thomas m wilson


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). 


October 10th, 2022

Looking up into one of the fountain’s in the forecourt Bernini designed for St Peter’s cathedral in Rome.

The cathedral and its cathedra is like a hallucination – too vast and over the top to be real. The next morning I was the third person admitted into St Peter’s and had it all to myself for at least a short while. The size and the height was hard to comprehend.

The piazza in front of St. Peter’s is more inspiring to me.  The afternoon I arrived in Italy I had walked into Bernini’s stone arms of the church by myself in the afternoon sunshine and almost gasped at the scale of the colonnade and the fountains and the freedom of space and maximum amplitude of grandeur in travertine stone.  A moment in time I won’t forget.  A moment where a human creation uplifts one in a direct and profound way.  

The best way to experience the most well known places in the world these days – St Peter’s in Rome included – is to arrive at them at first light. This is the time I took the below photo.

My first few hours in Italy, after seeing Bernini’s forecourt, I walked over the Ponte St Angelo and the angel’s stone wings hung in splendour over the cool and quiet Tiber below.  Then I ducked into a cobbled street full of antique shops to the left – Via dei Coronari – antique shops better than I had ever seen in my life. Rome in those first hours was a revelation to me. 

The American architect Louis Kahn understood that spaces can affect the quality of our very thinking: “In a small room one does not say what one would in a large room.” Research in the new field of embodied cognition tells us that Kahn was prescient when he said: “There’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man,” while visiting the Roman Baths of Caracalla. I would agree with Kahn. I would feel like a different kind of man bathing in such a space rather than having a shower in a cubicle in my gym.

But how can you enter such a space? In the below photo I’m standing in Santa Maria degli Angeli, which has been a church since the Renaissance, but is basically just a reused section of the ancient thermal Baths of Diocletian. So as I looked up at the red granite columns I was transporting myself back two thousand years to when this space was full of bathers soaking and splashing in huge granite tubs of hot, warm and cold water, surrounded by colossal statues and acres of space.

One of the best things I did in Rome was to go out to the Protestant Cemetery, and pay my respects at the grave of John Keats, one of England’s greatest poets.

The above photo is of a plaque affixed to the wall close to his grave. I was able to sit and consider the short life of Keats with just a ginger cat for company – what a balm after Roman crowds.

But I am equally glad I went to the cemetery as I then walked amongst the other grave stones there. So many expatriate painters and sculptors and writers from America, or Australia or England are buried there. The atmosphere is still and meditative. It is a blessed relief from the chatter and noise of Rome.

Below is the grave of a French artist…

One night I walked over a Roman bridge into Travestere, and wandered into an English language bookshop. This is a photo of some cards on the wall there… Try to guess the writers.

Another day I visited the Colloseum and the Forum. The crowds were a torrent of thousands entering the Colloseum. Then when they left they almost as a block walked straight past the Arch of Constantine, without pausing to glance at it, to enter the Forum. I couldn’t understand. The relief panels narrating a Roman victory in battle are more interesting than both for my money. It was one of many reminders on this trip that if its not famous then it isn’t worth seeing in the minds of the majority of tourists in Europe today. (This would be repeated when I was in Florence for example – the Bargello was empty while I avoided the Accademia knowing the presence of the David statue would guarantee hoards of hangers on.)

Below I’m looking out of the window of the Villa Farnesina – hardly anyone there – again, its not that famous.

I also walked around the Palazzo Collona during my time in the city, but probably my favourite gallery and museum was the Capitoline. Much of the Capitoline museum is arranged as Keats saw it, as Henry James saw it, as Goethe saw it, as George Eliot saw it, and so you feel like you are treading hallowed ground as you walk through the rooms. Below is the bronze Brutus there…

And below I am standing next to the original equestrienne statute of Emperor March Aurelius, the great philosopher. He used to stand in the middle of the Capitoline hill, and was only saved by being melted down after the fall of the Roman Empire by the fact that the Christians wrongly thought he was Constantine who had legalised Christianity – their misapprehension and ignorance saved a great work of art.

In a courtyard of the Capitoline is a vast 6 metre long statue from ancient Rome of the God of the Ocean, known today as Marforio. I leant against the fountain next to him and was amazed by his presence. This old Roman giant features in the 2013 film La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino, but I didn’t know his presence would affect me so much in the flesh.

Before I left Rome I made it the Ara Pacis museum. Part of this alter to peace sits on the first story of the University of Western Australia Arts building balcony – a place I have spent a bit of time. Although not at UWA, I have always liked the below section of its relief panels. Tellus, mother earth, nourishes and protects her children. It was late in the day and I was one of only about five people in the museum. Outside the Tiber was visible, flowing past under trees in late summer leaf, through the glass walls of a museum first opened on this site by Benito Mussolini.

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