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.

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