1510



Breakfast with the Side-Eye Family, Giovanni del Biondo, 1370



Who Wants Melons?, Battista Dossi, 1540



I’ve Got a Guitar. Chicks Dig Guitars, Giulio Campi, 1530



How The Hell Did You Get Into My House?, Matthias Stomer, 1635



Little Girl Puking Into Her Toybox After Eating Too Much Halloween Candy, Tiziano Vecellio, 1538



Keanu Reeves Is Totally Done With This Photo Shoot, Il Parmigianino, 1530



Measuring Up, Luca Signorelli, 1490



Aporko, The God of Bacon, Artist Unknown, 2nd Century



Janice, The Angel of Affront, Hans Memling, 1480



When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window… Which The Devil Promptly Vandalises, Niccolò di Pietro, 1415



Demons Unable to Sleep With All of This Damn Chanting Going On, Giovanni Del Biondo, 1365



I’m Not Wearing Any Pants, Giovan Battista Moroni, 1560