My job usually takes me to familiar European climes, but occasionally I get a taste of the exotic: Japan, China or, most recently, Macau. A former Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China in 1999, although traces of its Portuguese heritage remain strong. All street signs and civic buildings bear Chinese and Portuguese names, while delicious egg-custard tarts are ubiquitous in the city’s many bakeries. Arriving by air from Taipei, I was surprised to see rocky, verdant hillsides rising from the sea, looking more like the Amalfi Coast than the smog-wreathed towers of Shanghai (my only available comparison for Chinese landings). Those bucolic hillsides were a little misleading, because what awaited me was a vibrant and frequently jaw-dropping city, where everyday life shoulders up against neon lights, all-night casinos and extravagant amounts of gilding. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, Macau has become a playground for this vast country’s rich and hopeful, with flashy hotels to match. I thought I’d give you a brisk whirl around the main things I managed to see during my busy fortnight; and fear not: there’s plenty of bling ahead. It’s a long one. Buckle up!
My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.
The civilised world has been rocked by a sudden surge of terrorism. Extremism has proliferated even in the countries in the shores of the Mediterranean, which are meant to be that bit more sophisticated than their hinterlands. Suicide bombers spread terror in the streets of previously buzzing cities. Ashen-faced religious leaders condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their faith. Sound familiar? But this isn’t the world as we know it. Harry Turtledove takes us into an alternate reality in which Islam, not Christianity, became the dominant religion of the world in the medieval period. Now, progressive, modern and comfortable Muslim nations look warily at their Christian neighbours, and two brilliant investigators are dispatched to the dangerous streets of Italy in an effort to nip the terrorist threat of the Aquinists in the bud.
Things have been a little quiet at The Idle Woman recently because I was away in Italy last week on the inaugural Arezzo Summer Course. This is aimed at doctoral students, curators and others with a professional or academic interest in prints. It offers the chance to hear from scholars in the field, who present lectures on their current research, as well as including field trips to various collections and print rooms. I imagine the feel will be different every year, depending on the scholars who come to act as ‘professors’, but this year the course was perfectly aligned to my interests. One of its themes was to look at the interaction between music and printmaking – specifically the way that prints were used to record ephemeral festivities, theatrical events and pieces of music like cantatas, which until the late 17th century existed only as part of an oral tradition.
Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…
Or, Love’s Labour’s Won
(Royal Shakespeare Company, Haymarket Theatre, until 18 March 2017)
Several documents refer to a Shakespeare play called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there’s no sign of it in the First Folio and scholars have, increasingly, come to think that it might just have been renamed. The RSC make the playful but persuasive case that it may have been the play now known as Much Ado About Nothing (i.e. ‘Love’s Labour’s Won, or, Much Ado About Nothing‘). In the second part of their London-season duology, the cast and crew of the RSC take us back to the sumptuous country house we saw in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then it was summer, the last summer, before war broke out and the young men marched away. But now it’s Christmastime: the Armistice has been signed and the soldiers have come home. The battles are no longer those of bayonets and machine-guns in the mud but, instead, the glittering flash and fire of wordplay.
In my last post, I wrote about some of the famous gardens and parks of Suzhou, but here we get down to the really good stuff: the museums which preserve and record the city’s history and handicrafts. We didn’t have time to see all the museums in Suzhou, but those we did visit helped me to put things in context a little better and left me itching to find out more. I’m going to start with the place where I spent most of my time: Suzhou Museum.
Two hours west of the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai lies the city of Suzhou, which is small only in relative terms – it’s home to more than six million people – but feels very different, as it has managed to preserve the old town at its heart. Enclosed by walls and moats, the grid layout of this area has barely changed for a thousand years. Suzhou itself has existed for 2,500 years and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations for Chinese visitors. It’s famous for its canals, its silk, its tea, its opera and its gardens. I’ve just spent two weeks working in this fascinating place (hardly ever leaving the bounds of the Old City), installing an exhibition in Suzhou Museum, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its new building in 2016. It’s been a wonderful experience and I wanted to share some of the places we were shown by Allen and Alice, who were looking after us.
In another foray into the drafts folder, I decided it was time to finally post about my trip to Philadelphia just before Christmas. Better late than never, hmm? It was a business trip, as most of my travelling is at the moment, and it was a welcome opportunity to broaden my American horizons beyond New York and Disney World in Florida. Fortunately I enjoyed splendid weather during my stay: very mild, with gorgeous sunshine, which allowed for a lot of walking on the days when I didn’t have meetings. Philadelphia is not the most pedestrian-friendly place in the world, with its main sights rather scattered across the town, but I thought I’d share just a few of the things that really made an impression.
Following on from my post about Frankfurt itself, here’s what I managed to see on two trips outside the city, with pictures, of course. Both Karlsruhe and Würzburg are a little over an hour from Frankfurt by train and the connections are pretty regular, so it’s easy to do as I did and go just for a morning or afternoon. Right. Let’s continue…