Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer

What does the great Dutch painter Vermeer (1632–75) have in common with Pontormo, the Florentine Mannerist (1494–1557)? At first glance, nothing. They were born in different parts of Europe almost a century and a half apart. But there here are two paintings, one by each artist, and whenever I see one of them, I’m always reminded of the other.

The first is Pontormo’s Visitation, painted c. 1530 for the church of St Michael at Carignano, near Florence

How can a 15th-century Mannerist, painting in an age and a city where princely families and the Catholic church commissioned great works of art, possibly have produced anything faintly similar to the output of a bourgeois, struggling Dutch painter whose patrons–the few he had–were mere artesans?

The other is Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662), in New York’s Metropolitan Museum

What is it that makes these two works seem alike–at least to me? Is it the bold use of colour, for which Pontormo is so famous. Because Vermeer’s use of colour is extraordinary too. That great slab of lapis-blue skirt. The way the ruddy hues of the carpet are reflected in the jug and silver dish. Is it the crisp folds of the drapery and the shadows they cast? Is it the faint sfumato that softens the outlines of the faces? Is it the peculiar, detached absorption with which the women are going about their tasks: the one a housewife, immersed in domestic chores; the others biblical characters, playing the ineluctable roles they have been cast?  Is it the economy with which each image reduces itself to the essentials, with only the merest incidental detail (the man in the background of the Pontormo picture; the silk thread hanging out of the trinket box in the Vermeer)? Or is it the way the light falls upon the women’s skin, illuminating it, making it gleam (the housewife’s right arm as she opens the casement; the hands of the Virgin and St Elizabeth)? Or is it perhaps the way that the human figures seem like props while the stage sets they occupy are three-dimensional?

Both these paintings were intended for secluded contemplation: one in a church, the other in a private dwelling. I love them both.

Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion

The religions practised in the later Roman empire were many and various. There was the official state cult, of course, centred around the great triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. But many other cults from different parts of the empire also flourished. There were the Egyptian religions, for example those of Serapis and Isis. There was the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother, which originated in Asia Minor. There were Jewish communities of traders and merchants. And there were Christians.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull from the Mithraic shrine at Londinium. Displayed in the Museum of London.

The cult which most resembled Christianity and which appears to have represented a serious challenge to it, was that of Mithras, which traces its origins to Persia. Like the cult of Isis and also that of Jesus Christ, Mithraism was a “mystery” religion, in other words a faith that is concerned primarily with a realm that transcends the worldly sphere and which seeks to show initiates how to attain admittance to it. Mystery cults focus on truths that are inexplicable by man’s experience or understanding, and promise some kind of redemption or rebirth. Mithraism was particularly concerned with ideas of enlightenment, of moving from a realm of darkness to a relam of light. Some 500 sanctuaries are known, 35 of them in Rome itself, and 18 in its port city of Ostia. They were always underground, in the basements of buildings or in caves. At the eastern end of the sanctuary, the god was shown with attendant deities with torches. This represented the light towards which members were moving. Mithraism was especially popular among soldiers, which is why we find Mithraea in far-flung outposts such as Londinium in Britannia and Aquincum in Pannonia. Slaves and ex-slaves were also attracted to the cult, although women were excluded from it. One of the cult’s attractions was its graded hierarchy. Initiates moved upwards through a series of ranks just as a soldier might do, or a slave who was working towards freedom. The highest grade, a ‘Father’, was probably reserved for a leader of a congregation, and it was an important enough honour to be recorded on gravestones.

A Mithraean sanctuary typically held a sculpture or relief of Mithras shown seated astride a great bull, holding back the animal’s head and slitting its throat in sacrifice. The sacrifice of a bull is crucial to the cult—it is usually seen as a force Mithras must conquer to release the fertility of the earth. The spirit of the bull, it was believed, was released by its death, and its blood falling on the ground brought regeneration and renewal. Animals join in, as if working against Mithras. A serpent and a dog suck the wound, perhaps to prevent the blood nourishing the earth. A scorpion is often shown attacking the bull’s testicles as if to destroy its fertility. The cult draws on ancient Eastern parallels, including Zoroastrianism. Mithras himself is typically depicted wearing a Phrygian cap (from Phrygia in Asia Minor), which was used by the Romans as a recognizable symbol of the East.

There seems to have been some competition between Mithraism and Christianity over converts, but as Christianity grew more powerful it moved to obliterate Mithraism, and overtook it altogether. By the end of the 4th century, after the edicts of the emperor Theodosius, Christianity was the only mystery religion that survived. Its spread and popularity was due in large part to the fact of its wide appeal for women.

Text adapted from Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World © Blue Guides.

The Amphitheatre of Londinium

That the Roman city of Londinium boasted an amphitheatre was never subject of dispute. Its precise location, however, was unknown until comparatively recently. Excavations close to the old Roman road now known as Watling Street, during the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988, revealed its stone foundations. Those are now preserved and open to the public, in situ where they were found, under the gallery.

The amphitheatre was built around AD 70, the same year that the Colosseum was begun in Rome. It was, understandably, considerably smaller, with seating for around 6,000 spectators as opposed to the Colosseum’s 75,000–although when you consider that 6,000 people represented about a quarter of the entire population of the city, it must have seemed a giant building indeed. Most of it was made of wood. Even in the following century, when it was improved and given stone entranceways, the tiers of seats would still have been of timber. The surviving remains are scanty: an illuminated backdrop showing scenes of raked seating and combatants in the arena gives a sense of the original dimensions of the building. In front of it is the surviving section of the eastern entrance to the arena, with side chambers that were perhaps guards’ houses or pens for wild animals. What is most remarkable are the preserved sections of timber drainage channel, complete with a silt sump to collect debris and prevent the drain from getting blocked. It operated by natural gravity, to flood the arena for mock sea battles, and to drain it again.

In common with most of the public structures of Roman Britain, the amphitheatre fell out of use in the 4th century, when the land fell prey to Scots, Picts and Saxons and when the emperors, harried by problems closer to home, stopped sending troops to defend this far-flung island. By the mid-fifth century, Londinium was an abandoned wasteland.

Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome

I have always been fascinated by circular buildings. The Pantheon and Santa Costanza in Rome, the tholos at Delphi. One of my especial favourites is the little-visited Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the slopes of Rome’s Caelian Hill. Below is an extract from the Blue Guide travel monograph Pilgrim’s Rome:

Santo Stefano Rotondo
Open Tues–Sat 9.30–12.30 & 2–5.

In AD 64, during the reign of Nero, a great fire consumed central Rome. It was witnessed by the emperor from a tower on the Esquiline Hill. After the flames had done their worst, Nero instigated a full-scale witch-hunt of the city’s Christians: St Peter may have died at this time. Nero then expropriated the land in the valley between the Esquiline and Palatine hills and constructed his vast Domus Aurea, or Golden House, a sumptuous gilded pleasure palace whose grounds incuded a vast artificial lake (where the Colosseum stands now). To feed this lake, water was brought by a new aqueduct, parts of which can still be seen around St John Lateran and here on the Caelian Hill, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana. To get to the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, you must pass beneath one of its archways.

Santo Stefano Rotondo is a fascinating and atmospheric building, secretive and little-visited, is one of the finest surviving Roman examples of a circular mausoleum-church. It richly rewards any effort made to seek it out.

The association of a circular design with funeral architecture is very old, going back to the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans. Imperial-era Rome made use of it too: the circular mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian still exist, one on each side of the Tiber bank. It is no surprise, then, that the tradition was also adopted by Christians. But just as Christian churches are congregational—unlike pagan temples, where access was restricted only to an elect college of priests—so Christian mausolea were also designed to accommodate crowds of the faithful. The mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian are mainly solid, with just a narrow tunnel and sepulchral chamber inside. There is no internal volume. Christian mausolea enclosed a wide open space designed to allow worshippers to process around and pay homage to the tomb within. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built by Constantine around the tomb of Jesus, is the most famous example of such a structure. In Rome there is the partially collapsed mausoleum of St Helen, Constantine’s mother; the mausoleum of her grand-daughter Constantia (the church of Santa Costanza); and this church, Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Santo Stefano dates from the late fifth century and is dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. In the late sixteenth century the walls were decorated with scenes of the whole panoply of Christian martyrdom, beginning with the Massacre of the Innocents and the Passion of Christ and from there progressing through all the martyred saints, from Peter and Paul during the reign of Nero, through all the gory deaths died under subsequent imperial persecutors and ending with a final scene showing a row of triumphant saints resurrected in peace and glory from the scenes of earthly carnage behind them.

The chapel on the left as you enter the church is dedicated to two Roman brothers, Primus and Felicianus, both martyred under Diocletian and buried in the old sandpits (arenaria) beside the Via Nomentana. Their remains were transferred here in the seventh century, from which time the chapel mosaics date. In the apse, the two saints are shown on either side of a jewelled cross with Christ in a roundel above it (not Christ crucified; early attitudes to crucifixion are dealt with elsewhere in the book). The sixteenth-century frescoes (illustrated) show the two brothers exposed to lions and bears in the arena before being gruesomely done to death.

Below the church is a Mithraeum belonging to the Castra Peregrina barracks (the cult of Mithras is explained elsewhere in the book).

Text © Blue Guides/A.B. Barber

The mystery of the veiled virgins

Moulded in stucco above the west doorway of the Lombard Tempietto in Cividale del Friuli is a famous frieze of six graceful female figures appearing in single file on either side of a narrow aperture. Below the aperture is a semicircular door hood carved with Eucharistic symbols of  grapes. On either side of the narrow aperture, the two outermost women are richly clad. Their heads are crowned and in their hands they carry regalia or offerings: a cross and a diadem. The two figures nearest to the aperture are dressed very plainly. Their heads are veiled and they have no crown. Nor do they bear any gifts or royal trappings: they merely extend their hands towards the aperture itself, to show—-what? Are their hands raised in supplication? In adoration? What would the aperture have contained? What would have appeared at its narrow window? The date of this beautiful work of art is the eighth century AD.

Moving to Rome, to the district of Trastevere and the great church dedicated to the Virgin, Santa Maria in Trastevere. The façade of this church is adorned with a long mosaic frieze depicting a procession of ten female figures, five on each side, approaching a central Madonna and Child. The six outermost women are very richly clad in embroidered gowns. Their heads are crowned and they bear lamps, each with a darting vermilion flame. The four women closest to the Virgin, however, are only veiled. They have no crowns and their lamps are unlit. The date of this equally lovely work is the twelfth/thirteenth century.

But what is the significance of it all? I have no answer. Perhaps it is mere coincidence. But I am still sleuthing. Any help or suggestions would be very welcome.

A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily

1. Fonte Ciane, near Syracuse, just west of the city itself.

To get there, leave town on the road signed for Canciattini. Then fork left onto a narrow lane called Traversa Cozzo Pantano. The Fonte Ciane is at the end of this lane (follow signs to Villa dei Papiri).

The Ciane river meets the sea just south of the city of Syracuse. It is a very short and very narrow river, little more than a brook, winding slowly from its source among papyrus pools and orange groves, in a rather strange landscape of wire fences and barred gates and barking dogs.

I have never seen papyrus growing wild before. In Europe it grows only here, and along another Sicilian river, the Fiumefreddo. The spring at Fonte Ciane takes the form of a reed-fringed pool beside a stand of tall eucalyptus trees. A wooden walkway takes you out over the water so that you can examine the papyrus plants from close quarters. Their stems are extremely tough and cannot be broken without a knife (but don’t experiment—there are signs warning you not to damage the plants). You can also spend long minutes trying to spot the frogs. They make a great din, croaking and puffing out their cheek sacs, but as soon as they hear you approach they fall silent, and locating them can be frustratingly difficult.

The spring takes its name from the Greek word for azure and also from the story of the nymph Cyane, who attempted to prevent Hades from carrying off Persephone and was changed into a fount of water, condemned to everlasting weeping.

Thanks to Wendy Hennessy for supplying the identity of the lizard (Lacerta viridis). They can grow up to 30cm long, excluding the tail. This one was nothing like that length. Reptile enthusiasts can find out more about the species here: www.reptilia.dk/Krybdyr_vi_holder_nu/Oegler/Lacerta_viridis/lacertaviridis.htm. If anyone can identify the frogs, please send a message to editorial@blueguides.com.

2. Syracuse: where the sun always shines

It was Cicero who said that Syracuse knows no day without sun. Certainly when I have been there I have found nothing to prove him wrong. It is a wonderful place, with many layers of history–you can easily spend a few days here. It was founded in the 8th century BC by settlers from Corinth in mainland Greece and rose to great power under its ruler Dionysius the Elder in the 5th century BC. Under the Romans it was peaceful and prosperous and acquired an amphitheatre. St Paul came here and is said to have preached in its great stone quarries. Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes and is now home dedicated to his inventions, appropriately sited in Piazza Archimede (and covered in the new edition of Blue Guide).

The cathedral (duomo) of Syracuse is one of the most extraordinary sights in Italy: a Doric temple of 14 by 6 columns, built in 480 BC by the ruler Gelon, to celebrate victory over the Carthaginians and dedicated to Athena. The closed by a modern curtain wall and obscured in front by a Baroque façade, that temple’s colonnade is fully discernible today. The interior is one of the most atmospheric I know. The picture here shows a view down the south aisle.

The other picture, an oil-painting, in the chapel at the head of the south aisle, shows Bishop Zosimus with the IHS mongram on his chasuble. It was Zosimus who converted the ruined Temple of Athena into a cathedral. The work is attributed to Antonello da Messina, the great 15th-century Sicilian artist credited with introducing oil painting to Italy.

A famous feature of Syracuse are her ancient stone quarries, known as latomies. These were no ordinary quarries. In ancient times they were also used as internment camps for prisoners and cohorts of slaves were kept here in uncompromising conditions, chipping away at the rock to carve out perfect blocks of exactly one cubit. The best-known of the latomies is the so-called Ear of Dionysius, a tall cave entered by a narrow, man-made slit in the rockface, and extending backwards and backwards into the gloom. Once your eyes have got used to the dim light, you will see that every inch of wall surface is striated with the marks of the slaves’ chisels. The name of the cave was coined by Caravaggio, because of its particular acoustic properties: it amplifies every sound, giving back a single eerie echo.

3. The Temple of Olympian Zeus

To get there, take the Via Elorina. Cross the Anapo river, then the Ciane, and then look out for brown signs taking you left to the Tempio di Giove Olimpico.

Just outside Syracuse to the south stand two forlorn columns, in a field of wild flowers next to a horse farm where sad-looking sway-backed horses canter up and down behind a wire fence. It is a very ancient temple, dating from the 6th century BC, and occupied a strategic spot much beloved of would-be besiegers of the town. As the picture below shows, there is a superb view of Ortigia (the old city) from the temple platform.

4. Pantelleria: the donkeys that were saved from extinction

The island of Pantelleria lies over 100km from Sicily, in fact it is closer to Tunisia. It is famous for its delicious capers and its wines, for having been the island home of the nymph Calypso, with whom Odysseus dallied on his way back to Ithaca, and for having a longish roster of celebrity residents, among them Gérard Depardieu. It is served by boat (seas permitting) from Trapani. What is less well known is that it is also the home of a hardy breed of donkey:Photo: Azienda Regionale Foreste Demaniali, Pietro Alfonso

Photo: Azienda Regionale Foreste Demaniali, Pietro Alfonso

According to Ellen Grady, author of Blue Guide Sicily, the Pantelleria ass is a kind of donkey native to the island, where it has been used since the 1st century BC. It’s very big (the size of a pony), very strong, with a smooth, shiny black pelt. Very fast moving, sure-footed on the mountain tracks. It became extinct 20 years ago because people weren’t using them any more and the last one slipped into the sea and drowned. The exciting news is that the forestry technicians at the San Matteo stud farm at Erice have been able to recreate the donkey, using Jurassic Park-style procedures (taking genes from donkeys throughout Italy which had this particular donkey in their ancestry). It has taken them 17 years, but recently the first four Pantelleria asses were shipped to their island, where they will be used for tourism (trekking around the volcanoes).

The stud farm itself, San Matteo on the Sicilian mainland, is reached from the hilltop town of Erice by taking the Raganzili road. It’s also an agricultural museum. More info (in Italian) on the following website: www.ilportaledelcavallo.it/articolo.asp

Venice without the crowds

People often worry that a trip to Venice will be marred by excess numbers of their fellow human beings. True, the city gets very crowded at certain times of year, and yes, there are ever fewer Venetians and ever more wretched carnival mask shops. But overcrowding afflicts only St Mark’s Square, the Accademia Bridge (and the route between the two), the Riva degli Schiavoni, Rialto and sometimes the island of Murano. Other parts are as tranquil as they were when Ruskin came to sketch them. Below are our top ten favourites (list still in progress).

1. San Trovaso: Plenty of people know about the squero, the gondola yard on the Rio San Trovaso in the sestiere of Dorsoduro. Opposite, on Fondamenta Nani, the bàcaro known as Schiavi or Vini al Bottegon is even more celebrated. It features in every single guide book. The ciccheti are superb, it is true, and the range of wines extraordinary, but the crowds at the bar are often more than the tiny place can comfortably handle. What gets overlooked is the large church of San Trovaso itself, with its two huge Diocletian windows, looming over its eponymous campo. It is not by Palladio, but probably by a pupil. Inside there are two Tintorettos and, which always delights me, an altar (just to the right of the west door) dedicated to the guild of gondola-builders. I like to think of them popping in for a quick prayer before or after work at the shipyard just outside.

2. Palazzo Querini-Stampalia: Approached across a narrow canal from Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the sestiere of Castello, this 16th-century palace has interesting interiors, a good collection of paintings (particularly 18th-century documentary views of Venice) and an excellent bookshop. The ground floor was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa and is an interesting example of his work. Perhaps his best. An exhibition documenting Scarpa’s time as director of the Venini glassworks is running on the island of San Giorgio until 29th November. See here for details.

3. La Malcontenta: True, this famous villa is not in Venice: it stands on the bank of the Brenta canal, a narrow, tranquil waterway that runs between Venice and Padua. But to understand Venice in her heyday, you need to come and see these villas. Their Palladian design is serenely perfect, the relationship between building and nature graceful and inspiring. From the 16th century onwards, patrician Venetians would pack up their town houses and travel by horse-drawn barge, the burchiello, up the Brenta to their summer villa.  For the more academically minded this would have meant total repose, and the opportunity to brush up their Greek, study their astrolabes, write treatises on the whooping cough, etc. The more social would have thrown competitively magnificent parties in competitively fragrant gardens and Veronese-frescoed salons. La Malcontenta herself, Elisabetta Foscari, was exiled to this villa by an outraged husband no longer disposed to tolerate her licentious lifestyle. One can imagine her sitting in one of the cushioned window-nooks, gazing sourly and sullenly out at the little willow-shaded curve of the canal whose view her great villa commands. Today a motorised burchiello still runs up the Brenta, between March and October, from the Pietà landing stage in Venice. For details, see www.ilburchiello.it. The Brenta and its villas are covered in Blue Guide Concise Italy and Blue Guide Northern Italy.

4. Santo Stefano: The church of Santo Stefano is one of the finest in Venice. From a distance, its slightly leaning bell-tower is a landmark. It stands in the busy Campo Santo Stefano in the impossibly busy sestiere of San Marco. But inside, it is a haven of quiet. It is one of the churches belonging to the Chorus Pass scheme, which means you have to pay a small amount to get in. And not everyone chooses to do so.

Santo Stefano has long been linked to Venice’s mariners. In the floor of the nave is the huge seal of Francesco Morosini, the Admiral of the Fleet who captured the Peloponnese for Venice (and who also inadvertently blew up the Parthenon during the Siege of Athens in 1687). The guild of bakers, the pistori in Venetian dialect, were attached to this church. Their dry ship’s biscuit was especially prized by the Republic’s quartermasters. As if to emphasise the maritime connections, the church has a magnificent wooden ship’s keel roof. There are four paintings by Tintoretto in the sacristy: Washing of the Feet, Resurrection, Prayer in the Garden and Last Supper (pictured, 4a. Is Judas the man on the left, turning away and guiltily grabbing at the wine?). In the adjoining small cloister is an exquisite bas-relief by Canova, the funeral stele of Giovanni Falier (pictured, 4b), the man who recognised Canova’s sculptor’s talent when he was still a humble kitchen boy and who became his first patron.

5. San Vitale: This church is a particular favourite of mine. It stands in a very crowded spot, on the busy thoroughfare between Campo Santo Stefano and the Accademia Bridge. The dedication is to St Vitalis, once reputed to have been a Roman soldier martyred by Nero but later outed as a figment of the medieval imagination, whereupon his cult was suppressed. The church is now deconsecrated and is used for concerts. But its door is always open and when there is no concert in progress, it is a place to see two wonderful works of art in situ. The main altarpiece, of St Vitalis on a white charger, is by Carpaccio (1514). While his works in the Scuola degli Schiavoni are often hard to view in peace because of the numbers of visitors in the tiny space, this luminous altarpiece shines out at you down the central aisle as you stand at the main west door. On the right-hand side is another fine painting, a typical brown-toned work by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, showing the Archangel Raphael appearing in a glow of intense white light to Sts Anthony of Padua and Louis Gonzaga.

Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards

Charles Freeman, ancient history consultant to the Blue Guides, reports from a recent tour.

I am not good on the Lombards. They hover in northern Italy at a time when not a lot else seems to have been going on, after the fall of the Roman Empire, and were defeated by Charlemagne, after which European civilization gets going again. Yet I had heard of a supposed Lombard chapel, the Tempietto, in Cividale del Friuli, not far from Udine, and it seemed worth visiting.

Cividale del Friuli, attractively set along each side of the river Natisone, was a Roman municipium, a foundation of Julius Caesar’s at the strategic point where two conquered tribes met and the river could be crossed. Its Roman name, Forum Julii, is said to be the origin of the modern name Friuli. The site was not only strategic, but well protected, and this must have been why it was chosen as an early Lombard capital after the Lombards arrived from the north in the sixth century. It later became the chief city of a Lombard Duchy, one of some thirty-five. In the early seventh century the representative of the king, the gastaldius regis, took up residence in the strongest part of the city, up on a cliff overlooking the river. A church dedicated to John the Baptist, a patron saint for the Lombards, was built for his use and later, in about 750, within the same fortified area, a monastery was endowed and set aside as a retreat for the unmarried daughters of the Lombard nobility. The Tempietto is now the sole survivor of this monastery.

The Tempietto is not large, with a hall about six metres square and a presbytery separated by an iconostasis with attractive early columns. The presbytery has three vaults divided by columns and is altogether more ornate than the hall, but the hall has a higher single vault that gives it an air of grandeur. The interior is well-ordered: the Norwegian scholars who have made the study of the Tempietto their life work now agree that it was built as a whole. It also seems that it was linked to the neighbouring church of St John. The most likely use was as a chapel for relics. There is a thirteenth-century report that relics were found under the altar.

Frescoes on the walls survive  if only in fragments, but they show the strong influence of Byzantium with a full-frontal Christ and a Hodegetria, a portrayal of the Virgin Mary ‘who shows the way’ by pointing to her infant son. Then there is a group of saints dressed as soldiers and it appears that these are military martyrs. The only one named, St Hadrian, is known to have been a favourite of the Lombard kings and this confirms the royal connections of the Tempietto. Most intriguing of all are the six stucco statues of women on the higher level of the west wall, the survivors of twelve originals. Again the Byzantine influence is obvious: there are echoes of the figures accompanying Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna. The Lombards were certainly open to the reception of Byzantine models  (as can be seen on their early coins) and Byzantine craftsmen may themselves have decorated the chapel.

The Tempietto is fascinating but it is only part of an array of Lombard finds that are now surfacing in the area, mostly from graves. Already the excellent Archaeological Museum in Cividale has a display of grave goods including delicately carved gold ornaments, rings and crosses. Even this year a new graveyard has been discovered and the sequence of burials show how Germanic motifs from the Lombard’s origins in northern Europe were gradually subsumed within Byzantine models. The Christian Museum has sculpture, notably the eighth-century Altar of the Duke of Ratchis, that makes the point well.

The Altar of the Duke of Ratchis: Lombard art showing clear Byzantine influence.

At heart, the Lombards were always a warrior culture and were spreading further into Italy as late as 751. Ravenna was captured in that year and much of central Italy was under their control until Charlemagne defeated them in 774 and took the crown for himself. There is certainly a lot more to the Lombards than I had guessed. I found their relationship with Byzantium especially intriguing.

Cividale del Friuli is covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy

The Trouble with Snake Goddesses

Over 100 years after the excavations at Knossos, Crete, it is hard for the modern observer to appreciate the excitement engendered by Evans’s finds. Here was a whole new civilization with artistic achievements rivalling Egypt’s. Evans himself fostered expectation by dwelling on the modernity of the style and by embarking on a (now) controversial restoration programme which owed much to his own romanticized image of the ‘Minoan’ (his own word) past. As Minoan artefacts became prestige objects for museums, unscrupulous dealers, smugglers and restorers were quick to react. Top of the wish list was the snake goddess.

With her full exposed bosom, pinched waist, flounced skirt and modern expression, she looked exactly what was expected: an art even superior to that of Classical Greece and comparable to the Italian Renaissance. But Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin has suggested that the famous snake goddess might not be a genuine antiquity.

It is certainly true that from modest beginnings in Crete in 1903, the production of modern Minoica moved onto a world-wide market. In 1914 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid a staggering $950 for a very damaged chryselephantine snake goddess with no detailed provenance. It has affinities with the faïences from the Temple Repositories but also a number of crucial unexplained differences, not least that it is the only example in Minoan art in which ivory is used for a female figure. Questions about its authenticity remain unanswered. In the 1920s the curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, wishing to enhance the status of her department, fell for a marble snake goddess, once again with no provenance except for a vague ‘east of Knossos’. £2750 were duly paid to a local intermediary who said he had it through a Paris dealer. Doubts raised in Crete were set aside and ascribed to jealousy and embarrassment at having allowed such a unique artefact to leave the island. Yet questions soon began to be asked. No archaeologist had actually seen the object come out of the ground. Authentication was based purely on style, subjective judgement and expectations. Evans was still defending it in 1935 but the Fitzwilliam Museum, after demoting its status to ‘dubious’ in 1964, last showed it in 1991.

Who dunnit? Evidence points in two directions: first the Gilliérons, father and son, who worked as restorers for Evans from the very beginning and eventually set up shop in Athens producing fine detailed replicas of Knossos finds for academic collections. Alternatively it was one of the Cretan workers trained by them. Sir Leonard Woolley in his memoirs tells how a forger, confessing on his deathbed, had wept bitter tears on discovering how much money his work could ultimately command.

Extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. Knossos is also one of the sites featured in Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

For more on the Gilliérons and the artworks of Knossos, see here , for details of an exhibition currently running at the Met Museum in New York.

Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues in Florence

Charles Freeman, ancient history consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, takes a tour group to Volterra and Prato, to get away from it all.

One of the enduring pleasures of having written extensively about relic cults is recognizing obscure scenes in medieval frescoes. So who, in the frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the side chapel of San Francesco in Volterra (by Cenni di Francesco, 1410), is the figure standing before a gate in his underclothes? Well, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (emperor 610–41), of course. Returning a fragment of the True Cross recaptured from the Persians to Jerusalem, Heraclius arrived at the city in his full imperial regalia as he assumed the occasion demanded. However, the city gate shut against him until he had showed appropriate humility by stripping off his finery. So this is why we had such a good example of medieval underwear in a fifteenth-century chapel in one of the more attractive towns of Tuscany.

Then there is the Chapel of the Girdle in Prato. This is not just any old girdle, but specifically the one that the Virgin Mary threw down to St Thomas as she was assumed into heaven. It was brought to Prato by a merchant after the crusades and in 1141 was placed in the chancel what is now the city’s cathedral. In the early fourteenth century it was wrested from the control of the clergy and placed in a new chapel in the people’s end of the church, where it still is. On its feast days it is displayed from an external pulpit built into the corner of the church overlooking the piazza.

It is the artwork connected with the Girdle that delights. The chapel has fine frescos of the Life of the Virgin (Agnolo Gaddi) and an intricately cast bronze gate (Maso di Bartolomeo). My favourite is the pulpit itself, which is the work of Donatello, with a frieze of  happy dancing putti. The original is now under cover in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and can be explored from close-up. It is a joy to come across because the putti are so exuberant in their celebration of the relic and, as one of Donatello’s lesser known works, it comes as such a surprise. The museum also has an exquisite fifteenth-century reliquary box for the Girdle, again with dancing putti on the sides. And this is all before one has explored the wonderful frescoes of Filippo Lippi in the main chancel of the cathedral.

Prato has another sacred space, Guiliano da Sangallo’s church of Santa Maria della Carcere, built in Greek style in the late fifteenth century to celebrate an image of the Virgin Mary that a small boy had seen come alive. He claimed to have seen the Virgin climb out of the painting, put the baby Jesus on the ground, then descend into the local prison (carcere) to give it a good scrubbing. On her return she collected her baby and popped back into the picture.

On our way back to Florence, we stopped at the Villa di Castello, which was bought by the Medici at the end of the fifteenth century and once housed several of Botticelli’s greatest works, including The Birth of Venus. It is now the meeting place of the venerable Accademia della Crusca founded in 1582.Crusca means bran, and the Accademia is dedicated to winnowing out infelicities from the Italian language. In 2012 it is celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Europe’s first dictionary that it compiled.

The villa interior is closed to the public but the garden is open and, amazingly, is free of charge. This is one of the great gardens of Europe, an inspiration for later Italian gardens but also known for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits, over ninety different varieties. They are set out in great terracotta tubs in rows around a central sixteenth-century fountain. Here the gardeners devotedly tend the most obscure permutations of oranges and lemons, and even crosses between the two, all carefully nurtured from century to century. It is an entrancing place—and what is more extraordinary still, until a French group arrived as we were leaving, we were the only visitors.

There could be no better reasons for planning a day away from the queues of Florence.

Volterra and Prato and the Villa di Castello are covered in detail in Blue Guide Tuscany. For Florence itself, see here.