Tag 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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Turtle Diary

 

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So there I was imagining life as a turtle, conferring all sorts of qualities upon them I wish I had, enjoying sitting next to the laghetto where they swim and bask in Pisa Botanic Garden. These four turtles were practically enlightened by the time I was finished.

Later talking with Roberta, one of the botanists, I discovered the turtles were only there at all because they had been abandoned by the good people of Pisa when they grew bored or burdened by their duties as turtle keepers. And the turtles had responded by eating all the lotuses!

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Welcome to Padua

On the eve of my departure for Padua I took the few renga lilies that have survived the depredations of some leaf-cutting insect lurking in my conservatory to Moorbank.  It seemed important to leave them in safe hands, where they’d be sure of a stable environment and regular temperature.  I’d always imagined that they’d end up there, an exciting addition (New Zealand native) to the collection under glass.  They had been doing well despite setbacks – greenfly and windburn – which I was pleased I’d been able to overcome.

I wasn’t sure what Clive, the manager, meant when he said he would look after them for just one year.  I was shocked when he explained that the University had made the decision to close Moorbank and it might not be there beyond a year’s time.  I was dumbfounded – sad and cross – not sure what to say or do for the best.  It was a strange, disorientating piece of information to take with me on my first visit – to the world’s first botanic garden, established in 1545.  The superimposition was disturbing – here I was finally embarking on my ‘Grand Tour’ of Botanical Gardens, for which Moorbank had been the seed and inspiration.  Ironic that it was there I discovered how important botanic gardens are for our future in terms of research, conservation and education and now its own future had been curtailed by what it’s hard not to see as a short-sighted management decision, yet another disastrous ‘austerity’ measure.  I am still in the process of assimilating this news and will no doubt be returning to the subject, as will various others who are keen to find some way to keep Moorbank going.

Padua felt like a different world all together – running to a kinder calendar, clock and thermometer.  In the privileged, cosseted position of ‘visitor’, and with the luxury of just one task to focus on, it was easy to feel at home in its daily rhythms, marked by the chiming of the bells at St. Anthony’s Basilica, set at the end of the cobbled street that leads down to the Orto Botanico.

Entering the garden felt momentous, almost ritualistic – so many stations of the cross to pass through on the way – two bridges over shallow waterways grazed by sleepy, semi-transparent fish, two sets of gates, stone pillars, wrought iron, an assortment of signs, a ticket booth (where the attendant sat listening to the Beatles on my first encounter!).  Then, even inside the garden, there is another wall to pass through – tall, circular, red brick – built in 1552 to keep out the thieves who’d taken to stealing the precious plants collected from the Venetian Republic’s trading posts in the Horto Medicinale.

The whole layout  – a typical Renaissance design: a square, divided into quarters, contained within a circle, forming a hortus sphaericus or cinctus – invites a similar response: a conscious, embodied relationship with ‘Nature’, based on the enlightened understanding that the human is part of it – inside and out – and accords to the same principles as everything in the wider universe.  Walking round the garden was an incredibly rich experience – metaphysical, sensual, aesthetic, horticultural, scientific and ecological.  There were an infinite variety of possible routes to take, the structure wonderfully apparent at the end of the season, with many plants at a less lush part of their cycle.

However it was clear right from the start that something very different was going on here from what would be possible in the North East of England.  Two lemon trees flanked the inner entrance at the West Gate.  Exotic Brugmansia grew abundantly in huge terracotta pots.  Cacti and succulents and palms I’ve only ever seen growing under glass at Moorbank stood outside in the open air.  An artesian well allows the garden to be fed and watered by a thermal spring which makes all this work, as well as counteracting the long, parched Italian summers.  While I was there the temperature was falling (still around 20 degrees C most days, but cooler at night) and some of the tender plants in pots were starting to be moved into the shelter of the old 18th century greenhouses.

One of the special attractions for me of the garden in Padua (apart from its place in history and very particular layout) was what is known as ‘Goethe’s palm’.  There was a sense of pilgrimage in seeking it out, following in the poet’s footsteps.  I’ve been reading his 1790 book The Metamorphosis of Plants, fascinated by his careful observations, recording of detail and probing for botanical and philosophical significance.  Goethe visited the garden in Padua on his travels to Italy and refers to this particular palm  – a Mediterranean fan (Chamaerops humilis)  – in his book, as an example of the successive differentiation in the formation of the leaves.  It has its own octagonal greenhouse, built between the wars, which it is now outgrowing.  There is an old sundial, a hollow circle carved in stone, just outside.  Its lines and shadows mirror the form of the palms’ leaves in a manner recalling the Renaissance system of ‘correspondences’ – As it is above, so it is below.  This echo effect spills all over the garden and the effect is of a precious, faceted jewel – profoundly pleasing, stimulating and inspirational.

I spent a delightful morning with the Vice-Prefect, Antonella Moila, and she was able to point out various aspects of the garden I might otherwise have missed.  I was especially interested to broach the big green barriers on the south of the garden to take a look at the new development. Enormous, confident glasshouses rose from a parcel of land bought by the University of Padua from the Jesuit Church.  They were just installing the sun shades the day I was there.  This whole extension, fringed by the Romanesque domes of the Basilica of Santa Guistina, is still in the process of being landscaped so there is lots of mud and machinery and no plants just yet.  But despite delays (the original plans were agreed around 10 years ago), it is hoped the new addition will be open to welcome many more visitors to the garden next spring.  Grafting new onto old, this garden’s history is still in the making.

It made me even sadder about Moorbank being closed – seeing the investment the University of Padua is making in the future of this garden, taking on the demands of change, without forsaking continuity.  At a time of economic crisis, it requires a leap of faith – something perhaps Italians manage more naturally than us.

I could say much more about my week in Padua – and probably will – but I wanted to share some initial impressions for now, as I unpack.  Just before going I decided to leave all my ‘technology’ at home and stick with notebook, pencil and camera.  It was the right decision, I think, allowing an undiluted immersion in the place so that now I have my own deep well to call upon when I come to write about it.  I’m sure I’ll also be talking more about my visit to this enchanting and important garden at my reading at Durham Book Festival on Sunday 29th October (in the Town Hall at 3.30pm).  I look forward to seeing some of you there.

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Two Lives

It’s always busy at the start of a new academic year – lots of literature events seem to cluster around September/October/November.  Various preparations are being made for Durham Book Festival later in the month – I’ve been working on a poetry postcard for it, which hopefully will be ready soon.  Also, by chance, last week’s National Poetry Day happily coincided with our gategate reading at Newcastle University – from the second edition of my occasional folding pamphlet.  It was very satisfying to see so many people turn up at lunchtime to listen to a very special line-up of the poets included – Gillian Allnutt, Christy Ducker, Bill Herbert, Lesley Mountain and Ellen Phethean.  And Birtley Aris, whose pen and ink illuminations embellish the texts, also read a favourite poem – Peter Rafferty’s ‘Off The Beaten Track’ (from The New Lake Poets, edited by William Scammell, Bloodaxe 1991) Jane Hirshfield has a poem in it too but understandably couldn’t make it across the Atlantic to join us.  We sold practically every single copy and made enough to go towards the third edition, which hopefully won’t take as long as the last one (four quick, inexplicable years).

Wednesday was an inspiring day at Moorbank – writing alongside four other poets I’d invited to enjoy the particular mixture of peace and provocation that the garden affords.  Three visual artists also came to respond to the genius loci.  Birtley painted these wonderful complex watercolours in the Tropical House.

It was a relief to be able to spend the best part of a day focussing on just one thing – and to actually write.  These past few weeks I’ve felt as if I’m living at least two lives – one governed by a diary with all my usual commitments still in place, and another with a schedule working towards my various proposed botanical journeys.  Never have I longed quite so ardently for a travelling companion who finds making travel arrangements more straightforward than I do.  I will be very pleased when I step on the plane next Thursday to make my first gesture – right back to the beginning of things – and travel to Padua to visit the oldest botanic garden in the world, founded in 1545.

By another pleasing coincidence Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (the 18th century writer and traveller I wrote about in The Toast of the Kit Cat Club, Bloodaxe 2005) also spent time living in Padua, where she gardened and studied herbs; no doubt, according to her biographer, Isobel Grundy, inspired by the botanic garden there.  I hope to track down her scent in her ‘favourite palazzo’ in San Massimo, ‘handily situated near the river, the highway to Venice’.  Grundy tells us: ‘Padua, tightly penned between its walls and the River Brenta, was still regarded by many of the Venetian nobility as a good site for a second or third ‘country’ house.  Lady Mary went back and forth between Padua and Venice, between solitary study and socializing, between her foreign and English worlds.’  It’s tempting to think that busy, complicated lives are something we’ve invented but reading Lady Mary’s letters, it’s clear her schedule left no room for too much reflection.  She was a woman who always lived at least two lives and thrived on it.

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