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Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London, Venice

 

Entertaining anthologies of writing–extracts from novels, letter, diaries, poems, histories, guide books–about or set in the destination.  Lively introductions to each excerpt make them a pleasure to browse, a mine of fascinating insights to enjoy at home or to supplement a guide book on site.

 

Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion

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How to enjoy the best of Italian food: understand the menu and know how to order in a restaurant or street market.

View details, look inside and order securely on line direct from the publisher.

 

The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto

4th June–27th November 2011 www.labiennale.org

The Biennale, the world’s leading modern art exhibition, is upon us once again. ‘An exuberant invitation to take part in growth and change’ (Rev John-Henry Bowden, former Chaplain of St George’s, Venice)? Or the emperor’s new clothes?

Well, Jackie Wullschlager , the Financial Times’ influential art critic and no enemy of the new, really doesn’t like British artist Mike Nelson’s installation: it is ‘fatuous, self-regarding art’ and ‘the most vapid show the British pavilion has ever sponsored’.  But among the things she does like are the three Tintorettos. Sorry, Tintorettos? Not by any chance by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto because of his father’s trade of cloth dyeing, with the not very modern dates of 1519–94?

Indeed, the very same. Two of the three paintings are from the Accademia (the Creation of the Animals and the Transport of the Body of St Mark), the third is a Last Supper from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore ‘painted in the last year of his [Tintoretto’s] life … the last of numerous paintings he produced on this subject, one which had fascinated him all his life … what is memorable above all is the disquieting presence of ethereal spirits and angels which emerge from the dark background, perhaps harbingers of the death of this deeply religious painter’ (quoted from Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Venice).

But the Biennale’s Chairman, Paolo Baratta, has a simple explanation: the show hasn’t lost faith in the new, Tintoretto’s works are exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini ‘as a warning to living artists to not indulge in conventions!’ (the exclamation mark is from his press release). And while Curator Bice Curiger maybe protests a little much she is surely right when she says, ‘These paintings by Tintoretto, one of the most experimental artists in the history of Italian art, exert a special appeal today with their almost febrile, ecstatic lighting and a near reckless approach to composition that overturns the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance. The works will play a prominent role in establishing an artistic, historical and emotional relationship to the local context.’

All excellent, and we at the Blue Guides look forward with enthusiasm to a creeping juxtaposition of great, historical Venetian art alongside the thoroughly modern in the pavilions of the Giardini and halls of the Arsenale at future Biennales.

Reviewed by Thomas Howells

Venice is covered in a number of Blue Guides: there is the main Blue Guide Venice 8th edition, by Alta Macadam, as well as a Blue Guide Literary Companion Venice.  And just out, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia, in the new Blue Guides Travel Monograph series.

05.06.2011
11:37

Holy Bones, Holy Dust

The latest book by Charles Freeman, freelance academic historian and historical consultant to the Blue Guides (published by Yale University Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-300-12571-9).

The subtitle, ‘How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe’, sounds more universal than it actually is: the relics in question are exclusively Christian; the book makes no mention of the hair from the Prophet’s beard in Istanbul, for example, nor of any shrines there may have been in Muslim Spain. This is not a criticism; it is simply a fact that helps one to know what one is getting. We are talking about early Christianity, a subject on which Mr Freeman is extremely knowledgeable (and no less opinionated).

The book is a splendid read. It begins with a stirring account of the murder of Thomas Becket and goes on to examine the multifarious and mysterious ways in which early Church Fathers got distracted from the task of helping their flock to follow Christ’s model and fretted instead about whether the Holy Foreskin needed to have been rejoined to Jesus’ body after the Resurrection, or whether women entered Heaven in male form, as being representative of a higher state of being.

Freeman is particularly good on the vulnerability of relic cults to the onslaughts of science. ‘When an earthquake hit Venice in 1511,’ he tells us, ‘the Patriarch interpreted it as a sign from God in response to the increase of sodomy in the city. After all, the city’s prostitutes had been complaining that their own business was suffering as a consequence of this diversion in sexual behaviour. The diarist Marino Sanudo, who recorded the earthquake with his customary detachment, noted that the ensuing days of fasting, procession and preaching might have helped improve piety, “but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at all”….Sanudo is reflecting a growing understanding of the natural world.’

And yet, and yet… We may enjoy a little giggle at the idea that St Helena of Athyra possessed a ring that could quench sexual passion and owned a handkerchief that cured toothache, but how many of us have fondled crystals, tied copper bangles to our wrists, kept a scarab beetle in our pockets? The human need for tangible totems or amulets is as strong today as it ever was. A large part of the immense appeal of Freeman’s book is that it reminds us all of this foible. Which, on the scale of foibles, is a relatively harmless one. To the medieval mind, ‘Relics are the portents of heaven shining in their glory among the dross of sinful humanity.’ Nowadays we grope after transcendence in a variety of other ways. But the hope of shining glory is undimmed.

Reviewed by Tonsor

Charles Freeman is the author of Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World, published by Blue Guides.

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

RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE

As a brief introduction here are six hotels and one restaurant that are recommended in the new Blue Guide Crete. Note that, as with all Blue Guides Recommended establishments, all have been visited by the author or our editors and contributors (see the criteria for recommendation here), indeed in the case of the below we have stayed at all of them.  Considerably longer listings appear in the book itself.

Most of the below are available through www.cretetravel.com who we found excellent. As well as handling the reservations (at no cost to the visitor, they receive a fee from the hotel), they will also give helpful email or telephone advice:

1. Tamam Restaurant, Chania (details»)

2. Casa Delfino, Chania (details»)

3. Villa Kynthia, Panormos (details»)

4. Villa Kerasia, Venerato (details»)

5. Kalimera Archanes, Archanes (details»)

6. Palazzo Apartments, Agios Nikolaos (details»)

7. Aspros Potamos, near Makrigialos (details»)

03.05.2011
11:40

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity

Sam Miller, Vintage 2010

Sam Miller is quick to tell us that he loves walking in strange cities. So do I. And it is this that has always bothered me about Delhi, a city I have never visited but have often longed to see: how will I get around it? I don’t want to hire a car or an autorickshaw. And apparently women shouldn’t travel alone by bus. So can one walk? I know no better means of locomotion, especially if you really want to see and understand things. For all these reasons I was heartened when I picked up Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. And when I saw the following line, which the author delivers to an auto-addict who is offering him a lift: ‘I don’t drive. And, well, I really want to walk,’ I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit. When he says this kind of thing, Miller tells us, people look at him with pity and disbelief, or with embarrassment, as if he were a bit touched. I’m used to this reaction too. When I go to pick up my son from school, in foul-weather gear and yomping boots, mothers in spiky heels emerging from SUVs look at me with pity and disbelief. My son isn’t yet of an age to be embarrassed. So, safe in the knowledge that Miller and I were on the same wavelength, I set off with him, in search of a vast and unknown city. Everything in the book happens at street level. We don’t (or extremely rarely) go inside people’s apartments or office buildings. We don’t join them at social functions or in restaurants. We never really ‘meet’ anyone, we have brief encounters, the stuff of a vagrant’s life, with prison warders, rag-pickers, funeral directors, pirated computer software vendors, stall-holders, janitors. The encounters may be brief but they are not superficial. They are illuminating, sometimes amusing, often moving. And I learned a lot. Not just about Delhi’s geography, monuments, traffic problems, urban planning, religious groups and politics. But about geocaching and SimCity, about the Brahma Kumaris and what ‘sealing’ a business means. I even have a new verb to add to my vocabulary: to prepone, meaning to do something earlier than you planned. I loved the story of the bulldozed mosque and the incident of the ‘fresh fruit salad’, not to mention the Hotel Alka, which advertises itself as ‘the best alternative to luxury’. The New Statesman reviewer who said that ‘For all its entertaining eccentricities Delhi is careful to maintain a strong sense of the city’s sad heritage of religious factionalism, pollution, rioting, poverty and crime’ completely fails to catch the spirit of this book, making it sound like a worthy, brown-rice sort of endeavour leavened by a few off-the-wall jokes. It is nothing like that. It is true that Miller tells it like it is, but he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t campaign, he doesn’t soap-box. That is not to suggest that we don’t learn about pollution, rioting, poverty and crime. We do. But the overall tenor of the book is one of optimism. And enjoyment at the sheer infiniteness of Delhi. Sam Miller sets out to walk the city not because he is a charmingly batty Englishman, but because there are certain things that he would never see if he didn’t. And those things deserve to be documented. In documenting them,  Miller is even-handed and compassionate. This is a book about a megacity, but what that means is that it is a book about human beings, in all their nutty multifariousness. Sam doesn’t judge, he observes. Above all, he writes with extreme tenderness towards his fellow man (and woman). What adds an extra piquancy is the fact that he has trouble with one of his knees. A fanatical walker with a gammy leg almost seems to stand as a microcosm of Delhi itself: something indomitable, irrepressible, insistent with life, and destined to succeed despite all difficulties. For the last few nights this book was my bedside reading. I enjoyed it hugely.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber.

Sam Miller is the author of Blue Guide India.

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

Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us

by Ferdinand Mount, published by Simon & Schuster 2010, in paperback April 2011

There’s a brilliant new idea on every page of Ferdinand Mount’s meandering, fascinating comparison of various aspects of the modern world with those of Classical times.  And like all good original thinking, when so well expressed, the ideas seem obvious after the event: similarities between Roman bath culture and modern spa-going, between ancient gyms and the modern worked-out body beautiful, between stuffed dormice and modern foodyism, even between the pre-Christian Eastern mystery religions of the Roman Empire and, well, the post-Christian Eastern mystery religions of the Western world.

And many of the ideas merit a book in themselves: for example, I was not familiar with Vaihinger’s post-Kantian arguments for ‘as-if’ Christianity (it’s not true but you’ll have a nicer time if you behave as if it was), an interesting idea which we will hear more of as the arguments of what Mount calls the ‘anti-God botherers’ (Dawkins and his fellow-travellers) rumble on.

It is probably a relief that he ducks the issue of slavery altogether.  You do not have to be a Hegelian Marxist to realise that some ancients could be pretty free to do all sorts of things because many had no freedom at all.  Nor a Christian fundamentalist to appreciate that Christianity with its then new idea of the equality of souls spelled the decline and eventual abolition of ancient world slavery.  But comparisons between ancient world slavery and modern world “globalisation’ made elsewhere are wrong, even though the benefits of free trade are indeed one of the reasons why the western world does again have a substantial middle class, free to hang around in gyms, spas and restaurants and rediscover all the 2,000-year-old pleasures Mount so wittily describes.

And he does bang on about sex. I am not sure how interesting a point it is that the ancients were promiscuous and that so are many in the 21st-century West. Much more fun on the subject (and not much to do with the ancient world) is Mount’s account of the evolution of ideas about sex in the 20th century, particularly the tediousness of the Bloomsbury group’s infantile musings on the subject, which they thought so grown-up compared to those of the straight-laced Victorians to whom they felt so eminently superior.  I think Mount’s point is that the conclusion of the attempt to glorify copulation, with its apogee in the sexual “revolution” of the 1960s, succeeded, by its ubiquity, only in trivialising it.  Back to where it was in ancient times.

Extracting unified themes from the thousand years of rapid intellectual experiment and development from the rise of Athens to the fall of Rome, and comparing those themes to those of our own day is not always easy.  For example, while Mount does find a Greek philosopher with some remarkably Popperian ideas about scientific discovery, it is not clear that Romans, never seriously interested in new inventions or in the advance of science, really had much in common with the 21st century in terms of  scientific attitudes.

But these are quibbles. As I say, brilliant, a fascinating idea on every page. Here I have covered about one and a half ideas inadequately; he has 385 pages of them.  I think I will read it again.

Reviewed by Tom Brompton

Blue Guides publish Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

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

Comments on Blue Guide Turkey

This highly acclaimed Blue Guide provides unrivalled coverage of Turkey's wonderful artistic heritage. The treasures include superb remains of Greek and Roman cities along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, the Crusader castles of the southeast, and beautiful mosques and medreses from the Selcuk and Ottoman periods.

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

 

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