Sunday 31 December 2023

I'm still here Bonnie Langford is the most recent show singer to tell us, and so well (yes, really), in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, which I'm glad my old friend Simon encouraged me to go and see before Xmas. Actually the odds were very low on my not being still here, since the diagnosis of bowel cancer in November 2022 yielded a verdict of Stage 1/cuspal 2 and no metastatizing.

Nevertheless it's been quite a year, full of inspiring people like the heroic folk of Charing Cross Hospital - I can never get tired of seeing this pic -  

and I choose the top image, at one of my happiest places in the world, S. Apollinare in Classe outside Ravenna, since between my six weeks of radio and chemotherapy back in February, which coshed the tumour but not all cancer cells, and the big op to remove my lower bowel in July, I cycled to this glorious place just before temperatures went berserk in Italy. And here I was 10 days ago with my best beloved, cycling not an option for the foreseeable future but slow walking with stick always possible. finding it similarly deserted a few days before Xmas, though about to host a big wedding with a sumptuous reception set out on the upstairs level of the nearly-new Classis Museum, converted sugar-beet factory, nearby.

I'm having too full and rich a time to blog much right now, but let's have a token shot from each of our cities. A first night in Bologna revitalised my love of the place (any city which has a naked god in its main square, courtesy of Giambolgna, can't be bad),

while adored Ravenna yielded the best three nights of Italian opera, courtesy of honorary Ravenato Riccardo Muti, and allowed a day trip to Rimini, which was more fun than I'd imagined, 

with one of the greatest Renaissance interiors ever in the Tempio Malatestiano (must spend more time on that), and plenty of homages to native Fellini. Then it was on to Ferrara for Xmas itself: we ate well and saw much, met some charming people, but a certain grimness takes it cue from the fortress-become- palace (no wonder the Estes sought out cosier retreats in the suburbs), and the two main exhibitions were of 20th century Italian artists admired by the Fascists (no prizes for guessing who's in power here). Plenty of green on the 12 mile circuit of the walls, though.

Vicenza awed us with its theatricality - it helped that we turned out to be staying in Palladio's Palazzo Valmarana Braga, a huge bargain, right in the heart of things - and the Basilica in its square simply gobsmacking.

I'm happy we did a seven-mile country walk to take in villas and a giant Veronese - climbing steps on a wooded hillside was a major achievement. And now we're in the bosom of Siena again, in Sophie's stunningly designed top-floor guest house with views one dreams of - she can see this from her bedroom and bathroom.

And so, buon'anno, buon comincio, auguri, whatever takes your fancy. I have the task of leading Italians in "Auld Lang Syne", which has very different words in its best known Italian form, but Milva carries it off:

Italian retreats gave me time to labour love-wise over the best of 2023 on The Arts Desk. Opera is here; classical music concerts here.  May 2024 be as good, musically speaking; and may the world give us a bit less need to seek optimism in arts alone.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Powerscourt Gardens - among the world's best

Wondered what the banner which greeted us down the long beech-lined drive to Powerscourt Gardens was worth: it proclaimed the National Geographic's assignation of No. 3 among the great gardens of the world, yielding only to Kew and Versailles. Even the approach yields lovely vistas of the valley, though the Wicklow mountains beyond were only occasionally visible, and the top of the Sugarloaf, usually such a landmark, not at all.

Now I'm not anything like as well versed in international matters horticultural as my friend Kerry Richardson, an experienced director of TV programmes on the subject including Around the World in 80 Gardens, but when we passed through the ticket office and emerged on to the top terrace, the vista immediately made me realise the reason for the accolade. It's a little like La Foce, where the formal layout is in striking contrast to the hills beyond, but on a truly Versaillian scale (this vista, with my friend, driver and Powerscourt enthusiast Catherine, one level down).

The glory of the gardens can be assigned to two Viscounts, Sir Richard Wingfield (1697-1751, who built the house and oversaw the first wonders of the garden design) and No. 7, Mervyn Edward (1836-1904), with the terrace designs instigated under No. 6, Richard (1815-1844) by architect Daniel Robinson,  and now to the son of the present owners, Alex Slazenger, whose training to become head gardener has paid off (according to a local. the family is much liked for its good treatment of everyone who works there). Much of the statuary was bought by the Seventh Viscount on a grand tour or commissioned from Prof Hugo Hagen of Berlin, Fame and Victory on the top terrace being based on the design of sculptor Rauch.

Diana and Apollo Belvedere were purchased in Rome by the Sixth Viscount

while some of the vases (probably not this one) were bought in St Petersburg

and the bronze groups of children/Putti, imitating the ones in Versailles, are the work of Marin.

The patterned pavement at the next stage down is a wonder, and worth repeating in more detail.

Below it there are two 17th century Italian bronze figures of Aeolus ('the spitting men' with dolphins), bought by the Seventh Viscount at Christie's in 1872, with sundial in between. The sundial has a Latin inscription which translates as 'I only make the sunny hours'.

All perspectives down towards the lake

are more impressive than looking up towards the house,

the backside of which, originally only two storeys high and much altered, is less impressive than the north front, adapted in the Palladian style.

A major refurbishment came to an end with a fire on 4 November 1974, leaving the house roofless and all its main rooms destroyed. It's now a centre for retail by the ubiquitous Avoca and others, though I guess you could hire the piano nobile for a big event. Anyway, everyone I met here was very friendly, as more often than not in Dublin and environs. 

So to the Pegasi framing the lake. They're splendid, if a bit blingy, and though I thought they might be recent additions, they're more of Prof Hagen's work from 1869.

In the centre is a reproduction of Bernini's famous Triton fountain in Piazza Barberini, Rome. Can't help feeling this one has a happier setting, and the shaggy moss suits him.

Time here for Respighi's magnificent musical tribute to the original, based around a single horn note (Triton blowing his conch).

I hadn't expected the Japanese garden to be more than a couple of temples in a glade. But this is a ravine wonder apart. The descent is rather spectacular (a nice woman in the house told me that for crinolined ladies, it was a relief to descend in to lower temperatures on a hot summer's day).

This was laid out by the Eighth Viscount in 1908, but it embraces a wonderful grotto from the time of the First Viscount, established in 1740 and made from fossilised sphagnum moss. Ireland's moist airs do the rest for the greening.

Other shades in the Japanese garden are complementary, though I imagine it's also lovely in blossom time.

Heading back up to the lake, our route now took us past giant sequoias and other splendours - the garden, like Mount Usher which I visited in the spring and really ought to have chronicled, has some of Ireland's prize trees, which must be pursued with a guidebook next time - 

past the Pet Cemetery to the different feel of the Dolphin Pond zone, with more big trees surrounding it including Ireland's tallest Eucalyptus.

The pond features on a 1740 map, but the fountain was bought in Paris by our very statue-acquisitive Seventh Viscount.

We now went through one of many splendid gates to the Walled Gardens; the herbaceous border was still in full spare - praise young Slazenger for the choices - and not only dahlia/bee rich but even producing an Oriental poppy.

I was especially keen to see the Gate from Bamberg Cathedral, bought by the Seventh Viscount from one Mr Pratt, a London curiosity dealer. Again, it looks a bit blingy, but regilding is done every decade or so. The golden rose vase on top is reminiscent of those in Vienna's Schatzkammer which were given by the Pope to the daughters of the nobility, giving Hofmannsthal his idea of a silver rose for Strauss.

The English Gate at the other end of the walled garden proper - again, surprisingly extensive - was brought, as the title makes clear, from England in 1873. 

In between, the rose beds were still doing well

 and the two discoboloi, one pictured here, bought by the Seventh Viscount in Naples - they were copied from the originals in Herculaneum by one Massalli - look ready for action against a background of hydrangeas.

Murmurations of starlings flew overhead, 

while we didn't exactly fly back to Dublin - nearly missed the start of Irish National Opera's stunningly well-sung Faust - but what an afternoon. Can't wait to return.