Introducing: Roman Road Journal


I’m pleased to announce that one of my biggest projects to date has recently been launched!

Welcome to Roman Road Journal. The journal predominantly publishes articles on contemporary art, but it also explores topics from other areas, particularly science, technology, anthropology and literature.

Roman Road Journal is edited by Anna Souter, a writer and editor based in London. After studying English at Cambridge University, she completed a masters in history of art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialised in twentieth-century sculpture. Since then, she has worked freelance as a writer and editor for a number of arts publications and organisations. In her capacity as editor of Roman Road Journal, Anna commissions articles, organises interviews and edits the weekly Digest of interesting articles and essays from around the web.

Roman Road Journal is overseen and art directed by Marisa Bellani. Marisa is the founder and director of Roman Road, a contemporary art gallery in London. Marisa undertook two master degree courses to further a scholarship of art history and collections, first at the Institut d’Études Supérieures des Arts and subsequently at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Soon after completing her second MA, she inaugurated Roman Road in order to share her passions and talent discoveries with other art enthusiasts. Marisa’s vision is also behind Roman Road Journal, its design and perspective.

The journal has four sections: Features (long-form essays), Numbers (short facts and figures), Digest (weekly suggested reading lists) and Portrait (where artists, writers and thinkers are invited to share an image of themselves or an image of the world as seen through their eyes). With contributions from writers, artists, scientists, poets and curators, Roman Road Journal sets out to make connections within an international community of independent people who are interested in exploring the world around them.

The website is now live, so please take a look. You can also register on the website to save articles and create your own personal reading list. Visit the Roman Road Journal website.


Review: Modigliani at Tate Modern


Review: Modigliani at Tate Modern
By Anna Souter

Originally published by The Upcoming

When it comes to Modigliani, the eyes have it. Cartoonish, blacked out or cross-hatched in palest blue, the gaze of a Modigliani portrait is both immediately present, following you round the room, and strangely absent, as if the personality of the sitter has been effaced through paint. It’s impossible to say exactly how the artist achieves this phenomenon, but the effect is undoubtedly unsettling.

Viewed en masse, as in the new exhibition at Tate Modern, these portraits have a power that is almost auratic. It helps, perhaps, that images of wealthy patrons and famous fellow artists rub shoulders with servants, local children and perhaps even prostitutes.

The diversity of this social milieu, the display implies, is emblematic of the variety of artistic movements, styles and media being experimented in Paris in the 1900s and 1910s. Certainly, traces of almost every famous artist and movement of the era can be seen in Modigliani’s paintings; cubism, pointillism and Cezanne’s post-impressionism can all be identified as influences.

Despite this, however, the artist manages to maintain a strikingly consistent aesthetic throughout his career. His swan-necked, black-eyed figures have now become iconic, and it is a treat to see some of his most important works in the flesh.

At the centre of the exhibition is a collection of 12 nudes, the largest group ever to be shown in the UK. Modigliani’s mastery at manipulating flesh tones makes these paintings an aesthetic sensual delight, but they are perhaps not as revolutionary as the show wants to make out. It seems almost unnecessary to point it out, but these “nudes” are all of women, and they are all pleasingly voluptuous without being overtly sexual in their content. The text points to the inclusion of pubic hair, but its tasteful depiction is no more revolutionary than that found in works by Goya or Courbet from the previous century. These are primarily objects to be looked at for the visual titillation of men, rather than bold proto-feminist depictions of women in charge of their sexuality.

In general, however, the exhibition is a feast for the eyes. Modigliani is a master of his medium and the show at Tate effectively conveys his skill. At times it lacks a clear narrative arc and it sometimes feels more focused on the identity of the sitters than on the artistic developments of the artist (an easy trap to fall into with figurative portraiture). Overall, however, Modigliani is a delightful foray into one of the world’s favourite artists.

Essay: Where Art Meets Nature

Where Art Meets Nature
By Anna Souter

Originally published by Rucksack Magazine

In recent years, female artists have begun to reclaim the process of walking in nature as a means of connection and communication. Anna Souter examines how the exploration of landscape has affected a diverse range of artistic practices.

“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”

Nan (Anna) Shepherd, The Living Mountain


Nan Shepherd’s glorious text The Living Mountain, written in the last years of the Second World War and unpublished until 1977, is currently seeing a deserved resurgence of interest. At a mere 30,000 words, it’s a work that defies categorisation: neither essay, nor prose-poem nor philosophy, and yet all these and more. For Shepherd, walking constitutes a form of meditation in which the divide between the bodily self and the landscape is broken down. One becomes “essential body”, and yet that body also becomes a manifestation of the landscape on which it treads.

This is a notion of walking and being in landscape as a form of bodily and spiritual communion with the world, with other people, and particularly with nature. And this idea, put so beautifully into words by Nan Shepherd half a century ago in secret, is also something that informs the work of a new generation of female artists working today.

There is a strong tradition of walking as artistic performance, starting most obviously with the Romantic poets, for whom walking represented a throwing-off of responsibility, of the demands of the home and of society – and perhaps significantly, of the demands of women. Later, there was Richard Long, whose Line Made by Walking (1967) is one of the most important early works of conceptual art. But, for all its beauty, there is something aggressive about Long’s Minimalist mark-making, something masculine about the imprint of foot on earth, about leaving a mark on nature. The documentation of his performances acknowledges the change his presence has wrought on the landscape, but rarely allows for the change the landscape has wrought on him.

Today, however, stepping in Long’s theoretical footsteps, a few younger female artists are beginning to offer alternative models for walking and being in nature. There is already a strong tradition of women walking within the city, reclaiming the pavements in defiance of the traditional formulation of the urban woman as “streetwalker”; think of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting (1927) or Mona Hatoum’s Roadworks (1985). But, until recently, the paths and byways of the countryside have generally remained untrodden by the performative feet of female artists (or at least by those working in the public eye).

In recent years, academics and artists have started to come together to express their dismay that women using walking in their art have gone unnoticed for so long. In 2010, Dr Deidre Heddon gave a lecture on the subject at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 2016 artists Amy Sharrocks and Clare Qualmann initiated the Walking Women project, intended to place women artists within the walking art canon. Slowly but surely, like a foot-sore rambler, these diverse practices are gaining an art historical context.

Beatrice Searle is currently somewhere in Norway, dragging a 35kg stone harnessed to her body through challenging terrain. The stone is a rough-edged, 390-million-year-old siltstone from the shores of Orkney, and she has carved two footprints into it. It takes inspiration from a similar ancient Orkney stone known locally as St Magnus’ Boat; according to one legend, the foot marks gouged into this rock come from St Magnus himself who, unable to find a boat to ferry him across the Pentland Firth, stood upon a rock that miraculously carried him across the water. But historical examination (that great destroyer and creator of myths) tells us that the stone had been used by the Picts long before St Magnus crossed the firth.

For the ancient Pictish people of Orkney, the stone was a symbol of kingship and social order. A new king would stand in the carved footprints in order to signify his connection with the land he ruled and to reinforce his intention to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. Searle points out that “subjects too, when the time came to choose a new King or chieftain, would stand in the stone to proclaim their votes before their peers, signifying, through the steadfastness of the stone, that the action was strong and would be lasting.” This is a world in which social order is closely aligned with the landscape; connecting with nature and anchoring in the land are the basis of good citizenship.

Beatrice Searle’s own sculpture and performative journey also touch on these issues. The stone that she drags embodies a paradoxical sense of simultaneous motion and stability. The impetus of her journey keeps her moving onwards while all the time the stone is slowing her down. It links her to the earth and forces her to be aware of every bump, slope and tree root in her path, heightening the senses of her feet. In addition to this, her walk will be punctuated by “standings”, moments of stillness when the artist and others will stand, barefoot, in the carved grooves of the stone, as a mark of community, of connection, and of anchoring oneself to the landscape.

Searle’s relationship with the landscape is reciprocal; there is both give and take in her actions. The self is placed not in opposition to nature and to others, but in communion with them, with a sense of shared experience that contrasts sharply with the Romantic notion of the solitary walking man.

For French photographer Chrystel Lebas, travelling through nature is a similarly reciprocal and shared act. For her, the landscape offers unique challenges – terrain, topography – but she is also ready to challenge the landscape in return, attempting to capture its secrets during the “blue hour”, an extended moment of twilight when the day has nearly faded.

In a recently completed project, Lebas (re)visited a series of wild locations in Scotland and Norfolk, following in the footsteps of botanist and ecologist Sir Edward James Salisbury (1886 -1978). Around a century ago, Salisbury used photography to make a scientific record of the flora and fauna in these remote places, meticulously documenting trees, flowers and leaves. Lebas has trodden the same routes twice over: once through the archives of the National History Museum, where Salisbury’s photographs were recently unearthed, and once through the physical landscapes of the British Isles.

Her photographs, collected in the book Field Studies: Walking Through Landscapes and Archives, match up with Salisbury’s; she either finds the exact spot, or finds an example of the same plant type, titling each photograph with a precise GPS location. They have a feeling of otherworldly magic to them. Leaves on a tree stump catch the eye, vividly bright against the moss. Moonlight falls on a ghostly lake while in the foreground the rough bark of a pine tree is visible even in the darkness.

In addition to their haunting beauty, these works are also ecologically accurate, and provide a record of the environmental changes that have taken place in the century since Salisbury traipsed through Britain with his bulky camera. It’s a record that is both useful and relevant, and will be used to help monitor the environment and to protect it where necessary, through Lebas’ collaboration with botanists and scientists.

For Searle and Lebas, as it was for Nan Shepherd and as it is for a number of other female artists working today, walking in nature offers a means of connection and communication with the world. Even when walking alone, it is not done in the Wordsworthian sense of clouds and daffodils and “that inward eye / That is the bliss of solitude”, but as part of a process that simultaneously looks both outwards and inwards.

For Shepherd, to walk through the mountains was to “walk the flesh transparent”; to come to a state where the body and the landscape are indivisible because of a bond of deep connection and understanding. And it is maybe this sense of connection that continues to grow as women (and men) continue to head out amongst the paths and the moorlands, the roadways and coasts – perhaps with only a camera for company, perhaps hand-in-hand with a friend, or perhaps with a sense of openness towards the strangers they might meet along the way.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.


Review: A Handful of Dust, Whitechapel Gallery


A Handful of Dust at Whitechapel Gallery
By Anna Souter

Originally published by The Upcoming

In 1920, Man Ray visited Marcel Duchamp in his New York studio. Man Ray was experimenting with photography, and Duchamp suggested one of his own unfinished artworks as a subject. The piece would later become The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), one of the masterpieces of 20th-century art.

Man Ray’s resulting photograph, entitled Dust Breeding, is a close-up of the work’s surface, the lead lines of Duchamp’s composition competing unceremoniously with discarded cotton wads and, above all, a thick layer of dust. Although the viewer’s eye is able to pick out tiny individual pieces of detritus, the image remains highly unstable: it could easily be an aerial view of a dusty landscape.

David Campany effectively utilises this work as the jumping-off point for his beautifully curated exhibition. The conceit of dust on which this compelling show pivots draws the viewer on a narrative through the major issues of the 20th century, touching on aerial warfare, societal displacement through geographical and economic factors, and the devastating impact of the nuclear bomb.

A Handful of Dust elegantly teases out previously unseen narratives and comparisons, figuring formal and conceptual similarities between works that initially seem worlds apart. In one room, a series of close-up photographs of a Gerhard Richter painting is juxtaposed with Ed Ruscha’s photographs from a roadside experiment in the desert and a record of concrete foundations in Barcelona, deliberately damaged to deter gypsy families from stopping.

Although the show pivots on the conceit of dust, the real subject here is the artistic and social positioning of the photographic image, playing off the inherent instability of the medium. The exhibition demonstrates how the way in which we read photography is highly dependent on context; those indexical signs that we take to be indisputable markers of meaning are actually far from fixed.

This is also suggested by the well-judged balance between photographs by artists and by anonymous authors. Some of these are press photographs, often showing editors’ markings for cropping and editing, demonstrating how even those images that we deem purely informational are always somehow constructed or composed.

The exhibition concludes with a return to Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, in the form of Sophie Ristelhueber’s 1991 aerial photograph of the Kuwait desert just after the expulsion of Iraqi forces. The work is clearly inspired by Dust Breeding; here again, scale is negated, disorienting the viewer. In a poignant last note, Ristelhueber is quoted describing the experience of viewing her work as “a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing”.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Guide: Venice Biennale 2017


Venice Biennale 2017: Top Ten Pavilions
Anna Souter

Originally published by The Upcoming

The 2017 edition of the Venice Biennale opened last week, offering a glimpse of the most cutting-edge contemporary art being produced around the globe. A staple of the art world calendar, at its core the event consists of specially produced artwork from each of the 57 participating countries, presented in a unique pavilion. This is usually either a specially designed permanent space in one of the Biennale’s official locations, or one of several requisitioned buildings around the city. The Biennale has grown to include a host of collateral events and exhibitions, meaning that, for a few months every two years, the historic city of Venice becomes the top international destination to see contemporary art.

This is our guide to ten of the most interesting, experimental and beautiful pavilions at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Austria: Licht-Pavilion – Erwin Wurm

Austria’s Licht-Pavilion draws the gaze immediately across the Giardini due to an upended truck installed outside the entrance. After climbing to the top, visitors are invited to stand and gaze out at the view over the Venetian lagoon. Similarly, throughout the pavilion artist Erwin Wurm offers a selection of unremarkable objects, made special by small, hand-written instructions about how the viewer should interact with them. Each work humbly asks for only a minute of your time – to put your arm through a hole or sit quietly with your legs drawn up – but the effect is to make you question the active role of the viewer and the moment when meaningless object becomes meaningful artwork.


Greece: Laboratory of Dilemmas – George Drivas

George Drivas’s Laboratory of Dilemmas combines video with immersive installation in a work based on Aeschylus’s play Suppliant Women. It’s a poignant nod to Greece’s ancient cultural heritage at a time when, as a nation, Greece is struggling with major political and socio-economic issues. But this reference to Aeschylus shows that these problems are far from new: it’s the age-old dilemma of whether to help foreigners in need at the risk of creating more problems at home. The video couches it in terms of a historical scientific experiment where scientists accidentally discovered a new type of cell. They debated whether to allow the new cells to mingle with the ones being studied, which might either improve the culture or destroy it completely. Presented in piecemeal fashion through speakers, texts and video arranged in a labyrinth, the viewer is uncertain how they should feel about the points of view presented.


Japan: Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest – Takahiro Iwasaki

The best way to approach the Japanese pavilion is from below. Wait in the queue to climb the stairs, and put your head into the small hole to find yourself the centre of attention. It’s embarrassing to suddenly find yourself part of an artwork without your consent, your eyes and nose peeping out of a hole in the floor while other people stand around laughing at you. But it’s also a highly effective way of making you question your own instincts, as your first impulse is to rush round to the other entrance and stand watching other people popping up where you have just been, and to laugh at their startled expressions in turn. The work is by Takahiro Iwasaki, an artist born and raised in Hiroshima, a city whose history has deeply affected his art. The installation includes tiny detailed pieces, only visible at eye level when visitors pop up through the floor, addressing the micro and macro, and echoing the atomic bomb which, through the interaction of tiny atoms, destroyed a whole city.


Iceland: Out of Controll in Venice – Egill Sæbjörnsson

You can find the Icelandic pavilion over on the island of Giudecca, tucked down a back street. Go inside and you’ll be offered a coffee, to be stirred with a tiny crafted “troll spoon”. Inside, there are tables and chairs on three levels, with viewing holes looking out onto the opposite wall, where a huge animated troll is being projected. According to the artist, this work wasn’t made by him at all, but by two trolls who took over production from him after working for several months in his studio. Their interests include perfume-making, fashion, drinking espresso and eating tourists. By allowing these imaginary characters full rein, Sæbjörnssonhas eschewed conventional social constructs and favoured the free flow of creativity. A bit mad, but wonderfully so.


Georgia: Living Dog Among Dead Lions – Vajiko Chachkhiani

Artist Vajiko Chachkhiani is interested in the lives of average people who are invisible in the eyes of history but who still contribute to it. His installation consists of a typical Georgian house, found abandoned in a rural mining town, purchased and meticulously recreated in Venice. There’s something unsettling about it, though, because it’s raining inside the house, while viewers outside remain dry. Sparse belongings are soaked, the wallpaper is peeling and an unpleasant smell of mildew emanates from it. Initially, the interior was dirty and the water washed it clean, but because it falls relentlessly the rain will eventually cause the objects inside to decompose; over the course of the exhibition, mould and moss will grow inside while the outside remains unchanged. Chachkhiani compares this to how a person is changed inside by traumatic events, although they appear the same externally. It’s tragic and fascinating in equal measure.

New Zealand

New Zealand: Emissaries – Lisa Reihana

This work by Lisa Reihana is a fantastic example of how contemporary technology can be used effectively in art. One huge wall of the pavilion is taken over by a projected panoramic image, where a number of narratives involving real actors are played out against an animated background. The viewer’s eye is drawn to one vignette and then another, distracted but also drawn in by the way the panorama travels along the wall, accompanied by a moving soundscape. The narratives are taken from interactions of colonialist conquerors and native peoples of the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand, Australia, Hawai’i and Tahiti. The installation interrogates the gaze of imperialism, pointing to the multifaceted nature of every story as well as the interconnectedness of history.


Latvia: What Can Go Wrong – Miķelis Fišers

The title of the Latvian pavilion – What Can Go Wrong – can be interpreted in a number of ways: as a reckless or carefree question or a statement of risk. Miķelis Fišers is drawn towards bodies of knowledge that are seen as unsubstantiated or without status; that which is esoteric or conspiratorial. Consequently, his visual language is one of monsters, aliens and futuristic technology. These things populate a series of cartoonish carvings, featuring titles such as “Aliens Force Musicians to Defecate in the Orchestra Pit at the Metropolitan Opera, NY” and “Modified Squids Loot the Potash Plant”. Unafraid to use humour, the installation points to the bizarre things human beings find to fear in the face of genuinely unsettling changes in our environment and government.

Finland 1

Finland: The Aalto Natives – Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen

The Finnish pavilion is another place where humour is used to great effect. Artists Mellors and Nissinen have worked together to produce a video piece complemented by a giant animatronic talking egg, using absurdity and laughter to confront profound issues of morality, power and communication. An examination of Finnish culture is made through the eyes of Geb and Atum, two God-like figures who supposedly created the country millions of years ago. The interrogation is nominally directed towards Finland, but the use of universally recognised childhood entertainment features such as Muppet-like puppets suggests the wider applicability of their questions about nationalism and tolerance.

Britain 6

Britain: Folly – Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow’s installation for the British Pavilion is intended to explore every facet of the historic architectural space. It starts outside the building and makes its way inside, sometimes dissecting rooms or crossing spatial boundaries. The title – Folly – refers both to the purely decorative buildings that were a key part of Romantic English landscape design and to the state of foolishness that the word implies. Barlow’s installation is fun, with its bright colours and lollipop-like structures, but it also feels somehow sinister: these foreboding details can be found in a huge crushed cardboard tube and in the towering pieces that look far too flimsy for their height. These strange recycled creations invite the viewer to consider the concept of sculpture and to form their own unique response to objecthood.

Hyperpavilion 2


Last but not least, the Hyperpavilion is located on the opposite side of the Arsenale, accessible only by boat. It’s not a national pavilion like the others on this list, but it’s worth mentioning as one of the largest spaces in the Biennale in 2017. Picking up on some of the biggest intellectual trends of the last year, the Hyperpavilion examines the merging of life offline and online, networked culture and hyperconnectivity. Work by 11 artists is on show, including video pieces, immersive digital experiences, installation and performance. Theo Massoulier offers a series of strange hybrid objects, all part-organic, part-technological, that look like futuristic sea creatures, attractive and repellent in equal measure. Also particularly effective are an installation and performance from Aram Bartholl consisting of a mirrored tank situated on a large sheet of brand logos and a pair of security guards who ask visitors to hand over their phones so they can check their Facebook profiles. The dim lighting adds to the sense of paranoia that the visitor is being viewed as well as doing the viewing, drawing attention to the growing global culture of surveillance.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Giacometti at Tate Modern


Review: Giacometti at Tate Modern
By Anna Souter

Published by The Upcoming

You may think you know Alberto Giacometti, but you don’t. This fact is made perfectly clear to every viewer as they step into the first room of this expansive new retrospective at Tate Modern. There, turned expectantly towards the visitor like students waiting for a lecture, are rows of heads. Sculpted between 1917 and 1960, these figurative faces demonstrate the extraordinary breadth and depth of Giacometti’s artistic style and practice.

From his earliest youthful forays into working with clay to elongated faces cast in bronze, via experiments showing the influence of Surrealism, ancient Egyptian art and the vagaries of plaster, this room offers a sum of the exhibition in miniature. The tone set is one of art historical precision with a humanising and anthropocentric slant. It’s a tone followed by the rest of the show and that effectively illuminates the artist’s work, which is at once concerned with the technical precisions of sculpting and drawing and with the wider condition of humanity in the 20th century.

Giacometti isn’t often seen as a Surrealist, but as the exhibition effectively lays out, some of his most successful early works were eagerly accepted and praised by members of the movement. There are table-top pieces in the style of board games with frustratingly opaque rules, and a number of startling “disagreeable objects” that are sexual and violent in equal measure.

Even in these early Surreal works, scale is always a key occupation of Giacometti’s. This becomes even clearer when he leaves the Surrealist movement behind, demonstrated by a beautifully curated room of tiny figurative sculptures. Mostly made in a hotel room in Geneva when he was denied re-entry into France during the War, they are exquisite in their littleness, like a good friend glimpsed from a great distance. One is so tiny it could almost make you cry.

When most people think of Giacometti, they picture his bronze walking men and standing women of the 1950s. But the substance of these creations lies in the evolution of the artist’s practice up to this point, and particularly in the plaster works that form their basis.

One of the greatest moments of this exhibition comes in the presentation of eight of the nine surviving Woman of Venice plaster works, produced for the Venice Biennale of 1956. These pieces, which were originally shown in plaster but later coated in a thick layer of shellac for casting in bronze, have been especially restored for this retrospective. The protective layer has been removed and the full genius of the plaster works revealed. They serve to demonstrate that it is plaster, with all its fragility and malleability, that shows the true essence of Giacometti’s creations.

In the final room, two standing women (later formulations of these plaster pieces) tower like sentinels as visitors leave the show. They stand as silent witnesses to Giacometti’s perennial power and to this superbly curated exhibition from Tate, which is both elegant in its formulation and subtly challenging in its art-historical repositioning of a much-loved master.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician


An Interview with Laurie Stras, Director of Musica Secreta
Interview and editing by Anna Souter

Originally published by Obsidian Records

In anticipation of the newest release on Obsidian Records, Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician, we met up with Musica Secreta’s Laurie Stras to ask her a few questions about the project.

Tell us a bit about Musica Secreta and the research behind Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician?

Deborah Roberts started Musica Secreta in 1990 to investigate the repertoire of the Ferrarese ladies from the end of the 16th century (women musicians who sang at the court of Duke Alfonso II d’Este at Ferrara). In fact, my association with Deborah goes back to the mid-1980s, but I joined up with her officially in 1999, when we investigated the repertoire of the Ferrarese ladies for our CD Dangerous Graces.

Musica Secreta has always been about the repertoire composed for and by women in the 16th and 17th centuries. When we did the Dangerous Graces project we used the performance practice techniques that we knew were available to 17th century nuns and extrapolated that back into the 16th century.

Then in 2009, during a research trip to Italy, I went into the archives at Ferrara and within two days I’d found evidence that all of our ideas about the ladies using nuns’ techniques were true. I found evidence of the Duchess taking the ladies into convents, and that the ladies left large sums of money to the convent, so the association between those singing ladies and the singing nuns in Ferrara was really very strong.

It was about that time I also found this mysterious book of anonymous motets published in 1543, entitled “Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata”. I felt certain the motets had been written for nuns, because of the texts and the way the voices worked together. Gradually over the next five or six years I pieced everything together to come up with the music that you hear on the recording.

So what’s so special about music written for nuns?

I think the first thing that you notice about this music is that, because it’s for nuns, it’s not scored in the way that we normally hear polyphony, with soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. Instead, all the voices are operating in the same range, so you end up hearing melodies that don’t actually exist on the page.

You also get many more dissonances than usual in this music. One of the things that makes this book even more remarkable is the way that the composer has a very radical approach to dissonance. Dissonance seems to be an active part of this composer’s expressive palette, not something that is just alluded to or avoided, and certainly not something that is there to be resolved.

The quality of the voices is also incredibly important in this music. When you have polyphony that’s written for five voices all singing in the same range, the individual quality of the voices is central to the quality of the final sound of the piece, as is the phrasing. Blend is consequently very important, and you have a much greater reliance on phrasing, because if you want to distinguish each part of the polyphony it’s important for the individual singers to think carefully about where each phrase is going. This is something we worked very hard on in rehearsals for this recording.

Finally, every convent in the 16th century had an organ, and the use of instruments to accompany polyphony was much more widespread than our current practice would suggest. It would be unthinkable to sing nuns’ polyphony without an organ at the very least. We’ve used an organ and a viol, and having that sustained sound under all the parts frees the singers up to phrase in a way that you don’t get with unaccompanied polyphony.

In the 16th century, nuns’ polyphony was banned in areas around Italy, and when I heard the first edits of this recording, it was the first time I really understood what the bishops were so afraid of. I realised that bishops were getting their crosiers in a twist about nuns singing polyphony because the music is so absorbing; the equal voices really pull you in.


Why do you think the Borgia dynasty has captured our imaginations so much, both historically and in contemporary popular culture?

I think we get an almost contradictory feeling from what we know about the Borgia family. We can see a total lack of empathy because they were – they had to be – completely ruthless to maintain power, but they were also fiercely loyal. You get a sense of these really strong passions – one really negative and one really positive – at the same time.

I think Lucrezia did what she could to keep her head above water. I think she’s unjustly maligned, and she took the flack for a lot of the cruelty and ruthlessness of her male relatives, but she was very much their pawn. Her role as a duchess was to hold her community together, and she was a very skilled administrator who managed her husband’s lands when he was away, and who gave generously to the convent.

She also became deeply religious; she was a Franciscan tertiary, and it was clear that the convent of Corpus Domini, where her daughter was eventually raised and became abbess, was a very important place for her. She also created an entirely new sister convent to Corpus Domini for the orphaned daughter of her brother Cesare.

It is in itself quite remarkable that Cesare’s daughter was allowed to become a nun, because she could have been used as a bargaining chip by the family, as Lucrezia herself had been, married off to the highest bidder. But Lucrezia allowed her to be raised in a convent, where she was safe from men.

How different was life in the convent for women such as Lucrezia’s daughter compared to the lives they might have led outside it?

It’s important to remember that nuns in the 16th century had more autonomy than women outside the cloister. Although they were contained in the convent, inside it they were doctors, they were writers, they were painters, they were musicians, they could do the sorts of things that women outside the convent couldn’t do.

When Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter was orphaned at the age of four, she was raised in a convent because there was nobody at the court who could raise her. She couldn’t have been raised in her father’s house because it would have been dangerous for her. She probably realised very quickly that she was better off in a place where she couldn’t be used as a bargaining chip, and where she was allowed to be a musician. For Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, the convent was a place where she could do the things she wanted to and really excel at them.

Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun and Musician will be released on 3 March 2017.
Pre-order your copy on Amazon here.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Top 5 defining moments in the arts 2016


Top 5 defining moments in the arts 2016
By Anna Souter

Originally published by Culture Label

2016 is drawing to an end, and it’s been a year of turmoil both in the art world and in international politics. We’ve drawn together the top five most significant art world events that took place in 2016. It’s been an exciting year, so who knows what’s to come in 2017!

1. Frances Morris becomes director of Tate

When Frances Morris was appointed the new director of Tate Modern in January, it heralded a new direction for the eponymous museum. As the institution’s first female director, her appointment has been hailed as a significant step forward for gender equality in the arts. Since the inauguration of her directorship, she’s pushed an agenda for exhibiting overlooked female and non-Western artists, including Mona Hatoum and Wifredo Lam.

2. Sotheby’s declares Frans Hals painting a fake

In October, Sotheby’s told the world that a painting sold through the auction house for £8.4 million had been proved a fake. The revelation that the work supposedly by Frans Hals could not possibly have been painted by the artist sent shockwaves through the Old Master market, and prompted fears that a specialist art forger is at work. In response, Sotheby’s has set up its own forensic art unit to deal with any potential fakes.

3. Ai WeiWei draws attention to the plight of migrants

Many artists have been concerned about the state of the world this year. Ai WeiWei has always been a champion of those whose voices aren’t heard by the government or media, and he took on the cause of migrants and refugees. In a controversial move, he recreated a viral photograph of a drowned Syrian refugee on a beach in Greece, bringing the crisis to the attention of the media once more.

4. The Tate Modern extension opens

It’s been a bit year for Tate Modern. Its £260 million extension opened in June, increasing the museum’s square footage by 60% and allowing for a new range of galleries, exhibition spaces, offices, shops and a restaurant. The extension allows for more of the Tate’s vast holdings to be put on show, and now has designated spaces for performance and installation art.

5. Virtual Reality comes to Frieze

When Oculus Rift technology was launched in March, it was inevitably only a matter of time before artists began exploring it. Post-internet artist Jon Rafman used the latest VR tech to take his audience on an immersive journey, with installations at both the Berlin Biennale and Frieze London. Does this point to a new direction for mainstream art?

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Sunday Reading: Coming Home


Sunday Reading: Comely Home
By Anna Souter

Originally published by Oh Comely Magazine

When I discovered the Welsh word hiraeth, I realised it filled an important hole in my vocabulary. There’s no direct English translation, but it’s used to describe a kind of nostalgic homesickness that is peculiarly Welsh. The word is also loosely associated with a sense of satisfaction caused by travelling west, towards the sea.

My father, a boy from county Durham, was first brought to west Wales by my mother when they were 15, to the small farmhouse bought by my great-grandfather in the 1950s. The cliffs of Ceredigion somehow spoke to him, and he fell unconditionally in love with the area. It’s a place that gets under your skin and becomes part of your soul. The scenery is rural rather than wild, and the coastline undulating rather than dramatic, but it’s perhaps the very ordinariness of its beauty that touches anyone who spends time there. When my sister and I came along years later, it became the scene of every family holiday. My memories are filled with impossibly long summers, a TV with only three channels, and beds made up with scratchy Welsh blankets.

As we got older, however, it became more apparent that my father was ill. A “bad leg” became a neurological problem, and the steep Welsh stairs and quirky cupboard-sized door to the bathroom in the small house became a permanently looming challenge.

On what would turn out to be my father’s last trip to Wales, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the house. It had been a day of tears and shouting, my father on his hands and knees, swearing because he couldn’t get up. We saw in the new year in our pyjamas, watching the countdown on the flickering television.

Just after midnight, we opened the curtains to find the garden and fields blanketed with snow. “It only snows down here once in a blue moon,” my sister and I told each other as we rushed out, wellies and coats pulled on over our pyjamas. The full moon was shining brightly, bathing everything in a magical blue light. It made the scenery shimmer with a haze of unreality, and feel far removed from the mundane sadnesses we’d watched during the day.

Most of the snow had melted the next morning, and we drove home in silence until the radio announcer began to report on the real blue moon that had been shining over the country’s new year celebrations. It seemed our surreal moment really had been magical.

Soon after our return, my father was consigned to a wheelchair, which he would have to use for the rest of his life. His illness robbed him of his strength with a slow surety that was impossibly hard to watch. Finally, one Christmas five years later, my mother, my sister and I were returning to the house in Wales with my father’s ashes in a jar.

He’d been very clear before he died: he wanted his ashes scattered on the cliff tops that had enchanted him as a young man. Far from pristine snow and moonlight, this time we battled against the wind and rain beating our faces and freezing our hands. The raging of the Welsh weather left us with the ironic certainty that it was only in the ending of his illness that he had found peace. We left him on the cliff top, in the knowledge that the next time we came back there it would feel like coming home.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

Review: Beyond Caravaggio


Review: Beyond Caravaggio at The National Gallery *****
By Anna Souter

Originally published on The Upcoming

Gallery-goers would be forgiven for thinking that the new exhibition Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery is a show about the great master himself. Its focus, however, is actually on Caravaggio’s influence on art and his many followers working in a “Caravaggesque” style. Only six out of the 49 paintings in the exhibition are actually by Caravaggio. But, before you write the exhibition off, you should know that those six paintings are completely mind-blowing.

The exhibition’s main academic message seems to be fairly clear and is quickly grasped: Caravaggio was a revolutionary painter who utilised chiaroscuro techniques and real-life likenesses to powerful effect. His unique style was then adopted (to greater and lesser degrees of success) by a whole roster of artists in several countries, both during his lifetime and afterwards. It’s interesting to see how Caravaggio’s radical ideas were taken up and disseminated, but the main impression the exhibition gives is that none of these lesser-known artists can hold a light to the man himself.

Caravaggio’s paintings shine with emotion, intimacy and drama. In a room full of imitations, it is the genuine Caravaggio works that draw the eye immediately, exuding that undefinable “something” of great art that captures the imagination.

In many of his works, it’s the details that stand out. In The Taking of Christ (1602), Judas’s dirty thumbnail grasping Christ’s sleeve contrasts powerfully with Jesus’s own modestly clasped, neat hands. In The Supper at Emmaus (1601), Christ’s disciple stretches his arms out in an extraordinary painterly example of perspective and foreshortening; he almost seems to be reaching out of the painting to pull the viewer into the scene.

The final room holds the exhibition’s greatest treasure, a large depiction of St John the Baptist in the wilderness. Rather than presenting the saint as an emaciated old man, Caravaggio painted a muscular half-nude youth sitting in the dramatic light which so many of his followers tried to imitate. The skin is painted with wide brush-strokes that are clearly visible, and the subject’s dark, haunted eyes avoid the viewer’s gaze.

There are some less-than-fascinating works on show in Beyond Caravaggio and visitors expecting room upon room of paintings by the famous artist will probably be a little disappointed. Overall, however, the few stunning works by Caravaggio win out, making this exhibition one not to be missed.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.