The playwright Ferenc Molnár, by his grandson

The latest title in the Blue Danube imprint, which focuses on literature, history and travel in Central Europe, is Venetian Angel, a short novel by Ferenc Molnár, now translated into English for the first time.  Molnár was a famous pre-war dramatist whose many plays included one on which the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel was based.  Here, in the introduction, his grandson Mátyás Sárközi writes about the author:

The putto, the “angel” of the title, is the one on the right, below the Madonna’s left foot in Bellini’s beautiful altarpiece in the sacristy of the Frari in Venice. The saints around her are Nicholas of Bari, Peter, Mark and Benedict (Blue Guide Venice)

Ferenc Molnár, my grandfather, had to leave Hungary in 1937 because of the Fascist tide there. He aimed to take refuge in America, but his first stop on the way to New York was Venice, a city he loved dearly. In this novel he calls it ‘a wonder of the world’.

Daily life in Budapest was still undisturbed in 1933. Molnár was seen daily in his straw hat, sparkling monocle in the right eye, strolling along the Duna Corso, the promenade on the Pest side of the Danube, stretching from the Elisabeth Bridge to the Chain Bridge. Already a well-known dramatist and writer in Europe and America, he was greeted at every step, even by friendly strangers. The Athenaeum publishing house asked him for a new novel. What should he write about? He submitted a manuscript without much of a story, its title inspired by a little flute-blowing putto at the bottom of Bellini’s Madonna in the Frari church in Venice. In essence, the story is a love triangle, a romance coloured with intrigue and jealousy. Molnár, with the skill of a psychologist, describes a young woman on the verge of becoming a grown-up, still unversed in the complications of adult life, still a dreamer. The action is played out against the backdrop of the Venice which Molnár knew so well, with its fascinating history and its narrow little alleyways.

He maintains that living abroad makes one different. Does it? Perhaps less so today than it did in Molnár’s time. Now the world’s populace is becoming a global melting pot of nationalities and races. But the main theme remains eternal. The protagonists come into sharp focus in Molnár’s mirror. A mirror which is able to show not only virtues, but every human foible and frailty.

Mátyás Sárközi
Hampstead, 2024

The Blessed Josef Mayr-Nusser

The life of Josef Mayr-Nusser (1910-1945) is a chapter in the complicated story of South Tyrol.  Born in Bolzano Bozen, he was an active German speaking Catholic, contributor to the subversive young Catholic newssheet Tiroler Jugendwacht (subversive because the Italian government banned use of the German word Jugendwacht – literally “youth watch”).  Despite reservations about Italy’s treatment of the South Tyrol, he was unmoved by the Nazis’ siren calls to German speakers and became a key member of the South Tyrolean resistance group, the Andreas Hofer Bund. 

The Blessed Josef Mayr-Nusser, beatified by Pope Francis for his heroism in defence of South Tyrol and martyrdom by the Nazis.

This Bund was an anti-Nazi association and resistance movement, formed in opposition to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s “Option Agreement” of October / November 1939, by which the German- and Ladin-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol were given the “option” of either remaining in their homes and facing Italianisation or migrating to the Germanic “homeland” – in this case the recently seized lands of Western Poland.  The Bund was formed particularly to protect the remainers (“Dableiber”) from the aggression of the leavers (“Optanteren”).  Of the 75,000 who eventually opted for migration – mainly the landless rural poor, few burghers and almost no farmers – many got no further than the Austrian Tyrol, and after the war around one third of them returned.

When Mayr-Nusser was drafted into the SS he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, claiming it contrary to his faith.  For this he was sentenced to death.  Beatified by Pope Francis in 2016, he is referred to as the Martyr of the First Commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”). His reliquary casket is in the south aisle of Bozen Cathedral.

Venice attempts to stem the tide

(and some news from Rome and Florence)

by Alta Macadam

The long-discussed entrance restrictions to Venice are finally to become operational on 25th April. The system is designed to limit the numbers of day-trippers, who come to the city for just a few hours (often as part of a tour group) and from whom the city reaps very little benefit, if any. Overtourism has damaged Venice in many ways and the declared aim is to reduce the crowds, encourage longer visits and improve the quality of life for residents. It is also a way in which visitors can be monitored so that certain days of the year do not become too crowded, and it provides an incentive to visitors to come at the least crowded periods. It is a genuine experiment to regulate the flow. Venice is supposedly the first city in the world to undertake this experiment.

All the (fairly complicated) details are given here.

This is the only official City of Venice tourist information website, even though it rarely comes up as one of your first search results, and the website itself adds to the confusion by not giving any information on the ‘Venice access (entry) fee’ on its opening page (you have to go to the next page).

The first step is to look on the calendar to see which days are subject to the restrictions (these generally include all weekends). On these days, if you are entering the city between 8.30 am and 4pm, you are subject to an entrance fee of 5 euro. (The 4pm limit means people are free to come in to the city in the evening – for instance those who might want to have dinner there or attend a concert).

You are not subject to an entry fee if you are staying overnight or longer somewhere in the historic city (or even within the municipal area, which includes Mestre on the mainland) in any type of accommodation. However, you are now obliged to ‘register’ by filling out a form to get a QR code to show that you are exempt from the entrance fee as the “guest of an accommodation facility”. On the form provided, the names of everyone staying with you, the dates of your stay and the name of the place where you are staying, will all be required. You will need to use the QR code for access and show to any official doing a check while you are in the city.

For a direct link to the forms to fill in, if you are staying in Venice for at least one night), see here.

For the exemption rules (which include children under 14 and the disabled), see here.

It seems there will be one or two offices in Venice, including at the railway station, where you will be able to register and pay but clearly you are much better off to arrive fully armed with your QR code. There is also talk of a number of access points (airport, railway station, car parks, etc.) where you will be required to have your QR code passed.

If, sadly, you can only visit the city for a day, see the website for the procedures, which include payment of an entrance fee.

Many people in Italy and abroad will be eagerly waiting to see how this new system works and if it produces the hoped-for results. For now, the signs are positive and everyone is feeling optimistic.

This long thought-out attempted solution to Venice’s problems seems far distant from the latest campaign to encourage tourism by the flamboyant Minister of Tourism. One wonders if it isn’t going a bit too far to dress up Botticelli’s Venus (a detail from his iconic Birth of Venus) in a T-shirt and show her eating a pizza on Lake Como, or in shorts outside the Colosseum. She is touted as the Minister’s ‘virtual influencer’. The whole campaign is bizarrely titled ‘Open to Meraviglia’.

Rome
A few months ago some very negative news came in from Rome. It is now necessary to purchase a ticket (and therefore join a queue) to enter the Pantheon, the greatest ancient building in the city to have survived virtually intact. This was met with great sadness by many inhabitants and visitors alike as, without an entrance ticket and the paraphernalia that entails, it had always been a place to savour whenever one was in the vicinity: with even just a few minutes to spare, one could stand in one of the most extraordinary spaces ever created. The disappointing decision to impose an entry fee was taken by the Cultural Ministry and the Roman diocese in June 2023.

Florence
One of the most curious recent events in Florence has been the decision of Eike Schmidt to stand for Mayor in the forthcoming local election (to be held in June). After eight years as the much-admired director of the Uffizi, he has put on hold his next appointment to the Capodimonte museum in Naples, become an Italian citizen, and begun his campaign in Florence, running as an independent. He launched his campaign for “Firenze Magnifica” on 17th April.

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guides to Venice, Rome and Florence.

Bolzano Bozen – Italian or German?

Historically Bolzano was a semi-independent merchant city state and sometimes part of the Trento prince-bishopric, with its allegiance more to the (Germanic, Habsburg) Holy Roman Empire – in the person of the (Austrian) counts of Tyrol – across the Alps to the north than to the papacy and principalities and dukedoms to the south. The language spoken by most of the inhabitants was German, though as we shall see this did not necessarily make German the only official language.

Vögelino – Vögel, plural of Vogel, is the German for birds, the suffix -ino in Italian makes a diminutive, hence “little birds”.  The name of a café on Bolzano’s main square, the Piazza Walther (piazza – the Italian for square, Walther a German name, after Walther von der Vogelwieder, a medieval German poet born in Bozen).

This is not the place to examine the rights and wrongs of the 1919 peace treaties which marked the end of the First World War, clumsy and vindictive though they were, resulting in another world war in less than 20 years. Suffice it to say that the largely German-speaking South Tyrol, part of Austria since 1815, was ceded to Italy and was the scene, under Mussolini, of large-scale migration of Italian workers from the south, of forced Italianisation and strict bans on the use of the German language in politics, education and law.

So is German the “right“ language in this region, with Italian super-imposed in one of the many regrettable nationalist episodes of the 20th century?

The answer is complicated and the issue is sensibly downplayed by the original protagonists’ descendants, who are now more interested in peace and prosperity than in retribution. Bolzano Bozen owes much of its history and importance to its location on a major trading route across the Alps between the (German-speaking) north and the (Italian-speaking) south: the Brenner Pass – at 1,400m the lowest crossing point in the Alps – lies a few miles to the north.

And a few miles down the road to the south, the neighbouring prince-bishopric of Trent was chosen, in the 16th century, as the location for the famous Oecumenical Council, convened in the hope of reconciling the doctrines of Roman Catholicism to those of the emerging Lutheranism in the north, precisely because of Trent’s notional allegiance to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire while being also Italian-speaking and easily accessible from the Papal States and south. (Presumably Their Graces, the crowds of bishops, prelates, ecclesiastics and divines who attended the Council’s 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563, communicated in elegant and faultless Latin and so were untroubled by matters of linguistic nationalism.)

Returning to Bolzano, the mechanisms for its north-south trade centred on the major fairs, lasting for around two weeks each, which took place four times a year and were governed by strict rules that made it easy and safe for merchants from north and south to transact. The key regulations that facilitated this were the mercantile “Privileges” issued by Claudia de’ Medici, the Italian widow of the Austrian archduke Leopold V. There had always been bickering between the northern and southern traders. The “Claudian Privilege” required the settlement of disputes by two German-speaking experts, if the claimant was from the Italian-speaking south, and vice versa. Decisions had to be given before the end of the fair, with no fees and no lawyers allowed.  So effective was this in smoothing frictionless trade that the Claudian Privilege was extended eight times over the succeeding centuries, always issued in both German and Italian. 

And while some of the scars of the Fascist-era attempts to impose Italian are still felt, 62% of the population of South Tyrol still record German as their first language (compared to 24% Italian – 2011 census), and there has been a considerable softening of official attitudes with the South Tyrol (Südtirol in German, Alto Adige in Italian) being granted autonomy and both languages, Italian and German, permitted. And to answer our original question: place names are often written simply as both the Italian and German names (written without punctuation e.g. simply Bolzano Bozen).

Tired of London?

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the great lexicographer, journalist, conversationalist, inveterate London pub-goer and general good egg, famously remarked that if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

Another quote of his on London is less well known:

“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.”

Which forms a pretty good introduction to the new, 640 page, Blue Guide London, hot off the press and available in a book shop near you VERY SOON.