This week’s post is a bit later than usual because I got side-tracked by one of those questions that it’s best not to ask oneself while trying to get on the subway during rush hour. ‘What makes us human?’ You can spend a lot of time meandering around the Internet on this one. Some have suggested it’s language, but the more we learn about how animals communicate – chimpanzees and gorillas in particular – the less satisfying this theory becomes. Maybe it’s our curiosity. After all, as John Lloyd points out, we are “the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring (…) Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are.” (Newstatesman, Cultural Capital, Aug. 1, 2014).
And then there is our innate and equally ‘useless’ sense of humour. What other creature laughs the way we do? Or has the capacity – some more than others – to take pleasure in being fooled? What got me going on all this was a painting technique that fascinates and entertains us – precisely because we know it is fooling us. I’m talking about trompe l’oeil.
Artists have been ‘fooling our eye’ since antiquity. In the 5th century B.C. – or so the story goes – there was a great rivalry between two painters – Zeuxis, who lived in southern Italy and Parrhasius in Athens. Eventually they decided to hold a competition. I have never understood how this can possibly be a meaningful way to determine the relative merits of a work of art, but in any event the two painters got to work. When Zeuxis, who finished first, unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, it was so life-like a couple of birds flew down and started pecking at it. A few days later Parrhasius invited Zeuxis over to look at his painting which was behind a tattered curtain at the back of his study. Unlike us, Zeuxis had never watched Looney Tunes, so he had no idea what was coming. He went over to the painting and reached to pull back the curtain, but of course he couldn’t because it was part of the painting. Pliny the Elder, who recorded the story, doesn’t mention whether Zeuxis laughed or not, but I think it’s fair to say that only someone who had a pretty good sense of humour would have been able to accept the defeat as graciously as Zeuxis. While he had deceived only the birds, Zeuxis remarked, Parrhasius had deceived him.
In more recent times there is the ‘climbing up the wall’ scene in the 1950’s musical, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. And on a less high-brow note, generations of little children – and some big ones still – have laughed themselves silly watching Looney Tunes villain, Wile E. Coyote, get foiled time and again by trompe l’oeil of his own making. Remember the one where Road Runner races through the tunnel the coyote has painted on a mountain wall? How did we know, even when we were only 4 or 5, that when the coyote chased after the bird he would instead crash into the ‘tunnel’?
And what does all this have to do with my last day in Santa Margherita di Ligure? Well, I was off to visit a place where trompe l’oeil was not just for the private interiors of a wealthy few. In Camogli the locals had covered the façades of their homes with the ‘fool your eye’ technique. Windows were their specialty. There were also some in SML.
My favourite was along Via Palestro, the pedestrian zone off Piazza Caprera. The balconies are real and so are (most of) the windows.
The window with the woman looking out from behind the half-closed shutter is obviously trompe l’oeil, as are the two below it. But what about the window to the right of the woman?
Camogli is 9 km from SML. Four minutes by train, 26 minutes by bus. Since there was no way I was getting back into my car until I absolutely had to, I decided to splurge on the bus, which at 1,80€ was almost double the price of the train. But for the extra 80 centesimi (about $1.20 Cdn) I’d get to see the countryside, something that can be a bit hit and miss (bad metaphor there) when I’m behind the wheel. I decided to take the 10:15 bus. This would give me just enough time to check out the gardens of Villa Durazzo, a short walk from my hotel.
According to the guide visitors are given the interior is elaborately decorated with works from the 17th and 18th century Genoese School – Genova is only 30 km west of here – Murano chandeliers, frescoes and lots of trompe l’oeil. But although a few gardeners were already at work, the villa didn’t look open. Besides I didn’t want to miss my bus.
After a quick look around – it wasn’t as large as I had expected, especially given the Grandi Giardini Italiani designation – I headed for the bus stop. On the way down I passed by the Chiesa di Sant’Erasmo. In the little piazza in front of the church was one of the mosaics made of black and white ciottoli (choht-toe-lee) that decorate church squares and the gardens of private villas throughout Liguria. They’re called risseu, a word in Genovese dialect. If you think of the French word for ‘blue’ – bleu – and then exchange the ‘bl’ for ‘rees’ you’ll be pretty close to how it’s pronounced. That mix of French and Italian is what makes scholars believe it is derived from the French ruisseau, meaning stream, which is where many of the pebbles for the mosaics are gathered.
At the bottom of the hill was a sombre reminder of less happy times.
The 1,80€ I paid for the bus ride was money well spent. I got a seat up front with a great view of the countryside and of the stretch of the SS1 I would have to take to get to the highway. The ride also cleared up something that had been stewing in the back of my mind. Instead of pointing north towards Rapallo, which is the direction I’d come from when I arrived, all the signs I’d seen for the route out of SML pointed west towards Camogli. I had a bad feeling about those signs. I’d already been taken in by a few ‘How to travel the most kilometres possible to get to your destination’ signs and had not enjoyed the experience. The best route back up to the Lake District was obviously to retrace my steps. Go back the way I’d come. But I hadn’t taken into account the mountains. Because of them, the on-ramp for travellers heading west had to be located quite a few kilometres west of the off-ramp I’d taken into SML.
The other unexpected benefit of taking the bus was the chance to observe the locals. Especially what happened when two anziane – quintessentially sweet, little old lady types – boarded the bus. One of them, with her bright blue outfit, cheery, red lipstick and short, curly hair, looked especially sweet and delicate. They both carried rather large shopping bags, which made getting up onto the bus a bit of a struggle. By the time the driver set off again the first one was comfortably sitting down – after having first ‘validated’ her ticket. Italian bus drivers are not involved in the payment process. Presumably they already have enough to do just driving on Italy’s roads. Typically you buy your ticket at a Tabaccheria (!?) or a news stand and then it is your responsibility to insert your ticket into a little machine which date-stamps it, thus rendering you legally entitled to ride the bus. It is so different from our system that I have occasionally realized to my horror – usually on a train because there you have to validate your ticket BEFORE you board the train – that I have forgotten to do the validating thing, which, if a ‘Controllore‘ happens to come by, can result in a huge fine. In any event, we were already lurching our way down the mountain – they had boarded the bus on the outskirts of Camogli, just before the road starts its long, winding descent to sea level – when the second anziana, the delicate one, reached the date-stamping machine. Struggling to hold on to her bag and a pole for support, she dutifully inserted her ticket into the machine. Nothing happened. As we careened around another curve she tried a couple more times. Still nothing. Clearly exasperated, she muttered ‘Uffa’ (which sounds a lot like OOFA, the acronym for the Official Old Farts Alliance) and looked around as if seeking some kind of divine intervention. Since none was forthcoming she inserted her ticket again. This time, when nothing happened, instead of removing her ticket she smacked the machine, which still remained stubbornly silent. Then I watched in disbelief as the sweet little old lady hauled off and gave it a good whack. A quiet, whirring sound followed. She sat down next to her friend and the two of them chatted amiably for the rest of the trip.
I can never get used to the way a short plane ride or a couple hour drive can transport us from a cold, rainy – or snowy – place to a hot, sun-filled one. It was such a pleasure after all the rain on Lake Maggiore to walk along the beach, the sun on my back and the sound of the gentle waves. Most of the beach-goers were at the far end, close to Camogli’s Basilicata della Santa Maria Assunta, which had started off as a small chapel for the medieval Drogonara Castle it is next to.
In addition to the trompe l’oeil, I also wanted to have a look at the Benedictine abbey that, thanks to its strong ties to the powerful Doria family, had played an important role in the downfall of La Cervara, the Benedictine abbey we looked at in last week’s post. L’Abbazia di San Fruttuoso is a short ferry ride from Camogli. The last time I had been here, the seas were so rough none of the boats were leaving the shelter of the harbour. There wasn’t a dark cloud in the sky and just a gentle warm breeze, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I headed for the harbour to check the ferry schedule. As luck would have it, one of the ferries was just about to set out.
I have visited quite a few Benedictine abbeys over the years, in Italy and in France. They are easily recognized for their simple, elegant beauty and the quiet, serene atmosphere that surrounds them. But as we rounded the point, I saw not serenity but, as if they were oozing out of the abbey’s lower arcades, hordes of beach-goers.
Back in Camogli I climbed one of the staircases that lead to the town’s main road. Via XX Settembre runs parallel to the shore from the harbour to the east end of town, which means it will take you about ten minutes to walk its entire length. That is, if you don’t stop to gawk at the façades which are covered with some of the town’s most elaborate trompe l’oeil.
All this ‘eye fooling’ was surprisingly engaging. But after a while there was no fooling around about the noises my stomach was making. I headed down to the beach to a lovely little trattoria I had seen earlier.
Next: Heading back up to the Lake District