What’s not to like about the Prado?

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Crossing of the River Styx by Joachim Charon, Wikimedia Commons, or, me navigating the halls of the Prado last October.

Aside from the lack of pillows on the benches and readily available masseuses (which is possibly asking a bit much of a museum), nothing really.

Having been warned by a bloke at the tourist office in Madrid (in the pleasingly symmetrical plaza Major) that queues start early at the Prado, I arrived 15 minutes before the doors opened, and fitted myself into the serpentine queue of similarly eager visitors.

I only had two days in Madrid, so I’d planned nothing else for the day, and in fact I emerged with the twilight settling onto the wet surfaces of the park surrounding the Prado, at 6pm.

I left with a list of favourites which I saved as a draft in my Gmail as I walked along. It might be lacking some of my most favouritest because I was too in awe to think of writing things down… I’m sure there were some lady artists I’d noted which are clearly missing here.

Isabel II, veiled

Isabel II, veiled by Camillo Torreggiani,
©Museo Nacional del Prado, or, Me waking up with a hangover.

Here it is anyway, in the order in which I saw the works and jotted down notes:

  • I couldn’t resist the medieval revivalism of Los amantes de Teruel by the nineteenth-century Valencian Antonio Muñez Degrain.
  • The veiled bust of Isabel II by the Italian Camillo Torreggiani.
  • Joaquin Sorolla’s ¡Aún dicen que el pescado es caro! – for the title, of course, but also for the very strange and eerie scene it portrays.
  • Lorenzo Valles’ Demencia de Doña Juana  – the madness of Joan of Castile. This story is so compelling, and the painting is in this beautiful narrative style.
  • Such cute little devils in the Maestro de Zafra’s Saint Michael Archangel.
  • I enjoyed the very detailed account of Saints Cosmos and Damian by Fernando del Rincon, with the static effects of architectural depth contrasting with the movement in the medical scene in the foreground.
  • This painting of a stately dwarf by Juan van der Hamen y Leon (and his flower stills as well).
  • This weirdly erotic portrait of Saint John the Baptist by Fray Juan Bautista Maino.
  • I’m always a fan of Saint John‘s beheaded head. This one by Ströbel El Joven is fun (as were many other things by him).
  • Van Dyck’s portrayal of his one-armed colleague Martin Ryckaert, which resided in the Real Alcazar for a time.
  • Anton Rafael Mengs’ self portrait, which reminded me of Zach Braff.
  • The miniaturistic Paso de la laguna Estigia by Joachim Patinir Charon, with the mesmerising aquamarine blue.

I also have Mayken Verhulst written down, but not sure what struck me of his precisely…

Do you have any favourites?

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The forgotten heroines of the Roman WWII resistance

There is a monument quietly introducing the Ponte dell’Industria in the Ostiense neighbourhood of Rome which commemorates the sacrifice of ten women who rebelled against the Nazi-Fascist regime.

The surroundings are inglorious. Overgrown lawn and weeds crowd the base of a stone slab. Tall cypresses like obelisks cast pale green shadows over the grey monolith. The inclement weather only makes the scene more eery. Perhaps it was the improbable setting that caught my eye, but as I walked hurriedly along a decidedly dull section of Rome’s Ostiense neighbourhood, I stopped. Ten ghostly heads craning their long necks out of a bronze tile looking this way and that drew my eyes down to the inscription below:

IN MEMORY OF THE TEN WOMEN KILLED BY NAZI-FASCISTS ON 7 APRIL 1944.
SPQR 7-9-1997.

A little research was in order. What occurred on the night of 7 April 1944 is recounted in detail by the partisan Carla Cipponi in her book Con cuore di donna (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2000).

In March 1944, the Nazi invaders in Rome decreased the daily civilian rations of bread to 100g. It was nearing Easter, and the women of Rome worried that they would not celebrate in a suitable way. Could they at least have that little extra that would allow them to make a meal for their families? It was not just bread they were being denied, but the warmth of their traditions, the freedom and comfort of their communities, the foundations of their dignity.

I can only imagine the frustration, the boiling ire.

All over the capital, women began to protest in front of the bakeries. Their anger only grew when they learned that rations had increased for the Nazi troops. They discovered that some bakeries held greater stocks of flour and made more white bread to distribute to the invaders. A group of women in Ostiense conspired with one such bakery to take extra portions under the cover of night.

But one nervous onlooker reported the incident to the German guards, who promptly arrived on the site, and blocked the road. Some women were able to flee, but ten were rounded up along the adjacent bridge facing the rushing waters of the Tiber, and summarily shot, their bodies left bleeding in the road among loaves and flour.

One woman’s body was found naked underneath the bridge.

The monument does not remember their names.

In a city which so passionately, beautifully, ubiquitously glorifies its men in its architecture and monuments, this one remembering these ten women has suddenly become special to me.

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Clorinda Falsetti
Italia Ferracci
Esperia Pellegrini
Elvira Ferrante
Eulalia Fiorentino
Elettra Maria Giardini
Concetta Piazza
Assunta Maria Izzi
Arialda Pistolesi
Silvia Loggreolo

 

 

Feeding hopelessness: Mouna Guebla’s attack in Tunis

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Mosaic-tiled funerary slabs rest against the wall which the ancient Carthagenian site of Puput shares with an Aquapark, amid overgrown grass and hordes of mosquitos. 

At around 2pm on 29 October, Mouna Guebla was walking down busy Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, her heart heavy, her mind buzzing, and her bag loaded with a coarse home-made grenade.

She was the only one to die when it blew up in front of a police checkpoint near the Ministry of Interior and the French embassy, leaving eight policemen and one civilian injured.

Mouna was due to turn thirty in just two days’ time. In 2014 she had graduated from her MA in Business English, but had been unable to find a job to put her efforts to fruition, and spent most of her days tending her family’s herd of goats in Zorda, a village south of Mahdia. Interviews with her parents show them in a spartan dwelling, sitting on thin mattresses on the floor.

They are not always teenagers who enroll on a whim. They are strong women who make a choice

The local radio station Radio Mosaique FM published a disturbing photo of Mouna as she lay lifeless on the scene of the attack, her face blackened, sunglasses pushed over her forehead revealing her eyes still open, her hand resting on her chest, wearing a brown veil, a simple pink cotton top, and a black jacket.

At around 3pm on 29 October, I was in an airport waiting at the gate for my plane to Tunis when I learnt of the attack in the centre of Tunis. I still boarded the plane, having previously regretted cancelling a trip following the Manchester attack last year.

Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since the attacks in 2015 targeting foreign tourists first at a holiday resort in Sousse, then at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, containing some of the world’s most precious mosaics. The attacks severely damaged Tunisia’s tourism industry, my taxi driver explained as he took me to the medina from the airport. There is much less work for taxi drivers, he told me, and I soon learned that he was trying to excuse the unfair price he exacted for the ride.

But this was a rare occurrence, as most hosts and merchants in Tunisia are eager to make a good impression, earn their wages fairly, and encourage tourists to return to their soukhs and hotels. One evening in Tunis, an elderly man clad in an orange tunic escorted us through the dark and empty alleys of the medina’s soukhs with his candle-lit lantern to find our restaurant, not asking for a tip but clearly deserving one. Our hostess in Tunis (who cooked the most lovely breakfasts for us), relieved that we were not cancelling our stay, told us that many others had, and that she felt it was a shame to allow the attackers to achieve their goal of disrupting the peace.

The young couple staying at the hotel with us, who had been among the crowd running from the explosion, begged to differ, and were busy looking for options to leave the country.

While the modus operandi suggests extremist connections, it is unclear whether Mouna’s actions are connected to the Daesh attacks of three years ago, and other ‘occasional’ ones which have occurred particularly on the borders with Algeria. It appears her cousin was involved in the attack on the Bardo, and local news sources suggest Mouna may have been radicalized over the internet. Reactions in the Tunisian press have been varied, mostly condemning the event described as an isolated terrorist attack. Majdouline Cherni, the Minister for Youth and Sport, cautioned against using poverty to justify terrorism, while on Saturday the national state of alert resulted in a twenty-eight-year-old woman being arrested for applauding the attack on Facebook.

While Cherni pointed to new ‘citizenship academies’ which would aim to sensitize youth to the struggle against terrorism, her comments referring to attempts at justifying Mouna’s attack reveal perhaps a general unease in the Tunisian administration as it continues its efforts to turn around Tunisia’s fate at home and its image abroad.

The same narrative offered by my taxi driver in Tunis was mentioned by a guide I met at the archaeological site of Puput, on the outskirts of Hammamet. The state of abandon of the swamp-like site (where the mosquitos inherited the fighting spirit of their Visigothic ancestors), sharing a wall with a deserted aquapark whose slides provide an unsettling backdrop to the funerary mosaiced slabs, prompted me to ask the man sitting at the entrance what had happened to the extraordinary remains.

‘There is no money, this is the problem’, he replied. An archaeologist trained in Tunis and Rome, he told me of various plans to build a museum to house the wealth of funerary finds which now lie in storage, plans that were never realized and seem far from actualization. There is no lack of skill-force to carefully preserve the mosaic floors of baths and mansions to rival those of Piazza Armerina in Sicily, but there is neither the funding nor apparently much interest from the government to back such projects.

Neither, for that matter, is there much being done to clean the streets and beaches, and prioritize recycling and provisions against littering. The entire panorama reminded me vividly of the situation which has brought Italy to its hands and knees in the last decades.

Financial instability plagues employment rates (with unemployment at 15.5% in 2017), tourism, the preservation of the national heritage, and the health of Tunisia’s environment. An appearance of indifference and lack of progress from the government’s part may very well be driving the country’s youth to seek recognition, fulfillment, purpose in the teachings of Daesh.

Their marketing efforts directed specifically at marginalized women offer an alternative to those who see no end to their sacrifice and social exclusion, Nikita Malik explains in her article in Forbes last September.

In an interview in Saturday’s La Presse de Tunisie, Sociologist and Feminist Nabila Hamza warned readers against sanitizing the event as the actions of a powerless victim manipulated by the men of Daesh. ‘To think that they are all manipulated, defenseless women under male domination, and inevitably hostile to violence is to deprive them of the responsibility of their actions, which incidentally many of them wish to claim. These are women with experience, at times in their thirties or forties, they have a story, a past, they have depth. They are not always teenagers who enroll on a whim. They are strong women who make a choice’. Mouna can not and should not be exonerated of her agency in the explosion of 29 October. On the contrary, Hamza suggests, authorities should place more importance and more attention on young women in similar situations to better understand their motives and methods, and thus be better prepared to prevent any future occurrences.

As a thirty year-old woman familiar with the frustration of job searching in an economically-unstable country, I can certainly empathize with Mouna’s story, if not with her final fatal choice. Hamza recommends deradicalization and reintegration centres to fight Daesh’s recruitment efforts. A more longterm solution might also involve a greater focus on the cultural and environmental sector in Tunisia, to ensure that its heritage and natural treasures are properly preserved and can serve their functions of fostering unity, knowledge, and a culture of peace. The link between culture and development is well documented, and one of the main raisons d’être of bodies like UNESCO, which has recognized a number of sites in Tunisia as world heritage.

The frightened couple sharing breakfast with us in Tunis decided to stay and continue to enjoy their holiday. Appreciative, our hostess then shared a story with us. She is a dancer and cinema enthusiast, and was busy preparing for the opening gala of the Carthage Film Festival. When the attacks at the Bardo museum happened in 2015, she was at the cinema. Squares of light began to flicker on illuminating the dark stalls as news of the attack made its way across social media and relatives and friends enquired about their loved ones’ safety. A few people left the hall, but the majority stood up holding hands for a minute or so, forming a human chain of hope and resistance. To her, inspired as she is by art and beauty, flight is futile, the show must go on and we must be stronger.

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Traditional architecture in Tunis.

 

A quick reflection on Berlin: the Bode Museum

While I puppy-sat with Freddie and worked on a writing commission, Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene provided the break I needed from over-eating and not walking enough in Puglia.

The Museuminsel

A good deal of Berlin’s museums are neatly concentrated on the Museum Island, which seems to be typical of Austro-Prussian imperial designs (I visited the Museum Quarter in Vienna in August, for example, similar in layout if not in concept or design).

The effect of the layout and proportions of the architecture on Museum Island is as awe-inspiring as no doubt was intended, and there is an overwhelming sense of reverence towards the material culture of the past even before entering the monumental doors of the museums.

It was hard not to connect this decadent imperial austerity to Berlin’s glaring twentieth-century past, etched as it is into the fabric of the buildings housing the artefacts, and into the narratives of collection and display.

‘Beyond Compare’ at the Bode

The Bode Museum was hosting the fantastic temporary exhibition ‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum’. Objects from Africa were placed somehow in physical juxtaposition to the more familiar, most often Christian, European objects which make up the Bode collection.

This occurred seemingly at random throughout the entire museum, so that the visitor is suddenly confronted with this unusual pairing, and invited to reflect on differences and similarities, connections and common themes in the cultures which had produced each object.

Themes like beauty, race, power, devotion, protection, life and death were evoked, for example, through a fourth-century marble head of a Roman emperor from Turkey, placed next to a seventeenth-century commemorative wooden head of a king from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.

 

These two figures in particular both challenge our modern concepts of gender, as the beautifully chiselled and carved features of the emperor and king stare ahead with an androgynous quality: I, for one, had mistaken both for female figures as I approached them. At the same time we are confronted with the gentle, easy grace of the Roman emperor, versus the stern pride of the Nigerian king, two different approaches to lordship, power, and protection.

The curators explain:

The implicit process of comparing, separating, and assigning objects to different collections was a fundamental step in the foundation of the Berlin museums and the definition of their respective missions. In the process many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums.

The act of comparing and identifying is therefore not neutral, but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history. It [is] also governed by the experiences of the individuals who draw the comparisons. Defining two things as similar or different is often related to power. The process of comparison is thus closely tied to questions of collection history, aesthetics, colonialism, and gender.

This direct attempt at deconstructing and decolonising the museum’s collection through the simplest of solutions is an important initiative which serves to challenge the collection’s traditional objectives and engage the visitor in a thought-provoking exercise.

Public Engagement

One small criticism I am tempted to make is that while the exhibition asks these important questions, any subsequent questions or answers the visitor might have sort of fizzle away into nothingness, as there is no obvious space or tool to continue to engage meaningfully in that conversation.

Visiting the website, I learned that the exhibition is complemented by a series of themed guided tours and a round table discussion which involves curators from Berlin, New York, Cleveland, and Cape Town. These would certainly all be very interesting to attend, but unfortunately I did not stick around long enough.

My recently Berlinified friend Sophie and I agreed that it  would be great to see this as a travelling exhibition, perhaps applied to other traditional collections, as it really breathes new life among dusty old walls!

A three-day pass (€29, otherwise around €12 per entrance) allowed me to pick a few of Berlin’s museums to visit: the Bode, the Pergamon, and the Neue. My favourite by far was the temporary exhibition at the Bode.

Palazzo Baldassarre: Portale Uomo di Altamura, Rete Museale

I’m happy to dedicate my first post to my hometown, Altamura, in Puglia, Southern Italy.

For a town of 70k inhabitants, rich in traditions and history, and fiercely proud of both, I’ve always felt that the cultural offering was somewhat lacking here.

While the largest and richest museum, the National Archaeological Museum, is filled with stunning pieces which leave you wondering whether it is safe to walk anywhere without destroying precious ancient artefacts, its grey and lackluster presentation, teamed with the sleepy entrance foyer, cold halls, and eerie echoes bouncing off the white-lit artefact cases as you read the dry labels under your breath to feel less alone, make this one of my least favourite museums in the world. I confess I was surprised to find that it was a candidate for the 2018 Council of Europe Museum Prize! (The prize went instead to the brand new War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, opened by young entrepreneurs who have lived through civil war in their own childhoods – I highly recommend taking a look at the project).

The little museum of Palazzo Baldassarre is therefore a welcome recent addition to the heritage management scene of Altamura. The museum is dedicated to the ‘Man of Altamura’, affectionately known locally as ‘Ciccillo’, a complete skeleton of a homo Neanderthal found in 1993 in a cave by two members of the local speleological society while out on one of their weekend rambles.

The building

Immediately the museum gains points and esteem among locals for inhabiting, and thus finally reviving the beautiful Baldassarre Palace, an important landmark within the walls of the medieval centre. The building, erected between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries by the Baldassarre family, who were in fact masons and building contractors, had been left already in a bad state of disrepair by the last of the Baldassarre heirs in the 1950s. Several initial efforts were made to repurpose and redevelop the property, but to no avail.

I remember as a small child clambering over wooden planks fixed to the ground-level windows in a feeble attempt to discourage trespassers, to explore dark and humid rooms, ostensibly now waste collection chambers and hideouts for junkies.

The building now houses a small display of mostly plaster replicas of artefacts accompanied by large panels explaining Paleolithic history, and showcasing the Altamura find within the context of other similar important archaeological material.

My visit

The guided visit begins in a multimedia hall downstairs where visitors are invited to don 3D glasses to watch a video reconstruction of the descent into the cave of Lamalunga, where the skeleton was found. The guide gives as much or as little input as she senses is wanted. She was silent when I was in awe, she spoke when I seemed perplexed, and she answered questions willingly and extensively.

The visit then proceeds upstairs where the guide constructs a succint narration of the essence of the collection and displays. To conclude, the visitor is able to relive the discovery of the humanoid by inspecting a 3D printed life-size replica of the site of the discovery, including Ciccillo himself.

My visit lasted about 45 minutes, and as it had been a spur-of-the-moment late-afternoon affair, the guide informed me that unfortunately we could not visit the upstairs terrace to take in the views of the town, as it was already dark. She did invite me to return the following day though, free of charge.

Analysis

For such a small museum with a very specific scope, I thought the Palazzo Baldassarre packed a fair punch. The hospitality and kindness of the guide and her colleague at the ticket office (who was an Archaeologist) made an immediate impression on me, as did the space, which has incredible potential for community engagement and interaction (the media room, the piazza outside, the rooftop terrace). Perhaps due to the sparse attendance, the staff are able to dedicate more time and attention to individual visits, and this is in a way a definite advantage which makes the experience more involving, and I think it is something the museum should seek to preserve when attendance increases.

The educational material is pivotal for the local community, particularly for school kids to learn about their own heritage, and the human element of the museum’s theme would lend itself well to any number of different events and initiatives. With the right proposals from curators, local art and culture groups, and even activist groups and societies, and of course with some funding, the potential for this museum to be a real educational and cultural hub, and a community binder is, I think, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Some facts and figures

Entry ticket: €4, or €5 for a combined ticket to visit the Visitor Centre of Lamalunga on the same day (though the nice ladies at reception called their colleagues on the phone to ask them to accept me during the week on my combined ticket).

Opening hours: closes for lunch time (as do most things in this neck of the woods), with longer opening hours in the summer.

Recommended time for visit: 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Website: https://uomodialtamura.it/