A visit to Arte Fierra
I have gone to conferences and even ComicCon in the past, but Arte Fierra Bologna is the first art fair that I have seen. I spent much of the day there on Friday, February 3. Directions to the entrance were oddly lacking in the publicity for the event, so I naturally started off in the wrong direction from my bus stop. I was rescued by a mother and daughter from Modena; the daughter seemed to know where she was going, so I tagged along.
It is interesting to compare the experience of Arte Fierra with a visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence a few years ago. In the Uffizi I felt glutted and drained, as if I had no more attention to give. At Arte Fierra, I felt better at the end of the day, more energized. There could be many reasons for this, but I think one important reason is that contemporary art often requires less attention. Often it is less detailed; its 'idea' is either obvious or deliberately hidden. You don't have to examine it closely to know whether it interests you.
After entering the fair I stood around at the first of the many booths and asked myself "why are you here?" I decided that the answer was "to find out what I like!" to choose from the smorgasbord and later try to discover common threads in what I liked. I wrote down the names of about a dozen artists, and I took a few pictures of things that I wanted to remember.
My favorite artwork in the show was a blue abstract painting by Claudio Verna. I did not get a picture of it, unfortunately, because it was in a small alcove and it was hard to get near it. Apparently Verna was wandering around Arte Fierra - he is 80 years old or so and still painting. I also liked some scrappy little cartoonish pictures by Gustavo Foppiani and some soft-edged abstractions by Mirko Baricchi. There were lots of well-known artists in the booths, too: Baechler, DeChirico, Severini, Moore. I liked the large, fragmentary neo-classical heads by Igor Mittoraj.
So I think I know a bit more about what I like now: beautiful textures and fantasy.
Sounds - a collage
I am posting here a collage of sounds that I recorded when I heard something interesting and had time to think about recording.
Here is a list of the sounds, in the sequence that you hear when the collage plays:
1 - Bells from a neighboring church that we hear every day many times. We can open our apartment window and hear them coming down an inner courtyard of our building.
2 - Sounds of a protest that we heard. The local teachers were protesting right in front of our apartment, because the offices of the school system are across the street from us. The reasons for the protest seem to be about respect and high-handed behavior by the administration.
3 - Some Gregorian chant that we hear in a church early in our stay in Bologna (we think). Both of us recorded it (I think). We don't remember where!
4 - Bells at the ancient church of San Stephano, Bologna. I only caught the end of this. The bells were very loud and a bit showy, I thought.
5 - A bird on a rooftop that we heard on a street one night. We didn't see it, so we don't know what it was.
6 - This mercifully short sound is something that I heard in the bathroom of the museum of the history of the canals of Bologna.
7 - Bells of the Neonato Baptistry in Ravenna.
8 - Busy birds in a yard next to Sant Apollinare in Classe.
Laundry and a bookstore incident
Yesterday I went out to a laundromat on Via Inerio to wash my bedding. The tiny washing machine in our apartment wouldn't handle the volume of my load, and there is no dryer. On the way there I got some cash at an ATM, but the denominations were too large to use in the laundromat, so I put my load in to wash using coins, then went to a convenience store nearby (Frutta Inerio) and bought some cookies and a drink. The proprietor spoke good English and asked me where I was from after I spoke to him in Italian. Is it my midwestern accent that gives me away?
The instructions in the laundromat were not too difficult to understand, but I couldn't figure out how to start the dryer, and an older man helped me. When I struggled to fold my sheet and duvet cover, a stout, blonde woman took pity on me and we folded them together.
Bookstores are like catnip to me, and there a many in Bologna, especially in the university area. I stopped in three of them on my way home, wishing that I could read Italian at something resembling normal speed.
The last bookstore I stopped in (Modo Info Shop, Via Mascarella) had a definite counterculture vibe; it also had a few of the Penguin Classics, and I bought two, How to Use Your Enemies by Baltesar Gracian, and Travels in the Land of Serpents and Pearls, by Marco Polo.
About an hour after I got home, I discovered that my wallet was missing. Panic! I rushed back to Modo Info Shop. The clerk took one look at me and handed me the wallet with both hands, as if it were a holy object. We had a laugh over it.
So there is a moral to this little narrative. People in Bologna have been uniformly kind and friendly to us. Since we emerged from Covid isolation and the Christmas holidays, we have also made a lot of friends. We are impressed by how open and hospitable the people in this city seem to be.
Pictures from the opera in Modena
Modena is only a 30-minute train ride from Bologna, and what we saw of it looked interesting and attractive. I did not take a systematic set of pictures, but see below.
At the opera, we were seated in the Ducal box, dead center in the lowest balcony. We tried to behave appropriately, as Dukes and Duchesses should. The opera was Pelleas and Melisande, as I wrote about in the last post. I took a few pictures of the theater, but none of the performance.
A pair of operas
We went to see the opera Mirandolina on January 15 in Bologna. The libretto is adapted from a comedy by Goldoni, and the music is by Czech composer Boluslav Martinu. Since the Teatro Communale is being renovated (for the next 3-4 years), the opera was presented in another venue, a 10-minute walk for us instead of 2 minutes! Unfortunately, the Teatro Manzoni does not have a pit, so the singers had to negotiate a narrow stage area in front of the the orchestra. Martinu's rather beefy orchestra and fulsome orchestration meant that the excellent singers were often overpowered.
You might assume that a libretto drawn from a successful playwright like Goldoni would be a safe bet for a composer. In this case, the libretto is weak, and it sinks the opera. The title character is a woman innkeeper who is in love with another member of her class, Fabrizio; he happens to work for her. A pair of male aristocrats are in love with Mirandolina (or simply lust after her). She encourages and discourages them, trying to make Fabrizio jealous and (maybe) propose to her(?) The trouble with this is threefold: a) there really is nothing to keep Fabrizio and Mirandolina apart, b) the Mirandolina model of woman is a sexist construction and is vastly outdated, and c) there is not enough stage action - it isn't a farce, so everyone stands around doing silly, distracting things which aren't related to the spine of the story. Also, advice to opera composers: don't start the opera with a scene in which two characters talk about a third character for 10 minutes, then have the main character wander onstage for no discernible reason.
The music was lively and sometimes funny, and the musical performance was very good. I especially enjoyed an orchestral set-piece which formed a prelude to the third act. It's a bit odd to have a kind of overture in the middle, but it was fun.
Last night we went to see Pelleas and Melisande in Modena, at the Pavarotti-Freni theater, a real opera house with a pit, which meant that the voices always stood out clearly. The singers were again excellent, though we didn't like the vocal habits of the Melisande very much. It hadn't occurred to me before last night that Melisande is pregnant throughout the later scenes, and I'm glad that the staging showed that. The acting, costumes, and sets were appropriately atmospheric, though every major character wore a white wig, even Pelleas! We didn't like the wigs. There was also a scene of gratuitous nudity during an orchestral interlude after the first scene. We think we understand why they did it, but the nudity was completely unnecessary to the plot point.
Carping aside, it was wonderful to see this most singular and original opera. It really is moving at the end when, in his grief, Arkel sums up the life and character of Melisande. In fact, in this production, Arkel seems to be the moral/spiritual foundation of the dark world, while Pelleas at times seems to be breaking free into daylight. And Debussy's music just can't be beat. I had forgotten how much fast music there is; it is not all languid languishing in the gloom. It's a great opera.
There is a tendency for human beings to create discrete bits of meaning which are perfectly comprehensible. Then they stack them into archives, pile them into heaps, and evacuate them into dumps, where the meanings become muddled, buried, and lost. I have seen this happen in software development, and now I have seen it in a cemetery.
I mean no disrespect to the Italian people when I say that the Certosa Cemetary in Bologna is one of these monstrous heaps of decaying meanings. It is fabulous, beyond anything I ever imagined, and it is also appalling.
We took a long walk to the cemetery on January 4, a chilly, gray day. We went in through the front gate, along with a group of women who were supporting another, woman. Later we saw the woman standing on a ladder in front of a wall of tombs like those in the photo below. She was beating on the front of one of the upper tombs and weeping.
The cemetery is immense; we didn't even try to see it all. There are long porticoes filled with elaborate bas-reliefs and inscriptions, long avenues between field after field of tombs of all sizes and shapes. There are beautiful buildings with high roofs that shelter some large memorials. There are tombs everywhere, even hidden inside the blank walls of the porticoes, as we saw through a grungy door that was left open.
There is a lot of beautiful artwork and decoration in Certosa; there is also a lot of stuff that I found unappealing. In parts of the cemetery there is a heavy quality of decay that you can see and smell, though it might feel differently on a warm, sunny day. Seeing it was a powerful experience, which I recommend to anyone who doesn't mind being surrounded by a vast archive of death and mourning.
Ravenna's Museo d'Arte
I am skipping over a couple of the mosaic sites. If there is a vast public outcry, I will post more of them.
Ravenna has a very large and fine art museum, but I didn't have a lot of time to see it, so I focused on the currently featured exhibit, a show by the duo "Prodigy Kid" (Francesco Cavaliere and Leonardo Pivi). After that, I swept through the rest of the halls looking for contemporary art, of which there was some, but not a lot that interested me. I ignored most of the medieval, Renaissance, etc work up to the present, but I hope to go back and see it later.
The Prodigy Kid exhibit both repelled me and occasionally charmed me. I liked Cavaliere's sound sculptures and I liked the sounds that he chose to play through them. I didn't like Pivi's work very much; he likes pop culture and the grotesque rather uncritically, and I don't, much. I did like some of the non-Prodigy-Kid artworks included in the show.
I include a brief recording of some of the sounds that were being made by the Cavaliere sculptures.
Below are photos from the Prodigy Kid exhibit.
I include a photo of a very nice portrait head by Domenico Baccarini from 1903-4, and a couple of photos of the front of the museum.
The tomb (or memorial) of Galla Placidia was my favorite mosaic site, partly because it is small and the mosaics are relatively easy to see. I suggest that you read about Galla Placidia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galla_Placidia) - she had quite a dramatic life, and must have been quite a person. (There should be an opera cycle about her - anybody want to write a libretto for me?) The building looks unremarkable from the outside, but inside it is like a fairyland. The pictures really can't render what it is like to be surrounded by jewels.
The National Museum
Attached to San Vitale is the National Museum. I must apologize for the small number of pictures below; having been to both San Vitale and Galla Placidia before this, I was not very fresh and tired of looking. The pictures below make it look as if the museum has only ancient things, but that's not so. They have artworks right up to the present day. Here are some ancient things, many of them quite small.
I am skipping over a lot of interesting stuff that I was too tired to photograph. The contemporary art section (always of interest to me) had a number of works by artists unknown to me, some of which relate to the 'mosaic culture' of Ravenna.
January 11th, 2023
The most impressive of the UNESCO sites, San Vitale is huge and visually confounding; you hardly know where to look, because almost every surface is decorated. The floors and columns have interesting patterns, and the mosaics are extensive. Stylistically it is a mixture of very old, old, and newer (Baroque?). But any description pales beside the reality - just go and see it. It is quite an experience to be there.