Thursday, June 21, 2018

Travelogue 808 – June 21
Hesitant Light

It’s the beginning of summer and the longest day. Our windows are full of light, many hours running. We are blessed with good exposure to the sun in our flat, collecting its light in the morning on one side and in the afternoon on the other.

For Baby’s birthday party, we took down our heavy winter curtains. In their place, we put up window film, the kind held to the window by static electricity. This is a common Dutch look, open windows obstructed only by bands of the patterned film.

Menna chose a pebble pattern for the film, which I’ve discovered has an interesting effect at night. It captures the light of street lamps in intriguing star patterns. A lamp becomes like a child’s drawing of the sun, with long rays radiating from the centre. The rays are static. They don’t shimmer or change. It has a hypnotising effect when you can’t sleep. Why would light radiating more or less equally across space be collected into these rays? And what explains the precise placement of these rays? No doubt there is a set of formulae to explain how light is concentrated into rays by the lens. Who practices this kind of whimsical science? It seems like something a nineteenth-century aristocrat would have done in idle hours.

Yesterday, Baby and I walked to the market. We were stalled on our way by a series of storefront windows filled with prints of huge pictures or solid colours. Baby admired her reflection cast into the various colours behind the plate glass. ‘My blue face!’ she shouted. ‘My red face!’ I was envious of her innocent pleasure. I found it hard to disengage the critical mind. The power of explanation was so overpowering, it blocked the obvious visual effect.

The days around the advent of summer have been disappointing throwbacks to early spring, cloudy and cool. While missing the sun’s warmth, I do confess to a fondness for the light on days like this, scudding clouds above and the sharp seasonal angles to the sun. Everywhere has its light. Ethiopian sun, unimpeded and varying its angle little throughout the year, has its spirit. But I enjoy the playfulness of the light here.

We were in England recently, and the skies were performing similar tricks, sun dodging clouds to throw its glinting light onto the brilliant spring greens of the ivies and trees and hedges.

We did discover a few hours of uninterrupted sunshine to take a family walk alongside the Kennet & Avon Canal, counting the locks and admiring the many gardens. It was the weekend, and families were out in numbers. Some took to their canal boats. They waited patiently in the locks, waiting for the water, turning the cranks on the sluice gates themselves. Baby dashed ahead and then dawdled, fascinated by the sparkle of the water, by the bees, by the shining leaves.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Travelogue 807 – June 10
Assumption into Heaven
Part Four

I was in mid-meditation about Zanni, wasn’t I? Zanni were characters in the Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte, characters with long noses and an awkward gait. They demonstrated an amusing mix of cunning and naivete and simple avarice. They were country folk, often from the mountains around Bergamo, working for rich families in the big city. They were good foils for Pantalone, the lascivious old merchant.

The Zan was a type, and such a fertile type that he quickly sub-divided into multiple characters. One of them was wily Harlequin. It wasn’t unusual, during the two centuries of Commedia dell’Arte’s popularity in Europe, that an actor proved so charismatic that his or her creation became a stock character that endured afterward. Examples would have to include the creator of Harlequin, Tristano Martinelli.

Martinelli was one of the theatre royalty in Europe, a living proof of Goncourt’s claim that the artist had unusual opportunity in the age of aristocrats. As an actor could never threaten a duke, the two could be friendly, as Martinelli was with the Duke of Manta, Ferdinando Gonzaga. The Duke declared Harlequin the supervisor of events in the city-state. All performers were to apply to him for permits … and pay him the appropriate fees. Martinelli had these sorts of relationships with the high and mighty all over Europe. King Louis XIII held one of his children at christening.

This didn’t always make him popular among other actors. They seemed to resent most the sudden primacy of Harlequin on the stage. Traditionally, the Zanni were supporting characters, and leading roles were the lovers and Pantalone, who was the controlling father of the female lead.

Important adversaries of Martinelli’s were the Florentine theatrical family, the Andreini, owners and stars of the famous theatre company, I Gelosi. This family produced great characters of its own. Most interesting might be two of the wives, the women who married father and son, Francesco and Giambattista. The youngest was Virginia Ramponi, who created the character Florinda, la prima donna innamorata and star of a popular play of the same name, written by her husband. Her greatest moment came when she was cast in the title role of an opera by Monteverdi, ‘L’Arianna’. The only piece that has survived is a lament that was sung by Virginia, and it survived because her performance made it popular enough to publish separately.

Eclipsing all the women on stage during her day was Virginia’s mother-in-law, Isabella Andreini. She joined the Gelosi when she was fourteen, and quickly established herself with her wit and improvisational skills. Later in life, she performed her own piece before King Henry IV of France, the famous ‘Pazzia d’Isabella’, in which she showcased her skill as actor and linguist, quickly cycling through multiple personas onstage in a fit of madness. Isabella was also a recognized poet and scholar, participating in literary societies and publishing a collection of sonnets acclaimed by many respected (male) poets of the day. Isabella died giving birth to her eighth child, and she was mourned all over Europe. ‘Isabella’ survived as a stock character in the Commedia dell’Arte.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Travelogue 806 – May 30
Interlude on the Meuse

We had our first thunderstorm yesterday. It didn’t come on strong. I was just finishing a run when it started, a gentle rain with fat drops. The sky was heralding stronger weather, growing dark as twilight. I was safely inside when the heavy rains came, and they came as a welcome relief. The humidity had become stifling. We don’t have air-conditioning, and we had been suffering. We kept the door open while it poured outside, hoping for a quick cooling effect.

When the rain was heaviest, I grabbed Baby and ran outside. We danced and shouted in the rain. Menna and the little one came next. Nothing fazes Little Ren. Whereas Baby and Papa flinched at the first touch of the cold rain, the little one just looked up in the sky in wonder. She and Mama held hands and turned circles and laughed.

Not long afterward, the storm brought hail. We still had the door open, and bits of ice bounced into the entry. Baby picked them up to watch them melt. The sound of the downpour was overwhelming. Baby shouted when the lightning flashed.

The summer rain put me in mind of the half marathon I ran a few weeks ago. The race was down near Maastricht, just across the border in Belgium. The whole family travelled, and we took a few days to see Maastricht together, a beautiful town on the Maas.

The day of the race was the only rainy day in a week, and that was fortunate. It would have been too hot otherwise. I wasn’t in the best shape. If I needed reminding of that, it was available in the video of my finish. The video is hosted on the race’s website, a kind of promotional bonus. Vendors try to sell you photos and mementos.

Mine was not a glorious finish. But it’s hardly a ‘glory’ sport. There is little vanity in watching yourself finish a half marathon. Maybe the elite runners manage some dignity and grace in the sport, but most of us, after twenty-one kilometres, are just awkward and haggard.

There are other reasons to watch the video. Seeing the finish again is recalling the day and recalling the scene. The video brings back the low skies and the sultry, misty atmosphere. The camera was set beside the finish line to catch runners as they approached, and so we get a view of the main street of the small town that hosted the race, the quaint brick buildings and bistros lining the street, the park where the tents were set up for the event. The street carries on for only a mile or two, hosting a number of old beauties from times past, ending at the site of the small Church of Saint Hadelin, pretty with its flint facing. Beyond that, the town ends as it runs up against rocky bluffs that face the river.

By the time you’re finishing a race that long, your scope of observation has narrowed considerably. It’s nice to have the video as a mnemonic and be able to relive the moment without the pain. I do remember well the scenery of the first half of the race. The course circled twice through town during its first few kilometres. On one swing though the centre, I detoured into the cafĂ© where Menna and the babies were sitting to steal a few kisses.

After that, the course headed out into the countryside. It lead north and south along the Maas River. The river valley is broad, bordered by low-lying bluffs, and occupying the rich land in the valley are green fields and orchards. The running there is very peaceful. Here and there, like reminders of the industrial history of the valley, there are mysterious factories on the tops of the bluffs, standing like the castles you might see in other locales.

And it all passed so quickly. I counted the kilometres as I went, checking my watch to confirm how poorly I was performing and then shrugging mentally. I took in the scenery. After the seventeenth kilometre or so, my focus shifted to the road and finishing. Another twenty minutes or so, and there I was, tripping across the finish line, with little accomplishment and less grace.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Travelogue 805 – May 27
Assumption into Heaven
Part Three

Harlequin made his first appearance some time around 1570. Tradition says it was one Zan Ganassa who introduced him to the stage. Zan is a stage name, Zan for Zanni, which was the man’s specialty. While playing Zannis, he also managed a company that toured in France and Spain. The character Harlequin was picked up by one Tristano Martinelli, who spent years developing it for the pleasure of audiences in Paris. Harlequin, created by Italian actors for the Italian Commedia, was essentially French in character. He was Harlequin before he was Arlecchino.

That seems fair, given Harlequin’s French roots. It’s likely he is descended from a mythical figure in French and northern medieval folk tales named Hellequin, Hellequin was either a ninth century count who died fighting the Normans or a spirit loosely identified with the Wild Hunt, or both. He might even be a variation of Herla, king of the Britons, who might himself be a variation of Woden, the king of the Nordic gods. The Wild Hunt was a haunting of the north coast of France and North Sea cultures. A ghostly king led his ghostly entourage on a hunt in the dead of night, and whoever was unfortunate enough to see this phenomenon was doomed.

Either way, Hellequin became a devil figure in the passion plays of medieval France. Over the years this devil figure evolved into something more of a trickster figure, and then into a clown.

I enjoy little histories like these. There was a time when I would have found much that was tantalizing here, in the story of the devil who became a clown. I would have suspected insights into the soul, clues to greater meaning, clues probably of a Jungian nature, in the Campbellian tradition. Now I just laugh and enjoy. It’s debatable how suggestive these sorts of details are, how well they capture something universal. But one thing I can be certain of: human beings can’t help but love the characters they create. Put the devil onstage, and sooner or later he becomes loveable. That includes a metaphorical stage like Milton’s. Milton’s Satan was notoriously sympathetic, which was not likely to have been Milton’s intention.

In any case, I find myself drawn to the style and method of the Commedia dell’Arte. I’ve been experimenting with farce for a few years now, and I’m intrigued by the aesthetic of the French and Venetian stock characters. If it all seems primitive, the masks and the costumes, the broad comedy brought quickly home by clownish movement, take a minute to consider our addiction to superheroes. How is it we know which is Deadpool and which is Spider Man? Why is there a right way to swing Thor’s Hammer, and a wrong way; a right way to swing from one thread from a spider web? Why do we debate about Batman’s voice?

The fact is, there is great freedom in type. It’s a guilty pleasure for the modern mind. Maybe less so for the post-modern mind, which goes to great pains in apologies for its creeping medievalism. How can narratives and characters so scripted as those of the twentieth-century superheroes yield remake after remake? It’s because there is great latitude for aesthetic invention inside the strict frameworks; just the same as there are many, many ways to paint the Assumption. In significant ways, creative freedom is enhanced inside narratives already understood.

Each type of Zanni has its stance and walk. Broadly speaking, the Zanni stands with knees bent and feet splayed. Back arched and elbows bent. When he moves, his centre of gravity is low. He moves his head like a pecking chicken. He kicks when he runs, feet pointed in front of him.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Travelogue 804 – May 21
Assumption into Heaven
Part Two

Below the tower of the Chiesa di Santa Margherita, the cafes were buzzing with chatter. I had taken my seat just below the forlorn tower. The church building, holding down one corner of the campo, was long ago converted into a university building. At ground level, the architecture of the tower is more entertaining than at its heights. Stone gargoyles guard its entrances. On the campo side there’s one door framed by pillars in relief. And just above the entrance, a dragon’s head is laughing.

The students stopped at the cafes and carried on in their cascading Italian, punctuated by many exclamations and giggling. Then they were off again, joining the streams of foot traffic crossing the spacious square. The students and the tourists formed most of the body of these ant trails.

There were locals, too. Men were setting up their tables in the square, where they would sell fish. Neighbours greeted each other, stood together and chatted. An old man caught water from the public fountain in his hand for his dog to lap up.

Refreshed and caffeinated, I crossed the square, pausing to admire the Scuola dei Varoteri, a fourteenth-century building, free-standing in the southern side of the square, built for a brotherhood of furriers, and serving it for four hundred years. I’ve read that in Mussolini’s day the building was briefly dedicated to a school of mystical fascism, a bizarre outgrowth of the times, a movement trying to marry the personality cut with mythology and the teachings of the usual rogues of nineteenth century philosophy.

I took to the alleys behind the square, looking for bookshops. It was a university neighbourhood, so I was confident I would find some good shops. I discovered in one alley a row of workshops producing masks for Carnival. The masks are handmade, and each workshop is small. The masks they produce are colourful and distinct. They represent a tradition that is centuries old. Carnival in Venice can be dated back at least seven hundred years in Venetian documents, and it’s undoubtedly much older than that. The masks are just as old, as far as anyone can tell. And they served more purposes than Carnival. They were generally accepted as a way to travel anonymously through the city.

In the sixteenth century, masks were put to use in a new way, in a new form of theatre that came to be called the Commedia dell’Arte. This was a form of farce brought to public squares, in which travelling troupes performed a host of stock characters improvisationally. Such stories as there were existed as guides for character cues. The art form became very popular in Western Europe, more popular in France in the next century than it ever was in Italy.

Over time, the masks for the Commedia dell’Arte evolved. Characters evolved and split into multiple varieties of their type, each with a specified mask. An example might be Zanni. This character started as the simple-minded but cunning servant, based on the impoverished ‘Giannis’ who came into Venice from the countryside.

The mask for Zanni was a half mask with a long nose. The longer the nose, the more stupid. Zanni’s stupidity was important. It’s what eventually split his personality. The plays needed clever Zannis and stupid Zannis, and these became the First and Second Zannis. Masks adapted. So did his costume. Zanni’s poverty was important. One Zanni wore patched clothing. The patches became stylized, and the character took on his own personality. The new Zanni became more acrobatic. He was a clown more than a participant in the plot. He took the name Arlecchino.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Travelogue 803 – May 17
Assumption into Heaven
Part One

I was drawing many verbal sketches while I was in Venice, taking notes. One day I discovered the Campo Santa Margherita. It seemed a very spacious square for the tiny city, and therefore a good place to find a place to sit in the sun. I took full advantage of that, finding rest there during several intervals in a long day.

The square is close to the great Frari church, a site I was eager to visit again because of its art treasures. The centrepiece is Titian’s ‘Assumption’, considered by some to be the masterpiece of the era. It was painted for this altar, and still hangs there. One has to admire it from afar, since it hangs above the altar. But the painting was drafted for that space, for that distance from its congregation. It stands almost seven metres tall. It is a beautiful piece, expressive and colourful, composed in three tiers, Mary rising above the heads of the apostles toward God the Father above.

There was more to see at Frari Church. I took particular interest in several of the tombs and monuments. There was, for example, the ghoulish opulence of the monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro, erected in the mid-seventeenth century and set with a large host of allegorical statuary, including two black skeletons that would be the highlights of any carnival’s haunted house.

My first draw to the Frari was the monument to Antonio Canova. The piece stands out in this house of Baroque art. It was built in the 1820s by disciples of Canova, built according to a design Canova had drawn for a monument to Titian. The monument is a smooth marble relief of a pyramid. Placed on steps leading to a single plain doorway into the pyramid are allegorical Neoclassical figures portraying great grief. Inside is entombed the artist’s hand. So they say.

Canova became one theme for my trip. There was an exhibit at the Accademia dedicated to Canova and several contemporaries, opening a window into their shared time in Venice, and including works they gathered to send to Vienna in 1818 in honour of the wedding of Emperor Franz I. Pre-eminent among those works was Canova’s ‘Polyhymnia’. Visible in this sculpture was everything sublime about Canova, the sheen, the sensuality, and the beautiful line that captured the real sense of skin or textile, chair arm or pillow. I spent some time with the sculpture, enduring the camera flashes of drive-by aesthetes, every one of whom paused only long enough to take a photo.

Back at the Campo Santa Margherita, I ordered more coffee. I took stock of the great architectural variety on display in the square. Behind me was the (decommissioned) church that gave the campo its name. Now it belongs to the Ca’ Foscari University. The tower is unmistakably medieval, rising in faded brick, the wall facing the square broken only by two lancet windows.

It’s surprising how poetic a simple, unadorned wall can be – poetic in the sense that it says so much with so little. Time and weather have had their impact. The community replaced sections of the wall. They used what bricks were available. The surface became an aesthetic composition in texture and colour, made by humans, but accidental in its final state. I love architecture, but there’s more to my appreciation of old buildings than architecture. The effect this wall has on me, for example, is to create a silence that stands apart from the rumble of activity below.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Travelogue 802 – May 7
Walking Sketch
Part Two

The first church on this site was built in 1028, built as a monastic chapel. It was dedicated to St. Helena, one of Christianity’s great mother figures. Helena was mother to Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity legitimate in the Empire.

Some historians have suggested Helena converted her son; some say the opposite. I’m inclined to think the former, based on my ten minutes of scholarship. It just feels right, maybe because of the strong class barriers to Christianity during the early empire. The cult was strongly rooted in the lower classes. Helena’s own roots were common. Se was an innkeeper when she met the Roman general who was Constantine’s father. It’s not certain the two were ever married.

In any case, Helena was devout, and she performed some services for the church that were never forgotten. In her old age, Helena travelled in the Holy Land. She built churches, including one at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem and one on the Mount of Olives. She had a temple torn down, Hadrian’s temple on the site of Jesus’ tomb. She dug there for relics and miraculously found the True Cross and the nails of the Crucifixion. These she brought back to Rome. This alone made her a folk hero for a thousand years. Her relics proliferated through the Middle Ages, until splinters of that cross were traded across all Europe.

Helena herself became an artefact for the church in Venice. Her remains were reportedly stolen from Constantinople in 1211 by a monk and carried back to Venice. A side chapel was added to the church for veneration of the sainted mother. It’s still there. There is a glass case under the altar with the shape of a body inside, in gowns and a silver mask. What is under those gowns is an open question, as legends about the body piracy speak of an urn. (Sailors found themselves repeatedly run aground near the island that is home to Sant’ Elena. Only by unloading the urn could they escape. She had found her home.)

It’s a pleasant enough resting place. It’s very peaceful. There were very few visitors on the day I chanced upon the church, and they were as careful to be quiet as I was. There’s something about the place that encourages reverence. You sense the age of the place. The walls are weathered and bare. Much of the adornment for these walls has been moved to museums. Part of the cloisters remain, outside the door opposite Helena’s chapel. It feels like a ruin, but one lived in. There are benches. There are potted plants. It’s a nice place to sit n a hot day. It’s a rare place of rest in Venice.