The Kingston Lacy guidebook notes that Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi (above) is one of the most important works of art in the house, but the painting is not labelled and few of the other many important paintings, which include some by Titian, Jan Breughel the Younger and Sir Peter Lely are labelled either, far less described. There is no description whatever of furniture, ceramics and other items. The volunteer guides are as helpful as they can be but they are not art historians and they are not provided with a catalogue of the works they are looking after and cannot answer every question. In fact, the volunteer I spoke to had ferreted out information for herself, for which I was grateful. Nor is there a catalogue available to the public.
I was told today that information sheets were removed because the repeated handling was thought to be unhygienic. Museums and art galleries place labels on walls next to each object on display. I don’t understand why the National Trust don’t do it or won’t do it.
National Trust houses are museums with the care of important collections of art, but they are not presented properly. Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, has been in its possession for almost forty years, during which time they’ve made extensive improvements, not least to Henrietta Bankes’s kitchen garden, which it was a pleasure to visit. That surely is enough time to attach descriptions to the works of art they hold.
The entrance fee is £18, roughly the entrance fee to a major temporary exhibition in a London museum, which is thoroughly curated and fully explained. Kingston Lacy only has to do that once, but they haven’t. The artworks are doubtless listed on the Art UK website, but, of course, you have to identify them first.
The Trust’s current strategy doesn’t encourage optimism. Its 10-Year Vision talks of the “loyal but dwindling audience” for their historic houses, and suggests that they distance themselves from major national cultural institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the Tate.
Ernst Gombrich was typically gracious in response to Charlie Rose’s sometimes silly questions in his 1995 interview (below). He wouldn’t admit to a favourite colour but he did admit to favourite painters, Valasquez and Chardin.
Michael Levey’s beautiful passage about Chardin in Roccoco to Revolution is worth re-reading:
There never was such a perfect world as Chardin’s … . It is a puritan, perhaps almost more truly Quaker, life that is depicted in simple, windowless rooms, dark and sheltered domestic interiors in which nothing more is happening than the preparing or serving of frugal meals, the education or amusement of children. The appeal is in the restriction: an emphasis on plain living and clean linen – linen, not silk. There is humbleness without poverty. Above all, everything indicates industry. The few possessions are polished and harmoniously arranged; the plain-coloured clothes are cared for, neatly worn. Gravity is present not only in the mood, but in the sense of each object ﬁnding its own place in the scheme of things. And objects are as important as people: they coexist, so that the copper cistern is no mere prop but is as fully realized, as measured and plotted, as the girl who bends at it.
In all this there is rebuke, if no more than a tacit one, to rococo sensations. A cold bath of purity replaces the heady hot-house languor of Boucher. Those tendencies for everything to shimmer, melt, dissolve – for art to hover on the point of orgasm – are counteracted by chastity: chaste draughtsmanship and chaste activity. Women remain the chief subject, but treated as household managers and mothers; girls are ﬁrmly put back into a domestic environment, often shown assuming maternal responsibilities. Chardin’s technique is equally in opposition to rococo ﬂuidity. Like Piazzetta again, he was a slow worker. His Father had been a carpenter and there is something almost of joinery in Chardin’s tiny slabs and slices of saturated paint which are, as it were, assembled and slotted into place in the composition.
We went to Wrest Park to break the monotony of lockdown, but I wanted to see it anyway because it has one of the few remaining baroque gardens in England.
The house was built in a thoroughgoing French style between 1834 and 1839 by Thomas, Earl de Grey, but the garden was laid out in the first decades of the 18th century by Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, and is a rare example of a formal woodland garden in the French style, though there are Dutch influences as well, reflecting the Duke’s loyalty to William III. Its principal features – the Long Water on the axis of the house, with woodland walks beyond and parterres near to the house – remain and much of it has survived alteration, Batty Langley, Thomas Wright and Capability Brown having respected it in their later improvements.
This kind of formal garden is now deeply unfashionable, and even the mixed herbaceous border – the staple of garden design in houses of all sizes for a hundred and fifty years – is under pressure from wild and ecological gardening, but English Heritage are embarked on a twenty-year programme to restore it.
Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.
The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:
Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality and the central dome is cut across.
For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.
After our ill-fated attempt to reach Ostuni by bus, we saw it, white and high, from the train that took us from Brindisi to Monopoli. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t reach it because the heavy rain the other night made rivers in the streets of Ostuni and came half way up the cars in the car parks.
Monopoli got its name as the “one city” of refuge from the Ostrogoths. It has been ruled by Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Venetians and Hohenstaufens. Now its small historic centre has smart tourist shops and restaurants with a breezy, seaside air. Towering over it is the magnificent Cathedral of Maria Santissima della Madia (above). It’s an 11th-century foundation but the present structure, said by some with good reason to be the most beautiful baroque church in Puglia, was built between 1742 and 1772 to the design of Michele Colangiuli and Pietro Magarelli. Slap bang next to it is another Baroque church, Santa Maria del Suffragio, separated only by a narrow passage (below), S. Maria on the left, the Cathedral on the right.
St Anthony of Padua (below) , on the edge of the old city, is a discordant but fascinating building with shades of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. It comprises a single vast order, a two-storey entrance arch pierced by a disproportionately small door and windows in a facade of much earlier date, with pilasters on huge pedestals leading up to a broken pediment. Who designed this strange church? The parish website concentrates on the inside and doesn’t tell you.
Brindisi had been almost written off by our guide book, which warned us that parts of it were “seedy”, and I expected little from a major seaport. But it has considerable interest and history in its pleasant waterfront, with the naval base and warships that you can watch through the security barrier, the fine Duomo, the little ancient basilica of St John, and the two ancient columns that marked the end of the Appian way (only one remains in the city, the other was donated to Lecce). It was also reputedly the place of Virgil’s death (below).
The inside of the Duomo has a refreshing simplicity after the extreme richness of the churches of Lecce, but the outside was beautifully lit at night (top). And we liked the frontage of Santa Teresa, glimpsed through olive trees as the cloud bubbled up before a thunderstorm (below).
Not the Gallipolli in the Dardanelles, but Gallipoli in Puglia, though both were in Magna Grecia and both names are of Greek origin.
The centre of the small, cramped old town on a promontory is like the Southend-on-Sea of Puglia, nothing but tourist shops, tourist restaurants and a tourist information bureau that doesn’t want to give you any information. In most cities, the smart districts are in the centre and the periphery is either tatty or commercial, but in Gallipoli, it’s the historic centre that’s tatty and the smarter streets are around the marina and the sparkling sea and the Corso Roma, which was deserted when we arrived during the siesta on Saturday afternoon and packed during the passiagata, which continued till well after midnight.
But plonk in the middle of the fritto misto shops and souvenir joints is the grand duomo in the Baroque style of Lecce. Typical of Pugliese cities, the street is too narrow for you to see the facade, which extends over the roof line of the church in a high, ostentatious parapet, and I’ve had to use the image from Wikipedia because I couldn’t get into position for a decent photo. It’s also hard to find out much about the history of the cathedral, but the architect is said to be Giovan Bernardino Genuino, known as Vaspasiano.
We came to Lecce, the major town in the heel of Italy, on a slow train from Martina Franca and found a room in the Palazzo Bernadini, presided over by Isabella Oztasciyan Bernardini d’Arnesano, professor of Greek studies at the university.
Lecce developed so rapidly in the late 17th century that it has a unity of design and its streets of honey-coloured churches and palazzi would make it a good film location. But that’s not surprising because the streets and squares of Lecce were conceived as a location for performance and display.
The large Duomo square, almost completely enclosed, had a defensive function but it is also a stage, with an elaborate set finished by Guiseppe Zimbalo, architect of many Lecce churches, and is made for ecclesiastical and civic performance. Each high Baroque church in the city competes with the next to make the best impression with its extravagance, splendour and the degree of elaboration of its façades and altars.
In art, whatever can be done will be done. If the artist has the soft Lecce limestone to work in, he can carve it any way so that it writhes, boils and bubbles. Columns are twisted and the twists are decorated with animal and plant forms and putti and the decorations gilded. The intention of this art, to surprise and overawe, is still achieved as the visitors gasp and Wow! before snapping the preposterous façades of Zimbalo’s Santa Croce and Duomo.
We are travelling by bus and train in Puglia. The approach to Martina Franca, through the workaday modern streets, wasn’t promising. We’d just been to Alberobello, whose little houses with pointy roofs, the famous trulli, are all presented in pristine whiteness for tourists, with trulli models, trulli teatowels and trulli fridge magnets, and the scruffy indifference to us in this place was a refreshing contrast. Through the great arch opposite St Anthony’s church we were in the once rich 18th century town.
Every church, nobleman, banker and merchant created a very fine front to his house to make an impression appropriate to his wealth and importance, whose grandeur could only to be properly admired from the other side of the big square; only there are very few squares, big or small, and the wonderful Baroque doorways have to be squinted at from the opposite side of the narrow alleys in which they’re squashed. Here are a few.