Thursday 31 May 2012

The art of the coffee cup

Some time ago, the Italian news agency ANSA asked me to write a feature news article about Italy's Illy coffee company, and its interest in contemporary art. I was reminded of this recently when my blogging friend Annie published a photo or a work by Anish Kapoor, one of the artists commissioned by Illy to create some gorgeous cup and saucer sets (the next three photos are of his designs.)

Really, it seems like the perfect marriage made in Italy: contemporary art blended with great coffee.

For almost 20 years, international coffee giant Illy has been mixing its coffee culture with cups designed by contemporary artists, to create a combination pleasing to every sense.

“We want to surround our coffee with an object with the same perfection, the same depth,” as the coffee, explained Carlo Bach, art director with Illy.

“At Illy, we don't consider the art (on its cups) to be a decoration only -- it is something that gives a visual meaning to the cups,” he said in an interview.

“It's an expression of Italian culture, for espresso (coffee) is so very Italian.”

Illy's porcelain espresso cup was created in 1992 by Matteo Thun, based on an idea the company says came from founder Francesco Illy. Since then, more than 70 artists from around the world have put their own interpretation on the simple coffee cups, turning them into small, limited-edition works of art.

This, says Illy, has in turn transformed “the act of drinking an espresso or cappuccino into an incredible experience involving the mind and all five senses.”

Artists, including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Marina Abramovic, Sandro Chia, Julian Schnabel, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, Joseph Kosuth, and Anish Kapoor have enlivened the cups with geometric designs, small landscape paintings, vivid colours and images. Some have even re-designed the shapes of the cups and saucers to add to the art's impact.

Even famous filmmakers have gotten in on the act, with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Pedro Almodovar involved in designing cups for Illy.

Founded in 1933 and based in the northern Italian city of Trieste, the family-run Illy is one of Italy's success stories, producing and marketing coffee to more than 140 countries. Globally, it employs more than 700 people and reckons it serves more than six million cups of Illy coffee per day

According to the company, Illy buys the highest quality Arabica coffee directly from growers, through partnerships with growers in South and Central America, India, and Africa.

Since 2006, Illy has also come out with decorated Illy coffee cans. The most recent features the work of Alioum Moussa, a multidisciplinary artist from Cameroon in west Central Africa. Illy says his designs for the coffee cans represents the contrast between the artist's home in Cameroon and the Italian region of Piedmont.

“The result is an energetic, lively d├ęcor, with warm colors typical of Africa blended with colder colors, representing the European continent,” according to Illy.

Product details are stamped on a transparent film that peels off the 250-gram can, leaving only the design beneath so consumers can keep these small works of art on their kitchen counter.

As well as its own design collections, Illy has promoted contemporary art by sponsoring artists, art institutions, and international art exhibitions worldwide.

Illy art director Bach sees Illy using both its coffee and its art to help it communicate with the world.

“On the outside are (the works) of international artists; inside is pure Italian culture.”

Sunday 27 May 2012

The Ancient Seaport of Ostia Antica

Last week, I took a short commuter train ride back 2,500 years to the stillness of the ancient seaport of Ostia Antica, a remarkable site that is nearly as well preserved as Pompeii, yet within quick and easy reach of Rome.

Less than an hour from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, I am ambling along Ostia's ancient stone streets that follow the grid pattern of a Roman army camp -- likely imposed when Rome took over the port city in about 400 B.C.

Even then, the city was already a few hundred years old, established at the mouth of the Tiber River by pre-Romans making the most of the precious salt flats nearby.

Before its harbour was silted over and commerce died, Ostia was a bustling and prosperous town, crowded by at least 50,000 residents living in stacked apartments.

Today, Ostia boasts plenty of evidence of this and more -- every aspect of ancient life is easy to read within the skeletons of the homes, the markets, the temples, and baths that remain.

A large, stone amphitheatre that could seat 4,000 still hosts summer performances, as jets from nearby Leonardo da Vinci airport (better known as Fiumicino) take off and land.

There's a synagogue, and temples abound that once sanctified marriages and births, while the cemetery at the entrance to town is a stern reminder of how we will all reach the same end, eventually.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Rome's brave new artists

My friend Michele has opened a new art gallery in Rome, RvB Arts, which is dedicated to young, new, accessible artists (accessible in that the prices for their works are still very reasonable and therefore, accessible to people of smaller budgets!)

At a vernissage last night, I met a couple of very interesting young artists who I think are really going places.

The above work is by a young Roman artist who calls himself Tindar. Although he studied business in Milan, after he finished university he chucked the business world (against his parents' wishes) to become an artist. He focuses on pencil drawings of tree roots against text.

One of the most interesting I found was a drawing against the texts of Dante's Divine Comedy. Another,  against Bob Dylan scores.

Christina Thwaites, who is shown below with her work "Lady with a boa", was born in England 32 years ago, and now lives near Rome in the village of Toffia in the Sabina region. Her painting skills were developed in Italy where she was taught by artist Albert Parres, who she says was extraordinarily influential.

Christina predominantly paints people, based on photos. For this exhibition at RvB Arts, she used many images of her family, although she says she intends the images to be more universal, open to interpretation and commentary.  "I use photographs or newspaper cuts as a starting point – sometimes I find them, sometimes I take my own photos," she says.

"My reasons for painting are to do with a need for physical involvement in the work and I cannot gain this in the same way through photography.

"I have painted a lot from old family photographs, given to me by my grandparents – I like the costumes they wear and the way they pose for the camera – the individuals are only symbols of an era to others but I can see familiar faces and there are stories which accompany each photo."

Sunday 13 May 2012

Should I self-publish my novel?

That's the crucial question. Previously, I hadn't thought seriously about this, but recently there has been so much positive feedback about self-publishing from credible sources that I'm really starting to rethink this. Maybe it wouldn't be so foolish, or impossibly difficult ....

But first, a little background.

On my previous blog, I discussed the novel that I completed last year. It's a work of historical fiction set in my favourite Italian city, Perugia, at the beginning of the 16th century when it was a violent, fear-filled city about to be invaded by Pope Julius (the Warrior Pope.)

I had faith in my novel and followed all the right steps of conventional publishing: working and reworking and polishing the manuscript; drafting the right sort of letter to potential literary agents; researching who might be the right style of agent for this work.

I thought that I had a good shot at success: I have always made my living as a professional writer -- as a journalist and speechwriter -- and I did a great deal of research for the novel.

Yet, for the past year, I've received rejection letter after rejection letter from agents. A few asked to read the full manuscript, then said no thanks. It's hard not to take that personally, although I know that these are very tough times in publishing. The odds are against unknown authors.

Very kind friends mentioned self-publishing as an alternative, but I wasn't interested -- I was determined to stick to the conventional course.

My reasons for that weren't always great. Frankly, there was a good deal of ego involved as well as practical considerations. If I had to publish my own book, wasn't that essentially vanity publishing? Or, an admission that no legitimate agency or publisher wanted to represent me? And if I went the self-publishing route, how on earth would I promote myself, get my books into bookstores, reviewed and put before potential readers? It seemed like a lot of hassle for questionable results.

But as I began to rethink this question, I have noticed so much more positive information about self-publishing of two major styles..

For one, there is the self-published, physical, conventional novel of the type that I could show my mother (who has stopped asking when she can see my novel. This is a bit sad, kind of like when she stopped asking if I would give her grandchildren. Sorry, Mom)

But even more intriguing is the idea of self-publishing via e-books. Since my friend Gwen gave me a Kindle just before I moved to Italy last year, I have become addicted and now see the benefits, both as a reader and as an author.  

For example, this link was interesting, from Britian's Guardian newspaper about the benefits of self-publishing via e-books. With literally millions of e-readers now out there in the world, particularly in the hands of readers who devour books (as I do), it could be a decent place to start.

There are  many reasons for self-publishing. For some writers, there is an editorial control issue. As a reporter, I'm certainly used to be edited! But what if a publisher insisted that I needed to add some bodice-ripping or S+M to my novel, to jazz it up? That would be hard to take. I could avoid all of that by self-publishing.

Yet, with millions of e-books out there, how would I make mine stand out? How would I promote it? Should I make it inexpensive? If I price it too low to get readers, however, would I look desperate?

So, any advice? Shall I self-publish?

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Bosco di San Francesco

When I was visiting Umbria last week, my dear friend Letizia directed me to new walking trails that have been established near her house -- trails that wind their way from the valley floor up towards the great Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.

The Bosco (or, forest) of San Francesco is a series of maintained trails in an area just below the city walls, an area where Francis and his followers used to walk. It was recently developed by an Italian environment and heritage organization, which emphasizes the spiritual element of these walks.

It puts it so well: "The visit to the Forest of St. Francis of Assisi, a splendid example of Italian rural landscape of 64 hectares and more than 800 years of history, is much more (than merely a hike.) This is a real inner journey to discover the message of harmony between man," and his environment.

"To become the protagonists of this new form of pilgrimage in the Third Millennium in the nature, history and the sacred, you are invited to walk the narrow path, starting from the Basilica of San Francesco...through woodland and fields, clearings and groves."

Along the walking trails, which can get fairly steep, I came across a section of old wall that dates from the early 1300s, and marks the edges of Assisi of that time.

The starting point (or end point, depending on your route) of the trails is the historic Santa Croce mill, near the Santa Croce convent.

(I hope my blogging buddy Annie sees the photos below -- she has taught many of us to keep watch now for shrines!)