During Christmas 2015 a cap of smog was officially bad in Madrid, nevertheless a solitary seagull found its way more than 300 kilometres from the nearest brine to the central Retiro park. Such persistence deserves a photo:
In the nearby Botanical Garden, all was serene…
Our destination after Madrid was Genoa in Italy, to spend New Year with Roberto and Olga. Spend, hmm… A direct flight was costly, so we hit on the cunning plan of first flying cheaply to Milan, staying a few days in a moderately cheap central hotel, then continuing economically by train to Genoa. Alas, this plan collapsed since we seemed to spend more money simply surviving in Milan than we saved on the cheap flight. The salaries of civil servants throughout Italy are everywhere the same; further south, they live like little princes, but in Milan they are paupers. This is obviously the fault of Versace and Gucci and Prado, whose palaces fill every street, as well as the fault of the visibly clothes-addicted Milanese. Even more branches of the fashionistas are in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where we ate the most expensive pizza ever because we could walk no further:
Just next door, we found three gourmet floors and a floating golden tree. Note the small Dutch genre reflection to the right. (The photographer distances herself from the unbalanced caprices of her model; I think I am balancing the tree quite well.)
Smog was worse in Milan than in Madrid; private cars were banned from the streets for three days. Many police cars needed to drive around constantly to make sure that drivers were obeying.
We went to the Brera Palace to see paintings in the Pinacoteca, and then in the same vast palace to visit the observatory where Schiaparelli saw the canali on Mars which subsequently disappeared. Signs with arrows pointed the way to the observatory. Nevertheless, we checked with some staff to be doubly sure. Affirmative. Ascend two flights of vast Renaissance stairs. More signs. Head along a gloomy infinite corridor lined with broken sculptures from the art school. The journey felt a bit like this scene (from the Monumental Cemetery, upcoming):
Up another vast stairway went Cristina and I. More signs, more cold stygian corridor. Into sight at last came a big framed Hubble photo! Getting hotter (or rather, even chillier)! Around a corner to the door of the Observatory itself, where finally… Chiusso fino a Gennaio 4. (“Shut till 4 Jan”) Why in Dante’s Inferno was this notice—the only one anywhere saying so—not at the start of the route fifteen minutes earlier? Imbecillità! However, we weren’t expecting to like Milan, even though in an earlier era Stendhal, one of the greatest French writers, required the affiliation Arrigo Beyle Milanese Scrisse Amò Visse to be inscribed on his tombstone in Montmartre Cemetery. (“Henri Beyle Citizen of Milan Wrote Loved Lived”—oh this is undoubtedly a literary blog!) We were in Milan mainly for the Monumental Cemetery! We collect cemeteries. The one in Milan expresses civic pride in being Milanese. What do we say to Death? We…
Consequently, here is a member of the Guild of Breadbakers still plying his trade:
…even though a naked woman is becoming stone.
How did the family, who paid for this statue, react to the remarkably realistic result:
It’s a tough job being an angel of death:
…on account of the constant child abductions…
On all of the finials of Milan Cathedral figures are poised, as if the sculptor Sir Antony Mark David Gormley Order of the British Empire paid a visit during the Middle Ages ad majorem dei gloriam OBE—never did I see such figures on a cathedral before. (During the past decade, Gormley has been positioning large cast iron and fibreglass casts of his own nude body on the edges of buildings around the world, causing worried Chinese citizens to phone the Suicide Police.)
Within the Cathedral is a pathological statue of flayed Saint Bartholemew, draped with his skin, modestly inscribed on the plinth beneath with NON ME PRAXITELES SED MARCO FINXIT AGRAT (“Praxiteles didn’t make me, but rather Marco d’Agrate“). Circa 1504 – c 1574, the dates of this self-effacing sculptor; we aren’t exactly sure—but hey, his plan worked: here at least he is remembered notoriously.
When you chat privately on your phone in a quiet spot in Milan, you never know who is listening agog:
Onward to Genoa, where the jewel of cemeteries, Staglieno, awaited us; visited three times by now, but still yielding up marvels—we haven’t yet even explored the wooded hill where vegetation half-hides many mini-castle sepulchres and mausoleums.
The 19th century bourgeoisie of Genoa wanted photorealistic sculptures:
A century of wind-blown dust cooperated, bonding to the sculptures in convincing chiaroscuro patterns:
Oh, and here’s the old dear who spent her whole life from adolescence onwards selling sweeties outside, so that she could scrimp and save for a statue within:
Oops, almost forgot. I wrote a story about Cthulhu manifesting Itself in Staglieno Cemetery, with hideous consequences for a tourist group (and for the world in general). Because I approached this story completely seriously, the writing of it had such a bad effect on my brain that a friend phoning me asked if I was all right because my voice had changed. “The Walker in the Cemetery” is collected in my Saving for a Sunny Day (NewCon Press).
Towards the end of the 19th century, eroticism erupts amidst bourgeois death—Eros and Thanatos court one another. Here’s just one erotic piece from Staglieno:
However, this is a family blog—so we shall limit any further eroticism to dolphin porn on display in the Aquarium of Genoa:
The Aquarium is built out into Genoa harbour like an ocean liner. Next to it floats a full-size pirate ship from a bygone movie; that ship can’t actually sail, but it does look good! Further along are the diminishing remains of the Costa Concordia, which sank just off Isola de Giglio with the loss of 32 lives, apparently because the Captain wanted to salute a party on shore, five miles closer to a rock than was sensible.
Into the aquarium, one of the best in Europe—and yes, a vampire squid…
Genoa is city designed by Escher: take a public lift from street level to the fifth floor of a building… and you step out on to yet another street. We went to a New Year’s Eve party at travel guide Paula’s apartment, only accessible via a lift and a maze in a different building. Did her huge furniture arrive by helicopter? Another great party was in Roberto’s dad’s and Ada’s place, up and down stairs and corridors in a complex edifice we think of as Gormenghast.
Here, I imitate Quasimodo for the benefit of very tall, glamorous Russian Anastasia from Istanbul:
Because we were showing more than usual tourist interest in the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Vigne, the volunteer supervisor very obligingly decided to show us around, including behind the roped-off altar, where normally only priests may tread. ‘Us’ was Cristina (on camera) plus Olga and Roberto’s sister Daniela—who is also tourist guide—and me and Roberto (left to right; the obliging Signor is in the middle):
And lo, this church is the origin of focaccia, as a parchment from 1229 attests!
Elsewhere, finding a palm branch on a pavement, I demonstrated correct comportment for the benefit of the younger generation:
That’s all folks, till the next time!