Friday, 11 April 2008


A couple of weeks ago we got back from our three weeks in Tuscany. We were in Tuscany two years ago for a short trip – it was the wedding of a friend’s daughter. We stayed then out in the country in an agriturismo. The people who ran it were delightful and it was a perfect Tuscan setting, unrolling like a carpet, vineyards and olive groves, the group of farm buildings. It’s an idea of ‘the good life’; breakfast in an Impressionist painting perhaps, or – going back a bit – a John Minton dust jacket on an Elizabeth David cookery book. Why, when you get just where you want to be and it is all set up, why from time to time this edginess? Why does it seem to be mocking you? Everyone kept commenting on the wonderful smell round the pool – but no one could quite identify which shrub was responsible. I found myself fantasising that this ‘perfume’ was actually a giant, hidden air-freshener, pumping out artificial fragrance, maybe to conceal some awful problem with the drains? Maybe the whole landscape was a fantasy – because it was all a bit too good to be true, as if we had backed into the travel video, the ‘good life’ snatched at with money, trying to get a purchase on it.

Our trip this time ended with a few days in Siena. The Cathedral and space around it were full of people even in March. But the galleries were often deserted or nearly so and those few that did get in there sometimes looked a bit lost, a ‘well exactly why am I here’ sort of look, ‘better try and make the best of it.’ And the ones in the crowded places often didn’t look too happy being lectured. People are very deferential and religious parallels are hard to resist. Is it about ‘seeing the world’? More to do with the ‘having seen it’ that the experience at the moment of seeing it? That and the fear of missing something. Does the queuing enhance the experience? It develops its own rituals, such as the Africans who come up to you at the first sign of rain trying to sell you an umbrella. It’s all too easy to sound patronising of course – and who am I to complain? It’s their money that maintains this enormous infrastructure, so that I can wander as I please round the all but empty Pinacoteca looking at the paintings. All the same it is a puzzle.

Maybe 14th Century Sienese Art is a specialised taste. But what about 15th Century Hospitals? Across the square in front of the cathedral is Santa Maria della Scala. It’s a fascinating place – and most people nowadays have more dealings with hospitals than they do with cathedrals. The first written reference to the hospital it housed until only a few years ago dates from the 11th century. Almost the first thing you see as you go in is a marvellous fresco by Beccafumi, bafflingly described like this in Frommer, a leading American guide: ‘Domenico Beccafumi's luridly coloured Meeting at Porta Andrea (after 1512).’ The colours, sober greys, blues, and pale ochres, are anything but lurid. In the enormous Pilgrims Hall there’s a cycle of frescoes showing the work of the fifteenth century hospital – people being stretchered in and bandaged, the wet-nurses being paid and so on and so on. It seems to have been a remarkably advanced institution for its time. On the same level are other huge rooms, some inexplicably empty, but in one area you can climb up onto the scaffolding where frescoes are being restored. You then go down to the shrine of ‘St Catherine of the Night.’ You pass a skull set in the wall with its inscription which reads ‘As you are I was once; as I am now you will be’ and then you reach the overwrought chapel, a tangle of fantastical carving. Beyond and below are more puzzlingly empty rooms. The guide book describes it as ‘creepy’. But it doesn’t seem inappropriate, a shrine set in the depths of the hospital devoted to prayers for the deceased.

Carrying on further in you are passing through a maze of tunnels dug into the tufa, raw brick and knobbly stonework. You are now in the Archaeological Museum, described somewhat patronisingly by Frommer like this: ‘while there's nothing of earth-shattering significance, there are some surprisingly good pieces for a museum hardly anyone knows exists.’ At one point you reach a wider tunnel sloping gently down lined with Etruscan funerary monuments. It’s as if they have re-buried the artefacts. As you round a corner here are two massive jars, taller than a person. From now on some of the spaces are empty but clearly prepared and waiting for their exhibits, others already filled. It has all been cunningly devised to maximise the dramatic impact – it’s hard not to see it as the setting for an episode in a Fellini film. The thing is, there seems to be absolutely nobody here, not even an attendant. A long way back you did pass two women chatting in front of a split screen closed circuit TV, but that was all. You wonder if you’ll ever find your way out. Eventually you do come out, down a long slope ending in a small deserted square in contrast to the thronging space where you first came in.

My first experience of ‘pilgrimage tourism’ was in India when I was eighteen, nearly fifty years ago I spent a sort of gap year – this was before they became the norm, and before there were hippies – in Pakistan, where I was attached to a boys’ school in Lahore. While there I travelled, often on my own. I went up to the Northwest frontier, to Peshawar and to Swat. And I travelled in Northern India. But all through my time there I was preoccupied with what I was missing. There was so much of it to see – how could I possibly manage to see it all? This thought induced a kind of desperation. On one trip I went to Banaras and while there I decided to go to Sarnath a few miles away, and the spot where the Buddha is said to have received enlightenment and preached his first sermon. A cycle-rickshaw man had already appointed himself my guide the previous day, showing me around Banaras itself.

So here I was, an eighteen year old public schoolboy oddly enthroned on this already somewhat archaic machine. By this mode of transport, both intimate and absurd, we proceeded through a bleak landscape dotted with stupas like little water towers while I stared at the rickshaw man’s wiry calves as they went up and down, up and down. When we got to Sarnath, here was the Dhasmekha Stupa built by Ashoka in the Sixth century. But there wasn’t exactly anything much to see. The stupa is simply a fat tower about a hundred feet high with a round top. There is some decoration near the base of it, but I have no memory of it. Apparently a Colonel Cunningham once drove a shaft into the centre of it and all he found was a stone tablet saying, yes this is where the Buddha preached his first sermon. I remember I was baffled and wondered, not for the first time, why I had come all this way. I stood there and watched the saffron-robed pilgrims with their big umbrellas. Round and round and round they went unceasingly, blissful expressions on their faces, bowing and kissing the stone. Many were from refugees from Tibet and in Delhi a few days before I’d bought a couple of things, a metal cup and a scent bottle, made by Tibetans who selling them on the pavement.

A few years later I wrote a group of poems about my travels in Pakistan and India. In the one about my expedition to Sarnath I suggested a parallel between the endlessly repetitive actions of the monks and the motions of the rickshaw man’s legs but I was never satisfied with the poem – it was like a game of patience that never quite came out. It was as if I’d gone to see something and found nothing – which was maybe the point. The ritualised circuit around a few prescribed places is a bit like the monks circuit around the stupa. Out come their cameras in an attempt to seize the moment, to have something to take away. As for the monks, maybe they have a better grasp of what they are actually doing, seizing the void?

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