Selectivity at the Uffizi

Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was about to go back to the Uffizi with a grandchild and would be showing him just five paintings there. A method of ensuring not only his full attention but also his appreciation. I can only imagine what a memorable occasion that will be for the child.

 

Returning myself to the gallery the other day, I took the lift up to the first floor, and on the stair landing, outside the entrance to the Prints and Drawings Room, a little room exhibits just one work owned by the Uffizi, (and it will be kept there until 30th April). This is a large triptych signed and dated 1461 by Nicolas Froment, a little-known artist from Picardy, much influenced by the Flemish school. It came to Italy because it was commissioned by Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni, probably while he was in Flanders. Born in Prato, Coppini had a distinguished early career as a lawyer and diplomat, and Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his De Iure to him in 1437. He was sent to northern Europe by Pope Pius II and when in England, as papal legate, he attempted to interfere in the War of the Roses. When he sided with Edward of York, who was crowned king in 1461, against the House of Lancaster, the pope promptly disowned him and he was defrocked when he returned to Rome.

 

Meanwhile the painting seems to have reached Pisa by 1465, but just what happened to it afterwards is not known: we next have news of it in the Franciscan monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (apparently a gift from a Medici). When the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon it came to Florence, joining the Uffizi collection in the early 19th century, attributed to an anonymous German painter. It is only since 1878 that Froment has been identified as the French master of this triptych as well as that of the Burning Bush painted for René of Anjou in 1478 (and now in the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence).

 

Today it has been wonderfully restored and is especially interesting for its subject matter, since it shows not just the central Raising of Lazarus, but also, on the left, the scene before the miracle, when Martha informs the Saviour that her brother is dead (the figure of Martha is the most memorable of all the figure studies in the painting) and, on the right, the Saviour seated at table after performing the miracle, having his feet anointed by Mary Magdalene. Lazarus (still with his beard and moustache, but now looking much better, dressed in blue) is sharing the meal. In this panel the fascinating details include a formal garden outside the window, and, on the table, a succulent roast chicken flavoured with herbs, a segment of pear with a fly settled on it, and a salt cellar. Judas (with a little fluffy dog at his feet) is the ugly disciple pointing at Mary, and Peter is the one cutting a slice from a loaf of bread by holding it and drawing his sharp knife towards himself (a gesture still sometimes to be seen at an Italian picnic). The central panel, with its lovely Gothic gilded fretwork, includes a self-portrait of the artist looking at us, and an amusing ‘courtier’ elaborately dressed trying to survive the stench coming from the decomposing body of Lazarus (who certainly looks as if he has indeed ‘returned from the dead’).

 

The triptych of three oak panels was made so that it could be closed, and on the panels of the door Coppini kneels before the Virgin.

 

On the wall of the room, a video illustrates details from the under-drawing, which was found through reflectography during restoration, and shows where the artist had second thoughts and altered his original design. The presentation is accompanied by an excellent little catalogue in Italian and English.

 

To learn about a painting’s history, and the technique used in producing it, apart from the name of the author and the subject matter, adds so much to its interest and increases one’s appreciation. It seems a very good idea to provide visitors with an in-depth study of one painting in this way, and hopefully it will encourage people to become more selective in what they choose to see among so many masterpieces in the gallery.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

10.03.2017
11:22

Guide to the Via Francigena

The Via Francigena in Northern Lazio. Map and guide in English from the Touring Club Italiano, Itineraries on Foot series.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

 

The Via Francigena, the road of the Franks towards Rome, has been known for over a thousand years since Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to travel to Rome for his formal investiture by pope John XV. The record of his journey in AD 990 lists each stopping place, 79 in all, and allows us to trace the route in detail. Sigeric crossed the Alps through the Great St Bernard’s Pass down into Aosta and then through what is now Piedmont into central Italy. As the flow of pilgrims increased and the route became used for trade and travel, cities such as Siena, hardly known in Roman times, grew rich on the proceeds.

 

The Touring Club Italiano has been working hard with Lazio Regional Council to open up the last 200km of the route. Much of the original, following the ancient Via Cassia, is now busy motorway and their recommended route is based on smaller roads and cart tracks that avoid noise and congestion but include all the original medieval sights that pilgrims will have seen. After a long first day from Radicofani to Acquapendente (30km) there are eight stretches of some 20km with hostels provided at each.

 

The guide is wonderfully thorough, with detailed maps of each leg of the route and blank pages for notes on each. The author, Alberto Conte, is sensitive to the beauties of the varied landscapes. If I ever take the route I shall be glad to know where there is a swimming pool close to the path and that the owner of the fruit stall in San Lorenzo Nuovo gives passing pilgrims a free piece of fruit. Original paved stretches of the Via Cassia appear from time to time. Thanks are still due to pope Gregory XIII who provided a bridge over the River Paglia in 1578, at a spot where sudden torrents had led to many pilgrims being drowned. There are tips on local wines and traditional dishes of the region alongside boxed sections on each of the major towns. It is useful to know that in September one cannot gather hazelnuts in the Torri d’Orlando as the farmers deliberately leave them on the ground before they are collected. It is tempting, as they are reputed to have the finest flavour in the world!

 

Yet it is the remnants of the churches, shrines and sanctuaries that grew up along the path that are probably most of interest. At Bolsena, in the 11th-century church of Santa Cristina, the footprints of the 4th-century martyr left on a rock can still be seen but it is the blood of Christ, spilling from a host onto the floor in 1263 after a priest doubted the miracle of Transubstantiation, that is the main attraction. The cathedral of Santa Margarita at Montefiascone, the city favoured as a residence by medieval popes, has the third largest dome in Italy after those of St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Florence. In Viterbo the quarter of San Pellegrino, ‘the Holy Pilgrim’, still unchanged from medieval times, shows off the wealth accumulated from the flocks of pilgrims. Capranica, goat country, was a favourite haunt of the humanist Petrarch. One also passes close to the Etruscan city of Veii, of some nostalgia to me as I worked reassembling some of its domestic pottery at the British School in Rome back in 1966. And so finally into Rome, where the route ends in front of St Peter’s.

 

There were extensions of the Via Francigena south of Rome for those pilgrims who wished to continue to the East. These are shown on a large pull-out map in the pocket of the guide although the routes are not yet signposted on the ground. Overall this is a beautifully presented and thoughtful guide that will do much to open up forgotten treasures of Lazio. I have got as far as noting its checklist of what to take and wear on the road.

 

I am grateful to my old pupil, now Professore Simone Quilici, who is heavily involved in such projects, for giving me a copy of the guide when I last met him in Rome.

01.03.2017
13:34

What Ariosto could see

Mantegna's 'Expulsion of the Vices from the Garden of Virtue' (1502). The Vices have transformed the garden into a bog. Into the enclosure irrupts Minerva, armed for battle, preceded by two divine assistants. In the centre, Venus is being carried off by a lascivious centaur. On the far left, Daphne looks on powerless, trapped by her metamorphosis into a laurel tree.

 

'What Ariosto could see with his eyes shut' was the intriguing title of a fascinating exhibition held last year in Ferrara. There were long queues outside Palazzo dei Diamanti to see it, a show which was timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Ariosto’s publication, at his own expense, of 1,300 copies of his long epic poem Orlando Furioso. The finest copy of this first edition to have survived is held in the British Library.

 

But who was Ariosto? His poem, which was to have a profound influence on the literature of the Renaissance, was inspired by (and is in many ways a sequel to) Orlando Innamorato by Boiardo, which had been published in Ferrara some 30 years earlier. Both epics deal with literal and moral crossroads forcing a choice between two paths, with wild woods representing labyrinths.

 

Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533) was born in Reggio Emilia, to the commander of the castle there, although he always considered himself a Ferrarese. He was a studious boy but his dreams of a scholarly life were brought to an end after the death of his father, when he had to take up a public career. It was then that he entered the service of the Este family, taking up a post under Cardinal Ippolito. Nevertheless, he found time for his studies and for writing, devoting himself to the epic work that was to make his name. In essence it is derived from the courtly romances of the medieval period. The plot turns on the exploits of Charlemagne and his paladin Roland (Orlando) and to set the scene, the curators of the exhibition had chosen art and artefacts representing battles, knights from Arthurian legends and the cult of jousting. Among them were superb drawings and engravings by Ercole de’ Roberti, Antonio del Pollaiolo (his battle of ten nude figures, c. 1465, the first ever signed graphic work, it is now in the Marucelliana library in Florence), Mantegna (three war-like divinities), Marco Zoppo (a lady warrior, lent by the British Museum) and Leonardo da Vinci (a tiny red drawing from the collection of HM the Queen of a stormy encounter between elephants, horses and a giant). Among the artefacts was a perfectly-preserved leather saddle with bone and wood decorations made for Ercole I d’Este (father of Cardinal Ippolito) and a tapestry depicting the legendary battle of Roncesvalles in 778, probably made in Tournai in the late 15th century.

 

But Ariosto’s work moves well beyond the confines and conventions of courtly medievalism, exploring ideas and themes which were to inform Renaissance inquiry. One of the characters in the epic is the English knight Astolfo, who is conveyed by St John to the moon (described as a metallic sphere) to recover the lost wits of Orlando (Ariosto believed that the only difference between the earth and the moon was the fact that the latter was entirely free of madness). There is a charming little painting by the Ferrarese painter Cosmè Tura illustrating the episode, showing of St John on Patmos sitting with his eagle in a moonscape, apparently waiting for Astolfo. Another artist inspired by the work was Dosso Dossi. In fact his portrait of the sorceress Melissa (now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome) is thought to be the first time a character from Orlando Furioso was chosen as the subject of a painting.

 

Self-published though he might have been, Ariosto did not lack public admirers. His masters, the Este, were highly cultivated. In 1507 Cardinal Ippolito’s sister Isabella d’Este wrote from Mantua to her brother, mentioning that she had had a very pleasant visit from Ariosto and had heard directly from him that he was at work on the poem. When Ariosto was in Mantua, he would certainly have seen Mantegna’s beautiful Expulsion of the Vices from the Garden of Virtue by Minerva, which was commissioned for Isabella’s private study (it is now in the Louvre). It has a superb sky over a great rocky cliff, which towers above Minerva and creatures symbolising the Vices, each depicted in detail. The work is entirely in the Renaissance spirit, filled with characters from Classical mythology (goddesses, a centaur, satyrs), yet presided over by three of the Cardinal Virtues of Christianity, looking on from within a heavenly cloud.

 

Alfonso I d’Este (brother of Ippolito and Isabella and husband of Lucrezia Borgia) was Ariosto’s enthusiastic patron and admirer. Just after the poem’s publication, Machiavelli wrote to a friend praising it. Tommaso Inghirami, the noted Churchman and humanist, was a personal friend of Ariosto (he is best known to us from a portrait by Raphael, also a friend of his, uncompromisingly showing his squint, which now hangs in Palazzo Pitti in Florence). Inghirami is named in the last canto of the poem.

 

Orlando Furioso was a commercial success. On the strength of it, Ariosto was able to build a house for himself in Ferrara (it still stands and can be visited). In fact, successive editions of the poem, revised by the author, continued to appear until 1532, and its fame was such that some three centuries later the romantic epic was recalled by Bryon when he dubbed Walter Scott the ‘Ariosto of the North’.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Emilia Romagna.

News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte

There is a very interesting small exhibition (on until 12 March) at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence dedicated to the little-known painter Giovanni dal Ponte (or Giovanni di Marco di Giovanni, 1385–1437/8). It is introduced with a stunning triptych by him of the Coronation of the Virgin (illustrated above), which belongs to the Accademia Gallery and has been restored for the occasion. The white mantle of the Virgin is memorable, and St Ivo, in his pink robes and red beret (he was the protector of judges and lawyers), makes a rare appearance together with three other saints. Numerous other works by dal Ponte have been collected together here from churches in Florence and Tuscany as well as from the Prado, the National Gallery of London, the Fogg Art Museum and private collections in Hartford, Connecticut and Philadelphia.

Giovanni’s place amongst the Florentine artists of ‘late Gothic Humanism’ is explored and illustrated with some of the best works produced by his immediate predecessors and illustrious contemporaries: a triptych from Würzburg by Gherardo Starnina; an exquisite Madonna and Child with two angels, one of Fra’ Angelico’s earliest works from Rotterdam; and the little gilded bronze door of a tabernacle with Christ Blessing by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This is also the occasion to see together two small works painted around 1426 by Masolino and Masaccio, both of saints holding swords: Masolino’s St Julian in different tones of red comes from the closed Museo Diocesano in Florence, and Masaccio’s St Paul from the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa. Despite their dimension and subject matter, they both illustrate the extraordinary skills of these two masters.

The predella and cusps from Giovanni dal Ponte’s triptych of St John the Evangelist, purchased by the National Gallery of London in 1857, is particularly interesting for the scene of two disciples distributing alms before being converted and baptised by the elderly St John the Evangelist. The disciples are seen taking their clothes off as they wait at the well. In the central predella panel of St John at Patmos, four angels are struggling with lions while he is stretched out asleep on a rock, and a dragon blows fire in a starry sky.

In the last room there is a marriage chest (cassone) with suitable painted scenes in a ‘Garden of Love’, of particular interest as this has remained intact as a piece of furniture (almost all other cassoni were broken up in later centuries when their principal painted panel was removed to be sold). It is preserved in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. Also here are the surviving panels from Giovanni’s Polyptych of St Peter: Four Saints from the Museo Bandini in Fiesole and its predella from the Uffizi, here reunited for the first time.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, complete with index.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

More than just the David

Although Michelangelo’s David is today considered the most important single art object to be seen in Florence (or possibly one of three, along with Botticelli’s Spring and Birth of Venus in the Uffizi), it was largely ignored by visitors up until around 1860, soon after which it was brought inside from Piazza della Signoria to be protected in a specially-built ‘tribune’ in the Galleria dell’Accademia. By 1868 Baedeker had decided it merited a star, and in the 1903 edition of the guide it had become ‘celebrated’.

 

Today one has the impression that very few tourists are prepared for the many treasures to be seen at the Galleria dell’Accademia, which are of quite another character from Michelangelo’s (now ‘famous’) David. These range from 350 plaster models from the studio of the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini; the collection of musical instruments made by the last Medici and the Lorraine grand dukes, considered one of the most important in Italy (where you can also listen to recordings); Florentine paintings from the time of Giotto up to the 16th century; a large group of paintings by Michelangelo’s close contemporaries; and exquisite individual works such as Giovanni da Milano’s Man of Sorrows (1365). The new director, Cecilie Hollberg, seems to have every intention to steer visitors to all the different parts of the gallery, not just the hall with Michelangelo’s Slaves and St Matthew, and the tribune with his David.

 

One could almost wish the arrangement of the galleries could be reversed, since at present visitors can be disorientated by the itinerary imposed: you start in the large room of 15th- and early 16th-century paintings with the plaster model made by Giambologna for his Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia della Signoria. Off this is the museum of musical instruments, after which you pass through the gallery with Michelangelo’s great works. From the tribune with the David there are conspicuous signs to the exit which is routed through the gift shop. But you also pass three rooms of the earliest paintings and this is also the way to the stairs (and inconspicuous lift) to the top floor, where there are paintings dating from 1370 to 1430.

Some of the most interesting works it would be a great pity to miss on the race to the David and then out, are described below:

 

Close together on the entrance wall of the first room are two paintings dated around 1460: the so-called Cassone Adimari (which may have been a bed-head or a wainscot) with brightly coloured, elegant scenes of a wedding pageant by Masaccio’s younger brother, Lo Scheggia; and, in great contrast, a very dark painting of The Thebaids thought to be by Paolo Uccello. Other curious scenes exist of these desert fathers, who lived around Thebes in Egypt, including one in the Uffizi which is attributed in situ to Fra’ Angelico (even though some art historians have suggested it could have been painted in the 18th century). Also hung on this wall are two beautiful Madonnas by Botticelli dating from the following decade.

 

Among the well-labelled paintings by Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporaries, one of the most curious (it hangs on the end wall to the right of the David) is the crowded Allegory of the Immaculate Conception, the best work of the eccentric painter Carlo Portelli (signed and dated 1566 on the stool on the left). The iconography is unique, with the graceful, naked Eve portrayed prominently below the Madonna (the new ‘Eve’), while Adam is shown still asleep. At the time the nudity of Eve caused a scandal and she was given a fur coat to restore her modesty. This was finally removed in a restoration in 2013.

 

The Salone is filled with the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini’s models for his works in marble. This huge, well-lit hall was formerly the ward of the hospital of San Matteo (a little painting by Pontormo shows the room at that time). The extraordinary collection of models (often more interesting than the final marble versions) is arranged more or less as it was left in Bartolini’s studio. The works include serried ranks of some 250 busts: a group of them (on the right and left of the entrance) record the English visitors to Florence who asked Bartolini if they could sit for their portraits (many of these are unique, as the whereabouts of the marble versions, which ended up in private collections in Britain are often no longer known). This is not the case with his well-known portraits of Byron and his mistress Teresa Gamba Guiccioli (there are marble versions both in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti). The son of a Tuscan blacksmith, Bartolini spent time in Paris where he worked in the atelier of David and met Ingres, who later painted two portraits of the sculptor. By the time of his death in 1850, he had become the best-known sculptor in Italy. There is an excellent website with a database still in progress.

 

In the three rooms of the earliest paintings is Giovanni da Milano’s moving Man of Sorrows (beneath the window in the room on the left) and works by other followers of Giotto (and even a fresco fragment with a shepherd and goats attributed to the master himself).

 

The very peaceful upper floor is a place to savour, away from the crowds. There are even comfortable places to sit down (totally absent on the ground floor). The display is excellent and the extraordinary colourful altarpieces, especially those by Lorenzo Monaco and (on the end wall of the main room) a Coronation of the Virgin by the less well-known Rossello di Jacopo Franchi present a magnificent sight. Here too is an extraordinarily beautiful embroidered altar-frontal from Santa Maria Novella, signed and dated 1336 by a certain Jacopo di Cambio, with scenes from the life of the Virgin decorated with numerous birds. There is a small study room on this floor where you can consult catalogues, also online.

 

The Gallery has space for small exhibitions, always worth seeing, and usually connected to the permanent collection (in 2015 there was an exhibition of all the paintings known by Carlo Portelli).

 

So far this year there has been no queue to enter the gallery, but when the crowds begin in March you should book online. NB: All other booking websites charge more and should be avoided. You can also book by telephone, T: 055 294883. When in Florence you can also buy your ticket and book a visit directly opposite the entrance to the gallery at the bookshop and café called myaccademia.com for the same price as at the gallery ticket office itself (the other ticket offices in this street charge more).


It is worthwhile remembering that throughout the year the gallery is almost always much less crowded in the late afternoon (and in the height of the season it can sometimes have extended opening hours).

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The formidable Empress Matilda

Who was Matilda of Canossa? Last year, the Casa Buonarroti in Florence housed an exhibition dedicated to her, a woman who might seem to have little to do with the great sculptor who once owned the house that is now a museum to his memory. But the connection becomes clear when we are reminded of Michelangelo's concern to prove that he was descended from an important family. He chose for his ancestors no less than the Canossa. Surviving letters from Michelangelo to his nephew, reminding him of this connection, prove his determination to establish this link. Amusingly enough, a letter even survives from a certain Count of Canossa to Michelangelo confirming their illustrious—if fictitious—parentage.

 

Matilda (1046–1115) is still one of the most famous women in history, and the 900th anniversary of death was celebrated in 2015 in various towns of Italy. The Italian expression andare a Canossa is still sometimes used to signify an action which involves great humiliation. For it was Matilda who, in her impregnable castle of Canossa, south of Parma, in 1077, proudly received the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, after he had waited outside the walls, barefoot in the snow in one of the bitterest winters on record, to ask her to intercede on his behalf with her great friend Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication.

 

But her story begins much earlier. Parchments bearing her signature survive to this day, her name written in a bold hand: Matilda dei Gratia si quid est. Quite simply: 'Matilda who by the Grace of God is who she is'). Matlida’s father, Boniface, Margrave of Tuscany, administered vast territories in Italy on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor. When he was killed, his wife Beatrice took over from him together with her daughter Matilda (then only aged six). By feudal law women were not allowed to inherit, so this action naturally led to disputes but Matilda managed to hold onto the land after her mother's death. She allied herself with the pope and encouraged his independence, too, from the Holy Roman Emperor. To uphold her claim she used laws set down in the Justinian Code, since that great Roman emperor had established that female heirs had the same rights as male. Matilda employed distinguished jurists to study Justinian's Digest concerning civil laws (which he laid out in just 27 brief and memorable sentences), including the fundamental concept that "all men are equal".

 

Matilda spent her life founding or restoring cathedrals and churches in Italian territory (she is credited with some 100 such works) and facilitated travel between them, as well as building a circle of walls around Florence to keep the emperor out. She transferred her powers as ruler to the towns of Florence, Pisa and Lucca, and saw to it that the feudal claims of the Holy Roman Emperor over the people on Italian territory were extinguished. In effect she also helped to diminish the emperor's secular power over the papacy, and supported Pope Gregory VII in his reforms (and formally left her lands to the papacy). As a young woman she often travelled with the Pope through Italian territory (her detractors suggested she was his concubine), and she promptly abandoned not one but two husbands when they took refuge with the Emperor. Indeed, the history of Italy’s free communes can with some justification be traced to her.

 

A contemporary biography of Matilda was written by a monk from Canossa called Donizone. It has delightful illustrations showing Matilda enthroned and very much in command. Another extant manuscript shows her with Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury. On her death she was buried in the monastery church of San Benedetto Po but in 1634 Urban VIII decided to transfer her remains to St Peter's. He made history when he did so, as Matilda was not only the first woman but the first lay person, neither pope nor saint, to be buried there. Bernini designed the statue for her tomb. Her monument is mentioned in Blue Guide Rome and the ruins of her castle at Canossa feature in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna; but she will certainly get a stronger billing in the other Blue Guides to Italy from now on. One can only admire Michelangelo for choosing this Grancontessa as his ancestor.

by Alta Macadam

11.01.2017
11:57

Life, Art and Kenneth Clark

The impact of Kenneth Clark, the erudite patrician raconteur of the episodes of Civilisation, his majestic survey of European art first shown on the BBC in 1969, will always resonate with those who watched him. He adopted an unashamedly elitist approach that was delivered in a memorably clipped voice. ‘Civilisation’, he told us, was always precarious and would have been lost with the fall of the Roman empire if a few geniuses had not restored and kept it alive. It could be seen in exquisite buildings, great paintings and superb craftsmanship. Civility and rational thought acted as a backdrop to this fragile world distanced as it was from the toil and turmoil of everyday living

 

Of course, Clark’s approach was challenged, not least a few years later by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing, which looked far more critically at the way that art masked privilege and was used to maintain status. But when I listened again to one or two of Clark’s episodes (for the first time since 1969) I still found them absorbing. They drew me to this new biography of Clark by James Stourton, an accomplished art historian and former UK Chairman of Sotheby’s. I had enjoyed a retrospective of Clark’s life at Tate Britain in 2014 but had been disappointed by Meryle Secrest’s earlier life, which showed little understanding of the man and the world he lived in. This is a much more sophisticated and searching study.

 

Clark’s upbringing, as an only child on the large Suffolk estate of his fabulously wealthy parents, did much to shape him as a loner who developed a passion and sensitivity to art which provided him with the most enduring relationship of his life. He was lucky, while at Oxford, in securing the patronage of Charles Bell, the Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, who allowed him to explore freely the wonderful collection of Italian drawings. It was Bell who took him to Italy and introduced him at the age of 22 to Bernard Berenson, by now firmly ensconced at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence. Stourton suggests that it was within the Berensen ménage that, for the first time in his life, Clark found an emotional home. As their recently edited letters [https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Dear-BB-Berenson-1925-1959/dp/0300207379/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484131492&sr=1-1&keywords=my+dear+bb] show, their relationship endured until Berenson’s death in 1959 but neither was able to establish a warm intimacy and a persistent undercurrent of rivalry pervades their correspondence. Clark’s first marriage, to Jane Martin, gave him his chance to escape Berenson’s tentacles and to embark on his glittering career back in England, working on the royal collection of Leonardo drawings, curating at the Ashmolean and directing the National Gallery through the challenges of the Second World War.

 

The Clarks became one of the must-have couples of the 1930s and their circle was wide. The relationship lasted but it had its bad moments, with Jane’s alcoholism and Kenneth’s affairs. The longest of these, with Janet Stone, lasted thirty years and the few extracts from their letters which have been published (most are still embargoed) show him at his frankest and most unbuttoned. Yet even here there would be limits. He failed to marry Janet when both were free to do so and in a melancholy aside Stourton tells how many of her letters to him were discovered still unopened. It is hardly surprising that Clark remained an enigma to most of his acquaintances. He often spoke of himself as a fraud, as if there was some appalling secret about him about to be revealed. There was a gulf between how accessible he wanted to be to others and the distance that they usually encountered as they tried to get close. There was another between his glittering lifestyle, his castle at Saltwood, and his adventurous purchases of art, and his claim to be a socialist at heart.

 

Even so, Clark’s expertise and extensive address book kept him going from post to post. He was always much more than a social butterfly. His patronage of important artists such as Henry Moore and John Piper were crucial for their success. He showed, through a love of Japanese art, of Aubrey Beardsley, alongside that of his contemporaries, that he could break free of the rarefied world of Renaissance drawings. He took on roles that seemed far from any of his interests. To become Chairman of the Independent Television Authority when he did not own a television set and when ITA was seen as the harbinger of a collapse in cultural standards appears more than public duty demanded.

 

Stourton deals well with the making of Civilisation. He has tracked down some of the original film crew and interviewed the widow of the director, Michael Gill. Gill appeared to represent everything that Clark most despised. As his widow remembered, the couple did not fear that the barbarians were at the gate, Gill would have actually liked to be one of the barbarians. The relationship between Clark, Gill and the third director, Peter Montagnon, eventually developed into a creative one and the series turned out to be an extraordinary success, especially in the United States. It is what ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ is remembered for.

 

It may be that Clark’s life and times are now too remote for this book to be a bestseller (his son Alan made a more recent éclat with his gossipy diaries) but this was a biography that deserved to be written and it has been exceptionally well done. Until the full range of Clark’s letters to Janet Stone are revealed it will be as definitive a life as we could wish for. It may even take some of us back to important books of Clark’s such as The Nude, a groundbreaking study, or his Leonardo da Vinci, still regarded as one of the finest explorations of this genius and praised by Stourton as such.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, by James Stourton. William Collins, London, 2016. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine

"Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine ... is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel."

A nice review from wine blogger Quentin Sadler:

A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

Read his full article: https://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/a-lovely-wine-book-for-christmas/

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