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Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome

Southern Lazio, through which the Via Francigena del Sud passes.

It is always good to meet up with old students from the International Baccalaureate history classes I taught in the 1980s and even more special if they have followed a path that interests me. So it was a real pleasure to meet with Simone Quilici, an architect who now teaches the management of cultural heritage at the American University of Rome.

 

Simone has been working on landscaping projects in the Lazio region and he gave me the latest edition of Le Vie religiose nel Lazio, ‘the religious pathways of Lazio’, a map and guide to ancient pilgrimage routes that leave Rome. The most important routes are along the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim way recorded as early as the 8th century that can be traced from as far north as Canterbury. In a document of 990 recording the journey of Sigeric, the archbishop of Canterbury, to receive his pallium, the cloth that symbolised his office, from the pope, there is even a note of each stopping place. Sigeric averaged 20 kilometres a day and this is the average distance for each day’s walking that the map shows and describes for the first 200 kilometres of the Via outside Rome.

 

Although the word ‘Francigena’ recognises that this is a route from France, the map also shows a Francigena nel Sud, which branches out into two parts south of Rome, one heading down the Via Appia and the other crossing central Italy towards Monte Cassino. Added to these is a Cammino di Francesco that starts at the 14th-century Franciscan church on lake Piediluco, northeast of Rome and takes about 150 kilometres in seven daily stages to reach its destination, passing other Franciscan sites on the way. It seems to involve quite a lot of climbing although none of the routes is described as more than ‘of medium difficulty’.

 

It is clear from the helpful descriptions of each daily stage that although the walks do not always escape traffic, there is a feast of archaeological treats along the way: the ruins of cities, aqueducts, medieval villages and a host of churches. These are, after all, very ancient roads that recorded the earliest conquests of Rome as well as attracting settlements of all kinds, monastic and secular, in the centuries that followed. So the fourth day out along the Francigena del Sud, a long day with some climbing and panoramic views, takes in the medieval town of Norma (where the famous Ninfa gardens are to be found), the adjoining Roman site of Norba, the 14th-century abbey of Valvisciolo, associated with the  Knights Templar, and the medieval centre of Sermoneta with its massive castle. The day finishes at Sezza, an ancient Volscan town, created a Roman colony as far back as 382 BC.

 

So these routes are much more than monotonous trudges dodging the traffic and the guide is an important initiative in publicising a region that tends to get neglected by visitors who stay only in Rome. It is much to be welcomed.

 

Le Vie religiose nel Lazio was published in 2014 by Touring Editore of Milan. At present there does not seem to be an edition in English but there deserves to be.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman. The places mentioned in this review are covered in detail in Blue Guide Central Italy. For more on Sigeric and his route to Rome, see Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph.

02.06.2015
14:41

Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love

The name Lesley Blanch drifted into my consciousness in Italy in the late sixties. I cannot remember whether it was her book The Wilder Shores of Love or someone who knew her that came first but I had soon dug out her book, by far the most famous of several she wrote, and was absorbed by it. Blanch tells the story of four 19th-century women who sought emotional fulfilment in the Orient and it is a masterpiece, not only for the vigour and sensitivity of the writing but also in the way that Blanch’s own yearnings for exoticism and mystery travel with her subjects, from the penniless Isobel Arundel, obsessive lover and later wife of the scholarly vagabond Richard Burton, to the racy Jane Digby, escaping scandals at home and eventually marrying, as her fourth husband, Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, whose family controlled the land around Palmyra in the far east of modern Syria.

 

Few in the early 21st century would have imagined that Lesley Blanch was still alive but she lived until 2007, dying in the south of France at the age of 103. A devoted god-daughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now put together fragments of the autobiography and memoirs that Blanch never published and, as one might expect, it is an extraordinary story. The single child, who appears to have arrived much to her parents’ surprise, began an apparently unexceptional life in Chiswick in west London, then still undeveloped, with marshland and a miscellany of fishermen’s huts and grander houses along the Thames. Yet an exotic visitor to her home, Theodore Komisarjevsky, a theatre designer, always known as ‘The Traveller’, inspired her fascination with travel to the East. ‘The Traveller’ became her first lover when she was seventeen, seducing her when she was supposedly being chaperoned in Paris. She was now on her way, studying at the Slade and earning a living from painting before she began her writing career as Features Editor at Vogue in 1937. Several of her pieces are included here, from the specific nature of British ‘cold’ to the versatility of Noel Coward.

 

The most extraordinary part of her memoir describes her marriage to Romain Gary. Of somewhat mysterious Russian birth but brought up in France, he had distinguished himself as an aviator in the circle of De Gaulle. The couple met in London during the war at a party given for the Free French. Gary was irresistible to women, un grand coureur, and their relationship could hardly have been anything but volatile. Hypochondriac, prone to self-dramatisation, an égoiste enragé, all too ready to withdraw into himself, he was simply impossible. Yet his diplomatic career took them from Bulgaria and Switzerland to New York and Los Angeles, eleven postings in all, while he sustained a highly successful career as a writer—alone in having won the Prix Goncourt twice. Only someone of extraordinary tolerance could have sustained him as long as Blanch did. He eventually deserted her after seventeen years of marriage for the actress Jean Seberg, but her frank account of their tortuous relationship is fascinating.

 

Blanch had a passion for objects. Already, aged seven, she had acquired a painted box, perhaps of Persian origin, to keep her sweets in. ‘The Traveller’ gave her a Fabergé egg and by the time she ended up alone in the south of France, her house was drenched with silks from Afghanistan and rugs from Aleppo. A library of early travel books on Russia and the Islamic world filled her shelves alongside icons and manuscripts. A small wooden frog, later identified as the tobacco-holder of a Baltic sea-captain, captivated her. And then in April 1994, fire swept through her house destroying almost everything. Bizarrely one of the few survivors among the ashes were photographs of Gary as a boy and his mother, entrusted to her when they first met and kept by her after their divorce. ‘Romain was once more demanding the limelight.’ The photographs are reproduced here.

 

This is an affectionate and engaging collection of pieces. From Marlene Dietrich cooking Blanch omelettes and conspiring with her (unsuccessfully) to obtain a burial plot in a little Russian cemetery outside Paris, to a gossipy relationship with Cecil Beaton and a scene with Truman Capote lying across her knees, there is much to feast on. It certainly should get us reading or rereading The Wilder Shores of Love.

 

On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life, edited by Georgia de Chamberet, London, 2015. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity.

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

Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation

Pallas Athene, London, 2014.

 

The first time I found myself searching around in Carpaccio’s paintings was when I was writing my book on the Horses of St Mark’s. Had the Venetian Carpaccio ever used the horses as a model? An early match I got was the horse in the centre of his gruesome Martyrdom of the 10,000 at Ararat (Accademia, Venice), a depiction of the massacre of a Christian army by the Persians. The horse there faces forwards, has lifted his left front leg and turns his head in much the same way as the fine gilded copper steeds which were then overlooking the Piazza San Marco from the loggia of St Mark’s. Jan Morris goes further. She notes how actual horses had become rare in the city in Carpaccio’s day(he was active between 1490 and 1520).  Sumptuary laws forbade extravagant harnessing; horses were banned from the Piazza and the new stepped bridges were difficult to negotiate. In compensation, Morris sees the St Mark’s horses everywhere in Carpaccio’s work, ‘all fine, every one of them, perhaps Carpaccio had modelled them all, if only subconsciously’ on the originals on the loggia.

 

Ciao Carpaccio is a delightful work of serendipity, ‘a self-indulgent caprice’ as the author puts it. Jan Morris does not claim to be a serious art historian but her eye is a lot more sensitive than many professionals and certainly, unlike some, she has the capacity to enthuse. Her book is all the better for revelling in what she sees and enjoys in Carpaccio’s paintings. And there is, of course, so much to see: the sumptuous clothing of his subjects, the intricacies of Venetian architecture and above all the meticulously observed details from everyday life. Too little is known about Carpaccio but he must have been fun to be with. He always has an eye for what’s going on at the edges of the formalities. Everywhere there are asides, vignettes of birds, playful children or beautifully-painted ships moored alongside some distant quay. Often Carpaccio’s love of display ensures that the subject of the painting is pushed completely to one side. So when the relic of the True Cross, encased then (as it still is) in the recently restored gold reliquary in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, draws forth the demon from a demented man, you can hardly see him high up on his loggia whereas below are the bustle of well-dressed crowds and some wonderful swaggering gondoliers in front of the early wooden Rialto bridge.

 

Carpaccio loves a parade. It is time for everyone to show off in extravagant hats, with plenty of music from trumpeters to add to the mood of excitement. He cannot avoid display, so that his Holy Family on the flight to Egypt would have been seen by any pursuer many miles off thanks to the typically Carpaccio bright red of Joseph’s cloak—and how did the Virgin manage to get hold of such a magnificent brocaded cloak for herself?

 

Yet Carpaccio is also a master of domesticity, as with Ursula’s well-ordered bedroom or the scholar’s study where Augustine works. Both, typically for Carpaccio, have dogs, a lapdog for Ursula and Morris’ ‘Carpaccio dog, a tough urchin mongrel, cocky, feisty and fun’ squirrelling around in Augustine’s study as our border terrier, Dipity, does in mine. And then on a shelf, among other antique curiosities of Augustine’s imagined 5th-century interior, is a small bronze horse, surely a copy of one from St Mark’s? All these works are beautifully reproduced, the illustrations taking up as much room as the text, so that Ciao Carpaccio makes a splendid small present for someone special.

 

Carpaccio was influenced by a popular text, the Golden Legend by Jacobo de Voragine, the must-have book for all those painting scenes from the lives of saints (Carpaccio drew from it for his magnificent sequence from the life of St Ursula, now in the Accademia). Ursula is destined for martyrdom along with the 11,000 virgins who accompany her, but it is almost as if menace is beyond Carpaccio. The Hun who is due to martyr her after she and her companions have disembarked at Cologne simply sits around looking bored. He certainly does not look as if he has it in him to massacre virgins. In another famous sequence, in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Carpaccio gently mocks the monks who are fleeing the friendly and somewhat mystified lion that arrives at their monastery with Jerome.

 

The paintings in this Scuola shows another influence on Carpaccio, the Orient, always in the minds of the venturesome Venetians but with added impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans some fifty years before. Many of his subjects—Jerome in Bethlehem, the proto-martyr Stephen in Jerusalem, St George triumphing over the dragon in Libya—are set in the East, and Carpaccio does his best to make this clear, using woodcuts of Jerusalem or an actual gateway in Cairo to provide a backing. There is even an obelisk in one of his depictions of St George.

 

Jan Morris concludes with a study of Carpaccio’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, now in the Brera in Milan. (Titian’s version is still in Venice, in the Accademia.) It is inspired by another ancient text, the Protoevangelium of James, that tells of the early life of Mary and how she was taken in to the Temple in the years before her betrothal to Joseph. The little girl kneels humbly on the steps while her parents stand proudly ‘like parents seeing off their child to summer camp or boarding school,’ as Morris engagingly puts it. But there is another child, a little boy shown with an antelope on a lead and a rabbit chatting to a priest leaning on the balcony of the temple. For Morris, this lad encapsulates the essence of Carpaccio, his quality of kindness. Perhaps it is because his sense of fun, a tenderness to his subjects and an unabashed love of colour for its own sake predominate that he is never numbered among the greats in art; but Jan Morris reminds us just how much pleasure he gives us, as he surely does for her.

See Ciao Carpaccio on amazon.com. See it on amazon.co.uk. For a more formal and wide-ranging treatment of Carpaccio's work, see Patricia Fortini-Brown’s Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio, Yale, 1988.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Charles wrote the historical introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

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

30.11.2014
13:04

Rendez-vous with Art

Philippe de Montebello in conversation with Martin Gayford, Rendez-vous with Art, Thames and Hudson, 2014.

 

Philippe de Montebello, French by birth but a New Yorker by upbringing, remains the longest serving director of the Metropolitan Museum, with 31 years to his credit when he retired in 2008. He is still very active and he arranged to meet with the English art critic Martin Gayford, where and when they could, to see and discuss some of the works that most fascinated them. This is the finely-illustrated record of their discussions.

 

I really enjoyed this book. Some of the works selected I knew; others I did not or had certainly never seen ‘in the flesh’. One of the very first, a sculpture that inspired Montebello when he first saw it aged 15, is the meditative face of Marchioness Uta from high up on the choir of Naumburg Cathedral. It is now, remarks de Montebello (with some regret that his secret love is out), posted everywhere on the internet, although it had passed me by and I was pleased to know of it. And then there is Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, the penitent’s nakedness covered in her flowing hair, that I have seen only once in Florence. The morning after the disastrous Florence flood of November 1966, de Montebello found himself alongside Harold Acton gazing at the mud-caked statue. Acton, having donned his hunting boots for the chauffeur-driven excursion down from I Tatti, was in tears.

 

De Montebello is unashamedly patrician. Visiting the magnificent Wallace collection in London he imagines himself at the opulent writing desk of 1770 created by Jean-Henri Riesener and ‘transported back into an era of unabashed luxury’. There is perhaps a tension here with Gayford, who notes that it is this ‘kind of dizzyingly luxurious living that helped to bring about the French Revolution’. It is doing no disservice to Gayford not to quote him here so often as de Montebello, as he plays his part well in drawing de Montebello out and then reflecting on what inspires this art historian in his choices: ‘a quality of silence and restraint, combined with compelling naturalism’ in one instance. Again, in the world of Art History where jargon and sociological theory so often threaten to come between the viewer and a painting, how refreshing it is to hear de Montebello comment on how ‘occasionally, it can be restful to contemplate comfortably, uncomplicatedly, something that makes you smile inwardly’.

 

For some readers, these leisurely strolls around galleries may all be too gentle and elitist. (‘A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us’ catches the mood of time to spend.) And there is no more than the odd reference to anything modern. But once you have accepted this, you will find many good reflections, especially on the placing of art. What is the best context to show a painting and what is lost, for instance, by taking an altar from the church for which it was designed and placing it in a museum? How far does one’s appreciation of art depend on where a work is displayed in contrast to others around it? Is it possible ever to appreciate the Mona Lisa and other trophy works now that tourists hem them in, ticking them off their must-see (or must- photograph) lists? (Although I couldn’t help feeling that de Montebello would have been able to fix any secluded visit he wanted without difficulty!)

 

One of the most rewarding parts of the book describes how de Montebello came to purchase a superb Duccio Madonna and Child for the Met. Of course, it helps to have $45 million available for a single purchase, but the Louvre was after it as well. It is indeed a delightful work, a devotional image from the cusp of the transition from Byzantine to Renaissance and there is a wonderful tenderness in the way the Christ child reaches up to his mother’s cheek. De Montebello weighed it up, literally in his hands for an hour, as he worked through all the competing issues of quality, provenance and importance within the unfolding of new directions in western Art. Finally there is the ‘irrepressible need to win: to have won possession of the object of desire’ which brings everything to a climactic decision and the eventual purchase.

 

If I had to end my days in a large single room with 20 paintings by a single artist, I might well choose Chardin. De Montebello notes how a lovely example of Chardin’s work, La Tabagie of 1737 (‘about as satisfying and scrumptious a paint surface as exists’) in the Louvre, goes almost unvisited as it is on an upper floor away from the must-see superstars. By contrast, a visit to the Mauritshuis in The Hague is ruined for de Montebello by the massive posters of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which put him off revisiting the original because they killed ‘the freshness of the experience, the element of surprise, of discovery…’.

5th-century BC amphora attributed to the Berlin Painter. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

De Montebello is old-school in stressing the disciplined application required to appreciate art, and hence the need to avoid making museums places of transient entertainment. He notes how he had to be taken by his curator to view fragments of Greek vases to appreciate the quality of the painting, even more evident when seen on a complete vase. It was, in fact, one fragment of a single illustration, of a red-figure Greek vase from 490 BC, that beckoned to me. A scarf-like patterned fabric falls in a twist from a lyre… It drew me back more than once while I was absorbed in this civilized discourse on great art.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, history consultant to the Blue Guides.

See this book on amazon.co.uk. See it on amazon.com.

 

Pedant’s corner: The Horses of St Mark’s are referred to in the book, as is usual, as being of bronze. In fact they are largely copper, a fiendishly difficult metal to cast. It has now been discovered that the gilding used to embellish them becomes blemished when applied to bronze but not to copper. Those 2nd-century ad craftsmen knew what they were up to. The horses are covered in detail in Blue Guide Venice. To make their acquaintance in greater detail still, see Charles Freeman’s The Horses of St Mark’s.

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

London The Information Capital

London: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city

by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti, Particular Books 2014

More than any other city, London does seem to have an intimate connection with maps. In fact it’s hard to hold an image of the capital in your mind’s eye without Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map creeping into view. Or perhaps without recalling the spiralling aerial photograph from the opening credits of Eastenders. It’s also a city that generates a huge amount of data. Both from traditional sources, such as the census, to more recent sources made possible through smartphones and other modern technology. Using cutting-edge techniques in design and information processing, Geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti set out to combine the city’s inherent mapability with this wealth of data to produce a visual spectacle that’s equal parts surprising, informative and beautiful.

The book’s one hundred graphics are divided into five broad themes; where we are, who we are, where we go, how we’re doing and what we like. Each section strikes a perfect balance between conventional subject matter (common commuter routes, ethnic diversity) and much more unlikely topics such as London’s most haunted boroughs, or a detailed breakdown of the cornucopia of curiosities that make up TfL’s yearly lost property haul. In every case the authors have found ever more ingenious ways of presenting the data in visually stimulating ways. Sometimes a graphic will take you to the far flung corners of the earth in order to demonstrate the global reach of Heathrow or to highlight London’s diverse sources of immigration. But it’s never too long before you return to the familiar, awkward ink blot shape of the Greater London boundary, with the reassuring presence of the Thames offing a rare constant in the wildly varying portraits of the city.

For me it was fascinating to learn about the authors’ heroes. Pioneers in the field of cartography such as Phyllis Pearsall, who allegedly walked all 23,000 streets that appear in her first London A-Z (1936). Or trailblazers like John Snow who, in 1854, employed a visual depiction of cholera cases in West London to prove that they were concentrated around the infamous Broad Street water pump. This ultimately led to the discovery that cholera was a waterborne disease. While these historic cases are interesting, the aim of the book is chiefly to deal with information that is as up to date as is feasible. Some of the most striking graphics have only been made possible in the last few years, such as depictions of London’s Tweeting and photography hotspots.

At times the visceral response incited by the beauty of the visuals seems at odds with the unpleasant nature of the data being represented. The graphics showing deprivation, soaring house prices and instances of violent crime are all examples of this. With all the eye-catching pictures it might be easy to overlook the words in this book, but in these cases the text has an important role to play. Again, I feel the authors strike a good balance here by keeping it insightful and thought provoking for these more serious topics, whilst being witty and light-hearted in more trivial cases.

Without a doubt, the book is most at home sitting on my living-room table, where it is a constant source of intrigue for guests and residents alike. It’s a book for sharing and discussing. As the authors are well aware, it might be tempting to think that all of this information would be better presented in some kind of digital, interactive format. The decision of medium was, without a doubt, the right one. So much more can be taken in with a glance across a printed page than can be gleaned within the awkward confines of a tablet screen. Above all else, the book is a lovely, tangible object which captures that particular tactile appeal that you might find in an old OS map or a worn-out desk globe. Whilst technology has been absolutely instrumental in the gathering, sorting and visualising of all of the data that made this book possible. It’s heartening to see that the best format for presenting it remains the traditional print book.

Reviewed by Stephen Startup (Blue Guides staff). Stephen worked on the production of the new Blue Guide London.

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

Egypt, Greece, & Rome

by Charles Freeman. Oxford University Press 2014.

There can be few things more galling to a publisher or author than to receive the kind of reader letter that breezily announces complete satisfaction with the previous edition of a guide or text book and no intention of buying its successor.

Software companies make it impossible, after a while, to continue to use their products without upgrading. Print publishers cannot indulge in such tyranny. And yet if readers don’t buy the most recently updated editions, how are authors and publishers to stay afloat?

Thus it was with great interest that I picked up the new (3rd) edition of Charles Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, & Rome, published by Oxford University Press earlier this year. Would it make my old, much-thumbed 2nd edition obsolete?

 

Egypt, Greece, & Rome is an enormously ambitious book. It aims to provide, in just a single volume, a comprehensive introduction to the great civilisations of the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantium: their histories, behaviour, art, architecture, social structures, styles of warfare, belief systems, methods of government, thought processes, commercial networks, interconnections and legacy. No small task. But Freeman brings it off splendidly. The text is approachable and readable. It can be used both for sustained study as well as for idle browsing and dipping into. It is informative, succinct. There are no tedious digressions or woolly bits. It offers an opinion where an opinion is useful but does not dogmatically press an agenda. For the general reader, it is difficult to imagine how it could have been better done.

 

So what does the new edition have that the previous one did not? Of course, just as with any software update, there are things about the new version that are annoying simply because they are not the same as the old one. An Oxford comma has been introduced into the title, for example (this is OUP, after all) and Oxford commas annoy me--but I will get over it. Overall though, and on any serious level, there are remarkably few changes. This really is an update. The typeface has stayed the same. The structure of the book is unchanged. The selection of illustrations has been overhauled and the captioning system is much improved. I did feel though, that the illustrations themselves cohere less well. Gone are the pages of assorted pottery designs, sculpted heads, equestrian statues and temples, for example, that allowed a reader to compare and contrast styles and designs across centuries and even across civilisations. I miss the plan of the ancient Macedonian city of Olynthos, too, with its Hippodamian grid system and little domestic units.

 

But all this is just quibbling. The 3rd edition, in terms of the information it contains, certainly supplants the 2nd. The chapter on the ancient Near East has been substantially expanded. All through the book the latest findings are incorporated; new theories and thinking are discussed; more recent publications are quoted from. Thanks to the 3rd edition, I now know about a newer biography of Nero (by Edward Champlin), which seeks to do more than just portray a monster. The lovely little vignette of Pope Leo I castigating a group of Christians who had gone off message and were worshipping the Sun on the steps of St Peter’s is retained from the 2nd edition, but Freeman now adds more—just a clause here and there but it is enough—to flesh out even further this fascinating time when Christianity had been officially adopted but the old ways had not yet departed from men’s minds, instincts and hearts. Freeman is particularly good on Constantine and on his Roman-ness vis à vis his Christianity.

 

Suggestions for further reading—and this is a major improvement—are now incorporated into the text. In the previous edition they were scooped into a rather cumbersome and impenetrable listing at the end of each chapter. It is much better having them sown broadcast through the book, with the addition of a general “What to read next” chapter at the end.

 

The final chapter, entitled “Legacies”, is also new (at least, it might have appeared in the 1st edition, but it is not in the 2nd). It is a short chapter which outlines how the ancient world came back to us (in the Renaissance) and how it has continued to obsess us, from Grand Tourists in the 18th century to moviegoers in our own day, fired up by Gladiator. Freeman ends with a statement of robust support for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles and with a lament that the masuoleum of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, unearthed in 2008 beside the Via Flaminia, which leads northwards out of Rome, may have to be backfilled for lack of resources. Macrinus provided (very loose) inspiration for Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, which has swept the tomb to prominence even if it has not brought in any hard cash. “Legacies” is an excellent way to end the book. It gets one away from one's desk and out to the sites themselves. Last month I visited Nonius Macrinus’ summer villa on Lake Garda. Not much remains of the 12,000 or more square metres it once covered but there are a few mosaic floors (as shown below) and stunning lake views. It must have been magnificent.

 

So to conclude? Yes. If you own and have enjoyed using Egypt, Greece and Rome edition 2, you need to upgrade to Egypt, Greece, & Rome edition 3. And if you have yet to make the acquaintance of either, get the new edition.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, editor-in-chief of the Blue Guides and contributing author of Blue Guide Rome.

Mosaic floor in the villa of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, Toscolano, Lake Garda. ©Blue Guides.

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

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Venice: A History

R.J.B Bosworth, Italian Venice: A History, Yale University Press, 2014.

R.J.B. Bosworth is addicted to the mingling and competing atmospheres that make up the history of Italian cities. In his book on Rome, Whispering City (reviewed here), he showed how the conflicting pasts of the ‘Eternal City’ were continuously rearranging themselves as one or other faction achieved control over the narrative. Here he applies the same approach to Venice, surveying the city’s history after it was absorbed into mainland Italy in 1866.

Bosworth’s survey is valuable because there is only one full-length English study of Venice’s recent history on the market, Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City 1797–1997, also from Yale (2002). Plant’s is a rich and beautifully illustrated volume, Bosworth’s more penetrating and cynical, and the two together now give the Venice enthusiast a full perspective on a period that has traditionally been neglected in favour of the centuries of Venice’s greatness.

In 1866, the economy of Venice was in a precarious state with the Austrian port of Trieste a major rival for trade. Infant mortality was high and the poor, living on the lower floors of historic buildings, suffered from damp and overcrowding, with employment limited to traditional crafts. In the later 19th century some fresh opportunities were offered by cotton, tobacco and the Stucky flour mill (recently repurposed as the Hilton Hotel), as well as expansion on the mainland at Mestre but the city has never created its own sustainable economy independently of tourism. 31,000 Venetians were unemployed in 1931.

As a result two Venices co-exist throughout this book: the Venice of partying along the Grand Canal and the Venice of an underemployed local population locked in poor housing. While in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1920s, the song-writer Cole Porter and his coterie of young Venetians were taking advantage of Porter’s wife’s absence to disport themselves in her dresses and snort cocaine, 40 percent of the population, according to an estimate of 1933, supplemented their diet with molluscs picked at low tide from the polluted rocks and mud. Typhus was endemic.

Yet Venice has always had competing identities. Was the city founded by refugees from Troy and so equal to Rome in antiquity or did it emerge under the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation in 421? The Patriarch Guiseppe Sarto, later pope Pius X, naturally favoured the latter. When the Campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in July 1902 without damaging the Basilica, he soon had a sacred image of the Virgin on the altar as a thanksgiving for her protection. This austere prelate set in place an uncompromising distaste for the frivolity of life in the palazzi of the Grand Canal. Yet once canonised, the visit of his embalmed body to Venice brought out massive crowds as it made its way up that same canal in a vessel rowed by eighteen oarsmen in 18th-century dress. Bosworth does well to remind us of the persistent Catholicism of a city that has provided three recent popes from its patriarchs.

One patriarch, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, appointed in 1935, proved an adept supporter of the Fascist regime, celebrating its victories, applauding the alliance with Nazi Germany and mixing quotations from Mussolini with those of the gospels. Obsessed with swearing and the lascivious dress of women, Piazza was upstaged by the city’s most successful industrialist, former governor of the conquered Libya and Minister of Finance, Giuseppe Volpi, whose flaunting of Fascist culture in the shape of music and film festivals as well as the well-established Biennale, allowed him to claim that Venice was the vetrina or showcase of Italy and himself as ‘the last doge’. With such flamboyant propagandists for the regime, it was disappointing that police reports (well exploited by Bosworth) repeatedly showed the refusal of the city’s population to take on board, or even to understand, the transformation in attitudes required of them. When an attempt was made to exclude the polite, traditional lei, and replace it by the more militant voi, the gondoliers robustly replied that the language taught to them by their mothers was quite good enough. Eighty percent of the city’s Jews survived the war, many concealed by their neighbours.

As Mussolini’s regime crumbled, there was much reshuffling of allegiances. Venice had suffered badly in the First World War, bombed, and almost captured after the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917. The Second World War was ignored as much as possible and the façade of Fascism quickly abandoned on Italy’s surrender. Between January 1943 and January 1944, membership of the local Fascist party tumbled from 88,000 to 4,000. It was as if an acqua alta had receded without leaving much debris. Volpi was especially adept. Briefly imprisoned because of his adherence to Fascism, his contacts got him out of prison. Escaping to Switzerland, he then bought himself back to respectability by a large donation to the Resistance movement and the handing over of his newspaper, Il Gazzettino, to the Christian Democratic Party. The US general Mark Clark obligingly praised the city for its resistance to Fascism and its transfer of its facilities to the liberators intact. A bronze statue of La Partigiana, ‘the [female] partisan’, near the Giardini, now commemorates the successful resistance of the city to Fascism and Nazism.

The pressures are immense, even if a canny survivor, Massimo Cacciari, mayor of the city in 1993–2000 and 2005–2010, a former Communist philosopher who championed free enterprise once in power, proved able to manipulate them. However, the factions that support or oppose any attempt to change the fabric of the city, from the Calatrava Bridge to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre, create the image of a petrified city edging, as often before in its history, towards extinction. The weight of the traditional refrain, com’era e dov’era, ‘how it was and where it was’, still grips Venice, supported not least by its more romantic visitors. Polly Coles’s Venice and the Politics of Washing (reviewed here) evokes the harassed lives of the remaining inhabitants. ‘Only God can now save us,’ remarked the former Marxist Cacciari.

In a concluding meditation, Bosworth notes how the primary narrative of the city’s past denies its contemporary history by focusing too heavily on a supposed past period of greatness (to which optimists believe the city can return). Perhaps in a tourist city, where so much energy is diverted to extracting profit from its visitors, this is inevitable; but Bosworth’s sober perspective is an important and informative one that can only add to a greater understanding of a city that risks being suffocated as much by literary gush (some fine examples quoted by Bosworth in his Introduction) as by the acqua alta.

Meanwhile behind all the cosmetic changes lurks the cumbersome and vastly expensive MoSE barrier, its completion long promised. The world waits to know whether it will solve the problems of flooding or, as some sceptics suggest, simply trap the river waters that run into the lagoon. The patriarch had better keep his sacred statues of the Virgin Mary at the ready.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of the Historical Introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

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

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