17 September 2018


My little sweet cherry tree, which produced precisely zero cherries this remarkably fruitless year then proceeded to lose all its leaves in mid summer and look wan and sick, is suddenly in bloom. Flowers. Lots of them. What on earth is that about? There are fresh new leaves too, and a general feeling of getting back down to springy business.

In other fruit (tree) news, we ate the two (yes, two) delicious peaches from the old tree with enormous ceremony. But I think from time to time, with some despair, of those glass jars of syrupy peaches which I won’t be squirelling away this year. (I see I have no recipe on my blog for bottling peaches. How can this be? It’s as simple as it is time-consuming. I’ll try to make amends.)

There are pomegranates on the big plant by the chicken house – not as many or as large as last year’s crazy performance – but the smaller tree outside the living room window has inexplicably given up the ghost. Poof, like that. From one day to the next. I thought perhaps it wasn’t getting water but it was: the Echinacaea at its feet are looking perfectly healthy. And it’s sending up a regular jungle of shoots from the base. But the tree with its network of little twiggy branches is dry and bare save from a few twisted brown leaves. I wonder what went wrong.

Squashed between my slow-producing strawberries and my exuberant asparagus plants, three of the several twigs from the damson tree I felt so bad about removing are putting on a brave and leafy show, to the point where I’m now wondering: what on earth will I do with them? How do I get them out of there and on to a final destination if and when they survive and thrive?

My tiny lemon tree which looked moribund after our harsh end-of-winter freeze has come back bushier than ever. I really should put it in a larger pot but at that point I will no longer be able to shove it into my minuscule greenhouse in winter. Not a single lemon though.

All I have in abundance are – as always – persimmons (pretty but yuck), and quinces, medlars and crabapples, all of which I still have oddles of in jam form in the larder. And of course my Concord grapes (uva fragola) up in town at Pieve Suites which are threatening to pull their whole support down and which, try as I might, I still can’t find enough takers for to lighten the load.

We went to Venice, L – as usual – for the film festival and me to see the new shows for Tintoretto’s 500th birthday and to catch the architecture Biennale before it slipped through my fingers.

I had a privileged glimpse at Tintoretto. I sneaked into young T at the Accademia with the very first batch of journos, and was escorted around by a wonderfully enthusiastic Paola Marini, the gallery’s director.

For the more mature works, I shuffled around the Doge’s Palace with other bits of the press pack, and ran into Frederick Ilchman, the show’s curator and someone we’ve known for more years than I care to remember.

“I still don’t get Tintoretto,” I told Frederick, trying to sound apologetic. “He just doesn’t do it for me.”

For me Tintoretto remains a genius in parts, but in the end a bit of a charlatan. Frederick suggested I took a look at some sketches – something to make me see the workings behind the paintings. But contrary to what I often find, sketches didn’t change my opinion one little bit. So I homed in on the artist’s magnificent details and tried not to focus on how much his swishy approximations leave me rather cold. You can’t like everything, can you?

This year’s Biennale was a low-key affair. It was, in the final analysis, very architectural: few of the usual flights of fantasy or wild conceptual imaginings that are sometimes interesting and sometimes jarring and sometimes just plain infuriating. There were a lot of plans and models (lovely woody smells) and careful consideration of buildings and the spaces around them. I rather enjoyed it.

Of course there were degrees of wacky too, ranging from the British pavilion (completely empty, giving us ‘space to think’, though all I thought was “shameful rubbish”) to the winning Swiss one with its house fittings in a wild range of disorientating sizes. The chapels on the island of San Giorgio were huge fun (and allowed you into bits of the island you don’t usual get to see).

There were interesting projects of all shapes and sizes in the Arsenale but perhaps most striking there was the way that the curators had opted not to break up the phenomenal space of the Corderie, leaving an unimpeded view right along the 300+ metres of it.

Home now and trying to get back to work, but just like last spring – though in quite the opposite way – I have the weather against me. Then, incessant rain meant nothing got planted in ground that was unfeasibly sodden. Now, temperatures hovering pretty near 30° most days (friends who’ve just arrived from Lesvos say it’s warmer here than on the Greek islands) and skies of pure summer blue mean no one wants to cover their pool and retreat inside for the winter. They certainly don’t want garden labourers and me getting in the way of their final balmy days.

So I’m trying to drag my own garden back from the sad neglected mess it has become. I’m removing spent soil from around my poor benighted roses and jollying them up with lashings of nice nourishing compost. I’m hacking back excessive summer growth in a last-ditch attempt to stop my shrubs becoming little more than wood. I’m fighting a pitched battle against the most combative, virulent crop of couch grass I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t yet, surprisingly, had to fend off too many plant-munching beasts but I’m under no illusions: they’re undoubtedly playing grandmother’s footsteps, creeping up on me, poised to pierce my smugness. Each time I drive down our lane huge clouds of brown butterflies lift off the road around me: I would be feeling as swept up in magical realism as a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude were it not for my suspicions that the horrid things are laying eggs which will eventually produce grubs that will consume all my lovingly tended greenery. Sometimes being a gardener can make you very cynical.

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.