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1040 Abroad

Loyd Grossman Interview

The American defender of British culture and occasional rock musician has written a new book about Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ‘rock star’ artist of 17th century Rome. Interview by Michael Burland
Published on August 24, 2020

Loyd Grossman and Bernini’s Pulcino della Minerva statue

How to sum up Loyd Grossman? Dr Loyd Grossman CBE, FSA is the Bostonian who has become one of the greatest champions of heritage - in the UK, but not in the States. He’s been a commissioner of (among many more) the Museums and Galleries Commission and chairman of English Heritage’s Museums Advisory Committee and Blue Plaques Panel, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, National Museums Liverpool, Culture Northwest, the Churches Conservation Trust, the Court of Governors of the LSE, the University for the Creative Arts and the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. He was a member of the Council of the British School at Rome (read on!). Currently he’s chairman of the Heritage Alliance and of The Royal Parks, a governor of the British Institute at Florence, president of the Arts Society and a patron of the Association for Heritage.

Busy, he is. But stuffy he ain’t.

Loyd is also the ever-youthful 69 year old with the unique Transatlantic accent who has spent years on British popular TV. He devised and presented Through the Keyhole, the primetime ITV show in which he explored a celebrity's home before inviting a panel to guess “Who would live in a house like this?”. He presented Masterchef for a decade and has his own range of cooking sauces. And his musical interests go wildly beyond the expected classical. His writing career began on underground music magazines in the States, as the guitarist in punk band Jet Bronx And The Forbidden he had a top 50 hit single in the UK in 1977, and with The New Forbidden he’s played at Glastonbury eight times.

It takes a lot to pin Loyd down but the pandemic gave us the opportunity to quiz him about his new book An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, The Pope, And The Making Of The Eternal City – and of course about what made this cultured American decide to “live in a country like this”.

You're always on the go normally, Loyd. Have you been stuck in one place due to COVID?

We've been in the country, in south Warwickshire, since March 21st, which is a great place to be stuck. But I'm missing the cultural life of London - I guess we're all missing theaters and museums and things like that. We went to a pub the other day. It was great to have someone else do the washing up! But it was bizarre to see other people eating. You’ve forgotten these things, all in the space of three months. They keep talking about the new normal, but until things actually stabilize, it's different every day.

You’ve lived in Britain for many years, are you dual national now?

Yes, since the late '90s, but I came to London in 1974 so I've lived a lot longer in the UK than in the States.

You're very involved with the arts and culture and heritage scene here. Are you in the States too?

No, it's only here. Had I stayed in the States, I would probably have been equally involved in the arts and heritage there! I've lived full time here for a long time, for years and years and years I've only really gone back to the States for holidays.

To many you’re probably best known for MasterChef and Through the Keyhole - the ‘popular telly things’. Is that frustrating, like Jeff Beck being remembered for ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’?

You know something? I so wish I'd written ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’! Jeff Beck's one of the six best guitarists in the world, but I’d be proud of that song.

Loyd Grossman Loyd Grossman at Belladrum Music Festival, Scotland in 2009. @copy; Aaron Sneddon

Music has always been important to you hasn't it - as a practitioner and a writer. You wrote on underground and alternative magazines, but you're a guitar player as well?

Yes, I am. Or at least I've been trying to be one since I was 13. Mostly failing, but I guess my love of music was one of the reasons why I did so much music journalism. I was probably more successful – no, I was definitely more successful – as a music journalist than as a musician. And that was fascinating because when I was doing the bulk of my writing about music, from the late ‘60s to the mid-’70s, I got to meet some extraordinary people. That was an amazing opportunity because it was a great period of music. I was mostly based in Boston and every British group used to begin their American tours in Boston. There was a famous club in Boston called, unsurprisingly, the Boston Tea Party where Led Zeppelin did some of their first American appearances, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, everyone. It was great to be able to see these bands when they first arrived, when they were relatively unknown and just arriving to make it in America. They were very eager to make a big hit in Boston. There was a radio program on Sunday nights, when no-one was expected to listen to radio, called Dick Summer's Subway. Dick Summer was a very hip disc jockey who played all the latest stuff from England so my contemporaries and I got really deeply into The Who and all these then-obscure British bands, and we were eager to hear them when they finally arrived in America. Listening to the radio on Sunday night was a formative experience.

That whole phenomenon of 'British Blues' was amazing, and it's one great examples of the cultural ‘mixed salad’ of Britain and America. You had this implausible thing of people like John Mayall and Peter Green listening to Muddy Waters and then coming up with a totally fresh version, recycling and modifying an experience that was totally alien to them, but that they turned into their own sort of art form. It was really quite extraordinary, to think of the journey from the Mississippi Delta to the Midlands of England or suburban boys in Surrey. I was particularly interested in that because I was a huge devotee of American Blues Music – I went to Chicago, I met Muddy Waters, I hung around with Willie Dixon and people like that, and then these British guys reinvented the whole genre – it was fascinating.

Since then you've had a portfolio career. Are you still involved with the sauces?

Oh yes, of course!

You studied history and art, then economic history at LSE. Art and history is the core of your career. Was that always the plan?

Yes, wherever I was, it was going to be my thing. I was very fortunate because I grew up in a town in America that was extraordinarily architecturally rich and stimulating and beautiful. It's a part of the country where we have wonderful museums and fabulous art, a part of America that’s very conscious of history so it was always my main passion at school and in college. A couple of times I came very close to being a professional academic but I never quite did it. I always got sidetracked but in other ways I've been able to pursue my interest in history and the arts. I was brought up to have a very strong public service ethos, too, it was part of one's education. It's been amazing fun, as well as being amazingly satisfying.

Would you say Boston is the best place for culture, arts and history in the US?

Well, Boston has a number of nicknames - one is Bean Town because Boston baked beans are very famous - but its most popular nickname is ‘the hub’, meaning the hub of the universe. Bostonians really believe that! You asked me 'Does Boston have the greatest culture in the United States?' Of course, I would say yes! And the greatest baseball team… [laughs]

Does coming from an American background give you an advantage in trying to protect British heritage?

I think it gives you a different point of view, you're looking with a different set of eyes and a different vocabulary. But then again I've been here for so long that I think the ‘unique point of view’ is more about me than about being either American or British. Sometimes it takes an immigrant to remind people just how fabulous this country is. One of the great pleasures I've had is constantly discovering how wonderful it is and, because the British tend to be very reticent and think that understatement is one of the great virtues, they're often not as vocal in their appreciation of this country as they should be.

If they even realize it - it's easy to take things for granted.

Yes, and Americans, wherever they come from, tend to have a tremendous sense of local pride and local ownership. You’ll arrive in the smallest town and they’ll have a sign saying, "Welcome to the Peanut Capital of the Universe", that sort of thing. Every place has got some amazing claim to fame, I think that's something that we could encourage in this country, where every place really does have a claim to fame and it would be really nice to be more excited and enthusiastic about it.

Bernini's Pulcino della Minerva Bernini's Pulcino della Minerva 'Elephant and Obelisk' sculpture

Talking of traveling to places, and the culture therein, we should talk about your new book, An Elephant in Rome. It's about Bernini, his artistic exploits in Rome and his extraordinary ‘elephant and obelisk’ statue Pulcino della Minerva. Why Bernini?

I am a lover of Rome, and a very frequent visitor there and for a while I was a governor of the British School at Rome. I am perpetually curious. When I first started so-called 'working', one of the things I really enjoyed about journalism was the fact that you can find out things. And every time I see something fascinating in Rome, and there is something fascinating around every corner, my tendency is to ask 'Why is this here? What's it for? How did it get here?'

There's this extraordinary statue of an elephant in a very pretty square in Rome and I kept thinking, what is that doing here?! Why is there an elephant in this square in front of this church?! It was really an exercise in satisfying my own curiosity that led me to finding out a lot more about Bernini. Some of the most famous artists ever lived in the 17th century - Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens - and the most famous of all, in his lifetime, was Bernini. It's extraordinary that he's comparatively unknown to most people now.

The single most important and interesting space in Rome is probably the great square in front of St. Peter's in Vatican City. It's one of the greatest squares in the world, it's impossible to walk into it without feeling an incredible surge of emotion and real excitement. And it's a great, great, work of art, which most people probably don't even think of as a work of art. That is Bernini’s masterwork.

The more I found out about Bernini, the more I wanted to find out because of his incredible talents as a sculptor, as an architect, as a set designer, as a painter, as an all-around creative genius. I was researching, researching, researching and I thought the best way of finding out as much as I could was to write about him. And hence the book was born.

I was interested in Rome in the 17th century as well; it was such a snake pit of ambition and double dealing and corruption and power politics. How does an artistic genius survive and flourish in this highly political, highly dangerous, highly treacherous context?

People often talk about artists in highfalutin’, highbrow, aesthetic terms. They tend to forget that artists have to make a living. And artists are very concerned about mundane things. Someone was interviewing Picasso and said, 'Gosh, you and Matisse spent a lot of time together. You must have had fantastic conversations. What did you talk about?' And Picasso said, 'The price of paint.' For someone like Bernini the price of a block of marble, and who was going to pay for it, were really important. All those issues about the business and politics of art are very apparent in the 17th century.

Bernini self portrait Self portrait by Gian Lorenzo Bernini c1623

You also bring humor into the story as well.

On the one hand Bernini creates all this amazing, spiritual art for the church, and on the other hand he was quite an earthy guy with a very dirty, scatological sense of humor. It's always the contradictions that make a life interesting.

He seems to be ahead of his time, the sculptures and the busts seem to be full of life and character compared to other artists of the day. For example you say in the book that marble busts were for grandees and 'emphatically not for girlfriends', yet he made one of his lover Costanza.

That's an incredible work of art because it's the first time in the history of European art that an ordinary woman had a marble portrait done of her. It would normally be somebody grand and rich, or a mythical goddess. The idea that this ordinary woman was immortalized by someone who's been described as the Shakespeare of sculpture is pretty amazing. And it shows that he was pretty in love with her. Rather sadly, she was in love with both her husband and Bernini’s brother as well. That was a bit complicated.

He sounds similar to Mozart, the mixture between the earthy and the spiritual. And a lover with a similar name too – ‘Stanzi.’

That's a very interesting analogy. One of the things that's so puzzled people about Mozart was that here's this great artistic genius, who was also very earthy, scatological, almost a bit of a buffoon. Those contradictions are really interesting.

Fun is always part of what you do, you're never po-faced about art. And Bernini wasn't just a sculptor and the architect, I didn't know that he did caricatures as well. There's one in your book of Scipione Borghese that looks like as if it could have been done in the 1950s or even ‘40s.

Oh, I know! It looks like a Hirschfeld.

You describe seeing Bernini’s obelisk with the elephant as your 'Goethe' moment. Was it the artist who came alive to you then? Or the sculpture? Why was it such a major moment for you?

I think it was just that incredible juxtaposition of a 17th century elephant, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, a Gothic church and a Roman square with people wandering about it on their way to go shopping. It was an amazing crossroads of time and space. And like all crossroads, incredibly stimulating, because I like hustle and bustle. I like seeing the action in the city, and to see this very complex and beautiful action in the midst of one of the greatest cities in the world is just a thrill. I always feel that way when I walk into that square.

An Elephant in Rome book

The book is small format. You could have produced it as a large art book, but it's like a pocketbook for travelers, you even have an ‘obelisk walk’ with directions.

I wanted people to be able to take it with them when they went to Rome, but I also want people to be able to sit down and read it in a pleasurable way. I'm fed up with the fact that so many books are 500 pages. I like a bit of concision. If I were going to write a huge life of Bernini, I'd need 500 pages, but I can write about his life through the lens of this statue in this square in a way that I think most people would find pleasurable, and easy enough to devote the time to. And I happen to like a guided walk, so I really had fun writing that.

Rome is full of statues and memorials, and you’re a former commissioner of The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments in England. With all that’s going on politically at the moment, are we looking at historical monuments in a different way?

Oh, I think so, I think that all the recent stats have shown that monuments really matter and that they are extraordinarily powerful, so I think that people are looking at monuments with a renewed appreciation of what they stand for, and what they can stand for. It’s a fascinating moment in the history of art and architecture because of that. It must be ultimately a good thing. Anything that gets people to look and think has got to be good.

An Elephant in Rome is available at www.loyd-grossman.com



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