Sunday, October 31, 2010

Strawbery Banke (Part III) The Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century new waves of immigration reach Strawbery Banke, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Where once its settlers were largely English, now even a Jewish family from the Ukraine takes up residence in this colonial seaport town. This is the kitchen of the Shapiro family.

The museum features live exhibits such as the one shown above. A welcoming Mrs. Shapiro makes traditional Ukrainian food in the visitors' presence, Challah bread and borscht.

And a little later, perhaps in the 1940s and 50s this is where the Shapiro family, and all of Puddle Dock, the neighborhood in which they live, shops, in the local general store.

The curators here are enormously detailed in their vision. While it might seem like a kitsch movie set the fact that it's housed in a genuine old store in a genuine neighborhood whose streets and houses are framed in the store's windows, lends the re-creation a three-dimensional authenticity—it's a real voyage back in time.

These kitchens of the post-hearth era are convincingly recreated here. I don't know of another museum of this kind that features the 20th century in such a way—as deserving of conservation as the earlier periods shown above.

A living room from the early 50s. Not a poor house, really, but not at all an affluent one (note the linoleum false rug). And yet the 50s lifestyle has taken hold even here: the TV dinners on folding stands, each member of the family having one of his own so that he can face the TV set. This is when conversation among family members met its official demise; suddenly what the world had to say, with its bigger experience and its shaped presentations, took center stage in our lives. The telephone sits conveniently on its stand as the outside world that we'd had little to do with until now could suddenly ring and of course we'd want to be within arms reach of the news.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Strawbery Banke (Part II)

Ringneck pheasants fly out of the autumn grasses on the walls of this mid-19th century bedroom as late morning light passes through the old chintz curtains. The deep feather bed is covered with a folksy patchwork quilt, a ladies' art and passtime once widely practiced here in colonial New Hampshire.

A more important bedroom in the same house shows the influence of Queen Anne style (1702-1714). The pair of chairs are probably Hitchcock, one of the first manufactured chairs in New England, from the Hitchcock Chair Company of Connecticut, founded in 1818. The round braided rug is typically colonial, as are the painted wide board floors.

This could have been my family, seated round the fireplace on a Sunday morn, dressed in their Puritan "Sunday best." The mantel and room may be that of the penultimate photograph in this series.

A wonderful old kitchen, the focal point of a happy and healthy homelife. Everything was cooked on the open fire, or in brick ovens deep in the hearth. Note the butter churn.

Some of the houses at Strawbery Banke are left in a state of partial restoration, giving us a look at the many layers of paint and wallpapers applied over the centuries.

The pine floor here is obviously new, but historically true to style. The Windsor chairs are like those first produced in England in the late 17th century and shipped to the colonies. The table and secretary are Queen Anne.

I'm especially fond of this blue leaf and bud pattern wallpaper. Antique colonial wallpapers, faithfully reproduced, can be found at Adelphi Paper Hangings of Sharon Springs, New York.

Strawbery Banke (Part I)

To a New Englander, like me, this looks like any ordinary house, one you might have grown up near, or at least passed on your way out to the countryside. New England is full of such old buildings, but they're quickly disappearing. Made entirely of wood, all sorts of rot and decay take their toll on their fragile structures. The trend today, unfortunately, is to tear them down and build anew upon their "footprints."

But this is not an ordinary neighborhood of houses; it's a museum. An unusual one. Strawbery [sic] Banke began as a "save our history" effort by the citizens of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the late 1950s, Puddle Dock, an area of dilapidated homes near the Piscataqua River was targeted for urban renewal. All the "substandard" homes in Puddle Dock—some of which dated back to the 1600s—were to be torn down and replaced with modern buildings. That was until city librarian Dorothy Vaughn addressed the Portsmouth Rotary Club one day in 1957.

That day Vaughn "laid it on the line" for the Rotary Club, telling them that every time one of the old houses was torn down or an antique piece of Portsmouth furniture shipped out of town, the city was losing its past. The Rotary Club was galvanized into action, and while Puddle Dock did undergo some urban renewal, much of it has been saved as an historical museum.

Named after the earliest Portsmouth settlement, Strawbery Banke Museum conserves buildings from four centuries, displaying them as living history. Each building shows a slice of life from a bygone era, and serious archeological and crafts work continues to be done by staff and artisans on the museum grounds.

Everywhere you look, it's like a painting. My ancestors, early colonists (the Gilmans, the Ladds, the Sleepers, the Prescotts), lived and worked in such surroundings, and so places like this have special meaning for me. In my next post, we'll go inside these historic houses and see how the early settlers once lived.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Collector's Home in Naples

A certain Neapolitan baron leaves the city center in the 19th century for the hilly countryside where he'll enjoy his view of the bay and Capri, Sorrento and Ischia, and the quiet pastoral life among the shepherds and farmers at his doorstep. This is the brass plaque he placed on his green lacquered door, a small house, far from town and its disturbances. Baron Filippo Cosi, he was called.

The style of house is not at all unusual for Naples, a gate on the road, the portone, a courtyard within, planted out with the tender plants of the South of Italy. The façade is neoclassical, columns in the Tuscan Order, and a row of portefinestre, French doors, all, of course, inspired by Pompeii.

And inside, the baron studied and dreamed, at this desk, in this small room.

And when he passed away, his daughter and her husband, Dr. Guido Donadoni left everything untouched. He is an officer of Italia Nostra, Associazione per la salvaguardia e la conservazione dell'ambiente e del territorio, an important national conservancy. This is a look at the Donadoni dining room, its majolica floor, its many objects and collectibles in the taste (more is more) of an era long since passed.

Consider this pair of early 19th century porcelain clocks. Of local manufacture, the towers are supported on the backs of red lions, and there are delicate toy soldiers guarding their gothic rooftops—they're extraordinary, and there are TWO of them!

This house is also home to an enormous collection of Neapolitan majolica—there are rooms-full of hand-painted pots and vases and bowls, displayed on shelves from ceiling to floor (not shown in this post). Some of the more elegant pieces found their way to these dining room walls, while the corner cabinet houses rare examples of painted dishes from the late 18th century. We were here briefly for tea on Saturday, October 9th.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Garden and Palace of Caserta

If we were to stand at this vantage point nowadays we'd see a vast continuous rooftop of all that's been built in this valley since this painting was done in the early 19th century. We are in the new "English" garden at Caserta, palace of the king of Naples and the two Sicilies, and the view we see in the near distance is part of the Italian garden as it was first conceived, with its long alley of plane trees that stretches towards the city of Naples in the distance.

The original garden's uppermost terrace affords this stunning view, twin alleys framed out by high hedging and a series of basins each with its monumental sculpture depicting one of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. The enormous structure centered in the distance is the Reggia itself, a palace not to have been rivaled in its grandeur by any other on the planet. In fact, Caserta is the largest royal palace to have been erected in 18th century Europe.

Just behind where I stood to take the second photograph in my series, is an enormous pool fed by a central waterfall. The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon, as it is called, contains sculptures by Paolo Persico, Brunelli, and Pietro Solari, mounted as if upon a pair of islands. Below, the man-made waterfall brings a noisy quantity of water into the fountain, which eventually finds its way to the basins below before it makes its way to the Bay of Naples.

And inside no expense was spared: the structure, the marble, the sculpture, the paintings. Notice the famous "double cupola," which served as an orchestra. Wanting a home to rival his ancestors' palaces at Versailles and Escorial, King Carlo hired Luigi Vanvitelli, southern Italy's greatest architect, to design this complex of buildings and gardens that ended up being larger and more impressive than either of its predecessors.

The palace has some 1,200 rooms, including two dozen state apartments, a great library, and a theater. This is the throne room—or is it just one of several?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Garden in Majolica Tiles

One of the most richly decorated gardens anywhere is the cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples. This lavishly appointed formal garden is part of the complex of the Church of Santa Chiara, which preserves much of its 14th century construction—it was built by Queen Sancha of Maiorca in 1340. The garden was transformed in 1742 through the work of Domenico Vaccaro with pillars, parapets and magnificent hand-painted majolica tiles representing 64 scenes of landscapes, masquerades, carnival triumphs and mythological scenes.

The cloister was damaged heavily in WWII but it has been faithfully restored in an ongoing effort, which is now nearing its end. Enormous majolica planters once sat upon each of these ornate columns. Three of them survive and are conserved in the adjacent museum. Apparently the project director has not yielded to the temptation to remake them in the interest of completing the original vision, as I might have done.

Winding garlands of summer fruits and flowers spiral up these sumptuous pillars, while the backs of the decorative garden seats show pastoral scenes of the Campagna countryside.

In this corner of the garden fruit trees are planted in a casual, perhaps practical way. There is even a vegetable garden within this cloister, in welcome contrast to all the rigor of this breathtaking order and style just beyond.

This is the central walk, which is crossed by another just like it. Where they meet in the middle a wooden gazebo rises. Now, it is unadorned with vegetation of any kind, but my hunch is that one day a rose or a grape vine might grow there as it might once have done.

This scene from the local countryside depicts a villa with a tower, not unlike that of the Duca di Guevara di Bovino of my previous post.

Here, scenes from the Neapolitan seaside decorate some of the numerous garden seats of the cloister.

In further alleyways of the garden, we find the relief of this elegant, whitewashed simplicity.

But in the loggias all around, the walls are covered with these extraordinary frescoes, illuminated here by a shape of sunlight made by one of the many high Provençal/Gothic style arches.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Garden in the South of Italy

An imposing silhouette in soft pinks and ochres against a late afternoon sky is the palace of the Dukes Guevara di Bovina in Recale, not far from Naples, catching the last light of day. When Caserta became the home of the King of Naples and the two Sicilies in the early 18th century its presence there invited the company of other nobility of the region, among them the Neapolitan aristocrat who built this house, in 1760.

It stands at the edge of a town and flush upon a road, where nowadays far more traffic passes than it did in the 18th century. And it has an interesting recent history. The last duke died without an heir and so he left the property to his custodial staff. Eighty years later it is still in their hands and they, with the help of a local garden foundation, lovingly care for the property just as the Guevara had done in their time.

This is the quiet courtyard with its green peace of boxwood, hydrangeas, Cicas revoluta and climbing jasmine.

If an Italian garden is green and all about green then this is the model of such a style. This site had originally been a large enclosed field, mostly flat, but gently rising away from the house. The duchess made her garden in the form of intersecting walkways in the layout of a grid, and along these paths she planted box hedges. While once they might have been rigidly clipped adhering to the geometry of the scheme now they are formed with a bit of fantasia, rising here to balls that aren't quite symmetrical, then softly falling to lower heights in between. The effect is that of maturity, in which the gardener can no longer enforce his exacting discipline on the plants, who by now have minds of their own. The great camphor tree to the right was planted by Lady Emma Hamilton.

The effect of the Cicas revoluta, a plant which is not at all a palm, is at once formal and cultural. Some of them are in pots here, while some are in the ground. In either case, they evoke the 19th century, the glorious age to which the older of these venerable plants belongs.

The destination play house (which you see in image #4) is attached to this basin.

And this is a view of its interior, lavishly painted and grandiose in its vaulted ceiling and generous high-arched doors, which open to the garden paths and the lily pond. This historic boat, big enough only for a child, once floated in the waters of the basin, but now it sits preserved upon this elegant central table, an object for consideration—the idea of the garden's curator, the talented architect Nicola Tartaglione.

In all this green perhaps certain details recede, but this ally of box and stone benches is enormously clever. Each seat is separated from the next by a low wall of green, and each is shaded by a high parasol of yet more box—it takes years, perhaps a generation to achieve such a magnificent effect. To either side, beyond the hedge: orange trees.

Off to the side, the garden takes on an English scheme, with winding paths and casual planting. The duchess was influenced by Emma Hamilton, who brought her romantic gardening style to the Reggia di Caserta; a woman of fashion she eschewed the old order in favor of romantic naturalism.

Hidden treasures are everywhere here. Only the seasoned garden visitor, armed with all the experience of curiosity, would come upon this tucked-away statue of an umbrella-carrying brother and sister under a forever raining sky—a gift to the duke from Umberto II, the King of Italy.

In all, this is one of my favorite gardens in Italy!