Alison Oddey is a Professor of Visual Culture & Contemporary Performance at the University of Derby in England. She is an accomplished writer, publisher, educator, and artist. One of her recent projects called A Gift for Eleonora, which she wrote and performs in, is a contemporary installation performance piece focusing on Eleonora di Toledo de’ Medici.
Eleonora married into the Medici Dynasty and was the first Duchess of Florence during the Renaissance. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Professor Oddey when she attended The Medici Dynasty Show. She was kind enough to speak with me further about her artistic projects.
How did you become familiar with Eleonora di Toledo?
I applied for an opportunity I saw for artists to make a piece of work in Florence at one of a number of cultural heritage sites. The idea was exciting because I love Florence and Italy. I originally put forward a proposal for the cultural value of art and its relationship to health and well-being. Specifically the project would be linked to the citizens of Florence. The title was [originally] something like ‘Urban Laboratory’. The idea was that people of the city would come to the laboratory. [The proposal] was accepted. When I got the news that it had been accepted, the director of the project said to me that she thought that out of the available spaces, that I should think about [doing the project] in Palazzo Vecchio in Eleonora’s apartments. I said ‘Eleonora who?’, I didn’t know who she was. So that was a starting point because I had the piece accepted, but I started researching [Eleonora di Toledo]. I went to visit her apartments and particularly the chapel blew me away, it is fantastic! I had a number of conversations with the director and I realized the chapel would be too small [for my piece]. When I visited the apartments and discussed with the director, we felt that the furniture in the apartments aren’t really reflective of Eleonora. Eventually I looked at the Cappella dei Pazzi in the Basilica di Santa Croce, and that is where I [ended up] performing [my piece] last May. In the end I decided to do this as a performance because I was so fascinated and moved by Eleonora. Knowing the site of the Cappella dei Pazzi, it seemed obvious [to me] to do a performance [there] rather than an installation.
Can you tell me more about the process of creating A Gift for Eleonora?
I did lots of research, all different types. My background is in devising. I published my first book in 1994 called Devising Theatre, [which] still sells today. I have written seven books. Devising theatre was my passion very early on and it is still part of my being, but I no longer work the way that I did years ago. I have moved more into contemporary performance. Devising is about going on a journey of creativity; going in one direction, which [often] leads to a different path, I like to work that way. There are times where I think ‘how am I going to make this work?’, but that is part of the challenge and excitement of it.
There were four starting points for [A Gift for Eleonora]. The first was the bronzino portrait of Eleonora with her son Giovanni done in 1545. The second was the funeral dress of Eleonora that is in the Galleria del Costume in Palazzo Pitti. The third was the site itself, the Cappella dei Pazzi with the fantastic terracotta ceramics by Luca della Robbia. The fourth was the early madrigal form of Renaissance music.
I invited two people to collaborate with me. [One was] Christine White who is also a Professor of Art & Design at the University of Derby. [For the purpose of the show], she specialized in the design and production. We have worked together over many years, and written books together. The other was the Saxophonist who plays the music for the show. I asked him to listen to the music [from the era of Eleonora] and also to think about how to make Renaissance music contemporary. He is very talented and plays the Saxophone professionally. I also [happen to] play the Saxophone and my favorite contemporary Saxophonist is Jan Garbarek.
In order to make [the piece] contemporary, I wanted to interview contemporary Florentine aristocracy [as part of my research]. Last March I had the privilege to interview nine guests which was filmed in the Villa Favard which is now Polimoda fashion school. The guests were all fantastic. I [asked] all of my guests to bring me a gift that was personal and important to them and to think how it might relate to Eleonora. Angela Caputi, international jewelry designer, was one guest. Caputi brought jewelry of the baptistry. She eventually invited me to one of her workshops and she made the jewelry for my costume. The Princess Giorgiana Corsini was one of my guests. She brought two pairs of her mother’s shoes, [that were] absolutely beautiful hand crafted leather. She also wore pearls because Eleonora is linked to pearls. Cristina Aschengreen Piacenti brought me her book about the restoration of [Eleonora’s] funeral clothes. She wore a tweed jacket with a rip in it, which represented the hunting that Eleonora did. She also wore pearls that her husband had bought her in India. The pearl stories [of each guest] were very different. Fausto Calderai, international furniture scholar, was also a guest. He has a special interest in 16th century interior design. I had obviously done my research on [each guest] and I learned that Calderai [was known as] the most elegantly dressed man in Italy. He brought a silk scarf that he always carries with him from Siena. He also brought a fantastic hat made by Vivienne Westwood which looked like a crown. He bought it from Kings Road in London before [Westwood] was famous. [Calderai] is now friends with her and he also has a collection of cufflinks, over 100, that includes the Vivienne Westwood cufflinks, which he brought to show me.
What is your source of inspiration as an artist?
In the vein [of] devising I think nothing has changed because I can be inspired by anything. It’s about things that make me feel excited and passionate, [things] that I care about. I think I have to be really blown away by something, to be hooked by something. In terms of Eleonora, what really inspired me and made me want to discover more [about her] was the whole notion of this woman who is represented historically, particularly thinking of her portrait in the Uffizi, as the woman that was the public consul. She was the wife of Cosimo I, and the Duchess of Florence. I could see that she must have been an intelligent woman, and a very sharp, shrewd business woman; she managed the Tuscan state. The image of her is that she gave birth to eleven children, which is definitely no small feat, yet she was very fertile in a society where people were [dependent on the birth] of male heirs. Also her beauty was always spoken about. In creating the character for the show, I wanted to create a complexity of character. For me it is important to hear the female voice [of history]. [I think it is] important for women, [because] in general [women] don’t get as much recognition. I thought [Eleonora] may have been very difficult at times, but also very compassionate. She was a patron of the arts, and she loved music and poetry. She was somebody that I found very inspiring.
In terms of what generally inspires me, I think it can be anything that I connect with that I think ‘I’ve got to know more about that”. I became fascinated by the idea of non conventional theatre because it is very much about the notion of the spectator. I wrote a book called Reframing the Theatrical which was a very important book to me because I started to think about installation works and how they are performative. One thing I coined in my book is the term ‘spectator protagonist’. [This term refers to] when you are in an installation and you are spectating as an audience member or viewer, like in a museum. But it’s [through your story and experience] that you are connecting to the work. This is very relevant with what I have done with A Gift for Eleonora. I am interested in interacting with the audience during the performance.
How do you incorporate the past into your present and future projects?
I performed [A Gift for Eleonora] at another Unesco World Heritage site, the Roman Baths in Bath, [ Somerset, England]. It was part of the Bath Literature Festival. I obviously had to re-devise it. In the Baths I had to think about the site and what it is. This is called site specific theatre. I realized the key to re-devising the script was Sulis Minerva, the goddess of healing. I learned that she is a hybrid goddess of the Celtic goddess Sulis and the Roman goddess Minerva; thus the Romans appropriated Sulis Minerva. [Historically the Roman Baths were a place that the Romans took care of themselves, they were health conscious.] I wanted to do [my show] in the Baths because I am very passionate about getting people to think about how to live well and be happy. I am also a holistic health practitioner, in particular aromatherapy.
When I was researching for A Gift for Eleonora, I came across the subject of herbal remedies of the Renaissance. This was a turning point for me in my research for the show. Quite a few of the Medici tombs have been exhumed and a team of German forensic anthropologists analyzed the bones. I found this research and saw that they could confirm Eleonora’s health conditions. This was marvelous because I was going to try to use the information in terms of creating a story about Eleonora, but also as a way to subtly get people to think of their own well-being.
Eleonora had a history of fragile health. She had Rickets as a child, so she could not walk easily. Her father would always try to contact people in the Medici court to find out how she was doing. Eleonora had Tuberculosis for at least 10 years. She was really ill and vomited every day. She eventually died from Malaria. This was my magic hook in writing the script, because it enabled me to get people to think about living well [today in their own lives].
Do you find parallels between the Medici Dynasty Show and your work?
Obviously there is a parallel with the content, the Medici. [The Medici Dynasty Show] is [staged] in a Baroque church, which is a non-theatre site that links to cultural heritage. I am interested in the multimedia aspect of the show. [It is a way to help] people to connect to the past. Art has got to have a resonance with people now. Devising is about the opportunity to create theatre that is about the contemporary; [it is a] chance to collaborate with different perspectives to make something unique. I try to support people [in the arts] who are younger than me, especially in today’s climate.
What would you like your artistic legacy to be?
I would like my artistic legacy to be as writer, creator, and maker of a diversity of book publications and artworks, which include devised performances, art installations and exhibitions of photographic works on canvas. I would like to be remembered as the writer of the first published book on ‘Devising Theatre’; the writer of ‘Performing Women’, launched at the Royal National Theatre, London as a Platform Event ‘In Conversation with Brenda Blethyn and Meera Syal’ followed by a book signing; as the writer and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 ‘Stand-ups and Strumpets’ Series; and as the writer of the book, ‘Re-Framing the Theatrical’. I would like to be remembered as being passionate about the cultural value of the arts for health and well-being; the extraordinary beauty of nature and its links to well-being; for a holistic approach to how to live well and the importance of mind-body-spirit and caring about our planet. An artistic legacy of the belief [and desire] to share with others the recognition and acknowledgment of the ‘Her-story’ of women’s lives and how they are expressed, whether it be Eleonora di Toledo, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi, Plautilla Nelli, Fede Galizia, Marietta Robusti or Elizabeth de Hardwick.
Post by Brianna Pohl
Photo by Tina Boyadjieva