Jacopo Sansovino and the Romanization of Venetian Architecture

In the Proemio to his Four Books on Architecture, with reference to Venice, and to Sansovino’s library in particular, Palladio asserted:

One is beginning to see buildings of merit [in Venice], since Giacomo Sansovino, sculptor and architect of great renown, began for the first time to make known the bella maniera [beautiful style], as one can see, (leaving aside many other fine works of his) in the new building of the Procuratia, which is the richest and most ornate that has probably ever been erected from antiquity to our own day.

Born and educated in Tuscany, Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), both an architect and a sculptor, succeeded in competing with the great Michelangelo. He won important commissions in Florence and Rome where, in the church of S. Marcello, he carved the tomb of Cardinal Sant’Angelo, one of his masterpieces. After working in Rome, mainly as an architect, he left the city in 1527 after the Sack of Rome and took refuge in Venice where his talents were soon appreciated. He rapidly received many important civic and ecclesiastical commissions: the façade of S. Francesco della Vigna, the Scuola della Misericordia and Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio are all from this period. When the new plans for the area surrounding Piazza San Marco were proposed, Sansovino was commissioned to design the complex buildings that were to enclose the great area. Here his genius is truly revealed. The complex, inspired by the classical world of ancient Rome, provided impetus for other architects, especially Palladio, who admired Sansovino’s Library and acknowledge it in his own façade design for S. Giorgio Maggiore.

Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, engraving

Since his first appearance in Venice in flight from the Sack of Rome in 1527, Sansovino dominated the architectural scene in the city. At the time of his arrival he had little architectural experience. His chief reputation lay in his talent as a sculptor: “He is a great man after Michelangelo”, remarked Lorenzo Lotto in a letter reporting his flight. In Rome he had begun two churches, S. Marcello al Corso and S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, both of which suffered technical problems and were eventually assigned to his more technically experienced contemporary, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. His most successful Roman building was the palace for the Florentine banker Giovanni Gaddi, and it was Gaddi who accompanied him in his flight and initially offered him hospitality in Venice.

Despite his uncertain credentials in technical matters, Sansovino was immediately engaged to restore the domes of S. Marco, which were thought to be on the point of collapse. Vasari records the virtuosity of this restoration in graphic detail: indeed, the records of the Procuratia de Supra confirm that, within two days of Lotto’s first report of Sansovino’s arrival, the exceptional sum of five hundred ducats was provided for the repair. A year later, the procurators were still incurring “maximum expenses”. Vasari tells us that Sansovino was recommended for this task by none other than Doge Andrea Gritti himself, “who was a great friend of genius”. It is in the context of Gritti’s personal agenda for the renewal of Venetian culture that Sansovino made his architectural contribution.

On the death of Bartolomeo Bon, proto to the Procuratia de Supra, Gritti recommended Sansovino as his successor. This was the section of the Procuratia de Supra that was responsible for the upkeep of the church of S. Marco as well as most of the other buildings in the Piazza, apart from the Palazzo Ducale. On his appointment in 1529, Sansovino was given a house in the newly reconstructed Procuratie Vecchie near the Torre dell’Orologio, overlooking the Piazzetta, with its distant vista of S. Giorgio Maggiore between the two great columns.

View of the Piazzetta, Lazzaro Bastiani, Museo Correr

The new proto was preoccupied with the state of the buildings around the Piazzetta, because his job required him to keep these properties in good repair. Opposite Palazzo Ducale stood a row of five hostelries of ill repute, known as Peregrin, Rizza, Cavaletto, Luna and Lion, while at the end of the row, facing the Bacino, stood the Beccaria, or meat market. These buildings were Veneto-Byzantine structures dating from the early 13th century, with a row of lean-to bakery stalls in front that obscured their ground-floor arcades. The are clearly visible in the view of the Piazzetta attributed to Lazzaro Bastiani, now in Museo Correr. The south side of the Piazza, where the procurators themselves lived, was of similar age and equally decrepit. The Ospendale Orseolo occupied the east end of this range of buildings, which enveloped the Campanile on two sides. The rest of the Campanile was surrounded by money changer’s stalls.

Piazzetta San Marco

The decision to rebuild the north side of Piazza S. Marco after the fire of 1512 had been taken despite the deep crisis induced by the wars of the League of Cambrai (1509-16) which had seen Venice pitted against the major European powers and in danger of losing her terraferma possessions. Through this bold resolution, the procurators had already demonstrated their awareness that renewal could be justified as a capital investment because of the reductions of maintenance costs and the increased revenues from the rent of shops and apartments. What was lacking, though, in this new wing, where Sansovino’s own house lay, was any statement of artistic renewal.

By 1530, however, the Republic had fully recovered, economically and politically, from the traumatic Cambrai wars. Moreover, the cultural context has been transformed by the romanizing policies of the early years of Gritti’s dogate. But it was the intellectual revolution made possible by the rise of Venice as a major European centre of printing and publishing that most effectively transformed the place of architecture in the culture.

Plan of Piazza S. Marco

The Zecca was begun by Sansovino in 1536. On the façade, a row of nine shops selling cheese and salami were incorporated into the building, with the silver smelter behind and the gold smelter above. The courtyard at the rear was surrounded by workshops and storerooms. The cheese shops are dignified by the use of simple rustication in the manner of the ancients. The function of the mint itself – merely industrial, yet vital to the economic viability of the state – is enhanced by the choice of a rusticated Doric order. The finesse of Sansovino’s sculptural imagination is evident in the superb quality of the stone carving. Around the shops, every alternate stone projects slightly, to give subtle gradations of light and shade. On the piano nobile, correct and precisely cut Doric details are juxtaposed with rough-hewn stones as white and shaggy as fleece, and the effect of tension is enhanced by the heavy lintels clutched threateningly over the windows. The third order, in rusticated Ionic, was added in 1538, within Sansovino’s lifetime, though probably not to his design, as his employers, the Procuratori de Supra, were engaged in a bitter dispute with the Zecca at this time.

Zecca and Biblioteca Marciana
Biblioteca Marciana

For the site in the Piazzetta that faced the Palazzo Ducale, Sansovino designed a two-storey elevation, intended to extend all around the main Piazza as far as the church of S. Geminiano at the west end. This was the building now known as the Library which was praised so fervently by Palladio. Construction was begun at the end nearest the Campanile in 1537, the year after the start of work on the Zecca. The hostelries were demolished and relocated one by one over the next twenty years, although Sansovino – despite enormous efforts in the last decade of his life – never managed to find an alternative site for the Beccaria. The range was finally completed after his death by Scamozzi in 1588-91.

It was only after the start of work on this Piazzetta wing that it was decided to house the Biblioteca Marciana, a celebrated collection of Greek and Latin texts, in the part of the building nearest the Campanile. This underlies the role of the new buildings as scenery for the open space outside, rather than simply as a design appropriate to the use of the interior.

The design of the Library must have impressed the architecturally informed audience by its abundant references to the buildings of Rome, both ancient and modern. The rich Doric order, for example, is based on that of the Basilica Aemilia, illustrated by Giuliano da Sangallo in his Vatican sketchbook. This ruin also inspired the ingenious corner solution, by which Sansovino succeeded in placing an exact half metope at the end of the Doric frieze, as prescribed by Vitruvius. Sansovino also followed the Vitruvian recommendation that libraries, like bedrooms, should face the east, to receive good morning light. The reading room falls in the seven bays of the piano nobile nearest the Campanile, its rich coffered ceiling embellished with tondi painted by the best Venetian painters of the day. The significance of the Library entrance in the very centre of the 21-bay wing is enhanced by the fact that it lies exactly opposite the medallion of Justice on the Palazzo Ducale.

Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana
S. Marco Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica
Loggetta of the Campanile

Finally one reaches the Logegetta, begun by Sansovino at the foot of the Campanile in 1538 as a meeting place for the procurators, to replace the old loggia that had suffered damage by lightning over the centuries. Just as the Zecca had combined Rustic and Doric, and the Library Doric and Ionic, the Loggetta combines the Ionic and the Corinthian into a single order, as the end point in this overlapping series. The Composite was an order especially suitable for the expression of triumph, and this meaning is also explicit in the Loggetta’s design, based on three overlapping triumphal arches. The richness of the materials also underlines the role of this building as the summit of the hierarchy. Not only were the procurators themselves framed by triumphal arches as they sat in discussion inside, but the Loggetta also served as the ceremonial backdrop for ducal processions emerging from the Porta della Carta.

By separating the Library and the Campanile, Sansovino ensured that the Palazzo Ducale would be visible from any point in the Piazza.

In his painting Procession in Piazza San Marco, dated 1496, Gentile Bellini manipulated the true arrangement of the buildings in Piazza S. Marco by moving the whole south side of the Piazza sideways to reveal the Palazzo Ducale which would otherwise have been hidden behind the Campanile.

Procession in Piazza San Marco, by Gentile Bellini, 1496

The Venetian nobility viewed their own palaces as extensions of the imagery of the buildings in the Piazza – as the visual manifestations of their corporate identity and power. Soon after his arrival in Venice, in about 1527-28, Sansovino seems to have planned a huge palace at S. Samuele for the procurator Vettor Grimani, for which a large drawing of the ground plan survives in the Museo Correr. Sansovino’s second major project for a Venetian patrician family, to rebuild the great palace of the Corner family at S. Maurizio, destroyed by fire in 1532, was delayed by legal difficulties until the mid 1540s and the design was surely revised at that time.

The first of Sansovino’s Venetian palaces to be executed was the palace of Giovanni Dolfin, the Venetian merchant and ship owner. The preparation for the design fell in the very same years as the start of Sansovino’s three new buildings in the Piazzetta: the Zecca, the Library and the Loggetta.

In his first book of his Quatro Libri, speaking of ornament, Palladio commented that “nothing enhances the building more than columns, provided that they are conveniently placed and well proportioned in relation to the whole”. That was the challenge which Sansovino was to solve triumphantly in Venice: how to apply the classical orders to a palace façade in a way that reconciled the dictates of convenience and proportion. The traditional Venetian palace façade, with its fenestration concentrated in the centre, is not easily adapted to the rigors of the classical system, which requires bays of equal width. In the Palazzo Dolfin, Sansovino provided the clearest possible exposition of the correct superimposition of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, to impress an audience that would be already familiar with the rudiments of classicism.

Palazzo Dolfin-Manin

Sansovino resolved the need for uneven illumination by placing two arched windows in each bay of the central portion of the upper storeys, over a single arch in the arcade below, a solution already found in Palazzo Ducale and the Procuratie Vecchie. Unfortunately, the interior of the Palazo Dolfin was completely rebuilt by Selva at the end of the 18th century, preserving only the façade.

The Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio was finally begun after the legal difficulties in dividing Zorzi Corner’s estate among his heirs were resolved in 1545. The exuberant sculptural richness of the S. Maurizio palace is far removed from the distilled classical essence of the Palazzo Dolfin; indeed, it is more reminiscent of the lavish three-dimensionality of Sansovino’s work in the Piazzetta. This affinity was intentional. The Corner family, one of the nobility’s case vecchie, had achieved almost regal status by the marriage of Caterina Corner to the king of Cyprus. When she was widowed in 1473 and persuaded by her brother Zorzi to abdicate, the family received huge estates in Cyprus in compensation and their enormous wealth was legendary.

Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande at S. Maurizio

The network of scuoli grande across the city provided a focus for the ceremonial life of the great citizen confraternities as well as the headquarters for their charitable duties. The Misericordia had already decided to replace its huge Gothic scuola in 1498, but the Cambrai wars subsequently prevented the start of work. In 1531, Jacopo Sansovino, the newly appointed proto of the Procuratia de Supra, was called in to advise on the prewar model by Alessandro Leopardi. Sansovino must have been critical of the old design, for in the same year, an additional four models were commissioned, including one by Sansovino himself. In a ballot held later in the same year, it was Sansovino’s model that was chosen, and work began on site in 1532. The bold ambitions of the scuola were already evident in the choice of the refugee Florentine, whose only works so far in the city had been the restoration of the domes of S. Marco, the erection of a few vegetable stalls and the continuation of Bon’s still unfinished Procuratie Vecchie.

It is impossible to understand the history of the Misericordia without reference to the parallel activity at the rival cantiere of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco. Scarpagnino had taken over at S. Rocco in 1527 after the previous proto, Bartolomeo Bon, had left in 1524 because of a dispute over the form of the staircase. The Misericordia was forced to revise Sansovino’s initial design of 1531 in response to an objection from the site’s landlords, the Moro family, to its projecting columns. Sansovino’s revised model, with engaged rather than free-standing columns, was approved in 1535, whereupon S. Rocco immediately seized the opportunity to emphasize the Misericordia’s discomfort by adding two orders of projecting Corinthian columns to its own façade. S. Rocco seized similar advantage when Misericordia failed in 1544 to agree on the form of its staircase, a crucial element in the ceremonial scenery of any scuola grande. In 1545, in direct challenge to the vacillations at the Misericordia, S. Rocco ostentatiously demolished its newly built double-ramped staircase designed by the elusive Tuscan known as “Il Celestro” and expeditiously erected the present imperial-style staircase block to Scarpagnino’s design. Whereas the Misericordia never managed to resolve its state of perpetual financial crisis, the wealth of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco increased dramatically during the century, thanks to donations from Venetians anxious to protect themselves from the plague. By 1581, not only was S. Rocco’s building completed, but it was also decorated throughout by Tintoretto, whereas the Misericordia, lacking its roof and staircase, was still unusable. The Misericordia was finally inaugurated in 1589, but its stone facing was never applied, and its massive brick carcass came to excite admiration for qualities of terribilità that had never been intended.

Scuola nuova della Misericordia
Scuola nuova della Misericordia
Scuola nuova della Misericordia

Sansovino was responsible for five complete churches in Venice, in addition to the façade of S. Geminiano in Piazza San Marco. Of these six churches, three – S. Spirito in Isola, the church of the Incurabili and S. Geminiano – were demolished during the Napoleonic period. No record survives of the drawings of “sixty plans of temples and churches of his invention, so wonderful that from antiquity until now on cannot see any that are better conceived or more beautiful than these,” which according to Vasari were left to Francesco Sansovino at this father’s death, and the son intended to have them engraved for publication.

Despite Vasari’s praise, Sansovino’s religious works are his least celebrated, in contrast to those of other Renaissance masters such as Brunelleschi, Alberti and Bramante. Yet, throughout his career he cared for the upkeep of S. Marco and his sculptural works, tapestries and intarsia designs transformed the appearance of the presbytery.

His first ecclesiastical commission in the city, for the rebuilding of the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, was a contradictory one. On the one hand, this was a project with direct ducal involvement, for Doge Andrea Gritti, whose family palace lay just in front of the church, promoted the scheme and bought the right to use the chancel as his family burial chapel, while the side chapels were purchased by the richest and most powerful noble families in the city. On the other hand, this monastery belonged to the austere Observant Franciscans, who wanted a design appropriate to their ascetic ideals.

Interior of San Francesco della Vigna

Sansovino’s design is closely modelled on that of the sister church in Florence, S. Salvatore al Monte, begun for the Observant Franciscans by Cronaca in 1499. From Cronaca’s church he borrowed the fluted Doric capitals and plain frieze, the arched side chapels and aisleless plan, and the two-storey pilastered nave with clerestory windows.

Palladio was to learn much from S. Francesco della Vigna, especially with regard to the arrangement and lighting of the presbytery and its retrochoir, the latter secluded behind the high altar to allow the congregation an unimpeded view of the nave.

Though conceived in the 1540s, S. Martino at the Arsenal was begun in 1553. The previous church of S. Martino had been planned longitudinally. Sansovino changed the axis, placing the entrance on the north side, but retaining as many foundation walls as possible from the older structure. This was a much poorer parish and no wealthy donor was at hand to pay for an Istrian stone façade. Indeed funds were so short that building proceeded very slowly, and a mere half of the church was complete by Sansovino’s death. The reminder was only finished in 1633.

San Martino at the Arsenal
San Martino at the Arsenal
San Zulian on the Merceria

In addition to his architectural projects, from the middle of the 1530s, Sansovino also embarked on a variety of sculptural projects for his employers. In Venice, Sansovino returned to a Quattrocentesque style of sculpture that drew upon his own roots in Florentine art in the late 15th century and blended in with what he judged to be the prevailing artistic climate in Venice.

Fortunately most of his sculptures still remain in situ so that the best way to appreciate his work and that of his school is by walking around the city. Probably his earliest work seen by the Venetian public was the Arsenal Madonna, which occupies the same niche in which it was first placed in 1534.

Madonna and Child, also known as Arsenal Madonna, 1534, marble
Jacopo Sansovino,

Sansovino also began to acquire important private commissions from the Venetian State and nobility. This forced him to rationalize his working procedure: the slow procedure of autograph works was generally abandoned in favour of a system in which he designed models that would be subsequently turned over to others for execution. Bronze proved crucial for many of these Venetian projects and became increasingly the sculptor’s chosen mode for sculptural expression. It was also a medium with a long tradition in Venetian sculpture but one in which Sansovino had little experience. The great advantage of bronze lay in in the ease with which an artist’s model could be transformed into a durable work of art, a facility just right for the demands imposed on Sansovino by his growing architectural commitments.

Sansovino’s bronze reliefs are among the most beautiful and original of the 16th century, a tribute to his narrative skill and to the superior capabilities of Venetian bronze casters. Bronze was the most prized and the most expensive medium for sculpture and its use in S. Marco had recently been established by the chapel of Cardinal Zen, which set a new standard for bronze sculpture in Venice. When Sansovino was asked to redesign the furnishings of the choir of S. Marco, the inclusion of relief panels in the two pergola, or tribunes, must have seemed a natural component in upgrading the appearance of the sanctum sanctorum of the church. The eight panels, six narrative reliefs and two separate figures of St Mark and his lion celebrated the miracles of the patron saint of Venice.

St Mark Rescues the Servant from Provence
(from the parapet of one of the tribunes in the choir of San Marco)
Jacopo Sansovino
St Mark and his lion (from the parapet of one of the tribunes in the choir of San Marco)
Jacopo Sansovino

The painterly style of Sansovino’s reliefs for S. Marco reached its apogee with the sacristy door. Conceived around 1545, this is one of only a few bronze doors executed in the 16th century. The door is difficult to interpret in the ill-lit conditions of S. Marco, but it repays careful looking. It is the great masterpiece of Venetian bronze relief casting, and the dramatic scenes of the Entombment (lower portion of the door) and Resurrection (upper portion of the door) show how gifted a narrative artist Sansovino could be.

Door of the sacristy of the basilica of S. Marco, 1546-1569
Jacopo Sansovino
Resurrection of Christ, detail on the door of the sacristy of the basilica of S. Marco, 1546-1569
Jacopo Sansovino

Of all of Sansovino’s contributions to the Venetian cityscape, the Loggetta is the most celebrated. Like the sculpture adorning the façade of the Palazzo Ducale opposite, the Loggetta’s decoration invoked the virtues of the Venetian Republic, especially the bronzes: Minerva or Pallas representing martial vigilance, Apollo, political harmony, Mercury, persuasive eloquence, and Peace, that divine gift conferred on the Venetians by their Evangelist, St. Mark.

Loggetta of the Campanile
Apollo, bronze statue in one of the niches of the Loggetta. The sculpture symbolised political harmony.
Venice Represented as Justice, detail of the central scene in a marble relief over the central arch of the Loggetta

One could not find a greater contrast between the Loggetta bronzes and the other great works of Sansovino’s last years as a practicing sculptor than the “giants” for the staircase of the Palazzo Ducale (by Antonio Rizzo) and the tomb for Doge Francesco Venier in the church of S. Salvatore.

The staircase received its name following Sansovino’s arrangement of the statues of Neptune and Mars in 1556. The coronation ceremony of the doge was held here against a splendid theatrical backdrop.

Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Staircase) with Sansovino’s Mars on the left and Neptune on the right, 1483-85, marble
Antonio Rizzo
Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Staircase), 1483-85, marble
Antonio Rizzo
Mars (left) and Neptune (right), 1554-67
Jacopo Sansovino

The classical simplicity of this funerary monument distinguishes it from the grandiloquence of other funerary monuments in Venetian churches. But still pompous! Though largely executed by Sansovino’s assistants, the tomb succeeds through its controlled opulence and the high quality of its sculptural details.

Funerary monument of Doge Francesco Venier in S. Salvador, executed between 1555 and 1561. The work is signed JACOBUS SANSOVINUS SCULPTOR ET ARCHITECTUS FLORENTINUS

Sansovino dominated Venetian sculpture around the middle of the 16th century much as his close friend Titian did painting. He was able to do so through an extensive network of followers and collaborators who perpetuated his style long after his death in 1570. The superb Scala d’Oro in the Palazzo Ducale, reserved for magistrates and other illustrious persons, gave access to the private ducal apartments and to the magistrates’ meeting rooms on the piano nobile. The stairway was executed in the second half of the 16th century following a Sansovinesque design and was brought to completion by Scarpagnino. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was richly decorated with white and gilded stucco reliefs by Alessandro Vittoria.

Palazzo Ducale, Scala d’Oro

Bizet’s Carmen

Bizet’s Carmen has everything you want from an opera: high drama, passionate characters, a love story. And what’s more it’s absolutely packed with great melodies – even if you don’t know the opera, you’ll definitely know the tunes.

Bizet wrote a fair few great works – the Te Deum for a start – but in Carmen he really went up a gear in terms of writing entrancing melodies.

Carmen is both a masterpiece and ‘the most fantastic success in the annals of Opera’. Films have been made of it; there have been jazz and rock ballet versions. It has been updated into an African-American setting in the Broadway musical Carmen Jones. A Russian has done a version for 47 percussion instruments and an American has done one for solo kazoo and symphony orchestra. A sound extravaganza has been produced called The Naked Carmen.

Having completed the orchestration by the summer of 1874, Bizet was in no doubt about the quality of what he had written: “They make out that I am obscure, complicated, tedious, more fettered by technical skill than lit by inspiration. Well, this time I have written a work that is full of clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody.”

How right he was.

Honey and Isabelle are finding out all about it!

It is possibly the most colourful and exotic of operas. It was sexually explicit in advance of its time. Indeed, before a regular performance, the cleavage has to be sorted out, so that, to the audience, its possessor appears to be sexy but not sluttish.

It has been known for a prima donna to object vociferously to the little piece of black fabric she was expected to wear as a dress. On the other hand, one who seemed she might burst out of her bra earned ‘the undying devotion of stage hands and cognoscenti alike’.

The first night, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, was a historic failure and the attendance was poor at subsequent performances during the first run. At the premiere, the opera went reasonably well up to the tuneful Toreador Song in Act 2, but, after that, it was mainly received in ‘glacial silence’. The venue and its bourgeois-dominated clientele were not receptive to a sensational ground-breaking work such as this. But there was an amazing reversal of fortune. By 1959, the Opéra-Comique had chalked up its 2,942nd performance of it.

The failure of the premiere plunged Bizet back into chronic depression thus aggravating his already poor health, sapping his resistance and leading to his death exactly three months later at Bougival, near Paris, in the house on the Seine where he had finished composing Carmen. He was aged only 36. 😦 He would never know that his scandalous opera about an irrepressible young Spanish woman would go on to become one of the best known and best-loved pieces of music of all time.

The libretto is very loosely based on an 1845 short story by a distinguished French writer, Prosper Mérimée. This was adapted by a well-tried and highly successful combination of librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.

Had it not been for Carmen, Bizet today might be remembered merely for the ‘best tune’ Au fond du Temple Saint, which comes from his Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). He would hardly have ranked among the great composers. By 1875, Bizet had enjoyed only moderate success in the opera house with The Pearl Fishers (1863) and The Fair Maid of Perth (1867). Five projects had progressed no further than sketches.

How and why he produced Carmen, this ground-breaking opera, is a mystery. Tchaikovsky thought Carmen was a masterpiece ‘in the true sense of the word’: it was ‘one of those rare works which reflect the aspirations of an entire era’. Brahms, not someone one would automatically think of, was a considerable admirer and got his publisher to supply him with the full score. Later, Vaughan Williams ‘went to scoff but remained to pray’.

Indeed, its influence on other composers was immense: in particular, the composers of earthy, realistic ‘verismo’ opera – for example, Mascagni in Cavalleria rusticana – built on ‘its low-life ambience, and its moments of brutal passion’. But ‘the elegance, the light-fingered, brilliant scoring and the clear, sometimes astringent harmonic palette also left its mark on Verdi’.

One of the challenges in performing Carmen (and indeed Carmen) is to avoid vulgarity and sensationalism. As the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham observed, ‘any singer who fails to make her portrayal of Carmen in accordance with the refinement of the music is doing something that is an aesthetic offence… to make a harridan of Carmen is at complete variance with the fact, for the people of Spain have the best manners in the world’.

Fundamentally she is a capricious Romany, and Don José is a man possessed by love. However, she is also a harlot and he is a man driven to commit a crime passionel. Around a century and a half later, placing their characterisation at the right point on the spectrum remains a compelling challenge and makes every performance unique.

Although Carmen complied with the regulations that, at the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique, the performance had to be in French and comprise of a mixture of music and spoken word, it was an unsuitable venue for its premiere.

A show there did not have to be a comedy; but Opéra-Comique audiences were used to shows which were reasonably light and pleasant. This made is a popular rendezvous for marriage and family parties.

Roméo et Juliette had been performed there, so ‘death’ was not prohibited. But there was a world of difference between staging Gounod’s sentimental tale and the realistic, sexy, violent Carmen. Although the audience might be expected to welcome the retribution that Carmen brings down upon herself, the staging of her murder was totally unprecedented, frightening and horrifying, not least for young girls. The sexy seductress, the smoking chorus girls who scratched each other’s eyes out – they could ruin the wedding business, which needed shows that were ‘joli, clair, bien ordonné’.

The role of Carmen was played by the leading mezzo-soprano of the Opéra-Comique, the tiny, vivacious Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905). She was an excellent actress who had starred in Ambroise Thomas’ successful, charming, but unpassionate Mignon. Galli-Marié possessed a ‘cat-like grace’ and a very distinctive timbre, with slightly harsh top notes which must have helped to convey her sensuality and the impressed that she possessed sexual knowledge. We owe the Habanera (which begins with the words ‘Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame’) to her, because she insisted on having a solo at that moment. She also insisted that Bizet rewrite the famous Habanera no fewer than 14 times to accommodate her voice! In the end, this most famous of mezzo-soprano arias was plagiarised by Bizet from El Arreglito, a song by Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier (1809-1865).

Whereas female characters were normally kept towards the background, the Carmen of Galli-Marié was certainly neither respectable nor ‘suitable’. She was criticised for exaggerating Carmen’s vices and for not tempering her passions. The ‘heartless, faithless, lawless gypsy’ was portrayed with a realism ‘that would at best be bearable in an operetta in a small theatre’. The press notices described the opera as obscene. One critic wrote that Galli-Marié interpretation ‘deserved correction in the police court’.

During the five months of stormy rehearsals, the production team became aware that there would be difficulties. The chorus were unused to realistic acting and the women disliked smoking and having to flirt with the soldiers. Also, the musicians found the score exceptionally difficult.

Not surprisingly, morale sagged. One of the co-directors of the Opéra-Comique resigned; the other foolishly told the press that he disliked the music. He was so concerned that, when a Government Minister applied for a box on the first night, he advised him first to attend the dress rehearsal and check it out. The librettists tried to get the realism toned down, but Bizet was not having it; nor was Galli-Marié. All this was public knowledge – the poster advertising it portrayed the final ghastly moments – so the audience was conditioned to expect a contentious production from the start.

The influential burgeoning bourgeoisie really just wanted ‘caressing melodies, pleasant stories and plots which would help to obliviate the worries of daily existence’. That is why Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Massenet were so successful, and Bizet was not. The bourgeoisie did not want to endure the noise of those vulgar, unmusical Spanish castanets. Twenty years later, old Bernard Shaw would thunder that Emma Calvé (1858-1942), shocked him beyond measure. She was a ‘superstitious, pleasure-loving, good-for-nothing’ Carmen, ‘with no power but the power of seduction, which she exercises without sense or decency’. It’s no wonder that Carmen is so popular today!

Carmen provides an alternative to the ‘workmanlike, clever, scented mixture of little character and much sentimentalism, the atmosphere of sighs, caresses, spasms and tears’ tat we hear so much in the works of Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Massenet. It also provides a completely successful (and very welcome!) alternative to the works of Bizet’s contemporary, Wagner. Richard Strauss summed it up: ‘If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores – study the score of Carmen.’

There was another, separate reason for the failure: lèse-majesté towards a highly respected French author. Many people in the audience will have been familiar with Mérimée’s short story. He had only died a few years previously. As a Senator and Member of the Académie-Française, he was very distinguished. He had been described as ‘one of the great masters of French style during the 19th century’ and ‘at the very head of the French prose writers of the century’. Bizet’s librettists showed little respect for Mérimée’s story: they merely picked some bits from it and, for very good reasons, added some bits of their own.

The opening will have been unrecognisable. The opera misses out the first part of the book. And who is this woman Micaëla who dominates the opening? She is nice, unlike Carmen, but there is nobody in the book by that name and no reference to such a person except possibly in a throwaway line in the death cell, when Mérimée’s José, before being garrotted, asks for a locket to be delivered to a woman back home.

Micaëla brings a beautiful pathos to the opera. But don’t take our word for it – here’s Nicole Car in action in Carmen:

And Nicole Car with Honey and Isabelle 🙂

Who is Escamillo? The book refers to some useless picador, the whore’s latest lover. He is injured in the bullring, but there is no victorious celebrity toreador. But just listen to this – the Toreador’s song performed by the bullfighter Escamillo in Act II of the opera – and try and resist humming along.

And, as to the denouement, Mérimée had the propriety to have José murder (and bury) Carmen in a lonely valley, not in public outside the bullring at exactly the moment Escamillo is proclaimed victor.

Members of the audience must have felt like a modern audience seeing a film adaptation of a book which plays fast and loose with the story, however necessary it may be to do so in order to render it effective in a very different medium.

The score for the premiere in March 1875 was far too long, even though it had been cut during rehearsal. The performance lasted for four and a half hours! (Today it lasts less than two and a half hours.) Yet, despite Bizet’s resignation (“a definite and hopeless flop”), it had a respectable run of 37 performances that season alone, added to which Bizet was made a Chevalier De La Légion D’honneur and received from his publisher the fairly hefty sum of 25,000 francs for the score.

Nearly eight months after the premiere, a second production of Carmen in Vienna was acclaimed as a masterpiece. In the next three years, it was produced in almost all the major opera houses of Europe. Its impact was greatest in Italy, for Carmen was the forerunner of the verismo operas typified by Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

For the Vienna production (in German) the dialogue was shortened and replaced with musical recitative, in accordance with Bizet’s original intention. The recitative was composed by Guiraud, a close friend and class-mate of Bizet. Both versions are performed today.

Guiraud’s recitatives have attracted much criticism. Saint-Saëns disliked them, although he was very enthusiastic about the opera. Some of the recitatives are regarded as good; others are ‘undeniably second-rate’ and are said to fall flat next to Bizet’s music. One recent critic even called them ‘inescapably third-rate’, writing, ‘every time they come thudding in, the dramatic temperature drops’.

Aside from their musical weakness, Guiraud’s recitatives omit some useful background information which is given in the spoken dialogue, such as Don José’s family background. This makes some of the narrative hard to follow for the attentive listener, assuming, of course, that the person is both listening to the spoken words and understands French. The recitatives also cut some humorous passages, such as when one of the smugglers refers to Gibraltar, the source of the contraband: he says that in Gibraltar you can see the English, masses of them, ‘de jolis hommes les Anglais: un peu froids mais distingués‘. The omission of such texts offends those who regard Carmen as ‘above all a comedy’.

There is no easy solution. Spoken dialogue has its own problems today. When describing a production at Covent Garden, Placido Domingo wondered just how sensible it is to ‘have a New Zealander, an American, a Spaniard and a Belgian speaking French to a British audience’. Joan Sutherland stormed out of a rehearsal when told that they were going to use dialogue rather than musical recitative. She knew that her ‘incorrigible’ Australian accent did not suit the spoken aspects of Micaëla’s role.

Until Carmen, opera had tended to avoid depicting real, up-to-date contemporary situations. Historical subjects in period dress, and mythology, had been safer. Similarly, reigning monarchs did not object to sanitised comic opera – nobody would have dared depict the monarch as comic. (Can’t wait for the updated version of An American Idiot!)

Carmen‘s ‘brutal force and naturalness… the overheated southern temperament, the dazzling and vital orchestra, the wonderful harmonies, the inescapable melodies’ represented a breakthrough, new in Bizet’s time (and new for the composer of Les Pêcheurs de Perles). It is a musical landmark.

The portraiture, for example, the gradual disintegration of Don José, is masterly. The opera is also full of examples of Bizet’s use of music, particularly contrast, to create atmosphere. A good example is the well known entr’acte (Act III) before the scene in the mountains: after a short introduction on the flute and harp, the woodwind is joined by throbbing strings, reminding us that although at first sight this is seemingly a rococo paradise, it is actually a scene of serious romance.

Shortly after this, the vacant gypsy girls tell their fatuous fortunes, their giggles depicted by staccato woodwind. Their pipe-dreams are interrupted by crude reality: Carmen, at first nervously, then with two harsh downward scratches on the strings, discovers her own fearful and fateful future. With the score marked ‘simply and very evenly’, she quietly faces up to the truth: la carte impitoyable relentlessly discloses one outcome for her: la mort – death.

Little Puffles and Honey first saw a production of Carmen in 2012 at the English Church of St Marks in Florence, the birthplace of opera.

Carmen at St Mark’s English Church

In the beautiful and intimate setting of St Mark’s Church, only a few metres away from the performers, they were enthralled by the dramatic story unfolding before them. The performances are complete operas, apart from one or two slight adaptations to suit the intimate setting, like piano accompaniment only as there is no room for an orchestra.

Opera at St Mark’s English Church
St Mark’s English Church

Earlier this year, Carmen was given a radically different ending in Florence, with the heroine killing her tormentor rather than being killed herself, in a stand against violence to women.

In what is believed to be a world first, the production of Carmen saw the gypsy Carmen shoot her thwarted admirer Don José with a pistol that she grabs off him, rather than being stabbed to death by him. The dramatic departure from operatic orthodoxy was an attempt to shine the spotlight on the modern-day abuse and mistreatment of women, an issue given added resonance by the outrage over the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

The producers said they had changed the denouement of the story in part to protest at the large number of Italian women who are killed each year by jealous husbands, boyfriends and lovers. So frequent are such murders that Italians have a name for the phenomenon – “femminicidio”, or femicide.

Sociologists and campaigners say it is driven by men feeling threatened by the greater freedoms and enhanced economic independence that many Italian women now enjoy after centuries of being seen as pliable possessions.

With horrific cases of domestic violence coming to light almost every month, the directors of the work said they were uncomfortable with the idea of audiences applauding the final scene, in which Carmen is stabbed to death and lies motionless on the stage.

We would have attended this production if we were in Florence at the time. Instead, Honey and Isabelle are attending Lindy Hume’s production at His Majesty’s Theatre.

Lindy Hume doesn’t go as far as changing the ending of Carmen, but she has produced a breakthrough production of the opera.

The best theatre attempts to find contemporary meaning in works of the past; of necessity it mediates and negotiates different historical realities. Operas “speak” through the medium of interpretation. Many operagoers profess that they prefer “traditional”, non-interventionist stagings; they just want to remain in their comfort zone. It brings to mind their need for ‘joli, clair, bien ordonné’ operas like the bourgeoisie audience from Opéra-Comique.

In a manner of speaking, Georges Bizet gave Australian opera director Lindy Hume her break. In 1992, Hume directed Carmen for West Australian Opera. After almost a decade of assistant directorial duties, she recalls the production as the one where she “put down the tracks and took off the training wheels”.

She had just turned 30, an ambitious, idealistic and fiery young director working for the first time with Dan Potra, a Romanian born Australian designer fresh out of NIDA. Both their careers began with this Carmen. Since then, Dan Potra and Lindy Hume have enjoyed a rich creative partnership over dozens of operas that have taken them to America, Europe, New Zealand and all over Australia. Puffles and Honey saw their production of Cinderella in Stockholm last year. On opening night no less!

Neither of them imagined that this would be a “breakthrough” production of Carmen, they just wanted to tell the iconic story without the usual clichés, in a way that contemporary women would relate to. This was surprisingly controversial. Angry (mostly male) opera goers wrote to Hume to tell her that she’d ruined Carmen, that she’d “emasculated the men and defeminised the women” but audiences and critics (mostly female) loved it. One review called it “the feminist Carmen” and the name stuck for decades. Opera Australia picked it up for presentation on stages all over Australia for two decades. Last year it travelled to New Zealand and later this year it will be completely recreated with new scenery and costumes for Leipzig Opera. Not a bad history for a show created in Perth on a shoestring budget 26 years ago.

This Carmen (directed by Hume herself) still feels fresh in terms of design. The shabby, stuccoed walls of Dan Potra’s set cleverly shift and fold – sometimes in view of the audience – to transform the space as required. The angled flats not only create an appropriately claustrophobic backdrop but also ensure that the notoriously variable sight lines at His Majesty’s Theatre are much improved.

And, while the production may not be new, its feminist message still rings true, perhaps even more so, in this post #MeToo era. There is still a long way to go in terms of male/female power imbalance and male violence against women. These are themes that underpin the action in Carmen.

The society which created Carmen clearly did not anticipate the advent of feminism, yet Carmen’s personal values and philosophy are totally in sympathy with contemporary feminist thinking. While certainly sexual, Carmen is not the whore/goddess whose myth has been perpetuated by countless incarnations over the years. Rather, she is a woman who chooses the way in which she will live, love and die – rights taken for granted by most contemporary women. Yet, when Carmen was first performed, this was enough to create moral controversy and turn a factory worker into a cult, an enigma, a cliché, larger than life and ironically, a male fantasy.

Carmen is provoked into rebellious action by anyone, or society, saying ‘you can’t do that’. She believes utterly in herself, welcoming death as her ultimate statement. Her most powerful tool is her brain and her belief in herself and this makes her potent, dangerous and different to other women – and this is what is so sexy about Carmen to Lindy Hume.

Don José, who life is defined by his narrow societal structure, cannot begin to understand Carmen. Where she thinks universally, he is a villager, like Micaëla, who represents strong existing social values relating to wives and mothers. José’s conventional upbringing has not emotionally equipped him for a dynamic woman who freely crosses the clearly marked lines which define ‘male’ and ‘female’ behaviour. Carmen exploits the female armoury of seduction to perfection, all the while somehow mocking the process. On the other hand she proves herself a better ‘man’ than anyone else in the story except Escamillo, her soulmate, who can match her audacity, bravery, passion and ultimate death-wish blow-for-blow. The short-lived dynamism of this relationship throws all else into dull contrast: Escamillo knows his fame and life are fleeting and only Carmen understands this. Their love is a meeting of kindred spirits.

This production questions everything from the use of the overture to the means of Carmen’s death, separating the naturalistic from the epic in the production and design, presenting the two styles interspersed with each other. This ‘warping’ device evokes the sense of distended reality in highly emotional situations and is another way of telling this too-famous story in an unconventional way while retaining the themes and characters audiences know so well.

Act I’s soldiers are menacing rather than teasing as they gather around the timid Micaëla (Emma Pearson). When the women appear from the cigarette factory, they are not so much flirtatious and provocative as tired and worn out. Though beautiful in their aprons and long skirts (designed by Vicki Feitscher), the muted colour palette reflects their fatigue, and the gap between the men’s interpretation of their appearance and the reality is almost laughable.

Carmen, by contrast, is undeniably sexy, but the way she is positioned on stage plays with conventional portrayals of this role. Potra’s utilitarian metal staircases enable a vertical use of space, so that Carmen makes her entrance, and sings most of her famous Habanera, poised above the heads of the gently swaying soldiers. As Carmen, Serbian mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic delivered the aria with an almost weary insouciance, the richness and warmth of her vocals trickling down the steps to tantalise the listening men and women alike. Nikolic is perfectly cast in this production, convincing as both the sensual but selfish woman of the first two acts and the tragic heroine of the latter two.

Milijana Nikolic as Carmen singing Habanera (sitting)

The gorgeous Milijana Nikolic.

Milijana Nikolic

And meeting Honey and Isabelle 🙂

As Don José – the naïve, lovestruck young man who loses his mind to love – Paul O’Neill’s transformation was even more pronounced and skilfully executed. In Act II’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (the Flower Song), his glorious and dramatic tenor was infused with passion; in his final, crazed entreaties to Carmen in Act IV, that passion had given way to a madness that was as pitiful as Carmen’s death. The parallels that Hume has drawn between this situation and contemporary domestic violence against women were painfully apparent.

Emma Pearson as Micaëla and Paul O’Neil as Don José

The appearance of José’s romantic rival, the toreador Escamillo, is Act II’s mass-appeal moment, which must be somewhat daunting for the actor playing the role. Amidst the shadows of the dimly lit tavern, however, James Clayton managed the challenge with superstar aplomb. Clad in black great coat and black leather gloves, he cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, delivering his aria with a punch and clarity that delighted the audience. A moment in which he is abruptly plunged into near-darkness, lit only from overhead, is dramatically cinematic; one of many touches from lighting designer Stephen Wickham.

James Clayton as Escamillo and Milijana Nikolic as Carmen

Less well-known, but equally impressive was the beautifully blended quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire!”, sung by Rebecca Castellani (Frasquita), Fleuranne Brockway (Mercédès), Mark Alderson (Dancaire), Matt Reuben James Ward (Remendado) and Milijana Nikolic (Carmen). Rebecca Castellani and Fleuranne Brockway shone again in Act III, with their delightful rendition of the comical “Mêlons! Coupons!”. Wrapping and weaving around one another, Castellani’s voice had an airy, bird-like quality that beautifully contrasted Brockway’s deeper, more mellow tones.

Matt Reuben James Ward (Remendado), Milijana Nikolic (Carmen), Fleuranne Brockway (Mercédès) and Rebecca Castellani (Frasquita)
Fleuranne with Isabelle and Rebecca with Honey 🙂

The girl’s verdict? Totally pawsome!

Honey and Isabelle with Emma Pearson after last night’s performance

These Boots Are Made…

for showing off 😀

I’m ready to go out with my pretty pink boots!

First stop was 140 Perth to listen to the fabulous Fleuranne Brockway and Rebecca Castelleni, WA Opera’s 2018 Wesfarmers Arts Young Artists and recipients of the Bendat Scholarship.

In May this year, Perth mezzo-soprano Fleuranne Brockway was announced as the recipient of the Australian International Opera Awards’ Royal College of Music Scholarship. Newly partnered with the Royal College of Music in London, the AIOA is regarded as the most prestigious vocal scholarship. Also this year, Fleuranne joined the Melba Opera Trust as the inaugural Annie McFarling Opera Scholarship and Ruskin Opera Scholarship recipient.

We look forward to seeing Fleuranne in the role of Mercedes and Rebecca in the role of Frasquita in WA Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen. Toi, toi, toi!

Following this production Fleuranne relocate to London to take up her scholarship at the Royal College of Music Opera Studio.

Second stop was The Crêperie in Shafto Lane for some French sweet crêpes. Yummy! 🙂

La Jetée (with caramelised apples and cinnamon) at The Crêperie

The Art of Glass

The island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon is most famous for the art of glassblowing which has been practiced there for centuries without any major interruptions and has survived the many and varied vicissitudes of Venice’s long history.

Glass manufacture in the Venetian lagoon has its roots in the remote past: the first document in which a dominicus fiolarius, or glassmaker, appears dates from 982 (the term fiola denotes a globular glass bottle with a long neck). By 1224 a flourishing industry must have existed, since in that year the Venetian glassblowers formed a gild, or arte. In 1271 its statutes, the Capitulare de Fiorlariis, also known as matricula, or mariegola, set standards and regulations for production. A new version in Italian was produced in 1441, followed by others, the last dating from 1776.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

In 1291, by decree of the Maggior Consiglio, all the furnaces still in existence in the city of Venice itself were destroyed. We can suppose that by this stage glass production was concentrated on the island of Murano. What little evidence of have of medieval glass reveals an industry geared to the production of everyday items such as bottles, glasses and bowls, which were already being exported to German-speaking countries as well as England and France.

The art of glassblowing reached new levels of artistic expressiveness in the refined products of the Renaissance, thanks largely to the technical innovations of Angelo Barovier, the most famous glassblower of the 15th century. Through a series of complicated operations he succeeded in obtaining a particularly pure glass which, on account of this quality, became known as crystal. Between the end of 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, the most refined Murano glass, whether coloured or not, after having been shaped, was entrusted to painters who specialised in the art of decoration with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf. Two other varieties of glass date from the second half of the 15th century: chalcedony, which imitated striped agate, and white opaque milk glass, which was decorated with fusible enamels and imitated the Chinese porcelain that had first arrived in Venice in the mid-1450s.

Amethyst glass plate decorated with fusible polychrome enamels, 1470-80
Museo Provinciale, Castello di Buonconsiglio, Trent

The art of glassblowing continued smoothly into the 16th century, with many major technical and decorative innovations. In formal terms, there was a clear preference for simplicity. Colourless glass assumed a crucial role and there was a move away from painted decoration and forms copied from ceramics or metallurgy. The most significant expression of the elegance characteristic of Murano glass of that time was the crystal chalice or goblet, with its pure lines in which measured harmony regulates the relationship between the various parts, the base, the stem blown in the form of a small balustrade and the bowl.

Pitcher decorated with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf, end of 15th century
Museo Vetrario, Murano
Barovier wedding cup, blue glass decorated with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf, c. 1470
Museo Vetrario, Murano

The complex technique of filigree, still in use today, dates from 1527 and is linked to the name of the Serena glassblowers who obtained a ten-year franchise for producing glass a facete con retortoli a fil: crystal decorated in parallel bands with threads of milk glass or coloured glass twisted to form spiral patterns. The generic term filigree covers the different types of glass decoration that incorporate glass threads. From the 16th century onward, one of the most famous and successful versions was vetro a reticello in which slender canes of opaque white glass were laid in a crisscross pattern to form a fine netting, with a bubble of air in each lozenge.

Another type of glass typical of the 16th century was known as ice glass, from its rough translucent – but not transparent – surface. In the field of decoration, Vincenzo di Angelo del Gallo, toward the middle of the century, introduced the technique of diamond-point engraving, which enabled delicate and elegant patterns to be incised on the surface of the glass.

The technical innovations that Murano glassblowers developed spread rapidly and the fame of their products increased, especially after the frequent departures of master craftsmen whose skills were in great demand throughout Europe. Attracted by the possibility of higher earnings, these craftsmen developed, beyond the confines of the Republic, a type of product based on the art of Murano which became known as glass à la façon de Venice (in the style of Venice). This exodus of craftsmen placed the Venetian trade in great danger since Murano had had a near monopoly on the art of blown glass and its trade brought not only great wealth but also prestige to the city. The rigid regulations and harsh penalties enacted by Venice in order to punish those who transgressed the laws forbidding them to leave the island did not hamper the emergence of numerous glass furnaces in France, Austria and the Netherlands, where Murano glassblowers passed on their skills to local craftsmen, adapting the resulting products to local style.

In contrast to the formal rigor of the 16th century, 17th century glass reflects the influence of the Baroque. Purity of line, typical of the Renaissance, was abandoned in favour of free creativity, especially in search of illusionistic effects. The colourless glass was replaced by glass decorated with coloured threads in yellow and red while from the formal point of view fantasy and superabundance led to a product that was less and less functional – one created with purely ornamental aims. Once again, it was the chalice or goblet that exemplified the stylistic changes. In contrast to the preceding century, alette (little winglike forms) were now applied to the stem, while the sometimes asymmetrical bowl was frequently decorated with fine chains.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

Despite the uninterrupted activity of the furnaces, the 17th century was a difficult period for Murano. In addition to natural disasters such as famine and plague, and the consequent economic crises, there were also major problems following a fall in demand for Murano glass. Two new types of glass had appeared and were competing directly with that of the Venetians. Bohemian and English crystal, with their deep cuts and brilliance, were rapidly taking over the market. On the whole, the 17th century revealed, despite the now consolidated skills of the glass masters, the first symptoms of a major crisis that would become fully apparent during the following century.

18th century glass is characterised by a wide variety of forms, techniques and materials. In addition to the traditional vitreous materials, which were reworked with great ingenuity, the prevailing fashion for colour expressed itself in the use of vitreous pastes such as aventurine, which was often, like hard stone, cut to form boxes, snuffboxes and buttons, and chalcedony and other mixtures tinged with various colours.

The production of milk glass was also widespread. It employed 16th century decorative techniques with polychrome fusible materials and aimed at imitating porcelain, especially Chinese porcelain, extremely fashionable at the time in Venice. The Miotti family, famous for this type of glass, were the first on Murano to mark their products, which had until then remained anonymous, with a symbol that allows us to recognise their work even today.

Murano glassblowers concentrated their efforts on imitating Bohemian crystal, competition from which was strong, even within the Republic itself. One of the most successful was Giuseppe Briati, responsible for several original creations for which Murano became famous. The most celebrated of these was the Venetian candelabrum with several branches known as ciocche, to which was applied a wealth of decorative detail, usually floral, in coloured glass.

Murano glass chandelier
Large chandelier with glass polychrome flowers on the branches, Giuseppe Briati, mid 18th century
Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice

Giuseppe Briati is also credited with transforming the Venetian mirror into a refined element of interior decoration. He placed the old lacquered or gilded wooden frame with one composed of elements of carved, engraved or enamelled glass, which was then fixed to a wooden backing.

Contemporary sources also indicate that Briati was the inventor of the great table centrepieces known as deseri (from the French for dessert), made up of many elements which formed complex compositions and decorated the doge’s banqueting table on important occasions. Despite this intense activity, however, problems remained unsolved, even after a radical revision of the gild’s statutes. The fall of the Republic in 1797, the dissolution of the various gilds and the series of foreign governments dealt a fatal blow to the art of glassblowing.

The first signs of a rebirth appeared during the 1840s, thanks largely to two glassblowers, Domenico Bussolin and Pietro Bigaglia, who began to produce filigree glass. The various interlacing patterns of these filigree differed from the traditional 16th century ones in the chromatic vivacity of their fabric, highlighted by the formal simplicity of the object itself, with a slight hint of Biedermeier influence.

Bottles and vases of polychrome filigree, Pietro Bigaglia, c. 1845
Museo Vetrario, Murano

The rebirth of Murano is marked by various important events. The furnaces began to reopening. Among the first to do so was that of the Fratelli Toso (Toso Brothers). In 1861 an archive was begun in which documents relating to the history of the island were preserved. Examples of glassware were also included. This formed the beginning of the museum which during these early years also functioned as a guide to the recovery of the styles, techniques and skills of the great masters of the past. Two exhibitions were mounted, in 1864 and 1869, both of which stimulated further efforts on the part of the new generation of glassblowers.

In 1866, the year in which the Veneto region became part of a united Italy, Antonio Salviati opened a furnace on Murano. He was keenly aware of the popularity of the island’s products abroad, especially in Britain, and a few months later formed a company with a group of Britons, Salviati & Co., which in 1872 became the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company Ltd.

A search for technical and formal perfection characterises the late 19th century. Small cups, large chalices, opalescent vases and bottles all tended to be modelled on the past but strove for greater constructional precision, reviving a tradition that only a few years earlier had seemed doomed. Another problem that occupied this new generation of glassblowers was reproducing ancient glass, from pre-Roman glass with a friable core, the so-called Phoenician glass, to Roman pieces, known in general as murrini, and on Murano itself as glass-mosaic.

The intense activity that characterised Murano during the later 19th century, concentrating as it did principally on the recovery and study of the past, isolated the island from the cultural climate of the rest of Europe and North America, where Art Nouveau was dominant. A certain amount of innovation, with quotations from Art Nouveau, can be seen in a group of extremely delicate goblets in the form of flowers produced during the early years of the 20th century by Fratelli Toso, in the decorations on very fine glass by Francesco Toso Borella, and, especially, in the glass-mosaic creations by another artist, Vittorio Zecchin.

Fratelli Tosso, c. 1920
Vase by Vittorio Zecchin

In the years immediately following WWI, the furnaces stepped up production. From a stylistic point of view, they followed the rationalistic trend with its principles of simplicity and functionalism. At the same time new companies were opening up on the island and an increasing number of designers were working there. In the years between the two World Wars, artists such as Vittorio Zecchin, the sculptor Napoleone Martinuzzi, the painter Guido Cadorin, the architect Carlo Scarpa, and the etcher Guido Balsamo Stella, were collaborating with Murano glass manufacturers, contributing to stylistic and formal innovations and creating new vitreous materials and mixtures.

After the enforced lull during WWII, the furnaces reopened with renewed vigour, concentrating mainly on the study of the chromatic effects of glass and on emphasising its sculptural qualities. These new refined colours and their crucial role in the composition of original and often sophisticated vitreous materials, constitute the distinctive element of the many new companies which sprung up in the 1940s and the 1950s. During this period, a reinterpretation of the traditional Murano techniques was combined with a strong predilection for simple forms, in harmony with the criteria of functionalism.

Today, the Murano glassblowing industry is facing another crisis. The current slump, glass impresario Adriano Berengo suggests, has not simply been occasioned by the influx of Chinese copies in recent decades; it is also due to the fact that many of the surviving glass factories have pandered to the demand of tourists for objects that represent a historical idea of Murano. Where the forms of the past galvanised the 19th century glass revival, in other words, now they might be said to hold back contemporary work by clinging to an opportune market for pastiche.

Berengo has looked to counter this by introducing international artists to the properties and practicalities of glass, pushing them to experiment with this uniquely ductile, transparent material. The extraordinary Murano marionettes that feature in the final film of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades trilogy were developed at the Berengo Studio; artists taking part in the 2017 Glasstress exhibition, which Berengo has mounted at Palazzo Franchetti every two years since 2009, included Ai Weiwei, Thomas Schütte and Laure Prouvost.

Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala (film still), 2015, Wael Shawky
Glasstress 2017

It is heartening to see contemporary artists exploring a traditional material that requires so much patience and care, and for which chance as much as conceptual precision plays such a role. Something comparable – and equally welcome – is perhaps happening in the growing prominence of contemporary ceramic art at leading international museums and galleries. Also to be praised are those dealers, such as Adrian Sassoon, who have worked so hard to promote the place of historical materials in the production of contemporary pieces.

The future of Murano also requires sustained attention to its past. That means well-curated museum displays and exhibitions to illuminate the skill of historical glassmakers and the variety of their working methods, as well as the originality of 20th century designers. It requires the clean presentation of individual objects (or groups of objects), ensuring that they are no more relegated to crowded cabinets with poor lighting (although there is of course value in looking at glass in the context of other types of object).

In Venice, thankfully, the Stanze del Vetro on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore has now been creating this kind of exhibition for several years. Since its inauguration in 2012, the gallery’s displays of modern and contemporary glass have offered a lucid reminder of the recent strength of glassmaking in Venice – and as such, as a rejoinder to those who would give up on Murano altogether.

Qwalala by Pae White at Stanze del Vetro, Venice

And then there is the Museo del Vetro in Palazzo Giustinian on Murano, which reopened in 2015 with refurbished and expanded exhibition spaces that feature a chronological display focusing on the island’s production. Though the museum has been in its current location since 1861, it now has a greater responsibility than ever: inspiring visitors to Venice to value Murano glass correctly, while encouraging the maestri to innovate afresh.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

We brought home Murano glass… in the form of cherries, what else?!? Miss Honey shows off the cherry necklace we got from Pauly & Co. in Piazza San Marco. One of the many stores that stock authentic Murano glass pieces, not the cheap Chinese copies.

Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco
Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco

We Love Libraries

Little bears know that libraries can be really interesting places!

Mortlock Wing, State Library of SA

And Travel and Leisure has conveniently catalogued the 20 most beautiful libraries in the world.

Clementinum, Prague

Clementinum, Prague
The baroque Library Hall, with its rare gilded globes and spectacular frescoes depicting science and art, is just one building in the vast Clementinum complex. Legend says the Jesuits had only one book when they started building the library in 1622; when they were done, the collection had swelled to 20,000 volumes. Labels on the bookshelves are original to the library’s opening, as are volumes with “whitened backs and red marks,” markers left by the Jesuits.

The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark

The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark
Known as the Black Diamond, this neo-Modernist building was built in 1999 as an addition to the Royal Library’s original complex. Its striking steel, glass, and black granite structure contains a concert hall, a popular café, and exhibition spaces. The Black Diamond treats visitors to spectacular harbor views and a ceiling fresco by one of Denmark’s most famous artists, Per Kirkeby.

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
The Peabody Stack Room’s five-tier soaring atrium has wrought-iron balconies and columns so graceful that Nathaniel H. Morison, its first provost, called it a “cathedral of books”. It’s one of America’s most beautiful college libraries, with a setting so gorgeous that weddings and special events are often held here. Bibliophiles come not only for the design but to browse 18th and 19th century volumes of archaeology as well as British and American history and literature.

Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro

Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro
A group of far-from-home Portuguese immigrants banded together to create a Portuguese library in 1837, although construction on the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura didn’t get going until 1880. The neo-Manueline building’s limestone façade showcases Portuguese explorers like Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Álvares Cabral in sculpture. The cathedral-like reading room has a stained-glass dome and wooden galleries. Its ornate bookshelves hold the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of the motherland.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
When the original library burned down in 1814, Thomas Jefferson seeded a new one with his own much broader collection of books. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands guard in mosaic form above the main reading room, and scrolls, books, and torches pop up throughout the Library of Congress. Highlights include the main reading room, the Gutenberg Bible (one of 42 left in the world), and free classical concerts.

Central Library of Vancouver, Canada

Central Library of Vancouver, Canada
Architect Moshe Safdie’s creation resembles a modern-day Colosseum. You enter the Central Library through a huge skylit concourse, which contains shops and cafés and acts as an urban gathering point. Bridges inside the library connect to reading and study areas in the outer walls. Plans are under way to reclaim two of the building’s top floors from other tenants in order to expand the rooftop garden and make it accessible to the public.

Musashino Art University Museum and Library, Tokyo

Musashino Art University Museum and Library, Tokyo
Presenting the most library-like library ever: Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the Art University’s 26,900-square-foot space to be constructed from light-wood bookshelves walled in with glass. Even the stairs have built-in shelves, though they’re currently empty. Compared by Fujimoto to “a forest of books,” the building stands as a powerful visual testament to the bound book’s enduring power. The museum and library are open to visitors; hours vary.

New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)

New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)
A grand hall lit by massive windows and imposing chandeliers, the Rose Main Reading Room stretches approximately two city blocks. It’s a required stop for visitors, who can also peek at murals by New York artist Richard Haas in the Periodicals Room. Rotating exhibitions have included an original Bill of Rights and “Why Children’s Books Matter”.

The Rose Main Reading Room was inconveniently under restoration when little bears visited!

New York Public Library
Marciana Library, Venice

Marciana Library, Venice
The Renaissance-era Marciana is one of the earliest surviving libraries in Italy; construction began in 1537 and continued for more than 50 years. Works by Venetian artists like Alessandro Vittoria, Titian, and Tintoretto adorn the walls and ceilings. The library counts more than 750,000 books, 13,000 manuscripts, and 24,000 prints in its collection, many of which were the result of a 1603 law that required printers to donate one copy of every book published to the library. English-language tours are available on request. We will request!

Trinity College Old Library, Dublin

Trinity College Old Library, Dublin
The 200-foot Long Room is the most striking element of this library; marble busts of famous writers like Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) line the walkway, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling arches overhead. Many visitors come first and foremost to see the Book of Kells, a lavishly decorated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. Originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, the current structure was built beginning in 1712. The Old Library and the Book of Kells Exhibition are open for self-guided tours daily.

Stuttgart City Library, Germany

Stuttgart City Library, Germany
From the outside, the nine-story building can appear as a monolithic cube. But at sunset the façade’s glass bricks take on a glow, and after dark they are illuminated with blue lights. Inside, the dramatic all-white interior has a five-story reading room shaped as an upside-down pyramid, plus meeting rooms, a café, and a rooftop terrace. The arresting building was designed to become the city’s cultural heart. Patrons are welcome to settle in with a book or turn up after hours for the “Library for Insomniacs”, which keeps a small selection of material available all night long.

Library of Birmingham. England

Library of Birmingham, England
Birmingham’s new library, composed of a stack of four rectangular blocks (offset to create terraces), makes an ultramodern first impression. The façade nods to the city’s jewelry quarter with a pattern of 5,357 metal rings. One of its treasures is the more traditional wood-paneled Shakespeare Memorial Room. Originally built in 1882, it was painstakingly reassembled on the top floor to house the library’s Shakespeare collection, which includes copies of the Bard’s first editions. The Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai was on hand to officially open the library in September 2013. Open daily.

Library of Birmingham – Shakespeare Memorial Room
Library of Birmingham
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt
Alexandria’s original library was destroyed by fire or battle more than 1,600 years ago. Today’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina seeks to recapture the original’s spirit of public learning. Opened in 2002, the massive disc-shaped building has a huge reading room that tilts toward the sea while the façade is covered in letters and characters from more than a hundred different languages. The building also contains a planetarium, four museums, academic research centers, and a multimedia presentation of Egypt’s heritage.

Coimbra Library, University of Coimbra–Alta and Sofia, Portugal

Coimbra Library, University of Coimbra–Alta and Sofia, Portugal
The ornate 1717 Biblioteca Joanina is a baroque fantasy of exotic carved wood, intricate arches, and gilded patterns. Be sure to look up to the ceiling for art by Antonio Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes. And keep an eye out for the Chinese motifs on the gilded and lacquered wooden bookshelves. One of the most beautiful buildings in Coimbra’s university complex, it also has a darker side. It’s perhaps the only library with its own prison, where scholars and students were once confined (follow the steps down from the main floor). And at night, a small colony of resident bats comes out from behind a painting to feast on manuscript-munching pests.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England
Duke Humfrey’s medieval reading room stood in for the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter movies. And the wood-paneled room—with its low, ornately worked ceiling and somber lighting—looks like the perfect place to brush up on ancient spells. Before it was made famous on the big screen, generations of scholars including kings, Nobel Prize winners, and British prime ministers studied here. Access to the reading rooms as well as the Radcliffe Camera and the Divinity School are by guided tour only.

Seattle Public Library’s Central Library

Seattle Public Library’s Central Library
The philosophy of architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN was to let the interior function dictate the exterior’s design. The result is a futuristic glass façade and a unique book spiral: bibliophiles browse the library’s nonfiction collection by following the gently inclined floor as it spirals up four stories. Ample daylight, inviting spaces to read and work, hundreds of computers, and bold interior design elements make this a decidedly 21st-century library.

Connemara Public Library, Chennai, India

Connemara Public Library, Chennai, India
Part of a cultural complex that includes a theater, a museum, and an art gallery, Connemara Public Library was established in 1896. It continues to receive copies of all books, periodicals, and newspapers published in India. Designed by H. Irvin, the consulting architect to the government of the time, the majestic building has a circular entrance that opens into a stately reading room with an elaborately decorated ceiling, teak balconies, and stained-glass windows.

Austrian National Library, Vienna

Austrian National Library, Vienna
Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands guard over this commanding baroque library, dating from 1723. The sumptuous interior is fit for royalty—which makes sense, as this was the palace library until 1920, when it became a possession of the state. It may take you time to focus on the books, given the frescoes and gilt adorning the main hall. Don’t miss the Globe Museum: it includes terrestrial and celestial globes made before 1850.

Mortlock Wing State Library, Adelaide, Australia
When this two-story library opened in 1884, officials were pleased by its majesty, yet felt it was missing something — a timepiece. The Dent and Sons clock still holds pride of place at the end of the reading room, high up on the wrought-iron and gold ornamented balcony. (A staff member winds it once a week.) One feature that’s been replicated in more modern libraries is the glass roof; its dome lets in natural light and enhances the warmth of the beautiful room.

Beitou Branch of the Taipei Public Library, Taiwan

Beitou Branch of the Taipei Public Library, Taiwan
With its rooftop gardens, park setting, and airy, sunlit interior, the Beitou Branch feels like an oasis in the midst of skyscraper-filled Taipei. The eco-friendly library, which has won numerous awards since its 2006 opening, features water reclamation, solar panels, and natural ventilation. It’s a green space that is also gorgeous and invites visitors to curl up with a book on open-air balconies.

Mortlock Wing

Little bears were looking for a quiet spot to read and while away an afternoon, and they found it at the State Library of South Australia. It wasn’t just reading, it was reading in style in the Mortlock Wing!

This is the perfect spot!

The State Library was opened on 18 December 1884 as a public library, museum and art gallery for the colony of South Australia with 23,000 books and a staff of three.

The Mortlock Wing was designed by Colonial Architect E.J. Woods. Construction of the building took over 18 years to complete after the initial foundations were laid in 1866. The foundation stone was laid on 7 November 1879 by Sir William Jervois and the building was constructed by Brown and Thompson at a cost of 43,897 pounds.

The building is French Renaissance in style with a mansard roof. The walls are constructed of brick with Sydney freestone facings with decorations in the darker shade of Manoora stone.

Now known as the “Mortlock Wing”, it is predominantly an exhibition area and popular place for hosting library functions. It features an example of a 19th century gentleman’s library.

The interior has two galleries, the first supported by masonry columns and the second by iron brackets. The balconies feature wrought iron balustrading ornamented with gold while the glass-domed roof allows the chamber to be lit with natural light.

Wrought iron balcony hand rails with gold highlights

The Mortlock Wing is considered one of the finest examples of a late Victorian library in Australia. The reading tables sit amid ornate wood carvings, wrought iron balustrading and the original Dent and Sons clock, gifted by astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer Sir Charles Todd in 1887. Todd was responsible for linking much of Australia together by telegram line, including overseeing the 2897 kilometre Adelaide to Darwin line in the 1870s. The clock still stands sentry over the main hall, hand wound and adjusted weekly by library staff.

The Dent and Sons clock, gifted by Sir Charles Todd, is still hand wound and adjusted each week by staff at the Mortlock Wing

Reconstruction of the building began in 1985 as a Jubilee 150 project by Danvers architects. Taking months to complete, restoration work included fine decorative finishes such as scumbling, painted wood grain finishes, French polished tables, as well as general painting and decorating.

In honour of a substantial bequest from John Andrew Tennant Mortlock, the Libraries Board of South Australia resolved that a percentage of the South Australiana Collections would be housed in the wing and named the Mortlock Library of South Australiana in 1986.

The ground floor is devoted to a permanent exhibition area of 14 bays reflecting themes of cultural or historical relevance to South Australia and displaying items reflecting wider collections held by the State Library.

The SA sporting display on the ground floor features Donald Bradman’s bat and items from the Bodyline Tour

The ornate wood carvings, rich Australian history and the atmosphere of a forgotten time were all features that placed the South Australian State Library’s Mortlock Wing in a list of the top 20 most beautiful libraries of the world, compiled by Travel and Leisure in 2014.

The Blue Mountains Treehouse

The Wollemi Wilderness Treehouse is the jewel of the Wollemi Wilderness Retreat, on Lionel Buckett’s huge property in the Blue Mountains, just 1.5 hours drive from Sydney. The Treehouse is build 12 meters off the ground and set above the deep and spectacular Bowen’s Creek Gorge.

The floor to ceiling windows provide an amazing and unique Blue Mountains experience. You can admire the view while soaking in a puff of bubbles in the corner spa. The Treehouse is completely private and only native animals can see you. It’s an oasis of nature and solitude.

A native spying on the bears 🙂

The property is in the Wollemi Wilderness National Park World Heritage Area. Among other things this means Australian bush with bugs, mozzies, spiders and lots of other insects! Thankfully, they were all sleeping the winter away. Mental note: don’t book any of the cabins in summer! Or spring, or autumn…

The property now boasts eight cabins, all different, with a ninth one under construction. There is an Enchanted Cave (on top of the list for our next visit… in winter!), a Dream Cabin, and a Tee Pee. For the full list you can check the Wollemi Wilderness website. On a Sunday afternoon, you can book a two hour tour that visits all the cabins.

The Treehouse is a sustainable dwelling. It’s been constructed from recycled materials and in all respects is an architectural marvel that took more than a year to construct. It faces northeast to catch the sun (you can watch the sunrise from bed 🙂 ), has a solar hot water system and a composting worm toilet.

Sunrise photo from the balcony of the treehouse

There is a kitchen with a gas cook top and there is also an outdoor BBQ. The Treehouse is fitted with a sprinkler system that cools the house in very hot weather (and is also used if there is a bush fire). A wood-burning stove warms the cabin in winter. The large, comfy bed is covered in animal skins, locking in the warmth during cold winter evenings. The electric blanket helps as well!

Strong winds create a concert of a thousand creaks and screeches of the branches around, but the Treehouse is in a sheltered position, safe and stable.

Once you’ve climbed up the long ramp and ladder into this secret Treehouse high off the ground, cosy up, relax and enjoy… It is a special experience.

Another native marvelling at the bears 🙂

You can add to the experience by exploring the rugged and beautiful canyons, raging rivers, towering cliffs and much more in the Wollemi National Park. The park covers more than 500,000sq.km and is home to 235 bird species, 46 mammals and 55 butterflies. Though much of it’s impenetrable to all but the most intrepid bushwalkers and climbers, there are plenty of opportunities for trekking, camping, canoeing and kayaking.

Australian Geographic has a photo gallery of the amazing landscape, flora and fauna in the park. Here is a taste of it.

Rocky Creek Canyon, towards the south of Wollemi National Park. The route starts with several dimly lit swims and climb-downs, followed by a waterslide.
A spectacular view of Wollemi National Park’s cliffs and gorges from a sandstone overhang.

Wollemi National Park is home to an absolutely unreal gift of nature, the one-of-a-kind Glow Worm Tunnel. Once part of a railway line, the spectacular tunnel stretches 400m, and is packed full of glow worms putting on an incredible light show. This region is home to a huge number of these little sparklers, who mostly hang out in caves and old mines. However the tunnel is special, as it’s completely dark, it’s one of the only places you can see glow worms during the day. Note: You’ll need to bring a torch but be super careful not to shine your light directly on to the worms or they will turn out their lights and ruin the show for everyone. Don’t be that person!

Glow Worm Tunnel, one of two now abandoned tunnels on the Newnes Historic Railway. This tunnel curves around sharply and often has a small creek flowing through it. The conditions are suited to glow worms which are found on the walls and roof.

We have these adventures on the list for our next visit. Someone had the flu during this visit (hint: it wasn’t the bears!) 😦

In September 1994, NSW National Parks Wildlife Service officer, David Noble, discovered some trees he didn’t quite recognise. In a deep, narrow canyon of the rugged Wollemi National Park, he discovered what we now call Wollemia nobilis or the Wollemi pine.

National Parks and Wildlife manager David Crust uses GPS to record the position of each Wollemi Pine.

Dubbed “a living fossil”, the distinctive pines captured the world’s attention because it was thought they had been extinct for at least 60 million years.

The Wollemi Pines are about 40 metres tall and are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Their trunks are more than a metre in diameter and they have distinctive bark which resembles bubbling chocolate.

But the last two decades have taken their toll on the prehistoric pine and its future is now under threat from a soil-borne pathogen called Phytophthora, which most likely walked in on the boots of uninvited visitors!!! The introduction of Phytophthora has caused root rot in several of the pines.

To ensure the species survives, an insurance population of young Wollemi Pines has been planted at another secret location in the Blue Mountains, a site specially chosen for its similarity with the original site. Access to the insurance site is strictly controlled and each piece of equipment taken in has to be washed down with fungicide to stop the spread of Phytophthora. The location of each tree is recorded using GPS and they are regularly measured to track their progress.

The locations of the insurance population and the wild population are top secret and they need to stay that way if the species is to survive. So no bear photos with the pines!