21 January 2018

One evening last week there was the most extraordinary sunset, which passed through dramatic shades of apricot with strange whispy white fronds dropping from dense rolls of cloud, to the kind of intense bruise colours backlit with burnished bronze that you might, if you’re lucky, find over the sea (Positano does a nice line in them for example) but not in our landlocked neck of the woods.

I was down in the valley, rushing to get too many things done in some rare outbreaks of local unsightliness, snapping with my inadequate old phone camera, quite transfixed each time I stepped out of the car and gaped at the sunset’s progression. When the spectacle reached its climax, I was in the carpark of our local Lidl. There I stood, marvelling. (Not a sentence you can often write about Lidl or its carpark.)

The woman climbing back into the car next door was impressed in quite a different way: “I don’t like it,” she said to her husband. “It’s scary. Something bad’s going to happen: an earthquake or something. It’s just not natural.”

Which is odd because you can’t get much more natural than a technicolor country sunset. But in this case it was just a little too out of the ordinary: rather than accepting nature’s surprises as a marvellous gift, there’s a very arcane tendency in country parts to see them as an evil omen.

In a garden project just outside CdP I’m working with a friend – an engineer of many years’ experience with whom I agree about most things but not about rabdomanti (water diviners): he doesn’t trust mine, and mine doesn’t trust his. When you think about it, it’s a very odd thing for intelligent, rational people (I’m referring to him, of course… I do my best) to disagree about.

Mine (Renato) took his fob watch for a walk around the property a couple of months ago and laid sticks down on the ground, way below the house, on the level beneath the swimming pool. More than 70 metres deep, he said.

“He never fails to get things wrong,” was my engineer-friend’s disdainful response. I sprang to Renato’s defence: since he found the (touch wood) unquenchable source on our property he has done the same for several of my clients.

But some weeks later, the engineer’s diviner, Giancarlo, had his say too. I wasn’t there to witness the spectacle. He knocked his picket into the middle of what must have once been a football pitch or a tennis court: there are high chain-wire fences on two sides, and vague plans on the owner’s part to created some kind of labyrinth in there. Not an ideal spot.

And so, we took the only path that could possibly occur to intelligent, rational people: we got a third rabdomante – Marco – in.

Now, as I’ve probably said before, I don’t particularly want to believe in anything as medieval and hocus-pocusy as water divining. There’s always a part of me that clings to the kind of arguments posited in this recent article in the Guardian. But bunk or not, I’ve seen water surge up from the very spot and the very depth that rabdomanti have pinpointed. What can I say? They are, I suppose, just lucky guesses. And long may they continue.

The third diviner was not told what his two colleagues had found. Nor does he know them: if the two diviners in our small town are at daggers drawn, they’re unlikely to look favourably on some upstart-interloper from the other side of Lake Trasimeno. Marco began his to-ing and fro-ing, back and forth along the terraces of olive trees.

“There’s a strong vein coming down here,” he said at one point. “Some of it veers off over there near those pomegranates, but most comes down here.” He stuck a stick in the ground where he stood, and indicated that the vein continued down towards the terrace below the pool. Then he set off, head down, back up the slope. “I’m intrigued,” he said. “I want to find where this vein comes from.”

With his whole attention on his bit of bent rebar, he started off up the hill, back towards the house and the garden where we’re working. He hadn’t been there before. He knew nothing about the works going on. He had his head down, not looking more than a step or two in front of him. I followed him as he scrambled, up until the moment when he almost tripped over the old well which is now being turned into a water tank.

“What’s this?” he said.
“A well,” I said. “But it has no water in it.”

If it doesn’t, he reckoned, it was only because the water level had sunk. But the water definitely hadn’t gone away. It was right there – just deeper down that it had once been. For some reason, the fact that his rebar had led him to that very spot filled me with joy.

To be fair to the second water diviner, I insisted that Marco sweep the property from the other side too. I had removed the stake from the middle of the tennis court, but left a mark in the dirt that only I would have been able to identify among the many other scuffs. With the heel of his shoe, diviner N°3 drew a line across the court to show where he could feel water flowing: it went straight through the point where Giancarlo had put his stake, and continued down the hill, right to a spot below the pool where it intersected with the first vein – precisely where my rabdomante had said right from the start. And that, eventually, is where the well will be sunk and – if all goes to plan – a ‘lucky guess’ will put another dent in my skepticism.

A couple of nights ago, C told us, her refugee-boat-spotting team on Lesvos had called to say that a dinghy had been sighted heading across from Turkey, but so rough was the sea that the search and rescue boat wasn’t given permission to put out. With two colleagues, she hopped in a car and drove along in the coast in the direction the boat seemed to be heading.

Their valiant rescue efforts ground to an ignominious halt when they got the car stuck on a sandy beach. But while they were trying to dig/push the vehicle out, the dinghy washed up right there beside them with 30-odd people on board. Food and emergency blankets were distributed from the marooned car. Then rather than behave like everybody’s idea of hapless refugees, one group of the new arrivals seemed more concerned with helping to extract the car than with their own predicament. They dug and pushed but nothing doing though: it was stuck fast.

“You seem very calm about this situation,” one jolly Iranian complimented C. At which she pointed out to him that for someone who had just risked his life crossing the Aegean in a leaky dinghy he seemed pretty calm too. He laughed long and loud, she said.


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11 January 2018

0111ALate last night in an idle moment I clicked on Weather Underground and found this. Cue a double, then a triple and quadruple take. I mean, we’ve had our good days and our less good days – some biting cold and some rain but yesterday, for example, it was 13° (55°F) with resplendent skies. Minus 15°? Difficult to get your tired evening brain around.

Shocked, I reloaded the site, and this forecast had gone. The earth had slid back on to its correct axis. Things looked much as they have been – a bit of rain and generally warmer than normal for this time of year. Had the algorhythms gone wild? Or were the people on the other end just having a bit of a giggle? Checking whether anyone was still awake?

L keeps saying he can smell spring, and some of my plants agree with him: the Teucrium fruticans (tree germander) is in extravagant unseasonal bloom and some of the roses have sprouted emerald leaves which look healthier than anything I ever get in summer. I’ve sworn off making springy predictions until well into February: you never know what that fickle month might throw at us around here. But it’s a joy to see the days surreptitiously lengthening. If I could just steer myself outside, there might be some hope for my garden.

It’s distressing how easy it is to pick up bad habits. The long restructuring works on my Pieve Suites project in town – and in particular the final stages where I was personally hauling furnishings and bits and pieces – distracted my attention from all kinds of regular activities. Until then, my more-or-less usual mode of reaching town was a healthy pedal. With the excuse that I had too much to carry, the car replaced my bike. Now it rarely occurs to me not to drive up the lane, polluting the countryside and doing nothing to tone my thighs.

Likewise my garden. Much of my final flurry coincided with our absurdly short spring and grimly hot summer: it was no sacrifice really to find reasons to be inside, fiddling with decorative details. After months and month of easy excuses, though, I’m finding it’s a massive effort to propel myself into some gardening clothes and out the front door. Once I have my trowel and secateurs in hand, it’s a breeze. It’s just getting to that point that I’m finding ludicrously difficult. Which has predictable results on the state of the garden.

The one area which has partially escaped my agorophobic sloth is the veggie garden, where garlic (though not onions) and peas are now in, and where there’s a mediumly satisfying crop of turnip greens and cavolo nero to save me from horticultural self-loathing and despair. My giant broccoli plants continue to run rampant without the faintest whisper of a head of broccoli. At least, though, from afar they give the impression that it’s a successful and well tended orto.

I’m thinking that perhaps the only way to steer myself outside in any kind of organised way is to plan some bits of makeover. I don’t seem to have any trouble getting out into the gardens of all the various people I’m working for at the moment. Obviously I need a project to draw me into my own. And quite frankly, having grown up in dribs and drabs, with very little overview behind it, it could certainly do with some major shake-ups.

Though in general I loath teaching, and I fought long and hard against pressure to accept the task, it turned out to be an interesting experience, doing a course on garden design recently for our hyper-active Libera Università  (free university). This used to be called the Terza Università (basically adult education, though the connection with terza età, ie the aged, gave it overtones of some kind parking lot for the old and infirm) until some bright spark realised that the median age might plummet if it sounded a bit more rad. And so it did. Well, a bit.

Pulling together all the various strands of my approach to garden design in order to share them with my class focussed my mind very effectively on what I do and how I do it. It’s good to take stock from time to time. And it was a relief to discover that, yes, I do have some kind of method in my approach. You can lose sight of your underlying structure when you’re winging it on auto-pilot.

As I pulled together my lesson plans in a last-minute scramble (of course) and floundered about seeking illustrations to drive home my points, my big takeaways were (1) that garden/ing magazines are full of clever pictures of extremely uninspiring gardens and (2) my own garden served to a worryingly large extent to illustrate mistakes that you should avoid. Not exclusively, I hasten to add: I do love my messy, unstructured space. But it became more and more clear to me why many newcomers to my property react saying “oh, so, you’re, um, a garden designer you said. Um, really?” than with avalanches of admiration. So yes, time to tweak away.


Christmas seems an age ago. We had fun, just the three of us, wallowing in the pools of hot-spring water beneath the town of San Casciano dei Bagni and tramping the woods around the prehistoric site of Belverde, L and C wearing ridiculous wigs – a Yule tradition they invented a few years ago and show no sign of abandoning. (The few other Belverde visitors greeted us with a straight-faced buon Natale! with no allusion to the headgear. Were they keen not to engage too much with the mad people in the dark woods?)

C decamped to Lesvos and her refugee-spotting even before 2018 arrived, and we went back to our usual work, with the exciting addition of a full house up at Pieve Suites.

But there’s one bit of Christmas that is still to come, and that’s L’s main present – a DNA tester to discover his distant roots.

How on earth it can take from December 15 until January 9 to get a small spit-kit from the Netherlands to Italy, I don’t know. Did someone walk here with it? By the time it arrived I had cancelled that one and another is doing the same route, hopefully more swiftly.

During the wait, though, I heard a radio interview with a 79-year-old who had been given a similar kit recently and whose life had been all shook up by the results. He had always believed, he said, that he was English through and through. But the results came back showing he was over 25% Polynesian islander.

When he told his equally aged sister, her reaction was a laconic “oh, didn’t they tell you you were adopted? I thought you knew.” A very discombobulating thing to learn at 79. (His grandson, he said, had a very different risposte: “now you’ll have to learn to do the haka.”)

So what will we learn about L? The way the postal service is going, we may never learn anything.

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23 December 2017

1223AWe’ve had snow. It came at us out of the blue (literally), off the forecast and the radar – great big gentle flakes of the kind we haven’t really seen since the Big Snow of 2012.

C was due to go to Rome to see old school friends and I felt confident about taking her down to the station. It couldn’t last, I thought. But we only got as far as the new houses where the odd car was gliding erratically along the road, and I realised there was no way I was going to make it down the big bends towards Chiusi with the covering getting thicker every minute. So we abandoned the car up there on the metalled surface and walked back down our white road in what I’d call a magic world did it not seem so clichéd. Snow is not my favourite thing. But there’s something about the grisaille hush of a fresh fall which is mesmerising. It was quite quite lovely.

Returning on the train from a work meeting in Florence, L clearly thought I was being ridiculous. I was meant to hang about at the station, then bring him back up after depositing C. All along his route – almost to Chiusi – there was no sign of snow. I was obviously exaggerating.

I paid no heed to his doubts, however, and reasoned that it would stop; that salt would be spread; that snowploughs would be activated; that in the almost-hour between C’s non-departure and his arrival, the road would be cleared sufficiently for a taxi to get up. I miscalculated. The taxi driver ordered L and other miscellaneous car-sharing travellers out at the curve by the pig farm where the snowplough’s route was blocked by an array of marooned, splayed cars. Beyond the vehicle barrier, he found acquaintances struggling to mount a cheap set of ill-fitting snow tyres and stopped to help them, in exchange for a lift the rest of the way up the hill. It took him an hour and a half to do a trip that takes less than 20 minutes. In the end, he saw my point.

1223BC came back from her current home on Lesvos early, to become Italian. We have all applied for Italian citizenship. L and I applied early last year: we had decided to do so because we were sick of being disenfranchised but Brexit made the choice more rational and more urgent. Clara applied just after, but having been born here, she was ‘fast’-tracked (it’s all relative).

In Perugia we picked up her papers. Applications go right up to the office of the president of the republic for signatures. But the final act happens at municipal level. We rushed back to CdP to take the concessione to the anagrafe (records office), and book a slot for swearing allegiance.

The woman who runs the anagrafe is charming. But no way could the thing be done this year. There were no more ceremonies planned. Nothing for a couple of weeks. That was it. But, C explained, she was flying out again on December 28. No problem: you have six months to finalise after the concessione is granted. Now? Impossibile.

C looked skeptical but headed across the lobby to the office where her papers would be stamped and officialised en route to the final stage, resigned to having to return. But hang on a second, the anagrafe woman said to C’s retreating back. Do you have a minute now? Yes, of course she did. Well, it wasn’t really proper. No. But.

I was waiting outside in the car through all this. C called me, and told me to get there, immediately. When I arrived, the woman in the anagrafe had taken her tricolore sash from an iron filing cabinet. She was extracting thick A2-sized pages covered with official-looking type from a file. And the (impossibile) ceremony took place. There and then. It was slightly surreal and oddly moving.

Welcome to Italy. It’s how things are done.

Actually, that’s not 100% true. It is how small-town Italy works, though. And it’s why we love it. It’s all about people and interaction.

L, who lost his ID card on his Florence jaunt, rushed into the anagrafe as it closed a couple of days later and procured a new one in no time.

On a slightly different note, I’m still feeling the warmth of an article in the local rag about the fund set up by our terziere Borgo Dentro to pay the overdue bills and fill the empty larders of the local poor. It makes me feel I’ve been transported into an historic Venetian scuola – an autonomous self-help welfare organisation. Will they start funding apprenticeships for struggling stonemasons? Or paying dowries for orphan girls?

It’s one of those year-ends where work never seems to end, which is fun. Apart from the snow (which was still lying in patches today, a week after it fell) and a brief burst of cloudy gloom, we have had days of resplendent, icy blue.

I paid another visit to my project in northern Tuscany, where the clients were expected to arrive from England the next day to stay over Christmas but the water pipes inside the house had frozen solid, and where my nursery boys were hacking through frozen ground to get the final stage-one plants into the ground.

And I’ve been putting big trees and shrubs into a property just the other side of town. It never fails to amaze me the stark differences from one side of CdP to the other. Over here, we’re a little bit sand and lots of clay and stones everywhere: each spadeful is a battle with river-washed blocks. Rain turns our soil into a claggy mess. Over there, water runs straight through sand (the sea reached up here many millions of years ago, and the earth is full of fossilized shells); there’s not a stone anywhere. It’s like working in a child’s sandpit.


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10 December 2017


Mud, cold and a battle against the elements to make a garden.

Bleugh. I think this is the first time this season when I’ve looked out of the window and thought “what a miserable thing winter is.” (Yes yes I know: technically it’s still autumn, but you know what I mean.)

A gale is moving even rigid tree trunks and though it’s coming from the south, it chills your marrow. It’s grey, and a thin, mean rain is needling down in odd directions. The world is bleached of colour – the trees are almost leafless now – and spring seems like a dreamy option, far too far away.

The onset of grey has been accompanied by infrastructure failings: the phone and internet line which were down for more than a fortnight, thanks to the boys installing fibre optic cables in CdP, who unplugged our line then refused point blank to admit such a thing was possible; the boiler which is still delivering us ‘lukewarming’ rather than heating.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t been here to let technicians into the house: L has been swilling champagne at a luxury travel trade fair in Cannes; I’ve been trying not to lose my fleece-lined wellies in the mud on an icy mountainside way up where Tuscany meets Liguria which I’m trying, against the elements, to turn into a garden. (Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve drawn uneven straws, until I remember what fun I have creating gardens in unlikely places.)

Our intractable comms problems were magicked away yesterday by a cheery soul who spent five minutes expressing wonder at the incompetence of his colleagues and one minute plugging the disconnected line back into its socket in some hidden box between here and town.

When I called Telecom Italia on my newly reconnected phone to demand a rebate for the two weeks we had spent in the 19th century, a recorded message told me that my call was about to be answered from Romania. This was a first. I have had messages telling me that I was speaking to Albania, but never Romania.

On the other end I found a kindly, chatty lady. Behind her I could hear a fuzz of what sounded like similarly cheery female voices.

Romanian ladies are the mainstay of social care in much of Italy, looking after the old and the infirm. CdP’s palsied eld are often to be seen being wheeled and walked around town, then sat down on benches with gaggles of these carers who chatter among themselves endlessly, to the extent that I often find myself wondering whether there is now a whole generation of Italian nonni (grandfathers, and it more often than not is men: women seem to manage to keep themselves autonomous for longer) with a more or less fluent grasp of Romanian. If they haven’t picked up at least a smattering, they must be mighty bored.

Now I think I’ve stumbled across the answer to where these caring women end up when Italy palls or family business calls them home. They can employ their sweet-talking skills in Bucharest call centres, handling irate and/or incoherent telecoms clients in the same gently cajoling way they did their elderly charges. The woman I talked to sounded organised and efficient. Will this prove to be an illusion? So many of her Italian TI colleagues sound like they have everything under control, only to get absolutely nothing done. I wonder whether pulling the wool over clients’ eyes is part of the training…

And our heating? Well, let’s just say that the woodburners are working overtime and we’re mighty relieved we have them. Some hope for tomorrow maybe? Who knows what the new week will bring.

Another weekend, another display of how seriously pievesi take being pievesi . And when they’re not being pievesi per se, they’re cleaving fervently to their own terziere (‘third’, as opposed to quartiere: CdP is divided into three districts). Yesterday afternoon I ambled up to our lovely theatre, thinking that I’d better put in an appearance at the presentation of a book by a local amateur historian on Borgo Dentro, the terziere where Pieve Suites is located and which also encompasses our home, which lies along one of the country roads proceeding from the town gate on the Borgo side. The venue was large (by CdP standards) I thought: I didn’t want the author to feel she was rattling about.

How foolish of me. The whole population of Borgo Dentro was there. There wasn’t an empty box and there was constant traffic through all the corridors. When I left, an hour after the event had started, the presentation had just finished and the crowds were listening rapt to a Q&A session on the stage, with speakers going into minute detail on historical shennanigans by Medieval and Renaissance bigwigs and townspeople. There were small kids dressed up in Borgo colours – black and yellow – and teenagers showing the kind of enthusiasm generally reserved for much-shared memes or banned substances. Once again, I found it very moving.


Enquiries. Bookings. Result. Suddenly I’m looking at a scenario in which Pieve Suites may morph into a means for earning, rather than a townhouse-shaped black hole into which I throw my precious savings. It seems so strange after all this time.

Poor L will be hard pushed to come to terms with the idea that someone else might now occupy his ‘office’. With the prospect of paying guests looming, I’m noticing all those little final adjustments that I’ve put off, and off, and off. I need to get going once again.


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26 November 2017

Once again yesterday our field was full of men in hi-vis jackets carrying lethal weapons. Generally I treat them all with disdain, accosting the bored out-liers staring enviously towards the wild-boary activity down in the trees, telling them – with as much friendliness as I can muster – how unwelcome they are. But since the recent fatal incident in our valley, I’m feeling less confident around them.

Riding my bike back down the lane from town yesterday – dangerously well camouflaged in foliage green and bracken brown clothes – I tried to make them aware of my human-ness with as much noise as possible from my squealy brakes… until it occurred to me that squealy brakes might sound a little too much like squealy pig, and I adopted a completely illogical mix of stealthy creeping and angry glaring.

Common sense would suggest that these gun-toting countryside invaders should be more cautious since shooting one of their own number. But there was something about their defensive hunching that made me feel they were more nervy and edgy than before. They didn’t turn around, as they usually do, to wave cheerily to the crazy hunter-hating woman as I passed. They hadn’t, as they always do, planted their Vecchio Sorbo hunting fraternity sign at the top of the lane to signal their presence and their identity. I felt strongly that they were more likely than usual to be spooked into trigger-happiness. Or maybe I was just imagining it.

In any case, I wished them all (and their sinister sub-Kelly’s Heroes music wafting up from the valley, and their wild volleys of shots, and their howling, and their tinkling hounds, and the immobile out-lier who sat on the level just below my kitchen on his camp stool for about three hours pretending not to know that I was right there watching him) far, far away.

Of course I freely admit to occasional mixed feelings about the whole business, especially at times like this when, over the past two weeks or so, the porcine bastards have driven deep furrows through much of what I like to call my lawn, made the banks between house and field look like they’ve been hit by incessant mortar fire and destroyed tracts of the low drystone walls holding up my flower beds. One evening this week L cycled down from town in the dark and reported seeing at least 25 of them turning over the neighbour’s field just above our gate.

There are fleeting moments when I want them all dead, immediately. But I fight back my worst blood-thirsty instincts and focus on the damage done by the idiots who wanted this non-native species introduced for their entertainment in the first place.

Though I know and like many of the people who hunt – many of whom have fitted my bathrooms and laid my tiles and worked in my garden and sold me useful stuff in local shops – I loathe them all to a man (and naturally they are all men) as hunters.

Yesterday evening I crept into the cathedral crypt to listen to a man talking about his delve into the remarkable archives found in a hidey hole in the roof of Santa Maria dei Servi – centuries of registers, notaries’ contracts, wills, inventaries. He was talking about that church in particular and the town in general between 1400 and 1500 (when incidentally, the building now housing my Pieve Suites was already venerable, with a couple of centuries of history on its back) and it was fascinating.

I hadn’t realised (because I’d never thought about it) that the idea of ‘church marriage’ didn’t really exist until the Council of Trent (from 1545). Up to then, it was a hard-nosed contract with little or no involvement of the parties directly involved (ie the couple) and generally ending in a stipulation that the contract was fully in force only when he demanded that she consummate the thing… except for one exceptional contract is which she brought such a whacking great dowry with her that it was left up to the bride to decide when this act would take place. Money has always talked, even for medieval women.

He cited a contract in which a pievese man took a certain Catherine from Germany as his concubine, promising to marry her and make any children legitimate whenever his wife died. As there was a publicly registered contract, this can’t have been considered something clandestine or out of the ordinary.

There were contracts for buying and selling slaves, young women mostly, for domestic work. (As an aside, he reported that it’s estimated that 90% of foundlings abandoned in Florence’s hospitals in the 15th century were the children of slaves, so the term ‘domestic work’ was clearly interpreted very loosely.) Who knew that slavery persisted and indeed was common in Italy then?

There were house sales contracts between regular pievesi and Jews – Jews who until many centuries later were not legally entitled to own property. But here in CdP – with its large and shifting non-native population, as these records also make clear – that particular discriminatory law didn’t seem to be held in much consideration.

One inventory attached to a will (from 1483, if I remember correctly) that he found showed that among the dead man’s possessions were 80 parchment manuscripts – Greek and Latin classics mostly but also copies of Boccaccio’s Decameron (c. 1352) and Petrarch’s poems – an up-to-dateness which put him in the leading ranks of the avant-garde. He also had about 150 paper books. All of which, in 15th century terms, made him the owner of a vast library and a man of immense scholarship, in this tiny outpost in a frontier zone heavily fought over by Siena and Florence and Perugia and the pope.

Perhaps the most striking thing, though, were the participants at this convegno in the crypt. There must have been about 25 or 30 people there, all locals, some of whom I’m on greeting-in-the-street terms with, others whose faces I recognised, a few whom I’d never seen before. The involvement was remarkable, and by involvement I don’t mean passive interest in what was being said. I mean people questioning niggly details because they had read and researched and knew all about it, people thoroughly and deeply versed in the minutiae of CdP through the centuries. I found it hugely moving.

We finally managed to get to this year’s art Biennale, scrambling up to Venice a week before the last day (today). Venice was splendid, under blue skies and shining with jewel-like colours. It wasn’t even particularly cold. We rented a tiny apartment up in Santa Croce, not far from San Pantalon, which is and area I like a lot.

I stayed just two nights (L stayed on another to mop up some work-related things). So now I’m asking myself: how did I manage to squash so much in?

The afternoon we arrived we saw the magnificent Intuition show at lovely Palazzo Fortuny – but only after we had stopped in at the Frari with a guide whom L had to talk to (again, work) who gave us her tour of the basilica and stood with us in front of Titian’s newly restored Pesaro Madonna, marvelling. En route from there we dropped in to ChiaraStella Cattana whose shop of textiles and houseware is as gorgeous as ever, little changed since it moved across the campo. She now has some beautiful (and chillingly expensive) coats, designed by an architect and made of textiles produced in a tiny factory way up in the hills where – she was telling us – they have recently unearthed company registers showing that in the 1920s they had a Spanish woman called Paloma on the payroll. The company’s samples archive shows that during Paloma’s stay there, they supplemented their usual sombre greys, blacks and browns with fabrics in startling pink with pea green spots, eye-grabbing stripy mauves… completely out-of-character extravaganzas of all hues. The woman was given no surname: in fact, she wasn’t even credited with this multi-coloured hiccough. But it started with her arrival and ended with her departure. What a marvellous mystery.

Intuition, also closing today, was a mesmerising show curated by Axel Vervoordt, an art-collecting interior designer really, who added a wunderkammer of his own selection to the treasure trove interior of Palazzo Fortuny. As I went around, synapses snapping in an effort to get my brain around the pairings and juxtapositions and anachronisms, I kept thinking of the Damien Hirst show we saw so many months ago, which I experienced as a slap in the face, and detested. In his extravaganza, DH created something (IMHO) which, once you’d grasped the the ruse – which took about 30 seconds – was utterly dull; he clerly didn’t care at all if the contents raised questions: he was just too busy trying to overwhelm you with scale.

Intuition was diametrically opposed, with mostly unknown works on an approachable scale each of which lobbed a maelstom of questions at you. A very satisfying show.

The following day, we took in Cima da Conigliano’s restored Baptism of Christ in San Giovanni in Bragora and the lovely Bellini altarpiece in San Zaccaria as we made our way to the Arsenale, where I thought the curation was not bad, but not exceptional. But it’s just so huge, the Biennale, that there’s always something that stops you in your tracks.

There was a lot of video art, something which, after a while, I find rather arrogant because there’s no way an artist can reasonably expect a visitor with acres of Biennale to cover to stand still in the dark for 27 minutes while s/he works through his/her artistic vision.

One video grabbed me though: of a group of people (perhaps in south American somewhere? can’t remember) standing in a stream up to their hips and making wonderful rhythmical music using the water as an instrument.

I think the one piece which most spoke to me was a big site-specific work in the Italian pavilion – odd because that’s a place you can usually write off, packed as it generally is with mediocre works by friends-of-friends of someone with the ear of a politician or a bigwig in the incestuous art world.

In Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s (very un-photographable) installation, you walked into a large room which was a forest of thin, very regular, scaffolding poles holding up a ceiling which felt quite low because it stretched away into the distance. So far, so unremarkable. At the narrower end of the rectangular room were steps which, as I was dropping from my trek around the Arsenale, I considered not even bothering to climb. But thankfully I did. Up there, the already-large space spread infinitely further into the unlit semi-darkness, and the beautiful bulking triangular beams holding up the tiled roof were perfectly reflected in what seemed to be the largest, most flawless mirror imaginable. It wasn’t until we manoeuvred ourselves to a point where we could touch the thing (and be shouted at by the guard for our pains) that we could confirm my suspicions. The scaffolding below was holding up a thin room-sized basin of water; a mirror occupied the far wall. These reflecting surfaces turned your concept of space completely topsy turvy. It was magnificent.


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