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Roman Aquileia

The ruins of the Roman colony of Aquileia, once the fourth largest Roman city in Italy, lie under and around the peaceful modern town and its splendid Early Christian basilica church. Where the amphitheatre once stood, citizens now hoe their vegetable patches and tend their sweet peas. It is all incredibly atmospheric. The town also boasts one of the finest archaeological museums in the country, full of exceptionally interesting artefacts, not least some exquisite pieces made of the Baltic amber for which Aquileia was once a key trading centre. It is easy to spend a full day and more here. The tree-lined walk along the quayside of the old Roman river port is not to be missed. Nor is the Sepolcreto, a quiet enclosure containing five family tombs of the 1st–2nd centuries. After seeing the museum, stop off for a glass of local Malvasia wine in the Attila Scourge of God (Attila Flagellum Dei) wine bar on the opposite side of the street. If you need somewhere to say, the simple, no-frills, friendly Aquila Nera is recommended. It is extremely good value and they offer a good dinner.

Detail of the tomb stele of a blacksmith
IN AGR P XXX: a grave enclosure measuring 30 feet in depth, with foot, exactly one Roman foot long

Springtime in Friuli

In April, around the perimeter walls of the star-shaped fortress-city of Palmanova in northern Italy, you can expect to see people out in force, armed with plastic bags, some even with scissors, searching the grassy banks for a certain plant. What is it?

The answer is “sclupit”, as it is called in Friulano. In Italian it is known asstridolo. In English it is the bladder campion (Selene cucubalus). The young leaves are gathered in spring and used to lend a subtle, slightly aromatic flavour to risottos, omelettes and pasta dishes.

The Union of Friuli Venezia Giulia cooks (Unione Cuochi Friuli Venezia Giulia) recommends a delicious seasonal recipe of ravioli filled with sclupit, ricotta and montasio cheese and served in a butter and asparagus sauce.

The picture here shows a sprig of sclupit resting on the editor’s annotated copy of Blue Guide Northern Italy .

For a full glossary and miscellany of Italian food, with over 2,500 Italian food terms translated (and pronunciation given), see the handy pocket-format Blue Guide Italy Food Companion. Don’t leave your hotel without it!

Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations

Following a trip to the Veneto region, not only rich in superb art, architecture and archaeological sites but also with some of Italy's best regional food and wines, we have a handful of new Blue Guides Recommended hotels and restaurants to share with you:

  1. Comfort and style on the Trieste water front: the Savoia Excelsior Palace Hotel.

  2. Good value, good location and clean in the centre of Aquileia's Roman remains and early-Christian architecture: theAquila Nera Hotel.

  3. Luxury and charm in Browning's Palladian Asolo villa: the Hotel Villa Cipriani.

  4. The best food of the trip in a spectacular setting on Lake Garda: Locanda San Vigilio.

  5. A reliable pizza in touristic Sirmione: Pizzeria Scaligeri's

  6. Verona's finest food and wine: Antica Bottega del Vino.

Note that our recommended listings on this website are by no means exhaustive - there are fuller lists in the books.  These recommendations will be included in the next edition of Blue Guide Northern Italy. Comments welcome as always.

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.

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