Letter from Italy

Virtual museum tours: some of the best

For professional guides in Italy this is, of course, a period in which they suddenly find themselves without work. However many museums, while closed to the public, have made it possible not only to consult their catalogues or browse the collections online but have also opened virtual exhibitions. The Uffizi in Florence is one such example.

Easter is usually the busiest time of year in Florence, with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traditional Scoppio del Carro is held in Piazza del Duomo on Easter morning. This year, however, there will be no visitors and no events—even church services must be attended remotely. Spring is definitely on the way, however, and the plants and birds at least are enjoying the sun and clean air as never before. The Uffizi’s ‘The Easter Story’, an exhibition on the theme of the Resurrection, will help us to look forward to better times ahead.

And the Uffizi is not alone in its response. Lisa Corsi, a professional guide who lives in Florence, has investigated some of the most interesting websites available in English at this period of universal lockdown and shared her findings with Blue Guides.

Italy

1. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence offers various online exhibits at this link: www.uffizi.it/en/online-exhibitions Here is a list of the current online exhibits, all with high-definition pictures of Uffizi works of art.
– “Non per foco ma per divin’arte. Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries”. An excursus on the figure of Dante and on his legacy in the works and in the minds of the artists.
– “On being present; recovering blackness at the Uffizi Gallery”. The idea is to understand and resignificate with a historic approach, the presence of black people in the Uffizi paintings.
– “In the light of the Angels; a journey through 12 masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries, between human and divine”. This exhibit is all about Angels; from Giotto to Giovanni da San Giovanni, with very good pictures.
– “Today a Saviour has been born to you: the Uffizi Galleries’ paintings on the Nativity and Epiphany”. A thematic exhibition.
– “Following in Trajan’s Footsteps; a virtual exhibition on items from the reign of Trajan present in the Uffizi collections”.
– “The Room of Saturn in the Pitti Palace; a history of the arrangements in the Room of Saturn, from the 16th century to the present day”. I found this interesting, and it also includes the latest changes from 2018 in the room that features the largest group of paintings by Raphael.
– “#BotticelliSpringMarathon A virtual exhibition on the construction of the contemporary Botticelli myth through social media”. An excursus on the fame and fortune of Botticelli from the 19th century to social media.
– “The Easter Story: Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ among the artworks of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “Views from around the World; an ‘intercultural vision’ of some masterpieces of the Uffizi Galleries”.
– “The Scenic Virtuality of a Painting: “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” by Piero di Cosimo. A masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance depicting the myth recounted by Ovid in Book IV of the Metamorphoses”. An in-depth approach to one of the Uffizi’s most unusual paintings.
– “Between Human and Divine: Cimabue and the Santa Trinita Maestà”. Observing the details of one of the most important medieval paintings in the Uffizi collection.
– “New languages to communicate tradition: Vanished Florence. Images of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, before it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy” This is fun, though mostly aimed at people who know Florence quite well.
– “Painting and Drawing ‘like a Great Master’: the talent of Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638–55)”. An exhibit on one of the rare women painters of the past.
– “Federico Barocci, master draughtsman. The creation of images; extraordinary examples from the rich collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Amico revisited. Drawings by Amico Aspertini and other Bolognese artists; discovering marvels from the collection of prints and drawings of the Uffizi”.
– “Traces 2018. Letting fashion drive you in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “Traces. Dialoguing with art in the Museum of Costume and Fashion”.
– “The World of Yesterday: rare book collection of the Library on view”. These 39 books tell us the fascinating story of Pasquale Nerino Ferri (1851–1917), the first director of the Uffizi’s Prints and Drawings Department, through analysis of his handwritten notes and the dates and dedications written by his correspondents from all over Europe.

2. The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan has a good site. The online collection features 669 records, all with high-resolution images and information on the various works. At this link pinacotecabrera.org/en/collezioni/the-collection-online you can browse the collection searching by author, material, date, etc. There is also a section dedicated to the masterpieces which features (with great pictures) the 11 most famous paintings in the collection (by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Hayez, Boccioni, Pellizza da Volpedo and Modigliani).

3. Also in Milan, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli offers an online catalogue of many of its artworks. It is very well done. The museum was once the house of the art lover and collector Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822–79). Here’s the link to its site: museopoldipezzoli.it/en/artworks.

4. Virtually visit the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and its grounds. It is the residence of the Italian head of state, the President of the Italian Republic, currently Sergio Mattarella: palazzo.quirinale.it/visitevirtuali/visitevirtuali_en.html.

5. Also in Rome the Galleria Borghese offers good pictures and a little explanation of some of its artworks: galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/il-museo/autori-e-opere.

Rest of the world

6. The Archeological Museum in Athens has a good site, very easy to navigate. Here’s the link: www.namuseum.gr/en/collections.

7. The Prado Museum in Madrid has a great site with lots of artworks featured by artist, by century, by theme. Here’s the link: www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-works. And here are the Prado masterpieces: museodelprado.es/en/the-collection.

8. The British Museum in London has a very good site that allows you to browse the collections and also to virtually visit its rooms. Very well done. Here’s the link: britishmuseum.org/collection.

9. The Metropolitan Museum in New York (metmuseum.org) has an online collection: metmuseum.org/toah/works.
It also offers an interesting “Timeline of Art History”: metmuseum.org/toah/chronology/#!?time=all&geo=all. There are also many essays that can be read online at its link: metmuseum.org/toah/essays
And some videos: metmuseum.org/art/online-features/met-360-project.

10. The site of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is very impressive and offers different possibilities, including a virtual tour of the rooms.
There is also the “Explore the Hermitage” section, where you can choose to learn more on a single work of art, or learn more on the buildings, visit the online collection and more. Here’s the link.
The only downside is that this is a very “heavy” site to navigate and it requires a fast internet connection and a good computer.


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Dante Day

Italy is still in the front line of the battle against Coronavirus, with more deaths in a day (475 on 18th March) than in any other country including China. The population is taking lockdown seriously and inevitably the use of the web from home-users has increased enormously. I was interested to see reports in the newspapers of the forthcoming ‘Dantedì’, instituted by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. The idea is to make 25th March into an annual celebration in honour of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri. The date has been chosen as it was on that day in 1300, under a full moon, that Dante and Virgil begin their week-long journey from Hell through Purgatory into Paradise in The Divine Comedy. March 25th is also the feast-day of the Annunciation, which began the new year in the Florentine calendar up until the 18th century.

The day is intended to celebrate Dante and the Italian language. This year’s celebration was planned as an ‘antipasto’ to the great events scheduled for next year, 2021 which marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. With the country in lockdown, no public events can be held in the piazze this year, but there will be numerous events online and on television.

Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence and the city later provided the great human melting-pot from which the poet took inspiration for some of the most memorable characters of the Divina Commedia. Dante also served a two-month term as one of the six priors in the Florentine government in 1300. During his absence in Rome, as part of an official delegation to Pope Boniface VIII, he was accused of fraud and corruption by a faction of the Guelf party and when he failed to return in 1302 to defend himself he was sentenced to death. He chose to go into exile and was never to return to his beloved city.

The Divina Commedia was written during his exile and in it he re-elaborated, with amazing imagination and poetic skill, the classical myth of the descent into Hades. It provides an astonishing ‘summa’ of medieval culture, but this epic poem is also written in a language (partly created by the poet himself) which is as close to modern Italian as Shakespeare’s language is to English today. What perhaps impresses us most in the poem is that Dante, while providing a vibrant fresco of the political and religious controversies of his time, is also able to tell us about himself, about his friends and enemies, about his teachers, his passions and his religious belief. The Commedia is about a man called Dante Alighieri, who finds salvation thanks to the love of the angelic Beatrice. But author and ‘hero’ are one and the same: Dante’s fede (faith), which he defines as ‘the substance of our hopes’, permits him to assert that the story that he tells actually took place. And when we read the Commedia, it is very difficult not to believe him.

The poet died (and was buried) in Ravenna. Naturally he features in our description of that city in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna, but he is also frequently recorded in other Blue Guides, because so many buildings and monuments in Italy are mentioned in his poem. But it is in Florence where his presence is felt most: in the medieval area where he lived, in the places he describes (now marked by marble plaques), in the monuments inside and outside Santa Croce, and in the frescoed portraits of him which still survive in the city.

Florence was also the birthplace of Boccaccio (1313–75), a great admirer of Dante. He experienced the great plague of 1348, which in his Decameron becomes an allegory for the moral decay of his time. It is for this reason that Boccaccio’s stories, written in beautiful and articulate prose, should not be regarded simply as examples of literary originality and of a Renaissance sense of humour. The tales recounted in the Decameron are told by three young men and seven young women who, in order to escape a city devastated by plague (and also by greed and avarice) find refuge in a villa near Fiesole, where they create a world in which the mercantile mentality is refined through a rediscovery of the values of classical humanitas and courtesy. With a lightness of touch and true wit, Boccaccio reminds us that the first step towards creating a more humane society is to recover the precious art of story-telling.

In these dire times we have much to learn from these two great medieval literary figures.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 22nd March 2020

I gratefully acknowledge the help of my son Giovanni Ivison Colacicchi in interpreting the poetic significance of both Dante and Boccaccio. Giovanni and his companion Elisa are at present in lockdown in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, one of the regions of Italy worst hit by Coronavirus, but they are lucky enough to be able to carry on their teaching activity from home, and their 3-year-old son Francesco is greatly enjoying their presence, 24 hours a day.


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Pope Francis takes a walk

With Italy in lockdown because of Coronavirus, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of Pope Francis walking along the deserted Corso in Rome from Piazza Venezia to the church of San Marcello. He decided to make this gesture of solidarity and hope to the faithful since the church contains a Crucifix said to be miraculous. He went in and knelt before it, a lone figure, to pray for the end of this current ‘plague’. On the same day he also went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to offer up a prayer before the greatly venerated image of the Madonna which for centuries has been known as the ‘Salus Populi’ or ‘Saviour of the People’. These simple gestures, typical of the present Pope and made totally regardless of security, were seen by many Italians as an encouragement to all at a time when, for the first time in history, churches all over the country are forbidden to hold services.

We have just brought out the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome and in fact had expanded our text on the San Marcello Crucifix, which now reads as follows: “Today the church has become a site of modern pilgrimage, with a banner on the façade proudly advertising its ‘Crocifisso Miracoloso’ or wonder-working Crucifix […] a 14 th -century Cross which was greatly revered by Pope John Paul II, who in the year 2000 had it moved to St Peter’s during Lent”. For the future 13th edition will remember to note this historic visit by Papa Francesco.

Many will be sceptical about the miraculous element in this story but no one can deny that it was a spontaneous act of faith and encouragement from a pope greatly admired for his closeness to the people. The fact that he left the Vatican to pray before this precious ancient work has encouraged a feeling of involvement in a country and a city where a great many devout Catholics are now isolated one from the other. We are told that the Pope is now in confinement at Santa Marta, just as we are in confinement in our own homes.

Alta Macadam, 15th March 2020


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Letter from Italy

With the closure today of the museums and monuments in all of Italy, those of us who visit them also for work are left wondering how such a thing could have happened in our lifetime. We suddenly find ourselves facing a drastic shortage of culture: no libraries, no theatre, no cinema. However, the very direct explanation by Prime Minister Conte late last night made it all too clear how necessary such measures have become in a country where the dreaded Coronavirus is suddenly holding us all hostage. There is no doubt that Italy has trusted leaders in Conte and President Mattarella, and the country’s medical profession are displaying all their dedication and efficiency. There is an evident preparedness in those in places of responsibility and a feeling of teamwork and pulling together in times of emergency. Millions of other Italians have merely been asked to stay at home for the time being. A measure which seems eminently sensible and which should not be a great sacrifice. Who knows how this forced restriction might even foster closer family relationships and make the homes themselves more comfortable. My garden will certainly enjoy greater attention. And with all the benefits of the internet, no one need feel cut off. There is even hope that the closure of museums and monuments will give those great institutions a chance for practicalities impossible when they are open all the time—even if only some radical cleaning, but also perhaps some reorganisation—an almost welcome pause to ‘stand back’ and contemplate themselves and their ‘mission’. I look of course on the rosy side of things, the side for those fortunate enough to have families and homes, but there is a very ugly side of this ‘shut down’, such as the situation in the overcrowded prisons, or that of people cut off from their families who are in hospitals or nursing homes, and the extremely dire economic consequences. This situation is making us all wonder about how we should live our lives in the future, about how long we can expect to enjoy ‘normal’ life in our global world.

For my involvement in the Blue Guides to Italy (Blue Guide Rome has just been published) it means I cannot set off for Venice and the Veneto for work on a volume coming up for revision: a restriction which has been imposed on me for the very first time by circumstances beyond my control (the only other time this happened to me was when I had to cut short a trip for Blue Guide Northern Italy when I was staying in Trieste the day of the terrible earthquake which hit the Friuli in 1976).

We can but hope the virus will soon be dominated with the help of everyone round the world and that we will soon return to a life as we know it, if greatly sobered by what has happened to us all.

Alta Macadam. Florence, 10th March 2020

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

Waging war with a view

The Portofino peninsula today is a regional park, visited for its stunning views, the special flora and fauna and the microclimate, not to mention the extraordinary geology. It has been, however, for a much longer time a strategic outpost. On a clear winter day one has an unimpeded view stretching from La Spezia to Capo Mele with, in the middle, in the distance, a faint notion of Corsica. The Genoa archives have thick bundles of documents relating to the military use of the location way back in the 18th century. Today’s hikers, though, will not have failed to notice military remains, thick cement constructions, looking decisively much more recent. These are almost undocumented: nothing in the archives, neither in Genoa nor in Germany. But they are indeed a combined Italian and German effort going back to WW2.

The turquoise waters of San Fruttuoso

In 1939 the Italian army proceeded to install three guns on the west side of the peninsula in a place known as Erbaio, just above Punta Chiappa. Three concrete platforms were built for the purpose and three guns intended to protect Genoa harbour were installed. They were 6m long, 152/20mm calibre with a 10/15km range. In the autumn of 1943, the German army took over the coastal defences. Beaches were blocked and mined and the German Marine Artillery Command 619 organised a number of batteries in the area: Monte di Portofino was one of them. They were manned by German troops assisted by elements of the Todt Division (Italian civilians doing military work) and some locals.

A number of batteries were added and were connected by the very same paths that today’s hikers use, all leading to S. Rocco, the location of the German headquarters in the beautiful villa Giulia (see plan). At sea level Punta Chiappa, the only sea access, was defended by three machine gun station not far from the harbour where the vaporetto delivers its cargo of visitors in summer. Higher up at Erbaio (the path connecting the two locations was better in those days) the existing complex was enlarged with three sentry posts, headquarters, dorms, an infirmary, stores and kitchen, washroom and toilets, and even an open-air altar built in a stone that is not local and painted blue. Huge concrete bunkers (wall thickness 2m, roof thickness 3m) were built to cover two of three guns previously installed by the Italian army. They were grassed over for camouflage. Two smaller concrete constructions (radio bunker and telemetre, i.e. observation bunker) connected by a spiral staircase in the rock were built nearby; camouflage was by hooking nets covered in suitable vegetation. More tunnels were blasted out of the rock to connect the installations and provide ammunition storage. A large graffito warned soldiers not to play with the guns because they might be loaded. There was also room for four additional machine guns. The surroundings were mined.

From Erbaio the Germans built a path to Bricco, a location that affords the best possible panorama of the Gulf of Genoa, and built another observation bunker with tiny living quarters nearby. Fixed machine guns were installed high up at Toca (which is where Semaforo Nuovo is) and at Base O just off the coastal path from San Fruttuoso to Portofino (just look at it, do not try to go there: it is too dangerous).

Erbaio (and probably Bricco as well) had electricity from the generator in the headquarters. Water came via an aqueduct tapping a source higher up. All the plumbing had disappeared by 1947 but the tunnels in which it ran are still there.

Was it all worthwhile? Certainly the effort involved in the enterprise was considerable: everything was hauled up from sea level. The Germans clearly felt that the three big Italian guns would not be sufficient to protect the port of Genoa, foil a possible Allied landing and protect traffic. In those days the bombing of the railways and the submarines lurking in the depths meant that a lot of goods were moved by rafts hugging the coast. But in the end, it did not make a scrap of difference. That already became clear in 1941 when a submarine sunk a merchant ship, the Ischia, under their very noses just off Punta Chiappa. Genoa harbour was repeatedly bombed. The three big guns never fired a single shot and vast quantities of ammunition were found, unused, stacked in the tunnels at the end of the war. As legend has it, relations with the locals were pretty good. The Germans—some 70 of them—were allowed to leave unmolested at the end of the war. Some even maintain that the commandant married a local girl, one of the 40 or so civilians that commuted daily from S Rocco or Punta Chiappa to do the cooking, the laundry and other menial jobs. That’s possibly stretching it a bit. But they certainly went home with a fabulous tan.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and three e-chapters on Turkey. The Portofino peninsula and San Fruttuoso are covered in the Blue Guide e-chapter on Liguria, by Paul Blanchard.

Rissëu

Rissëu is the local name given in Liguria to a peculiarly Genoese form of decorative cobblestone paving. The style was enormously fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries; it is thought that it may have been inspired by Graeco-Roman mosaics which the maritime republic’s sailors encountered on their Mediterranean voyages. Or the tradition may be younger than this: there is an apparent kinship between Ligurian rissëu and the patterned pebble-stone paving of the Greek Dodecanese.

Photo by James Howells. ©Blue Guides.

One feature that the pebbles share is their rounded form. Each of them has been smoothed by the sea, which makes them easy to walk on. The bonding medium is lime mortar and porcelain powder. The stones are chosen for their size and colour: usually black and white, though occasionally red. The word rissëu is in fact Genoese dialect for ‘pebble’ and may derive from the French ruisseau, a stream or brook. Beautiful rissëu pavements can be seen throughout Liguria. The example pictured is a detail of the courtyard of Villa Durazzo, in Santa Margherita Ligure.

Other evidence seems to show that the custom is older still: neither Roman, nor Greek nor Hellenistic but Assyrian (roughly 800–600 BC). The pebbles are still water-smoothed, but not by the sea: these are river pebbles. There are at least two sites in Turkey with pavements of this sort. One is Tille on the Euphrates and the other is Ziyaret Tepe. Vast dam-building projects in Turkey mean that both floors will soon be under water (in fact, Tille already is). But there will be a reconstructed pavement in the new Diyarbakır museum (if and when it opens) and visitors will be able to walk on it.

©Blue Guides: Paul Blanchard, Annabel Barber, Paola Pugsley. For more on Liguria, the Dodecanese and eastern Turkey, visit our digital titles list here; to read about the new museum at Diyarbakır (and two other projected new Turkish museums), see here.