17.04.2018
11:14

Heroism on the Danube

Ingrid Carlberg: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Translated Ebbe Segerberg. Maclehose Press, 2016

The name of Raoul Wallenberg is well-known in Budapest today: there is a street named after him; two statues stand to his memory; and there is a general awareness that he was a brave individual, a Swede honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for his resistance to Nazi genocide. But who was he more exactly? This excellent biography, painstakingly assembled from interviews and written primary sources by the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg, is now available in a clear and lively translation. It gives an excellent insight into the man and his times. Balanced and informed, it largely avoids the pitfalls of sermonising or anguished hand-wringing, leaving calmly-presented facts to tell the story much better.

Wallenberg was born shortly before the First World War. His father, who died two months before Wallenberg’s birth, was a scion of a Swedish banking, shipping and manufacturing dynasty. The young Wallenberg might well have expected a place in the family business, particularly as his grandfather aimed to school him for precisely such a role, sending him to study in the US and finding work placements for him in South Africa and Israel. This exotic (by the standards of the time) upbringing, coupled with the fact that his uncles never did deliver on a position in the family firm, led Wallenberg to various schemes and ventures, and, from 1941, a directorship in the Mid-European Trading Company, jointly owned by Swedish shipping magnate Sven Salén and Swedish-resident Hungarian émigré Kálmán Lauer. The company engaged in “importing eggs, fowl and tinned goods”, among other things, mainly from Hungary.

By 1943 Nazi Germany’s genocidal ambitions and extermination of large numbers of Jews were becoming clear to the outside world. For the Allies, this was another compelling reason for doing everything to hasten the Third Reich’s defeat. Roosevelt’s World Refugee Board, established in January 1944, assembled a huge budget to aid and save Europe’s Jews. Wallenberg was well-qualified to be the WRB’s man in Budapest: he had visited the city frequently and had a considerable network there—and by coincidence, the Mid-European Trading Company had offices in the same building as the US Embassy in Stockholm. An embassy official who met Lauer in the elevator asked him to recommend “a reliable, energetic and intelligent person” for the post. But what made Wallenberg accept? As Carlberg asks, what makes an act heroic? A contributing factor might have been Wallenberg’s attendance at a secret screening, at the British Embassy in Stockholm, of the 1941 British propaganda movie Pimpernel Smith, a re-working of the Scarlet Pimpernel story, in which an eccentric Cambridge professor helps German intellectuals interned by the Nazis to escape. “That’s the kind of thing I would like to do,” Wallenberg is reported to have remarked.

Whatever the reasons, Wallenberg, a young man of 32, found himself on his way to Hungary. After the Nazis assumed forcible control of the Hungarian government in October 1944, he energetically ran an enormous operation which gave “protected” status—Swedish diplomatic immunity—to houses in the “International Ghetto” (Budapest’s District XIII), issued official-looking but generally bogus papers to Jews with (increasingly flimsy) connections to Sweden, ran soup kitchens and gave medical support, all backed up with fearless personal interventions with Nazis and local authorities. Estimates of the number of lives saved vary, but tens of thousands of Budapest Jews probably owed their survival to Wallenberg’s efforts.

An intriguing side-question often arises: was Wallenberg himself Jewish? Herschel Johnson, US Ambassador (“Minister”) to Sweden during WWII, described Wallenberg as “half Jewish, incidentally”. This was an overstatement, although he was, this biography tells us, one sixteenth Jewish on his mother’s side, via her paternal grandfather, an 18th-century immigrant to Sweden. Wallenberg’s business experience in Haifa and his work with Kálmán Lauer, himself a Hungarian Jew, may well have sharpened his sympathy for the plight of Budapest’s Jews.

The second half of the book is taken up with the story of Wallenberg’s disappearance into the Soviet Union’s prison and gulag system. As the Soviets advanced across Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg crossed Red Army lines willingly with a briefcase full of plans for Hungary’s post-war reconstruction. He was never seen in the free world again. Concrete or credible news of what happened to him was never provided, though he was clearly in Moscow’s labyrinthine Lubyanka prison immediately after the War. Uncorroborated sightings and reports emanated for decades after, cruelly raising hopes in the hearts of his ever-loyal half-siblings and their children, but he may have been murdered as early as 1947.

Clearly judging on results, Wallenberg was a hero, a man whose personal actions, under instructions from no higher authority than his own conscience, saved thousands of lives. But questions were raised as to his methods: corners were cut; large sums were disbursed with minimal cash accounting; there were significant “related party” provisions deals where his Mid-European Trading Company was the counter-party; involvement in black marketeering was hinted at. But in fact there was no suggestion that Wallenberg personally profited in any way. Knowing how things worked, he had been clear when he spoke to Stockholm’s chief rabbi that the success of his Budapest mission would depend on bribes, and surely some of the plentiful resources of food and money at his disposal were deployed to buy the support of enemy individuals. While the flimsy pieces of paper implying a Swedish connection may have had some effect in occasionally taming the bloodthirsty urges of the German Nazi and Hungarian Arrow Cross thugs, Wallenberg’s connections, oiled by bribery, to their superiors—possibly all the way up to the crazed and drunken Eichmann—were no doubt at least as effective.

The Communists were uneasy with the Wallenberg legacy. The institutionally dishonest world of Hungary’s post-war Stalinist regime needed morally clear and unambiguous tales of herosim. The liberation of Budapest’s ghettos by Soviet troops was one instance where they could genuinely show themselves to have been on the right side. Wallenberg, however, was not an unambiguous hero: he had aided Budapest Jewry and saved thousands of lives but he had a capitalist family name, had been in the pay of the Americans, had engaged with the “enemy” and—embarrassingly—had disappeared in Stalin’s Russia.

The USSR’s problem with Wallenberg was the USA’s propaganda boon. Wallenberg’s unimpeachable goodness stood in stark contrast to his probable murder—either executed or tortured to death—at the hands of the KGB. For four decades the Soviets proved unable to give a straight answer as to what had happened to him. This was a gift for the CIA, who throughout the Cold War were urgently seeking ways to undermine Soviet credibility with its supporters in the West. And indeed the USA pressed its advantage by making Wallenberg an honorary US citizen in 1981 (the first after Winston Churchill), to give them an official channel for attacks on the Soviets to release information as to Wallenberg’s whereabouts or fate. What is also well catalogued in this book is Sweden’s official pusillanimity. At the beginning of the War, when Germany seemed to be winning, neutral Sweden adopted a policy of accommodation with her powerful neighbour across the Baltic. Later, and also during the Cold War, it was the USSR whom she sought not to offend—certainly not by championing a maverick aristocrat who had gone rogue behind enemy lines and had always had an uneasy relationship with official channels.

This book is a crisp and sympathetic biography, a brilliant and clearly-told history (particularly interesting on Sweden during and after WWII), and an excellent addition to the canon on the Holocaust. Recommended reading.

The Wallenberg Memorial in Budapest’s District XIII, site of the “International Ghetto”, where many Jews took refuge in Swedish and Swiss safe houses. The Snake Slayer statue, an allegory of the triumph of Good over Evil (Pál Pátzay, 1949), was planned for Szent István Park after the war but hurriedly removed by the Communists on the eve of its unveiling to a pharmaceuticals factory in East Hungary. A copy (pictured here) was re-erected on the original site 1999.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

28.03.2018
14:06

The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest

At last, after several years of closure for renovations and transformations, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest is emerging from its chrysalis of scaffolding and tarpaulin. Stretching out its wings to dry at the moment is the Romanesque Hall, a spacious rectangular room inspired by the basilica architecture of Early Christian Europe. Newly restored, it is open to the public for free visits until 2nd April.

 

Information about the Romanesque Hall in the press tends to concentrate on statistics: how many years it has been closed for (70); how many kilos of gold were spent on the refurbishment (5.5); how many more square metres of space the museum will gain after all the restorations (2,000). And logistical details about the new café, the lifts, the disabled access and the solar panels. Hurrah! But what about the Romanesque Hall itself?

 

It is open now for just a few more days. After it closes again, it will not reopen until October. So, until then, here are some photos and a description.

 

The Museum of Fine Arts building as a whole was completed in 1906, the decorations of the Romanesque Hall a couple of years previously. The entire edifice was conceived as part of an elaborate scheme of celebrations concocted in 1896 to mark the (approximate) thousandth anniversary of the Magyar occupation of the Carpathian Basin. Unsurprisingly, the decorative programme draws from Hungarian history as well as from European architectural precedents.

 

The hall is a large rectangle, paved in a geometric pattern of yellow, red and grey. It is entered through double doors framed by a cast of the Goldene Pforte, the Romanesque west doorway of Freiberg cathedral (c. 1225). Elaborately moulded round arches are borne on pillars bearing statues of Daniel, the Queen of Sheba, Solomon and John the Baptist (left) and Aaron, Bathsheba, David and John the Evangelist (right). Above, in the tympanum, is a scene of the Adoration of the Magi. When it first opened, the whole hall was used as a cast gallery, displaying copies of some of the most famous works of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today just this portal remains, and one other, at the head of the left-hand ambulatory, a copy of the south door of the church of St Michael in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), Transylvania.

 

The rectangular space is articulated internally by an arcade which creates a sort of peristyle effect, giving an ambulatory on three sides. The arcade is borne on stout columns alternating with square pillars decorated with trompe l’oeil rustication. The column capitals are richly carved and gilded. The motifs are mainly floral but there are also capitals with paired birds pecking at grapes, stylised owls and stags. Above the square pillars rise two triumphal arches, spanning the inner space and adorned with pairs of painted Hungarian saints (Stephen and Ladislas on one; Margaret and Elizabeth on the other), with signs of the Zodiac in the soffits.

 

The walls are completely covered in painted decoration. On the long sides are Hungarian kings and heroes and coats of arms. Between them are peacocks (symbols of immortality) and trees bearing silver fruits, reminiscent of the design of the 12th-century mosaics in King Roger’s room in Palermo. Latin words in ‘Gothick’ script exhort us to occupy ourselves with Truth, Science and the Arts. Our rewards, presumably, will be the glories promised on the other side: Eternity, Omnipotence and Immortality.

 

On the short wall above the Goldene Pforte is a painted roundel of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding Gothick Latin legends. At the opposite end is a matching roundel of the Good Shepherd, and more angels with Gothick legends in Greek: ‘God is Holy’; ‘Strong, Holy, Immortal’. Between the angels, at each end, is a three-light blind aperture with colonnettes divided by trompe l’oeil drapery. The drapery device is continued all around the top of the walls, below the line of the simple pitched roof. Above it rise painted towers and battlements. The iconography here is all derived from mosaics in early Christian churches.

 

But this is a secular space. The primary aim of its decorative scheme is to demonstrate Hungary’s position at the heart of Europe, an integral part of the continent’s history as well as its artistic and cultural traditions. It is a testament to an age of optimism, confidence and self-belief.

Daniel and the Queen of Sheba: detail of the Goldene Pforte cast
Peacocks, Tree of Life and trompe l'oeil drapery

Dürer in Milan

Dürer's first known painting (1490),
a portrait of his father.

A major exhibition is in progress (until 24 June) in the Palazzo Reale in Milan: Dürer and the Renaissance (between Germany and Italy). One wonders if the title was chosen rather to entice visitors than to explain the true content of the show: ‘Dürer’ without ‘the Renaissance’ may have been a good deal less of a draw. But in fact the works on show display above all the extraordinary artistic powers of Dürer, not only as an engraver and woodcutter but also as a draughtsman and painter in oil and watercolour. The works by his contemporaries, displayed alongside, are often put into the shade by the great German’s skills. The choice of these works is not always particularly logical. But (again, perhaps to be sure to draw the crowds?) the visitor is given a very special opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s unforgettable St Jerome, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, as well as two of his drawings from Windsor.

The first two paintings on show are both by Dürer and both from the Uffizi: the Adoration of the Magi and a portrait of his father, his first known painting. In the same room is a drawing of a Battle of Marine Gods, divided into two parts since Dürer added a scene to an earlier representation of the same subject by Mantegna, a clear indication of the close relationship between these two artists and a demonstration of how Dürer studied the technique of the most skilled Italian engraver at work in his lifetime. These two sheets are here brought together, the first from the Albertina in Vienna and the latter from the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.

One wall of this first room has a series of studies of horses, showing some of the very earliest known drawings by Dürer as well as his celebrated engraving of The Knight, Death, and the Devil, dated 1513 (this, like most of Dürer’s most beautiful engravings in the exhibition, comes from the Schȁfer Collection in Schweinfurt).

The exhibition also documents Dürer as a theorist, with his treatises on proportion and measurement and his clear fascination with Leonardo’s studies. A drawing in red chalk by Leonardo (one of the two on loan from Windsor) is a reminder of the famous artist’s sojourn in Milan: it is a view of the Alps as seen from the city (today, on a clear day from the roof of the Duomo, the mountains are still just as visible).

One of the most intriguing protagonists of the exhibition is Jacopo de’ Barbari, whose bird’s eye view of Venice in the year 1500, printed by the German Anton Kolb at his shop on the Rialto from six wood blocks, has been lent by the Correr Museum (it is a pity they didn’t also send the six original blocks carved by De’ Barbari which, incredibly enough, have survived). It is interesting to note that this woodcut was, in the past, attributed to Dürer himself, since little was known about De’ Barbari, and his dates are still uncertain. He almost certainly met Dürer in Venice and he is also recorded as having visited Nuremberg, Dürer’s native city. One of the few other works known by him is also on display: a very fine engraving of Pegasus (on loan from Amsterdam). Both De’ Barbari and Dürer are recorded as having worked for Maximilian I. Indeed, the Habsburg emperor was Dürer’s most important patron and the huge triumphal arch he designed for him (in a series of no less than 192 woodcuts), with allegorical and historical scenes, is also on display (recomposed from the 36 surviving original blocks and supplemented with photographic reproductions of the missing ones). Maximilian died in 1519, so that another commission to produce a triumphal procession to celebrate the ruler, some 50m long (made up of 192 blocks, eight of which are on display) was interrupted: this was perhaps a blessing for posterity since it meant that Dürer could turn to other works and other media. On the wall close by, an exquisite small drawing of a procession (from Berlin) demonstrates how he could also work on a much smaller scale: ‘As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.’

Another famous Venetian, Giorgione, whose influence on Dürer has long been recognised, is represented with his remarkable Old Woman (from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). On Dürer’s two visits to Italy (in 1505–7; and earlier in 1494, though that visit is undocumented) he also came into contact with Giovanni Bellini and was particularly inspired by his portraits. In Dürer’s letters he writes of the great Venetian painter, now in old age, whom he felt was the only Italian who seemed to appreciate his artistic skills. He also boasts that when his Madonna del Rosario was completed for the church of San Bartolomeo at the Rialto, which served the German community in the city, both the Doge and the Patriarch came to see it. (When the church was renovated in 1610, the altarpiece was sold and is now in the National Gallery of Prague: it is sadly only represented in this exhibition by a copy—albeit a good one—made around the time it left Italy.)

The work chosen to represent the exhibition (and used on the cover of the catalogue) is Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, a small oil painting known to have been made during his stay in Venice in 1505 (lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). It is exhibited next to his beautiful large Portrait of a Peasant Woman (with a bashful smile), in charcoal and green wash, drawn in the same year (the notable creases may indicate that it was made on the artist’s way to Italy so that he had folded it up during the journey). Another portrait, of a young woman with a jewel hanging from her red beret, painted two years later, is just as beautiful, but it could be argued that these three works have little to do with Venetian portraiture except in their format. A small group of portraits painted against striking green backgrounds perhaps demonstrate a reciprocal influence (particularly the portrait of a young man in a black hat by the Bergamo painter Andrea Previtali and that of a similar subject by Dürer, both painted in Venice in 1506). The best work in this group, though, a portrait of a woman by Lorenzo Lotto, is far distant in atmosphere from Northern European portraiture.

Bizarre elements in Dürer’s oeuvre include engravings of a chained monkey depicted beside a Virgin and Child, and a faun in an idyllic setting with his (human) wife and child. His skill in watercolour is demonstrated by images of a huge crab and a duck (hanging by its beak).

The curators have been careful to keep strictly to the short period in which Dürer made his two presumed visits to Italy and this adds greatly to the interest of the exhibition. Much magnificent art was produced in these few years from 1490 to 1510, by Dürer and his contemporaries, and examples have been gathered together here from many different parts of Europe. It is doubtful that we will see again for many years so many outstanding examples of Dürer’s work in one place. An occasion not to be missed, especially as a visit provides the added advantage of its venue: Palazzo Reale in Piazza Duomo in Milan.

By Alta Macadam. Alta has just returned from a research trip to Milan for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes. She found the city vibrant and a wonderful place to visit, with much in progress on the contemporary front, new urban areas with innovative architecture, many museums opened in the last few years, and the historic ones (notably the Brera) keeping up with fresh ideas on display to increase the enjoyment of a visit. The new Blue Guide is due out at the end of 2018.

Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse

Detail from the 7th-century BG Mykonos Pithos (photo: Wikicommons).

When is a horse not a horse? Nowhere in the Iliad is it mentioned that the Greeks brought the ten-year siege to a successful conclusion by tricking the Trojans into towing into their city a large wooden horse in which sufficient Greek warriors had been hidden to create havoc and set fire to the town. Nevertheless, the Trojan Horse lives on as an established fact. Visitors to the site are provided with one to climb into—with improbably large windows (excellent for photo opportunities). There is another one in Çanakkale by the harbour. It was made for the 2004 movie and is beginning to show its age.

 

Artistic representations of the famous artefact are known from the 8/7th century BC. The tale does appear in the Odyssey, as well as in a couple of later Greek tragedies and then again in Virgil at the end of the 1st millennium BC. By then, doubts were being voiced. In his Natural History (7:202), Pliny the Elder clearly speaks of a battering ram and he is echoed later on by Pausanias (23:8–10). Battering rams and other siege engines were known in the Middle East from the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no evidence that they were ever used by the Mycenaeans. The Hittites did in the 17th century BC. Excavators have identified, in the relevant level of Troy VII (the Troy of the Trojan War), a stretch of wall damaged and hastily repaired. Battering rams could have a skeleton crew hidden under a cover of skins, ready to jump into the breach and scale the wall. So was the Trojan Horse in fact a Trojan ram? In the Homeric story, though, we get much more than just a sense of brute force. It is a tale of ruse and deceit, in which the Trojans are shown as hopelessly gullible victims of an inescapable fate. This has led to theories that involve no battering rams or huge siege engines, but simply the smuggling of warriors into the besieged city by trickery. At the siege of Joppa (now Jaffa) in the 15th century BC, the Egyptians managed to smuggle soldiers in in pithoi, huge clay jars supposedly full of grain (the same trick used by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves). But this does not explain the idea of the horse. Animal-shaped vessels are certainly common in Bronze-Age Anatolia, where they were used for libations. Sometimes they are on wheels. The late Bronze Age relief at the Alaca Hüyük entrance gate (the original is in the Museum of Civilisations in Ankara) shows a horse on wheels with a spout on its back. Unfortunately, neither its size nor its purpose are clear. It remains to be seen whether the Trojan Horse was a real object or a poetic invention conflating various traditions.

 

Extract from Paola Pugsley's Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum, to be published this spring.

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

 

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

 

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

 

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

 

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

A full official exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon, check the links below.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

12.03.2018
13:04

Pictures from Lake Maggiore

Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes is timetabled to appear at the end of this year. Here are some images from a recent research trip to Lake Maggiore.

The castle of Angera looms tall over the southern end of the lake. In the possession of the Borromeo family since the mid-15th century, it was once one of a pair of fortresses with the Rocca at Arona, on the opposite shore. Together they controlled the lake. Ferries connect the two towns. The Angera castle is open to visitors from March to October. The castle of Arona was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1800.

Arona’s castle may be no more but this town, with its pleasant waterfront, is a good place to see art in situ. The church of Santa Maria Nascente has a lovely early work (1511) by the native artist Gaudenzio Ferrari. The central panel of the Nativity is illustrated here (above left). Further up the lake in Cannobio is another, later altarpiece by Ferrari, of the Way to Calvary (illustrated above right).

The islands are one of Lake Maggiore’s most famous attractions. Isola Bella (illustrated above left) was laid out for Carlo III Borromeo over a period of 40 years (1631–71), with tiers of terraces built out onto the lake and filled with imported soil and exotic plants (as well as white peacocks). At night they are illuminated and form a truly extraordinary sight. The island, still owned by the Borromeo family, is open to visitors between late March and late October.

Isola dei Pescatori (illustrated right), once occupied by a hamlet of fishermen, is now mainly given over to tourism. It is extremely pretty from the water, accessible by regular boats, and offers some good places for lunch.

From the little town of Stresa, a cablecar takes you to the top of Mt Mottarone (1491m) via Alpino, where there is a botanic garden. The trip is highly recommended. The views from the summit are genuinely magnificent. On a clear day you can see a total of seven lakes. On hazy days, you are treated to a vista of layered mountain peaks.

Natural and man-made attractions around the lake include the deep and narrow gorge of the Orrido di Sant’Anna, behind Cannobio, crossed by a tiny hump-backed bridge and offering an excellent place to have lunch; and one of the loveliest of the famous ‘Holy Mountains’ of Piedmont, a cluster of chapels and shrines above Ghiffa. The ‘Sacri Monti’ were conceived during the period of the Counter-Reformation, as bastions of the Catholic faith as well as places for pilgrimage and meditation. The shrines and chapels typically house lively statue groups in painted terracotta. Illustrated here is the Baptism of Christ (1659), a composition made all the more effective by the fact that you can only glimpse it through a grille. The vivid blue eyes of Christ shine luminously in the semi-dark.

Pallanza, the west-facing part of Verbania, the largest town on the lake, is home, on its headland, to the famous Villa Taranto, with famous botanical gardens laid out by a retired Scottish army captain, Neil McEacharn (for more on him and his story, see here.

Many of the lakeside towns are graced with grand hotels and villas from the great age of northern European resort tourism in the 19th century. The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa opened in 1863 and has had many famous guests during the course of its existence, both in fact and in fiction (Ernest Hemingway uses it in A Farewell to Arms). Contemporary architecture has given Verbania the ‘Il Maggiore’ concert hall and events space (Salvador Pérez Arroyo, 2016).

08.03.2018
15:18

A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest

"Mrs Schiffer and her Daughters" by József Rippl-Rónai, now in the Hungarian National Gallery

On one of the leafy residential streets opening off Andrássy út, the great 19th-century radial boulevard of downtown Budapest, stands the Schiffer Villa, slightly ponderous and ungainly from the outside, but an extraordinary treasure trove within. Since the 1990s it has been the headquarters of the Hungarian Customs and Tax Authority: not in itself a great draw, perhaps, but they have laid out a museum on the subject on the first and second floors and access is free of charge.

 

The house, in a late Secessionist style, was built in 1910–12 by József Vágó for the wealthy railway magnate and patron of the arts Miksa Schiffer, who lived here with his wife and four daughters. Vágó designed both the exterior (inspired by Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels) and the interior furnishings; the result is a Gesamtkunstwerk in the manner of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Detail of the stained glass window in the central hall.

Beautiful stained glass with a repeated pattern of swallows allows light to filter into the entrance lobby. From here, you go up steps into the main hall, the centrepiece of the villa. At the top of the steps is a statue of a seated male nude, part of the original furnishings. There was formerly a marble fountain in the middle of the floor (bronze statuettes belonging to it are now in the Hungarian National Gallery). To the right, between the doors (which are inlaid with beautiful wood and mother-of-pearl marquetry), is a Carrara marble jardinière borne on stout yellow columns and decorated with carved reliefs of male and female nudes. The walls are clad in deep green Zsolnay tiles picked out with red studs in imitation of rivets. A tall window completely fills the left wall, its stained-glass panels (reproductions) designed by Károly Kernstok and showing women and children in a pastoral, Elysian setting. The aim of the villa’s entire design was to show how art can lift mankind heavenwards.

Marquetry work on one of the interior doors
Schiffer's monogram on a doorhandle

There is lovely stained glass in all the rooms on the main floor, much of it continuing the theme of bird life. Some of the door handles still bear Miksa Schiffer’s ‘SM’ monogram. Archive photographs show the villa as it appeared in Schiffer’s day. The large painting that hung in the study, Summer by Béla Iványi Grünwald, and another that hung in the main salon, a famous work by József Rippl-Rónai showing Mrs Schiffer and her daughters in the garden of their summer villa, are both now in the Hungarian National Gallery.

Wooden stairs lead up to a gallery overlooking the main hall. In Mrs Schiffer’s former bedroom, above where her bed once stood, hangs a copy of István Csók’s Spring, which features girls in diaphanous pink gowns under a blossom-laden cherry tree. The original has survived and hangs in the National Gallery. Csók, a lover of bright colour, had studied in Paris, as indeed had all the artists whose work is featured here. Csók was influenced mainly by the Impressionists, Kernstok by the Fauves, Rippl-Rónai by the Nabis (in fact he was one of their number, le nabi hongrois). Iványi Grünwald, who had gone to Paris together with Csók, went on to become a founder member of Hungary’s Nagybánya school of plein-air painting, in 1896.

 

The customs and excise and tax-collection exhibits (captions also in English) are interesting and include material on smuggling and its detection. One curiosity among the confiscated items is a bottle of an unidentified spirit in which floats a huge cobra with a scorpion in its mouth.

 

Blue Guide Budapest will be published in April

István Csók's "Spring", once in Mrs Schiffer's bedroom (designed to fit around her bed-head), now in the Hungarian National Gallery

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