Photographs From The District Of Exarcheia In Athens

Exarcheia is an interesting district to explore in the Greek capital. When I was based in Athens for a few weeks in November 2017, I went on a few strolls in this part of the city. It is a slice of alternative Athens. You can call it trendy or hipster, but this is a very raw and unpolished place. This is no Shoreditch or Brooklyn. Demonstrations frequently take place. In fact, when I was there, I witnessed one manifesting by the Polytechnic University entrance with piles of stolen chairs and bits of furniture piled on top of one another. I’ve read about the anarchists who populate this district. They can be found around Exarcheia’s main square. When I passed this square, I saw a bum with an unruly bush of greying curly hair lying on a knackered mattress wrapped up warm (Athens starts to get cold in November) and engrossed in a book. By his side there were several columns of battered paperbacks. I thought to myself, Is this guy some skid row Socrates? There’s a sense of sadness when I walk these streets felt via the consequences of the never ending economic hard times the country is going through. Amongst the abrasive graffiti permeating the streets are some genuine works of art. On one wall someone has created an enormous mural of a homeless person with the words, ‘dedicated to the poor and homeless here and around the globe’. Below is a roll of photographs I took from my explorations here. The best sensors though are natural. One’s eyes, ears and nose will never be able to replace an artificial lens, but these snaps shall suffice…

 

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Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Photographs From Rome’s Testaccio District

The Testaccio neighbourhood of Rome located by the Tibor river and south of the Coliseum and ruins of ancient Roma is an interesting part of the city to stroll through. For a long time it was traditionally a working-class district. In recent years the area has become gentrified and this shows in some of the trendy eateries and bars as well as the broader mix of residents. Yet unlike some neighbourhoods. which completely lose their original flavour, Testaccio has retained much of its character and this shows in the photographs. The streets are full of grand old multi-story buildings. Graffiti, both artistic and non artistic, can be found in several corners of the neighbourhood.

The main piazza of Testaccio becomes animated over the weekend with families and children playing and kicking footballs around. Old long time residents can also be found shooting the breeze on the piazza benches.

Close to Pyramide metro station on the edge of the district is a prominent Egyptian style pyramid built during the Roman period. And nearby there is a beautiful and tranquil Protestant cemetery where one can find the graves of the English poets Keats and Shelley. I describe this cemetery in another blog post.

 

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Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart 

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

 

Sculptures By Francesco Messina At The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are one of the jewels if not the leading attraction of ‘must see’ sites in Rome. It’s on everyone and their Jack Russell’s ‘to do’ list. Rome is extremely well endowed with historical sites and one could spend weeks if not months trying to unearth most of them. The Vatican Museums are of course most famous for the Sistine chapel as well as the Rapheal rooms containing his frescoes and a large Pinacoteca featuring a treasure trove of landmark works of art. As a consequence of such riches, it is supremely popular and the crowds can be overwhelming.

However the Vatican Museums are an enormous place with a breath-taking collection of art impossible to digest in just one visit. As most people make a b-line for the highlights, lots of work gets overlooked. Interestingly, within the museum complex there is a museum of modern and contemporary art featuring works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Dali, Francis Bacon and several Italian modern artists including Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. Yet it was the handful of bronze sculptures by the Italian sculptor Francesco Messina, which caught my full attention.

Messina is considered one of the most important Italian sculptors of the 20th century. His sculptures remind me of Donatello’s when it comes down to their core fundamentals. The most important of these is tapping into the soul and spirit of the subject. Donatello had an immense talent for achieving this and this is what distinguished and separated him from his contemporaries and competitors. What’s more incredible was that Donatello was creating such human and soulful sculptures at the beginning of the Renaissance and several years before Michelangelo. Most of Donatello’s contemporaries had at least one foot still in the Medieval ages. Donatello, on the other hand, was streets ahead. For Donatello it was not just about recreating and resuscitating the great sculptures of the Classical period, it was also about executing feelings and creating sculptures of his subjects in a way where he understood and connected to them.

Messina is a true student of Donatello. His sculptures of Adam, John the Baptist and David all have their roots in Donatello’s David. They are very sensitive and delicate sculptures. Messina, like Donatello, creates his subjects warts and all without any traces of exaggerated mannerisms. Messina’s sculpture of David is far closer to Donatello’s sculpture of David as opposed to Michelangelo’s. Michelangelo’s David for all its dexterous skill is almost too perfect. Donatello’s David is closer to the source and projects a David that is more real and less idealised. Messina’s 1953 bronze sculpture of David is an exceptional creation. His David is like a feral tearaway street urchin from a Jean Genet book. Messina’s David tries to act in a tough ‘too big for his boots’ way carrying a large sharp knife but its all a front and it shows. He’s really a lanky, scared and lost little boy with twig-thin arms. Messina has created a true David with all his strengths but also all his frailties and vulnerabilities.

Messina’s sculpture of a youthful John The Baptist is another gem where he deftly captures his tenderness and humanity; that of a pure and virtuous being. The gaze of the face of Christ in his Ecce Home sculpture is hypnotic and visceral. As is the face and figure of his Mary of Magdalen sculpture. And this is where Messina’s genius as an artist lies; in his ability to crystallise emotion.

 

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The Rising of Lazarus (1951) – bronze

 

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The Young St John the Baptist (1955) – bronze

 

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Doubting St. Thomas (1951) – bronze

 

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Ecce Home (1953) – bronze

 

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Adam (1939) – bronze

 

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The Magdalen (1953) – bronze

 

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Pius XII (1963) – bronze

 

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St. Catherine of Siena (1961) – bronze

 

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Pieta (1950) – bronze

 

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Davide (1953) – bronze

 

 

Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart 

(c)All Rights Reseved 

Visiting Rome’s Protestant Cemetery

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Located in Rome’s Testaccio district is Rome’s Protestant Cemetery where many distinguished figures through the ages are buried. The cemetery is most famous for being the resting place of the English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both poets died young. Shelley at 30 and Keats at only 25. Keats died in Rome in 1821 of tuberculosis and is buried next to his friend, the English painter Joseph Severn (who lived 58 years longer dying at the age of 84 in 1879), in the Parte Antica (Old Part) of the cemetery by the prominent Pyramid of Cestius, originally constructed in 18-12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius who was a magistrate and member of the Septemviri Epulonum, one of the great religious corporations of ancient Roman priests.

 

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The graves of poet John Keats (on the left) and his friend Joseph Severn

Shelley drowned off the Italian Riviera in 1822, just a year after Keats. Even stranger is the fact that a book of Keats poetry was found in his pocket when his body was washed up on the shore. His friends, the poet Lord Byron and the English novelist and traveller Edward John Trelawny, cremated his body on a beach near the Tuscan town of Viareggio. The ashes were then sent to the British consulate in Rome who transferred them to the Protestant Cemetery. Shelley’s grave is located in the Zona Vecchia (Old Area) part of the cemetery in the row at the very back. His epitath reads, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea=change, In to something rich and strange’

 

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The grave of the 19th century English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley

Directly facing Shelley’s grave is the small grave of the American Beat era poet Gregory Corso who died in 2001. His epitath reads, Spirit is life, it flows thru the death of me, endlessly like a river, unafraid of becoming the sea.

 

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The Grave of the American beat poet Gregory Corso 

Elsewhere in the cemetery are the tombs of the grandson of the poet William Wordsworth and the only son of the German writer and poet Goethe. The cemetery contains the grave of the uncle of Edvard Munch, Peter Andreas Munch, who was a historian. One can also find the graves of the 20th century Italian poets Dario Belleza and Amelia Rosselli. One of the principle artists of the Italian post-WW2 Arte Povera art movement, Jannis Kounellis, was buried here last year. The graves of the 19th century English sculptors, John Gibson and Richard James Wyatt, who were both students of the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, are both located in this cemetery.

 

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The tomb of the 19th century English sculptor John Gibson

The grave of the Italian philosopher and one of the founders of the Communist Party Of Italy, Antonio Gramsci, can be found here. He was imprisoned in 1926 during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Whilst in prison he wrote the seminal Prison Notebooks between 1929-35, which were inspired by Marxist theory and by the writings of figures such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Vilfredo Pareto. In 1935 he was released from prison due to deteriorating health and died two years later in 1937.

 

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The grave of the Italian Marxist philosopher and Communist Party of Italy founder Antonio Gramsci 

One of the most prominent graves in the cemetery is that of the Italian surgeon and humanist Giovanni Ceccarini, which reigns majestically in full Neo-Classical opulence and glory.

 

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The lavish neo-classical tomb of the Italian surgeon and humanist Giovanni Cecarrini

Visiting this cemetery is definitely worth the trip. Especially on a sunny and cloudless day. It is one of the most beautiful and peaceful cemeteries I have ever visited. Some cemeteries can be a sombre and oppressive experience but not this one. Moreover, it is not an overvisited place like many of Rome’s other landmarks. There is no fee for visiting but at least a 3 euro donation is recommended in order to maintain the cemetery.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena: The Rise And Fall Of The Oldest Bank In The World

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The Tuscan town of Siena was an important city during the 12th and 13th centuries and before the rise of the powerful Medici family it was home to Italy’s richest banks. It is also home to the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, first founded in Siena in 1472. 20 years before Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the New World. When walking through Siena’s medieval old town, you’ll find the bank’s headquarters located in the atmospheric Palazzo Salimbeni.

It was originally founded to provide loans to ‘poor or miserable or needy persons’. Siena’s golden period of prosperity was cut short by the Black Death plague in the mid 14th century. The plague reached Siena in May 1348 and by October of that year, it had taken approximately two thirds of the town’s population of 100,000 inhabitants. Siena never recovered from this event and the majority of it’s population was reduced to poverty. The bank was created to provide loans to these people at an interest rate of 7.5%. Since its formation, MPS has played an enormous role in the development of Siena and even today during its troubling times, the bank remains the city’s largest employer. Tourism is arguably the second biggest source of income for the city. The city gets its fair share of tourists yet it’s nowhere near on the gargantuan scale of its more prominent Tuscan cousin Florence, which even outside of the peak Summer season receives tourists by the truckload. Should, in the worst case, the bank follow the same fate as Lehman Brothers and completely collapse, tourism would immediately become much more vital to the economic wellbeing of the town.

Although the history of the bank goes back to 1472, its present formation dates back to 1642 when Siena (which ceased to be a Republic in 1555) was part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. After the unification of Italy in the 19th century the bank expanded its operations across the country becoming one of Italy’s leading banks. Regardless of the bank’s territorial expansion, MPS had always had been strongly connected to the city of Siena. In 1995 the bank was renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and all the banks’ financial, credit and insurance branches were united under this new name. A not-for-profit arm was also created called Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which benefited the city and province of Siena substantially over time by investing large sums of money in the area’s education, health, culture, sports and tourism sectors. In 2006, Siena was elected as the city in Italy with the highest quality of life. Quite a feat considering how badly ravaged the city was by the Black Death more than six and a half centuries earlier. However, just a few years later the party would be well and truly over as the bank began it’s steep fall from grace.

The root of the bank’s problems go back to that same year when the bank was renamed and restructured. From 1995, the renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena went on an acquisition spree buying out several Italian banks. The idea was to increase the bank’s profitability and make it a more global bank. Unfortunately, not only did the bank overpay for many of its acquisitions, it also acquired banks in poor financial health. Some even say that BMPS acquired these banks without doing any thorough due diligence such as properly scrutinising all the banks’ accounts etc. One such example of these acquisitions was BMPS acquiring Banca Antonvenata from Santander in 2007 for 9.25 billion euros. Just a few months earlier Santander had acquired Antonvenata from ABN Amro for 5.7 billion euros. The deal with BMPS netted the Spanish bank a cool 3.55 billion euros. It doesn’t take a Warren Buffett to see that BMPS had royally goofed up on this one. But that’s not the end of the story. BMPS had in fact transferred over 19 billion euros to ABN Amro, Santander and Abbey National Treasury Service to acquire Banca Antonvenata since the bank had a deficit of 10 billion euros. BMPS may well have gone to the casinos of Las Vegas with the money, since no one in the bank had bothered to do any research before making the acquisition. Quite astonishing considering the amount involved in the transaction.

The following year in 2008, the Global Financial Crash unfolded. Highly leveraged and indebted banks such as BMPS were especially vulnerable. By 2009, the bank began to experience huge loses at some of its branches. The president of the bank at the time, Giuseppe Mussari, hid these losses in the bank’s accounts by entering into derivatives contracts with Deutsche Bank and Nomura. All this was made public in November 2012 and the share price of the bank subsequently began to dramatically slide. As I type this article the current share price is 2.78 euros. In July 2016 the share price was over 10,000 euros (100 euros in old money before a 100-1 share conversion in November 2016 where 100 old shares were converted into one new share).

Since 2013 BMPS has been at the receiving end of a number of bail outs to prevent it from collapsing and creating thousands of job losses (as of 2016, 25,556 people were working at the bank). In December 2016 the Italian government raised 20 billion euros to recapitalise the country’s ailing banks. Later in the summer of 2017 the bank was bailed out by the government for 8.1 billion euros in which the Ministry of Economy and Finance arm of the Italian government acquired a whopping 68.247% stake.

There may finally be some light though. According to a Reuter’s article recently published on 4th April 2018 concerning the latest developments of BMPS, two top executives of the bank went on record to say that it was on track to meet its targets in it’s debt reduction program. This includes a disposal in mid-2018 of a staggering 25 billion euros worth of bad loans ‘repackaged as securities’. How that will pan out is anyone’s guess and the question remains of whether the bank will ever be totally free from its shackles?

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

REFERENCES/FURTHER READING

https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MPS-Case-Study-Final-EDITED.pdf

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/9530852/Decline-of-Monte-dei-Paschi-di-Siena-worlds-oldest-bank-leaves-city-paying-the-price.html

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/dec/22/monte-dei-paschi-the-history-of-the-worlds-oldest-bank

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-eurozone-banks-italy-monte-dei-paschi/monte-dei-paschis-bosses-confident-about-turnaround-plan-sources-idUKKCN1HB2CV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banca_Monte_dei_Paschi_di_Siena

https://www.gruppomps.it/en/

Just Gimme Some Secrets

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In his book Zero To One, the visionary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel asks the following question whenever he interviews someone for a job; ‘What important truth do very few people agree with you on?’

I find this question interesting. On the surface it may seem simple, but it’s a difficult question to answer. Here are some statements I hear a lot;

‘Protect yourself from the sun using sun cream’

‘Brexit will cause long lasting damage to the UK economy’

‘The art world is rigged and corrupt’

‘Bitcoin is a bubble’

‘Donald Trump voters are racist and uneducated’

‘Artificial Intelligence will destroy the whole human race’

‘Sugar is bad for you’

‘Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetable a day’

‘Astrology is pseudoscience’

Whether or not these statements may be true or false, a lot of people already agree with them. With such common consensus views, it is important to challenge them. Regarding the fourth statement in response to Thiel’s question, one could argue, ‘Most people believe Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to be a bubble and it is most certainly demonstrating all the classic attributes of one. Yet the truth is that it is a revolutionary and game-changing technology, which has the power to disrupt the entire global banking sector.’ Now I am not suggesting you got out and buy Bitcoin. Bitcoin could still become obsolete, but nevertheless this view is a contrarian one.

John Lennon once sung, ‘Just gimme some truth’. But sometimes truth alone is not enough. Especially if it is the same truth that almost everybody agrees on. John should have really sung, ‘Just gimme some secrets’. Give me some enlightening golden wisdom that isn’t common knowledge.

Consensus views can change. For a long time most people believed that tobacco was a medicine (and it was advertised as such) beneficial to one’s health. Now its seen as harmful to one’s health. Before the 2017 snap election in the UK, the consensus view on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was that he was ‘unelectable’. But when the results of the election were announced, the party did nowhere near as badly as most people had originally forecasted and in fact prevented the Conservative Party from winning with a majority of votes. The consensus view on Corbyn subsequently shifted from someone who was ‘unelectable’ to someone who had a decent chance of becoming the next prime minister should he still be leading the Labour Party when the next elections take place.

Challenging consensus views enables one to stay ahead of the curve. When Google acquired YouTube in 2006 for $1bn many people thought Google overpaid. Likewise, when Facebook acquired Instagram for the same amount of money in 2014, many wondered what Zuckerberg and co had been smoking. With hindsight it is easy to say that they were incredibly shrewd and deft investments. Yet at the time, even though the leaders of both companies had the unique foresight to see the game changing potential in both those companies, most didn’t share their visions and ridiculed them for the amount of money they spent on acquiring them.

Many investors believe that Amazon stock is overvalued. If we were to value the company by its PE (Price to Earnings) ratio alone you could not unreasonably come to the conclusion that it is extremely overvalued. However, if one were to look at Amazon as a unique and powerful monopoly business in the e-commerce space, constantly disrupting traditional industries like no other company one could develop a different point of view and maybe deduce that its trading at a high premium for a reason.

The legendary US investor Warren Buffet’s often quoted mantra is to buy stocks when investors are fearful and panicky and sell when they are greedy and irrationally euphoric. Easier said than done of course. But if you can separate facts, reason and logic from emotion it could set you in good stead. One day in 1929 a wealthy US investor called Joe Kennedy was given some stock tips by a shoeshine boy. Kennedy immediately sold all his holdings and just a short time later the beginnings of the Great Depression unfolded. The stock tips from the shoeshine boy were God’s way of saying the financial markets were dangerously overheating.

Contrarian behaviour may not always work of course, especially in the case of making investment decisions. However, challenging deeply ingrained consensus beliefs is an important way of breaking out of unconscious stagnation, questioning your own conditioned beliefs and habits, developing vision and foresight, and thinking in a more balanced and broad-minded way.

 

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Image: jplenio

Photographs From The Streets Of Venice

Venice is one of the most visited cities on earth and probably doesn’t need more attention. Yet it is a unique city whose popularity is justified. Venice was an important global trading centre and traded with corners of the globe as far as China. Like Istanbul and Sarajevo, its a place where east meets west. Venice also played an important role in the development of the Italian Renaissance and frescos and paintings by the Bellini family, Titian, Tintoretto and Vitorre Carpaccio adorn many of the city’s churches and other institutions. There are lots of important landmark sites to visit. But if you have time and are not under pressure to tick off a long list of ‘must-do’ sites, the best thing you could do is to simply lose yourself in the never-ending labyrinth of small streets not knowing where you are going. Its a very easy city to get lost in and if it weren’t for the Google Maps app on my smartphone I would have struggled to pinpoint some of the sites I wanted to visit. But not knowing where you are going and leaving things in the hands of chance can throw up surprises and unexpected delights. The following photographs are witnesses to my Venice meanderings…

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Photographs by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved