TROMPE L’OEIL AND STINGINESS

Bangkok, 27 July 2015

Trompe l’oeil is a very respectable art form, with a long and distinguished presence in the world of art, at least in Western art. I am told that the Greeks and Romans practiced it, although I do not recall ever having seen an example. In any event, artists took it up again with a vengeance during the Renaissance, and art thereafter is littered with pieces which “fool the eye”, tricking the viewer to see three-dimensional depth where there is none. We have a beautiful example just up the road from our apartment in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. My not-yet wife took me there on my first trip to Milan in 1975 and my eyes were indeed fooled.
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What I had taken to be a deep apse behind the altar is actually an almost flat wall. The clever artist in question was Bramante, who painted it in the 1480s. In this case, he didn’t do it just to show how good he was, it was to give a feeling of greater depth to a church which was squeezed in between the adjoining buildings.

I could go on giving other examples from High Art, but actually I want to focus on a lower form of the art found in the province of Liguria. We’ve just come back from spending a week by the sea, near Genova, the province’s capital (and from where I managed to launch several of the previous posts).

One of my recurring pleasures as I walk the streets of any conurbation in Liguria, from Genova down to the smallest village, is to come across houses like these.
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This form of trompe l’oeil is only found in Liguria, to the extent that the practice is almost a D.O.C.. In these cases, the painter (I hesitate to call him artist) embellishes what is otherwise the drab and flat facade of a house (you see an example to the right in the photo) with architectural elements which are painted so cleverly as to fool the eye into thinking that they are three-dimensional and “real”. The result is to make an ordinary house look more imposing, which in the old days no doubt (and perhaps even today) raised the residing family’s social standing a notch or two. It is even a way of making up for unfortunate blemishes in a facade, like the absence of a window which mars the symmetry of a house.
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What is nice is to see is examples which run from the fresh and new to various states of weathering and finally decrepitude brought about by sun, rain, and more recently pollution.
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Of course, one has to ask oneself why this art form is so popular in Liguria and nowhere else. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is a reflection of the well-known stinginess of the Genoese (and more generally Ligurians). In Italy, the Genoese have the same reputation as the Scots in England for being tight fisted, and there are loads of jokes about it, as indeed there are in the case of the Scots (“There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in a pub. The Englishman stood a round, the Irishman stood a round, but the Scotsman just stood around”; sorry, I thought I would just quickly throw that one in). According to this theory, then, the Genoese (and by reflection the Ligurians) preferred to paint architectural elements onto their facades à la trompe l’oeil rather than go with the real things, because it cost them less.

I’m sure the Genoese must feel that this typing of them as scrooges by the rest of Italy is grossly unfair and they probably find it very irritating to be the butt of incessant jokes about it. But as they say, “there is no smoke without fire”. There must surely be some reason why they got this reputation. Curious to see what I could find out, I did an internet search on the topic (in truth, my wife did it since she’s very good at internet searches). Several suggestions popped up. One is that Liguria is in general a very poor land, made up of steep hills and little good agricultural land. People who live in such lands tend to be more careful with their hard-earned wealth scratched out of an unforgiving earth than those of us from richer lands (I’m sure this is the basis for the Scots’ reputation for stinginess). Another suggestion is that the Genoese in particular made much of their wealth in banking (they were the bankers of the Spaniards in the 16th century), and like all bankers got into the habit of not throwing their money around like we foolish non-bankers do. A third, which I like so much that I have adopted it, is a variant on the second (I have to thank Grimaldina, a citizen of Genova, for bringing it to my attention).

In 1586 or thereabouts Philip II, King of Spain, decided that he was going to invade England, to uphold the Catholic cause of course, but also to teach the damned English a lesson for attacking Spanish treasure fleets and shipping more generally. The worst offender was this gentleman, Sir Francis Drake

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A great Englishman for the English, but nothing more than a damned pirate for the Spaniards.

To invade England, Phillip was going to need a navy, and a big one. As I said, the Genoese were the bankers of the Spaniards, so he came to them for the funds to build the necessary ships. I suspect the King made the Genoese an offer they couldn’t refuse. In any event, after much hesitation because it was a huge amount of money, and no doubt after extracting juicy concessions about trading monopolies for Genova in England once conquered, the Genoese accepted to fund the venture. Thus was built the Spanish Armada, or the Grande y Felicísima Armada, the “Great and Most Fortunate Armada”, as the Spaniards called it. And here, just for the hell of it, I throw in pictures of Philip II and Elizabeth I (it’s clear already from the pictures who’s going to win; I mean, look at Phillip II, have you ever seen such a nasty scowl?)
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Alas, the Spanish Armada was perhaps great but it was not fortunate. After several engagements in the English Channel, where overall the Spaniards got the worst of it
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the Armada was driven by the winds up into the North Sea, all the way up to Scotland. At that point, the Spanish commander decided to give up and go home. His idea was to round the top of Scotland, head out into the Atlantic, and then turn south. He turned too soon. His remaining ships found themselves too close to the west coast of Ireland, where, hit by terrible Atlantic gales, many were driven ashore. Of the 130 ships which left Spain only 67 limped home. The English cheered, but the Genoese cried; their fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the sea along with the ships. Genova went into a steep economic decline thereafter, from which it never really recovered. Thus was born the Genoese’s parsimony (and not stinginess, as stressed by Grimaldina). Like all great families which fall on hard times, it had to keep up appearances with less money in its pocket: ideal conditions for heavy adoption of trompe l’oeil.

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Santa Maria presso San Satiro: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Sansatiro5.jpg (in https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bramante#Santa_Maria_presso_San_Satiro_.281482-1486.29)
Genoese facade-1: http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/images/phocagallery/villesamp/litoraneo/pallavicinocreditoitaliano/thumbs/phoca_thumb_l_dsc_0617.jpg (in http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94:villa-pallavicino-sec-xvi-via-sampierdarena-71&catid=48:litoraneo&Itemid=59)
Fake windows: https://dearmissfletcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/finestre-6.jpg (in https://dearmissfletcher.wordpress.com/2015/03/page/5/)
Genoese facade-2: https://timelessitaly.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/20131103-175731.jpg (in http://timelessitaly.me/tag/nervi/)
Genoese facade-3: http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/files/2015/06/IMG_6719.jpg (in http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/2015/06/16/piemonte-10/)
Genoese facade-4: http://cdn.pleinair.it/wp-content/uploads/106011.jpg (in http://www.pleinair.it/meta/viaggi-camper-l-impero-dipinto/)
Genoese facade-5: http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/getImage.php?id=779&w=100&h=100&c=0&co=1&f=0 (in http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/136/percorsi-tematici/3/5/3)
Sir Francis Drake: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Gheeraerts_Francis_Drake_1591.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Phillip II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Philip_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Elizabeth I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg ( in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg)
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Invincible_Armada.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)

A CLUSTER OF MORNING GLORIES

San Francisco, 23 September 2012

We left this morning for San Francisco, to visit our son. We were up early, and since it was a beautiful morning – the sky was a cloudless clear blue – we decided to walk to the station to catch the train to the airport. The walk took us past our local supermarket, the modest housing estates that cluster around it, past the smart office buildings along the Third Ring Road, and finally along a rough semi-constructed path that follows the highway out to the airport until the stairs to the station are reached. The last stretch of our walk reminded us that Beijing is still constructing itself. It is one of those pieces of land that get left behind in urban renewal projects, stuck between new constructions – in this case, the highway on one side, modern office buildings on the other – and are fast going feral. Weeds were growing in abundance along the side of the path and covering the construction rubble underfoot, rogue trees were beginning to push up through the cracks, the fencing along the path was rusting and bent. We picked our way along, weaving to avoid the commuters streaming in to work, with the suitcase stumbling behind us over the rough paving.

Suddenly, there, in the shade of the early morning sun, was a cluster of morning glories flowering on the fence. The plant itself is nothing much to write home about; it has the weak tendril-like stalk of a climbing plant and the leaves are a drear matte green. But the flowers were magnificent – a cool, dark violet colour, almost phosphorescent in its intensity. I’m guessing they were Ipomoea purpurea, the purple or common morning glory. We stopped for a minute to admire them, but we were in a hurry now and had to move on.

As I write this, my mind’s eye suddenly whirls off half a world away and I find myself walking down the main coast road south of Genova, just as it enters the village where we used to spend our summers when the children were young. I am next to the cemetery; the village dead have the best view, out over the coast to the distant promontory. It’s a beautiful summer morning. Down in the cleft where a creek runs off the hills behind me, the morning glories have run amok, covering and smothering everything. But the flowers are open, beautiful in the morning light, cool, dark, violet.

And my mind’s eye whirls off again, this time alighting in the town in Africa where I was born. More than fifty years have passed and the memory is fading. But I see a wall – is it in a park, in a garden? – covered in morning glories, glowing in the morning light, cool – dark – violet.

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picture: http://georgeswebpage.com/almanac