1th Semester - 1992
It is Spring again and along with the blossoming almond trees, there has been a great flowering of art exhibitions and various other cultural activities in Venice. There has also been a fair flowering of malicious thoughts, for which I must ask a little Easter forgiveness in advance. But before atoning, let me at least explain the nature of the sin committed on visiting three exhibitions along with the crowds of local Venetians, multi-coloured tourists and school parties. Basically my crime is that I couldn't help matching impressions from the drawings in Leonardo & Venice in the Palazzo Grassi, Canova's marble statues in the Correr Museum and the Gobi desert dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.
The first exhibition is the outcome of a huge but somewhat over-ambitious advertising campaign. There can be no doubting the quality of Leonardo's drawings, but the over-stated hype that wanted at all costs to connect him to the eminently saleable image of Venice is rather less convincing. Absolutely nothing is known of Leonardo's Venetian sojourn apart from the fact that at the end of 1499 he stopped in the city on his way to Mantua. The great historic biographer of Italian artists, Vasari, has nothing to say on the subject. It appears that Leonardo was in Venice for two to three months, perhaps to study the Republic's defences.
But nothing is known of where he stayed or what he did. While the art critics' theory about contacts with the local Venetian painters is so banal that it is hardly worth discussing. At this point the mischievous thought crossed my rather irreverent mind that we know more about the Gobi desert dinosaurs of seventy million years ago than what Leonardo go to up during his Venice sojourn, which in palaeontological time was the day before yesterday. From a scientific point of view there is an interesting link between Leonardo and the Republic concerning his pioneering researches into fossils in the Verona area and the Isonzo valley. In fact Leonardo was the first to understand the origin of fossils and he studied them like a geologist and palaeontologist, dispelling all the old popular tales that they were divine or diabolic objects. Moving on to the Correr Museum my rather uncharitable appetite for mischievous thougbts was whetted even further at the sight of Canova's frigid eroticism. Staring at Cupid and Psyche was less of a turn on than the dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum, and given the absence of any frisson whatsoever on seeing the Three Graces, I couldn't help but remember my excitement on encountering other marble sculptures like Bernini's Saint Teresa Michelangelo's Pietà, Donatello's David or Cellini's Perseus. After such disappointments the only thing left to do was head far the Natural History Museum. At least there the imagination can run wild at the incredible spectacle of a newly born Hadrosaurus from the Upper Cretaceous, that is from 72 million years ago, or the skeleton of the parrot-beaked Psittacosaurus, a world leader on the pianet earth 110 million years ago. The well-illustrated exhibition is the result of a Gobi desert mission undertaken last year by the Ligabue Study and Research Centre in conjunction with the Paris Museum of Natural History and Mongolian scientists. This great adventure and exciting, formidable achievement is described by expedition leader Giancarlo Ligabue on page 66, while Viviano Domenici also recounts his Mongolian experience on page 38.
Ligabue not only illustrates the scientific value but also the evolutional background to the discovery. And as usual, be even closes his account with a dramatic finale. After recounting the discovery of the first tiny primitive mammals, which disappeared during billions of dusks and dawns of the dinosaur's reign, the writer describes how they rose again to take over "the ecosystems and developed in such a way that millions of years later they produced a biped creature called Man, who has now returned to the desert to seek for traces of ancient dragons".
The expedition set off from Ulan Bator and travelled three thousand kilometres from the steppe to the desert, following only a very rough map. Tbe final destination was a lunar landscape where they found the Dinosaur eggs.
Having read Viviano Domenici's account of the trip, you are inclined to take a good look in the mirror and confess: it must have been an incredible journey but l'm happy to read about it from the comfort of my armchair. Anotber person who doesn't fight shy of danger and hardship is Cristina Misischia. This young ANSA journalist is the first woman to have reached the South Pole and her book on her experience with the ice-bound experts of the ENEA won this year's Città di Roma book award. This time she hasn't gone so far afield but her tale about the incredible history of the impervious sheer rocks rising up in the western Thessalian plain is no less extraordinary. This is the land of the "monasteries in the sky", called the Meteors by the Greeks, meaning "above, suspended in the air". From the thirteenth century on, with indescribable human effort, devout and hardy monks worked to build these wonders in the most rugged of natural surroundings.
The monasteries even became fortresses capable of resisting the invading Ottomans. Of the original twenty-four monasteries six have been restored and are still inhabited by industrious monks whose everyday life is faithfully described in the article on page 90.
Although, with the bible, for the past 273 years it has been one of the most widely read books in world, few people know that Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner is based on the true story of the Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who was abandoned in 1704 on one of the Juan Fernandez islands, off the Chile coast. His story retold by Woodes Rogers, the Captain of the ship that rescued him, inspired Defoe's masterpiece of narrative realism.
Adriano Favaro, a correspondent for the Venetian daily Il Gazzettino and a member of the Ligabue Centre, together with Sergio Manzoni, went to the original island to experience the timeless atmosphere and search for the mythical footprints left in the Pacific sand. His travelogue exploring legend and reality is on page 110.
Next we come to a myth from even remoter times: the story of a remarkably ubiquitous priest known as Prete Gianni. Described by the poet Ariosto as "Senapo Emperor of Ethiopia", Prete Gianni was all things to all men from the twelfth century on. Gabriele Rossi-Osmida picks his way through the fact and fiction in an interesting reconstruction of the various versions of the legend. Like the myth of Prete Gianni we end this issue in Ethiopia with an article on page 130 by Donald Johanson, a scientist who is not only an indefatigable explorer but also an entertaining popularizer. The name will be familiar to many, since it was he who gave the skeleton of "Lucy'', the earliest known woman, mythical status.