30 March 2010

An art trip to Conegliano

On Saturday I enjoyed a lovely day out in Conegliano, a small historic Veneto town. After my trip to see the Giorgione exhibition in his hometown on Castelfranco Veneto, this time the main motive (or excuse) for my trip was a major exhibition of the paintings of Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano.

Since encountering his paintings in Venice (one can be viewed for free in the Church of the Carmini, others are in the Accademia) I've had a fondness for his pretty backgrounds. If the Madonna has a charming green landscape behind her, with a medieval clustered citadel crowning a low hill, the chances are it's a Cima painting. Mostly he portrayed the Veneto landscape he knew and obviously loved. Conegliano can be identified in some of his works, and must have influenced others. So this was a great chance to see the artist's paintings in the hometown that inspired him. Since he worked chiefly in Venice, it may be the first time that some of these works - on loan from the National Gallery and Harewood House and other international galleries - have actually been to Conegliano.

It's an easy journey from Venice to Conegliano, catching a train just after 10am and arriving 50 minutes later. A comfortable trip, apart from the creepy man sitting opposite and constantly aiming his camera-phone at me.

Anyway, I forgot him once I arrived in Conegliano. A surprising number of people alighted; it's a significant-sized town although the historic centre feels small. From the railway station it was obvious which way to walk: the historic town lay directly ahead, over a street and up a flight of steps ceremonially clad in a blue carpet.

This is the kind of town where you know it will be a good day out as soon as you arrive. The processional steps led into an inviting piazza with cafe tables laid out; mellow-coloured arcaded buildings led off in either direction and a tourist information office - open! - lay just over the road. I know the pitfalls of day trips in small-town Italy. Rule no. 1: expect lunchtime closures. So I headed straight into the tourist office where a helpful assistant gave me a map and ran through the various attractions (more than I'd expected) and their opening times, even photocopying her information sheet for me.

Armed with some factual leaflets - as usual in Italy, much expenditure on lengthy tracts almost unreadable in their detail, however well-meaning - and the crucial opening times, I set off. The sky was blue and the sun was warm, but I now had a schedule: to zoom aroun as many sights as possible before they closed for 3 hours. I didn't know if I'd be still in town at 3.30 and I didn't want to run out of time in the afternoon. So in quick succession I visited the Duomo (a Cima altarpiece against rather forlorn green velvet drapes; two charming saints frescoed on pillars), Cima's birthplace (wouldn't mind moving to Conegliano and living in such a charming little house myself) and the cloister of San Francesco. With some time in hand before the castle closed at 12.30, I decided to get that done as well, so I ploughed up the pretty little walled footpath heading uphill. En route I found two more minor sights, opened by kindly and welcoming locals: a small sloping garden 'You can go right around the garden,' a lady invited me...but I had deadlines to meet - and then a little church where restoration had uncovered a fresco. I was impressed by the obviously civic-minded populace of Conegliano. Given that these were all enterprising volunteers, one can't really grumble at the limited opening hours and lunchtime closure.

Feeling rather out of breath when I reached the castle, I nevertheless paid my entrance fee (half an hour till closing...) and climbed straight up the stairs to the battlements at the very top. From this vantage point you can see over the green landscape which stretches towards the Dolomites; far more inviting than the over-developed Veneto plains in the opposite direction. I toured the little museum, which contained various oddities. These included Toscanini's wedding certificate. I read afterwards that the conductor came to have his wedding reception at a friend's house locally, and wanted to avoid attention, so when he reached Conegliano and found local dignitaries at the station to meet him he went into a sulk and sat silently in a corner with his arms crossed all day. Another interesting sight in the castle-museum was a fresco by Il Pordenone which included St. Thomas Becket among the saints portrayed. I'm not sure of his iconography, though I'd like to think he was the saint displayed with a sword in his head and a bishop's mitre in his hand.

I was tempted to sit and relax at the cafe tables in the castle gardens, where I'd have joined a small family group dressed for a wedding (black is common wear at these joyous events), and an elegant elderly lady sharing treats with her little dog. But I had already been seduced by the cafe tables down in Piazza Cima, so I set off down the hill, passing a handful of Italians climbing breathlessly up the lane.

Taking my seat with a view over the square, I feasted on local produce: a glass of Prosecco, the wine most produced around here, and a plate of gnocchi with radicchio, a speciality of the Treviso area. It was still warm and sunny, though the two couples at the next table were discussing snowfall in the mountains. Then came the second of the day's two slightly low spots: a long queue of elderly ladies for the restaurant's one toilet cubicle (which turned out to be a squatter). Still, I learned interesting things about the dynamics of their tour group. I'd recommend the place I where I ate: the Caffe al Teatro. Outside it was like a traditional cafe-bar with drinks and a small selection of meals served at tables (reasonably-priced, glass of Prosecco or pot of tea for €1.90). Inside I was surprised to find an extensive and maze-like interior filled with jolly eating parties, and a bustling kitchen where two elderly ladies cooked.

The thinking behind my visiting the Cima exhibition at lunchtime was to avoid such groups; who always take long lunch breaks. I didn't do too badly; I was able to tour the exhibition with only a few individuals for company in each room. It was a good exhibition with a helpful English audioguide. As usual, I admired the pastoral backgrounds, but grouped together like this there were interesting style comparisons to be made between paintings, and I found some of his characters more compelling than I'd expected; their gazes coming to life in the palace rooms. It was good to see some non-religious themes; the painter had branched out on more imaginative works for private clients and here we saw scenes involving Theseus, Ariadne and Endymion.

When I left the palazzo housing the exhibition the weather had shifted to drizzle - unlucky for photography - but I wandered along the main street, which I found charming. It would be nice to see it on a warm evening at aperitivo time, when I suspect the wine bars and cafes near the square would be alive and atmospheric.

I visited the Sala dei Battuti, a hall lined with rather sweet frescoes, looked at the shops beginning to open for the afternoon, then continued my stroll. The weather improved. Then - excitement! - a group of teenagers and youngish adults passed by, dressed in splendidly 'folkloric' costumes and carrying flags and drums. I love traditional Italian flag-throwing, but I've only ever seen one practice session, in Siena.

So I followed the medieval posse along to Piazza Cima and watched as they put on a splendid show for whoever happened to be passing by. After the first spettacolo by two sbandieratori (flag-throwers) I sat with a cup of tea and waited until they resumed their show. This time two female flag-throwers performed, and then a man who I presumed was the group's leader. He did a flag-throwing routine with three, then four flags and I was hugely impressed. What could be more manly? Other bystanders applauded too, and a few random couples in Renaissance costume promenaded by. The drummers drummed feverishly and at one point chanted "CO-NE-GLI-A-NO!!!" I had no idea what the event was in aid of - more civic pride, perhaps - or if it was just a routine practice but I was very glad to have been there at the right time.

Anything else would have been an anti-climax after that, so I purchased some delicate little pastries for the train ride, and headed back to Venice.

> My article about Conegliano
> Conegliano photo gallery
> Youtube footage of the sbandieratori

Conegliano's a great place to visit, but if you can, do go while the Cima da Conegliano exhibition is on. It's a good show, and the town's other attractions have extended opening for the duration. It runs until 2 June.

25 March 2010

Spring in Venice

I arrived back in Venice yesterday and the cold weather has (hopefully) ended. Today was a glorious spring day with sunshine and a blue sky. The tourist numbers are increasing, bolstered by large school parties. I saw one large group in Piazza San Marco enacting a curious circle ritual, possibly a European equivalent of the Hokey Cokey (see photo below). I walked to my current favourite gelateria, Il Pinguino (along Riva degli Schiavoni - see it on my map of Venice) for a scoop of their special chocolate-and-caramel biscuity flavour. Then an unplanned boat trip to the Lido, where quite a few people were enjoying the out-of-season beach: playing football, walking, shell-collecting, reading. The closed beach huts are sheltered behind huge defences of heaped sand, and further down the beach there was some unpicturesque construction work going on to get the beach into shape for its summer season. The Lido is a benign place in the sunshine, with small children and the very elderly being taken out by their carers to promenade in the sunshine.

> Today's Venice photos
> All about Venice

If you're in Venice this weekend, check out the little antiques market in Campo San Maurizio, between the Accademia and St. Mark's.

2 March 2010

Castelfranco Veneto Giorgione Exhibition

Today I visited Castelfranco Veneto for the Giorgione 2010 exhibition. This marks the 500th year since the painter's death; which is one of the few known details of his life - a letter referring to it is included in the exhibition. The man's paintings are as mysterious as his life: there aren't many positive attributions to Giorgione and there's much debate over the images and symbolism in his works. His most famous painting is probably 'The Tempest', usually to be found in the Accademia Gallery in Venice but loaned to Castelfranco for this exhibition.

Castelfranco Veneto is a pleasant small town and today was a nice sunny day for walking around the high, brick town walls and past characteristic Veneto arcaded buildings. The exhibition is carefully presented, though as most of the labelling is in Italian, you may wish to hire an audio-guide. There are exhibits providing the context for Giorgione's life and work - unrest in the region, wealthy humanist patrons, commissions in Venice, his artistic contemporaries - and then a collection of paintings by Giorgione (18 of them), works possibly by, or partly by, Giorgione, and then art by his contemporaries to illuminate his artistic environment and influences. It's not a very large exhibition - you can see it in under an hour - but it is interesting and put together well. Giorgione's paintings are intriguing and haunting. I was particularly struck by a double portrait of a lovelorn young man in front of a more spirited face, and by an illustration of '3 ages of man'. The faces are compelling, and in many of the paintings there are strange and fascinating details.

I visited at lunchtime, which worked well as the rooms were fairly empty. I saw a tour group of Italian senior citizens arrive after lunch, so I was glad I'd timed my visit right. The rooms aren't large and you really need some time and space to consider the paintings.

After visiting the exhibition I paid a second visit to the Giorgione altarpiece in the cathedral (a side-entrance to the Giorgione chapel was kept open even during the church's lunchtime closure.) Then I headed to a bar on the corner which served meals and snacks, the Bistro San Giustino. It was very lively with locals perched on tables near the bar or eating in the internal dining room - from teenagers in a gaggle by the door eating sandwiches to lunchtime workers chatting with colleagues over pasta and wine. The friendly waitresses found me a table alongside a suit of armour and I enjoyed pasta with pumpkin, gorgonzola and walnuts, followed by fondi di carciofi. Along with a glass of local Prosecco and some water, the meal cost me €11, so it was a quick and cheap way to dine.

There's not much else to do in Castelfranco other than walk around the town walls. There's an interesting-sounding villa garden in town, but I haven't yet found it open.

Castelfranco makes a good day trip - or a half-day trip - from Venice at any time. However, while the only specific attraction normally is the altarpiece, at present the exhibition makes it a really appealing destination. The provincial tourist board are obviously very excited. They've instigated an 'Isola dei Musei' (Island of Museums) whereby your Giorgione ticket can get you discount admission into a number of other local sights, and there's a special bus service on Saturday afternoons and Sundays which will take you to these, including two villas designed by Palladio. With a bit of careful planning, it's possible to fit in a lot more tourism than would normally be possible without a car.

> Giorgione 2010 exhibition
> My guide to Castelfranco Veneto
> Article in the Times about the exhibition

I noticed from my old photos (taken two years ago) that Castelfranco Veneto has even cleaned up its statues for this big event. Here's a 'before' picture to compare with today's image (at the top of this article):