It all started with the Postcards; six or seven of them, dated from 1st to the 19th October, 1945, showing black and white views of Bologna, similar to these ones found on Wikipedia. The ink of the handwriting on the back is faded but still legible, as my late father-in-law, stationed in Northern Italy after WWII, jotted brief notes to his fiancée – later his wife – back in England.
‘…This is the main square of the town…’ and so on, until we come to ‘…Here is a picture showing a closer view of the two towers in the centre of Bologna. I don’t know what they are for, but they make a good landmark for aeroplanes!…’
Mozart and his father would also have seen the towers on their two visits to the city, in the 1770s.
And then there was the Painting; Raphael’s The Ecstasy of St Cecilia, seen by Liszt during a visit to Bologna in 1838. He wrote an open letter to Joseph d’Ortigue, published in the Gazette Musicale of 14 April, 1839: ‘ … As soon as I arrived in Bologna, I sped off to the museum [pictured]. I hurried right through three galleries… as I was very anxious to see the Saint Cecilia. It would be difficult, even impossible, for me to make you understand everything I felt when I suddenly found myself in the presence of that magnificent canvas where Raphael’s genius appears to us in all its splendour…’*
So with the tantalising incentives of the views on the Postcards and the Painting, it seemed a good idea to visit Bologna to see them for ourselves. And we did, finding it fascinating to compare the postcard scenes then and now, and to follow the footsteps of a 25-year-old serviceman in 1945, and the footsteps of the 27-year-old Liszt in 1838.
As for the painting, Marie d’Agoult was dismissive: ‘Nice day. Arrival in Bologna. First impression, disappointment. Town badly built, poorly paved, ugly arcades, very choice art Gallery. Saint Cecilia less admirable than I had expected. I am beginning to think that Raphael’s reputation is somewhat overrated…’**
So why did it captivate Liszt? I think there are three reasons.
Firstly, he had a vested interest. St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians and of church music, has been celebrated for centuries by churches named in her honour, and in the arts. Poems by Dryden and Pope, and works by composers including Charpentier and Handel, and more recently Parry, Britten and Howells, extol her virtues. Britten, cleverly, was born on St Cecilia’s day, November 22nd, in 1913. Bologna has an Oratory of Santa Cecilia (right), with frescoes showing views of her life, situated in the Via Zamboni; one passes it on the way to the Pinacoteca Nazionale in the Via Bell’Arti, where Raphael’s painting of her hangs.
Secondly, Liszt was particularly smitten with the works of art he saw in his Italian travels where he found parallels in music, and was directly inspired to compose Sposalizio and Il Penseroso in his Année de Pèlerinage II – Italie by works of art by Raphael and Michelangelo. His open letter to Joseph d’Ortigue describes each of the personae in the St Cecilia painting as they listen to heavenly music, writing that ‘ …they epitomize the essential elements of music and the different effects it has on the heart of man…’
Finally, the painting is – quite simply – stunning. Curiously, I found myself in the same situation as Liszt, hurrying through the arcades of Bologna because of time constraints – retracing his footsteps along the Via Bell’Arti to the gallery, quickly going inside, through various rooms whose contents there was no time to admire, following the pointed directions of attendants as I queried ‘Santa Cecilia?’ at each turn, until, at the end of a long corridor, through a doorway and on the far wall … ah. There she is.
And, just like Liszt, how impossible to describe the effect … Percy B. Shelley wrote wonderfully about it. No reproduction online can really do the painting justice. The colours are so vivid – and it is so – well – beautiful, and no two people will see it alike. But what struck me were the details of the musical instruments: a fretted viol with five pegs but just one broken, curling string, tambourines, one with bells as well as jingles, a triangle, cymbals, a flute, and small drums with broken skins. St Cecilia holds a portative organ, as she does in many images, but as her concentration is focused on a vision, so the organ is upside down and forgotten, its inverted keyboard with keys at different heights, some of the small pipes beginning to slip out as gravity takes it toll. And the vision which she sees and hears – angels, singing from large part-books. The two on the right made me smile, as one is pointing at the copy, as if to say, ‘We’re at that bar, THERE!‘
Mission accomplished, it was time to go back out into the sunlight, along the arcades of the Via Zamboni amidst groups of chattering students from Bologna’s university, past the Oratory of Saint Cecilia, and past the Teatro Comunale, which happily is presenting performances of Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, on several dates in November 2013 – but sadly not on St Cecilia’s day, his centenary.
Oh – I nearly forgot. The Bolognese Sauce. Now who could go to Bologna and not try some Spaghetti Bolognese? Correction; it’s supposed to be eaten with tagliatelle, not spaghetti. And that’s how we had it. Here’s the recipe. Just in case Bologna and its Pinacoteca Nazionale are not on your list of must-visit places…
* Liszt’s writings on St Cecilia are published in ‘An Artist’s Journey’, translated and annotated by Charles Suttoni, published by The University of Chicago Press.
** from d’Agoult -Memoirs