Saturday, 6 September 2008

Farinelli and Friends

The Singer Farinelli and Friends by Jacopo Amigoni
Oil on Canvas; painted between 1750 and 1752
National Gallery of Victoria

This is one of my favourite portraits at the NGV and well worth a visit. The delicate colors and curving forms of Amigoni's rococo style seems very suited to the slightly melancholy subject of a little group of intimate friends about to part.

The friends are in Madrid: Farinelli sits in the centre, his pageboy and pet dog off to the right. Beside him is his close friend and pupil, Teresa Castellini, the prima donna of the Madrid Opera. She and Farinelli had a very close relationship and she was popularly believed to be the love of his life, an impossible love in the light of his physical circumstances: he was the most renowned of the castratos.

Behind Farinelli is the artist himself, who met the singer in Paris in 1736 and became a good friend. He is dressed in his painterly smock and turban, and holds a handful of brushes. His dress is remiscent of that of Joseph Highmore, a painter of the same era, whose selfportrait in the NGV we looked at in a previous WASP.

I always find it interesting when an artist includes a self-portrait in a group painting - two others spring to mind: Tiepolo in one of his versions of "Cleopatra's Banquet" (see the article on "Cleopatra's Banquet" in a previous WASP), and Frans Hals, who placed himself among the "Officers and Sergeants of the St George Civic Guard Company".

But back to Farinelli and friends: On the far left is Pietro Metastasio, the famous "opera serie" librettist and Farinelli's lifelong friend. The paper that Farinelli is handing to Teresa is a poem by Metastasio, describing the sadness of a lover's departure.

Teresa was about to leave Madrid, but the symbolism of the poem has a wider meaning: the artist is referring to the inevitable separation of four friends who are in essence itinerant professionals. In this painting he immortalises their companionship and the capacity of true friendship to rise above physical absence.

Carlo Broschi Farinelli (1705-1782) was the most famous singer of his century : he had an exceptional voice, although his androgynous beauty clearly contributed to his success. He enjoyed a quasi-mythical status, even in his own life-time, perhaps because, (like Shane Warne!) he retired at the height of his fame and powers.

Contemporary accounts are full of praise for the beauty of his sound, the breadth of his range and the purity of his intonation. It has been recorded that the range of his voice covered more than three and a half octaves, that he could produce 250 notes in a single breath and sustain a note for more than a minute.

Farinelli was born Carlo Broschi, to a minor noble family in Naples in 1705. He had one brother, Riccardo, eight years his senior, who composed several operas for him. Riccardo was very ambitious for his talented brother and may have pushed for him to be castrated at the age of seven: the prevailing method was to drug the boy with opium and immerse him in a bath of warm water before severing the ducts to the testes.

Carlo studied under Porpora, the famous teacher of castrati. During his musical studies in Naples, he became the protégé of the Farina brothers and adopted, according to the custom of the time, the name of 'Farinelli'.

He met the poet Metastase when he was fifteen years old, at the Palace of the Prince of Torella, when he had a role in "Angelika and Medoro," an opera whose libretto was written by Metastase. They became close friends, corresponding until Farinelli's death in 1782.

Farinelli performed at all the main courts of Europe and even sang privately for King Louis XV of France at the Queen's apartments, for which he received a portrait of the King embossed with diamonds, and a fee of 500 livres.
He was 32 years old when he gave his last public performance, retiring from the limelight so he could sing exclusively for King Philip V of Spain who was known to have suffered severe depression. The singer's remarkable Spanish career spanned more than two decades in the service of Philip V (1700-46) and Ferdinand VI (1746-59). He became a prominent and influential courtier: Private Counsellor to the King, receiving foreign guests, reorganizing the Madrid Opera, and directing music at the royal chapel. In 1750, he was knighted in the order of Calatrava.

He remained a legendary success in the public imagination, since his fans had to rely on their memory of his prowess unless they were on the Royal guest list. Today we have to turn to the music critics of his time, since he was born 200 years too early for a CD of his greatest hits to be easily obtainable from your friendly local ABC Shop.

With the death of Ferdinand VI, he returned to Italy and settled in Bologna where died in 1782 and was buried at his request on a hillside in Bologna. His original tomb no longer exists today: it was destroyed by Napoleon's army, but his remains were reburied on the family estate.

Castration was banned in the 19th century, and the last castrato in the Western World died in 1922. Castrati were virtuoso musicians, exceptionally talented and trained. Due to their unique physical attributes, almost nothing in their repertoire can be performed nowadays.

They were particularly known for their unique timbre: their voice did not change with puberty. Upon adulthood, they combined the lung capacity and physical stamina of a grown man with the sweet high voice of a boy soprano. They had, as a consequence, great vocal power, and some were able to sing notes for a minute or more. A small, flexible larynx, and relatively short vocal chords allowed them to vocalize over 3 and a half octaves.

They received decades of rigorous musical training and were cast in heroic male roles, alongside another new breed of operatic creature, the female prima donna. The rise of these star singers with formidable technical skills spurred composers to write increasingly complex vocal music, and many operas of the time were written as vehicles for specific singers, of whom Farinelli is perhaps the most famous.

The castratos were the superstars of their day: as theatrical celebrities, they reigned supreme and commanded large salaries. On the stage, they were the undisputed stars. A composer was merely hired help who labored at the castrato’s pleasure. If the arias written for a castrato did not please the singer, he could demand -- and receive -- a complete rewrite.

Their popularity began to wane by 1760, when new composers like Gluck and Mozart used tenors to play the hero instead. Rossini and Weber insisted that their arias be sung as written and there was no more room in opera for star tantrums. Now instead of the singer being the king of the stage, it was the composer who ruled the kingdom. Farinelli was the last of the great operatic castrati and I do wish I could have heard him sing!

An interesting footnote to the Farinelli story is that his remains were exhumed with the permission of his great-niece, so that scientists at the University could study the effects of castration on the human frame. (Why do they need to know this? Is there a sinister conspiracy among opera directors to resurrect the famous performances? Choirboys around the world, don't accept opium from strangers!)

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Some Interesting Churches of Europe

Some of the greatest works by the Old Masters are to be found in cathedrals and churches round the world, but I am always enchanted by the unusual and interesting things that are to be found in them apart from the magnificent artwork.

One of my favourite churches is the St Bavokerk in Haarlem, near Amsterdam. Frans Hals lived in Haarlem all his life and is buried in St Bavo.

The church boasts a magnificent organ, built in 1735 by the famous German organ builder Christiaan Muller. He was to the organ what Antonio Stradivari was to the violin.

The organ has five thousand pipes, the smallest the size of a pencil, the largest ten metres (three stories!) high. It is gilded and embellished with exquisitely carved wooden statues: a life-size King David with his harp, Asaph the Psalmist holding a scroll, and a whole host of angels and seraphs.

Twice a week professional organists give free recitals during the day, as they have done for upward of two centuries. It is a sought-after privilege to play the St Bavo organ, and organists from all over the world book sessions months in advance. Handel travelled from London to Haarlem to play the organ, and during their concert tour of Europe in 1763, the Mozart family made a special overnight trip from Amsterdam to Haarlem so that ten-year old Wolfgang Amadeus could try it out. I wonder if his little legs could even reach the pedals. However, three years later, in 1766, he was back to have another go. This time he stayed three days, so he must have liked it.

St Bavo is a huge church with lots of side chapels, the most interesting of which is the "Hondeslagerskapel", or Dog Whipper's Chapel, beautifully carved with reliefs of dogs. Members of the congregation brought their dogs to church with them. The dog would sit at its owner's feet. Should a dog bark or fidget, the official Dog Whipper, employed by the Church Council, would emerge from his side chapel and chase the dog out. If the Dog Whipper was absent or the position wasn't filled, the chief choir boy was the pinch hitter and had to do dog chasing duty between hymns.

Sadly, in 1813 they banned dogs altogether from the church. I reckon the Dog Whippers' Union would have had something to say about that - I hope the incumbent got a good retrenchment package.

In Gouda, there is a really lovely chapel in the St Catharina Gastehuis, which may be called a "gastehuis" or guest house, but is in fact the city museum and was formerly a hospital and before that an orphanage, but never a guest house. I failed to find out why it is called a guest house, but I found the large, beautifully proportioned chapel on the ground floor extremely interesting when my daughter and I visited the inappropriately named Gastehuis.

The chapel was used by the 17th century French Huguenots, who fled Catholic persecution. They found sanctuary in the Protestant Netherlands, from where many of them went on to the Cape and became my ancestors.

The chapel now houses a collection of religious art: a bit light on the Mother-and-Child and heavy on the Martyrs - I moved briskly past the 2 depictions of St Cath chained to the wheel, one of St Lucia carrying her eyes on a little platter as she is wont to do, and three of St Sebastian, each with different numbers of arrows and different amounts of gore. I daresay the hagiography is not clear on the finer details of St Seb's death, so the painters had to add blood and arrows to taste.

There were various other martyrs whose particular sufferings I could not immediately associate with a name, not being of the Catholic persuasion and less than au fait with the Saints and Martyrs. I think the one being grilled over a bed of charcoal is St Lawrence, but I may be wrong. That may have been St Barbie.

Continuing the House of Pain theme, on the far side of the chapel there was a door which intriguingly said "Cells and Torture Implements", so we pushed it open and peered in. It gave onto a narrow spiral stair which misleadingly didn’t look too sinister due to lots of whitewash and good lighting. At the bottom, however, we discovered a row of really nasty little windowless cells furnished only with leather handcuffs fixed to the walls by rusty chains and, across the corridor, a well-equipped torture chamber complete with all the tools one has heard about, plus a few pointy implements that I couldn't put a name to, but which no doubt came in handy when dealing with a difficult case. All thankfully pretty rusted now and obviously in disuse.

Makes you wonder who the customers or torturees were, considering the place was occupied over the years by (a) hospital patients (b) orphans and (c) devout Prostestants on the run. Maybe the orphans were very naughty.

Still in the Netherlands, Jan Vermeer is buried in Delft, in the Oude Kerk, which dates from the 12th century. There he lies, under a worn paving stone with only his name and dates on. You can walk on it. Five yards away, there is the ornate and imposing gilded marble sarcophagus of the Dutch naval hero, Admiral Tromp: the Netherlands' answer to Horatio Nelson.

I am always indignant about Vermeer getting a mere flagstone and Tromp a tomb fit for a pharaoh. They should swap places. Oh, well … the paintbrush has turned out to be mightier than the sword, hasn't it. Admiral Who? We all know who Vermeer is.

The Protestant churches in the Netherlands are full of interest, but if you really want more bang for your buck, the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe is where you will hit the jackpot. Each of them is home to priceless masterpieces in paint and sculpture.

Apart from the conventional works of art, I am always fascinated by the contents of the "Treasure Chambers". You pay an admission fee to these Aladdin's Cave-like crypts but it is invariably worth every penny. The vestments, the gold and silver chalices and the reliquiries are stunning. Often they are embellished with jewels the size of postage stamps. Many of them are centuries old. Some of those jewel-embroidered bishops' vestments are better than the Royal wedding gowns you see in Palace museums. The designs and the fine hand-stitching are unbelievably beautiful.

The jewelled reliquiries are real works of the goldsmith's art, although I tend to be dubious about their alleged contents, many of which are said to have been brought back from the Crusades. The Crusaders must have spent more time shopping than fighting.

In the Domkerk in Cologne they have a large gold sarcophagus purporting to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men, brought back from the Holy Land, of course, by Crusaders. Silly me, I always took it that the Three Men were Wise enough to go back home after they had made the "gold, frankincense and myrrh" home delivery, but no, I was wrong. Obviously they stayed on till they died, and were all buried together in a clearly marked grave, so their bones could be retrieved by a Crusader a thousand years later.

The sarcophagus is a very beautiful work of art. It was designed by the famous medieval goldsmith, Nicholas of Verdun, who began work on it in 1180 or 1181. It has elaborate gold sculptures of the prophets and apostles, and scenes from the life of Christ.

Most relics consist of the fingers, toes or vertebrae of some venerable abbot, bishop or saint, but in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in Germany, I also saw a lock of John the Baptist’s hair (Germanic blond, strangely enough for a Semitic middle-easterner), as well as the armbones (radius and ulna both) of Charlemagne. The bits of the Baptist and Charlemagne are the star attractions in the Aix cathedral, but they have heaps of supporting-act relics there too: pieces of bone and body parts of assorted holy men, all in gorgeously bejewelled golden reliquaries.

The question that leaps to mind is: how did they obtain the bits of skeleton? The mind fairly boggles. It could have been a nice little earner for a medieval abbey, mind you: the minute the venerable abbot dies, the ‘phone starts ringing off the hook:

"Hallo, this is Father Baldwin calling from St Marzipan’s in Tuscany … I hear the abbot passed … deepest sympathy … any chance of a relic?"
"Yes, certainly, Father, they are boiling him down in the backyard as we speak. Shall I put you down for a nice femur?"
"Oh, dear no, we can’t afford a femur! I was hoping for something more modest – maybe a few vertebrae or a finger?"
"No worries, Father, I can give you your choice of an index finger or two metacarpals."
"That is very kind, we’ll take the index finger. Is the right one still available?"
"Half a sec, Father, I'll just check the allocation register … OK, the entire left hand went to St Lenin's. We'll FedEx the right index finger to you as soon as your cheque clears."
"Many thanks, Brother, I'll have Brother Benvenuto make a start on the reliquary right away. Pax vobiscum to you and the lads."

Little Red Riding Hood

Gustave DoréLittle Red Riding Hood c.1862Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 81.7cm

The painting of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a rendition in oils of one of the illustrations for Perrault's book of fairy tales, and was a gift to the NGV by Mrs S. Horne in 1962.

Paul Gustave Doré saw his first illustrations in print in 1847, when he was 15 years old. He was also a painter and sculptor: the famous statue of Alexandre Dumas in Paris is his work. However, his first love was wood and steel engraving.

He started out by illustrating Rabelais, Balzac, and Dante for Parisian publishers, but his international career took off in 1853 when he was commissioned to illustrate the works of Lord Byron. He was overwhelmed with commissions from British publishers, the most important of which was a new English Bible in 1866. This was a huge success and in 1867 there was a major exhibition of his work in London. He became the most famous and highly-paid illustrator in Europe, despite never having had an art lesson in his life.
Doré really had no peer as an illustrator – he illustrated editions of all the classics: Poe, Milton, Tennyson, Dante … the list goes on. His depiction of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza has become entrenched in the zeitgeist and has influenced subsequent artists, stage and film directors' ideas of how the two characters should look. Even in the eponymous ballet, the Don and Sancho have the Doré "look".

Charles Perrault was a French author who "invented" the fairy tale as a new literary genre, with his somewhat bowdlerised versions of traditional folk and fairy tales. Doré's illustrations of the 1862 de luxe edition of Perrault's fairy tales contributed in large measure to its success. Having just completed the rather harrowing task of illustrating Dante's "Inferno", Doré enjoyed creating the required forty plates for the fairy tales.
Our heroine, Red, has come a long way since her story was an oral folk tale, probably first told in the days when we lived in caves and still dragged our knuckles a lot of the time.
The earliest known version was a cautionary French folk tale known as ''The Story of Grandmother"; no mention of a red hood or cloak. It is meant as a warning to young girls of the perils of succumbing to male advances.

This original story is full of bawdy allusions, and blatantly sexual and violent: the wolf gives Red some of her grandmother's flesh to eat before seducing her. It was first published in Paris in 1697, (nearly a century before Perrault) and the accompanying engraving shows a nude girl, lying in bed beneath a wolf. The tale ends with her death in the beast’s jaws - her just desserts for her immoral behaviour. In the French slang of the day, when a girl lost her virginity it was said that elle avoit vû le loup – "she’d seen the wolf".

Perrault's version was intended for aristocrats at the court of Versailles and is considerably less crude: the original elements of the story that would have shocked Society are left out. As "Little Red Riding Hood", it appeared in his 1697 collection of fairy tales.

He still presents the tale as a moral warning against wanton behaviour: he was the first to cloak the heroine in red, suggesting the girl’s sin and foreshadowing her bloody fate. In Perrault's version, there is no woodsman who comes to the rescue: Little Red Riding Hood still dies at the end of the story, emphasising his point about the dangers of encouraging male advances. ("Men only want One Thing!", my Auntie Beatrice used to say darkly when I was a teenager. She never said what the One Thing was, but I somehow didn't think it was a kind word and a cup of tea.)

Anyhow, Perrault ends his story with this verse:

"Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way,
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you're pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be and kind,
Gay or charming -- never mind!
Now, as then, 'tis simple truth --
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!"

In the 19th century Red Riding Hood, as befits a Victorian maiden, grew more discreet and also acquired a man to look after her. A woodsman rescues Red from the beast and gives her a second chance to get back on the straight and narrow in “Little Red Cap,” published in 1812 by the German brothers Grimm. This is the version most people know today.

The Grimms, in a story acceptable in the social landscape of Victorian Europe, suggested spiritual rather than sexual danger, even though she still got into bed with the wolf. They eliminated all sexual suggestion and changed the ending of the story to teach a moral about learning from one's mistakes. They invented the fatherly woodsman, who represents patriarchal protection of submissive womenfolk.

Amusingly, in 1990 a particular edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales was banned in two California school districts because of an illustration showing Red’s basket with a bottle of wine as well as fresh bread and butter. No complaints about Red disrobing and climbing in bed with the wolf, but the wine, they said, might be seen as condoning the use of alcohol.

In the 20th century, Red was emancipated at last: no longer did she have to be the poster girl for symbolic warnings against the female libido: in 1953 Max Factor promised, in a full-page Vogue ad, that their “Riding Hood Red” lipstick would “bring the wolves out.” Stories and movies alike reinvented her as the aggressor: in The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter, Red turns the tables on her lascivious stalker and becomes a wolf herself; in the 1996 movie Freeway, Reese Witherspoon plays a tough lady in a red leather jacket who is more than a match for the serial killer she meets while hitch-hiking to grandma’s trailer park.

Roald Dahl, in his "Revolting Rhymes", sees to it that the wolf doesn't get to first base with his intended victim. When he tries to sleaze on to Red, he gets his comeuppance quick smart:

" …The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, "Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.''

The poor old wolf has mislaid his machismo: I love the Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon that shows the beast on a psychiatrist’s couch, in a floral granny nightgown. “It was supposed to be just a story about a little kid and a wolf,” he says, “but off and on I’ve been dressing up as a grandmother ever since.”

I'll let James Thurber have the last word: the moral of his story has summed the modern Red up perfectly …

The Little Girl and the Wolf
by James Thurber

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
"My, What Big Morals Our Fairy Tales Weave" NYTimes, December 4, 1996
"19th Century Paintings and Sculpture", NGV Publication