Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ruin lust

The Colosseum seen from the ruins on the Palatine Hill

In my last post I said we were about to head off for Rome and now I am back with a camera full of images of ruins.  Just before we left, I had a look round the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain, which begins in the eighteenth century with Piranesi and the Picturesque landscape painters and ends with more recent studies of war-torn buildings and urban decay.  Of course we did not travel to Italy to look for modern ruins, although sometimes they were unavoidable (the bus ride to Tivoli took us through Rome's edgelands and I imagined Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley excitedly hopping off there to explore the building sites, waste ground and low rise sprawl, rather than staying on to see the gardens of the Villa d'Este.)  Instead, as you can see from these photographs, our itinerary of Roman sites was a well-trodden one, catering as it did for young boys interested in Asterix and Horrible Histories as well as parents inspired by art and classical literature.

A wall at the Baths of Caracalla

The image used to promote Ruin Lust is Azeville (2006), Jane and Louise Wilson's imposing black and white photograph of a massive Nazi coastal defence structure that has weathered into something that resembles a basalt cliff overhanging a dark cave.  The ruins of Rome have long since taken on the characteristics of landscape.  Looking up from the Forum we saw successive walls of crumbling brick forming steep slopes and crevices.  At the Baths of Caracalla, isolated fragments of wall stood out against the blue April sky like the peaks of the Dolomites.  At Ostia Antica we wandered away from the main path to explore fields of overgrown stone that were once rooms - home now to small lizards and carpeted with grass and daisies.  The ruins are to some extent subterranean landscapes too, with underground passages that are not always accessible (the guide at the Catacombs tells you that its name meant 'near the caves', referring to the abandoned quarry that the tombs were built into).  Even after years of archaeology, parts of the ruins still remain buried and uncovered.

Arches and tree on the Palatine Hill

Standing beneath the towering walls of the Baths of Caracalla it was easy to imagine, like the author of the 'The Ruin' - the Anglo-Saxon poem that describes the crumbling remains of Roman Bath - that these were 'buildings raised by giants.'  But when I sat down to sketch them it was apparent that even the tallest structures are themselves dwarfed by pines and poplars, and that the marble colonnades are no taller than olive trees.  The old walls tended to recede into the background as I focused instead on the spring blossom (another potent symbol of transience).  The bricks themselves have an abstract beauty and there is a fascination in the way stone is configured at different scales, from tiny tessarae to great blocks of marble. But the more they sink into the landscape, the more they operate as setting rather than subject, a neutral background of cool grey and warm terracotta.  The ruins' arches and columns also provide natural frames: in Claude's paintings they stand in the foreground to one side in partial shadow, so that the eye travels on into the distant blue landscape suffused with golden evening light.  

Old stone and spring blossom at the Baths of Caracalla

Stone fragment on the Palatine Hill

All connoisseurs of ruins appreciate the multifarious ways in which plants overgrow them.  Sometimes I was struck by the juxtaposition of living flowers with their petrified form on old stonework.  The city has so many Corinthian capitals it is a surprise to come upon a bank of real acanthus leaves stirred by the wind.  The flowers, trees and birds we saw can be encountered in fading wall paintings, and in the extraordinary garden room of Livia (which I have written about here before) they create an immersive space seemingly more perfect than nature itself.  But frescoes and carvings, like my photographs, are silent, and cannot convey what for us was an overriding impression of the ruins of Rome: the ever changing accompaniment of birdsong. That and the scent of herbs, some growing naturally, some planted, like the rosemary bordering the rectangular pond in the Pecile at Hadrian's Villa.

 Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli: the rectangular pond

Having mentioned the birdsong, I must be honest and admit that the soundscape of the ruinsin Rome is as much about car horns and emergency sirens, tour parties, maintenance workers, and some very noisy grass cutting.  The Forum, which I remembered fondly from previous visits, is hellishly crowded by the middle of the day - I found myself thinking of John Piper's chaotic and unappealing depiction of it that features in Ruin Lust (a 'vile painting' according to Brian Sewell). 'If stones could talk,' the tourist sites say, but at the Forum you would be hard pressed to hear what they were trying to say.  This encouragement to imagine the voices of the past made me wonder whether anyone has tried writing a Dart-style poem, drawing on the thoughts of those who inhabit the ruins today: the conservators deciding which areas to restore, the labourers building their scaffolding, the guides with their well-worn stories, the bored looking young women (with, you imagine, PhDs in ancient history) who take your money at the entrance, the recent immigrants selling jewellery just outside the main gate and the mounted policemen who come to intimidate them away.

Exploring Ostia Antica

We found a lot of the ruins out of bounds to visitors (I was particularly disappointed not to see the view from Hadrian's belvedere, the Roccabruna).  No explanations were given but it is obvious that a lot of work is going on to secure the sites for the ever increasing demands of mass tourism.  The problems of conserving Pompeii are well documented and at Ostia one of the finest floor mosaics was covered with a tarpaulin for protection.  Tourists cannot be left to do what they like, or behave like the peasants shown hanging out their washing amid the remains of Hadrian's Villain a c1745 painting by Richard Wilson included in Ruin Lust.  It is a pity, because one of the joys of ruins is tracing your own path in and out of buildings, entering bedrooms and temples and swimming pools in a way that would be impossible in real life.  I have referred here before to Christopher Woodward's view that there is now too much emphasis on archaeology and not enough on the poetry of ruins.  Metal fences at the Baths of Caracalla prevent you from sitting on the stones where Shelley wrote 'Prometheus Unbound'.

Fenced off: the Baths of Caracalla

There is ample evidence in Ruin Lust of the attraction of aerial perspectives - from what Laura Cumming's review calls Piranesi's 'devastating vision of the Colosseum as it might be seen from the air, dangerously broken and overgrown, tiny figures tangled in the weeds and wreckage of this dead civilisation', to Joseph Gandy's imagining of The Bank of England as a ruinWe actually passed by both these edifices on our journey home.  Our flight took us over the Alps and across what was once just a small part of the Roman Empire.  As we descended towards Gatwick, the outline of London emerged in the distance with the Shard clearly identifiable, rising unfeasibly high over the city, lit by the rays of the low sun.  I thought then of W G Sebald's words in the Ruin Lust exhibition: 'somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.' 

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Garden of Music

'I love gardens.  They do not reject people.  There one can walk freely, pause to view the entire garden, or gaze at a single tree.  Plants, rocks, and sand show changes, constant changes.' -  Tōru Takemitsu, 'The Garden of Music' (1975)
We're off to Rome next week and I was remembering our last visit there and a trip to the water gardens of the Villa D'Este, which got me thinking about Liszt's Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este and then other music inspired by gardens, like John Cage's Ryoanji and Tōru Takemitsu's In an Autumn Garden.  In a 1984 lecture Takemitsu spoke of wanting the orchestra itself to resemble a landscape garden, where 'things sparkle in the sunlight, become somber when it is cloudy, change colour in rain, and change form in the wind' (see Confronting Silence: Selected Writings trans. Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow).  He describes experimenting with the organisation of instruments as if they were features in a garden: in Dorian Horizon for example, the oboe is played at the front of the stage while the shō can be heard from some way behind, so that they create a sense of space and distance.

When Takemitsu came to compose Arc for Piano and Orchestra in 1963 he divided the orchestra into four groups ranging from the most fluid, mobile sounds to the most enduring and stable, corresponding to (1) grass and flowers, (2) trees, (3) rocks and (4) sand and earth.  Takemitsu drew two diagrams to illustrate the concept (which you can see reproduced in an online essay), one showing the organisation of these landscape elements, the other showing how the solo piano, which takes the role of the walker in the garden, moves through them.  The pace of the walker (the tempo of the piano) is up to the performer.  However, the content of the garden is planned - 'there are no chance elements as in a shakkei garden, which includes outside features [i.e. borrowed scenery - distant views from outside the garden itself].'  Nevertheless, he concludes, 'some of my works may resemble the shakkei in that natural sounds may be heard with the composed music.' *  This suggests an interesting way of thinking about the use of field recording in modern composition - as akin to the shakkei concept in Japanese gardens. 

*  David Toop quotes this in his book Haunted Weather (2004) and goes on to reflect ruefully on his own Japanese-influenced garden's borrowed scenery - 'a slab of brutalist red brick - sheltered housing that once featured in a television series called Neighbours from Hell.'

Friday, March 28, 2014

When the brush moves, water flows from a spring

'Consider that when the brush moves, water flows from a spring, and when the brush stops, a mountain stands firm' -  Sun Guoting (648-703)
Sun Guoting, part of the Treatise on Calligraphy, 687
In Tim Ingold's book Lines: a Brief History he quotes two writers on the history of Chinese calligraphy (Yen and Billeter) who describe the importance that has been attached to emulating nature - not in its forms, but in its movements.  Sun Guoting, for example asked his readers to consider the difference between two strokes - the 'suspended needle' and the 'hanging-dewdrop' - and to draw inspiration from rolling thunder, toppling rocks, flying geese, animals in flight, dancing phoenixes, startled snakes, sheer cliffs, crumbling peaks, threatening clouds and cicadas wings.  An earlier Jin Dynasty text, Lady Wei's Chart of Brush Manoeuvres (quoted by Yen, but not by Ingold), suggests that 'an elongated horizontal line should convey the openness of an array of clouds stretching for a thousand miles' whilst a dot should 'contain the energy of a rock from a mountain peak.'  A sweeping stroke (na) should contain the 'orgiastic vigour of rolling waves, or crushing thunder and lightning.'

From Billeter's The Art of Chinese Writing Ingold gives five more examples:
  • A thirteenth-century master who compared the moment the brush makes contact with the paper to ‘the hare leaping and the hawk swooping down on its prey’
  • Another who in writing two particular characters tried to move his hand like a flying bird, and for two others imitated the 'somersaulting of rats at play'
  • The Sung Dynasty calligrapher Lei Chien-fu who 'described how he heard a waterfall, and imagined the water swirling, rushing and tumbling into the abyss. ‘I got up to write’, he recalled, ‘and all that I had imagined appeared beneath my brush''
  • Another Sung Dynasty calligrapher, Huang T’ing-chien (Huang Tingjian, 1045–1105), who only mastered a particular stroke after observing the way boatmen on the Yangtze River angled their oars 'as they entered the water, pulled through in the development of the stroke, and lifted them out at the end, and how they put their whole body into the work'.
  • And a treatise on painting from the same period describing the way Wang Hsi-chih (or Wang Xizhi, 321-79) drew inspiration from geese, whose necks undulate like the wrist of the calligrapher
 Qian Xuan, Painting of Wang Xizhi (and geese), thirteenth century.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Stones of Chamonix

John Ruskin, View from my Window at Mornex, c. 1862-1863
Images from Wikimedia Commons

If you're in Edinburgh this summer you'll be able to see the National Gallery of Scotland's exhibition John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, an in depth look at his often-underrated paintings and drawings.  Gary Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, puts their relative neglect down to the fact that Ruskin 'rarely completed pictures of a conventional sort', focusing instead on details and fragment, painting the landscape as he saw it rather than conjuring up sublime scenes or sentimental vignettes.  Wills regrets that the exhibition does not do more to acknowledge Ruskin's political interests: 'there are many drawings of Gothic architecture in the show—yet no mention of his connection between Gothic and workmen. There are obsessive tracings of sky and clouds—yet his ecological concerns for a coal-darkened England are nowhere mentioned.'  Instead, Ruskin's mental health and famously anguished attitude to women are foregrounded.  'His sexual repression is expressed, we are told, in compensatory fixations on mountain clefts and caverns as vaginas. Well, sure enough, there are some split rocks here—how could Ruskin have drawn hundreds of mountain scenes and avoided them?'

John Ruskin, Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix, c. 1854
John Ruskin, The Casa d'Oro Venice, 1845
Looking to see what other reviewers in Canada made of it, I came upon the Ottawa Magazine, whose 'Artful Blogger' finds Ruskin's private life far more intriguing than his art and concludes with a reference to his 'steamy landscapes' in which there is a hidden sexual element.  Much more useful is a review on The Victorian Web, that venerable website which is clearly still putting up valuable and interesting material.  And the short video tour with curator Christopher Newall that I've embedded below is well worth a watch.  In it he describes Ruskin's fascination with the individuality and craftsmanship of the Byzantine capitals used in building St Mark's, and horror at plans to reconstruct the facade of the basilica, which were fortunately thwarted.  He talks about Ruskin's intricate sketch of glacial rocks in Scotland and his passion for stones in both architecture and landscape (Ruskin said that had he not discovered the art of Tintoretto, he would have written a book called The Stones of Chamonix).  He also refers to Ruskin's bipolarity, but in a way that illuminates the painting - a vivid sketch of winter sunset on the Venetian lagoon conveys the delight Ruskin clearly felt at the time, but writing later in his diary, Ruskin regretted that he had felt the beauty of the place so intensely that he was now 'suffering the consequences'.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Ice Palace

'How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.'  It would be hard to imagine higher praise than Doris Lessing's, writing thirty years after the publication in 1963 of Tarjei Vesaas' The Ice Palace (Is-Slottet).  I think it is a remarkable book and Lessing's review gives a clear account of why it is so memorable and moving.  The Norwegian winter landscape is integral to the plot, which Lessing partly summarises as follows: 'One little girl, the orphan Unn, has a secret, something terrible - we never know what it is - which she promises to tell her new friend Siss; but instead, the very day after the promise, she is impelled to explore the caves of a frozen waterfall, further and deeper into the shining heart of the ice ... There she dies. The whole community searches for her, and some even clamber over the surface of the frozen fall, but it is only her friend Siss who catches a glimpse of her, like an apparition inside the ice palace, looking out through the ice wall. In the spring the frozen river melts, and all is swept away in the floods, the secret too.'


The Ice Palace was recently turned into a ballet with music by Terje Isungset, whose ice music I described here in an earlier post.  A film adaptation was made in 1987, which someone has loaded in sections onto YouTube - the clip above shows Unn walking into the frozen waterfall.  I'll close here with a brief quotation from this moment in the novel, translated in 1966 by Elizabeth Rokkan.  'There was a ravine with steep sides; the sun would perhaps reach into it later, but now it was an ice-cold shadow.  Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.  All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.  Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms.  Everything shone.  The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.'

Saturday, March 15, 2014


We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here.
On the final page of Finnegans Wake, the River Liffey enters the ocean.  But the book is circular and its last words, spoken by Anna Livia Plurabelle, the personification of the river - 'A way a lone a last a loved a long the' - point back to its opening - 'riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.'  I was listening to these words at the National Theatre last night in riverrun, a solo performance in which the Irish actor Olwen Fouéré embodies the voice of the river.  Based on the trailer (see above) I imagined this could involve riverine footage and field recordings, but there was just Fouéré and a microphone, carefully lit, with ambient sound designed to immerse you in the experience rather than signify flowing water directly.  Her extraordinary performance has received good write-ups (e.g. in the Telegraph and the Independent), although reviewers have been honest about the inaccessibility of the text - none has claimed to be able to follow exactly what they heard.

'A river is not a woman / ...  Any more than / A woman is a river', wrote Eavan Boland in 'Anna Liffey', a poem published in a collection twenty years ago.  'Anna Liffey' is the name the river has sometimes gone by, an anglicisation of Abhainn na Life.  'It rises in rush and ling heather and / Black peat and bracken and strengthens / To claim the city it narrated. / Swans. Steep falls. Small towns. / The smudged air and bridges of Dublin.'  One of these bridges is now called Anna Livia and the city has also recently acquired a James Joyce Bridge, facing the house where his story 'The Dead' was set.  In a park by the Liffey you can see a sculpture depicting Anna Livia Plurabelle.  She was originally sited on O'Connell Street with water flowing around her long limbs and became known as The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.  However, her presence was insufficient to turn the tide of economic decline and as part of a new plan to regenerate the street she was replaced by a millennium monument, The Spire of Dublin (aka The Stiletto in the Ghetto).  But as the city continues to change around it, the Liffey flows on, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, always back to the ocean.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Like a crystal flood

The story of Acis and Galatea is rooted in the landscape of Sicily.  When the sea-nymph sees her lover killed by a great rock, thrown by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus, she transforms his blood into the river Acis. Polyphemus tries to lure Galatea away from the sea with descriptions of life on the island.  'Here there are bays, and here slender cypresses, / Here is sombre ivy, and here the vine's sweet fruit / Here there is ice-cold water which dense-wooded Etna / Sends from its snows - a drink fit for the gods.'  These lines are given him by Theocritus in Idyll 11 (trans Anthony Verity), whilst in Virgil's ninth Eclogue the Cyclops tells her 'Coloured spring is here.  The river banks are spangled / with flowers of many hues.  Above my grotto a silvery / Poplar sways, and vines cast a shifting lace of shadow.' (trans. C. Day Lewis).

Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Polyphemus, 1648

Landscape imagery is used in a different way in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Polyphemus climbs to the apex of a hill on a spur jutting out into the sea and sings in praise of Galatea, listing her qualities in terms of the beauties of nature.  She is

whiter than the snowy columbine
a sweeter flower than any in the meadows 
taller and more stately than alder
more radiant than crystal
friskier than a tender kid
smoother than shells polished by the sea
more welcome than sun in winter or summer shade
more choice than apples
lovelier to see than the tall plane trees
more sparkling than ice
sweeter than ripe grapes
softer than swansdown or creamy cheese
fairer than a watered garden

But also

wilder than an untamed heifer
harder than an ancient oak
more treacherous than the sea
tougher than willow-twigs or white vine branches
as immovable as the rocks
more turbulent than a river
vainer than the much-praised peacock
fiercer than fire
harsher than harrows
more truculent than a pregnant bear
deafer than the waters
crueler than a trodden snake

What Polyphemus most regrets however, is her ability to outrun him, for she is 'swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking, swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze'.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis and Galatea, 1657

As you can see above, Claude and Poussin both based beautiful paintings on the myth, one a view looking out to sea, the other looking back into the island's rocky interior.  Acis and Galatea are small figures in the foreground and Polyphemus is barely distinguishable from the landscape.  In Poussin's painting his back merges into the rocks where he sits, turned away from the lovers, playing his flute.  In Claude's, the Cyclops is barely visible - you can just glimpse him (right) sadly watching from the wooded slope, his view of the lovers obscured by the sheet they have put up to afford them some privacy.  Of course not all artists put emphasis on the landscape and Poussin himself did a version with additional cherubs and embracing lovers in which Polyphemus looks on like the sad guy at a particularly riotous party.

It was at a hunting party that Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Acis et Galatée saw its first performance in 1686.  Elaborate artificial sets of the kind he had previously specialised in were no longer an option now that he was out of favour with Louis XIV (who had become increasingly religious and less tolerant of Lully's openly homosexual lifestyle).  It is tempting to imagine this being successfully performed with very little scenery, perhaps even outside amid 'natural' scenery.  After Lully there are a few more steps in the operatic story before we get to Handel's Acis and Galatea.  There was an English version by John Eccles and P.A. Motteux in 1701, which depressingly included 'a subplot concerned with the quarrel of rustic couple Roger and Joan, introduced to “make the piece the more dramatical.”'  Then came Giovanni Bononcini's Polyfemo (1702) and an Italian version by the young Handel himself, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708).  Ten years later Handel had moved to England and was employed by James Brydges, 9th Baron Chandos, the 'Apollo of the Arts', and it was for him that Acis and Galatea, was composed, with a libretto by John Gay (aided by two more poets, John Hughes and Alexander Pope).

Acis and Galatea was first performed on a summer's day at Cannons, the house Brydges was then still building at vast expense (and which would be razed to the ground in 1747 when the family fortune gave out).   Pleasingly this does seem to have taken place in the open air, although The Grove Book of Operas is a bit sniffy about this 'local tradition', remarking that the discovery of piping to supply an old fountain "might fancifully be invoked as support".  If true, the audience would have been within earshot of the water features designed by John Theophilus Deaguliers, another remarkable individual patronised by Brydges, who combined the roles of local priest and hydraulic engineer.  Perhaps the sound of water would have been a constant reminder of Galatea, the sea nymph loved by both Acis and Polyphemus. At the end of the opera, as you can hear in the clip embedded below, when Galatea transforms Acis into a river, she sings
Heart, the seat of soft delight,
Be thou now a fountain bright!
Purple be no more thy blood,
Glide thou like a crystal flood.
Rock, thy hollow womb disclose!
The bubbling fountain, lo! it flows;
Through the plains he joys to rove,
Murm'ring still his gentle love.