The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?

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

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper. John Murray, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo

by Charles Freeman

At the end of a recent tour of Friuli in October, I asked members of my group what they had enjoyed most, High on the list were the Tiepolos in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine. Commissioned in the 1720s by the Patriarch of Aquileia, Dionisio Dolfin, member of an aristocratic Venetian family, they were designed to highlight the link between the Patriarch and the patriarchs of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps the two finest works are Rachel hiding the idols from her father, Laban, and The Judgement of Solomon. Their state of preservation is remarkable.

The Judgement of Solomon (1726), fresco in the Patriarchal Palace of Udine. The subject was a popular choice of decoration for public buildings which also served as law courts.

Tiepolo was still young, just thirty, when he began his commission, but already his work is assured. The colours are rich, the soaring perspectives painted with the confidence that was to stay with him throughout his Europe-wide career. He always comes across to me as someone who loved painting for its own sake, not as a means of sorting out some internal angst.

So it was frustrating to arrive at our next destination, the vast Villa Manin, and to find that we were a few weeks too early to see the majestic Tiepolo exhibition that opened there on 15 December (and lasts until 7 April). It is open every day, even on the afternoon of Christmas day (further information and booking on the Villa Manin website).

The exhibition boasts a wide scope. There are works from Venice and the villas of the Venetian countryside, where Tiepolo spent much of his life, many of which have been brought back from the galleries as far flung as new York, Montreal, Helsinki and Stockholm. Several of the canvases are enormous—luckily the central rooms of the Villa Manin can take them—together with the preparatory drawings for them. So the vast canvas (7m by 4m) of St Thecla freeing the city of Este from the plague, from Este cathedral (completed in 1759 in commemoration of a plague of 1638) is there together with the preparatory study now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The opportunity has been taken to restore the canvas: in fact there is a sense of opulent generosity about this exhibition that is far removed from the austerity that is afflicting so many Italian archaeological sites at the moment.

The exhibition is linked to the Patriarchal Palace in Udine and the Sartorio Museum in Trieste, which contains a fine cache of Tiepolo drawings. So the show promises a true feast for those who find themselves drawn to an artist who is perhaps the finest Italian painter of the 18th century.

Udine and Friuli are covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy. Charles Freeman is historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”

by Alta Macadam

A study in oil for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous lost mural of the Battle of Anghiari, which he began in the first years of the 16th century for a wall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, opposite a scene of another victorious battle commissioned from Michelangelo (but never executed), has recently been identified by the Italian police in charge of recuperating works of art stolen from Italy, especially works stolen during the Second World War. In 1621 the work entered the collection of the famous patrician Roman family the Doria (who also had possessions in Genoa). In 1940 it was stolen from Naples, and it is now known that since then it turned up in Switzerland, Germany, and even New York before it was acquired in good faith by the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. This museum has now lent it to Italy and it is currently on show in Rome at the Quirinal, the palace of the President of the Republic. In January it will probably be sent to the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence for a year or so, but will then return to Japan (although it will be allowed back to Italy for certain periods). Scholars have therefore been given the chance to examine it and decide if it is by the hand of Leonardo himself or whether it is a 16th-century copy by an anonymous Tuscan painter (and so similar to other copies of this date which have survived, one of which, also showing the struggle to take possession of the battle standard, is preserved in Palazzo Vecchio itself). It is known that the two huge cartoons (chalk drawings on paper) of the battle scenes, made by Leonardo and Michelangelo, were much studied by their contemporaries before being lost or irreparably damaged.

This event, which has been given much publicity in the Italian press, comes soon after the investigations carried out by National Geographic in Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone dei Cinquecento to see if anything at all remains of Leonardo’s famous work, which he left unfinished. The completed part was painted with an unsuccessful technique so that it very soon all but disappeared, and the wall was ssbsequently painted over . The long-drawn-out investigations aroused some controversy, and did not result in any interesting finds. The project was halted a few months ago.

So the chance to see the ‘Tavola Doria’ again in Italy, after all these years in which it had quite disappeared, is all the more satisfying.

In praise of Venice’s water transport system

by Alta Macadam

After spending many weeks in Venice preparing the text for a new edition of Blue Guide Venice (out next year), I feel moved to sing the praises of the remarkable transport system run by ACTV in the city and the lagoon. Despite the huge number of passengers involved, the service is amazingly efficient and there is excellent electronic information supplied at the landing stages, telling you when the next boat is due. Although a single ticket is very expensive, there are numerous passes which give you free travel on the entire system for a certain number of days, and the season tickets for those who stay longer are extremely good value.

As an approach to Venice and all its wonders, nothing can be compared to the leisurely trip on vaporetto no. 1, all the way down the Grand Canal from the railway station at one end to the basin of San Marco at the other. It is only like this that you can appreciate the uniqueness of the city, see some of its greatest buildings to their full advantage from the water, and understand how the city functions with its myriad forms of water transport, from boats propelled by oars (gondolas to sandoli),through barges of all shapes and sizes, to motor boats. In addition, it provides the visitor with a glimpse into the way of life of the Venetians. For this reason the Blue Guide—ever since its first edition in 1957—has reserved a whole chapter exclusively to a description of the Grand Canal as seen from this vaporetto:  the left bank from the station to San Marco and the right bank from San Marco to the station.

Those who work on the ACTV boats are all trained sailors from the Italian navy, and one never ceases to wonder at the skill and efficient aplomb with which the boats are docked at every landing stage. The sailors always attend to the unloading of their passengers with great care and kindness, giving their arm to the elderly or infirm (extended to everyone on days of particularly rough water) or helping mothers carry off their prams. They always step off the boat before the passengers to make sure the vessel is securely moored and usually like to announce, with a flourish, the name of the stop as they do so for those on board, and then the name of the destination for those about to board (and at this point they are always patiently ready to give the added explanations unprepared visitors usually require). It is also fun to observe, even in the most crowded boats full of tourists, how the Venetians stand out for their elegant dress and way of greeting each other, and their quickened step the moment they set foot on the landing-stage as they leave the boat. You can often catch visitors almost mesmerized by these rituals as the boat proceeds on its way.

The design of the larger vaporetti has remained virtually unchanged and there is usually a small area where you can sit outside (now almost always in the stern). Although officially they can carry a maximum of around 200 passengers, their capacity seems limitless, and when very crowded everyone seems faintly amused  to feel the boat sink lower and lower into the water as it moves off at a more sedate pace. The ability of manoeuvre by the pilots is astonishing, especially in the crowded traffic on the Grand Canal, where they always manage to give right of way to the gondolas, how ever many of them cross their bows. And after San Marco, they always accelerate and steer out into the basin of San Marco making a wide loop in the water before returning to the quayside at San Zaccaria, simply in order to avoid disturbing the many gondolas moored on the molo at the Piazzetta. But this is always an exhilarating moment in the trip and the chance to catch the best view of all of the Doge’s Palace and the Piazzetta, with the domes of San Marco conspicuous behind.

Whenever you suddenly get tired of walking in Venice it is always worth finding the nearest vaporetto stop. There is nothing more enjoyable than taking a restful boat trip, for the joy of the ride and the wonderful views. Some of best lines are those that serve the many stops on the wide Giudecca canal; the ones that follow the Cannaregio canal out to the Fondamente Nuove on the edge of the northern lagoon; and the ones that leave from the Riva degli Schiavoni for Sant’Elena and San Pietro di Castello on the eastern edge of the city, where you get a unique view of the extensive dry docks of the Arsenale, and where the boat now calls (on request) at the island of Certosa. And then there is the truly wonderful trip (still for the price of a single ticket) via Murano out to Mazzorbo and Burano, where you get the ferry (for no extra fare) across to the remote island of Torcello. This is by far the best way (and the cheapest) of exploring that evocative part of the lagoon, but unfortunately since this ACTV service starts at the Fondamente Nuove, I suspect that the private motor launches which offer tourist excursions to Burano and Torcello from the quayside nearer San Marco often get more custom. Another real bargain is the no. 11 bus service, still offered by ACTV, which runs to the southern tip of the Lido. You then stay on the bus as it boards the ferry across the channel to the island of Pellestrina. After that, the bus takes you the whole length of that island and terminates beside the connecting passenger ferry which continues to Chioggia, where you arrive about an hour and a half later.

The small ACTV motorboat which provides a regular service from near San Zaccaria to the Armenian community on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, just a short distance beyond the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, also calls at San Servolo, where you can get off and have a walk in its walled garden. The view on the return journey, of all the domes of the churches on the Giudecca canal, of the Salute and of San Marco, is spectacular. There are other regular services from Fondamente Nuove to the more remote inhabited islands, very rarely visited, of Le Vignole and Sant’Erasmo. On request, these stop at the Lazzaretto Nuovo, open to visitors by appointment (when you wish to call the boat to get back to Venice, you activate a ‘traffic light’ at the landing stage).

It has to be admitted that there are also some mysteries attached to ACTV. The numbering system of the vaporetti and motoscafi changes every few years, for reasons that are difficult to fathom: in the last few years, for instance, the 51 and 41 and 52 and 42 (which do the circular route in each direction via Murano) have become 5.1. and 4.1. and 5.4 and 4.2. The services to Burano and Torcello have been given completely new numbers. And as for the special summer services, including thevaporetti to the Lido, which take crowds of Venetians there for a swim on hot days, it is never clear what number they will have (nor, in some cases, which route they will take). You can also sometimes be perplexed about the validity of your ticket (all of them last for one hour, so you can use the same ticket if you change boat—but only if it is going in the same direction!). Even if you have a valid pass or season ticket, you are now asked to present your ticket to the machines before you board (although it seems that many Venetians, all with their special passes, quietly refuse to adhere to these new regulations).

Innovations in recent years include illuminated electronic signs in the cabin, showing which stop is coming up next, and also, rather more obtrusively (but usually only in operation in high season) recorded messages in both Italian and English (I once heard a Venetian mother repeating “next stop” to her child, to teach it a little English). The Rialto markets have been given a vaporetto stop for the first time, and the San Marco stop now has a grand new floating shelter which facilitates the flow of tourists (even though many Venetians have complained that it is too big and blocks the view of the Salute from that side of the Grand Canal). A ‘vaporetto dell’arte’ has been introduced at certain times of year, which costs considerably more than a normal vaporetto but which has the advantage that you can get on and off as you wish, and which at present is never crowded. This is particularly helpful to the elderly or those confined to wheelchairs (although of course vaporetti are one of the very easiest forms of transport for wheelchairs).

The transport system has to deal not only with the enormous crowds of visitors at certain times of year, but also the problems of ever more frequent acque alte (flood tides), when some of the services have to be suspended because they can’t get under the bridges, and even the winter fogs which can make navigation treacherous, so that some lines have to be cancelled. But despite all this, ACTV remains to my mind one of the great Venetian institutions, which facilitates a visit to the city in so many ways. It deserves the support and gratitude of all those who go to Venice.

The Red Rooms at the Uffizi

A swift tour of the Uffizi’s newly-opened Red Rooms by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Sale Rosse are a suite of nine rooms (nos 56–66) on the piano nobileof the Uffizi, opened in June this year. They are marked on this plan on the Uffizi website (which also takes you on a virtual tour). The rooms display some ancient Roman sculpture and Florentine paintings from the early 16th century, most of which was formerly displayed elsewhere in the gallery.They overlook the courtyard and have large windows providing excellent lighting. Each room has a bright red wall (hiding the climate control apparatus) on which the most important works are displayed (perhaps not an ideal solution). Labelling is kept to a minimum.

The first room (56), the only one entirely painted crimson, has an impressive display of early-Imperial Roman replicas of famous Hellenistic sculptures. They include a marble replica of the Capitoline Spinario, the Farnese Hercules, and the Gaddi torso. They have been exhibited here to underline the influence that they had on Florentine painters of the early 16th century (pointed out by Vasari), notably Andrea del Sarto, whose works are hung in the first two rooms. His three chiaroscuro scenes, on show for the first time, show his skill and interest in representing the Classical style. His Madonna of the Harpies, with its carved Roman base, is also a direct citation of ancient Rome, and other altarpieces by him are displayed in the same room, as well as his delightful portrait of a young lady with a book of Petrarch (formerly displayed in the Tribuna). Room 59 has Domenico Puligo’s splendid portrait of Pietro Carnesecchi, a male portrait by Franciabigio, and three scenes by Bachiacca.

Rosso Fiorentino is for the first time given a room to himself (60), although the extraordinarily powerful Moses defending the daughters of Jethro from the shepherds is still only attributed to him. His endlessly reproduced Angel Musician is in fact only a fragment, and the portraits displayed here are only tentatively attributed to him; it is suggested that one of them may be by Giovanni di Lorenzo Larciani, who also painted the exquisite little Allegory of Fortune hung here. Portraits by Pontormo in Room 61 include his well-known (posthumous) portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio, dressed from head to foot in crimson, which used to hang in the Tribuna, and his very fine portrait of Maria Salviati, who was his contemporary and the mother of Cosimo I (b. 1519). Maria was widowed at the age of 27 and devoutly dressed as a nun for the rest of her life, hence her portrayal as such here. Her tomb in the Medici Chapels, and that of her husband, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, have been investigated this month in an attempt to solve the mystery of Giovanni’s death: it seems his foot was amputated following a battle-wound but he died shortly afterwards of septicaemia). Two other lovely portraits hung here were formerly atttributed to Pontormo:  the woman with a basket full of spindles by Andrea del Sarto, and the musician by the much less well known Pier Francesco di Jacopo Foschi.

Pontormo: portrait of the widowed Maria Salviati, mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici

Rooms 64 and 65 display all the great Medici family portraits by Bronzino, which include his masterpieces, most of which were formerly in the Tribuna. Here they can be seen in a far better light and in all their glory. Amongst them are the newly restored refined portraits of Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia, fittingly displayed on either side of the “Panciatichi” Holy Family. Eleanor of Toledo, in a splendid velvet dress with her son Giovanni, is shown in a very sophisticated work, whereas the delightful young Medici children are portrayed in much more natural poses. A bizarre note is struck with the full-length nude portrait of the dwarf Morgante: it is displayed in the centre of Room 65 as it is amusingly painted both on the front and the back.

The last room (66) has a superb group of paintings by the greatest master of this period, Raphael. His famous portrait of the first Medici pope, Leo X, with his two cousins whom he created cardinals, hangs beside his self-portrait and his court portraits of the Gonzaga and Della Rovere. But perhaps the most memorable painting of all in this set of rooms is his famous Madonna del Cardellino (“Madonna of the Goldfinch”), which was spectacularly restored a few years ago.

Raphael: Madonna del Cardellino (1506)