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.

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Letter from Italy

Virtual museum tours: some of the best

For professional guides in Italy this is, of course, a period in which they suddenly find themselves without work. However many museums, while closed to the public, have made it possible not only to consult their catalogues or browse the collections online but have also opened virtual exhibitions. The Uffizi in Florence is one such example.

Easter is usually the busiest time of year in Florence, with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traditional Scoppio del Carro is held in Piazza del Duomo on Easter morning. This year, however, there will be no visitors and no events—even church services must be attended remotely. Spring is definitely on the way, however, and the plants and birds at least are enjoying the sun and clean air as never before. The Uffizi’s ‘The Easter Story’, an exhibition on the theme of the Resurrection, will help us to look forward to better times ahead.

And the Uffizi is not alone in its response. Lisa Corsi, a professional guide who lives in Florence, has investigated some of the most interesting websites available in English at this period of universal lockdown and shared her findings with Blue Guides.

Italy

1. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence offers various online exhibits at this link: www.uffizi.it/en/online-exhibitions Here is a list of the current online exhibits, all with high-definition pictures of Uffizi works of art.
– “Non per foco ma per divin’arte. Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries”. An excursus on the figure of Dante and on his legacy in the works and in the minds of the artists.
– “On being present; recovering blackness at the Uffizi Gallery”. The idea is to understand and resignificate with a historic approach, the presence of black people in the Uffizi paintings.
– “In the light of the Angels; a journey through 12 masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries, between human and divine”. This exhibit is all about Angels; from Giotto to Giovanni da San Giovanni, with very good pictures.
– “Today a Saviour has been born to you: the Uffizi Galleries’ paintings on the Nativity and Epiphany”. A thematic exhibition.
– “Following in Trajan’s Footsteps; a virtual exhibition on items from the reign of Trajan present in the Uffizi collections”.
– “The Room of Saturn in the Pitti Palace; a history of the arrangements in the Room of Saturn, from the 16th century to the present day”. I found this interesting, and it also includes the latest changes from 2018 in the room that features the largest group of paintings by Raphael.
– “#BotticelliSpringMarathon A virtual exhibition on the construction of the contemporary Botticelli myth through social media”. An excursus on the fame and fortune of Botticelli from the 19th century to social media.
– “The Easter Story: Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ among the artworks of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “Views from around the World; an ‘intercultural vision’ of some masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “The Scenic Virtuality of a Painting: “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” by Piero di Cosimo. A masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance depicting the myth recounted by Ovid in Book IV of the Metamorphoses”. An in-depth approach to one of the Uffizi’s most unusual paintings.
– “Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà”. Observing the details of one of the most important medieval paintings in the Uffizi collection.
– “New languages to communicate tradition: Vanished Florence. Images of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, before it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy” This is fun, though mostly aimed at people who know Florence quite well.
– “Painting and Drawing ‘like a Great Master’: the talent of Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638–55)”. An exhibit on one of the rare women painters of the past.
– “Federico Barocci, master draughtsman. The creation of images; extraordinary examples from the rich collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Amico revisited. Drawings by Amico Aspertini and other Bolognese artists; discovering marvels from the collection of prints and drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Traces 2018. Letting fashion drive you in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “Traces. Dialoguing with art in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “The World of Yesterday: rare book collection of the Library on view”. These 39 books tell us the fascinating story of Pasquale Nerino Ferri (1851–1917), the first director of the Uffizi’s Prints and Drawings Department, through analysis of his handwritten notes and the dates and dedications written by his correspondents from all over Europe.

2. The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan has a good site. The online collection features 669 records, all with high-resolution images and information on the various works. At this link pinacotecabrera.org/en/collezioni/the-collection-online you can browse the collection searching by author, material, date, etc. There is also a section dedicated to the masterpieces which features (with great pictures) the 11 most famous paintings in the collection (by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Hayez, Boccioni, Pellizza da Volpedo and Modigliani).

3. Also in Milan, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli offers an online catalogue of many of its artworks. It is very well done. The museum was once the house of the art lover and collector Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822–79). Here’s the link to its site: museopoldipezzoli.it/en/artworks.

4. Virtually visit the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and its grounds. It is the residence of the Italian head of state, the President of the Italian Republic, currently Sergio Mattarella: palazzo.quirinale.it/visitevirtuali/visitevirtuali_en.html.

5. Also in Rome the Galleria Borghese offers good pictures and a little explanation of some of its artworks: galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/il-museo/autori-e-opere.

Rest of the world

6. The Archeological Museum in Athens has a good site, very easy to navigate. Here’s the link: www.namuseum.gr/en/collections.

7. The Prado Museum in Madrid has a great site with lots of artworks featured by artist, by century, by theme. Here’s the link: www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-works. And here are the Prado masterpieces: museodelprado.es/en/the-collection.

8. The British Museum in London has a very good site that allows you to browse the collections and also to virtually visit its rooms. Very well done. Here’s the link: britishmuseum.org/collection.

9. The Metropolitan Museum in New York (metmuseum.org) has an online collection: metmuseum.org/toah/works.
It also offers an interesting “Timeline of Art History”: metmuseum.org/toah/chronology/#!?time=all&geo=all. There are also many essays that can be read online at its link: metmuseum.org/toah/essays
And some videos: metmuseum.org/art/online-features/met-360-project.

10. The site of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is very impressive and offers different possibilities, including a virtual tour of the rooms.
There is also the “Explore the Hermitage” section, where you can choose to learn more on a single work of art, or learn more on the buildings, visit the online collection and more. Here’s the link.
The only downside is that this is a very “heavy” site to navigate and it requires a fast internet connection and a good computer.


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Dante Day

Italy is still in the front line of the battle against Coronavirus, with more deaths in a day (475 on 18th March) than in any other country including China. The population is taking lockdown seriously and inevitably the use of the web from home-users has increased enormously. I was interested to see reports in the newspapers of the forthcoming ‘Dantedì’, instituted by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. The idea is to make 25th March into an annual celebration in honour of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri. The date has been chosen as it was on that day in 1300, under a full moon, that Dante and Virgil begin their week-long journey from Hell through Purgatory into Paradise in The Divine Comedy. March 25th is also the feast-day of the Annunciation, which began the new year in the Florentine calendar up until the 18th century.

The day is intended to celebrate Dante and the Italian language. This year’s celebration was planned as an ‘antipasto’ to the great events scheduled for next year, 2021 which marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. With the country in lockdown, no public events can be held in the piazze this year, but there will be numerous events online and on television.

Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence and the city later provided the great human melting-pot from which the poet took inspiration for some of the most memorable characters of the Divina Commedia. Dante also served a two-month term as one of the six priors in the Florentine government in 1300. During his absence in Rome, as part of an official delegation to Pope Boniface VIII, he was accused of fraud and corruption by a faction of the Guelf party and when he failed to return in 1302 to defend himself he was sentenced to death. He chose to go into exile and was never to return to his beloved city.

The Divina Commedia was written during his exile and in it he re-elaborated, with amazing imagination and poetic skill, the classical myth of the descent into Hades. It provides an astonishing ‘summa’ of medieval culture, but this epic poem is also written in a language (partly created by the poet himself) which is as close to modern Italian as Shakespeare’s language is to English today. What perhaps impresses us most in the poem is that Dante, while providing a vibrant fresco of the political and religious controversies of his time, is also able to tell us about himself, about his friends and enemies, about his teachers, his passions and his religious belief. The Commedia is about a man called Dante Alighieri, who finds salvation thanks to the love of the angelic Beatrice. But author and ‘hero’ are one and the same: Dante’s fede (faith), which he defines as ‘the substance of our hopes’, permits him to assert that the story that he tells actually took place. And when we read the Commedia, it is very difficult not to believe him.

The poet died (and was buried) in Ravenna. Naturally he features in our description of that city in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna, but he is also frequently recorded in other Blue Guides, because so many buildings and monuments in Italy are mentioned in his poem. But it is in Florence where his presence is felt most: in the medieval area where he lived, in the places he describes (now marked by marble plaques), in the monuments inside and outside Santa Croce, and in the frescoed portraits of him which still survive in the city.

Florence was also the birthplace of Boccaccio (1313–75), a great admirer of Dante. He experienced the great plague of 1348, which in his Decameron becomes an allegory for the moral decay of his time. It is for this reason that Boccaccio’s stories, written in beautiful and articulate prose, should not be regarded simply as examples of literary originality and of a Renaissance sense of humour. The tales recounted in the Decameron are told by three young men and seven young women who, in order to escape a city devastated by plague (and also by greed and avarice) find refuge in a villa near Fiesole, where they create a world in which the mercantile mentality is refined through a rediscovery of the values of classical humanitas and courtesy. With a lightness of touch and true wit, Boccaccio reminds us that the first step towards creating a more humane society is to recover the precious art of story-telling.

In these dire times we have much to learn from these two great medieval literary figures.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 22nd March 2020

I gratefully acknowledge the help of my son Giovanni Ivison Colacicchi in interpreting the poetic significance of both Dante and Boccaccio. Giovanni and his companion Elisa are at present in lockdown in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, one of the regions of Italy worst hit by Coronavirus, but they are lucky enough to be able to carry on their teaching activity from home, and their 3-year-old son Francesco is greatly enjoying their presence, 24 hours a day.


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Pope Francis takes a walk

With Italy in lockdown because of Coronavirus, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of Pope Francis walking along the deserted Corso in Rome from Piazza Venezia to the church of San Marcello. He decided to make this gesture of solidarity and hope to the faithful since the church contains a Crucifix said to be miraculous. He went in and knelt before it, a lone figure, to pray for the end of this current ‘plague’. On the same day he also went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to offer up a prayer before the greatly venerated image of the Madonna which for centuries has been known as the ‘Salus Populi’ or ‘Saviour of the People’. These simple gestures, typical of the present Pope and made totally regardless of security, were seen by many Italians as an encouragement to all at a time when, for the first time in history, churches all over the country are forbidden to hold services.

We have just brought out the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome and in fact had expanded our text on the San Marcello Crucifix, which now reads as follows: “Today the church has become a site of modern pilgrimage, with a banner on the façade proudly advertising its ‘Crocifisso Miracoloso’ or wonder-working Crucifix […] a 14 th -century Cross which was greatly revered by Pope John Paul II, who in the year 2000 had it moved to St Peter’s during Lent”. For the future 13th edition will remember to note this historic visit by Papa Francesco.

Many will be sceptical about the miraculous element in this story but no one can deny that it was a spontaneous act of faith and encouragement from a pope greatly admired for his closeness to the people. The fact that he left the Vatican to pray before this precious ancient work has encouraged a feeling of involvement in a country and a city where a great many devout Catholics are now isolated one from the other. We are told that the Pope is now in confinement at Santa Marta, just as we are in confinement in our own homes.

Alta Macadam, 15th March 2020


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Letter from Italy

With the closure today of the museums and monuments in all of Italy, those of us who visit them also for work are left wondering how such a thing could have happened in our lifetime. We suddenly find ourselves facing a drastic shortage of culture: no libraries, no theatre, no cinema. However, the very direct explanation by Prime Minister Conte late last night made it all too clear how necessary such measures have become in a country where the dreaded Coronavirus is suddenly holding us all hostage. There is no doubt that Italy has trusted leaders in Conte and President Mattarella, and the country’s medical profession are displaying all their dedication and efficiency. There is an evident preparedness in those in places of responsibility and a feeling of teamwork and pulling together in times of emergency. Millions of other Italians have merely been asked to stay at home for the time being. A measure which seems eminently sensible and which should not be a great sacrifice. Who knows how this forced restriction might even foster closer family relationships and make the homes themselves more comfortable. My garden will certainly enjoy greater attention. And with all the benefits of the internet, no one need feel cut off. There is even hope that the closure of museums and monuments will give those great institutions a chance for practicalities impossible when they are open all the time—even if only some radical cleaning, but also perhaps some reorganisation—an almost welcome pause to ‘stand back’ and contemplate themselves and their ‘mission’. I look of course on the rosy side of things, the side for those fortunate enough to have families and homes, but there is a very ugly side of this ‘shut down’, such as the situation in the overcrowded prisons, or that of people cut off from their families who are in hospitals or nursing homes, and the extremely dire economic consequences. This situation is making us all wonder about how we should live our lives in the future, about how long we can expect to enjoy ‘normal’ life in our global world.

For my involvement in the Blue Guides to Italy (Blue Guide Rome has just been published) it means I cannot set off for Venice and the Veneto for work on a volume coming up for revision: a restriction which has been imposed on me for the very first time by circumstances beyond my control (the only other time this happened to me was when I had to cut short a trip for Blue Guide Northern Italy when I was staying in Trieste the day of the terrible earthquake which hit the Friuli in 1976).

We can but hope the virus will soon be dominated with the help of everyone round the world and that we will soon return to a life as we know it, if greatly sobered by what has happened to us all.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 10th March 2020

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

Ingrid D. Rowland, From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, Harvard University Press, 2014.

One of the pleasures of reading The New York Review of Books is coming across the articles by Ingrid Rowland. Professor Rowland teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Rome and specialises in art history and cultural relationships, especially those between Italy and its Classical and Renaissance past. She always had something interesting to say and it is perhaps because I have happy memories of sitting around in Rome with archaeologists and art historians that I find her especially engaging.

In the introduction of her enjoyable survey of Pompeii’s after-history, we see the eight-year old Rowland, pig-tailed and bespectacled, on her first visit to the ruins in 1962. The experience clearly resonated with her (never underestimate where the experiences of an eight-year old might lead!) and she now teaches permanently in Italy. From Pompeii is the story of the characters who were fascinated by the drama of Vesuvius, its eruptions and the vanished communities of Herculaneum and Pompeii as they were slowly recovered from the lava. For centuries, legends had persisted of buried cities but there was nothing to be seen. Instead the fascination was with Vesuvius. Athanasius Kircher, would-be decipherer of hieroglyphics, a priest always on the edge of disfavour with the Church on account of his belief in the natural rather than miraculous background of geological events, gave pride of place to the  inner workings of the volcano in his influential work Mundus Subterraneus, ‘The Subterranean World’ (1665).

A hundred years later the treasures of Herculaneum and then Pompeii were beginning to emerge and were firmly fixed in the itinerary of the leading cultural figures of the day. Rowland describes the reactions of the young Mozart, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Renoir, not only to the ruins but to the bustling, poverty-stricken street-life of Naples. For 19th-century romantics in Russia, the painter Karl Bryullov’s epic The Last Day of Pompeii gripped the imagination as much as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii did of those in Britain. A special accolade is due to the Puglian Bartolo Longo who embarked on creating a new Pompeii on the edge of the old, around a church of the Madonna of the Rosary. A damaged and ugly painting of the Virgin Mary, brought to the church on a dung cart, proved an unlikely miracle-worker and soon the trains that brought tourists to Pompeii were filled too with pilgrims. Longo energetically ploughed back their donations into the crime-ridden and impoverished neighbourhood and parts of his ‘new’ Pompeii survive.

Rowland enjoys her digressions. The blood of St Januarius (San Gennaro) has an important role to play. Every year it miraculously liquefies on three separate occasions—except when it doesn’t, in warning of impending eruptions of Vesuvius. Then there is the phallus of Priapus from the House of the Vetii: guides in charge of prominent visitors such as Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea scurry past it in haste so that no compromising photos can be snapped. There is space too for the bizarre cult of the Fontanelle, the skulls preserved in caves under the city of Naples and which, while their owners languish in Purgatory, are supposed to have miraculous powers of intercession.

However, the ruins always form the backdrop to the digressions and Rowland relates the exploits of the famous curators. Guiseppe Fiorelli, appointed in 1848, replaced treasure-hunting pits with carefully stratified excavations. His calchi (plaster casts) shifted attention to the human victims of the eruption and still provide some of the most moving testimonies to the drama of AD 79. It was Fiorelli who kept wall-paintings in situ where they were found, rather than prising them off for the royal collection. Politics met with archaeology when Superintendent Vittorio Spianazzola, an opponent of Fascism married to a Jewish scholar, was removed in 1924 and replaced by Amadeo Maiuri, who dominated the Pompeiian scene until 1961. His use of mechanical diggers exposed large parts of the city but left it impossible to maintain. I despaired, as Rowland does, over the crumbling remains. On my most recent visit to Pompeii two years ago, many of the houses were closed off. Just ten years earlier there had been more to see. Even a campaign to round up stray dogs stagnated as the available funds were embezzled. Herculaneum is now much more welcoming.

And no less ominous than the slow decay of Pompeii is the ever-present threat of a fresh eruption of Vesuvius. The last was in 1944 and it is time for it to blow again. Rowland is doubtful whether the anarchic inhabitants of the Bay, long used to outwitting authority, will submit to the evacuation plans. The blood of St Januarius will no doubt liquefy if there is nothing to fear—but if it stays solid, an early escape will be well advised. If by chance I am caught there among the fleeing residents, I shall seek refuge on a Gran Turismo bus, its hurried entry and exit from the region long perfected by the demands of whisking tourists quickly around the site and back through the traffic jams in time for dinner in Rome.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples are covered in Blue Guide Southern Italy. Pompeii is one of the 50 sites in Freeman’s Sites of Antiquity.

Artwork of the month: May. “Flora”, Pompeii

The Sorrento peninsula begins at the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia, on the southeast shore of the Bay of Naples. It takes its name from its 9th-century castle and from the ancient city of Stabiae, which was swallowed up by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny the Elder met his death on the beach at Stabiae, suffocated by toxic fumes from the volcano. On the plain of Varano and in the hills above, overlooking the water, are the remains of two Roman villas. The Villa Arianna dates from the 2nd century BC. It is not known how large it was at its full extent, as many of its clifftop rooms have collapsed, but surviving remains show a sumptuous, spacious building, including the large palaestra. Some of the surviving wall decoration and floor mosaics are very fine. In the main triclinium was a fresco of Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, which gave the villa its name, Arianna. Finest of all the frescoes are those from the cubicula, detached in the 18th–19th centuries and now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. One of the most interesting is the Cupid Seller, depicting two women, one young, one middle aged, confabulating together while an old crone at their feet (a procuress?) displays her wares, tiny cupids trapped in a wooden cage like chickens at a market. The image fascinated artists of the Neoclassical age, and several versions of it were produced. More famous still, and apparently without any sinister subtext, is the lovely Flora, a young girl shown with her back to us, delicately gathering spring flowers.

“Cupid Seller”: Soprintendenza Speciale ai Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Stabiae and Naples are covered in Blue Guide Southern Italy.

Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy

The author, supported by the classicists and art historians on the Blue Guides editorial board, has updated this new edition with a wealth of detail. Now with useful Blue Guide Recommended advice on hotels and restaurants. The whole region is covered from the Bay of Naples, with some of the most famous remains of antiquity in the world, to fashionable Puglia in the heel of Italy.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here »