Sunday, 15 July 2018

Spring time: basking in the sun in Leeds and in Surrey

Spring was a very busy time, wrapping up and delivering all the work I had done during the year and making sure that everything was packed and ready before summer. I had important deadlines at university; first of all, my end of year one review with forms to fill and a final piece of writing to complete based on my research and analysis of The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. I worked so hard on it reading extensively not only on the book and the critics who wrote about it, but also on other works Atwood wrote in the same period, like her poetry collections (The Circle Game and The Animals in that Country) as well as her reviews and articles. Furthermore, I thought the best critical approach to The Edible Woman was Baudrillard’s point of view on consumerism, so I studied some of his books as well. It was a big commitment but I enjoyed it thoroughly. My supervisors seemed satisfied with my work at the end, so I happily completed my first year at Reading.
As soon as we came back to the UK from the Easter holidays we spent in Italy, we contacted our daughter who is living in Tokyo attending an MA course in fashion. She sent us some astonishing pictures of blossoming cherry trees looking like pinkish cotton clouds magically landing on earth. I really wish to see them, probably next spring, an occasion to see my daughter again and hug her in person instead of virtually with Watsapp and Skype.
After the holidays we also went to visit my autistic daughter Valentina at Fullerton, near Doncaster, and took the occasion to see my eldest son and my daughter in law in Leeds as well. The weather was gorgeous. We had a boat trip on Leeds canals, enjoyed our time together basking in the sun, strolling in the centre, updating on sports (football and Giro d’Italia were my husband and son’s main topics), talking about visiting Japan, skiing, dieting and my daughter in law’s future job. I miss them as we cannot meet so often but I know they are happy together, which makes me feel all right even for the standards of an Italian mum.

My daughter Valentina was so happy to see us, she tried on all the clothes we brought her wearing them inside out, of course, and watched twenty-three times ‘Neptune’s golden spatula’ with Spongebob on my husband’s mobile. We also showed her the passport picture we took in the Ukraine when we adopted her, she didn’t seem impressed by her little self dressed in oversized pink clothes, looking cute and oblivious.
I also attended conferences in London (‘Exploring the Performative’ organized by Kingston University) and in Colchester (Centre for Myth Studies, University of Essex), which gave me a wider view and possible connections with my PhD research. The one on myths was especially interesting as Margaret Atwood subverts and reverses myths and fairy-tales and often re-mythologizes them from women’s point of view. She subtly challenges the male world exposing the superficial, outdated stories of damsels in distress, imprisoned and passive, and improbable knights in shiny armour coming to their rescue.
During spring I reviewed some poetry collections (you can find them here: ) for London Grip and WWC website.
One of my short stories was published in The Lighthouse, Gatehouse Press, issue 17. I went to Norwich for the launching at the Bicycle Shop, now a cafĂ©, and spent two days in Norwich for the occasion. It is a lovely city with a wonderful cathedral, a centre with cobbled lanes and quirky shops and an old market with picturesque stalls. Norwich was famous for textile manufacturing and for shoes. It was the largest provincial city in England before the Industrial Revolution but its fortune declined after it. In 1565 a massive immigration from the Low Countries boosted the textile industry introducing new techniques. The immigrants were called ‘Strangers’, which is self-commenting, but their passion for canaries is still alive in Norwich football team.
The art gallery at Norwich Castle had an interesting exhibition, Visible Women, on women artists, portraying women and female identity. It was inspired by a book written by the feminist artist Penny Slinger focusing on women’s multiple identities and exploring their experiences. I was intrigued by Sally Hewett’s work, a stich and embroidery artist, who represents parts of the body, mainly breasts, bellies and genitals, exploring scars, wounds and bruises inflicted on bodies, as well as their hairiness and grotesque side, all enclosed in a stitching frame ( ).
The reading was exciting, almost dreamlike in the dark underground space with a few spotlights. I read my short story, Coniston Water, and a poem, ‘Pajarita’, published in South, and received positive feedback. I made new connections and loved the other people’s reading, all different one from the other, ironic, humorous, provocative and inspirational. I would like to go back to Norwich sooner or later for the popular Guild-day procession of Snap, ‘The Mayor’s Dragon’, a tradition that dates back to medieval time.
At the V&A Museum of Childhood (London E2) I also visited the exhibition ‘Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today’, inspired by the book with the same name by Ellen Key (1906). She claimed that children would become the centre of society, and she was right in some way. The exhibition stresses the fact that the welfare State in Scandinavian countries was the effect of a high level of poverty and aimed to improve children’s conditions in a time when child labour was common and education was not accessible to everybody. The objects on display belong to Nordic design, which is connected to the natural environment, the materials are eco-friendly and their colours and shape mean to preserve Nordic folklore and traditions using innovative styles. They look simple, essential and practical but are also colourful and tremendously original.

A large space is given to Brio and Lego, which underline the importance of free, independent play, a child-led kind of play, open to total creativity and with no gender connotation, which was a new idea at the time. There is an implied subversion of the gender roles in them, like in the stories of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren, where the young protagonist is perfectly capable of looking after herself without the interference of parents or adults.
I wandered around the Museum of Childhood reviving my passion for dolls and puppets, remembering the time when I used to visit this kind of museums with my children and hoping to do it again with future grandchildren.
For our 25th wedding anniversary, my eldest son and my daughter in law gave us a Truly Concierge day out combining Churchill’s war rooms and Alyn Williams restaurant in Mayfair. It was a real treat.
The museum dedicated to Churchill and WWII is an incredible experience, a surreal immersion in the claustrophobic reality of the time without any digital simulation. The almost bare rooms communicate the constant threat of invasion Britain was undergoing, the high tension pervading the lives of the people who worked there and their total commitment. There are underground rooms, airless, with spare furniture revealing no space for entertainment or free time.

Not everybody agreed with Churchill’s methods but eventually, looking back at it now, he was proven correct. He was the right person at the right time. Though the war brought death, hardships and destruction, like every war, it was not possible to compromise with or surrender to Hitler. Churchill and his team embraced the right cause with discipline and determination, concepts that look old fashioned today but were very important at the time and helped avoid worse consequences. Can we imagine Europe ruled by Hitler and his followers? All Dissenters, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and disabled people would be interned in concentration camps. Churchill might not be considered a hero by everybody but he saved the day.
The dinner at Alyn Williams was superb. Not only was the food special, things I had never tasted before, in small quantities though, compared to big Italian meals, but we felt full at the end, but also the table service was unbelievable. The waiters even cleaned the crumbs from the tablecloth between one course and the other and they explained in detail every single dish to us. The wine was special too, something Austrian, golden colour. It was a great experience I don’t think I am going to repeat as it is too expensive for our income but it was fantastic to have it for once and to celebrate our silver anniversary in such a luscious way.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Visiting Florence

During the Easter holidays my husband and I planned to spend a few days in Florence, a holiday we had planned for a long time. I had been there on a school trip and with my mum and dad when I was a teenager. I knew the main spots to visit and made a list for my husband who was in charge of organizing the tour.

Compared to Rome, Florence is smaller and rather consistent in its architecture. The most important art sites (mainly churches and museums) are at walking distance in a centre that developed from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century and was maintained almost intact until today. This gives the sense of being immersed in a Renaissance atmosphere where the edifices and the maze of streets and shops are in harmony with human perspective. Or so it makes you believe, considering the artificial essence of the concept of perspective itself, which was refined by one of the major artists of the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century. It is a beautiful illusion to wander into, through the well-kept lanes dotted with elegant shops, which continue the renowned tradition of Florence as a place of art and fashion, reassured by the casual efficiency of the locals and spoiled by the fantastic food.
My husband planned the visit carefully guiding me from one place to the other with the competence of a professional tour guide.
We visited almost everything, the weather was sunny and warm, except for some drizzle on the last day, and we rarely queued, as we had priority to all sites with the Firenze card (for € 85 you can visit everything in Florence for seventy-two hours, ), which saved us money and time.
Florence economy flourished from the 11th century on and mostly developed from 13th to the 16th century thanks to the skill of its artisans, the manufacturing and commerce of textiles, especially wool, and above all for the ‘invention’ of what we call today finance and banking. A solid middle class was the backbone of the city since the Middle Ages. People immigrated to Florence from the countryside and its population reached a hundred thousand inhabitants in 1300 when Rome had only thirty thousand and London fifty thousand.

The Medici family, who ruled the city for decades, based their wealth on banking and had their branches all over Europe. Lending and investing money was their thing, which produced personal but also public prosperity. In fact, they enhanced their reputation using part of their money to fund and support arts, which became Florence’s trademark as well as part of its distinctive identity. For this reason, treasuring the art heritage has always been a major goal of all governments, guilds, unions and companies that succeeded and contributed in ruling the city.
In spite of civil and national wars (famous the one between Black and White Guelphs and the skirmish with Popes in the Middle Ages, Dante was one of the most famous victims of these turmoil) and floods (the 1966 one provoked great damages and was a real shock for the city), Florence looks well preserved, ordered and decorous like an mature guy who keeps fit thanks to constant exercise, healthy food, sunbathing and well-tailored clothes, an equivalent of George Clooney, so to speak.

We travelled through its splendid art from Uffizi to Bargello, Pitti, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, Cappella Brancacci and Bardi, flabbergasted by the beauty of its well-proportioned spaces, splendid paintings and graceful decorations.  I revisited the major steps of Italian art from Cimabue to Giotto, whose frescoes in Santa Croce express such a dramatic force in contained majestic volumes; then Paolo Uccello’s intriguing paintings of Chiostro Verde in Santa Maria Novella, his disturbing almost contemporary figures of The Flood detached from one another, fighting alone against death as if destruction is the consequence of isolation.
Seeing the David by Michelangelo in Accademia was very emotional, it was almost a revelation. The David is not total perfection, the hands and feet seem too big, but its confident and effortless attitude not only stresses its beauty but above all its power to win by just being.

I couldn’t miss Masaccio in Capella Brancacci and in Santa Croce, his Adam and Eve, the Tribute money and the Trinity, forerunners of the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo in the use of perspective but above all in the narratives, show a juxtaposition of volumes and highlight the dramatic interaction of the characters. It is an incredibly innovative way of visualizing stories compared to his contemporaries, like Lippi and Masolino, whose works seem too crowded and static.
I loved the Madonnas by Luca della Robbia, which show different expressions and attitudes one from the other. My favourites were the sublime frescoes by Beato Angelico at San Marco. His work is apparently simple in rendering the complex pain of human involvement in the stories of the Passion of Jesus where the human side struggles with the divine acceptance of sacrifice and death pointing to resurrection. It seems an unresolved dilemma in his paintings that conclude in the dazzling light of the transfiguration and in the repetition of the crucifixion stressing the unavoidable core of sufferance in human life. Then the greatest ones: Raffaello, Leonardo, Michelamgelo, Tiziano, Caravaggio…I was overwhelmed by such a profusion of beauty.
We also visited a modern art exhibition, Dawn of a Nation at Palazzo Strozzi, and Salvatore Ferragamo: Return to Italy, which I reviewed for London Grip ( you can read the review here:
I took a lot of pictures with my mobile phone, so easy and handy compared to a camera. I remember a time when taking pictures was forbidden in most museums and viewers used to stare for some minutes at a paintings trying to memorize the masterpiece. Now we have a glance at it and take a shot, you can look at it afterwards again.

I also read a book about ‘la vestaglietta’ (hooverette or Hoover apron, a house dress), by Elda Danese, I bought at the Museum of Costume and Fashion, Palazzo Pitti. It was very interesting to realize that this cheap item of cloth (‘vestaglietta’ is a diminishing term from ‘vestaglia’, a robe) worn by lower class women at home, became a fashion icon with sensual undertones in the 70s. This happened thanks to the interaction between different social levels and to a freer woman’s condition. It is a protean item that changes its shapes and texture according to the different context. The fabric can be jersey instead of cheap cotton, the printed patterns become more sophisticated, geometric instead of floral, or it can have frills and trims. It appears in films, like Riso Amaro (bitter rice), directed by Giuseppe De Santis, and Ossessione (obssession), directed by Luchino Visconti, with erotic implications and becomes a wrap up dress or a chemisier in haute couture. It combines elegance and comfort, social and intimate spheres, freedom and constraint, conveying a potentially explosive mixture of domesticity and sensuality.

At the market we bought some local products, like olive oil, cheese, cantucci and a local speciality: pici cacio e pepe, a mixture of spices with whole pepper grains to season ‘pici’, which are a sort of handmade bucatini. A challenge even for the toughest lover of spicy food.

Last but not least we had some fabulous ice-creams at Carraia ice-cream parlour with flavours I had never tasted before, like white chocolate and pistachio sauce, ricotta cheese, panna cotta with chocolate wafer, variegated passion fruit, cheesecake or tiramisu mousse.  We opted for the biggest, most expensive cones each time we visited.
It happened I visited Florence again in June with my mum, who wished to see the Uffizi Gallery. We booked two nights at an Airbnb with a fabulous view of Brunelleschi’s Dome and the roof tops of Florence. The pace was slower this time but I could revisit the main sites and have a better look. Florence never gets old.