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The Wonders of Pontormo

Pontormo's 'Halberdier' (photo: Wikicommons)

A tiny exhibition in Florence this summer, which is a joy to visit (Incontri miracolosi. Pontormo dal disegno alla pittura), is running at Palazzo Pitti. In just one room and with only ten works on show, it is curated by Bruce Edelstein (and is on view until 29th July).

 

Here you can ‘meet’ two masterpieces by Pontormo, arguably the best paintings he ever produced: the ‘Halbadier’ from the Getty and the Visitation from Carmignano just outside Florence. The ‘Halbadier’ is now almost universally accepted as being the portrait of Francesco Guardi, a young Florentine nobleman determined to defend Republican Florence in 1528, during the famous siege by the Imperial troops in alliance with the Pope against the Medici. We know from contemporary sources that there were many young men eager to volunteer in the defence of the city and that they dressed up for their role. Guardi is memorably depicted looking directly out of the painting, proudly flaunting his magnificent costume, in the red and white colours of Florence. A delicately painted gold chain hangs around his neck, and his hands are particularly memorable. The only known preparatory drawing for the work (from the Uffizi) in red chalk is displayed beside the painting.

 

The Visitation has been restored for this occasion and beside it is displayed the small squared drawing (preserved in the Uffizi) which Pontormo used in preparation for the larger work. The street scene in the background is now more visible where the tiny figures of Joseph and Zacharias await their spouses on the stone bench at the foot of a typical Florentine palace (the ass which has been discovered peering round the corner of the building is, however, almost impossible to see with the naked eye). But of course it is the four female figures who are the protagonists of the scene, in their magnificently coloured dresses. In the excellent catalogue the several mysteries attached to this work and much discussed by art historians over the decades seem to have been solved. The presence of two female figures who accompany Mary and Elizabeth at this touching moment (described in St Luke’s gospel) are convincingly explained by similar iconographic representations of this subject in both the mosaics in the Florence Baptistery and in Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, where two ‘handmaidens’ are present. The curator also reminds us that scenes of marriage or farewell were common in Roman times (with emphasis on the gestures of the protagonists), and artists in the 16th century would certainly have been familiar with Roman reliefs of this subject. The likely provenance of the work has also been revealed: a commission from the Pinadori for a family chapel in a church in Florence which might have been damaged during the siege and so was instead kept in the family’s residence. The work is only documented in the church at Carmignano from 1720 onwards. There is also a fascinating hypothesis that Bonaccorso Pinadori, who is known to have supplied pigments to Pontormo, could himself have ordered this work.

 

The third painting is the portrait of another young man in a red hat, identified here as Carlo Neroni, also evidently dressed for the siege (in grey and black silk) and in a similar pose as the ‘Halbadier’ and also with a dark green ground. It comes from a private collection in London and only appeared on the art market in 2008 (it was last mentioned in London in 1827). It is more harshly painted than the ‘Halbadier’ and many may dispute the attribution. But it is of great interest to see all these three works together, painted at the same period (1528–30), a time when Pontormo was the uncontested protagonist of Florentine painting (his master, Andrea del Sarto, died of the plague in 1530).

 

Pygmalion by Bronzino (from the Uffizi) is also present in the exhibition since it has convincingly been shown to have been the ‘cover’ of the ‘Halbadier’ (it would have been in a frame to fit the greater dimensions of Pontormo’s painting). In the catalogue it is explained that many paintings during this period were provided with protective covers, very few of which have survived (or been identified as such). The very unusual iconography of Bronzino’s work, showing Pygmalion kneeling before his statue which has come to life, while a bull is being sacrificed to Venus on the flaming altar behind, apparently alludes to Ovid’s tale.

 

As so often occurs on occasions of this sort, art historians depend heavily on Vasari’s famous work, the Lives of the Artists. It is fascinating that this great Florentine art historian, who was also an architect (he built the Uffizi) and painter, remains such a fundamental source for our knowledge of painting throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries. Much is made of the fact that Pontormo, who was Vasari’s contemporary, was omitted from the first edition of the Lives and only included in the second edition of 1568 (on display). Also it is a mystery why Vasari never mentions the Visitation, whereas he does document two portraits by Pontormo of young men during the siege (identified with the two portraits on show), and even mentions the fact that Bronzino had provided a cover depicting Pygmalian for Pontormo’s portrait of Guardi. The curator suggests this omissis may well have been because the Visitation was destined for a church just outside Florence’s city walls which might have been damaged (or threatened) during the siege meaning that at the last moment the painting was not installed, so Vasari would not have seeen it.

 

Another work by Bronzino, his Martyrdom of St Acacius of Ararat (an apocryphal story of a Roman in command of ten thousand soldiers who were martyred on Mt Arrat), is present in the exhibition not only because Bronzino was so close to Pontormo (and Pontormo apparently provided the cartoon for this work) but also because the background appears to have been ‘inspired’ by the destruction in the countryside around Florence to which Bronzino could have been an eye-witness (the painting dates from 1529–30 and is owned by the Uffizi). Pontormo also painted a work of the same subject (usually called the Eleven Thousand Martyrs) which hangs a few rooms away in the Pitti. Bronzino is also remembered for the design he provided to Jan Rost when he arrived from the Netherlands to establish the Medici tapestry manufactory for Cosimo I: the small and very well-preserved tapestry hung here representing Justice Liberating Innocence was made by Rost to demonstrate his skills in order to win his position. Although excluded from the catalogue, it gives us a taste of what lies hidden in the tapestry deposits of Palazzo Pitti, perhaps destined to be dusted off and given more importance in the future.

 

So this tiny exhibition, in the Sala delle Nicchie of the Palatina Gallery (which you can reach directly from the top of the stairs on the piano nobile) is a demonstration of the extremely high quality of the recent exhibitions, both large and small, in the Pitti and Uffizi. Exhibitions which involve serious academic research but which also provide the visitor with the chance to see great masterpieces from elsewhere (The ‘Halbadier’ was last in Florence 20 years ago; for anyone interested in this painter, this is an occasion not to be missed).

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

 

NB: Another magnificent exhibition, this one on a very large scale, has just opened at the Uffizi and the Bargello: Florence and Islam (running until 23rd September). It will be reviewed here soon.

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

 

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

 

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

 

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

 

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

 

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

 

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

News from Syracuse

Blue Guide Sicily author Ellen Grady has some updates from Syracuse, where, on the island of Ortygia, the old city, there's a useful new Tourist Infopoint just behind the cathedral, at Via Minerva 4. It has up-to-date information on opening hours of the museums and the archaeological sites in Syracuse and the area of Noto. There is also a shop offering local crafts.

While visiting Syracuse, don't miss the Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum. On the upper floor, a look at the Greek and Roman statuary in Section D is always worth your time. In Section F, the interesting Late Antique section is now complete, with a permanent and beautifully displayed exhibition of early Christian frescoes, epigraphs, reliefs and artefacts from the local catacombs. This surprisingly extensive system of underground tunnels and caves served as a place for burials, but also for practising the forbidden cult of Christianity.

If you’re in a car, head south from Syracuse to the charming fishing village of Marzamemi (an hour's drive) for lunch or dinner at La Cialoma. Our recommended restaurant is now listed in the Michelin Guide for Italy. You can eat either in the square, or on the terrace overlooking the sea and the old tuna fishery. The fish dishes are always good, especially if accompanied by Lina's organic house wine, which is cloudy, white and slightly fizzy. Local strawberries are perfect when in season, or you could try sheep's milk ricotta with a sauce of vino cotto, reduced wine. La Cialoma is open daily for lunch and dinner from April to October; in winter for lunch only, except at weekends.

Fresco of a saint from Pantalica
Fried Mediterranean cod

Raphael in Bergamo

Raphael's 'St Sebastian'

There are two exhibitions in the two neighbouring Lombard towns of Bergamo and Brescia in northern Italy which are drawing crowds of visitors, especially from Italy itself. Bergamo has chosen Raphael since the town’s art gallery, the Accademia Carrara, owns one of his early masterpieces (St Sebastian), just restored. Brescia has chosen Titian in order to celebrate his beautiful polyptych of the Resurrection painted for the high altar of a church in the town and the exhibition illustrates the work of an important group of contemporary local painters (including Moretto, Savoldo and Romanino) whose production is seen in the context of the Venetian school. Brescia’s Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo reopened this year (on 17th March), after eleven years of closure.

Since the towns are so close together, both have advertised each other’s exhibitions and visitors to both are given a reduced-price ticket.

The exhibition in Bergamo, Raffaello e l’eco del mito (scheduled to close on 6th May but hopefully may be kept open for longer) is in the newly restored rooms on three floors of a former convent directly opposite the Accademia Carrara, which makes this an opportunity to visit the town’s picture gallery too, which was excellently rehung a few years ago.

The exhibition is particularly interesting in the sections which illustrate works by painters which Raphael must have seen as a young man. These include two panels by his cultivated father Giovanni Santi, loaned by the Galleria Corsini in Florence. Santi died when Raphael was only 11 years old but scholars agree that he must have started Raphael out on his career. Perugino, a decisive figure in the young Raphael’s development as a painter (although Raphael is not actually documented in his bottega) is represented with three masterpieces: his own St Sebastian (signed on the arrow!) from the Hermitage, his Mary Magdalene from the Uffizi (the pose very similar to Raphael’s St Sebastian, and also just restored) and his Madonna and Saints from a church in nearby Cremona. The first and last are works little-known to the general public and so this provides an opportunity to see them. The two painters from Umbria, Pinturicchio (whom Raphael knew in both Siena and Perugia) and Luca Signorelli (whose wonderful Crucifixion has been lent by the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino) are present to underline Raphael’s pride in his Umbrian origins (he signed his paintings “Raphael Urbinas”).

The comparison of Raphael’s St Sebastian with two works of the same subject by Leonardesque painters from Milan, Boltraffio and De Predis, is particularly interesting as they both portray the young saint with long golden curls, but holding an arrow as identification (instead of the more usual iconography of the nude figure of the saint at his martyrdom, pierced with arrows): they are thought to predate Raphael’s work of the same subject by a few years. They come all the way from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The autograph works by Raphael on exhibition, all of them chosen to illustrate his production between 1500 and 1505, include his famous portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga from the Uffizi. The sitter, with her heavy eyelids, is not flattered by the artist, but the brown and gold tones of her dress and jewels provide a magnificent contrast to the countryside in the background, lit up by the sunset.

His exquisite tiny St Michael Archangel from the Louvre has extraordinary monstrous creatures accompanying the dragon. The scene, with a building in flames in the background, is derived from the Apocalypse. But the light, graceful figure of St Michael, who has just landed, seems unaware of any hindrances to his plan to banish the Devil. Still in what looks like its original frame, this is surely one of Raphael’s highest achievements in a painting of this size (31 x 27 cm). The small Prayer in the Garden from the Metropolitan in New York, is one of the most memorable of his works on show, since Raphael demonstrates how he can take a familiar subject and raise its significance to a level perhaps never reached by another artist.

But his very beautiful St Sebastian is certainly the most important work in the show and it has been specially restored at the Brera for the exhibition, with later accretions of yellow varnish now removed.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, as well as a smaller version for just a few euro. For the Titian exhibition in Brescia, see here.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta is currently at work on a new volume, Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes, to be published later this year.

Titian in Brescia

Titian's portrait of the doctor
Gian Giacomo Bartolotti

Tiziano e la pittura del cinquecento tra Venezia e Brescia is an exhibition curently running (until 1 July) in the Museo di Santa Giulia in the Lombard town of Brescia. The centrepiece is Titian’s Averoldi polyptych—although it is in fact only present in a dramatic video show as the curators wisely decided to leave it in situ the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, for which it was painted and where it has been ever since the great artist delivered it there in 1522 (it is not far away from the exhibition venue). It is a magnificent work, unusual in the fact that it is divided into the form of a polyptych with smaller scenes around the central Resurrection which include a particularly beautiful Annunciation (the Angel and the Madonna in two separate panels), as well as a St Sebastian, which is a remarkable study of human anatomy: it has been recognised that the intrinsic drama of the nude figure shows the influence of Michelangelo’s Slaves as well as the Hellenistic statue of the Laocoön, which was discovered in Rome at just about this time.

Titian is again documented in Brescia as an old man in his 80s, when he accepted a commission to paint three large canvases for the upper floor of the famous building known as the Loggia. The subject of the central panel was the Apotheosis of Brescia, represented by a matronly lady magnificently dressed, and the other panels personified the age-old activity of the production of arms in the town with Vulcan in his forge, as well as the agricultural activity in the countryside around Brescia, symbolised by the goddess Ceres. Palladio, when on a visit to the town to advise on the architecture of the Loggia,recorded his admiration for these works, which were unfortunately lost in a fire which devastated the building only six years after they had been installed. For the exhibition they have been reconstructed as far as possible in a video, based on an engraving made in the 18th century.

Another connection the great artist has with Brescia is the Triumph of Christ woodcut owned by the Musei Civici. This is one of five versions, produced in five blocks, of a drawing by the artist based on the theme of a Classical ‘Triumph’. Rather bizarrely it shows Christ seated on a chariot pulled by the four symbols of the Evangelists and accompanied by the four Doctors of the Church (resembling the bodyguards who run beside the Pope’s car today). The procession which precedes and follows the chariot is made up of crowds of figures from the Old and New Testaments. The version preserved in Brescia has been recognised as a first edition (and dated 1517).

However the exhibition is perhaps especially interesting for its study of the three principal artists born in Brescia who were contemporaries of Titian: Moretto, Giovan Girolamo Savoldo and Girolamo Romanino. Their works demonstrate not only how closely they must have looked at Titian’s work, as well as that of Lorenzo Lotto (the Venetian artist who was least influenced by Titian), but who at the same time clearly managed to create a school of their own. We are shown a wide range of their production, which underlines their ability to produce paintings of religious subjects which often concentrate on naturalistic details, and intimate, almost cosy, settings, and even include night scenes, as well as portraits of great ingenuity. The curators have suggested that there is little doubt that the young Michelangelo Merisi, thought to have been born at Caravaggio in the Bergamasco in 1571, must have studied their work before leaving for Rome, where he was to became Italy’s most famous painter of the 17th century.

This exhibition is in many ways a revelation of the skill of the local painters but also an opportunity to admire great works by Titian, and in particular two of his male portraits (c. 1515–20): the famous Mosti Portrait (from the Pitti) and the much less well-known portrait of a man identified as the painter’s doctor Gian Giacomo Bartolotti da Parma, today preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is the most memorable work in the show.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta has recently spent two weeks in and around Brescia preparing text for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes.

Dürer in Milan

Dürer's first known painting (1490),
a portrait of his father.

A major exhibition is in progress (until 24 June) in the Palazzo Reale in Milan: Dürer and the Renaissance (between Germany and Italy). One wonders if the title was chosen rather to entice visitors than to explain the true content of the show: ‘Dürer’ without ‘the Renaissance’ may have been a good deal less of a draw. But in fact the works on show display above all the extraordinary artistic powers of Dürer, not only as an engraver and woodcutter but also as a draughtsman and painter in oil and watercolour. The works by his contemporaries, displayed alongside, are often put into the shade by the great German’s skills. The choice of these works is not always particularly logical. But (again, perhaps to be sure to draw the crowds?) the visitor is given a very special opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s unforgettable St Jerome, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, as well as two of his drawings from Windsor.

The first two paintings on show are both by Dürer and both from the Uffizi: the Adoration of the Magi and a portrait of his father, his first known painting. In the same room is a drawing of a Battle of Marine Gods, divided into two parts since Dürer added a scene to an earlier representation of the same subject by Mantegna, a clear indication of the close relationship between these two artists and a demonstration of how Dürer studied the technique of the most skilled Italian engraver at work in his lifetime. These two sheets are here brought together, the first from the Albertina in Vienna and the latter from the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.

One wall of this first room has a series of studies of horses, showing some of the very earliest known drawings by Dürer as well as his celebrated engraving of The Knight, Death, and the Devil, dated 1513 (this, like most of Dürer’s most beautiful engravings in the exhibition, comes from the Schȁfer Collection in Schweinfurt).

The exhibition also documents Dürer as a theorist, with his treatises on proportion and measurement and his clear fascination with Leonardo’s studies. A drawing in red chalk by Leonardo (one of the two on loan from Windsor) is a reminder of the famous artist’s sojourn in Milan: it is a view of the Alps as seen from the city (today, on a clear day from the roof of the Duomo, the mountains are still just as visible).

One of the most intriguing protagonists of the exhibition is Jacopo de’ Barbari, whose bird’s eye view of Venice in the year 1500, printed by the German Anton Kolb at his shop on the Rialto from six wood blocks, has been lent by the Correr Museum (it is a pity they didn’t also send the six original blocks carved by De’ Barbari which, incredibly enough, have survived). It is interesting to note that this woodcut was, in the past, attributed to Dürer himself, since little was known about De’ Barbari, and his dates are still uncertain. He almost certainly met Dürer in Venice and he is also recorded as having visited Nuremberg, Dürer’s native city. One of the few other works known by him is also on display: a very fine engraving of Pegasus (on loan from Amsterdam). Both De’ Barbari and Dürer are recorded as having worked for Maximilian I. Indeed, the Habsburg emperor was Dürer’s most important patron and the huge triumphal arch he designed for him (in a series of no less than 192 woodcuts), with allegorical and historical scenes, is also on display (recomposed from the 36 surviving original blocks and supplemented with photographic reproductions of the missing ones). Maximilian died in 1519, so that another commission to produce a triumphal procession to celebrate the ruler, some 50m long (made up of 192 blocks, eight of which are on display) was interrupted: this was perhaps a blessing for posterity since it meant that Dürer could turn to other works and other media. On the wall close by, an exquisite small drawing of a procession (from Berlin) demonstrates how he could also work on a much smaller scale: ‘As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.’

Another famous Venetian, Giorgione, whose influence on Dürer has long been recognised, is represented with his remarkable Old Woman (from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). On Dürer’s two visits to Italy (in 1505–7; and earlier in 1494, though that visit is undocumented) he also came into contact with Giovanni Bellini and was particularly inspired by his portraits. In Dürer’s letters he writes of the great Venetian painter, now in old age, whom he felt was the only Italian who seemed to appreciate his artistic skills. He also boasts that when his Madonna del Rosario was completed for the church of San Bartolomeo at the Rialto, which served the German community in the city, both the Doge and the Patriarch came to see it. (When the church was renovated in 1610, the altarpiece was sold and is now in the National Gallery of Prague: it is sadly only represented in this exhibition by a copy—albeit a good one—made around the time it left Italy.)

The work chosen to represent the exhibition (and used on the cover of the catalogue) is Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, a small oil painting known to have been made during his stay in Venice in 1505 (lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). It is exhibited next to his beautiful large Portrait of a Peasant Woman (with a bashful smile), in charcoal and green wash, drawn in the same year (the notable creases may indicate that it was made on the artist’s way to Italy so that he had folded it up during the journey). Another portrait, of a young woman with a jewel hanging from her red beret, painted two years later, is just as beautiful, but it could be argued that these three works have little to do with Venetian portraiture except in their format. A small group of portraits painted against striking green backgrounds perhaps demonstrate a reciprocal influence (particularly the portrait of a young man in a black hat by the Bergamo painter Andrea Previtali and that of a similar subject by Dürer, both painted in Venice in 1506). The best work in this group, though, a portrait of a woman by Lorenzo Lotto, is far distant in atmosphere from Northern European portraiture.

Bizarre elements in Dürer’s oeuvre include engravings of a chained monkey depicted beside a Virgin and Child, and a faun in an idyllic setting with his (human) wife and child. His skill in watercolour is demonstrated by images of a huge crab and a duck (hanging by its beak).

The curators have been careful to keep strictly to the short period in which Dürer made his two presumed visits to Italy and this adds greatly to the interest of the exhibition. Much magnificent art was produced in these few years from 1490 to 1510, by Dürer and his contemporaries, and examples have been gathered together here from many different parts of Europe. It is doubtful that we will see again for many years so many outstanding examples of Dürer’s work in one place. An occasion not to be missed, especially as a visit provides the added advantage of its venue: Palazzo Reale in Piazza Duomo in Milan.

By Alta Macadam. Alta has just returned from a research trip to Milan for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes. She found the city vibrant and a wonderful place to visit, with much in progress on the contemporary front, new urban areas with innovative architecture, many museums opened in the last few years, and the historic ones (notably the Brera) keeping up with fresh ideas on display to increase the enjoyment of a visit. The new Blue Guide is due out at the end of 2018.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

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

12.03.2018
13:04

Pictures from Lake Maggiore

Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes is timetabled to appear at the end of this year. Here are some images from a recent research trip to Lake Maggiore.

The castle of Angera looms tall over the southern end of the lake. In the possession of the Borromeo family since the mid-15th century, it was once one of a pair of fortresses with the Rocca at Arona, on the opposite shore. Together they controlled the lake. Ferries connect the two towns. The Angera castle is open to visitors from March to October. The castle of Arona was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1800.

Arona’s castle may be no more but this town, with its pleasant waterfront, is a good place to see art in situ. The church of Santa Maria Nascente has a lovely early work (1511) by the native artist Gaudenzio Ferrari. The central panel of the Nativity is illustrated here (above left). Further up the lake in Cannobio is another, later altarpiece by Ferrari, of the Way to Calvary (illustrated above right).

The islands are one of Lake Maggiore’s most famous attractions. Isola Bella (illustrated above left) was laid out for Carlo III Borromeo over a period of 40 years (1631–71), with tiers of terraces built out onto the lake and filled with imported soil and exotic plants (as well as white peacocks). At night they are illuminated and form a truly extraordinary sight. The island, still owned by the Borromeo family, is open to visitors between late March and late October.

Isola dei Pescatori (illustrated right), once occupied by a hamlet of fishermen, is now mainly given over to tourism. It is extremely pretty from the water, accessible by regular boats, and offers some good places for lunch.

From the little town of Stresa, a cablecar takes you to the top of Mt Mottarone (1491m) via Alpino, where there is a botanic garden. The trip is highly recommended. The views from the summit are genuinely magnificent. On a clear day you can see a total of seven lakes. On hazy days, you are treated to a vista of layered mountain peaks.

Natural and man-made attractions around the lake include the deep and narrow gorge of the Orrido di Sant’Anna, behind Cannobio, crossed by a tiny hump-backed bridge and offering an excellent place to have lunch; and one of the loveliest of the famous ‘Holy Mountains’ of Piedmont, a cluster of chapels and shrines above Ghiffa. The ‘Sacri Monti’ were conceived during the period of the Counter-Reformation, as bastions of the Catholic faith as well as places for pilgrimage and meditation. The shrines and chapels typically house lively statue groups in painted terracotta. Illustrated here is the Baptism of Christ (1659), a composition made all the more effective by the fact that you can only glimpse it through a grille. The vivid blue eyes of Christ shine luminously in the semi-dark.

Pallanza, the west-facing part of Verbania, the largest town on the lake, is home, on its headland, to the famous Villa Taranto, with famous botanical gardens laid out by a retired Scottish army captain, Neil McEacharn (for more on him and his story, see here.

Many of the lakeside towns are graced with grand hotels and villas from the great age of northern European resort tourism in the 19th century. The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa opened in 1863 and has had many famous guests during the course of its existence, both in fact and in fiction (Ernest Hemingway uses it in A Farewell to Arms). Contemporary architecture has given Verbania the ‘Il Maggiore’ concert hall and events space (Salvador Pérez Arroyo, 2016).

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