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28.05.2018
11:49

Budapest at the Biennale

When the Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge) that spans the Danube in Budapest had to be closed to traffic for essential repairs and maintenance in 2016, the city seized the opportunity to turn the traffic-free road- and tramway into a public space, a floating park above the water, where people young and old could disport and recreate themselves while the bridge was being made safe for traffic again. The initiative proved so popular that the bridge was closed to traffic on four weekends in 2017-and once again this year, between mid-July and early August, the 'Freedom Bridge Picnic' has been promised. The phenomenon has also made it to this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. For details, see here. The bridge, which was built in 1896, was originally named Franz Joseph Bridge after the reigning king and emperor. Badly damaged by the retreating Nazis at the end of WWII, it was given the name Freedom Bridge on its reopening in 1946.

Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest

Blue Guides celebrate their centenary year with this new edition of Blue Guide Budapest, an in-depth companion to the history, art, architecture, food, wine and thermal baths of this exceptional city.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here »

Budapest is a city in constant renewal, with important renovation and reconstruction taking place all the time. For updates, as well as reader comments on the new edition, see below.

17.04.2018
11:14

Heroism on the Danube

Ingrid Carlberg: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Translated Ebbe Segerberg. Maclehose Press, 2016

The name of Raoul Wallenberg is well-known in Budapest today: there is a street named after him; two statues stand to his memory; and there is a general awareness that he was a brave individual, a Swede honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for his resistance to Nazi genocide. But who was he more exactly? This excellent biography, painstakingly assembled from interviews and written primary sources by the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg, is now available in a clear and lively translation. It gives an excellent insight into the man and his times. Balanced and informed, it largely avoids the pitfalls of sermonising or anguished hand-wringing, leaving calmly-presented facts to tell the story much better.

Wallenberg was born shortly before the First World War. His father, who died two months before Wallenberg’s birth, was a scion of a Swedish banking, shipping and manufacturing dynasty. The young Wallenberg might well have expected a place in the family business, particularly as his grandfather aimed to school him for precisely such a role, sending him to study in the US and finding work placements for him in South Africa and Israel. This exotic (by the standards of the time) upbringing, coupled with the fact that his uncles never did deliver on a position in the family firm, led Wallenberg to various schemes and ventures, and, from 1941, a directorship in the Mid-European Trading Company, jointly owned by Swedish shipping magnate Sven Salén and Swedish-resident Hungarian émigré Kálmán Lauer. The company engaged in “importing eggs, fowl and tinned goods”, among other things, mainly from Hungary.

By 1943 Nazi Germany’s genocidal ambitions and extermination of large numbers of Jews were becoming clear to the outside world. For the Allies, this was another compelling reason for doing everything to hasten the Third Reich’s defeat. Roosevelt’s World Refugee Board, established in January 1944, assembled a huge budget to aid and save Europe’s Jews. Wallenberg was well-qualified to be the WRB’s man in Budapest: he had visited the city frequently and had a considerable network there—and by coincidence, the Mid-European Trading Company had offices in the same building as the US Embassy in Stockholm. An embassy official who met Lauer in the elevator asked him to recommend “a reliable, energetic and intelligent person” for the post. But what made Wallenberg accept? As Carlberg asks, what makes an act heroic? A contributing factor might have been Wallenberg’s attendance at a secret screening, at the British Embassy in Stockholm, of the 1941 British propaganda movie Pimpernel Smith, a re-working of the Scarlet Pimpernel story, in which an eccentric Cambridge professor helps German intellectuals interned by the Nazis to escape. “That’s the kind of thing I would like to do,” Wallenberg is reported to have remarked.

Whatever the reasons, Wallenberg, a young man of 32, found himself on his way to Hungary. After the Nazis assumed forcible control of the Hungarian government in October 1944, he energetically ran an enormous operation which gave “protected” status—Swedish diplomatic immunity—to houses in the “International Ghetto” (Budapest’s District XIII), issued official-looking but generally bogus papers to Jews with (increasingly flimsy) connections to Sweden, ran soup kitchens and gave medical support, all backed up with fearless personal interventions with Nazis and local authorities. Estimates of the number of lives saved vary, but tens of thousands of Budapest Jews probably owed their survival to Wallenberg’s efforts.

An intriguing side-question often arises: was Wallenberg himself Jewish? Herschel Johnson, US Ambassador (“Minister”) to Sweden during WWII, described Wallenberg as “half Jewish, incidentally”. This was an overstatement, although he was, this biography tells us, one sixteenth Jewish on his mother’s side, via her paternal grandfather, an 18th-century immigrant to Sweden. Wallenberg’s business experience in Haifa and his work with Kálmán Lauer, himself a Hungarian Jew, may well have sharpened his sympathy for the plight of Budapest’s Jews.

The second half of the book is taken up with the story of Wallenberg’s disappearance into the Soviet Union’s prison and gulag system. As the Soviets advanced across Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg crossed Red Army lines willingly with a briefcase full of plans for Hungary’s post-war reconstruction. He was never seen in the free world again. Concrete or credible news of what happened to him was never provided, though he was clearly in Moscow’s labyrinthine Lubyanka prison immediately after the War. Uncorroborated sightings and reports emanated for decades after, cruelly raising hopes in the hearts of his ever-loyal half-siblings and their children, but he may have been murdered as early as 1947.

Clearly judging on results, Wallenberg was a hero, a man whose personal actions, under instructions from no higher authority than his own conscience, saved thousands of lives. But questions were raised as to his methods: corners were cut; large sums were disbursed with minimal cash accounting; there were significant “related party” provisions deals where his Mid-European Trading Company was the counter-party; involvement in black marketeering was hinted at. But in fact there was no suggestion that Wallenberg personally profited in any way. Knowing how things worked, he had been clear when he spoke to Stockholm’s chief rabbi that the success of his Budapest mission would depend on bribes, and surely some of the plentiful resources of food and money at his disposal were deployed to buy the support of enemy individuals. While the flimsy pieces of paper implying a Swedish connection may have had some effect in occasionally taming the bloodthirsty urges of the German Nazi and Hungarian Arrow Cross thugs, Wallenberg’s connections, oiled by bribery, to their superiors—possibly all the way up to the crazed and drunken Eichmann—were no doubt at least as effective.

The Communists were uneasy with the Wallenberg legacy. The institutionally dishonest world of Hungary’s post-war Stalinist regime needed morally clear and unambiguous tales of herosim. The liberation of Budapest’s ghettos by Soviet troops was one instance where they could genuinely show themselves to have been on the right side. Wallenberg, however, was problematic as a socialist hero: he had aided Budapest Jewry and saved thousands of lives but he had a capitalist family name, had been in the pay of the Americans, had engaged with the “enemy” and—embarrassingly—had disappeared in Stalin’s Russia.

The USSR’s problem with Wallenberg was the USA’s propaganda boon. Wallenberg’s unimpeachable goodness stood in stark contrast to his probable murder—either executed or tortured to death—at the hands of the KGB. For four decades the Soviets proved unable to give a straight answer as to what had happened to him. This was a gift for the CIA, who throughout the Cold War were urgently seeking ways to undermine Soviet credibility with its supporters in the West. And indeed the USA pressed its advantage by making Wallenberg an honorary US citizen in 1981 (the first after Winston Churchill), to give them an official channel for attacks on the Soviets to release information as to Wallenberg’s whereabouts or fate. What is also well catalogued in this book is Sweden’s official pusillanimity. At the beginning of the War, when Germany seemed to be winning, neutral Sweden adopted a policy of accommodation with her powerful neighbour across the Baltic. Later, and also during the Cold War, it was the USSR whom she sought not to offend—certainly not by championing a maverick aristocrat who had gone rogue behind enemy lines and had always had an uneasy relationship with official channels.

This book is a crisp and sympathetic biography, a brilliant and clearly-told history (particularly interesting on Sweden during and after WWII), and an excellent addition to the canon on the Holocaust. Recommended reading.

The Wallenberg Memorial in Budapest’s District XIII, site of the “International Ghetto”, where many Jews took refuge in Swedish and Swiss safe houses. The Snake Slayer statue, an allegory of the triumph of Good over Evil (Pál Pátzay, 1949), was planned for Szent István Park after the war but hurriedly removed by the Communists on the eve of its unveiling to a pharmaceuticals factory in East Hungary. A copy (pictured here) was re-erected on the original site 1999.

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

28.03.2018
14:06

The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest

At last, after several years of closure for renovations and transformations, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest is emerging from its chrysalis of scaffolding and tarpaulin. Stretching out its wings to dry at the moment is the Romanesque Hall, a spacious rectangular room inspired by the basilica architecture of Early Christian Europe. Newly restored, it is open to the public for free visits until 2nd April.

 

Information about the Romanesque Hall in the press tends to concentrate on statistics: how many years it has been closed for (70); how many kilos of gold were spent on the refurbishment (5.5); how many more square metres of space the museum will gain after all the restorations (2,000). And logistical details about the new café, the lifts, the disabled access and the solar panels. Hurrah! But what about the Romanesque Hall itself?

 

It is open now for just a few more days. After it closes again, it will not reopen until October. So, until then, here are some photos and a description.

 

The Museum of Fine Arts building as a whole was completed in 1906, the decorations of the Romanesque Hall a couple of years previously. The entire edifice was conceived as part of an elaborate scheme of celebrations concocted in 1896 to mark the (approximate) thousandth anniversary of the Magyar occupation of the Carpathian Basin. Unsurprisingly, the decorative programme draws from Hungarian history as well as from European architectural precedents.

 

The hall is a large rectangle, paved in a geometric pattern of yellow, red and grey. It is entered through double doors framed by a cast of the Goldene Pforte, the Romanesque west doorway of Freiberg cathedral (c. 1225). Elaborately moulded round arches are borne on pillars bearing statues of Daniel, the Queen of Sheba, Solomon and John the Baptist (left) and Aaron, Bathsheba, David and John the Evangelist (right). Above, in the tympanum, is a scene of the Adoration of the Magi. When it first opened, the whole hall was used as a cast gallery, displaying copies of some of the most famous works of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today just this portal remains, and one other, at the head of the left-hand ambulatory, a copy of the south door of the church of St Michael in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), Transylvania.

 

The rectangular space is articulated internally by an arcade which creates a sort of peristyle effect, giving an ambulatory on three sides. The arcade is borne on stout columns alternating with square pillars decorated with trompe l’oeil rustication. The column capitals are richly carved and gilded. The motifs are mainly floral but there are also capitals with paired birds pecking at grapes, stylised owls and stags. Above the square pillars rise two triumphal arches, spanning the inner space and adorned with pairs of painted Hungarian saints (Stephen and Ladislas on one; Margaret and Elizabeth on the other), with signs of the Zodiac in the soffits.

 

The walls are completely covered in painted decoration. On the long sides are Hungarian kings and heroes and coats of arms. Between them are peacocks (symbols of immortality) and trees bearing silver fruits, reminiscent of the design of the 12th-century mosaics in King Roger’s room in Palermo. Latin words in ‘Gothick’ script exhort us to occupy ourselves with Truth, Science and the Arts. Our rewards, presumably, will be the glories promised on the other side: Eternity, Omnipotence and Immortality.

 

On the short wall above the Goldene Pforte is a painted roundel of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding Gothick Latin legends. At the opposite end is a matching roundel of the Good Shepherd, and more angels with Gothick legends in Greek: ‘God is Holy’; ‘Strong, Holy, Immortal’. Between the angels, at each end, is a three-light blind aperture with colonnettes divided by trompe l’oeil drapery. The drapery device is continued all around the top of the walls, below the line of the simple pitched roof. Above it rise painted towers and battlements. The iconography here is all derived from mosaics in early Christian churches.

 

But this is a secular space. The primary aim of its decorative scheme is to demonstrate Hungary’s position at the heart of Europe, an integral part of the continent’s history as well as its artistic and cultural traditions. It is a testament to an age of optimism, confidence and self-belief.

Daniel and the Queen of Sheba: detail of the Goldene Pforte cast
Peacocks, Tree of Life and trompe l'oeil drapery
08.03.2018
15:18

A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest

"Mrs Schiffer and her Daughters" by József Rippl-Rónai, now in the Hungarian National Gallery

On one of the leafy residential streets opening off Andrássy út, the great 19th-century radial boulevard of downtown Budapest, stands the Schiffer Villa, slightly ponderous and ungainly from the outside, but an extraordinary treasure trove within. Since the 1990s it has been the headquarters of the Hungarian Customs and Tax Authority: not in itself a great draw, perhaps, but they have laid out a museum on the subject on the first and second floors and access is free of charge.

 

The house, in a late Secessionist style, was built in 1910–12 by József Vágó for the wealthy railway magnate and patron of the arts Miksa Schiffer, who lived here with his wife and four daughters. Vágó designed both the exterior (inspired by Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels) and the interior furnishings; the result is a Gesamtkunstwerk in the manner of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Detail of the stained glass window in the central hall.

Beautiful stained glass with a repeated pattern of swallows allows light to filter into the entrance lobby. From here, you go up steps into the main hall, the centrepiece of the villa. At the top of the steps is a statue of a seated male nude, part of the original furnishings. There was formerly a marble fountain in the middle of the floor (bronze statuettes belonging to it are now in the Hungarian National Gallery). To the right, between the doors (which are inlaid with beautiful wood and mother-of-pearl marquetry), is a Carrara marble jardinière borne on stout yellow columns and decorated with carved reliefs of male and female nudes. The walls are clad in deep green Zsolnay tiles picked out with red studs in imitation of rivets. A tall window completely fills the left wall, its stained-glass panels (reproductions) designed by Károly Kernstok and showing women and children in a pastoral, Elysian setting. The aim of the villa’s entire design was to show how art can lift mankind heavenwards.

Marquetry work on one of the interior doors
Schiffer's monogram on a doorhandle

There is lovely stained glass in all the rooms on the main floor, much of it continuing the theme of bird life. Some of the door handles still bear Miksa Schiffer’s ‘SM’ monogram. Archive photographs show the villa as it appeared in Schiffer’s day. The large painting that hung in the study, Summer by Béla Iványi Grünwald, and another that hung in the main salon, a famous work by József Rippl-Rónai showing Mrs Schiffer and her daughters in the garden of their summer villa, are both now in the Hungarian National Gallery.

Wooden stairs lead up to a gallery overlooking the main hall. In Mrs Schiffer’s former bedroom, above where her bed once stood, hangs a copy of István Csók’s Spring, which features girls in diaphanous pink gowns under a blossom-laden cherry tree. The original has survived and hangs in the National Gallery. Csók, a lover of bright colour, had studied in Paris, as indeed had all the artists whose work is featured here. Csók was influenced mainly by the Impressionists, Kernstok by the Fauves, Rippl-Rónai by the Nabis (in fact he was one of their number, le nabi hongrois). Iványi Grünwald, who had gone to Paris together with Csók, went on to become a founder member of Hungary’s Nagybánya school of plein-air painting, in 1896.

 

The customs and excise and tax-collection exhibits (captions also in English) are interesting and include material on smuggling and its detection. One curiosity among the confiscated items is a bottle of an unidentified spirit in which floats a huge cobra with a scorpion in its mouth.

 

Blue Guide Budapest will be published in April

István Csók's "Spring", once in Mrs Schiffer's bedroom (designed to fit around her bed-head), now in the Hungarian National Gallery

Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania

“Anna: Fictitious Female Fates” (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra) is the title of a disarmingly thought-provoking exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum, on tour from the Rezső Haáz Museum in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania). It follows the fortunes of the imaginary Anna, a Hungarian-speaking Székely, born in east Transylvania in 1920, the year that Transylvania was awarded to Romania in the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary.

 

To participate in the exhibition (you can’t just view it; it is fully audio-visual), you need to download the sound files via an app. The show is divided into numbered viewing/listening stations, each with its own little set, each representing a stage in Anna’s life. You follow her around, listening as she tells her story.

 

Her childhood is much like that of any other rural Székely girl. Tough but not deprived. She gets a few years of schooling before putting her shoulder to the family wheel, tending crops and looking after the animals. In due course, the expectation is that she will marry.

 

And so she no doubt would have done, had it not been for the handsome boy at the village barn dance…

 

So far, it’s a Victorian novel. But Romania in 1920 was a long way from that world. These were years of turmoil and dislocation—and yet despite the disruption (or because of it), Anna arguably ended up with more opportunities than she would have done had her world not fallen apart. It’s difficult to review the show without including an enormous spoiler. Suffice to say that the boy at the dance is (of course) a rotter. Anna finds herself pregnant, ostracised and potentially ruined.

 

Then comes the bifurcation of the ways that makes this exhibition work. Anna, the undone village girl (and you, the visitor) are presented with two alternatives. Do you opt for (A): an abortion at the filthy hands of ‘Aunt Rebecca’, flight to the big city (Kolozsvár/Cluj) and a job as maid of all work in a wealthy Jewish household? Or do you take (B): the crippled, war-wounded older man your father finds for you, who needs a nurse and in return is prepared to adopt your child? (If I had to quarrel with any aspect of the exhibition, it would be this. Can we really believe in this middle-aged miracle of mercy, prepared to take soiled goods? It seems to be the one slightly false note.) In any case, you turn left into the "farmhouse living room" for option B and right to the "railway station" for option A—and in the end (don’t read this if you don’t want to know), it doesn’t matter which path you choose, because both will lead to the same urban tower block, where you will spend your declining years fed and warm but on your own and lonely, listening to the TV (when there’s electricity, this is ’80s Romania) to blot out the silence.

 

In the meantime you will have run the gauntlet of the Holocaust, Communism, collectivisation, industrialisation, defection to the West and the impending execution of Ceaușescu. And you will ask yourself: Do I have regrets? (Yes and no.) Would I start my life all over again if I could? (Absolutely. Hope always triumphs over experience.)

 

The whole exhibition is a subtly understated Gesamtkunstwerk. At first, you wonder if it’s going to be a bit amateurish. But you soon get sucked in and begin to notice that careful applied-arts and ethnographical research has gone into the choice of furnishings for each “set”. The items are not labelled; they speak for themselves. This is an exhibition which manages to impart its content without a single wall text. The historical events and background aren’t explained either. They are just the cards that Anna is dealt, the ingredients for the whole construct, and therefore you the listener are forced to try and make sense of them.

 

Appearing like a leitmotif at every stage of Anna’s passage is a bright white handkerchief embroidered with her name. She drops it at the foot of a haystack during the rough-and-tumble of that fateful barn-dance encounter. It’s a dainty thing, an item which, in the normal run of events, might have been expected to form part of her trousseau. One does have to wonder though, considering the political havoc that was to ensue, as Austria-Hungary was torn to shreds and stitched back together in a zany new patchwork, the social order turned completely on its head: would Anna’s life really have been better if she had held on to her maidenhead and married the boy next door? The answer isn’t obvious—which is what makes this show so successful. The cluster bomb which 20th-century history detonated upon society and its established institutions brought misery, it’s true. But opportunities as well.

 

Ultimately, “Anna” asks one of the most fundamental of all human questions. Can flouting the rules lead to greater happiness than obeying them? Our desire for self-determination, our rejection of socio-religious moral codes and our demand to inhabit a stable world and yet not to bow to all its laws, have led us to lonely isolation in urban tenements. But which is better? Loneliness on one’s own terms or the support mechanism of suffocating togetherness in a tiny village community, where if you overstep the mark, you’re out?

 

Thus doth the Great Foresightless mechanize

In blank entrancement now as evermore

Its ceaseless artistries in Circumstance

Of curious stuff and braid, as just forthshown.

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web

Have we here watched in weaving…

 

 

The 'Spirit of the Years' speaks these lines at the conclusion of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Anna and her handkerchief might be a ‘flimsy riband’. But they are also part of the ceaseless artistry of circumstance.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber.

 

"Anna: Fictitious Female Fates" (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra), runs until the end of April at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. For more on the Rezső Haáz Museum and the Székely area of Transylvania, see Blue Guide Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley.

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.

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

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