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.

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.

Keats and Rome: 200 years

The poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, in February 1821: two hundred years ago exactly. The apartment on the Spanish Steps that he had rented with his friend, the struggling painter Joseph Severn (who nursed him faithfully to the end), is now the Keats-Shelley Museum. The Life and Letters of John Keats, by Lord Houghton (1867), contains a moving account of the poet’s last days, including letters written by Keats and Severn. The following is probably the last letter that Keats wrote:

Rome, 30th November, 1820

My dear Brown, ’Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book,—yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and coning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence…I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse,—and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life…Dr Clark is very attentive to me; he says, there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George—for it runs in my head we shall all die young…Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell Haslam I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost. I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you! John Keats

Keats’ condition continued to deteriorate. Two months into the new year, on 15th January 1821, Severn wrote the following:

Torlonia, the banker, has refused us any more money; the bill is returned unaccepted, and to-morrow I must pay my last crown for this cursed lodging place: and what is more, if he dies, all the beds and furniture will be burnt and the walls scraped and they will come on me for a hundred pounds or more! But above all, this noble fellow lying on the bed and without the common spiritual comforts that many a rogue and fool has in his last moments! If I do break down it will be under this; but I pray that some angel of goodness may yet lead him through this dark wilderness. If I could leave Keats for a time I could soon raise money by my painting, but he will not let me out of his sight, he will not bear the face of a stranger. I would rather cut my tongue out than tell him I must get the money—that would kill him at a word. You see my hopes of being kept by the Royal Academy will be cut off, unless I send a picture by the spring…Dr Clark is still the same, though he knows about the bill: he is afraid the next change will be to diarrhoea. Keats sees all this—his knowledge of anatomy makes every change tenfold worse: every way he is unfortunate, yet every one offers me assistance on his account. He cannot read any letters, he has made me put them by him unopened. They tear him to pieces—he dare not look on the outside of any more: make this known.

Six weeks later, Keats was dead.

Feb. 27th.—He is gone; he died with the most perfect ease—he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, the approaches of death came on. ‘Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.’ I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death—so quiet that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now, I am broken down by four nights’ watching, no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened: the lungs were completely gone. The doctors could not imagine by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his dear body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here—that I must else have gone into a fever. I am better now—but still quite disabled. The police have been. The furniture, the walls, the floor, must all be destroyed and changed. […] The letters I put into the coffin with my own hand.

The grave of Keats in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. An ardent admirer of the poet has clearly left the scarlet imprint of her lips upon the stone.

Lord Houghton writes as follows: “Keats was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, one of the most beautiful spots on which the eye and heart of man can rest. […] In one of those mental voyages into the past which often precede death, Keats had told Severn that ‘he thought the intensest pleasure he had received in life was in watching the growth of flowers’: and another time, after lying a while still and peaceful, he said, ‘I feel the flowers growing over me.’ And there they do grow, even all the winter long—violets and daisies mingling with the fresh herbage, and, in the words of Shelley, ‘making one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.’ Ten weeks after the close of his holy work of friendship and charity, Mr Severn wrote to Mr Haslam:—‘Poor Keats has now his wish—his humble wish, he is at peace in the quiet grave. I walked there a few days ago, and found the daisies had grown all over it. It is one of the most lovely retired spots in Rome.’” Forty years later, Severn returned to Rome as British Consul. When he died there, at the age of eighty-five, he was laid to rest by his friend. The two now lie side by side.

An extract from Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

The Victory of Brescia

Remains of the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, findspot of the Winged Victory. Photo: Blue Guides.

I was last in Brescia in 2018, preparing for the first edition of Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes which was published the following year. Apart from the extraordinary beauty and interest of her museums and monuments (which I remembered from my last visit when at work for Blue Guide Northern Italy way back in 1996), I was deeply impressed by the multi-ethnic atmosphere of the city. The local government has not only ensured the integration of a new influx of immigrants but it has seen to it that Italian citizenship has been bestowed on the great majority of these new inhabitants. I was struck by many small details which suggested how successful this policy had been, somehow summed up in the simple small ‘supermarket’ outside the station with its sign boasting ‘Food from all the world’.

Little did I imagine that in March 2020, the province of Brescia together with that of her close neighbour Bergamo would have suffered the tragic record number of deaths from Covid-19 in all Italy. That month the army had to be called in to transport the coffins to cemeteries elsewhere in the country as there was no more room for them locally. We have learnt that whole communities of the elderly (many of whom had survived the last war) were wiped out in the valleys near the two cities. The President of the Republic has made a number of visits to these areas in the past few months (both in a public and in a semi-private form) to show his solidarity. And Brescia and Bergamo together (even if traditionally rival cities) are to be the Italian Capitals of Culture in 2023, as a way of helping them forward.

Although Lombardy is still the region of Italy hardest hit by Covid-19, there has been great rejoicing in Brescia this autumn to welcome back the city’s most astounding Roman bronze statue: a Winged Victory, which has spent the past two years in the state restoration laboratory in Florence.

In 2018 I saw it without its arms and its wings, which were already in Florence (in fact when it was unearthed in 1826, the arms and wings were not attached to the statue, but found nearby). Nevertheless, the impression made on me by this over-life-size lady, despite her shorn state, was immense. She glances down, while the folds of her delicate chiton descend to touch the ground having slipped off one shoulder. A heavier cloak clings to her legs.  

The statue was found in the early 19th century in the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, together with a hoard of other bronzes including six portrait heads from the Imperial age, so it is thought that someone had the idea of burying these wonderful artefacts all together in the hope that they would survive to be found again some centuries later. During restoration the Victory has been confirmed as dating from the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) or from that of his successor Nero (AD 54–68). It seems to have been made, using the lost wax method, somewhere in northern Italy rather than in Rome. The statue is now lighter by some 100kg, as superfluous accretions both inside and out, many added during past restorations, have been eliminated. Traces of gilding and silver intarsia have been revealed. The Victory has many close similarities with the Aphrodite of Capua, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The position of the Victory’s arms seems to indicate that she would have been holding a shield captured from the enemy on which she was writing the name of the divinity to whom the victory was owed, but the Greek model may have been Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, looking at her reflection in the shield of her beloved Ares, or Venus Victrix (the Conqueror) inscribing the victories of the first Roman emperors on the shield of Mars. The shield has not survived and we do not know in what material it would have been made. Another mystery is the raised left foot of the Victory, which has been interpreted by scholars as trampling a helmet (of the enemy).

The Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman marble of the Hadrianic era (2nd century) based on a Greek original. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC by 2.5.
The Winged Victory of Brescia, photographed before its recent restoration. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto.

When I saw the statue it was still in the superb Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, which has an immense number of treasures from all periods, especially the Lombard era of the 6th century and the later Carolingian age (when the monastery of Santa Giulia was founded, in 753). These include an exquisite little ivory reliquary casket and the so-called Cross of Desiderius, as well as more mundane objects such as a perfectly preserved helmet apparently of the type worn in the Alpine area of Italy from the 4th–1st centuries BC, lined in leather for extra comfort. But since this museum is so large and needs much time to do it justice, the decision to display the Victory now in the southern hall of the Capitolium temple close by is a good one. It is also most fitting since the statue was found here. The design of the display has been provided by the Spanish architect and sculptor Juan Navarro Baldeweg. The Victory will be placed in a raised position (on an anti-seismic base) lit by a light symbolising the moon and reflecting the position of the shield. Although the statue is already here, it cannot yet be visited as all museums in Italy are closed due to Covid-19. But the Victory can be seen and the opening celebrations followed on her very own dedicated website

Alta Macadam, November 2020

News from Florence: The Uffizi

At the time of writing this article, Italy was experiencing its second wave of Covid-19 and we were all being invited to stay at home as much as possible to avoid another lockdown. Museums and galleries were still open, even though theatres and concert halls were closed. Since then, however, museums too have had to close their doors and—with the dramatic drop in visitor numbers that this necessarily means—directors are thinking hard about how to plan for the future. 

Until the latest closure, there was much to report about the activity of the Gallerie degli Uffizi. The director, Eike Schmidt (who, Florentines were concerned to hear, has himself fallen victim to Covid-19 and is isolating at home), has opened or reopened many more rooms: in 2019 masterpieces by Bronzino, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were all rehung. The worksite, known for decades as the ‘nuovi Uffizi’ or ‘grandi Uffizi’ has finally been given an end date: 2024. 

Meanwhile the Corridoio Vasariano is set to reopen in 2022 and for the first time in its history it will be decorated with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and inscriptions. Now that Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria degli Uffizi are united under a single directorship, the corridor will become the natural link between the two, with an exit to Palazzo Pitti. The walkway (nearly a kilometre long), which passes over the Arno by Ponte Vecchio, is especially wonderful for the unique views it gives of the city through its little round windows. Over the past 60 years, many directors attempted to reopen it fully but none succeeded and latterly it had become an expensive ‘extra tour’ offered by travel agencies, accessible only by booking months ahead and given a rather exaggerated ‘off the beaten track’ appeal. Now, thankfully, it is to become part of the visit to the Uffizi and work should begin in 2021.

Another piece of good news is that the Uffizi’s official website, with its easy booking system, is now up and running after the director successfully saw off a number of organisations with websites posing as ‘official Uffizi ticket vendors’. The website also has a catalogue of all the works on display and you can make a virtual tour of part of the gallery. 

Government funds have also been made available to proceed with the loggia designed by Arata Isosaki. In 1998, Isozaki won an international competition to design a new entrance to the Uffizi. Protests immediately ensued—understandably, since the new design would encroach on the integrity of the the remarkable urban space created by Vasari. Isozaki’s winning entry will now be used as a new exit, on the other side of the building (although its detractors still consider that the proposed gigantic loggia will represent an unforgivable intrusion into the heart of Florence, just metres away from Palazzo Vecchio). The present director argues that it should be seen as a contemporary interpretation of a classical Renaissance loggia. If, as he has suggested, it is up and functioning by Christmas 2024, we will find out whether others share his view. The area designated for its construction has for years been a building site, abandoned behind hoardings, so there will be some relief that at least the present unsightly exit will no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wonder if the size of the loggia couldn’t be modified, to help it settle more comfortably into the Florence townscape.

The cityscape of Florence, with Palazzo Vecchio prominent in the centre. The Uffizi stretches behind it and the long façade of Palazzo Pitti is on the far right. How will this view be altered by Arata Isozaki’s new Uffizi Loggia? (Photo: © James Howells)

The dramatic drop in visitors because of Covid-19 remains a cause for concern. An experimental remedy by the Uffizi has been to take out advertisements in the national press, encouraging people to visit. This is an unprecedented move, aimed at Italians rather than tourists. This year Eike Schmidt even joined Chiara Ferragni, a famous influencer, who was at the Uffizi modelling for Vogue Hong Kong (an event which in itself must have brought a princely sum into the gallery’s coffers). The director made use of her visit for a much publicised ‘photo opportunity’—an Instagram selfie with Chiara in front of Botticelli’s Primavera—something which left many of Florence’s more traditional academics gasping. Schmidt was quick to point out that his photo-op had led to a considerable increase in young visitors to the gallery and had been an excellent marketing ploy, helping the Uffizi and its treasures to reach Chiara Ferragni’s 20 million followers. Critics from the ancien régime felt Schmidt had lowered himself to the role of ‘rock star’.

There has also been research into the attics and deposits of both the Pitti and the Uffizi, and three more ‘famous people’ have been found belonging to the series of portraits painted by Cristofano dell’Altissimo which forms an incredibly long frieze beneath the ceilings of the three corridors on the Uffizi’s second floor. They were commissioned by the Medici in 1552–89, copies of portraits collected by the historian Paolo Giovio, who died in 1552. One of the three is of the young Henry VIII of England, who will be able to take his place among this exalted company after restoration. We are told that another, better-known series of ‘famous men’, frescoed by Andrea del Castagno for a room in a villa in a suburb of Florence and which has been in the Uffizi (but rarely visible) since the mid-19thcentury, is finally to be given its own room in the gallery. 

In the last few months Schmidt has also suggested that some paintings could be returned to the churches from which they were removed. This might include Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna, painted for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella. It was moved from there to the Uffizi in 1948. However, Schmidt has also publicly recognised the complications involved. Such a move would naturally open up a whole debate. The reasoning behind the idea is to draw visitors to other places in Florence and ‘decentralise’ the Uffizi, creating a network of museums along the lines of a museo diffuso (a concept much in vogue in Italy at present, where visitor overcrowding at certain key sights has been a growing problem—at least before Covid-19). One of the buildings suitable for use in such a project could be the Medici Villa at Careggi, which has been inaccessible for decades. 

And finally, the Uffizi has recently welcomed the loan of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), from the National Gallery in London, which is the centrepiece of an exhibition exploring the relationships between art and science (for an English video, see here).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Venetian Empire at Sea

Maritime Museum, Venice. The Venetian Lion with raised sword. Normally he holds a book. When shown brandishing a sword, it means war.

The Venetian Empire, or Stato da mar, depended on a huge number of galleys, galleons and galleasses to protect its trade routes to the east. As Jan Morris has pointed out, ‘in an age when seamen preferred to spend their nights ashore’ the Republic soon set about establishing control of coastal ports in Dalmatia, Corfu, on the Greek mainland, in Crete, Alexandria and Cyprus for her merchant ships plying back and forth between Venice and Constantinople and further east. By the 15th century the ships could depend on being welcomed into ports under the control of the Serenissima throughout their journey. For safety against attacks from pirates or by the Turks they would sail in convoy: the concern for their safe return is wonderfully portrayed in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

The galleys were of various sizes – small and thin; biremes with two tiers of oars, and triremes with three. By the 16th century the longer quinqueremes were in use, with their five horizontal levels of oars (and with five men to an oar). Galleons, which were armed merchant ships, were even larger, redesigned in the first half of the 16th century by the Venetian Humanist Vettor Fausto (a member of the erudite circle of Aldus Manutius, through whom he was able to study the history of naval construction in Greek and Latin texts). It was Fausto who pioneered the concept of marine architecture. In the 17th century the galleass was designed. A cross between a traditional galley and a galleon, equipped with four masts, broad in the beam and propelled by hundreds of oars, its role was to provide a line of defence preceding the rest of the fleet when naval battles were predicted. 

We know that a flotilla of six great galleasses led the Venetian fleet into battle against the Ottoman Empire in 1571, at Lepanto at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. It has gone down in history not only as a famous Venetian victory but also as the last sea battle to be fought with galleons manned by oarsmen. Although there were terrible losses on both sides (at least 8,000 on the Christian side and some 20,000 on the Muslim), it was always considered a great victory by the Venetians and there are painted and sculpted memorials to it in buildings all over Venice. We know that the ship which returned to Venice bringing news of the victory took just ten days to reach the lagoon. 

Some Venetian ships had to be flat-bottomed to transport cavalry horses. Other live animals were kept on deck for food during a voyage. In siege warfare the masts could sometimes be turned into ladders to set up against the walls of enemy fortresses. Because of the shallowness of the lagoon, some of the larger ships had to be raised on pontoons (known as camelli) for their safe passage to the open sea. On their return, the boats would put in at quays all over the city, although the Bacino di San Marco in front of the Doge’s Palace was always the main harbour. This was where illustrious visitors would disembark and where the doge boarded the Bucintoro for the annual ceremony of Venice’s ‘marriage’ with the sea.

The Captain-Generals of the Sea, often became heroes (and even doges) after victories; but if defeated they could be disgraced and imprisoned. The most celebrated Admiral of the Fleet was Francesco Morosini, who came from a well-known Venetian patrician family, many members of which served the Republic over the centuries, four of them becoming doges. After achieving great fame for his military exploits, Francesco himself became Venice’s last great doge. He began his career on the island of Crete, which had been taken by the Serenissima in 1204 as part of her ‘reward’ after the Fourth Crusade. Following the takeover, and once the Genoese were ousted, Venice settled down to centuries of fruitful occupation of the island, having secured it as a roadstead for the merchant galleys bound for Alexandria and for Constantinople and beyond. When the Turks laid siege to Herakleion in the 17th century, Morosini took command of the defence of the town and held out for an incredible 22 years—the longest siege in history. The townspeople endured terrible suffering and when Morosini finally surrendered, in 1669, the island fell to the Turks. Morosini himself survived and his troops were allowed to leave Crete unharmed (but not before Morosini had managed to steal the precious icon of the Madonna from Herakleion cathedral; it has been on the high altar of the church of the Salute in Venice ever since). 

The city of Candia, modern Herakleion (Crete), one of a series of reliefs of Venetian conquests on the exterior wall of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio, in the sestiere of San Marco.

Morosini also enjoyed capturing flags, shields and armour from the Turks (all his trophies have been preserved). He always went to sea with his cat, and parts of the galleys he sailed are today preserved in museums in Venice. He had a prayer book specially made so that it could conceal a small pistol; his sword is one of the most unexpected ‘treasures’ in the basilica of St Mark’s. However, Morosini is best remembered by Venetians for his conquest of the Peloponnese in 1685–7. He had given the Republic its last moment of glory and ever afterwards he was known to its people as the ‘Peloponnesiaco’. The magnificent ancient lions he seized from Greece during these campaigns are still seated outside the gate into the Arsenale. 

Outside Venice, Morosini’s name in history is indelibly linked with the Parthenon, since before he finally took possession of the Peloponnese, he allowed his German mercenary troops to bombard the Acropolis, where the Turks had set up their defences. By the time he reached Athens, the Turks had already demolished what was left of the Propylaia (it had been hit by lightning and ruined in an explosion some years earlier when it served as an ammunition store) and they had totally destroyed the Temple of Athena Nike just inside the entrance gate, setting up their artillery on the bastions. They were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine and one evening in the following year, 1687, a mortar from Morosini’s position on the Mouseion Hill was fired by a mercenary lieutenant directly at the Parthenon. The explosion carried away practically the whole of the temple’s cella and its frieze, as well as eight columns on the north side and six on the south side, together with the entablature. The world-famous temple was effectively cut in half. Morosini, on taking the hill, then added to the damage by attempting to remove the west pediment. He bungled it and the precious sculptures of the chariot of Athena and its horses fell to the ground and were smashed to pieces. The Venetians overlooked this and when Morosini returned home he was welcomed as a hero and was elected doge shortly afterwards. The Peloponnese remained under Venetian control for the next 30 years, but not without forays from the Turks. Fittingly enough, he died in battle within sight of the walls of Nafplion in 1694, yet again fighting the Ottomans. 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Venice.

An update on Dante

Domenicho di Michelino’s famous likeness of Dante in the Duomo of Florence.

Work is underway to plan next year’s celebrations for the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (see previous article posted here on 22 March this year “Dante Day”). In fact Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, went to Ravenna on 6th September to open the events (albeit behind a mask) at the recently restored tomb of the great poet, who died in Ravenna in 1321.

There is talk of a reconciliation between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and the town of Ravenna in Romagna across the Apennines where he died in sorrowful exile. Although the Tuscan city has numerous memorials to Dante—inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, on street plaques throughout the city, a copy of his death mask in Palazzo Vecchio—there has always been a feeling that the poet’s rightful resting place should also be in Florence (the Medici pope Leo X almost succeeded in having his remains moved there). Ravenna, however, points out that it was thanks to Franciscan friars in their city that the poet’s bones were preserved at all. His tomb, right beside their convent, is a disappointment at first glance: a gloomy mausoleum erected at the end of the 18th century with further ‘embellishments’ added in the first decades of the 20th century (during celebrations for the sixth centenary of his death), but it does preserve a relief of 1483 by the great Venetian sculptor Pietro Lombardo, which shows the poet in profile surrounded by his books. Florence in fact failed to commemorate her famous son until the 19thcentury, when a cumbersome statue was set up in the centre of Piazza Santa Croce (moved to a less conspicuous position a few years later) and a rhetorical monument was erected inside the basilica. The museum known as the Casa di Dante has no original works. It is perhaps the Baptistery of Florence which stands as the most moving testimony to Dante’s presence in the city he loved and where he once acted as a Prior. He was baptised here and recalls his ‘bel San Giovanni’ in the Commedia. In 1302 he was sentenced to death in his native city, and in order to save his life he never returned there, seeking refuge instead in other places in Italy, ending up in Ravenna where he was given a home and so was able to finish the Divina Commedia.

As part of the celebrations in Florence (even today seen by some as an opportunity to ‘reconcile’ Dante with his native city) there are plans to give the Dante Museum a much-needed face-lift, and also to put on permanent display the wonderful series of frescoes of famous men (which includes Dante by Andrea del Castagno) which for many years has been hidden away in an area of the Uffizi not normally open to the public. The delightful painting in the Duomo, of Dante ‘protecting’ Florence, has been chosen as the logo of the 2021 events. There will also be all sorts of theatrical events, readings and concerts.

Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), on 25th March, is to become an annual event. One of the most interesting events scheduled for next year is the inauguration of the Museo della Lingua Italiana, a museum of the Italian language, in part of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. There will be exhibitions at the Uffizi and at the Bargello, which will include editions of his works and the most famous of the commentaries. The Accademia della Crusca in the Medici villa of Castello will publish a Dante dictionary in recognition of the fact that it was Dante who established Tuscan as the literary vernacular of Italy. In Ravenna there will also be many important exhibitions, concerts and performances. Projects are going ahead despite fears about Covid-19—of course ‘virtual’ exhibitions and events are also a possibility. One of these has already begun here, where a a panel of a hundred artists, literary figures, journalists and people from all different walks of life, have each been asked to provide a commentary on one Canto of Dante’s opus

So the ‘bel paese’ (Dante, Inferno, canto XXXIII) is at least planning better days ahead, even linking concepts such as ‘unity’ and ‘Europe’ to its greatest poet.

by Alta Macadam