Milan, 31 January 2017

Over the weekend, my wife and I took a train up to Varese, to the north of Milan. The objective of our little trip was the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, situated on the hills of Biumo in what were once the outskirts of the city. Built originally in the 1750s and extended in the 1830s, the Villa is a nice example of Baroque with some Rococo thrown in.
The gardens, formal in design but with a dash of English informality, are very pleasant to walk around, even at this time of the year.
But what had drawn us here was not so much the Villa itself as its collection of American contemporary art. By one of those strange quirks of history which make life so interesting, its last owner, the most Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Buimo, had developed a passion for contemporary American art, collecting feverishly from the mid-1950s through to the early 2000s. Much of the collection is now dispersed in museums. Many American museums, for instance – notably the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York – either bought or were grateful recipients of important chunks of Count Panza’s vast collection.

So here we were, in this Baroque-Rococo setting, taking in pieces from the very latest waves of art. It made for an interesting clash of perspectives.
But actually, the most interesting part of the Villa’s collection is housed in what were once the stables and carriage house, a building which has been stripped of any historical context: bare white walls and floors, nothing more. Works by Dan Flavin, famous for his installations made with fluorescent lights, predominate. Walking down the long corridor of this building, we found ourselves awash in the primary colors emanating from the many rooms leading off the corridor.
Each room houses one piece, like this one.
The colors are strong, almost blinding. My wife and I preferred by far this much quieter piece, housed in an almost black room.
As we advanced down the corridor, there was this luminous half-moon at the end. Was it another Dan Flavin, I wondered?

No, it was a piece by James Turrell, foremost exponent of the Light and Space movement. The artist had simply removed a piece of the external wall and what we were seeing was the blue winter sky. In a room off the corridor was another of his pieces, this time a square hole in the ceiling. We were gazing up at the winter sky, yet without any sensory clues such as clouds or trees it seemed to be an abstract painting
one where the intensity of the blue varied as we moved around the room.
It was a singularly beautiful experience.

Turrell has another piece in the Villa, an example of his earlier work exploring sensory deprivation. A small group of us stood in a room where corners had been eliminated and were bathed in light of varying colors, giving rise to optical illusions.
By another of those quirks which make life so interesting, my wife, not knowing what awaited us at the Villa, had recently booked us a slot for a session in a similar installation by Turrell at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, when we go and visit our daughter next month. This will give us a chance to see the other pieces which Count Panza sold to the museum, like these Rothkos for instance.
At the risk of being accused of frivolity, I feel I must report on another meeting of the US and Italy which we experienced that same day. After the visit, we walked down the hill and repaired to a place called Hambù for lunch. This is a case of American fast food meets Italian design.
Or, as Hambù’s web-site breathlessly puts it, “We are not talking about the usual meat patty between two pieces of bread and sauces, but rather of a gastronomic challenge: the radical revolution of the sandwich.”

One more example of the wonderful things that can happen when cultures meet and mix. The new American president and his acolytes should take note.

Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, exterior:
Villa interior:
Villa gardens:
Villa interior with art:
Villa interior with art:
Dan Flavin:
Dan Flavin:
Dan Flavin:
James Turrell, half moon: my picture
James Turrell, sky painting: my picture
James Turrell, room:
LA MOCA, Rothko:
Hambù set table:


Milan, 25 January 2017

We were down at the seaside a week ago and, as is our wont, we went for a walk. The walk we chose this time was one we had last taken thirty or more years ago. It’s the walk which links le Cinque Terre, the Five Lands, five coastal villages occupying a very rugged piece of the coast in southern Liguria. The Cinque Terre have become very famous in these intervening years and we were reading online that hordes of tourists descend on these five luckless villages during the summer. Luckily, the tourist flow has slowed to a trickle by the middle of January. We passed hardly anyone as we walked between the villages of Vernazza and Corniglia (the only part of the full walk we did this time). One or two youngsters galloped past us; otherwise, we met and walked for a while with a very nice couple from Chile, retirees like us, who were coming to the end of a long tour of Europe.


As readers can see, especially in the picture of Corniglia, the villages of the Cinque Terre are clinging on for dear life to rugged slopes that fall pretty much sheer into the sea. This is a photo of Manarola, the next village down
and Riomaggiore, the furthest south of the five villages.
I love villages like these that seem to spill down a slope. They always remind me of a tumbled pile of children’s blocks
(or perhaps like this when the villagers in question get into more adventurous architecture)
Italy seems to have many such villages, but a quick surf around the net threw up a number of other examples around the world. There’s this village, for instance, the village of Peillon in France’s Maritime Alps.
There’s Oia, on the Greek island of Santorini.
Even further afield, there’s the village of Al Hajjarah in Yemen.
These villages are lovely to look at from a distance, but their real beauty is to be found close up. The steep terrain, the building of houses close together, means that these villages are full of winding alleys and stairways disappearing around a corner
leading you on to discover quiet corners.
And no cars! Cars, the cancer of our cities … I dream of the day when they are banned from cities, where all cities are like Venice
where people own the roads rather than cower on pavements, keeping themselves and their children safe from these one-ton steel monsters hurtling down the streets, bringing death and destruction to anyone foolish enough to step off the pavement at the wrong moment.

There, I’ve had my little rant against cars. Feel much better.

Children’s blocks:
Children’s blocks:
Oia, Santorini:
Al Hajjarah, Yemen:
Lane in Greece:
Alleyways in Positano:
Lanes in Santorini:
Venice street:


Sori, 17 January 2017, updated 5 March 2020

In the little Ligurian village of Sori which we go to often, there is a charming steep lane which has the great advantage of being closed to cars.
One house on this lane sports the following plaque.
It reads (in translation): “In this house was born Tommaso Picasso, great-grandfather of the famous artist Pablo”.

Well! This is enough to make my breast swell with pride for my adopted village-by-the-sea! Admittedly, the connection is a bit remote; I mean, it’s only a great-grandfather of the great Pablo, and on top of that he left the village, no doubt as a sailor, some 200 years ago, eventually settling in Malaga in Spain. Nevertheless, the village can justly lay claim to a modest place in world history.

Picasso researched his family roots and knew that at least one part of his DNA came from this part of Italy – Picasso is a common name in Liguria; this is one of our local supermarkets.

And here is the notice of the sad death of one Paolo Picasso – was the parents’ choice of the first name at all influenced by the existence of the Great Artist, I wonder?

That being said, I’m almost certain that Pablo Picasso never visited the village; it wasn’t until quite recently that a local historian dug out Tommaso’s birth certificate and nailed down the place of his birth. But I’m sure that if he had come here he would have been proud of the village’s artistic talents.

For instance, I can well imagine that he would have had a tolerant smile for the parish church’s neo-baroque frescoes
and paintings.
This observation of mine might well surprise readers, since we know Picasso as a giant of cubism
and surrealism.
But he refused to be pigeonholed, and painted in many other styles during his long life. For a while, there was a strong strand of realism in his work, although he adopted more neoclassical conventions, in contrast to the Baroque froth we have in the village church. Here are a couple of pieces from this neoclassical period, his son Paul dressed as a harlequin
and The Lovers.
But his early Blue Period also has some lovely pieces of more traditional representational art, this Old Guitarist for instance.

He also had a fascination for monumental women, like this Three Women at the Spring.
I’m sure, too, that Picasso would have delighted in the trompe l’oeil decorations which are so common on the houses of Liguria and of which this is an example from that same lane where his great-grandfather was born.

He was into this kind of fancifulness, as these few examples of his ceramics attest.
Picasso no doubt would also have been well disposed to the clever villager who has decorated his parabolic dish with a nice marine scene.
Although Picasso doesn’t seem to have painted on made objects like our friend has done, he did make a number of sculptures where he painted on formed metal and other materials. For instance, there is this lovely Head of a Woman, which is painted steel
while this piece, Friendship, is a composite of various painted materials.
As for marine scenes, as a man of the Mediterranean Picasso painted a number over the years. I throw in this one, Ulysses and the Sirens.
What would Picasso have thought of these scenes painted by the children of the local artistic cultural association? They use the walls of the underpass at the village railway station as their canvas, and every year each new batch of students repaints the whole thing. This is a sampling of the current contribution.

He might have approved. After all, he once pronounced, “All children are artists.” On the other hand, he might have been thinking of the art of younger children, like this picture drawn by my son when he was six-seven,
art which has not yet been “contaminated” by formal art teaching. In the quote I cite above, Picasso goes on to say, “The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up.” He also once said, “At eight, I was Raphael. It took me a whole lifetime to paint like a child.” This Dance of Youth is a nice example of Picasso “painting like a child”.

In fact, in front of pieces like this, my son whom I have mentioned above tends to mutter “I could do that” (to which my reply always is, “well, why don’t you? you might be able to make millions.”)

I’m not sure what Picasso would have thought of the graffiti art which some naughty boys have painted in dark and quiet corners of the village.
Graffiti artists certainly think he would have approved of their art form
and some have shamelessly copied his style – or rather, one of his many styles.
Picasso was certainly very open-minded to artistic trends, so who knows, he might indeed have given graffiti artists his blessing.

The really naughty boys have also sprayed this type of graffiti in the darkest corners of the village (a graffiti found everywhere in Italy).
I think Picasso would have laughed heartily; he drew some pretty naughty pictures himself, as attested by this drawing of Raphaël and his mistress la Fornarina in the throes of lovemaking, with the Pope looking on (one of a long series of drawings all obsessively on the same topic).
Well, that was a nice tour of both the village and of Picasso. I will admit that it has sometimes been a strain to draw parallels between the art of the village and Picasso’s, but it’s been fun trying.

All pictures mine, except as follows:
Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard:
Picasso, On the Beach:
Picasso, Paul en Arlequin:
Picasso: The Lovers:
Picasso, Old Guitarist:
Picasso, Three women at the spring:
Picasso, decorated plate:
Picasso, decorated vase-1:
Picasso, decorated vase-2:
Picasso, Head of a woman:
Picasso, Friendship:
Picasso, Ulysses and the Sirens:ènes-pablo-picasso/
Picasso, Dance of Youth:
“Picasso loves graffiti”:
Graffiti, Toronto:
Picasso, Raphaël et la Fornarina XI:


Vienna, 8 January 2017

Back in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came out with a report in which it said that one-third of all food grown on farms around the world goes to waste. One-third! When you think that there are still millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, that is a truly shocking statistic. And, mark you, it is an average. We in the richer countries waste about 100 kg of food per person per year, most of that perfectly good food which for one silly reason or another gets thrown away somewhere between the supermarkets and our table. This is ten times – ten times! – the amount of food wasted per person in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-East Asia, and there most of the wastage happens between the farm and the market because of poor post-harvest practices: once food is on the table it is not wasted.

Ever since that report came out, I have been haunted by the need not to waste food. I always was careful, fruit, I suppose, of parents who made sure that we ate everything on our plate, but now I am extreme. Everything on my plate, bar pips, stones, bones, and peels, gets eaten.
Everything. Even those silly garnishes they put on your plate in restaurants to make it look pretty.
In this post-festive season, when celebratory family dinners are the norm, when poor unfortunate avians of various types get consumed leaving behind piles of incompletely stripped bones, and when more food than is reasonable gets bought and languishes uneaten in the fridge, I am especially taken by a frenzy to recycle everything. My favourite recycling format is a sort of thick chunky soupy thingy.

So it was this year. I took one look at the bones of the chickens lying scattered on our plates and snapped into action. Out came the pot, in went the bones, split open to maximize marrow yield. In went the giblets. In went a carrot or two, a parsnip, a couple of onions, all left over from some side servings planned for the chicken. But I didn’t stop there, no sirree! In went the can of baked beans which my daughter had planned to take with her but forgot (I will never, ever voluntarily eat baked beans as a main dish). In went a small container-full of a barbecue-type sauce from a take-out meal hurriedly ordered when friends of our son arrived hungry and ready to eat. In went the stem and leaves of the broccoli and cauliflower heads that accompanied the chicken (dice the stem small and it’s perfectly edible). In went the scraggly-looking outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts, stripped off to make the sprouts look nicer. In went the rind of the Parmesan cheese, cut into bite-sized chunks (once softened, perfectly edible). In went the remains of the beaten eggs used to make breaded veal. In went pieces of the breaded veal which somehow got left over. In went the peels of tomatoes left over from making a tomato sauce. In went the dregs of several wine bottles. In went a few left-over caper berries as well as several spoonfuls of their salty, vinegary juice to give the soup a tangy taste. Make-up water was added, along with a bouillon cube or two. The back burner was turned on, the whole was left to simmer for several hours, et voilà!
I grant you that the result might not have looked three-stars, that one might be led to poke doubtfully at all those different bits and pieces bobbing around in the plate, asking what they were (my wife, God bless her, tends to do this with my recycled soups although she nobly follows me on these culinary experiments), but it was actually really most delicious, even if I say so myself.

The way I describe the ingredients going in one after the other might lead a reader to think they all went in together. But actually that’s not so. Once I start on one of these soups, they can endure for several days, eaten from and then replenished with newly generated cooking wastes or further discoveries in the further back reaches of the fridge. They will change physiognomy, colour, and taste over the several days of their life. In that sense, they belong to the noble culinary tradition of pot luck – not the modern sense of that term, where everyone brings a dish they have prepared to a communal dinner, but the old sense of the term, of having an unscheduled guest partaking in whatever might be cooking at that moment on the hob, as in this quote from Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”:

“You had better take your Cayenne pepper here than outside; pray stop and dine.”

“You are very kind,” said Edwin, glancing about him as though attracted by the notion of a new and relishing sort of gipsy-party.

“Not at all,” said Mr. Grewgious; “YOU are very kind to join issue with a bachelor in chambers, and take pot-luck.”
I actually prefer the French term for pot luck: pot-bouille, or pot boil. This describes better what I’m doing: getting a nice big pot, throwing a bunch of stuff in it, and boiling it up with much judicious stirring. The French writer Émile Zola, thirty years Dickens’s junior, used the term pot-bouille in a figurative sense when it became the title to one of his books. In it, he described the goings-on in one of Paris’s then new apartment blocks, where various bourgeois families and their servants were thrown together and stewed in their own juices, as it were. The book was a stinging criticism of the French bourgeoisie and its hypocrisies, a feeling well caught in this cartoon from the period.
Note the flies expiring in the foul exhalations escaping from the pot. From the looks my wife sometimes gives me as I move into full gear on my recycled soup-making, she no doubt would agree with this sentiment. She looked particularly alarmed when in this latest round I wondered out loud if tea leaves could be added to one of my recycled soups. After all, according to a web-site I had just read, most of the nutrients in tea get left in the leaves, and as I recall for centuries the green tea which the Tibetans brought up from the Chinese lowlands was the only vegetable they consumed during the long winter months when they ate it as an ingredient in butter tea.
I think I’ll go easy on this one, to give her time to get used to the idea. I’ll not mention yet my plans to try recycling orange and mandarin peels into some edible dish. And I wonder what could be done with olive pips?

photos: mine, except:
Plate with garnish:
Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”:
Emile Zola “Pot Bouille”:
Butter tea: