The Corvina Library

Missal of Domonkos Kálmáncsehi (1481). Made in Buda. Now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

"Matthias is dead—now books will be cheap in Europe!" Thus Lorenzo the Magnificent is said to have exclaimed on hearing of the passing of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, in 1490. Matthias , who became king aged 15 in 1458, can fairly be said to have led the way in exporting Renaissance art and humanism outside Italy. His erudition linked him closely with Lorenzo in Florence; in fact, the two exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. That of Matthias, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, was the first of its kind north of the Alps. Based on Italian models such as the library of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino or of Ferdinand of Aragon in Naples, it came to contain around 2,000 precious volumes, mainly works by ancient authors and Church fathers, mostly in Latin, some in Greek. Only the Vatican Library could surpass it in scope and extent: Matthias is known to have lavished a fortune on the project, either acquiring existing manuscripts and incunabula or having exquisitely illuminated copies made. By paying so well, Matthias turned books into valuable commodities, and Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was putting together a library of volumes very similar in size and decoration to those of the Buda collection), may well have felt the pinch.

A superb small exhibition on Matthias’ library, with many items sourced from collections within Hungary as well as plenty from further afield—since the Buda shelves were emptied after the Ottoman conquest of 1541—is now on show at the National Széchényi Library in Budapest: “The Corvina Library and the Buda Workshop” (runs until 9th Feb).

Matthias acquired his books from a number of sources. Many volumes were purchased from Italy; others he had copied and he set up a workshop for the purpose at Buda, under the direction of Italian illuminators. Matthias’ bride, Ferdinand of Aragon’s daughter Beatrice, also brought volumes with her from Naples: her coat of arms appears on a number of codices. From the 1480s Matthias began to give his collection matching leather and velvet bindings, with elaborately worked clasps.

Matthias appointed a librarian, Ugo Taddeo from Parma, to be in charge of acquiring existing volumes and commissioning copies. Our best contemporary source for what the Corvina Library may have been like is a four-part panegyric by the humanist poet Naldo Naldi. He tells of a vaulted room, tucked away in a secluded part of the palace, with coloured glass in the window apertures, incunabula and codices in inlaid shelves around the walls, their richly gilded bindings protected from dust by lozenge-patterned curtains. Between the windows stood a couch draped in cloth of gold, upon which the king would sprawl at his ease, supreme monarch among the Muses. Other seating was provided by three-legged stools upholstered in cloth of gold studded with precious stones (ouch!).

The artistic style adopted by the copyists in the Buda workshop was heterogeneous although broadly based on Italian models. Two of the leading hands were Francesco Rosselli from Florence and Francesco da Castello from Milan. The latter is known also to have been at work in Piacenza and for the Bishop of Lodi. The styles of these two men were generally regarded as the ones to follow but many of the illuminators at work in Buda were Flemish or German and the result is an interesting mix. The missal of a functionary at Matthias’ court, one Domonkos Kálmáncsehi, for example (1481, on loan from the Pierpont Morgan Library), contains only a single page illuminated by Francesco da Castello. The rest is by artists from Central Europe.

Another work thought to be by Francesco da Castello is the codex of Johannes Cassianus, concerning the rules of coenobite monks. Made in Buda (and on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), it has given its name to the “Cassianus” group of codices, all illuminated in roughly the same style, the border designs of acanthus fronds and grottesche appearing against red and blue backgrounds. The Cassianus codex was completed in the reign of Vladislas II, who succeeded Matthias after his death in 1490. Interestingly one of the volumes that presumably came to Buda with Queen Beatrice, a manuscript copy of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Alexander the Great made in Naples in the 1470s, has a handwritten note on the flyleaf, perhaps written by Beatrice herself: "In the year of our Lord 1491, on the Sunday after Epiphany, I arrived here at Eger and on the third day also arrived the glorious King Vladislas who had been crowned in 1490 on the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross." Beatrice managed to cling onto her position as Queen of Hungary by marrying Vladislas later that same year. But she gave him no children and so he rid himself of her by having Pope Alexander VI (the notorious Rodrigo Borgia) declare the union null and void. She returned to Naples—but whether she took any of her books back with her, I cannot say. Other books that remained unfinished at Matthias’ death have survived because they never came to Buda. There were over a hundred of these; many of them being worked on in Florence by artists directly employed by King Matthias. An example is the exquisite Bible, with illuminations by Attavante and the brothers Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni, which is today preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.

Matthias’ library survived his death intact by only half a century. In 1541 the Ottomans took Buda and most of its treasures were scattered and pillaged. Near the end of this exhibition are two volumes that were returned to Hungary in the 19th century by sultans Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid. One of them, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (made in Florence in 1460–70), has had its original binding replaced by an Ottoman one with crescent moons. Another, St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (made in Rome in the 1460s), preserves its 15th-century crimson velvet cover, with a gilt silver clasp decorated with the enamelled coat of arms of Matthias' successor Vladislas, supported by twin dolphins.

This is a magnificent show; a rare glimpse into a world of luxury and learning. If you are in Budapest this winter, make sure to add it to your list.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest.

Modernists and Mavericks

By Martin Gayford. ‘After the war, because everybody who was about had escaped death in some way, there was a curious feeling of liberty. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’

This is the reflection of Frank Auerbach, one of the subjects of this absorbing study. Auerbach had arrived in London aged 16 in 1947. His passage to Britain from Germany when aged only seven had been sponsored by Iris Origo, well known for her sheltering of children in Tuscany in the war. His parents had perished in Auschwitz. It was understandable that he felt he was a scavenger and this might be said of many of the artists in this book, most of them figures marginal to society with a passion for a deeper understanding of reality that forced them to break through the barriers of conventional art. Auerbach’s friend David Kossoff put it well: ‘Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.’

Gayford has already provided a detailed account of himself as a sitter for a portrait to the reclusive Lucian Freud (the acclaimed The Man with the Blue Scarf, 2010) so Freud and Bacon are presented here with authority. By adopting a chronological approach, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, and drawing on many notes and reminiscences, he presents a history of aesthetic struggle in which the personalities are almost as important as the art. One of the strengths of the book is the recording of many somewhat inarticulate attempts to describe what the act of creation means. There is a sense, encapsulated in the Kossoff quotation above, of breaking through to a higher state of being through the endless working and reworking of paint. The artist does not know how or why he or she has arrived at a masterpiece but recognises it when he sees it. There is as much destruction as creation, as rejected alternatives are scraped off in frustration.

Naturally many readers will be interested in the great names and there is much to enjoy. There is a particularly good section on Hockney, a close friend of the author, who was rejected by many of his contemporaries and their dealers because he did not fit into any recognisable category. As Gayford notes, like Hogarth, William Blake (a major exhibition of Blake opens at Tate Britain in September 2019) and Stanley Spencer, Hockney resolutely set out on his own path, although it was not until he arrived in New York that he found his personal and artistic awakening. He was drawn to the States for much of his working life.

Gayford is good on showing the impact of the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, from their first London exhibition in 1956. This was the moment when the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. This left the London painters divided between those who followed the new trends and those who stuck to their own paths. It paid off for some. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (from 1969) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction when it went under the hammer for $142.4 million in 2013. It is only a few artists who have the determination and confidence to transcend movements. I enjoyed the many dismissive remarks of even radical professors of art when their fledgling students upset convention.

This being London, it was inevitable that by the end of the book I began longing for some warmth, sun and blue skies in the paintings. In the many illustrations there is much to admire—some pictures that I would even have on my walls—but there was one painting above all that haunted me: Michael Andrews’ Portrait of Timothy Behrens from 1962, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I knew nothing of the Norwich-born Andrews (1928–95). I was inspired to research him more fully, being drawn to his humanity, the sensitivity of his portraits and his continuous reinvention of his subject matter through to a period of peaceful spiritual landscapes. Sadly, only 250 of his pictures survive.

One bonus of this book is its readability across such a spectrum of different movements and personalities. Not least, it is a relief to be free of the jargon through which so many art historians attempt to show off their apparent knowledge. It will be hard to find a better introduction to the ‘London Painters’ than this one and it left me looking forward to reading Gayford’s more detailed studies of Freud and Hockney.

Martin Gayford, ‘Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters’, Thames and Hudson, 2018. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. His review of Martin Gayford’s ‘Rendez-vous with Art’, a discussion with Philippe de Montebello (Thames and Hudson, 2014), can be found on this website.

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

Dracula: An International Perspective

The first thing you need to do, before beginning to consult this book in any detail, is to re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you haven’t read it, this volume of essays will inspire you to do so; but you will enjoy the essays much more if the story is fresh in your mind.

 

The editor, Marius-Mircea Crișan, Associate Professor at the West University of Timișoara, Romania, has assembled an impressive array of scholars for this collection, published last year in the Palgrave Gothic series, books which deal exclusively with the Gothic genre.

 

The book is formed of a collection of 15 essays, all looking at Dracula from different perspectives. To begin with, there is a lot of useful contextualisation, examining not just the Dracula myth itself, but the whole concept of the exotic, the strange and the eerie. In their essay entitled “Bloodthirsty and Remorseless Fangs”, examining the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Lucian-Vasile Szabo and Marius-Mircea Crișan do an excellent job in exploring how these terrifying imaginary spaces evolved. Too much intimate knowledge of a place will prevent it from ever being depicted as evil and haunted; but some cursory knowledge is obviously necessary to give credence to the narrative. Poe, we are told, consulted several books and periodicals on East-Central Europe before committing pen to paper. As the authors note, “fantastic actions are placed in a fictive geography inspired by elements of real ones.” One is reminded of the famous remark of Robert Louis Stevenson’s (himself a creator of Gothic fantasy with his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) that “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” Nevertheless, this foreignness is essential. A reviewer of Dracula is cited by Szabo and Crișan as remarking that “the author seems to know every corner of Transylvania.” Of course he did not. But he managed to make his depiction seem convincing.

 

Such contexts are still with us. At the end of the volume, Carol Senf reminds us that we inhabit an age with an appetite for urban jungles: hence The Shining, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

 

It would take far too long to review every essay in this book. Instead, I have chosen one. Since travel writing is our business at Blue Guides, I was inevitably intrigued by Duncan Light’s “Tourism and Travel in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

 

One does not immediately think of Dracula as a travel book, nor of its protagonists as tourists. But Light, a lecturer in Tourism at Bournemouth University in the UK, manages to find many ways in which tourism plays a role in the novel. He begins by defining it for us, following the definition of the WTO:

 

Tourism is “the activity of visitors:; a visitor is “a traveller taking a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited.” It may seem obvious in a way, but it is helpful to have it set out like this.

 

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania for two reasons that can allow us to class him as a tourist. He starts out on a business trip and, as Light, points out, “the business traveller effectively becomes a leisure tourist once the working day is over. Thus Harker takes part in many of the performances associated with leisure tourism. He carefully researches his destination in advance in the same way that a contemporary tourist might consult a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.” (I cannot argue with this, except to regret that no mention is made of a Blue Guide! A modern-day Harker on his way to this part of the world might well consult Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania.) Harker also has the typical prejudices of a tourist: he compares everything with home, often unfavourably, and (rather patronisingly) describes the natives as “picturesque”.

 

There are other sorts of tourism examined by Light. Health tourism (visits to spas and so forth) is one; political tourism (visits to the scenes of major world events) is another. He ends with “dark tourism”, which involves visiting graves, burial sites, battlefields, the sites of murders or other atrocities. Jonathan and Mina Harker may have revisited Transylvania on a quest for the grave of Quincey Morris (after whom they have named their son, in gratitude for Morris’s aid in dispensing with the dreaded Count). We do not know. What we can be sure of, though, is that Dracula has spawned a dark tourism industry of its own. Many of those who visit Transylvania today are doing it for the frisson of travelling to the land of the vampire.

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

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Leonardo's Leicester Codex

The celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) have already begun, with the Uffizi’s exhibition of the Leicester Codex. Purchased in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, the Codex was preserved in the UK by the family until it was sold to Armand Hammer in 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by Bill Gates, who has lent it to Florence for this show (which runs until 20th Jan). The curator is Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Galileo Museum.

 

The Codex was compiled while Leonardo was living in Florence at Palazzo Martelli, and it concentrates on the theme of water. At the entrance, the visitor is invited to ‘walk across’ the waters of the Arno to see a reproduction of the famous Pianta della Catena, a bird’s eye view of Florence made at the end of the 15th century, which highlights the places frequented by Leonardo when he was at work on the Codex. Apart from working on the ill-fated fresco of the Battle of Anghiari (described in Blue Guide Florence), he also studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santa Maria Nuova (still functioning as a hospital today) and measured the Rubiconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie), observing the force of the Arno sweeping past its pylons in the river bed.

 

While writing the Codex, Leonardo also consulted the works of earlier natural scientists in the library of San Marco, seven volumes of which have been lent to the exhibition (their authors include Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Strabo). Two others of particular interest are a tract by John of Holywood (known in Florence as Giovanni Sacrobosco, lit. ‘holy wood’), born in Halifax, Yorkshire at the end of the 12th century, which was still a celebrated work in Leonardo’s time; and the treatise on architecture by Francesco di Giorgio, which has margin notes in Leonardo’s hand.

 

The Codex itself, with its closely filled pages (recto and verso), written from right to left and crowded with sketches, is displayed in 18 showcases. Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’ is explained by the fact that he was left-handed, making it easier and faster for him to write like this. In the centre of the hall are some five touch screens where the Codex can be ‘read’ in its entirety (also in English), with aids to its understanding. These are installed low enough for children to use (but it would have been nice to have benches in front of them in order to sit down).

 

Animated diagrams and reconstructions show how closely Leonardo studied the structure of water, from a dew drop to ocean waves, from springs to the dynamics of water flow and the erosion of river banks, from moisture in the air to the steam created by heating water, from the prevention of floods to the invention of locks along canals. He even describes how the eye perceives sunlight reflected by water. He suggests that water can be harnessed for the good of man if it is coaxed (rather than coerced) into different directions, and his plans for the drainage of the Arno basin, and for a canal to link Florence to the sea, are illustrated. The words invented by him to describe water, in all its various aspects and infinite movements, are pointed out.

 

Parts of the Codex are also dedicated to the moon, which Leonardo recognised as having the same physical nature as the Earth. He describes the Earth as containing a ‘vegetative soul’ and suggests that the flesh, bones and blood of living creatures are related to the Earth’s soil, rocks and water. His geological studies led him to understand the origin of fossils found on high ground formerly covered by the sea.

 

Some other treatises, written by Leonardo at the same time as the Leicester Codex, have been lent to the exhibition: one on the flightpaths of birds and experiments in mechanical wings (lent by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin); two (smaller) double sheets from the Arundel Codex about the canalisation of the Arno (lent by the British Museum); and four sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (lent by the Ambrosiana in Milan).

 

This is an exhibition dense with information that attempts to explain Leonardo’s complicated mind and to compass his interests, which darted from one observation to another. It succeeds in producing a picture not only of his deep scientific knowledge but also of his humanity, so many centuries ahead of his time and based on precise observations of the world about him.

 

The excellent catalogue is available also in English and the exhibition has a website.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and co-author of the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy (details to follow shortly on this website).

A tale of two Camparis

Monday in Milan was forecast to be the "apex" of Northern Italy's recent stormy weather.  It did not disappoint, with poor light, driving rain and strong winds. Not an ideal morning to find oneself exposed to the elements armed only with a €3 folding umbrella, much of the time blown inside out, in the 45-minute line zigzagging across the piazza to enter the Duomo.  But such are the exigencies of Blue Guides research, and the deadline for the important new Blue Guide Lombardy--finally completing the enormous task of updating Blue Guide Northern Italy region by region--looms.

After the calm inside the Duomo had helped revive the soggy and flagging spirits, something stronger was required. As you leave the cathedral from its west end, you see a welcoming sign--CAMPARI--across the piazza on your right.  It marks the famous Camparino in Galleria bar, first opened by Davide Campari in 1915, a shrine to the sticky, herbally-bitter red stuff beloved of cocktail aficionados the world over.

On arrival, we are ignored by the staff. Hopefully entering the pretty seated area to the right, we are told by the waitress that the sole remaining empty table is only to be sat at by parties of four--we constitute an inadequate two. Back in the airy and elegant bar area, which doubles as a holding pen, a brisk, waistcoated gentleman, who seems to be in charge and holds sway from behind a high till, promises to help but then disappears. Fortunately, a smart barman comes to our aid with two Campari and sodas (he is later rebuked for this by his colleague at the till, as we should have paid first).  The drinks are excellent: ice cold Campari stored at sub-zero temperatures is unctuously poured into narrow tall chilled glasses. Then soda water, also ice cold and very fizzy, is piped in at sufficient pressure to create a foam on top, with proportions of around 2 measures of Campari to 3 of soda. No ice is added to dilute and detract from the pleasure. Olives and so on are liberally available from the bar. Delicious and a reasonable €11 for two.

But could it have been better?  In the spirit of intrepid Blue Guides enquiry we head a hundred yards up the Via dei Mercanti to the brand new Starbucks--the first in Italy, dubbed (I presume by the company) “the most beautiful Starbucks in the world” and designated a “Roastery”.  It has been inserted into the attractive Palazzo Delle Poste building on Piazza Cordusio. A Campari and soda? “Of course”, the smiling greeter who smilingly greets us at the door replies, directing us upstairs past enormous and impressive pseudo-industrial machinery, maybe connected to coffee roasting (or is it mail sorting--this was a post office?) to the bar in the gallery at the back.  We perch on stools and a helpful mixologist promptly takes our order. Not much happens for a bit. When the drinks arrive they are “on the rocks”. And the “rocks” are not just a couple of ice cubes in the bottom of a tumbler, the drinks have been poured over large glasses brim-full of ice.  This time €20 for two, plus green olives and cheese. The design of the internal space is bold, the resulting effect reminiscent of the more high end bits of airport retail.

The verdict: well dear reader, while wishing Starbucks well with their vision and congratulating them on their service and the buzz of their new venue, you will not be surprised that the Blue Guides goes for Camparino, for its atmosphere, decor, history, sense of place and quality of drinks every time.  Even the staff turned out friendly eventually, and while we do not anticipate a global roll-out with Camparinos in every shopping mall and main square on the planet any time soon, well, maybe it’s better that way …

A.T.

Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes will be available from early 2019.

www.camparino.it

Best restaurants in Brescia

The real highlight of Brescia, capital of the Lombard province of the same name, must be its recently re-opened Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo - one of the best provincial art museums of the world. But to read about that you will have to buy the new Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes, available from early 2019. For now you will have to satisfy yourself with food and drink highlights from a recent research visit to this excellent and under-rated city and its environs:

Bars

Chinotto: cool bar with tables outside on the pedestrianised Corso Palestro, itself an extension of the attractive broad Corso Zanardelli with a double arcade all along its north side. Chinotto prides itself on the best pirlò in town - the local variant of spritz made not with the ubiquitous Aperol but with Campari, also a Lombard product. Ideal for an early evening sharpener. Corso Palestro, 25122 Brescia BS

Bar in the Hotel Vittoria: the stately Hotel Vittoria is Brescia’s grand hotel, on the other side of the elegant colonnaded rationalist block that forms one side of the Piazza Vittoria with its red marble pulpit built for Mussolini to address the crowds, and from the 30s to the 50s start and finish of the glamorous Mille Miglia car race to Rome and back.  The Hotel has a stylish bar, grand inside and relaxed outside under the arcade, recommended for its ambience and cocktails and the barman’s knowledge of the new wave of artisanal vermouths from this, the heart of vermouth country. Via X Giornate, 20, 25121 Brescia BS

Restaurants

Brescia

La Vineria: Good quality, somewhat more inventive than standard restaurant fare.  Classical and friendly atmosphere, don’t be put off by the small and empty ground floor visible from the arcaded street front: this does not mark a lack of support for this local institution but the fact that most guests opt for its busier, larger basement. Via X Giornate, 20, 25121 Brescia BS

Trattoria Al Fontenone: Traditional trattoria, good quality and unfussy. Via Dei Musei 47/a, 25121 Brescia BS

Il Nazareni: You might not have come to Northern Italy for Palestinian cooking, but this busy and fashionable new restaurant is a local favourite.  Clean and fresh hummus, taboulé, parsley salads etc. Via Gasparo da Salò, 22, 25122 Brescia BS

Monte Isola on Lake Iseo

Trattoria Pizzeria Bar Ai Tre Archi: a waterfront eatery in a seasonal tourist destination is risky. Ai Tre Archi--“at the three arches”--is unpretentious, on our visit the food was local and good, the white wine by the carafe excellent and the service friendly. via Peschiera Maraglio 170/n, 25050 Monte Isola BS

Salò on Lake Garda

Trattoria-Bar Cantinone: One (narrow) block back from the lake, traditional and genuine, including fish dishes from local lake fish (the fish antipasto was excellent). 19, Piazza Sant'Antonio, 25087 Salò BS

A.T.

Budapest Art Nouveau

The age of graceful living, in the closing years of the 20th century, is vividly evoked in the newly-reopened villa of the Hungarian collector György Ráth. Ráth was director of the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts between 1881 and 1896 and during his tenure, the museum collection was augmented with fine works of sculpture and furniture as well as objets d’art. His handsome villa, on the wide, leafy boulevard leading to City Park, was also something of a show-home. He and his wife were celebrated for the magnificent silver and porcelain of their dining table and the spacious reception rooms were tastefully dotted with choice objects, as well as furnished with stately and ponderous items designed by the Historicist architect Albert Schickedanz. The atmosphere of those times has now been marvellously recreated.

Ráth died in 1905 and his wife donated the villa and its contents to the Hungarian state. After many years of closure, it reopened to the public this autumn with a new permanent exhibition tracing the evolution and development of Art Nouveau.

Surviving stained glass in the Ráth Villa.

The display begins in Britain, the cradle of the Arts and Craft movement, where in response to the rapid rise of industrialisation, William Morris in England and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland placed an emphasis on the hand-made and the artisanal. The ‘Skoal’ vase by Walter Crane (c. 1885), featuring a pair of Norse warriors quaffing from drinking horns, is a prize piece. On the same floor, trends in Austria and France are explored. There is furniture by designers of the Wiener Werkstätte (notably Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffmann), Thonet bentwood chairs, and lamps by Tiffany and Gallé (particularly spectacular is a gilded lamp-sculpture of Loie Fuller, the shade formed by her billowing drapery).

Detail from an inlaid Viennese hardwood cabinet of 1901 by Koloman Moser.

In all the rooms, careful attention has been paid to the ancillary fixtures and fittings. All the wallpaper has been designed in keeping, picking out and repeating patterns from some of the objects on show. The carpets are carefully chosen (in some cases purpose-made) as are the ceiling lamps. Especially fine is the globular ceiling lamp imitating a ball of mistletoe, by the Hungarian metalsmith Gyula Jungfer (and you can stand beneath it with impunity; the tradition of kisses under the mistletoe is not a Hungarian one).

In the Art Nouveau Dining Room (with sound effects of clinking cutlery), the wall text prompts you to note the complete absence of straight lines. You are plunged into a world of sinuous arcs and whiplash curves. Everything bends, even the floppy-stemmed wine cups on the dining table (contemporary, by Gergely Pattantyús). There is cutlery by Christofle and faïence by the celebrated Hungarian firm of Zsolnay. Also by Zsolnay is the selection of plates designed by the painter József Rippl Rónai, each one different, for the Art Nouveau dining room of Count Tivadar Andrássy (1898). The wallpaper in this room uses a pattern from one of them.

Upstairs (note the fine, creaking wooden staircase) is a long gallery with display cases stuffed with treasures: more glassware by Tiffany and Gallé; jewellery by Lalique; metalwork by Ö. Fülöp Beck and decorative vases, bowls, platters and wine cups by Zsolnay. There are wall tiles too, covered with the lovely iridescent ‘eosin’ glaze which the Zsolnay manufactory pioneered.

Decorative eosin-glazed wall tile by the Zsolnay manufactory.

The last room explores specifically Hungarian trends in the genre, works that are not only made and designed by Hungarian artists in the Art Nouveau style but which are also Hungarian-themed. There are tapestries from the artists’ colony of Gödöllő (a town just east of Budapest) illustrating stories from Hungarian legend; a screen of c. 1909 designed by Károly Kós (best known for his folk-revival architecture) showing the death of Attila the Hun; and a plain but beautiful chair by Béla Lajta, designed for the Jewish Institute for the Blind, with a folk motif of a bird carved shallowly on its backrest.

As you leave, be sure to pay your respects to the bust of György Ráth himself, in the entrance lobby. His fine likeness in bronze (1894, by Alajos Stróbl) is placed next to a marble bust of his wife (same date and sculptor). Ráth is dressed in ceremonial Hungarian attire. The original cloak chain, clasp and buttons, meticulously depicted in the sculpture, can be seen in the adjacent glass case, along with his gilded spurs. This is a delightful show. You are likely to want to visit it more than once. The next step will be to pay some attention to the villa’s garden, where the original allegorical statues of the Four Seasons still stand.

Art Nouveau: A Hungarian Perspective
Now showing at the György Ráth Villa in Budapest (Városligeti fasor 12; open Tues–Sun 10–6).

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