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Collectors in Florence

An exhibition at Palazzo Pitti (Leopoldo de’ Medici, Principe dei Collezionisti, on until 28th January) displays a selection of the exquisite objects from the famous collection of Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, youngest son of Grand Duke Cosimo II and Maria Magdalena of Austria. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this exhibition is that this is the first time the subject has been tackled, even though it has always been well known how deeply the cardinal’s scholarly taste affected the quality of the Medici collections. The exhibition was conceived by Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti gallieries, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Leopoldo’s birth.

The scope of the artworks on display (in five rooms of the ground-floor state apartments) immediately reveals how widely the cardinal’s interests ranged: antique Roman marble statues and busts, drawings, cameos, paintings, arms, 17th-century ivories, Egyptian statuettes, gems, Etruscan terracottas, astrolabes and all kinds of scientific instruments, small bronzes, Chinese jade, reliquary urns, artefacts in semi-precious stones, Della Robbian enamelled terracottas, artists’ self-portraits, miniatures, still-lifes from the Netherlands, medals and coins, even a tiny Sardinian Nuragic bronze statue. Leopoldo had a wide network of agents who sought out precious art for him (in Rome, for example, he trusted the taste of Bernini and Pietro da Cortona to tell him what he should buy).

The exhibition includes works almost exclusively from the Florentine collections. The cardinal had a memorably ugly face and the visitor is confronted with Giovan Battista Foggini’s marble statue of him, which was commissioned by Cosimo III in memory of his uncle. Other portraits of Leopoldo include him as a baby (tucked up in golden brocade) by Iacopo Ligozzi and the well-known portrait (with no pretence to flattery) from the Uffizi of him as a cardinal, commissioned from Baciccia by his sister Margherita de’ Medici, Duchess of Parma. But the most extraordinary portrait is a large painting by the Medici court artist Sustermans, from the castle of Konopištĕ in the Czech Republic. Leopoldo’s aunt married the King of Poland and she evidently had fun dressing up her nephew in grand style and sitting him upon a grey horse, whose mane flows down over his nose and is draped below his belly reaching all the way to his haunches, where it is tied up by a little red bow. We are told that after the horse’s death its mane was preserved in the Medici armoury. This delightful and amusing portrait (illustrated at the top of this article) was chosen by the curators for the cover of the catalogue.

Another very surprising piece on exhibition is a giant phallus supported by lion’s paws, which was immediately acquired by the cardinal when it was unearthed in Rome beneath the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (of all places—it is famous now for its early Christian catacombs). It is presumed to have come from a temple of Priapus on the site. Although belonging to Florence’s archaeological museum it is usually kept locked away (it was much enjoyed by the Marquis de Sade in 1738).

Leopoldo’s passionate interest in the sciences is also recorded, with some of the most precious possessions from Florence’s Museo Galileo. We know that when he became titular cardinal in 1667, Leopoldo openly defended Galileo and attempted to clear his name and get his works published. Curios include a transparent green travertine mask from Mexico, complete with its set of teeth, dating from around the 6th century and one of the first Teotihuacan pieces to reach Europe; a lacquer-work and mother-of-pearl box made in Japan in the cardinal’s lifetime and probably where he kept his cardinal’s hat; a 17th-century Indonesian kris (dagger); and a ‘night clock’ which the cardinal had beautifully painted by Borgognone (the copper cover ensured that he was not disturbed in the night by its ticking).

Examples chosen to illustrate Leopoldo’s taste in painting (and his particular interest in the Venetian school), include Titian’s wonderful portrait of the erudite Bishop Ludovico Beccadelli (a touch of white indicating part of his collar gives light to his genial face). The cardinal also owned Veronese’s Holy Family, memorable for the depiction of the Christ Child fast asleep, exhausted by so much attention. The small Portrait Head of a Man was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in the cardinal’s day but was later recognised as the work of Lorenzo Lotto.

The cardinal is also fondly remembered for starting a collection of artists’ self-portraits. He commissioned some of them from the artists themselves, including Guercino and Pietro da Cortona (others are by Rembrandt, Luca Giordano, Federico Barocci and Ciro Ferri). Tucked away in a corner of the last of the four main rooms is a painting of a musician by Leopoldo himself and three sheets of paper from the Archivio di Stato in Florence with drawings by him illustrating some of his poems.

On the other side of the entrance hall (easy to miss), some of the vast collection of the cardinal’s drawings are displayed. Highlights are a parchment with flowers drawn in black chalk and polychrome pigments by Giovanna Garzoni, one of very few female artists of the time, whom the cardinal promoted and who also painted a miniature portrait of him (on show in the exhibition). This is a splendid exhibition commemorating a great Florentine. The notices and labels (also in English) are excellent.

Before leaving the exhibition it is worth looking into the little Sala della Grotticina where (since the publication of the lastest Blue Guide Florence this year) you can now admire (after its restoration) a wooden trophy exquisitely carved by Grinling Gibbons for Charles II, who sent this by sea to Florence as a gift for Cosimo III. It represents an allegory of the friendship between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and England (made explicit by a kiss between two turtle doves).

Another exhibition (on until 6th January) at the Biblioteca Marucelliana in tVia Cavour records a collection (much less famous than that of Cardinal Leopoldo) of Italian drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries formed by the Marucelli family. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Marco Chiarini, who died in 2015. He was the much admired director of Palazzo Pitti from 1967 to 2000 and also spent many years examining the drawings in the Marucelliana. A catalogue of his studies has come out in conjunction with the exhibition, edited by his collaborators. A selection of the drawings is displayed in the tiny exhibition room at the end of the magnificent Reading Room, first opened to the public in 1752 and still much frequented. The drawings, fascinating for their variety, include fine works by Ottavio Leoni (a portrait of Galileo), Jacques Callot, Sebastiano Conca, Jacopo Vignali, Volterrano and Aureliano Milani. Filippo Napolitano, an artist particularly admired by Chiarini, is also well represented. Chiarini left a drawing from his small but choice collection to each of the institutions he had been most closely associated with in Florence,; he is sadly missed by numerous friends and scholars. Also dedicated to his memory (and to that of his wife Françoise, who predeceased him by a year) is the 11th edition of the Blue Guide Florence, which came out early this year.

by Alta Macadam

27.11.2017
09:27

European rail changes 2018

European railways revise their timetables for the coming year on 10th December 2017. Mark Dudgeon, the Blue Guides rail correspondent, highlights some of the main changes to international services.

Night services
Night services in Europe have suffered a cull over the last few years, with several rail operators considering them to be no longer financially viable, especially where rolling stock was reaching the end of its useful life and major investment would be required to keep services running.

This trend was bucked somewhat last year when OeBB, the national Austrian operator, set up its new brand, Nightjet, to run its own domestic and international services with refurbished coaches, and at the same time take over several CityNightLine services, when its owner, Deutsche Bahn, decided to exit the night train market. Initial signs from OeBB regarding financial results have been encouraging.

Nevertheless, the timetable change sees further night train losses:
• The Metropol service between Budapest and Berlin is withdrawn. A night service will still operate between Budapest and Prague, but with an arrival time in Prague at about 6am, and a departure southbound from Prague at midnight, many passengers may find the times inconvenient. Blue Guides recommends taking one of the several day trains instead, and enjoying a meal in one of the bustling and reasonably-priced Czech restaurant cars.

• The night train from Paris to Nice is finally withdrawn. The forlorn successor to the famous Train Bleu – which started running in 1886 – has in recent years been reduced to offering couchettes and seats only. After 130 years, the history of night trains between Paris and the Riviera draws to a close.

There is other mixed news for night services:
• The Budapest – Lviv – Kiev sleeper will be extended to and from Vienna; but at the same time the through Prague – Kiev cars will cease to operate: connections will be available at Kosice instead.

• The Budapest, Vienna and Prague – Krakow service will be combined with the service from those three capitals to Warsaw, operating via Krakow to Warsaw and no longer serving Katowice.

• The Zurich – Berlin – Hamburg Nightjet service will now separate into two portions (one to Berlin and one to Hamburg) en route, meaning an earlier arrival in, and later departure from, Hamburg.

Trans-Alpine services
There is some good news for international services across the Alps. In the west, there is a new Eurocity service from Frankfurt to Milan, with a departure close to 08:00 from Frankfurt and an arrival at Milano Centrale just after 15:30. In Germany, this train will also have a new designation: Eurocity Express (ECE). Northbound, the existing late-morning departure from Milan to Basel will be extended to Frankfurt, arriving at around 19:00.

Not strictly trans-Alpine - there is not such good news further south. Thello trains operating from Milan to Marseille will not operate between Nice and Marseille (in both directions) on most days. Additionally, the Geneva – Marseille – Nice TGV will terminate and start from Marseille.

In the east, there is a welcome additional service each way between Vienna and Venice. Currently, one trainset operates a round-trip each way, leaving Vienna at 06:35 and arriving back at 23:35. These timings make it impossible for same-day connections further afield, and are pretty horrible even if you are starting or finishing your journey in the Vienna area itself. There will now be an additional service departing Wien Hauptbahnhof at 12:25, and arriving at Venezia Santa Lucia at 20:05. In the reverse direction the additional train will leave Venice at 09:55 and arrive in Vienna at 17:35. These new services will allow same-day connections to and from, for example, Budapest and Prague. However, since the advertised departure from Budapest (09:40) to connect with the 12:25 departure from Vienna allows only a 4-minute transfer time at Wien Hauptbahnhof, Blue Guides recommends taking the train an hour earlier from Budapest to reduce the risk of a missed connection. Both the daily services between Vienna and Venice will be operated by Railjet trainsets.

Germany and Central Europe
• A major new high-speed line in Germany will mean a significant improvement in train times for Munich to Berlin journeys. The fastest trains on this route will now take a smidgen under 4 hours – more than 2 hours shorter than at present.

• Track improvements between Würzburg and Aschaffenburg will mean reductions in Vienna-Frankfurt ICE journey times of around 25 minutes.

• Services between Prague, Regensburg and Munich will be nearly doubled to provide a two-hourly-interval daytime service.

• The Prague – Bohumin service, which was extended in the summer to Krakow as EC Cracovia, proved popular and will now operate between Prague and Krakow throughout the year.

• Daytime trains between Budapest and Prague will be accelerated by 15 minutes: not because of any track improvements, but because they will operate on the more direct line to Nyugati station in Budapest (as they used to do until about twelve years ago) rather than to Keleti station. Whilst this routing avoids the slow around-the-houses crawl in Budapest, it does mean the end of same-station connections further afield to eastern and southern Hungary, Romania and Serbia.

• Westbahn, the private Austrian operator, will introduce new services between Wien Hauptbahnhof and Salzburg, providing more competition with OeBB, the traditional national operator. Westbahn currently only operates, appropriately, from the Westbahnhof.

…. and finally
Thello (operating trains on the routes Paris – Brussels – Amsterdam or Cologne) and TGV Lyria (Paris – Switzerland) will offer three service classes rather than the current two. The “middle” class will include a first-class seat but no complimentary food and drink. This will inevitably mean that Interrail and Eurail passholders paying the 1st class pass supplement will no longer receive the complimentary catering.

There is still no confirmed news on the commencement of the London – Brussels – Amsterdam Eurostar service, although various sources indicate a probable spring 2018 start date with two round-trip services daily. Blue Guides will keep you posted.

A people who changed history

Silver belt ornament with twin horse heads (7th century)

The exhibition currently running in Pavia near Milan (Longobardi. Un popolo che cambia la storia) has been given a good amount of publicity in Italy since it is the first time artefacts produced in the period when the Lombards dominated the Italian peninsula have been collected together from many different institutions. More than 300 works have been lent by upwards of 80 museums and institutions, and some of the artefacts are displayed for the first time. You can see the exhibition in Pavia, in the Castello Visconteo, until 3rd December; then it travels to Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 21st Dec–25th March); then to the Hermitage (spring 2018). The show is spectacular, featuring Lombard gold jewellery found in tombs and the bas- reliefs sculpted for early Christian churches, beautifully displayed in the vaults of the huge castle which was built in 1360 by Galeazzo II  Visconti. Pavia was the capital of the Goths under Theodoric but is particularly famous for the subsequent period, when for two centuries from 572 it was capital of the kingdom of the Lombards. The kings established their residence in a palace here from 626 onwards and the reign of Liutprando (712–44) has been recognised as the most important period for the arts.

The sub-title of the exhibition, ‘a people who changed history’ underlines the result of recent scholarship which gives greater importance to the few centuries following the conquest of Italy by the ‘bearded barbarians’ known as the Lombards in 568. They adopted the Arian faith in the 7th century and by the 8th century they had occupied some two thirds of Italian territory. Their presence in Italy was subsequently marked by the spread of Catholicism.

Although there are no labels in English, the videos, multimedia supports and touchscreens which accompany the display are sufficient to explain the complicated history of this former nomadic tribe from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. For some 50 years they settled in the former Roman province of Pannonia (present-day Hungary). The Lombard period in Italy saw a fragmentation of power into various dukedoms. Apart from Pavia, the most powerful were Spoleto (in Umbria), Cividale (in Friuli) and Benevento (in Campania). When Charlemagne arrived with the Franks and crowned himself King of the Lombards in Pavia in 774, the peninsula and the powers around the Mediterranean began to lose their importance while the Holy Roman Empire (only formally brought to an end in 1806 by Napoleon) became established north of the Alps.

Left-hand leaf of the 10th-century 'Rambona Diptych', showing the Crucifixion and the She-wolf of Rome nursing Romulus and Remus.

Amongst the most memorable exhibits are the gold jewellery, some worked with filigree, and especially the exquisite pieces from the Museo di Antichità in Turin, the Museo Civica in Tortona, and the Museo  Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. There are also two exceptional pieces, one in rock crystal and the other in light and porous sepiolite, known as ‘sea foam’. Larger jewels showing Byzantine influence, today preserved in museums as far apart as Cagliari and Potenza, are also displayed. There are two coloured-glass horns, one of which, in blue glass of the 6th or 7th century, was found in Ascoli Piceno (Marche) and is perfectly preserved. Finds from a rich 7th-century tomb unearthed beneath the church of Santa Giulia in Lucca include a shield with appliqués of Christian symbols (Daniel and his lions, and peacocks). Bronzes which once decorated horses’ bridles come from Molise; and a fascinating little bronze figure of a warrior (proudly displayed on its own) comes from Pavia’s own Museo Civico. The finest of the many Christian bas-reliefs are those from a church in Milan dating from the 7th century showing two lambs adoring a jewelled Cross, and one of a peacock made in the following century found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia (and lent by the Museo della Città there). Among the later works is an exquisite 10th-century ivory diptych found in Macerata and commissioned by the first abbot of the monastery of Rambona (lent by the Vatican Museums): the scenes include a Crucifixion with the personifications of the sun and moon and the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

A last room (on the ground floor) proudly records the history of Pavia itself and how the town developed under the Lombards, and how this period of glory was remembered in succeeding centuries.

Visitors are then directed to a part of the Castello Visconteo that has recently been renovated to preserve the treasures from the Lombard period. Here one of the most memorable exhibits is a ‘camp’ saddle found in the bed of the Ticino river. Delicately made in bronze (with a restored leather seat) it could easily be folded up or erected in a hurry as the situation required—a unique find from the period.

The Musei Civici in the castello also include a large picture gallery with paintings from all periods and including some masterpieces by Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Hugo van der Goes and many others.

Pavia, with its lovely paved and cobbled streets, is a delightful place to wander and its churches well worth visiting (and three of their crypts dating from the Lombard period are open specially during the exhibition period). If you stay the night, local trains every half hour from the station take you to Pavia’s most famous building, the Certosa di Pavia. Delicious pastries are to be had at Vigoni (Strada Nuova 110).

by Alta Macadam

Return to 'A Room with a View'

This year Florence has celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Merchant Ivory film closely based on E.M. Forster’s famous novel, first published in 1908. This autumn a restored version was shown in the presence of James Ivory, members of the cast, and those who worked on its production. An excellent talk was given by Sarah Quill, who was the stills photographer for the film, at the British Institute in Florence, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

We know that Forster visited Italy in 1901 and 1902, when still in his early 20s, and wrote the first part of his novel set in Florence in the following year. As an older man he freely admitted that he had known very little about Italian life, but was attracted above all by the contrast that Italy, the land of ‘natural emotions’ offered to the ‘grey inhibited life that I knew only too well’ of the English suburbs.

But for all that, his description of the city in the novel is remarkable. The discerning details that Forster provides are always perfectly accurate: in Piazza Santissima Annunziata the heroine Lucy admires ‘in the living terra-cotta those divine babies whom no cheap reproduction can ever stale. There they stood, with their shining limbs bursting from the garments of charity, and their strong white arms extended against circlets of heaven.’

Forster must have been impressed by the number of visitors he found in Florence, since he describes Mr Eager as ‘a member of the residential colony who had made Florence their home…Living in delicate seclusion, some in…Renaissance villas on Fiesole’s slope, they read, wrote, studied and exchanged ideas, thus attaining to that intimate knowledge, or rather perception, of Florence which is denied to all who carry in their pockets the coupons of Cook.’ Later he tells Lucy ‘we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get “done” or “through” and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.’ The novel contains more amusing references to the Baedeker guidebook to Florence and one chapter is entitled ‘In Santa Croce with no Baedeker’, when Lucy finds she is lost in the barn-like church without it, since the irritating Miss Lavish has seized it from her (‘And no, you are not, not, not to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift…’). Blue Guides have always been proud to be heirs to the great 19th-century guide book tradition through their connection with this German series (the Muirhead brothers, founders of the series, were for many years the English-language editors) and with Murray’s handbooks. We also believe that visitors to Florence should very much be allowed to carry a guide book. Without one, you really are a-drift!

Ivory’s production crew stayed and filmed at the grand Villa di Maiano, owned by the Corsini, a well-known Florentine family. When the Englishman John Temple Leader first arrived in Florence in the mid-19th century, he restored it, adding the top floor, the neo-Gothic tower and the portico on the facade, and transforming the courtyard into a ballroom. He spent the summers there while work was in progress on rebuilding the nearby castle of Vincigliata, which became the most famous and most visited of his various properties and is recognised today as a particularly successful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Edward Hutton, in his book on walks outside Florence (published the same year as A Room with a View), discourages a visit as ‘there is but little of interest in the place, almost all the works of art are copies, like the castle itself.’ Henry James, when in town the following year, while recognising it as a ‘massive pastiche’, still admired it. Temple Leader is also remembered for protecting the landscape around Maiano, transforming the disused pietra serena quarries into cypress woods. The countryside remains much as it was in Forster’s day, and in the film the carriage drive was able to be filmed directly beneath the Villa di Maiano. In the novel Forster describes the route taken by the carriages along the upper road from Fiesole to Settignano via the castle of Vincigliata and back along the lower road via Maiano. Mr Eager suggests: ‘We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have a ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view from Fiesole.’ During the trip, ‘a hollow like a great amphitheatre, full of terraced steps and misty olives, now lay between them and the heights of Fiesole, and the road, still following its curve, was about to sweep on to a promontory which stood out into the plain….[with a] view of the Val d’Arno and distant Florence.’

Close to the Maiano crossroads a path still descends to Via del Palmerino, named after the villa where the English writer Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) lived most of her life. She drew inspiration from the countryside around her house, where she would often walk or ride, and her Genius Loci came out the same year as A Room with a View (it is perhaps interesting to note that Forster mentions the ‘presiding genius of places’ in his perfect description of Piazza della Signoria).

The novel, as well as the film, remain wonderful light-hearted descriptions of Florence and its English visitors, still very true today, and Forster perceptively suggests also that ‘…the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.’

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Italian island food

Matthew Fort: Summer in the Islands, An Italian Odyssey. Unbound Press, London, 2017.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman.

Matthew Fort, distinguished writer on food and all the conviviality that accompanies it, fell in love with Italy through its ice cream at the age of eleven. The relationship has lasted and has developed into a deep affection for Italy’s peoples and their traditions of fine local cooking. Having traversed the peninsula for Eating up Italy and explored Sicily in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, he embarked, at the age of 67, on a leisurely six-month tour of all the islands off the Italian coast. It did not quite work out as planned: a ruptured Achilles tendon led to his abrupt return to England, but he eventually made it back to complete his visit to every Italian island, with Sardinia and Sicily included.

Italian restaurateurs love a genial and tubby figure who turns up to ask them what they cook best and then enjoys several courses of local specialities. Mr. Fort fits the bill brilliantly. From zuppetta di lenticchie usticese con totani from the fertile soil of Ustica to grigliata mista di suino in Alghero, Sardinia, and ricotta salata al forno, ‘salted ricotta that has been baked in the oven and sliced as thin as a communion wafer’, matched with a sweet Malvasia di Lipari in Salina off the coast of Sicily, he honours the cucina of wherever he turns up. Fort travels with Nicoletta, his trusty Vespa, and the pair are happy together chugging across the varied terrains thrown up by geology and volcanic eruptions (although of course Nicoletta cannot participate in the feasting). One lady who can is Fort’s daughter Lois, who joins him in Giglio and Giannutri, off Italy's western coast. She is “curious, humorous, calm in the face of adversity [unlike Fort], cheerful and determined to enjoy each adventure to the full”, so they have happy times together and Fort is melancholy when she leaves. She will reappear in the final chapter when, on her first visit to Venice, they enjoy a beautifully served lunch at the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello. Other companions appear: Lisa, who disrupts Fort's lazy lifestyle on Filicudi and Alicudi with two vast aluminium suitcases and a vigorous programme of walking and swimming.

I was worried at first that one island after another would prove monotonous; but each island is different. Some are crammed with holiday-makers and others with prisons (either abandoned or still functioning), so there is plenty of contrast and enough variety to keep the narrative going. Fort also knows enough history and literature to fill us in on Napoleon on Elba, for example, or the Dukes of Bronte, heirs of Nelson, in Sicily. There is a discursion on the ‘pagan’ Norman Douglas, whose memoir Old Calabria (1915) extols the wildness of Italy’s deep south; and frustration with a German film crew who have taken over Garibaldi’s farm on Caprera, depriving Fort of the chance to eat there. He sums up his ambivalent feelings about Garibaldi nonetheless.

I am one up on Fort in that I have a chance, on the tours I lead, to follow up the best restaurants my wife and I discover on our reconnoitring trips. So south of Naples I shall be re-visiting the Tre Olivi at Paestum (this time taking 30 people to lunch there) and the following day I will reacquaint myself with Ristorante Romantica near Teggiano, a small hilltop town where medieval frescoes will be opened up for us in the churches before we leave for the vast Certosa di San Lorenzo in the afternoon. There is no better way of honouring a restaurant than to bring one’s friends along for a second bite. I am sure that Matthew Fort would approve.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to many Blue Guide Italy titles. For more on Italian food, try the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion.

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

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

10.09.2017
19:02

Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook

Philip Hook: Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. Profile Books, London, 2017.

In May 2017, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum in Boston for the second time. Housed in a neo-Renaissance palazzo with courtyards and galleries, it is crammed—one might say cluttered—with the extraordinary collection of Mrs Gardner, accumulated with her vast wealth before her death in 1924. There are special objects, a brilliant Titian (The Rape of Europa) and a stunning John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, of a Spanish gypsy dancing girl; but as Mrs Gardner was not a discriminating buyer and insisted that everything she had collected had to be displayed, the effect can be rather cloying. Perhaps I was biased, having come on from the wonderful new Art of the Americas gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

It is hardly surprising that Isabella Gardner appears in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s history of art dealing. She had a large fortune, was avid for the best of Renaissance paintings, and thus became easy prey for suppliers. Bernard Berenson and his colleague Otto Gutekunst at Colnaghi saw their chance. As Hook puts it, ‘The race to supply Mrs Gardner with as many Renaissance masterpieces at as high a price as possible was on.’ Titian’s The Rape of Europa was extracted by Gutekunst from Lord Darnley for £14,000 and Berensen and Gutekunst agreed that it would be sold to Gardner for £18,000, with each of them splitting the difference. In fact, Berensen sold it to Gardner  for £20,000, paid Gutekunst £2,000 and pocketed  £4,000 for himself. Hook has no illusions about his ‘Rogue Dealers’ (although some of his subjects were more rogueish than others). The value of an artwork is what a buyer is willing to pay for it and this sum can be manipulated by the dealer in a number of ways. Often the aesthetic value of a picture, the way its composition or subject might grab a viewer, is secondary to the prestige of owning whatever is in fashion. There are all kinds of subtle ploys for creating desire for an object that the purchaser might never have thought of owning and certainly does not need. The fascination of Hook’s book lies in the different personalities and methods used to achieve this end.

 

The story starts in the 17nth century. The Rev. William Petty was an accomplished buyer for Charles I and the ‘Collector Earl’ of Arundel, outplaying rival buyers simply by staying put in Italy. In Amsterdam  Hendrick van Uylenburgh took Rembrandt under his wing, guiding clients into his workshop for their portraits but carefully leaving other pictures around in the hope of selling more to the sitters. By the 18th century, the market has shifted to Rome. Not all dealers there were insensitive to art. The Anglophile Cardinal Albani’s own collection was as fine as anything he sold on to English aristocrats. But as so much dealing was carried on amicably between social equals, it was hard to say where the balance between sociability and commerce lay. In the case of Lord Duveen, a hundred years later, his knowledge of Italian art was minimal but the skill with which he manipulated the expertise of Bernard Berenson to provide ‘authentic’  provenances for the culture-hungry and cash-rich American moguls brought fabulous returns for them both. Osbert Sitwell lamented that the austere galleries donated to British museums by Duveen were funded by selling the cream of English paintings to America.

 

One moves on to Paul Durand-Ruel, the great patron of the Impressionists. Hook is at his best in exploring the life of this reactionary Catholic monarchist who may have changed the direction of art history through his championship of a new and little regarded movement. In 1872 Durand-Ruel had seen two works by Manet and was so overwhelmed by them that he went off to Manet’s studio and brought everything that he found. He was prepared to subsidise his favoured artists and wait for the return that matured through his relentless proselytising. He cleverly created the aura of one who was simply an idealist, altruistically promoting needy artists, yet, as Hook points out, he would ruthlessly impose a monopoly over an artist’s works (as the curmudgeonly Ambroise Vollard did over Cézanne) and if prices were flagging, buy his own stock at public auction to keep up the fiction of increasing values. The fiction would eventually become reality. Why the conservative Durand-Ruel should have been so taken by the Impressionists when they were so little regarded is unknown.

 

Hook’s most intriguing chapter centres on an auctioneer, the legendary Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s. (Hook worked at Sotheby’s for many years so his account is as good as any.) Wilson was a connoisseur, passionate about art and with great taste. His theatrical sense of how to play an audience was unequalled, as were his negotiating skills.

He made the auction room a place of glamour, with dealers sidelined as bejeweled celebrities basked in the glare of publicity. Wilson sensed how the Hollywood elite would compete for the prestige of owning a major Impressionist and was adept at exploiting the power of the Press to create the necessary buzz. Record prices made news and stimulated beguiled collectors to pass on their treasures directly to Sotheby’s when before they would have been sold discreetly in a dealer’s office. Wilson also had a contempt for the buyers, a vital attribute for a successful dealer. It was said that he once sold a gold box by soliciting phone bids from an inebriated Barbara Hutton which probably took the price $750,000 dollars higher than it should have been. He would tell a seller to sell now before the market fell and for the same work would advise a buyer to buy now when prices were still low.

 

This is a knowledgeable and perceptive book that raises important questions about the value of art and the ways in which this can be exploited or even created from nothing. Rich in anecdote, cynical in tone (‘Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy’), it makes a good read. Sadly, Hook decided only to tell on dead dealers. I would have loved to have heard the gossip on how money is extracted from the new rich on contemporary artists of such varying quality and prospects.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

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

Ferragamo's Return

Ferragamo the Cobbler: from Naples to Hollywood and the return to Italy in 1927

 

Florence is determined to keep its place as a centre of fashion (despite fierce competition from Milan). Of the famous “Pitti” fashion shows, which are held throughout the year, the most prestigious remains “Pitti Uomo”, which takes place for a week in June. This year Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, allowed fashion shows to take place in the Pitti Palace ballroom, thus reintroducing a tradition which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. He has also renamed the Pitti’s Galleria del Costume. Now known as the Museo della Moda e del Costume, it makes clear its role in documenting the history of fashion.

 

Another exhibition centred on fashion, entitled “1927: The Return to Italy”, runs at the Museo Ferragamo, the company’s elegant flagship store at the end of Via Tornabuoni, until May 2018. Curated by the much-respected art historian Carlo Sisi, it provides a fascinating history of Italy in the 1920s. The setting cleverly evokes an ocean liner: in 1914 the 17-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo sailed from Naples for America as a third-class passenger. Just 13 years later he returned as a highly successful businessman, with a first-class cabin on the huge ocean liner R oma (she had made her maiden voyage the previous year and a film made at the time shows life aboard). Born in Irpinia in the south of Italy, where he had set up a business selling handmade shoes when aged only 11 (six older boys worked for him), Ferragamo decided to emigrate to the land of opportunities, and by 1923 was an American citizen and had opened a shoe store in Hollywood. All the famous movie stars soon became his devoted clients. His decision to return to Italy in 1927 was prompted by a desire to find skilled Italian artisans to increase production and it was only in Florence that he found the quality he was looking for. He settled in the city, founded a shoe factory, and by 1938 was able to purchase the huge medieval Palazzo Feroni on the Arno, which still houses the company’s main store. On show, beside the shoes he crafted, are numerous examples of the decorative arts made in Florence in the 1920s (including lovely woven fabrics). One of the most moving exhibits is the ‘home movie’ Ferragamo made of the wonders of Florence when he first arrived there from Naples with his sisters.

 

After the First World War hemlines had risen, exposing women’s legs and ankles, and thus the shoe became far more conspicuous. Ferragamo experimented with all kind of materials, including kid and antelope skins, and even ‘sea leather’ from fish. His sandals, boots and hand-painted shoes were renowned. He studied closely the anatomy of the foot and issues of posture in order to create models that were comfortable as well as stylish. Hundreds of these shoes are on show, as well as his archive of patented designs.

 

But the exhibition has also provided the opportunity to study the role of women at this time (just before Fascism took hold) and the influence of the emancipated American flapper in Europe. The importance of sport and dance in liberating the female figure (if only from corsets!) is underlined by contemporary films, and many fascinating of posters are included. Amongst the sculptures and paintings, all rigorously confined within this one decade, the 1920s, some of the most interesting are by the brothers RAM and Thayaht (Ruggero Alfredo and Ernesto Michahelles), little-known outside Tuscany, who were particularly interested in fashion. They were at work in Florence producing remarkable paintings, graphics and sculpture (some of them using an amalgam of aluminium and silver which Thayaht invented and named “taiattite”, after himself). A painting (owned by the Ferragamo Foundation) by Giovanni Colacicchi shows Palazzo Feroni itself in Piazza Santa Trinita at this period.

 

This is a delightful exhibition and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. It clearly demonstrates that the fashion house of Ferragamo, even though now a global brand, can still contribute to the life of the city of Florence.

 

by Alta Macadam


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