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What’s on in Florence

Goya: portrait of the Countess of Chinchón (c. 1801).
Gallerie degli Uffizi

Florence, in these weeks before the arrival of the Easter crowds, is cold but relatively empty and there are two exhibitions well worth seeing: 14th-century fabrics in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and 18th century paintings in Palazzo Pitti.

The first exhibition (Tessuto e ricchezza a Firenze nel trecento. Lana, seta, pittura; on until 15th April), devised and curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia director Cecilie Hollberg, is particularly enjoyable. You can book to see it, but at this time of year, particularly in the late afternoon, you can often just walk in and there will be no queue. The show links the fabric industry—which gave the medieval city its wealth—to the designs of the backcloths in gold-ground paintings, and later to the dresses worn by the figures depicted by some of the early masters of 14th-century Florentine painting.

The floor in the first room reproduces the intricate mosaic pavement of the church of San Miniato al Monte (the most beautiful of all Florence’s medieval churches), a subtle reference to the importance of pattern to the craftsmen of the time. The beautiful statute-books of the two ‘Arti’ or guilds which represented the cloth-workers, those who dealt with wool and those who (later) dealt with silk, are exhibited here. There are interesting documents, including some letters from the archives of Datini (the famous ‘Merchant of Prato’) with samples of wool pinned to them. The first exhibit, set to astonish us, is a child’s wool dress, only preserved because it comes from icy climes, lent by the National Museum of Denmark. Another survival is a piece of a woollen hood, alleged to have been worn in the 13th century by the nun St Umiltà and conserved as a holy relic in the monastery of Vallombrosa in the hills above Florence.

The first painting we see is a touching panel Madonna and Child (who reaches up to hug his mother) from the church of San Remigio. It dates from c. 1290 (and here given a new attribution). A rare occasion to see this masterpiece well-lit and at close range. Almost all the other paintings—carefully chosen to show how the precision with which fabrics were reproduced in paint—are from the Accademia itself (including some brought out of storage). An exception is Giovanni Baronzio’s Baptism of Christ, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and chosen because of the beautifully patterned towel held up by angels (who are dressed in garments to match). Very few paintings are attributed to this artist from Rimini, and none are to be seen in Florence.

The pieces of fabric exhibited come from Lyon, Prague, Brussels and Berlin, as well as from Florence’s Bargello. The silks, in gorgeous colours, are very fine, many Islamic in origin. Since they are often fragmentary, the complete designs have been recreated on the wall behind them. It has been discovered that the large funeral shroud found in the tomb of Cangrande I, the most famous member of the Della Scala family, who died in Verona in 1329, was made in central Asia. A dalmatic from northern Germany is made up of five different fabrics, all from China. Two works of the 1370s by Jacopo di Cione are decorated with birds and tortoises with the Child dressed in gorgeous orange and gold swaddling clothes. An end room has a delightful video installation with ‘animated’ paintings: it takes as its subject the report of a magistrate who in the 14th century noted down the excesses he found in dress in order to damn the vice of ‘unseemly vanity’, vividly demonstrating how fabrics impinged also on the social life of the town. The ‘film’ is shown alternately in English and Italian (and the concise English labelling throughout the exhibition is excellent).

In the last room there is a very well-preserved silk jacket (made with the pourpoint technique), traditionally supposed to have been worn by Charles of Blois at his death in 1364: he was killed by his uncle (and rival for the Duchy of Brittany), John de Montfort, in the Hundred Years’ War. After the battle it was preserved as a relic of the saintly Charles until it was lost during the French Revolution. It only turned up again in 1924 when it was donated to the Musée des Tissus in Lyon who have lent it to the exhibition. The material comes from Iran or Iraq. This type of military jacket, with numerous buttons, had already become fashionable in Florence a few decades earlier and must have been particularly becoming when worn by a young knight.

One of the last exhibits is a bolt of vermillion-coloured velvet with a pattern of gold discs (lent by the Bargello), which seems to be the very same cloth as the one held up by the angels in the background of Starnina’s Coronation of the Virgin (1405–10), lent by the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Seeing the two side by side clearly shows how skilfully Starnina painted the folds and rucks in the large piece of cloth: we are now at the beginning of the Renaissance.
(The large catalogue is extremely scholarly, if expensive).

On the other side of town, Eike Schmidt, director of the united Uffizi and Pitti galleries), has put together a tiny exhibition (The Eighteenth century: A selection; on until April) in one of the rooms of Palazzo Pitti. This is a period less known for its artistic output in Florence. Schmidt has made a selection of just 17 paintings (from the 500 or so in the Gallery’s collection) of non-religious subjects to illustrate the variety of works produced at that time. He has also taken it is an opportunity to begin to dismantle the ‘Blue Rooms’ in the Uffizi, which previously were dedicated to foreign schools. Schmidt’s aim is to integrate the collections to show the Medici grand-dukes collected both Italian and foreign works, notably by Dutch and Spanish painters. Indeed the most beautiful of the works in this exhibition is Goya’s full-length portrait of the Countess of Chinchón, painted around 1801. Displayed between the academic portraits of Vittorio Alfieri and his mistress, the Countess of Albany, by Fabre, which date from only a few years earlier, it demonstrates the direction painting was to take by the end of the century. Townscapes of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice (including a stunning view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto) show the very special interest in travel in this century. Thomas Patch is also represented, with a view of Ponte Santa Trinita, looking downstream. The fashion for exotic scenes and dress can be seen in a portrait by Etienne Liotard and in small Turkish genre panels. Another (very rare) genre scene is the little painting in oil on copper by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, which shows the painter himself twice over: in a self-portrait in the background, and in the foreground pulling his children along in a wooden contraption as his wife looks on, laughing. From the middle of the century come a pair of portraits by Chardin of a girl with a shuttlecock and racquet and a boy at a card table. An exemplary show, to remind us of a period often overlooked in Florence.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. For details of her Blue Guide Florence, see here.

Art Within Limits

Dezső Bóka: “The Szeged Tyre Factory” (1963)

“Within Frames” is the title of an exhibition running at the Hungarian National Gallery until February 18th. It looks at Hungarian art of the 1960s, a decade when state censorship controlled what people could publicly say or think. The English title, “Within Frames”, a literal translation of the Hungarian, does not really sum up what the show is about. “Within the Framework”, or even “Circumscribed” might be nearer the mark. How did artists cope with the restrictions imposed on them? Were they universally obeyed? And if not, how were they subtly subverted?

The exhibition examines a full decade, between 1958 and 1968. The dates are not accidentally chosen: 1958 was the year that saw the introduction of the system of control known as the Three Ts. In 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, art was freed from central control.

Visitors straightaway enter a stalwartly Communist world. The first room is dominated by a mock-up of a prefabricated housing block with its end wall entirely covered in a sgraffito mural: György Kádár’s Family (1958). Kádár was an artist who had received criticism from the authorities for showing symptoms of too much modernity. In this mural he perfectly hones his style, staying within the lines in a way that cannot be footfaulted. A sturdy mother is seen tossing her small son above her shoulders. In his hands he holds a kite with a beribboned tail. An older child, a daughter, rests on her spade next to her father: they have just planted a young sapling tree. The themes of peaceful coexistence, responsible community life, hard work and hope for the future are all expressed—partly literally—in spades.

The enormous power distance between the cult personalities of the Communist ruling apparatus and their smiling, happy people is wonderfully illustrated in Ernő Jeges’s May Day in Komló (1953). This early work shows the hardline world of early Communism. The scene is a May Day (Labour Day) celebration in the mining town of Komló. Officials are surrounded by children waving the Red Flag. Behind them rear the tall winding machines of the coal mine. In the distance stretches the town, newly built, spick and span, and toiling up the hill to salute the Party representatives winds a procession of local peasants, dressed in folk garb. The artist had been one of those who won a scholarship to Rome in the late 1920s and who was given ecclesiastical commissions as a result. Here he has reinvented himself as a propagandist par excellence of the Socialist Realist utopia.

Five years later, the situation was somewhat relaxed. Art was given more freedom to move but it still had to operate within the strictures of the Three Ts. The Ts are the initial letters of the Hungarian words for Subsidised, Tolerated and Banned, the three categories into which art was corralled. Anything that extolled Western consumerism, that reflected negatively on the Soviet crushing of the 1956 revolution, that criticised the Party, that mentioned the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon (which had given large swathes of Hungary’s former territory to her Comecon allies), was taboo. Banned art, according to a Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party decree of 1965, was art that showed “not the reality of society but which holds up a distorted mirror to reflect the artist’s own irresponsibility and pessimism.” Gyula Marosán, with works like The Secret Police is Checking the Border Again or The First Fallen Freedom Fighter (illustrated here) was clearly in the banned category.

Gyula Marosán: “The First Fallen Freedom Fighter” (1957)

With such strict rules to follow, one might expect most of the art in this show to be crude and provincial. It isn’t. Early on it becomes clear how much Hungarian left-wing artists had in common with their Western counterparts. Picasso’s Dove of Peace (examples on show) and Renato Guttuso’s Land-grab in Sicily clearly demonstrate that artists across the continent were concerned with the threat of nuclear war and with social questions. And an area where Hungary was not isolated at all was furniture design, as attested by many of the beautiful objects also included in this show. Particularly fine is a cane-seated chair by Zsuzsa Kovács, with delicately tapering legs. Kovács was a pioneer designer, a committed socialist, and an early advocate of the fitted kitchen. Her avowed aim was to help alleviate the domestic burden on the working woman.

Another thing emerges from this show. That operating within strictly defined boundaries does not necessarily place a stumbling block in the way of creativity. One only has to think of wordy poets confined to the fourteen lines of a sonnet and thereby producing some of their finest lyrics. Many artists in this decade, even those who were not necessarily fellow travellers, found a direction from which they never deviated, even after state control was relaxed. The Conservative Realist painters (acceptable theme: society as it is) or artists of the Great Plain School (acceptable theme: peasants and agriculture) are good examples.

For the honest portrait that it gives, this is a superb show. The artworks have extraordinary documentary value and interest. Often, when sifting through a lifetime of old photo albums, all the carefully contrived arty shots that seemed so marvellous at the time, seem completely pointless. Why on earth didn’t we take more everyday snaps of the family sitting around the kitchen table? It says much more about who we really are.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber. Blue Guide Budapest will be published in the spring.

A Time in Rome

Back cover of the 1st edition (1960)

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome. Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Originally published by Longman (1960). Reissued by Vintage Books.

I wonder how much the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) is read now? Bowen was of Anglo-Irish stock, a fine but delicate writer acutely attuned to the cadences and concealments of an elitist society that had lost its purpose in an independent Ireland. She has been described as ‘haunted by loss’, her characters pulled back into a past that cannot return. Perhaps it is this for which she is still remembered, as much as for her evocation of the atmosphere of a place, notably the Irish country house, or London in the midst of war.

It was for this evocation of place that I was recommended her A Time In Rome, a memoir from when she spent some months in the city in the spring and summer of 1958. What I had not expected when I ordered a cheap second-hand copy on the internet was a first edition still in its original dustwrapper. It is a pleasure to own. The author, with her aristocratic nose, elegant coiffure and several strings of pearls, is shown on the back, a shadowy arch of Septimius Severus behind the title on the front.

This is not a coherent account. It is, as I was told to expect, an evocation by someone who had time on her hands, is interested enough in her surroundings and its history, but perhaps prone to be didactic, making sure that we know all the ancient roads leading from Rome, the names of the gates in the Aurelian wall, and what might or might not count as one of the Seven Hills. She is brisk about the inadequacies of the Forum: ‘This might be an abandoned building-site, or outgrown giant playroom littered with breakages.’ We are firmly told how to negotiate the ruins despite there not being an entry gate just where she would have liked to start. She is not drawn to Roman ruins.

Her wanderings go hand in hand with her battles with her piante, the only maps of Rome that she can find. They are large and brittle and need to be unfurled every time they are used; in the winds ‘the Pianta forever was rearing up to wrap itself blindingly round my face’. There was a struggle to unfold them on a café tables without staining them with coffee or butter and there had to be frequent new purchases after each one disintegrated along its folds.

Still, despite her frustrations, Bowen allows herself to absorb the city. She enjoys the less pretentious restaurants, watching the regulars treating them like home, marvelling at the pride of the waiters, even in trattorie that have nothing to be proud of. The secret of success is ‘a matter of freshness, resilience, tenderness, and in the case of pasta sufficient slipperiness without oiliness’. She revels in the revival of Renaissance Rome, especially the Via Giulia, ‘One rejoices in positive spaces, like giant ballrooms, connected by corridors of perspective. The longer the distances to look down, the greater the pleasure.’ Despite an air of Protestant hauteur about the extravagances and intolerances of the Catholic Church, the vistas created by Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585–90) are especially valued. The pope ‘brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful.’ She is sensitive to the burgeoning of Rome’s spring in the Borghese gardens and other less known gardens. ’I associate the Parco Savello [on the Aventine] with singing birds, the columnar lines of the slender trees, and reposefulness—here in so green a space, at so great a height, above Rome.’ The garden frescos from the Prima Porta villa of Livia, the wife of Augustus, delight her and it seems, from the way she admires Livia’s grace and courage, that she found a kindred spirit in the empress.

When asked by acquaintances why she is in Rome, Bowen cannot give an answer. Her husband had died in 1952 but it had never been a close marriage (apparently never consummated). Her lover, a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, had married during the affair, which lasted over 32 years, leaving a possible life with him unresolved. She was overwhelmed with debts on her beloved Irish home, Bowen’s Court, which she would eventually have to sell. Rome may have been an escape but there is nothing to shape her apparently solitary days or her narrative. Her wanderings seem serendipitous, ‘one or another desire or curiosity shaped my courses for runs of days’. She is reticent, prefers to learn from watching rather than engaging in conversation.

So this is the memoir. Yet many of her letters to Charles Ritchie survive and I found a quote from one of them that was written from Rome. ‘I am leading a very gay, amusing, glamorous, sumptuous life’, she writes. There is nothing of that in her memoir and so a mystery hangs over this book. It is not one of the great evocations of Rome, it is too disjointed and digressive for that, but it intrigues. Who—the reader or Ritchie—was getting the correct version?

A Time In Rome is a period piece. Much of the writing is of quality as Bowen catches a mood of the city. There is a good description of the ceremony in St Peter’s in which the ageing Pope Pius XII beatifies Chinese Christians martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. ‘Half the lights in the world were already blazing, hanging in torrents from the roof, clustered against the carmine brocades clothing the columns, when on the ungated river of congregation we surged in, scaled to our places, waited’ as the pope processed among the frenzy of the crowds, ‘a scarlet spiked tree of gladioli’ carried before him. Yet there is a lot of Rome that she fails to catch, as if her mind never fully engaged with the city. I shall look out for the biographies—those by Victoria Glendinning (1977) and Neil Corcoran (2004)—and letters to find out why. I think she would have been happier in Florence.

Charles Freeman is the Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. Bowen’s ‘A Time in Rome’ is one of works featured in Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

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

Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'

Diana Athill, A Florence Diary. Granta, 2016.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman

This is an amuse-bouche of a book, just 40 pages from a notebook recording the author’s visit to Florence in the late summer of 1947. By sheer coincidence I found myself reading it on Diana Athill’s hundredth birthday, December 21st, 2017. Her lively introduction shows that her mind remains undiminished from 70 years ago.

 

Athill set off for Florence from Victoria Station with her cousin Pen. While Athill is well organised, her cases registered all the way through and her hand luggage consisting mainly of a hatbox and a shopping bag of food, her cousin comes loaded with many small items tied together with string, a straw hat and an easel that falls apart and gets in the way of everybody. Yet they are clearly a cheerful and attractive pair and well looked after on the journey south. Athill is cossetted by an Italian prince by the name of Alfonso, who even arranges flowers to be delivered to their pensione in Florence while he sweeps on to Rome, imploring the travellers to come after him.

 

Italy at the time was just recovering from the war and the bathwater was cold due to the lack of electricity. English visitors were gladly welcomed but had very little money. Athill and Pen had been given a tip over where to find the best rates of exchange and they survived happily, first in the Hotel Bonciani, and then in their pensione. After paying for their full board they have enough left over for patisserie and entrance fees. It is the patisserie that delights them: a wonderful array of exotic items that must have been a godsend after the dour food of a still-rationed England. Pen has come in uncomfortable shoes and sees some lovely sandals that she looks at every day, unable to decide whether to buy them (they enjoy yet more patisserie instead). Optimistically they decide that they will one day buy a villa in Fiesole. (This hope is frustrated, not least, Athill’s introduction tells us, because Pen went on to become a nun.)

 

Athill is more studious than Pen and makes sure she has visited everything in the guidebook. Pen has fewer inhibitions, even getting herself shown round Bernard Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, but missing out on the sumptuous Medici Chapel because she did not explore far enough into San Lorenzo. Athill’s response to art is intuitive and immediate. She delights in coming across a new treasure, a ‘dreamlike’ Botticelli or the light on the walls of Santa Croce that makes them ‘glow like ripe peaches’. She has an exuberance that falls just short of gushiness: the amphitheatre in the Boboli Gardens is ‘too lush and Renaissance for words’ and ‘the courtyard [of the Bargello], with a colonnade all round and a gallery on the first floor with great stairs coming down, is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen’. Images of the works of the great Florentine masters flit by.

 

This is a book to be read not so much for what it tells you about Florence but for the way it describes a society restoring itself after the trauma of a lost war. Athill’s are the reactions of a sensitive outsider to the city’s atmosphere and charms. There is a selection of contemporary photographs and an introduction in which Athill meditates from her great age on the power of place in her life. Short though this memoir is, I found much to enjoy.

 

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. He has written the historical introduction to the Florence volume.

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

Season’s Greetings

This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.

1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.


Related title: Pilgrim’s Rome

2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.


Related title: Blue Guide Emilia-Romagna

3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.


Related title: Blue Guide Friuli-Venezia Giulia

4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.


Related title: Blue Guide Sicily

5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.


Related title: Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Lakes (pub. date to be announced)

6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.


Related title: Blue Guide Florence

7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.


Related title: Blue Guide Rome

8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.


Related title: Blue Guide Piedmont

9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.


Related title: Blue Guide Venice

10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.

Related titles: Blue Guide Liguria and Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino

12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.


Related title: Blue Guide Budapest

20.12.2017
20:00

Christmas with the Gonzaga

'Morel Favorito', one of the famous Gonzaga equestrian portraits in Palazzo Te.

A wonderful time to visit Mantua and Sabbioneta is the week before Christmas. Empty of tourists and Italian school trips it is likely you will be the sole visitor to Mantegna’s famous Camera dei Sposi in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale and, indeed, the only foreigner in this very beautiful town. The streets are crowded with local residents who also flock in also from the countryside to do their Christmas shopping but also simply to enjoy the crowd of merry-makers with street markets, music and delicious food.

 

The large tourist office right in the centre in Piazza Mantegna is open all day every day and will supply you with all the information you could possibly need as well as a ‘Mantova Card’ which for just €20 allows you free entrance everywhere in Mantua and Sabbioneta, as well as free transport.

 

The vast Palazzo Ducale is undergoing exciting changes under its new director from Austria, Dr Assmann, who arrived two years ago. You can now walk through some of the courtyards and the visit includes four rooms of the Gonzaga’s classical antiquities (Greek originals as well as Roman), recently opened in a splendid display with ingenious lighting from below (and heating beneath the carpet). Indeed perhaps the only drawback to visiting Mantua at this time of year is the freezing cold temperatures (most days below zero) becasue the vast halls and galleries of Palazzo Ducale are otherwise without heating. But you become lost in wonder at the extraordinary energy that the Gonzaga rulers and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II) put into decorating their residences in the late 15th century (with, in the early 16th century, the visionary skills of Giulio Romano). We know that the Gonzaga were particularly devoted to horses and dogs, and fine portraits of their animals in several rooms, here and in their summer villa, the masterpiece of Giulio Romano, Palazzo Te at the other end of town (where each horse seems to have ‘stood’ for its portrait and where the favourite dog of Isabella’s son, the first Duke Federico II, is immortalised in a relief showing him sitting on his sarcophagus in a secret garden amidst carvings of other animals from Aesop’s Fables).

 

The bus line to Sabbioneta, which takes around an hour, is free with the Mantova Card and there you can walk in this tiny town planned at the end of the 16th century by another eccentric Gonzaga, Vincenzo, who after a successful operation on his brain to relieve his migraines (the hole in his head was discovered when his tomb was opened) decided at the end of his life to create an ideal city here, taking his inspiration from ancient Rome.

 

As in Mantua, the chief treasures of Sabbioneta are the ceilings, whether carved or painted, and the long Galleria is an unforgettable sight, as is the Theatre. Like Mantua, this sleepy little remote town is full of jollifications for families just before Christmas, including mulled wine in the piazza, and bagpipes played in the streets. You can now walk along a grassy path beneath the walls at the edge of the ploughed fields, and appreciate how well Sabbioneta has been preserved.

Trompe l'oeil in the Galleria in Sabbioneta. Note the playful cavorting putti: a variant of Manneken pis on the left and another performing a handstand on the right.

Mantua has always been difficult to reach by train—it is still approached by single-track railway lines from the south (Modena) and the north (Verona)—but for all that the trip is a memorable experience and, as the director of Palazzo Ducale proudly showed me on the graph in his office, the number of visitors is steadily growing. The culinary delights, from the ubiquitous sbrisolona (a delicious crumbly biscuit with almonds which puts Scottish shortbread to shame) to mostarda (made with fruit and a sharp syrup of mustard), can be tasted in numerous good trattorie as well as in very cheap bakeries. Although the boat trips on Mantua’s three lakes are suspended in winter, you can take a bracing walk or bike ride (again provided free with your Mantova Card) along the lakes, since they all now have bike lanes in their parks.

 

You couldn’t do better than choose Mantua for a winter holiday.

Alta Macadam, who was in Mantua and Sabbioneta for four days this week, is preparing new text for a forthcoming Blue Guide to the area.

Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum

When Freya Stark was in this area in the early autumn of 1952, she was on a quest (the very word she used in the title of the book detailing her adventures: Ionia: A Quest). Armed with her Classics, she was looking for the material reality underpinning the narratives of the likes of Herodotus and Pindar. As far as she was concerned, she was in Ionia (the other component of the title), sometimes in Aeolia, occasionally in Caria. She never doubted that she, like the antiquarian travellers before her, was in an extension of ancient. Her experience remains unique: travelling as a woman, a foreigner and on her own, she aroused curiosity and a sort of protective sympathy. She had a novelty value that made her feel occasionally like an animal in a zoo but which at times secured VIP treatment from the local poeple. Archaeologically was not ready for her (hence her disparaging comments on the state of the theatre at Pergamon). Transportation was not easy; the crossing of the Meander Delta, some 8km wide, entailed the use of a lorry, a tractor, a ferry and an overnight stay. She came across only one visitor on the same quest as hers, and yet she toured 55 sites.

Sixty years on, things have changed in many respects. For a start, today you will not be alone, probably not even in the depths of winter (the climate on the coast can be benign and Turkish pensioners use timeshares for a week in the sun when the tourists are away). And in the high season, tourists come not in units but in millions. Despite the efforts of the Turkish government to rebalance and diversify tourism away from the Aegean and Mediterranean and direct it more to the interior (set out in a document detailing the strategy for 2023, the centenary of the Republic), it may prove difficult to persuade holiday-makers to eschew the beaches. As far as archaeology is concerned, the region has been made ready for mass consumption. When I was here in 1969, it was still possible to photograph, not far from the main road, a couple of marble Ionian columns topped with an architrave. They stood sprouting from an overgrown field like an improbable weed. Now archaeological remains have either been obliterated by development, neglect, stone robbing or ploughing or they are fenced off, restored, reconstructed and signposted. They come with a bekçi (custodian), an entry ticket and a visitor centre. Bodrum and İzmir have major airports, which means you can bypass Istanbul altogether, and the roads have improved enormously—though the topography still makes for some interesting driving. Crossing the Meander, at any rate, is no longer a challenge.

Aeolia, Ionia and ancient migration
The idea that the east coast of the Aegean was systematically colonised by mainland Greeks, i.e. by would-be colonists under the leadership of a hero, is deeply engrained. Travellers, including Freya Stark, and archaeologists working on location, have all taken it as a fact. The ancient sources, albeit with a number of variants, agree that the Aeolians, a few years after the Trojan War, set out from Thessaly (or was it Boeotia?) under the leadership of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to settle in Lesbos and on the coast north of the Gulf of İzmir. Four generations later the Ionians, fleeing the invading Dorians, occupied the coast south of İzmir as well as the islands of Chios and Samos. They had strong support in Athens and the enterprise was eventually presented as an Athenian triumph. Each ethnic group was organised into a federation of twelve cities. The Aeolian League had its seat at the Temple of Apollo at Gryneum; and the Ionian League had theirs at the Temple of Poseidon on the Mykale peninsula.

All this accorded well with the colonial attitudes of the late 19th century, when excavations began. After the Bronze Age, it was reckoned, progress could only have come from the West. However, as archaeological research continued, the evidence to back up this narrative failed to materialise. There is no trace in the Archaic material of a single dominant group either north or south of İzmir; no trace of new arrivals; no changes in the pottery.

Archaeologically speaking, an Iron-Age Greek migration into western Asia remains invisible. A re-evaluation of the sources was thus long overdue. It is interesting that Homer (7th century BC), who was well placed in İzmir, at the supposed junction of the two ethnicities, has nothing to say on the matter. No Aeolia, no migrations. The information comes later, and the later it is, the more detailed and complete. Strabo, in the 1st century of our era, gives the fullest account. On the ground, however, archaeology for the 7th century BC shows a very reduced Greek presence on the coast, with Phrygians and Lydians dominant in the hinterland. The leagues, it has been suggested, were not an expression of 'being Greek' but a way to cope with the patchwork of diverse ethnic groups that had occupied the space left by the demise of the Hittite Empire. About the same time, the expansionist policy of Miletus, up the coast and into the Black Sea, encouraged Athens to do likewise and set up a colony at Sigeum in the Troad, as close as possible to Troy, which was taking off as a cult centre celebrating Homeric heroes. Identities were being established with the assistance of made-up genealogies; new identities were forged as a reaction. The climax came with the Persian Wars at the end of the 5th century BC, when Athens was able to establish its primacy. It is then that Ionia (Aeolia had by then faded) looked west for leadership and the migration myth was crystallised. In the Hellenistic period Troy, Priene, Pergamon and Sardis all organised games in imitation of the Athenian Panathenaica. Architectural styles converge and Athens emerges as the mother of them all. The triumph of Ionia lives on today in the Turkish word for Greece. Yunanistan.

Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum, by Paola Pugsley, is the latest in the series of updated chapters from Blue Guide Turkey. It will be published in spring 2018.

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

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