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The first collectors of 'Primitives'

'Descent from the Cross' (14th century) by Pietro da Rimini.

The Popularity of the Primitives, an exhibition which runs at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence until 8 December, is concerned with the fascinating subject of when 14th- and early 15th-century Italian paintings (and other early art treasures) came to be considered worthy of notice and were, as a consequence, incorporated in public and private collections. Up until the late 18th century, only works from the time of Raphael onwards were in vogue: besides Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, collections featured paintings by artists such as Correggio, Guido Reni, Federico Barocci and Rubens.

The exhibition tells the story of 42 collectors, almost all of them little-known, who lived in the late 18th or early 19th century. And an impressive amount of scholarly research has gone into it—which is heartening to see, in an age when fewer and fewer museum directors are still art historians, and curators are increasingly put under pressure to devise shows that will make money. To each collector a section is dedicated, depending on the region of Italy where they lived: besides their (for some reason usually unflattering) portrait, there is a display of a small selection of the works they are known to have acquired (and which are now in private or public collections). We discover that these erudite individuals, whether prelates or cardinals, noblemen or tradesmen, shared an interest in the cultural value of these early works and that by obtaining them they rescued them from oblivion and possible destruction. In later times when they fell into the hands of antiquarians and dealers, their monetary value steadily increased, although it is interesting to note that today the ‘primitives’ are worth far less than modern and contemporary artworks.

By looking at the provenance of the works one can see how many of them ended up in the great museums of the world: a certain Agostino Mariotti, who amassed 600 works and who was mentioned by travellers on the Grand Tour, was to leave his collection to the Vatican Picture Gallery. In 1780 Cardinal Stefano Borgia (who almost became pope) acquired St Euphemia by Mantegna, which is on show, and most of his collection is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. This great Renaissance artist is included as a reminder also that it was not only the ‘primitive’ gold-ground paintings which had been neglected up until this time but also those by artists now considered of fundamental importance. The Ranghiasci family of Gubbio in Umbria, whose large romantic park is today open to the public, owned an exquisite Descent from the Cross by Pietro da Rimini, lent to the present exhibition by the Louvre.

Marchese Alfonso Tacoli Canacci, who died in Emilia in 1801, is represented by four of the best Tuscan works in the exhibition: a Madonna of Humility by Agnolo Gaddi, which ended up in a private collection in New York; another Madonna of Humility by Fra’ Angelico; a very unusual long predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo of Christ carrying the Cross surrounded by a crowd of saints all holding a Cross; and a tiny Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio. The three latter works went to the national museum in Parma.

Fra’ Francesco Raimondo Adami, a Servite friar at the convent of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, collected important early works which are now part of the collection of the Galleria dell’Accademia itself: on show are St Mary Magdalene with stories from her life, by the Master of the Magdalene (named from this work), and paintings by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Andrea Orcagna and Fra’ Angelico. Other works acquired at this time by Tuscan collectors (and also included in the exhibition) were to form the nucleus of the earliest works in the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.

Only two of the collectors are well-known today since their collections survive on public display under their own names: Angelo Maria Bandini of Fiesole (whose exquisite museum is still in that little town above Florence) and Teodoro Correr (1750–1830) of Venice (the huge Museo Correr is in Piazza San Marco). For this exhibition a relief of the Madonna and Child by Domenico Rosselli, once owned by Bandini, has been loaned from the V&A so that it has been reunited with other works still in Fiesole; and the Correr has sent two of its masterpieces to Florence: a Pietà by Cosmè Tura and another, unfinished work of the same subject, by Antonello da Messina. A superb small St Nicholas of Bari, also by Cosmè Tura, in a section towards the end of the exhibition, illustrates some of the works acquired by French collectors while in Rome.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

Ingrid D. Rowland, From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, Harvard University Press, 2014.

One of the pleasures of reading The New York Review of Books is coming across the articles by Ingrid Rowland. Professor Rowland teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Rome and specialises in art history and cultural relationships, especially those between Italy and its Classical and Renaissance past. She always had something interesting to say and it is perhaps because I have happy memories of sitting around in Rome with archaeologists and art historians that I find her especially engaging.

In the introduction of her enjoyable survey of Pompeii’s after-history, we see the eight-year old Rowland, pig-tailed and bespectacled, on her first visit to the ruins in 1962. The experience clearly resonated with her (never underestimate where the experiences of an eight-year old might lead!) and she now teaches permanently in Italy. From Pompeii is the story of the characters who were fascinated by the drama of Vesuvius, its eruptions and the vanished communities of Herculaneum and Pompeii as they were slowly recovered from the lava. For centuries, legends had persisted of buried cities but there was nothing to be seen. Instead the fascination was with Vesuvius. Athanasius Kircher, would-be decipherer of hieroglyphics, a priest always on the edge of disfavour with the Church on account of his belief in the natural rather than miraculous background of geological events, gave pride of place to the  inner workings of the volcano in his influential work Mundus Subterraneus, ‘The Subterranean World’ (1665).

A hundred years later the treasures of Herculaneum and then Pompeii were beginning to emerge and were firmly fixed in the itinerary of the leading cultural figures of the day. Rowland describes the reactions of the young Mozart, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Renoir, not only to the ruins but to the bustling, poverty-stricken street-life of Naples. For 19th-century romantics in Russia, the painter Karl Bryullov’s epic The Last Day of Pompeii gripped the imagination as much as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii did of those in Britain. A special accolade is due to the Puglian Bartolo Longo who embarked on creating a new Pompeii on the edge of the old, around a church of the Madonna of the Rosary. A damaged and ugly painting of the Virgin Mary, brought to the church on a dung cart, proved an unlikely miracle-worker and soon the trains that brought tourists to Pompeii were filled too with pilgrims. Longo energetically ploughed back their donations into the crime-ridden and impoverished neighbourhood and parts of his ‘new’ Pompeii survive.

Rowland enjoys her digressions. The blood of St Januarius (San Gennaro) has an important role to play. Every year it miraculously liquefies on three separate occasions—except when it doesn’t, in warning of impending eruptions of Vesuvius. Then there is the phallus of Priapus from the House of the Vetii: guides in charge of prominent visitors such as Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea scurry past it in haste so that no compromising photos can be snapped. There is space too for the bizarre cult of the Fontanelle, the skulls preserved in caves under the city of Naples and which, while their owners languish in Purgatory, are supposed to have miraculous powers of intercession.

However, the ruins always form the backdrop to the digressions and Rowland relates the exploits of the famous curators. Guiseppe Fiorelli, appointed in 1848, replaced treasure-hunting pits with carefully stratified excavations. His calchi (plaster casts) shifted attention to the human victims of the eruption and still provide some of the most moving testimonies to the drama of AD 79. It was Fiorelli who kept wall-paintings in situ where they were found, rather than prising them off for the royal collection. Politics met with archaeology when Superintendent Vittorio Spianazzola, an opponent of Fascism married to a Jewish scholar, was removed in 1924 and replaced by Amadeo Maiuri, who dominated the Pompeiian scene until 1961. His use of mechanical diggers exposed large parts of the city but left it impossible to maintain. I despaired, as Rowland does, over the crumbling remains. On my most recent visit to Pompeii two years ago, many of the houses were closed off. Just ten years earlier there had been more to see. Even a campaign to round up stray dogs stagnated as the available funds were embezzled. Herculaneum is now much more welcoming.

And no less ominous than the slow decay of Pompeii is the ever-present threat of a fresh eruption of Vesuvius. The last was in 1944 and it is time for it to blow again. Rowland is doubtful whether the anarchic inhabitants of the Bay, long used to outwitting authority, will submit to the evacuation plans. The blood of St Januarius will no doubt liquefy if there is nothing to fear—but if it stays solid, an early escape will be well advised. If by chance I am caught there among the fleeing residents, I shall seek refuge on a Gran Turismo bus, its hurried entry and exit from the region long perfected by the demands of whisking tourists quickly around the site and back through the traffic jams in time for dinner in Rome.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples are covered in Blue Guide Southern Italy. Pompeii is one of the 50 sites in Freeman's Sites of Antiquity.

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

Sorting out the Uffizi

Giovanni Bellini's enigmatic "Sacred Allegory"

One has to admire the Uffizi Gallery’s directors, for managing to keep the museum open over the years it is taking to rearrange it into the 'Grandi Uffizi', making use of the space in the building on the first floor and at the same time rehanging some of the historic rooms above. All of this goes on with very little notice in the local press and a dearth of comment generally. Even the information office on the ground floor can hardly keep pace: the free leaflet available at fails to illustrate all of the rooms which you can now visit.

For years the official Room 1, the small room on the right as you enter the first long corridor was closed (or only open on very special request since it displayed ancient Greek and Roman sculpture presumably considered of little interest to the average visitor intent on reaching the Botticelli room as soon as possible). This meant that the visitor itinerary began in Room 2,with the three Maestà altarpieces by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto. Room 1 was nowhere to be seen.

But just a few weeks ago Room 1 (the sculptures have now moved to Rooms 33 and 34) has been reopened to display the very earliest works in the collection, many of them restored last year, so that one can now understand where the art of Giotto sprang from. The room, now with bright white walls and excellent lighting, is dominated by two Crucifixes, facing each other, both with scenes of the Passion. One dates from c. 1200 or even earlier and the other from c. 1240, and already they clearly demonstrate how medieval art progressed in those years. There are also two panels of a diptych by Bonaventura Berlinghieri of Lucca, who clearly influenced the master of the later Crucifix, and St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, still in its original frame. A very well-preserved painting, which only entered the gallery after its purchase by the Italian state in 2006, is a Madonna and Child Enthroned by the Maestro del Bigallo, named after a work in Florence's smallest museums (but one of its most enchanting; it is in piazza by the Baptistery). The Madonna Pisa, named after Luigi Pisa who donated it to the gallery in 1933, is a very moving work, as is the serene St Luke the Evangelist displayed beside it by the Maestro della Maddalena. The Redeemer between the Virgin and Three Saints is signed and dated 1271 and preserves its original frame.

At present Room 2 has only the three famous Maestà paintings—and one rather hopes it will stay that way, now that many of the paintings formerly here are re-displayed in Room 1.

Further along the corridor, adjoining the exquisite Tribuna, the next enfilade of rooms (with pretty ceilings decorated in the late 16th century) have been painted white and the works rehung and given good short descriptions, also in English. Room 19 is now devoted to the early Renaissance Sienese School, and the works include a lovely predella by Neroccio dei Landi and a large triptych by Vecchietta.

In Room 20 we skip north to the Veneto, and for the first time Mantegna's wonderful small triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, Circumcision and Ascension, which preserves its beautiful frame, has been given pride of place against a green panel. But it is in the presence of other masterpieces by him, including the portrait of Cardinal Carlo de' Medici (also in a magnificent frame) and his tiny Madonna delle Cave. Giovanni Bellini is also very well represented, with three very different works: his mysterious Sacred Allegory, a portrait of a young man (the signature is false so the attribution is also uncertain), and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, unfinished so left at the chiaroscuro stage. Now fittingly hung here together with works by these two masters are two panels by Antonello da Messina, who worked in Venice for a period and had a great influence on his contemporaries. They were purchased for the gallery in 1996 in accordance with a bequest by Stefano Bardini. They are panels which once belonged to a polyptych and are the only works by Antonello in Florence: stunning paintings on a gold ground, St John the Evangelist and the Madonna and Child (the Madonna has roses in her halo), here displayed to great advantage.

The next three rooms illustrate the art of the regions of the Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Lombardy in the 15th century, and the new arrangement makes comparisons between these painters much more logical, as well as posing questions of reciprocal influences.

So all in all the Uffizi is becoming ever more full of wonderful works, many kept hidden until now in the deposits, and the display is being up-dated to make the visit more and more pleasurable. Note that the telephone booking service (it is always essential to book to avoid the queue) is extremely efficient and quick: and even in late June of this year it was possible to book a visit in the early morning for just a day or two later (T: 055 294883, operational weekdays from 8.30am–6.30pm, and on Saturday 8.30–12.30).

by Alta Macadam. The latest edition of her Blue Guide Florence is available in both print and digital format.

22.09.2014
09:30

Waging war with a view

The turquoise waters of San Fruttuoso

The Portofino peninsula today is a regional park, visited for its stunning views, the special flora and fauna and the microclimate, not to mention the extraordinary geology. It has been, however, for a much longer time a strategic outpost. On a clear winter day one has an unimpeded view stretching from La Spezia to Capo Mele with, in the middle, in the distance, a faint notion of Corsica. The Genoa archives have thick bundles of documents relating to the military use of the location way back in the 18th century. Today's hikers, though, will not have failed to notice military remains, thick cement constructions, looking decisively much more recent. These are almost undocumented: nothing in the archives, neither in Genoa nor in Germany. But they are indeed a combined Italian and German effort going back to WW2.

In 1939 the Italian army proceeded to install three guns on the west side of the peninsula in a place known as Erbaio, just above Punta Chiappa. Three concrete platforms were built for the purpose and three guns intended to protect Genoa harbour were installed. They were 6m long, 152/20mm calibre with a 10/15km range. In the autumn of 1943, the German army took over the coastal defences. Beaches were blocked and mined and the German Marine Artillery Command 619 organised a number of batteries in the area: Monte di Portofino was one of them. They were manned by German troops assisted by elements of the Todt Division (Italian civilians doing military work) and some locals.

A number of batteries were added and were connected by the very same paths that today's hikers use, all leading to S. Rocco, the location of the German headquarters in the beautiful villa Giulia (see plan). At sea level Punta Chiappa, the only sea access, was defended by three machine gun station not far from the harbour where the vaporetto delivers its cargo of visitors in summer. Higher up at Erbaio (the path connecting the two locations was better in those days) the existing complex was enlarged with three sentry posts, headquarters, dorms, an infirmary, stores and kitchen, washroom and toilets, and even an open-air altar built in a stone that is not local and painted blue. Huge concrete bunkers (wall thickness 2m, roof thickness 3m) were built to cover two of three guns previously installed by the Italian army. They were grassed over for camouflage. Two smaller concrete constructions (radio bunker and telemetre, i.e. observation bunker) connected by a spiral staircase in the rock were built nearby; camouflage was by hooking nets covered in suitable vegetation. More tunnels were blasted out of the rock to connect the installations and provide ammunition storage. A large graffito warned soldiers not to play with the guns because they might be loaded. There was also room for four additional machine guns. The surroundings were mined.

From Erbaio the Germans built a path to Bricco, a location that affords the best possible panorama of the Gulf of Genoa, and built another observation bunker with tiny living quarters nearby. Fixed machine guns were installed high up at Toca (which is where Semaforo Nuovo is) and at Base O just off the coastal path from San Fruttuoso to Portofino (just look at it, do not try to go there: it is too dangerous).

Erbaio (and probably Bricco as well) had electricity from the generator in the headquarters. Water came via an aqueduct tapping a source higher up. All the plumbing had disappeared by 1947 but the tunnels in which it ran are still there.

Was it all worthwhile? Certainly the effort involved in the enterprise was considerable: everything was hauled up from sea level. The Germans clearly felt that the three big Italian guns would not be sufficient to protect the port of Genoa, foil a possible Allied landing and protect traffic. In those days the bombing of the railways and the submarines lurking in the depths meant that a lot of goods were moved by rafts hugging the coast. But in the end, it did not make a scrap of difference. That already became clear in 1941 when a submarine sunk a merchant ship, the Ischia, under their very noses just off Punta Chiappa. Genoa harbour was repeatedly bombed. The three big guns never fired a single shot and vast quantities of ammunition were found, unused, stacked in the tunnels at the end of the war. As legend has it, relations with the locals were pretty good. The Germans—some 70 of them—were allowed to leave unmolested at the end of the war. Some even maintain that the commandant married a local girl, one of the 40 or so civilians that commuted daily from S Rocco or Punta Chiappa to do the cooking, the laundry and other menial jobs. That's possibly stretching it a bit. But they certainly went home with a fabulous tan.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and three e-chapters on Turkey. The Portofino peninsula and San Fruttuoso are covered in the Blue Guide e-chapter on Liguria, by Paul Blanchard.

08.09.2014
12:06

Dull London? Surely a mistake

Dull? London? Says who? What happened to the spirit of Dr Johnson, to the tired-of-London-tired-of-life, almost jingoistic belief that home was best?

Anyone who has read Paul Fussell’s brilliant Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, will know the answer. Nineteenth-century escapees, such as Browning, enthused in torrents over Italy or France but that did not mean they also felt the need to express a pitying scorn for home. The Victorians were positive like that. It was in the 20th century, self-loathing set in. With the likes of D.H. Lawrence.

It was Lawrence who wrote the text in the above photograph. Perhaps he had a reason to be contemptuous of England, the country whose Daily News had dismissed his Rainbow as a ‘monotonous wilderness of phallicism’. Perhaps he had been schooled by Byron, whose Venetian poem Beppo dismisses shy and square English girls: ‘The nursery still lisps out in all they utter—Besides, they always smell of bread and butter.’ E.M. Forster trumpeted this sentiment to the echo. England equals repressed. Italy, the continent, equals LIFE, LOVE, PASSION, FREEDOM, SELF-EXPRESSION.

It’s time for the 21st century to assert itself. London is far from dull. To get there, you pass a stony-eyed passport official (certainly not an inoffensive one) who feigns a friendly interest but her questions are pointed and personal. You’re on edge from the start. And the train? From Heathrow? Long and snaking, packed with bags and baggage, a veritable caravan, filled with a rainbow array of people all revealing trivial yet fascinating snippets of multifarious lives on their mobile phones. Coffee was offered by a small man wheeling a trolley. I could only begin to guess what country his ancestors came from. The station, when you get there, is big, madly busy, silently scurrying. Porters are non-existent; taxis are big and black and of a kind unique in the world, an adventure in themselves to travel in. The streets are crowded, yes; familiar but madly exotic, filled with the scents and sounds and accents of all the globe. And if your hotel is poky and dull and you feel your spirit being dulled—well, that is really your own fault.

D.H. Lawrence! thou shouldst be living at this hour. London has something to show thee… He probably wasn’t carrying Blue Guide London, 18th ed. 2014.

Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great War


The town of Gorizia stands on the Slovenian border in an expansion of the Isonzo valley, hemmed in by hills. It is a peaceful little town with public gardens and buildings in the Austrian style. After the fall of the independent counts of Gorizia in the 15th century, the city remained an Austrian possession almost continuously from 1509 to 1915 and its atmosphere is entirely Central European, despite the street names recalling heroes of the Risorgimento and Italy’s victories against Austria: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Diaz, Cadorna. In the First World War it was the objective of violent Italian attacks in the Isonzo valley and was eventually captured on 9th August 1916. Lost again in the autumn of 1917, it was finally taken in November 1918. The Treaty of Paris (1947) brought the Yugoslav frontier into the streets of the town, cutting off its eastern suburbs, but in 1952, and again in 1978–9, more reasonable readjustments were made, including a 16km-wide zone in which local inhabitants may move freely.

The attractive, wide Corso Italia, lined with trees and some Art Nouveau villas, leads up into the centre of the town. The Palazzo Comunale was built by Nicolò Pacassi, court architect to Maria Theresa, in 1740; it has a public garden. The cathedral is a restored 14th-century building which contains a high altarpiece by Giuseppe Tominz (born in Gorizia in 1790).

Approached on foot by steps up through the walls and past a garden is the peaceful Borgo Castello, built by the Venetians in 1509. Here you will find the Museo della Grande Guerra, one of the most important museums in Italy dedicated to the First World War. Excellently displayed in ten rooms, it has the reconstruction of a trench, and the material illustrates both the Italian and Austrian fronts in the Carso campaign: what makes the displays all the more poignant is the fact that this part of Europe, which today belongs to Italy, was in 1914–18 fighting bitterly for the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph, of which it formed a part. A poster of the whiskered emperor adorns the wall of a mocked-up conning tower, exhorting his troops to bravery in action. Enamel badges in the display cases proclaim defeat and humiliation to the English, the Serbs and the perfidious Italians. The watercolour which appears at the top of this piece was painted by Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a lieutenant in the Italian army, who saw action at Castagnevizza and whose brother Cino was killed in a later battle.

The above text includes an extract from the Blue Guide e-chapter to Friuli-Venezia Giulia. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

Austro-Hungarian soldier, somewhere on the present-day Italian-Slovenian border.

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.

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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...
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Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
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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

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