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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).

What’s on in Florence

Goya: portrait of the Countess of Chinchón (c. 1801).
Gallerie degli Uffizi

Florence, in these weeks before the arrival of the Easter crowds, is cold but relatively empty and there are two exhibitions well worth seeing: 14th-century fabrics in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and 18th century paintings in Palazzo Pitti.

The first exhibition (Tessuto e ricchezza a Firenze nel trecento. Lana, seta, pittura; on until 15th April), devised and curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia director Cecilie Hollberg, is particularly enjoyable. You can book to see it, but at this time of year, particularly in the late afternoon, you can often just walk in and there will be no queue. The show links the fabric industry—which gave the medieval city its wealth—to the designs of the backcloths in gold-ground paintings, and later to the dresses worn by the figures depicted by some of the early masters of 14th-century Florentine painting.

The floor in the first room reproduces the intricate mosaic pavement of the church of San Miniato al Monte (the most beautiful of all Florence’s medieval churches), a subtle reference to the importance of pattern to the craftsmen of the time. The beautiful statute-books of the two ‘Arti’ or guilds which represented the cloth-workers, those who dealt with wool and those who (later) dealt with silk, are exhibited here. There are interesting documents, including some letters from the archives of Datini (the famous ‘Merchant of Prato’) with samples of wool pinned to them. The first exhibit, set to astonish us, is a child’s wool dress, only preserved because it comes from icy climes, lent by the National Museum of Denmark. Another survival is a piece of a woollen hood, alleged to have been worn in the 13th century by the nun St Umiltà and conserved as a holy relic in the monastery of Vallombrosa in the hills above Florence.

The first painting we see is a touching panel Madonna and Child (who reaches up to hug his mother) from the church of San Remigio. It dates from c. 1290 (and here given a new attribution). A rare occasion to see this masterpiece well-lit and at close range. Almost all the other paintings—carefully chosen to show how the precision with which fabrics were reproduced in paint—are from the Accademia itself (including some brought out of storage). An exception is Giovanni Baronzio’s Baptism of Christ, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and chosen because of the beautifully patterned towel held up by angels (who are dressed in garments to match). Very few paintings are attributed to this artist from Rimini, and none are to be seen in Florence.

The pieces of fabric exhibited come from Lyon, Prague, Brussels and Berlin, as well as from Florence’s Bargello. The silks, in gorgeous colours, are very fine, many Islamic in origin. Since they are often fragmentary, the complete designs have been recreated on the wall behind them. It has been discovered that the large funeral shroud found in the tomb of Cangrande I, the most famous member of the Della Scala family, who died in Verona in 1329, was made in central Asia. A dalmatic from northern Germany is made up of five different fabrics, all from China. Two works of the 1370s by Jacopo di Cione are decorated with birds and tortoises with the Child dressed in gorgeous orange and gold swaddling clothes. An end room has a delightful video installation with ‘animated’ paintings: it takes as its subject the report of a magistrate who in the 14th century noted down the excesses he found in dress in order to damn the vice of ‘unseemly vanity’, vividly demonstrating how fabrics impinged also on the social life of the town. The ‘film’ is shown alternately in English and Italian (and the concise English labelling throughout the exhibition is excellent).

In the last room there is a very well-preserved silk jacket (made with the pourpoint technique), traditionally supposed to have been worn by Charles of Blois at his death in 1364: he was killed by his uncle (and rival for the Duchy of Brittany), John de Montfort, in the Hundred Years’ War. After the battle it was preserved as a relic of the saintly Charles until it was lost during the French Revolution. It only turned up again in 1924 when it was donated to the Musée des Tissus in Lyon who have lent it to the exhibition. The material comes from Iran or Iraq. This type of military jacket, with numerous buttons, had already become fashionable in Florence a few decades earlier and must have been particularly becoming when worn by a young knight.

One of the last exhibits is a bolt of vermillion-coloured velvet with a pattern of gold discs (lent by the Bargello), which seems to be the very same cloth as the one held up by the angels in the background of Starnina’s Coronation of the Virgin (1405–10), lent by the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Seeing the two side by side clearly shows how skilfully Starnina painted the folds and rucks in the large piece of cloth: we are now at the beginning of the Renaissance.
(The large catalogue is extremely scholarly, if expensive).

On the other side of town, Eike Schmidt, director of the united Uffizi and Pitti galleries), has put together a tiny exhibition (The Eighteenth century: A selection; on until April) in one of the rooms of Palazzo Pitti. This is a period less known for its artistic output in Florence. Schmidt has made a selection of just 17 paintings (from the 500 or so in the Gallery’s collection) of non-religious subjects to illustrate the variety of works produced at that time. He has also taken it is an opportunity to begin to dismantle the ‘Blue Rooms’ in the Uffizi, which previously were dedicated to foreign schools. Schmidt’s aim is to integrate the collections to show the Medici grand-dukes collected both Italian and foreign works, notably by Dutch and Spanish painters. Indeed the most beautiful of the works in this exhibition is Goya’s full-length portrait of the Countess of Chinchón, painted around 1801. Displayed between the academic portraits of Vittorio Alfieri and his mistress, the Countess of Albany, by Fabre, which date from only a few years earlier, it demonstrates the direction painting was to take by the end of the century. Townscapes of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice (including a stunning view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto) show the very special interest in travel in this century. Thomas Patch is also represented, with a view of Ponte Santa Trinita, looking downstream. The fashion for exotic scenes and dress can be seen in a portrait by Etienne Liotard and in small Turkish genre panels. Another (very rare) genre scene is the little painting in oil on copper by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, which shows the painter himself twice over: in a self-portrait in the background, and in the foreground pulling his children along in a wooden contraption as his wife looks on, laughing. From the middle of the century come a pair of portraits by Chardin of a girl with a shuttlecock and racquet and a boy at a card table. An exemplary show, to remind us of a period often overlooked in Florence.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. For details of her Blue Guide Florence, see here.

A Time in Rome

Back cover of the 1st edition (1960)

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome. Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Originally published by Longman (1960). Reissued by Vintage Books.

I wonder how much the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) is read now? Bowen was of Anglo-Irish stock, a fine but delicate writer acutely attuned to the cadences and concealments of an elitist society that had lost its purpose in an independent Ireland. She has been described as ‘haunted by loss’, her characters pulled back into a past that cannot return. Perhaps it is this for which she is still remembered, as much as for her evocation of the atmosphere of a place, notably the Irish country house, or London in the midst of war.

It was for this evocation of place that I was recommended her A Time In Rome, a memoir from when she spent some months in the city in the spring and summer of 1958. What I had not expected when I ordered a cheap second-hand copy on the internet was a first edition still in its original dustwrapper. It is a pleasure to own. The author, with her aristocratic nose, elegant coiffure and several strings of pearls, is shown on the back, a shadowy arch of Septimius Severus behind the title on the front.

This is not a coherent account. It is, as I was told to expect, an evocation by someone who had time on her hands, is interested enough in her surroundings and its history, but perhaps prone to be didactic, making sure that we know all the ancient roads leading from Rome, the names of the gates in the Aurelian wall, and what might or might not count as one of the Seven Hills. She is brisk about the inadequacies of the Forum: ‘This might be an abandoned building-site, or outgrown giant playroom littered with breakages.’ We are firmly told how to negotiate the ruins despite there not being an entry gate just where she would have liked to start. She is not drawn to Roman ruins.

Her wanderings go hand in hand with her battles with her piante, the only maps of Rome that she can find. They are large and brittle and need to be unfurled every time they are used; in the winds ‘the Pianta forever was rearing up to wrap itself blindingly round my face’. There was a struggle to unfold them on a café tables without staining them with coffee or butter and there had to be frequent new purchases after each one disintegrated along its folds.

Still, despite her frustrations, Bowen allows herself to absorb the city. She enjoys the less pretentious restaurants, watching the regulars treating them like home, marvelling at the pride of the waiters, even in trattorie that have nothing to be proud of. The secret of success is ‘a matter of freshness, resilience, tenderness, and in the case of pasta sufficient slipperiness without oiliness’. She revels in the revival of Renaissance Rome, especially the Via Giulia, ‘One rejoices in positive spaces, like giant ballrooms, connected by corridors of perspective. The longer the distances to look down, the greater the pleasure.’ Despite an air of Protestant hauteur about the extravagances and intolerances of the Catholic Church, the vistas created by Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585–90) are especially valued. The pope ‘brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful.’ She is sensitive to the burgeoning of Rome’s spring in the Borghese gardens and other less known gardens. ’I associate the Parco Savello [on the Aventine] with singing birds, the columnar lines of the slender trees, and reposefulness—here in so green a space, at so great a height, above Rome.’ The garden frescos from the Prima Porta villa of Livia, the wife of Augustus, delight her and it seems, from the way she admires Livia’s grace and courage, that she found a kindred spirit in the empress.

When asked by acquaintances why she is in Rome, Bowen cannot give an answer. Her husband had died in 1952 but it had never been a close marriage (apparently never consummated). Her lover, a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, had married during the affair, which lasted over 32 years, leaving a possible life with him unresolved. She was overwhelmed with debts on her beloved Irish home, Bowen’s Court, which she would eventually have to sell. Rome may have been an escape but there is nothing to shape her apparently solitary days or her narrative. Her wanderings seem serendipitous, ‘one or another desire or curiosity shaped my courses for runs of days’. She is reticent, prefers to learn from watching rather than engaging in conversation.

So this is the memoir. Yet many of her letters to Charles Ritchie survive and I found a quote from one of them that was written from Rome. ‘I am leading a very gay, amusing, glamorous, sumptuous life’, she writes. There is nothing of that in her memoir and so a mystery hangs over this book. It is not one of the great evocations of Rome, it is too disjointed and digressive for that, but it intrigues. Who—the reader or Ritchie—was getting the correct version?

A Time In Rome is a period piece. Much of the writing is of quality as Bowen catches a mood of the city. There is a good description of the ceremony in St Peter’s in which the ageing Pope Pius XII beatifies Chinese Christians martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. ‘Half the lights in the world were already blazing, hanging in torrents from the roof, clustered against the carmine brocades clothing the columns, when on the ungated river of congregation we surged in, scaled to our places, waited’ as the pope processed among the frenzy of the crowds, ‘a scarlet spiked tree of gladioli’ carried before him. Yet there is a lot of Rome that she fails to catch, as if her mind never fully engaged with the city. I shall look out for the biographies—those by Victoria Glendinning (1977) and Neil Corcoran (2004)—and letters to find out why. I think she would have been happier in Florence.

Charles Freeman is the Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. Bowen’s ‘A Time in Rome’ is one of works featured in Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

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

Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'

Diana Athill, A Florence Diary. Granta, 2016.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman

This is an amuse-bouche of a book, just 40 pages from a notebook recording the author’s visit to Florence in the late summer of 1947. By sheer coincidence I found myself reading it on Diana Athill’s hundredth birthday, December 21st, 2017. Her lively introduction shows that her mind remains undiminished from 70 years ago.

 

Athill set off for Florence from Victoria Station with her cousin Pen. While Athill is well organised, her cases registered all the way through and her hand luggage consisting mainly of a hatbox and a shopping bag of food, her cousin comes loaded with many small items tied together with string, a straw hat and an easel that falls apart and gets in the way of everybody. Yet they are clearly a cheerful and attractive pair and well looked after on the journey south. Athill is cossetted by an Italian prince by the name of Alfonso, who even arranges flowers to be delivered to their pensione in Florence while he sweeps on to Rome, imploring the travellers to come after him.

 

Italy at the time was just recovering from the war and the bathwater was cold due to the lack of electricity. English visitors were gladly welcomed but had very little money. Athill and Pen had been given a tip over where to find the best rates of exchange and they survived happily, first in the Hotel Bonciani, and then in their pensione. After paying for their full board they have enough left over for patisserie and entrance fees. It is the patisserie that delights them: a wonderful array of exotic items that must have been a godsend after the dour food of a still-rationed England. Pen has come in uncomfortable shoes and sees some lovely sandals that she looks at every day, unable to decide whether to buy them (they enjoy yet more patisserie instead). Optimistically they decide that they will one day buy a villa in Fiesole. (This hope is frustrated, not least, Athill’s introduction tells us, because Pen went on to become a nun.)

 

Athill is more studious than Pen and makes sure she has visited everything in the guidebook. Pen has fewer inhibitions, even getting herself shown round Bernard Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, but missing out on the sumptuous Medici Chapel because she did not explore far enough into San Lorenzo. Athill’s response to art is intuitive and immediate. She delights in coming across a new treasure, a ‘dreamlike’ Botticelli or the light on the walls of Santa Croce that makes them ‘glow like ripe peaches’. She has an exuberance that falls just short of gushiness: the amphitheatre in the Boboli Gardens is ‘too lush and Renaissance for words’ and ‘the courtyard [of the Bargello], with a colonnade all round and a gallery on the first floor with great stairs coming down, is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen’. Images of the works of the great Florentine masters flit by.

 

This is a book to be read not so much for what it tells you about Florence but for the way it describes a society restoring itself after the trauma of a lost war. Athill’s are the reactions of a sensitive outsider to the city’s atmosphere and charms. There is a selection of contemporary photographs and an introduction in which Athill meditates from her great age on the power of place in her life. Short though this memoir is, I found much to enjoy.

 

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. He has written the historical introduction to the Florence volume.

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

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

20.12.2017
20:00

Christmas with the Gonzaga

'Morel Favorito', one of the famous Gonzaga equestrian portraits in Palazzo Te.

A wonderful time to visit Mantua and Sabbioneta is the week before Christmas. Empty of tourists and Italian school trips it is likely you will be the sole visitor to Mantegna’s famous Camera dei Sposi in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale and, indeed, the only foreigner in this very beautiful town. The streets are crowded with local residents who also flock in also from the countryside to do their Christmas shopping but also simply to enjoy the crowd of merry-makers with street markets, music and delicious food.

 

The large tourist office right in the centre in Piazza Mantegna is open all day every day and will supply you with all the information you could possibly need as well as a ‘Mantova Card’ which for just €20 allows you free entrance everywhere in Mantua and Sabbioneta, as well as free transport.

 

The vast Palazzo Ducale is undergoing exciting changes under its new director from Austria, Dr Assmann, who arrived two years ago. You can now walk through some of the courtyards and the visit includes four rooms of the Gonzaga’s classical antiquities (Greek originals as well as Roman), recently opened in a splendid display with ingenious lighting from below (and heating beneath the carpet). Indeed perhaps the only drawback to visiting Mantua at this time of year is the freezing cold temperatures (most days below zero) becasue the vast halls and galleries of Palazzo Ducale are otherwise without heating. But you become lost in wonder at the extraordinary energy that the Gonzaga rulers and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II) put into decorating their residences in the late 15th century (with, in the early 16th century, the visionary skills of Giulio Romano). We know that the Gonzaga were particularly devoted to horses and dogs, and fine portraits of their animals in several rooms, here and in their summer villa, the masterpiece of Giulio Romano, Palazzo Te at the other end of town (where each horse seems to have ‘stood’ for its portrait and where the favourite dog of Isabella’s son, the first Duke Federico II, is immortalised in a relief showing him sitting on his sarcophagus in a secret garden amidst carvings of other animals from Aesop’s Fables).

 

The bus line to Sabbioneta, which takes around an hour, is free with the Mantova Card and there you can walk in this tiny town planned at the end of the 16th century by another eccentric Gonzaga, Vincenzo, who after a successful operation on his brain to relieve his migraines (the hole in his head was discovered when his tomb was opened) decided at the end of his life to create an ideal city here, taking his inspiration from ancient Rome.

 

As in Mantua, the chief treasures of Sabbioneta are the ceilings, whether carved or painted, and the long Galleria is an unforgettable sight, as is the Theatre. Like Mantua, this sleepy little remote town is full of jollifications for families just before Christmas, including mulled wine in the piazza, and bagpipes played in the streets. You can now walk along a grassy path beneath the walls at the edge of the ploughed fields, and appreciate how well Sabbioneta has been preserved.

Trompe l'oeil in the Galleria in Sabbioneta. Note the playful cavorting putti: a variant of Manneken pis on the left and another performing a handstand on the right.

Mantua has always been difficult to reach by train—it is still approached by single-track railway lines from the south (Modena) and the north (Verona)—but for all that the trip is a memorable experience and, as the director of Palazzo Ducale proudly showed me on the graph in his office, the number of visitors is steadily growing. The culinary delights, from the ubiquitous sbrisolona (a delicious crumbly biscuit with almonds which puts Scottish shortbread to shame) to mostarda (made with fruit and a sharp syrup of mustard), can be tasted in numerous good trattorie as well as in very cheap bakeries. Although the boat trips on Mantua’s three lakes are suspended in winter, you can take a bracing walk or bike ride (again provided free with your Mantova Card) along the lakes, since they all now have bike lanes in their parks.

 

You couldn’t do better than choose Mantua for a winter holiday.

Alta Macadam, who was in Mantua and Sabbioneta for four days this week, is preparing new text for a forthcoming Blue Guide to the area.

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