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Unsung Hero

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ Shakespeare’s famous line from Twelfth Night might well ring in your ears as you go round this exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest: Unsung Hero, an examination of the achievements and legacy of Arthur Görgei (1818–1916), military commander in Hungary’s 1848–9 War of Independence against Austria.

 

Görgei is an unknown figure outside Hungary. This is an important show not only because it introduces him to the wider world, but because of the way it confronts us with questions about the cruel and capricious nature of human hero-worship. We need heroes and we need villains, but we are curiously bad at deciding which is which. And then we treat our villains well and our heroes badly.

 

Görgei was not born great. Nor can it be said that he achieved greatness (though it briefly looked as if he might). Instead, he had greatness thrust upon him—but not until he had endured over four decades of bitter opprobrium, branded a traitor and vilified by the people he had served. How could this be?

 

Hungary is no stranger to the divisive figure, the character torn in two by opposing political camps. One generation will strew garlands on his grave, the next will lose their jobs if they dare to speak his name. This exhibition embodies such dichotomy in its use of repeated archways. The material is presented in sections, physically divided one from the other by a series of specially constructed arches which not only lead you forward, but also divide. The first one stands between two huge wall texts, both of them quotes from Lajos Kossuth, Governor President of revolutionary Hungary in 1849. In one, he hails Görgei as a loyal servant of liberty and predicts a glorious future for him. In the other he execrates the same Görgei as his country’s ‘cowardly and treacherous executioner’.

 

When one of Hungary’s greatest heroes (Kossuth) is so conflicted, what is the ordinary man on the street to think? The exhibition begins with some opinions of Görgei, solicited with no prior warning, from high-school students. Most of them turn out to be cautiously positive. A controversial figure. A great soldier. No one says he was a traitor. One (confusing him with someone else entirely) says, ‘There’s a portrait of him. Good-looking guy.’ (Wrong! Go to the back of the class!) Still, it raises an important point. What was Görgei like as a person?

 

He was born into modest circumstances, son of a Protestant family of good pedigree that had come down in the world through a mésalliance with a shopkeeper’s daughter. In a letter to his father, written when he was 14, the young Arthur expresses his ambition to be a soldier, a career which will allow him to serve his country and cater at the same time to his love of maths and physics. This idea of service was to remain a constant throughout his life.

 

We pass through another arch to find Görgei in military training school, his scientific ambitions temporarily abandoned. Lithographs, contemporary weapons and reconstructions of uniforms trace those years. Included is a uniform of the Palatine regiment of imperial hussars (the 12th), which Görgei joined in 1842 because the frogging on the jackets was of silver braid rather than the costlier gold. Another clue to the character of this austerely prudent Lutheran. In 1848 he was writing in Márczius Tizenötödike, periodical of the young radicals, pleading for more affordable uniforms for young officers, so that talented men of humble birth could progress according to their merits.

 

For ‘private and political reasons’ Görgei left the army in 1845. (NB: this exhibition is an audio-visual and kinaesthetic experience. You need to look at all the touch screens and open all the compartments otherwise you might miss something. The information about him leaving the army is tucked away in a drawer.) Beyond the next arch, we meet a Görgei who has backtracked to rediscover his scientific self. He remains in Prague, not as a soldier but as a student of chemistry, conducting research into fatty acids in coconuts. By all accounts he had a brilliant career ahead of him. But then, suddenly, he is offered the chance to return home, to manage the family estates of an aunt. To fit himself for this role he precipitately marries Adèle Aubouin, French governess in the household of his chemistry professor. There is no suggestion of a romance or even of tender feeling. Her memoirs are articulate on the subject: ‘His entire bearing was one of extreme modesty; and though the impression he created was a distinguished one, it was not immediately so. It was only after prolonged conversation, when one heard how intelligently he spoke—though his bright blue eyes, behind his glasses, were warm yet steely and his discourse filled with sardonic wit and sometimes surprisingly caustic remarks—it was only then that one became aware that this was a man of rare disctinction. During the whole course of our short acquaintance, he never paid his addresses to me…’

Arthur Görgei. Portrait from a daguerreotype. Hungarian National Archives.

Görgei returned to Hungary with his bride in the spring of 1848 but he did not remain on his aunt’s estates. Revolution was in the air and he joined the Hungarian army. In one of his old military textbooks he has penned a note on the title page: ‘ "Arthur Görgey, Lietuenant" was my signature from the summer of 1837. Now it is "Görgei Arthur".’ Görgei made this patriotic change in 1848, placing the surname before the first name in the Hungarian manner and substituting the aristocratic final ‘y’ with an egalitarian ‘i’. His progression up the ranks was astonishingly rapid. By the end of October Lajos Kossuth, in charge of the National Defence Committee, had made him a general and given him command of the Upper Danube army. It was a stellar rise in just five months. Görgei attributed his military success to the ‘mental discipline’ he had acquired as a scientific researcher.

 

Nowadays we might accuse Görgei of being a buttoned-up type, the kind of man who can’t emote. But he was capable of stirring language when it came to exhorting men to fight. Most of his words are abstract nouns and his favourite punctuation symbol is the exclamation mark: ‘Constitutional freedom! Honour! Glory! Forward, my comrades!’

 

The next section takes us through the course of the battles. There is a huge model of the battlefields complete with tiny troops of men and horse, as well as some splendid watercolours of 1849 by Mór Than, who followed the army as a war artist while his brothers fought in the campaigns (he later went on to produce allegorical frescoes for the main stairway of the Hungarian National Museum building). One of the paintings, of the Battle of Isaszeg, shows Görgei in his glasses in the centre of the fray.

Görgei (in the centre on a white horse) at the Battle of Isaszeg (6th April 1849). Watercolour by Mór Than.

In early 1849 Görgei was put in general command of the Hungarian forces. In May he recaptured Buda Castle and in the same month was appointed Minister of War in the revolutionary government. As decisive victory continued to elude the Austrians, they called on Russian support and it was at this point that Kossuth began to question his relationship with the young soldier he had ‘raised from the dust’. In July, after disobeying Kossuth’s instructions, Görgei received a near-fatal head wound. A case of grisly surgical instruments and a lead bullet containing fragments of impacted human bone make us wince to imagine the agony he must have been in. A later statuette of him on horseback (by the sculptor Barnabás Holló), his head bound in a kerchief like a Garibaldian guerrilla, focuses on the romance of the episode. Kossuth had no time for either compassion or romance. He waspishly opined that Görgei’s wits had been turned by all the the schnaps he was drinking to dull the pain and in a letter of July 1849, written in his distinctive upwardly-sloping hand, he relieves Görgei of his army command.

 

By August it was all over. Kossuth resigned on the 11th and fled the country. Two days later, on August 13th, Görgei surrendered to the representative of the Russian Tsar. The Hungarian officers were executed. Only Görgei was pardoned, on the Tsar’s personal intervention. On show is a letter from the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau informing him of this fact. His life was to be spared but he would live in internal exile near Klagenfurt.

 

The accusations of treachery began from this point. In September, from the safety of Vidin, on the Danube in what was then Ottoman territory (modern Bulgaria), Kossuth wrote the vitriolic letter from which the first quotation in this exhibition comes: ‘Our sorry, wretched homeland has fallen. Not to the strength of our foes but to perfidy and treason…’. It had its effect and Görgei was hounded by public opinion. In October, after the execution of his fellow officers, the poet Vörösmarty joined his own voice to the clamour, calling down God’s eternal wrath upon the miserable wretch who so cravenly betrayed his country. Görgei’s steely blue gaze remains unwavering, his response phlegmatic. ‘If I were to take my own life I would enable my detractors to claim that I was driven to suicide by my guilty conscience. Therefore I have to live.’

'Görgei's Dream'. Contemporary caricature showing the traitor hounded on all sides by guilty conscience.

In exile, Görgei kept himself active. Charming watercolours by a daughter of a cloth manufacturer friend show him resolutely busy, hammering away in a carpentry workshop (perhaps following the example of an earlier Hungarian exile, Ferenc Rákóczi, who after his own failed rebellion occupied himself with woodwork beside the Sea of Marmara). Nevertheless, we should not be tempted to imagine Görgei as a lovable, wronged character. Always a fighter, he now showed himself happy to rush into print, firing off letters and articles. In 1852 he published his memoirs. Though available in London, New York and Turin, they were banned in Austria. And they were as merciless as might be expected from a man who seems to have seen parts of the world in such clear, close focus and the larger picture as a blur. Old comrades-in-arms loved it when Görgei excoriated their acquaintances. They were less pleased when he applied his scalpel to themselves. The caustic tongue and the stinging sarcasm that his wife had remarked on were key features of his approach. Not a way to make friends.

 

The Compromise agreement of 1867, which reconciled Hungary and Austria and ushered in the halcyon years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, brought amnesties and pardons, and at last Görgei was able to return to Hungary. He found what amounts to a series of odd jobs, never managing to settle at anything. Eventually he moved to Visegrád on the Danube Bend to manage the estate of his lawyer brother István, to whom he had always been close. (Rumours exist of a love triangle between Görgei, his brother and his brother’s wife, but the exhibition does no more than hint.)

 

In the 1880s, some of Görgei’s admirers began the task of attempting to clear his name. The efforts paid off, eventually. The exhibition ends with a small collection of personal artefacts and some charming photographs of Görgei as an old man, living in retirement and semi-obscurity, tending his garden.  But he has his public side. The final arch takes us to the years of lionisation. Elder-statesmanlike and bewhiskered, he appears in dignified poses in official busts and portraits. All the great artists of the day—Stróbl, De László—seem to have lined up to portray him. There is a mini garland of sculpted metal sent him on his 90th birthday by the poet Andor Kozma: ‘May unfading laurels wreathe thy martyr’s crown of thorn.’ A journalist gushes in 1909 that ‘in his declining years the golden crown of truth is beginning to gleam upon his brow.’ Prime Minister István Tisza’s message of condolence on his death speaks of a misguided nation heaping odium upon a great man.

 

We get no sense that Görgei was any more dazzled by being fêted than he had been crushed by exile. It is true that he seems to have enjoyed reminiscing to a receptive audience—but who would not? And he still maintained that he had served his country, even by taking the name of traitor. For if Hungary had lost not through defeat but by treachery (as Kossuth claimed), then she had the excuse she needed to go on believing in herself.

 

Under Communism, though, it was back to black. Görgei was a counter-revolutionary, a traitor and a defender of the imperial officer class. Seeing this, it is difficult not to feel gloomily philosophical. We will always want our messiahs. Will always want our heroes to be whiter than white. We will never be able to cope with shades of grey. When given the choice, we will always vote raucously for Barabbas to be freed.

 

Görgei was an upright and unswerving person. Decent, principled and resilient. If necessary, ruthless and even unkind. He had no idea how to ingratiate himself with people who might otherwise do him harm, nor indeed any notion that it would be appropriate to try. You leave the exhibition the way you came, back past Kossuth’s two contradicting quotes. It’s a brilliant touch, because by the time you leave, you feel that Kossuth was not schizophrenic after all. Görgei wasn’t a traitor. But he was, and remained, Fortune’s fool.

 

His vision was weak (literally). Paintings around the time of the War of Independence show his eyes gleaming like milk-white moons behind his spectacles. Perhaps the clue to everything can be found in a single exhibited item: his cavalry officer’s sword with a lens attached to the hilt. It is a very strong lens. Viewed through it, the texts on the opposite wall appear tiny. How do things like this shape a personality? A study published in 2015 by Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara, Turkey, found lower scores on ‘cooperativeness, empathy, helpfulness and compassion’ in participants with ‘refractive error’.

 

Historical events are not things bound to happen by the conjunction of the stars. Nor are they driven by men’s premeditated decisions. They are determined by a combination of design and hazard (or chance). The mixture of personalities plays a huge role. The encounter between Görgei and Kossuth was disastrous. One is tempted to resort to chemical metaphors involving insoluble substances and precipitation. Görgei would have known all about that.

 

In the end, probably, we get the heroes we deserve. Like all good exhibitions, this one provides some unexpected answers. It also poses some tough questions. If you are in Budapest, make time for it. Unsung Hero (Az ismeretlen Görgei) runs at the Hungarian National Museum until 23rd June.

The Corvina Library

Missal of Domonkos Kálmáncsehi (1481). Made in Buda. Now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

"Matthias is dead—now books will be cheap in Europe!" Thus Lorenzo the Magnificent is said to have exclaimed on hearing of the passing of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, in 1490. Matthias , who became king aged 15 in 1458, can fairly be said to have led the way in exporting Renaissance art and humanism outside Italy. His erudition linked him closely with Lorenzo in Florence; in fact, the two exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. That of Matthias, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, was the first of its kind north of the Alps. Based on Italian models such as the library of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino or of Ferdinand of Aragon in Naples, it came to contain around 2,000 precious volumes, mainly works by ancient authors and Church fathers, mostly in Latin, some in Greek. Only the Vatican Library could surpass it in scope and extent: Matthias is known to have lavished a fortune on the project, either acquiring existing manuscripts and incunabula or having exquisitely illuminated copies made. By paying so well, Matthias turned books into valuable commodities, and Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was putting together a library of volumes very similar in size and decoration to those of the Buda collection), may well have felt the pinch.

A superb small exhibition on Matthias’ library, with many items sourced from collections within Hungary as well as plenty from further afield—since the Buda shelves were emptied after the Ottoman conquest of 1541—is now on show at the National Széchényi Library in Budapest: “The Corvina Library and the Buda Workshop” (runs until 9th Feb).

Matthias acquired his books from a number of sources. Many volumes were purchased from Italy; others he had copied and he set up a workshop for the purpose at Buda, under the direction of Italian illuminators. Matthias’ bride, Ferdinand of Aragon’s daughter Beatrice, also brought volumes with her from Naples: her coat of arms appears on a number of codices. From the 1480s Matthias began to give his collection matching leather and velvet bindings, with elaborately worked clasps.

Matthias appointed a librarian, Ugo Taddeo from Parma, to be in charge of acquiring existing volumes and commissioning copies. Our best contemporary source for what the Corvina Library may have been like is a four-part panegyric by the humanist poet Naldo Naldi. He tells of a vaulted room, tucked away in a secluded part of the palace, with coloured glass in the window apertures, incunabula and codices in inlaid shelves around the walls, their richly gilded bindings protected from dust by lozenge-patterned curtains. Between the windows stood a couch draped in cloth of gold, upon which the king would sprawl at his ease, supreme monarch among the Muses. Other seating was provided by three-legged stools upholstered in cloth of gold studded with precious stones (ouch!).

The artistic style adopted by the copyists in the Buda workshop was heterogeneous although broadly based on Italian models. Two of the leading hands were Francesco Rosselli from Florence and Francesco da Castello from Milan. The latter is known also to have been at work in Piacenza and for the Bishop of Lodi. The styles of these two men were generally regarded as the ones to follow but many of the illuminators at work in Buda were Flemish or German and the result is an interesting mix. The missal of a functionary at Matthias’ court, one Domonkos Kálmáncsehi, for example (1481, on loan from the Pierpont Morgan Library), contains only a single page illuminated by Francesco da Castello. The rest is by artists from Central Europe.

Another work thought to be by Francesco da Castello is the codex of Johannes Cassianus, concerning the rules of coenobite monks. Made in Buda (and on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), it has given its name to the “Cassianus” group of codices, all illuminated in roughly the same style, the border designs of acanthus fronds and grottesche appearing against red and blue backgrounds. The Cassianus codex was completed in the reign of Vladislas II, who succeeded Matthias after his death in 1490. Interestingly one of the volumes that presumably came to Buda with Queen Beatrice, a manuscript copy of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Alexander the Great made in Naples in the 1470s, has a handwritten note on the flyleaf, perhaps written by Beatrice herself: "In the year of our Lord 1491, on the Sunday after Epiphany, I arrived here at Eger and on the third day also arrived the glorious King Vladislas who had been crowned in 1490 on the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross." Beatrice managed to cling onto her position as Queen of Hungary by marrying Vladislas later that same year. But she gave him no children and so he rid himself of her by having Pope Alexander VI (the notorious Rodrigo Borgia) declare the union null and void. She returned to Naples—but whether she took any of her books back with her, I cannot say. Other books that remained unfinished at Matthias’ death have survived because they never came to Buda. There were over a hundred of these; many of them being worked on in Florence by artists directly employed by King Matthias. An example is the exquisite Bible, with illuminations by Attavante and the brothers Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni, which is today preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.

Matthias’ library survived his death intact by only half a century. In 1541 the Ottomans took Buda and most of its treasures were scattered and pillaged. Near the end of this exhibition are two volumes that were returned to Hungary in the 19th century by sultans Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid. One of them, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (made in Florence in 1460–70), has had its original binding replaced by an Ottoman one with crescent moons. Another, St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (made in Rome in the 1460s), preserves its 15th-century crimson velvet cover, with a gilt silver clasp decorated with the enamelled coat of arms of Matthias' successor Vladislas, supported by twin dolphins.

This is a magnificent show; a rare glimpse into a world of luxury and learning. If you are in Budapest this winter, make sure to add it to your list.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest.

Modernists and Mavericks

By Martin Gayford. ‘After the war, because everybody who was about had escaped death in some way, there was a curious feeling of liberty. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’

This is the reflection of Frank Auerbach, one of the subjects of this absorbing study. Auerbach had arrived in London aged 16 in 1947. His passage to Britain from Germany when aged only seven had been sponsored by Iris Origo, well known for her sheltering of children in Tuscany in the war. His parents had perished in Auschwitz. It was understandable that he felt he was a scavenger and this might be said of many of the artists in this book, most of them figures marginal to society with a passion for a deeper understanding of reality that forced them to break through the barriers of conventional art. Auerbach’s friend David Kossoff put it well: ‘Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.’

Gayford has already provided a detailed account of himself as a sitter for a portrait to the reclusive Lucian Freud (the acclaimed The Man with the Blue Scarf, 2010) so Freud and Bacon are presented here with authority. By adopting a chronological approach, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, and drawing on many notes and reminiscences, he presents a history of aesthetic struggle in which the personalities are almost as important as the art. One of the strengths of the book is the recording of many somewhat inarticulate attempts to describe what the act of creation means. There is a sense, encapsulated in the Kossoff quotation above, of breaking through to a higher state of being through the endless working and reworking of paint. The artist does not know how or why he or she has arrived at a masterpiece but recognises it when he sees it. There is as much destruction as creation, as rejected alternatives are scraped off in frustration.

Naturally many readers will be interested in the great names and there is much to enjoy. There is a particularly good section on Hockney, a close friend of the author, who was rejected by many of his contemporaries and their dealers because he did not fit into any recognisable category. As Gayford notes, like Hogarth, William Blake (a major exhibition of Blake opens at Tate Britain in September 2019) and Stanley Spencer, Hockney resolutely set out on his own path, although it was not until he arrived in New York that he found his personal and artistic awakening. He was drawn to the States for much of his working life.

Gayford is good on showing the impact of the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, from their first London exhibition in 1956. This was the moment when the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. This left the London painters divided between those who followed the new trends and those who stuck to their own paths. It paid off for some. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (from 1969) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction when it went under the hammer for $142.4 million in 2013. It is only a few artists who have the determination and confidence to transcend movements. I enjoyed the many dismissive remarks of even radical professors of art when their fledgling students upset convention.

This being London, it was inevitable that by the end of the book I began longing for some warmth, sun and blue skies in the paintings. In the many illustrations there is much to admire—some pictures that I would even have on my walls—but there was one painting above all that haunted me: Michael Andrews’ Portrait of Timothy Behrens from 1962, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I knew nothing of the Norwich-born Andrews (1928–95). I was inspired to research him more fully, being drawn to his humanity, the sensitivity of his portraits and his continuous reinvention of his subject matter through to a period of peaceful spiritual landscapes. Sadly, only 250 of his pictures survive.

One bonus of this book is its readability across such a spectrum of different movements and personalities. Not least, it is a relief to be free of the jargon through which so many art historians attempt to show off their apparent knowledge. It will be hard to find a better introduction to the ‘London Painters’ than this one and it left me looking forward to reading Gayford’s more detailed studies of Freud and Hockney.

Martin Gayford, ‘Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters’, Thames and Hudson, 2018. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. His review of Martin Gayford’s ‘Rendez-vous with Art’, a discussion with Philippe de Montebello (Thames and Hudson, 2014), can be found on this website.

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

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St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
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Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
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Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
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The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
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Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Familiar face
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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