Book Review: ‘The Art Museum in Modern Times’

This new book by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames & Hudson, 2021) is a fascinating look at how museums, their mission and their vision, have evolved over the past half-century. Forty-two museums are explored; the choice is personal, focusing on institutions that the author knows well, without any aim to be deliberately exclusive. Saumarez Smith joined the staff of the V&A in 1992. Throughout the course of a distinguished career, he has been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, all in London.

As he was writing the book, Saumarez Smith noticed a clear pattern: a ‘universal decline in belief in a master narrative.’ In its place, he detected ‘a growing interest in the validity of individual response…and in treating the museum as an opportunity for private adventure.’ In an age when Tate thinks Wikipedia can give just as good a summary of the life and work of the artists represented in their collection as their own curators could or should, this study is more than timely.

Museum directors were once upon a time supremely imperious. The director of the V&A in the early 1930s described the public as ‘a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S…We heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ For him, the visitor off the street was an unwelcome nuisance, not the raison d’être of his institution. Museum directors might still be imperious, but so are donors and trustees—and so are artists and architects. Lina Bo Bardi, who designed the MASP in São Paulo (opened 1969), is quoted as declaring: ‘The museum belongs to the people…They gaze at a picture in the same way they look into a shop window…They take part even if they lack “cultural grounding”.’ Far from being in the way, the visitor off the street has become fetishised. The museum and its designers take their cue from him or her and try to appease his/her appetites.

The idea that ‘museums and galleries should be places of deep scholarship more than public enjoyment’ has gone. And it is interesting to see how museum design reflects this. Firstly, there is the building. Up until the outbreak of WWII, the accepted architectural style for a museum was Neoclassical, a temple to the Muses. As an example, Saumarez Smith gives the National Gallery of Art in Washington, designed in 1937. With its colonnaded portico, its central rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, and its gallery spaces arranged around a courtyard, it was designed to be stately and solemn and to serve the art it housed.

Two decades later, the construction of the Guggenheim in New York brought to the fore a tension between curators, who wanted spaces to exhibit art, and architects, who wanted those spaces themselves to steal the show. The Guggenheim’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen to have won the contest when almost three thousand people queued up to get inside his building when it opened in 1959. Ever since then, people have regarded the Guggenheim Museum as ‘a great symbolic monument, at least as important for the experience of its architecture as for seeing its collections.’ Another architect who liked to call the shots, Mies van der Rohe, said airily of his Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1968): ‘It is such a huge hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’ And this concept, of the museum building not simply as a receptacle for knowledge or revelation but as an iconic piece of starchitecture, has been tenacious. A later Guggenheim Museum, the one in Bilbao by Frank Gehry (1997), represents what Saumarez Smith believes is a paradigm shift: ‘No one thinks of it in terms of its collection.’ It is famous as a monument in its own right, like the Taj Mahal. People go to visit it for its own sake, to experience the excitement of its architectural form.

I.M. Pei (National Gallery of art, Washington, 1978) celebrates the fact that ‘Museums have become much more than storehouses for art; they have become also important places for public gathering.’ The museum’s role is to provide visitors with a special sort of experience, beyond what everyday life can provide, and the emphasis is no longer on learning but on individual response. So it is not only the architect who holds the reins; it is also the public. The Victorians regarded themselves as public-spirited, as educators, as throwing open doors to a wider populace. Now, though, we see their attitude as de haut en bas. We see their grandiose buildings not as thrilling and inspiring but as intimidating; we see their egalitarian educational ideal as elitist; we see as blinkered their belief that focusing attention on the objects on display would open windows in the mind. Saumarez Smith himself directly tackled this in the Ondaatje Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in London (2000): ‘A coolly democratic attempt to open up and widen public access to a Victorian public institution…and to make it look outwards by giving it a view from the restaurant over the rooftops.’ 

With the desire to make the public feel embraced rather than instructed, art loses its pole position. Nicholas Serota describes Tate Modern (London, 2000) as ‘a place that people will want to go and meet others and then perhaps go and look at some modern and contemporary art. It’s a place that should become part of the social fabric as well as the cultural fabric.’ Like a 19th-century village church or opera house, where people went to catch an eligible eye rather than pay attention to sermons or soprano solos. It is not only the design of museum buildings which has shifted, it is also the curatorial approach. At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (Renzo Piano, 1987), the walls were kept free of explanatory texts so that nothing could ‘interfere with the emotion art could inspire in the viewer.’ Deep knowledge, which a traditional curator might have thought necessary before the public can fully understand and appreciate the art on display, has become an encumbrance. Instead people go to explore themselves. Again discussing Tate Modern, Serota says, ‘Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery…rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history.’ It now seems axiomatic that historical narrative is bad, that fixing individual works of art in historical relationships to other works of art is too preachy, too systematic, too objective. Peter Zumthor, architect of the Kolumba diocesan museum in Cologne (2007), talks of works of art being treated as ‘objects to be contemplated and appreciated aesthetically and spiritually without too much explanation or an imposed historical interpretation. The point is to look, to think, to contemplate, and to absorb their beauty.’ Instead of the works, via the medium of the museum, transmitting inherent meaning to the viewer, the viewer is invited to bring his or her own meaning to the works and to be somehow redeemed by them. 

The design of the Benesse House Museum in Naoshima (1992) was informed by ‘a belief that museums could provide access to a different order of quasi-spiritual experience from the everyday consumer world.’ At Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation in Basel (1997), people use its spaces for ‘reflection and contemplation—spiritual recuperation.’ But alongside contemplation and response, museums have also come to be about adventure. Architects have been keen to make their spaces mysterious. Instead of the progression through a clear enfilade we have the maze. ‘Mystery has replaced logic. Order and rationality have been displaced by unpredictability.’ This is the museum as funfair, ghost train, escape room. Parts of it might be given over to retreat and contemplation; other parts are for social mingling; still others for fun or for commerce. It is a city within a city and as such, the museum has given itself an ambitious role; it has ‘increasingly important public responsibilities beyond the simple display of art.’ But when museums start thinking in terms of public responsibilities, is this not arrogating authority to themselves? And how does one avoid the danger of institutionalisation? The new MoMA (2004) designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is, Saumarez Smith thinks, ‘too bland, too like a corporate headquarters for modern art.’ So on the one hand there is the risk of corporate vanilla; on the other, a danger of turning art galleries into retail spaces. ‘Museums are becoming ever more commercial and looking ever more like shopping malls.’ An ephemeral quality is becoming more apparent, too. Major Western museums are starting to franchise their collections in other parts of the world—China, the Gulf—but while governments are keen on financing totemic buildings, paying for high-quality staff and long-term running costs is another matter. Perhaps a museum might have no permanent collection at all but simply be a pop-up, borrowing iconic works for a limited period, used as a tool of soft power.

For much of the second half of the last century, pedagogues would talk about language ‘acquisition’ as opposed to language ‘learning’, convinced that acquiring language naturally, as a child does, instead of memorising cases and declensions, was more communicative and more fun. For most of that same half-century, museums have stopped being ‘places where visitors come to find out, and be told, about the past: they are no longer treated as public lecture rooms, where works of art are laid out according to strict historical sequence.’ But grammar can be a democratic and liberating tool and it can level the playing field. Can art history not do the same? And if curators believe in a definite message and in an imperative to transmit it, will the schoolroom approach not have to make a comeback? It might be that we are at just such a juncture now. In Lens in northeast France, at the satellite Louvre museum by SANAA (2012), the part of the project which Saumarez Smith found most successful and memorable is the Galerie du Temps, ‘laid out as a walk through a three-dimensional, transnational history in which some of the greatest objects from the Louvre’s collection are presented laterally along a strict timeline…It is exceptionally logical and intellectually coherent; possibly oversimplified, but all the better for being so easily understood and properly transnational—indeed, as far as possible, global.’ In 2012, the agenda was not the same as it would have been in Victorian times, when global and transnational were not buzz-words, but the curators have a new message and they have reached back to the logical, intellectual, historical approach to convey it. 

This superb and eminently readable book takes us along a roller coaster of ups and downs, experienced by museums as they lose, regain, refashion their intellectual confidence, their belief in or rejection of, the notion of a set of universal values, alternately giving prompts to, or taking their cues from, the public. Are we a temple or a shopping mall? A schoolroom or a playground? A set-menu restaurant or a smorgasbord? At the back of our minds we know that our conclusions, half a century of ‘experiments in trying to relate the experience of art to the public’ might seem hopelessly wrong-headed by the generations that come next. But that is natural and museums ‘will continue to be rethought, redesigned and redisplayed as a result of new beliefs about their purpose.’ The 19th-century museum founders, with their mission to educate, believed that by studying the past we could learn about our present selves and the progress our civilization had made. Today, in an age which is at once self-flagellating and narcissistic, we are less interested in our past, but the mission to direct people’s thinking and to cultivate their responses is alive and kicking. 

Saumarez Smith ends on a slightly sombre note. He is not sure that museums will regain their moral confidence or their financial security. There are also, with collections sourced from around the globe, inevitable questions of legitimate provenance and restitution. He concludes too, that after the death of George Floyd, museums failed to pay attention to public concerns, that they did not find a systematic way to respond to the legacy of slavery. Might a moral certainty about the need for a certain way of thinking return in the light of this? Might we see, after all, the resurgence of the didactic approach, with carefully thought-out explanatory labels unequivocally telling us what’s what?

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

Keats and Rome: 200 years

The poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, in February 1821: two hundred years ago exactly. The apartment on the Spanish Steps that he had rented with his friend, the struggling painter Joseph Severn (who nursed him faithfully to the end), is now the Keats-Shelley Museum. The Life and Letters of John Keats, by Lord Houghton (1867), contains a moving account of the poet’s last days, including letters written by Keats and Severn. The following is probably the last letter that Keats wrote:

Rome, 30th November, 1820

My dear Brown, ’Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book,—yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and coning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence…I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse,—and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life…Dr Clark is very attentive to me; he says, there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George—for it runs in my head we shall all die young…Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell Haslam I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost. I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you! John Keats

Keats’ condition continued to deteriorate. Two months into the new year, on 15th January 1821, Severn wrote the following:

Torlonia, the banker, has refused us any more money; the bill is returned unaccepted, and to-morrow I must pay my last crown for this cursed lodging place: and what is more, if he dies, all the beds and furniture will be burnt and the walls scraped and they will come on me for a hundred pounds or more! But above all, this noble fellow lying on the bed and without the common spiritual comforts that many a rogue and fool has in his last moments! If I do break down it will be under this; but I pray that some angel of goodness may yet lead him through this dark wilderness. If I could leave Keats for a time I could soon raise money by my painting, but he will not let me out of his sight, he will not bear the face of a stranger. I would rather cut my tongue out than tell him I must get the money—that would kill him at a word. You see my hopes of being kept by the Royal Academy will be cut off, unless I send a picture by the spring…Dr Clark is still the same, though he knows about the bill: he is afraid the next change will be to diarrhoea. Keats sees all this—his knowledge of anatomy makes every change tenfold worse: every way he is unfortunate, yet every one offers me assistance on his account. He cannot read any letters, he has made me put them by him unopened. They tear him to pieces—he dare not look on the outside of any more: make this known.

Six weeks later, Keats was dead.

Feb. 27th.—He is gone; he died with the most perfect ease—he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, the approaches of death came on. ‘Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.’ I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death—so quiet that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now, I am broken down by four nights’ watching, no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened: the lungs were completely gone. The doctors could not imagine by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his dear body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here—that I must else have gone into a fever. I am better now—but still quite disabled. The police have been. The furniture, the walls, the floor, must all be destroyed and changed. […] The letters I put into the coffin with my own hand.

The grave of Keats in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. An ardent admirer of the poet has clearly left the scarlet imprint of her lips upon the stone.

Lord Houghton writes as follows: “Keats was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, one of the most beautiful spots on which the eye and heart of man can rest. […] In one of those mental voyages into the past which often precede death, Keats had told Severn that ‘he thought the intensest pleasure he had received in life was in watching the growth of flowers’: and another time, after lying a while still and peaceful, he said, ‘I feel the flowers growing over me.’ And there they do grow, even all the winter long—violets and daisies mingling with the fresh herbage, and, in the words of Shelley, ‘making one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.’ Ten weeks after the close of his holy work of friendship and charity, Mr Severn wrote to Mr Haslam:—‘Poor Keats has now his wish—his humble wish, he is at peace in the quiet grave. I walked there a few days ago, and found the daisies had grown all over it. It is one of the most lovely retired spots in Rome.’” Forty years later, Severn returned to Rome as British Consul. When he died there, at the age of eighty-five, he was laid to rest by his friend. The two now lie side by side.

An extract from Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

Book review: Lost Prestige

Lost Prestige, by historian, diplomat and former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, now published in English translation, is a book about reputation. Using British perceptions of Hungary in the years leading up to the First World War, it seeks to examine more broadly the relationships between states, and how international reactions to particular events can shape universal judgements. We have all become used to seeing opinions presented as general consensus by a manipulative Press, or appearing to have traction on an unedited social media, but what does this really reveal? We are in a hall of mirrors, Jeszenszky suggests. And behind this, as the silvering on the mirror, lies moral posturing or vested interest. 

No mirror is perfect: every looking glass, however well made, distorts the image, sometimes in subtle ways. Nor is the person who looks in the mirror an impartial spectator: they are looking for a reflection that will show them what they want to see or that will flatter their sense of self. 

The specific conundrum with which Jeszenszky grapples is this: In 1848, Hungary rebelled against Austria, demanding its constitutional freedoms. Hungarians gained wide international support, particularly in Britain, and came to be seen as a noble people standing up bravely against oppressive and absolutist masters. By 1914 this reputation was in tatters and it was Hungary, rather than Austria, who was regarded as authoritarian and chauvinistic. How did this happen?

If we cannot see things directly ourselves, we rely on mirrors and lenses for information. Lost Prestige is an examination of how the perception of things and the way those perceptions are presented can alter the course of history. Immediately after 1848, Hungarians were largely telling their own story. The anti-Habsburg revolutionary Ferenc Pulszky spent his exile in Britain and his wife Theresa wrote a best-selling memoir in English. The architect of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth, toured Britain and America giving talks to enthusiastic audiences. But although reactions were widely favourable, the Habsburg empire was nevertheless still seen as integral to the European balance of power. Voicing public support for plucky Hungary’s bid for independence was one thing, but Britain’s mandarins were privately pleased when in 1849 Russia stepped in to crush the revolution and to restore the integrity of Austria. A fully independent Hungary was not in Britain’s interests. It was a romantic idea, perhaps, but not a sensible one. In the first years of the 20th century, however, two influential British commentators appeared: Henry Wickham Steed (Vienna correspondent of the Times), and R.W. Seton-Watson, a journalist and campaigner. Initially both men were great champions of Hungary but over time their attitudes became more and more critical. Their conclusions not only swayed the opinions of the British public; they also began to influence British foreign policy, in Hungary’s disfavour. How and why?

By the 1890s, Hungary was no longer the underdog. She was widely seen to have received a “good deal” in the Compromise agreement of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, but the huge bulk of her non-Magyar population—Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others—lacked political representation. International sympathies now turned to these marginalised minorities. Britain had another reason, too, for deploring Hungary’s attitude: internal conflicts between Magyars and non-Magyars blinded the country as a whole to the external threats besetting it. In holding up a mirror to Hungary, Britain hoped to see a bulwark against German ambition. Instead it saw selfish, Magyar-centric chauvinism, an arrogant assumption that the prosperity Hungary enjoyed was all of her own making, and petty quarrelsomeness with Austria in demanding more rights for herself while denying those same rights to her non-Magyar peoples. Hungary’s obstreperousness in obstructing the proper workings of Parliament and stubbornly insisting on a Hungarian language of command (instead of German) in the Hungarian army (despite the fact that almost half of its soldiers were not Magyars) was widely deplored. For decades the existence of a united Austria-Hungary had been central to British policy, its dissolution unthinkable. Britain now began to think about it.

It was at this point that Wickham Steed and Seton-Watson came into their own. The Monarchy’s Slavs, Wickham Steed reported, were more reliably anti-German than the Hungarians. Partition of Austria and the creation of new buffer states along ethnic lines might be a better safeguard against German domination of the region. The creation of such states would bring the added advantage of liberating peoples groaning under a system of repression by Hungary which Seton-Watson described as “without any parallel in civilized Europe”. This book does not directly blame Seton-Watson or Wickham Steed for the outcome of Trianon (the post-WWI treaty by which Hungary was deprived of two thirds of her territory, millions of her citizens and a significant proportion of her natural resources), but it was Britain who led the charge towards the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and it did this even before the War was over, for example by entering into treaties with Italy and Romania, enticing them over to the Allied side in return for territorial reward. Jeszenszky quotes a telegram sent in January 1915 to the British Embassy in Bucharest by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “We have already declined to entertain any suggestion of Hungarian independence that would prevent satisfaction of Roumanian national aspirations as regards Transylvania.” It was a done deal. What Britain did not see was that there is no such thing as “the Slavs”. Croats, Serbs and Slovenes do not always think alike and their interests are not necessarily the same; nor are those of Czechs and Slovaks. Prophetic voices such as that of the intelligence officer Leo Amery, warning that breaking up Austria-Hungary would create a “new Balkan” of weak, unstable states which would “sooner or later lead to another war”, were ignored. 

Britain was an imperial power not known for championing the self-determination of the peoples under her dominion. How dare she, one might ask, attack Hungary on the subject of the way she treated her minorities? Wickham Steed excused himself by maintaining that his attitude was directed purely and simply by British national interest. As he saw it, a Hungary which worked in harmony with its nationalities would be a stronger ally against Germany. One that was at daggers drawn with them was a danger to Britain. Seton-Watson’s attitude was more personal. He had friends among the non-Magyars in Hungary and the horror-stories they told him led him to see everything in black and white. His Racial Problems in Hungary (1908) was shocking and convincing but it was also exaggerated and factually selective, “a passionate piece of polemical writing”. Hungary was certainly unlucky in making an enemy of him, since he was more of an activist than a historian. He orchestrated the bombardment of Austro-Hungarian troops with leaflets showing proposed new national borders and urging Slav and Romanian soldiers to desert and join international legions. Murky tactics. But Jeszenszky notes that Hungary was fooling herself in clinging to the notion that she was or could become a homogenous nation and her tendency to see all manifestations of national feeling as separatism, and thus to crush them, merely served to fan the flames.

In some ways this book is a portrait in non-fiction of the plot of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy: a wilfully blind elite class of Magyars refusing to see how hard the people they oppress (both the national minorities and the working classes) are longing for their destruction. And Jeszenszky pulls off a rare feat: he makes parliamentary history into a page-turner. But quite a lot of background knowledge is taken for granted and readers not already familiar with Hungarian history will need to look things up, because Lost Prestige is not a history book, it is a book about image: about how Hungary was viewed and judged by external media and about how it failed to turn the mirror on itself to see how big its warts really were.

The Paris Peace Conference made many mistakes. In Central Europe, multiple peoples were living “overlapping and mixed and it was next to impossible to create States uniting all the members of a nation and having no large minorities that had their own distinct language and identity.” Human nature is universal and after Trianon, Hungarians found themselves minorities among the peoples they had tried to Magyarise. But what would have happened if Hungary had appeased its nationalities? Would concessions have prevented the break-up of the Hungarian lands? Or merely accelerated it? The opinions that become history are all about perception. Perceptions drive events. Tony Blair and the spin doctors were right: it is crucial to put the right gloss on things. 

The English translation of this book is timely. How is it that Hungary has once again alienated the world’s press, when in 1956 and 1989 it was lionised? Are we seeing a repeat of 1848 and 1914? It is always tempting to look for historical parallels. The UK’s vote to leave the EU unleashed intense confrontation between leavers and remainers. Can similarities be seen with post-Dualist Hungary? Does today’s European Union approximate to the federation of states that some early 20th-century observers believed was the solution to Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and European equipoise?

And to what degree were Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed’s analyses fair? Reputation is a fragile thing, an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” (Othello). Hungary, as Jeszenszky points out, was neither so liberal before the turn of the 20th century nor so reactionary afterwards as British commentators portrayed it. But instead of angrily blaming the mirror for distortion, he suggests, a better response is to consider instead whether some of the faults it shows might actually be there. We should take Jeszenszky’s concluding lines to heart: “Self-awareness that also rests on criticism from others is essential to individuals as well as to nations.”

Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. English Translation by Brian McLean. Published by Helena History Press, 2020. Reviewed here by Annabel Barber.

European international rail changes for 2021

December sees the annual major timetable revision by European railway operators. This year, because of the pandemic, it was a somewhat muted affair, and most of the changes – which are fewer than usual – will be implemented at a later date: many international rail services are currently severely curtailed or suspended.

Mark Dudgeon, the Blue Guides rail correspondent, highlights the main improvements which will take effect when international rail services return to some semblance of normality.

Night services

The Nightjet services operated by Austrian Federal Railways (OeBB) have been a rather unexpected success story in recent times. For 2021, Amsterdam will see the return of a sleeper service (to Vienna with through coaches to Munich and Innsbruck) after a hiatus of several years. The Nightjet previously starting and terminating in Dusseldorf will be extended to and from Amsterdam, and will operate daily. Departure from Amsterdam Centraal will be at 19:30, with arrival at Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof at a civilised 09:19; Munich Hauptbahnhof at 07:28 and Innsbruck at 09:14. In the return direction, the train will leave Vienna at 20:13 (Innsbruck 20:44 and Munich 22:50) and arrive in Amsterdam at 09:58. The Brussels – Viennaservice, which was introduced last year, will operate three times weekly instead of two (although the Brussels – Innsbruck portion will no longer run). The two trains, from Amsterdam and Brussels, are joined in Cologne, and run as one train from there onwards to Vienna.  The Amsterdam – Munich – Innsbruck portion is detached in Frankfurt.

Most Nightjet services are currently suspended until February 2021 at the earliest. Nightjet.com has full details.

A small but welcome change will see the introduction of a Hungarian restaurant car between Budapest and Salzburg on the sleeper train from Budapest to Munich and Zurich, allowing for a leisurely dinner westbound or breakfast in the opposite direction.

Western Europe

Trains from Switzerland to southern Germany and to northern Italy see some substantial improvements.

• The Zurich – Munich service is significantly upgraded following infrastructure improvements in Germany. The electrification work between Lindau and Munich via Memmingen has been completed, and a new station has been built at Lindau-Reutin which will obviate the need for trains to reverse at Lindau Hauptbahnhof. The resultant reduction in journey time (Zurich to Munich will take about four hours) compensates for the loss of the impressive, scenic approach to Lindau’s main station across the causeway. Six Swiss tilting-train sets will operate this service daily in each direction; unfortunately, it does mean the demise of the excellent first-class Swiss observation coaches on the previous locomotive-hauled services.

• The opening of the 15-kilometre-long Ceneri base tunnel north of Lugano will mean that journey times between Zurich and Milan will be reduced by about 20 minutes. The number of services will increase from six to ten each way, with three services proceeding beyond Milan (one each to Bologna, Genoa and Venice).

Eurostar services have been badly impacted by the pandemic, with only a handful of trains operating for the past several months. On some days the services has been reduced to just one train each way per day, between London and Paris, and London and Brussels/Amsterdam. A more frequent service with the introduction of through trains from Amsterdam to London will hopefully materialise in spring 2021.

The popular Deutsche Bahn ICEs between Frankfurt and Brussels, connecting to onward Eurostar services to and from London, will see two more services per week in each direction.

Central and eastern Europe

• The Vienna – Budapest service will see an hourly frequency throughout the daytime, with an additional three trains in each direction filling the missing gaps.

• The Berlin to Krakow Eurocity train (EC Wawel) will be reintroduced after several years. Leaving Berlin at 10:37, the train travels via Wroclaw and Katowice to arrive at Krakow Glowny at 17:51. In the return direction, departure from Krakow is at 10:11 and arrival at Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 17:16. 

• There have been unconfirmed reports that the EC Emona train between Vienna and Ljubljana will be extended to and from Trieste. If this comes to pass, it will be the first regular international express service to cross the strangely impregnable (at least for trains!) Italian-Slovenian border for many years.

And finally, see our tips on using Interrail and Eurail passes to simplify booking and cut costs in this post»

Interrail and Eurail: tips and savings

Whilst it might not have sold many passes this year, the team based in Utrecht (Eurail B.V.), which operates the Eurail and Interrail scheme has, in the meantime, developed and introduced an electronic version of their eponymous passes.

The two schemes (Interrail for European residents and Eurail for those living elsewhere) have now been streamlined and operate using the same pass validity and pricing structure. The new mobile pass allows you to choose the start date of your pass at any time during the eleven months after purchase; previously with the physical hard-copy passes the date had to be fixed at the time of purchase. An additional improvement is that the previously cumbersome travel diary is now recorded on the mobile app.

Interrail and Eurail passes can offer serious savings on international rail travel for all age groups, both in first and second class. The range of passes includes continuous versions (for example, 15 consecutive days) and flexi versions (for example, 10 days of your choice in a period of two months). The flexi passes in particular offer great opportunities for, say, two or three long weekends away in a two-month period.

Currently, Eurail and Interrail are offering a 20% discount on passes purchased by 4 January 2021. Unusually for promotional passes, they are also refundable (with a 15% administration charge). Full details of the promotion and the new mobile passes are available on eurail.com.

The Victory of Brescia

Remains of the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, findspot of the Winged Victory. Photo: Blue Guides.

I was last in Brescia in 2018, preparing for the first edition of Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes which was published the following year. Apart from the extraordinary beauty and interest of her museums and monuments (which I remembered from my last visit when at work for Blue Guide Northern Italy way back in 1996), I was deeply impressed by the multi-ethnic atmosphere of the city. The local government has not only ensured the integration of a new influx of immigrants but it has seen to it that Italian citizenship has been bestowed on the great majority of these new inhabitants. I was struck by many small details which suggested how successful this policy had been, somehow summed up in the simple small ‘supermarket’ outside the station with its sign boasting ‘Food from all the world’.

Little did I imagine that in March 2020, the province of Brescia together with that of her close neighbour Bergamo would have suffered the tragic record number of deaths from Covid-19 in all Italy. That month the army had to be called in to transport the coffins to cemeteries elsewhere in the country as there was no more room for them locally. We have learnt that whole communities of the elderly (many of whom had survived the last war) were wiped out in the valleys near the two cities. The President of the Republic has made a number of visits to these areas in the past few months (both in a public and in a semi-private form) to show his solidarity. And Brescia and Bergamo together (even if traditionally rival cities) are to be the Italian Capitals of Culture in 2023, as a way of helping them forward.

Although Lombardy is still the region of Italy hardest hit by Covid-19, there has been great rejoicing in Brescia this autumn to welcome back the city’s most astounding Roman bronze statue: a Winged Victory, which has spent the past two years in the state restoration laboratory in Florence.

In 2018 I saw it without its arms and its wings, which were already in Florence (in fact when it was unearthed in 1826, the arms and wings were not attached to the statue, but found nearby). Nevertheless, the impression made on me by this over-life-size lady, despite her shorn state, was immense. She glances down, while the folds of her delicate chiton descend to touch the ground having slipped off one shoulder. A heavier cloak clings to her legs.  

The statue was found in the early 19th century in the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, together with a hoard of other bronzes including six portrait heads from the Imperial age, so it is thought that someone had the idea of burying these wonderful artefacts all together in the hope that they would survive to be found again some centuries later. During restoration the Victory has been confirmed as dating from the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) or from that of his successor Nero (AD 54–68). It seems to have been made, using the lost wax method, somewhere in northern Italy rather than in Rome. The statue is now lighter by some 100kg, as superfluous accretions both inside and out, many added during past restorations, have been eliminated. Traces of gilding and silver intarsia have been revealed. The Victory has many close similarities with the Aphrodite of Capua, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The position of the Victory’s arms seems to indicate that she would have been holding a shield captured from the enemy on which she was writing the name of the divinity to whom the victory was owed, but the Greek model may have been Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, looking at her reflection in the shield of her beloved Ares, or Venus Victrix (the Conqueror) inscribing the victories of the first Roman emperors on the shield of Mars. The shield has not survived and we do not know in what material it would have been made. Another mystery is the raised left foot of the Victory, which has been interpreted by scholars as trampling a helmet (of the enemy).

The Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman marble of the Hadrianic era (2nd century) based on a Greek original. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC by 2.5.
The Winged Victory of Brescia, photographed before its recent restoration. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto.

When I saw the statue it was still in the superb Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, which has an immense number of treasures from all periods, especially the Lombard era of the 6th century and the later Carolingian age (when the monastery of Santa Giulia was founded, in 753). These include an exquisite little ivory reliquary casket and the so-called Cross of Desiderius, as well as more mundane objects such as a perfectly preserved helmet apparently of the type worn in the Alpine area of Italy from the 4th–1st centuries BC, lined in leather for extra comfort. But since this museum is so large and needs much time to do it justice, the decision to display the Victory now in the southern hall of the Capitolium temple close by is a good one. It is also most fitting since the statue was found here. The design of the display has been provided by the Spanish architect and sculptor Juan Navarro Baldeweg. The Victory will be placed in a raised position (on an anti-seismic base) lit by a light symbolising the moon and reflecting the position of the shield. Although the statue is already here, it cannot yet be visited as all museums in Italy are closed due to Covid-19. But the Victory can be seen and the opening celebrations followed on her very own dedicated website

Alta Macadam, November 2020

News from Florence: The Uffizi

At the time of writing this article, Italy was experiencing its second wave of Covid-19 and we were all being invited to stay at home as much as possible to avoid another lockdown. Museums and galleries were still open, even though theatres and concert halls were closed. Since then, however, museums too have had to close their doors and—with the dramatic drop in visitor numbers that this necessarily means—directors are thinking hard about how to plan for the future. 

Until the latest closure, there was much to report about the activity of the Gallerie degli Uffizi. The director, Eike Schmidt (who, Florentines were concerned to hear, has himself fallen victim to Covid-19 and is isolating at home), has opened or reopened many more rooms: in 2019 masterpieces by Bronzino, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were all rehung. The worksite, known for decades as the ‘nuovi Uffizi’ or ‘grandi Uffizi’ has finally been given an end date: 2024. 

Meanwhile the Corridoio Vasariano is set to reopen in 2022 and for the first time in its history it will be decorated with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and inscriptions. Now that Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria degli Uffizi are united under a single directorship, the corridor will become the natural link between the two, with an exit to Palazzo Pitti. The walkway (nearly a kilometre long), which passes over the Arno by Ponte Vecchio, is especially wonderful for the unique views it gives of the city through its little round windows. Over the past 60 years, many directors attempted to reopen it fully but none succeeded and latterly it had become an expensive ‘extra tour’ offered by travel agencies, accessible only by booking months ahead and given a rather exaggerated ‘off the beaten track’ appeal. Now, thankfully, it is to become part of the visit to the Uffizi and work should begin in 2021.

Another piece of good news is that the Uffizi’s official website, with its easy booking system, is now up and running after the director successfully saw off a number of organisations with websites posing as ‘official Uffizi ticket vendors’. The website also has a catalogue of all the works on display and you can make a virtual tour of part of the gallery. 

Government funds have also been made available to proceed with the loggia designed by Arata Isosaki. In 1998, Isozaki won an international competition to design a new entrance to the Uffizi. Protests immediately ensued—understandably, since the new design would encroach on the integrity of the the remarkable urban space created by Vasari. Isozaki’s winning entry will now be used as a new exit, on the other side of the building (although its detractors still consider that the proposed gigantic loggia will represent an unforgivable intrusion into the heart of Florence, just metres away from Palazzo Vecchio). The present director argues that it should be seen as a contemporary interpretation of a classical Renaissance loggia. If, as he has suggested, it is up and functioning by Christmas 2024, we will find out whether others share his view. The area designated for its construction has for years been a building site, abandoned behind hoardings, so there will be some relief that at least the present unsightly exit will no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wonder if the size of the loggia couldn’t be modified, to help it settle more comfortably into the Florence townscape.

The cityscape of Florence, with Palazzo Vecchio prominent in the centre. The Uffizi stretches behind it and the long façade of Palazzo Pitti is on the far right. How will this view be altered by Arata Isozaki’s new Uffizi Loggia? (Photo: © James Howells)

The dramatic drop in visitors because of Covid-19 remains a cause for concern. An experimental remedy by the Uffizi has been to take out advertisements in the national press, encouraging people to visit. This is an unprecedented move, aimed at Italians rather than tourists. This year Eike Schmidt even joined Chiara Ferragni, a famous influencer, who was at the Uffizi modelling for Vogue Hong Kong (an event which in itself must have brought a princely sum into the gallery’s coffers). The director made use of her visit for a much publicised ‘photo opportunity’—an Instagram selfie with Chiara in front of Botticelli’s Primavera—something which left many of Florence’s more traditional academics gasping. Schmidt was quick to point out that his photo-op had led to a considerable increase in young visitors to the gallery and had been an excellent marketing ploy, helping the Uffizi and its treasures to reach Chiara Ferragni’s 20 million followers. Critics from the ancien régime felt Schmidt had lowered himself to the role of ‘rock star’.

There has also been research into the attics and deposits of both the Pitti and the Uffizi, and three more ‘famous people’ have been found belonging to the series of portraits painted by Cristofano dell’Altissimo which forms an incredibly long frieze beneath the ceilings of the three corridors on the Uffizi’s second floor. They were commissioned by the Medici in 1552–89, copies of portraits collected by the historian Paolo Giovio, who died in 1552. One of the three is of the young Henry VIII of England, who will be able to take his place among this exalted company after restoration. We are told that another, better-known series of ‘famous men’, frescoed by Andrea del Castagno for a room in a villa in a suburb of Florence and which has been in the Uffizi (but rarely visible) since the mid-19thcentury, is finally to be given its own room in the gallery. 

In the last few months Schmidt has also suggested that some paintings could be returned to the churches from which they were removed. This might include Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna, painted for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella. It was moved from there to the Uffizi in 1948. However, Schmidt has also publicly recognised the complications involved. Such a move would naturally open up a whole debate. The reasoning behind the idea is to draw visitors to other places in Florence and ‘decentralise’ the Uffizi, creating a network of museums along the lines of a museo diffuso (a concept much in vogue in Italy at present, where visitor overcrowding at certain key sights has been a growing problem—at least before Covid-19). One of the buildings suitable for use in such a project could be the Medici Villa at Careggi, which has been inaccessible for decades. 

And finally, the Uffizi has recently welcomed the loan of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), from the National Gallery in London, which is the centrepiece of an exhibition exploring the relationships between art and science (for an English video, see here).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Venetian Empire at Sea

Maritime Museum, Venice. The Venetian Lion with raised sword. Normally he holds a book. When shown brandishing a sword, it means war.

The Venetian Empire, or Stato da mar, depended on a huge number of galleys, galleons and galleasses to protect its trade routes to the east. As Jan Morris has pointed out, ‘in an age when seamen preferred to spend their nights ashore’ the Republic soon set about establishing control of coastal ports in Dalmatia, Corfu, on the Greek mainland, in Crete, Alexandria and Cyprus for her merchant ships plying back and forth between Venice and Constantinople and further east. By the 15th century the ships could depend on being welcomed into ports under the control of the Serenissima throughout their journey. For safety against attacks from pirates or by the Turks they would sail in convoy: the concern for their safe return is wonderfully portrayed in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

The galleys were of various sizes – small and thin; biremes with two tiers of oars, and triremes with three. By the 16th century the longer quinqueremes were in use, with their five horizontal levels of oars (and with five men to an oar). Galleons, which were armed merchant ships, were even larger, redesigned in the first half of the 16th century by the Venetian Humanist Vettor Fausto (a member of the erudite circle of Aldus Manutius, through whom he was able to study the history of naval construction in Greek and Latin texts). It was Fausto who pioneered the concept of marine architecture. In the 17th century the galleass was designed. A cross between a traditional galley and a galleon, equipped with four masts, broad in the beam and propelled by hundreds of oars, its role was to provide a line of defence preceding the rest of the fleet when naval battles were predicted. 

We know that a flotilla of six great galleasses led the Venetian fleet into battle against the Ottoman Empire in 1571, at Lepanto at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. It has gone down in history not only as a famous Venetian victory but also as the last sea battle to be fought with galleons manned by oarsmen. Although there were terrible losses on both sides (at least 8,000 on the Christian side and some 20,000 on the Muslim), it was always considered a great victory by the Venetians and there are painted and sculpted memorials to it in buildings all over Venice. We know that the ship which returned to Venice bringing news of the victory took just ten days to reach the lagoon. 

Some Venetian ships had to be flat-bottomed to transport cavalry horses. Other live animals were kept on deck for food during a voyage. In siege warfare the masts could sometimes be turned into ladders to set up against the walls of enemy fortresses. Because of the shallowness of the lagoon, some of the larger ships had to be raised on pontoons (known as camelli) for their safe passage to the open sea. On their return, the boats would put in at quays all over the city, although the Bacino di San Marco in front of the Doge’s Palace was always the main harbour. This was where illustrious visitors would disembark and where the doge boarded the Bucintoro for the annual ceremony of Venice’s ‘marriage’ with the sea.

The Captain-Generals of the Sea, often became heroes (and even doges) after victories; but if defeated they could be disgraced and imprisoned. The most celebrated Admiral of the Fleet was Francesco Morosini, who came from a well-known Venetian patrician family, many members of which served the Republic over the centuries, four of them becoming doges. After achieving great fame for his military exploits, Francesco himself became Venice’s last great doge. He began his career on the island of Crete, which had been taken by the Serenissima in 1204 as part of her ‘reward’ after the Fourth Crusade. Following the takeover, and once the Genoese were ousted, Venice settled down to centuries of fruitful occupation of the island, having secured it as a roadstead for the merchant galleys bound for Alexandria and for Constantinople and beyond. When the Turks laid siege to Herakleion in the 17th century, Morosini took command of the defence of the town and held out for an incredible 22 years—the longest siege in history. The townspeople endured terrible suffering and when Morosini finally surrendered, in 1669, the island fell to the Turks. Morosini himself survived and his troops were allowed to leave Crete unharmed (but not before Morosini had managed to steal the precious icon of the Madonna from Herakleion cathedral; it has been on the high altar of the church of the Salute in Venice ever since). 

The city of Candia, modern Herakleion (Crete), one of a series of reliefs of Venetian conquests on the exterior wall of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio, in the sestiere of San Marco.

Morosini also enjoyed capturing flags, shields and armour from the Turks (all his trophies have been preserved). He always went to sea with his cat, and parts of the galleys he sailed are today preserved in museums in Venice. He had a prayer book specially made so that it could conceal a small pistol; his sword is one of the most unexpected ‘treasures’ in the basilica of St Mark’s. However, Morosini is best remembered by Venetians for his conquest of the Peloponnese in 1685–7. He had given the Republic its last moment of glory and ever afterwards he was known to its people as the ‘Peloponnesiaco’. The magnificent ancient lions he seized from Greece during these campaigns are still seated outside the gate into the Arsenale. 

Outside Venice, Morosini’s name in history is indelibly linked with the Parthenon, since before he finally took possession of the Peloponnese, he allowed his German mercenary troops to bombard the Acropolis, where the Turks had set up their defences. By the time he reached Athens, the Turks had already demolished what was left of the Propylaia (it had been hit by lightning and ruined in an explosion some years earlier when it served as an ammunition store) and they had totally destroyed the Temple of Athena Nike just inside the entrance gate, setting up their artillery on the bastions. They were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine and one evening in the following year, 1687, a mortar from Morosini’s position on the Mouseion Hill was fired by a mercenary lieutenant directly at the Parthenon. The explosion carried away practically the whole of the temple’s cella and its frieze, as well as eight columns on the north side and six on the south side, together with the entablature. The world-famous temple was effectively cut in half. Morosini, on taking the hill, then added to the damage by attempting to remove the west pediment. He bungled it and the precious sculptures of the chariot of Athena and its horses fell to the ground and were smashed to pieces. The Venetians overlooked this and when Morosini returned home he was welcomed as a hero and was elected doge shortly afterwards. The Peloponnese remained under Venetian control for the next 30 years, but not without forays from the Turks. Fittingly enough, he died in battle within sight of the walls of Nafplion in 1694, yet again fighting the Ottomans. 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Venice.

Ottoman submarines

Sultan Abdülhamid II (the last sultan with absolute powers), who reigned from 1876 until 1909, when he was deposed, was very much aware of the shortcomings of technological development in the Ottoman Empire at a time when foreign powers were progressing in this field in leaps and bounds. He could see this from the foreign press which which was submitted to his attention in translation and from his ambassadors’ reports.

Sending promising young students abroad for further training did not appeal to him: the young people would learn ‘bad ways’ in the decadent West; would either come back arrogant and disrespectful or would not come back at all. His idea was therefore to kickstart the Ottoman technical revolution at home, under the leadership of an inspirational model figure who could be enticed to come and work in the Empire. 

According to his biographer Recep Hikmet Kırımlı, his first pick was Thomas Edison, the man who had tamed electricity and given light to the world. An official invitation was duly sent out, with an undertaking to make available funds that were twenty times as much as Edison was able to command in the US. But answer came there none. 

Shortly afterwards the sultan was informed, possibly by his Navy Minister Admiral Bozcaadalı Hasan Hüsnü Paşa, that in around 1885 the Greek government had bought a submarine, a stealthy craft that could patrol the seas undetected—and in the sultan’s mind, deter any hostile undertaking by the Russians keen to find an opening into the Mediterranean. Submarines were quite a novelty at the time and still very much in the experimental phase. The one mentioned above had been built in Sweden to the design of an Englishman, the Rev. George Garrett, curate of Moss Side in Manchester. And it is diretly to him that the sultan applied. As a man of the cloth possibly through the pressure of family tradition, Garrett clearly preferred engineering to the care of his flock. He had been dabbling in submarines since the late 1870s and had made trials in the Liverpool area with mixed success. His contraptions (there were three of them, nicknamed ‘the curate’s egg’ because of their shape) were steam-powered. The last one did not live up to its given name, Resurgam (‘I will rise again’), because it foundered off Birkenhead while it was being towed to Portsmouth to impress the Royal Navy. It is still there and a replica can be seen on dry land nearby.  

Replica of the Resurgam, Woodside, Birkenhead. Photo by El Pollock, licensed under CC by 2.0.

The repeated mishaps did not put the reverend off. He was able to team up with a Swedish business, which is how the Greek submarine had come about and how the sultan came to hear about the Rev. Garrett. The parts for two submarines commissioned by the Ottomans were constructed in Barrow shipyards and then reassembled in the Taşkızak naval shipyard on the Golden Horn. Trials of the two craft, named after the sultan and after his father Abdülmecid, were carried out in front of an extensive display of officialdom. One of submarines got as far as Seraglio Point (roughly where the Topkapı is) and successfully fired a torpedo at an old target-vessel which promptly sank. The Rev. Garrett joined the Ottoman Navy with the rank of Paşa. The design was still experimental, however, and full of problems with stability, autonomy when submerged, not to mention the safety of the crew. Later, when Van der Goltz Paşa, the German general who took on the task of modernising the Ottoman army, had a look at the rusting hulls of the two submarines, he declared them useless and had them scrapped. 

As for the Rev. Garrett, things went from bad to worse. There proved to be no opening for him in Istanbul, the Church would not have him back as a curate and he eventually emigrated to America, where he died penniless after a string of ill-advised ventures.

By Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, is now available in digital and print-on-demand format.

     

An update on Dante

Domenicho di Michelino’s famous likeness of Dante in the Duomo of Florence.

Work is underway to plan next year’s celebrations for the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (see previous article posted here on 22 March this year “Dante Day”). In fact Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, went to Ravenna on 6th September to open the events (albeit behind a mask) at the recently restored tomb of the great poet, who died in Ravenna in 1321.

There is talk of a reconciliation between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and the town of Ravenna in Romagna across the Apennines where he died in sorrowful exile. Although the Tuscan city has numerous memorials to Dante—inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, on street plaques throughout the city, a copy of his death mask in Palazzo Vecchio—there has always been a feeling that the poet’s rightful resting place should also be in Florence (the Medici pope Leo X almost succeeded in having his remains moved there). Ravenna, however, points out that it was thanks to Franciscan friars in their city that the poet’s bones were preserved at all. His tomb, right beside their convent, is a disappointment at first glance: a gloomy mausoleum erected at the end of the 18th century with further ‘embellishments’ added in the first decades of the 20th century (during celebrations for the sixth centenary of his death), but it does preserve a relief of 1483 by the great Venetian sculptor Pietro Lombardo, which shows the poet in profile surrounded by his books. Florence in fact failed to commemorate her famous son until the 19thcentury, when a cumbersome statue was set up in the centre of Piazza Santa Croce (moved to a less conspicuous position a few years later) and a rhetorical monument was erected inside the basilica. The museum known as the Casa di Dante has no original works. It is perhaps the Baptistery of Florence which stands as the most moving testimony to Dante’s presence in the city he loved and where he once acted as a Prior. He was baptised here and recalls his ‘bel San Giovanni’ in the Commedia. In 1302 he was sentenced to death in his native city, and in order to save his life he never returned there, seeking refuge instead in other places in Italy, ending up in Ravenna where he was given a home and so was able to finish the Divina Commedia.

As part of the celebrations in Florence (even today seen by some as an opportunity to ‘reconcile’ Dante with his native city) there are plans to give the Dante Museum a much-needed face-lift, and also to put on permanent display the wonderful series of frescoes of famous men (which includes Dante by Andrea del Castagno) which for many years has been hidden away in an area of the Uffizi not normally open to the public. The delightful painting in the Duomo, of Dante ‘protecting’ Florence, has been chosen as the logo of the 2021 events. There will also be all sorts of theatrical events, readings and concerts.

Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), on 25th March, is to become an annual event. One of the most interesting events scheduled for next year is the inauguration of the Museo della Lingua Italiana, a museum of the Italian language, in part of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. There will be exhibitions at the Uffizi and at the Bargello, which will include editions of his works and the most famous of the commentaries. The Accademia della Crusca in the Medici villa of Castello will publish a Dante dictionary in recognition of the fact that it was Dante who established Tuscan as the literary vernacular of Italy. In Ravenna there will also be many important exhibitions, concerts and performances. Projects are going ahead despite fears about Covid-19—of course ‘virtual’ exhibitions and events are also a possibility. One of these has already begun here, where a a panel of a hundred artists, literary figures, journalists and people from all different walks of life, have each been asked to provide a commentary on one Canto of Dante’s opus

So the ‘bel paese’ (Dante, Inferno, canto XXXIII) is at least planning better days ahead, even linking concepts such as ‘unity’ and ‘Europe’ to its greatest poet.

by Alta Macadam