25.03.2020
18:09

Hungarian pioneer of hand-sanitisation

How many of us today, while methodically washing our hands in the hope of staving off Covid-19, think of Ignác Semmelweis? How many of us have even heard of him? Semmelweis (1818–65) is not widely known around the world but he is a familiar name in Hungary. Budapest's medical school is named after him and he has gone down in history as the ‘saviour of mothers’ because his pioneering methods saved many women and infants from death by puerperal fever. Semmelweis’ theories were revolutionary for his time. And now, his insistence on the importance of disinfection to halt the spread of contagion has been brought once again under the spotlight as we are once again reminded of its importance. Semmelweis was ahead of the curve in his grasp of the importance of hand-washing: his hunch was borne out by significant decreases in the rate of mortality on obstetric wards under his supervision. Despite this, his idea was rejected by the established medical community, who were offended by the suggestion that a patient's death could be imputed to the medical staff's personal hygiene. What made things more difficult for Semmelweis was the fact that he was a practitioner, not a scientist. His theory could be explained as a hunch that seemed to work but he had detected nothing through a microscope that could furnish scientific explanation and proof. He never gained the reputation he deserved during his lifetime. In fact he suffered some kind of mental and emotional breakdown and began lashing out in print at the ignorance and obstinacy of the medical fraternity. In the end he was transferred to an asylum in Vienna, a move supported by his wife, who was no longer able to cope with his tantrums. He died very shortly after his admission, perhaps as a result of ill-treatment.

Semmelweis’s former home in Budapest is now a museum of the history of medicine (described in full in Blue Guide Budapest). His theory, of course, is fully recognised today. Named after him is the phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex, the human tendency to reject or ridicule new ideas if they fly in the face of accepted convention.

Letter from Italy

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.


* * * * *

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


* * * * *

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

Florence: Forged in Fire

There are just a few days left to catch this exhibition in Palazzo Pitti (Forged in Fire. Bronze sculpture in Florence under the last Medici; on until 12th January 2020), which illustrates the bronze sculpture made for the Medici court in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the most important work in this medium in Europe at the time. For long this period in Florence (beginning with the reign of Cosimo II) was equated with decadence and it has only been since the 1960s that scholars have begun to re-evaluate the role of the Medici grand-dukes in promoting excellence in art and their activity as collectors, and the exhibition has been an occasion to study in depth the sculptors at work in this Baroque period. Accompanied by a superb scholarly catalogue, complete with full biographies of each artist, it underlines the standing of artists such as Giovanni Battista Foggini, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi and Giuseppe Piamontini, all three of whom produced large, sometimes life-size bronzes as well as the much more familiar small bronzes (masters of which including Antonio and Giovanni Francesco Susini and Pietro Tacca are well represented in the exhibition). The curators have even been able to retrieve eleven of the twelve celebrated bronze groups of religious subjects made between 1722 and 1725, by many of the artists present in the exhibition, for Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine, and which she kept in her rooms in Palazzo Pitti (these later found their way to museums as far afield as Madrid, Detroit, Berlin, Birmingham and St Petersburg). Soldani-Benzi’s patron was the Prince of Liechtenstein and works from the ‘Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna’ are also present in the exhibition—seen in Florence for the first time. The sculptures on show are mostly in patinated bronze, which sometimes takes on a greenish shiny tone, or reddish tint, rather than the more familiar ink black of Renaissance bronzes.

 

Apart from the numerous sculptures, a collection of drawings by Soldani-Benzi (only acquired by the Uffizi in 2017) is exhibited opposite a pair of very fine green porphyry vases with gilt bronze decoration by the same artist (and preserved in Palazzo Pitti).

 

The works by the lesser-known Piamontini include very impressive large-scale bronzes (lent from a Ministry in Rome) closely inspired by ancient marbles, some of which could be described as reproductions of Classical works in a different medium.

 

In 1687 Foggini, after a spell in Rome, was appointed court sculptor to the grand-dukes and was also responsible for producing furniture and other fine objects, some in pietre dure. His versatility as a sculptor is well illustrated in this exhibition and he emerges as the central artist of his time in Florence. For more details of the exhibition, see here.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

16.12.2019
08:36

European rail changes for 2020

European railway operators revised their timetables on 15 December 2019 for the coming year. Mark Dudgeon, the Blue Guides rail correspondent, highlights some of the main changes to international services:

 

Night services

The nadir for overnight train services in Europe came three years ago when SNCF, the French national operator, reduced its overnight services to a bare minimum and Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail operator, withdrew all of its sleeper services, citing decreasing passenger numbers and increasing losses. Such decisions now seem to have been misguided. Austrian Federal Railways (OeBB) took over several of DB’s services and has made a success of it under the Nightjet brand. OeBB announced in October 2019 that bookings on both its regular seated and sleeper night trains were up 11 per cent year-on-year, and it plans to introduce a fleet of new trains in 2022 with en-suite sleeping compartments, and sleeping pods replacing the traditional couchettes.

Other rail operators, noting the growth in international rail travel, and the increasing awareness of the need for more sustainable travel modes, are looking at investing in night train services. Swiss Federal Railways has indicated that it is seeking to expand capacity on the night services between Switzerland and Germany and from Zurich to Prague. In Sweden, the government has invested in a feasibility study for the introduction of international night trains between Stockholm and several European cities, whilst in Scotland, the government is looking into starting an overnight train service from Glasgow and Edinburgh through Inverness and along the Far North line to Thurso, where it would connect with the ferry to Orkney.

In the immediate future, the new timetable sees the reintroduction of a night train service between Vienna and Brussels. On Wednesdays and Sundays from 19 January 2020, the existing Vienna/Innsbruck – Cologne – Dusseldorf will instead operate its final section between Cologne and Brussels. Departure from Vienna will be at 20:38, with arrival in Brussels Midi station at 10:55 the following morning. In the reverse direction, trains will depart Brussels at 18:04 on Mondays and Thursdays, with arrival in Vienna at 08:27 on Tuesdays and Fridays. It will be possible to travel between London and Vienna with only one change of train: connecting Eurostar services – with a cushion of about two hours in Brussels in each direction – will arrive at London St Pancras at 14:05 and depart from London for Brussels at 12:58.

Further expansion of this service will come in December 2020, when it is planned to increase the frequency of the Vienna – Brussels night train to daily operation, with a portion of this train going forward to Amsterdam, thus reintroducing night trains to the Netherlands after a gap of several years.

Western Europe

OeBB continues to expand coverage of its Railjet services. A new service will connect Vienna and Bolzano in the Italian province of Alto Adige/South Tyrol. It has been many years since the two cities were connected by direct trains, and then only by a seasonal service.

From June 2020, there will be an additional Railjet service from Berlin via Prague to Vienna and Graz. This will complement the existing Berlin – Nuremberg – Vienna ICE service.

TGV Lyria trains operating between Paris and Switzerland will see a boost in capacity by more than 25% by using exclusively double-deck trains. Furthermore, the introduction of ICE-4 trainsets to replace the existing ICE-1 sets will represent a 20% increase in capacity on services between Switzerland, Frankfurt and Berlin. SBB Swiss Federal Railways has announced that Switzerland has seen a 10% increase in international passenger traffic year-on-year for the first nine months of 2019.

The short but strategically important cross-border line between Geneva and Annemasse (in France) has opened. Services over the line are branded Léman Express and many trains will run onwards in France to Evian-les-Bains and Annecy.

In rather sad news for aficionados of train-ferry operations, one of the few remaining such services in Europe has ceased. In a highly-efficient arrangement, Hamburg to Copenhagen trains used to board the vehicle ferry between Puttgarden in Germany and Rødby in Denmark, the trains fitting very snugly onto the ferry’s vehicle deck alongside coaches and cars. They will now take the longer route northwards through Jutland, then turning eastwards across the Great Belt Fixed Link. However, the journey time will be slightly reduced.

 

Central and eastern Europe

• The Vienna – Budapest – Cluj Napoca (EC Transilvania) train will also convey through coaches to another Romanian city, Satu Mare. These coaches will be detached from the Transilvania at Püspökladány in Hungary.

• EC Báthory which previously connected Budapest and Warsaw is extended to Terespol on the border between Poland and Belarus. At Bohumin in the Czech Republic, a sleeping car to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, will be attached.

• The niche private operator Leo Express, which operates trains between Prague, Ostrava, Kosice and Krakow will introduce a train from Prague to the Polish city of Wroclaw on three days a week. Leo Express trains consist of three classes: economy, business and the excellent 6-seat premium zone. It’s a shame that its trains between the major tourist centres of Prague and Krakow operate only twice weekly and at rather unsocial hours: arrival at Krakow is at 22:50 and the return departure to Prague at – unfortunately - 04:29.

MAV Hungarian railways have recently reintroduced restaurant cars on its Eurocity services between Budapest and Vienna and Budapest and Romania; a welcome enhancement, but think comfort food rather than haute cuisine.

 

And finally …..

Subject to government approval, Eurostar will operate through services from Amsterdam to London from 31 March 2020. The London to Amsterdam service started in spring 2018, but the return services – bafflingly – ended at Brussels with passengers having to go through the normal check-in and security procedures before catching the next Eurostar to London. Departures from Amsterdam Centraal are provisionally planned for 07:47, 13:46 and 18:47 arriving at London St Pancras at 10:57, 16:57 and 21:57 – a journey time of just over 4 hours. It must be emphasised that the British and Dutch governments have to sign the relevant treaty before the service can go ahead.

UPDATE Feb 2020: Government approvals having been obtained, direct Eurostar services from Amsterdam to London will start on 30th April 2020, with the infrastructure changes to allow for security and check-in at Amsterdam Centraal now in place.

Initially there will be two direct trains per day (departing Amsterdam at 07:48 and 16:48) - which is likely to increase to four daily trains later in the year. A few tweaks are still required at Rotterdam Centraal station: the intermediate stop there will start from 18th May.

09.11.2019
14:11

Food guide for River Café

One of London's most prestigious and established Italian restaurants choses Blue Guide Italy Food Companion for its 2019 gift hamper. The River Café of Hammersmith produces an annual Limited Edition Gift Box "packed full of the Italian ingredients we carefully source and use every day in the River Cafe kitchen".

Blue Guide Italy Food Companion »

The River Café's 2019 Limited Edition Large Gift Box »

Gift Boxes

About Blue Guide Italy Food Companion:

"How to enjoy the best of Italian food: understand the menu and know how to order in a restaurant or street market. Complements the Blue Guides' classic guide-book range as preparation for and accompaniment to any visit to Italy. Comprehensive coverage from pizza and pasta to rare regional delicacies and fine wines. Separate sections on seasonal food, Mediterranean fish, wines and aperitifs, star chefs. Extensive phrasebook—divided into ‘what it means’ (Italian into English including a glossary) and ‘how to ask for’ (English into Italian). Good-looking with stylish black and white line drawings, it would also work well as a gift item."

The River Café's 2019 Limited Edition Large Gift Box>>

SPQR and expressions of Rome

Public fountain on the Caelian hill.

As work for the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome goes full steam ahead, we found ourselves coming up time and time again against the letters SPQR, reproduced all over the city, on lamp posts, manhole covers and public fountains, not to mention in ancient inscriptions. Here is a little piece on that and other familiar quotations from ancient Rome

The Latin acronym SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’) has been used since the days of the Republic to represent the Romans (significantly giving ‘the people’ equal status with ‘the Senate’). Today it stands for the municipality and it appears carved, embossed and stencilled in numerous places all over the capital. In fact, it is still such a familiar ‘word’ that it was chosen by the Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard as the title of her best-selling history of ancient Rome in 2015 (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome).

Many of the other familiar quotations still in use in the English language are—perhaps not surprisingly—linked to the most famous character in ancient Roman history, Julius Caesar. His famous quip ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’) is reported by Plutarch and is meant to have been the message sent back by Caesar to the Romans about how he was getting on with his military campaigns in Gaul. It sums up the character of a general who managed to conquer enemy territory with astonishing speed.

The ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, used to signify an irrevocable step or point of no return, refers to the river which marked the northern boundary of Italy with Cisalpine Gaul, the province which had been allotted to Julius Caesar. When Caesar descended with his huge army and crossed into Roman territory, he became in effect an ‘invader’ and although at the time it seemed he would have been able to take over the rule of the Empire on his arrival in Rome, in fact this was delayed for some years and he was not able to prevent the outbreak of a civil war. The exact date of the crossing is still disputed (perhaps 49 BC) and interestingly enough the exact location of the river (possibly no more than a stream) has never been established.

It was Shakespeare who first used the phrase ‘Et tu, Brute?’ (‘You, too, Brutus?’) in his play Julius Caesar, when the wounded hero recognises the renegade Brutus in the group of his assassins. Other expressions which have survived the centuries include ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ and ‘Rome was not built in a day’ (perhaps first used in the early 17th century by Cervantes and Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621).

One of the most famous re-interpretations to have survived is ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’), famously used by J.F. Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963 (‘All free men are citizens of Berlin: ich bin ein Berliner’), and subsequently voiced by political leaders as well as in public demonstrations against injustices. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the expression Civis Romanus sum was used in ancient Rome as a defence by citizens who were considered to have committed a crime (and St Paul, when condemned as a Christian, spoke out in his own defence as a Roman citizen): no Roman citizen could be condemned unheard, and nor could he be scourged or beaten without a fair trial. As a result of his citizenship, St Paul could not be condemned to death by crucifixion; he was beheaded instead. President Kennedy used the famous expression at a time when West Berlin was an embattled enclave surrounded on three sides by the hostile GDR.

 

by Alta Macadam. The new, fully revised and updated Blue Guide Rome (12th edition) will be published early next year.

03.07.2019
12:55

Hungary Food Companion

The brand new Blue Guide Hungary Food Companion is now out. A handy lexicon of Magyar food vocabulary, with a miscellany of culinary information (and a few traditional recipes) thrown into the pot alongside.

Hungary typically has blisteringly hot summers but curiously no real summer cuisine. A cold fruit soup made from strawberry, apricot or sour cherry, followed by stuffed marrow or stuffed paprika, is about as light as it gets in the traditional repertoire. Summer is also the season for “főzelék”. As the interwar court chef Sándor Újváry noted, “It is needless to list the types of főzelék that belong to the domestic culinary repertoire and which are prepared on a daily basis in so many kitchens: they are all universally known…and the perfect preparation of these well-known types of főzelék requires little effort and few ingredients.”

Sounds good. But what is a főzelék? The name roughly means a boil-up, which is essentially accurate: a főzelék is a dish of boiled vegetable, sometimes puréed and sometimes not, mixed with a roux and eaten with a spoon. Almost any vegetable can be used, from the humble potato (krumpli) to the more highly prized asparagus (spárga). On menus, you will commonly find cabbage (káposzta) főzelék, spinach (spenót) főzelék, pumpkin (tök) főzelék, green pea (zöldborsó) főzelék. In the market this morning we found yellow string beans (vajbab). So yellow string bean főzelék it was to be.

Here they are in their raw state:

And this is the recipe we followed to turn them into főzelék.

1. Wash and chop the beans, into sections roughly 2–3cm long. Cook them until tender in lightly salted water (we had some leftover chicken stock, so we used that instead).

2. Prepare the roux. With a wire whisk, combine flour and sour cream and powdered paprika. We used three heaped teaspoons of flour, one heaped teaspoon of paprika and two tablespoons of sour cream.

3. Drain the beans, retaining the water. Then gradually add the water to the roux, mixing all the while.

4. Put the mixture on a low heat, stirring until it thickens. Add the beans. Salt to taste if necessary. Serve.

This is what it looked like.

Simple but delicious.

News from Florence

Bernardo Daddi's 'Maestà' in Orsanmichele, of which one of the paintings newly acquired by the Accademia is a copy.

For anyone taking advantage of the relevant calm in Florence this month (when the queue outside the Accademia, the city’s most famous gallery, is usually minimal—though it is still always worth booking your visit online) there is a fascinating little exhibition now running (until 5 May)..

 

What brings these eight paintings and single piece of sculpture together is the fact that they have all been added to the Gallery’s holdings during the tenure of the new director, Cecilie Hollberg, in other words, over the last three years.

 

The early paintings are all gold-ground and each has a story to tell about its provenance and connection to other works in the Gallery’s collection. Some were in storage elsewhere in Florence, others were exported illegally and have been recovered by the police, others have been purchased. They are beautifully exhibited in a little room and there is something almost touching about them, given that they have been retrieved from oblivion, carefully dusted off and restored, and put in their historical context. None of them is of the first importance but all of them add something to the glorious history of art in Florence.

 

The obscurity of some pieces is underlined by the attribution of two of the works, one to the ‘Master of 1416’ and the other to the ‘Master of 1419’. The former is a copy of Bernardo Daddi’s famous Maestà in Orsanmichele, painted some 60 years earlier, showing that the Florentines of the early 15th century still considered it one of the most beautiful works in the city. The latter unidentified ‘Master’ is named after a work now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. The painting by him here, The Most Holy Trinity (La Santissima Trinità), shows God the Father enthroned holding an image of Christ on the Cross, with the dove of the Holy Spirit flying down towards it. The Gallery possesses another (more important) painting of the same subject, the central panel of a triptych by Nardo di Cione. The composition is very similar, but in Nardo’s work God the Father is sitting on a beautiful red-black-and-gold cloth and the Dove perches in the centre of Christ’s halo.

 

The Madonna of Heavenly Humility (she is seated on clouds rather than on the ground, hence the neat title) is attributed to a Master named after the Bracciolini Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. The Child is rather oversize, but this work was considered important enough to be confiscated by the state (after it was illegally exported from Italy to Switzerland in 2003) in order to preserve it in its Tuscan context.

 

There are also two doors of a tabernacle known once to have been in the Corsini Palace (which still contains the most important private collection in Florence, albeit closed to the public). They are by the prolific painter Mariotto di Nardo (son of Nardo di Cione) and are of exceptional interest for their decoration in gilded pastiglia, which forms leafy frames all around a scene of the Annunciation and figures of four saints. In another work by Mariotto in the exhibition, the Coronation of the Virgin with Angels, the painter has characteristically included lots more angels in the background depicted in gold.

 

The newly acquired piece of sculpture is a portrait bust of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, signed in 1827 by Lorenzo Bartolini, the most important sculptor of his time. The sitter, Niccolini, was a playwright, born in Pisa in 1782 and who died in Florence in 1862. The bust will be displayed beside the original plaster cast Bartolini made for it, which together with numerous other works from his studio was already owned by the Gallery. The bust was purchased by the newly-established Friends of the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, who are giving welcome support to its activities.

 

After the magnificent exhibition on the 14th-century fabric industry, held here early in 2018 (reviewed here), it seems that the museum’s policy (since it certainly has no need to increase its visitor numbers), at least for the time being, will be to hold small, choice exhibitions such as this one, which do not demand huge expenditure (the cost of the entrance ticket will not be increased during these shows).

 

I was interested to note that in the gallery with Michelangelo’s Slaves and his St Matthew (which leads up to the tribune with the colossal David), the label on the Pietà from Palestrina has at last been changed and its attribution to Michelangelo given as ‘very doubtful’ and still an ‘open subject’ (in fact the latest edition of the Blue Guide Florence chose to ignore it). At the same time, though, a fascinating suggestion has been made on the notice: that this could be a tribute to Michelangelo by the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. One of the tasks of the Blue Guides is to ensure the information provided is up-to-date.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Hungarian pioneer of hand-sanitisation

How many of us today, while methodically washing our hands in the hope of staving off Covid-19, think of Ignác Semmelweis? How many of us have even heard of him? Semmelweis (1818–65) is not widely known around the world but he is a familiar name in Hungary. Budapest's medical school is named after him and he has gone down in history as the ‘saviour of mothers’ because his pioneering methods saved many women and infants from death by puerperal fever. Semmelweis’ theories were revolutionary for his time. And now, his insistence on the importance of disinfection to halt the spread of contagion has been brought once again under the spotlight as we are once again reminded of its importance. Semmelweis was ahead of the curve in his grasp of the importance of hand-washing: his hunch was borne out by significant decreases in the rate of mortality on obstetric wards under his supervision. Despite this, his idea was rejected by the established medical community, who were offended by the suggestion that a patient's death could be imputed to the medical staff's personal hygiene. What made things more difficult for Semmelweis was the fact that he was a practitioner, not a scientist. His theory could be explained as a hunch that seemed to work but he had detected nothing through a microscope that could furnish scientific explanation and proof. He never gained the reputation he deserved during his lifetime. In fact he suffered some kind of mental and emotional breakdown and began lashing out in print at the ignorance and obstinacy of the medical fraternity. In the end he was transferred to an asylum in Vienna, a move supported by his wife, who was no longer able to cope with his tantrums. He died very shortly after his admission, perhaps as a result of ill-treatment.

Semmelweis’s former home in Budapest is now a museum of the history of medicine (described in full in Blue Guide Budapest). His theory, of course, is fully recognised today. Named after him is the phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex, the human tendency to reject or ridicule new ideas if they fly in the face of accepted convention.

‘The Global Eye’, running at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence until the end of May, is an exhibition devoted to the collection of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese maps purchased by Cosimo III on his second journey to Holland in 1667–9 (before becoming grand-duke). A conference in November 2019, organised by the Dutch Institute in Florence, illustrated the close ties between the Dutch Republic and Cosimo III, who took a great interest in cross-cultural issues. The 82 maps (a selection of which are on view, accompanied by remarkable digital supports) represent many areas of the known world including parts of Japan, Africa, and even a unique plan dated around 1660 of ‘New Amsterdam’, when still part of the Dutch colony that a few years later was renamed New York, when the British took over. The maps were kept for a hundred years at the Villa di Castello on the outskirts of Florence, seat of the Accademia della Crusca (Cosimo III was an academician of the Crusca and their first dictionary, published in 1691, was dedicated to him in its 3rd edition). The villa itself is not generally open to the public but its garden is one of the most important of all those attached to Medici villas in the surroundings of Florence (and is fully described in Blue Guide Florence). The maps were moved for safety to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in 1921; this is the first time they have been fully studied and a catalogue raisonné provided. Visiting this fascinating small exhibition also gives you the chance to see (off the cloister of San Lorenzo) Michelangelo’s reading room with its famous vestibule, one of the most extraordinary architectural works in Florence.


by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

‘The Global Eye’, running at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence until the end of May, is an exhibition devoted to the collection of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese maps purchased by Cosimo III on his second journey to Holland in 1667–9 (before becoming grand-duke). A conference in November 2019, organised by the Dutch Institute in Florence, illustrated the close ties between the Dutch Republic and Cosimo III, who took a great interest in cross-cultural issues. The 82 maps (a selection of which are on view, accompanied by remarkable digital supports) represent many areas of the known world including parts of Japan, Africa, and even a unique plan dated around 1660 of ‘New Amsterdam’, when still part of the Dutch colony that a few years later was renamed New York, when the British took over. The maps were kept for a hundred years at the Villa di Castello on the outskirts of Florence, seat of the Accademia della Crusca (Cosimo III was an academician of the Crusca and their first dictionary, published in 1691, was dedicated to him in its 3rd edition). The villa itself is not generally open to the public but its garden is one of the most important of all those attached to Medici villas in the surroundings of Florence (and is fully described in Blue Guide Florence). The maps were moved for safety to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in 1921; this is the first time they have been fully studied and a catalogue raisonné provided. Visiting this fascinating small exhibition also gives you the chance to see (off the cloister of San Lorenzo) Michelangelo’s reading room with its famous vestibule, one of the most extraordinary architectural works in Florence.


by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

‘The Global Eye’, running at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence until the end of May, is an exhibition devoted to the collection of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese maps purchased by Cosimo III on his second journey to Holland in 1667–9 (before becoming grand-duke). A conference in November 2019, organised by the Dutch Institute in Florence, illustrated the close ties between the Dutch Republic and Cosimo III, who took a great interest in cross-cultural issues. The 82 maps (a selection of which are on view, accompanied by remarkable digital supports) represent many areas of the known world including parts of Japan, Africa, and even a unique plan dated around 1660 of ‘New Amsterdam’, when still part of the Dutch colony that a few years later was renamed New York, when the British took over. The maps were kept for a hundred years at the Villa di Castello on the outskirts of Florence, seat of the Accademia della Crusca (Cosimo III was an academician of the Crusca and their first dictionary, published in 1691, was dedicated to him in its 3rd edition). The villa itself is not generally open to the public but its garden is one of the most important of all those attached to Medici villas in the surroundings of Florence (and is fully described in Blue Guide Florence). The maps were moved for safety to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in 1921; this is the first time they have been fully studied and a catalogue raisonné provided. Visiting this fascinating small exhibition also gives you the chance to see (off the cloister of San Lorenzo) Michelangelo’s reading room with its famous vestibule, one of the most extraordinary architectural works in Florence.


by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

‘The Global Eye’, running at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence until the end of May, is an exhibition devoted to the collection of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese maps purchased by Cosimo III on his second journey to Holland in 1667–9 (before becoming grand-duke). A conference in November 2019, organised by the Dutch Institute in Florence, illustrated the close ties between the Dutch Republic and Cosimo III, who took a great interest in cross-cultural issues. The 82 maps (a selection of which are on view, accompanied by remarkable digital supports) represent many areas of the known world including parts of Japan, Africa, and even a unique plan dated around 1660 of ‘New Amsterdam’, when still part of the Dutch colony that a few years later was renamed New York, when the British took over. The maps were kept for a hundred years at the Villa di Castello on the outskirts of Florence, seat of the Accademia della Crusca (Cosimo III was an academician of the Crusca and their first dictionary, published in 1691, was dedicated to him in its 3rd edition). The villa itself is not generally open to the public but its garden is one of the most important of all those attached to Medici villas in the surroundings of Florence (and is fully described in Blue Guide Florence). The maps were moved for safety to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in 1921; this is the first time they have been fully studied and a catalogue raisonné provided. Visiting this fascinating small exhibition also gives you the chance to see (off the cloister of San Lorenzo) Michelangelo’s reading room with its famous vestibule, one of the most extraordinary architectural works in Florence.


by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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

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

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

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

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

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