Symphonies of light
In the summer heat
the air remains cool
as it flows
through the high walled arteries of my beloved Napoli
There is a French film, I do not know its name, about the platonic relationship between an old artist and a beautiful voluptuous model who he is protecting from the Nazis in Vichy France. She is an ordinary brave girl, who over the length of the film gradually comes to perceive the power that the fine arts have to offer a simple girl like her. Towards the end of the film the old man pulls out a battered piece of paper from his pocket and tells her he is about to show her the most beautiful drawing ever made. The crumpled scrap is a Rembrandt sketch, the sort of monochrome image that does not shine in our brightly lit global world The old artist starts to talk, then the magic happens and together they re-live the complex human relationships of a trivial domestic moment that happened hundreds of years earlier.
When I am in Naples I spend my days in the Piazza di San Domenico trying to emulate, and mostly failing, what Rembrandt so effortlessly achieved. Tucked in one corner of the square are iron railings and a long wide staircase at the top of which is the entrance to the church.
Light dances on the high walls of the church and we feel the first waters of a shower in the air. Yesterday was different, then it was warm, sunny and dependable, and I sat on those same steps with Maria, Christian and Domo, a beautiful transvestite costume designer.
I was the lucky guest at their Neapolitan musical celebration of being alive on a sunny day.
An unusual looking guy with punk crest, droopy eyes and a protruding lower lip lollups up the steps and sits with us and starts chinking a spoon on a bottle. One last visitor, a small street-wise puppy with a red collar, came around to sniff a hello.
In the evening I see the punk hobo dancing in the crowds, again playing the bottle and spoon.
But all that happened yesterday. Then the weather was hot and dependable and the air was full of song. Today is another scene. Today, I, with a few other tourists, are huddled closely under a coffee bar tarpaulin watching an old man as he shuffles around in the drizzle. The old man has white stubble on his chin, a colourful table cloth wrapped around his waist and is rearranging a collection bras and knickers on a washing line.
The drizzle has swept yesterday’s crowds away. Should we expect anything, should we wait in this misery for his performance?
Hell YES!!! In a great bellowing voice Vittorio Cozentino
announces that we are to prepare ourselves for a “performance
spectaculare” of Macbeth.
His shuffling transforms itself into great strides. His face, with it’s great blubbery lips, becomes an animated canvas on which different characters appear and disappear. His personality, as mercurial as the light on the walls, takes us on a ride to meet dark characters of a past age in the bleakest depths of cold, green, wet Scotland.
The play begins with all three witches on stage together. And there they all are! The cackling, wigged, contorted face of Vittorio between a mop head in each hand. They hubble, bubble and cackle bad omens.
The Shakespearian dramatist now brings a great king with golden tin
crown and mighty wooden sword on to stage. He stands noble and tall and
bellows his authority over the miserable crones.
Vittorio chooses a queen from the audience, and crowns her with his tin
crown, and makes her sit patiently under an orange umbrella in the rain
while he tells his story around her. I am completely lost? Macbeth is
prancing the stage in a bra and with knickers on his head.
He brings out a huge pair of cymbals and makes his queen dance and die and die and dance again and die again and again.
After the performance Macbeth’s body sloops back into Vitorrio’s forgotten form. Vittorio shuffles around collecting a few coins from his tiny audience. I am relieved to see he has a friend to help him in the rain as he packs his detritus in bags. He is a serious actor. Just like Rembrandt did, Vittorio used a life time’s worth of skill and experience to provide a little illumination in our lives. His performance was a free gift easily lost in the glitz and colour of global consumerism, but to me what just happened was art in its purest form.
The rain continues, our little group under the canvas dissipates. Now there are only me and one or two tourists. I am still drawing. I see the forlorn figure of the punk hobo I met yesterday walking across the square. I wave my arms and invite him to join me.
Marco is upset. He tells me the rain is a disaster…….. adi-sas-ter …. DISASTER! I offer to buy him food, but he says he only wants beer. For the next few hours we chat whilst I draw. As the time passes I understand what an intelligent and nice man he is.
Marco used to have his own “communications” fashion business in Milan. Three years ago he went bankrupt for a large sum and today he is living on the streets without state benefit. He has too much pride to ask his brother in London to help him, yet over the next few days I see him helping others all the time. I already know he understands and appreciates music. He watches me draw and tells me what I am doing, he tells me he is sharing the fragments of life I am trying to capture. He tells me many times how much he enjoys watching the genesis of the emergent drawings. That people watch my mayflies emerge is not unusual, but his cultured engagement is unusually intense.
I turn my attention to making a drawing of him. This time my pencil is kinder. Marco is pleased, he tells me I have made him look young again. A long laboured drawing like this is really a structural investigation. It is about finding and caressing the hard bony bits and forgetting the fleshy plastic bits which go on top. Structural drawings often make us look younger. “Ageing” a drawing is a optional extra. He tells me sadly he cannot keep the drawing because he has nowhere to keep it safe.
The rain is stopping, revellers are returning. Marco and I leave the
claustrophobic confines under the tarpaulin to find a spot under a lamp
post where I can draw and watch the crowds. As the evening unfolds I
make many more drawings and Marco watches. It is already 3.30 AM, the
air spits the first drops of new rain showers and I cannot continue.
Most people have gone anyway. I go home to a soft bed. Marco goes to
find some sheltered alleyway but at least his spirits are good and he is
It is morning again. I have been in Naples for four days. My most long standing friend Maria has left Naples for the next few days, she now lives in a camper van outside the city, and I will not see her again this visit. I am alone to walk the streets making drawings and meeting new people. My conversations yesterday with Marco are an inspiration that has got me into the flow. I fly:
A father is carrys his child through the streets
A lover’s arm loosely droops over a girl’s shoulder
A street kiss is snatched
An elder sister lifts a younger brother
Lovers kiss on the steps of the Duomo
A choral service takes place in the Duomo
Two Soldiers, Antonella and Michael, guard the crowd
I go to a meeting at the Pulcinella Theatre
Vows are being exchanged in the grand nave of the Monastero di Santa Chiara
Mum, dad, bambini and a dog are on a scooter
An elegant couple that look as if they belong in a Renoir oil painting share a cigarette.
Francesca and Sophia converse in the sunshine
Pizzeria waitresses are waiting
Stephanie looks lovely in a red dress.
The beautiful Jessica has a cigarette
and I make dozens of spontaneous portraits, many of which I give away
Little stories unfold in front of me:
Francesco, a talented trumpeter from Argentina, trills his jazz melodies across the square. Nula, a little girl of about five eats Pizza with her mother, but all her attention is focusing on the music making. She cannot keep still and leaves her chair to dance. Her movements are inventive; sometimes she clings her arms tightly to herself and wiggles with torso to the beat of the music, other times she catches the line of the music and invents new ways of bending her body and making longs stretches of her arms and legs.
Nula fetches some money from her mother to give to the street artist,
and places it on the musicians jersey, and then with a thousand tiny
steps runs back to her mother. But Nula is not done, she gets up from
her chair looking confused and walks hesitantly back towards the
musician, then with gathering confidence runs to his jersey and fiddles
with the money she has just given, and she takes the coins to the
correct place, his hat.
She is happy and dances again. Nula stops. Nula stands very still. She looks across to her mother for help. Her mother looks back. They both look at each other in a sort of stunned silence. There is a small pool of water on the cobbles.
Her mother knows her child so well. She comes to the child and sweeps
her into her arms and then still holding her child in symphony of
togetherness invites the child to share a selfie. The child’s body
writhes with the pleasure, her legs stretch straight as she looks into
the screen of the camera. Everything is resolved and they stay another
five minutes eating before the mother leaves with her child in hers
But I am also in Naples to study. By studying I mean giving a chosen
problem hundreds of hours of “deliberate” attention. Being deliberate
wakens our minds and opens it up to learning.
We express our personality through our hair, we integrate it with our body language. We move and rearrange our hair as we talk and flirt. This is subject I have been grappling with for a couple of years
Sara is a reserved girl with olive skin who quietly paints pictures and ear rings in the street.
I watch how her hair flops around as she works
She pulls out the elastic tie and ruffles out a huge Neapolitan mantle.
I silently watch her absorbed attention; with great delicacy she puts
the ear ring on and takes a selfie of the azure and mazarine blues
against the jet black background of her dense dark hair. It is a
stunningly intimate moment.
Nearby is another street seller selling ear rings. Reggae John is an
extrovert with a yellow cap and a big smile for everyone. He has huge
birds nest of dreadlocks. He is Cuban and speaks Spanish, English,
Italian, French and Portuguese and never stays in one country very long.
I stand in the crowded street. A large and impressive bare-footed man in Bermuda shorts has a cultivated dishevelled look that
catches my attention. Over his oily muscular shoulder hangs a huge white
canvas bag. His face is dominated by bushy eyebrows, a large Father Christmas nose and white
beard. On top of his head he has a crown of thick
brown hair from which long dreadlocks flow over both
shoulders and down his back.
I follow the modern day Gandhi at a distance until he stops by a water fountain in Jesus Square and fills a plastic bottle. He disappears
It is an hour later. I find him again, he is sitting on a big stone
bench. There are others around him but he is in his own world. His back
is straight, he is proud, arrogant and knowing of his beauty. I buy a
coffee and watch the scene unfold from a distance. After a while
Gandhi turns to a man in a suit and red tie who is sitting nearby and he
initiates a conversation. The conversation looks amicable, then the
man in the red tie is folding his arms, then the conversation has
degenerated into an argument. For Gandhi life is a struggle.
It is more than chance that Marco and Gandhi have dreadlocks and punk hairstyles. Many destitute men own dreadlocks. A group of three homeless with four dogs sit in one corner of the square They too wear their hair in dreadlock and punk hairstyles. When I start to draw them they come and crowd around me, telling me the names of the dogs and to be sure to get their hairstyles right.
The one standing in my picture is Franco. He is Czech, fit and has eyes
that are full of pain . He tells me in very an emphatic voice “Punk is
not dead” “Punk is not dead”. The one in the centre is Raphael, he is
Polish, beaten up and dribbles when he gets drunk. His friends are very
keen that I draw the one dreadlock that hangs over Raphael’s eyes.
Creative Hair is big amongst the young and trendy Neopolitans too. They mix combinations of shaved heads, crew cuts, loose hair, plaits, dreadlocks, colours and tattoos into a wealth of sophisticated and cool identities.
Elenor, a bubbly third year philosophy student, is here every night
dancing into the late hours with her flat-mate Massimo She comes up to
me and asks for her portrait. She has created an individual dazzle with
the tips of her short hair dyed blue, bright red lipstick and a single
tattooed butterfly on the back of her neck. Elenor has a chic
individualism, even the way she carries her beer bottle is chic!.
Time flies and it is already my last day in Naples. I am feeling guilty
that I have spent my whole week cocooned in one sort section of a
narrow alleyway in the Old city. Today I will expand my horizons and
walk to the Archaeological museum. From Jesus Square I take a steep
pathway North towards Bellini Square where there is an academy of opera
and music. The street is lined with tiny workshops, three workshops are
making violins and mandolins.
Bellini Square is another small square where young people meet and sit.
It has a statue of the composer Bellini and a pit into which we can
peer down over railings to see the remains of the old Greek Wall of the
pre Roman city. Whenever I am here I look for a cat that lives in the
protection of this pit. She is always there!
I cross Bellini Square and walk through more alleyways until I come out
at Dante Square. The buildings a huge and one side of the square has a
magnificent façade, but the overwhelming feeling is of untidiness and
chaos. The blast of traffic noise from the big road
on the far edge of the square hits me like a wave of heat, and people
are walking in all
directions like they do on the concourses of big city stations, but it
is made even more anarchic by small children that are running, running,
running in circles, footballs and boys kicking. If you don’t like
children don’t come near this place!
A tall immaculately dressed waiter is standing by his table. Yusebwoi
crossed the Sahara from Ghana. Three years ago he boarded a fibre glass
boat with 120 other migrants and was rescued by a German boat three
days later. He tells me Libya was the most terrifying part of his
journey. Yusebwoi speaks English and Italian and fits into Neapolitan
I am now walking along the noisy highway. To my right is the most beautiful façade of the Academia di Belle Arti founded
by the Bourbon King of Naples in 1752. The impressive entrance is
flanked by two lions and inside is a beautiful colonnaded garden with
exotic trees that is open to the public. I stop to make some drawings
and a light lunch of local tomatoes with Mozzerella served by Salvatore and Illyria.
I draw children that are brought to me and students relaxing on the Academia’s steps
As I walk further north I look at the wide vistas and grand buildings of
Naples I had not seen before and realise how much there is outside the
old city to draw. At last I arrive at the National Archaeological
Museum which contains many of the Roman treasures found at Herculaneum
and Pompeii. Although the overall size is less than a third or quarter
the size of the British Museum, the Bourbon rooms are grander, more
richly decorated and spacious and have no crowds. This is one of the
great museums of Europe and the items in the collection are stunning.
The ground floor contain big Roman sculptures and I am immediately struck by how much the ancients would have enjoyed the creative hairstyles of modern Neapolitans. A bust of Dionysus has a long flowing beard, his long hair is drawn back in a bun and over both shoulders long dreadlock like plaits flow. The rich ladies must have spent many hours with their maids making the complex confections and bows with their hair.
The local ancients obviously had the same appetite for creative
invention in their sex lives too. This sculpture has Pan caressing the
hand of an effeminate boy he is teaching to play his pipes. The boy has
a lady’s hairstyle….
….the pursuit of sexual pleasure is not without a dark misogynist side
lurking just below the surface. This fantasy piece of a poor Amazon
warrior dying and being thrown from the back of a stallion, has the poor
girl arming herself for war with a small shield and the weapons of
female seduction; a diaphanous nightie with one breast exposed, naked
thighs and bare feet. Beautifully styled hair. What chance did she
have in a male dominated Roman world? The message to women is brutally
Upstairs are galleries of paintings and beautiful mosaics recovered from
Pompeii and Herculaneum. Again a lot of these works gratify tastes for
sexual invention. I meet a group of pubescent girls giggling around a
cabinet. Inside are Tintinnabulum; extraordinary wind bells that were
hung from doors and shops to announce the arrival of customers and ward
of evil spirits. The subject matter mainly included winged phalluses
and figures of Pan with penises coming out of his head.
My brief visit to the museum convinces me that next time I visit Naples I
will return for a few days of serious study, but this evening is my
last evening and I am keen to spend my remaining hours with my new found
friends in the Piazza di San Domenica
Last night Elenor fell in love with a vet and her flat mate Massimo is lonely. Massimo is a solo violinist who used to play at La Scala. He is quite a fan of my way of drawing and I make a portrait whilst we chat about why Elenor is missing.
The crowds are as thick and noisy as ever, and I draw all evening. My
eye is attracted to a pretty girl with exposed legs in bright white suit
that seems iridescent in the lamp light. Her friends bring her to see
my drawing. Her name is Chiara.
She wants to have the drawing, but for some reason I want to keep this
one. Feeling guilty I give her a Two Bad Mice mug I still have in my
bag and my card.
The evening slips away. There is a little scene, the sort of domestic event Rembrandt might have delighted in drawing. Chiara is sitting on a flower pot talking to a round man who is rolling on his feet and seems drunk. Another taller man with a beard has his hand gently on the round man’s back and is talking gently in his face.
We can make up our own stories about what is happening here. As I see it Chiara’s boy friend is gently controlling the drunk companion. Chiara is looking passive and a bit fed up. I cannot understand the presence of the nuisance drunk and why they are even bothering to talk with him at all.
The little group disperses. The round man is gone, a few moments later
Chiara and her boyfriend walk home too. Like all the other Neapolitans
they are going home to bed
It is now 4.30 am. There are perhaps a couple of dozen of us left in the square, a final scene for me to draw. They are not the “nice” crowd of earlier in the evening. There are three wasted girls sitting on the scooters bantering with a lot of over enthusiastic men talking too loudly, young adults with children’s minds. The bar is at last closing and Marco has been tidying things up for them.
Drops of water land on my paper. I could so easily continued here all
night until my taxi arrived at 7.00 am, watching as the city re-awake. I
walk across to Marco and give him a long goodbye hug. A girl I had not
noticed, who is quietly chatting with her boyfriend smiles, and waves
goodbye to me as I leave the square.
I am now at home in Wales and turn on the computer. There is a message from Chaira, she is looking forward to getting a copy of my drawing of her. I look on her Facebook site, there is a post about last night which I plop into Google Translate. Her language is poetic, it is a fragment of time, a domestic picture, a Rembrandt kiss with words.
He sips his champagne, looking for a fucking word in the bubbles. In the mirror of his eyes I can read the name of all the saints and imagine them blasphemed in rapid succession. She lets her heels sway in space, looking around.
They have nothing to say to each other.
I drag my 49 kg into the square one by one crawling like a mollusk down the street and sit on a flower pot to look at a street musician whom I saw a few nights before spinning in ecstatic spasms with eyes popping out, while playing a guitar. In the shadows of the dustbin I look for a fucking word to start a conversation, but it takes away from me an English street artist, elegant, distinguished and with a sweet smile and two big beads of sweat on his forehead. The man shows me the draft of a portrait he was giving me while I was burning in the fire of my thoughts and he gives me a cup of Chinese porcelain. So. The fact is that there are places that hold up against the crunch of the world without too many words. These are the places where crazy giggles resound at night, which then, during the day, bloom in strange little flowers. They are there, in the square, to reaffirm their right to live. Amid wind and dust, with the sky overhead. Together, even if they have nothing to say to each other.
The scene in my new picture of Chiara is explained.
I send Kiara my new picture – there he is! she exclaims
Like a Rembrandt sketch, that chance domestic event which is so easily lost in the brash world of global consumerism, was chosen and illuminated by both Chiara and I. It was nothing, but for us at that moment of time it was important, it was containing all the preciousness that life could ever present. It was Chiara having a bad date and being rescued by a friend.
Vittorio Cosentino interview:
Maria Cerbone Facebook https://www.facebook.com/maria.cerbone3/videos/10219256725559354/ Posted by Julian Williams at 12:18 5 comments: Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to FacebookShare to PinterestOlder PostsHome Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)