In the art of the Venetian artist Canaletto (Antonio del Canale, 1697–1768), Venice returned to one of her oldest habits: the depiction and celebration of her own beauty. Unlike the works produced in Venice’s heyday, however, Canaletto’s art and that of his contemporary Francesco Guardi (1712–93), both of whom were at work in the last decades before the end of the Serene Republic, was a depiction without the glorification of earlier times. And the works attained international fame in the artists’ own lifetimes.
Canaletto’s views of Venice and its canals were exported widely, especially to England through the British Consul, Joseph Smith. Their popularity was due in part to the outstandingly rendered light and shadow which suffused the ordered spaces. His works give remarkable delight to the eye both from a distance and from close to. Canaletto came to London between 1746 and 1754 and painted it: in his views of the northern city, he performed the remarkable feat of making the banks of the Thames look as serenely lovely as the Bacino di San Marco. Stillness is all in Canaletto.
The works of Guardi are far less serene.
Here, the coruscations of light and vibrancy of atmosphere reveal a diametrically different response to the city’s beauty, a response which was only appreciated many generations later, once European sensibilities had been educated to see things differently by the Impressionists. For Canaletto, the light is the vehicle of his passion for the architecture: for Guardi the architecture is a necessary receptacle for his passion for the light.
The works of both these masters remind us that so much of Venetian art, indeed so much of the fascination of the city, has always depended upon its unique light—immediately, tangibly different from anywhere else in Italy because of the surrounding water which constantly modifies it. It is this that explains the primacy of the the visual sensibility in Venice: it has produced no internationally great writers, poets, thinkers or scientists. Venice has no Dante or Leonardo, no Galileo or Machiavelli; but it produced painters whose universal influence has been incomparable, because of one fundamental lesson they imbibed from the endless modulations of their native light. They instinctively understood how light in painting is the vehicle of human empathy.
Looking for some reading material to take to Sicily? If you haven’t encountered Inspector Montalbano yet, perhaps now is the time. He is the creation of Andrea Camilleri, currently Italy’s best-selling author (two million copies in 2010) and also the most translated of any Italian writer. His works have appeared in 37 countries, from Turkey and Israel to Japan and Korea, though his most ardent admirers outside Italy are in the USA and Germany.
Camilleri was born in 1925, in Porto Empedocle, on the coast southwest of Agrigento. The difficult task of rendering Camilleri’s idiosyncratic mix of Sicilian and Italian into other languages has been tackled with enthusiasm and imagination by his translators, doubtless contributing to his worldwide success. For the English versions, poet Stephen Sartarelli has invented a blend of New York-Brooklyn and Italian slang, describing his notable efforts as ‘fun’.
Episodes in recent Sicilian history, both amusing and sad at the same time, are made all the more credible by Camilleri’s deft character descriptions and his thorough understanding of human nature—but it was the invention of Inspector Salvo Montalbano that finally brought him fame. Salvo’s unorthodox investigations into the mysterious, sometimes horrific, crimes of his district are often hindered by his superiors, but are always successful, thanks to his stubbornness and intuition. No traditional hero, this man has plenty of human failings. Montalbano likes life. Cigarettes and strong coffee, long morning swims, abundant Sicilian food, the glass or so of whisky with his friend Ingrid, are to him as necessary as breathing. The fact that his fiancée lives in Genoa gives him freedom—he would find it difficult to share his existence with anybody on a permanent basis.
Porto Empedocle takes its name from the ancient philosopher Empedocles, born in Agrigento in the 5th century BC. He died a famous and dramatic death, by hurling himself into Mount Etna. In 2003 the little resort adopted another official name, Vigata, the name by which it is known in the Inspector Montalbano novels. If you find yourself getting really hooked, when in Sicily, take the Treno Montalbano, which runs between Syracuse and Scicli (every Saturday from April to October) visiting locations used in the popular TV series based on the novels.
On June 17th 1631, in the central Indian town of Burhanpur, a royal wife died in childbirth at the age of 38, after delivering her fourteenth child. She was Arjumand Bano, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, one of the many wives of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Six hundred and fifty kilometres away in Agra, the bereft emperor began the building of a mausoleum to the dead woman’s memory, on the banks of the river Yamuna. Its name, ‘Taj Mahal’ is probably a corruption of Mumtaz’s own, and literally means ‘Palace of the Crown’. It was completed in 1643.
As Sam Miller tells us in Blue Guide India:
“We know that Shah Jahan had a close relationship with Mumtaz, that he favoured her above his other wives, and openly declared the strength of his attachment to her. This was unusual but not unprecedented. She came from a very powerful family, where women played an important role. Her aunt Nur Jahan was married to Shah Jahan’s father, Emperor Jehangir, and in Jehangir’s final years took many key decisions. Mumtaz’s grandfather, Itimad ud-Daula, was, under Jehangir, probably the most influential person in the Mughal Empire. He lies buried in another exquisite tomb in Agra, which in its use of minarets, white marble and stone inlay, prefigures, on a much smaller scale, the Taj Mahal.”
“For the Mughal poet Kalim, the Taj Mahal was a cloud, and for the Nobel Prize-winning polymath Rabindranath Tagore it was ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time’. The Taj Mahal has been admired since it was created, and although it was undoubtedly a memorial to the undying love of Shah Jahan for his wife, it was also a demonstration of the power, wealth and aesthetic values of the Mughal Empire. In the prescient words of Shah Jahan’s court historian, Qazwini, the Taj Mahal would be a masterpiece for ages to come, and provide for ‘the amazement of all humanity’. It was built to be visited. As one of its most recent historians, Ebba Koch, explains, the Taj Mahal was constructed ‘with posterity in mind: we, the viewers, are part of its concept.’”
The Hungarian pavilion in the grounds of the Biennale by the Giardini Pubblici was built in 1909. Its exterior is decorated with mosaics by one of Hungary’s foremost exponents of the Secession, Aladár Kőrösfői Kriesch. They depict Attila the Hun. The one shown here has gold lettering underneath it, reading (in Hungarian): ‘The siege of Aquileia’. Attila attacked the city in AD 452. In Roman times it had been a flourishing trading post. In the early centuries of Christianity it was the seat of a patriarch. The siege was long and the city was well defended. Attila’s men began to be discouraged, and called for hostilities to be abandoned. But then Attila noticed a strange thing–at least, according to legend he did. Flocks of storks were abandoning the city, flying with their young into the countryside. He interpreted this as a sign that Aquileia was a doomed city and redoubled his efforts at conquest. The result was a pitiless sack. The survivors fled across the water to the lonely shoals of an uninhabited lagoon. The settlement they created here would one day become one of the greatest maritime republics the world has ever known. Venice.
If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.
The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.
The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.
What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.
However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.
While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.
Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living. Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.
The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.
In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.