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A Walking tour of Modigliani’s Livorno

Do you know about Amedeo Modigliani? He was one of Italy’s great Artists and we love his Art so much that we travelled all the way to his birthplace in Livorno to discover where he grew up. If you ever come to this quiet windswept, seaside town on the Ligurian Sea you can follow our steps and take a tour of the important traces that remain from his life.

Livorno’s deserted central station, a far cry from the tourist madness of Florence.

On our way out to the bus station who do we find but the great man himself! The Livornese are justifiably proud of their famous artist.

Not many tourists visit Livorno except when a cruise ship docks and busloads of perspiring Americans are shuffled off to the “Must See” destinations of Florence and Pisa, which makes it all the more special and magical to walk the long sun drenched streets.

If you are lucky you will see that the bohemians still gather in Livorno, here a group of Italian hippies have met to sing and play their instruments in the gazebo on the seashore.

Modigliani (or Dedo as he was affectionately known by his family) was the epitome of a tragic artist. Born to a bourgeois Jewish family in Italy, he later shunned his academic upbringing and willingly devolved into a poverty stricken vagabond. He was formally educated as a life painter in his teens, quickly developing a life-long infatuation with nudes. In 1902 he moved to Florence to study at the Academia di Belle Arti, at the “Free School of Nude Studies,” and a year later he moved to Venice as a fledgling artist, where he smoked hashish for the first time. It was only after he discovered narcotics that he developed the philosophical belief that the only path to creativity was through defiance of social norms and disorder in life. Thus began a life long affliction with corrupted beauty, which would ultimately end with his untimely death and the tragic suicide of his grief-stricken wife, Jeanne Hébuterne and their unborn child. Their only daughter was left an orphan at only 14 months age.

Modigliani contracted tuberculosis at an early age, which may be one reason why he often engaged in self-destructive behaviour. Living in Paris, he had affairs with many women, drank heavily, smoked hashish, and drank absinthe. He would often strip naked at social gatherings. He railed against all of the excesses of a Bourgeois lifestyle, and stripped them from his life, even destroying paintings that he had made in his earlier years.

Although he purposely created a life in which chaos, poverty, and doom lurked in every corner, he was a prolific artist. He sketched furiously, sometimes drawing over 100 sketches in a day, but many of his works were either lost, given away, or in some cases, destroyed by Modigliani himself. His favorite subject was by far the human form, painting the likenesses of other artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Max Jacob, and Juan Gris, who all sat for the artist. His formal works are characterised by an elongation of the human form and mask-like faces, and his work is so unlike any other of his time that it still defies classification.

” I would like my life to be like a rich river flowing joyfully on Earth “- Amedeo Modigliani –

The Tour

First stop on our tour is the birthplace of Modí, You will find it at Via Roma number 38, ring the bell beside the unassuming door and Elissa will admit you. If you are having trouble finding it look for this bust near the Piazza Attias, If you are facing the bust you are looking towards Casa natale Amedeo Modigliani.

Modigliani was famously born on the day the bailiffs arrived to take possession of the family valuables as an economic downturn in the price of metal had plunged the Modiglianis into bankruptcy. Amedeo’s birth saved the family from ruin; according to an ancient law, creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a newborn child. The bailiffs entered the family’s home just as Eugenia went into labour; the family protected their most valuable assets by piling them on top of her. Modigliani’s resourceful mother later used her social contacts to establish a school and, along with her two sisters, made the school into a successful enterprise, Elissa will show you a photograph of a young Amedeo with his classmates in the backyard of the house.

Elissa stands at her desk in the kitchen of Casa natale Amedeo Modigliani 

Second stop not far from the home of Modigliani you will find his high school, Elissa will have shown you his school reports, he did well in French thanks to his French speaking Mother but not so good on comportment, he was an energetic and rather spoilt child. The school is at Via Ernesto Rossi 6 and is one of the oldest schools in Livorno.

Third stop stroll on along Piazza Cavour and cross the canal.

We come to the former location of Caffè Bardi, from 1908 until it closed in 1927 it was the gathering place of bohemian Artists, Poets and Musicians from all over the World, it is now occupied by a Danish stationary shop.

Fourth stop continue now along the Medici canal until you come to the large and beautiful Mercato Centrale (covered market) it’s not far. On the first floor of the Market building Modigliani had his studio.

Up these unassuming steps was once the studio of Amadeo.

Most people know Amadeo for his paintings but in fact he really wanted to be a sculptor.

Unfortunately the dust and shavings irritated his tuberculosis too much but the strong symbols of his African influenced sculpture remain in his paintings, the long necks and noses, the concept of the mask and the blind eyes. Modigliani famously said “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes” and in fact of  all his paintings of the beautiful Jeanne Hébuterne only the final one shows her blue eyes.

Amadeo’s sculptures were not well received by the pompous and conservative art critics of his time which according to legend led him to angrily throw three of them into the canal that runs past the market.

This gave rise to a wonderful prank and scandal that beautifully targeted some more modern art critics. In 1984, 100 years after the birth of Modigliani, Vera Durbé, the manager of Livorno’s Progressive Museum of Contemporary Art, decided to organise an exhibition of Modigliani’s sculptures, to celebrate his 100th year. Her idea, however, prompted an interesting challenge: The search for the legendary heads that had famously been thrown into the canal by a young Modi. The quest was supported by the administrative council, who approved the dredging of the canal. The excavation work took place under the watchful eyes of many who stood waiting excitedly for any news of the recovery of these long-awaited works of art. Their wait lasted a week and on the eighth day three stone sculptures, sculpted in the harsh, elongated style for which Modigliani was by now famous for, were successfully excavated, one after the other. They were presented to the many art critics of Livorno, who unanimously declared that the heads were the original work of Modigliani. Only Amadeo and Jeanne’s orphaned daughter raised any doubts, denying that they were her Father’s work but no one listened to her. Durbé’s dream was realised and art lovers from all over the world flocked to Livorno… but they had forgotten that Livorno is a city famous for its pranks and practical jokes, after a month of much self congratulation and awards regarding the three newly-recovered sculptures, three Livornese students: Pietro Luridana, Pierfrancesco Ferrucci and Michele Guarducci, came forward claiming to have sculpted one of the three heads, in the garden of one of their houses, using drills and other tools bought from a local hardware store. They presented photos of themselves in action and the splinters of stone pertaining to the sculpture in question. Then, on national television they re-enacted the creation of the masterpiece.

Not long after, a sculptor named Angelo Froglia laid claim to the other two heads. Angelo Froglia was, in fact, just an ordinary dock worker who was passionate about art and was a talented sculptor. He claimed that he came up with the idea to pretend to have sculpted these pieces as a way of showing how art critics are led more by market trends rather than their own perceptions and the true worth of each individual piece of work. Both the three students and Froglia achieved their goals as in the end the joke was on the art critics who had previously slammed the work of Modigliani.

Only in Livorno could two completely different, unrelated groups of people have come up with exactly the same successful practical joke!

By now perhaps you are hungry? If so you must find the Father and Son who sell the finest cheese in the market, they are a pair of comedians who love to flirt with their female customers (but only if their wives are not working on the stall that day) these gentlemen will serve you a delicious tasting plate of the regions best cheeses and pesto on little pieces of bread, buy a glass of vino blanco at the bar, find a little table and enjoy!

Fifth stop now that you are refreshed you can continue on down to the sea past the rather racist looking statue that the Livornese are so proud of and you will come to the Fosso Reale (Royal Canal) and the streets of the old part of the city, here as a little boy Modigliani often walked in the company of his beloved grandfather, Isaac, they would visit the fishermen and spend entire days talking about history, philosophy, literature and playing chess by the sea. Climb the narrow stairs in the tower of the Fortezza Vecchia and you will have a lovely view of the old city

But be careful to speak loudly on your way up so you don’t surprise and embarrass the young lovers who meet there to exchange kisses!

Last of all I will mention this large crack in the wall of the fortress.

During World War 2 the Allies decided to completely flatten Livorno for what strategic reason will never be known but naturally the destruction left deep scars on the city and in the psyche of it’s community. More than 500 civilians were killed. It’s the reason there are a couple of stops missing from this walking tour, the beautiful synagogue and the studio of Modi’s first teacher were both destroyed. The city fell into a long economic decline that it is only now recovering from. When the fortress was repaired after the bombing the crack was retained and now appears as a motif in many Livornese Art works, an architect even included it in the design of one of the cities new schools.

Thankfully Livorno is more peaceful today.

        

If you want more you can visit the lovely little Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori in Villa Mimbelli, they have a Modigliani painting, a landscape called Tuscan Rd. It’s a little unusual because Modigliani pretty much hated doing landscapes!

                   

Secret Saigon (Sài Gòn)

14 Tôn Thất Đạm A secret hideout for Artists.

I walked past this building a few times before I chanced to venture in one day, mainly because I wanted to take shelter from the regular afternoon monsoonal downpour. From the outside it’s just another crumbling apartment complex built during the French occupation.

Inside you find the usual collection of parked motos, faded advertising, puddles and tangled electrical cables that cover the walls like vines in the jungle.

From the central courtyard rises a zig zag staircase, you can choose between several stairways to continue your exploration. Many buildings and additions have been randomly constructed over the years and plants, moss and mould have covered every available surface.

It’s not long before you discover the first signs that this is not just another typical rundown residential building, artists are living here.

It’s strange to be reminded that you are right in the heart of the CBD when you look out of a broken window and see the Saigon Skydeck towering above you.

Amongst the residential apartments are many small boutique shops and cafes. It’s quite odd to pass a ragged hole in the brick wall and look inside only to see an elegant young lady reading the newspaper and sipping her chai latte.

This is also a popular place for trendy young Vietnamese people to do cool instagram shoots with a ready made hipster backdrop.

  

Once upon a time this would have been quite a grand building, there was even an elevator. Sadly it will probably demolished to make way for yet another bland homogenous office tower.

A fashionable young woman checks to see if her favourite boutique fashion store is open.

Cafe Giàn Giáo – Innovation in Design

We are currently filming a documentary on Architectural Design here in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam and had the opportunity to visit the recently opened Cafe Giàn Giáo. In fact it had only been open for four days!

   

Designed by A21 one of Vietnam’s most innovative Architecture studios, the building incorporates salvaged street utilities such as a concrete electricity pole and an old public address system.

The name Cafe Giàn Giáo means something like Cafe Scaffolding and at first you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the building is still under construction but a closer examination reveals that the scaffolding is actually supporting a number of traditional wooden fishing canoes all loaded with lush tropical vegetation. The building itself is entirely clad in clear plastic so that patrons can enjoy looking at the plants and the slightly diffused and flickering passing traffic.

The staff are friendly and attentive and the owners are really lovely people. We sampled a delicious beef casserole served with freshly baked Vietnamese rolls.

 

We were even allowed out onto the roof to film, the gardens were being visited by small birds and the first butterfly we’ve seen in Vietnam.

The Cafe is open 24/7 and at night you can see it all lit up from outside and the people moving about inside.

You can visit Cafe Giàn Giáo at: 141 Hoang Van Thu Street, Ward 8, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City.

 

Snowman café

The Snowman café is an old Kathmandu institution located just off  Freak st not far from Durbar Square.  The owner Ram Prasad  Manandhar started out bringing tobacco from local villages into Kathmandu, eventually he saved up enough to buy the building and open his own tobacco shop which in the mid 60s evolved into a coffee and cake shop. In those days hippies were travelling the overland trail from Europe to India and many wound up in Nepal where they could enjoy legal hashish and live on next to nothing. Ram says that at that time there were so many hippies wandering about barefoot, (and sometimes even naked) that cars could not get down the street.

Hungry for the taste of western baked goods Snowman became one of the most popular hangouts for Westerners. Mathura Devi, the wife of Ram Prasad is a truly great baker, every morning before sunrise she is up making cakes in her kitchen on the third floor.

In the late 70s the overland trail came to an end as Islamic fundamentalists subverted and took control of the Iranian revolution, closing off the land route to Europe. The second blow fell when the USA’s corrupt president Richard Nixon paid the Nepalese millions of dollars on condition that they criminalise marijuana use. The hippies were rounded up by the police and forcibly deported, mostly into India. Soon the heroin trade was booming
(apparently run by Nepal’s own royal family with assistance from the Nepali army and the CIA!) and today you can meet Nepalese junkies hanging out just down the road near Durbar Square. Hashish is 30 times more expensive than in 1970 and a very cheap and low grade of heroin is now readily available. Thanks America!

Snowman’s survived though, adapting to the changing clientele by catering to young Nepali college students, Hendrix and the Beatles have been replaced by Nepali music on the cafe soundtrack. Nowadays most travellers stay in the tourist ghetto of Thamel but a few nostalgic older travellers still make their way to Snowmans for coffee and cake.

     

Newroz 2018

Sydney’s Kurdish Community celebrated Newroz, (the Kurdish New Year) last weekend.

MerJa Media was engaged to record the event on video, we are just editing that footage now but in the meantime you can enjoy a few photos we took of the event. For the full set of high res images please visit Flickr

The event was a huge success with hundreds of people attending, there were dance performances, bands and singers and rousing speeches all of which were loudly cheered by the audience. There was also a hard working crew in the kitchen delivering tea and snacks to the hungry crowd and of course a great deal of traditional Kurdish dancing in which everyone participated.

Despite recent painful events for the Kurdish people including the illegal invasion of Afrin by Turkey, the mood last weekend was happy and positive, The Kurdish spirit is strong and this community never allows any setback however difficult to suppress their courage and hope. These hard working, joyful and compassionate people have become a valuable part of Australia’s multicultural community.

More photos can be found here

Sydney Fox and Dingo Rescue reached their crowd funding target!

Sydney Fox and Dingo Rescue will soon have a new home thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Over $50,000 has been raised to provide a new home for these precious creatures.

After 6 years of providing shelter to hundreds of animals Sydney Fox and Dingo Rescue were suddenly given just 90 days to find a new home.

MerJa Media offered to help create a fund-raising video free of charge and a crowd funding campaign was quickly set up and launched. People generously responded and soon Sydney Fox and Dingo Rescue will have a permanent home of their own that they can never be evicted from. Sometimes good things do happen to good people (and animals!)

Jake giving direction to one of the foxes
Dingoes!
Sharing the tunnel