The self-induced pressure lifted as soon as the hotel receptionist
told me that Rivoli’s Castle was just beyond where I had already walked last
night. All I had to do was return to the town centre and walk up the old cobbled
The August morning
sun was not as vicious as I feared and although the ascent was hot, I did much
of it in the shadows of the medieval buildings. I reached the top of the town
in about 17 minutes. The Castello of Rivoli dominates the area and the peak of
the town steps was no more than 200 metres, through a tree shaded area, to the
entrance arch of the castle. I do like historic architecture, but find it
difficult to remember styles dates and facts. The smallish red bricks looked
Roman but according to Wikipedia (as you can see, I have not researched in
depth) it was probably built after 800 AD. I can only assume they either used
old Roman bricks or copied that style. Either way, the smell of history was
evident both outside and inside the castle. Interior rough brickwork rose high
in the entrance hall while blue and green coloured spot lights picked out atmospheric
In exchange for 8.50 Euros, the woman behind the desk handed
over my entrance ticket, ‘un momento’ (hold on) she said while reaching down
and handed me a mug –sized box; ‘Un regalo’ (a gift). I was delighted and
thanked her. With a grin she told my inner child to open it later. I was so
excited that I couldn’t wait and leaning/balancing my stuff on a bend in the
bannister, I opened it and found a mug. It’s a wonderful souvenir and a
reminder that moments of pleasure can come from small things.
Opting to work my way from the top floor downwards, I took the lift to a very long narrow room under the cantilevered roof. The temporary exhibition was called The City of Broken Windows by Hito Steyerl
Given this is a contemporary art venue, I knew I would be
seeing ‘strange’ works and was not disappointed when I entered the room to loud
repeating glass smashing noises. The screen by the entrance showed various
engineers clad in space suits wielding industrial hammers and hefting them into
double glazed panes. It looked like a lot of fun. The 150 metres long wall bore
a single line of free form ‘poetry’. Despite the post-apocalyptic tone, I was
buoyed by the mixed media of sound, video, word and use of natural light in an
impressive setting. Whatever the message was meant to be, I enjoyed it.
Although the rest of the exhibition was fascinating, there were
a couple of horrible exhibits. One was a life size model of a child sitting at
a desk facing a bay window and when you walk around to see her face it’s an
awful skeletal vision of death. Another gross item, and I’m told that all the
school children of Turin remember this one, is a stuffed horse suspended by its
belly from the ceiling. What, I asked myself was the point?
As the end of my visit approached, I made my way towards the
exit and found myself, as can be seen in the pictures in a scene from 2001 A
A room of human size geometrical shapes lead me through to
THE MONOLITH. It felt like a nightmare coming to life as it immediately brought
to mind a repetitive dream I had as a child whereby I was forced to build a giant
object in a small room with no materials or tools and very limited time.
Fortunately the daytime atmosphere in the castle is
uplifting and the windows allow in so much natural light that along with the Piemontese
Royal interior décor, there is no gloom.
The visit was brief yet worthwhile and I plan to return to
see what other modern day artists are up to.
Rivoli has intrigued me for over 25 years. Having frequently
travelled the westbound road from Torino in North Western Italy to the French
border at Montgenèvre, I had always noted the castle on the hill to the left
and wondered why nobody had ever suggested a detour there.
I was watching a TV programme about contemporary artist
Olafur Eliasson (Miracles of Rare Device https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00077pm)
and my ears pricked up when they showed a brief interview with Marcella Beccaria, the Chief Curator and Curator
of Collections at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. At once I knew
that the castle was not another rural location trying to trap a few tourists,
but in fact an internationally known and credible centre of present day art.
The lot was cast; I was going there no matter what.
My plane landed in the early
August heat. As the passengers walked across the baked 16.30 tarmac, the involuntary
inhalation of fuel and tar assaulted my nostrils. I half expected to see some
form of vapour but the fumes remained invisible and I stepped with relief
through the automatic doors towards the air conditioned indoors and passport
Reunited with my luggage, I
drove the hire car towards the tangenziale (ring road) and the zone where the
sun would eventually be setting.
The first opportunity to tick
a longstanding box presented itself in the form of a road sign; ‘Juventus
Stadium’. Although I had long since lost interest in the antics of a football club
that cheated by doping its players and dodgy financial dealings, I was so enjoying
my free time that I knew a detour could be worthwhile. It was entirely on route
and as I was only driving 26 Km that evening, I had no obligations to fear
being late for. Time, precious time was my own and I was free.
After veering off the main
road I followed a winding supermarket style car park track to the stadium and
parked in a side road by J Medical, the club’s health centre. The area was
easily accessed and the largeness of the low white and wide structure was
counterbalanced by the lack of people and traffic around it. Perfection; no
cars and no people. I locked the car, ensuring nothing of value was on view,
and walked to the stadium entrance. At this point about 20 people reappeared
from the main door. Dressed in a variety of soccer jerseys (mainly the 2 big
Spanish teams) they spilled onto the concourse having completed the last
stadium tour of the day. As the tours were over, I opted to look around the
club store instead. I’m not averse to collecting football shirts but €100+ for
the 2019-2020 home team shirt with ‘Ronaldo’ across the shoulders caused me to sound
my derision aloud with an uncontrolled snort. Rolling my eyes and tutting, I returned
to my car.
I arrived at the Hotel Rivoli
soon after. The property was easy to find as it is between the motorway and the
historic town. It’s a large red brick structure set within an impressive car
and coach park. I’ve worked in tourism all my career and do not have a problem
with big utilitarian places so long as they function properly. This property
was fine. The receptionist knew my name before I told him who I was. This
impressed me because it showed he had invested time in looking at the arrivals
list. He even spoke to me in English which was not something I particularly
wanted (I like to assume a full Italian identity when I’m there) but again this
showed he was interested in the guests and keen to communicate. My room was
simple but fine. The window offered a long view of the Alps and the Piemontese
countryside. Nearer the hotel I could see the gardens were tidy and
surprisingly green. To the side, a small water park with its bold red, blue and
yellow slides demonstrated that greater Rivoli offers more than just a
convenient stop-off place but family activities too.
Armed with a map (Millennials
NB, it’s a paper version of Google Maps and paper is what people used to write on before
we had screens). I walked out of the hotel’s rear gate and ambled for 2 km to
Rivoli’s centre. The route was quiet and safe. I passed playgrounds, a closed-for-summer
school and an imposing Jehova’s witness centre. As I approached the central
zone I found myself walking past very normal Italian post-war apartment blocks.
The street level was occupied by all the usual suspects; bakers, butchers,
green grocers and more than enough hairdressers and a barber’s shop. The
buildings may have been standard fair, but their balconies intrigued me. Some
of the wrought metal looked like 1960’s pin people doing a square dance while
others curled where they could in an effort to add baroque to the utilitarian
occupies the corner of the square. Its glass front and side allowed internal movements to be seen from the exterior. From across the square I could see pastries, triple layered tramezzini (sandwiches) and an array of coloured bottles upright on the tiered glass shelving. I sat at a small table on the outside without a firm idea of what I wanted until the server suggested an Aperol Spritz. I accepted immediately. Now I know it has become a bit too popular in recent years and does not make the imbiber look particularly sophisticated, but the A.S. is a marvellous aperitivo designed to be taken BEFORE dining. Its flavours blend to stimulate appetite. It is culturally and morally wrong to consume it after dinner. The kind of thing a tourist would do. This rather large drink was certainly ‘pre’, my as yet unplanned dinner and therefore acceptable and besides, the three middle aged women on the next table were sipping Aperol too so I drank mine knowing I didn’t appear to be a foreigner. What did make me look like an out-of-towner however, was the surprise on my face when the waitress brought me a platter of food. I had expected some crisps or bread sticks, but the selection of meats, cheese and pizza brought about a childlike delight. When the €8 bill came, I was just sober enough (I’m not a big drinker) to calculate that I could comfortably and economically live in this bar. I left a €10 note on the table and swanned off feeling magnanimous albeit slightly wobbly.
I was sated and relaxed and ready for
my Castle adventure the next day.
I have been running for almost a year now and like most people that have taken up the activity, I find the arrival of the winter evenings with their wind and rain rather off putting. Although I successfully ran through last winter, it still looms like a rude giant that places his pock-marked face right up to mine and dares me to ‘have a go’.
Of the various winter running strategies I have come across, the one that currently appeals comes from a conversation I had with a friend. He told me that he has taken to thinking about blue skies. This is not a re-hash of noughties’ blue sky thinking or any other management school hyperbole but is something literal.
He confided that each day he thinks of a simple and good thing to get an appreciation of life and a blue sky, when it’s here is wonderful. I have invested much time over the years in seeking out deep meaningful clues (to life). I’ve had temporary successes like when I began my ‘silence project’ two years ago, but little has endured and I think the reason is that I sought out obscure ideas because they felt clever rather than simple ones. The idea of ‘think of something good’ now appeals because it is just so straightforward.
A few weeks ago I went to Tuscany (see my previous blog) to attend a UNESCO tourism event. I have been to many exhibitions over the years but due to the fact that the invitations have become fewer, I now value them much more when I get the chance to attend.
As I checked into the hotel (Hilton’s La Bagnaia Resort near Siena)
I was told both good and bad news. The good news was that the resort had a gym and the bad news was that it is 1.5 km along the road. I had brought my sports gear and wanted to run but was put off by the fact that the gym was a five minute drive away. I realised however that I could run to the gymnasium, do more running there and then run back.
It was Friday evening in early October. As I left my room and stepped onto the cobbled yard I was struck by how temperate the weather was. There was a pleasant caress of warmth accompanied by a hay like aroma that reminded me of somewhere I had never been. I walked downhill through a stone arch and began to run. It was easy to begin as the descent continued and the scenery was ancient and calm. To one side was a manicured golf course which although pretty and green is a manufactured construct that bends nature to reinventing itself in the name of a rather pompous pastime. The other side was more natural and rough and the high hedge along the route obscured me seeing over it. I had to be careful with the running as the country road had a grass margin that was as bumpy as the pot-holed road and I am always aware of the risk of twisting an ankle. I managed however to grab a few upward skyward glances and noted the friendly deep blue above.
After 9 or so minutes I approached the building that housed the gym and realised I did not have enough time to run in the gym here and then get back so I eschewed the indoor facilities and completed my 3km by running back to the resort. I found it amusing that because I had run to and from the gym I had rendered its existence rather pointless.
…which was some 20 metres in front of me. As I had been in front of hundreds of other Renaissance walls over the last 30+ years, the tour guide’s explanation was rather easy to switch off to. She knew her stuff and dispatched her lines with passion but the fact that I had been travelling for a whole day and it was now late evening meant I was not open to learning new material.
That was until I heard her comment that this mural was created almost 700 years ago. The sheer old age of the massive painted wall struck me much more than the work itself. That is not to say that the painting lacked impact but it was the realisation of its ancientness that really impressed me. I stared at the expanse and imagined a team of committed young artists (presumably all men) perched high up on wobbly ladders and wielding heavy brushes in cold damp winters and hot sweaty summers. Each one would have had the mind set of an intern doing his best to impress the maestro and would have been exuding a deep concentration. And like an intern, the artists probably suffered from the nagging fear that this was the proverbial ’it’, their career apex and that the next gig was not guaranteed because other hopeful apprentices were coming through the ranks and would be the next in line to be underpaid.
Another realisation was the absolute attention to detail that the artist and his team would have invested in creating and interpreting the picture. Being a very large piece, the translation from say an A3 sketch to something around 10 meters tall would have been a labour of complex (what we now call) logistics. The artists were clearly technically adept at drawing and painting on ‘normal’ sized canvases, but to magnify the effort to around 30 times the regular size must have been a serious challenge.
I found myself wondering what motivated artists to take on such colossal and difficult projects? I suppose the main creator would have enjoyed a decent pay out from his client which would have been the city council (as in this case), a wealthy benefactor or the church, but I don’t think people became artists to make big money. The motivation would I suspect have been from faith, both religious as in most Renaissance paintings and in their own artistic journey.
It’s hard for me to relate to religious faith because I have no compelling beliefs of my own, but when I consider that the artists of the period could not express themselves other than through formal topics I am rather envious that they could conjure up inspiration, even if it was based on what I consider to be a stifling and obligatory (religious) premise.
In this, the 21st Century we see ourselves, in the west at any rate, as having a free access to expression. I can write this blog and although some people may criticise it (not that I allow any comments) I won’t be imprisoned for it. I wonder though how helpful this liberal backdrop actually is. If people created valid works of art under the constraints of religion and politics how valid is freedom of expression in the creative context? The present seems to throw up so many mercenary artists that go for the money that I wonder if freedom is the bed fellow of cynicism.
Top picture: Il Guidoriccio da Fogliano, rifacimento quattrocentesco di un originale di Simone Martini (1330) Siena, Italy
A warm 4pm sun slanted towards me as it prepared to set. The 27 degrees were made bearable by a speedy breeze. I stepped up onto the repaired jetty and began a casual stroll seawards towards its lamp bearing point. This is one of two parallel structures that sit about 200 meters apart astride the estuary of Porto Santa Margherita, Caorle near Venice.
I love this place.
I love the peace of knowing that to my right sat my hereditary home town of Venice, to my left, the Gulf of Trieste and in front, beyond this pier, the relative safety of a calm Adriatic. I’m no seafarer, but if you want to wax and wane about green\blue salt waters, this is a good comfort-zone location to do it.
I was on a mission of silence. Part of a project to unearth a level of inner peace – something that has always eluded me. It should have been easy to let the wind and lapping waters transport me someplace ‘else’ but to be frank, I’ve never been able to relax or to contemplate but a self-awareness crept up on me as I watched other people I could begin to take aim.
As I begun the stroll I was immediately struck by how many other people were passing their time on this same strip of concrete. A random cross-selection of Italy, about fifty people, was shuffling, marching, walking, swaggering and flouncing.
There was the noise of the seaside; birds, swans, wind, voices and the further I walked out, the softer they became. The shuffling sandals always belonged to people and of the people, this group of disconnects, I found four types of person, each embracing their own peace;
Western Guru, Fishermen, The Seaweed Community, The Observer’s Shadow.
When it comes to a calm the mind there’s no hierarchy and no space for judgement. Each has their own place along the jetty and whether that person is on a holiday break, a pause between bouts of depression, a child losing her inhibitions in the warm sun and a million other permutations. They are all valid.
What works for you
Could work for them
Or it may not.
If this silence is actually loud
There’s another version that will work
Your task is to find it and own it
And this is one thing you don’t have to share.
The first person was the Western Guru.
A European man sat facing the sea. Legs crossed lotus. His slim flexible frame sent a shudder of envy down my un-flat stomach. With his yoga mat and straight back it could even be that he wanted to be seen ‘doing it right’. I couldn’t decide if he was performing and wishing to be seen or truly building from inside. To offer the benefit of my doubt, I’d say that from his point of view the passing sample of public was an incidental thing. He could create an internal calm not despite, but because of the external sounds. Slapping waves, gull cries and even fighter jets on their way to and from an air display along the coast.
The more (confusion) outside: the more (controlled calm) inside.
It made me think that to assume a place of inner silence when already surrounded by silence, can for a town dweller, be rather daunting. But to be silent when surrounded by the familiarity of sounds and voices can enhance the peace.
And on I went along the path. I remember a brassy hook embedded in the sunken concrete that blinked up at me emblazoned TEMA FAENZA.
And so to the fishermen.
Mainly alone yet some in pairs, these men and boys enthuse about tackle and bait yet once they’ve cast the line, cloak themselves in stillness. Somehow the muted hubbub doesn’t affect the fish and a little like the Western Guru their actions are minimal and habitual. They do what they do and that is enough.
Fishermen seem to know themselves. They appear self-aware.
Is their end game really to capture the flailing floppy fish or is the act of fishing the end in itself? I shifted focus to a tanned man with a simple rod and the ancientness of this activity came to me. Was this the beginning of humans discovering patience? When they accepted that the road to the goal of food required strategy and stillness and that this waiting time brought about the bonus of introspection and chill?
As I moved along the pier I noted that if a fish was caught it was the watching kids and adults that reacted in excitement at the capture. The fishermen remained stoic and controlled, as if the hook and haul was part of the process, not the end of it. Somehow even though hobby fishermen could undertake the activity without trying for a catch, the potential bite remains key. Even if the catch is in truth a secondary goal to the main one of carving out some ‘me-time’, to achieve moments of peace, the ‘wake-up’ jump-to-it moment of getting a bite is sewn into the process.
The Seaweed Community.
And on further towards the sea I went. To my right, on the large bank of sloping crane-planted rocks sat three young people and a dog. Here they shared a long, clumsily rolled joint. My first thoughts turn to the quadruped, barking his passive smoking way to dog-space. And as his bark subsided I confessed to myself that I never got this hippy thing. Personally I’m happier with the odd-un-shared Tramadol.
‘Off my head inside my head. Alone.’
Yet this group chill is shared by many and as I watch the humans giggle and move in slow motion I accept that this kind of shared space doesn’t have to be a bad space. Whatever these people are feeling, or think they are feeling, I can see that as the sun sets and the sea breeze blows, the reality of the situation really doesn’t matter. If you can slip into a moment and then let it slip away, what the hell? After all, it’s a viable rehearsal for the great unknown. The giggles and whispers between the youths and the dog are certainly not silence, at least not in its literal format but the state of a different reality is possibly just as valid. I suppose the issue with drugs, apart from dangers, costs and social alienation is that they might take you further away from inner peace rather than nearer to it.
But I’m not the one to judge because my own peace is largely derived from being the passive observer. I’d like to be the invisible man. In fact not even that man himself, but his shadow. Reality not once, but twice removed.
The Observer’s Shadow.
Consider some facts;
I have tried yoga and meditation. I’ve even had an Ayurveda massage and disliked them all. I find that an enforced introspection can dig up those not-so-deep lying demons of failure, conspiracy of the system against me and lost opportunities. The shark-toothed bite of nostalgia can infect me with quaint smells and deep regrets. My past is one of cautious times cautious squared. The ghost of the mediocre scares me when my own silence is loud.
I tried fishing too and despite the thrill, the idea of waiting Godot-like for a fishy end with a wormy hand and hook-punctured finger has no appeal. I’d be sitting on the edge wishing I’d brought my hand sanitiser. C’est la guerre.
I do find a peace in being the watcher. The one based on the periphery with licence to step in and step out in a heartbeat.
My silent place is derived from watching two or three people or ideas come together and curating the outcome.
I’m aware that this is very much an artist’s position. Watching, interpreting and creating. My own silent place kicks-in before the creation. It’s the joy of seeing connections, those already manifested and those yet to occur. The world recreates miniature works of art every moment and even if I’m no Da Vinci, I can still sense the silent rumble of things about to unfurl.
As my father’s Super8 cine camera panned upwards from the family to my newly airborne plane they waved at me soaring skywards from Heathrow, bound for Venice to visit my grandparents. My father, a typical 1960’s dad, filmed every moment of take-off, nothing would be omitted. What he had missed however was the not insignificant issue that I wasn’t on the plane. They were blowing kisses at the wrong aircraft!
I, meanwhile was lost and tearful in BEA’s departure zone in Terminal 2. My flight had been delayed for two hours but as a VIP Junior Flyer I was ushered into an office. To an 8-year-old this was impressive and I actually thought we were in the control tower. Through the picture window I saw planes and baggage handlers moving in strange jagged dances across the elephant grey tarmac. I remember thinking that if I wasn’t so sad, I’d enjoy this scene. My view became overwhelmed by a massive PAN AM tail fin cruising past. It was so close I could see the paint break in the celeste globe where the rear aileron was hinged. It looked clean and dirty at the same time.
The control tower/office door opened and a pretty girl breezed in. Confident, tanned and switching from Italian to English effortlessly, she smiled at me. She introduced herself as Maria-Grazia. I remember her wearing white lace gloves. She was ten. For the first time in my life I felt a heat blush that bore no relation to the warm weather. Could I, at 8 years and 8 months be falling in love? The hostess announced that we’d be travelling together as VIP Juniors. My face cracked as a whimper escaped my mouth; what about my family? My grandparents are waiting at Marco Polo. MG looked at me with the gaze of a grounded angel ‘We’ll all be alright’.
Gloop gloop went my melting heart.
And we flew. I relaxed into flight, MG’s kindness and two-years-more-on-earth maturity gave me confidence. The emotions stirred were the pure ones children can feel that usually only happen in books and movies featuring parks and sunlight.
Her deep brown eyes switched from mine to the round cornered porthole ‘look’ she said ‘La Laguna’. Windows on both Port and Starboard displayed the deep oil green sea on which it felt like we were definitely going to land. There was no sign of ground anywhere. This scene, MG to my immediate right and sea filled windows all around has been a regular dream ever since. A serenity only broken by the bump and upward judder of the unexpected Venetian runway.
At the journey’s end I won’t pretend we held hands, nor that I had the foresight to get her address (in the 60’s you swapped addresses and wrote to each other). As we stepped down the grey hot metal stairs towards our expectant high volume relatives we exchanged smiles and flighty heavy hearts of a love found, then lost forever.