The Romantic snapshot

pic2I have got mixed feelings towards snapshooting, I mean, I do enjoy the language of pictures, I also follow a lot of amazing blogs about photography, however, whenever I have the opportunity of seeing something worthy of being captured in a shot, well, I always feel strangely reluctant to pick the camera and  take that picture. I still remember the overwhelming emotions I felt, when I saw my first Maldivian atoll. It was the first stop of an adventurous cruise on the Indian Ocean ( local ship and crew and just a bunch of tourists that barely knew one another). I wasn’t actually an atoll, but rather a white, sparkling sandy beach that surfaced in the middle or the most crystalline water I had ever seen.The sea had all the nuances of the blue and became whiter and whiter near the shore. Being a sea lover and beach hunter, I was dazzled. It was my dream that came true. I stood there, gazing speechless the magnificent colours for a long time and even if perfectly equipped, I completely forgot about taking pictures. The only photos I have of that trip belong to my husband, as I met him there.

pic4If I want to psychoanalyze myself to explain my idiosyncrasy about snapshooting, I could get to the conclusion that, very likely, it is grounded on my perception that it is all about catching the perfect instant rather than living it. For me it is as if I were missing the flow of the emotions in the effort of fixing them on a pic. Maybe this is my “romantic” vision of life, as I am pretty sure that Mr William Wordsworth would certainly agree with my point of view, if only he could. He was all about the ”  spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”  that arouse from the sight of amazing and unexpectedly beautiful natural landscapes. Wordsworth didn’t have cameras for sure, so he used the language of poetry to fix them. But how and when? Well, he believed in “solitude” and “tranquillity“.

pic 3Solitude” for Wordsworth is the privileged condition that allows you to see and feel in a unique, powerful way. If you are not distracted by words and noises, your self is more likely to enjoy the spiritual force of nature and be part of it. In  “Daffodils”, the poets tells us the sight of the beautiful flowers filled his mind leaving no room for anything  else ” I gazed, I gazed, but little thought” and in that moment he was overwhelmed by and incredible joy, a beatitude that you feel once you feel in harmony with the whole universe. Could he feel this way, if he had to bother about the perfect light to capture those daffodils?

For Wordsworth, in fact, poetry takes its origin from those emotions, but “recollected in tranquillity”, that is, from memory. Hence, both a poem and a picture have the same function: recreating a kindred emotion in order to be enjoyed (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“), but who has experienced the greatest bliss: the poet or the photographer?

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Grand Tour

grand 1Year after year always more and more many students of my school decide to experience a student exchange programme in order to improve their knowledge of a foreign language. The destinations may range from the English-speaking countries like the U.S.A., Ireland, England, Australia  to the more exotic ones like Japan, China or Taiwan. At first they are convinced it will be only a matter of studying in a new school, changing habits for a while and why not, enjoying the exciting flavour of independence, to understand very soon that they have been involved in something more complex than simply learning a language. I want to use the words of one of my students to explain it, who, once invited to report about her one year experience in Taiwan, was happy to say with such eager eyes that she felt like having lived a whole life in that year and even more.

grand 3Sterne would have called it a “Sentimental Journey“, where sentimental refers to those emotions that arise from both the vision of a new landscape and the confrontation with completely different habits and cultures. The belief that travelling was a fundamental step for the “Bildung” of an adolescent is not something new, but it was rooted more or less in the seventeenth century, when it became fashionable among the young offspring of European aristocracy, artists and cultivated men to undertake a travel to Italy or better a “Tour“. The term “tour” replaced “travel” or “journey” as it marked the peculiar nature of this kind of voyaging, which was particularly long and broad, with start and finish in the same place. Many countries were visited but the dream destination was Italy.

grand 4In 1670, Richard Lassels coined in his “Italian Voyage” the expression “Grand Tour” a neologism that would have been universally adopted since then. For the “grandtourists” Italy was a mythical place, an open-air museum where the climate was always sunny and bright and nature wild, uncontaminated. The wealth of its archaeological sites, the legacy of Renaissance, the extraordinary musical vein were powerful appeals, but that was the myth as the reality these travelers found was very often quite disappointing.Impoverished countryisde, lifeless ports  and towns, dusty cultural activities and political institutions that seemed so rusted if compared to the more advanced European models, especially those in England. Goethe, who  had toured Italy for a couple of years, marked the contradictions of the country in his “Italianishe Reisen”  and in a second trip to Italy 1790 he sentenced: “Italy is still as I left it, still dust on the roads, still cheating habit. If you look for German honesty, you will look in vain.There is liveliness here, but no order and discipline. everybody thinks only of itself,  politicians included…..” uhmmm, if he could see Italy today, I think he would use more or less the same words. However, despite some bad reviews, the Italian seduction still worked.

grand 5The phenomenon, in fact, became wider and rich travelers had the habit of touring in the company of valets, doctors, musicians, painters. The Earl of Burlington , Richard Boyle, arrived in Italy with fifteen people besides his  gardener and accountant, Lady Marguerite Blessington used to travel on double spring carriages provided with mattresses and pillows and William Beckford, the son of a wealthy London merchant, was accompanied in his second trip to Italy by the artist JR Cozens, the Rev. John Lettice, his guardian and factotum, the doctor  Projectus Errhardt, the harpsichordist John Burton and by such a large party of friends that once in  Augusta he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria. An anonymous traveler wrote: “this travel mania is so widespread, that there is not one wealthy citizen that doesn’t  wish to enjoy the beauties of Germany, France and Italy”. Furthermore the new extraordinary archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompei (1748) had enriched the itineraries of the “grandtourists”.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the modernization of society (new roads and railways, industrialization) the new generations of “grandtourists” seemed to have less time and money at their disposal. The length of the “tours” started to shorten and the new travelling rhythms  were signs of  the impoverishment of those cultural aspirations which had characterized them for more than a century. Travelling became less “sentimental” and more diversion, a sequence of organized information rather than a personal discovery. Hence these students, who have had the chance to experience the world just like the “grand tourists” used to do, are the last, fortunate “romantics”.

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Narcissus’s selfie

nar1It’s time to spend a few words on the “selfitis“, that modern virus that keeps on infecting many people all over the planet day after day, making them slave of the vision of their self . Social networking sites have proved to be actually the most contagious spots, where this “self” addiction takes place. The question is: what drive makes you pull out your smart phone and snap a shot to post it? Exhibitionism? Ostentation? Boredom? How can such a fascination be explained? Maybe the Latin poet Ovid may help us as he narrated in the third book of his Metamorphoses the story of the first “selfie” ever: Narcissus‘s selfie.

nar8Narcissus in Greek mythology is the son of  the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephissus. Cephissus, having fallen in love with the beautiful nymph, enfolds her with his waves and seduces her. From their union a boy of an uncommon beauty was born: Narcissus. Her mother consults the blind seer Tiresias to know the fate of her child and his prophecy is, as all prophecies, ambiguous: the boy would enjoy a long life as long as he never knew himself. Liriope was relieved by such a prediction. At the age of sixteen, Narcissus had become a proud and disdainful man. He was so amazingly beautiful that anybody fell in love with him, but he rejected all his suitors (men and women) as he believed nobody was worthy of him.

nar2One day, while Narcissus was deer hunting, the nymph Echo stealthily followed him in the woods. She was yearning to speak to him, but she couldn’t, as she was allowed to repeat only the last words of what was spoken to her. That was the punishment inflicted by the goddess Juno for having engaged her in a long conversation, thus enabling her adulterous husband to escape. So, when Narcissus sensed he was being followed, he shouted “Who’s there?” and Echo replied “…..here?”.  Narcissus was bewildered and yelled  “Come!” and Echo replied “Come!”. Narcissus called once more: “Why do you shun me?… Let us join one another.” When Echo heard Narcissus utter those words, she was so overjoyed  that she ran towards him and threw herself upon him, but he stepped away and told her to leve him alone at once. Echo was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her.

nar9When Nemesis,  the goddess of revenge, learned about the story, she decided it was the time to punish such a selfish, unfeeling creature. One sunny day, Narcissus came upon a pool of water, when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was a beautiful water spirit. He looked in amazement for a while and as he did not recognise his own reflection, he immediately fell in love with it. He tried to bend down his head to kiss that vision, but as he did so, the reflection mimed his actions. Taking this as a sign of reciprocation, Narcissus reached into the pool to draw the water spirit to him, but then he seemed to be gone. Every time he tried to touch him, he disappeared. Only after a while he eventually recognised the image of himself in that pool and lay there gazing in to the eyes of his vision for hours. When he eventually realized that his love could not be addressed, he committed suicide piercing his chest with his sword. From the soil blood soaked with his blood, a white flower with a red corolla came out: a narcissus. It seems that when Narcissus crossed the Styx,  the river of the dead, to enter the Underworld, he looked out on the muddy waters of the river one last time, hoping to once again to admire the reflection of his self.

Tiresias’s words offer a key of interpretation of this story and provide a possible answer to the questions above. The seer doesn’t say that Narcissus will die when he recognizes himself, but rather when he knows himself. In that obsessive gazing there is the mystery and wonder of our being. Modern selfies, just like that pool, reflect our image for sure, but in those pictures we instinctively try to seek, to know ourselves; it’s this search that charms our mind and dazzles our eyes.

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