Celebrity Art Charades: an AHA tradition in fashion shoots – by Helena Roy

When I did my AHA course in the summer of 2012, an evening activity we were introduced to was (prosecco-fuelled) ‘Art Charades’. The group splits into judges and two teams, and each takes turns re-enacting artistic masterpieces live on the streets of Venice, Florence or Rome (much to the amusement of perplexed locals).

Art Charades on the AHA Northern Italy course 2012

It seems the fashion world has been at it too – albeit on a slightly more professional scale. Artists from Salvador Dali to Barbara Kruger have been invited to direct fashion shoots. Throw celebrities into the mix, and their recreations comprise a hilarious, odd, fantastical and real-life response to visual fictions.

Saoirse Ronan as Sir John Everett Millais' 'Ophelia' (1851-1852) in Vogue December 2011 by Steven Meisel
Modelling Roy Lichtenstein in Zink magazine by Mike Ruiz
Angela Lindvall as Andrew Wyeth's 'Christina's World' (1948), Vogue October 1998 by Carter Smith

A recent cover shoot for US Vogue depicted Jessica Chastain in a series of art-inspired portraits; striking poses from Matisse, to Van Gogh and Klimt. Models have recreated works from Magritte to Vermeer‘Girl with a pearl earring’ is a fashion favourite, having been modelled by Julianne Moore, Katja Borghuis and Scarlett Johannson (to promote her film about the subject).

Vincent Van Gogh painted 'La Mousme' in 1888, here's Jessica Chastain recreating it in 2013
Rene Magritte's 'La Robe Du Soir' 1955 sold at Christie's in London for 1.6mn dollars in February 2010, and has not been available for public view since
On the cover of US Vogue - the inspiration was Frederic Leighton's 'Flaming June' of 1895

Mimicking paintings spreads from photography to live fashion. Marc Jacobs caused quite a stir when he sent ‘sexy nurses’ down the Louis Vuitton catwalk, inspired by Richard Prince’s ‘Nurses’ painting series. Another example would be Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ collection, which became the epitome of Swinging Sixties fashion.

Models present creations by US designer Marc Jacobs based on Richard Prince's 'Nurses'
Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian Dress at the V&A

Why does fashion take such obvious inspiration from art, when it is meant to be such a source of vision and creativeness itself? Perhaps to borrow some of the power of the art world’s most iconic, beloved and recognisable pieces. Or, perhaps simply for the fun of dress-up and charades…

With thanks to Vogue, W Magazine, Zink Magazine and Wikipedia for photos.

Little Italy: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at Italianate churches in Britain

One of the most exciting things about studying History of Art in Italy is that you don’t have to go to a national gallery to see a Titian, or to a pay an entrance fee to see a Michelangelo. Wandering around churches is as good a way as any to discover and experience incredible artworks.

A highlight for me when I did the Northern Italy trip in July 2012 was Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin(1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. Once inside, the Basilica exudes calm and history beyond the bold edifice of brick, and the painting is spectacular – even more so because it’s in such a spiritual setting.

The brick exterior of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) at the altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) up close

England is by no means short of interesting and beautiful places of worship, but Italianate churches are a different kind of impressive. Oddly, there are one or two dotted around England – including a stunning one in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside.

St. Catherine's Church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

St Catherine’s church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, is an isolated treasure. Hoarwithy is a small village tucked away on the River Wye, and the church itself rests on a high hillside. Prebendary William Poole, Vicar of Hentland, decided to build it between 1870 and 1900, as he found the original style ‘an ugly brick building with no pretensions to any style of architecture’. Designed by architect John Pollard Seddon, it was built in the Italian Romanesque style, with a detached campanile. The brick exterior conjures a vague link to the Venetian Basilica, and the warm terracotta tone brings warmth to the English landscape that surrounds it. Inside there is a rich mosaic of Christ in Glory, installed by an Italian workman who had just worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the filigree and detail in the church is copied from Saint Vitale at Ravenna in Italy.

The cloister at St Catherine’s in Hoarwithy
The ‘Christ in Glory’ mosaic above the altar at St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy

Similarly placed in the English countryside is the Italianate church in Wilton, Wiltshire. The Hon. Sidney Herbert begged his mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, to rebuild the ancient medieval church of St Nicholas, which had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. Accordingly, it was built in the Italianate style which he so loved,  on a Roman basilica plan and complete with a campanile. Inside is the fantastic Capocci Shrine, with twisted black marble columns removed from a shrine at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

St Mary and St Nicholas parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire
The south door of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton
The interior of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton

Finally, there’s St Peter’s Italian church, slid in between houses in Clerkenwell, London. Built at the request of St Vincent Pallotti, it was for the growing number of Italian immigrants in London (by 1850 nearly 2,000 had settled there). It was modelled by architect Sir John Miller-Bryson on the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome, and at the time of its opening, in 1863, was the only church in England in the Roman Basilican style. This year it celebrates its 150th anniversary which will be celebrated at their annual processione held in July.

St Peter’s Italian church, Clerkenwell, London
The interior of St Peter’s Italian church, London

All of these churches are stunning (as the picture-heavy nature of this post testifies). If this post needs a moral, it is this: go exploring. You never know what you will come across, and you might find a little bit of Italy where you never expected it.

With thanks to Wikipedia, Wiltshire Council, St Peter’s Italian Church and wyenot.com for photos

‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Grimy politics: Vittorio De Sica's 'Bicycle thieves'. A Review by Frankie Dytor

It is . Miserable poverty is everywhere. You can see it physically in the grime encrusted suits of men, but you can also see it mentally in the desperation that pervades every worn and beaten down expression. The portrayal is horrific. Not because you see famine or violence, but because you can see the total absence of dignity, the humiliation of having nothing.

The story follows Antonio Ricci and his futile attempt to find his
stolen bicycle. He is accompanied throughout by his small son Bruno. At the beginning of the film Bruno is full of the confidence that small boys often have, in their imitation of adult mannerisms, cocked head and marked speech. But as the film progresses, stretched out over two endless days, his fatigue slowly conquers him. His father will not help him, will not carry his little body that cannot keep walking. His ‘treat’ is to be taken to a restaurant to
get drunk – because they are ‘real men’. In many ways this is the real tragedy of the film. Antonio is unable to recognise that it is not the bicycle that truly matters, but the hope that can be found in Bruno. It is only at the end that they find some semblance of true understanding with one another.

The cheeky swagger of Bruno

The cinematography, described by most film critics as Neorealist in
style, powerfully evokes the hunger felt by Rome’s citizens at the time. It seems that this is a predominately destructive hunger. It is not the hunger of change, hope and revolution. It is the hunger of a stray animal, feral and self-centred. In the market-place, wheedling sellers grab and shove, forcing their wares even upon the six year old child. Gangs are clearly commonplace, and identity is obliterated in the pushing crowds.

The pluralisation of the title, occasionally omitted by some translations, is crucial for determining the tragic nature of the film. Without wishing to ruin anything for those who have not yet seen this masterpiece, there is more than one thief in the film. And certainly one of them, De Sica hints, is the State
for permitting such terrible desperation. The final shot of the film is as stirring as any horror film – you’ll have to see it to find out what it is – and leaves us with a lingering question: what redemption is there for Antonio and Bruno now?

Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italian

Why a Gap Year? AHA alum and Berkeley student Lucy Sundelson on what the experience meant for her

On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified.  I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight.  I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.

I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting.   Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one.  I was worried.  What would I be missing?  Would I feel left behind?

As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more.  My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult.  It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.

I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.

For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11231428.htm

 

Deadly Beauty: AHA Alum Cassia Price visits Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection

 

European Armoury I at the Wallace Collection

 

The Wallace Collection in London’s Manchester Square houses an eclectic assortment of exhibits, all of them of the highest standard. The collection includes Turner, Fragonard, and some of the Old Masters, as well as ceramics, sculpture and furniture of an extraordinary calibre. However, this was my second trip this year, and I decided to focus my attention on just one thing. The Arms and Armour galleries are, in my opinion, the most exciting and unusual part of the museum, in jarring contrast with the Parisian splendour that fills the rest of the building.

 

 

19th century German Parrying dagger in steel and gold, etched and gilded

 

The galleries house over 2,500 objects, originating from across Europe and Asia, and are recognised as the finest collection of its kind in the UK. Acquired by the Fourth Marquess of Hertford, and assembled by Sir Richard Wallace, this collection finds its origins in the fashions of 19th Century Paris, where military objects were an increasingly popular means of expressing personal wealth. However, the way the collection has been curated does not evoke the Parisian charm of the rest of the museum. The blood-red walls and glass cabinets give a solemn tone to the rooms, as if they were armouries lying dormant between battles. No labels are found in the cases, but the numbered plaques next to each mace, sabre and helmet, suggest a lending library for weapons. This makes the exotic and painful-looking Turkish daggers and Milanese maces dance threateningly through the imagination.

 

 

16th Century Milanese mace, iron or steel, gold and silver

The beauty and craftsmanship of these slices of metal are exquisite, adding another unique facet to the collection. I would have assumed that the most intricate works would be found among the ceremonial pieces, but I was bowled over by the rich detail of every sword hilt, every scabbard. The Needles, Excaliburs and Stings of the fantasy universe are surpassed, and it was hard, at first, to remember that these were remnants of history and not magical objects from a story.

 

 

19th Century Iranian helmet, iron, steel, brass, textile and gold

Fascinated by the opulence of these exhibits, I was then puzzled by their purpose. A talwar or an axe knife is not a work of art in a Wildean sense, but both are, at least, needlessly beautiful, and to consider the destructive nature of an attractive object is certainly troubling. These rooms of drawn daggers are threatening for a reason, but also reminded me of the enduring value of art. The fact that armour is designed in as much detail as the paintings next-door shows how even in the fundamental ugliness of the battlefield, appreciation for beauty remains.

 

 

19th Century Axe knife from Kutch, India

Photos courtesy of wallacelive.wallacecollection.org/

 

Coppola-coloured: is there really so much difference between film and painting? AHA alum Julia Turner explores

If Sofia Coppola were a Renaissance painter, she would be Titian. Or maybe Tintoretto:  two painters whose mastery of colour and light were crucial to their artistic output. Their approach to painting represented the Venetian school’s insistence that colorito (colour), rather than Florentine disegno (drawing), was the key to recreating the essence of nature. Impossible though it may be, therefore, I think that if the two men were to watch Coppola’s Marie Antoinette over a bowl of pop-corn, they would nod in approval at her pistachio greens, duck egg blues, and accents of deep crimson and plum.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559

 

Tintoretto, St Mark Working Many Miracles, 1562-1566

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, 2006

Coppola’s debut feature film, The Virgin Suicides, paid equal attention to production design and light in creating a sense of theatricality, not dissimilar to Tim Walker’s fantastical photographs.

Tim Walker, Lily Cole, for Vogue UK, 2010

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, 1999

Another director who I love for his use of colour is Wes Anderson. His use of paint-box colours make his works instantly recognisable. In fact, Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style inspired artist Beth Matthews to produce her own work, the Wes Anderson Film Colour Palette, in which she pulled together the colour treatments used across six of his feature films.

Poster Image for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

That said, Coppola’s films, also capture design or ‘disegno’. Since directors are able to use a camera to capture nature directly, they arguably have the ‘design’ box automatically checked before they even begin. What’s more, the photographic aspect of cinema can provide an opportunity for directors to focus especially on the composition of their frames. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles used monochrome to create kaleidoscopic, architectural shots that could stand alone as striking photographs.

Still from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

On the other hand, through his symmetrical compositions Anderson’s use of colour becomes most evident and most efficient in balancing his frames. Similarly, both colour and design are put to work in Somewhere, Coppola’s meandering portrait of a famous actor living in the Chateau Marmont, whose life happens to him rather than the other way around. Curved and straight lines, repeating patterns, and clean-fishbowl-hues build up a considered portrayal of a place that almost feels like the set of a movie itself: somewhere with lots of charm but no personality.

Still from Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited, 2007
Still from Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, 2006

I suppose in this way, film could resolve another Renaissance debate: whether painting or sculpture is the better art form. Michelangelo was able to master both and this is one of the reasons he was so celebrated. Not only can film offer both colour and a three-dimensional perspective on the figures, but it can go one step further, by introducing soundtrack and dialogue to flesh out the characters and add texture and tone to the piece such as with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony capturing the sweeping majesty of Tadzio’s beauty and von Aschenbach’s loneliness in Visconti’s Death in Venice or French rock band Phoenix’s cool nonchalance pervading Coppola’s Somewhere.

Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Visconti's Death in Venice, 1971

So really, the medium that is most associated with modernity – the moving image of the Nineteenth Century, the talkies of the 1930s, and the music videos and blockbusters that dominate youtube and facebook feeds today – are actually involved in fulfilling a very traditional aim:

to capture the spirit, the sense, the essence of a thought, a feeling or a truth.

 

Notes from Venice: A summer student talks about one leg of the Northern II trip

My trip to Venice with Art History Abroad was glorious! The location of the hotel introduced me to a new and exciting area of Venice with which I was unfamiliar, allowing me to become delightfully lost in Venice’s intimate streets. For a large part of the group the aim was to become lost: you can only really appreciate Venice when you are in a state of mild desperation when the map has abandoned you and your bearings have failed.

 

Days in Venice were fascinating, visiting various Churches that boasted works by artists such as Titian, Bellini and Carpaccio. One of my favourite afternoons in Venice was my visit to the Accademia. The display of Gothic art in contrast to the later developed Renaissance Art was remarkable and with the help of the tutors this transition in art was explained effortlessly. However the teaching role was not always left to the tutors: student pairs were formed with the instruction to choose a curious painting to explore in front of the rest of the group. For my pair, ‘The Crucifixion of Ten Thousand Martyrs’ by Carpaccio was sufficiently curious to allow for a thorough exploration. Despite our ignorance of the event and having little knowledge of the artist, we were able to give a short presentation on our reaction to the painting.

Our evening lecture -told with glasses of ‘fragolinos’ in hand- allowed the group to fully appreciate our day ventures by associating the transitions in the style of art with the time period.

The Venice Biennale was a delightful contrast as a display of contemporary art. Meandering around the ‘Giardini de Venezia’ was wonderful; stumbling across the various countries’ entries and enjoying the cool shade provided by the trees. The group had different interpretations to the countries’ entries, allowing for good conversation on our thoughts. Despite differing interpretations on the exhibitions, the enjoyment of the morning at the Biennale was shared between all.

 

 

Our free afternoon after the Biennale allowed the group to branch out into all parts of Venetian life: some benefited from a relaxing time at the Lido, whilst others took advantage of the current Manet expedition held at the Doge’s Palace.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the final day in Venice. Its location on the Grand Canal made the group green with envy and the Modern Art was quite a contrast to the works we had seen before; yet there seemed to be themes running through, as if art was cyclical in nature. I loved their decision to display Peggy Guggenheim’s works of art alongside pictures of her in the house when she lived there.

 

On our last night the tutors arranged a picnic supper on the Punta della Dogana. The view of Venice at twilight was gorgeous. It was a great time to relax and reminisce (with hints of nostalgia) on the trip so far, while also feeling excitement for the next two cities.

Everyone loved our Venice stay; how could we not? The magnificent art, the charming city, the relaxed nature of the visit and the good nature of everyone involved meant that enjoying ourselves was simply inevitable!

 

With thanks to Helen Elston for putting together her memories of Venice, Summer 2013…

An Evening at the Opera: Helena Roy attends London’s Open Screens…

It sometimes seems everything in London is gaining the prefix ‘pop-up’. Restaurants, cinemas, galleries and shops: you name it, and somewhere you can bet there is a temporary, compacted and quirky installation offering fleeting services.

Opera, however, was ahead of the curve. Pop-up screenings of Royal Opera House performances have been taking place for over twenty years across the UK. This summer, the ballet blockbuster Mayerling, Puccini’s La Rondine and Tosca all hit the big screen.

Ballet is a pretty popular spectacle, but opera has garnered a bit of a Marmite reputation. So the perfect way to see my first opera was to choose the iconic Tosca and watch it – G&T in hand, picnic at the ready – with friends, free of charge, in Trafalgar Square.

The fantastic thing about open screenings is how informal they are. As much as I love the Royal Opera House, it would have been hard to learn to appreciate opera in a stuffier,  more intimidating atmosphere. Outside, on a blistering hot day in Trafalgar Square, the ambiance was idyllic.

Everyone brought picnics, and laid out their blankets so we were packed into the Square like sardines. People were sharing food and opera trivia. Free and unticketed, everyone appreciated being there – a select few decided it was not to their taste and left before the final act, giving the remainder space to lie down and watch the tragic finale.

BP Open Screen in Trafalgar Square 2013

The sun set slowly – neatly imitating the chronology of the plot itself – but the evening was balmy, and with the National Gallery softly lit behind us and Nelson’s Column in front, the setting was as impressive and mighty as Rome was in Puccini’s masterpiece. In the first interval, one opera singer was whisked away from the stage of the Royal Opera House, fresh from his performance in the first act, to teach us the final verse of the superlative finale. Singing opera with the whole of Trafalgar Square – a man in priest’s vestments conducting us – felt surreal.

The view of the National Gallery during the performance

Tosca is brilliant. Its powerful story and intense emotion has all the Othello-esque drama Shakespeare can offer, combined with magnificent music. The backdrop of Rome in 1800 gives opportunities for ornate and splendid stage decoration: from a church filled with cardinals and priests, to a palace complete with winding golden railings.

Martina Serafin as Tosca, in the Royal Opera House's 2013 production

Blending passion, intrigue, murder, religion and revenge in one heady mix revolving around a love triangle, it is inescapably captivating. The eponymous star, beautiful soprano Tosca, is tragically torn between two men in a world of political intrigue, lust and love.

The finale of Act I of Tosca at the Royal Opera House

I would indubitably go and see Tosca again. But although I now know I like it, I still may not choose the Royal Opera House. The open screens were so enjoyable in the atmosphere and appreciation they created, that I would be sad to miss out.

Molière said ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ In terms of this experience, it was not expensive, but priceless nonetheless. Enjoying outstanding cultural talent with a myriad of strangers, where the only thing that got you there is enthusiasm and the willingness to lose some time by queueing early, is a uniting and unique experience.

With thanks to the Royal Opera House for photos.

Melon Ice-cream and Travertine: A student’s impression of Rome

The capital of Italy was our final and busiest city visit. Before I get to the art, I’m going to have to mention a couple of the most amazing things that happened in Rome. First of all: Melon Ice Cream (ever tried it?), this is best when made by ‘GROM’ and if you ever have the pleasure of going to Italy, your trip will be incomplete without this life-changing substance. Secondly, travertine stone – I admit – I originally thought this quasi-sedimentary calcium carbonate was rather boring – but Helen Oakden’s enthusiasm eventually had our whole group caressing a travertine stone in the centre of Rome. We ignored the slightly startled passers by.

GROM...

Melon and Travertine aside, the art in Rome was beyond belief. The Colosseum and Forum let us dive beyond the world of the Renaissance and appreciate the ancient Rome that was beneath our feet and The Vatican City certainly lived up to expectations. A short tan-top-up for the girls as we queued outside lead us to the most incredible frescos, sculptures, architecture and paintings I’ve yet had the pleasure to see.

The Glorious Basilica of St Peter

 

Michelangelo's incredibly moving Pieta

St Peter’s Basilica was incomprehensibly large – the small letters around the base of the dome interior were in fact, we learned, each 2m high… and finished nearly 400 years ago. Not only is this place the largest church in the world, but also it is also home to Michelangelo’s genuinely moving Pieta. I had never seen my favourite fresco, Raphael’s The School of Athens (best fresco in existence), in the flesh, but when I saw it in the Vatican Palace for the first time I really did feel like I was meeting an old friend.

Raphael's 'School of Athens' in the Vatican Palace
Amazement at seeing the School of Athens, finally...

The two weeks had been good enough already, but it made them all the more worthwhile. To top the day off we had also seen some mind-blowing classical sculpture. Us boys in the group did feel jealous upon seeing the Belvedere torso…!

The Belvedere Torso in all is muscular glory

Of course it wasn’t all go – we did have some down time; the ever-knowledgeable tutors took us out to supper to a roof terrace restaurant which was great fun albeit bittersweet as we knew we were coming to the end of our trip.

Bernini's David in the Borghese Gallery
Outside the Borghese Gallery on our last day...

Our final day was in a similar vein; while we were all soaking up the atmosphere and some incredible sculpture (Berlini’s David is both very emotive and unfortunately overshadowed by Michelangelo’s) in the villa Borghese, everyone was sad to be saying goodbye to such an atmospheric city, and of course to each other. Rome, in the true sense of the word, was awesome, and I know that all of us will want to go back very soon.

With thanks to Hugo Dunn, student on our Northern II summer course 2013.