Museo de Zaragoza – Zaragoza Museum

November 2019

The grand entrance of the Museo de Zaragoza

The Museo de Zaragoza, a municipal museum, is free to enter. Situated around a central courtyard which is currently under renovation, there are two floors of paintings, sculpture, ceramics and more to stimulate your tastebuds.

The courtyard of the Museo de Zaragoza looking like a swimming pool with its protective flooring
Doors which lead from the courtyard to the exhibition spaces

This blog covers a rather random selection of what can be seen at the museum because my reason for visiting was to view the Japanese ceramics which were mentioned on the website. (I have a special interest in all things Japanese as I have been working as a Shiatsu practitioner for 30 years.) Therefore, I walked past the Goya paintings and the Roman section (Zaragoza has a fascinating Roman history as mentioned in my travel blog of the city) to find them, only stopping ocassionally on my way.

Advertising for both the Goya and Kotoge presentations

I have recently written a book about death and loss, so I was interested in the tombs I passed. I had not seen one with angels on either side of the deceased’s head before (were they bearing him up to heaven?) nor one featuring pigs at the dead woman’s feet (were they riches to be taken with her on her journey?)

The sepulchre of Don Pedro Fernández by Hijar y Navarra
As above, detail with angels
Unknown
As above, with pig detail

I tried out my Spanish, asking the attendant who the woman with swine was, but she didn’t know – or at least I think that was the gist of her reply. When I ask in my best accent and speed, and they answer accordingly, I can almost never understand all of the reply!

On the way back from that conversation, my attention was arrested by some 15th century Aragonese panels. Again, I enjoyed the detail the most.

Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén

In Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén (above), I loved the ‘now I hope you are listening’ expression on baby Jesus’ face, his little, chubby foot, the men’s hats doubling as crowns, and how similar the eyes of the cattle were to the man’s beside them.

Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén, detail
Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén, detail
Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén, detail
Epifanía by Blasco de Grañén, detail

It was the depiction of the torture by demons that poor San Antonio was subjected to in Escensas de la vida se San Antonio By Juan de la Abadía ‘El Viejo’ which I particularly noticed.

Escensas de la vida se San Antonio (Scenes from the life of Saint Anthony) by Juan de la Abadía ‘El Viejo’ (The Elder)
The 5th panel of Escensas de la vida se San Antonio By Juan de la Abadía ‘El Viejo’

In Retablo de San Sebastián by Taller de Juan de la Abadía, I was both horrified and amused by the weighing up of mortals to decide their fate, and the subsequent fighting off of the devil who is attempting to take the sinner from the bottom scale.

Retablo de San Sebastián by Taller de Juan de la Abadía (Abadía’s workshop)
Retablo de San Sebastián by Taller de Juan de la Abadía, detail

Then I came to the pottery by Tanzan Kotoge. Spanning his œuvre, the majority of exhibits were bowls and cups to be used in tea ceremonies.

Bowl made by Tanzan Kotoge
Ceramic by Tanzan Kotoge

Decorated with birds and flowers, Japanese lettering and figures, they were exquisite.

Happiness
Tanzan Kotoge 2012

Born in 1946 in Himeji, Kogote is from the Kyoto workshop and was taught by Shimaoka Tatsuzo (Living National Treasure) who learned from Shoji Hamada in the Japanese master-follower way. Considered one of the great masters of traditional pottery, he incorporates the old ways while also bring his own personal signature to the decoration.

By Tanzan Kotoge
Simpler pots by Tanzan Kotoge

It is believed that the creator of true tea-ceremony bowls must first understand and have integrated Zen philosophy and the art of this ritual. Kotoge, however, accepts that many potters will not have this background and still provide ceramics for this purpose.

I particularly liked this blue case with storks as I have been watching so many of them in Spain and the drawing is perfectly true to life. Link to bird blog
More sombre work by Tanzan Kotoge

I rounded off my most stimulating visit with a manuscript showing tea ceremony scenes and some older Chinese pots and porcelain figures from the museum’s permanent collection.

Panel from tea ceremony parchment
A XX century porcelain laughing Buddha with mini men all around him
Porcelain Quing Dynasty (1644-1911) Dragon vase
Like a real life stand-off, Chinese vase. Porcelain Quing Dynasty (1644-1911)

The museum can be found on the Plaza los Sitios and although it was dark when I emerged at 6.15 pm the playpark was full of children and their parents playing.

Information about Tanzan Kotoge

Parque de Serralves, Porto

Contemporary Art Museum, casa (house) and parque (park), Porto, Portugal. September 2019

The central parterre, Serralves House and Gardens

The gardens of the Casa da Serralves, Porto, Portugal

The Museum was designed by Álvaro Siza (1999) and the park by Jaques Greber to complement the 1930s art deco style of Casa da Serralves.

Casa da Serralves, Porto, Portugal
Serralves, Porto
Serralves, Porto

Located a little ouside the city (R. Dom João de Castro 210, 4150-417 Porto), you can get a bus from close by the Igreja do Carmo – numbers 200, 201, or 207 buses – from Carmo, taking half an hour.

Serralves, Porto

The architecture of the Museum is collosal, and sculptural, in keeping with its function. With a blue-sky backdrop, and in contrast to the surrounding garden, it is seen to best effect.

Serralves, Porto

Time and again the buildings complement the landscape and vice versa.

Serralves, Porto
Serralves, Porto

Olafur Eliasson’s silver birches was the first artwork to be seen in the foyer. Lit by natural light from the window above and with eerie street-lamp, yellow man-made lighting, the trees are in water and yet dying. An effective statement on how climate affects nature, we walked through the ‘grove’ as we would the exhibits afterwards – trees as art?

Olaf Eliasson, Yellow Forest (2017)

The current exhibition, Voyage to the Beginning and Back, is a retrospective of 30 years of Serralves. From the little wood, we move into the galleries to Eliasson’s ‘Y/Our Future is Now’, consisting of horizontal metal spirals in a mirrored space where, once again, the outside, seen through the window, plays a large part.

Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017
Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017
Olaf Eliasson, The Listening Dimension (orbit 1,orbit 2,orbit 3) 2017

When seen in the green, Eliasson’s work has both a grounded and spacey feel to it. Loops and swirls, suggestion of a treble clef and wonky infinity sign, they seem to dance and float, throwing glorious shadows on the lawn.

Olaf Eliasson,

Fitting three or more works to a room, and also showing in the house, there is a wide range of artists represented, from Sol le Witt to Simon Starling, Hamish Fulton, Andy Warhol and Lygia Pape.

Alberto Carneiro, O mar prolonga-se em cada um de nós (The Sea is Extended in Each One of Us) 1968/69
Alberto Carneiro, O mar prolonga-se em cada um de nós (The Sea is Extended in Each One of Us) 1968/69
Lygia Pape, Ttéia 1B (redonda) 1976/2000
Hamish Fulton, 43 day coast to coast walking the Douro River 2001
Simon Starling, The Pink Museum 2001
Claes Oldenburg, Colher de jardineiro (Plantoir) 2001

Dominating the junction between tree lined avenues, Oldenburg’s enormous, eye-catching red trowel teeters on its tip as if left by a random gardener. Here is the everyday tool assuming its true importance.

Thomas Schütte, Is There Life Before Death? 1998

Urns of ashes, posing as the art itself, again take centre stage: scattered around an empty room and catching the light, complementing the fixtures and fittings. Faced with what could be our final resting place, a snake may rise out of one, a genie from another if rubbed. Is now the time to take control of life before it ceremoniously ends?

Marijke van Warmerdam, Drop 2012
Marijke van Warmerdam, Drop 2012

You hear Drop before you grasp what is happening. Rounding the corner to be faced with stairs, a ping pong ball tap tap taps down the stairs in front of you as you stand at the top. In fact, there is nothing to be seen except the hanging speaker and members of the public who are descending before you. Echoing against the bare walls, the sound gently, humorously plays with your reality. The windows at the bottom of both flights add an underwater colour scheme which mimics the azulejo tiles of the garden’s pools (see above).

Olaf Eliasson, The Curious Vortex 2019
Olaf Eliasson, The Curious Vortex 2019
Richard Long,

The parting of the ways, of the biblical Red Sea, were suggested by this simple, stone installation. Its placement in front of the long windows, despite the parquet flooring, added an air of the outdoors, where Long’s work is so often situated: another example of the merging of inner and outer spaces.

Antoni Muntades, About the Public and the Private 1992

This red velvet topped performance area only allows the audience to see the feet of those inside. A TV screen beside the work, shows tango dancers dancing together on the circular, blue platform, the ankles and lower legs making it even sexier!

The Casa de Serralves
The gallery basement where the library (with its exhibition of artists’ books) and toilets can be found

Finally, the building itself, inside and out, is worth seeing, quite apart from the art.

Cast iron doorway, detail, Casa de Serralves
The fantastic stairway of the house library

Website

To the Island of Tides – Alistair Moffat

Non-fiction.

A pilgrimage, by its nature, is a personal journey of discovery as well as a geographical and historical trek. In To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat follows in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert (634 – 687); monk, bishop and hermit. From the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Moffat endures a broken rib and faces some deep familial sadness as he immerses himself in the life and times of this medieval holy man.

Written in a smooth and jaunty style, the book’s basic timeline mirrors Moffat’s route from his inland home to the sea, and Cuthbert’s intriguing life of politics and worship from birth to death. In the same way that this is not a continuous walk, rather an interrupted series of day trips with a week’s retreat towards the end, so there are many textual asides: lush scenic descriptions, divers detailed accounts of battles (Flodden et al), and involved analyses of Latin place names interspersed throughout. The writing shines when bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels and The Great Tapestry of Scotland to life.

This book is brimful of liturgical references, despite his oft mentioned atheism, and his own search for succour from painful public and private events is woven into the story in sometimes uncomfortable and exposing detail. Going to some lengths to get inside Cuthbert’s head and heart, he scrambles up shifting sand dunes and under barbed wire fences before seeming to find some peace through his first experience of solitary contemplation on Lindisfarne.

Author of some twenty books, Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate 2018) was a vehicle for sharing his excitement in uncovering lost paths, and he utilises the same dogged skills in To the Island of Tides. Quoting from eighth century primary sources, he steers a fine line between facts, storytelling, anecdote and conjecture – after all St Cuthbert lived a long time ago. This tome is well researched; part autobiography (his family and ancestors play a strong role), and part paean to the spirit of the unnoticed: “until the coming of the census in the middle of the nineteenth century, the voices of others are largely silent. The fields … seem .. to remember their people, those who tended them.”
This pilgrimage incorporates local lore and biblical references, touching self discovery and a Saint’s life. Above all it is a homage to the importance of family and of belonging.

Review originally published by The Wee Review.

Published by Canonngate Books August 2019

Mixed Media Performance: Qi

‘Qi’ by the UAL Performance Laboratory at the Edinburgh Festival fringe 2019

**** (4 stars)

Five, white-clad, young performers stand meditatively around the stage, still and grounded. A simple inverted V shape stands at an angle in the centre, a hill peak perhaps, throwing a shadow on the floor. Birds sing. With eyes sometimes closed as they sit cross legged, or inhabiting monk-like patience as they carry out tasks – bending and lifting, sifting and gathering – the cast arrange and rearrange images before us, conjuring at once a paddy field or the patterned sand of a Zen garden.

UAL Performance Laboratory's performance of Qi at the Edinburgh fringe
Creating a Zen garden effect

In Qi (say chee, or ki) from the UAL Performance Laboratory, conceived by Anqi Zhao , sound and light are as important as the mostly pedestrian movement. The show was devised collaboratively and recalls the everyday actions of early Trisha Brown pieces (as part of the early Judson Memorial Church in New York, she is currently performing at Jupiter Artland). The company have drawn on Chinese philosophical concepts: Yin and Yang, life mirroring nature, and this peculiarly indefinable idea of qi. Qi is believed to be the building block of all of creation, and bestows the moving, transforming, holding, protecting and warming functions to the body and the wider Universe, ideas which were clearly used in the choreography. 

The show is innovatively designed. Rectangles of foam are manipulated to form variations of the i ching or the various strokes of Chinese calligraphy. As the actors carried and rearranged them, they made both pleasing sculptures and the various aspects of the pictograph for qi which can be translated as ‘vapour ascending from boiling rice’. There are layers of subtle references: Yin and Yang were originally described as the sunny and shady sides of a hill. When you add ‘hill’ to the sign for qi it starts to resemble the one for yin (of yin and yang fame). After adding a horizontal to the up ended V, it looked more like an A and was moved and put above the electrical steamer which was cooking away and produced the bowls of rice which were eaten with obligatory chopsticks. 

Calligraphy
The Chinese pictograph for Qi with an almost A shape above 4 individual grains of rice and a waft of vapour

Grains of white rice are the key element in this show. They are drizzled and thrown, used to mimic water for washing your hair, and highly effective as sound effects. There is an initially interesting, but latterly, laborious part where small handfuls of rice are placed, one by one, on a long, cardboard tube, and one of my fellow audience members resorted to her mobile phone, but all of the rest of the show was mesmerising and mindful. The scenes slowly fade from one to another, then the pace varies and there is a fun section where a woman walks while others rush along beside her pouring rice around her feet. As she picks each one up to move forwards (from where I was sitting, the light shone magically between her toes), she leaves an inverse footstep, redolent of the ancient hand shapes found in the Lascaux Caves in France. It is a pleasing and enjoyable hour and the light, peaceful atmosphere stayed with me for a long while afterwards. 

Two performers put rice around another's feet in Edinburgh Fringe show
Using grains of rice to create the outline of her feet
Orange pigment with hand and fingers shapes
Ancient Lascaux Cave hand shapes

Qi is part of China Focus at The Old Dr Bells Baths in Leith. Last performance 16 August 12 noon. Free by donation.

Moder Dy – Roseanne Watt

Moder Dy (Mother Wave) by Roseanne Watt

Poetry www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Moder Dy is from the Shetland dialect referring to the mother wave, an underswell which local fishermen steer by, supposedly always leading them home. And home is a major theme of this slim volume of poetry by Roseanne Watt, poet, musician and filmmaker. Born on the furthest shores of Scotland, this is Watt’s debut collection and the deserved winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award 2018. After studying far away at the University of Stirling for her PhD where she was supervised by Kathleen Jamie, whose own evocative essays in Findings have a similar air of quiet watching, Watt’s poems are like droplets of her homeland.

This collection is a moder dy itself, an undercurrent drifting the reader northwards to unknown lands. Divided into three sections, these poems have a weightlessness about them, like an Iceland Gull landing on spindly legs in a high wind. The first section, Stoal an old story, elucidates details: patterns of lichen on rock in Lichen Leid; the “unfolding into air” of the heron and “slud-light, the space between rain showers” in Haegri.

Roseanne Watt
Roseanne Watt – poet, musician, filmmaker

In the second, Sjusamillabakka between the sea and the shore, the choice mix of English and Shetlandic pearls continues. Listen to the lovely lilt of Christine De Luca, an established Shetland poet, before reading, so as to have the accent in mind. At first it’s a mild nuisance having to look up words in the glossary at the back. That is, until you are rewarded with the richness of translation. Take Akker for example, about objects which no longer have life in them: “I thieve such pieces on slockit days when words leave me at a loss”. Slockit means ‘extinguished, as of a light’, and on returning from the back of the book to reread the verse at hand, an immediate visual image appeared of Watt sitting at her desk searching for verbal illumination on a dull day.

Simple fields and sea on Scotland's most northern shores
Unst, Shetland

Throughout, pools of white page-space balance the sparse lines, reminiscent of Watt’s native scenery of rolling turf and mirror-surfaced lagoons. In Paddock Stöls, the rightset third line has a gap at the beginning where the reader’s ears strain before “listening-in”, the fourth and fifth lines have blanks for searching before “Look” and again “there!” Blinnd-moorie (an extreme snowstorm) starts in black ink-type, but fades to the faintest grey of winter breath dissolving into a paper whiteout.

Very simple Shetlandic dwelling in remote area
Textile Museum, Bod of Gremister, Shetland

Not only are wildlife and landscape, weather and sea treated with a buoyant sensibility, but there is an emotional consciousness too. In Fledgling Watt hangs back and watches as another stoops and cups a sparrow in hand: “a windswept heart made manifest; feather light and hollow…”. There is a palpable grief in Migration Day: “opening again, like skin remembering wounds”, and real heartbreak in The Diagnosis, but there is also the third and final chapter, Kokkel the compass, which guides one along the coast of this lingering melancholy and steers a safe passage home to the heart of things.

Highly decorated bus shelter with memorabilia from around the world
The world’s most northerly bus stop! Shetland

Watt is also the poetry editor for the online literary magazine, The Island Review, and her films (seen on Tumblr) are beautiful visual poems.

Other beautiful words: lomm – the change in colour of the sea when fish swim underneath; skerries rocks

Marjolein is a Shetlandic comedian and she shares some of her favourite words from the dialect on youtube – both enjoyable and informative.

Featured landscape photos by Isobel Cockburn. Title image Uyeasound, Shetland

Estonian Art Galleries

MONA Museum of New Art, 10 Esplanaadi St. 80010, Pärnu.

Give A New Life, the 7th Recycling Art Exhibition

wp-15581218518159179139640407957620.jpg
Kristiina Tikke Tuura’s Hiiglase Latern

I saw this beautiful Giant’s Lantern by Kristiina Tuura, a Helsinki based artist who made this work from rubbish, recycled and found objects. It pays respect to the hundreds of years old tradition of skilful Syrian lantern making. Made with the help of school children and immigrant students.

wp-15581218518856222127560538555585.jpg
Kristiina Tikke Tuura’s Giant Lantern

Rule and Ritual, Exhibition of Estonian Textile Artists Union

wp-15581215143702442396709874696538.jpg
Tuuli Reinsoo, Nothing is Missing

In Tuli Reinsoo’s work, a giant soft jigsaw of colour, fabric and script, I was invited to Play! Mangi! to move the pieces around as I fancied and make a new art work as I did so. Nothing is ever missing, the blobs which fit into the corresponding holes are part of the outline and the spaces between the pieces are as much part of the transitory, ‘final’ work.

wp-15581215139748696486848944570260.jpg
Detail from Matilda Dominique’s The Grid / No Grid III using a large number of different wool yarn qualities, it moves between clarity and uncertainty. 
wp-15581213053464479572999622145503.jpg
Krista Leesi, Sometimes a herring is just a herring

The juxtaposition of fish swimming across the chest, pithy phrase emblazoned on T shirt harks back to Freud’s ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’, a sideways reference to his constant search for meaning in dreams (although some say he never said that!) At one and the same time we accept what is, and are prompted to look into what exactly a herring is in this context.

cof
Marilyn Piirsalu, The Same Pattern

This installation, using fabric and embroidery, comments on the indolence and habits of the TV watching public. Lounging and dozing while the images flower and grow on the sunseen screen.

Shadow and Light Exhibition and Kaadrid Frames, Pärnu Muuseum

wp-15581215137903297506130213649014.jpg
Outi Martikainen, Pietke

Martikainen (weaver) writes that what lies behind her work is her worry that too many children are having to face fear, violence and hunger and that they should all have the same rights to a safe and unique childhood. I found these tapestries poignant and, taken from photographs, life-like.

wp-15581215138905174512575840061182.jpg
Monika Žaltauskaitė-Grašienė, weaving of St Mary

In 2012, the church of St Virgin Mary, Kulautuva, Lithuania was all but destroyed by fire. Afterwards, however, statues of the Virgin and Christ were found ‘miraculously preserved’. Grasiene was touched by the smiling face of St Mary despite the tragedy and that set her to think about how we are left after terrible things have happened in our lives.

wp-15581215137186666522904692043902.jpg
Symbiosis, Kaisi Rosin and Kadri Nutt 

Mutually beneficial interacton between form (the furniture maker’s chair) and pattern. Comfy and utilitarian, also images of growth and shadow to sit on.

wp-1558121513591921374050620729074.jpg
‘Threads’. A recommissioned Jaquard loom – wooden pattern cylinder restored by Eva-Liisa Kriis at MONA ‘Shadow and Light’ exhibition, Pärnu, Estonia

The Exhibition of work from the student’s of Olustvere TMK textile industries at Pärnu Muuseum were not far removed from natural Scottish woven cloth from the Scottish Islands. The hues and textures were juxtaposed with lace and ornamental buttons to make the cushion covers practical and adding artists touches.

Kogo Gallery, Tartu

img_20190509_130906-17860832171189471505.jpg
Kogo Galerii, a bijou contemporary art gallery which is somewhat hidden in an attractive square off Kastani, with cafes and sunshine
img_20190509_124436-18211321125961629182.jpg
Ede Raadik, Sailin’ on the Red Sea

This one woman show features wall-sized artwork which speaks of Raadik’s internal reproductive organs and their metamorphosis. Addressing fertility, menstruation, and the private monthly morphing of the ovaries, together with their abnormalities, these starkly beautiful, computer produced images defy the impersonality of technology. Yet they speak clearly of 21st century medical procedures at the same time as mythical, precious ‘golden’ eggs. Laid down before birth, here the presumptious belief that they will be ready when we need them is challenged. Red of blood and suffering, emotion and the flashing light of danger, precision of ovoid and sphere, this exhibition was moving and fascinating.

wp-15581210530294293294868151719855.jpg
Ede Raadik, Sailin’ on the Red Sea

Many thanks to the lovely woman who was watching the exhibition when I visited it. She was informed, friendly and most kindly drew up a list for me of art places to visit in Tallin, where I was headed later that day.

Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Tallinn

This was a very large exhibition in a utilitarian building on Freedom Square, full to the brim with 20th century artwork in varying media.

 

Gea Sibola Hansen, Bundle of Joy; Leonhard Lapin

 

wp-15581210524802436102439664783938.jpg
Rait ‘Praat’s Archived Green Cloud (1952)
wp-1558121052612479545105152054413.jpg
Vivian Ainsaliu’s Mirage I-V (1979)
wp-15581210525492717217133795556668.jpg
Peeter Laurit’s Broadcasting (1962)
wp-15581208578245364132091827905143.jpg
Inga Heamagi’s Let my prayer arise as incense before you, from Psalm 141:2 (1961)
wp-15581208576039066662587740828633.jpg
Valeri Vinogradov, Forest III (1952)
wp-15581208575246759666490907150894.jpg
Lola Liivat, Clearcutting (1928)
wp-15581208577066295136538164730076.jpg
Mari Roosevalt, Light (1945)

 

wp-15581208574492046383984557455605.jpg
Erika Tammpere, The Land Should be Filled With Children (1942) textile

The Temnikova & Kasela contemporary art gallery, Tallin Gallery Lastekodu 1, 10115 Tallinn, Estonia.

dav
A walk from the city centre, this gallery had a yellow door with intertwined skeletons – a portent of doom?
wp-1558120527552465042602135385692.jpg
Edith Karlson and Dan Mitchell, The End

Starting at the beginning with the larger than life size cave person about to hurl a rock, and with hints of the big bang, this exhibition simultaneously conjures our possible, some would say, likely, dénouement. Seemingly using concrete, a semblance of lasting weight, it turns out to be empty inside and easy to push over. These materials concretise the sometimes solid sounding, hollow actions of our apparently sophisticated world. Both stark and comic-al, here is the destruction of our planet and interconnected neanderthal behaviour. It’s a warning!

wp-15581208573904399120958941974055.jpg

The internal heating pipes asked to be photographed! Once again the young man who opened the door to me (you have to ring), who could have been rather fed up as I arrived a mere 5 minutes before closing, was solicitous and shyly infromative, taking me into the back afterwards so I could see examples of the upcoming exhibition.

wp-15581208571763915790188596333131.jpg
These vaginal ceramics in their basket wombs were by Kris Lemsalu, an artist I had earlier seen in the main Art House. One of the 20 female artists ‘pushing sulpture forward’ as featured here

 Also to see in Estonia

KUMU contemporary art museum in Kadriorg Park, Tallin.

And don’t miss the ambitious art park planned for the bay of Pärnu, where each of the countries of the nine states of the Baltic Sea including Finland, Sweden, Estonia plus the autonomous Åland in the downtown of Pärnu. The Victoria and Albert Museum, in Dundee has recently opened in the harbour if you are visiting Scotland any time soon.

The Spellbinders

by Aleardo Zanghellini published by Lethe Press. 3 stars

The Spellbinders is an historical novel set between 1299 and the early 1330s which spans the life (and some) of Edward II, King of England and his loves. Penned by Eleardo Zanghellini in 2018, an Italian born professor of Law and Social Theory at Reading Law School, this is his first novel although he has previously written The Sexual Constitution of Political Authority.

It is a quick read, broken into short sections which move back and forth in time, and there is a large cast with a broad setting which includes the vales of Scotland. Curly flourishes head all 334 pages with the name of the author on every left one – The Spellbinders is perhaps hinting at the design of the Renaissance manuscript.

The monarch Edward, who came to the throne at the tender age of 22, is renowned as ‘England’s most infamous homosexual prince’ (Lethe Press). Despite his marriage to Isabella of France aged 12 years, the book’s joint hero is actually Piers Gaveston, common soldier from across the Channel, whom Edward made second most important gent in the land.

As we have come to expect from the bulk of the factual information surviving from those Medieval times, there is a great deal of political debate between Earls and other men jostling for power. However, taking equal place in the narrative are the erotic exploits of Edward, Piers and, after the latter’s violent murder, those of Lord Audley and Hugh Damory the Young Dispenser. We do learn about the naive and accepting Isabella; Margaret the very practical King’s cousin who was married to Gaveston; of Pembroke and Lancaster, but it’s the graphic sex which takes centre stage.

Apparently as true to real life as possible, Zanghellini, in the tradition of historical writers, imagines the unknown details and pens them with relish, introducing a useful hidden corridor and other devices to link the famous events and add atmosphere. He relishes physical description (“the Younger Dispenser: fiery-haired and good-looking in a base, brutish sort of way – which meant not good-looking at all, really.” ) and there is a seer with a curse as well as the ghost of a monk with self-professed “woman’s hands” who stitches Gaveston’s head back on and embalms him. He has clearly researched the flora, costume and typical pets of the day, with many a gilly flower, and phrases such as “a mohair cape about her shoulders” and, “‘a camel’, gasped Isabella. ‘What’s to love about a camel, dear husband?'”

This is oerhaps a book for reading on the train or by the poolside.