Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."

Month: May, 2010

Brazen beauty – the life and art of Veronica Franco

“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”

Veronica Franco (1546–1591), was a 16th century Venetian courtesan and poet and in part inspiration for Pellegrina, a character in my Venetian set novel and for whom this blog is named. She lived an extraordinary life as a cortigiana onesta –  a high-class Venetian courtesan who was well- educated and versed in the art of poetic and courtly love as well as physical pleasures.  Veronica is named as one of the most celebrated of them in the Catalogo di tutte le principale et piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia, a sort of guidebook for wealthy men seeking to indulge in the ars amoris of Venice, which contained the names and addresses of the finest courtesans in the Serene Republic. Married as a teenager, when the marriage failed Veronica was left in precarious circumstances, not least in fear of destitution, so she decided to seek her fortune and destiny in order to support herself and her child as cortegiana onesti could do very well for themselves and were held in high esteem in Venetian society.

However, it was an ambivalent role and women as intelligent and beautiful as Veronica, holding court in the sovereign echelons of Venetian patrician society and with incredible access to those in power (indeed she was courted by and had a passionate liason with Henry III of France) were prone to be treated with suspicion by the authorities, and Veronica was defamed  by the notorious Venetian inquisition for witchcraft, for which, due in part to her patrician connections, she was eventually cleared.  Furthermore, Veronica not content with being just an adornment in high chopines, also wrote and published her own poems and letters, works as powerful and spirited as any of those by Petrarch or Boccaccio, as well as those of other writers and founded a charity to support courtesans and their children.  Veronica’s portrait was painted by several distinguished artists, such as Tintoretto and Veronese.

Capitolo 13

(a playful challenge to a lover:)

No more words! To deeds, to the battlefield, to arms!
For, resolved to die, I want to free myself
from such merciless mistreatment.
Should I call this a challenge? I do not know,
since I am responding to a provocation;
but why should we duel over words?
If you like, I will say that you challenged me;
if not, I challenge you; I’ll take any route,
and any opportunity suits me equally well.
Yours be the choice of place or of arms,
and I will make whatever choice remains;
rather, let both be your decision….

Come here, and, full of most wicked desire,
braced stiff for your sinister task,
bring with daring hand a piercing blade.
Whatever weapon you hand over to me,
I will gladly take, especially if it is sharp
and sturdy and also quick to wound.
Let all armor be stripped from your naked breast,
so that, unshielded and exposed to blows,
it may reveal the valor it harbours within.
Let no one else intervene in this match,
let it be limited to the two of use alone,
behind closed doors, with all seconds sent away….

To take revenge for your unfair attack,
I’d fall upon you, and in daring combat,
as you too caught fire defending yourself,
I would die with you, felled by the same blow.
O empty hopes, over which cruel fate
forces me to weep forever!
But hold firm, my strong, undaunted heart,
and with that felon’s final destruction,
avenge your thousand deaths with his one.
Then end your agony with the same blade…..

Capitolo 21

(on an absent lover…)

I said: “My heart, if my own weapons
do this to me, what will those do
with which cruel fortune pierces me?”
If I myself feel, having fled far from my love,
that pain closes in on me ever more,
that my leaving brings it closer to me,
I must surely have taken medicine opposed
to my languid state and to my heart’s raving,
which sends me down a miserable path…..

“Such,” I say, “is my love’s handsome face,
where heaven bestowed all of its gifts,
and nature most reveals her perfection.”
Then when I see through the dark night
so many stars light up in the sky,
Love, who is with me, assures me and swears
that those lights in the sky, fair and everlasting,
are not as numerous as the virtues of the man
who ruthlessly tears the soul from my breast.
And to make my days even sadder and darker,
far from my light, I always carry alive in my heart
the burning sun from which I once caught fire,
to whom, weeping and sighing, I write……..

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One hundred hours of forgetting – a thousand years of memory

We can all do this.  Maybe these moments are all that matter – maybe they form the soul. This is just an exercise in forgiving time for moving on, changing and changing us; for it really doesn’t matter when the exuberant or delicate pictures of our senses touched and moved mark the beginning and end of us. These moments are our immeasurable experience of a lively and sensual world and a reminder that we are born to be only our essence – disparate, passionate and free.

There may be hundreds, there may be ten. Here are some of mine in no order, just as I feel them come back to me:

Chartres Cathedral. Aged six. The impact of stained glass. I wept.

Seeing the Hrad across the Charles Bridge in Prague for the first time, in moonlight.

Paddling in coral sand, aged seven, Connemara, Ireland.

The Bach Concerto for Two Violins. Largo. Always as if I would float away.

The scent of lilac.

Singing The Chorus Mysticus in Mahler 8, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt.

Under a lemon tree with a lover on Hydra.

My true ‘inner smile’ revisiting me, not that long ago, looking into the azure sky across the Thames,  listening to Chopin.

First day in Florence two years ago – breathing in liberty.

Discovering Beethoven piano sonatas, aged 12.

My mother’s embrace.

Evening in the Piazza Bra in Verona, after performing Rossini in the Arena.

Moments when I live inside the worlds I have created in my books. Knowing their colours, music and fragrance.

Sunset: pink, peach and refulgant, anywhere.

A voice – the most silken sounding rich voice.

The opera Garnier,  Paris. Always.

A beautiful head resting on me.

Ladurée macarons crumbling into my lap sitting on the Pont des Arts.

THE kiss… I’ll say no more…

~Et in Arcadia ego~



Gathering stardust – living with spirit

Fu in quel dolore
che a me venne l’amor!
Voce piena d’armonia e dice:
“Vivi ancora! Io son la vita!
Ne’ miei occhi è il tuo cielo!

It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me!
And murmured in a sweet, melodious voice
“You must live! I am life itself!
Heaven is in your eyes!

In the past few weeks I have experienced the reawakening of something that had remained elusive to me for the last few years as life pulled me into a difficult and traumatic personal situation. While I struggled to cope there were certainly moments of clarity and hope but until the curtain had been drawn on it I could not see what it really was. The immense sense of loss I felt for the great joy I had been given only to have it brutally taken away was as palpable as the death of someone very close well before their time.  This joy itself had been hard won after years of struggle and was then so appallingly lost. I had called it my ‘rose domino’ moment –  inspired by the sight of hundreds of toppling red dominoes I had seen once on French TV – the sense of release – the culmination of building something into a moment of intense spiritual unity, freedom and relief. But it was gone.

Day after day I keened for its return but nothing came back and I had to painfully turn the leaves of time and deal with the immense void its loss left. However, as this blog might occasionally testify, I did feel I had some form of spiritual strength growing inside of me.  It was only when I reached the strange culmination of events earlier this year that I realised that the journey had elicited in me strengths I did not know I possessed. The only challenge that remained to me was to trust my capacity for love and to trust once again in all those I would allow close.  For me, to close off the spirit of love is to close off life and that spirit is the same that allows words and music to flow through me. That was the difficult part. However, in the last few months  I have  begun to see the light that had withdrawn from me return through the unquiet of my own noisy spirit – through my creativity, through these words I write, in the notes I sing and I play, and my courage began to return.

I saw the film ‘I am Love’ recently, Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino’s tribute to classic Italian cinema, and absorbed its theme of the rebirth of  a suppressed identity through memory, desire and love. It takes its title from the aria La Mamma Morta (some of the words of which are above) in Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier. The Countess de Coigny recalls that in the darkest moments of her despair and grief the voice and spirit of love awakens her hope.  If I had not clung to this hope myself my victory might have been unnoticed but the truth is that nothing dies to us, it is only born again in a new form.  Nor is true happiness  found in outer success, material possessions, laurels and rewards  – some things I have, others I did and lost, and some I have not at all. Joy is the triumph of creative journeying with every step laced through with the spirit and hope of love.  There is no ‘art’ in itself, there is just the art of living with creative imagination and without love, and the hope of love,  that cannot breathe. My faith has already proven itself – I am my own joy and Heaven is in my eyes.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Jalal-al-Din Rumi