'Ancora & Ancora' (More & More)
May 2023: celebrating the entrance into my late (very late) twenties with a self-indulgent, sybaritic escape to Sicily.
Sicily, ah, my regression heaven: absconding from adulting, receding to being, only and merely, a daughter, idealising the same corrupt place from where run away because how could I not, pleasures are more ardent, recollection torments me more, when ephemeral.
How immature, I know.
And how pernicious attempting to justify that Epicurean way of life, desiring it could last forever; returning to London was tremendous, the ennui way too magnified.
“I shall cripple the spell of throbbing pleasures with the horror of death” I determined.
During the last bank holiday weekend, Brompton Cemetery opened the gates to the depths of its catacombs, a rare occasion happening once or twice each year.
There I was: I knocked at Hannah Courtoy’s time machine, yearning to go back in time ‘ancora’, just once more, I kneeled at the Marchesa Casati’s draped hurn, necessary promenade stops prior to reaching the meeting point.
A sombre Sir, the representative of the fifth generation of London funeral directors I learned, saluted me nearby a Victorian funerary car, padded in purple, perfumed with flowers, filled with a macabre vintage casket.
‘Morte’, death: there it was, coloured by the luminous sun rays, grand and monumental in this splendid cemetery, inviting me to descend and penetrate its horrible mysteries through the serpent gates.
Brompton Cemetery offered a range of interments when it opened in 1840. A stylish alternative to the mausoleums and graves across the Avenue, was an ornate coffin on a shelf in the underground catacombs; although thousands of spaces were made available, only 500 were sold due to the competing offering from Kansal Green Cemetery, a growing interest in cremation and the sickening awareness of coffins explosions and unsanitary leakages.
The guide enhanced the morbid surroundings obliging us to walk through the catacomb corridors feebly lit by candlelight; my Roman nose kept sniffing for new disgusting perfumes, my paralysed pupils struggled to adapt to the bleak darkness.
Surrounded by the dead, I hid in my long trench coat; the fantasy of the mind torturing my senses, the eyes barely seeing the cracked and stained caskets, the body passing through inexistent icy draughts, the dreadful impression of feeling caressed by the hands of hundreds of ghosts.
‘Fenesta ca lucive’, a haunting classical Neapolitan song, played inside me:
'Va nella chiesa e scuopre lu tavuto
Vide nennella toja comm'è turnata
Da chella vocca che n'ascéano sciure
Mo' n'esceno li vierme, oh che pietate'
Zi’ parrucchiane mio, àbbice cura
‘Na lampa sempe tiénece allummata'
(Go to the church and open the coffin
See what has become of your beloved
From that mouth from which came out flowers
Now come out worms, oh it is so heartbreaking
My uncle parishioner, take care of her
Keep always a candle lit for her)
Lights were suddenly switched on.
I found myself nearby a sir looking impressively similar to a past lover; darker, deeper eyes, his wrists, his hands more delicate than the one I loved; 'Bello'!
My face was now deformed by a large grin, the body heated with pulsing life and delightful memories: even the horror catacombs can not stop this!
Two days later, I had the pleasure of visiting Leighton House Museum at 12 Holland Park Road, after a well worth the wait £8m refurbishment.
The building was the London home of the Victorian painter, draughtsman, and sculptor Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton. Designed by the architect George Aitchison, it includes a combined home and art studio, incorporating elaborated orientalist and aesthetic interiors. The building was completed between 1866 and 1895 on the privately owned Ilchester Estate; it is now Grade II listed.
The design of the two-storey Arab reception room (Qa'a - قاعة), made of a collection of tiles collected by Lighton's during his visits to the Middle East was based on the twelfth-century Arab-Norman palace called La Zisa (The Palace) in Palermo, Sicily.
'Golden Brown', the amazing song by the English rock band the Stranglers (1982), was filmed in the Qa'a:
It was a splendid visit: highlights included the unexpected permanent display of paintings by various members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederic Watts, as well as 81 oil paintings by Leighton himself and an intimate concert hall where music performances are often held (I shall definitely go back soon!).
Leighton House Museum has been to me a maximalist triumph of Beauty, a highly needed individualistic indulgence in bejewelled precious Aestheticism, a golden heaven on earth against the rawness of primitive pulsions and the repulsing monstrosity of death and decay.
Back to the Narcissus Hall, a glorious taxidermied peacock kept staring at me with its hundred eyes.
With "the feathers of an angel, the walk of a thief and the voice of a devil", Leighton's peacock was and always will be sublime in its immortal stillness: absolutely 'bellissimo'.
Descent, ascent, snakes, peacocks, 'amore e morte', 'ancora & ancora' (more & more)...
What I expected from the catacombs was the illusion of quietude, an interim silence against the chaos inside me; what I got instead was a renewed craving for sensual living, a vampiric thirst for sensorial memories and tastes, a demand for a warm embrace and erogenous responsive flesh, a vitalistic lust for life!
Gabriele D'Annunzio, in his novel 'Il Piacere' (The Pleasure) wrote:
'Un’oscura tristezza è in fondo a tutte le felicità umane, come alla foce di tutti i fiumi è l’acqua amara.'
(A dark misery is rooted in all human pleasures as at each river's mouth there is always bitter water)
My search for the yearned although inconceivable catharsis failed miserably yet again: is that the aesthete curse or what Jung calls Individuation?
Are cyclical contrasts the path to Individuation?
Is a daily dismal memento-mori a sine qua non nudge to Beauty?
Is Beauty a necessity for a meaningful life? Is recollection of Beauty a requisite for a peaceful death?
Is this why the secrets of the catacombs are locked through a symbolic ouroboros, the eternal symbol of 'ancora & ancora' (more & more)?