Currently the posts are filtered by: September 1
Reset this filter to see all posts.

Italian Venice: A History

R.J.B Bosworth, Italian Venice: A History, Yale University Press, 2014.

R.J.B. Bosworth is addicted to the mingling and competing atmospheres that make up the history of Italian cities. In his book on Rome, Whispering City (reviewed here), he showed how the conflicting pasts of the ‘Eternal City’ were continuously rearranging themselves as one or other faction achieved control over the narrative. Here he applies the same approach to Venice, surveying the city’s history after it was absorbed into mainland Italy in 1866.

Bosworth’s survey is valuable because there is only one full-length English study of Venice’s recent history on the market, Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City 1797–1997, also from Yale (2002). Plant’s is a rich and beautifully illustrated volume, Bosworth’s more penetrating and cynical, and the two together now give the Venice enthusiast a full perspective on a period that has traditionally been neglected in favour of the centuries of Venice’s greatness.

In 1866, the economy of Venice was in a precarious state with the Austrian port of Trieste a major rival for trade. Infant mortality was high and the poor, living on the lower floors of historic buildings, suffered from damp and overcrowding, with employment limited to traditional crafts. In the later 19th century some fresh opportunities were offered by cotton, tobacco and the Stucky flour mill (recently repurposed as the Hilton Hotel), as well as expansion on the mainland at Mestre but the city has never created its own sustainable economy independently of tourism. 31,000 Venetians were unemployed in 1931.

As a result two Venices co-exist throughout this book: the Venice of partying along the Grand Canal and the Venice of an underemployed local population locked in poor housing. While in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1920s, the song-writer Cole Porter and his coterie of young Venetians were taking advantage of Porter’s wife’s absence to disport themselves in her dresses and snort cocaine, 40 percent of the population, according to an estimate of 1933, supplemented their diet with molluscs picked at low tide from the polluted rocks and mud. Typhus was endemic.

Yet Venice has always had competing identities. Was the city founded by refugees from Troy and so equal to Rome in antiquity or did it emerge under the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation in 421? The Patriarch Guiseppe Sarto, later pope Pius X, naturally favoured the latter. When the Campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in July 1902 without damaging the Basilica, he soon had a sacred image of the Virgin on the altar as a thanksgiving for her protection. This austere prelate set in place an uncompromising distaste for the frivolity of life in the palazzi of the Grand Canal. Yet once canonised, the visit of his embalmed body to Venice brought out massive crowds as it made its way up that same canal in a vessel rowed by eighteen oarsmen in 18th-century dress. Bosworth does well to remind us of the persistent Catholicism of a city that has provided three recent popes from its patriarchs.

One patriarch, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, appointed in 1935, proved an adept supporter of the Fascist regime, celebrating its victories, applauding the alliance with Nazi Germany and mixing quotations from Mussolini with those of the gospels. Obsessed with swearing and the lascivious dress of women, Piazza was upstaged by the city’s most successful industrialist, former governor of the conquered Libya and Minister of Finance, Giuseppe Volpi, whose flaunting of Fascist culture in the shape of music and film festivals as well as the well-established Biennale, allowed him to claim that Venice was the vetrina or showcase of Italy and himself as ‘the last doge’. With such flamboyant propagandists for the regime, it was disappointing that police reports (well exploited by Bosworth) repeatedly showed the refusal of the city’s population to take on board, or even to understand, the transformation in attitudes required of them. When an attempt was made to exclude the polite, traditional lei, and replace it by the more militant voi, the gondoliers robustly replied that the language taught to them by their mothers was quite good enough. Eighty percent of the city’s Jews survived the war, many concealed by their neighbours.

As Mussolini’s regime crumbled, there was much reshuffling of allegiances. Venice had suffered badly in the First World War, bombed, and almost captured after the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917. The Second World War was ignored as much as possible and the façade of Fascism quickly abandoned on Italy’s surrender. Between January 1943 and January 1944, membership of the local Fascist party tumbled from 88,000 to 4,000. It was as if an acqua alta had receded without leaving much debris. Volpi was especially adept. Briefly imprisoned because of his adherence to Fascism, his contacts got him out of prison. Escaping to Switzerland, he then bought himself back to respectability by a large donation to the Resistance movement and the handing over of his newspaper, Il Gazzettino, to the Christian Democratic Party. The US general Mark Clark obligingly praised the city for its resistance to Fascism and its transfer of its facilities to the liberators intact. A bronze statue of La Partigiana, ‘the [female] partisan’, near the Giardini, now commemorates the successful resistance of the city to Fascism and Nazism.

The pressures are immense, even if a canny survivor, Massimo Cacciari, mayor of the city in 1993–2000 and 2005–2010, a former Communist philosopher who championed free enterprise once in power, proved able to manipulate them. However, the factions that support or oppose any attempt to change the fabric of the city, from the Calatrava Bridge to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre, create the image of a petrified city edging, as often before in its history, towards extinction. The weight of the traditional refrain, com’era e dov’era, ‘how it was and where it was’, still grips Venice, supported not least by its more romantic visitors. Polly Coles’s Venice and the Politics of Washing (reviewed here) evokes the harassed lives of the remaining inhabitants. ‘Only God can now save us,’ remarked the former Marxist Cacciari.

In a concluding meditation, Bosworth notes how the primary narrative of the city’s past denies its contemporary history by focusing too heavily on a supposed past period of greatness (to which optimists believe the city can return). Perhaps in a tourist city, where so much energy is diverted to extracting profit from its visitors, this is inevitable; but Bosworth’s sober perspective is an important and informative one that can only add to a greater understanding of a city that risks being suffocated as much by literary gush (some fine examples quoted by Bosworth in his Introduction) as by the acqua alta.

Meanwhile behind all the cosmetic changes lurks the cumbersome and vastly expensive MoSE barrier, its completion long promised. The world waits to know whether it will solve the problems of flooding or, as some sceptics suggest, simply trap the river waters that run into the lagoon. The patriarch had better keep his sacred statues of the Virgin Mary at the ready.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of the Historical Introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

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

25.08.2014
10:52

A tale of three museums

The rectangular building at Şanlıurfa

Turkey has a comparatively long history in the business of setting up museums. As early as 1869 the decision had been taken to create a purpose-built Imperial Museum in Istanbul, grand enough to rival the Louvre in Paris. The idea was that provincial governors would fill it up by forwarding the best findings from their areas—from all over the Ottoman Empire, which was pretty extensive at the time. Under the leadership of Osman Hamdi Bey, a man of many talents, the scheme was very successful. Such was the success, in fact, that in places like Crete, the local assembly with jurisdiction over cultural affairs refused to grant excavation permits until the island had been freed of Ottoman occupation. It feared, quite rightly, that the finds would immediately be whisked off to Istanbul.

With the establishment of the Republic in 1923, the focus necessarily changed. Ankara was the new Turkish capital: Anatolia was centre stage. The Museum of Anatolian Civilisations willed by Atatürk—although  it opened well after his death—was to be the showcase for the true land of the Turks, the high plateau. There again the scheme was grand, well in tune with the intended destiny of what was then a rather run down, impoverished town. And once again the provinces, this time of the newly founded republic, supplied the artefacts to go in the display cases.

With the dramatic  development of Turkish archaeology in the wake of the salvage excavations linked to the country’s extensive dam-building programme, some local museums were also established—but on a small scale, truly provincial. All this has changed now. The three main cities of the southeast, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Diyarbakır have joined in a race to outdo not only each other, but Istanbul and Ankara too.

 

In Gaziantep the Zeugma Mosaic Museum leads the way, with its caravan of concrete camels (for more on this, see Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey). It was opened in 2011. Stark and white, constructed in a bunker style, it must have looked very large when it opened just three years ago. But it will be dwarfed by the new Şanlıurfa museum.

Situated in the northern part of town, the Urfa project is on a different scale. For a start this is a double museum, with one main rectangular building and a sizeable circular construction next to it housing Hellenistic and Roman mosaics of exquisite quality. Westerners may be excused for thinking of 'cathedral and baptistery', but that was certainly unintended. If anything, the gigantic rectangular building (at least from a distance) looks like one of those mudbrick Mesopotamian temples with engaged pillars. Close up one can see that it is all built of limestone, partly clad with brass. Both museums are currently unfinished, and every time you make an enquiry, you get a different completion date. Signs of activity are muted. The building structures themselves are probably complete. The problem is the surroundings. Both structures sit in a landscape of utter desolation. Urfa has historically expanded towards the east. The northern part of town where the new museum is has never been an active or a busy area. The bus station was here and over time the district came to be occupied by shanty buildings, those gecekondu, 'built overnight' as the Turks graphically put it, and a cemetery. Now, however, the bus station has been relocated to shining new premises out of town. A four-lane highway has been driven through the district and the shacks have been bulldozed—at least partially. One can see where the demolition work came to a halt, the scars of unfinished work with more shanty buildings beyond. One cannot help making a parallel with the recent protests in Brazil about 'world class facilities and world class services'. Even so, the people in Urfa are proud of their museum and, by the look of it, would rather have that than other amenities the money might buy.

Soon to be a restaurant: the Artukid palace in Diyarbakır

In Diyarbakır the scene is similar and yet different. No new structure has gone up here. Instead the museum is part of an ambitious plan to renovate and spruce up the citadel overlooking the Tigris in the east of the walled town, specifically the older part, beyond the Artukid arch. Occupation here goes back to the beginning of time. Indeed it is only by exploring the area that one understands why Diyarbakır is where it is. Nowhere in the town centre does one catch a glimpse of the river. It is totally immaterial to the life of the modern town. Here on the extreme eastern corner of the citadel, however, or better still from the outside, one can see the precipitous basalt drop, affording a strategic location from which river traffic could be controlled. It all started here. Over time the citadel underwent many alterations and the final makeover was Ottoman, after which it was allowed to gently decay as the town expanded outside its walls to the north  and west. People moved in and the usual shanties went up. A large courtyard building was turned into a police station-cum-prison. Municipal open-air swimming pools resonated with the shouts of excited teenage boys. The countryside crept in as well. An old lady still had a cow tethered by her front door as late as 2011 and a chicken-farming business was set up outside, between the walls and the river. The coops are still there but the birds have flown. All this is set to change. Work has been going on for about a decade. The citadel is to be frozen in its Ottoman garb and the police station will be an archaeological museum (the awkward discovery of modern human skulls has been explained away; see Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey). Other buildings will house administration and services, a children’s museum, an art museum and other facilities. The beautiful Artukid palace is to be a restaurant, where one will be able to dine in style under the stars (mercifully the collapsed ceiling will not be reconstructed). Presently progress is slow, though, and the promised completion time of five months seems unrealistic. One looks around: workers are very few. They may wear Unesco-style T-shirts (Diyarbakır hopes to get the citadel listed as a World Heritage Site) but that does not seem to inspire them with Stakhanovite zeal. There is still much to be done. The museum area has been cleared of private buildings but not the rest of the citadel. Structures have been demolished, or half demolished, but people still live in them, at least judging by the peppers and aubergine skins strung up to dry in the sun and the neat piles of wood ready for the freezing winter. It would not be possible for officialdom to drive through that. There is only so much that authoritarian, top down planning can do. So far, a lot of money has been spent: recouping it through tourism will be a mighty challenge. Whatever benefits such grand schemes will accrue, they will not be for the people whose livelihood has been disrupted. They may even ask: why should the past dwell in a mansion and the present sleep in a shack?

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Eastern Turkey, Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey and Blue Guide Turkey: The Black Sea Coast.

Rissëu

Photo by James Howells. ©Blue Guides.

Rissëu is the local name given in Liguria to a peculiarly Genoese form of decorative cobblestone paving. The style was enormously fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries; it is thought that it may have been inspired by Graeco-Roman mosaics which the maritime republic’s sailors encountered on their Mediterranean voyages. Or the tradition may be younger than this: there is an apparent kinship between Ligurian rissëu and the patterned pebble-stone paving of the Greek Dodecanese.

One feature that the pebbles share is their rounded form. Each of them has been smoothed by the sea, which makes them easy to walk on. The bonding medium is lime mortar and porcelain powder. The stones are chosen for their size and colour: usually black and white, though occasionally red. The word rissëu is in fact Genoese dialect for ‘pebble’ and may derive from the French ruisseau, a stream or brook. Beautiful rissëu pavements can be seen throughout Liguria. The example pictured is a detail of the courtyard of Villa Durazzo, in Santa Margherita Ligure.

Other evidence seems to show that the custom is older still: neither Roman, nor Greek nor Hellenistic but Assyrian (roughly 800–600 BC). The pebbles are still water-smoothed, but not by the sea: these are river pebbles. There are at least two sites in Turkey with pavements of this sort. One is Tille on the Euphrates and the other is Ziyaret Tepe. Vast dam-building projects in Turkey mean that both floors will soon be under water (in fact, Tille already is). But there will be a reconstructed pavement in the new Diyarbakır museum (if and when it opens) and visitors will be able to walk on it.

©Blue Guides: Paul Blanchard, Annabel Barber, Paola Pugsley. For more on Liguria, the Dodecanese and eastern Turkey, visit our digital titles list here; to read about the new museum at Diyarbakır (and two other projected new Turkish museums), see here.

15.08.2014
14:17

All Aboard the Cheese Train

"On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, with a diadem of snow…." (Byron)

There are many lovely train journeys in the world, but this must be one of the loveliest: the route taken through the Alpine foothills of Switzerland by the Goldenpass. This winter, you can hop aboard the "Cheese Train" to watch traditional alpine Swiss cheese being made. Details are below.

The full route begins in Montreux, from the railway station just above the lake, and continues to Zweisimmen in the Bernese Oberland.

Very soon after Montreux the train begins to climb vertiginously, leaving the tall hotels and sombre boarding houses far below. The lake is spread before you, first on one side and then on the other as the train winds round. Perched on a ledge high above the water, a power station with its tall chimney looms on a ledge like a 21st-century monastery with its bell-tower. The water is a deep navy blue: jagged mountains garlanded with clouds soar above it. It is easy to understand why, in the days before one could simply snap a picture of the scene on one’s smartphone, travellers were moved to capture the scene in verse. “The clouds above me to the white Alps tend,” scribbled a breathless Byron, “And I must pierce them, and survey whate’er may be permitted, as my steps I bend to their most great and growing region, where the earth to her embrace compels the powers of air!” Quite so.

After Chamby (a request stop), Montreux is far below and you begin to hear cowbells, see fields scattered with baled-up hay and neat wood piles outside snug chalets, their balconies ablaze with geraniums. At Les Avants the train halts to wait for the one coming in the opposite direction. The station building announces that we have climbed to 972.76m (slightly over 3000ft).

Soon after this the train enters a long tunnel. When it emerges at the other end, it reveals a completely different landscape. This is the famous Oberland, or Pays d’Enhaut, an amazingly lovely region of luminous green pastures, leaping crags, hurtling waterfalls and forests of pine and red fir. It is here, in the high, scattered chalets, that Etivaz is made, the mountain cheese that rivals Gruyère for authenticity and flavour. In the high pastures, cheese is made in the chalets until October. Farmers rise to milk their cows at five. Cheese-making (in a copper cauldron over a wood fire) begins around seven. The milk is slowly heated and stirred, and the curds collected into a cheesecloth and placed in a circular press to make the smooth golden truckles of Etivaz. In winter, cheesemakers demonstrate their skill at a place called Le Chalet. For details of how to participate, see the Cheese Train section of the Goldenpass website.

After Rougemont, with its fortified church and former priory, French-speaking Switzerland ends and the German part begins. The trains stops at Saanen, with its airfield for the jet-setters of Gstaad, then Gstaad itself, and then Zweisimmen. The total journey time is around two hours.

Practicalities

There are three types of train on this route. The Goldenpass Classic is a reproduction of a 1930s luxury Pullman. The Goldenpass Panoramic has huge picture windows which allow you to see as much as possible of the view. There are also VIP coaches which you can book in advance, which are right at the very front of the train. Timetables posted at the stations tell you what kind of train operates when. If neither Classic nor Panoramic is indicated, the train will be a small, humble little thing, with a guard’s van equipped with lantern, stop sign, broom and snow shovel. In some ways these are the most authentic-feeling of all, though they tend to run only early in the morning or at night.

Information about prices, special offers, discounts and timetables can be found on the website here.

Snaking round the viaduct
Like a modern monastery with its bell-tower

And if you stop in Château d'Oex, be sure to visit the Musée du Pays d'Enhaut to see the extraordinary handiwork of J-J Hauswirth, a man of apparently little or no formal education who produced intricate and unbelievably delicate cut-outs or découpages, attaching his scissors to his hands with wires when he grew older and his fingers grew too thick.

14.08.2014
10:34

National Gallery London to allow photography

This picture shows a likeness by the English portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence of Amelia Angerstein and her son John Julius. There are two things that are significant about it. Firstly, the picture was taken on a telephone, in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and no one bustled up to try and stop me: photography is allowed. Secondly, the little boy in the painting is the grandson of the Russian-born insurance broker John Julius Angerstein (buried in Greenwich), whose collection of Old Master paintings was purchased by the British government in 1824 to form the core of the new National Gallery in London.

And that same National Gallery has just announced that it is to allow visitors to take photographs of its artworks. Bravo the National Gallery!

The announcement hasn’t been greeted with such delight by everyone. A recent article in the Telegraph deplores the move, arguing that taking photos of paintings is a shallow consumerist response that fails to engage with the works of art in a contemplative, comprehending way. I disagree. Ruskin sketched what delighted him. Poets in the past attempted to translate captivating scenes into words. The human impulse to capture lovely things fleetingly experienced, like butterflies in a net, is extremely strong. The motive may simply be to take them home to enjoy them at leisure. Or perhaps to use them in some way to instruct others, to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Nowadays we don’t use pen and ink or Pindaric periods; we use our smartphones. Being allowed to do so gives huge satisfaction to huge numbers of people. I am one of them.

The Telegraph article objects that if we want an image to take home, there are postcards in the gallery shop. What rot! I can’t use a postcard as my screensaver or tweet it in instant excitement to my followers. And nowadays, that is what people want to do with their images. Why shouldn’t they? Besides, there aren’t always postcards in the shop of the particular artwork that you want. Of if there are, the colour reproduction is so bad that it bears little resemblance to the original. Or it’s a zoomed-out reproduction of the whole thing whereas what you wanted was a zoomed-in shot of a tiny detail. Or all sorts of reasons why postcards aren’t the answer.

Postcards, also, are a commercial product. Before Wikicommons and public photography policies came along, that was the only access we had: postcards from the shop or a digital reproduction from an expensive image agency. Is that really the kind of relationship with art that the great founding fathers of our public collections wanted to foster? When Sir George Beaumont offered his collection to the nation on condition that the government also buy the Angerstein pictures, is that what he had in mind? A relationship between the country and its art that necessarily involves a cash transaction? I don’t think so. Freely available means freely available. So if I want to take a photograph, please don’t sniff as if I were a member of some grunt underclass of great unwashed, unable to respond to art on a cerebral level. If the hoi polloi want to take selfies in front of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (National Gallery accession number NG1; its first ever painting), then good for them!

The National Gallery, John Julius Angerstein, Greenwich and much more besides, are covered in detail in Blue Guide London.

Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from Aquileia

Augustus, ‘the revered one’, was the honorific title of Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history. He has given his name to the month of August.

Having no legitimate heir of his own, Julius Caesar formally adopted Octavius, and he exploited this position ruthlessly when the Republic collapsed after Caesar’s assassination. His uneasy co-operation with Mark Antony soon turned to open conflict. Mark Antony had taken command of the eastern portion of the empire, and when he allowed himself to become entangled with Cleopatra, Augustus seized his chance to brand them both as enemies of Rome. In 31 bc their navy was routed at the Battle of Actium and both committed suicide.

Back in Rome, with wealth and success to his name, Augustus could easily have become a dictator. However, that was not his way. Despite the ruthlessness of his youth, he now showed himself to be measured and balanced. His favourite god Apollo was, after all, the god of reason. Knowing that the senate was desperate for peace, he disbanded his army and the senate in turn acquiesced in his growing influence. The title Augustus was awarded him in 27 bc and he gradually absorbed other ancient republican titles too, as if the old political system were still intact. Behind this façade he was spending his booty fast. He claimed to have restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome. He completed the Forum of Caesar and then embarked on a massive one of his own, centred on a temple to Mars Ultor: Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder.

Augustus was keenly aware of the power of his own image. Not only was his temple adorned with a great bronze of himself in a four-horse chariot, but other statues, playing on ancient traditions, were distributed throughout the empire. Augustus appears in one of a number of stock guises: as military commander, veiled and pious priest, or youthful hero, as in the example shown here, a bust from the northern Italian town of Aquileia, where Augustus received King Herod in 10 bc and reconciled him with his two sons. One estimate puts the total number of statues of Augustus scattered around the realm at between 30,000 and 50,000.

The empire prospered under Augustus’ steady control: there was no challenge to his growing influence and poets such as Virgil and Horace praised his rule. A less lucky writer was Ovid, exiled to the shores of the Black Sea, allegedly for lampooning Augustus’ programme of moral reforms. In 2 bc the great leader was granted the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Fatherland’, an honour which left him deeply moved. He died in ad 14, and it was observed at his cremation that his body had been seen ascending through the smoke towards heaven. The senate forthwith decreed that he should be ranked as a god. By now the Republic had been irrevocably transformed into an empire, and emperors ruled it for the rest of its history.

This text extracted and adapted from Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome. ©Blue Guides. All rights reserved. For more on the town of Aquileia and its fascinating Roman and early Christian remains, see our e-chapter: Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand duchesses

Maria Magdalena of Austria as a widow, painted by Justus Sustermans.

The former summer apartments of Palazzo Pitti are playing host (until 2nd November) to an exhibition of many of the treasures which used to be in the Chapel of the Reliquaries, on the palace’s first floor. Founded by Maria Magdalena of Austria (wife of Cosimo II) and numbering some 1,000 pieces, the collection used to be one of the most important in Europe, but it was broken up from 1784 onwards. It has been painstakingly reassembled for this occasion, and these precious devotional objects are displayed more or less chronologically.

Three exquisite works made in Germany are the earliest pieces, dating from the 14th–15th centuries: they were sent as gifts to the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine. The later works in the main room include a Cross and pair of candlesticks made in 1632 for the high altar of Santissima Annunziata: the rock crystal is by Matteo Nigetti and the bronze work by Pietro Tacca. In the centre of the room is displayed a large reliquary Cross made for the relic of the True Cross kept in the Duomo, decorated with a huge topaz—it is the work of Cosimo Merlini the Elder and Bernardo Holzmann (1618). Around the same time the silver coffin was designed by Giulio Parigi to display the body of a certain St Cesonius, dug up in the catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome and sent to Maria Magdalena of Austria after she had ordered a ‘saintly body’ for her collection. The bones of the unknown saint were accompanied by a parchment declaration of its authenticity, today on display beside it. Two reliquaries of the same date by Andrea Tarchiani were presented to Maria Magdalena by her husband.

The adjoining three rooms contain ever more elaborate works commissioned by Maria Magdalena, many of them in amber, ebony and ivory, and later pieces made for Vittoria della Rovere (wife of Cosimo’s sucessor Ferdinando II). The last room has the most astonishing early 18th-century pieces, such as the reliquary by Giovanni Battista Foggini and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi made to preserve the thigh bone of St Casimir (patron saint of Poland).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow

We were off with my group from Florence to Prato, where in the cathedral there is the Chapel of the Girdle of the Virgin Mary—not any old girdle, but the actual one that she dropped down to Thomas as she was being assumed into heaven. It is exposed on its feast days from a pulpit, one of the most beautiful and exhilarating creations of Donatello (the original now under cover in the adjoining cathedral museum). After the delight of seeing it, we still had time to fill in and so on the way back we stopped off at the Villa di Castello, one of the original 16th-century Medici villas, once graced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and now the home of the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the guardian of the purity of the Italian language.

The garden is famous for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits and it is hardly surprising that this was one of the first stops for Helena Attlee in her absorbing story of citrus growing in Italy. The garden was created in the 1540s by Niccolo dei Pericoli, known to this day by his schoolboy nickname, Tribolo, ‘the troublemaker’. He knew what he was up to, making sure that the garden was divided up with walls and lots of shade to provide the perfect temperature for the growing fruit. All this was swept away in the 18th century and the more formal open spaces are now too hot for their produce but the garden still impresses with its hundreds of large terracotta pots and extraordinary array of fruits. They are dragged off in the winter into the garden’s limonaia, the lemon house. Many of these limonaie are spectacular buildings in their own right, especially further north among the lemon growers of Lake Garda, where further protective shelter from the cold is needed.

There were only three original species of the citrus genus in Asia, the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron, but they cross-pollinated so easily that hybrids soon formed and flourished even before any fruits arrived in Italy. The citron was the first to appear, in the 2nd century AD, as a mysterious newcomer in that it is ungainly, virtually inedible but exudes a wonderful perfume that suffuses everything that it touches. Lemons, a hybrid between citrons and sour oranges that are themselves a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo, arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 9th century while pure mandarins only arrived, from China via Kew Gardens, in the 19th century. By then luck and ingenuity had created the extraordinary mix of citrus fruits that made classification a botanist’s nightmare—especially as aristocrats delighted in creating as many exotic and grotesque specimens as possible.

The distinct climatic niches of Italy and Sicily fostered their own varieties. If you are looking for the best arancie rosse, blood oranges, you must come to the slopes of Mount Etna, for here the difference in temperature between day and night is at least ten degrees, without which the blood-coloured pigments cannot develop. For the treasured oil of the bergamot, a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange, a thirty-five kilometre stretch of coastline in Calabria, where cultivation began in the 17th century, provides the finest in the world, while the Ligurian coast is the home of the small and bitter Chinotto, most usually found as an ingredient of Campari, but now enjoying a revival in its own right.

Inside a limonaia on Lake Garda

Varieties come and go as easier ways of working or developing the land challenge the original traditions and it is only the most skilful gardeners who can keep ancient specimens alive from one generation to the next. Attlee seeks out these dedicated few, some of whom may indeed sustain revivals of vanished species. The curator of the Castello garden, Paolo Galeotti, had a spectacular coup when he spotted a twig sprouting the celebrated bizzarria, a citrated lemon that had vanished without trace for decades. It is now flourishing. Alas, alone and unprepared as my group were, and without the expertise of Helena Attlee or Signor Galeotti at hand, we missed seeing it (and how could I have taken my recent Turin tour members to the excellent Via del Sale restaurant without insisting on their sorbet made from madarino tardivo di Ciaculli, with a flavour ‘so intense it could be consumed only in tiny mouthfuls’).

It was Goethe who dreamed of the land where the lemon trees bloom and this delightful and informative book is full of the sun, sensuality and scents of Italy. From now on anyone shopping for standard oranges and lemons in their local supermarket will be consumed with guilt at their lack of discrimination. I am not sure whether our excellent greengrocer will be able to source Limone femminello sfusato amalfitano, the distinctive Amalfi lemon, now given protection from outside competitors by the EU, but I have been promised Tagiolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone for supper and, as the summer warms, we might even try the old lemon-growers’ trick of trapping flies in a concoction of ammonia with an anchovy added to it. But please may we have a new edition with a sumptuous display of coloured prints so that we can feast our eyes on the richness of these wonderful fruits when winter comes to northern Europe?

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

The Land where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is published by Particular Books, London, 2014.

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

Latest

Food guide for River Café
SPQR and expressions of Rome
The Seuso Treasure: a new display
Life in Color
Hungary Food Companion
Baroque-era spinach patties
Perfect paprika chicken
A spring recipe from 1891
Master of Leonardo
News from Florence
Gellért 100
Unsung Hero
The Corvina Library
Modernists and Mavericks
Dracula: An International Perspective
Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits
Leonardo's Leicester Codex
A tale of two Camparis
Best restaurants in Brescia
Budapest Art Nouveau
Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
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
Comments on Blue Guide India
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
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
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
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
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
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly