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Nick Thorpe, The Danube: A Journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest

Yale University Press, 2013

It is now almost 25 years since Claudio Magris’s Danube first appeared in English. Magris was, and happily remains, steeped in European literature and culture and he brought an intense fascination with the history of this great river to the personal reminiscences of his own journey from its source out to the Black Sea. Compared to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s own youthful wanderings in the region, Magris has more gravitas but no less of an emotional involvement with the varied cultures and places he meets along the way. It was a book I treasured and often gave away as a gift to literary friends.

Nick Thorpe is a BBC correspondent for eastern Europe and has his own profound knowledge of the politics of the region. He decides to journey in the opposite direction from Magris, from the Black Sea inland. Like most great rivers, the Danube is both thoroughfare and barrier—but an immense amount has changed along its banks now that the Wall that divided east from west has fallen and Yugoslavia has fragmented into its component nationalities. No traveller can escape the legacies of the waterway’s past that stretch far backwards to Roman and Ottoman conquests and more recently to the brutalities of the Nazi era, above all the atrocities at Novi Sad in the part of Serbia that was formerly Austria-Hungary. The Soviet ‘liberators’ bring their own concentration camps and repressions, although some of Thorpe’s informants still prefer the stability of the Soviet domination.

The story of the Danube is, of course, a complex one, which makes it hard to handle. Thorpe is good at drawing out stories from the people he meets, many of whom have harrowing tales to tell of their earlier lives. Their reminiscences mingle with those of the ghosts of the past and Thorpe conveys well the migrations of peoples, cultures and individuals who have been swept to and fro in the tumultuous history of the river. So at Cernavoda, an ancient river port in Romania, with Greek origins, there is a nuclear power station but at the same time it is the site of the ancient Hamangian culture, which 7,000 years ago was producing the extraordinary figurines of The Thinker and a female ‘Great Goddess’, that would not look out of place in a modern sculpture park. Further upstream are the metalworking Vinca peoples, who appear about 6000 BC and then disappear completely 2,000 years later. Arguably it is within the Danube basin, as several enthusiastic museum directors tell Thorpe, that one finds the cradles of European civilisation.

In contrast to the many prehistoric cultures, the Romans seem recent invaders as they march up from the south in the 2nd century AD across the Danube into Dacia. The emperor Trajan was the conqueror, recording his exploits back in Rome on his famous column. Sixty years later it is here that the emperor Marcus Aurelius has to defend the river frontier against the barbarian masses and leaves his own ‘Stoic’ Meditations on the hand that fate has dealt him. As the western empire finally collapses, the Byzantine empire is compelled to move westwards to build its own fortresses against the Huns and Goths. Later, in the 15th century, the Ottomans push forward and are only finally repelled outside Vienna in 1683, in the last surge of aggression of their own stagnating empire. All leave memories of their languages, religions and cultures as they recede: but today these are often under threat. A residual Turkish enclave on the beautiful island of Ada Kaleh was submerged under the hydroelectric dam at the Iron Gates in 1970.

Among Thorpe’s preoccupations are the many pressures on the ecology of the wetlands, some of these now submerged beneath grandiose dam projects but others further up towards the source nurtured by the creation of new waterways where fish and wildlife can flourish. The fish of the Danube—the now scarce sturgeon the most majestic of them—are inseparable from its history and the battle between conservation and fishermen’s livelihoods is as powerful here are as elsewhere in Europe. Thorpe notes the many trees that line the banks and wetlands, the horse chestnuts of Ruse, the black poplars of the Donauauen National Park in Austria and the ubiquitous willows. Finally he reaches Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, where the river Berg flows into the Brigach and marks the official beginning of the Danube.

Once I had finished this enjoyable book, I dusted down my copy of Magris. With Thorpe having reached the source, the journey was now back down again. Magris is haunted by the river’s past and he brings a more profound and introspective approach to his travels. In a single page he notes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the theologian Augustine, Descartes and Pierre Bezukov from War and Peace. Although I have only reached as far as Ulm in Magris, I found the two books read in sequence to be a deeply satisfying experience, as pragmatic Anglo-Saxon and intellectual Latin voices called to each other across the waters of this great river.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman. The latest edition of his Egypt, Greece and Rome is published this year.


Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain

Jonathan Cape, 2013

If I am heading westwards from my home in central Suffolk I go along a stretch of Roman road and eventually reach the village of Stonham Aspal. To the far side there is a ridge overlooking open countryside and it is here that a Roman bathhouse was discovered in 1962, when building work was being done for some bungalows. It was my first dig, with a tolerant Ipswich Museum team interpreting laws against child labour generously enough to allow a fourteen-year-old to shovel out ashes from a Roman hypocaust. The main part of the villa is assumed to have been on the other side of the road and remains unexcavated, but I still tell the story to anyone I am driving that way.

The pottery from the site is of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the greatest period of the British Roman villa. This was the time of prosperity before the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century brought a devastating fall in living standards (apparently as a dramatic as anywhere else in the western empire). Looking back, I wonder what the ashes I scraped out could have told of the final fires lit to heat the baths. There was no one on hand to record the last days of the empire in Britain but gradually the cities, already faltering in the 4th century, were abandoned and the great buildings fell in or were buried. One of the most evocative finds has been a luxurious Roman villa on the London waterfront that enjoyed a heyday in the 3rd century but then began to crumble, although 200 coins dated as late as ad 388 talk of a late burst of occupation.

Charlotte Higgins’s delightful book is an account of her searches for Roman Britain in the company of her boyfriend Matthew and a venerable and resilient camper van. Higgins read Classics at Oxford so she knows her sources—predominantly those of the finest Roman historian—Tacitus, and she weaves them gently into her itineraries. She has also absorbed those who have been before her: William Camden, the author of Britannia (1586), the first quasi- scientific study of British antiquities, and the polymath William Stukeley (1687–1765), who recorded what stood of Silchester, Hadrian’s Wall and other sites. Stukeley, a fan of the Druids, was sadly taken in by a fake history of Roman Britain purporting to have been written by one Richard of Westminster in the 14th century. Stukeley’s enthusiastic support for it meant that it was treated as authentic and Roman history distorted until well into the 19th century. The Pennine chain of hills take their name from the pseudo-Richard’s description of them.

Gradually out of these forays into a misty past, archaeologists took over. So here is Mortimer Wheeler and his much put-upon wife Tessa, bringing military precision to excavations of St. Albans and later, and most famously, of the Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle. Wheeler revelled in describing the last stand of the British against Roman onslaughts and the mass grave into which the defeated British were thrown. Unfortunately, more recent work queries whether the cemetery was ever a mass grave at all; but the story gripped me as a teenager. By the 1970s, we arrive at more delicate work, especially with the writing ‘tablets’, actually slivers of wood, from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, miraculously preserved in waterlogged ground. Excavated by Robin Birley and deciphered by Alan Bowman, they provide an astonishingly graphic account of everyday life on the frontiers at the end of the 1st century ad, as invites go out for birthday parties and details of which men are available for outside work are painstakingly extracted from the intricate lettering.

Higgins also ventures further north to discover reminders of the short-lived invasion of Scotland by Agricola in ad 79 or 80 (we know of it because the historian Tacitus was Agricola’s son-in-law and left a vivid account) and the little-known Antonine Wall, held only briefly before the frontier was pulled back again to the better-known barrier built by Hadrian. She takes in Bath and York, the latter achieving an empire-wide status when the emperor Septimius Severus established his court here between 208 and 211 and when, a century later Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was proclaimed emperor by his father’s troops. In Bath the Romans adopted the local Celtic god Sulis, associated her with their own Minerva, and the temple dedicated to both presided over the hot springs that were to set Bath up as a watering place in later centuries. In Colchester and London, dark layers record the burning of the nascent Roman settlements by the furious Boudica, in a devastating but ultimately crushed campaign (ad 60 or 61) that also survives in Tacitus’ account.

I am sorry that the camper van, with ‘its many and varied complaints’, did not merit an entry in the index. I would have liked to have retraced its valiant hill climbs even if it did collapse in York and thus not quite make it to Hardknott Castle (a 2nd-century fort guarding Hardknott Pass), perhaps the most spectacular of all the Roman sites in Britain. It added character to what is an engaging survey of our Roman past. While Higgins records exhaustive studies of Roman Britain (Roger Wilson’s A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain and the mammoth four-volume compilation of every known Roman mosaic by David Neal and Stephen Cosh), she provides a more light-hearted account, a valuable reminder of how the Roman past lies not too far beneath our feet. Indeed a metal detector unearthed a worn Roman coin from our own fields just a year ago, and, this being Suffolk, perhaps another Mildenhall treasure, the hoard of astonishing silver plate unearthed in 1942, is just waiting to be discovered close by.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award.

Barry Kemp, The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People

Thames and Hudson, London, 2013.

There is no equivalent in Egypt to preserved cities such as Pompeii (although intact tombs such as Tutankhamun’s make up for it) but if one is looking for an example of a city built and then suddenly deprived of its inhabitants, it is Amarna, the capital of the pharaoh Akhenaten (ruled 1352–1336 bc). Frustrated by the power of the wealthy temples, Akhenaten forbade the worship of the traditional gods and set out on a determined campaign to substitute them with the Aten, a god seen through the rays of the sun, whose personal representative was the king.

The city of Amarna was a completely new creation, built on a virgin site on the eastern banks of the Nile, halfway between the Nile Delta and Luxor. Here the sun rose through a break in the hills so illuminating the open spaces of the valley. Amarna was totally abandoned within twelve years of Akhenaten’s death and has only been occupied by villagers since then. Even the archives, the famous Amarna Letters, have survived intact, allowing us to grasp the manoeuvrings of international diplomacy between Egypt and its neighbours in the Near East.

This, then, is an archaeologist’s dream site and Amarna has been lucky to have continuity of excavation through the leadership of Barry Kemp, Emeritus Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge, who has now been working there for 35 years. This book is essentially his summing up of his finds—but it is also much more than that. It provides a superb introduction for the student, not just of ancient Egypt, but of archaeology in general, in that it shows how knowledge can be gleaned from meticulous excavation. Every exploration of the site is made clearer through the wealth of plans, reconstructions and illustrations, some in the vivid colours of the surviving wall decorations that fill out the book.

The core of Amarna was a royal and religious complex  running from north to south, parallel with the Nile. It appears that the royal residence of Akhenaten, his queen Nefertiti and their family was in a Northern Riverside Palace. From here each day they would progress by chariot to the ceremonial centre where a vast royal palace, complete with administrative offices and a expansive courtyard, 160 metres square, allowed the pharaoh both to rule through his officials but also to manage his public appearances through a Window of Appearances overlooking the courtyard. The pharaoh and his senior courtiers and favourites ate on a segregated platform above the courtyard where those allowed in would sit and eat among granite statues of their ruler. The more private rooms were ablaze with bright wall paintings. On either side of the place were temples to the Aten, aligned to face east and the rising sun. One can plot how the image of the pharaoh was manipulated within a perpetual ritual of honour to his chosen god.

While the central ceremonial area was planned for effect, those moving to the city had to make do with building their own homes outside this complex. There seems to have been no town-planning, but the more ambitious officials did manage to carve out plots for themselves and there is an excellent range of what might be called middle-class housing. A typical house would have its own access and a gentle set of steps up to the front entrance, which would open onto a reception area. This would be made up of columned halls, an inner hall being entered through the grandest doorway of the house that might be embellished with the name and title of the owner. The private rooms were behind and there were separate en-suite bathrooms. Most houses appear to have asserted their owners’ status by boasting two or even three storeys.

Less opulent were the homes in the Workmen’s Village, segregated to the east of the main city. This village has been particularly important in charting the lives of labouring Egyptians as the site is well preserved. Here there was rigid town-planning within rectangular plots, although the inhabitants seemed able to make their homes personal to themselves. Some were able to add a second storey to give themselves more space.

Kemp dwells on the lost experiences that archaeology cannot recreate: the smokiness of the interiors; the pungent smell of human waste mingled perhaps with the scent of lilies. All these can be imagined, but the evidence from the cemeteries suggest that life was not pleasant. A study of the bodies of over 200 individuals shows that most suffered from nutritional deficiency and that men averaged only 5ft 4 inches in height (women 5ft). Many had suffered injuries consistent with heavy labour or blows to the body. 70 percent of those studied had died before the age of 35 and only two out of the total 232 were older than 50. Many of the dead appear (from their hurried burials close together) to have succumbed to some kind of epidemic.

It is the wide range of buildings, from temples and palaces to humble homes, that makes this book such an excellent introduction for those who wish to understand how archaeology is illuminating the past. The sheer quality and spread of the illustrations are an enormous bonus as readers can imagine for themselves how life was lived by those at every level of society. Both of these are books for the interested general reader or anyone considering a career in archaeology.

reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity, which includes Amarna among its 50 chosen cities.


Paul Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

British Museum Press, London, 2013.

It was the discovery of Herculaneum and then Pompeii in the 18th century that first sparked off an enthusiasm for the Classical world that reached beyond the literati and wealthy collectors of statues of the earlier Renaissance. Of course, some of the earliest discoveries, the wonderful set of statues from the Villa Dei Papyri, now in the restored rooms of the Archaeological Museum at Naples, for instance, just confirmed the sites as a treasure-seekers’ paradise that the Bourbon rulers of Naples were determined to exploit for themselves. But as excavations began at Pompeii, and as the remains of bodies began to be discovered, a different mood gripped the public. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) recreated the eruption of Vesuvius and its aftermath in the stricken city as drama, and its impact is still with us as the crowds cramming the British Museum’s exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum attest.

It happened that I was looking for books I could recommend on the marriage between archaeology and the surviving past. Paul Robert’s companion book to the exhibition stood out. I stress ‘companion’ because this is not a catalogue but a series of chapters on different aspects of life in these cities that fill out the content of the exhibition itself while reproducing illustrations of most of the exhibits. This makes it a comprehensive ‘stand alone’ survey of the state of knowledge as well as a reminder of the extraordinary expertise of Roman craftsmen. My favourite pieces from the exhibition itself were the pair of sculptures of stags being assailed by hunting dogs, each sculpted from a single block of marble. But it is just as easy to get absorbed by the food mould in the shape of a hare or by the strong box with a silver and copper plaque with a theatrical mask on it. Roberts’ commentary succeeds in placing each in context so that we make our way through the rooms of a typical house and the public spaces and explore how the surviving artefacts mark out the status of the citizens, as slave or free, as wealthy or poor.

One of the most moving exhibits is the cast of a family, father and mother and two children, who tried to escape through the back of their opulent home before they were engulfed in the blast of heat as they huddled under the stairs. Their wealth was shown off in the 600g gold armlet of the wife and the hoard of gold and silver coins found nearby. Roberts notes how two of the denarii are later than July 79, in other words minted just before the eruption. It is small details such as this that make this book an ideal introduction for those who wish to understand the minutiae of everyday life in a Roman city: how the kitchen worked; the changing styles of wall painting; and how to impress one’s dinner guests. One host painted his ‘house rules’ on the walls of his summer dining room. Guests were warned to let the slaves wash their feet as they entered, to take care of their cushion covers and to keep ‘lustful’ eyes off other men’s wives. Anyone who engaged in boring squabbles would be sent home. It is difficult to imagine that his parties were much fun.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, author of Sites of Antiquity, published by Blue Guides.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum runs at the British Museum until 29th September 2013.


The Aeneid: A new translation by Sarah Ruden

Yale University Press, 2008

I needed to reread the Aeneid. I first encountered the epic in the original at school, but progress was painfully slow. We began at Aeneas’ descent into the underworld in Book Six and never got far enough to become aware of the narrative sweep of the whole.  In fact, I don’t think we were ever told of the theme of the epic. This was typical of Classics teaching in the sixties, when the grammatical constructions used by the author seemed more important than the literature itself. Yet there are problems with the Aeneid. It is only half the length that Virgil (or the more traditional Vergil, the form which Ruden uses) intended and the long battle scenes in the later books can drag. The first books are the most absorbing: the travels and travails of Aeneas and his companions and the tragic love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage. For a newcomer, though, the array of names and mythology can be daunting.

So I was delighted to come across a translation by a classicist who is also a poet—and, perhaps strangely for someone who is dealing with a poem crammed with violence, a Quaker pacifist. One of Sarah Ruden’s qualities is that she translates Virgil line by line, into iambic pentameters, and this gives a stately quality to her work that echoes the serious intent of the poem. It also means that it progresses steadily without the diversions that a more expansive translation might give. We move on fast and this works well when there is actual movement, as when the refugees make their way by sea towards Italy. A particularly good passage comes from what Ruden declares her favourite part of the epic, the rowing race held in memory of Aeneas’ father Anchises (Book V, ll. 132–246). The tension held in the translation is perfect as the rival rowers battle it out until, in the last few yards, Cloanthus, backed by the gods, edges ahead.

There are passages in the Aeneid that are reminiscent of Homer, of course, as when Nisus and Euryalus break out of the Trojan fort and cause mayhem as they slaughter the sleeping Latins. This echoes the devastation caused by the Trojan hero Hector as he drives through the ranks of the Greeks. Where Virgil differs is that his slaughter is part of a march of destiny, an idea missing from the Iliad, where the heroes, Hector and Achilles, seem to battle without any other purpose than the preservation of their own dignity. The Homeric heroes are also elevated above their fellows in a way that Nisus and Euryalus are not. Then again, there is the theme of father and sons. The final scene in the Iliad, where Priam comes out of Troy to ask Achilles for the body of his son Hector, is echoed in the care of Aeneas for his father Anchises or in the anguished plea of Turnus, Aeneas’ rival for Lavinia, that he might be spared or at least, if not, that his dead body might be returned to his father.

But this is firmly a Roman poem, rooted in Virgil’s determination to show that his patron Augustus (who saved the unfinished poem that might otherwise have been destroyed) had the right to claim his inheritance as a result of his ancestors’ achievements. It is, in short, imperial propaganda. Yet even I, at fourteen, could grasp that the Latin was special. In this translation, there is a feeling that Ruden has laboured with the same intensity as Virgil (who was reputed only to manage a line or two a day) to find the exact phrase, words which express the meaning with the same economy as the original. She is always sensitive to nuance, which she crafts into her renditions. I hope this translation brings the grandeur of this poem to a new audience, not least because the translator’s assured and imaginative use of language is an education it itself. I wanted to read right through the tortuous battles with the Rutulians to reach the end, something that could not be said of every translation of this great epic.

One tiny quibble: there is only a short glossary of names at the end. A fuller commentary would be useful for those who don’t know Roman mythology.

P.S. I would also like to mention the work of another poet, Alice Oswald, whose Memorial (Faber, 2011) draws on the mass slaughter of the Iliad but attempts to give each dead hero individual respect. A haunting and beautifully crafted poem that, despite its litany of dead heroes, never loses its momentum

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. The third edition of his Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean will be published by Oxford University Press in March, 2014.


Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village

Julia Blackburn, Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths are set within the mountains around the Ligurian village where she has settled with her Dutch husband Hermann. There is a background of contentment to the book, as she and Hermann had been together many years before and now had found each other again. I have never read Blackburn’s The Three of Us but the reviews detail her highly traumatic childhood, and so it is good to feel that she has found peace in the mountains.

Blackburn is a patient and empathetic listener and gradually the lives of her neighbours, many of them elderly, are revealed, along with the ancient pathways that lead to settlements now abandoned (one village, once with a population of 349 is now down to the last remaining five inhabitants). There are compelling stories of the past. The brutality of the German occupation between 1943 and 1945 when partisans were shot in cold blood still haunt many of her narrators. Even in peacetime there were the exactions of the local landowners under the sharecropping system, so voracious that there were often little more than cooked chestnuts to eat. She tells of one five year old who is indignant to be told that she is a mezzadri, ‘a half person’, because half of everything belongs to the landlord.

The lives may have been tough but that does not make the villagers intolerant. No one much minds that the local priest lives for many years with a housekeeper, Pepina, who was probably a teenager when she arrived but who won over the villagers with her hard work and jolly nature. (A priest’s ‘companion’ such as this was known as a perpetua.) There are those who are naturally solitary and it is accepted that they may become shepherds who are months away at a time in the mountains with their flocks. Others handicapped through accidents or birth defects fit in as best they can. Many nurse memories of other paths through life. Adriana, when aged fifteen, was approached by a wealthy English lady visiting the village and asked if she would like to come to England and be treated as a daughter. She did not dare to stand up to her mother but if she had been just a little older and more mature, she tells Blackburn, she might have. ‘So what would you have studied with the education that she promised you?’ asked Blackburn. ‘The work that involves digging in the ground to find how people used to live in the past,’ was the response. Many years on, Adriana is still in the village with photographs of herself and her would-be patroness that were sent to her after the visit.

Blackburn allows her stories to speak for themselves, although she herself is present as a participant, helping keep neglected paths into the mountains open by simply passing along them.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.


Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

Artemis Cooper. John Murray, 2012

Walking seems to be back in fashion. Pilgrim routes, secret pathways, ancient trackways: it is as if we are rediscovering the traditional pace of life. One catalyst for the interest has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in 1934, when he was only eighteen. It was immortalized in his two books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Although they are among my favourite travel books, I had not realised quite how long after the walk they were written. A Time of Gifts appeared 44 years later and Between the Woods and the Water several years after that. So they are as much reflections on the walk, with added colour and insight, as they are of the reactions of an eighteen-year old.

Virtually abandoned as a child in England by his family—his father had a distinguished career as a geologist in India—Paddy (the name by which his biographer and his many friends knew him) grew up essentially feral. School did not work for him and he seemed unemployable. Yet he had a passion for the Classics, an acute memory for texts and a fascination with languages and how they shaped cultures. All this was incipient when he began his walk, but as he uncovered the ancient landed families of eastern Europe, explored their libraries and became a lover, notably of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene on her remote estate in Romania, he discovered new roles for himself. He was always to be a wanderer, attracted to the aristocracy as much for their heritage as for their status, ever willing to be financially supported, and happy to drink and sing his way through the night in a variety of languages and cultures.

When war came, it was again apparent that Paddy was not employable in any conventional role; but with his fluent Greek he could be found a job as a general dogsbody in Intelligence. This is how he ended up supporting the resistance in Crete against the occupying Germans. His most famous exploit, kidnapping the German commanding officer, General Heinrich Kreipe, forms the narrative highlight of this book. The moment when Paddy was able to complete a Horatian ode begun by the General is an unforgettable homage to the common roots of both cultures. Of course, with reprisals against villagers and Paddy’s own careless shooting of a partisan with a gun he thought unloaded, the kidnapping remains controversial, but for many Cretans Paddy was a hero. Hard-drinking reunions followed in the years to come.

Artemis Cooper knew ‘Paddy’ well, but her subject still presents a challenge. Cooper is wise enough not to try to match Paddy’s style when describing the famous walk and is content to tidy up discrepancies and fill in gaps. The kidnapping of Kreipe is well told. The problem comes with the years that followed. There is certainly good material for charting Paddy’s sophisticated survival skills, his charm and success in persuading others to finance him (notably his long-term lover and eventual wife, Joan). It is moving to read of the shattered lives of his friends and lovers, Balasha among them. Full tribute is paid to his publisher, Jock Murray, whose guile and persistence ensured that the books actually appeared. Most publishers would have abandoned Paddy in sheer exasperation at his penchant for parties over disciplined writing.

Cooper also hints at the darker side: the depressions, the sexual dalliances—some of them actually encouraged by Joan—and at Paddy’s ability as much to bore his listeners as to amuse them. And yet somehow she does not capture the full personality. The chronology is there, the house in the Mani is built (at Joan’s expense), the wanderings are well charted, but the subject remains strangely elusive. Doubtless there are more perceptive and probing memoirs to come, but this biography provides a solid background and serves well to send one back to Paddy’s writing, not only the famous walk but also the vivid studies of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. And we are promised that the fragments of the third volume of the walk, awaited by his readers for so long, are due to appear next year.

(One correction. Paddy’s friend was Ian Whigham, not Wigham. He was a man of fastidious good taste and generous hospitality: I count the two occasions when I had lunch with him, as a friend of a friend in the 1970s, as among the more civilizing experiences of my life.)

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.


The Gentry: Stories of the English

Adam Nicolson, HarperCollins, 2011

If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.

The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.

The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.

What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.

However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.

While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.

Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living.  Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.

The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.

In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.


Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria

Luca Signorelli (c.1441–1523) was born in Cortona, Tuscany, close to the Umbrian border. It is with Umbria that he is always associated, for his masterpiece in the cathedral of Orvieto and for the fact that the town of Città di Castello proclaimed him a citizen in 1488. This year his work is being celebrated in no less than three venues in Umbria (Perugia, Orvieto and Città di Castello), until 26 August (the last retrospective exhibition dedicated to this major central Italian artist was in 1953).

Perugia: The exhibition in Perugia (at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria) has a very large number of works, collected together for the first time from museums all over the world, as well as a superb selection of Signorelli’s graphic output (many from the British Museum and the Louvre), which shows that he was also an outstanding draughtsman.

The show opens with one of the greatest works by Signorelli’s master, Piero della Francesca, the Madonna di Senigallia from the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino. Visitors can also see another masterpiece by Piero just a few rooms away in the same gallery, the Sant’Antonio polpytych (particularly memorable for the top panel of the Annunciation).

Signorelli’s early period, showing the strong influence of Piero, is documented by a number of works—some of them of doubtful attribution, although the lovely Madonna and Child with three angels from Christ Church, Oxford, seems to reveal the artist’s own hand. The single predella panel from the Louvre, of the Birth and Naming of St John the Baptist, is an exquisite work. The two small panels from the (dismembered) Bichi altarpiece with superbly painted male nudes from Toledo, Ohio, are particularly fascinating and unusual. A number of Signorelli’s famous tondi of the Madonna and Child are included, the best perhaps being those from the Uffizi and Pitti in Florence. There is a tiny portrait of a boy from Philadelphia, which is particularly intriguing even though it seems to have been rather over-restored. The four predella panels of the Life of the Virgin formerly beneath the superb Annunciation from the Pinacoteca in Volterra (also on show) have been reunited for this occasion: two are from a private collection in Scotland; one from Richmond, Virginia; and the last from the National Gallery of Washington. The men just killed by the dragon in the foreground of the St George from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recall the male nudes in the Cappella Nova in Orvieto. The Madonna and Child on a decorative gold ground from the Metropolitan Museum in New York is particularly poignant, as we know that Signorelli gave it to his daughter Gabriella in 1507.

Orvieto: The exhibition here is understandably much smaller since of course the great attraction is the Last Judgement cycle of frescoes in the Cappella Nova in the cathedral, which has been given longer opening hours for this occasion (the extraordinary video with details of Signorelli’s wonderful frescoes can only be viewed at the Perugia exhibition). His monumental Mary Magdalene, which belongs to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, is the most important work on exhibition there, but it is also particularly interesting to be able to visit the newly restored Albèri library with its very unusual frescoed decorations carried out around the same time that Signorelli was at work next door in the cathedral. Here is displayed a controversial double portrait (including a self-portrait) frescoed on a terracotta tile (its attribution to Signorelli has been under discussion for decades but recent research carried out for this exhibition suggests it is, indeed, an autograph work).

Città di Castello: Later works are exhibited here, and in particular the two masterpieces owned by the Pinacoteca Comunale: a processional banner and the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. The visit also provides the opportunity to explore the lovely villages in the upper Tiber valley and the little oratory just outside Morra which was in part frescoed by Signorelli.

The Perugia exhibition in particular is well worth travelling from afar to see as it provides a remarkably complete documentation of this great artist’s ouput, an artist who so often seems to be well ahead of his contemporaries in his exploration of the human figure and whose work always contains an element of intriguing eccentricity.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Central Italy, Blue Guide Tuscany, Blue Guide Rome, Blue Guide Concise Rome, Blue Guide Florence, Blue Guide Venice.


Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.


Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity

Sam Miller, Vintage 2010

Sam Miller is quick to tell us that he loves walking in strange cities. So do I. And it is this that has always bothered me about Delhi, a city I have never visited but have often longed to see: how will I get around it? I don’t want to hire a car or an autorickshaw. And apparently women shouldn’t travel alone by bus. So can one walk? I know no better means of locomotion, especially if you really want to see and understand things. For all these reasons I was heartened when I picked up Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. And when I saw the following line, which the author delivers to an auto-addict who is offering him a lift: ‘I don’t drive. And, well, I really want to walk,’ I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit.

When he says this kind of thing, Miller tells us, people look at him with pity and disbelief, or with embarrassment, as if he were a bit touched. I’m used to this reaction too. When I go to pick up my son from school, in foul-weather gear and yomping boots, mothers in spiky heels emerging from SUVs look at me with pity and disbelief. My son isn’t yet of an age to be embarrassed.

So, safe in the knowledge that Miller and I were on the same wavelength, I set off with him, in search of a vast and unknown city. Everything in the book happens at street level. We don’t (or extremely rarely) go inside people’s apartments or office buildings. We don’t join them at social functions or in restaurants. We never really ‘meet’ anyone, we have brief encounters, the stuff of a vagrant’s life, with prison warders, rag-pickers, funeral directors, pirated computer software vendors, stall-holders, janitors. The encounters may be brief but they are not superficial. They are illuminating, sometimes amusing, often moving. And I learned a lot. Not just about Delhi's geography, monuments, traffic problems, urban planning, religious groups and politics. But about geocaching and SimCity, about the Brahma Kumaris and what ‘sealing’ a business means. I even have a new verb to add to my vocabulary: to prepone, meaning to do something earlier than you planned. I loved the story of the bulldozed mosque and the incident of the ‘fresh fruit salad’, not to mention the Hotel Alka, which advertises itself as ‘the best alternative to luxury’.

The New Statesman reviewer who said that ‘For all its entertaining eccentricities Delhi is careful to maintain a strong sense of the city’s sad heritage of religious factionalism, pollution, rioting, poverty and crime’ completely fails to catch the spirit of this book, making it sound like a worthy, brown-rice sort of endeavour leavened by a few off-the-wall jokes. It is nothing like that. It is true that Miller tells it like it is, but he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t campaign, he doesn’t soap-box. That is not to suggest that we don't learn about pollution, rioting, poverty and crime. We do. But the overall tenor of the book is one of optimism. And enjoyment at the sheer infiniteness of Delhi. Sam Miller sets out to walk the city not because he is a charmingly batty Englishman, but because there are certain things that he would never see if he didn’t. And those things deserve to be documented.

In documenting them,  Miller is even-handed and compassionate. This is a book about a megacity, but what that means is that it is a book about human beings, in all their nutty multifariousness. Sam doesn’t judge, he observes. Above all, he writes with extreme tenderness towards his fellow man (and woman). What adds an extra piquancy is the fact that he has trouble with one of his knees. A fanatical walker with a gammy leg almost seems to stand as a microcosm of Delhi itself: something indomitable, irrepressible, insistent with life, and destined to succeed despite all difficulties. For the last few nights this book was my bedside reading. I enjoyed it hugely.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber. Sam Miller is the author of Blue Guide India.


The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution

Keith Devlin, Walker & Company, 2011.

Visitors to the Camposanto, the sacred burial ground of Pisa, so sadly damaged by Allied bombers in the Second World War, find all manner of monuments lining the walls, from Roman sarcophagi to statues of the illustrious citizens of later centuries. One of these, recently cleaned up and restored, dates from 1863 and it commemorates one of Pisa’s heroes, the mathematician Leonardo da Pisa, often known as Fibonacci (a corruption of Filius Bonacci, the son of Guiglielmo Bonacci). Although no contemporary depiction of him survives, he springs from the sculptor’s imagination with classical features, a cowled head and a long tunic. He lived from around 1170 to 1250.

Fibonacci is best known today for his famous mathematical puzzle of the breeding rabbits. Shut up a pair of rabbits in an enclosure, assume that the doe will give birth to a pair of baby rabbits every month and that these two will be up and breeding a pair a month within a month. Genetically impossible of course, but the numbers can be built up into a sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. These ‘Fibonacci’ numbers reappear in all kinds of strange places, not least as the typical number of petals in a flower.

Fibonacci was not the first to work out this sequence and Keith Devlin is not nearly as interested in it as in Fibonacci’s contribution to the commercial revolution of 13th and 14th century Italy. These years were the age of trading breakthroughs for the Italians as they captured new routes and filled them with finished grain in return for raw materials. The Venetians strengthened their position immensely after the Fourth Crusade of 1204 had allowed them to lay their hands on ports across the Mediterranean. Florence expanded fast after 1200. Yet there was a bottleneck in the commercial background. There were experts who could manipulate an abacus as quickly as one might operate a calculator today, but the final answers were always written in Roman numerals. As soon as complex issues arose, concerning how to divide profits or change money between coins of different alloys, the system just broke down. The Arab traders, on the other hand, were using a system they had adopted from India. It comprised nine numbers, each with a single-digit symbol, 8 for VIII, for instance, and, crucially, a zero, which was recognized as a number in its own right. The man who transferred the system into Italy was, Devlin argues in this entertaining book, none other than Fibonacci.

Fibonacci’s father had been posted by Pisa to the port of Bugia, in modern Algeria, where he acted as the Pisan go-between with the Berbers. Leonardo, still a boy, went with him. He must have picked up Arabic, as he tells how he talked to merchants from Egypt and Syria, and he soon grasped the superiority of their calculations and became obsessed by them. In 1202 he published a mammoth 600-page manuscript, the Liber Abaci, ‘The Book of Calculation’. It was the first time that the system had been spelled out fully and aimed directly at Italian merchants. Everything from how to divide profits and measure land to dealing in currency exchange was covered with a myriad examples to show how each kind of calculation could be made.

No copies of the 1202 manuscript survive but there are some of the second edition of 1228. By this time, Fibonacci was famous. He had been summoned to meet the formidable Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who had set him three problems which he triumphantly solved. He wrote up the answers in his Liber quadratorum and this work has helped confirm him as the finest mathematician of the Middle Ages.

By the end of the 13th century there were a mass of simpler books of calculation and schools were teaching the system. In Florence in 1343, between 1,000 and 1,200 boys were working in abbaci schools. Until recently, however, historians have not been able to link Fibonacci directly to the introduction of the new system. The workbooks used by students and merchants did not appear to overlap with anything in Liber Abaci. Perhaps the system had come in at a less erudite level and slowly infiltrated the Italian cities. Yet later writers often named Fibonacci as the man who introduced arithmetic and algebra to Europe.

Devlin shows how the question has been resolved. Fibonacci must have realized that the huge manuscript of the Liber Abaci and another text he wrote for merchants on geometry, which was scarcely less large, were too much for the ordinary merchant to master. So he wrote a much shorter and simple text, now lost, and this can now be directly linked to the manuals to be found in the schools some decades later. Fibonacci was truly ‘the man of numbers’, both at a sophisticated level in algebra, but on the market floor.

This is a short book on a man about whom almost nothing is known. Fibonacci sometimes called himself Bigallo, perhaps a Tuscan dialect word for traveller, and he certainly knew his way around the cosmopolitan Mediterranean world of the 13th century. It was perhaps inevitable that the Hindu-Arabic system would have come to Italy in time—it was simply too useful in a complex trading world—but Devlin has certainly shown that Fibonacci deserves the credit for setting in all in motion. This is a readable and enjoyable book and I actually understood the maths!

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. For more on Fibonacci, see here.


Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Susie Harries, Chatto & Windus, 2011.

I am not quite sure how my 1961 edition of Pevsner’s Suffolk has survived long enough still to be found among the debris in the boot of my car. It surfaces and resurfaces as if carrying the persistence of its author with it. It is a paperback edition and I must have brought it when I was cycling round Suffolk churches for a school project in the summer of 1965. I was intrigued to read in this meticulous and absorbing account of Pevsner’s life that he was upset when later volumes only appeared as pricey hardbacks so depriving one of his target audiences, school children, of accessible copies. I was one of the lucky ones.

Pevsner is, of course, the acclaimed guide to The Buildings of England, eventually, with some help from collaborators, covering the whole of the country in forty-six volumes. The elderly, and—as Harries tells us, exhausted, author, gazes benignly at us over his achievement, here piled in two columns on the front cover. It is to Pevsner that one turns to check whether a church window is ‘Perp’ or ‘Dec’ and I was always rather proud that he had ventured far enough up the drive of my family home in Suffolk to note its ‘porch with Roman Doric columns’, although, alas, his date for the exterior, early 18th century, is wrong; the façade was remodelled in the 1830s. In his old age Pevsner relaxed enough to admit he had made many such mistakes in his rigorously disciplined forays into the countryside.

Of course, one reads Pevsner for his pithy comments. One of my favourite local churches in Suffolk is Dennington but Pevsner sternly brings my enthusiasm to order by telling me that ‘Piscina and sedilia are strangely and perversely arched’ and that ‘the chancel arch is painfully incorrect’. It is a style that is utterly distinctive but often limited and I was glad that Harries put me onto another, fuller, work of his, The Leaves of Southwell [Minster]—a King Penguin of 1945 but easy to track down online—where he enthuses over the perfect marriage of stone and nature in the Minster capitals. An extract was read at his funeral.

This biography is wonderfully comprehensive. When Pevsner left his lectureship at Göttingen to seek a new life in England in 1933, he brought the intense analytical tradition of German art history with him and Harries covers this well. Pevsner was conservative by nature and sympathetic to the demands for order in Germany but never, as has been suggested in a recent, less rigorous biography, a Nazi (Harries has the advantage of sole access to his family archive, so she can provide an accurate picture). We can understand why he found the English tradition of connoisseurship gleaned from weekends nosing as a guest around country houses amateurish, but he persevered and eventually found his niches lecturing (at Birkbeck and later as Slade professor at Cambridge), advising, broadcasting (the Reith Lecturer of 1955) and writing. He was utterly professional and endlessly assiduous in accumulating architectural details. Of course, to some, this meant that he missed or ignored the human side of building. His personality, often removed and abrupt, reflected his dedication and one can understand the difficulties he experienced in his marriage with the more gregarious Lola, who suffered his long absences, self-absorption and occasional dalliances with other women. He missed her most, of course, when she died suddenly in 1963, twenty years before he did.

Outside his Buildings of England, Pevsner was perhaps best known for his championship of the Modern Movement, notably in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement, an early English work of 1936. He argued that ‘good’ modern building should reflect function, materials should not be disguised and lines should be clean without ornament. Then he was drawn into the revived interest in Victorian buildings and so became a founder of the Victorian Society (where he had to face childish ridicule for his ‘Germanic’ approach from one John Betjeman). Balancing the demands for new buildings against the varying qualities of older ones involved him in endless and often fruitless battles with planners, architects and developers alike. Pevsner was never a people person but his vast knowledge and persistence earned him increasing respect. His taste and approach could always be criticized, of course, and there were always some whose ripostes to his enthusiasms were malicious rather than scholarly. However, he held to his own vision and avoided feuds. By the end of his life the honours were flowing in profusion from across the world.

It is always hard to deal with the austere who say little about their emotions and who lose themselves in dedicated scholarship. The work can easily swamp the individual. Pevsner needed and deserved a full biography and this could hardly be bettered. Thanks to her ferreting through the family archives, her judicious sympathy for her subject, and her scholarly accounts of the academic background, Susie Harries brings to life the man who has left us an awesome legacy. Wherever we are, in any part of England, we still need to ask of an interesting building: ‘Is it in Pevsner?’

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 sites that Explain the Classical World. His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here.


Whispering City: Rome and its Histories

R.J.B. Bosworth, Yale University Press, 2011.

 

I first arrived in Rome in January 1966 when I was eighteen. I had had a long journey by train from London but I have never forgotten the emotional impact as my taxi sped by the Forum. All the hours I had spent trying to construe the speeches of Cicero and the odes of Horace gained meaning and since then I have never been able completely to separate ancient texts from the places they were created.

I still know of no other city where the histories and myths intermingle quite so powerfully as they do in Rome, for any period of its past one chooses. Even the traditional founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were heirs to the myth of Aeneas. What Bosworth achieves in this sophisticated and penetrating history is to show how the Roman pasts have pervaded the political and religious life of the city since 1800. The revolutionary French, the austere and embittered popes, the leaders of the new secular government after 1870, Mussolini with his bombast of a rediscovered empire, none of these could never escape from or fail to manipulate some precedent. Every leader sought to find the ‘right’ Roman past—republican, imperial, Christian or nationalist—to use for political resonance whatever the cost. Mussolini blindly destroyed large parts of medieval Rome to claw out the imperial ruins that lay buried beneath it.

What I loved about this book was Bosworth’s acute sensitivity to every nuance of Rome’s past. Symbols were refashioned to meet each contemporary need, however transient it might prove. I warmed to the story of how, during the ‘revolution’ of 1848–49, the cross on St Peter’s was, in the absence of the fugitive pope, painted in republican colours, while in the 1948 elections, the Italian communists linked Giuseppe (Joseph) Garibaldi, to another Josef, Stalin. (The Church responded with ‘At the urn, God sees you but Stalin does not’.) And I never knew that the last surviving ship of the papal navy was a paddle-boat called the Immaculate Conception.

The perpetual game-playing between popes, outraged at the loss of their patrimony in 1870, and city rulers achieved high levels of drama. When in 1889 the Roman government launched a grand unveiling of the statue of Giordano Bruno, burned by the Inquisition in 1600, Pope Leo XIII retaliated by spending the day prostrate before a statue of St Peter. When the Fascists commemorated the anniversary of the March on Rome on 28th October, Pope Pius XI countered with the institution of a new feast day, of Christ the King, for the last Sunday of October. In the great public ceremonies, blackshirts offered no competition to a pope clothed, as Pius was on one occasion, ‘in a huge silver mantle interwoven with gold’. Whatever Il Duce’s ambitions, no one knelt when Mussolini passed by. They did in their thousands when the pope did. Well might Pius XII reassert Rome’s primacy as the universal Christian centre of civilisation when the Fascist regime collapsed ignominiously in 1943. One of his successes was to secure the placing of figleaves on the virile genitalia of Fascist heroic statuary during the Holy Year of 1950.

Assiduously researched and always absorbing, this book should have an appeal far beyond lovers of Rome. Anyone sensitive to history is aware of how easily the past becomes mythical and /or fugitive. Sniff the air in Rome and, above the traffic fumes, you can sense the currents of nostalgia merging, separating, remingling, swirling around the ruins of past and present. Bosworth shows how even the most determined rewriters of history, Mussolini prominent among them, were out-manoeuvred by the insistent presence of alternative myths which subverted their proclamations of the revival of an ‘eternal city’. Rome is indeed ‘eternal’ but primarily, perhaps, in its ability to eternally manipulate its past.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here.


City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire

Roger Crowley, Faber, 2011.

The struggle by the city-states of Italy to dominate the medieval Mediterranean trade routes was a ruthless one and Venice was the key player. The famous account of Venetian merchants stealing the body of St Mark from Alexandria in 828, whether the stuff of legend or not, shows that Venetian merchants were trading in the East as early as the ninth century. Roger Crowley begins his own lively study of Venice’s fortunes in the eleventh century, but he is soon off to his first great set-piece, the notorious Fourth Crusade of 1204.

The crusaders who had answered the call from Pope Innocent III to free the Holy Land had booked a fleet of Venetian galleys to take them there. Crowley tells the tale of what actually happened when they could not pay up: a free-booting enterprise which ends with the sacking of Constantinople, the greatest Christian city of the Mediterranean, by the crusaders.  Whether or not this shocking diversion was manipulated by the aged, and blind, Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, who led the expedition, the Venetians were quick to ensure that harbours and trading posts of the shattered Byzantine Empire along the routes back to Venice now became theirs. Booty, including the fine copper horses that were placed on St Mark’s and a mass of sacred relics, looted from the heretical Greeks, flowed back into Europe.

Crowley tells this story with great panache. Then he turns his attention to the problems of control of the Stato da Mar, the Venetian Empire, that followed. Crete was vital as a staging post but with its people tenaciously clinging to their Greek Orthodoxy and resentful of the Venetian settlers, there were continual revolts. The Venetians never pretended that they ruled in the interests of their subjects and suppression was harsh, especially when a revolt of 1363 was crushed with the help of mercenaries. Everyone in Venice knew how vital the Cretan harbours were to their prosperity and the city exploded with flamboyant celebrations in St Mark’s Square as soon as the galleys brought home the news of a successful repression.

The fourteenth century also saw the culmination of centuries of struggle with Genoa. The Genoese had been masters of the sea almost as early as the Venetians. Yet Venice’s success in the Fourth Crusade had edged them out and they were determined on revenge. The wars were debilitating and in 1379 nearly ended in utter disaster for Venice when the Genoese captured Chioggia, just a few miles south of the city. Venice was isolated and the Genoese stranglehold began to suffocate her.  The charismatic Venetian naval commander, Vettor Pisani, who had been brought back and imprisoned in the city after an earlier defeat, was the Venetians’ last hope and by popular acclaim he was released. Crowley regales us with the story of how Pisani, with a revitalised fleet behind him,  finally out-manoeuvred the resilient enemy.

After these dramatic events, Crowley pauses to draw breath and there are more reflective chapters on the Venetian state and empire in the fifteenth century, the intricacies of diplomacy and the management of the fleets, with the lucrative pilgrimage trade to the East among the sources of new income. Yet by the fifteenth century there is a new threat after the Ottoman empire begins its inexorable expansion over the eastern Mediterranean. Crowley makes another set-piece of the fall of Negroponte, the island of Euboea, in 1470, and then there is the devastating loss of nerve by the Venetians at the battle of Zonchio in the Ionian Sea in August 1499, when Venice failed to engage the Ottoman fleet and so lost the initiative for ever.

This is a fast-paced and enjoyable book. Perhaps Crowley concentrates too much on the big moments when all seemed lost or won and the blood flows freely—but read City of Fortune and you will understand with what trepidation the arrival of a galley from the East was greeted. Did it bear news of a defeat that could put all in jeopardy or of another conquest which would keep the fabulous riches of the Orient flooding into the city? Each was equally possible and Crowley vividly reminds us that the survival of Venice was as precarious in the fourteenth century as it is today.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here.


Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor

Paul Stephenson, Quercus 2009. Paperback August 2011. ISBN: 978-1-84916-002-5

In Istanbul, on the north side of Divan Yolu, the street that follows the course of the Mese or ‘Central Way’ of old Constantinople, stands a decayed porphyry stump known as Çemberlitaş, the ‘Hooped Column’. In its heyday it would have been much more splendid, for it was, according to Blue Guide Istanbul (6th ed. 2011), ‘erected by Constantine to commemorate the dedication of the city as capital of the Roman Empire on 11th May 330. It stood at the centre of the Forum of Constantine, a colonnaded oval portico adorned with statues of pagan deities, Roman emperors and Christian saints, and thought to have been the inspiration for what Bernini later built in front of St Peter’s in Rome.’ What is also interesting about the column is the statue that would have crowned it, a colossal likeness of Constantine as Sol Invictus, the Unconquered and Unconquerable Sun, with the orb of the world in his hand and a crown of brazen sunrays glittering on his head.

In his Hymn to God the Father, John Donne makes use of a popular metaphysical pun:

…swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now...

The transference of pagan sun of the heavens to Christian son of God, victorious over death, is something that happened long before Donne’s time. And Constantine’s adoption of the sun/son cult and his public portrayal of himself as brazen victor were significant and deliberate—at least Paul Stephenson thinks so. But why? Was it because he was sincere in his Christian faith? Or was it simple political expediency? Biographies have been written that seek to prove both these theses. Stephenson’s argument is slightly different. Constantine’s devotion to Christ is not what turned Christianity into the majority faith of the Eastern Empire. He is neither the hero that the partisan Christian historian Eusebius sought to portray (4th century) nor the villain that the apostased Catholic convert Edward Gibbon depicts (18th century), with sour scorn, as using ‘the altars of the church as a convenient footstool to the throne of the empire’.

Instead, Stephenson focuses on something else: the army. Constantine grew up in an age when emperors were raised high and then capriciously felled by their barracksmen. The military had enormous power, which, in the right hands, could be cleverly channelled. For Stephenson, Constantine used the army as the driving force and ‘chief instrument of his political will’, aggressively adopting the Victor persona, something which the army accepted wholeheartedly because of what Stephenson calls the ‘established Roman theology of victory’. After the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius and sent him to his death in the Tiber waters, floundering helplessly in his heavy armour, the bringer of that victory was Christ. We need not trouble ourselves with how, with whether Constantine really did have a vision of a Cross. The fact is that from then on it was Christ and not Zeus or Sol who became the emperor’s patron deity and it was under Christ’s banner that the imperial legions fought.

Constantine’s mother had been a Christian but the world into which her son was born was a pagan one. Christ, like any other god, was a divine being to be flattered and appeased. Constantine’s devotion to his god was not that of a pious Christian as we would understand the term today. Nor was it simply a cyncial political stunt. The truth falls somewhere in between, and Constantine’s reign is, Stephenson thinks, ‘a case study in the interaction of faith and power.’

Readable and convincing, the book presents a portrait of a great soldier and propagandist, a man who believed his earthly power and success were due to the intervention of the god of the Christians. Thus it was that he adopted that cult as his personal totem. He certainly never heard or believed that the meek were blessed and would inherit the earth.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber


The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto

4th June–27th November 2011

www.labiennale.org

The Biennale, the world’s leading modern art exhibition, is upon us once again. ‘An exuberant invitation to take part in growth and change’ (Rev John-Henry Bowden, former Chaplain of St George’s, Venice)? Or the emperor’s new clothes?

Well, Jackie Wullschlager , the Financial Times’ influential art critic and no enemy of the new, really doesn’t like British artist Mike Nelson’s installation: it is ‘fatuous, self-regarding art’ and ‘the most vapid show the British pavilion has ever sponsored’.  But among the things she does like are the three Tintorettos. Sorry, Tintorettos? Not by any chance by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto because of his father’s trade of cloth dyeing, with the not very modern dates of 1519–94?

Indeed, the very same. Two of the three paintings are from the Accademia (the Creation of the Animals and the Transport of the Body of St Mark), the third is a Last Supper from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore ‘painted in the last year of his [Tintoretto’s] life … the last of numerous paintings he produced on this subject, one which had fascinated him all his life … what is memorable above all is the disquieting presence of ethereal spirits and angels which emerge from the dark background, perhaps harbingers of the death of this deeply religious painter’ (quoted from Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Venice).

But the Biennale’s Chairman, Paolo Baratta, has a simple explanation: the show hasn’t lost faith in the new, Tintoretto’s works are exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini ‘as a warning to living artists to not indulge in conventions!’ (the exclamation mark is from his press release). And while Curator Bice Curiger maybe protests a little much she is surely right when she says, ‘These paintings by Tintoretto, one of the most experimental artists in the history of Italian art, exert a special appeal today with their almost febrile, ecstatic lighting and a near reckless approach to composition that overturns the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance. The works will play a prominent role in establishing an artistic, historical and emotional relationship to the local context.’

All excellent, and we at the Blue Guides look forward with enthusiasm to a creeping juxtaposition of great, historical Venetian art alongside the thoroughly modern in the pavilions of the Giardini and halls of the Arsenale at future Biennales.

Reviewed by Thomas Howells

Venice is covered in a number of Blue Guides: there is the main Blue Guide Venice 8th edition, by Alta Macadam, as well as a Blue Guide Literary Companion Venice.  And just out, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia, in the new Blue Guides Travel Monograph series.


Ruskin on Venice

By Robert Hewison and published by Yale University Press, £45

Viewed from 160 years later it is not always easy to take Ruskin seriously: his romanticisation of the Gothic and demonisation of the Renaissance verges on the absurd, while curious relationships first with his beautiful and lively young wife - with whom he honeymooned in Venice and who divorced him shortly thereafter - and in later life with an adolescent girl who died young, are difficult to explain.

Neverthess Ruskin writes beautifully, his scholarship is superb, and his vision of mediaeval Europe as a pre-industrial, artisanal, feudal Utopia, while certainly wrong, is not without attraction.

This latest book linking the two perennially absorbing, and closely related, subjects of Ruskin and Venice is well reviewed in Apollo Magazine by Christopher Newall:

"Ruskin on Venice offers much more than a series of glimpses of its subject at different stages of his life: by linking Ruskin’s various stays in Venice together into a larger evolution of thought, it provides an unfolding drama of his myriad preoccupations and ever-fluctuating state of mind."

Read the whole review.

Ruskin inevitably crops up in all the Blue Gudies' Venice books: both he and his wife Effie are anthologised in Literary Companion Venice, and of course his presence is also recorded in the recent Blue Guide Travel Monograph on the Venice Lido.


Holy Bones, Holy Dust

The latest book by Charles Freeman, freelance academic historian and historical consultant to the Blue Guides (published by Yale University Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-300-12571-9).

The subtitle, 'How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe', sounds more universal than it actually is: the relics in question are exclusively Christian; the book makes no mention of the hair from the Prophet's beard in Istanbul, for example, nor of any shrines there may have been in Muslim Spain. This is not a criticism; it is simply a fact that helps one to know what one is getting. We are talking about early Christianity, a subject on which Mr Freeman is extremely knowledgeable (and no less opinionated).

The book is a splendid read. It begins with a stirring account of the murder of Thomas Becket and goes on to examine the multifarious and mysterious ways in which early Church Fathers got distracted from the task of helping their flock to follow Christ's model and fretted instead about whether the Holy Foreskin needed to have been rejoined to Jesus' body after the Resurrection, or whether women entered Heaven in male form, as being representative of a higher state of being.

Freeman is particularly good on the vulnerability of relic cults to the onslaughts of science. 'When an earthquake hit Venice in 1511,' he tells us, 'the Patriarch interpreted it as a sign from God in response to the increase of sodomy in the city. After all, the city's prostitutes had been complaining that their own business was suffering as a consequence of this diversion in sexual behaviour. The diarist Marino Sanudo, who recorded the earthquake with his customary detachment, noted that the ensuing days of fasting, procession and preaching might have helped improve piety, "but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at all"....Sanudo is reflecting a growing understanding of the natural world.'

And yet, and yet... We may enjoy a little giggle at the idea that St Helena of Athyra possessed a ring that could quench sexual passion and owned a handkerchief that cured toothache, but how many of us have fondled crystals, tied copper bangles to our wrists, kept a scarab beetle in our pockets? The human need for tangible totems or amulets is as strong today as it ever was. A large part of the immense appeal of Freeman's book is that it reminds us all of this foible. Which, on the scale of foibles, is a relatively harmless one. To the medieval mind, 'Relics are the portents of heaven shining in their glory among the dross of sinful humanity.' Nowadays we grope after transcendence in a variety of other ways. But the hope of shining glory is undimmed.

Reviewed by Tonsor

Charles Freeman is the author of Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World, published by Blue Guides.

And publication of Freeman's book coincides with the British Museum's new major exhibition, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, housed in what was the British Museum's Reading Room - the circular building in the middle of the central court - and here favourably reviewed in the Economist. Also in Minerva Magazine.  Until 9 October 2011.


The Roman Forum

By David Watkin (Profile Books, hardback 2009; paperback June 2011)

‘Archaeology often brings to light relics—mysterious foundations, tumbled blocks, a charred sacrificial pit, the decaying stumps of dead houses—fascinating to the scholar but a stunning bore to the simple visitor.’ So wrote Dilys Powell in The Villa Ariadne. Archaeologists can be monomaniacs and their interests are often distressingly narrow. So it was with some anticipation that I took up David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, whose contentions are very clear: ‘Archaeologists have eliminated much evidence of the fascinating post-antique life of the Forum,’ and their labours have made ‘visiting parts of the Forum about as attractive as looking into the hole made in New York on 9/11.’ Ouch! These accusations run like leitmotifs throughout the book, together with the curious conspiracy theory that guidebooks are complicit; that there are things they ‘do not want us to see’.

If one works night and day to produce guidebooks, it is difficult not to get on the defensive. The Portico of the Dii Consentes doesn’t ‘turn out’ to be a modern reconstruction. Pay attention to your Blue Guide! It clearly says that it dates from 1858. There is no plot to keep visitors in the dark about the churches of San Lorenzo in Miranda or Santi Luca e Martina. They are just never, ever open. But for Watkin, everything was better in the time of Piranesi. Piranesi, he tells us, with the authority of one who knew him in a former life, recorded the Forum ‘at the last time when it was still a place of poetry, capable of inspiring great painters, writers and thinkers.’ Glum stuff, but the threnody does begin to strike a chord and the aimiable style in which the bad news is delivered soon reels you in. Watkin laments the fact that the Forum has been turned inside out: its surviving churches open away from it, no longer into it; it has been severed from the life of the city and turned into a visitors’ theme park. Up until a very few years ago, entry was free and one could use the Forum as a thoroughfare; Romans going about their daily business could loiter and linger in it. Now you have to queue to be admitted through a turnstile, custodians are bossy and offhand, and no one who is not a tourist (or an archaeologist) ever goes there. The magnificent ‘challenge of the relationship between ancient and modern’ has been obscured.

Despite the underlying crotchetiness, the book is immensely enjoyable. Watkin’s love for the Forum, his breadth of knowledge, and his wistfulness about what might have been (in a Peter Pan world) are ingenuous, impressive and infectious—a beguiling combination. The chapter on the despoliation of the Forum’s monuments in the service of the new St Peter’s is a superb read. No visitor should ever again imagine that the mere march of time had anything to do with it. What Watkin cannot admit, though, is that if archaeologists hadn’t got their hands on the Forum when they did (in the late 19th century), the urban planners certainly would have. And the challenging relationship between ancient and modern would now be as desperate a tussle there as it is at Largo Argentina.

Nevertheless, if you’re travelling to Rome—either for the first or the fiftieth time—I recommend that you get this book. Not only will it add whole layers of meaning to your visit, but it will also force to you answer the following testing questions: if archaeologists are to be banished, who will take their place (and who will pay for it)? What is the point of a desert like the Forum in the centre of a busy and increasingly cramped-feeling capital city? And whose opinion was nearer to the mark: Palladio’s, for whom the Forum offered ‘not the spectacle of ancient glory but rather the possibility of recreating it’; or Pevsner’s, for whom the Forum belongs ‘to the civilisation of Antiquity, not to what we usually mean when we speak of European civilisation’? Watkin loves the Baroque churches that were built over the ancient ruins in the 17th century. But did their architects believe they were ‘recreating’, or did they believe they were moving forward into a ‘modern’ era?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) has extensive coverage of the Forum, with a map of the site and detailed notes on all its monuments, past, present and conjectural.


Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us

by Ferdinand Mount, published by Simon & Schuster 2010, in paperback April 2011

There’s a brilliant new idea on every page of Ferdinand Mount’s meandering, fascinating comparison of various aspects of the modern world with those of Classical times.  And like all good original thinking, when so well expressed, the ideas seem obvious after the event: similarities between Roman bath culture and modern spa-going, between ancient gyms and the modern worked-out body beautiful, between stuffed dormice and modern foodyism, even between the pre-Christian Eastern mystery religions of the Roman Empire and, well, the post-Christian Eastern mystery religions of the Western world.

And many of the ideas merit a book in themselves: for example, I was not familiar with Vaihinger’s post-Kantian arguments for ‘as-if’ Christianity (it’s not true but you’ll have a nicer time if you behave as if it was), an interesting idea which we will hear more of as the arguments of what Mount calls the ‘anti-God botherers’ (Dawkins and his fellow-travellers) rumble on.

It is probably a relief that he ducks the issue of slavery altogether.  You do not have to be a Hegelian Marxist to realise that some ancients could be pretty free to do all sorts of things because many had no freedom at all.  Nor a Christian fundamentalist to appreciate that Christianity with its then new idea of the equality of souls spelled the decline and eventual abolition of ancient world slavery.  But there may be some symmetry between the malign influence of ancient world slavery and the modern world's more benign “globalisation", the benefits of free trade indeed being one of the reasons why a substantial middle class is again free to hang around in gyms, spas and restaurants and rediscover all the 2,000-year-old pleasures Mount so wittily describes.

And he does bang on about sex. I am not sure how interesting a point it is that the ancients were promiscuous and that so are many in the 21st-century West. Much more fun on the subject (and not much to do with the ancient world) is Mount’s account of the evolution of ideas about sex in the 20th century, particularly the tediousness of the Bloomsbury group’s infantile musings on the subject, which they thought so grown-up compared to those of the straight-laced Victorians to whom they felt so eminently superior.  I think Mount’s point is that the conclusion of the attempt to glorify copulation, with its apogee in the sexual “revolution” of the 1960s, succeeded, by the resulting ubiquity, only in trivialising it.  Back to where it was in ancient times.

Extracting unified themes from the thousand years of rapid intellectual experiment and development from the rise of Athens to the fall of Rome, and comparing those themes to those of our own day is not always easy.  For example, while Mount does find a Greek philosopher with some remarkably Popperian ideas about scientific discovery, it is not clear that Romans, never seriously interested in new inventions or in the advance of science, really had much in common with the 21st century in terms of  scientific attitudes.

But these are quibbles. As I say, brilliant, a fascinating idea on every page. Here I have covered about one and a half ideas inadequately; he has 385 pages of them.  I think I will read it again.

Reviewed by Tom Brompton

Blue Guides publish Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.