Arcadia reminds me of my childhood. I grew up near Stowe and often wandered around the park on my horse, going from ruin to ruined folly wondering what it was all about, why everything was falling down through neglect or design but enthralled by the fantasy. Stowe was in a terrible state of repair in those days and the fact that the great house was home to one of England’s great public schools, which can count Sir Richard Branson amongst its expelled alumni, usury I think was the cause, had done nothing to ensure that the great park was maintained. And yet, this great park with its 24 or so follies inspired a Europe wide landscape movement.
I am not going to try to explain the philosophy behind Arcadia: I am not even sure I understand Masonic symbolism. And, of course, compared to Stowe it is very modest. Yet, it has its charms. The most delightful must be the rotunda, a Roman temple standing at the end of the lake (if only one could arrive by boat…now there is potential for outsourcing). The temple contains a small museum of mainly Roman objects from vanity mirrors to funerary scultpure. Nothing is identified or explained: one has to wonder what the curator and staff get up to all day long. Visitors go in, glance and leave indifferent, none the wiser. If they were helped to look they might be enchanted. Roll on privatisation and yet, the lack of care, the decay, the chaos are surely some of the reasons I live in Poland. It is like England was when I was a child.
For some reason, every tree in the park had been numbered. Actually, the whole place is a little over run with trees. Perhaps they are all doomed to be felled and order will be restored. Good and not so good. The present is catching up too quickly.
Above the temple entrance the words of Francesco Petrarch greet the visitor,”dove pace trovai d`ogni mia guerra”
Which roughly means,” Where I found peace from all my troubles”. Ah, the past.
Et in Arcadia we nearly didn’t. May be we were too caught up in lamentations about the Faenza exhibition or the lack of encouragement given the entrepreneurial instincts of the culinary ladies, but we missed the sign for Arcadia. We drove out of the village on the road I thought I knew so well in the direction of Arcadia but, suddenly, we hit a dead end. The road simply disappeared under a new road which was barricaded from us. Weird. We back tracked towards the village looking for missed signs. Not one.
On the way, we stopped a middle aged, affluent looking weekend cyclist who immediately took me for a German, (I’ve been meaning to get rid of my wretched VW Beetle). Speaking English, he used a direct manner which, no doubt, he thought I would appreciate. “You’ve passed it,” I assured him we had not. We all did. He asked us where we had come from. “Warsaw.” “Then, you passed it”. This debate went on for some time and was only resolved by asking him where Arcadia actually was, thanking him, turning round and finding the way onto the new road which did, indeed, take us to Arcadia and which we had not passed.
If you are thinking of going there and do not possess a GPS, please remember, from Nieborow to Arcadia there is a new road but no signs.
Why the princess, who owned Nieborow palace, built her garden a car journey from the house, I shall explain tomorrow.
Here is not the place to remind you of the Arcadian movement rooted in Virgil’s working of the Greek idea which so inspired the Renaissance Florence of the Medici family and spread throughout Europe, perhaps having its greatest influence in Rome, the seat of the Roman church, and Anglican England, where the aristocracy recreated Utopia in their great gardens. The quotation, which loosely means, “And I, death, was in Utopia” has been the title of at least two paintings which you may know, Poussin`s and Guercino`s. Before writing this morning I reminded myself of the latter. Two shepherd boys, descendants of the non-city-dwelling Greek shepherds living in pastoral paradise in the hills above the sea, gaze at a human skull which a mouse is exploring. Mortality, even in paradise.
For me today this is extremely poignant. I’d like to tell you why. Years ago in Rome I met a woman at the founding meeting of the “Gli Inautentici”, of which more at some other time. We became very good friends and I used to visit her every January at her Mexican seaside villa to escape the awfulness of the weather here, surely Poland’s worst. Last year, a week after my arrival, suddenly she died. Her family came down from New York and decided to bury her in the garden she so loved, on the shores of the bay, her Arcadia. She was buried without formality, perhaps none was needed though a lot of champagne was opened, which would have pleased her. No rabbi said a prayer for her.
I am an Anglican, but, this morning I am meeting a rabbi who has agreed to say some prayers for her. Perhaps prayers in Arcadia are incongruous but I feel there is a place for them.
Since her burial sharks have been spotted coming closer to the shore than ever before. I wish it were mice.
Lunch over, we decided to head for the magical gardens of Arcadia, a few miles down the road from the palace. Before we did, my companions thought we ought to visit the Faenza pottery museum housed in an outbuilding between the house and the main gate. A young woman working for the museum, with whom we were sharing the lunch bench, said it was well worth the time. In fact, she had been rather insistent. I guessed she may have had a hand in it. If had my doubts, I was grateful to her because she had explained how the glass xylophone on display on the first floor of the palace worked. The attendant in the room had no idea, nor could she name the subject of a small portrait hanging above it, a rather portly, bemedalled and self important looking fellow, probably a minor German prince . But back to the instrument.
As you probably know, the 19th century was a great time of exploration in musical instruments. Pianos appeared in all shapes, sizes and arrangements of keyboards and pedals. So, too, with everything else that could make a sound. The instrument in question is a series of about 30 glass discs, glass bowls, joined at the centre by an axle, and lying horizontally in a fine wooden case. At first sight you assume that you hit the plates with something. However, the woman explained that there is a pedal (though where it is seems to be in question) which rotates the discs and from which, with wetted fingers, the player produces a sound. …a sort of keyless piano. Fascinating, though I can understand why it never attained great popularity. I am sure you`ve tried something similar with wine glasses.
Regarding the Faenza museum, I’d been there before and you may have read my piece in an earlier blog. I remembered it as a dingy place. However, I agreed to tag along with my friends who were keen to see it. I was not expecting any surprises and none was in store. Sad to say, the unimpressive display is doubly disappointing because the museum’s web page makes it seem so interesting, a living workshop. I have rarely seen a less inspiring or uninformative exhibition. Actually, I am not too enthusiastic about the bloated, highly decorated, Faenza style which, for some reason, the Radziwill family imported from Italy for their potteries.
With that behind us we got into the car and began the search for Arcadia.
“We can’t advertise.” “Why not?” The women shrugged their shoulders, giggled embarrassed and busied themselves with other things. But, surely, I thought, they can put a board somewhere or take turns to give out flyers at the entrance of the park such as I do on the steps of the Warsaw Philharmonic to protest the lack of music education in the country (even though the authorities sometimes try to stop me and the Minister of Culture wouldn’t get out of his car until he thought I’d been removed). “No, we can’t even do that!”
Think about it. Here are some women who, on their own initiative, have set up a small business, and that takes some courage especially with no background, with the intention of providing a service for the community and, at the same time, saving the museum authorities the bother of doing it themselves (though this may not have occurred to the authorities), only to be thwarted by the representatives of a government that is crying out for an innovative,entrepreneurial economy. “And” added a woman with hopeful eyes, “they’ll only let us stay here till the end of the long weekend!”
Well, I’ll leave it to you to draw the conclusions. To my mind, these fine girls should be given a medal, even if they are doing terrible things for the cholesterol levels.
The upside of this encounter was that, because of the interest I took in the sandwich makers plight, my friends were offered some of the clear contents of the unmarked bottle. “Ah, the real thing,” one of them sighed. “Home made potato vodka.” But, all I could do was watch. I was doing the driving.
Next time: Acadia.
It seems unbelievable that on a public holiday a national museum in the middle of the countryside had absolutely no refreshments to offer visitors. Whether the state employed management has deals with private restauranteurs in the village to provide a flow of famished and thirsty clients I couldn’t possibly say. It may be just a lack of imagination, though what emerged later on in our visit provides food for thought.
As we were walking through a clump of trees with lunch on our minds, suddenly, there before us, mirage like, emerging from the undergrowth, stood a hospitality tent. We approached joyfully. Laid out on the counter was a huge array of fresh and healthy country fare, everything to raise the spirits of the culture exhausted on a cold and damp spring morning: gherkin and lard sandwiches of thick white bread, pancakes, local soups, coffee, newly baked cakes and what was that clear liquid in an unmarked bottle? We were soon to find out. Seeing us approach, the six local women of a certain age behind the counter busied themselves with greeting us in a way that was as heart warming as unusual. They served us with enthusiasm. And we were equally enthusiastic to order once we got wind of the prices. 2 pln for a sandwich. I checked my Polish. Really? This put Starbuck`s into context. And the amazing thing was that it was all for us! With the park full of people and this food and good cheer waiting to greet them, why, I wondered, was no one else here? The reason quickly became apparent. It is a perplexing story of which I shall tell you more tomorrow.
I was with two friends, one an art historian, the other an artist. As we wandered down the avenue which leads from the house towards the window, the view from the house through the garden, across the distant fields to the horizon beyond, a form which was de rigueur in a baroque garden of status, one of my companions remarked how marvellous it was to find a window that the Communists had failed to obscure with a block of flats. Though not a quite the same, I thought of the Rynek in Legnica, surely one of the most wonton acts of vandalism. “Yes”, I said, “but what about this awful statuary?” What I was referring to were two larger than life stone statues, more resembling pregnant gorillas than anything else I can think of and, to my mind, entirely out of place in a baroque garden. Obviously, a statement of social realism. The art historian quickly corrected me. Apparently, these two lumps are rare examples of local ethnic art and are of great antiquity. My friend is always quick to put me right. I feigned awe but my view remains.
No doubt, you`ll remember Catherine the Great`s response to Casanova when one morning they met by chance in her statue crammed gardens in St.Petersburg. That great collector immediately detected Casanova`s disdain. She agreed with him. All low quality Italian copies. But what could she do? Sadly, her predicessor had no eye for art. What was there was there and had to be lived with.
Tomorrow I`ll tell you how socialism continues to thwart innovation and wealth creation even in the gardens of Nieborow.