Gone fishing – for art and fun – in Switzerland and Italy.

I am off on my holidays again, this time to Switzerland and Italy, and won’t be back until the 14th. August but I thought I would write something to entertain you, I hope, whilst I am away.

When I was at school I enjoyed my history lessons. I could recite the names of the kings and queens of England in chronological order by the time I was eight and I had very strong views about  a number of what I thought were topical issues: the horrible Romans and Normans daring to conquer my country, Bonnie Prince Charlie being cheated from the English throne,  the wives of Henry VIII who had a pretty rum time and should have all been allowed to stay married to him if they wanted it that way and I also thought that it was truly glorious to die for your beliefs by having your head cut off like all those French aristocrats during the French Revolution or being burnt at the stake like the inspirational Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Best of all was that other Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket getting murdered in Canterbury Cathedral and The English Civil War when you could fight battles all over England and even cut off the king’s head if he didn’t do as he was told by us, the people.

When I was a bit older I saw things slightly differently and, possibly, more accurately. Maybe, I thought, history wasn’t just about murders and daring escapes. By then we were constantly being taught about the two most important “things” in history: The Renaissance and The Reformation. In my teenage years, it was pretty obvious too which was the “good thing” and which was the “bad thing.”

1) The Italian Renaissance was all about man being supreme and art being about humanity and not just about sin. There were wonderful and very sexy paintings and sculptures mostly coming from a town called Florence where, if you wanted, you could still get involved in executions, adventures and fighting too.

2) The Reformation was when puritans got rid of all the art in churches and even got rid of a lot of the churches too – often very pretty Gothic ones. They went on about sin and God quite a lot and disagreed with us having too much fun wanting us to read the Bible all day and to pray for hours before going to bed at night. This stuff mostly came from places like Germany and Switzerland but it ended up, in not such an extreme way, here in England too but not, definitely not, in Florence.

All this came back to me this week as I planned by imminent holiday. I am off for two weeks as from today on a journey to Zurich, yes, in Switzerland, and then on over The Alps to Florence in Italy. Sadly for this blog, I will not be writing it again until I get back so I thought I would leave you with some pictures and some thoughts about these inspiring European cities where I shall try to mix art and fun.

Zurich, Switzerland:

As a vertigo-sufferer with a distrust of Puritanism, I haven’t been to Alpine Switzerland very often and never before to Zurich so I am curious to see how I get on there in the city of one of the great Puritan revolutionaries Zwingli. I didn’t know much about him as I had often not paid attention in class when the lessons dwelt too long on how The Reformation changed European Christianity. I assumed that Zwingli was a bit like Calvin, that other Puritan who seemed to have a downer on everything I wanted to do.

Well Zwingli wasn’t that bad after-all, so it seems. He thought that priests didn’t need to be celibate and that everyone should eat what they wanted to in Lent – he even caused a scandal by handing out sausages to would-be Lenten fasters. I know just how tempting that can be because I gave up on a couple of years of being vegetarian when I had just one whiff of a German sausage one day in a cafe in that Italian mountain range, The Dolomites. So, maybe Zurich will be OK.

There is a great concert hall and art gallery where I am looking forward to seeing the Manets and Gauguins but also work by that wacky Swiss painter Heinrich, or Henry, Fuseli (1741 – 1825) who settled in London with his Romantic images of ghouls and ghosts as well as some very fine illustrations from Shakespeare:

The Kunsthaus also has one of Van Gogh’s final paintings completed only days before he shot himself and subsequently died. It is an eerily disturbing piece which, with that small ginger haired boy as a possible self-portrait, may well refer back to the painter’s childhood

Wagner had a load of fun in Zurich writing an erotic opera, Tristan und Isolde and having an affair with a banker’s wife Matthilde Wesendonck for whom he wrote the very sexy Wesendonck lieder (1857) setting her poetry to music which in many ways was a preparatory study for Tristan und Isolde.

I feel confident that there are all sorts of goings-on in Switzerland but I will be happy enough with some of those Zwingli sausages and a few beers.

Before I move on to Italy, let’s hear Wagner’s erotic love song to sexually cooperative Matthilde Wesendonck when he was so turned on by her in Zurich:

 Traume (Dreams)
 Tell me, what kind of wondrous dreams
are embracing my senses,
that have not, like sea-foam,
vanished into desolate Nothingness?
Dreams, that with each passing hour,
each passing day, bloom fairer,
and with their heavenly tidings
roam blissfully through my heart!
Dreams which, like holy rays of light
sink into the soul,
there to paint an eternal image:
forgiving all, thinking of only One.
Dreams which, when the Spring sun
kisses the blossoms from the snow,
so that into unsuspected bliss
they greet the new day,
so that they grow, so that they bloom,
and dreaming, bestow their fragrance,
these dreams gently glow and fade on your breast,
and then sink into the grave.
Mathilde Wesendonck (1828-1902)
Florence, Italy

I have visited Florence before and Italy a lot. I was amazed the first time I saw any Italian Renaissance Art and the feeling has never gone away…..this is Donatello’s bronze statue of David which, some people say, (see yesterday’s blog), was the first statue since Roman times that depicted the human body realistically and not as a by-product of man’s life as a fallen-sinner which was the prevailing view in Medieval art.

This sculpture and much of the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli was created in Florence and the city still has one of the greatest collections of Renaissance art in the World. I am also very enthusiastic about all that Florentine vino so don’t think that I will be only art gazing but I have no doubt at all that  I will have a wonderful time there with not just the Donatello’s David but Michelangelo’s too.

There is also one of the most beautiful of all ancient Greek sculptures, the Medici Venus:

and what might really be two of my all time favourite paintings, the exquisite Birth of Venus by Botticelli:

and, Botticelli again, The Allegory of Spring:

These works of art, with their complex and multiple meanings are, for me, about love but they can be about whatever you want, even if you just enjoy them for their rapturous colours.  Also, of course, you can see Michelangelo’s great late “unfinished” works, the Four Slaves, struggling to escape from their rock bases with fury, pathos and so much life. These works are enough to make it worth anyone’s time to visit Florence at least once a year for the rest of their lives.

 Oh yes, I forgot to say that I will also be visiting Venice for the weekend whilst I am in Italy…..am I excited? Yes sirree!

I have been to Venice on many occasions but every visit to this painfully beautiful city is special – there is a permanent sense of melancholy in its joy and I always think of that wonderful scene at the end of Visconti’s film Death In Venice when Aschenbach sits on the beach bidding the World a long farewell with Mahler’s Third Symphony as incidental music. The words are by Nietsche from his book Also sprach Zarathustra, and whilst they talk of pain they are also about joy, celestial if you must but, for me at least, joy in life. These words will stay with me when I return to Italy, the country that knows so well, superlatively in fact, how to express both pain and joy. See you when I return, I hope.

O Mensch! Gib Acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
“Ich schlief, ich schlief—,
aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—
Die Welt ist tief,
und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh—,
Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid.
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch all’ Lust will Ewigkeit—,
—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!”
Text from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: the “Midnight Song”

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