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The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum

Fresco of the reluctant martyr sneaking out of the frozen pond to the warmth of the bath house.

In 1900 the archaeologist Giacomo Boni uncovered some intriguing remains in the Roman Forum: those of the so-called ‘Oratory of the Forty Martyrs’ and, leading off it, a covered brick ramp. These remains are usually closed to the public, and work on them is ongoing, but at the moment (until 10th January 2016) they are open as part of an exhibition.

 

From the street which runs alongside what would once have been the entrance portico of the great Basilica Julia (an opposite the modern public toilets), a path leads to the excavations. The Oratory, its walls covered in fragmentary frescoes, has been enlosed by a modern roof, walls and door. At first sight, you might think there is nothing remarkable about these, but signboards explain the enormous trouble that has been taken to reconstruct what might originally have been in place here: a roof which rises above the ground at the same height as the ceiling of the ramp, a door whose dimensions conform to those of ‘Golden Rectangle’, and an interior volume that, like that of the Pantheon, is exactly as tall as it is wide, so that a perfect sphere could be fitted inside. The room itself, today known as the Oratory because of its later use as a place of Christian worship, was originally constructed in the 1st century, at the time of the emperor Domitian, to form an entrance vestibule to the ramp, the covered walkway which slopes and winds its way gently up to the Palatine Hill, linking the Imperial palace and the Forum.

 

The ramp and its ancillary buildings were added to by succeeding emperors so that by the time of Hadrian in the 2nd century the complex consisted of the ramp itself, two separate vestibules and a grand porticoed atrium. The current exhibition has opened the ramp and the first vestibule, the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, to the public.

 

The ramp is similar in its design to that inside Castel Sant’Angelo, the ancient mausoleum of Hadrian, which winds through the core of the building to the central sepulchral chamber. It is tall and narrow and barrel-vaulted, its walls and floor made of brick. It would have been possible to travel along its length on horseback. Rooms that open off it might have been used by the Imperial guard. They have been arranged to exhibit pieces of sculpture found during excavations. At the level of the first landing, on the right, are the remains of a latrine, built during the time of Hadrian and close to a staircase inserted under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan to link the grand atrium or forecourt to the ramp. In the early Christian era, this atrium was turned into the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and it is known that the staircase was still in use at that time. The ramp leads onward and upward, out into the sunlight again, to an elevated terrace from where there is a magnificent view of the Forum down below and across the rooftops, domes and bell-towers of the city. The continuation of the ramp from here to the summit of the Palatine is not open, and indeed excavations are not yet complete. It is proposed at a later stage to open it up and allow public access.

Interior view of the Imperial ramp.

 

The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs has interesting traces of fresco decoration. Each of the four walls was decorated with a dado of trompe l'oeil white drapery, above which are figurative scenes. On the wall on the left as you enter (the north wall) are the very scanty remains of the Forty Martyrs in Glory. You can still make out some of their heads, encircled with haloes, and their bright white robes, edged with purple like a magistrate’s toga. The east wall, with an apse at its centre, has the main scene. The Forty Martyrs were Roman soldiers of the Legio XII Fulminata, who had converted to Christianity. They were sentenced (in AD 320) to spend the night naked in a frozen pond, near which were warm baths, specially prepared to tempt any who might wish to recant rather than die of exposure. One of the company did so: the fresco shows him sneaking away from his companions to thaw his frozen limbs. His action left only thirty-nine faithful, until one of their guards came forward and confessed his Christian faith, taking the number back to forty again. To the left of this scene are large painted crosses, hung with jewels, and below one of them, a peacock, symbol of immortality. The south wall had scenes of monastic life (very ruined). The frescoes have undergone several restorations between 1969 and today. For this exhibition, they were restored (very beautifully) under the leadership of Susanna Sarmati.

 

by Annabel Barber. See here for Blue Guides on Rome.

Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver

At some point during the turbulent years of the declining Roman Empire, a cache of silver was hidden by its owners, packed into a copper cauldron. This hoard has been puzzling the world ever since. Known as the Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure, it has become an artworld mystery. And the mystery is far from solved. But seven pieces of the great hoard were purchased by the Hungarian government in 2014 and—at last—went on show to the public, in the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest.

No one really knows anything about the Seuso Treasure except that it is Roman, extremely fine and extremely valuable, and dates from the 4th or 5th century AD. The most convincing story is that it was found, sometime in the 1970s, by a young man called József Sümegh, in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, at the age of just 24. Not long before his death, he had suddenly started appearing in Levi’s jeans, the kind of apparel that wasn’t readily available in Communist Hungary in those days. It is highly possible that he had sold several of the smaller items of the hoard. By the time the Treasure ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces: perhaps vastly fewer that had originally been stashed, hurriedly and in panic, into that wide copper cauldron by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it collectively fled before the barbarian invasions of Central Europe.

Hungary cannot prove its claim to the silver. Even though soil samples from the cauldron are a good fit with Transdanubia, it is not enough. The trail of the hoard has been deliberately muddied and obfuscated for decades, by dealers, smugglers, heisters, small-time and big-time crooks, a whole procession of them. The tedious dishonesty of greedy men has obscured the story of these extraordinary works of art. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but it pulled out because its story was too murky. Auctions at Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London foundered because of bad provenance. Even now the Hungarian authorities will not reveal from whom they purchased the seven pieces for 15 million euros. This was a good price, considering—though if the silver really is Hungarian patrimony, it is a pity they had to pay anything at all.

The centrepiece of the 2014 Hungarian Parliament display was the so-called Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a beaded and decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the centre are figures dining under a canopy, one of the members of the party feeding a titbit to a dog. Around them are scenes of hunting: and below the image of an upended boar, is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS (‘May these vessels remain with you for centuries, Sevso, and serve your descendants worthily’). It has been suggested that the silver was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift. Nothing is known of him. It can only be surmised that he was a wealthy Roman or Romanised Celt who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in the neighbourhood of Lake Balaton. At the very top of the inscription, between the first and the last words, is a tiny Chi Rho: Seuso may have been a Christian, or simply an army veteran. (For a detailed image of the central roundel, see here .) Stylistically, the platter shows similiarities to the famous Cesena Plate in the Malatesta Library at Cesena in Italy, near Ravenna. (For an image of the Cesena Plate, see here.)

Other items include another large plate with a geometric design in the centre and two geometric ewers (one of which illustrated at the top of this story). These objects are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, whereas other objects, notably an unusually-shaped incense casket and a jug with Dionysiac scenes are decorated with repoussé figures. On the Dionysiac jug, the varicose decoration of frenzied maenads recalls (sort of) the famous Derveni krater in Thessaloniki. Which is perhaps not an utterly mad comparison, despite the six hundred or so years' time difference between the crafting of the two, because scholars believe the pieces of the hoard may have come from two different centres of craftmanship, a western and an eastern. Other experts claim that all the pieces could have originated from a single Balkan workshop (in Sirmium, for example, or Thessaloniki), a place where the styles of East and West came together.

In the late 19th century, an elaborate folding stand, made of silver and lavishly decorated, was found close to Polgárdi, the claimed findspot of the Seuso hoard. It is a tetrapod plate stand, just the thing for a sumptuous fête champêtre, a kind of five-star camping table. It is part of the holdings of the Hungarian National Museum (see image here ). It is by no means out of the question that it once belonged to Seuso’s picnic equipment.

For three months, members of the public may view the seven treasures in Budapest, free of charge and with no prior appointment, in the hopes that someone might have their memory jogged, might recall a small silver object—a spoon, say, or a little finger bowl—which a member of their family might have bought, many years ago, from a treasure trover called József Sümegh. Then at last the question of the silver’s patrimony might be convincingly answered.

Annabel Barber

NB: Since this was written, the remaining known items of the Seuso Treasure, including the spectacular Achilles Plate, have been secured by Hungary. For more, see here.

Florence and Buda: two cities of learning

Matthias Corvinus, copy of a lost portrait by Mantegna.

It was through Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who became King of Hungary aged 15 in 1458, that Renaissance art and Humanism was first exported outside Italy. The King's erudition and interests linked him closely with Lorenzo il Magnifico in Florence, and they exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. Many of the very beautiful volumes (often similar in size and decoration) that they commissioned in Florence from Renaissance artists and scholars have survived. By the end of his life Corvinus possessed one of the most important libraries then in existence—and, far richer than his Medici counterpart, he was able to put together an even more precious collection of manuscripts than the one then in Florence. Some of the manuscripts (including his Bible, exquisitely illuminated in Florence by Attavante and Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni) remained unfinished at his death so never reached Hungary, but are today preserved in the Medici Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

In 1476 Corvinus married Beatrice, the highly educated daughter of Ferdinand I of Aragon, King of Naples, and he had a splendid marble bust of her made by Francesco Laurana at the time of their engagement. She was only 16 or 17 years old and Laurana's sculpture is today one of the masterpieces in the Frick Museum in New York. The couple were then portrayed, probably by Giovanni Dalmata, in a double portrait (preserved in Budapest) in profile in low relief in white marble against a dark green background. Beatrice proved a worthy wife, sharing Matthias's passion for books and music and she herself was a patron of the arts. Also preserved in Budapest is the splendid brocaded velvet which once decorated the royal throne in Buda, known to have been made in Florence on a design by Antonio del Pollaiolo (and restored in 2013).

It was at the court of Matthias's predecessor King Sigismund that Filippo Scolari, known as Pippo Spano, had an important career as military leader but he was also a renowned Humanist. At that time the painter Masolino was called to Hungary to carry out frescoes for his funerary chapel, so the artist abandoned his work at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, leaving Masaccio to complete it. Pippo Spano was immortalised in Florence as one of the 'famous men' frescoed by Andrea del Castagno (now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, but sadly usually not on view).

During Matthias's time many Florentine merchants lived in Buda, including Bernardo Vespucci, brother of Amerigo. We know that in 1469 the Signoria sent two lions, symbols of Florence, to Corvinus, as a sign of homage.

A portrait of Matthias, with his characteristic long flowing locks, by an unknown Lombard painter copied from a famous portrait of him by Mantegna (now lost) has had an interesting history. When attributed to Boltraffio, it was purchased from a private Italian collection by the press baron Lord Rothermere, famous as an advocate of the revision of the Versailles Peace Treaty. In certain influential political circles in Hungary at the time Rothermere became so popular for the irredentist campaign in his popular newspapers that a proposal was made to him to become Hungarian head of state (or, if he preferred, to have his son thus enthroned). This clearly caused him considerable embarrassment and to avoid any misunderstanding he presented this portrait of Matthias to Miklós Horthy in 1930, on the tenth anniversary of the latter’s election as regent of the Hungarian state, and it was hung in the royal palace of Buda. It is now in the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest, but in store and so sadly not on view.

At the end of last year Italy dedicated its first exhibition to Matthias Corvinus, appropriately held in the library of San Marco, and curated by Péter Farbaky, director of the Budapest History Museum. Farbaky’s interest in Corvinus had already led to an international conference in Florence at Villa I Tatti in 2007, the papers of which where published in November 2011 by Harvard University.

(by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.)

In March of this year, also in the Budapest History Museum, an exhibition will open of self-portaits of Hungarian artists from the Uffizi collection. The show will be reviewed on this blog.

Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back

Self-portrait by Nélie Jacquemart

by Alta Macadam

A small but very choice exhibition has come to Florence from the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris (runs until 31st December). It is housed in the Villa Bardini, one of the city's most recent exhibition spaces, home also to a museum of the huge collection that was put together by the art dealer Stefano Bardini in the 1870s and 1880s.

From the entrance you make your way through the villa garden, designed around a central staircase flanked by beds where the plants are changed according to the season, and box hedges. The grottoes and wall fountains produce a pleasing sound of water which melts into the peaceful tones of birdsong. The garden is in the very heart of Florence and the truly magnificent, unique close-up view of the city is its most spectacular feature.

It is particularly fitting that the exhibition from the Jacquemart-André should be exhibited here since Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart both knew and corresponded with Stefano Bardini and purchased some Renaissance works from him in the 1880s. Edouard died in 1894 and it was Nélie who created the famous Italian Renaissance section of their renowned Parisian museum (she herself was a skilled painter, and her self-portrait from 1880 is also on display here).

All the paintings in the exhibition are of very high quality (and nearly all of them are in very fine frames, mostly original). The portrait of a lute-player by Francesco Salviati could be taken at first glance for a Pontormo: it is a magnficent painting, memorable too for the prettily striped cloth in the foreground. Mantegna’s Ecce Homo (c. 1500) is one of the treasures of the collection. Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child includes a lovely landscape, and the Madonna is dressed in a magnificent red, blue and golden cloak. The loveliest of three works attributed to Botticelli is the smallest, a Madonna and Child which, although damaged, reveals the master’s skill in the delicate rendering of the Madonna’s hair, veil and halo. Another famous work is Paolo Uccello’s St George and the Dragon: the thin beast is full of character, though it is perhaps the walled garden in the background which is the most interesting part of the work.

Other paintings by less well-known artists, but all of extreme interest, include a tiny Narcissus (by an early 15th-century Umbrian artist); a portrait of a man in profile, one of the best works by the Dalmatian artist Giorgio Culinovic known as Schiavone, dated 1504; a crowded processional scene attributed to Verrocchio and his workshop; and a tiny painting of Christ of the Apocalypse by Zanobi Strozzi (unfortunately damaged). A charming scene of a birth by Scheggia is set in a pink and grey house and shows a group of six men approaching the bedside bearing gifts (mostly welcome food!). This was clearly a desco da parto, a circular ‘tray’ presented to a mother after childbirth (and traditionally used for her first meal). Many such deschi have survived, some of them painted by the best artists of the day.

Interspersed amongst the paintings are some exquisite small sculptures, including a small bronze Hercules and the Centaur by Giambologna, a tiny bronze plaque of Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Riccio, and a rectangular relief in bronze of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian by Donatello (especially interesting for its unusual iconography).

This exhibition is well worth visiting, both for its superb works as well as for the setting of the villa itself on its garden hillside in the very centre of Florence. And you can leave by the door on Costa San Giorgio and walk a few metres up that lovely old walled lane to the Forte di Belvedere, which has recently been reopened to the public after many years of closure. It provides another celebrated viewpoint of the city.

Alta Macadam is the author of many Italian Blue Guides, including Blue Guide Florence

25.09.2013
11:51

Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary

“Sculpture to me is primitive, religious, passionate and magical—always affirmative.”

So wrote Barbara Hepworth (1903–75), perhaps the finest female sculptor the world has ever seen. There are certain areas in the arts where women feel naturally at home. Some where they take over and feminize. In fiction and on the radio, for example, it is getting difficult to hear the male voice. But not in sculpture. Hepworth is a lone wolf.

Her life was in some ways typical of a person of her era, temperament and milieu: birth into a respectable family, the unelashing of an uncontrollable artistic spirit, revelatory trips to Italy and Paris, meeting with Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Moholy-Nagy, the heady politics of 1930s left-wing Hampstead, strong views on the Spanish Civil War, marriages made and marriages broken. And children. Four of them, including a set of triplets. It is no surprise that such a driven, work-obsessed, cerebral woman should have struggled. She was not a militant feminist: the maternal interested her. But still, it must have been abominably tough. Husbands in those days were not much help on the domestic front. Indomitable, ambitious and never mellowing, she ended her life alone and ill, and died in an accidental fire at her home, very probably ignited by her own cigarette.

Hepworth seems to have felt herself to be permanently mantled in the shadow of Henry Moore, her contemporary, friend and for many years a fellow apostle of Abstraction. Moore, however, found his ultimate inspiration in the human figure, which may well explain his wide appeal. Hepworth, once she had abandoned figurative forms in the 1930s, never went back—except once, in her Madonna and Child in St Ives church, a mourning piece for her eldest son, killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-three.

This month, and until November, the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street, West London, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of Hepworth’s Winged Figure, which is attached to the building’s exterior wall and is passed by hundreds of people every day. “I think one of our universal dreams,” Hepworth said, “is to move in air and water without the resistance of our human legs. I wanted to evoke this sense of freedom. If the Winged Figure in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being airborne I will be very happy.” I am not sure that it really does. It reminds me more of a scoliosis brace or a corset, something redolent of restriction and struggle, filled with the tension between the desired and the achievable. Perhaps that is entirely appropriate.

For more information about the pop-up exhibits at John Lewis, organized in conjunction with the Hepworth Wakefield, see here.

For more about Barbara Hepworth and her art, the visit the Artsy.net Hepworth page.

17.09.2013
09:55

Tying the Knot in Urfa

In the workshop with Songül and Mehmet

Yes, but which one? The Spanish, the Persian or the Turkish? When it comes to carpets there is plenty of choice and although I spent a week at it, I am not too sure which one it was.

Carpet making has a long tradition in Turkey. It harks back to distant times when the ancestors of today’s settled and urbanised Turks were roaming the steppes with huge flocks of sheep. In a way, carpet-making is to sheep rearing what cheese and yoghurt are to milk production: a way to deal with huge surpluses—and a very successful one indeed. Even if mechanised production is the norm in the West, the old ways have not disappeared here and local municipalities are keen to preserve and encourage the tradition. That’s how I found myself knocking at the door of Urfa’s Belediye carpet workshop in the northern part of town, in an area set aside for crafts including mosaic, leather, woodwork and ceramics.

Carpet-making is a female occupation. In the long winter days when agricultural tasks are less demanding, women and girls spend months at it. They prepare the wool in the late summer/autumn, when they can be seen fully clothed, waist high in the water, beating the lanolin out of it with big sticks. Then they dry it and dye it and, come the winter, it is time to weave it. When they are done, the men step in. A van collects the production of an area and takes them off to be sold. Distant Istanbul is a favourite destination because of the size of the market. The best buyers will snap up a whole vanload at once, no questions asked. That way they can ensure a steady supply.

This does not mean that men are unable to make carpets. They run the shops and do the repairs between clients.

There are two main categories of carpet: kilims, which are woven, and the knotted variety, made of either wool or silk. In the workshop I attended I saw all of them but for practical reasons I ended up with a wool carpet. Normally, carpet-making is a one-woman job. You really need a very wide carpet to accommodate two people working side by side. Fortunately I found Songül, halfway through a huge carpet (well over 2.5m wide) destined for the foreign market, apparently Spain. She kindly agreed to be my mentor and put up with my Turkish.

It was clear from the outset that I had the wrong kind of hand: too many fingers or not enough of them to twist a strand of wool quickly and efficiently through the warp. To start with I was using both hands, which caused some hilarity: the women in the workshop could do it with just one finger, two at most. Anyway, I got better with practice and graduated to using the scissors to trim the pile after each complete run. The scissors look like an instrument of torture, which indeed they are. They are huge and heavy and have to be used with two hands, one at each end, and even then I got cramps. I was better at operating the machinery of the loom between runs. I quickly learned to pay attention to the pattern because each mistake means unpicking all the way back (I got some experience of that as well).

There must have been something like two dozen looms in the workshop, of various sizes. Some women came in for the whole day with their preschool children and we all took it in turns to mind them. Teenage girls dropped in after school to work on their projects. Whether they will want to continue making carpets later on, when they calculate their hourly rate, is an interesting point to debate. Carpet-making is a very slow process, even when you are good at it. Together with Songül we completed about four centimetres of our big carpet in five days. She was quick, very quick (my ‘contribution’ probably slowed her down); even so, she will take over a year to finish that one carpet.

So what did I learn from five days of carpet-making? Female companionship for sure. I was welcomed with unquestioning friendliness and made to feel part of the group. We shared food, laughter and silence with the occasional clanking of the looms and the ever-present Turkish (or Kurdish?) music wafting from someone’s transistor radio. Dancing around the looms even broke out at some point.

It also gave me an appreciation of the work itself. I have always been a keen carpet buyer, ready to strike a bargain, haggling and softening vendors’ hearts with my knowledge of the language. Turkish-speaking tourists are a rarity in Turkey and a source of wonder and awe.

But if I ever buy another carpet (though my small house has no clear floor space left) I will probably haggle less—or possibly not at all.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Eastern Turkey and Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey, available now for download.

Venice and the Politcs of Washing

W.D. Howells, Venetian Life, first published in 1866, and Polly Coles, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice, Robert Hale, 2013.

A recent review of Polly Coles’ The Politics of Washing claimed that it was the most perceptive book on Venice since W.D. Howells’ Venetian Life. In a field that includes J.G. Links’ Venice for Pleasure and Jan (then James) Morris’ Venice, that is a bold claim for both of them but it gave me the excuse for reading Howells for the first time as well as exploring the ‘political’ challenge of how far a newly arrived resident can pull out their underwear (and which garments) on a backstreet (backcanal?) Venetian washing line.

W.D. Howells had worked for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign team and his reward was a year as consul in Venice, at that time under Austrian occupation. He is well educated and curious, but perhaps rather brash and impatient with a city where no one seems to do much. There is, for a sturdy Protestant such as himself, far too great a reliance on the Madonna breaking through the clouds and sorting out calamities and plagues. He soon settles into the routine, however, and when called upon to provide the annual report of ‘Commercial Transactions’ feels ‘a vague feeling of injury during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity.’ None of his compatriots seems to need his help and so he is free to observe daily life and to battle with the intricate personality of Giovanna, his housekeeper, she of the capacious pockets where unwieldy keys, lumps of beeswax, pictures of the Virgin and an illegible account book jostle with each other. Giovanni’s growing power over Howells and his wife is linked to the diminishing number of hours she attends them, but so entangled are they by her family and hangers-on that it is only by moving to a completely different part of the city that they can escape her web.

Howells was writing for an American audience, for most of whom Venice must have been a fantasy, and he exaggerates the picturesque and the ruffians. Yet he has literary skill and his account of arriving in Venice by night and his evocation of the coldness of a Venetian winter are haunting. Despite some good passages and insights, however, too much of the book is a mishmash: some history, interrupted by comments on the hierarchies of society, then a discussions of gondoliers, all of it without really penetrating what makes Venice survive as a city. His best chapter is perhaps his last, written seven years later when he was back in Massachusetts, where he describes how he camped out in lodgings in part of the Palazzo Giustiniani, in a fine position on the Grand Canal. One of the delights that all the male residents enjoy is swimming in the canal when the new tide brings fresh water. There is a more measured and reflective tone in this chapter, something that is often missing in the jumble of what has gone before. Overall, I would certainly rate Howells well below Morris, who is much more sensitive to the nuances of Venetian life.

In The Politics of Washing, Polly Coles, the English partner of an Italian violin-maker, cannot escape being totally immersed in the life of the city (in more ways than one as the floods intensify). There is the education system to negotiate for a start (the couple have four children) and she finds it distant and often sterile for her lively offspring. I never knew that there was quite so much Latin and Greek in the syllabus of the liceo classico. The conventions by which parents accept responsibility for their wayward children and apologise for them even though it might be the inadequacy of their teachers that is to blame is beautifully explored.

The fresh tides here are not those from the lagoon but from the massive influxes of tourists and much of Coles’ life is spent dragging her trolley through crowded streets and missing appointments because the vaporetti are too full for the residents to fit onto them. Coles shares my own belief that it is only in the early morning that one can fully appreciate Venice today. I really enjoyed this book, not only because Coles writes so well but also because she is sensitive to the people, both native and foreign, who surround her all too closely on a daily basis. How far can one risk one’s partner’s Y-fronts fluttering down into one’s neighbour’s garden and what would be the social consequences she would have to live with if they did? What are the conventions in using ‘tu’ and ‘lei’ a) in a conversation with a friendly Italian woman 20 years her junior and b) during a blazing row with her partner when ‘lei’ seems justified to express distance and disdain but turns out to be so inappropriate that it makes him collapse into laughter?

No one should go to Venice without reading this book as it will, perhaps, make them more aware that beyond the burger bars and overpriced pasta, there are people who have known the city since birth but have now become strangers in it, as the privates spaces and the traditional shops that used to serve them dwindle. Though Coles is a newcomer herself, she acts as a sympathetic champion of those who are being pushed to the margins by the cruisers depositing their ‘See Venice in two hours’ crowds. Their social network soon tells them exactly how alta the acqua is, which passageways are still open and where one can browse books in one’s wellies (stivali impermeabili), as the less nifty tourists flounder about in the swirling waters. As the artificially contrived Carnival gets under way in Piazza San Marco, the rowing clubs set off in the opposite direction, with Coles and her friend Jane negotiating a flat-bottomed sanpierota crammed with flags and children, to what is essentially a retaliatory fancy-dress village fête for the locals.

Less visible are the other residents, those who have drifted in from the east to work as carers, and who have only each other to sustain themselves now that children and family are far away. They are the new representatives of the East, the Schiavoni of the 21st century, a reminder that Venice has always been awash with foreigners—although most now stay only long enough to buy their Carnival masks and gelati before clambering on board their cruise ships again. This is a sobering book in many ways, a narrative of a self-destructing and sclerotic city where the ancient landing-posts are all too often submerged. I am happy to place it alongside James Morris’ own memoir of living with a family in Venice in the 1950s (now reissued and updated by the author)—but what a difference sixty years has made to the magic of the city.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge

Image © Anthony Majanlahti


Christianity did not conquer the Roman Empire with the sword—and yet it was with the sword that the groundwork was laid, at the Milvian Bridge. Today the place is peaceful: but this not particularly impressive-seeming footbridge over the Tiber was the scene, in late October of the year AD 312, of one of the pivotal battles of Western history, where the forces of Constantine vanquished those of his rival emperor Maxentius.

The bridge today is not very much frequented, except by lovers, who used to come here to clip a padlock to one of the bars placed at intervals along it as a symbol of everlasting attachment. The clotted love tokens have now been removed and unimpeded you can peer over the parapet and look down on the Tiber below, watch it burbling swiftly over a shallow cataract, and imagine the clash and clamour of horses and men.

Frieze from the Arch of Constantine showing Maxentius' horses and men floundering in the water of the Tiber.

Maxentius championed Rome. He made it his capital—he was the first emperor for a hundred years to do so—and set in motion a train of great building projects aimed at restoring the city to its central position within the empire, not just symbolically but actually. He named his son Romulus and dedicated a temple in the Forum (either to his dead son or to the great eponymous founder of the city). His sister Fausta married his co-ruler, the man whom Shelley ostentatiously called the ‘Christian reptile’. Constantine was not so much reptilian as amphibious. He was born a pagan but emerged from the water as a Christian, and so died.

And he was unable to share a throne with Maxentius. The two soon came to blows, and battle lines were drawn at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber. In order, as he hoped, to cut off his adversary’s retreat, Maxentius had destroyed the bridge before the battle commenced. It was an action that proved his undoing. With his horses and men he was forced back into the water and there drowned, yielding the day to his rival. Constantine built an arch to celebrate his victory. It is one of the most famous of Rome’s surviving ancient monuments, standing beside the Colosseum. On its short west face is the goddess Luna in her two-horse chariot. On the long south face is a scene of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The short east face has a roundel of the sun god rising from the ocean and a depiction of Constantine’s adventus into Rome. On the north face we see Constantine in Rome distributing gifts. The inscription which appears on both the north and south faces (identical on each) contains a famously ambiguous religious reference to a ‘divinitas’, a divinity, in the singular. What or who was this god? It is an early and important witness of the slow change from the worship of many deities to the worship of a single, all-powerful one. The process by which this happened is fascinating and can be traced all over Rome in its art and architecture.

IMP·CAES·FL·CONSTANTINO MAXIMO

P·F·AVGVSTO S·P·Q·R

QVOD INSTINCTV DIVINITATIS MENTIS

MAGNITVDINE CVM EXERCITV SVO

TAM DE TYRANNO QVAM DE OMNI EIVS

FACTIONE VNO TEMPORE IVSTIS

REMPVBLICAM VLTVS EST ARMIS

ARCVM TRIVMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT

“To the Imperial Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Great, Pius, Felix, Augustus: inspired by a divinity and in the greatness of his mind, with his army and by the just force of arms he delivered the state both from a tyrant and from all his faction; thus the Senate and the People of Rome have dedicated this arch in token of these triumphs.”

An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph . Text and bottom two images © Blue Guides

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