So, I’m sitting on the stone benches that surround the Palazzo in the early evening. I’m looking across the cobbled square as families gather, tourists perspire and Romans sit to watch the world. I have just eaten a fine piccolo coppa di pistachio with some even finer tortellini in my bag for later, and I’m thinking about melancholy. Why has the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud that fosters the droop headed flowers all?


Twice today it has struck me that this is the underlying condition of the city. The first time, fittingly, in Keats’ house.


Outside the window, on the Spanish Steps there are many, many people dressed in Austrian costume for some reason; they are having a noisy jolly time. Others are trying to sell them things, mostly wilting red roses and those strange plastic lumps with faces that you throw at the pavement. Inside it is dark and still the early 19th century. In the narrow room in which Keats died, parallel to the steps and jolly Teutons, the sense of place, of loss, of mortality is almost painful.

Nothing physical is here from that specific time, not even the wallpaper; all was burnt after his death. His death mask, by Canova’s mask maker no less, is on the wall beside the bed. It was a thin face (unsurprising in one who died from tuberculosis) and a long thin nose. A clever face, certainly not soft or self-indulgent, or indulged. Many copies of letters in frames on the walls, and in cabinets next door.

What makes the pain greater, is the description that, aware of his tubercular death sentence from the moment he first coughed up blood, Keats could not bear to even open the letters he was sent. Particularly those from Fanny Brawne, the women to whom he had been engaged and could not marry because of his lack of health or money.

Even an astoundingly pretty girl with unfeasibly blue eyes in a short flowery dress, telling someone loudly on her mobile that there was “No probs, we’ll be right down” cannot break the spell of the past in this small, quiet space. I sit in an old leather chair in the corner of this room, at the end of the bed, cheerfulness outside comes through the window, and I am close to tears.

The Second occasion for the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven came from a visit to St Lorenzo in Damaso.

It is a gloomy, half lit basilica of a church, rectangular with a narthex, side aisles, apse and a coffered ceiling, huge and dusty and empty. Bells start to ring, an elderly woman in a housecoat walks in from the left, a priest from the right. She goes to a pew somewhere in the middle, he fiddles with things on the altar, tests a microphone and goes to sit with her. They go through the responses, the place is so big the echoes repeat constantly; his higher pitch, her constant low monotone. A pair of women are now kneeling before candles at a distant chapel, they look like mother and daughter. There is no one else, at no point will he use the microphone, there is no one to broadcast to. This church must be easily the length of a cricket pitch and half as high and wide. The responses go on, the echoes repeat, as they must at mass every day. The priest and his celebrant, alone together until one of them moves to another place.

Next to me on the stone bench at the Palazzo is an American, he is ordering about his two young children who are playing with a green plastic toy. After a while an Italian man introduces his equally young daughter who has been playing with an orange balloon. The Italian suggests that the three children could play together. Solemnly the children swap toys and continue to play separately. The two men watch the children playing in the Piazza, they do not speak.

Roma is the opposite of Amor as Carlo Levi points out:

“The roaring of the lions in the night

Of the depths of time to memory

Owls, Madonna symbols interrupted

Events timeless outside of history”

From: ‘Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita’, By Carlo Levi


Rembrandt: ‘A Woman at her Toilet’, 1633, oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Canada.




The Caravaggio I had come to see has been replaced with this little Rembrandt from The National Gallery of Canada. Layer on layer of finely textured light pooled into the centre of a gloomy space, a room we presume.

A large woman holds her even larger stomach; pregnant and musing on the future? Or fat and remembering how she got that way? In the darkness another woman is combing her hair, the comb is just visible. The room could be huge, but is probably small, behind them on what is probably a bed, jewels glint, echoing the fineness of her clothing, the red cloak and the jewelled slipper.

Layers of soft, reticent Northern light in a private room, no male presence. The two women are in a space that dust must lie, layered in generations, thin sediments of human skin, strata of stories of the people that made up that dust.

The Rembrandt, in a an inspired piece of curatorship, was paired with another


Caravaggio: 'Saint John the Baptist ', 1602. Oil on Canvas. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

A bronzed boy, who has played in the sun, jumped into rivers in the Italian August sun, holds a horned ram. He has turned back, half smiling at the viewer. He is sitting on a ledge covered, not with the ratty animals skins of the desert, but a fine fur, white and red cloth match that quality and set of the boys own naked skin.

The body is (slightly) oddly articulated which makes it resemble a central trunk of muscle. There is little doubt what this boy is prepared to do for the man who could pay for it. The bright light, clear and strong, and the naked form it shows are not evidence of the light of god, nor is the nudity evidence of the divinity of man in it’s ideal form.  The composition strips away the sacerdotal form that covers Michelangelo’s Ignudi, although the arrangement of the boy is similar.

This is Southern sensuality and corrupt pleasure, strong, immediate, male and thrust right up to the picture plane. None of Rembrandt’s delicacy, women absorbed in domestic activity and the aching slowness of cobwebbed light layered down over what might seem like a geological time scale.

Mike Nelson defines himself as a sculptor, “I make sculpture, but sculpture that you walk inside”.

After many galleries, many museums and watching so many people in so many galleries, some thoughts are starting to repeat themselves. Classical statuary, since Praxiteles if not before, was designed to be seen in the round, ie no framing picture plane to establish the illusion.

This begs the question: why does the Renaissance visual conception still dominate our way of seeing? I.e. the picture plane as a window and the conceptual space that develops autonomy. “First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen” (Alberti: Della Pittura”, page 54 Penguin Edition). The stimuli from Roman sculpture and ruin was all the visual information Alberti, Brunelleschi et al had to go on, why then construct a perceptual world view that is so firmly planimetric?

Why try to recreate Apelles when all you have to go on is text, the desperately dull Pliny for example.

Certainly Brunelleschi’s fiddling about with mirrors and images in the doorway of Santa Maria della Fiore in Florence made a two dimensional process in which forms could appear to be fully modeled in three dimensions. Unlike Praxiteles’ Doryphorus though, you can’t walk around Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (the first Renaissance ‘hole in the wall’ painting on the nave of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Those early Renaissance artists came from craft studios that could turn out work in any media you wanted. If it was permanence the Lenzi’s wanted when they commissioned Masaccio, a three dimensional marble object would have had greater physical impact and lasted longer than a fresco. Was there in 15th century Florence, such a significant cultural hierarchy that prioritized the two dimensional? No, not really. So, why the power of illusory space? Why not the real thing?

The planimetric view is now the DNA of our vision, the camera, the TV the film the computer screen, the phone screen all depend on “a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject … is to be seen”

You might say that theatre in the round is the exception rather than the rule, but the proscenium arch, like the Albertian window is always with us. Had it not been so, no doubt the digital miracle workers of our age Jonathan Ive for example, the Lumière Brothers and Daguerre before him, would have been able to work out how to create images out of three dimensional light that we could walk around, as Praxiteles had conceived. 

What caused the change in perceptual world view that gave us Brunelleschi/ Alberti/ Masaccio and onward? I can only put it down to the increasing ubiquity of the book, that flat surface which can present the reader with a limitless, autonomous conceptual space. Which begs the next question; will the E Reader and the hyperlink presage a new change? If artists are supposed to be gifted with foresight, this years Biennale thought not.

The introductory book to Mike Nelson’s Installation presents different forms of space: the political spaces of the ‘Free Pirates’ in Madagascar, notiosn of anarchic (in the proper sense of the word) temporary autonomous zones free from hierarchical state interference. Fantasies much loved by graphic novelists and cyberpunks, Nelson has referenced Jules Verne and this sort of thing before.

In the book, Dan Cameron (‘Memories of Trespassing’) points out that Venice is an equally artificial space. What was once the meeting of East and West, a liminal space at the edge of empires is now an artificial reconstruction of the past. An artificiality based on gondoliers, repeated samples of Vivaldi, imported food from southern Italy like pasta and pizza and imported goods from the Far East like fake Prada and Raybans.

The constructed space that is now Venice, sells fake luxury as hard as it can to the vast queues that shuffle from San Marco to the Rialto to Accademia and back to San Marco, hot tired and presumably satiated. Does this Venice have anything to do with the Biennale? Middle aged men in black linen muttering about entropy and fierce women with short black hair and red heels discussing the positioning of practice; they wouldn’t be seen dead in the queue to buy a David genitalia apron in the market; what news on the Rialto indeed.

Dan Cameron says that “Whilst not actually hostile, Mike Nelson’s spaces do emanate an essential unfamiliarity” and I think that was the essential problem with this show, it was not that unfamiliar and it wasn’t that difficult to work out the layout, it was relatively predictable. The lighting was very even, it didn’t smell of anything and every room had young English people acting as curators/ guards looking at their I Pads and happy to talk to you about the show and which art school they are studying at.

The thrill had gone. Was the show clearly better in it’s first incarnation in the Han itself in Istanbul, when the photos referred to the buildings you would have walked past to get there? Nelson says that he not only re-constructed the Istanbul piece but he also reconstructed the Han that surrounded that first work; putting a Biennial inside a Bienalle he calls it. A fascinating idea, does it quite work, is it convincing?

“Venice occupies a semi-haunted space where an aggressive commercial empire once flourished”. This could also describe the reconstructed Han that Nelson presents. As Cameron points out, it is now Istanbul that is commercially prosperous whereas Venice is a sinking Disneyland. The relationship between Istanbul/ Constantinople and Venice is still very strong, the looted treasures of the 4th Crusade in the 13th Century (the largely Venetian inspired sacking of Constantinople) are still on show throughout the city; the horses of San Marco for example. But this seems slightly beside the point when walking the fictive corridors of ‘I, Impostor’.

The two soldiers in the army Jeep guarding the French Embassy are bored. Sunday afternoon, the last day of June before the Ferie d’Augusto and the piazza is empty. No pretty female tourists for the soldiers to impress, the boys are stamping their feet and banging the side of their vehicle.

The small church to Santa Birgittae, open briefly on a Sunday afternoon, due to stay open until 5.30 has just been closed by a nun in complex headgear and long grey and white robes, ten minutes early. Seconds later a herd of nuns leave from a door further down the piazza, they are in a hurry, a further nun rushes to join them. They dash away, chatting, mostly African and Asian from what I can see of their faces. No children are playing in the piazza; do Italian children not play on Sundays? The fancy wine bar on the corner is empty, there is a sense here of a city being given over to tourists as its all gets too hot.

Continuing the theme: the dominance of the planimetric in the way we appreciate art and thus the world around us. Why are we not happiest, keenest to seek out the fully three dimensional?

I know from years of teaching art history students that understanding painting and forms in two dimensions comes relatively naturally, but three dimensions, architecture especially, is always a struggle; it is a foreign language.

This is even more noticeable when watching gallery goers. For example, looking at Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’, in the Galleria Borghese,

Bernini: 'Apollo and Daphne', 1625. Galleria Borghese, Rome

a triumphant example of sculpture fully in the round, a sculpture that demonstrates a different, developing section of the narrative from every angle. What really struck me was the way viewers positioned themselves; at the 4 points of the compass. That is, they saw it through 4 static picture planes, rather than walking around it observing the metamorphosis of Daphne from one stage to the next. The picture plane is that institutionalised.

Given the influence of film and, for example the tracking shot, this is surprising. Apparently one of the first films to use the tracking shot was Italian: The Cabiria, in 1914.

Artists since Alberti have championed architecture (‘De Re Aedificatoria’, 1452). If Gropius through the Bauhaus curriculum could revolutionize the British Art School and, tangentially perhaps, was therefore responsible for the birth of British Rock, Pop, Punk and the British Fashion industry. Why was he not also responsible for the main aim of that institution, to place all the arts at the service of architecture? A building is after all equally a narrative.

For instance, the church I am sitting in now to write this, It is about 4.30pm, whilst waiting for the best paneficio in Rome to open

(Forno Campo de’ Fiori

I have walked down Via Giulia and ended up at San Salvatore in Lauro. It is not a particularly special Roman church, but like any building, the way it is put together, the use of decoration, the architectural language, tells a story. That narrative is usually fairly straightforward .

The façade, the introductory paragraph, shows a huge, high naved building. That facade is pure nave, no volutes, no evidence of side aisles, it introduces the internal spaces that you will encounter, and introduces them with great clarity. Inside, narrow chapels and a very high, hemispherical, barrel vaulted ceiling. Short transepts, perfect hemispherical dome above the crossing. At a guess I would say that the nave is two cubes long, the transepts and the apse ½ a cube and the crossing a whole cube. The nave has paired, attached Corinthian columns in travertine, supporting a very large and accurate Roman entablature. Above is a narrow clerestory.

The apse is only slightly curved, the attached columns of the apse are in green marble. The apsidal pediment is both broken and curved. There is gold everywhere and above the altar a huge sunburst lit by natural light from the dome and clerestory.

Extraordinarily, on each side of the altar framed by the attached columns are theatre boxes, overlooking the action; royal boxes actually on the stage. And, they are the clue to the whole story. This is a late Baroque church, that characteristic theatricality is functional, all about getting in the faithful.

This is a post Council of Trent church: the Catholic meeting that set up the USPs of Roman Catholicism in opposition to growing Protestantism and in horrified reaction to the Sack of Rome in 1527.

The narrow side aisles and barrel vaulting, like Il Gesu not far away, concentrate the congregation on the Mass, the words of the priest and on the music (barrel vaulting was supposed to be good for acoustics).

The broken pediment is reminiscent of Borromini, an intense visual excitement, the sunburst of gold and the theatre boxes of the Colonna altar by Bernini, the cubic volumes takes us back to Bramante and Brunelleschi, the perfect hemispherical dome and the entablature to classical Rome.

This is a building that displays its knowledge of sacred architecture with great confidence, expecting us to do the same. All this glorifies us by sitting in a vision of heaven,  the architect, perhaps, the patron certainly (4 golden, jewel encrusted busts of popes sit on the altar) and above all, it glorifies God.

My main point being that it is a narrative about 3 dimensional form that self-consciously goes back to the first basilica churches in Rome. Like any building it establishes the context from the first glimpse and continues that discourse with every combination of forms that you can experience, surely this is a discourse that it is relatively easy to understand and enter into?

Perhaps to prove what I am talking about, a woman has come in to the church armed with a camera and photographed all the rather dreary paintings in the chapels, mostly by da Cortona and Turchi. The photographer did not look up or around her, and then she left. Mind you she didn’t look at the paintings either, just photographed them, presumably to prove her brief presence at this spot.

To end this discussion, does all this musing on art in Rome have anything to do with Nelson and, going further back in these posts, does it have anything to do with Rubens and Het Steen? Can I make the connections? Well do you know, I think I can.

Starting with Nelson, what makes him interesting and what makes him stand out for the new generation of artists? It is the combination of narrative, conceptual clarity and high craft; integrity and sophisticated understanding of the possibilities of ‘pictorial space’.

He is very clear, rightly so, that he is not building a stage set, a set for something to happen in front of. This is art space, art space that you walk into. Therefore it can contain all the conceptual implications you might wish to bring. We ‘read’ it in the same way we ‘read’  a painting, we walk round the spaces in the same way our eyes walk round the space behind the open window of a painting.

The difference is that the crucial relationship to the picture plane of all illusory objects/ gestural marks/ colour fields etc in a painting is tangible, measurable almost. Whereas in a Nelson, that picture plane is conceptual, embodied in our consistent recourse to narrative, i.e. the relationship of one form to another through time/ space and causal relationship. One is actual, the other conceptual; in essence (in artworld) the same.

And Het Steen? Het Steen is all about the house, an illusory object in pictorial space in conceptual space, the house of the successful artist. The lights are on, we have walked out of the house to admire it, or we are perhaps approaching it for the first time. The House is a series of spaces we will encounter that have a series of potential narratives, each vital to the artist. Our conceptual route to them and through them is equally vital to our understanding of the work, hence the emphasis on paths and journeys in the painted landscape.