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SPQR and expressions of Rome

Public fountain on the Caelian hill.

As work for the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome goes full steam ahead, we found ourselves coming up time and time again against the letters SPQR, reproduced all over the city, on lamp posts, manhole covers and public fountains, not to mention in ancient inscriptions. Here is a little piece on that and other familiar quotations from ancient Rome

The Latin acronym SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’) has been used since the days of the Republic to represent the Romans (significantly giving ‘the people’ equal status with ‘the Senate’). Today it stands for the municipality and it appears carved, embossed and stencilled in numerous places all over the capital. In fact, it is still such a familiar ‘word’ that it was chosen by the Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard as the title of her best-selling history of ancient Rome in 2015 (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome).

Many of the other familiar quotations still in use in the English language are—perhaps not surprisingly—linked to the most famous character in ancient Roman history, Julius Caesar. His famous quip ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’) is reported by Plutarch and is meant to have been the message sent back by Caesar to the Romans about how he was getting on with his military campaigns in Gaul. It sums up the character of a general who managed to conquer enemy territory with astonishing speed.

The ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, used to signify an irrevocable step or point of no return, refers to the river which marked the northern boundary of Italy with Cisalpine Gaul, the province which had been allotted to Julius Caesar. When Caesar descended with his huge army and crossed into Roman territory, he became in effect an ‘invader’ and although at the time it seemed he would have been able to take over the rule of the Empire on his arrival in Rome, in fact this was delayed for some years and he was not able to prevent the outbreak of a civil war. The exact date of the crossing is still disputed (perhaps 49 BC) and interestingly enough the exact location of the river (possibly no more than a stream) has never been established.

It was Shakespeare who first used the phrase ‘Et tu, Brute?’ (‘You, too, Brutus?’) in his play Julius Caesar, when the wounded hero recognises the renegade Brutus in the group of his assassins. Other expressions which have survived the centuries include ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ and ‘Rome was not built in a day’ (perhaps first used in the early 17th century by Cervantes and Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621).

One of the most famous re-interpretations to have survived is ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’), famously used by J.F. Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963 (‘All free men are citizens of Berlin: ich bin ein Berliner’), and subsequently voiced by political leaders as well as in public demonstrations against injustices. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the expression Civis Romanus sum was used in ancient Rome as a defence by citizens who were considered to have committed a crime (and St Paul, when condemned as a Christian, spoke out in his own defence as a Roman citizen): no Roman citizen could be condemned unheard, and nor could he be scourged or beaten without a fair trial. As a result of his citizenship, St Paul could not be condemned to death by crucifixion; he was beheaded instead. President Kennedy used the famous expression at a time when West Berlin was an embattled enclave surrounded on three sides by the hostile GDR.

 

by Alta Macadam. The new, fully revised and updated Blue Guide Rome (12th edition) will be published early next year.

Master of Leonardo

The head of Goliath, detail of Verrocchio's famous statue of David.

As part of the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, a new exhibition has opened at two venues in Florence, Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello. It is devoted to Andrea del Verrocchio, in whose studio Leonardo is known to have worked as a young man. It is the first time that examples of all the types of Verrocchio’s work have been gathered together. Famous above all as a sculptor in bronze, he also produced beautiful works in marble, terracotta and wood in addition to being a painter and very skilled draughtsman.

 

The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition

The first room exhibits three marble busts of women: Verrocchio’s masterpiece is the Bust of a Lady Holding Flowers, which was once attributed to his pupil Leonardo and is the first instance of a 15th-century portrait bust in which the hands are depicted. Behind it hangs an exquisite study of hands drawn by Leonardo (from Windsor Castle), so that the relationship between these two great artists is established at once. This is also a fascinating opportunity to compare the details, in very low relief, of the almost classical dress worn by Verrocchio’s lady with the two other busts here, one by Verrocchio (from the Frick Collection) and another by Desiderio da Settignano, who was arguably Verrocchio’s finest pupil.

In the second room is Verrocchio’s bronze David, beautifully exhibited so that the profile is accentuated. Another drawing by Leonardo from Windsor Castle shows clearly that he copied the head of this work when in Verrocchio’s studio: the head more than once appears on a single sheet filled with drawings by Leonardo on both sides. Here too are a group of bas-reliefs from the 1460s with heads in profile, including Verrocchio’s head of Scipio Africanus (from the Louvre) and Desiderio da Settignano’s stunning heard of Alexander the Great’s mother lent by La Granja, the royal palace near Segovia.

The paintings include works by Botticelli inspired by a work by Filippo Lippi (one of whose famous Madonnas in the Uffizi is represented by an exquisite study in metalpoint by the same artist), and two Madonnas painted in the early 1470s by Verrocchio (one from the National Gallery in London and one from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin), both with very beautiful landscapes. The remarkable head of St Jerome (in tempera on paper applied to panel) from Palazzo Pitti shows Verrocchio’s extraordinary skill in portraiture.

His skill as a draughtsman is also amply demonstrated (notably in a very unusual but highly refined metalpoint of a young woman wearing a huge jewel, from the Louvre; a metalpoint of the head of a curly-haired child from the Fitzwilliam Museum; a sheet from the Louvre covered with studies of children at play; and (both in pencil) the head of a young boy, from Berlin and of a young woman (from Christchurch in Oxford). Although we know that Verrocchio was also a frescoist, very few frescoes by him have survived so it is all the more interesting to see a fragment with St Jerome and a martyr, detached from the church of San Domenico in Pistoia.

Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, born in Fiesole, is recorded as a pupil of Verrocchio in the 1490s and a panel in marble by him made at that time has been lent by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Another pupil was Bartolomeo Gatta and his very fine large Assumption from the Museo Diocesano of Cortona is on display. From Perugia come six small rectangular panels painted in 1473 for the Oratorio di San Bernardino (and now in the Galleria Nazionale). The attribution of these exquisite works, with extraordinary architectural details and all with matching painted frames, has for long been under discussion but here they have been identified as being by several hands: two by Perugino, two by Pinturicchio and two by Sante di Apollonio del Celandro, an artist about whom almost nothing is known except that he was at work between 1475 and 1480. Perugino is known to have directed the project for the decoration of the oratory after he had been in Florence, where he frequented Verrocchio’s studio. Another painter who was in Verrocchio’s studio at that time was Domenico del Ghirlandaio: his works can be seen all over Florence, so it is specially rewarding to see two works no longer in this city: two Madonnas  (one from the Louvre and one from the Kress collection at the National Gallery of Washington) as well as a Madonna in Adoration purchased in Venice by John Ruskin in 1877 and now in the National Gallery of Edinburgh.

Verrocchio’s skill in working in terracotta is amply demonstrated and one of the most striking of these works is the statuette of a sleeping youth from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, displayed next to two drawings, one by Verrocchio and one by Leonardo. No exhibition of Verrocchio could be complete without his bronze Winged Boy with a Dolphin (the original now in Palazzo Vecchio), made for a fountain in a Medici villa and often reproduced. This charming ‘spiritello’ has just been restored. Exhibited close by is a remarkably graceful Mercury (also made as a fountain for the Medici) by Giovanni Francesco Rustici, who was one of Verrocchio’s last pupils. To remind us of Verrocchio’s famous equestrian monument in Venice to the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni, there is a drawing he made of a horse in profile, annotated with measurements to illustrate its precise proportions, which must have been used in his workshop (lent by the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

In the last room is the little terracotta Madonna and Child from the Victoria & Albert Museum, here attributed for the first time to Leonardo. (However, to the inexpert eye the attribution to Antonio Rossellino, given to it up to now, seems difficult to refute.)

There are a number of studies by Leonardo and Verrocchio of drapery, apparently made in Verrocchio’s studio. We learn that cloth would be soaked in wax or liquefied soil and then modelled on dummies so that the artists could experiment with light effects. The fascinating studies by Leonardo from the Louvre were made with brown wash, grey tempera and white lead on grey-brown prepared linen.

 

The Bargello exhibition

Verrocchio’s wonderful two-figure statue of the Incredulity of St Thomas, made for a niche in Orsanmichele, is displayed here in all its glory after restoration. Beside it are some seven terracotta busts of the Redeemer showing how Christ’s head in the bronze group, with his long flowing hair and beard, became a model for subsequent representations of the Redeemer. Perhaps the most expressive is that by Pietro Torrigiani, dating from the last years of the 15th century. An entire room is filled with a display of Crucifixes, the works of both master and pupils: the brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, Giuliano da Sangallo and Andrea Ferrucci. Ferrucci’s Crucifix, with Christ’s head dramatically fallen forward, is one of the best, made in the first years of the 16th century. The only Crucifix attributed to Verrocchio so far known is the one commissioned by the confraternity of San Girolamo and San Francesco Poverino (and now preserved in the Bargello): when restored it was found to have been made of painted cork as well as wood.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue, but also by a smaller, very reasonably priced booklet which many visitors to this truly splendid show will want to take away with them.

 

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo’ runs at Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello until 14th July. Reviewed here by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

News from Florence

Bernardo Daddi's 'Maestà' in Orsanmichele, of which one of the paintings newly acquired by the Accademia is a copy.

For anyone taking advantage of the relevant calm in Florence this month (when the queue outside the Accademia, the city’s most famous gallery, is usually minimal—though it is still always worth booking your visit online) there is a fascinating little exhibition now running (until 5 May)..

 

What brings these eight paintings and single piece of sculpture together is the fact that they have all been added to the Gallery’s holdings during the tenure of the new director, Cecilie Hollberg, in other words, over the last three years.

 

The early paintings are all gold-ground and each has a story to tell about its provenance and connection to other works in the Gallery’s collection. Some were in storage elsewhere in Florence, others were exported illegally and have been recovered by the police, others have been purchased. They are beautifully exhibited in a little room and there is something almost touching about them, given that they have been retrieved from oblivion, carefully dusted off and restored, and put in their historical context. None of them is of the first importance but all of them add something to the glorious history of art in Florence.

 

The obscurity of some pieces is underlined by the attribution of two of the works, one to the ‘Master of 1416’ and the other to the ‘Master of 1419’. The former is a copy of Bernardo Daddi’s famous Maestà in Orsanmichele, painted some 60 years earlier, showing that the Florentines of the early 15th century still considered it one of the most beautiful works in the city. The latter unidentified ‘Master’ is named after a work now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. The painting by him here, The Most Holy Trinity (La Santissima Trinità), shows God the Father enthroned holding an image of Christ on the Cross, with the dove of the Holy Spirit flying down towards it. The Gallery possesses another (more important) painting of the same subject, the central panel of a triptych by Nardo di Cione. The composition is very similar, but in Nardo’s work God the Father is sitting on a beautiful red-black-and-gold cloth and the Dove perches in the centre of Christ’s halo.

 

The Madonna of Heavenly Humility (she is seated on clouds rather than on the ground, hence the neat title) is attributed to a Master named after the Bracciolini Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. The Child is rather oversize, but this work was considered important enough to be confiscated by the state (after it was illegally exported from Italy to Switzerland in 2003) in order to preserve it in its Tuscan context.

 

There are also two doors of a tabernacle known once to have been in the Corsini Palace (which still contains the most important private collection in Florence, albeit closed to the public). They are by the prolific painter Mariotto di Nardo (son of Nardo di Cione) and are of exceptional interest for their decoration in gilded pastiglia, which forms leafy frames all around a scene of the Annunciation and figures of four saints. In another work by Mariotto in the exhibition, the Coronation of the Virgin with Angels, the painter has characteristically included lots more angels in the background depicted in gold.

 

The newly acquired piece of sculpture is a portrait bust of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, signed in 1827 by Lorenzo Bartolini, the most important sculptor of his time. The sitter, Niccolini, was a playwright, born in Pisa in 1782 and who died in Florence in 1862. The bust will be displayed beside the original plaster cast Bartolini made for it, which together with numerous other works from his studio was already owned by the Gallery. The bust was purchased by the newly-established Friends of the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, who are giving welcome support to its activities.

 

After the magnificent exhibition on the 14th-century fabric industry, held here early in 2018 (reviewed here), it seems that the museum’s policy (since it certainly has no need to increase its visitor numbers), at least for the time being, will be to hold small, choice exhibitions such as this one, which do not demand huge expenditure (the cost of the entrance ticket will not be increased during these shows).

 

I was interested to note that in the gallery with Michelangelo’s Slaves and his St Matthew (which leads up to the tribune with the colossal David), the label on the Pietà from Palestrina has at last been changed and its attribution to Michelangelo given as ‘very doubtful’ and still an ‘open subject’ (in fact the latest edition of the Blue Guide Florence chose to ignore it). At the same time, though, a fascinating suggestion has been made on the notice: that this could be a tribute to Michelangelo by the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. One of the tasks of the Blue Guides is to ensure the information provided is up-to-date.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Leonardo's Leicester Codex

The celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) have already begun, with the Uffizi’s exhibition of the Leicester Codex. Purchased in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, the Codex was preserved in the UK by the family until it was sold to Armand Hammer in 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by Bill Gates, who has lent it to Florence for this show (which runs until 20th Jan). The curator is Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Galileo Museum.

 

The Codex was compiled while Leonardo was living in Florence at Palazzo Martelli, and it concentrates on the theme of water. At the entrance, the visitor is invited to ‘walk across’ the waters of the Arno to see a reproduction of the famous Pianta della Catena, a bird’s eye view of Florence made at the end of the 15th century, which highlights the places frequented by Leonardo when he was at work on the Codex. Apart from working on the ill-fated fresco of the Battle of Anghiari (described in Blue Guide Florence), he also studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santa Maria Nuova (still functioning as a hospital today) and measured the Rubiconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie), observing the force of the Arno sweeping past its pylons in the river bed.

 

While writing the Codex, Leonardo also consulted the works of earlier natural scientists in the library of San Marco, seven volumes of which have been lent to the exhibition (their authors include Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Strabo). Two others of particular interest are a tract by John of Holywood (known in Florence as Giovanni Sacrobosco, lit. ‘holy wood’), born in Halifax, Yorkshire at the end of the 12th century, which was still a celebrated work in Leonardo’s time; and the treatise on architecture by Francesco di Giorgio, which has margin notes in Leonardo’s hand.

 

The Codex itself, with its closely filled pages (recto and verso), written from right to left and crowded with sketches, is displayed in 18 showcases. Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’ is explained by the fact that he was left-handed, making it easier and faster for him to write like this. In the centre of the hall are some five touch screens where the Codex can be ‘read’ in its entirety (also in English), with aids to its understanding. These are installed low enough for children to use (but it would have been nice to have benches in front of them in order to sit down).

 

Animated diagrams and reconstructions show how closely Leonardo studied the structure of water, from a dew drop to ocean waves, from springs to the dynamics of water flow and the erosion of river banks, from moisture in the air to the steam created by heating water, from the prevention of floods to the invention of locks along canals. He even describes how the eye perceives sunlight reflected by water. He suggests that water can be harnessed for the good of man if it is coaxed (rather than coerced) into different directions, and his plans for the drainage of the Arno basin, and for a canal to link Florence to the sea, are illustrated. The words invented by him to describe water, in all its various aspects and infinite movements, are pointed out.

 

Parts of the Codex are also dedicated to the moon, which Leonardo recognised as having the same physical nature as the Earth. He describes the Earth as containing a ‘vegetative soul’ and suggests that the flesh, bones and blood of living creatures are related to the Earth’s soil, rocks and water. His geological studies led him to understand the origin of fossils found on high ground formerly covered by the sea.

 

Some other treatises, written by Leonardo at the same time as the Leicester Codex, have been lent to the exhibition: one on the flightpaths of birds and experiments in mechanical wings (lent by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin); two (smaller) double sheets from the Arundel Codex about the canalisation of the Arno (lent by the British Museum); and four sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (lent by the Ambrosiana in Milan).

 

This is an exhibition dense with information that attempts to explain Leonardo’s complicated mind and to compass his interests, which darted from one observation to another. It succeeds in producing a picture not only of his deep scientific knowledge but also of his humanity, so many centuries ahead of his time and based on precise observations of the world about him.

 

The excellent catalogue is available also in English and the exhibition has a website.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and co-author of the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy (details to follow shortly on this website).

A tale of two Camparis

Monday in Milan was forecast to be the "apex" of Northern Italy's recent stormy weather.  It did not disappoint, with poor light, driving rain and strong winds. Not an ideal morning to find oneself exposed to the elements armed only with a €3 folding umbrella, much of the time blown inside out, in the 45-minute line zigzagging across the piazza to enter the Duomo.  But such are the exigencies of Blue Guides research, and the deadline for the important new Blue Guide Lombardy--finally completing the enormous task of updating Blue Guide Northern Italy region by region--looms.

After the calm inside the Duomo had helped revive the soggy and flagging spirits, something stronger was required. As you leave the cathedral from its west end, you see a welcoming sign--CAMPARI--across the piazza on your right.  It marks the famous Camparino in Galleria bar, first opened by Davide Campari in 1915, a shrine to the sticky, herbally-bitter red stuff beloved of cocktail aficionados the world over.

On arrival, we are ignored by the staff. Hopefully entering the pretty seated area to the right, we are told by the waitress that the sole remaining empty table is only to be sat at by parties of four--we constitute an inadequate two. Back in the airy and elegant bar area, which doubles as a holding pen, a brisk, waistcoated gentleman, who seems to be in charge and holds sway from behind a high till, promises to help but then disappears. Fortunately, a smart barman comes to our aid with two Campari and sodas (he is later rebuked for this by his colleague at the till, as we should have paid first).  The drinks are excellent: ice cold Campari stored at sub-zero temperatures is unctuously poured into narrow tall chilled glasses. Then soda water, also ice cold and very fizzy, is piped in at sufficient pressure to create a foam on top, with proportions of around 2 measures of Campari to 3 of soda. No ice is added to dilute and detract from the pleasure. Olives and so on are liberally available from the bar. Delicious and a reasonable €11 for two.

But could it have been better?  In the spirit of intrepid Blue Guides enquiry we head a hundred yards up the Via dei Mercanti to the brand new Starbucks--the first in Italy, dubbed (I presume by the company) “the most beautiful Starbucks in the world” and designated a “Roastery”.  It has been inserted into the attractive Palazzo Delle Poste building on Piazza Cordusio. A Campari and soda? “Of course”, the smiling greeter who smilingly greets us at the door replies, directing us upstairs past enormous and impressive pseudo-industrial machinery, maybe connected to coffee roasting (or is it mail sorting--this was a post office?) to the bar in the gallery at the back.  We perch on stools and a helpful mixologist promptly takes our order. Not much happens for a bit. When the drinks arrive they are “on the rocks”. And the “rocks” are not just a couple of ice cubes in the bottom of a tumbler, the drinks have been poured over large glasses brim-full of ice.  This time €20 for two, plus green olives and cheese. The design of the internal space is bold, the resulting effect reminiscent of the more high end bits of airport retail.

The verdict: well dear reader, while wishing Starbucks well with their vision and congratulating them on their service and the buzz of their new venue, you will not be surprised that the Blue Guides goes for Camparino, for its atmosphere, decor, history, sense of place and quality of drinks every time.  Even the staff turned out friendly eventually, and while we do not anticipate a global roll-out with Camparinos in every shopping mall and main square on the planet any time soon, well, maybe it’s better that way …

A.T.

Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes will be available from early 2019.

www.camparino.it

Extreme dairy farming in Sauris

View of Sauris di Sotto. Photo: Johann Jaritz.

Visitors to the holiday resort of Forni di Sopra in the Carnic Dolomites, close to the source of the Tagliamento river, will be surprised to see that there is not much of a river in town. This is because a large proportion of the water is tapped at source and piped along an 18km tunnel bored in the rock to the northeast, to Sauris/Zahre (Friuli), to help fill an artificial lake which powers a hydroelectric plant completed after WW2. The dam—and more than that the all-weather motor road required for the building process (both engineering feats at the time)—marked the end of the isolation of Sauris, a settlement scattered on a plateau some 1200–1400m above sea level.

 

Before the road was built, access was severely restricted; indeed it was total isolation in the winter months up until the early 1950s, when as soon as it was practicable at the end of winter, an athletic carabiniere would be dispatched on foot all the way to Sauris from Forni di Sopra to check up on the community. Unlike the other Dolomites villages that used to make a living by dairy farming and kept their cows in the valleys in winter, moving them to the high pastures (malghe) in the summer, the people of the alpine plateau (then as now in the low hundreds) overwintered at high altitude and it must have been hard.

 

They lived in isolation for months but they are still here to tell the story. Indeed, as Sauris re-invents itself as a successful year-round holiday resort and purveyor of speciality foods, it is also going back to its roots, which sheds some light on the origins of such a challenging lifestyle.

 

The key is the language. Centuries of isolation have preserved the 'Lingua Saurana', which is now recognised by the Italian state as a separate language. You may not hear much of it spoken these days (apparently it is mainly used within the family) but it has its own museum (in Sauris di Sotto; open in the summer Mon, Thur, Fri 10–12 & 4–6; Sat and Sun 10–12 & 3–6), choir, publications, poetry and liturgical texts and it is taught in the local school, though after the first wave of enthusiasm it is now no longer compulsory, just an option. Eminent philologists have pored over it. A variant of German, it has over the centuries incorporated some of the local Friulano from the neighbouring valleys and a number of German elements from across the mountains; its roots, however, are further away, in southern Bavaria; it is a form of the Mittelhochdeutsch of the 13th century. Documents (unfortunately lost in a fire) testified to a community from 1280. According to local lore, the founding fathers were a couple of stray soldiers/deserters who abandoned the wars that were ravaging Europe and embraced extreme dairy farming. They had with them some relics of St Oswald, which fostered pilgrim traffic and accounts for the dedication of the present church. (Quite what Durham Cathedral, which boasts the complete body of this 7th-century Northumbrian saint, makes of the matter is not known.)

 

Today the Sauris plateau is for the discerning. There is no through traffic, which means the only visitors are people that chose to negotiate the winding road from Ampezzo; but one is richly rewarded. The endless meadows are wonderful, the air is the cleanest ever, the water is like nowhere else. Sauris has re-invented itself out of these unique attributes. Pork is cured here and prosciutto di Sauris is now a recognised delicacy. Beer in the characteristic white bottles requires no pasteurisation; it has a growing number of devotees. Whether the Saurians will be able to revive the local art of weaving (flax, hemp and wool), with the women preparing the thread and the men doing the weaving, remains to be seen. Presently good food is at the forefront and one would be well advised to pay a visit in the summer, especially at weekends in July and August, to sample it at the open-air market.

 

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum.

Islamic Art in Florence

Egyptian jug (14th century). Brass with silver and gold inlay. © Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

The world of Islamic art has been explored in Florence this summer in a major exhibition (Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th century, open until 23rd September), divided between the Uffizi Gallery (the Aula Magliabecchiana exhibition space on the ground floor, so accessible directly from the ticket office) and the Bargello Museum. As is well known, the religion of Islam prohibited cult images and generally speaking all representations of the human form (the only religious element being inscriptions) and so Islamic art consists largely of metalwork, textiles, ceramics, carvings, carpets, all of which we tend to group under the title of ‘decorative arts’, which in terms of 20th-century Western Art History lost ground to the study of painting and sculpture. For those of us ill-versed in the history of Islamic art, perhaps one of the most striking things about this exhibition is the wide date span of objects which have great similarities and stylistic unity, and the occasional difficulty scholars have in identifying not just the region of origin, but even the country. This is also because the works were often made by itinerant craftsmen who were called on to satisfy the trade in luxury items throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Perhaps we have become all too used to looking closely at the dates and birthplaces of the artists when standing in front of a painting or sculpture in Italy.

 

This is therefore an exhibition to be enjoyed above all for its great variety of beautiful objects, all of them of the highest quality, from the huge geographical area of the Middle East under Islamic rule: Syria and Egypt and the North African coast, as well as Persia, Turkey and Muslim Spain. A feeling of exotic luxury exudes from the wonderful carpets, textiles, velvets, brass-work incised in silver and gold, ivory carvings, tiles, glazed earthenware pottery, glass mosque lamps, etc.

 

The great majority of works displayed come from Florence itself: from the two major donations made at the turn of the 20th century to the Bargello Museum by Carrand and Franchetti; from the 19th-century collections in the Museo Stefano Bardini and Museo Stibbert; and from the Medici collections now divided into a number of museums in the city. Much of this art is not normally on display, so this has been an occasion to bring these wonderful pieces into the open and delve into the deposits. In particular, part of the Franchetti collection of textiles in the Bargello can at last be seen, and objects from the Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini are also on display.

 

The stuffed giraffe which greets visitors to the Uffizi part of the exhibition has been rescued from the Natural History Museum in Florence: taxidermists were ordered to preserve this extraordinary gift, presented to the Florentine Grand-Duke in 1835 by Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. It was the successor to another giraffe, sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1487 by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, and which was once to be seen grazing in the Boboli Gardens. It is known that Lorenzo used to exchange gifts with his contemporaries in Constantinople (Mehmet II) and Cairo (Qa’it Bay). He might even have worn the parade jacket (on show from the Bargello) which bears the name of a Mamluk emir.

 

The extraordinary flare the Medici family had for collecting beautiful things is once again demonstrated in this show, as well as their ability to ‘enrich’ some precious objects from the East with decorations (it is thought that the handle of Lorenzo’s sardonyx vase from Persia, on display from the Tesoro dei Granduchi in Palazzo Pitti, was designed by Verrocchio). A rock-crystal bottle made in Egypt in the 10th century was given a Renaissance mount and ended up in the treasury of the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. Interestingly enough, there is some brasswork in the exhibition which has not been definitively identified: it could be either Islamic or Florentine. But we know that the precious little coffer with silver and gold damascening, clearly inspired by Islamic art (on loan from the Louvre), was produced in Florence in 1570.

 

Among the ceramics are five albarello vases decorated with the Florentine heraldic lily, made in Syria in the early 15th century and here re-united from Paris, Toronto and Doha. A large lustreware pitcher made in Valencia (and now preserved in Berlin) bears the Medici arms.

 

Two large brass basins for ablutions, made in Syria in the late 13th or early 14th century, are displayed together: one is now in Kuwait City but the other, even more beautiful, ended up in Palermo. The exquisite ‘Barberini Vase’ (lent by the Louvre) was once owned by Pope Urban VIII: it was made in the mid-13th century with silver inlay and delicately incised ornament. The pope was evidently unworried about possessing an Islamic artefact.

 

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence also preserves Islamic documents and manuscripts (and they are holding their own exhibition, Images from the Orient, in conjunction with this one). The Medici even started their own printing press for Oriental scripts. On show at the Uffizi is the Library’s most precious holding of Islamic manuscripts: the earliest known example of ‘The Book of Kings’, the Persian epic poem dating from 1217.

 

The huge collection of decorative arts which belonged to Louis Carrand (1821–99), an antiques dealer from Lyon, was begun by his father Jean-Baptiste, and since Louis spent much of his life in Florence, he left it to the Bargello (there are plans to open a new Islamic Hall there: Carrand’s collection is considered to be the best of its kind in Italy). On show for this exhibition are assorted objects of great interest from the collection: ivory plaquettes made in the 11th–12th centuries with musicians and dancing figures; an ivory elephant from a chess set thought to have been made in Iraq in the 10th century; brass objects including a large ewer from Egypt (since it is inscribed with the name of a Yemeni Sultan, it can be dated to 1363–77); tiles from Iran and Iznik tiles from Turkey; Ottoman textiles; a 14th-century glass mosque lamp; a bronze inkwell from Persia; a steel helmet in the form of a turban, and much more.

 

Part of the textile collection left to the Bargello by Giulio Franchetti in 1906 is displayed in the same room. The largest piece is an amazing strip of red velvet covered with gold discs from Tabriz, identified as one of the panni tartarici (loosely defined as ‘Tartar cloth’) documented in Italy as early as 1295, when it is mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII’s papal treasury.

 

On the ground floor of the Bargello there is a selection of the carpets (together with an Ottoman saddle-cloth) from the Museo Stefano Bardini. Bardini’s carpet collection is the largest in Italy, but also on show here are carpets and textiles which he sold and which have ended up outside Italy: the exquisite Mamluk textile fragment in silk lampas with birds and animals is today preserved in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon (purchased from Bardini in 1907). One of the most outstanding carpets is the one which Bardini brought from the Florentine Capponi family and which he sold on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is an Isfahan carpet from central Persia, dating from the late 16th century, with a blue border with birds and a frieze of animals against a red ground around the central medallion, which has people enjoying a banquet (you have to look closely to make them out).

 

The huge Mamluk carpet (with wonderful scarlet and green colours) made in Cairo in the early 16th century, recognised as the largest in the world, comes from the deposits of the Pitti (understandably not on permanent display there because of its size). For this exhibition it is displayed in the Uffizi.

 

A small area on the ground floor of the Bargello has been dedicated to a fascinating selection of the Islamic pieces from the incredibly crowded rooms of the Stibbert Museum, including 19th-century art created by craftsmen at work in Stibbert’s own lifetime, which he may have picked up on his travels. The fascinating wood manuscript covers from Persia have figurative scenes: a dragon about to eat a king (although the figure of majesty mysteriously appears again in six more scenes on the same panel), and a procession with musicians, mules and a group of women wearing the burka (in black and white). There are also examples of arms and armour from Mughal India and an Indian Qur’an owned by Stibbert’s grandfather.

 

In the catalogue to this fascinating exhibition, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt writes that he sees it as the role of museums not only to preserve the past but also to foster a dialogue with the present in order to encourage the flow of art and culture between worlds that are only apparently distant one from the other.

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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