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Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome .

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

A celebration of Lucca

“Lucca is one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy.” So begins the description of the town in Blue Guide Tuscany. And it is true. Lucca, in my opinion, is as good as Tuscany gets. It was a Roman town, and the shape of its amphitheatre is atmospherically preserved in an elliptical piazza, ringed around by medieval houses. Its church façades are spectacular, richly carved in a characteristic mix of pink, green and white marble. Rusking sketched them obsessively.

Lucca is close to the great quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta, where Michelangelo came in search of perfect, unveined blocks, and it has a tradition of excellence in carving. Its most important native artist is Matteo Civitali (1436–1501), whose expressive works are to be seen almost exclusively in and around Lucca.

Lucca is also a town of cyclists. Its old medieval fortifications are splendidly preserved, and around the top of the walls there is now a bicycle track, which goes all around the town offering magnificent views. It is also well worth hiring a bike and striking off into the surrounding countryside, lovely farmland criss-crossed by small streams, the houses all with characteristic haylofts with walls of louvred brick for ventilation.

Unlike many towns in Tuscany, Lucca was never subject to Florence and the Medici. From the late 14th century until the days of Napoleon, who arrived in 1799 as part of his Reorganise Europe road trip, Lucca maintained a proud tradition of independence. It is perhaps this that gives the town so much of its special character. It also has important musical associations. It was the birthplace of Puccini, and from 1805 to 1808 Paganini was here, working as court violinist to Napoleon’s sister Elisa, to whom the ambitious Corsican had arbitrarily presented Lucca as a principality. Her country home, the Villa Reale, lies in the foothills northeast of the town, at Marlia, and is open to the public (www.parcovillareale.it).  Close by, at Lammari, in the church of San Jacopo, is the last work of Matteo Civitali (illustrated below). It is a tabernacle of the Redeemer, shown emptying his own blood into the Eucharistic chalice, a symbol of his sacrifice to redeem mankind.

Typical dishes of Lucca’s cuisine include tordelli lucchesi, pasta pockets filled with spiced meat and served in a meat and tomato sauce. Buccellato is a delicious, simple cake flavoured with aniseed and raisins (photo © www.tarantini.srl.com). As the old saying goes, ‘If you don’t eat buccellato, you haven’t been to Lucca.”

Romantic music in a Baroque setting

The god Pan, detail of the concert-hall ceiling

Tucked away in a sidestreet close to the church of the Frari is Palazzetto Bru Zane, originally a small palace or ‘casino’ where the Zane family would receive guests and host entertainments. Its stairway and first-floor rooms are richly decorated with woodwork by Andrea Brustolon and stuccoes by Abbondio Stazio, both of whom had studied with or been influenced by Bernini and his assistants in Rome. The frescoes are attributed to Sebastiano Ricci, the finest Venetian artist of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Today the palace is administered by the Fondation Bru as the Centre for French Romantic Music. Concerts are held in the Zane family’s original upper-floor concert hall, with its richly decorated ceiling and lovely carved wood balustrade. For information about concerts and tickets, see www.bru-zane.com .

14.01.2012
17:10

Blue Guide India Delhi Launch

The Delhi launch of Blue Guide India by Sam Miller took place on Thursday 12th January in the grounds of the Lodi restaurant, close to the magnificent medieval tombs of the Lodi Gardens. More than a hundred guests gathered on a bitterly cold Delhi evening for cocktails, and to watch a short video and slideshow presentation by the author, followed by a quiz. The book sold out at the event, as it had at the London launch in November.

10.01.2012
17:12

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Susie Harries, Chatto & Windus, 2011.

I am not quite sure how my 1961 edition of Pevsner’s Suffolk has survived long enough still to be found among the debris in the boot of my car. It surfaces and resurfaces as if carrying the persistence of its author with it. It is a paperback edition and I must have brought it when I was cycling round Suffolk churches for a school project in the summer of 1965. I was intrigued to read in this meticulous and absorbing account of Pevsner’s life that he was upset when later volumes only appeared as pricey hardbacks so depriving one of his target audiences, school children, of accessible copies. I was one of the lucky ones.

Pevsner is, of course, the acclaimed guide to The Buildings of England, eventually, with some help from collaborators, covering the whole of the country in forty-six volumes. The elderly, and—as Harries tells us, exhausted, author, gazes benignly at us over his achievement, here piled in two columns on the front cover. It is to Pevsner that one turns to check whether a church window is ‘Perp’ or ‘Dec’ and I was always rather proud that he had ventured far enough up the drive of my family home in Suffolk to note its ‘porch with Roman Doric columns’, although, alas, his date for the exterior, early 18thcentury, is wrong; the façade was remodelled in the 1830s. In his old age Pevsner relaxed enough to admit he had made many such mistakes in his rigorously disciplined forays into the countryside.

Of course, one reads Pevsner for his pithy comments. One of my favourite local churches in Suffolk is Dennington but Pevsner sternly brings my enthusiasm to order by telling me that ‘Piscina and sedilia are strangely and perversely arched’ and that ‘the chancel arch is painfully incorrect’. It is a style that is utterly distinctive but often limited and I was glad that Harries put me onto another, fuller, work of his, The Leaves of Southwell [Minster]—a King Penguin of 1945 but easy to track down online—where he enthuses over the perfect marriage of stone and nature in the Minster capitals. An extract was read at his funeral.

This biography is wonderfully comprehensive. When Pevsner left his lectureship at Göttingen to seek a new life in England in 1933, he brought the intense analytical tradition of German art history with him and Harries covers this well. Pevsner was conservative by nature and sympathetic to the demands for order in Germany but never, as has been suggested in a recent, less rigorous biography, a Nazi (Harries has the advantage of sole access to his family archive, so she can provide an accurate picture). We can understand why he found the English tradition of connoisseurship gleaned from weekends nosing as a guest around country houses amateurish, but he persevered and eventually found his niches lecturing (at Birkbeck and later as Slade professor at Cambridge), advising, broadcasting (the Reith Lecturer of 1955) and writing. He was utterly professional and endlessly assiduous in accumulating architectural details. Of course, to some, this meant that he missed or ignored the human side of building. His personality, often removed and abrupt, reflected his dedication and one can understand the difficulties he experienced in his marriage with the more gregarious Lola, who suffered his long absences, self-absorption and occasional dalliances with other women. He missed her most, of course, when she died suddenly in 1963, twenty years before he did.

Outside his Buildings of England, Pevsner was perhaps best known for his championship of the Modern Movement, notably in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement, an early English work of 1936. He argued that ‘good’ modern building should reflect function, materials should not be disguised and lines should be clean without ornament. Then he was drawn into the revived interest in Victorian buildings and so became a founder of the Victorian Society (where he had to face childish ridicule for his ‘Germanic’ approach from one John Betjeman). Balancing the demands for new buildings against the varying qualities of older ones involved him in endless and often fruitless battles with planners, architects and developers alike. Pevsner was never a people person but his vast knowledge and persistence earned him increasing respect. His taste and approach could always be criticized, of course, and there were always some whose ripostes to his enthusiasms were malicious rather than scholarly. However, he held to his own vision and avoided feuds. By the end of his life the honours were flowing in profusion from across the world.

It is always hard to deal with the austere who say little about their emotions and who lose themselves in dedicated scholarship. The work can easily swamp the individual. Pevsner needed and deserved a full biography and this could hardly be bettered. Thanks to her ferreting through the family archives, her judicious sympathy for her subject, and her scholarly accounts of the academic background, Susie Harries brings to life the man who has left us an awesome legacy. Wherever we are, in any part of England, we still need to ask of an interesting building: ‘Is it in Pevsner?’

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 sites that Explain the Classical World . His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here .

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

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution

Keith Devlin, Walker & Company, 2011.

Visitors to the Camposanto, the sacred burial ground of Pisa, so sadly damaged by Allied bombers in the Second World War, find all manner of monuments lining the walls, from Roman sarcophagi to statues of the illustrious citizens of later centuries. One of these, recently cleaned up and restored, dates from 1863 and it commemorates one of Pisa’s heroes, the mathematician Leonardo da Pisa, often known as Fibonacci (a corruption of Filius Bonacci, the son of Guiglielmo Bonacci). Although no contemporary depiction of him survives, he springs from the sculptor’s imagination with classical features, a cowled head and a long tunic. He lived from around 1170 to 1250.

Fibonacci is best known today for his famous mathematical puzzle of the breeding rabbits. Shut up a pair of rabbits in an enclosure, assume that the doe will give birth to a pair of baby rabbits every month and that these two will be up and breeding a pair a month within a month. Genetically impossible of course, but the numbers can be built up into a sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. These ‘Fibonacci’ numbers reappear in all kinds of strange places, not least as the typical number of petals in a flower.

Fibonacci was not the first to work out this sequence and Keith Devlin is not nearly as interested in it as in Fibonacci’s contribution to the commercial revolution of 13th and 14th century Italy. These years were the age of trading breakthroughs for the Italians as they captured new routes and filled them with finished grain in return for raw materials. The Venetians strengthened their position immensely after the Fourth Crusade of 1204 had allowed them to lay their hands on ports across the Mediterranean. Florence expanded fast after 1200. Yet there was a bottleneck in the commercial background. There were experts who could manipulate an abacus as quickly as one might operate a calculator today, but the final answers were always written in Roman numerals. As soon as complex issues arose, concerning how to divide profits or change money between coins of different alloys, the system just broke down. The Arab traders, on the other hand, were using a system they had adopted from India. It comprised nine numbers, each with a single-digit symbol, 8 for VIII, for instance, and, crucially, a zero, which was recognized as a number in its own right. The man who transferred the system into Italy was, Devlin argues in this entertaining book, none other than Fibonacci.

Fibonacci’s father had been posted by Pisa to the port of Bugia, in modern Algeria, where he acted as the Pisan go-between with the Berbers. Leonardo, still a boy, went with him. He must have picked up Arabic, as he tells how he talked to merchants from Egypt and Syria, and he soon grasped the superiority of their calculations and became obsessed by them. In 1202 he published a mammoth 600-page manuscript, the Liber Abaci, ‘The Book of Calculation’. It was the first time that the system had been spelled out fully and aimed directly at Italian merchants. Everything from how to divide profits and measure land to dealing in currency exchange was covered with a myriad examples to show how each kind of calculation could be made.

No copies of the 1202 manuscript survive but there are some of the second edition of 1228. By this time, Fibonacci was famous. He had been summoned to meet the formidable Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who had set him three problems which he triumphantly solved. He wrote up the answers in his Liber quadratorum and this work has helped confirm him as the finest mathematician of the Middle Ages.

By the end of the 13th century there were a mass of simpler books of calculation and schools were teaching the system. In Florence in 1343, between 1,000 and 1,200 boys were working in abbaci schools. Until recently, however, historians have not been able to link Fibonacci directly to the introduction of the new system. The workbooks used by students and merchants did not appear to overlap with anything in Liber Abaci. Perhaps the system had come in at a less erudite level and slowly infiltrated the Italian cities. Yet later writers often named Fibonacci as the man who introduced arithmetic and algebra to Europe.

Devlin shows how the question has been resolved. Fibonacci must have realized that the huge manuscript of the Liber Abaci and another text he wrote for merchants on geometry, which was scarcely less large, were too much for the ordinary merchant to master. So he wrote a much shorter and simple text, now lost, and this can now be directly linked to the manuals to be found in the schools some decades later. Fibonacci was truly ‘the man of numbers’, both at a sophisticated level in algebra, but on the market floor.

This is a short book on a man about whom almost nothing is known. Fibonacci sometimes called himself Bigallo, perhaps a Tuscan dialect word for traveller, and he certainly knew his way around the cosmopolitan Mediterranean world of the 13th century. It was perhaps inevitable that the Hindu-Arabic system would have come to Italy in time—it was simply too useful in a complex trading world—but Devlin has certainly shown that Fibonacci deserves the credit for setting in all in motion. This is a readable and enjoyable book and I actually understood the maths!

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. For more on Fibonacci, see here.

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

11.11.2011
16:46

Comments on Blue Guide India

All new first edition, all India in one volume.  The result of four years’ work by Delhi-based Sam Miller, head of the BBC Trust in India.

See the contents, index and sample pages, and buy online direct from the publisher.

The author’s Facebook page is here with quizzes, comments and questions answered.

Available in print and as an e-book by chapter.

 

The Roman Forum

By David Watkin (Profile Books, hardback 2009; paperback June 2011)

‘Archaeology often brings to light relics—mysterious foundations, tumbled blocks, a charred sacrificial pit, the decaying stumps of dead houses—fascinating to the scholar but a stunning bore to the simple visitor.’ So wrote Dilys Powell in The Villa Ariadne. Archaeologists can be monomaniacs and their interests are often distressingly narrow. So it was with some anticipation that I took up David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, whose contentions are very clear: ‘Archaeologists have eliminated much evidence of the fascinating post-antique life of the Forum,’ and their labours have made ‘visiting parts of the Forum about as attractive as looking into the hole made in New York on 9/11.’ Ouch! These accusations run like leitmotifs throughout the book, together with the curious conspiracy theory that guidebooks are complicit; that there are things they ‘do not want us to see’.

If one works night and day to produce guidebooks, it is difficult not to get on the defensive. The Portico of the Dii Consentes doesn’t ‘turn out’ to be a modern reconstruction. Pay attention to your Blue Guide! It clearly says that it dates from 1858. There is no plot to keep visitors in the dark about the churches of San Lorenzo in Miranda or Santi Luca e Martina. They are just never, ever open. But for Watkin, everything was better in the time of Piranesi. Piranesi, he tells us, with the authority of one who knew him in a former life, recorded the Forum ‘at the last time when it was still a place of poetry, capable of inspiring great painters, writers and thinkers.’ Glum stuff, but the threnody does begin to strike a chord and the aimiable style in which the bad news is delivered soon reels you in. Watkin laments the fact that the Forum has been turned inside out: its surviving churches open away from it, no longer into it; it has been severed from the life of the city and turned into a visitors’ theme park. Up until a very few years ago, entry was free and one could use the Forum as a thoroughfare; Romans going about their daily business could loiter and linger in it. Now you have to queue to be admitted through a turnstile, custodians are bossy and offhand, and no one who is not a tourist (or an archaeologist) ever goes there. The magnificent ‘challenge of the relationship between ancient and modern’ has been obscured.

Despite the underlying crotchetiness, the book is immensely enjoyable. Watkin’s love for the Forum, his breadth of knowledge, and his wistfulness about what might have been (in a Peter Pan world) are ingenuous, impressive and infectious—a beguiling combination. The chapter on the despoliation of the Forum’s monuments in the service of the new St Peter’s is a superb read. No visitor should ever again imagine that the mere march of time had anything to do with it. What Watkin cannot admit, though, is that if archaeologists hadn’t got their hands on the Forum when they did (in the late 19th century), the urban planners certainly would have. And the challenging relationship between ancient and modern would now be as desperate a tussle there as it is at Largo Argentina.

Nevertheless, if you’re travelling to Rome—either for the first or the fiftieth time—I recommend that you get this book. Not only will it add whole layers of meaning to your visit, but it will also force to you answer the following testing questions: if archaeologists are to be banished, who will take their place (and who will pay for it)? What is the point of a desert like the Forum in the centre of a busy and increasingly cramped-feeling capital city? And whose opinion was nearer to the mark: Palladio’s, for whom the Forum offered ‘not the spectacle of ancient glory but rather the possibility of recreating it’; or Pevsner’s, for whom the Forum belongs ‘to the civilisation of Antiquity, not to what we usually mean when we speak of European civilisation’? Watkin loves the Baroque churches that were built over the ancient ruins in the 17th century. But did their architects believe they were ‘recreating’, or did they believe they were moving forward into a ‘modern’ era?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) has extensive coverage of the Forum, with a map of the site and detailed notes on all its monuments, past, present and conjectural.

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

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Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Familiar face
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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