David Larcher’s ‘Mare’s Tail’ (1969)

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“A symphony should contain the whole world” was Gustav Mahler’s comment on his music. A film that aspires to the condition of music can do the same. Such is Mare’s Tail.

If the whole world is to be contained, you need length, so Mare’s Tail is 2½ hours long. In music, the risk would be tedium from the fact that the symphonic form is too conventional, too predictable, and too tedious, so that immense creative imagination is needed to break out of those constrictions. Mahler had it hence the power of his symphonies. In film, there are no such rules, at least not yet, so the risk for a film as long as Mare’s Tail is tedium on different grounds because the spectator has no idea where the film is going. David Larcher avoids this by threading into it, almost beneath our awareness, a beginning, a middle and an end. The film opens with a blank screen accompanied by a rising drone for some ten minutes. It reminded me straightaway of the droning E flat that opens Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, and while further parallels should not be pressed, both works signal their epic intentions by this means. The middle of the film is taken up with a trajectory of some kind, from creation, to birth, to sex, to life, to death. And there is an end of a teasing kind. Finally after much shaking of the eyeballs, a written ‘FIN’ appears on the screen. This surely signals the end (although the use of French may be meant to throw us off the scent), only for our eyeballs to receive further jolts by the interspersing of white leader with fragments recalling earlier sequences in the film.

Larcher’s challenge was to glue the whole thing together. His principal way of doing this is by the style of the film. The images are clearly visible, but not in any way we are familiar with, since he uses negative footage, re-filming, stop-motion projection, optical printing, stretched images and other means to de-familiarise the way we watch films. The same strategy is used on the soundtrack, where we can hear words spoken and we can hear snatches of music, but they come to us through a fog filter of some kind so they are muffled and distorted. We know words are being spoken but we can barely hear what. We hear music, but identification is stymied. I thought I heard Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’, but I am far from sure. There were suggestions of classical Indian music. The most identifiable piece was the tune from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony (another piece of music that contains the whole world), but it is played on unfamiliar instruments to give it a jolly, tinny, and quite anti-Beethovenian tone.

The right adjective for it all is an antiquated one from the 1960s – ‘trippy’. It invites us into a vision of the world where we feel free of anxiety. The humans that appear are beautiful people of their time, the animals, especially the frigate birds, are expressive of the wonders of the created order, and when he films a fly struggling on its back, or a fish gasping out its life in the water, or even the mass slaughter of turtles, these death throes feel free of pain. One brief sequence, filmed on the underground, shows a woman dropping down on the floor and playing dead or catastrophically ill; a young man then gets up, looks quizzically at her, crosses himself, and steps out of the carriage onto the platform. Even this death is treated as a tease. Also of its time is Larcher’s embrace of abstraction alongside the traces of the figurative and the autobiographical. By its length, the film disrupts time, and by its abstract particles, its dance of spheres and many other images that resist identification, it combines the microcosm with the macrocosm, and in doing so achieves a disruption of space.

The film was premièred at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1969, Larcher having worked on it for several years, all through the summer of love of 1967, the explosion of flower power, the elaboration of the ‘far out’ culture. “Oh in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” It must have been a temptation to place a rock soundtrack on the finished film, but even if Larcher was tempted, he quite refused it. The whole film dances on the edge of the abyss of Self Indulgence, but somehow Larcher never falls in. Avoiding the facile solution of a rock soundtrack is one of the ways he does so.

Where do his images come from? In a way, they seem to have spilled out of him in a quite unmediated way, and for a British film Mare’s Tail is most unusually linked to the visionary quality of the pre-structuralist American avant-garde, when it was still called underground cinema. Had Larcher seen any of the films of Stan Brakhage? The birth sequences instantly bring to mind Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), and the whole enterprise feels inspired by Dog Star Man (1961-4), Brakhage’s own epic vision of creation and his world within it. But this is quite speculative, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that Larcher was making these images without any inspiration from Brakhage. What does link the film to the Americans is the ambition of his project. The 1970s work at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, of which Larcher was a member, only rarely sought to match the scale of the American avant-garde, which itself took its cue from that of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s.

What does make it British is the fact it is in black-and-white. Surely this economy was forced on him, but Larcher makes the most of it both by his technical understanding of the medium of film, and also by the fact that when colour is used, it jolts the spectator, as if the annoying suspense of waiting for colour is resolved by the relief and the pleasure of its arrival. Like many good film-makers, including commercial ones, Larcher is focused on stringing good sequences together, always trying things out. You sense that there is never total mastery, but his technique never lets him down either, as if total mastery would banish the experimental, ‘open-field’ quality which he wants to convey.

So, is the film formless? Yes, but it is immersive and keeps drawing us in. Watching it, you can fall asleep certainly, and when you wake up you are re-engaged. It needs to be seen projected on a screen in a black space in order that we are properly underwater. In the end, its depiction of the whole of creation has an omniscient, life-affirming quality.

But I am still to discover why it is called Mare’s Tail. So what?

[Mare’s Tail was screened at the Close Up cinema in London on Sunday 15 January 2016.]

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London Film-Makers’ Co-operative: the first ten years

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I’ve done a review of ‘SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT: the first decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76′ edited by Mark Webber and published by Lux at the end of 2016. Read it here.

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The London Film-Makers’ Cooperative (LFMC) was the counter-cultural distribution centre for underground/avant-garde/experimental/artists’ films that morphed into a place where films could be developed and printed outside commercial operations. It was collectivist in spirit, as enshrined in its various constitutions, and as borne out in practice.

It is a vivid part of vivid times, and this book offers some signposts to how its contribution to film culture may be assessed. Well worth reading.

Courtroom drama rules in 2016

What were the most arresting films I saw during the year? I have three, not seen in the cinema but on television – and all made for television. What made them striking to me was their tautness. They may have had too much coercive music but I did not notice because they focussed on telling the story efficiently and dramatically. All were about events that happened in real life, and use documentary footage or a documentary style to forge the narrative. All three involved legal enquiries – so they are in the courtroom drama genre.

The first was the documentary about the Hillsborough disaster from 1989 at the football ground of Sheffield Wednesday FC when, as a result of incompetent handling of the football crowds, 96 fans died and 766 were injured. The documentary was simply called Hillsborough and was two hours long. It was first shown in the US in April 2014, but legal reasons only allowed to be shown in the UK on 8th May this year. It was directed and produced by Daniel Gordon, and co-produced by ESPN and the BBC. Its principal focus was on the legal battle to reach a reasonable version of the truth of the event: who was to blame (principally the police) and who was not (principally the fans).

The second was – but I can’t remember the title! It concerned the shooting of a young black male by a policeman in either North Charleston, South Carolina or Charlotte, North Carolina (though I can’t remember which!). It reconstructed the shooting and focused on the subsequent legal trials of the police officer who fired the fatal bullet and the trauma for the families of the victim and of the officer. It was shown on UK television around October this year.

The third was Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan. Duggan had been shot by police officers in the course of arrest for being in possession of a handgun. The shooting occurred in August 2011 and was a contributory cause to the London riots, especially in Tottenham, in the weekend following. The shooting was a dramatised reconstruction and the interviews with those involved were done with actors impersonating the interviewees. Extensive use was made of evidence submitted in the court hearing into the incident. Both in substance and form it had a strongly documentary feel. Directed by Jaimie D’Cruz, produced by Shanty Sooriasegaram. It was first shown on the BBC in December this year.

Sometimes fiction cannot match what real stories can offer, especially in the current style of emotional and visual exaggeration with which fiction is treated. Audiences love courtroom drama, but the fictional one would be hard put to beat the televised courtroom scenes in my second example. But gratifying the viewer like this may make for good television; it does not make for good justice. In the UK, television cameras remain banned from trials, and long may that continue to be the case.

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1971 revisited

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In 1971 I made an 8mm film called Sketches for the Creation, drawing on my understanding of the films of Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson and Bruce Baillie for its inspiration. I was 23 at the time.

This year I had it digitized and have produced a new digital version, slightly reduced in length and with some brushstrokes of sound (nothing coercive, naturally). It is 12 minutes long.

If you are interested in seeing it go to: https://vimeo.com/194487765

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Antonioni: more De Chirico

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I watched Antonioni’s film N.U. (that is,  Nettezza Urbana or Dustmen), one of his short documentaries which he made in 1948. Towards the end comes this image:

nettezza-urbana-rome

And on Tuesday I revisited Deserto Rosso / Red Desert from 1964. Here is what Giuliana sees from the window when she pulls back the curtain following her tortured love-making with Corrado:

deserto-r-ravenna

We are in Ravenna but I cannot identify the round building. I suspect it is well-known – any suggestions, anyone? (Is it the base of the S Apollinare Nuovo campanile? but it doesn’t feel right to me.)

Both images make of the urban landscape something oppressive, although the second one is more subtle about it. Both echo the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico – see previous post.

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Antonioni’s Metaphysical Cinema

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In Antonioni’s La Notte, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is in his study, aimless as usual, much as he drifts throughout the film. When he bends over his desk, a painting is visible on the wall behind him, not just any old painting but one by Morandi.

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Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is famous for his obsessive painting of grouped bottle and vases, an idea which preoccupied him all his life. He lived in Bologna, down the road (well, 50 kilometres) from Ferrara, where Antonioni was born and brought up. When Antonioni left home it was to go to study Economy and Commerce at Bologna University. There he began to develop his interest in art and theatre which led him to the cinema and Rome.

Did he encounter Morandi’s pictures during his time in Bologna? And in doing so, did he connect them with the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, whose brief sojourn in Ferrara from 1915 to 1918 led to a number of his key paintings? If there is a metaphysical school of painting, De Chirico and Morandi are its most notable figures. But what connects them? De Chirico’s troubled reality is populated by architecturally strong but unadorned buildings: arcades and porticoes, such as Bologna is thronged with, especially attracted him, and in some of the Ferrara paintings the brute majesty of the Castello Estense. These townscapes are depicted with strong if colliding perspectives, and by their unexpected juxtapositions, they produce a surrealism before Surrealism. In the streets and piazzas figures are silently frozen in time. Morandi’s bottles and vases are in the ‘still life’ genre but stillness is an absent quality. He paints them so that they jostle with each other as if they were not always comfortable in each other’s presence. I have always thought of them as people, or at any rate objects with distinct characters of their own.

What connects the two painters? De Chirico turns the urban scene into a still life; Morandi takes stillness and sets it quivering. So, in that respect they contradict each other. On the other hand the atmosphere of the paintings in both feels melancholic, and often unsettled, even troubled. The ordinary aspect of things and of places is replaced with something spectral in De Chirico’s case, and in Morandi’s with something disconcerting. Both take everyday reality and make of it something strange, and it is in this I believe that they earn the title of ‘metaphysical realists’.

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Film criticism has for some time now made the connection between Antonioni’s visual style and Metaphysical Painting, and I am especially grateful to Donato Totaro for alerting me to the echoes of De Chirico in Antonioni’s films.

While Antonioni’s film-making mindset was forged by the neo-realist films being made around him, and the intellectual atmosphere in which they were created, from the beginning his feature films looked for a different appearance of the world than the purely realist one. When filming interiors, he was very attentive to objects as adding a specific tone to a scene, and when he was filming places, or rather spaces, he wanted – and found – a new photographic language to depict people within them. There are echoes here of the exploration of perspective by Italian Renaissance painters whereby people were placed into a grid of lines. Antonioni sees the world if not geometrically then as planes and shapes to which his figures must conform themselves, rather than the other way around.

Can we speak of Antonioni as an exponent of metaphysical cinema because he was drawn to the metaphysical painting of De Chirico and Morandi? This feels insufficient. Nor is he ‘metaphysical’ in the sense of Bresson, Tarkovsky or Kieślowski, to take three important names who all look beyond realism for a spiritual realm. (See my essay ‘Kieślowski before Kieślowski’ at: http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk/kieslowski-before-kieslowski.) However, Antonioni’s metaphysical cinema is close to the concept of ‘metaphysical rebellion’ that Camus proposes is the proper position for artists of all kinds, as articulated in his book L’Homme Révolté / The Rebel, published in 1951. This rebellion is a “necessary blasphemy against the created order” which disputes “the end of man and of creation”. In Antonioni this did not produce revolutionary rage as it did in some, but it did produce a deep melancholy about human relations and human purposes. This attitude allowed him to distil something essential about the twentieth century.

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FERRARA MADE ME (3): the search for Antonioni’s tomb

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In searching the internet in September, prior to my visit to Ferrara, I was pleased to come across a page inviting you to discover the places that had influenced Antonioni’s thinking, “the corners of the city bound to the life of the great director and his masterpieces such as Cronaca di un amore, Le amiche and Beyond the Clouds.”

I was particularly looking forward to a visit to the Antonioni museum at Corso Ercole 17, next to the Palazzo dei Diamanti, as flagged up in our Blue Guide to Northern Italy (12th edition, 2005), only to discover on my arrival that it was now closed, whether for lack of money or lack of interest I could not determine. We had to content ourselves during our walks and cycle rides in taking advantage of the map supplied by the internet site to see these places for ourselves.

I wrote about the Corso Ercole and Corso Rossetti shot used in Cronaca di un amore in my post of 12 October. But in an act of homage I went to see the family house at San Maurelio 10 in the south-east corner of the city, where Antonioni (born 1914) spent life from 1918 to 1929. I hired a bike at the shop at the Porta Romana and looking across the river there was the church of S Giorgio, the very same tower that can be seen in Visconti’s Ossessione. The film has a notable Ferrara episode, when Giovanna goes in search of the wayward Gino, and this still shows Gino jumping onto a lorry in the square very close to the Antonioni house.

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Did Antonioni witness the filming? It is possible, and the film must have made an impact, perhaps as much for the story as its pioneering realism. It is taken from James Cain’s novel ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. Giorgio Bassani (whom Antonioni knew, see post of 20 October) translated it into Italian at the end of the war, and Antonioni used the skeleton of the story in Cronaca di un amore. There is something enticing about a film masterpiece being made so close to a house you had lived in. The house itself has a helpful plaque identifying it, and here’s what it looks like now across the piazza (San Maurelio 10 is at the near corner of this block).

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The other Antonioni house is at the via Brasavola 14 (no plaque this time). This is located in the dense streets that form the south-east quarter of the city, quite close to the Bassani family house at via Cisterno del Follo 1 and the Tennis Club Marfisa, where Bassani and he played tennis.

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Antonioni went to study at Bologna University and began to be drawn away from the city, so that the making of the first episode of Beyond the Clouds (1995) in Ferrara and nearby Comacchio was a homecoming of a kind. I knew that he was buried there.

On my last morning there, I just had time to rush to the Certosa Cemetery. On arriving, I was dismayed at the thought of finding the tomb in such a large place,

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but a helpful office for the cemetery directed me to block M12 and gave me a map. I arrived, finally, at M12 and spent several minutes inspecting all the tomb slabs for his name. I was about to come away unrequited when I noticed a street of tomb-houses

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and sure enough there was an Antonioni family mausoleum

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and peering in, I could see Michelangelo’s name.

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Quest accomplished, mind fulfilled, I rushed back in order to catch the train to Ravenna. Ferrara, I concluded, was a wonderful place.

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FERRARA MADE ME (2): GIORGIO BASSANI

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Ferrara in the Romagna, Italy was the hometown not just of Antonioni (see previous post) but of the novelist Giorgio Bassani. Antonioni’s dates are 1912 to 2007, Bassani’s 1916 to 2000, so they are close contemporaries, even if not so close as to have been in the same class (assuming they went to the same school). However they did both play at Ferrara’s  Tennis Club Marfisa. I am uncertain about Antonioni’s tennis prowess, but Bassani’s name can still be seen on the championship trophy.

entry to Club Marfisa

The Tennis Club is still there at 44 Via Saffi (see photo), and thereby hangs a tale: for it is the expulsion of the Jews from the club under the racial laws of 1938 that provides one of the starting-points for Bassani’s novel ‘The Garden of the Finzi Continis’. The book is ostensibly a story about the narrator’s amorous pursuit of the elusive Micòl, but it is really a story about the degrading and destruction of Ferrarese Jewry under Fascism: Micòl flees from the narrator’s arms, and is disappeared into the inferno at Auschwitz. In 1938, some 57,000 Jews lived in Italy, and 8,000 of them were annihilated by the end of the war, around 150 of them from Ferrara.

Bassani was not one of them, a small gain to balance against the corkscrew pain of the larger loss. On the other hand, his survival is especially important, since he used his gifts to render witness to what one Jewish family in one Italian city suffered, the snatching away of their Italianità, of their home and roots, of all trace of identity, and in narrating the story of this one family he speaks for all the others. The family includes the clever, attractive, teasing, maddening Micòl who lives for the past and for the present; “for the future, in itself, she only harboured an abhorrence.”

Bassani’s novel was published in 1962, and found an international audience with the film of 1970. Bassani for his part kept his distance from it, even asking for his name to be removed from the credits. When you read the novel, you can see why: where it is delicately expressed, the film blunders about, and in doing so reduces it to a superficiality. Secondly, I have a particular thing about costume dramas: only the cleverest directors can deal with their inherent inauthenticity, a failure which the film exemplifies. Here is the group of young people waiting to enter the Finzi Contini house in order to play tennis: their hairstyles, their clothes, the colour quality of the film are meant to look like 1938, but all they do is evoke 1970. They look to me quintessentially inauthentic.

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The director of the film Vittorio De Sica was a neorealist, whose Bicycle Thieves feels famously authentic, but he lacks the sensibility to register the subtlety and the melancholy of Bassani’s novel. Naturally, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972, but then who needs the Oscars?

Bassani’s book is very much rooted in Ferrara, and where the names have not been changed by him, a number of the places mentioned – the wall at Montagnone, S.Maria in Vado, the Corso Ercole d’Este (whose poetry appealed to Antonioni too*), the Temple in the Via Mazzini in the heart of the old ghetto – can still be seen.

Worth a visit in particular is the Jewish cemetery at the end of the Via Dei Vigne. It contains the tomb of the Finzi Magrini

entry to Jewish cemetery

but in describing that of the fictional Finzi Contini near the opening of the book, Bassani in his fictionalising is not so much thinking of the Finzi Magrini one as of this tomb, “which could be mocked as ‘a monstrosity’”.

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Giorgio Bassani himself has a grave in the cemetery, which judging by the stones placed on it in acts of remembrance, is much visited.

* When the narrator goes into the town at night Bassani writes: “There was no one, almost no one on the streets, and Corso Giovecca and Corso Ercole 1 d’Este, smooth, empty and of an almost salt-like whiteness, opened up in front of me like two huge ski-tracks.” Antonioni would have known what he is talking about in view of his use of such an image in Cronaca di un amore (see previous post).

Next post: the search for Antonioni’s tomb.

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Ferrara made me (1): Antonioni

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In Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature film of 1950, Una Cronaca di un amore (‘Story of a love affair’, but better in Italian), the private investigator commissioned by the husband of Paola Molon to find out more about her and her past, spends time in her home town of Ferrara. He goes to the liceo, Ferrara’s notable school,

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he goes to the tennis club to talk to the caretaker,

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he is seen strolling along Corso Ercole I

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then round the corner,

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and the camera follows him to look up Corso Rossetti.

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This last shot is cinematic dead time because it tells us nothing about the story. On the other hand it tells us a great deal about its mood, and foreshadows the end, that this love story will lead to a fruitless, unconsummated, unredeemed end.

Antonioni was born (1918) and brought up in Ferrara, a city of long streets, high walls and the formidable Castello Estense, moat and all, at its centre.

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He went to the Liceo Ludovico Ariosto (on its old site, in Via Borgo dei Leoni);

old Liceo Ginnasio

he frequented the tennis club in Via Saffi (made famous in Giorgio Bassani’s novel, ‘The Garden of the Finzi Continis’);

Club Marfisa

he also must have liked to stroll up the Corso Ercole

Corso Ercole I

to the crossroads with Corso Rossetti, past the Palazzo dei Diamanti and the Palazzo Prosperi-Sacrati (below).

Pal. Prosperi Sacrati

Another important Ferrarese denizen in his mind must have been Giorgio De Chirico, who while not a native was invalided there from 1915 to 1918, and painted some notable pictures there. ‘Le Muse Inquietanti’ [s.v. Wikipedia] of 1918, for example, features the Castello Estense. His imagination made something quite new out of empty streets, shadowed porticos, statues in the piazza, and lone figures. The bleak absence of the ordinary living human must have informed Antonioni’s own imagining of cities, explored in several of his films, and most famously in the final sequence of L’Eclisse (1961).

The shot of Corso Rossetti in the winter light of an evening is powerfully imagined. This image

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is crucially different from the one above, since it shows a person stepping, like a figure from a De Chirico painting, into the building on the right, defined as much by his shadow as by his figure.

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Intriguingly, it echoes the comments of English visitors found in the Blue Guide to the Romagna, which I was using on my visit. Hester Piozzi wrote in 1789: “My pen was just upon the point of praising its cleanliness . . . till I reflected there was nobody to dirty it.” In 1826, William Hazlitt wrote in his ‘Notes of a journey through France and Italy’: “You enjoy the most perfect solitude, that of a city which was once filled with ‘the busy hum of men’”; in his ‘Pictures from Italy’ of 1846, Charles Dickens described old Ferrara as “more solitary, more depopulated, more deserted than any city of the solemn brotherhood”.

It’s not like that now. Here is the Corso Rossetti from a position close to the one above. (If you took the photo from the middle of the road you risk being run over.)

Pal. dei Diamanti     Corso Rossetti

The extensive pedestrianisation of Ferrara, preserving cobbles where possible, and the high prevalence of bicycles preserve the poetry of the city but in parts that poetry has been put paid to by the ubiquity of the car whether driven or parked, and the fact that cobbles have given way to asphalt. The city seems to be economically prosperous and there are coachloads of tourists, indeed I was one myself, which drains the poetry of solitude away. I wonder if Antonioni ever regretted this.

Next post: ‘Ferrara made me (2): Giorgio Bassani’

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“in the gloom, the gold”

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This refrain recurs in Pound’s Cantos, most fully as, “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it” (Canto 11) and in Canto 21 he links it to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna: “Gold fades in the gloom,/ Under the blue-black roof, Placidia’s”

Maus. di Galla Placidia

This mausoleum is a jewelled appendage to San Vitale in Ravenna which holds the best-known ceiling mosaics in the world (and almost as good as the ceiling mosaics in Monreale in Sicily, albeit they are 600 years earlier than those). I have always thought the reference to gold is to the golden tesserae of which the mosaic is composed adjacent to the blue ones (see photo). These are set on the ceiling catching the light in the gloom as the spectator peers upward.maus-2

But to actually be in the mausoleum in the late afternoon, what is really golden are the windows catching the declining sun since they are made not of glass but of alabaster, a translucent stone cut in thin slabs to make windows. They have an inherent wave pattern in them, like grain in wood, and the light effect they produce is of catching flame. So now I think that this is what Pound may have been referring to rather than the gold tesserae.

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In my mind a further imaginative leap can be made, for the words are an apt description of the screen in a darkened cinema.

This is the first musing on a recent visit to the Romagna in Italy. The next two will be on Antonioni in Ferrara, and on Giorgio Bassani whose great novel The Garden of the Finzi Continis (made into a so-so film in the 1970s) is set in Ferrara.

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