The World’s First Shopping Mall?

Shopping malls or, as they are known in Italy, ‘centri commerciali’ are often accused of closing down the individual shops which traditionally dominated our high streets. With their car-parks, protection from inclement weather, their one-stop shopping possibilities and their faciities such as bars, restaurants and movie theatres it is small wonder that the ‘centri commerciali’ have taken so much trade away from old-style street-lining shops. I’ve discussed the very serious problem that is afflicting Bagni di Lucca’s shop-keepers in my post at .

Let’s not blame America for the rapid proliferation of shopping centres in Europe and Italy. London’s Brent Cross, Westfield and Dartford’s Bluewater all have European origins. Bluewater’s architecture, in particular, I found stunning enough to merit a poem :


Blue water lap me under zodiac’s dome,

enring me within the sphere of my sign

encompass eyes below crests of whitest cliffs;

inside your silvered pavilions cover

my being with bright tellurian riches,

join me in dances on coralline floors,

interpret inscriptions on the vast frieze

raising hearts to thoughts greater than they know,

breathe the argentine trellis of roses,

run your fingers down deep eastern forests

while pacific pines shade estuary suns;

make me forget this is just another

bloody shopping mall, stuck in a quarry

and I cannot pay off my MasterCard…

(Bluewater Shopping Centre, Dartford Kent)

Before the modern malls there were the Victorian covered markets. No visit to London would be complete without a window-shopping stroll down Burlington arcade


or Leadenhall market, and there’s nothing to beat Milan’s extraordinary example of architectural eclecticism, its stunning Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, otherwise known as the ‘Salotto’, or salon, of Milanese society. Here is the galleria on my visit to it in 2009.

But let us go further back in time and enter a shopping mall that was built almost two thousand years ago and which still has its shops intact, though now no longer a functioning ‘Centro Commerciale’ but a magnificent example of Imperial Roman architecture at its most imposing.

Trajan’s semi-circular market is just part of the grandest of all the imperial fora. Funny things may have happened on the way to the old Roman forum but, with the passing away of republican Rome and the heralding of the age of the imperial city, the old forum became, frankly, too small.

(The original Roman Forum)

Successive emperors build new fora, not only to add to public meeting spaces but to mark their place in history, Of these the most distinctive are those of Caesar, Augustus, Nerva and, most superlative and extensive of all, Trajan’s Forum, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus around 100 A.D. and celebrating the emperor’s conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania,

In its glory days the forum looked something like this:

The complex comprised a public square, a basilica, a temple to the deified emperor, the famous column with spiralling reliefs of the conquest of the Dacians and the world’s first ‘Centro Commerciale’ or shopping mall.

The market museum (opened in 2007 and beautifully set out) gives one of the best ideas of what everyday life in imperial Rome must have been like. Trajan’s mall would have made a welcome change from the narrow canyon-like streets that characterised most of ancient Rome and exist to this day:

The new market would also have provided easier access for the delivery of goods and foodstuffs.

There’s so much to take one’s breath away here: from marble floors, to amazing concrete and brick vaulting, the library and a balcony from which one can enjoy some of the best views of Rome. All I missed were the ancient Roman themselves and the multifarious smells of market goods. What a wonderful place to, at the very least, have held a Christmas market. After all, this beautiful shopping mall was built during the birth of a new religion, Christianity.

But let my photos show something of the atmosphere of this Roman ‘Brent-Cross’ shopping centre:


Who knows? On-line shopping could clearly make even the shopping mall a relic of the past, After all, why even bother to lift yourself from the comfort of your armchair when you can peruse all your big shops and compare prices at the drop of a digit.



Merry Christmas – Buon Natale!



Journeys Through Time and Space and Mind

The building itself is sculptural in quality with dove-coloured Buchan marbles from the state of Victoria, Caleula from New South Wales and Angaston marble from South Australia, all placed on a base of trachyte. Even the wood used comes from Australia including the black bean tree. Started in 1913, but not completed until 1918, the High Commission’s headquarters supplied these precious materials as ballast for ships returning to the imperial capital to collect bullets, as Michael Francis Cartwright pointed out to me when introducing the awesome exhibition entitled ‘journeys’ now on view within the monumental hall of London’s Australia house.



It’s rare that a whole family should be united for a sculpture exhibition in this way and the sensations the art works arouse are both intimate and extraordinary. ‘Journeys’ here not only signifies personal development towards a collective, but highly individual, expression of finding one’s centre of being; it not only means a spatial discovery into the heartbeat of three principal nuclei: the country of one’s birth and the discovery of the multiform cultures of Italy, Ireland and France. It also signifies a journey to reconnect with primal sources defining the concept of humanity itself.

Shona Nunan’s bronze ‘spirit guardian’ reminded me, in its almost Celtic wave-like curves, of the shield found in the Thames, not dropped by a defeated warrior but given to London’s river as a protective offering. There is a primal connection between the birth of art and creation itself. Art has a sacral function, indeed a need to express survival as the Lascaux cave paintings so vividly display. Simply put, without artistic creation, we become diminished into nothingness.



The same artist’s ‘earth guardian’ with its immaculately textured leaf-like shape could equally stand as a protean symbol and as a shape of exquisite beauty.

Shona’s ‘life’ clearly expands on her Irish experiences and such inter-stellar structures as prehistoric Newgrange.


Her ‘torso’, first viewed during those miraculous years 2013-15, when the Bagni di Lucca arts festival, largely envisaged by the same family, blossomed with an energy worthy of 1920’s Paris, combines intimation of the mother goddess with Christian symbolism – like our local church of San Cassiano, at the foot of the Prato fiorito Mountain, which is built on the foundations of a temple of Diana.


Here, too, there are connections with the steles discovered in Lunigiana, an area to the north of the artist’s location in the Lucchesia:



In this respect Michael has two pieces, one of which is directly inspired by the smooth green slopes of the treeless mountain dominating the family’s sojourn at Bagni di Lucca.


The cloud reminds me of Shelley’s fascination with its evanescence and the poet’s journey to those Elysian slopes.



The cloud appears as an exceptional sculptural tour de force in another of Michael’s pieces when it hovers billowing over the reddish rocks of another local village, Montefegatesi, whose name alludes to the liver-cerise of the surrounding ferrite stones.


Jacob, the family’s elder son, has undergone his own journey from sound to sculpture which, in so many respects, could be described as frozen music. He is particularly taken by the concept of the boat and his ‘boat over reeds’ stimulated a thousand thoughts in me. I was reminded of my journey down the Nile in a feluka, of my time with scouts canoeing down the river Arun, of my university days punting down the Cam…indeed, generally messing about in boats, not forgetting handling the ever-fickle English wind on a dinghy. Jacob’s boats took me into the mists of time with the Lady of Shalott and that journey of journeys, the wanderings of Odysseus across the Mediterranean sea to reach Ithaca and his faithful Penelope. The boat transforms, indeed, into a journey through life itself with the whirlpools and the rocks it meets being metaphors of life’s own obstacles and one’s faith that the goal of self-realization may be fulfilled before the vessel’s final course to the underworld.



Sollai’s sculptural works, for me, displayed perhaps the highest and purest form of self-expression. There can be few examples of such semi-abstract beauty than his ‘woman figure’.


How can something so geometrically pure be so flowing and so sensuous and yet bear within its womb the experience of cycladic art and those o-so enigmatic Pontremoli steles?

Although titled ‘abstract’ this one made me think feline but then I’m just crazy about cats.


This is an exhibition not to be missed, even in a city like London brimming with great sculpture from the Elgin marbles to Barbara Hepworth and beyond. Each of the four members of this prodigiously gifted family has achieved their own highly individual journey through time, space and inner-being and all four have come together in a sort of cosmic chat-room to give us the privilege of sharing their experiences in art’s most tangible form – a sculptural dialogue which resonates with memories of Australian primeval ritual sites, with Mycaenian Mediterranean waves, with Celtic convolutions of greenness and with mountains of marble formed by fiery subterranean forces, reinterpreted by a human imagination and recollected in breathtaking and transcendent forms.



The exhibition is officially open until 16th June although further viewings may be had upon request.

For more information do see


Ps All photographs are mine including those of Prato Fiorito and Pontremoli.

Meeting Up with Lions, Dragons and Eagles in the Lucchesia

I recently wrote about Brancoli Cross in my post at . Brancoli itself has one of the most magnificent Pievi in the whole of Lucca province. (A Pieve is a step above a plain parish church and used to be until recently the only kind of church where baptism could take place).

Inside, the Pieve, dedicated to Saint George, has a nave and two aisles separated by columns and pilasters surmounted by capitals decorated with stylised plant motifs.


The roof is supported on wooden trusses and the apse is slightly raised and is still divided by a partition, for in the Middle Ages there was a distinct barrier between the officiants of a church service and the congregation.  (This division is still a feature of Orthodox churches and, indeed of many English cathedrals, abbeys and kingly chapels where the choir is a space completely unto itself, as in the Royal chapel at Windsor Castle where a recent wedding took place.


The octagonal font of the twelfth century, in the left aisle, is signed “Guido”, a Lombard master working in Lucca who was responsible for the original Romanesque Santa Maria Corteorlandini in that city. It is decorated with plant motifs and heads; with a fruit carved on each corner including a pomegranate, a clue that this church was commissioned by that great mediaeval lady Grand-contessa Matilde di Canossa.

If you think the font is rather large that is because, again in the mediaeval church, baptism was achieved by complete immersion and not just confined to new-born babies – repentant adults would also have to be immersed!


Sadly the stoup (the holy water basin in which the faithful dip their hands and  do the sign of the cross when entering the church) and dating from the eleventh century, was unfortunately stolen in June 2000 as the sorry sign says – a new one, however, has been put in its place. Goodness knows where the original has finished up. I hope it’s on the huge database of stolen works of art and that someone somewhere may be racking their conscience about it…


The best piece of sculpture, however, is the ambo or pulpit, dated 1194 and the work of master Guidetto. It is rectangular in plan, with Corinthian columns that sustain it, two of  of which are supported  on lions, one of which is in the act of killing a serpent-like dragon – clearly a depiction of the triumph of good over evil. In my opinion it’s just as fine as the larger pulpit with lions in Barga cathedral and harks towards the magnificent pulpits one can see in Pistoia’s churches. Note also the noble effigy of Matilde in the centre of one side.

There are several other wonderful works of art in this church including a Della Robbia terracotta depicting Saint George and the misused dragon.


At the end of the north aisle is this exquisite tabernacle:


There is also a fine thirteenth century painted crucifix


and a sweet fresco of the Annunciation.


The Pieve has also some fascinating sculpture on its exterior:

There is a mysterious little man sculpted in the arch of a side doorway who is populariy known as ‘il brancolino’. I wonder who he represents? An Italian version of the anglo-saxon ‘green man’ perhaps?


Some years back I sang in a choir in San Giorgio di Brancoli on Saint George’s day in a special service attended by members of the order of Saint George wearing their opulent cloaks. Later that Sunday I went to a St George’s day party organized by an Englishman – Saint George can truly be said to be an international saint and a good excuse to celebrate!

It is, however, sad to note that probably the most gracious pieve in the whole province is shut except for one day in the year when Mass is celebrated. It’s only thanks to the efforts of  volunteers in a parish which only counts 140 inhabitants that we were able to visit the Pieve. Three phone numbers are affixed onto the main door and, thanks to these, the Pieve doors were opened for us. (Donation welcomed).



Quirky Sculpture at Bagni’s Town Hall

Bagni Di Lucca is brim-full of activities this summer. The best way to find out about them is just to photograph every poster you come across on bar doors and placards and to consult not only the tourist office by the town hall but also the pro-loco site which has an English version at

There are also various facebook pages dealing with Bagni di Lucca including this one:

Mentioning the town hall there is an exhibition by sculptor Mario Bargero on at present in the area behind the building. His works is often whimsical and always imaginative.


It’s sad that Mario has no longer been with us since 2013 but it’s good that his work is included in the art shows which are continuing at the Palazzo Lena (town hall) in Bagni di Lucca.