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29.11.2016
11:03

Transylvania Launched

Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley was launched last week at a crammed reception in John Sandoe Books in London. Devotees of the shop will know that there is more floor space in it for books than for people—but luckily the afternoon rain gave way to clear skies and those who could not fit inside took the party onto the pavement. The author of this new Blue Guide, art historian and tour leader Lucy Abel Smith, spoke briefly about her book, which traces the course of the Greater Târnava river, visiting towns, villages, ancient manor houses, high pastures and castles along the way, knocking on doors in search of ever-elusive keys to museums and churches that harbour beautiful medieval altarpieces or works of exquisite stone carving. The Târnava river can be seen as a microcosm of Transylvania itself: it flows through lands that have been historically inhabited by the many peoples who have called this fascinating place home: Hungarian-speaking Székelys at its source above Odorheiu Secuiesc, Saxons at Sighișoara, Hungarians at Criș, Armenians at Dumbrăveni, Jews in Mediaș, Roma at Brateiu and Romanians at Blaj, the town that proudly asserts its identity as the cradle of the Romanian nation (Transylvania was joined to Romania in 1920, after the First World War).

Many thanks to John Sandoe Books for hosting the launch party. Lucy Abel Smith has a house in Transylvania, in the heart of the valley she writes about. She is the founder and organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival.

24.11.2016
12:01

Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?

In his book Sites of Antiquity historian Charles Freeman takes 50 sites and uses them to illustrate the development of the Classical World.  But readers have asked, why those particular sites?  His reply:

It was good fun picking out 50 sites that I felt defined the Classical world. I interpreted ‘classical ‘ quite widely, to take it beyond just Greece and Rome, so there was ancient Egypt at one chronological end and early Christian sites at the other. I hope this makes it a special book for anyone with an interest in these great civilisations.

Of course, it made sense to highlight sites I knew from having visited them. I have been to every one of the 15 sites featured in the Greek and Hellenistic sections. They are all interesting ones and many of them, such as Mycenae, Dodona or Pergamon, are in superb physical settings. There is no way a book can show off the extraordinary atmosphere they have and it would be wonderful if this book can inspire readers to travel to these places.

I know Rome well, which explains why I chose seven different sites in the city. The Pantheon must be one of the most extraordinary buildings of antiquity, not just in the fact of its survival but also as a feat of architecture: its dome is a semicircle whose diameter across is exactly the same size as the distance of the top from the floor. Amazing design!

I have other favourites too. I lead cultural tours and am always happy to include a visit to the city of Aphrodisias, with its wonderful display of excavated sculpture. And nothing can quite equal going inside a pyramid or seeing the temple of Abu Simbel in the early morning light. Sadly I never got to Palmyra before its looting and destruction, but have tried to give a sense of its importance as an opulent trading centre.

Annabel Barber and Hadley Kincade, my editors, chose a stunning array of illustrations but, in the best tradition of the Blue Guides, we determined to make this much more than a picture book. So we included the historical background to the cultures, plenty of site plans and explanations of a lot of the architectural terms. The aim was to make something special for anyone who is enthusiastic about the ancient world or who wants an introduction to its fascinating civilisations. I think we succeeded.

Charles Freeman

A Treasure in Cagli


The "Noli me Tangere" of 1518 by Timoteo Viti (1469–1523)
in The Oratory of the Confraternity of Sant’Angelo, Via Gaetano Lupis, Cagli, in the Marche.

We were passing through Cagli and stopped there, drawn by the Blue Guide report of the La Gioconda which served us a wonderful lunch. It well deserves Ellen Grady’s accolade as ‘a fantastic little restaurant that will make you want to stay in Cagli forever’. Walking off our choices from the porcini menu, we discovered a treasure: halfway between the central square of Cagli, Piazza Matteotti, and the church of San Francesco, in the street named after the local 18nth century artist Gaetano Lupis, is a pretty 16th-century portico. There is a small oratory behind it. A fresh APERTO sign on the door  entices you in, but in the first second as you enter, the oratory seems unlit. Then suddenly the altarpiece lights up, and there is this lovely painting by Timoteo Viti.

 

Viti was a native of Urbino, just a few years older than Raphael and a friend of both him and his father, although part of his training was in Bologna. He travelled widely in the Marche but collaborated with Raphael in Rome (in the church of Santa Maria della Pace) and this painting may reflect that influence. It appears freshly restored and shows Mary Magdalene reaching out towards the risen Christ. Between the two figures is the precious ointment mentioned in the gospels that was poured on Jesus by a woman, to the indignation of some of the onlookers. The woman is traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene. Behind them is Jerusalem interpreted as if it were an Italian city of the day. The picture is enhanced by a richly-clothed Archangel Michael, the patron of the oratory, trampling on Lucifer and about to strike him with his sword. Opposite is the (4th-century) hermit St Anthony Abbot, with the pig that is a symbol of the medieval order of Hospitallers of which he was patron (the Hospitallers were allowed to support their work by raising pigs.)

 

It was a wonderful surprise to come across this painting and it should be included in the itinerary of all who visit this medieval town. As the oratory seems permanently open, one can visit it before or after lunch at La Gioconda!

by Charles Freeman, history consultant to the Blue Guides.

21.09.2016
13:49

The Transylvanian Book Festival

At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, it was made compulsory for all new churches to enclose relics in their altars. The aim was to ensure that no church was founded without a genuine raison d’être. Today, faced with so many literary festivals around the world, the raisons d’être become vitally important in choosing which to go to. This month the Blue Guides sponsored two: Hay Festival Segovia, an offshoot of the original Literary Festival in the original Town of Books, Hay-on-Wye; and the Transylvanian Book Festival.

 

The latter took place deep in the heart of Transylvania, on 8th–11th September. It has impeccable metaphorical relics in its altar: those of Count Dracula. The historical Vlad Țepeș was in fact imprisoned in the citadel of Mediaș, one of the town on the Festival itinerary. Dracula might seem a hackneyed subject for a Transylvanian festival (he was far from the main theme of the event), but Marius-Mircea Crișan, who spoke about him, took a fresh angle on the subject with his ideas on Transylvania as the ideal locus for the horror genre: somewhere far enough away to be unknown yet still close enough to home for a frisson of terror to be felt.

 

Transylvania is still relatively unknown. Which makes it all the better a setting for a festival. The Transylvanian Book Festival takes a diffuse approach. The main events space is the old Saxon meeting hall in the village of Richiș. Participants are lodged in the village as well as in the neighbouring settlements of Biertan and Copșa Mare and the events themselves were held in Richiș, Mediaș (in its synagogue and Saxon citadel) and Alma Vii (whose citadel has recently been restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust).

 

The Festival programme is diffuse as well. Its founder is Lucy Abel Smith (author of the recent Blue Guide to the region) and she put together a clever mix of history, travelogue, biography, fiction and poetry (for the full programme, see here). Interspersed among the bookish talk were delightful interludes of music and film. Dragoș Lumpan presented a preview of his forthcoming documentary on transhumance, the age-old practice of moving livestock on foot between summer and winter pastures. Benjy Fox-Rosen gave a recital of Yiddish music in the old synagogue of Mediaș, which for some was the highlight of the Festival.

 

The natural world also played an important part. The landscape of this region is broad and sweeping, made up of expanses of field, grassland, scrub and forest, and because historically this was not a feudal society, there are no enclosures. It is this, in the opinion of another of the speakers, the naturalist Bob Gibbons, that makes the area so exceptionally rich in wildlife.

 

Transylvania is a place that has had many identities in the course of its history and many peoples have called it home. What makes it such an exceptional place to visit is the inherited complexity of all of that, as well as the powerful sense of a destiny in the balance. Where will it go next? One of the most popular talks at the recent Festival was Bernard Wasserstein’s on the life and multiple identities of Trebitsch Lincoln, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Hungary, who went on to become successively a Presbyterian missionary, Anglican curate, Liberal MP, Buddhist monk and Nazi agent. That's quite a trajectory.

Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley

This charming and accessible guide takes as its focus the towns and villages of the Greater Târnava Valley, home to an exceptional cultural heritage. Here Romanian, Hungarian, Saxon, Jewish and Roma cultures come together in an extraordinarily rich mix, against a backdrop of some of the loveliest landscapes in Europe.

Roman Brixia

Brescia is well known for its wealth of Roman remains due to the unique urban development of the town after the demise of the Roman Empire. The original nucleus of the settlement at the foot of the Cidneo hill became crown property under the Lombards in the 8th century and was largely occupied by a religious foundation. Medieval Brixia expanded to the west around watercourses that came in handy as Roman aqueducts and sewers went out of use.

 

Later the area became available again and a number of fine town houses were built on top of the Roman remains, with frequent use of spolia. The Roman street grid was largely respected: today's Piazza del Foro is the same shape and size as the Roman forum. At its north end, the creatively reconstructed Capitolium (open Tues–Sun 9–5.30,10.30–7 in summer; entry fee) with its three cellae, one each for Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, its podium and monumental steps, dominates the scene. All around the piazza, the Renaissance houses are known to have Roman remains in their cellars; the archaeological trail at Palazzo Martinengo on the west side of the square is an excellent introduction to the complex archaeology.

 

Recently a couple of new venues have been opened to the public. In the forum itself, one cella of the Republican Temple is now accessible. It had been known for some time that the Capitolium (1st century AD) was not built on virgin soil. Two earlier buildings had been identified. The Republican Temple (1st century BC) had been levelled and backfilled to make way for the new structure willed by the emperor Vespasian. In the process Rome took the decision to stamp out any localism. The four cellae of the Republican Temple (three for the Capitoline Triad, one for a local deity) were reduced to three for the Capitoline Triad only. The local deity was completely obliterated: its name is now not even known. Its cella, however, is the one that has survived best and is now open to the public. The statue of the deity may be missing from its podium at the far end but the loss is largely compensated for by vivid painted decoration (illustrated above) with sumptuous dadoes imitating fanciful breccia marble underscored by elegant drapery. The floor is the finest mosaic, stark white with a black band, made of minute tesserae. Fluted columns are either trompe l'oeil or brick covered in painted stucco. Higher up on the wall, the grave and the drain belong to the Lombards. Further up a 17th-century building (Casa Pallaveri) obtrudes on the area. It is this stratification that has preserved the cella while at the same time making its display a technical challenge.

 

At the south end of the forum, part of the Roman Basilica (the legal and commercial heart of the town), over time incorporated in a later building, can now be visited (Mon–Fri 9–12). The entrance is in Piazza Labus (whose name celebrates a local 19th-century antiquarian and epigrapher). You can see immediately how much the street level has risen: over three metres. From the short bridge you can admire in situ the outer flooring made of thin slabs of imported marble arranged in a geometric design with contrasting blue-grey and white panels. Inside, in what is now the cellar, and was originally the ground floor, the flooring is the same pattern but the colour scheme is reversed. All around are the finds connected with the excavation of the area showing its development from the 5th century BC, with Attic pottery possibly obtained via Etruscan connections, through to its incorporation into the Roman forum; later, after the basilica lost its marble cladding and its roof, squatters moved in while earth and refuse accumulated. Towards the end of the 1st millennium AD, part of the basilica was a burial ground. It was the incorporation of the surviving elements of the south façade of the basilica into the so-called Palazzo d'Ercole around the 17th century that preserved it for us. In spite of its name, though, the new building was hardly a palace, with poky rooms and a dearth of decorative elements except for the painted terracotta ceilings.

 

Skipping the Roman theatre east of the Capitolium (it was hopelessly spoliated by the building of a Renaissance palace on top of it, now in part demolished), you can end your tour at Portici X Giornate 51. Here, at the back of an optician's shop (Vigano'-Salmoiraghi), a substantial stretch of Roman urban road is accessible to the public. It is wide enough for two vehicles and the paving blocks are just enormous: you can't fail to be impressed. All you are missing is the din of the populace and the screeching of the waggon wheels.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and e-guides to Turkey.

The new Museo degli Innocenti

The long-awaited new museum of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence finally opened last month. Its most famous works of art, the enamelled terracotta medallions which Andrea della Robbia added in 1487 to Brunelleschi's portico in the piazza, are currently exhibited at eye level since their restoration. The babies in swaddling clothes in roundels about a metre in diameter are wonderfully made, all ten of them with outstretched arms but each with highly individual expressions. The swaddling bands of the boys are unravelled. This is a unique chance to see these masterpieces close up, as it is planned to return them to their original positions outside.

 

The museum space has been expanded into the basement of the building where the history of this remarkable Institute is clearly recorded (also with the help of video installations). Opened in 1445, it was the first foundling hospital in Europe, where destitute mothers could take their babies (leaving them at a special window under the portico, without being seen) The babies were then given out to wet-nurses, and when weaned could return to live here. The orphanage was recognised in later centuries as one of the most up-to-date institutions of its kind. One of the most touching parts of the museum is a room where cupboards have been installed with 140 little drawers which you can open one by one to see the identification tags left with the babies by their mothers in the hope that one day they would be able to be reunited with them. These anonymous 'messages' take the form of jewels, keepsakes, notes, pieces of cloth, rosary beads, coral, etc., and all of them were carefully preserved in the Archive of the Institute under the name of the child given to him or her when they entered the Innocenti.

 

On the ground floor is the exquisite 15th-century oblong cloister (derived from designs by Brunelleschi) next to the larger cloister decorated in the following century. The works of art are still exhibited in the long gallery once used as a day nursery on an upper floor. The masterpieces here are Luca della Robbia's white enamelled terracotta Madonna and Child and Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting of the Adoration of the Magi, which includes two of the "Innocenti" foundlings in the foreground. There is access to the roof terrace, once used for drying laundry and subsequently for the nurses and children to take the air, and now a delightful café. All the new stairs and constructions in the museum are in good taste (except perhaps for the golden entrance and exit in the Piazza).

 

Since the reopening of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo last year, the reopening of this museum is a significant event, demonstrating that Florence is now at the forefront of museum design.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

13.07.2016
18:10

Wine guide wins prize

"Hungarian wine" by Rob Smyth has been awarded a special commendation in the OIV's prestigious prize for the best wine book published in the last year.

The OIV - l'Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin - is a Paris-based "a scientific and technical" intergovernmental body.

Hungarian wine: a tasting trip to the New Old World is a widely-appreciated approachable and comprehensive introduction to the wines and vines of Hungary.  The special commendation was issued in the OIV's category "Wines and Territories".

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