Category Archives: Italy

Roma

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I started reading Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1968, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), set in Rome, on the flight over.  She mentions that Time tends to go anti-clockwise there.  I was interested to see how that played out during my fortnight’s stay at the Accademia Brittanica, The British School at Rome.

 

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A fortnight is too short and too long for a writer – enough time to relax and be complacent, whilst staying open, searching for what stirs you; and not enough time, once you’ve found your hook, to stay there and excavate, experiment, understand and deepen.

 

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All the city’s clocks were full moons, electrical storms, a partial eclipse.  Rome – Eternal City, Dead City – is bigger than you are.  You might as well submit.  I went to see a friend read from a book he’d written about the moon.  He wasn’t there – just a ring of people talking about it.  In Italian.

 

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‘Go thou to Rome,’ said Shelley, ‘the paradise, the city, the wilderness.’  For me, lingering in gardens, it was more paradise than wilderness.  Although the often 30 degree heat felt like a small lick of inferno.

 

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Inevitably in the heat, I was drawn to the city’s many fountains – particularly the forty in the Villa Borghese Gardens – one per two hectares.  And there was a memorable outing to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, where the fountain is god and goddess and my mouth stayed wide open all day long.  A big O, clock, water spout, moon.

 

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Now I’m home, I’m not sure what day it is.  Whatever direction Time is going in, I will pluck the day and eat it.  Carpe Diem.  A hundred thousand fridge magnets can’t be ignored.

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Da Roma Con Amore

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I began to attach myself by so much looking.  Here I was, centred.

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Knowledge of Rome must be physical, sweated into the system, worked up into the brain through thinning shoe leather.  Substantiality comes through touch and smell, and taste, the tastes of different dusts.  When it comes to knowing, the senses are more honest than the intelligence.

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Seeing is pleasure, but not knowledge.

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From A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen, 1959.

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The Perfect Imperfect Garden

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A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.

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Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.

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To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.

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In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.

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In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?

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I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.

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The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.

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To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.

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Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.

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A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.

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Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.

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I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.

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back to the garden

As the year opens I intend to look back a little at the gardens I visited last autumn and share some more of their delights.  One of the things I’ve been doing this past week is reviewing all the writing I’ve done so far and, apart from keeping on top of all the paper I seem to have accumulated, listening out for themes I want to explore further and absences I might need to address, trying to get a sense of the lie of the land: a writer’s and a gardener’s winter activities.

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Padua, the oldest Botanic Garden in the world still on its on its original site, was a revelation.  From my research before I went I knew I’d like it but didn’t realise quite how much I would love it. Perhaps I felt my Italian roots from my father’s side of the family stir, grateful of a little attention.  It was my ‘first’ garden abroad and seemed to be a place all about origins.  Historically, the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, was seen as an image of the Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary.

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Held in a mother’s arms

happier than I’ve been before

or since – such lightness,

forgetting what it is

to suffer.

Time disappears

in spores of sky, medicine

unasked-for, blue eyes

seeing and asking

for nothing.  Photosynthesis –

what is given

given back:

intimacy and charm,

chlorophyll,

what’s possible.  My darling garden,

hold our fragile heart.

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You can watch a slideshow of some of the photos I took in the garden at Padua, sifted from over a thousand, here.

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a la mode

Even the insects in Italy are stylish…

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Even the shops sell dreams…

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Even the crickets poetic…

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This one spotted on the wall of Petrarch’s house in the Euganean Hills, just outside Padua.

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4 x 4

The Botanical Garden in Padua is all about the number 4 – four quarters, four fountains, four gates, four compass points, four seasons.  This patterning gives the garden a sense of stability, a solidity close to the earth.  Strong physical groundedness is matched with a pleasing intellectual rhythm, an orientation in both time and space.  There is the feeling of being located within a wider order, reminded of the four elements, the four winds, the four humours, the four phases of the moon – Renaissance ideas of harmony, the music of the spheres.

In a place so thoroughly governed by the number four, things make sense: it feels comfortable, secure, natural.  Even though, of course, it is all man-made.  But the men who made it (and in 1545 it would have been men), designed and dug and planted it, were looking at and listening to the world as if they’d just been born, asking questions, alive to their close connection to the land, the universe and their dance within it.

Vice-Prefect Antonella Molla gave me a book, a facsimile of L’Horto de i Semplici, published in Venice in 1591.  After a foldout plan of the garden, there is an alphabetical list of plants growing there, followed by a series of empty, numbered lists, arranged under the headings of the garden’s four quarters, for the students of the time to locate the plants in the garden and enter their names in the right place on the lists. A wonderfully simple way to encourage close observation and the process of identification.

What we don’t know, this being pre-Linnaeus, is what many of the plants listed actually are.  Venus’s belly-buttons?  Light hearts?    Bearded priests?

Here’s an extract from my notebook, written in the garden on Saturday 13th October:

This morning there are gardeners where yesterday afternoon, there were none.  They are planting and pruning, raking and barrowing – purposeful but relaxed.

I’ve come to sit by the statues of Solomon and the Four Seasons – intrigued by the way they’re placed just outside the circle and although set at some distance from each other, seem to look at each other:  Busts of Spring and Summer (female) and Autumn and Winter (male).  Solomon in the middle, holding a book and looking up to the heavens, as if for inspiration.

Spring is a young woman with flowers in her hair.  Summer is older, plumper.  Both women bare one breast, their left – but still manage to look serene, elegant, draped in carved folds of cloth, jewels in their ears, round their necks.

They are set against a tall, curved hedge of clipped bay, glossy with last night’s rain, sweet and aromatic pressed between my fingers.

I can hear the fountain trickling into its pool of water, contained within a circle of stone bracketed with metal bars.  The green surface of the water is almost covered with lily pads, a different green, submerged at the centre, lightening and rising towards the circumference.  And then the gardener, patiently raking leaves from the gravel paths.

To the right of Spring, there is a weeping white mulberry (Morus alba pendula).  Standing inside it, you are held in a circle of green light.  At her feet (if she had any) a small box tree with fresh new growth at its tips, trimmed into a small sphere.  Instead of feet, Spring has a cream-coloured pedestal topped with another, smaller, carved from pink stone.  She is marble, streaked with black dust from the cones of the Cupressus arizonica above her head.  She is less pretty close-up, slightly worn and no jewels as I’d thought earlier.

I prefer the maturity of Summer, on the brink of ripeness.  Her marble’s streaked with soft grey veins and she has a dimple in her chin that makes her look more human, less of an ideal.  She is looking at Winter (her seasonal dance partner?), an old man draped in furs with what look like winter fruits in his hair, maybe gourds or cones?  He has a tight mouth, thin lips, as if he’s lost his teeth, but is still noble with his strong nose and luxuriant beard.

Autumn clearly fancies Spring.  He has a touch of middle-age spread, a bon viveur, grapes and dates in his hair, a fleshy mouth and laughing eyes.  But there are bags under them, hinting at a vulnerability beneath his carpe diem attitude, knowing Winter’s not far behind.  Each season doesn’t look at the one next to them – perhaps too redolent of their own demise, preferring the symmetry of the Other, their polar opposite by which they might measure and balance themselves.

And then in the middle of the group, Solomon, making some sort of judgement with his book and what was once a sword.  Choosing between seasons?  Between male and female?  Between youth and age?  An impossible decision.  The circle of the pond in front acts as a sort of answer – unintended or not – a Zen-like taste of union and openness, continuity and change.

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