Italian island food

Matthew Fort: Summer in the Islands, An Italian Odyssey. Unbound Press, London, 2017.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman.

Matthew Fort, distinguished writer on food and all the conviviality that accompanies it, fell in love with Italy through its ice cream at the age of eleven. The relationship has lasted and has developed into a deep affection for Italy’s peoples and their traditions of fine local cooking. Having traversed the peninsula for Eating up Italy and explored Sicily in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, he embarked, at the age of 67, on a leisurely six-month tour of all the islands off the Italian coast. It did not quite work out as planned: a ruptured Achilles tendon led to his abrupt return to England, but he eventually made it back to complete his visit to every Italian island, with Sardinia and Sicily included.

Italian restaurateurs love a genial and tubby figure who turns up to ask them what they cook best and then enjoys several courses of local specialities. Mr. Fort fits the bill brilliantly. From zuppetta di lenticchie usticese con totani from the fertile soil of Ustica to grigliata mista di suino in Alghero, Sardinia, and ricotta salata al forno, ‘salted ricotta that has been baked in the oven and sliced as thin as a communion wafer’, matched with a sweet Malvasia di Lipari in Salina off the coast of Sicily, he honours the cucina of wherever he turns up. Fort travels with Nicoletta, his trusty Vespa, and the pair are happy together chugging across the varied terrains thrown up by geology and volcanic eruptions (although of course Nicoletta cannot participate in the feasting). One lady who can is Fort’s daughter Lois, who joins him in Giglio and Giannutri, off Italy's western coast. She is “curious, humorous, calm in the face of adversity [unlike Fort], cheerful and determined to enjoy each adventure to the full”, so they have happy times together and Fort is melancholy when she leaves. She will reappear in the final chapter when, on her first visit to Venice, they enjoy a beautifully served lunch at the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello. Other companions appear: Lisa, who disrupts Fort's lazy lifestyle on Filicudi and Alicudi with two vast aluminium suitcases and a vigorous programme of walking and swimming.

I was worried at first that one island after another would prove monotonous; but each island is different. Some are crammed with holiday-makers and others with prisons (either abandoned or still functioning), so there is plenty of contrast and enough variety to keep the narrative going. Fort also knows enough history and literature to fill us in on Napoleon on Elba, for example, or the Dukes of Bronte, heirs of Nelson, in Sicily. There is a discursion on the ‘pagan’ Norman Douglas, whose memoir Old Calabria (1915) extols the wildness of Italy’s deep south; and frustration with a German film crew who have taken over Garibaldi’s farm on Caprera, depriving Fort of the chance to eat there. He sums up his ambivalent feelings about Garibaldi nonetheless.

I am one up on Fort in that I have a chance, on the tours I lead, to follow up the best restaurants my wife and I discover on our reconnoitring trips. So south of Naples I shall be re-visiting the Tre Olivi at Paestum (this time taking 30 people to lunch there) and the following day I will reacquaint myself with Ristorante Romantica near Teggiano, a small hilltop town where medieval frescoes will be opened up for us in the churches before we leave for the vast Certosa di San Lorenzo in the afternoon. There is no better way of honouring a restaurant than to bring one’s friends along for a second bite. I am sure that Matthew Fort would approve.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to many Blue Guide Italy titles. For more on Italian food, try the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion.

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

10.09.2017
19:02

Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook

Philip Hook: Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. Profile Books, London, 2017.

In May 2017, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum in Boston for the second time. Housed in a neo-Renaissance palazzo with courtyards and galleries, it is crammed—one might say cluttered—with the extraordinary collection of Mrs Gardner, accumulated with her vast wealth before her death in 1924. There are special objects, a brilliant Titian (The Rape of Europa) and a stunning John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, of a Spanish gypsy dancing girl; but as Mrs Gardner was not a discriminating buyer and insisted that everything she had collected had to be displayed, the effect can be rather cloying. Perhaps I was biased, having come on from the wonderful new Art of the Americas gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

It is hardly surprising that Isabella Gardner appears in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s history of art dealing. She had a large fortune, was avid for the best of Renaissance paintings, and thus became easy prey for suppliers. Bernard Berenson and his colleague Otto Gutekunst at Colnaghi saw their chance. As Hook puts it, ‘The race to supply Mrs Gardner with as many Renaissance masterpieces at as high a price as possible was on.’ Titian’s The Rape of Europa was extracted by Gutekunst from Lord Darnley for £14,000 and Berensen and Gutekunst agreed that it would be sold to Gardner for £18,000, with each of them splitting the difference. In fact, Berensen sold it to Gardner  for £20,000, paid Gutekunst £2,000 and pocketed  £4,000 for himself. Hook has no illusions about his ‘Rogue Dealers’ (although some of his subjects were more rogueish than others). The value of an artwork is what a buyer is willing to pay for it and this sum can be manipulated by the dealer in a number of ways. Often the aesthetic value of a picture, the way its composition or subject might grab a viewer, is secondary to the prestige of owning whatever is in fashion. There are all kinds of subtle ploys for creating desire for an object that the purchaser might never have thought of owning and certainly does not need. The fascination of Hook’s book lies in the different personalities and methods used to achieve this end.

 

The story starts in the 17nth century. The Rev. William Petty was an accomplished buyer for Charles I and the ‘Collector Earl’ of Arundel, outplaying rival buyers simply by staying put in Italy. In Amsterdam  Hendrick van Uylenburgh took Rembrandt under his wing, guiding clients into his workshop for their portraits but carefully leaving other pictures around in the hope of selling more to the sitters. By the 18th century, the market has shifted to Rome. Not all dealers there were insensitive to art. The Anglophile Cardinal Albani’s own collection was as fine as anything he sold on to English aristocrats. But as so much dealing was carried on amicably between social equals, it was hard to say where the balance between sociability and commerce lay. In the case of Lord Duveen, a hundred years later, his knowledge of Italian art was minimal but the skill with which he manipulated the expertise of Bernard Berenson to provide ‘authentic’  provenances for the culture-hungry and cash-rich American moguls brought fabulous returns for them both. Osbert Sitwell lamented that the austere galleries donated to British museums by Duveen were funded by selling the cream of English paintings to America.

 

One moves on to Paul Durand-Ruel, the great patron of the Impressionists. Hook is at his best in exploring the life of this reactionary Catholic monarchist who may have changed the direction of art history through his championship of a new and little regarded movement. In 1872 Durand-Ruel had seen two works by Manet and was so overwhelmed by them that he went off to Manet’s studio and brought everything that he found. He was prepared to subsidise his favoured artists and wait for the return that matured through his relentless proselytising. He cleverly created the aura of one who was simply an idealist, altruistically promoting needy artists, yet, as Hook points out, he would ruthlessly impose a monopoly over an artist’s works (as the curmudgeonly Ambroise Vollard did over Cézanne) and if prices were flagging, buy his own stock at public auction to keep up the fiction of increasing values. The fiction would eventually become reality. Why the conservative Durand-Ruel should have been so taken by the Impressionists when they were so little regarded is unknown.

 

Hook’s most intriguing chapter centres on an auctioneer, the legendary Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s. (Hook worked at Sotheby’s for many years so his account is as good as any.) Wilson was a connoisseur, passionate about art and with great taste. His theatrical sense of how to play an audience was unequalled, as were his negotiating skills.

He made the auction room a place of glamour, with dealers sidelined as bejeweled celebrities basked in the glare of publicity. Wilson sensed how the Hollywood elite would compete for the prestige of owning a major Impressionist and was adept at exploiting the power of the Press to create the necessary buzz. Record prices made news and stimulated beguiled collectors to pass on their treasures directly to Sotheby’s when before they would have been sold discreetly in a dealer’s office. Wilson also had a contempt for the buyers, a vital attribute for a successful dealer. It was said that he once sold a gold box by soliciting phone bids from an inebriated Barbara Hutton which probably took the price $750,000 dollars higher than it should have been. He would tell a seller to sell now before the market fell and for the same work would advise a buyer to buy now when prices were still low.

 

This is a knowledgeable and perceptive book that raises important questions about the value of art and the ways in which this can be exploited or even created from nothing. Rich in anecdote, cynical in tone (‘Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy’), it makes a good read. Sadly, Hook decided only to tell on dead dealers. I would have loved to have heard the gossip on how money is extracted from the new rich on contemporary artists of such varying quality and prospects.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

Ferragamo's Return

Ferragamo the Cobbler: from Naples to Hollywood and the return to Italy in 1927

 

Florence is determined to keep its place as a centre of fashion (despite fierce competition from Milan). Of the famous “Pitti” fashion shows, which are held throughout the year, the most prestigious remains “Pitti Uomo”, which takes place for a week in June. This year Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, allowed fashion shows to take place in the Pitti Palace ballroom, thus reintroducing a tradition which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. He has also renamed the Pitti’s Galleria del Costume. Now known as the Museo della Moda e del Costume, it makes clear its role in documenting the history of fashion.

 

Another exhibition centred on fashion, entitled “1927: The Return to Italy”, runs at the Museo Ferragamo, the company’s elegant flagship store at the end of Via Tornabuoni, until May 2018. Curated by the much-respected art historian Carlo Sisi, it provides a fascinating history of Italy in the 1920s. The setting cleverly evokes an ocean liner: in 1914 the 17-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo sailed from Naples for America as a third-class passenger. Just 13 years later he returned as a highly successful businessman, with a first-class cabin on the huge ocean liner R oma (she had made her maiden voyage the previous year and a film made at the time shows life aboard). Born in Irpinia in the south of Italy, where he had set up a business selling handmade shoes when aged only 11 (six older boys worked for him), Ferragamo decided to emigrate to the land of opportunities, and by 1923 was an American citizen and had opened a shoe store in Hollywood. All the famous movie stars soon became his devoted clients. His decision to return to Italy in 1927 was prompted by a desire to find skilled Italian artisans to increase production and it was only in Florence that he found the quality he was looking for. He settled in the city, founded a shoe factory, and by 1938 was able to purchase the huge medieval Palazzo Feroni on the Arno, which still houses the company’s main store. On show, beside the shoes he crafted, are numerous examples of the decorative arts made in Florence in the 1920s (including lovely woven fabrics). One of the most moving exhibits is the ‘home movie’ Ferragamo made of the wonders of Florence when he first arrived there from Naples with his sisters.

 

After the First World War hemlines had risen, exposing women’s legs and ankles, and thus the shoe became far more conspicuous. Ferragamo experimented with all kind of materials, including kid and antelope skins, and even ‘sea leather’ from fish. His sandals, boots and hand-painted shoes were renowned. He studied closely the anatomy of the foot and issues of posture in order to create models that were comfortable as well as stylish. Hundreds of these shoes are on show, as well as his archive of patented designs.

 

But the exhibition has also provided the opportunity to study the role of women at this time (just before Fascism took hold) and the influence of the emancipated American flapper in Europe. The importance of sport and dance in liberating the female figure (if only from corsets!) is underlined by contemporary films, and many fascinating of posters are included. Amongst the sculptures and paintings, all rigorously confined within this one decade, the 1920s, some of the most interesting are by the brothers RAM and Thayaht (Ruggero Alfredo and Ernesto Michahelles), little-known outside Tuscany, who were particularly interested in fashion. They were at work in Florence producing remarkable paintings, graphics and sculpture (some of them using an amalgam of aluminium and silver which Thayaht invented and named “taiattite”, after himself). A painting (owned by the Ferragamo Foundation) by Giovanni Colacicchi shows Palazzo Feroni itself in Piazza Santa Trinita at this period.

 

This is a delightful exhibition and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. It clearly demonstrates that the fashion house of Ferragamo, even though now a global brand, can still contribute to the life of the city of Florence.

 

by Alta Macadam


Silence of the looms

Sadly the looms of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows (Blue Guide The Marche) in Potenza Picena no longer weave their wonderful damask.  Our author Ellen Grady investigates »

Grammar and Grace

St Martin altarpiece (1490, unknown provenance), Hungarian National Gallery.

This October it will be 500 years since Luther made public his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg. The anniversary is being celebrated on the web, by a pilgrimage and festival, with events in and around Wittenberg itself, as well as in print. In Budapest, the Hungarian National Museum has devoted an exhibition to the subject of the Reformation in Hungary: Ige-idők (Grammar and Grace), which runs until November 5th.

 

The displays open with a huge black and white reproduction of a Last Judgement scene, as an illustration of the late medieval mindset. The world is presented as a thorny place beset by sin and temptation. When the final trumpet sounds, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished horribly. Altarpieces of the northern European school reinforce the point. God's Word must be our guide, but it comes down to us in Latin, a language we do not speak, so His message is transcribed pictorially, through stories of Christ and the exemplary lives of the saints. Because we cannot communicate directly with God, the saints also intercede for us, helping us to achieve salvation. This will never be attained without the purifying fire of Purgatory; the aim is to spend as little time there as possible. The tools for getting out are faith and good works, but because these are notiriously unreliable currency, we are offered the chance to pay, through the purchase of indulgences.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the pre-Reformation Christian world. Mysterious, untransparent, trammelled by an unwieldy bureaucracy of saints, and, as an inevitable result, corrupt. The first room spends some time presenting Rome as the arch culprit. It is Rome that allows the system of indulgences. Rome also wilfully misleads her flock. This is illustrated by a woodcut of two feet. And it is here that the exhibition begins to be problematic.

 

Background information is presented through a series of wall banners. The texts are uncomfortably long and there is nowhere to sit down while reading them. The exhibited objects themselves (some of them never exhibited before) are captioned erratically. Captions give date and provenance, but are rarely explanatory, making no attempt to show why an item was chosen for display or how it links with the theme. Sometimes the captions are translated, but more often they are not, so visitors with no Hungarian will struggle. This is the case with the woodcut of the feet. As a piece of evidence to support the curators’ point it is well chosen. But why is this not explained in situ? The footprints are those that occur on a crude stone block preserved in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia in Rome (hence the figure of St Sebastian in the woodcut). They purport to be the imprints left by Christ's feet as he appeared to St Peter, who was fleeing the city in an attempt to avoid martyrdom. “Master, where are you going?” Peter asks. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Christ replies. Ashamed, Peter turns back and re-enters the city to meet his fate. It’s a charming story but the stone footprints are a blatant fake. Reproductions of this fake (so double fakes) are set into the floor of the chapel of Quo Vadis, also on the Via Appia, at the bend in the road where the famous meeting is supposed to have taken place. Last time I was there, a devout family was rubbing the footprints with pebbles, to make relics by contact. This is precisely the sort of minsinformation and hoaxing that the 16th-century Reformers aimed to root out.

Anonymous 15th-century woodcut. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

So how did they go about it? The English title of this exhibition, Grammar and Grace, has a good alliterative ring and fits the original Hungarian well in that Igeidők means tenses (grammatical, as in past, present, future). But it can also be translated as “The Age of the Word”; and it is really this that the exhibition is about, because it is through the Word (of God, transmitted to man in comprehensible form) that the Reformers sought to do their work. Whether salvation is achieved through faith or through works, or, as Luther had it, through grace alone (or only by grace), is a theological debate that the exhibition does not wrestle with. It concentrates on Protestantism's fixation with text and the way text replaced images.

 

Altarpieces cease to be the principal tool of communication and what we get instead are books. A number of early Bibles and prayer books are exhibited, for example the Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus (Basel, 1516), intended as a basis from which vernacular translations could be made, translations which would make the phalanx of intermediary saints redundant, as Holy Writ was rendered in the common language of men. One such translation on show is the Hungarian-language prayerbook of the wife of Pál Kinizsi (1513), from western Hungary.

 

In early 16th-century Hungary, ecclesiastical leadership was in crisis. Many prelates were also military commanders and most were wiped out at the Battle of Mohács, the great Ottoman victory of 1526. Into the void stepped itinerant preachers, spreading the ideas of Luther and Calvin. But the two reformers were different temperamentally. The difference is nowhere better illustrated than by the pavement slabs in nearby Kálvin tér, close to the museum. Here, underfoot, the flagstones are inscribed with quotations from Protestant theologians. “God in his mercy denies to his own what of his wrath he permits to unbelievers,” says Calvin stoically. Luther is more mischievous and less austere: “If I could believe that the Lord had no sense of humour, I should not wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Both Lutheran (in Hungarian, Evangélikus) and Calvinist (Református) congregations developed in Hungary.

 

Luther introduced communal singing to church services, turning the congregation from passive witnesses of unfathomable mysteries into active participants in the celebration. Music does not come into this exhibition, though. We are stuck with text. A wall banner notes that none of the achievements of the Reformation could have been accomplished without zeal, but the Bibles, however remarkable, do not speak to us in the way the early altarpieces do. Deprived of the personality of the preachers who used them, they struggle to convey the quality of this zeal. Some of the preachers will have been ardent and inspirational, opening up whole new realms of spirituality for their hearers. Others will have been fanatics, banishing imagination, insisting on the literal.

 

Text comes not only in the form of devotional books, which after all were rare and expensive (the early, 16th-century Bibles were mainly for the use of the preacher; copies for individual study took another century to arrive). Instead, altarpieces were redeployed as vehicles for the Word. Suddenly they are awash with writing. The exhibition has found a brilliant example: a 1519 Crucifixion altarpiece from Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben) in Transylvania, which was painted over in 1545 by the first Protestant minister. The entire lower section, which would have shown mourners at the foot of the Cross, has been overlaid with texts from St Matthew’s gospel and the book of Isaiah. Mary Magdalene's hands can still just be seen in the central strip, clutching the Cross. It is a piece reminiscent of the famous Binham Priory rood screen in Norfolk, England.

Crucifixion altarpiece of 1519, overpainted with text in 1545.

Translation, however, had its drawbacks. The new invention of printing, just like the Internet today, was a disruptive technology. Suddenly, vernacular Bibles were everywhere, being used by individual preachers with their own individual interpretations of God's message. It was difficult to enforce an official line. In Reformation Hungary there were no burnings at the stake; instead different denominations co-existed. This seems to have been especially true because of the power vacuum created by the Ottomans, with their semi-tolerant approach and their appetite for tribute money. The town of Debrecen, for example, paid tribute in exchange for being left alone: it existed as a Christian republic, a ‘new Jerusalem’ on the Geneva model, referring to itself as Cristianopolis (it remained self-governed in this way until the mid-1750s). Today we worry about fake news. During the Reformation people worried about free interpretations of scripture. In another 15th-century Sibiu altarpiece (here shown in an early 20th-century copy), Protestantised in 1650, Christ is shown behind bars at the bottom. St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible springs to mind (Lamentations 4:20), where his Latin translation makes mention of "Christ the Lord" a captive of our sins, something the original does not exactly say. If St Jerome could do it, what might a provincial pastor do? Inevitably there had to be a clampdown.

 

As surely as Catholicism ever did, Protestantism begins to use the tools of propaganda. The result is a kind of sententious, moralising religiosity, as exemplified by the Dutch-inspired 18th-century Vanitas still life by an unknown Hungarian painter. All the stock elements are there, to indicate the transience of this worldly existence: the skull, the snuffed candle, the soap bubbles, the dog-eared book, the fading flowers. Fickle fortune is indicated by the dice. False riches by the coins. The only thing that can save us is Christ and the Spirit, symbolised by the goldfinch. (None of this is explained in the wall caption.)

Inevitably, as it becomes established, Protestantism also enters the realm of politics. In Hungary’s case this was particularly true in Transylvania, but after Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance (1781), it becomes true in general. Protestants also make significant contributions to science (understandably) and the arts. The vernacular Bible in Hungary was influential in shaping language and thus thought. But the Reformation as a lathe on which identity is shaped also brings with it identity politics. If a Reformation brings choice, then one has to self-identify. No longer can we talk of one people under the imperial aegis of a pope or a Habsburg monarch, but separate nations of denomination, each with its own belief systems. Public expressions of religion have elements in common with modern virtue-signalling. In the end, much comes down to personal preference and inclination. It is difficult not to return to the first room, as the one where the objects speak most freely to each beholder. There is a lovely panel showing St Martin (illustrated at the top of this article). The bishop saint, with a huge gold halo, stands before an altar raising the Host aloft as angels drape his naked arms (naked because he has charitably given half his cloak to a beggar). In the background, in a doorway, stands a man, observing the scene just as we do, but from the opposite side. It is a lovely and subtle work of art, linking God and Man. What better way to communicate mystery and transcendence? But Calvin (whose version of Protestantism came to dominate in Hungary) was intransigently opposed to the image. Is this the reason why metalwork became so intricate? There are a great number of chalices and other items of church plate on show, some of them extremely elaborate. There are perhaps too many on display, and no detailed information on any of them.

 

Some of the early altarpieces now seem modern in a way that many of the later, once-revolutionary artefacts do not. Bibles, prayer books and orders of service, once translated, are in need of constant revision, as language, society and its shibboleths change. A little columbarium vitrine in the penultimate room contains quotes from modern authors. The one from Péter Esterházy sums it up: “The spectrum of language is not only spatial but temporal. Words have their time, or, to put it another way, time lies couched within words. Our time, the time of those who use the words, our history, our very selves.” A reformation which puts mysteries into words sets itself on a path of perpetual re-reform as the words date and lose their revelatory power.

 

That does not mean we should not reform. But how should reformations be conducted? How can we prevent them either from degenerating into riot or from fossilising into the very sclerotic structures they sought to sweep away? This exhibition poses all these questions. It is extremely thought-provoking. How far have we come in the half-millennium since Luther railed against Tetzel?

The Sevso Saga

Together again under a single roof. This month (July 2017) the Hungarian government revealed that it has acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Sevso (or Seuso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

 

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display, most probably in the Hungarian National Museum.

 

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Sevso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

 

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

 

Annabel Barber

Giuliano da Sangallo

Piero di Cosimo's portrait of Giuliano, shown with the tools of his trade.

The current exhibition (on until 20th August) of drawings by Giuliano da Sangallo and his circle at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe (the Prints and Drawings Collection) on the first floor of the Uffizi provides an interesting and peaceful interlude if you are planning to visit Florence in this over-crowded season. The exhibition is free: if you state your destination to one of the staff members organizing the queues outside, you will be let straight in.

Giuliano (Giuliano Giamberti, c. 1445–1516) was an architect who worked for the Medici as well as the Papacy, designing palaces, villas, churches and military fortifications. All the drawings on show, except for two from the Albertina in Vienna, are from the Uffizi collection itself.

In the small room opening onto the stair landing is Giuliano’s wooden model of Palazzo Strozzi, a remarkable survival (and usually on display in the palace itself). For this exhibition it has been taken apart so that the rooms inside all three floors can be seen. A fascinating 15th-century ‘doll’s house’, it would have been available to the builders as they laid stone after stone of this great Renaissance palace. An excellent black-and-white video on the wall here illustrates the buildings Giuliano was responsible for in Florence and Tuscany. Also here are two drawings by Francesco da Sangallo (Francesco Giamberti, 1494–1576), Giuliano’s son, one for the convent of the Cestello (now Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi), and a drawing on parchment of the Baths of Diocletian, this once magnificent ancient building (still very conspicuous near Rome’s main railway station), signed and dated 1518.

The main exhibition room has some works produced jointly by the two brothers Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo the Elder (Antonio Giamberti; c. 1455–1534) and studies of buildings of ancient Rome including the ground plan of a temple found on the Quirinal hill by Francesco da Sangallo, and an elevation of the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian and a ground plan of the entire area of the baths by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. The Libro dei Disegni owned by the Uffizi, which contains more studies of the Antique by Giuliano and Antonio the Elder’s nephew, known as Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (Antonio Cordini, 1484–1546), is also on display.

Giuliano’s famous contemporary Bramante (Donato di Angelo di Pascuccio, 1444–1514) is present in the exhibition with another plan of the Baths of Diocletian furnished with meticulous measurements, and his first thoughts on the architecture of St Peter’s, sketched in red chalk, clearly showing his uncertainty. On one of these sheets there is a bold drawing on the verso by Giuliano da Sangallo demonstrating how closely the two architects were at work during one stage in the long building saga of the great basilica. A larger, more finished parchment drawing shows Bramante’s idea for part of the east end of St Peter’s, and there is a project for the same church by Fra’ Giocondo (Giovanni Giocondo da Verona; before 1434–1515), whom we know was also called in to suggest a possible Latin-cross design.

Some of the most interesting drawings by Giuliano include a fanciful design for embellishing the Borgia tower in the Vatican, complete with flower pots on its balustrade; and one of a church façade which includes numerous reliefs (all carefully drawn), statues in niches and free-standing figures above.

His project for the Florentine church of San Lorenzo, celebrating Leo X, is crowned by a statue of St Peter above the tympanum with its pair of Florentine lions. Giuliano also envisaged free-standing statues for this façade, but was clearly uncertain how many there should be. But the over-all design is extremely harmonious, which cannot be said for the project displayed next to it, drawn by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, which has a pair of bell-towers rising to twice the height of the façade.

A section devoted to Giuliano’s very fine figure studies for the story of Judith and Holofernes has two sheets drawn on the verso as well as the recto. Antonio da Sangallo the Elder made copies of the saints on Donatello’s bronze doors of the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo (represented here by two more drawings) and he also copied a detail of Giovanna Tornabuoni in a painting by Botticelli (now in the Louvre). Only one painting is present in the exhibition, a tondo of the Madonna and Child attributed to the workshop of Botticelli, which has been lent by the National Gallery of London since it appears to have been owned by Giuliano.

The two codices which contain the most precious drawings by Giuliano outside the Uffizi, the Taccuino senese (still in Siena) and the Libro dei Disegni in the Vatican library, can be consulted at the exhibition in digital format (although the video was not working on my second visit).

The arrangement of the drawings, it must be said, is not always easy to follow and it is a pity that no dates, even if conjectural, were added to the labels. Also, the complicated relationship between the various artists that share the name Sangallo (apparently derived from the district of Florence near the Porta Sangallo, where some of the family lived) is nowhere fully explained. Notwithstanding all this, the exhibition provides us with a visual conception of how the various designs produced in the 15th century for St Peter’s would have looked, and it illustrates the concerted efforts to provide Florence’s San Lorenzo with a façade before Michelangelo won the competition in 1516 (only to have Leo X cancel the commission when the great artist was already at work on it, to his great chagrin; the story is told in full, and illustrated, in the new edition of Blue Guide Florence. The architects represented in this exhibition all appear frequently in the Florence, Rome and Central Italy Blue Guides so this has also provided us with a chance to check their dates and the latest attributions.

by Alta Macadam.

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