ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
In Livorno, alongside the canal, just off the Piazza della Republica, stands the eclectic and, to a foodie English chap like me, one of the most attractive buildings in Livorno. Its neo classical style sits in splendid triumph amongst the mundane structures that surround it. As such a building would stand out anywhere, missing it isn’t an option. For those with an aversion to architectural excesses encountered in the purposeless superfluity of the Baroque and Rococo, this quite modern building (1894) demonstrates the theory of ‘rational architecture’, albeit in a contemporary setting. As such it displays that severity of fundamental Greek and Roman architecture before the excesses of wealth destroyed their purity. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient and ruinous Rome hauled out of the rubble of the middle ages did much to inspire this new vision. The Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome has a corridor purported to be a kilometre in length hung with his original etchings. I can’t vouch for the length, but I can for the quite wonderful etchings.
Anyway, Livorno has its own example of functional Classicism in the Mercato Nuovo delle Vettovaglie, better known as the Mercato Centrale in the Via Buon Talenti. It’s reputed to be the oldest covered market in Europe, although I think that’s a little specious. I can recommend the cheeses though, having secured the most delicious Gorgonzola from one of the stalls; so creamy and rich my beloved put me on a diet for the rest of the week! Fresh fish arrives very early in the morning unloaded from the boats, and straight into the cold stores under the building, just like in days of yore. The enormous airy internal space, some thirty-five metres high, gives it the atmosphere of an outdoor market. One could spend a whole morning wandering round this huge hall amidst the din of the vociferous bargaining of the locals, and miss most of the interesting detail, which is a little disconcerting as they throw you out at 2.00pm. I understand that in the evening they sometimes turn it over to pop and jazz concerts. How they manage such a complex arrangement baffles the imagination. Syncopating stuff among the fruit and veg, perhaps.
Every head has a tail, so they say, and a reaction to such austere architectural simplicity had set in some time before the Mercato Centrale made an appearance, with local architects already turning their hand to a style that generally became known as Art Nouveau, after the name of Siegfried Bing’s shop in Paris with its entrance façade painted by Sir Frank Brangwyn, who specialized in huge mural works. Brangwn painted a series of pictures of Venice in his wonderful characteristic manner, but as he has no connexion with Livorno, I digress. In Italy this symbolic fashion grew out of the earlier English Arts and Craft movement that spawned the style, pioneered by architect/designers such as Charles Voysey and Norman Shaw, becoming colloquially known in Italy as ‘Liberty’ after the English store of that name. The excesses of this trend can be seen in a handsome confection of coloured villas situated in the Viale Italia, though the investment value of a few must have been sorely undermined as someone has seen fit to extend the Naval Academy slap bang in front of them, cutting off their view of the sea. Both are contemporary, so someone may have upset a council bigwig somewhere. Nearly all these houses have rather quaint roof additions, as though the architects couldn’t free themselves from the traditional ‘columbaria’, or dovecots, found on the roofs of many Tuscan country farmhouses. Thus, they perch aloft on the tiles very much like a boxy iced confection providing an archetypal ‘room with a view’. They are mostly beautifully maintained, so their Victorian raison d’etre as mere seasonal haunts, may be wildly off the mark. These buildings weren’t originally constructed within the nucleus of the town centre, but are sprinkled in those areas that, at their time of building, were situated on the outlying edges of the city. Not everyone having a passion for the sea. For this reason, when you unexpectedly come across such an evocative building further than the proverbial ‘stone’s throw’ away from the shore, they’re very likely to stand out triumphantly against that capricious ‘sea’ of hardly attractive modern stuccoed concrete and red brick engulfing the surrounding urban area.
Since the Romans, Italy has had a love affair with public baths, which makes it all the sadder that Livorno threw away the chance to seriously rival the great thermal baths at Montecatina in the province of Pistoia. In a way it was all the fault of history, for the Italian Communist party was founded in Livorno, and though suppressed prior to 1945 became a stronghold afterwards choosing to myopically look inwards among the ruins of the city, eschewing the future potential value of what they saw as nothing more than a project pandering to a rich social elite. In this case the opportunity they let slip was the once exquisite Art Nouveau Spa, La Terme Corallo off the Piazza Dante, finding itself defaced by a massive concrete flyover passing over its once beautifully laid out gardens, seriously advancing the damage to the property. The building can be seen to be in a serious state of neglect, a position no doubt accelerated by its one time owner, Coca-Cola, who only seems to have been interested in developing the old bottling factory for spring water, situated behind the baths (terme). Such is the arrant philistine nature of a large part of the commercial world. The Art Nouveau murals and architectural fittings remain dangerously vulnerable, but with the windows vandalized it can’t be long before wanton council ignorance replaces societies indolence. At the moment there seems to be an impasse between the present owners, the Municipality of Livorno, and the Heritage Organisation, which lost the case brought against the owners. Looking at the beautiful derelict building one can only despair at the obtuse ignorance of those who hold its fate in their hands. Significantly, there is a local movement to save the building, but unless they can enrol some powerful national allies, I fear its fate will lie under the foundations of modern apartments. If you want to throw a tantrum, watch the following links on youtube. Open by copying and pasting the link into your SEARCH ENGINE menu bar (top of window) then click return key to open.
La Vecchia Livorno- Acque Della Salute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfAct2ROMJE
Terme del Corallo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moDlpl1YSkk
Terma de Corallo 3D: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jGsxTGxhGg
One may recognise the music that accompanies the first of the short films as the ‘Prelude’ from ‘Cavalliere Rusticana’. The composer Pietro Mascagni was born in Livorno, son of a local baker, and was perhaps unlucky to have produced at his initial attempt what many consider to be the greatest musical opera prelude of all time. It proved, I think, an impossible act to follow. So did his marriage. Married on the 3rdFebruary 1889 his son was born on the 4thFebruary 1889. Within a decade he’d escaped from that affair, for having achieved fame at so young an age Mascagni’s connexion with Livorno was brief, though there is now a museum in the Viale Maria park, off the via Calzabigi. He was not a favoured son, having tied himself too closely to the Fascist party, dying poverty stricken in Rome, his money and property confiscated. It was not until 1951 that his remains were returned to Livorno, and his reputation began its revival. Today, there is a handsome tomb in the Cimitero della Misericordia, off the via della Ardenza.
That brings me conveniently to another Livornese who managed to make a ‘pig’s ear’ of his life. Galeazzo Ciano was the son of Costanza Ciano a wealthy commercial entrepreneur, and heroic naval commander, educated in the Naval Academy of Livorno, who as an early socialist protagonist rose to political prominence in the Fascist party. Although the playboy son of a famous man, Galeazzo carved out a political niche for himself, especially meteoric after marrying Edda Mussolini. Though not against a war with Albania or Greece, his dislike of Germany made him dubious of joining forces with them in a war against the west. Like Dino Grandi, ambassador to the United Kingdom, he took a constitutional and moderate position politically, which ultimately was his undoing. Turning against Mussolini in the closing stages of the war he was arrested and shot after the infamous ‘Verona Trial’. As you leave Livorno on the via Aurelia heading south, on the hill preceding Montenero, lonely and isolated, you can see the discarded memorial monument to Costanzo which was to become the family mausoleum. Now a ruin of graffiti and vandalism, it is a testimonial to the families failed aspirations, and a warning to all those who fall foul to political overreach.
Having mentioned the said Italian Naval Academy, in fairness I must pass its portals once again. Like our own navy it used to have a ‘Royal’ appendage until a plebiscite threw the king out. Nevertheless it’s still a rather illustrious place, being attached to the University of Pisa. All the midshipmen are undergraduates and pass out with a bachelor or master’s degree. As the rank applies to young ladies as well as gentlemen, I wonder how long it will be before gender integration demands a common title avoiding any sex nomenclature. What’s wrong with ‘women’, anyway? Midshipwomen, I admit, is a bit of a mouthful, though quite articulate.
In front of the entrance to the Academy, in a small piazza, stands the pilgrim’s church of St. Jacopo in Aquaviva. The church has a faint mention in the year 320, but a certain one as a hermitage in 1163. It has suffered many vicissitudes, not least by the fact it stands almost level with, and only a few yards, from the sea. Indeed, its front door used to face east/west, right into the eye of any storm, which virtually engulfed the church. Later, the guardians saw fit to rotate the structure to face its present orientation, north/south, so the congregation didn’t get their feet wet. A sprinkling of holy water being considered quite sufficient. From a side door you exit straight out onto the rocks and the sea. As the promenade is beset in the winter by thirty feet breakers, the little church must take quite a battering. Best to pass by in the summer.
Luckily, Livorno’s streets aren’t a swarm of bees like those in Naples, though it’s probably advisable to find a bar at lunchtime, leaving the buzzing helmeted drones plenty of elbowroom. Normally, away from the peripheral roads that encircle the city, you’re in an environment where the chaos of narrow streets very often seems to take you round in circles. At night their appearance would be very murky in what must appear to be a shadowy Stygian gloom. Charles Dickens reminds one of its then character by a brief outline in ‘Pictures from Italy’. He didn’t stay long, but was impressed by the lack of beggars, which had appeared in prodigious quantity when he passed through Pisa. He was, however, wary of Livorno’s past reputation for being the home to an ‘Assassination Club’. Apparently the members of this fraternity bore no ill will to their victims, who were just stabbed in the street after dark for the pleasure and excitement. If you think this story a load of old ‘cobblers’, tongue in cheek, you may be right, for the president of this club was apparently a shoemaker, finally arrested, and purportedly dealt with in the usual fashion of the time! The faded, dusty and worn architectural elements of downtown Livorno before they installed gas lamps about the place can be readily imagined in that the components are identical, blending together in a deceptive familiarity, which only add to the visitor’s confusion, even during daylight. Peeping round a corner is exactly the mirror image of looking left or right at the previous one. Therefore, throwing chance to the wind, getting lost in this labyrinth turns out to be a likely voyage into depths of incipient curiosity. For in this precarious manner one stumbles upon those hidden gem like enterprises tucked away in numerous quiet haunts behind the main thoroughfare with suggestive names like Borgo Cappuccini, a maze like zone, close to the harbour.
Though not a frothy busy sort of place, the silent terraces appear to be made up of small apartments, with the ground floor often given over to little shops. Not unexpectedly, a few are closely associated with boats, such as ‘Chiesa’ who stock nothing but stainless steel and brass items for that trade. If you only need one three inch number four brass screw that is what you shall have, though the odd pillar cleat and transom pintle won’t phase them a bit either. I never realised that contra rotating bottle screws or jubilee clips that never rusted could be so useful. Nor plaited stainless steel cable as thin as one eighth of an inch. One of the proprietors took to photographing in black and white prints his numerous regular customers and pasting them up on a board, so for a weekend the shop became a veritable gallery of hardy seafaring characters, despite my elegant wife being among them.
There are also chandlers where you can obtain any size of rope, and others where you can find the latest in marine fashions at Titanic prices, or paints and varnishes that once on will stay on, come wind or high water. Perhaps an oddity brought to my attention by what I thought was an odd piece of artistic graffiti on a garage front, turned out to belong to the flower shop, ‘Franca Arrigoni’, next door. Having been there for seventy years, they’re into the third generation of a family business. My wife, with a detective’s nose for roses, snapped up an unusually interesting striped example, ‘Ferdinand Pichard’. It must be something of an anomaly, a ‘blooming’ flower shop only a stone’s throw from a bustling harbour. Somehow they don’t seem very appropriate bedfellows, motor fishing vessels and flowerpots, but then the area’s a fascinating little backwater; an environment full of surprises.
Graffiti is perhaps a dubious place to linger when moving on to the serious matter of art and artists. Of the former, an art dealer friend, very knowledgeable on these things, tells me that the movement I’m referring to, the Macchiaioli, are little known outside of Italy where, contrarily, their work is highly sought after. With the latter element of this opinion I can agree, having come across a small painting executed by an artist of a local offshoot, ‘Gruppo Labronico’, (the latter word meaning Livornese) sheltering within the umbrella of this movement. The painting was offered for €400. I dithered too long. The next day it was gone. A classical example of the style, a beautifully bucolic genre subject, contrasting light and shade in nature, aeons away from Boldini’s la belle époque brilliance, but capturing perfectly that vignette of nature. But then, Boldini had let himself be corrupted by fashionable Parisian elegance. He was not the only member of the group who produced paintings of beautiful women. Vito d’Ancona even turned his hand to stunning nude figures, while Silvestro Lega captured their haunting faces, searching to unravel the dignity of their character. But the great man of the Macchiaioli movement was the Livornese Giovanni Fattori, who perhaps few non-Italians will have heard of given the seemingly restricted national nature of his work. He had a penchant for equine subjects in particular, some with a military character on a grand scale. My own favourite artist in the group is Francesco Gioli whose pencil drawings are captivating, and very subtle. He and other celebrities are well presented in Livorno’s Museo Civico. A visit will improve ones art education no end.
However there is a connexion between the not so famous, and the very famous. The Caffe Michelangelo in the Piazza Cavour, closed in 1921, was where the Livornese group of artist dallied until the early hours of the morning. Boldini was one of them, but as he was not born in Livorno, I will say no more. By chance it was only a short distance away from the via Roma, home of a determined and idiosyncratic young Livornese artist of a lively disposition, Amadeo Modigliani, who took part in their ebullient discussions. How much influence they had on him we don’t know, but it seems to have been both good and bad. He too ‘escaped’ to Paris, became famous and drank himself to death. His home on the via Roma is now a museum.
There I must leave it, for like Jacques in ‘As You Like It’:
It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.
No doubt you’ll agree with Rosalind’s perceptive retort to his nostalgia:
To have seen much and to have nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.