The Twenty-day Sultan

To be a sultan even for only twenty days is an achievement. Cem Sultan paid for it for the rest of his life. Here is his story.

Born the third son of Fatih Sultan Mehmet (the conqueror of Constantinople), Cem could style himself as ‘porphyrogenitus’, being born when his father was an emperor, unlike his two brothers Beyazıt and Mustafa (the latter of whom died soon after and is not part of the story). According to Ottoman tradition, princes were sent out to the provinces while still very young, to learn the ropes. Cem was made governor of Kastamonou at the tender age of five. He took up residence there with his mother, his tutor (his lala) and his court. Later he was promoted to Konya and it was there that he learned of the death of his father. Not yet fifty, Sultan Mehmet had probably died of exhaustion. Already a ruler at twelve, deposed at fourteen and reinstated at nineteen, he went on to conquer Constantinople two years later, embarking afterwards on non-stop wars of conquest in the Balkans and Anatolia. He literally had been burning the candle at both ends.

Mehmet left no arrangements for his succession, which may appear strange since he was well aware of the dangers of civil war. On his accession he had had his one baby brother drowned (or strangled—both methods acceptable as long as Muslim blood was not shed) ‘for the sake of public order’ and had the practice codified in law. The Turco-Mongol tradition leaves to God the choice of ruler from among the males of a specific bloodline. Anyone interfering would be subverting divine will, which equals heresy. But how does God manifest his choice? By granting favour (kut), i.e. the claimant who could maintain himself on the throne could claim divine support. The tradition did not recognise primogeniture of any other form of seniority.

After Mehmet’s death, it was Cem who won the first round. He got himself to Bursa, seized the treasury, minted coins in his own name and was Sultan for twenty days. This was as much time as Beyazıt needed to move from Amasya, where he was governor, gather his troops (the Jannissaries had declared for him) and beat Cem soundly at Yenişehir. Cem fled for his life with his immediate family, all the way to Egypt. While plotting further action, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca (the only Ottoman sultan to have done so) and proposed to Beyazıt that they split the empire. He would rule Anatolia while Beyazıt would control Rumelia, the European provinces. Beyazıt’s answer was unequivocal: absolute power could not be split. ‘Sultans do not have a family’ he said, setting the tone for future Ottoman autocracy.

One last attempt at seizing Konya ended in disaster and Cem had to flee again. This time he did not go to Egypt, where he had left his family, but to Rhodes, the piece of European soil within easiest reach. He was acquainted, moreover, with the local rulers, the Knights of St John, with whom he had been instrumental in negotiating a settlement after his father’s failed attempt to conquer the island. The Order of St John embodied a mixture of military, political, religious aspirations: assisting pilgrims to the Holy Land, checking the advance of the Turks, flying the flag of Catholic Christianity in the East. Cem calculated that the Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’Aubusson, who lived in Rhodes, would be able to help him gather European support in his quest for justice, or at least a share of the Empire. At the same time, however, d’Aubusson was in touch with Beyazıt, who was geographically his near neighbour and with whom he had to find a modus vivendi. The result of the negotiations was that d’Aubusson would keep Cem well—and well out of the way—and in return the Sultan would maintain friendly relations with Rhodes and help with an annual contribution of 40,000 gold pieces towards Cem’s upkeep. It is difficult to put a modern figure on this sum of money, sometimes described as ducats or florins, but it was certainly a good deal, well in excess of Cem’s needs. There was enough left over to improve the fortifications of Rhodes and later to tempt the greed of a pope (see below).

The Disputation of St Catherine by Pinturicchio, in the Borgia Rooms in the Vatican (1492–5). The figure of St Catherine has long been rumoured to be a portrait of Pope Alexander VI’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia. The young man in the turban is thought to be Cem. Photo ©BlueGuides

Cem, on the other hand, had completely different ideas. He pictured himself at the head of a European coalition to stop the Turks—or at least one particular Turk, his brother. In this he intended to enlist the support of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. One has to bear in mind that the Hungarian kingdom had historically reached far beyond the Danube and that it had felt Ottoman pressure right from the beginning. Cem was counting on d’Aubusson to help him make contact with the King of France, gain his support and ensure a safe passage to Hungary.

And so to France! Cem left Rhodes (without his family, who remained in Egypt) with a suite of forty or so ‘companions’; a concubine Almeida, constituting a harem of one; a number of Turkish slaves purchased at the thriving slave market in Rhodes; and an unspecified following of spies and agents sent on the orders of Venice, of the Sultan and of anyone else interested in this up-and-coming ‘hot property’. As a prince of Ottoman blood, pretender to the throne, Cem had become just that.

The passage to the French Mediterranean coast was uneventful, but Cem and his retinue could not land in Toulon because of plague. The company opted instead for Nice, then in the Duchy of Savoy. Here they were accommodated in the castle, on a rocky outcrop between the harbour and what is now the Promenade des Anglais. Cem spent his time waiting for things to happen and whiling away his time with a pet monkey who could play chess and a parrot who could recite suras of the Koran.

Things began to move again in 1483. The party progressed through Piedmont, crossing the Montcenis pass in winter, and arrived in Chamonix to meet the Duke of Savoy, a lad of just fourteen. There was still no sign of the French king, nor of his envoys, nor of the passport to Hungary. This was due not so much to lack of cooperation from the king as to the fact that he had not apparently been informed. D’Aubusson was clearly intending to keep his side of the bargain with Sultan Beyazıt, to keep Cem ‘well out of the way’, to all intents and purposes a prisoner. This was the reason behind the detour into Piedmont, where the knights could count on secure accommodation in their various commanderies (fortified buildings).

From Chamonix the way was due northwest, to d’Aubusson country, la France profonde, skirting the Grand Chartreuse massif into the Auvergne and beyond into the Creuse around Limoges. Accommodation was always in some form of defended outpost (Rochechinard, Monteil-au-Vicomte, Poët-Laval etc), which can still be identified though most are in a sorry state today. Along the way, romantic attachments with various châtelaines have entered local lore. And Cem was not the only male in his party. There were his companions as well as an unspecified number of Turkish slaves. Talk of large-scale DNA testing, searching for potential kinship links, has come to nothing so far.

In 1484 at Bourganeuf, 40km east of Limoges, Cem and his company were offered accommodation in a château at the centre of the fortified village belonging to d’Aubusson himself and where his sister was living at the time. On the pretext that the rooms were unsuitable, but in reality fearing kidnap or the flight of the prisoner, it was decided to build new, secure accommodation while housing Cem and company nearby. More removals, more disruptions. The building process took two years. There can be no doubt that the tower known locally as the Tour Zizim (apparently from Cem’s childhood nickname, or perhaps because the local people could not pronounce his name properly) was effectively a prison: a seven-storey building accessed via a walkway from another tower of the castle. The first opening was 10m off the ground. The tower can be visited. Inside, the seven floors connected by a central spiral staircase included (from the bottom): a cellar, kitchen and stores; the companions’ accommodation; Cem’s own apartment on two storeys, with his harem above it (still a one-person harem); guards on the top floor and more guards on the roof. Rumours of a hamam are unconfirmed. Here Cem stayed for two years and three months. Not so Almeida, who killed herself.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, things had moved on. When the King of Hungary died the focus of a crusade moved to Rome, to Pope Innocent VIII. Negotiations produced the expected result. D’Aubusson got his cardinal’s hat and relinquished Cem and his appanage, who were taken into custody by the pope. In the spring of 1489, Cem and his suite were moved to Rome where he was lodged in the Vatican, occupying the floor above the pope’s apartment in the Apostolic Palace, overlooking the Cortile del Pappagallo. From Mantegna’s correspondence (he was working in the Palazzo del Belvedere) we get an unflattering description of a moody, alien character.

Beyazıt then made a new arrangement with the pope. Not only would the sultan continue to pay the very generous pension, in exchange for which Cem would be ‘kept well and well out of the way’, but as a sweetener he added a relic, the metal point of the spear that had wounded the Saviour on the Cross. Istanbul was awash with relics and the Turks soon realised their bargaining power with the Christian West. Alas, this particular relic proved ineffective in dealing with Innocent’s health problems and he died in 1492. Even so, the item figures prominently in his left hand in his tomb monument by Antonio Pollaiolo, which can be admired in St Peter’s.

There is no evidence that Cem was free to come and go as he pleased in Rome, but perhaps it was more appealing than a prison-tower in the middle of nowhere in France. Mantegna’s testimony, though, may suggest bouts of depression.

When Innocent died, Cem graduated to a tighter regime during the conclave. He was still ‘hot property’ and was confined to a tower for the duration of the conclave. Worse was to come. The new pope was a Borgia, Alexander VI. He was determined to use Cem for his schemes, which included a crusade. It never materialised, partly because of disagreements among the perspective participants, chief among them Venice, who was to have supplied the vessels but was very unwilling to upset relationships with the Porte at a time when the Serenissima was trading happily with the infidels in spite of the papal prohibition.

In the meantime the French king, Charles VIII, had decided to act upon his claim to the throne of Naples and in 1494 crossed the Alps to claim his due. Cem this time ended up with the pope himself in Castel Sant’Angelo, the one-time mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian later turned into a fortress. In spite of his determination to hang on to his precious hostage, Pope Alexander had to surrender him to the French king, who also had the same ill-defined ambition of a crusade. It was a difficult time for the Borgias as they were short of money and Beyazıt’s subsidy was quite handy.

Cem just made it to Naples and died in Castel Capuano, at that time the residence of the King of Naples, who was currently in exile. This was a blow for the French king and his ambitions. In the end his mad cavalcade from Paris to Naples came to nothing and he went back home—though not empty-handed. In his train were 43 tons of booty: carpets, tapestries, books, marbles, furniture, the bronze doors of Castel Nuovo and even a set of stained-glass windows. Not all of it made it to France, notably the doors, one of which was used as a shield in a naval battle and was hit by a cannon ball that is still embedded in it. They were sent back to Naples where they can still be admired.

By 1498 the French king was dead and buried. Things were not so simple for Cem, who had died in February 1495 but had still not been buried in the way that Beyazıt wanted, i.e. with the actual body, very publicly in the Empire, to make sure that every citizen knew that the claimant to the throne was truly dead. The problem was twofold. First it was necessary to ensure that the body was really Cem’s. To that effect his two last companions were tasked to guard it day and night. They had already embalmed it, burying the entrails in the garden of Castel Capuano, and then wrapped it in an emergency shroud, in this case one of their turbans.

The lead coffin now awaited transport to Istanbul but that was not so easy. The last thing the Italians wanted to see were Turkish vessels cruising off their shores. The occupation of Otranto by Mehmet Fatih in 1480–81 was still fresh in everyone’s memory. In the end the transport was organised by the King of Naples: overland to Lecce, across the Adriatic to Valona and then by land to Istanbul. Cem was buried in 1499 with full honours in Bursa alongside his brother Mustafa. The surviving companions were rewarded. There is no mention of what became of the parrot and the monkey.

At 35 Cem had spent seven years and two months in France and six years and two months in Italy, in something very close to captivity in unfamiliar surroundings, away from his family and without advancing his cause an inch. If depression and frustration can kill, this would be a textbook case. The curse extended to his progeny. When Sultan Suleiman conquered Rhodes in 1522, he sought out Cem’s son Murat (now a Christian by the name of Niccolò) and had him killed. According to some he may have killed Murat’s son as well, unless the young man had already decamped to Malta, where the Knights of St John had moved. The curse of the Ottoman blood was apparently unforgiving.

by Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, was published in 2020.

Donatello. The Renaissance

The simplicity of the title of this marvellous exhibition (open until 31 July at Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello in Florence) prepares us for the presence of a series of masterpieces by the greatest Western sculptor of all time. On show in two Florence venues, there are loans from all over the world, especially from the V&A in London. Some of the works have just been restored while others are in the process of restoration. The decision was taken to exhibit some of the statues much higher than usual, following documentation about their original pedestals, or quite simply by looking at their stance.

Equestrian statue by Donatello of the Venetian mercenary general Gattamelata (1453). Mounted on an exceptionally high base, outside the Basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padua, it was the first large-scale monumental bronze to be cast since ancient times. Donatello perhaps studied the 4th-century BC bronze horse’s head pictured below when creating this masterpiece.

The exhibition gives us a unique opportunity to see up close some bronzes Donatello carried out for the baptistery font in Siena and for the high altar of the Basilica of Sant’Antonio (the ‘Santo’) in Padua. For the hexagonal font in Siena, six gilded bronze panels were commissioned from different Tuscan masters: two from Ghiberti, two from Turino di Sano and his son, and two from Jacopo della Quercia. But in 1423 Jacopo asked Donatello to take on one of his scenes, the Banquet of Herod. This has just been restored in Florence and is exhibited here before being returned to Siena. In the dramatic scene with the Baptist’s severed head presented at the table, it is fascinating to see all Donatello’s innovative details and his use of extraordinary architectural perspective (derived from Brunelleschi). It at once overshadowed the panels by all the other sculptors.

Three works in bronze have been removed from their setting, especially for this exhibition, from Donatello’s famous high altar of the Santo in Padua. When in situ in the dark sanctuary they are very difficult to see. The Miracle of the Mule (one of the miracles performed by St Anthony, to whom the Santo basilica is dedicated) shows a mule owned by a non-believer showing the way to Christ by kneeling in front of the Host. This charming scene is in quite a different spirit to the life-size Crucifix(the technical difficulties overcome by Donatello in creating this work in bronze, unique for its size in the 15th century, are described in the catalogue). Not content to show just the drama of Christ on the Cross, he gives a delicate flick to the loin cloth, as if caught in a gust of wind. The third work on show from the Padua altar is a relief of Christ as the Man of Sorrows.

Marble reliefs by Donatello using his famous ‘schiacciato’ technique are displayed throughout the exhibition, culminating in the last room at the Bargello, which celebrates the ‘Dudley’ Madonna (so named because it was acquired by the V&A from the Dudley family in 1927, although we know it was once in Cosimo I’s study in Florence). This tiny work, thought to date from c. 1440, was only recognized as being by Donatello’s hand around 1992. It had an extraordinary influence on generations of artists, including Leonardo (represented by a drawing from the British Museum) and Michelangelo (his famous relief, recently restored, from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence). It is not always easy to see a direct influence in all twelve works displayed here, but the very fine painting by Artemisia Gentileschi demonstrates an affinity with the marble panel at late as the 17th century.

Much attention has been given to works in terracotta, a medium frequently used in Antiquity but which only came back into favour with sculptors in the first years of the 15th century. The curators have exhibited a number of Madonna reliefs in terracotta, some of them painted, which they believe to be by Donatello’s own hand and which show his early interest in terracotta. They write amusingly that they are fully expecting scholars to contest these new attributions. The majestic Madonna with a playful Christ Child from the Museo Bardini in Florence, and always recognized as by the master, stands out above the others for its remarkable beauty.

Donatello clearly enjoyed experimenting with media other than bronze and terracotta: he even used pietro macigno in three of his works, one of which, his genial Marzocco lion with an almost human face, guards the ‘entrance’ to the exhibition in the Bargello. The name Marzocco, apparently used since the Middle Ages to denote the protector of the city, has mysterious origins. It was originally intended to sit on a column.

There is a room of Donatello’s bronze ‘spiritelli’, or what we now usually call putti. These winged nude children are also familiar from Antique sarcophagi. The most beautiful of these are the small-scale dancing figures – perhaps the one dancing on a scallop shell (from the Bargello) is the most memorable for its joyful grace. Some of these small bronzes used to be taken for Antique works.

Almost all Donatello’s most famous contemporaries are represented, even if only with one work: Luca della Robbia, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Brunelleschi, Fra’ Angelico, Andrea del Castagno. But there are also works by the far less famous, including Nanni di Bartolo, who is here recognised as the author of the statue of a prophetin the Florence Duomo (which up to now has usually been attributed to Donatello). Bertoldo di Giovanni, one of Donatello’s most devoted pupils, is also re-evaluated: the lovely bronze bust of a young philosopher in the Bargello is now recognized as his work and not that of Donatello. A drawing from the Ashmolean of four soldiers (one of which is a direct copy from Donatello’s St George) is touching evidence that Raphael was in Florence at the age of 20 when he came to the city to study her works of art.

In the last room in Palazzo Strozzi is the astonishing sight of a huge horse’s head from Naples (much larger than life-size), until recently considered a Classical work but now attributed to Donatello and thought to have been made for an equestrian monument that was never carried out. It was owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who donated it to the court of Naples. The sculptor would have been proud to see it displayed beside a magnificent horse’s head of c. 340 BC, one of the least-known treasures in Florence’s archaeological museum but perhaps the most important ancient bronze in the city. Scholars believe it must have been seen in the Medici palace by both Verrocchio and Donatello before working on their equestrian statues in Venice and Padua.

Ancient bronze horse’s head of the 4th century BC, from the Museo Archeologico in Naples. It is thought that Donatello was familiar with this work and that he drew on it for his equestrian statue of Gattamelata in Padua pictured above.

The catalogue, although expensive, is full of interest. Once again, as in so many art historical contexts, it is interesting to note that Vasari is still taken as a fundamental source when describing works of art and their history.

This is an exhibition not to be missed.

By Alta Macadam. For descriptions of the places in Italy with works by Donatello see Blue Guide Florence, Blue Guide Venice & the Veneto, Blue Guide Central Italy. Alta Macadam is currently at work on a new edition of Blue Guide Venice.

After the frescoes: the rise and fall (and rise) of Ephesus

Visitors touring Ephesus might easily end their visit at the Terraced Houses, with their beautiful frescoes and opulent marble floors. The degree of preservation is stunning. Left to the elements frescoes do not survive undamaged to such a height but as there is no trace of immediate reconstruction as such, one is left to wonder how and why they were protected. Taphonomy (the way artefacts are accrued to the archaeological record) can shed light on the process.

The destructive event is dated to around AD 620, an act either of human aggression (the Sassanids) or a natural disaster (earthquake)—or indeed both. The damage was terminal: the houses were not repaired but nor was the site abandoned. A quick backfill followed and the location was terraced again, at an unspecified time, and occupied by a long narrow building, apparently used for storage. This is Late Antiquity, a time when archaeological evidence becomes quite scarce. Buildings, generally speaking, were flimsier constructions, while early excavators looking for solid Roman and Greek solid stonework tended to clear the surface of any later structure, skimp on recording and sometimes publish nothing. From this period on, archaeology is greatly assisted by historians—eminent among them Clive Foss—who have pondered over any available documentation from archives to travellers’ accounts, to graffiti, to piece together Ephesus’s trajectory from the fateful event in the early 7th century to about 1,000 years later, when the great metropolis truly died.

The next two centuries are in many respects a black hole, but one thing is clear: Ephesus regrouped and took a fateful decision. Defence came to the fore. Ephesus received a new set of walls that halved the size of the city, leaving out the whole of the Embolos and both agoras. All efforts were concentrated on the Harbour. The wall, 4m thick (squared stones filled with rubble), ran from the Harbour to the Theatre, along the Arcadian Way and up to the Stadium, and then back to the Harbour.

Map of ancient Ephesus, showing the new walls that cut the ancient city in half. The locations of the Temple of Artemis and Basilica of St John, to the north and northeast, are indicated.

About a mile to the northeast, the barren hill known to the Byzantines as Helibaton (‘The Steep One’), where Justinian had built the grand basilica dedicated to St John the Apostle in about the mid-6th century, another Ephesus had developed, cashing in on the pilgrimage trade. St John had apparently died here and his grave lay beneath the altar. In addition to this, there was the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, a holy site for pagans, Christians and Muslims alike. And there was always the passing trade of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.

Helibaton, according to the archaeology, was not settled at the time; it was used as a necropolis, the oldest grave being Mycenaean. So, how come its fortune changed? Procopius, the contemporary historian, states very clearly that there was no water. One has to conclude that the aqueduct that made settlement possible dates roughly to the time of the grandiose church, another mark of imperial favour. A wall was built to defend the settlement, using spolia from earlier structures both nearby (the Temple of Artemis) and far away (the Stadium). In these new circumstances, Ephesus fared better than contemporary Sardis (a fortress and some villages) and Pergamon (a small fort). That was certainly the impression of Bishop Willibald, who visited on his way to the Holy Land in 721. After the great havoc of the Arab incursions, the ravages of the plague and other afflictions such as civic unrest, our bishop found Ephesus the capital of a thema (a Byzantine military and administrative district), functioning although diminished. In addition to trade, Ephesus had always had a rich and productive hinterland, not having in its Greek past dissipated its energies in setting up colonies, as Miletus had done.

The next 350 years of Byzantine presence mark a steady decline. By about the 10th century the harbour had silted up, making it no longer suitable for the Byzantine fleet. The fleet moved about ten miles south, to Phygela, an unexcavated Genoese colony also known as Scalanova, now covered over by the modern settlement of Kuşadası. Trade suffered. Tellingly it is about now that the whole of Ephesus started to became known as Hagios Theologos (from which later on it became Ayasoluk for the Muslims and Altoluogo for the Latins).

The time of Lascarid rule was particularly auspicious. This was when the Latins ran Byzantium, in the first half of the 13th century, and the ruling Byzantine dynasty was based in Anatolia. Borders were well defended by the akrites, a sort of elite caste of freelance fighters, and the marauding Turks from the east were kept in check. The walls of Ayasoluk were remodelled, with the building of a separate fortress with pentagonal and rectangular towers, the ancestor of the tower we can admire today. The great basilica seems to have fared less well: according to Bishop John Tornikes, it was full of hedgehogs, bird droppings and fallen mosaics. The atrium was covered in buildings. Indeed, while Ephesus emptied, Ayasoluk was bursting at the seams and expanding beyond the walls. The original trickle of nomads from the east, after the fateful battle of Manzikert 1071, was now turning into a flood down the Meander valley. Recent political developments such as the setting up of the Sultanate of Konya had upset the pattern of trade. Communication with the east was severed.

The incorporation into the Emirate of Aydın (which moved its capital to Ayasoluk) brought some sort of stability. Trade resumed, with Venetian and Genoese merchants looking for raw materials (alum, grain, rice, wax and hemp) in exchange for manufactured products such as the ever-popular brightly coloured cloth. The original harbour, now unusable, was abandoned. The new harbour (Panormus) was at a location four miles due west of Ayasoluk. A map drawn by Choiseul-Gouffier, French ambassador to the Porte from 1784–91, shows the spot just north of the mouth of the Cayster. It is labelled ‘Lake full of reeds’ and was at that time by the sea, whereas the present coastline is two miles further west. Older accounts mention merchants’ houses, docks, churches, a lighthouse and a ‘deep’ harbour around the eastern end of the inlet. Investigations have been sporadic. Merchandise could move by road and down the river. The local emir pocketed the dues and indulged in some piracy to supply the slave market. Times were prosperous. The Isa Bey mosque went up, the first monumental building in the area since the time of Justinian. The court of the emir patronised the arts and sciences.

St John’s basilica was turned in part into a mosque (the frescoes were hidden under coloured marble slabs) and the rest of the building was used as a market for the produce of the fertile hinterland. Locally minted gold coinage imitated that of Florence. By now the fame of St John had acquired an extra twist: not only did the sacred tomb beneath the altar exude a miraculous manna on certain dates, but the saint, it turned out, was not really dead. He was merely asleep, and his snoring could be heard. Pilgrims continued to flock to the sacred site and paid the entrance fee imposed by the business-minded Turks.

This sort of mutually beneficial cohabitation required a lot of delicate footwork, not least because the emir’s authority was never beyond challenge by other members of his family. The intervention of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezıt I (known as Yıldırım, the ‘Thunderbolt’) was as unwelcome as it was inopportune. He plunged the emirate into chaos in 1390. When Tamerlane captured him at the battle of Ankara in 1402, the Anatolian emirs breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the respite was short-lived. The Ottomans returned in 1425, and this time they stayed. Serious decline set in. Trade gradually moved to Scalanova and Izmir. Istanbul was distant and indifferent. Nomadism took root in the hinterland, with serious ecological consequences: deforestation, the neglect of drainage ditches and therefore increased silting. 

Under the conservative Ottoman rule, Ephesus maintained its administrative role as the head of a kaza, an administrative division under a kadı (a judge); the mint still operated. Western travellers attracted by the Classical ruins had to go to Ayasoluk to find lodgings and to pay their respects to the kadı, a process that involved bringing a suitable gift (coffee and sugar were welcomed). Their accounts paint a dismal picture of the place: houses with earthen roofs, lodgings full of fleas, howling jackals; but the Isa Bey mosque was in good repair and was at times mistaken for St John’s basilica. Evliya Çelebi, who visited in the mid-17th century, was certainly not fooled. Finding little reason to rejoice in the present state of Ayasoluk, he berated the locals and their laziness for the sad state of affairs while at the same time conjuring up a mythical, glorious Islamic past when Ayasoluk had had 300 baths, 20,000 shops, and 3,800 mosques, both large and small. The reality was that the place was riddled with malaria, a fact greatly responsible for the misery witnessed by visitors.

By the 18th century the Turkish population had moved into the castle while the Greeks had decamped to the surrounding hills. By the 19th century the castle was in ruins but there was still a kadı; he lived in the village.

The planned railway put Ephesus back on the map as a communication hub, which had been its calling since antiquity. Its construction brought with it a young engineer, John Turtle Wood, who pinpointed the correct location of the Artemision and thereby started the rebirth of Ephesus.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum

A Spring Weekend in Southern Sicily

Travel restrictions are easing, the time has come to explore an interesting and little-visited part of Sicily, at its best in spring, with the meadows full of wild flowers; a place of great beauty, surprising places and people, and delicious food. A good base for your visit would be the village of Montallegro, conveniently situated halfway between Agrigento and Sciacca. Relais Briuccia is a lovely little hotel, very comfortable, with a top-class restaurant where chef Damiano Ferraro creates exquisite Sicilian haute-cuisine dishes. Damiano and Adriana will help you plan your itinerary.  Don’t forget your Blue Guide Sicily!

After visiting Agrigento, a ‘must’ with its stunning array of UNESCO-protected Greek temples and one of the most important monumental areas in the Mediterranean, don’t miss Sciacca, with a renowned fish market, and where local craftsmen still work coral, for example Conti (Piazza Matteotti 10).

In a lovely pinewood setting, by a long beach of white sand, Herakleia Minoa will fascinate those who enjoy archaeological sites. Its history is wreathed in misty legends involving Crete, King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë, a white bull, the Athenian artist Daedalus, the Minotaur, Theseus, and Ariadne. Imprisoned in the labyrinth by the infuriated Minos, Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son Icarus, so they could fly to freedom, but Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. Daedalus landed here, become court inventor to the local king Cocalus, and married his six daughters. The girls killed Minos in his bath when he came to capture the renegade, and they all lived happily ever after, except Ariadne who was abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Read about it in Vincent Cronin’s The Golden Honeycomb.

At the Pendola pastry shop (Cortile Baglio Grande 42) in Sambuca di Sicilia you will find the minni di virgini, delicate little pies filled with confectioner’s custard, candied pumpkin and chocolate chunks, invented by a nun, Suor Virginia, in 1725 to celebrate the wedding of the town’s lord and master, Marquis Pietro Beccadelli.

Minni di virgini (‘Virgin’s breasts’) pastries from Sambuca di Sicilia

Burgio is a small town with lovely carved stone portals, not only on churches and palaces, but even on the most humble dwellings. Here you will find ceramics workshops producing practical vases and storage jars quite different from those made in other areas of Sicily. The greeny-blue and yellow colours and the designs are muted, to please hard-working country folk. You can visit the 500-year-old bell foundry, and the Mummy Museum: mummification was once the privilege of Church fathers, aristocrats and the wealthy, and the local Capuchin monks were masters of the art.

The little farming community of Delia has an interesting, closely-knit centre, where people live close together in a friendly way, sharing joys, problems and celebrations as they come along. Ask someone to help you find a tiny pastry shop, Alaimo e Strazzeri (Viale Pietro Nenni 6, T: 00 39 329 9781853) for the traditional biscuits made only in this town. Called cuddrireddra, little crowns, they were made to delight medieval ladies forced to live alone in the draughty castle on the outskirts while their men were away fighting in the Crusades. 

Borgo Santa Rita is an old semi-abandoned farming village with only 12 inhabitants, set in a glorious hilly landscape and surrounded by vineyards, wheat-fields, and bounteous orchards of apricots, peaches and plums. Here you will find the bakery of award-winning Maurizio Spinello, for the best sourdough bread. Stock up on his pasta and locally-milled flour.

Cuddrireddra biscuits from Delia and sour-dough bread from Borgo Santa Rita

Nature lovers will appreciate the Torre Salsa Wildlife Reserve, close to Siculiana. A spectacular stretch of coast with white cliffs, dunes, deep blue sea, Mediterranean maquis vegetation, and beaches where the loggerhead turtle nests.

If your weekend on the island makes you feel you would like to live here forever, in many of the little towns in Sicily you can buy a house at the symbolic price of one euro. Of course there are certain conditions, for example some councils require you to deposit as insurance a sum of money which will be returned on completion of the renovations, for which you are granted a generous amount of time. Other councils want you to reside in your house, and become a citizen of their commune; after all the initiative was launched in order to counter the abandonment of these ancient centres, hundreds of years old, with tiny cobbled streets often inaccessible by car. Local people must be called in to do the repairs, and materials must be purchased in Sicily. Beautiful surroundings, good food, clean air and friendly people will surely compensate for the inconvenience and the enormous patience you will need. At the moment, one-euro houses are available in Delia, Racalmuto, Sambuca, Bivona, Mussomeli and Cammarata.

Words and photos by Ellen Grady, author of Blue Guide Sicily

The Colour Purple

Empires that tend to be large, and try to unite peoples of disparate ethnicities under one ruler, certainly have a communication problem, more so in antiquity when getting ideas around was a much slower business. The power, the benevolence—indeed the very existence of a new emperor had to be drummed in one way or another. Coinage was pressed into service. Everyone needed coins to pay taxes while soldiers, paid in coins, could see the ruler’s portrait on them.

Colour, as exclusive to the top end of the ruling class, was also used at least from the 2nd millennium BC according to written sources. And the colour used was purple, the colour of a dye extracted from a marine mollusc and developed on the east Mediterranean coast and subsequently commercialised widely by the Phoenicians. The Hittites and later the Assyrians mention it as a tribute extracted from the area. Persia adopted purple wholeheartedly. Such success, apart from personal taste, is probably down to the fact that it was the only colour-fast commercial dye known in antiquity. Empires are not supposed to fade. And besides, it was very expensive, reassuringly so, worth its weight in silver. Wannabes who tried to cheat with a dye extracted from radicchio endives were soon exposed.

When Alexander the Great toppled the Persian Empire, he adopted the Persian style with enthusiasm: purple hat, purple shoes, tunic, mantle and a profusion of purple soft furnishings: cushions, rugs and carpets. He gifted purple things to his entourage as a mark of favour. The chosen few were called the ‘porporati’. As he died in Babylon it was left to his successors, the diadochoi, to bring the fashion westwards. The up-and-coming power of the time, Rome, adopted purple as a symbol of power but in a more modest version, as consonant with a republic that did not wish to be associated with the absolutism and tyranny of the defunct Persian Empire. Senators and other worthies had bands of purple on their togas, of differing widths according to rank. Only a victorious general was allowed a full purple toga embroidered with gold (the toga picta).

As the wheels of history moved on and the Roman Empire became a reality, the colour purple took a new dimension. On 23 July AD 18, at the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, Caius Cominius Leugas discovered the quarries of red and black porphyry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. So says the inscription found in a location some 30km inland from Hurgada on the Red Sea in one of the quarry villages. The date suggests that the province of Egypt was being prospected for mineral resources. After the demise of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt came under the direct control of the Emperor, being too rich and important to be left to senators or equestrians. The Egyptians had been aware of this stone, with its stunning purple hue dotted with white specks, but had not exploited the quarries. They had only used the odd loose boulder, found lying on the valley floor, to make vessels. Perhaps they did not particularly like it, or were defeated by the logistics of extracting and moving large pieces. Not so the Romans. About 50 years later the operation was up and running, roughly at the same time as the exploitation of the granite quarries on Mount Claudianus about 50km to the south. These in due course provided the columns for the front porch of the Pantheon, still there to be admired.

The Roman activity at Mons Porphyrites, which lasted almost without interruption until the 5th century, has recently been investigated by a British team. Another reason for the study is because the site is under threat from nearby tourist development at Hurgada. Access has become too easy: the desert is not what it used to be.

The area is mountainous and the porphyry is present as intrusions in dikes, most of which are vertical. Therefore the quarries are high up and connected to the wadi floor with slipways. Workers lived in villages; the military personnel, indispensable for security and for technical expertise, lived in a fort together with the administrative staff. It is thought that the workforce was mainly Egyptian, as the two temples identified are dedicated to Egyptian gods. The vexed question of slave labour remains difficult to solve but ostraka (pottery sherds reused to write messages on) talk of payments to workers—or at least, to specialists, such as the blacksmith for whom wood had to be found, as indeed it was: oak has been identified, which must have been sourced outside Egypt. A blacksmith was required for the metal tools. Porphyry being harder that granite, it could only be obtained with the use of metal wedges and chisels.

Transport, first to the Nile (some 140km), then down the Nile and finally to Rome, remains a bit of a mystery. If you look at Nero’s colossal monolithic basin, now in the Vatican Museums but formerly in his Domus Aurea, you can see the extent of the problem. The diameter of the basin (some 470cm, never mind the supporting structure which may not be original) suggests a weight of several tons (a cubic metre of porphyry weighs 2.7 tons), quite a job to shift and transport. Eighteenth-century evidence from Carrara in Italy suggests that a wagon load of 18 tons could be handled by 12to 18 pairs of  oxen. But this is a desert area and cattle do not prosper here. Indeed the animal remains suggest the presence of horses (for the military), donkeys, mules and camels. Camels are very strong but also have a foul temper and are difficult to harness in large numbers for a long trek. 

Photo © Paola Pugsley

Somehow or other, however, the stone was moved, starting off from Badia, a nearby fort just out of the wadi in a very fine location (as the picture above shows) to the southwest to Qena on the Nile. It was moved north in such quantities that when the Roman Empire collapsed there was enough porphyry in Rome to adorn the successor capitals from Ravenna (where Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, had a porphyry bath manoeuvred into his extravagant tomb) to Byzantium and beyond. There were enough spare columns to beautify churches and palaces, to satisfy everyone. Only statuary perhaps suffered, as there were no fresh blocks to carve. Byzantium went as far as panelling a whole room with porphyry for the heir to Empire to be ‘porphyry-born’ (Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus). Porphyry sarcophagi continued to be used; a good selection can be seen in the garden of the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul.

These were heady days for the Byzantines: the Arab incursions had been repelled and the Turks were not yet on the world scene. Many years later, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who turned Byzantium into Istanbul, had no time for porphyry: the colour of Islam was green.

By Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey was published in 2020.

Book Review: The Bookseller of Florence

Four hundred and eighty pages might seem a lot to fill, when one has chosen as one’s subject a man about whom next to nothing is known. But Ross King, in this ambitious book published last year, has managed to fill them nonetheless, and the result is eminently readable. 

Vespasiano da Bisticci (the eponymous bookseller) was born c. 1422 into a poor family. His improvident father died early, leaving an indigent widow with more children than it seems reasonable to expect her to have clothed and fed and educated, when all she had been left with were debts. But somehow she managed it. One would like to know more about her, but there is no more to say. Florence in the early 15th century, we learn, was a city where 70–80 percent of boys attended school but where girls were largely encouraged never to leave the house, certainly not to go ‘leaping about the piazza’ in gaudy gowns. 

Vespasiano grows up and is apprenticed to Michele Guarducci, a bookbinder and stationer. Florence at the time is enjoying its golden age and in Guarducci’s shop Vespasiano meets a number of illustrious men. He seems to have had a natural instinct for endearing himself to them. He knew how to cultivate the right people, was obviously a good networker, and though not a scholar himself, was skilful at understanding his product, at knowing how to talk knowledgeably about it and how to source exactly what his customers might want. By dint of quite a lot of obsequious fawning, he goes on to obtain important patrons such as Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino and King Ferrante of Naples, acting as their agent and procuring manuscripts for their libraries. 

As far as Vespasiano the man goes, that is just about it. The rest of the book consists of lengthy digressions on various subjects, with the persona of Vespasiano forming the link between them. There is the story of the texts of Vespasiano’s books (notably Greek and Roman classics): the means by which they were retrieved from oblivion and the part that Florence played in this fascinating saga, complete with vignettes of the misogynist scholars, cultivated thugs and dilettante noblemen who had an appetite to acquire them. Then there is the story of the manuscripts those texts were turned into: vellum versus parchment; ‘modern’ Roman versus Gothic script; styles of illumination. Then comes the wider history of 15th-century Italy: the infighting in the city states (King gives us a lengthy account of the Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence), tussles with a warrior pope and the conquest of Otranto by the Ottomans in 1480. Badly shaken by this, Italy begins a gradual descent from enlightened humanism to something more inward-looking and defensive. Savonarola makes bonfires out of half a century of learning before ending up on a pyre himself. As for Vespasiano, having been personally reponsible for the production of around one thousand manuscripts, he abandons his faith in the power of Aristotle to guide mankind and reverts to an uncompromising and depressing form of apocalyptic Christianity.

And of course, along the way, there is the elephant in Vespasiano’s bookroom: the printing press. King takes us to Germany for its invention and then to Subiaco, near Rome, for its arrival in Italy. Florence proves a late adopter of the new technology; perhaps because her high literacy rate meant that she was ahead of other cities in terms of manuscript books and thus was slower to feel the need of printed ones. Vespasiano does not seem to mind that a printing press has been set up a few blocks away from his shop; at any rate, he does not feel threatened by it. He is like one of those people who scoffed at the first smartphones, blithely certain that no one will ever really want to do anything else with their handset than make phone calls. Vespasiano was not alone in his disdain. The printing press, many believed, would spread fake news. It would turn out books that were riddled with errors. It would bring texts before the sort of people ill-equipped to digest and understand their meaning. 

There is no climactic finale, though. Vespasiano sees that business is no longer what it was and chooses to retire. He decides that he himself will become a writer and sits down to compose biographies of 103 of the ‘illustrious men’ he had known during the course of his career. He could name-drop like mad; the illustrious men of his acquaintance included popes and princes, scholars and sculptors, many of them still household names today. 

There was also a single woman, Alessandra de’ Bardi. This seems exciting, not for tokenistic reasons but because so few such biographies exist and it might shed light on the lives that medieval Florentine women led and the prospects that were open to them beyond the hearth and the dowry chest. Unfortunately it seems that Vespasiano believed that no other prospects were appropriate and took the opportunity to turn Alessandra’s life into a disquisition on virtuous female behaviour, vigorously channelling his inner Cato the Elder. Interestingly, King does not actually tell us this. He remains completely silent about the single female Life, perhaps, one feels, out of disappointment and frustration that his bookseller was not more ahead of his time. What does emerge from King’s narrative is an impression that the Renaissance Florentine convent offered more scope to a lively-minded woman—of any class—than marriage did. King includes delightful details about a nun called Sister Marietta who worked as a compositor in the San Jacopo printing works. 

But what became of the text of Vespasiano’s Lives? ‘A terrible irony befell Vespasiano’s project,’ King tells us. ‘As well he knew, the fame of illustrious men was sometimes lost to history not because no one preserved their deeds but because the manuscripts that celebrated these deeds had perished or been lost. Such could have been the fate of Vespasiano’s manuscript. Since his presentation copies were all copied by hand, their readership was circumscribed, and his praises of illustrious men, as the decades passed, went largely unheard. A few more handwritten copies were made from his manuscripts in the centuries that followed, but all quickly disappeared into libraries or simply vanished from sight in a sorry reprise of the loss of knowledge during the “Dark Ages” that he had done so much in his lifetime to reverse.’ 

Ironically, Vespasiano’s text is known to us not through the offices of its own author but because a stray manuscript from the Vatican Library, rediscovered and issued in printed form in 1839, came to the attention of Jacob Burckhardt, who was electrified by it and used it as the basis of his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878), hugely influential and still in print. It is through Burckhardt, via the printing press, that the existence of such a man as Vespasiano da Bisticci and the concept of such a thing as the Renaissance is known to us at all.

All of this must make us wonder about the technology shift that is taking place in our own time. We are abandoning print on paper and, in a bizarre about-turn, going back to scrolling. But our electronic medium is far more ephemeral and fragile than any book, either written or printed. And the risk of unedited, inaccurate, misleading information finding its way onto the internet is infinitely greater. We do not know what Vespasiano would have made of this. We do not really know what he thought about anything except that he was prudish; that he was a good businessman so long as established markets remained strong; and that he lacked vision when faced with a disruptive technology. He died in 1498 and lies beneath the floor of Santa Croce, under a worn and faded slab that bears only his brother’s name. King’s book is his eloquent epitaph.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Ross King: The Bookseller of Florence. Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that Illuminated the Renaissance. Chatto & Windus (Penguin Books) 2021.

Cobbled together: the roads of Rome

All roads lead to Rome. And Rome still leads the world in roads. The streets of the ancient city were paved in huge, irregular blocks of stone known as basolato. Today only a very few segments of such paving survive: along the Via Appia, for example, or in parts of the Forum. But the streets of central Rome are still paved in stone: most retain their sanpietrini (or sampietrini), small, square, regular cobbles.

The skill of the ancient Romans in building roads throughout the empire was essential to their military victories. Many of the straight roads which they laid out are still used by modern thoroughfares, and are immediately recognisable all over Europe. In the Republican era, roads were the responsibility of censors and consuls, who had to see to their maintenance. Consular Roman highways were often provided with a raised kerb and sidewalks (crepidines) and good drainage. The key to a good road, however, lay beneath it, in the preparation of the bed on which the paving stones were laid. For centuries the durable Roman technique was forgotten and it was only in 1811 that John Loudon Macadam rediscovered it, noting that ‘a road made of small broken stone, without mixture of earth, of the depth of ten inches, will be smooth, hard and durable.’ He and his descendants went on to make a fortune out of designing Britain’s turnpikes, which came to be described as ‘Macadam’ or ‘Macadamised’ roads. 

In 2019 there were protests from some of Rome’s inhabitants, who complained that the streets were too uneven and were causing accidents. One can sympathise with these worries, but if ever the sanpietrini were to be replaced by the ubiquitous tarmac, as has happened in other historic towns where the ancient paving has been eliminated, the entire feel of Rome would be irrevocably changed. For now, at least, it seems the sanpietrini cobbles are here to stay, preserving the age-old appearance of the streets as a complement to the buildings at either side. 

Sanpietrini naturally have to be replaced from time to time, and the centuries’ old method of laying a sandy bed and hammering in each wedge-shaped piece of black basalt by hand is still the only way this can be done. The process includes the shovelling of fine sandy gravel onto the top of the stones at the end. The following series of pictures were taken in 2019, during work on the most recent edition of Blue Guide Rome. (All photos © Alta Macadam)

Pile of sanpietrini ready to be used to fill a hole. Note the specially tapered, nail-like shape of each cobble and the very simple handtools used by the workmen.
Pair of workmen painstakingly arranging the stone blocks.
Hammering down…
Aligning…
Tapping into position.
A barrowload of sandy gravel is poured onto the finished pavement.
A simple hand-held broom is used to brush the sandy gravel between the newly laid cobbles.
Job done.

Invisible archaeology

Archaeology used to be mainly about the material remains of the past. They stood as witnesses of events and civilisations long past and encouraged archaeologists in their main activity, namely digging to find out more. Normally, if no clues could be seen above ground, nothing very much happened. Seeing beneath the soil and knowing precisely where to put your spade has in the past years developed stupendously, as the recent work of the Armenian-German team at Artaxata has shown.

Artaxata in today’s Armenia, 30km northeast of Mount Ararat as the crow flies, just on the border with Turkey, might seem an unlikely place to look for Roman remains. Yet the Romans were here and going by the efforts they made to beautify the city they were intending to stay. That was certainly the emperor Trajan’s idea in the early 2nd century of the present era but things did not quite go according to plan. His successor Hadrian gave up on the provinces of Armenia and of Mesopotamia which the Romans could not defend against their eternal enemy in the East, the Parthians; relations were not much better later with the Sassanians.

Trajan the conquering emperor. In a scene from his famous column in Rome (centre of top band) he is shown in solider’s garb with a prisoner being thrust before him. Image © Blue Guides

Work has been going on in Artaxata since the 1970s, revealing among other things dwellings, fortifications, workshops and Roman inscriptions. Somewhere there must also be a military camp since we know that the Legio III Scythica was stationed here. Stamped bricks and roofing tiles, a monumental inscription of Emperor Trajan as well as munitions and weapons have been found. Among the monikers given to this legion, the one that goes ‘Operosa et felix’ (‘Industrious and fortunate’) is a good reminder that a soldier’s job was not limited to fighting. A legion of something like 3,000 to 6,000 people had its own surveyors, engineers and architects while at the same time the lower orders and the auxiliaries (the non-Roman citizen corps attached to a legion) would provide the manpower. It is very possible that the makeover of Artaxata was both intended to impress the local populace and to keep a lot of idle hands busy.

Among the building unearthed was a bathing complex with the tell-tale stacks of round bricks of the sospensura characteristic of the heating system of Roman baths. Normally baths imply a regular water supply, i.e. an aqueduct. This fact, together with stray remains of an urban piped water system, set the archaeologists looking for it. But there was nothing visible above ground; no clay or stone pipes, no stumps of arches, no holding tanks. An extensive geomagnetic survey of the area to the east of Artaxata revealed crucial anomalies set in a straight line, anomalies that upon excavation were proved to be the closely spaced foundation pillars of arches intended to control the gradient of the water arriving from the nearby mountains. The starting point of the aqueduct has not been pinpointed but the estimated total length varies between 25 and 30km, a distance well within Roman engineering capabilities.

Hadrian, the ruler who put an end to empire-building. Sporting a beard like a Greek philosopher, Hadrian was more interested in consolidating his borders than in expanding them. He conducted lengthy tours of his empire but did not attempt fresh conquest. Image © Blue Guides

That there were no surface remains is taken as proof that the aqueduct was actually never built. It had been carefully planned and the closeness of the foundations suggests that the engineers were well aware of the seismic nature of the area and of the dangers of building on marshy ground. Trajan would have been proud of them! But it seems as if the local people were not convinced.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey

Celebrating Dante

by Alta Macadam

2021 has been a special year for Italy’s greatest poet as it is seven hundred years since his death. All over the country there have been commemorations, most of them ‘virtual’ because of the restrictions imposed by the spread of Covid-19. These have included a new edition of the Divina Commedia, conferences and readings, blogs and podcasts, and art exhibitions of works inspired by the famous poem. Notable among these was “Dante. The vision of art”, with works from the 13th to the 20th century, in Forlì, the town where Dante took refuge in 1302. In the summer, to inaugurate its “Terre degli Uffizi” cycle of small exhibitions in places in Tuscany, the Uffizi lent works connected with the poet to a display in the castle of the Conti Guidi in Poppi (Nel segno di Dante: Il Casentino nella Commedia), and sent Andrea del Castagno’s wonderful fresco of the poet to the little-visited village of San Godenzo. The Uffizi have also decided to create digital access to Federico Zuccari’s 88 illustrations of the Inferno, carried out in 1586–8. In Ravenna, where Dante died and is buried, the museum dedicated to him, in a building beside his tomb, reopened in expanded form.

Head of Dante, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons

One of the most interesting events in Florence, Dante’s birthplace, was an exhibition in the Bargello. A tiny exhibition (just two small rooms) with a mighty title: “Onorevole e antico Cittadino di Firenze; il Bargello per Dante”. The first part, “Honourable and ancient citizen of Florence”, is taken from a phrase by the historian Giovanni Villani, Dante’s near-contemporary. The sub-title, “The Bargello for Dante” is a way of suggesting atonement for the building’s grim role in condemning the poet—in his absence—to be burnt at the stake (and in a subsequent verdict to be beheaded), a sentence which forced Dante into exile from his beloved native city for the rest of his life. Almost from the very day on which the sentence was pronounced, Florentines have voiced their grief that their poet was never able to return. The declared intent of the exhibition was to reveal how closely Florence remained linked with Dante for the three decades after his death in 1321, ensuring that he lived on in the collective consciousness.

It was thirty years after Dante’s death that Boccaccio wrote his Trattarello in laude di Dante, which included a collection of his works as well as a biography (the precious first edition of which, lent from Toledo, was one of the exhibition’s central displays). Other works came from the Laurenziana and Riccardiana libraries and the Archivio di Stato in Florence, as well as from Milan (Archivio Storico Civico and the Trivulziana), from Rome (the Vatican), from Paris and from New York (the Pierpont Morgan and Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The text of the Commedia itself (for which no autograph copy exists) was copied out in Florence by scribes (almost always notaries), only one of whom signed his name, Francesco di Ser Nardo da Barbarino. One of his codices, dated 1337, has a frontispiece showing Dante wearing a crown of laurels: the first time he is shown as poet laureate. The illuminations are by an artist known as the “Master of Dominican Effigies”. By the middle of the 14th century, Dante’s work had been copied more times than that of any other medieval author, and some 70 of these manuscripts have survived. Since the 15th century they have been known collectively as the “Danti del Cento”, as traditionally one scribe is thought to have made a hundred copies in order to provide a dowry for his daughters. Almost all of them were illustrated by the Master of Dominican Effigies and Pacino di Bonaguida. One of their collaborations on display at the Bargello was a tome from the Laurenziana library showing the effects of good and bad government: on one page a famine-racked Siena expels its starving citizens through the town gates, and on the facing page prosperous Florence opens her doors to welcome them. The two towns are easily recognisable by their buildings.

It was not long before commentaries on the Commedia were being produced in Florence. In the very first in Italian, dated around 1334, the anonymous author makes notes in the margin to guide the reader, even telling us that he actually met Dante outside Florence and questioned him about a legend which the poet includes in one of the cantos. The oldest surviving paper version of the Commedia dates from around 1341 and the pages are covered with notes and comments which almost become scribbles. Another volume of the poem is a manual for illuminators suggesting where would be a good place to add an illustration and describing the subject matter.

The Palazzo del Bargello is also an appropriate place for an exhibition on Dante since it has a chapel with frescoes traditionally attributed to Giotto which include a scene of Paradise in which the figure of Dante himself appears. Although many portions of the frescoes are almost totally obliterated, the portrait of Dante dressed in red is easy to identify. The sensation caused in 1840 when it was discovered beneath the whitewash is described in Blue Guide Florence. Although art historians in the 20th century tended to dismiss these frescoes as workshop productions, it is interesting to note that today they are considered by some to have been begun by Giotto himself (on the vault and upper part of the Paradise wall) and left unfinished at his death in 1337, when they were continued by his pupils. Below and to the right of the lancet window a bishop kneels beside Dante, and in front of the poet the standing figure dressed in yellow looking straight at us is identified as the Emperor Trajan. It has been suggested that the scene of Hell on the opposite wall may even have been inspired by Dante’s description.

Today on display in the chapel is a register which records the verdicts pronounced by the Podestà Gabrielli from Gubbio open at the page in which Dante’s name appears, condemned because his appointment as Prior of the city appeared to be the result of corruption, and accused also of manipulating the election of his successor. Here, too, have been placed a panel painted on both sides, showing the Beheading of St John the Baptist, a touching work shown to those condemned to death just before their execution, and a small processional Cross painted by Bernardo Daddi, of the type held up to criminals as they were led to their death in a last attempt to make them confess and repent.

It is comforting to think that despite the fact that the Bargello building was later used as a prison, it was also the place where instruments of torture were burnt in the courtyard in 1786, after Grand Duke Peter Leopold abolished the death sentence. It remains one of the best-loved museums in all Florence for its sculptural masterpieces of the Renaissance. And Dante will continue to be celebrated every year from now on, on 25 March, Dantedi.

Book Review: ‘The Art Museum in Modern Times’

This new book by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames & Hudson, 2021) is a fascinating look at how museums, their mission and their vision, have evolved over the past half-century. Forty-two museums are explored; the choice is personal, focusing on institutions that the author knows well, without any aim to be deliberately exclusive. Saumarez Smith joined the staff of the V&A in 1992. Throughout the course of a distinguished career, he has been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, all in London.

As he was writing the book, Saumarez Smith noticed a clear pattern: a ‘universal decline in belief in a master narrative.’ In its place, he detected ‘a growing interest in the validity of individual response…and in treating the museum as an opportunity for private adventure.’ In an age when Tate thinks Wikipedia can give just as good a summary of the life and work of the artists represented in their collection as their own curators could or should, this study is more than timely.

Museum directors were once upon a time supremely imperious. The director of the V&A in the early 1930s described the public as ‘a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S…We heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ For him, the visitor off the street was an unwelcome nuisance, not the raison d’être of his institution. Museum directors might still be imperious, but so are donors and trustees—and so are artists and architects. Lina Bo Bardi, who designed the MASP in São Paulo (opened 1969), is quoted as declaring: ‘The museum belongs to the people…They gaze at a picture in the same way they look into a shop window…They take part even if they lack “cultural grounding”.’ Far from being in the way, the visitor off the street has become fetishised. The museum and its designers take their cue from him or her and try to appease his/her appetites.

The idea that ‘museums and galleries should be places of deep scholarship more than public enjoyment’ has gone. And it is interesting to see how museum design reflects this. Firstly, there is the building. Up until the outbreak of WWII, the accepted architectural style for a museum was Neoclassical, a temple to the Muses. As an example, Saumarez Smith gives the National Gallery of Art in Washington, designed in 1937. With its colonnaded portico, its central rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, and its gallery spaces arranged around a courtyard, it was designed to be stately and solemn and to serve the art it housed.

Two decades later, the construction of the Guggenheim in New York brought to the fore a tension between curators, who wanted spaces to exhibit art, and architects, who wanted those spaces themselves to steal the show. The Guggenheim’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen to have won the contest when almost three thousand people queued up to get inside his building when it opened in 1959. Ever since then, people have regarded the Guggenheim Museum as ‘a great symbolic monument, at least as important for the experience of its architecture as for seeing its collections.’ Another architect who liked to call the shots, Mies van der Rohe, said airily of his Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1968): ‘It is such a huge hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’ And this concept, of the museum building not simply as a receptacle for knowledge or revelation but as an iconic piece of starchitecture, has been tenacious. A later Guggenheim Museum, the one in Bilbao by Frank Gehry (1997), represents what Saumarez Smith believes is a paradigm shift: ‘No one thinks of it in terms of its collection.’ It is famous as a monument in its own right, like the Taj Mahal. People go to visit it for its own sake, to experience the excitement of its architectural form.

I.M. Pei (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978) celebrates the fact that ‘Museums have become much more than storehouses for art; they have become also important places for public gathering.’ The museum’s role is to provide visitors with a special sort of experience, beyond what everyday life can provide, and the emphasis is no longer on learning but on individual response. So it is not only the architect who holds the reins; it is also the public. The Victorians regarded themselves as public-spirited, as educators, as throwing open doors to a wider populace. Now, though, we see their attitude as de haut en bas. We see their grandiose buildings not as thrilling and inspiring but as intimidating; we see their egalitarian educational ideal as elitist; we see as blinkered their belief that focusing attention on the objects on display would open windows in the mind. Saumarez Smith himself directly tackled this in the Ondaatje Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in London (2000): ‘A coolly democratic attempt to open up and widen public access to a Victorian public institution…and to make it look outwards by giving it a view from the restaurant over the rooftops.’ 

With the desire to make the public feel embraced rather than instructed, art loses its pole position. Nicholas Serota describes Tate Modern (London, 2000) as ‘a place that people will want to go and meet others and then perhaps go and look at some modern and contemporary art. It’s a place that should become part of the social fabric as well as the cultural fabric.’ In the 19th century this function was provided not by the museum but by the village church or opera house, where people went to catch an eligible eye rather than pay attention to sermons or soprano solos. But today, it is not only the design of museum buildings which has shifted, it is also the curatorial approach. At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (Renzo Piano, 1987), the walls were kept free of explanatory texts so that nothing could ‘interfere with the emotion art could inspire in the viewer.’ Deep knowledge, which a traditional curator might have thought necessary before the public can fully understand and appreciate the art on display, has become an encumbrance. Instead people go to explore themselves. Again discussing Tate Modern, Serota says, ‘Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery…rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history.’ It now seems axiomatic that historical narrative is bad, that fixing individual works of art in historical relationships to other works of art is too preachy, too systematic, too objective. Peter Zumthor, architect of the Kolumba diocesan museum in Cologne (2007), talks of works of art being treated as ‘objects to be contemplated and appreciated aesthetically and spiritually without too much explanation or an imposed historical interpretation. The point is to look, to think, to contemplate, and to absorb their beauty.’ Instead of the works, via the medium of the museum, transmitting inherent meaning to the viewer, the viewer is invited to bring his or her own meaning to the works and to be somehow redeemed by them. 

The design of the Benesse House Museum in Naoshima (1992) was informed by ‘a belief that museums could provide access to a different order of quasi-spiritual experience from the everyday consumer world.’ At Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation in Basel (1997), people use its spaces for ‘reflection and contemplation—spiritual recuperation.’ But alongside contemplation and response, museums have also come to be about adventure. Architects have been keen to make their spaces mysterious. Instead of the progression through a clear enfilade we have the maze. ‘Mystery has replaced logic. Order and rationality have been displaced by unpredictability.’ This is the museum as funfair, ghost train, escape room. Parts of it might be given over to retreat and contemplation; other parts are for social mingling; still others for fun or for commerce. It is a city within a city and as such, the museum has given itself an ambitious role; it has ‘increasingly important public responsibilities beyond the simple display of art.’ But when museums start thinking in terms of public responsibilities, is this not arrogating authority to themselves? And how does one avoid the danger of institutionalisation? The new MoMA (2004) designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is, Saumarez Smith thinks, ‘too bland, too like a corporate headquarters for modern art.’ So on the one hand there is the risk of corporate vanilla; on the other, a danger of turning art galleries into retail spaces. ‘Museums are becoming ever more commercial and looking ever more like shopping malls.’ An ephemeral quality is becoming more apparent, too. Major Western museums are starting to franchise their collections in other parts of the world—China, the Gulf—but while governments are keen on financing totemic buildings, paying for high-quality staff and long-term running costs is another matter. Perhaps a museum might have no permanent collection at all but simply be a pop-up, borrowing iconic works for a limited period, used as a tool of soft power.

For much of the second half of the last century, pedagogues would talk about language ‘acquisition’ as opposed to language ‘learning’, convinced that acquiring language naturally, as a child does, instead of memorising cases and declensions, was more communicative and more fun. For most of that same half-century, museums have stopped being ‘places where visitors come to find out, and be told, about the past: they are no longer treated as public lecture rooms, where works of art are laid out according to strict historical sequence.’ But grammar can be a democratic and liberating tool and it can level the playing field. Can art history not do the same? And if curators believe in a definite message and in an imperative to transmit it, will the schoolroom approach not have to make a comeback? It might be that we are at just such a juncture now. In Lens in northeast France, at the satellite Louvre museum by SANAA (2012), the part of the project which Saumarez Smith found most successful and memorable is the Galerie du Temps, ‘laid out as a walk through a three-dimensional, transnational history in which some of the greatest objects from the Louvre’s collection are presented laterally along a strict timeline…It is exceptionally logical and intellectually coherent; possibly oversimplified, but all the better for being so easily understood and properly transnational—indeed, as far as possible, global.’ In 2012, the agenda was not the same as it would have been in Victorian times, when global and transnational were not buzz-words, but the curators have a new message and they have reached back to the logical, intellectual, historical approach to convey it. 

This superb and eminently readable book takes us along a roller coaster of ups and downs, experienced by museums as they lose, regain, refashion their intellectual confidence, their belief in or rejection of, the notion of a set of universal values, alternately giving prompts to, or taking their cues from, the public. Are we a temple or a shopping mall? A schoolroom or a playground? A set-menu restaurant or a smorgasbord? At the back of our minds we know that our conclusions, half a century of ‘experiments in trying to relate the experience of art to the public’, might seem hopelessly wrong-headed by the generations that come next. But that is natural and museums ‘will continue to be rethought, redesigned and redisplayed as a result of new beliefs about their purpose.’ The 19th-century museum founders, with their mission to educate, believed that by studying the past we could learn about our present selves and the progress our civilization had made. Today, in an age which is at once self-flagellating and narcissistic, we are less interested in our past, but the mission to direct people’s thinking and to cultivate their responses is alive and kicking. 

Saumarez Smith ends on a slightly sombre note. He is not sure that museums will regain their moral confidence or their financial security. There are also, with collections sourced from around the globe, inevitable questions of legitimate provenance and restitution. He concludes too, that after the death of George Floyd, museums failed to pay attention to public concerns, that they did not find a systematic way to respond to the legacy of slavery. Might a moral certainty about the need for a certain way of thinking return in the light of this? Might we see, after all, the resurgence of the didactic approach, with carefully thought-out explanatory labels unequivocally telling us what’s what?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber