Ferrara & Mantua
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Friday 27th March
I don't do Wimbledon or Glyndebourne or Epsom but these Travel Editions March art tours with Clare and Barbara leading and the two Ann(e)s for company are becoming a firm calendar fixture. This year's one seems short - a full day in each of the above cities and some time in Modena on the flying-in day and Bologna before flying home. The major disappointment, learned late in the day, is that Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi in the Mantua Ducal Palace doesn't re-open (after an earthquake) until 3rd April 2015, just a few days after our visit.
No problems on the journey to Gatwick. Having my bag diverted to have extra scanning done to it at security was a bit unnerving, but no biggie. In my role as airline snack taster - I Eat It So You Don't Have To - I can report that the EasyJet cheese and chutney baguette has real crunchy lettuce and unusually tasty cheese, and is much nicer than the BA equivalent, but you do have to pay for it - along with a blueberry muffin and a redbush tea it came to £8. I met up with more of the group at the baggage carousel at Bologna airport, and we realised that 5 more veterans of last year's trip to Ravenna had come back for more, making a total of 8 out of the, rather large, party of 24.
A coach took us to Modena where we were all mighty impressed by the Cathedral. Pleasingly Romanesque outside, with quirky bits of sculpture and panels, and dark inside, but not in a cold and gloomy way. (In between admiring the outside and the inside we had a fortifying coffee break and a sit down.) The interior was more interesting architecturally than artistically (although there is a Dosso Dossi altarpiece there in the dinge) but has some fantastic carving on the screen/gallery and has modernish apse mosaics which don't have that early thing, but are quite impressive, as is the odd spindly screen around the altar. Whilst we were admiring the facade a bunch of noisy East Europeans turned up and made much of being photographed in an ostentatious way. We became suspicious but if they were after nicking stuff why be so in-your-face? There was a quieter member of the group lurking, which may be an explanation.
A somewhat snoozy coach ride to our hotel, and boy is the landscape flat around here. The hotel Casa Poli is small, smart and boutiquey, with pale grey rooms where your clothing hangs in a dark-grey-curtained alcove, your bedside table is a black picnic table and the sink plug doesn't. Quiet room though. After prosecco and nibbles Clare introduced us to the Gonzaga and Este families and then it was time to eat, buffet style. Spinach and ricotta ravioli, salads, slices of dead animal, mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes and some odd local mustard-pickled apple chunks, which were rather nice, but the use of the word mustard in this connection turned out to be because mustard seed oil was used in its making. And then to bed.
Saturday 28th March
Not my worst first night in a new hotel. Occasional wakings due to plumbing noises and the odd burst from the otherwise quiet road outside my window being the only disturbances. And woken by birdsong, which is unusual in Italian cities no? And the twitterings were unrecognisably foreign too. Breakfast was pretty much a total thumbs up. Good cereal selection, with addable raisins, and an impressive selection of pastries, including some local-produce torte slices. The coffee tasted a bit stewed, but everything cannot be had. Oh, and good plums too.
A full day in Mantua today. First to the church of Sant'Andrea, an Alberti design built on the site of an earlier church which had been built to house the relic of blood-soaked earth collected by Longinus, the soldier who pierced Christ's side, who later converted and was martyred in Mantua. Much messed about by architects later in the building its decoration is a tad excessive, but it has a spectacular transept and dome, and Mantegna's burial chapel. Also an appealing altarpiece by Lorenzo Costa. Then to the Piazza della Erbe to admire the sweet circular church of San Lorenzo on the way to the Piazza Sordello and the rather handsome, inside and out, Duomo. Rebuilt in Venetian gothic style in the late 14th Century this church is appreciable along the side, and there's the impressive original 11th Century campanile (see right) The facade is some grafted-on baroqueness.
Into the Palazzo Ducale, where Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi was not to be visited, despite Barbara's blandishments. Which left some recently-uncovered Pisanello fresco bits and sinopie to stand in as art highlight, with some pretty rooms and rooms of tapestries made from the Raphael cartoons that are now in the V&A. A swift coffee break was followed by an admiration of the outside of the Ducal Palace and then we were let off the leash to do a little light shopping in the Piazza's market (orange- and mandarin-flavoured almond biscuits and two gorgeously-blue pieces of polished lapis lazuli) and have lunch. And if you've not sat in a sun-drenched blue-skied piazza in Mantua and eaten vegetable samosas and onion pakoras with tamarind dip and raita and a mango shake, then I can recommend the Raj Palace Ristoranto Indiano for that purpose. The immaculately-dressed and head-scarfed woman in the big film-star shades sitting alone with no food in the gloomy main room of the restaurant gave the place added romance and mystery.
Gelato number one (frutti di bosco and coco) was followed by a stout walk to the Palazzo Te, taking in the exteriors of Giulio Romano's house and Mantegna's house on the way. The former was far more interesting, and along with the Palazzo Te itself went miles towards making me understand what the elusive term 'mannerist architecture' means. In a word scary. Like mannerist art you look at it and wince at the excess and the taking of things too far. Rustication sticks out more than is tasteful, keystones look like they are falling down and everything looks too big. The whole place was built for pleasure and excess. There's a large room full of trompe l'oeil horses, scenes of rudeness and the Sala degli Gigante (see right) which is even more overpowering than it looks in pictures, being a much smaller space than you expect. Back to the hotel for some resting after all that.
Tonight's meal in the hotel featured tortellini alla zucca (pumpkin) with that unmistakably almond tang of amaretto. Even more surprising was some flavoursome artichoke. More of that pickled apple from last night, but a second bowl of the evening tasted far more of mustard, and was for your correspondent irresistibly spit-outable. A very yummy tart with sweet cheese layers and amaretto liqueur, though. It's noticeable how quickly and easily the group is mixing this year. Whether this is because of the fact that a sizable bunch of us have met on previous trips, or because we're all such nice people...
Sunday 29th March
Today to Ferrara, on a coach. The Pinacoteca Nazionale, aka the Palazzo dei Diamanti, is a handsome palazzo amongst handsome palazzi. Its collection isn't large, but has some gems, some of which are still not on display after the recent earthquake, recent being three years ago. Local lads like Cosme Tura, Dosso Dossi and Ercole de' Roberti were expected to put up a good showing, but most were defeated by closed rooms. A special exhibition devoted to Bastianino really wasn't, probably because he isn't, but did feature a late Titian fragment of a Crucifixion which was fascinating in its oddness and for being unfinished, but was not exactly a masterpiece.
A stout walk to the Cathedral to admire the facade, and especially the doorway, the latter the work of Master Niccolo, also responsible for similarly impressive carving in Verona on the facades of San Zeno and the Duomo. The side view is a bit spectacular too (see right) on the way to the Duomo museum, accessed through a small and lovely cloister. An even smaller collection here but some unmissable stuff - organ doors by Cosme Tura, with an unusual Annunciation on the wings set in receding barrel-vaulted spaces. And also, more surprisingly enjoyed by your correspondent, some lovably lovely sculpture and cases of illuminated music manuscripts.
After lunch the Castello Estense had lots of rooms, some of them big, most of them with displays with text and photos, some decorated, but was a bit of a yawn, to be frank. We then made for the Palazzo Schifanoia, however, an absolute highlight. It houses the frescoes that star in Ali Smith's novel How to be Both, and boy do they not disappoint in the flesh. Francesco del Cossa's wall is by far the most impressive. It's one panel on this wall that the novel concentrates on and spins off into the whole not-easily-summerisable story. Read it and you'll want to visit. Visit and you'll want to read it again. The frescoes are all a very winning combination of the weird and the courtly. And while we were sitting in the sweet small garden out the back, with its refreshingly uncloyingly quaint cafe which serves that rare thing in Italy, a good cup of (Earl Grey) tea made with real boiling water and real leaves, we learned that it was under threat of knocking down and building over. And this in a area of town which didn't seem short of derelict buildings that seemed to have been so for decades. So we signed the petition and took away some blanks to get signed later. This seemed a romantic fight worth getting involved in, so I hope to drum up some support in the next few weeks. I can email you a petition form, for example. Foreigners need to put their passport number down, but if the Euro-spending tourist anger angle can't sway the damn planners nothing can. The cafe owner (and organiser of the petition) told us that Ali Smith wrote the novel in the garden there, but I suspect not all of it.
Not much time to wash and brush oneself up before a last-night meal for five of us, the sociable warmth of which was even matched by the food. Believe me when I tell you that those out there who know me well will smile broadly in appreciation of my reaction to finding on the menu pumpkin gnocchi with raisins in a cinnamon sauce. It was like small exquisitely-spiced cubes of warm Chelsea Bun. Dolci itself was a coconut pannacotta type of thing with strawberry slices and a strawberry coulis. A special evening .
Monday 30th March
Not sure the last time I checked out of a hotel with spontaneous hugs from the owners and staff, who turned out to be one and same - four sisters running a hotel together that I unhesitatingly recommend. So farewell to our hotel and hello again to our coach driver Luigi and, a while later, Bologna. A couple of unstructured hours here, before our flight, mostly spent in San Petronio admiring the Chapel of the Magi, with its jaw-dropping Last Judgment and unusual nativity panels. The outside of the church was looking most handsome after the cleaning which meant that it was mostly covered in scaffolding on our visit last year. Not sure why it was felt necessary for us to be searched and scanned by security staff on entry though.
At the airport we queued at the bag-drop gates that we were told to, despite their remaining unstaffed, until we were told to trek around the corner to different desks, which were also blissfully free of staff. Eventually we made it through security with, by now, no time for anything like lunch, so had gelato, only to discover after we'd eaten them that our flight was to be delayed by an hour, this delay being due, we found out later, to computer problems at Stuttgart. And EasyJet had run out of sandwiches and baguettes. So I ended up having my lunch, at home, around 8.00pm. Still, verily a truly special trip, socially, art-historically, and culinarily.
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