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Time Past and Time Present

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna – interior (2020)

The church of St. John the Baptist (Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista) is a very small, simple building situated in the Piazza S.Giorgio at the heart of the beautiful town of Varenna on the eastern shores of Lake Como. It is so undemonstrative – so nondescript – that it can easily pass unnoticed; indeed, even should it be noticed it is not obviously a church. Most visitors to Varenna do not ‘register’ the building because, from the outside it is constructed out of grey stone with no adornments. It could, I imagine be taken as an old workshop, a place for carpentry and wood-turning, perhaps a pottery or or even a garage.

However the Romanesque building dates back to the eleventh century and, despite its modest retiring self-effacing exterior, the interior tells a different story. The inside walls are graced by fourteenth century frescoes and although they are in an advanced state of deterioration they have come to reflect a far more contemporary aesthetic of beauty-in-decay. Sixteenth century frescoes in the apse are in a somewhat better condition.

When I visited the church in the late summer of 2020 (in the course of exploring how objects are displayed or presented for whasotever their purposes might be) I was lucky enough, soon after entering, and glancing at the frescoes, to come face to face with a sacred text. It was placed before the altar. I was immediately struck by the dignity, simplicity and sheer presence of the book itself. It was not specially illuminated nor was there any supporting text to explain or enhance its presence. The book was simply there, resting on a lectern and directly in front of me.

As I contemplated the book, the altar behind, the subtleties of light and shadow and the history-suffused environing walls of the church, I felt a quiet delight at the way time-past and time-present can be combined in a perfect synthesis.

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna (2019)

Novels and the meaning of things

Ever since I had read some of the great works of world literature I increasingly came to the view that it was through such reading that I learned most about human psychology. Later my basic understanding of the motivations, values and conduct of people was enhanced through the unique courses of study offered by the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey. But without such courses I still continue to be educated through the provision and presence of the often acute insights and characterisations of people that are intrinsic to good literature.

In the last few months I have been developing a particularly personal museum which features 20 objects all of which, in various ways, have special meaning and significance for me. As I developed my ‘museum’ project I noticed that a basic aspect of what I was trying to do was expressed through the genius of the writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante pinpoints the way intelligence and the use of language combine to heighten our engagement with the materials and phenomena of the world – including the actions of people. Thus,  in her now famous novel, ‘My brilliant friend’ (the novel that I happened to be reading) she tell us that her protagonist the young Elena Greco comes to a realisation about her similarly young friend Raffaella Cerullo; the two girls had just experienced, as Elena puts it, ‘wonderful conversations’ and, as a result, Elena ‘looked’ at Raffaella, thought about their friendship and the special intellectual powers of Raffaella and concluded:

It seemed to me … that … she was developing a gift I was already familiar with; more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts, and in a natural way, charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realised, with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same …” (Ferrante, E. 2020: 130) 

The first time I read this part of the text I did what I usually do when a piece of writing appears to speak directly to me and at the same time seems to herald something basic to enhancing my (our) consciousness. I stopped, I closed the book, I found a quiet space and thought about what she had written. I applied her observation to my own work and experience:

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘It’s true; reality  – the things, the objects of the world can be readily and easily passed over or, by contrast, intensified and injected with energy. It’s this latter process that makes the world an endlessly fascinating ‘place’ in which to live.’ 

And then in relation to my project I could see more clearly that, in a similar way, my museum of seemingly disparate entities had taken a number of objects, objects already charged with meaning, had focused upon them a narrative – and, as a result, they have also, as in Elena Ferrante’s acute observation, had taken on a kind of tension and an injection of energy. 

The tension has been a kind of vibration between the personal-and-emotional and issues of philosophical reflection.  

Reference: Ferrante, E. (2020) ‘My brilliant friend’ London, Europa editions

How things are shown: In memoriam

My research trip studying the various ways the things and objects made by our cultures are shown or presented to the world included a visit to the beauty of Lake Como in northern Italy. I think this must surely be one of the most perfect and aesthetically complete environments in the world.

I had chosen to stay in an Italian ‘Agriturismo’ place situated on the outskirts of the small town of Schignano, a town with just over 850 inhabitants. The view from my bedroom window looked down upon the lake, a view made even better from the balcony adjoining the room. Nearby church bells sounded their hourly reminder to the faithful. The lovely informal buildings of the town presented themselves in those beautiful Italian shades of ochre, sienna, a pale dusky pink, and burnt orange.

One morning, under a sky that was turning from early morning yellow to crystal-blue and then a sun-dazzled white, it had become very warm and so I decided to take a walk along the shaded tracks of the nearby woods. I had been told that I could find edible mushrooms there but I simply wanted to enjoy the slow rhythms of nature and enjoy the presence of the many legend-graced trees. It was a long walk and, at its end, the track joined a narrow road upon which a few vehicles of various descriptions would pass by. Away from the cities I have often noticed how the inhabitants of small rural and mountain settlements keep their cars ‘alive’ for as long as they can. Here was no exception: a delightful old Fiat and then a decades-old Lancia drove past me! I stayed close to the mossy banks that edged the road itself and then, after a while, I saw beside me the reminder of a tragedy: it was a memorial to the life of a young man. His name was Guido Peduzzi. He was aged 18 when he had died in 1973. I recognised the distinctive look – the style – we, the young men of those days, used to adopt.

If there were details as to how Guido Peduzzi had died, they were obscured by a pretty bunch of flowers. And, through this, his family and friends showed how they would never abandon him. The memorial included a candle – and I noticed how the inscribed marble was protected by two flat stones which adjoined, directly, the exposed rock of the bank. It seemed as if this gesture was underlining his enduring connection to the locality – to the place of Schignano.

Two days later, whilst I was doing the shopping in the single small supermarket of Schignano, I walked past the modest war memorial that was situated in a small square – an open space – in the centre of the town. Amongst the many names of those who had perished in the war were several with the surname ‘Peduzzi.’ As I tried to imagine the awful tragedy of still more young lives lost, of the tragedies which lie at the heart of Schignano, the church bells sounded one again. They continued to do their best to hold out both hope and consolation.