thomas m wilson


October 14th, 2022

Upon arriving in Venice and boarding a ferry down the Grand Canal I felt simultaneously excited and entranced by the place, and like there was a sheet of plate glass between me and it. This second sense was to do with its unreality – this was a place that has been seen too many times in images so that when you get there you scratch your head and think, can this be real?

The above image is one of the carved capitals along the Doge’s Palace. Its the kind of detail that art critic John Ruskin would have sat on a stool in front of drawn in pencil when he came here in the nineteenth century. A good practice of seeing.

Henry James was complaining about all the American voices he could here in the street below his hotel window in the late nineteenth century, and a long list of people have complained about crowds of tourists in this city since. I will join that long list. Although I won’t include photos of the masses of humans that amble and walk in Venice in this post-Covid lockdown travel boom, I can tell you that they are overwhelming. They are enough to make you want to not come to Venice.

In order to make the best of this situation I stayed over near Arsenale, the old ship building area of the city. In some of the backstreets and canals here it is entirely local people. Looking up I admired this local’s balcony railing.

And yet you will at some point want to go to the heart of Venice. If you do so early in the morning you can walk into St Mark’s square and the Piazzetta and experience what Napoleon once called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ in peace.

What I didn’t fully know until I was in Venice is that Venice isn’t an old town on a lagoon, it is a once mighty capital city on a vast marshland and lagoon. Most other urban spaces that are intimate with the sea are towns – where I grew up in Fremantle for example. However this was and still is a City. I don’t always like cities, and usually prefer smaller places that are more connected with the natural world, but again, if you’re interested in history you will be interested in Venice.

The long history of consumerism in Western civilisation can be given many starting dates. One you could argue for would be all of the luxury items traded by Venetian ships, and brought through this city. This detail comes from inside the Doge’s Palace. It is here that you get a real sense of the majesty of La Serenissima. The Republic of Venice used to be known as La Serenissima, being a sovereign republic that lasted for 1100 years. From 697 AD until Napoleon forced the last Doge to take off his robe in 1797 Venice was important, and for much of that time was a major force in global geopolitics.

Looking out of a window in the Doge’s Palace I saw the quayside below… All of this wealth and all of this architecture came from trade, from early capitalism. Today it comes from tourism, but the numbers of locals are dropping as they can’t afford to live on the island.

The powerhouse that was Venice was ruled by not so much the Doge himself, as the Maggior Consiglio, composed of 480 members taken from patrician families. In a painting I saw upstairs in the palace you see them process through the along the downstairs loggia in their long scarlet robes of state. See below.

Walking in the Ducal Palace that morning I reflected on how the art and sculpture of this 500 year old building teaches the lesson to all those who would look that the glorification of the individual must never take place, but rather the glorification of St Marks Lion, the Venetian Republic, must shine forth beyond all individuals, even the Doge himself.  Venice had a 1000 years of being the Serenissima, and then Napoleon burnt the Golden Books in which the Doge’s lineages were recorded and everything changed.   But although Venice has lessons in paint and stone to teach us about not letting strongmen dictators take power and rule unilaterally and make a cult of their personalities, Venice does not have lessons on how to run the world beyond this.   To be a member of the ruling patricians you had to have the right family, so it was nothing to do with ability, skill or talent.  In other words this great Republic was not a meritocracy.

The Venetian republic had the council of ten, its own private version of the CIA. Transgress and you could be tortured or locked up. There is a covered walkway to the prison next door. Byron visited and called this walkway the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ as you would sigh when seeing your last glimpse of freedom through the stone work – and so I like many people took a photo of what this last glimpse may have been.

When waiting to enter the Doge’s Palace I walked over to the corner of St Mark’s Basilica to look at the porphyry sculpture made around 300AD of the four Roman emperors, the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. This was taken as spoilia, as spoils, from Constantinople long after it was carved and placed here, as part of a Venetian religious building. But for me personally I take it as a symbol of power in union, reminding me that to be strong as humans we need to come together with others, in bonds of affection.

One of the most beautifully carved doors I have seen was upstairs in the Doge’s Palace…

I won’t include a photograph of it here, but to really understand Venice you must visit the largest room in the Ducal Palace. Walk into the room of the major council, one of the largest rooms I have ever walked into (and I have been to places like Versailles and Blenheim Palace) in my life, and gasp at the grandeur of the space and then really comprehend how major a force in global geopolitics Venice was five hundred years ago. 

It isn’t often that you wake up and look out of the window to see a fully rigged, three-masted, 80 metre sailing ship bobbing outside. Amerigo Vespucci was there one morning – she is a training ship for the Italian navy, almost a century old.

Lapped by water, colourful and atmospherically dilapidated facades, and no sound of cars, no need to be vigilant about cars whizzing by, coloured marbles, Gothic tracery in stone… Drinking a beer by the quayside as the sun sets behind Il Lido you can still enjoy Venice.

Beautiful doors continue to fascinate me, and ones that have been entered after stepping out of gondolas are even better.

The colours of the facades are one of the pleasures of Italy.

One of the wealthiest palazzos in the background, on the Grand Canal.

The lion of St Mark guards the entrance to Arsenale, the ship yards.

One of the most over-photographed perspectives in Venice – but here it is again…

A more typical back street of a local neighbourhood.

Even the nineteenth century street lamps are charming.

Below aqua alta, high water, in a palazzo.

And strolling in the back streets and along the canals.

The former British colonies are often not architectural gems – think of Penang in Malaysia for example, compared to what the French did in Hanoi’s French Quarter or the Spanish in Havana.  Although Britain has had some great architects and works of architecture, many of its former colonies could have been designed with more in the way of great public squares, churches and quayside walks.  In Fremantle we can’t even stroll much along our quaysides as for many decades the entire port has been hermetically sealed from its inhabitants by large fences which stop stowaways and criminals from making contact with the cargo carriers it serves.  Here in Venice the Cruise ships were banned from the lagoon in 2021, thank god.  And you can stroll along the lagoon and look at the beautiful facades ringing it up to the entrance to the Grand Canal with the dome of Santa Maria Salute in the centre, and feel like you are on the liminal edge of commerce for centuries past (even if all it is selling now is its past and its charm). What a difference all of this makes.


October 14th, 2022

We took the high speed train from Naples to Florence. We had covered much of Italy in just 3.5 hours moving at almost 300kms an hour (at many billions of dollars expense to the Italian tax payer a few years ago). The Tuscan countryside looked so green – of anywhere this is where I would like to explore if I ever return to Italy.

Upon arrival it turned out that we were staying on the top floor of Palazzo Ramirez-Montalvo, a late Renaissance palace, built around 1568. In the above photo you see the view from my hotel room – the noise from the street below was a bit much at 4am but the proportions of the rooms were so large it was breathtaking.

I have never eaten breakfast in such a large room as this one. (By the way the price of the room I had was about the same price as one night on Rottnest Island’s cheapest single room accomodation – Kingston Barracks – an old army barracks. So Australia, if can stay in an Italian palace in an ancient city for the price of Kingston Barracks – something may have gone awry with our national economy.)

The bad news is that, of course, even in ‘shoulder season’, Florence is crowded to an unenjoyable level. You can enjoy the city however – by getting up early and having it to yourself before the crowds do, or simply by going to galleries and museums that are not that famous. The Uffizi gallery is famous, but I still went there. By going towards the end of the day I found that the last hour was tolerable.

I was even able to stand in front of Botticelli’s painting Primavera with only one other person at my side (earlier it had been a football scrum, and football scrums are not very good places to contemplate beauty). The above detail of the flowers strewn under her feet caught my eye.

The upper story sculpture gallery at the Uffizi must be one of the most justly famous spaces for art to be displayed in the world. With the river Arno flowing down below outside the windows, and light flooding in, and the Tuscan countryside showing behind pink and yellow and apricot facades on the other river bank, Lorenzo Medici really got it right when he placed so many beautiful sculptures here.

However I did have to work to avoid huge crowds here, and sometimes they were too much. It was at the Bargello that I found a place I was able to wander with quiet and peace. The below detail from some early embroidery caught my eye – traveller’s on the move.

While I am pretty sure there was a football scrum over at the Accademia taking smartphone shots of the David statue, I had Donatello’s David all to myself. This is one of the most important museums in the world, and one of the most famous statues in all of art history, and I was the only person there for about twenty minutes wandering around looking at it. Made in the 1430s from bronze, this is the earliest surviving full-scale nude sculpture from the Renaissance period. Nobody here.

The detail of his hand holding the heavy sword caught my eye.

The above detail from a wall relief – again from the Renaissance – also caught my attention.

The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence, and apart from the Duomo, the most recognisable building in the city. I went up inside it one morning, again with hardly any crowds. Once again, to avoid the worst of mass tourism, go early, and if you know even a little bit about history beyond the ‘smash hits’, you will be rewarded.

In the apartments used by the Medici dukes at the top of the building this view out a window struck me.

There are many museums and churches in this city, and they almost all require payment to enter. One of the things I was happy to pay for was entry to the Medici chapel. I did indeed have an intake of breath when I saw the domed green marble room that is the Cappella dei Principi upon first entering, but it was when I got into the Sagrestia Nuova, or the Sacristy, that I was able to admire the beautiful marble sculptures by Michelangelo, from 1526–1531.

I was there to look at the figures of the two Medici dukes above – tomb monuments – but it was actually the representations of Night and Day – this man and woman above, that I found memorable to look at. Like all of these photos I will show you of sculpture, you can’t get it by looking at the 2D image. You need to walk around a sculpture, and even a video can’t allow you to do that. Only in person travel can allow you to experience so much of art history.

Florence is overcrowded. However if you are interested in European history it is a place that you should have understanding of. And if you go to the Piazza della Signoria and raise your eyes to the sky, as in the above and below photos, it is still memorable.

In case you think I don’t care about the pleasures of the table, here is a shot from the Mercato Centrale. Once again Australia – look at the price!


October 14th, 2022

Naples is full of very beautiful if haughty young women with dusky complexions and Roman noses, and surly waiters who barely acknowledge your existence when you’re trying to place an order, and dog faeces smeared on old cobble stoned pavements, and laundry hanging from balconies in need of a coat of paint, and little wicker baskets dropped form high up apartments for shop keepers to fill, and operatic hand gestures, and people throwing back espressos at the bar and talking quickly and loudly. 

The Neapolitan sassiness is fun, but from another angle it can also be very rude.  Naples is also full of atmosphere, narrow laneways, and after dark very cool bars and cafes. 

Naples also has MANN, possibly the best museum I have visited in my entire life, with the majesty and artistry of ancient Roman culture right in front of your nose. Below is the Farnese Hercules, a colossal statue that was found in the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

This is a huge figure – looking up at it is humbling.

Hercules symbolising strength in ancient Roman culture, this would have been a good inspiration to exercise in the gymnasium before a session in the hot or cold baths.

I was largely in Naples in order to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum – like many travellers.

Characters lounge on a triclinium and eat and drink and be merry. This fresco has been pulled off the wall at Pompeii and moved to MANN, as have the best and most beautiful of Pompeii’s art works.

Walking through the ruins of Pompeii that morning we had the entire ancient site to ourselves for the first hour of the day.  Even for an hour after that there weren’t many people around.  Then the hoards descended and it was over for atmosphere and serenity.  But what a thrill to walk around the House of the Faun, and so many other famous Roman domus, alone, and take in the mosaic floors, the faded wall paintings in golds and reds, the white marble impluvium in the atrium, the peristyle surrounded gardens behind, and other architectural elements I had read of and seen in photos but never experienced in the flesh. 

Bronze dancers found in one of the Roman houses in Pompeii… (Although now residing at MANN.)

The reader – Pompeii… Faded colours on the wall fresco all over the place reminds one of how this place was frozen in amber when the nearby volcano covered it in debris, killing those who had not fled and giving us a window into a wealthy Roman world in 79AD.

Peristyle gardens are a wonderful idea – the Greeks should really be thanked for inventing the stoa, but the Roman domus form feels good to walk around.

Vesuvius looming in the background above a peristyle garden in Pompeii.

I consider plunging my hands into the water when the space was was a bath house – at Herculaneum. Herculaneum is another Roman holiday town destroyed by the volcano two thousand years ago. If I’m honest it wasn’t as impressively extensive a site as Pompeii, but for someone like myself interested in ancient domestic architecture it was still intriguing. To lean on this basin in an ancient bath house for example, is a kind of somatic knowledge of a place and a long lost culture that only travel can bring. Photos and written communication are wonderful, but they are not enough.

A shallow impluvium at Herculaneum – water falls through a central hole in the ceiling of the large atrium and collects in this marble depressions. Water in domestic spaces in a Mediterranean climate is such a good idea.

Naples and Pompeii have Vesuvius looming over them, and just down the coast you find the elegance of seaside towns like Sorrento, high up on volcanic rock and graced by nineteenth century hotels.  As you make your way to these places south of Naples, so photographed by tourists from around the world, you see striking economic inequality, with poverty in ugly concrete apartment blocks on one train stop, and 800 Euro a night hotels at the next (Sorrento).  Tourists usually don’t photograph the poverty around the corner from their Amalfi coast clichéd and overpriced idea of a seaside idyll.  And yet the physical beauty of the coastline south of Naples is entirely undeniable (if crowded). 

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