Florence and Buda: two cities of learning

It was through Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who became King of Hungary aged 15 in 1458, that Renaissance art and Humanism was first exported outside Italy. The King’s erudition and interests linked him closely with Lorenzo il Magnifico in Florence, and they exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. Many of the very beautiful volumes (often similar in size and decoration) that they commissioned in Florence from Renaissance artists and scholars have survived. By the end of his life Corvinus possessed one of the most important libraries then in existence—and, far richer than his Medici counterpart, he was able to put together an even more precious collection of manuscripts than the one then in Florence. Some of the manuscripts (including his Bible, exquisitely illuminated in Florence by Attavante and Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni) remained unfinished at his death so never reached Hungary, but are today preserved in the Medici Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

Matthias Corvinus, copy of a lost portrait by Mantegna.

In 1476 Corvinus married Beatrice, the highly educated daughter of Ferdinand I of Aragon, King of Naples, and he had a splendid marble bust of her made by Francesco Laurana at the time of their engagement. She was only 16 or 17 years old and Laurana’s sculpture is today one of the masterpieces in the Frick Museum in New York. The couple were then portrayed, probably by Giovanni Dalmata, in a double portrait (preserved in Budapest) in profile in low relief in white marble against a dark green background. Beatrice proved a worthy wife, sharing Matthias’s passion for books and music and she herself was a patron of the arts. Also preserved in Budapest is the splendid brocaded velvet which once decorated the royal throne in Buda, known to have been made in Florence on a design by Antonio del Pollaiolo (and restored in 2013).

It was at the court of Matthias’s predecessor King Sigismund that Filippo Scolari, known as Pippo Spano, had an important career as military leader but he was also a renowned Humanist. At that time the painter Masolino was called to Hungary to carry out frescoes for his funerary chapel, so the artist abandoned his work at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, leaving Masaccio to complete it. Pippo Spano was immortalised in Florence as one of the ‘famous men’ frescoed by Andrea del Castagno (now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, but sadly usually not on view).

During Matthias’s time many Florentine merchants lived in Buda, including Bernardo Vespucci, brother of Amerigo. We know that in 1469 the Signoria sent two lions, symbols of Florence, to Corvinus, as a sign of homage.

A portrait of Matthias, with his characteristic long flowing locks, by an unknown Lombard painter copied from a famous portrait of him by Mantegna (now lost) has had an interesting history. When attributed to Boltraffio, it was purchased from a private Italian collection by the press baron Lord Rothermere, famous as an advocate of the revision of the Versailles Peace Treaty. In certain influential political circles in Hungary at the time Rothermere became so popular for the irredentist campaign in his popular newspapers that a proposal was made to him to become Hungarian head of state (or, if he preferred, to have his son thus enthroned). This clearly caused him considerable embarrassment and to avoid any misunderstanding he presented this portrait of Matthias to Miklós Horthy in 1930, on the tenth anniversary of the latter’s election as regent of the Hungarian state, and it was hung in the royal palace of Buda. It is now in the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest, but in store and so sadly not on view.

At the end of last year Italy dedicated its first exhibition to Matthias Corvinus, appropriately held in the library of San Marco, and curated by Péter Farbaky, director of the Budapest History Museum. Farbaky’s interest in Corvinus had already led to an international conference in Florence at Villa I Tatti in 2007, the papers of which where published in November 2011 by Harvard University.

(by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.)

In March of this year, also in the Budapest History Museum, an exhibition will open of self-portaits of Hungarian artists from the Uffizi collection. The show will be reviewed on this blog.

Thoughts on Rome

Some thoughts and insights from Karl Audenaerde:

We just returned from our annual month in Rome, and as always were pleasantly amazed by all the new stuff there still is to discover.  You may be aware of most or all of it, but in case you are not, here are our five cents worth:


(1) Priorato di Malta: I never met anyone who had got in by calling the Cavalieri, but various Roman cultural associations offer guided tours.  We used www.info.roma, but there are others as well.  Interesting detail: a fountain in the magnificent gardens with an inscription referring to the Templars; it is supposed to be the only visible sign of them left in Rome.

(2) In the Castel Sant’Angelo the route has been completely changed, bringing the visitor to spaces that previously were not accessible.

(3) Santa Maria in  Cosmedin: the archaeological narrative seems to have undergone a major revision, and the newer version makes more sense, at least to us.  (When we’re in Rome we belong to the Greek-Melkite parish there.)  Here follows what I wrote in our travel diary, immediately after the visit:
It all starts with the Invicti Herculis Ara Maxima, a huge 20x20m altar, built in the sixth century BC and related to one of the Greek myths (as opposed to Romulus and Remus) explaining the origin of Rome. In short: the area of the Foro Boario, near a fordable crossing of the Tiber, was halfway between the Etruscan North and the Greek South, and became a major meeting place for all kinds of merchants traveling the Mediterranean basin.  And since Hercules had roamed the entire area…
The enormous altar was located where now the front half of the church is.  Some of its tufa blocks can still be seen near the entrance of the current crypt. It was built where the hero was supposed to have slain the monster Cacus, and its construction was attributed to Evander in 495 BC.  Later it was embellished with a propylon that obtained its final form after the great fire, and of which a number of columns can still be seen, incorporated in the current structure of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The theory that this building was the Statio Annonae has been abandoned.  The area had been inhabited by Greek expatriates for the longest time, and when Greek refugee monks from the Kosmadeion (Constantinopolitan convent devoted to Saints Cosmas and Damian) arrived, they chose to live where they encountered fellow countrymen. Whatever building was already there was adapted to their use, but together with everything else was destroyed by the Normans of Robert Guiscard.  Under Pope Hadrian II (867-872) the Eastern wall of the propylon (or what was left of it) was breeched and the church was expanded towards the East.  A crypt was dug into the tufa base of the Ara Maxima.  The niches in the crypt originally served as seats, more or less like stone versions of the later choir stalls.  The shelves that one sees now halfway up in each niche were added later to accommodate urns, likely from martyred Saints whose remains were removed from the catacombs during the Middle Ages.  Around 1123 Cardinal Alfano (camerlengo of Calixtus II, 1119-24) had the church rebuilt.  Except for the winter chapel all Baroque additions were removed in 1894-99.  
In parentheses, the church is trying to raise money (1.2 million Euro…) to restore the winter chapel.

(4) Casino dell’Aurora Pallavicini: Aurora is invariably described as “scattering flowers before the chariot of the sun.”  But I didn’t see any scattered flowers, and came up with an alternative interpretation: a literal version of Homer’s rose-fingered dawn with rosesemanating from her finger tips.  I wonder if I’ll make some converts…

(5) The newly discovered and excavated Auditoria di Adriano off the Piazza Venezia.  It has been called the most important archaeological find of the last 80 years.

(6) Santa Maria della Concezione (the Cappuccini) is closed for restoration.  They have a brand new museum detailing the history and spirituality of the order, and their infamous bone collection is now accessed through the museum of which it has become an integral part.

(7) San Paolo fuori le Mura: the excavation to the south of the basilica is finished, and open to he public.  The excavated area contains remnants of various monastic buildings belonging to the abbey as it existed during the papacy of Gregorio II (715-731).  It is very well presented with labeling in Italian and English.

(8) Palazzo Valentini (the administrative seat of the province of Rome): below it is an excellent excavation of two domus and enough circumstantial evidence to conclude that the long-lost temple of Trajan has been found.  The whole thing is made exciting by a very sophisticated multi-media show with alternating presentations in English and Italian.  It is even wheelchair accessible!  They have some info on-line, but expect a book out by this spring.  It is one of the best things we’ve ever seen in Rome!  And so far no guide book mentions it.

(9) A few rooms of the Palazzo Lancellotti have been rented out to a Turkish cultural center.  Not much of interest there, but it gets you in the door at the Palazzo Lancellotti, and that is more than worth the effort.

Copyrighting Heritage

I enjoyed David Miles’ article on Stonehenge in this month’s Minerva magazine. I remember visiting Stonehenge in the autumn of 1978. I was almost the only person there. I don’t remember any fences. I walked right up to it. I touched the stones. I took pictures of it. I have never been since, though I have glimpsed it from the A303. Noticing that all the photographs in the Minerva article were copyrighted to English Heritage, I thought I had better look again at EH’s statement about copyright, since it has been in the news lately. If I were to dig out one of my old 1978 photographs and then print it in a forthcoming Blue Guide, would I have committed a felony?

This is what they say, on their website:

Well, it’s generous of them not to have a problem with photographers sharing images on not-for-profit websites. Not that Flickr is quite the sharing experience it used to be, since now you have to sign up before you can see anything. But woe betide anyone who enters English Heritage land ‘with the intention of taking a photograph for financial gain…’ Filthy financial gain! Could any photographer have such dastardly intent? But what if I took a photograph of Stonehenge, not with loathsome lucre on my mind but with the intention of illustrating a Blue Guide? Would I still have to pay to use my photo, even though no one is paying me to reproduce it and the book is a costly-to-produce printed guide aimed at encouraging people to visit the site?

I don’t think the demonising of ‘profit’ is helpful. Without it, there is no culture or civilisation. Even not-for-profit organisations are reliant on profit. The funding they get comes from profit that someone else has made somewhere else on something else at some other time. For now, I’ll avoid reproducing images of English Heritage sites, because I don’t want any hassle. But I do want to help photographers to make a living. Yes, financial gain. For talented, creative people. Sharing stuff around the campfire is fine, but it doesn’t lead very far. And anyway, how can you fairly and squarely copyright HERITAGE?

Stonehenge at the solstice. For copyright reasons, this image cannot be displayed.

Food is the new Florence

‘Yes,’ said Lucy. ‘They are lovely. Do you know which is the tombstone that is praised in Ruskin?’
[…] ‘I like Giotto,’ she replied. ‘It is so wonderful what they say about his tactile values.’

These famous words are uttered in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, by Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. When he published it, in 1908, the hopeful middle classes in Britain and the US all dreamed one day of going to Florence, to follow in Lucy’s footsteps. Many would have recognised, with a frisson of delight at their own erudition, that ‘tactile values’ is a quote from Bernard Berenson. And for decades this persisted. Everyone wanted to find out the answers to the same questions that bothered Lucy. And travel publishers brought out guide after guide to help them, earnestly describing fresco cycles, assisting the eager visitor to view with understanding what needed to be viewed and understood.

Today that mould has been broken. Tactile values can go hang. Not that human nature has changed; it cannot. Travellers still dream of going to Florence and they are still anxious to see and to experience. They are as delighted as ever—as thrilled as Lucy was—to get a personalised guided tour and to tell everyone back home.

But not in Santa Croce. The Peruzzi Chapel doesn’t have the glamour it once had. Far better would be if the maitre d’ at Enoteca Pinchiorri, thrice Michelin starred, were to rush forward, usher you to an excellent table, whisk the menu from your hands and offer to concoct a personalised gastro tour, just for you.

So yes, it’s still all about wanting to emulate the heroes of our age and to be admired in our turn as members of some charmed inner circle. Lucy and her culture-hungry counterparts were aping the patrician Grand Tourists of the previous century, who had wanted art and sculpture. Lucy joined them, wanting art and sculpture too. But today our heroes have changed. They are no longer aristocrats and aesthetes with cabinets full of Tuscan bronzes or walls adorned by Renaissance artists with breathtaking brushwork. They are TV chefs with Mediterranean herb gardens and nifty knife work. When we go on holiday, we don’t hang upon the words of Berenson. Few may need to know which was the tombstone admired by Ruskin. People are traversing Italy as much as ever, but with Plotkin, not Ruskin, as their mentor.

Food, after all, is universal. Everyone eats. And now too, unlike 50 years ago, the travelling, vacationing classes do their own cooking and housekeeping. Food is a levelling, absorbing subject. Suddenly, for the mass of travellers, Giotto’s pigments are not half so interesting as Maestro Giorgio’s condiments.

For the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion, a handy guide to help you negotiate any menu (and available in print or as a downloadable app), see here. Fred Plotkin’s Italy for the Gourmet Traveler is published by Kyle.

So what is the Turkish Van?

The Turkish Van is not a mode of transport. It is a domestic feline animal, otherwise known as the Van Cat from its home in the Van region of eastern Turkey. It is said that the cats first came to Europe from the Middle East, in the wake of returning crusaders, and thence, in the 20th century, made their way to the United States.

Van Cat, embroidered in Chinese silk

The cats are recognised by their long bushy tails and fluffy white coats, often with brown markings on the head and tail (the all-white ones are very beautiful but breeders complain that they are prone to deafness). Uniquely, their fur is resistant to water: the Van cat is an enthusiastic swimmer. Their other peculiarity, which makes them startling to look at, is their tendency to have eyes of odd colours: one blue, the other tawny.

Statue of the municipal mascots of the town of Van, cat and kitten (photo by Paola Pugsley)

Paola Pugsley’s guide to the Van region of Turkey is published in digital format as Blue Guide Eastern Turkey.

The Honey Of Hybla

An important preservative as well as sweetener, honey was an indispensable ingredient in the Classical kitchen. Along with the bees of Mount Hymettus and Mount Ida in Greece, the wild bees of Mount Hybla in the province of Ragusa, Sicily, were the most celebrated source of honey in Antiquity. They and their produce became a literary byword for all things exceptionally sweet and good, eventually coming to represent poetry itself. Citing Theocritus (c. 300 bc), the founding father of the pastoral idyll, the American 19th-century nature writer John Burroughs expanded on the subject in his Locusts and Wild Honey: ‘Sicily has always been rich in bees.

The idylls of Theocritus are native to the island in this respect, and abound in bees, ‘flat-nosed bees’ as he calls them in the Seventh Idyll, and comparisons in which comb-honey is the standard of the most delectable of this world’s goods. His goatherds can think of no greater bliss than that the mouth be filled with honeycombs, or to be inclosed in a chest like Daphnis and fed on the combs of bees; and among the delectables with which Arsinoe cherishes Adonis are ‘honey-cakes’, and other tidbits made of ‘sweet honey’. In the country of Theocritus this custom is said still to prevail: when a couple are married, the attendants place honey in their mouths, by which they would symbolize the hope that their love may be as sweet to their souls as honey to the palate.’ In his first Eclogue, Virgil described the ideal lullaby for old age to be the murmuring of Hybla bees. Ovid compared women’s hairstyles to their numberlessness. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with some sarcasm Cassius remarks that Mark Antony’s fine words ‘rob the Hybla bees and leave them honeyless’.

In one sonnet John Keats longs to sweeten his song by sipping the dew on ‘Hybla’s honied roses’ in the moonlight. Fanny Trollope, disappointed in business in the US, made euphemistic use of the honey’s proverbial qualities in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): ‘During nearly two years that I resided in Cincinnati, or its neighbourhood, I neither saw a beggar, nor a man of sufficient fortune to permit his ceasing his efforts to increase it; thus every bee in the hive is actively employed in search of that honey of Hybla, vulgarly called money; neither art, science, learning, nor pleasure can seduce them from its pursuit.’ That pursuit was possibly not far from the mind of James Leigh Hunt when he published a popular volume of Sicilian divertimenti simply entitled A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla in 1848. The actual thing can in fact still be purchased, in different varieties according to the flora of the season: the satra honey is derived from wild thyme; zagara honey from citrus flowers.

Extract from Blue Guide Sicily © Blue Guides, All Rights Reserved. For more Sicily posts, see here.

A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey

One of the things about London that always delights and impresses visitors from overseas is the fact that the great national museums are free. It delights and impresses me, too. Just think of the British Museum. Think of all that responsibility. The duty of the curators to all those works of art is immense. The cost of conserving them, keeping them proof from theft, must be prodigious. Not to mention the salaries for all the other staff, the cleaning, the heating. Yet as visitors, we are not burdened with any of that. It’s free. And they maintain an impeccable website too. How do they manage it?

Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, the great Collegiate Church of St Peter, costs £18 per adult per visit. Of course, it is a similarly rich repository of history and heritage. And it faces similarly enormous costs of upkeep. The fabric of the building, its delicate monuments, ancient woodwork, paintwork, stonework, stained glass. Heating bills, cleaning bills, feather dusters. It is also a place of worship. Lest anyone forget this, every hour, on the hour, a disembodied recorded voice rings out across the fan vaulting enjoining us to bow our heads and pray. And it has cost us all £18 to get in.

Perhaps I wouldn’t mention this twice in a single paragraph, though, if I felt amply compensated by the experience of having been there. But I don’t. Despite the steep ticket price, large sections of the Abbey are roped off and you soon find yourself herded along a demarcated one-way route a bit like shuffling up a RyanAir check-in line. And the vergers are intransigent. ‘I’m sorry!’ A uniformed arm is politely but firmly held out across my scurrying person, ‘That part of the Abbey is closed!’ I had wanted to see one thing in particular. I knew it was somewhere in the south aisle. Access was barred. But I had paid £18! That is an expensive way to be told to shove off.

Of course, I am not in charge of maintaining the Abbey and I don’t know the ins and outs of it. I know the vergers are only doing their job. One of them, in the Lady Chapel, was charming and helpful. The others, even as they said ‘No’, mostly said it with a smile. But still, I was a visitor and I had a sub-par ‘visitor experience’. Wouldn’t it be more logical to do one of the following: Either let the Abbey be free, but because it is a functioning church, reserve the right to close parts of it off and boot sightseers out when services begin. This is what they do in St Peter’s in Rome, and if you haven’t paid you can’t with all conscience object if sections are out of bounds. Or, charge a hefty admission fee, but then admit that it’s a museum, as they do in the major churches of Venice and Florence. And for goodness sake allow visitors to see what they’ve paid for. Where exactly in the south aisle IS the monument to Sir Godfrey Kneller? I’m not going to pay another £18 on the off chance that it might not be roped off next time. But unlike the British Museum, Westminster Abbey does not maintain an impeccable website. It lacks a properly marked-up floorplan showing who is buried and commemorated where. Is this because it is assumed that no one really wants to know? Or is it because the chances, for a visitor, of being able to see the monuments of his or her choice are so slim that it honestly isn’t worth it?

The Abbey also operates a no-photo policy, which is galling. I would have loved to take a few pictures. I’m not talking about setting up a tripod or blinding other visitors with my flash. I’m talking about snapping epitaphs with my telephone. In St Peter’s (Rome), photography is allowed and it gives visitors enormous pleasure. In Westminster Abbey it is rigorously prohibited, and instead, visitors are informed glibly that there is a wide selection of postcards in the Abbey shop. Postcards?! I didn’t want a postcard. I had hoped to be able to take a close-up shot of the extraordinary Nightingale memorial, by Roubiliac (1761), so I could study it at home. Or perhaps illustrate a short comparison in this blog with Bernini’s Alexander VII monument (1678) in St Peter’s (Rome). In both monuments, the draped skeleton of Death emerges from below to threaten the commemorated mortal with an intimation of their end (in the Bernini monument, Death’s instrument is an hour glass; in the Roubiliac, it is a spear). But while Pope Alexander sits tight, unmoved by the premonition, Mrs Nightingale faints into the arms of her appalled husband. These descriptions all a bit meaningless without a picture, aren’t they? But in Westminster Abbey there is strictly no photography; and the ruling is stubbornly policed. Oh well, there is a wonderful archive image of the Nightingale tomb here, on this excellent Spitalfields blog. And here (below) is the Bernini (photo © Jean-Pol Grandmont). Roubiliac had certainly seen the Bernini work. Nine years before he designed the Nightingale, in 1752, he had achieved a long-cherished ambition to visit Rome. By all accounts he didn’t stay very long, but it was enough. Presumably the authorities at St Peter’s permitted him to use a sketch book.