Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

Arts & Culture

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The Death of God the Father

The circumstances in which Picasso’s portrait of Stalin was commissioned are amusingly relayed in Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper’s history, Paris After the Liberation: 1944-1949.

When Stalin’s death was announced on Friday, 7 March 1953, Aragon called in Pierre Daix and rattled off a shopping list of features to honour Stalin in a special issue of Les Lettres françaises. […] Since Picasso had always refused to do a portrait of Stalin from a photograph, Daix sent a telegram to him at Vallauris saying, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and signed it ‘Aragon’.

Picasso’s drawing of Stalin, which depicted him as a curiously open-eyed young man, arrived at the very moment Les Lettres françaises went to press. Daix took the picture to Aragon. He admired it and said that the party would appreciate the gesture. While it was being set into the front page, office boys and typists crowded round the picture. Everyone thought it ‘worthy of Stalin’.

Daix was overjoyed to be the one who had commissioned Picasso’s first portrait of the Soviet leader and rushed it down to the printers. But a few hours later, when the edition had been run off, the mood in the building had completely changed to one of fear. Journalists from L’Humanité, passing by, spotted the drawing and cried out that it was unthinkable that any Communist publication should consider such a representation of ‘le Grand Staline’.

Pierre Daix promptly rang Aragon at his apartment; Elsa Triolet answered. She told him angrily that he was mad to have even thought of asking Picasso for such a drawing.

‘But really, Elsa,’ Daix broke in, ‘Stalin isn’t God the Father!’

‘Yes, he is, Pierre. Nobody’s going to reflect much about what this drawing of Picasso signifies. He hasn’t even deformed Stalin’s face. He’s even respected it. But he has dared to touch it. He has actually dared, Pierre, don’t you understand?’

Paris After the Liberation: 1944–1949,
Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper (1994, London)

December 2, 2016 12:05 pm | Link | No Comments »

Wall Street

Well, actually it’s Broad Street looking down past the New York Stock Exchange to Federal Hall, which itself is on Wall Street.

Most of Broad Street was originally a canal (hence its width) but in 1676 it was filled in and laid out as a street.

November 17, 2016 10:20 am | Link | No Comments »

Muratie

The Stellenbosch estate of the artist Georg Paul Canitz

We had supper with Mr. Canitz, the painter, one Sunday night, by the light of candles in a fine Dutch candelabra, and drove back to Stellenbosch in moon light which had transformed the countryside into the most entrancing fairyland imaginable.

Great clumps of trees in unexpected places gave an eeriness to the white ribbon of road which stretched across the valley. The soft evening breeze of magic scents lulled us, and we drowsed to the hum of the car bearing us homeward.

That memory is still vivid to me so I shall turn from our Golden Road, and “…muse awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.”

So the architect Rex Martienssen described a visit to Muratie, the home of the artist Georg Paul Canitz, in 1928. Canitz was a Saxon, born in Leipzig, where his parents had hoped he would pursue a military career. Both his zeal and talent as an artist appeared early on, and so he ended up at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. After further studies in Italy, Paris, and the Netherlands, a chest ailment drove him to the interior of Südwestafrika in 1907.


“…by the light of candles in a fine Dutch candelabra.” (Photo credit)

Canitz healed quickly in the dry air but could not find a cure for the striking beauty of the new world around him. His wife and children were summoned from Germany, and three years later he moved to Stellenbosch after falling in love with the “City of Oaks”.

Canitz devoted himself to his passions: riding, painting, and teaching (both at his own art school and at the University). Riding to a party at Knorhoek one day he stumbled upon the little house and farm at Muratie and was quickly enamored of the place. It wasn’t long before he had purchased it and moved his family there.


The kitchen at Muratie. (Photo credit)

G P Canitz

At Muratie, the painter developed a further art: that of winemaking. In this he was assisted by the legendary Dr Perold — first chair of viticulture at Stellenbosch. Canitz became a pioneer of the pinot noir grapes which have since become a South African staple. Perhaps even more he developed the skills of a kind and generous host, for which he was well reputed throughout South Africa. He would welcome friends and guests — among them Martienssen and his architectural students as cited above — throughout the year. In warmer months they came for the swimming pool and the breezy stoep, while in winter a fire awaited, or perhaps a few rounds of strong drink in the Kneipzimmer.


The Kneipzimmer (Photo credit)

I like to think this was Canitz’s favourite room at Muratie: bedecked with benches, the light streaming in through a stained-glass windows, and the walls covered in naturalistic painting as well as graffitied signatures and sayings in German, Afrikaans, French, and Greek.

The painter died in 1958, leaving Muratie to his daughter, who in 1987 sold it to members of the Melck family who had owned it from 1763 to 1897. (The house was first built in 1685.) I suspect Canitz would have greatly appreciated his handiwork being passed back to those who had looked after the place for many generations before him. The Melcks, unsurprisingly, have a great reverance for the history of the estate. They even go so far as to leave the cobwebs which have accrued go undisturbed and ask visitors to do likewise.

And, even today, the wine still flows!


A sign in Afrikaans points the way to cellar sales. (Photo credit)
November 16, 2016 10:17 am | Link | 2 Comments »

A Handsome Hamsun

Book design is a craft sadly neglected in the English-speaking world. In paperbacks, the French reign supreme, while the Teutons and Scandos design the most elegant hardcover books.

This German edition of Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s biography of Knut Hamsun was designed by Frank Ortmann for Landt Verlag, founded by the conservative popular historian Andreas Krause Landt (aka Andreas Lombard). Landt Verlag is now an imprint of Thomas Hoof’s Manuscriptum publishing firm. Hoof is better known for starting Manufactum, the retail company known for offering high-quality goods made through traditional methods.

I’ve never read any Hamsun myself though he has been strongly recommended by friends with reliable tastes. This Norwegian writer is widely read amongst the Germans but not so amongst the Anglos, and perhaps not surprisingly since he was an uncompromising Anglophobe and had praise for all things German.

Anglophobia was not his worse offence – a Nobel laureate, he ended up giving away the actual medal as a gift to Goebbels – but no less an unquestionable anti-Nazi than Thomas Mann hoped that “the stigma of his politics will one day be separated from his writing, which I regard very highly”.

The designer Frank Ortmann impressed the name of the publisher by incorporating letter-L initials into the rather Hellenic ornamental frame of the book. He’s also managed to banish the dreaded and ubiquitous barcode to a little banderole which also includes a short introductory text, preserving the visual integrity of the book itself.

November 15, 2016 11:45 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Church of St James, Spanish Place

Always interesting to see a building you know well from a perspective you’ve never seen before, as in this photo of the Church of St James, Spanish Place, taken from Manchester Mews. The church somehow seems more imposing — like a great rounded keep.

A few months ago I was corralled into some favour or other that required a bit of muscle to move this there and whatnot, the payoff of which was it afforded an opportunity to explore the triforium of this Marylebone church and see the interior of the building from an entirely new vantage point.

It also meant being able to view in better detail the beautiful stained glass windows — many of them the gift of various Spanish royals, given that this parish originates as the chapel of the Spanish embassy (hence its name).

November 7, 2016 10:35 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Speyer

This 1961 postage stamp celebrates the consecration, nine centuries earlier, of the Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Blessed Virgin of the Assumption and Saint Stephen at Speyer — today the largest Romanesque church still standing.

November 4, 2016 2:20 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Courtyard of the Palazzo Bonagia

A photograph of the courtyard of the Palazzo Bonagia, the Palermo residence of the Dukes of Castel di Mirto, looking towards the rococo staircase.

The steps, columns, and balustrades are of red marble from Castellammare del Golfo, all conceived in the mind of Andrea Giganti, priest-architect of the Sicilian baroque.

The building was bombed during the last war and reduced to a shell, but thorough if slow-going restoration work began in 2009 and continues.

November 1, 2016 10:35 am | Link | 3 Comments »

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow

If there is any season which is plus New-Yorkaise que les autres then it must be autumn, and around the time of Hallowe’en in particular.

Thanks to the fertile imagination of Washington Irving, buried in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, the Hudson Valley is the spiritual home of this ancient Celtic feast now implanted in the New World.

The other day I dusted off the huge single-volume complete works of Irving – almost the size of an old Statenvertaling – and re-read his most famous tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Irving describes the position of the Old Dutch Church:

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll surrounded by locust trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water bordered by high trees, between which peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace.

On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along, which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it and the bridge itself were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it even in the daytime, but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered.

The tale of the Headless Horseman is now, partly thanks to various popular reinterpretations of it, well known even outside the Hudson Valley. I remember as a wee lad growing up in that part of the world our Scout uniforms had a badge bearing the image of the “Galloping Hessian”.

October 31, 2016 12:05 pm | Link | 8 Comments »

Johannes Kip’s View of London

View and Perspective of the City of London, Westminster, and St James’s Park

The Dutch engraver & printer Johannes Kip had worked for the stadthouder William of Orange in Amsterdam and unsurprisingly followed the prince to London after the English Revolution of 1688.

This view of London and Westminster is most notable for the unique perspective it takes: a bird’s eye view from above the Duke of Buckingham’s house, later acquired by the Crown and now, as Buckingham Palace, the primary royal residence.

This printing of Kip’s view, which comes up for auction soon at Daniel Crouch Rare Books, must have been printed after 1726 as it incorporates Gibb’s steeple of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

(more…)

October 25, 2016 12:05 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

‘Decisions, decisions…’

The Dublin Civic Trust has a blogpost on the Bank of Ireland’s 1802 competition to redesign the former Parliament House on College Green.

Rather horrifyingly, one of the proposals would have erected a monumental screen closing off the forecourt, completely spoiling the view of Edward Lovett Pearce’s beautiful façade.

Luckily the Bank chose Francis Johnston to harmonise the competition designs into the building we know today.

October 24, 2016 11:00 am | Link | No Comments »

Voltaire’s Works Are Not Dead

They Are Alive: And They Are Killing Us

“At the end of a very warm day in the month of July 1809,” our host, the Count, is travelling up the Neva in St Petersburg along with his two guests: a Senator of that city and a young Chevalier exiled from France.

“It was a little after nine in the evening; the sun was setting, the weather superb. … Nothing is rare, nothing is more enchanting than a beautiful summer evening in St Petersburg. Whether the length of the winter and the rarity of these nights, which gives them a particular charm, renders them more desirable, or whether they really are so, as I believe, they are softer and calmer than evenings in more pleasant climates.”

The Soirées Saint-Petersbourg of Count Joseph de Maistre are philosophical dialogues that sometimes border on the mystical and delve into the dark recesses of human nature. They are eloquent, fascinating, and beautiful, traversing a broad range of subjects while hovering around evil and why it exists in the world.

In this extract from the Fourth Dialogue, the Count — generally taken to represent the author’s own view — objects to the young Chevalier citing Voltaire approvingly.

A critic might call it a rant; if so, it is at least a beautiful one.

[…]

The Count: Ah! I have got you there, my dear Chevalier, you are citing Voltaire. I am not so severe as to deprive you of the pleasure of recalling in passing some happy lines fallen from that sparkling pen, but you cite him as an authority, and that is not permissible in my house.

The Chevalier: Oh! My dear friend, you are much too rancorous towards François-Marie Arouet; since he is no longer alive, how can you keep up so much rancour towards the dead?

The Count: However his works are not dead. They are alive, and they are killing us. It seems to me that my hate is sufficiently justified.

The Chevalier: Perhaps, but permit me to tell you that we should not allow this sentiment, although well founded in principle, to make us unjust towards such a wonderful genius and to close our eyes to this universal talent, which must be regarded as a brillant French possession.

The Count: As great a genius as you wish, Chevalier, but it is no less true that in praising Voltaire, one must praise him with a certain restraint, I almust said grudgingly. The uncontrolled admiration with which too many people surround him is an infallible sign of a corrupt soul. Let us not be under any illusion: if someone, in looking over his library, feels himself attracted to the works of Ferney, God does not love him. Ecclesiastical authority is often mocked for having condemned books in odium auctoris; in truth, nothing is more just. Refuse to honour the genius who has abused his gifts. If this law were severely observed, we would soon see poisonous books disappear.

Since it is not up to us to promulgate such a law, let us at least be careful not to allow ourselves the excess, much more reprehensible than one might have thought, of exalting guilty authors beyond measure, and especially this one. He pronounced a terrible sentence upon himself, without noticing it, for he is the one who said: A corrupt mind is never sublime. Nothing is more true, and this is why Voltaire, with his hundred volumes, was never anything more than pretty. I except tragedy, where the nature of the work forced him to express noble feelings alien to his character, and even in this genre, which was his greatest, he does not deceive experienced eyes. In his best pieces he resembles his great rivals as the most able hypocrite resembles a saint.

However I should not be understood as contesting his dramatic merit. I restrict myself to my first observation, which is that when Voltaire is speaking in his own name, he is only pretty. Nothing can excite him, not even the battle of Fontenoy. They say, He is charming; I say it too, but I take this as a criticism. Moreover I cannot stand the exaggeration that calls him universal. I certainly see fine exceptions to this universality. He is nothing in the ode — and why should we be astonished by this? Considered impiety killed in him the divine flame of enthusiasm. He was also nothing — to the point of ridiculue — in lyric drama, his ear being absolutely deaf to harmonic beauties, just as his eyes were closed to those of art. In the genres that appear more analogous to his natural talent, he got along: so he was mediocre, cold, often heavy and gross in comedy (who would believe it), for the wicked are never funny.

For the same reason, he never knew how to write an epigram; the least vomiting of his bile required at least a hundred verss. If he tried satire, he slipped into libel; he was insupportable in history, despite his art, his elegance, and the graces of his style. No quality can replace those he lacked and which are the life of history — seriousness, good faith, and dignity. As for his epic poem, I have no right to talk about it, for to judge a book one must have read it, and to read it one must stay awake.

A stupefying monotony weighs on most of his writings, which were on only two subjects, the Bible and his enemies. He blasphemed or he insulted. His highly vaunted humour was however far from being irreproachable; the laugh that he excites is not legitimate — it is a grimace.

Have you ever noticed that the divine anathema was written on his face? After so many years there is still time to have the experience. Go contemplate his figure in the Hermitage Palace. I never look at it without congratulating myself that it was not done for us by some chisel imitative of the Greeks, which would perhaps have known how to render a certain idealised image. Here everything is natural. There is as much truth in this head as if it had been taken from a cadaver and placed on a plate. Look at this abject brow that never blushed from modesty, these two extinct craters where lust and hate still seem to boil. This mouth — I say it badly perhaps, but it is not my fault — this horrible rictus running from ear to ear, and these lips pinched by cruel malice like a spring ready to spout forth blasphemy or sarcasm.

Do not speak to me of this man; I cannot stand the idea. Ah! The harm he has done us. Like an insect, the scourge of gardens, who only attacks the roots of the most valuable plants, Voltaire, with his sting, never ceased to attack the two roots of society, women and young people. He injected them with his poisons, which he thus transmits from one generation to the other. It is in vain that to cloak his inexpressible offence, his stupid admirers bore us with sonorous tirades where he spoke superlatively of the most venerated things. These willingly blind people do not see that they thus accomplish the condemnation of this guilty writer. If Fénelon, with the same pen that painted the joys of Elysium had written the book The Prince, he would have been a thousand times more guilty than Machiavelli.

Voltaire’s great crime was the abuse of talent and the considered prostitution of a genius created to celebrate God and virtue. He could not, like so many others, claim youth, rashness, the heat of passion, or, finally, the sad weakness of our nature. Nothing absolves him. His corruption is of a kind that belonged only to him; it was rooted in the deepest fibres of his heart and fortified with all the strength of this intelligence. Always allied to sacrilege, it braved God while losing men.

With a fury that is without example, this insolent blasphemer went so far as to declare himself the personal enemy of the Saviour of mankind. He dared, from the depths of nothingness, to give him a ridiculous name, and this adorable law that the Man-God brought down to earth, he called INFAMOUS.

Abandoned by God, who punished him by withdrawing from him, he lacked all restraint. Other cynics astonished virtue, Voltaire astonished vice. He plunged into the mire; if he rolled in it, it was to slake his thirst. He surrendered his imagination to the enthusiasm of hell, which lent hm all its forces to lead him to the limits of evil. He invented prodigies, monsters that make us blanch. Paris crowned him; Sodom would have banished him.

Shameless profaner of the universal language and its greatest names, the last of men after those who love him! How can I tell you how he makes me feel? When I see what he could have done and what he did, his inimitable talents inspire in me no more than a kind of nameless holy rage. Suspended between admiration and horror, sometimes I would like to raise a statue to him — by the hand of the executioner.

October 17, 2016 12:45 pm | Link | No Comments »

Party in the Overberg

Alongside a bazaar, a braai, and dancing, a speech by Sir De Villiers Graaff is the selling point of this poster advertising a United Party (Verenigde Party) get-together in the beautiful Overberg region of the Cape.

“Sir Div” was the inheritor of one of only twelve South African baronetcies and led his party from 1956 until 1977 when it merged with the Democratic Party of verligte ex-Nationalists to form a new entity.

The broadly centrist party had lost power to the republican Nats (creators of apartheid) in 1948, and suffered splits that led to the creation of the Liberal Party and the United Federal Party in 1953, the National Conservative Party in 1954, and the Progressive Party in 1959.

The party’s emblem was a happy little citrus tree.

October 12, 2016 3:45 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The Wyndham Monument, Silton

The charmingly haphazard Church of St Nicholas in Silton is home to what is arguably the finest funerary monument in Dorset not in a major church.

Sir Hugh Wyndham (1602–1684) lived through the difficult time of the Civil War and was first advanced in the law under Cromwell’s military dictatorship. It was the worst of both worlds for Wyndham, as the republican authorities never trusted him while after the Restoration his comfort with Cromwell meant he was deprived of office. Still, Charles II was no small-minded man, and after a royal pardon was granted Wyndham was appointed a Baron of the Exchequer and knighted.

The monument he left behind at Silton is is believed to be the earliest work of the Flemish sculptor Jan van Nost (also known as John Nost the elder). Sir Hugh is depicted in his judge’s robes, flanked by two mourning figures believed to represent his first and second wives. (The third wife is at least represented by having her arms impaled with Wyndham’s in one of the three heraldic sheilds gracing the monument’s surrounds.)

Nost’s sculpture was unveiled in the chancel of the parish church in 1692 but the Victorians thought it rather dominated the small sancutary. In 1869 a small recess was constructed in the north wall of the nave and the Wyndham monument was carefully moved there. The sculptor was also responsible for the monument to John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol, in Sherborne Abbey not far away, and one can see the parallels. The Earl, as it happened, married Rachel Wyndham, the younger daughter of Sir Hugh Wyndham.

October 6, 2016 12:05 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Zeist’s Zest for Traditional Architecture

The Daniel Marotplein, a residential square in the town of Zeist, provides a fine recent example of traditional architecture in the Netherlands. Designed by the TU-Delft-trained architect Diederik Six, the twenty houses surround a green square named after the Huguenot craftsman and artist Daniel Marot some of whose handiwork is in the nearby Slot Zeist.

The slot (schloss/castle/house) is associated with the Protestant Moravian brotherhood who were invited to live nearby by Cornelis Schellinger in the mid-eighteenth century, and the Daniel Marotplein takes inspiration from the two squares of houses they lived in flanking the castle. (more…)

October 5, 2016 11:30 am | Link | 1 Comment »

A Fifty Pound Note

The recent arrival of the new fiver has caused some flurry of excitement and one of the notes finally reached the Cusackian exchequer via the barmaid at the Ox Row Inn in Salisbury on Friday night. I’m indifferent to the design; it’s inoffensive but I’d prefer to see Churchill depicted in his coronation robes rather than Yousuf Karsh’s iconic photograph.

My favourite Bank of England note, however, remains the Series D £50 first issued in 1981 designed by the Black Country artist Harry Eccleston. Sir Christopher Wren lookings crackingly baroque, and St Paul’s Cathedral looms like a great ship over the City of London he helped to rebuild after the Great Fire 350 years ago.

Eccleston was the first banknote designer to work fulltime for the Bank of England which he joined in 1958, retiring in 1983, and introduced the concept of historical figures from British history gracing the back of the notes (which are of course fronted with an image of the Sovereign). This particular note was the first fifty-pound note to be issued since 1943. It was replaced in 1994 and withdrawn from circulation two years later.

September 28, 2016 2:10 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Oliver VII

Oliver VII
by Antal Szerb, trans. by Len Rix
Pushkin Press (2013), £12, 208 pages

Hungarian by nationality, Catholic by faith, Jewish by birth — Antal Szerb was capable of touching the boundaries of intense seriousness bordering on the mystical (as in Journey by Moonlight) or magical (The Pendragon Legend) even though he is probably better known as paragon and only member of the interwar neofrivolist school of literature.

Here he is at his frivolous best with a novel about the monarch of a Ruritanian kingdom in crisis who abdicates and escapes to Venice incognito, where he falls in with a crowd of confidence tricksters who ultimately, unaware of the ex-king’s true identity, force him to impersonate himself.

In Oliver VII, romance, intrigue, and the perpetual allure of the genteel portion of the criminal class all combine in an enjoyable farce.

September 28, 2016 2:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

Oxford: An Architectural Guide

Oxford: An Architectural Guide
by Geoffrey Tyack
OUP (1998), £16.99, 384 pages

Geoffrey Tyack writes with a fluid style that accesibly conveys a great amount of specific detail of people, places, materials, and more without the reader feeling the least bit overwhelmed. Even the most veteran Oxonophile will gain deeper insight into what buildings were built by (and for) whom, with what money, and how they’ve been adapted over the centuries. A model guide to the architecture of the finest university town in the world.

September 21, 2016 4:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

Norway’s New Passport

The Scandos are known for being among the few peoples who can do modernism well, as evidenced by the new design chosen for Norway’s passports and identity cards. The kingdom’s Directorate of Police called upon the services of Oslo-based multi-disciplinary design studio Neue after their ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ won the jury’s first prize in an open competition.

The final judgement argued ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ was the best concept:

“It illustrates the Norwegian identity as well as making sure the passport will be viewed as a document of high value. The concept is deeply rooted in Norwegian culture and will make the documents widely accepted among the population. It will remain relevant for many years to come and it has clear user benefits.”

“The design is attractive and stylish, the colours are subtle and the abstracted landscapes are exciting. The proposed solution seems to be designed with great emphasis on the function of passports and ID cards, and is immediately accepted as a document of high value.”

“The concept is the competition’s most subtle and stylish, and stands out from the competing entries. Aesthetically, the landscape motifs have achieved a very distinctive expression. The jury appreciates the simplicity of the solution.”

(more…)

September 20, 2016 12:40 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Spina di Borgo

The Baroque is a style of joy. It is often hailed (or derided) as the most Catholic of styles and in some sense this is true. The festivity and physicality of the Baroque reflect the God that Catholics worship — “the Love that moves the Sun and other stars” as Dante put it — but a Love made incarnate, made man, in a very real and tangible world.

The Baroque is also the style of the surprise: the corner turned to an unexpected vista or the jet of water sprinkling a king’s unsuspecting courtier.

One of the most superb examples of this was the great basilica church of Saint Peter in Rome where prince, pilgrim, and pauper alike moved in a dark warren of palaces, hovels, churches, and alleyways, perhaps catching an occasional glimpse of the great dome looming as they closed in on San Pietro, finally to emerge from the shadow into the great light of the piazza.

That warren of buildings was the Spina di Borgo (“Spine of the Borgo”) but this experience is now sadly lost to us since the 1930s when the Kingdom of Italy’s fascist premier Benito Mussolini decided to raze the neighbourhood. Instead we now have the long boulevard called the Via della Conciliazione, named in commemoration of the Lateran Treaty establishing formal relations between the Holy See and the Italian state.

While Il Duce ostentatiously took credit for this urban crime by symbolically swinging the pickaxe beginning commencing demolition the concept, though flawed, was in fact an old one. Leon Battista Alberti submitted proposals during the reign of Pope Nicholas V (mid fifteenth century), and numerous other architects — Carlo Fontana, Giovanni Battista Nolli, Cosimo Morelli — drew up similar plans. The Piazza San Pietro only took its now instantly recognisable form in the 1650s when the curved flanking collonades enclosed the space like great welcoming arms superbly framing the basilica’s façade.

Mussolini turned to Marcello Piacentini — an accomplished if sometimes uneven architect — assisted by Attilio Spaccarelli. Piacentini favoured closing off the view from the avenue with a closed collonade, echoing Bernini’s own plans for the piazza, but was overruled.

The razing of the Spina presented a problem in that the undemolished buildings left flanking the Via della Conciliazione were now mostly at odd angles to the new boulevard. Piacentini attempted to solve this by flanking the road with two rows of obelisks that doubled as streetlamps providing a line directing the viewer towards the great basilica beyond, otherwise unimpeded by any visual interruption.

Overall the construction of the Via leaves a rather boring and clinical feeling. The charm and chaos of the Spina has been replaced by a clean and dull boulevard, useful for little more than traffic efficiency and crowd control. The loss of the Spina di Borgo is mourned.

September 14, 2016 10:10 am | Link | 1 Comment »

The Old Cannon Brewery

Robert Gwelo Goodman is one of my favourite South African artists whom you might recall when I introduced you to one of his paintings of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town. It’s not surprising that he lived in a unique dwelling — an old brewery in the verdant Cape Town suburb of Newlands, nestled as it is in the nape of Table Mountain.

Now Gwelo’s old brewery is up for grabs. (more…)

June 9, 2016 8:55 am | Link | 3 Comments »
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