Category Archives: Art

Gibellina – A Town Buried in Concrete

dscf5615The road to the old town of Ruderi di Gibellina is so cracked and deformed that it is hard to imagine that the earthquake which flattened it occurred nearly 50 years ago. Up to 400 people died, a thousand were injured and 100,000 left homeless when the 5.5 tremor hit south west Sicily on the 15th of January 1968. The surviving inhabitants suffered even more until the new town was completed 12 years later nearly 20 kms away. Much delay was caused due to corruption and Mafia threats regarding building contracts.

dscf5624It’s a sunny day and I stop briefly at the cemetery of Ruderi di Gibellina, the only structure to have survived. A simple memorial remembers those who died on that dreadful day. The road winds down to the site of the former town, now almost completely covered in a layer of concrete, looking like a misplaced glacier. In fact, Alberto Burri’s modern art installation is named ‘IL Cretto’ (The Crevice) and the cuts in the concrete represent the positions of the roads that ran through the town. It’s almost as if the artist has sought to bury the pain of the past. However, a few derelict and crumbling buildings remain to serve as a reminder of what happened here 50 years ago.


dscf5644The following day, on the anniversary of the earthquake, I visit the new Gibellina. It is Sunday morning and the streets are empty, so I can drive around and check out the modern art which is dotted around the place. It’s clear that they applied lessons learned from the earthquake when they designed the new town. Houses and flats are only one or two storeys and the streets are very wide, but it is devoid of any real character and feels like a 1970s council estate. I wondered if there would be a memorial service at the church but perhaps it is too early as it is all locked up.










I move on to Salemi, high on a hill and not quite as badly affected by the earthquake, though the ruins of the Chiesa Madre are a reminder of that time. The sacred art from all the affected churches was collected up, restored and is now displayed in the Museum of the Jesuit College where there is also, bizarrely, a replica of ‘Mary’s House’ of Loreto. As well as the sacred art, the museum has a small archaeological section, a rather disturbing Mafia exhibition and some memorabilia related to Garibaldi. On the 11th of May 1860 he landed at Marsala with a thousand Red Shirts and managed to defeat 15,000 Bourbon soldiers at Calatafimi. Neighbouring Salemi became the first capital of the Unified Italy and proudly flew the Tricolore flag, if only one day.






The Enchanted Castle of Filippo Bentivegna

filippoFilippo Bentivegna was born in Sciacca in 1888. At the age of 20 he enlisted in the navy and ended up in America where he fell in love. Sadly, he was rejected by his girlfriend and beaten up by his love rival, leaving him depressed and homesick. When he returned to Sciacca he started carving heads into every piece of stone and wood that he could find, their faces symbols of his enemies. He bought a small holding above the town and filled it with his work. Locals would often meet him wandering around town with a short stick, held like a sceptre, proclaiming himself a king and asking to be called ‘His Excellency’.


dscf5352He died in 1967 but his estate remains and is managed by a foundation. I stop by to visit, not really sure what to expect and prepared to be disappointed after handing over €5 for a ticket. I’m pointed towards a path which is lined with stone heads, the faces glaring at me as I pass. Some sculptures have more than one face, some are quite crude, others more complex and detailed. As I follow the path I reach a terrace with rows and rows of heads. They are everywhere, including some which have been carved into the ancient olive trees.


dscf5386dscf5363At one point a goat wanders past and I feel like I’m in a dream as I explore the ‘Enchanted Castle’. Then I realise that the goat is one of several animals left behind from a nativity production. At the top of the garden is Filippo’s house, a very simple one-room cottage whose walls are decorated with painted skyscrapers (perhaps representing New York) and large fish with smaller ones inside (perhaps representing the journey across the Atlantic in a ship). Beyond is a network of limestone caves where even more faces have been carved into the walls.



The Owl House

It’s a fascinating place and quite unlike anywhere else I have visited in Sicily. It does remind me of the ‘Owl House’ in South Africa which artist Helen Martins also decorated with her work. Filippo and Helen belong to an artistic group known as Outsider Artists, artists who are often self-taught and create work purely for themselves and not for the public. These people choose their own materials and prefer to work in isolation. I think Filippo must have been a little bit crazy to have created such a world for himself, but then I suppose all great artists are a bit crazy.

As I wander down the paths to the exit I feel as if the faces are all turning to watch me leave.



Searching for Mucha

I’ve always been a fan of Art Deco, both architecture and art. One of my favourite artists is Alfons Mucha and, until I visited Prague, I had no idea how connected to the city he was. So I decided to discover more about him by seeking out the places where he left his mark on the city.

dscf1756My first encounter is at St Vitus Cathedral in the castle complex. As I enter, my eye is drawn to one of the first stained-glass windows. I recognise the style instantly. Mucha was commissioned in 1931 to design a window for the cathedral. He was already a well-established artist and had become very famous in Prague following his exhibition of the Slav Epic in the Trade Fair building in 1928. The women depicted in the window resemble the many posters of Sarah Bernhardt that Mucha produced for her numerous stage plays between 1894 and 1898.


I next find his influence in the beautiful Obecni dum (Municipal Building) which he helped to design in 1911. Although I am unable to see the ornate halls, I can appreciate the dining areas and hallways which boast features representative of Mucha’s art.


alfons-mucha-photoIn order to learn more about Alfons Mucha, I visit the museum located not far from Obecni dum. It’s a small exhibition of some of his theatre posters, sketches and a few paintings. I find the black and white photos of models posing in costume for his Slav Epic particularly interesting as I hadn’t realised that artists were using this technique a century ago.





Alfons Mucha was born in 1860 in Southern Moravia and started his artistic career painting scenery for a theatre. When the theatre burned down, he moved on to house painting where his talents were recognised by Count Karl Khuen, who sent him to study at the Munich Academy of Arts and later to the Academie Julian in Paris. Mucha also spent time on book illustration and designing jewellery for Fouchet. However, his real desire was to create an epic work which told the mythology and history of the Czechs and other Slavic people. He began work on it in 1910 and the 20 canvases, many of which are 8m x 6m, were finally displayed in Prague in 1928.

mucha-banknoteMucha was greatly influenced by the Freemasons and connections to this can be seen in his work. In 1918 he established the first Czech Lodge and later became a Grand Master. Following the Independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, he designed the new banknotes and also stamps, some of which are displayed in the museum.

dscf1978Sadly, at the beginning of WWII, he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken for questioning. He never recovered from his ordeal and died 8 days later on the 14th of July 1939, aged 78. I walk up to the Vysehrad fortress to see the cemetery where he was laid to rest. His name is displayed on a plaque on the Slavin Monument. He is in good company for Kafka is also buried there and not far away is the tomb of Czech composer Dvorak.


dscf1998After paying my respects I decide to take a peek inside the St Peter and St Paul church which borders the cemetery. What I find inside is the most fitting tribute to Mucha. The colourful interior is decorated in his unique style with saints adorning the pillars, looking just like Mucha’s theatrical posters. Soft organ music is playing in the background and I feel very peaceful.



Romantic Road – Landsberg, Schongau and Peiting

dscf1045There has been a settlement in Landsberg am Lech since the bronze age and it was a prosperous place in the middle ages due to the salt tax levied on passing merchants. Now it benefits from tourism and I find it a busy little place as I cross the River Lech into the heart of the old town.

The main square is strangely triangular in shape leading up to the 13th century Schoner Turm (beautiful tower). Opposite, is the town hall with an impressive stucco façade designed by the same architect as the Weiskirche, the popular pilgrimage church further south on the Romantic Road.

In a smaller square, beside the parish church, a craft exhibition has been set up and at one stall a local metalsmith is demonstrating how he makes bells, pouring molten metal into moulds.


dscf1059On the recommendation of the tourist office I follow a flight up steps up to the State Museum, but then decide not to go in as there is apparently a lack of any information in English. Luckily my trek is not wasted as I find the Jesuit Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche opposite. Though rather plain on the outside, it actually has a very beautiful baroque and rococo interior.




dscf1071I return to the river by following the defensive walls and cross the Karolinen Bridge to walk along the eastern bank of the River Lech. Many people have the same idea, drawn out by the sunshine though wrapped up against the cold wind. I’m rewarded with a fine view of the town and I also find a curious fairy tale tower, known as the Mutterturm. It was built at the end of the 19th century by artist Hubert von Herkomer to function as his studio and a museum dedicated to his work is based in the adjoining house.

dscf1214Shongau is another walled-town but this time it’s situated on a high hill above the Lech River, although the romance is ruined by the surrounding industrial areas with smoke belching paper mills and lots of large lorries clogging up the roads.




Up inside the old town walls it is thankfully more peaceful and this is also because I have arrived while everything is closed and everyone is having their lunch. Fortunately, the main sites are still viewable, including several beautiful churches and a former monastery cloister, bordered on one side by medieval ramparts and featuring a rose garden with each rose dedicated to one of 63 women who were executed during the 1589-92 witch trials.




The medieval ramparts also surround the cemetery and opposite I find an unusual fountain with a metal sculpture of 3 knights on horseback and a chain which is probably related to the former prison and torture house nearby.





dscf1194Only 4 kms away is the more modern, sleepy town of Peiting. St Michael’s church is boring both inside and out, and the local museum opens infrequently and not while I am there. But it does offer a warm and welcoming café with antique style furniture and large communal tables, and also a very peaceful aire next to a small stream and an outdoor swimming complex.

A few kilometres outside the town is the Villa Rustica, a Roman villa dated to about 200 A.D. and opened to the public in 2012 with an adjoining garden of Roman plants, herbs and vegetables.



Romantic Road – Wurzburg and Weikersheim

On my way through southern Germany I have decided to follow the Romantic Road, a well-trodden route of medieval towns, fairy-tale castles and quaint villages, popular with artist, poets, writers and now international tourists.

dscf0695My journey commences in the large city of Wurzburg, situated on the Main River and surrounded by vineyards producing the local Franconian wine, which comes in a green bottle called a bocksbeutal, similarly shaped to that used for the French Mateus Rose.





dscf0675There’s a lot to see in this city and I start in the main square where, in front of the gothic Marienkapelle, a gospel choir are singing and praying. Further on, the bells of the domed Cathedral of St Kilian are ringing loudly and people are climbing up the steps and entering the massive doors. Passing the very ornate university buildings, I eventually arrive at the ornate Court Garden of the Residenz, a UNESCO World Cultural Property and former residence of the Prince Bishops of Wurzburg.


residenz-ceilingThe palace was designed by architect Balthasar Neumann and work began in 1720. The result was 360 grand rooms and a large curved vault above the main staircase decorated by the Italian painter Tiepolo. Luckily, it was spared when British bombers destroyed 90% of the city in 1945.

I discover the history and visit the 43 rooms which are open to the public on a guided tour, which is in English and included in the price of my ticket. Although most of the rooms have been carefully reconstructed from old photographs, the furniture is original as the Wurzbug officials had the presence of mind to store it in case of damage during the war. Disappointingly, photography is forbidden, so the interior photo is not mine.

dscf0693The next day I follow a lovely path which winds between the defensive walls and leads up to the Marienberg Castle. It was also destroyed in 1945 but many years of reconstruction resulted in its reopening in 1990. However, judging from the scaffold-shrouded chapel, there is still much to be done.


dscf0719From a terrace in the gardens I am rewarded with a wonderful view of the city and the glass-sided cruise boats which pass along the river far below, under the statue-lined Alte Mainbrucke, the ancient footbridge whose foundations date from the 8th century. It’s a popular place to hang out with a large glass of wine, while watching the sunset.


After the big city of Wurzburg, the quiet village of Weikersheim provides a haven of peace. The 18th century palace is the big draw here, with over the top stucco work featuring a 3D stag and elephant, and a chain-suspended ceiling painted with hunting scenes.

dscf0745However, I’m happy enough to wander the cobbled streets admiring beautiful bronze statues and more modern, colourful busts of young women. I sit for a while in the market place with a cup of coffee and watch the hikers pass through. While I am following the Romantic Road in my Motorhome, others choose to cycle, or even walk, the 400km route.


Staying Dry in Rouen

DSCF2323It is a miserable February day, much like the painting of Rouen Cathedral by Monet, but I’m determined to stay dry while visiting the city. The only motorhome parking is on the opposite side of the Seine but it’s just a short walk over the Corneille Bridge to the city centre.

I had hoped to start my city tour with the Cathedral but a morning service means I have to change my plans and a quick visit to the Tourist Office in the 16th century House of the Exchequer opposite gives me plenty of ideas. What the staff of the Tourist Office fail to mention is that the mayor has decided that, from January 2016, nine of the principle museums in Rouen should be free (Rouen must be more prosperous than I thought, or perhaps there is a mayoral election coming up). I discover this fact from a notice on the closed gate of the Wrought Ironwork Museum. They also failed to mention that most of the museums are only open in the afternoon!


DSCF2329Luckily, the Fine Arts Museum is open all day and inside it is warm and dry. They also have nice clean toilets and lockers for storing bulky bags so I am free to wander around with just my camera. They have some wonderful works of art, including some by Monet and Renoir. However, my favourite is a painting by Simon Saint Jean whose flowers are dotted with drops of water which look so real that I want to reach out and touch them. My favourite room is the huge, glass-covered atrium which features some of the largest paintings and sculptures and, during the summer, doubles as a restaurant.






Saint Jean


DSCF2371I find a more morbid kind of art in the Saint Maclou courtyard, where the surrounding 16th century timber-framed houses are decorated with skulls and other symbols of death. The reason for this is that during the middle ages the area was a cemetery and many plague victims from 1348 were buried there.









DSCF2411However, the most famous person to have died in Rouen has to be Joan of Arc and I find out more about this heroine of the Hundred Years War in the keep, the only remaining part of the 13th century castle. Known in France as La Pucelle (the maiden), she was an illiterate farm girl who was convinced that she would save France. She persuaded King Charles VII to let her fight against the English and, inspired by the voices of saints, she led 4000 troops to victory in Orleans.

DSCF2414She was eventually captured by the English and imprisoned in the castle at Rouen before being tried for witchcraft and heresy. Eventually she was convicted and executed by fire on 30th May 1431. Her heart was thrown into the River Seine to prevent people from venerating her relics.

20 years later her sentence was overturned by a papal commission and in 1920 she was canonized by the Vatican and accepted as a Saint.


DSCF2450The site where Joan of Arc died is marked by a huge stone and iron cross in the former market square. Next to it, adjoining a more modern covered market, is an equally modern church. Built in 1979, the shape is supposed to evoke the image of the flames rising and the wooden roof has been constructed in the same way that boat’s hulls are made. Large 16th century stained-glass windows stretch along one side. These were rescued from the Church of St Vincent before it was damaged during the bombing in WWII and their installation helped the local people to accept the unusual modern design of the new church.


DSCF2422I’m not a big fan of ceramics, but the museum is another place to stay dry and the interior architecture of the 17th century Hotel d’Hocqueville is worth the visit alone. There are lots of cabinets of the blue and white porcelain of Rouen, as well as some more unusual additions, such as the wood panelling from the St Ouen Abbey and the former pavilion of the Hotel.

DSCF2403The Secq de Tournelles Museum is a collection of historical metalwork from around the world. This may not sound very interesting, but inside an old church there are approximately 16,000 objects from keys and doorknockers to scissors, irons, baking utensils and armour. It really is an unusual and captivating display.



Finally, I make it to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Twice destroyed by the Viking invasions in 841 and allied bombing during WWII, it is amazing that it still remains. There are three towers, each very different and boasts the highest spire in France, rising to 151m. Inside the mood is sombre with lines of life-sized statues of saints and apostles, as well as embellished tombs, including that of Richard the Lionheart.


Behind the Scenes at Fontainebleau

DSCF2033The town of Fontainebleau sits in the middle of a 25,000 hectare forest, former royal hunting ground and now a National Park accessible to all and a popular weekend spot for Parisians. But most people come here to visit the huge royal chateau. In fact, it receives 450,000 visitors each year which is why the car parks in town are extortionately expensive and the restaurants are overpriced.


DSCF2143Starting as a small hunting lodge in the 12th century, this residence of the royal family was transformed with each monarch putting his own mark on the place. A total of 34 sovereigns stayed at Fontainebleau, from Louis VI, (1081–1137) to Napoleon III (1808–1873). Treaties were signed there, kings were born and died there, popes and foreign dignities visited (though not always voluntarily) and there was even a murder in the chateau.

DSCF2061Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau on 4 April 1814, and two weeks later attempt to commit suicide before being exiled to Saint Helena. However, he still remembered his former home fondly, writing, “It was certainly the most comfortable and happily situated palace in Europe”.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the palace was occupied by the Prussians and following the First World War, it became home to schools of art and music. It was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then part of the Chateau became a headquarters of the Allied Forces Central Europe until 1966.


Today it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is run by the French government and most of the chateau and grounds are open to the public.

DSCF2051Despite it being a miserable week, weather wise, the sun is making a brief appearance and so it seems appropriate to start my tour of the chateau with a walk around the gardens. At this time of year they are not particularly colourful but what they lack in lustre, they make up for in sheer size. There is a huge lake, an ornamental area with criss-crossing paths and sculpted yew trees, and a tree-lined canal disappearing off into the distance. Many of the sculptures seem to have been wrapped up for the winter but two weather worn sphinxes guard the start of the canal and a bronze statue of the hunting goddess sits in the centre of the Garden of Diana.


On the first Sunday of each month, entrance to the chateau is free so I use the money that I have saved to rent an audio guide and also to book on a guided tour in order to see some of the areas of the chateau which are not open to the general public.

DSCF2098It takes me 1.5 hours to complete the circuit of the main apartments with my audio guide and that was just listening to the main details for each room. There’s plenty of additional information available if you wish to linger longer. The self-guided tour starts in the Napoleon I Museum which houses clothing (such as his iconic long coat and hat), dinner services, decorative swords and a beautiful cradle for his much-loved son. There is also a long corridor with large family portraits and pure white busts.


DSCF2199The papal apartments are so called because it was here that Pope Pius VII stayed in 1804 on his way to the coronation of Napoleon I. He returned in 1812 and stayed for 19 months as an unwilling guest of Napoleon while he unsuccessfully invaded Russia. The apartments are dimly lit to protect the Gobelins tapestries and paintings but they are also richly decorated in papal red and royal gold.


DSCF2111There are two chapels in the chateau; the Saint-Saturnin chapel is a dark, damp shell, with the side windows blocked by additional building of the chateau ballroom and Salle du Tibre wings. The Trinity chapel is much grander with a private balcony for the royal family and beautiful ceiling frescoes. In this chapel Louis XV was married in 1725 and Napoleon II was baptised in 1810.


DSCF2150The bedrooms and state rooms are lavishly decorated with patterned cloth and carpets. I particularly like the seat coverings which often depict scenes of wildlife and country living. The queen’s bedroom is so full of patterns that the huge four-poster bed seems almost camouflaged.


DSCF2156Unfortunately, the one area where I would have loved to have wandered freely is roped off. The Diana Gallery is an 80m long corridor was originally built be Henry IV as a place for the Queen to promenade. Its vaulted ceiling was decorated with scenes from the mythical story of Diana, the huntress. When Napoleon I moved in he turned it into a gallery dedicated to the achievements of the Empire but, when the monarchy was restored, Louis XVIII returned it to its former glory. Eventually, in 1853, Napoleon III turned it into a library and I am instinctively drawn to those old books, wanting to feel the leather bindings and discover the words within.

DSCF2077There are some areas of the chateau which are not included in the general admission but by taking a guided tour, I am able to enter these special places. It’s a nice small group of eleven and our guide is an enthusiastic lady who speaks quickly to cram in as much information as possible. Unfortunately, it is all in French but I’m lucky enough to understand most of what she is saying, even the little jokes.

DSCF2043We start in the Chinese Museum which can be visited with a histopad for an extra fee. Security is tight here as in March 2015, thieves broke into the museum and stole 15 of the most valuable pieces. The rooms were decorated by Empress Eugenie in 1867 in order to display her collection of Asian art. The collection includes gifts from the King of Siam, indeed the entrance is flanked by two Siamese palanquins (travelling chairs). Other Chinese items were looted by French soldiers following the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 1860. The walls are decorated with black and gold lacquered panels, the ceilings with Buddhist silk screens and shelves hold many pieces of porcelain and jade figures.









Next on our private tour are the private apartments of Napoleon and Josephine which seem small and simple compared to the lavish state rooms of the royal family. I’m rather envious of Napoleon’s large, polished, wood writing desk.


WP_20160207_11_15_06_ProFinally, we arrive at theatre, recently restored to its former glory due to a €10 million donation from government of Abu Dhabi. There was originally a theatre in the Belle-Cheminée wing but it was destroyed by a fire in 1856. However, Napoleon III, decided to build a new theatre in the eastern end of the Louis XIV wing, the design of which was inspired by the theatres at Versailles and the Trianon Palace.

WP_20160207_11_46_24_ProI’m not the only one who draws a breath as we enter the golden glow of the room. I would love to be here for a concert or play to really experience the atmosphere. However, as the stage equipment was not included in the restoration project it is unlikely that any productions will ever be held here. What a shame.