4th September, 2016
Everybody rushes here. When we got off the plane last night, people were pouring through the airport. They were eating too, delicious food, in restaurants that lined the walk to the baggage carousels and they were promenading past the shops and talking on their phones, and a child was picking out the tune, in a very laboured manner, of ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ on a grand piano, and this seemed to be tolerated and welcomed, by the Italians who love and value their piccolo bambini.
The men at our hotel are smooth-tongued and very courteous and have names like Alessio and Mario and Francisco. When I thanked Francisco for showing, on a map, the exact location of the Maxxii, Zaha Hadid’s 21st century of museum of art, he said, ‘Oh, all the pleasure is from you, Dr Shepard.’
Gosh it’s so warm already. I commented on this to Alessio and he said airily, ‘oh it will be quite cool today, anywhere between the late 20s and mid 30s.’ Apparently it’s been as high as 43 degrees here recently.
The gardens are green in Rome with hedges everywhere trimmed into fine examples of the art of topiary including big urns of box and yew plants shaped into balls. After breakfast I walked up the pebble paths of the hotel garden, and inspected the herbs and vegetables growing there. I found a lemon myrtle in the herb garden that appeared to be thriving in the heat, the leaves plump and smelling sharply of lemon, when I rubbed the leaf between my fingers. My myrtle in the kitchen garden at home is not doing so well, it’s grown quite twiggy. I think the Auckland summers are too hot and humid and that the plant might need to be moved to a shadier spot, like this one, near a taller tree offering dappled light.
Before I left for Europe I saw Piet Oudolf being interviewed by Monty Don on an English gardening programme on the Living channel and he was saying that the path to being a successful gardener is through experimentation. I give that same advice to life writers who attend my memoir courses. It’s the only way, learning through experimentation and regular practice. He also said that gardeners must learn from their failures. I’m not sure whether all writers would agree with that. Sometimes the failures seem unfair and unlucky. But Piet says we need to accept that some plants will fail and the approach to take is to try them out in another more clement location. And you keep on trying until you find the right setting and the right plants for your weather conditions. I agree totally with all those points. The great garden designer also said you could create his prairie effect in a small garden, using just one grass and one, of each of his favourite plants. I find this notion liberating and a validation, finally, of my own uncertain approach to growing the grass ‘miscanthus sinensis’. I had planted it in the kitchen garden, just one plant, and then I’d worried that it looked silly on its own with the verbena bonariensis, the bronze fennel, the silver artichoke, the bright russet heleniums, the roses. When I get home I’ve decided I’m going to take a stronger more confident line on how I garden.
Maxii — The museum of 21st century art
There is a reason for visiting the gallery of 21st century art in Rome and it’s the same prompt that had me visiting Zaha Hadid’s extension to the Serpentine Gallery in London. Last year at the Resene Architectural Film Festival at the Rialto cinema in Auckland I had viewed a portrait of the artist documentary about the architect. There were other architects and buildings on display too in this very worthwhile festival and I felt inspired to see all of them but they weren’t on this particular holiday route. Also I liked the idea of visiting a big, bold gallery that had been purpose built to house exhibitions of 21st century contemporary art, only. That seemed novel given we’re only 16 years into the new century. What I hadn’t known, when I planned the trip, back in March, was that the viewing of Zaha Hadid’s work would be poignant for she died this year, unexpectedly from a heart condition aged only 66.
There were several exhibitions available for viewing at the gallery today so I decided to take a tour of the building first touching just lightly on the art on display while keeping my focus on the experience of the architectural space itself, which, I must say, is exceptional and extraordinary. When that was concluded I would concentrate on one exhibition in depth, the show of contemporary European photography on the ground floor.
It is as though the ideologies and art of two 20th century art movements, Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism along with the fantastical and sublime etchings of monumental and architectural spaces conceived by the 18th century artist, Giovanni Piranesi have been fused in a daring new three-dimensional architectural form. As I made my way upstairs the prison series Carceri (1749-50) by Piranesi depicting vast echoing spaces, labyrinthine passageways and staircases leading nowhere, were very much on my mind. I was also reminded in this gallery with its tilting walkways, sliding ceilings and odd geometric angles and juxtapositions of the experience at Great Dixter when the ground began moving underneath me but this time it was not another attack of vertigo but an intended effect created by the architect. I took some photographs of the interior but I’m not sure they will make any sense. There are steel angled shapes that look like louvres in the roof that are actually the treads of the stairs viewed from underneath. The tubular poles, made of red steel suspended at different angles that cut through the geometric spaces and run past luminous white panels and black cavities made me think for a moment that I was looking at a Malevich abstract constructivist canvas and not a building. Being in the middle of the artwork is confusing. It’s easy to loose your balance and your sense of direction and even to know what is up, and what is down but that does make for a visceral experience.
The exhibition of contemporary Italian photography was displayed in a more conventional space one that focussed the mind on the talent of individual photographers and the differing preoccupations, subject matter and styles. My attention was drawn to a selection of works entitled Atlas Italiae by philosophy graduate Silvia Camporesi that documented an Italy that is rapidly disappearing; palaces, prisons, factories, entire abandoned villages, places that once had a function and a purpose but now are places of memory only. When I looked at her black and white photos that she had coloured by hand using soft pastels I was reminded of the photos by a friend and collaborator, the photographer John McDermott, that he shot when we went down to Christchurch in 2013 to record the interior of the earthquake shattered Mclean’s Mansion.
The work that took my breath away was a very slow film, more like timelapse photography, by Petra Noordkamp Il Grande Cretto di Gibellina of the artist Alberto Burri’s memorial project built to honour and commemorate an entire town, Gibellina, in Sicily that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968.
It was 1979 when the mayor of the town invited the Italian artist Alberto Burri to create an artwork for the new town of Gibellina Nuova being built some distance away from the site of the original. But as the artist walked through the rubble of the old town he was so overwhelmed by the ruins that he conceived a plan for a giant land art installation, Il Grande Cretto, to be constructed as a memorial for the old Gibellina. His unique concept took over thirty years to realize with much stopping and starting due to lack of funds, so that it wasn’t completed until 2015. The project involved covering the rubble and ruins with giant concrete slabs thereby creating new forms like sarcophagi, on the hillside, and providing a monument that could be visited and viewed and reflected upon by traversing the large cracks in the work. And that’s what the film offers. It takes the viewer on a very slow walk through the streets, exposing you to the light effects in the landscape and changing colours as they strengthen and fade, subtle pastel hues illuminating the eerily beautiful structures that have weathered over time and sprouted plant forms, growing in the cracks. Some people wanted the town left untouched but the mayor understood Burri’s vision, ‘we must obliterate the ruins in order to commemorate them.’ The result is a masterpiece, a truly sacred and poetic site that memorialises and pays gentle tribute to the people who lost their lives there.
To view this beautiful film I sat on a pale wooden bench in a module that was like an open wooden box with a roof and a floor and only two walls, one at my back to lean on and the other holding the film screen. This created a sense of privacy minus the claustrophobia that can accompany a viewing experience in a blacked out room. I was glad of the wall at my back, too because the film unsettled me, stirring up memories of the deadly quake in my hometown Christchurch on February 22nd 2011.
In Christchurch some really important things happened following the earthquakes. The paper cathedral was built rapidly to provide an alternative venue to the badly damaged Anglican Cathedral and the artists got going and created really significant works of art in memory of the loss of life and the loss of a city. There was the installation of 185 chairs, painted white all of them different, from a child’s small car seat to a large throne to remember the people who had died in the CCTV building. There was an explosion of graffiti art on the few walls remaining in the city and there were the innovative Gap projects. One of them celebrated and labelled the wildflowers that grew in the empty spaces where buildings once stood. More recently there was Sara Hughes flag wall, an evocative and beautiful installation made up of hundreds of pieces of coloured fabric, like prayer flags that rippled in the breeze, beside the old Post Office in Cathedral Square. Looking though at this project I thought wistfully that Christchurch might have had a larger, more poetic memorial covering an expanse of ground where the old city had once stood. Already the vacant sites are being swallowed up and covered by a new city of concrete, steel and glass, representing not even an era of architecture but a very restricted five or possible ten years of hurried building activity, most of it very similar in style.
Petra Noordkamp’s ended her moving and delicate film with this quotation,
It is difficult to say how visions enter the mind. Who can tell?
Perhaps they are already stored there somewhere,
waiting for the right moment to appear in the mind’s eye.
At a tea shop later in the day
I am sheltering away from the fierce heat in a Salon de Thé, beside the Spanish Steps, waiting, I’m embarrassed to write, on an order for an iced peach tea smoothie, a combination of iced tea and gelato, and also a bottle of mineral water. It is so hot outside that walking alone down the Villa Conditorei, just now, in the red-hot sun, staring into the designer shops I began to feel dizzy and confused like the protagonists in E. M. Forster’s Passage to India and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. The sweltering quality of the heat, the press of the crowds, the way the apricot and golden stucco buildings seemed to be moving, squeezing in upon my head, made me feel disorientated. As well I missed a photo opportunity, a father pushing a bicycle with a child on the seat, holding a huge pink and yellow blown up horse, a balloon, and that made me feel frustrated and disappointed because it was such a wonderful sight and it would have illustrated my earlier claim that the Italians are very child-centred people. This happened in Amsterdam too. I saw a mother biking with her daughter on a tray in front, a diminutive blue-eyed, flaxen-haired beauty in her bright colourful clothing, leaning her head back into the cave of her mother’s chest but by the time I had taken my iphone camera from my bag and was ready to go, they’d gone.
I’m in the midst of escaping from an aggressive shop assistant. While walking just now past the designer shops I had spied a pale gold cashmere cardigan in a window and was drawn inside. From there things unfolded quickly. Suddenly I found myself in a cubicle with three cardigans to try on, all of them buttoned up, which meant I had to unbutton them first, in the heat, and a plum knitted jacket to try as well. The assistant brought me a glass of sparkling mineral water, which was thoughtful but it made me uncomfortable. Did this mean I would have to buy a very expensive garment from her range as a sign of my appreciation? I was feeling sticky. My face was hot and flushed. I looked dishevelled, aware that tonight I need to wash my hair. In short this was just the very worst scenario for trying on clothes. Oh why did I walk over the threshold?
I tried on the gold cardigan and it looked like a gold sack over my dress. So the shop assistant, very young and attractive and pert, found an alternative cardigan, a long one and put it on over her blue silk straight dress. But I didn’t want it. Then she fetched another version of the mulberry jacket. “No,’ I said firmly. ‘Not now, I will come back later.’ She was unimpressed by my lie and responded with another obvious untruth, it’s summer for goodness sake, saying that she had only one gold winter cardigan left in my size. “Why you not buy now?” she said, her tone turning slightly aggressive. When I repeated that I’d come back later, she said more harshly, ‘You buy now.’ That was when I fled, leaving the thirst-quenching water behind in the cubicle.
Here in the cool elegance of the Salon de The, I can catch my breath, rehydrate my body and collect my thoughts, or try to. The waitress has just spilt the entire contents of an iced coffee down the dress of a sophisticated, middle-aged, French guest. Her equally stylish friend must have slipped away to the bathroom, while I was writing. I had been studying this pair, admiring their sophistication, the shoulder length, bouffant, strong hair swept up and off their faces, the Tahitian black pearl earrings, and designer glasses with the circular frames, one deep plum, the other black. I was puzzling too over how they had managed to arrive here looking so cool in the stifling heat. Perhaps they were delivered in an air-conditioned chauffeur-driven car.
I’ve discovered I made a very poor choice. The iced peach tea smoothie is tasteless and too sweet and fattening but the Hildon sparkling water is restorative.
The friend is back and they have moved to another table. The poor woman whose long, floating, ruffled silk dress might be ruined is dabbing at the stains with a serviette. The thing that impresses me though is that she didn’t make a sound when it happened. The young waitress, on the other hand was beside herself, apologising profusely but the woman remained stoically silent. Neither did she call for the management like that Welsh man at the Ottolenghi restaurant in London who thought his chicken was dry. No she bore the accident with good grace. I’m not sure I would be that restrained if my dress got ruined, in fact I know I wouldn’t, and that gives pause for thought. I should try for equanimity in these situations and for better manners.
The waitress is now on the floor under the table wiping up the spilt coffee. Her pleated tangerine taffeta skirt is brushing on the wet tiles.
I think I’m ready to forge my way through the heat and crowds again but this time I won’t linger in the shops. My safest option is to photograph the expensive designer clothes in the windows of the glossy superstores of Valentino, Armani, Chanel, Dior and Max Mara and leave it at that. Then I will make my way back to the hotel, where I will take a shower and wash my hair, spend a little more time writing up my journal so that I can be fresh and ready to meet our friends for dinner at 7pm. But oh it seems wrong to be rushing back to the hotel and wasting precious time inside when all I have left now is this one mellow Saturday afternoon in August to absorb the sheer wonder and glory that is Rome before flying home tomorrow on a midday flight.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)