Sori, 16 March 2021

Nearly a month ago, when my wife and I were walking through the local town of Nervi, I happened to notice this banner strung across the street.

my photo

It was an invitation to all and sundry to come and admire the camellia which were flowering in the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in the Genoese suburb of Pegli.

We filed this invite away for possible future use, but it was only a week or so ago that we got around to going. What we discovered was more than just a bunch of camellia in flower – although we did also find that. It turns out that the villa’s gardens, which were laid out in the first half of the 1840s, are quite famous. They were the brainchild of the Marquess Ignazio Pallavicini and were designed for him by a certain Michele Canzio. This Michele Canzio was a man of the arts: an architect, an interior designer, and – important for our story – a set designer for Genova’s opera house, the Carlo Fenice theatre.  The garden he designed for Ignazio Pallavicini was composed of a series of theatre sets made up of little lakes, streams, waterfalls, various buildings of one sort or another, garden furnishings, rare plants, all inserted into general greenery. In fact, a visit to the gardens was quite openly a theatrical event, with visitors invited to wind their way up the steep hill behind the villa through gardens divided into a Prologue and Background followed by three Acts. Each of these in turn were sub-divided into a number of Scenes, with each section and sub-section having a title. So we have:

Prologue and Background
– The Gothic Avenue
– The Classical Avenue

Act I: The Return to Nature
– Scene I: The Hermitage
– Scene II; The Amusement Park
– Scene III: The Old Lake
– Scene IV: The Spring

Act II: The Recovery of History
– Scene I: The Chapel of the Virgin Mary
– Scene II: The Swiss Hut
– Scene III: The Condottiere’s Castle
– Scene IV: The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

Act III: Catharsis
– Scene I: The Inferno
– Scene II: The Large Lake
– Scene III: The Gardens of Flora
– Scene IV: Remembrance

Looking at all that, I have a sense of being trapped in a rather bad knock-off of a Wagnerian opera, with some knight errant wandering the forests of Mittel Europe searching for his Loved One. But what I feel doesn’t matter. It’s what people at the time felt that matters. They loved it. When it opened to the public (for a fee), it was an instant success. It became the centre-piece of a broader plan by Marquess Pallavicini to turn Pegli from a sleepy little fishing village on the far outskirts of Genova into a smart seaside resort where the Great and the Good from all over Europe could come to spend their winters (and later their summers). The Marquess used his political muscle (he was a Senator in the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy) to make sure that the railway being built out from Genova westwards had a stop at Pegli, donating part of his land for the station buildings as well as for an upscale hotel to house the Great and the Good who would be arriving by train and for a smart new municipal building from which the new, modern municipality he was promoting could be run. Other Genoese aristocratic families which had summer villas in the area knew a good thing when they saw it and had their villas turned into luxurious hotels. And the Great and the Good came: the hereditary princes of the German Empire, various members of Italy’s House of Savoy, various literati such as George Sand, Alfred de Musset, August Strindberg, Franz Kafka, Arrigo Boito, among others. All these Great and Good visited the gardens at Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, and where they went so did Europe’s bourgeoisie.

By now readers might be getting a little impatient and asking themselves what these gardens looked like. Let me answer them by showing a series of postcards from the turn of the century. Wonderful things, postcards. People loved to show the folk back home where they had been, and tourist spots like the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini were more than glad to oblige. My wife has a large collection of postcards sent by her parents, grandparents, and their friends over the decades, and it’s lovely to sit down of a winter evening and browse through them. But I digress. Here are postcards of the gardens:

The Gothic Avenue


The Classical Avenue


The Hermitage (which Canzio rather cleverly had built on the back of the Triumphal Arch which completed the Classical Avenue)


The Amusement Park (where visitors could take a spin on the carousels)


The Spring


The Chapel of the Virgin Mary


The Condottiere’s Castle


The Condottiere’s Mausoleum


The Inferno (made by taking the stalactites and stalagmites from other caves and placing them here; the environmentalist in me shudders)


You could also visit the Inferno by boat


And finally the Large Lake


as well as the Gardens of Flora


Oh, and perhaps I should add a photo of the camellias, which was what brought us to the gardens originally (although this is not a postcard, since it would seem that postcard makers didn’t see the interest in having postcards of the camellias).


As this photo suggests, we came a little too late, many of the camellias being past their prime. Quite how the camellias fitted into Canzio’s grand operatic scheme is not clear to me, but we can let that pass.

Would I recommend to readers to visit the gardens? I’m not sure I would. It’s not just that the highly artificial nature of the gardens does not chime with modern sensibilities (at least, it doesn’t chime with mine). It’s also that the gardens have suffered heavily from Genova’s modernization over the last century. To explain what I mean, I have to take up the story of Pegli from where I left off a few paragraphs ago.

Marquess Pallavicini wanted to turn Pegli into a smart seaside resort, and as we have seen for a while this plan was successful, as this poster from the turn of the century suggests.


But in the late 19th-early 20th Century, Genova, which we see in the far distance in this poster, was spreading like a cancer along the coast and up the valleys behind it – it was the only way the city could expand in this region where the steep hills drop precipitously into the sea. To show what I mean, here is a map of what Genova looks like today. It’s expanded up and down the coast, swallowing up places like Pegli, and sent tendrils of urbanisation up into the valleys behind.


By 1926, Genova had reached Pegli and gobbled it up. Pegli as a distinct municipality was no more.

Like all modern cities, Genova was also pushing to industrialize, and it was industrializing on the side towards Pegli. In 1915, just before Italy entered the First World War, this was the view the visitor would have had looking towards the villa.


We have the villa standing proud on the edge of the hill, with the gardens climbing the hill behind it. In front of it are orange trees, vineyards, and other fields, all the property of Marquess Pallavicini and his heirs. A decade or so later, we have this large cotton mill down by the rail tracks, with the villa in the middle distance partially blotted out by the belching industrial chimney. There were even bigger industrial plants to the right of this photo. One in particular became a very large steel plant.


By this time, the Great and the Good had packed their bags and were spending their winters and summers elsewhere along the Ligurian coast, or on the adjoining coast in France, the Côte d’Azur. Pegli had just become a grimy suburb of Genova. I suspect that Pallavicini’s heirs saw which way the wind was blowing, because the last owner of the villa and its gardens donated them to the city of Genova in 1928. But at least she did so with the provision that the villa be allocated to some cultural use and that the gardens be kept open to the public (Genova more or less honoured the bargain; one part of the villa has become a museum and the gardens were kept open until the 1960s – more on that in a minute).

The pace of modernization quickened after World War II. And here, to continue the story, I switch back to our visit of the gardens. We had passed through the Prologue and Background and had started onto Act I when we started hearing a low roar, which got stronger and stronger as we progressed. At some point, we reached a Belvedere where we got a beautiful, close-up view of –– the A10 motorway, which runs from Genova to Ventimiglia. This section of the motorway was built in the 1960s.


This screenshot from Google Maps shows just how the motorway smashed its way through the hill under the gardens.


The construction of the tunnel so badly damaged the gardens that they were closed until 1992, when they were reopened to the public after a decade of restoration. Even today, much of Act I of the gardens is blighted by the continuous roar from the motorway.

When we had climbed higher, reaching the end of Act I, we began to get splendid views over the sea –– and onto the runway of Genova’s airport.


As the photo shows, the runway is built on the sea, a consequence of the fact, which I’ve already mentioned, that Genova lies at the foot of steep hills that drop straight into the sea – there is no nice flat space nearby where a runway could be built.  After some back and forth, it was decided to build the airport and its runway to the west of Genova, I suspect because this part of the city had already been blighted by industrialization and no-one would complain too much about it. Luckily, the day we visited the gardens no planes landed or took off – Covid-19 induced no doubt – but I presume that on a normal day the noise of planes taking off would add to the noise from the motorway.

On we climbed, and as we got the end of Act II, and the highest point of the gardens, we could enjoy a new view across the valley running alongside the gardens –– to a series of oil tanks planted on the hill on the other side of the valley. They were painted a sickly green, no doubt to claim they were environmentally-friendly. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately for me, no-one seems to have posted a photo of these oil tanks taken from the gardens, so the best I can do is to show another satellite photo from Google Maps.


The tanks are that group of circles, and to locate the gardens please follow the motorway as it punches its way through the hill.

The presence of oil tanks there are the consequence of another decision, taken in the early 1960s, to have Genova’s oil terminal built close to the airport (so another pleasant sight from the gardens must no doubt be the periodic arrival of oil tankers coming in to offload their cargo). The oil pipelines snake over the hills from the terminal to these tanks, where the oil is stored prior to further onward delivery to the north of Italy.

After enjoying these sights, we wended our way down through Act III of the gardens and on down to the exit. When we arrived back at the villa we went out on its ample terrace to admire the view –– and got a close-up of people’s clothes drying on their balconies. In the 1960s and ’70s, those pleasant fields of orange trees, vineyards and other crops which used to lie at the foot of the villa, and which I show above in that postcard from 1915, had been cemented over to make way for cheap housing. Here we have a view of that housing, and at the end of the avenue we can see the villa.


No “green belt” was kept between the housing and the villa. The apartment blocks come right up to the gates of the villa.

So, like I say, I don’t think I will be recommending a visit to these gardens to anyone. I feel sorry for the enthusiastic volunteers who manned (and womanned) the gardens, I respect the spending of public moneys to restore the gardens, seen as a great example of garden design from the Romantic age, but the garden’s context has been so ruined as to blight any visit to the gardens.



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.
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.
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.
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.


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


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?)


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
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.


Santa Maria presso San Satiro: (in
Genoese facade-1: (in
Fake windows: (in
Genoese facade-2: (in
Genoese facade-3: (in
Genoese facade-4: (in
Genoese facade-5: (in
Sir Francis Drake: (in
Phillip II:,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in
Elizabeth I: ( in
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: (in


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.