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

Extreme dairy farming in Sauris

View of Sauris di Sotto. Photo: Johann Jaritz.

Visitors to the holiday resort of Forni di Sopra in the Carnic Dolomites, close to the source of the Tagliamento river, will be surprised to see that there is not much of a river in town. This is because a large proportion of the water is tapped at source and piped along an 18km tunnel bored in the rock to the northeast, to Sauris/Zahre (Friuli), to help fill an artificial lake which powers a hydroelectric plant completed after WW2. The dam—and more than that the all-weather motor road required for the building process (both engineering feats at the time)—marked the end of the isolation of Sauris, a settlement scattered on a plateau some 1200–1400m above sea level.

Before the road was built, access was severely restricted; indeed it was total isolation in the winter months up until the early 1950s, when as soon as it was practicable at the end of winter, an athletic carabiniere would be dispatched on foot all the way to Sauris from Forni di Sopra to check up on the community. Unlike the other Dolomites villages that used to make a living by dairy farming and kept their cows in the valleys in winter, moving them to the high pastures (malghe) in the summer, the people of the alpine plateau (then as now in the low hundreds) overwintered at high altitude and it must have been hard.

They lived in isolation for months but they are still here to tell the story. Indeed, as Sauris re-invents itself as a successful year-round holiday resort and purveyor of speciality foods, it is also going back to its roots, which sheds some light on the origins of such a challenging lifestyle.

The key is the language. Centuries of isolation have preserved the ‘Lingua Saurana’, which is now recognised by the Italian state as a separate language. You may not hear much of it spoken these days (apparently it is mainly used within the family) but it has its own museum (in Sauris di Sotto; open in the summer Mon, Thur, Fri 10–12 & 4–6; Sat and Sun 10–12 & 3–6), choir, publications, poetry and liturgical texts and it is taught in the local school, though after the first wave of enthusiasm it is now no longer compulsory, just an option. Eminent philologists have pored over it. A variant of German, it has over the centuries incorporated some of the local Friulano from the neighbouring valleys and a number of German elements from across the mountains; its roots, however, are further away, in southern Bavaria; it is a form of the Mittelhochdeutsch of the 13th century. Documents (unfortunately lost in a fire) testified to a community from 1280. According to local lore, the founding fathers were a couple of stray soldiers/deserters who abandoned the wars that were ravaging Europe and embraced extreme dairy farming. They had with them some relics of St Oswald, which fostered pilgrim traffic and accounts for the dedication of the present church. (Quite what Durham Cathedral, which boasts the complete body of this 7th-century Northumbrian saint, makes of the matter is not known.)

Today the Sauris plateau is for the discerning. There is no through traffic, which means the only visitors are people that chose to negotiate the winding road from Ampezzo; but one is richly rewarded. The endless meadows are wonderful, the air is the cleanest ever, the water is like nowhere else. Sauris has re-invented itself out of these unique attributes. Pork is cured here and prosciutto di Sauris is now a recognised delicacy. Beer in the characteristic white bottles requires no pasteurisation; it has a growing number of devotees. Whether the Saurians will be able to revive the local art of weaving (flax, hemp and wool), with the women preparing the thread and the men doing the weaving, remains to be seen. Presently good food is at the forefront and one would be well advised to pay a visit in the summer, especially at weekends in July and August, to sample it at the open-air market.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum.

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

Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great War

The town of Gorizia stands on the Slovenian border in an expansion of the Isonzo valley, hemmed in by hills. It is a peaceful little town with public gardens and buildings in the Austrian style. After the fall of the independent counts of Gorizia in the 15th century, the city remained an Austrian possession almost continuously from 1509 to 1915 and its atmosphere is entirely Central European, despite the street names recalling heroes of the Risorgimento and Italy’s victories against Austria: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Diaz, Cadorna. In the First World War it was the objective of violent Italian attacks in the Isonzo valley and was eventually captured on 9th August 1916. Lost again in the autumn of 1917, it was finally taken in November 1918. The Treaty of Paris (1947) brought the Yugoslav frontier into the streets of the town, cutting off its eastern suburbs, but in 1952, and again in 1978–9, more reasonable readjustments were made, including a 16km-wide zone in which local inhabitants may move freely.

The attractive, wide Corso Italia, lined with trees and some Art Nouveau villas, leads up into the centre of the town. The Palazzo Comunale was built by Nicolò Pacassi, court architect to Maria Theresa, in 1740; it has a public garden. The cathedral is a restored 14th-century building which contains a high altarpiece by Giuseppe Tominz (born in Gorizia in 1790).

Approached on foot by steps up through the walls and past a garden is the peaceful Borgo Castello, built by the Venetians in 1509. Here you will find the Museo della Grande Guerra, one of the most important museums in Italy dedicated to the First World War. Excellently displayed in ten rooms, it has the reconstruction of a trench, and the material illustrates both the Italian and Austrian fronts in the Carso campaign: what makes the displays all the more poignant is the fact that this part of Europe, which today belongs to Italy, was in 1914–18 fighting bitterly for the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph, of which it formed a part. A poster of the whiskered emperor adorns the wall of a mocked-up conning tower, exhorting his troops to bravery in action. Enamel badges in the display cases proclaim defeat and humiliation to the English, the Serbs and the perfidious Italians. The watercolour which appears at the top of this piece was painted by Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a lieutenant in the Italian army, who saw action at Castagnevizza and whose brother Cino was killed in a later battle.

Austro-Hungarian soldier, somewhere on the present-day Italian-Slovenian border.

The above text includes an extract from the Blue Guide e-chapter to Friuli-Venezia Giulia. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from Aquileia

Augustus, ‘the revered one’, was the honorific title of Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history. He has given his name to the month of August.

Having no legitimate heir of his own, Julius Caesar formally adopted Octavius, and he exploited this position ruthlessly when the Republic collapsed after Caesar’s assassination. His uneasy co-operation with Mark Antony soon turned to open conflict. Mark Antony had taken command of the eastern portion of the empire, and when he allowed himself to become entangled with Cleopatra, Augustus seized his chance to brand them both as enemies of Rome. In 31 bc their navy was routed at the Battle of Actium and both committed suicide.

Back in Rome, with wealth and success to his name, Augustus could easily have become a dictator. However, that was not his way. Despite the ruthlessness of his youth, he now showed himself to be measured and balanced. His favourite god Apollo was, after all, the god of reason. Knowing that the senate was desperate for peace, he disbanded his army and the senate in turn acquiesced in his growing influence. The title Augustus was awarded him in 27 bc and he gradually absorbed other ancient republican titles too, as if the old political system were still intact. Behind this façade he was spending his booty fast. He claimed to have restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome. He completed the Forum of Caesar and then embarked on a massive one of his own, centred on a temple to Mars Ultor: Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder.

Augustus was keenly aware of the power of his own image. Not only was his temple adorned with a great bronze of himself in a four-horse chariot, but other statues, playing on ancient traditions, were distributed throughout the empire. Augustus appears in one of a number of stock guises: as military commander, veiled and pious priest, or youthful hero, as in the example shown here, a bust from the northern Italian town of Aquileia, where Augustus received King Herod in 10 bc and reconciled him with his two sons. One estimate puts the total number of statues of Augustus scattered around the realm at between 30,000 and 50,000.

The empire prospered under Augustus’ steady control: there was no challenge to his growing influence and poets such as Virgil and Horace praised his rule. A less lucky writer was Ovid, exiled to the shores of the Black Sea, allegedly for lampooning Augustus’ programme of moral reforms. In 2 bc the great leader was granted the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Fatherland’, an honour which left him deeply moved. He died in ad 14, and it was observed at his cremation that his body had been seen ascending through the smoke towards heaven. The senate forthwith decreed that he should be ranked as a god. By now the Republic had been irrevocably transformed into an empire, and emperors ruled it for the rest of its history.

This text extracted and adapted from Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome. ©Blue Guides. All rights reserved. For more on the town of Aquileia and its fascinating Roman and early Christian remains, see our e-chapter: Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone’s Noli me Tangere

“NOLI ME TANGERE”

The painter Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis (1484–1539) is always known as Il Pordenone, after his birthplace in Friuli, in northeast Italy. According to Vasari, Pordenone taught himself to paint. Certainly his early works are fairly unsophisticated. As he matured, he learned to paint in the Venetian style, with all that that implies in terms of colour and dreamy romanticism. His manner shows a particular closeness to that of Giorgione and Titian. This Noli me Tangere, which hangs in the cathedral museum of Cividale del Friuli, is a good example. It was painted in 1524. Christ appears in a Venetian-pink tunic. Behind Mary Magdalene’s flowing hair we see the angel at the empty tomb. Behind are the alpine peaks that Venetian painters so often included as backdrops in their altarpieces. Christ gestures skywards. We are to imagine him uttering the words put into his mouth by St John: “Touch me not; for I amnot yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17).

When Pordenone left northern Italy in the late 1520s, he fell under the spell of Michelangelo, and his style altered forever, becoming much less spatial, much more sculptural, with highly mannered gesture and with an unsettling, barely suppressed violence. His writhing figures seem to invade the viewer’s space and intimidate him/her. There is something almost Gothic in his dwelling on the more tortured and gruesome aspects of martyrdom. All in all, Pordenone is a fascinating hybrid of Gothic and German elements forced through the Michelangelo mangle.

Important examples of his frescoes and paintings can still be seen in his native town, a pleasant provincial capital with a lively atmosphere and lots of places to eat. Some of Pordenone’s modern buildings are by the Brutalist architect Gino Valle (1923–2003), born in nearby Udine, who worked for many years for Zanussi, producing office and factory buildings for them as well as designs for a number of domestic appliances (including their first washing machine). The Zanussi company was founded in Pordenone in 1916 by the son of a local blacksmith. (It was taken over by Electrolux in the 1980s.)

Pordenone, Udine and Cividale are covered in Blue Guides’ e-guide to Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Saving the Great Bear: Trieste’s floating crane

Towering nearly 80 metres over the harbour of Trieste, cranked at an angle of about 30 degrees, stands a huge pontoon crane: the URSUS. She has been declared a national monument and has been taken to the collective heart of the people of Trieste as one of the symbols of the city, more potent probably than the halberd of St Sergius which decorates all the lamp posts and civic buildings. The pontoon on which she floats was built in 1914, in Trieste’s San Marco shipyard. The crane itself dates from 1931, from the same shipyard. When it was announced in the spring of this year that funds for her restoration were insufficient, it caused consternation. “After all,” remarked a café proprietor on Riva Nazario Sauro, “this is the Ursus we’re talking about. She’s history. She’s been towed all up and down this coast to work, even as far as Croatia. We can’t just let her sink.” But her pontoon is damaged. Furious bora winds in March 2011, sweeping the coast at over 170 kmph, wrested her from her moorings and she went galumphing out to sea like a rogue elephant, bumping herself in the process. This YouTube video shows her mad stampede, as two tugs attempt to catch her.

But the thousands of euros of public money made available by the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been deemed insufficient to cover the maintenance and restoration costs that her overhaul will incur. More money (according to the local newspaper Il Piccolo, around 40,000 euro) needs to be found—and quickly, or the existing 150,000 made over by the region will be used for other projects.

Ursus is a magnificent sight, even in her present rusting, hunkered-down state. Let’s remain bullish that the bear can be saved.

Ursus from the top
Ursus from the bottom

A palatial art museum in Trieste

Revoltella remained unmarried but he was not socially reclusive. His dinner parties attended by bejewelled beauties, his French chef’s extravagant concoctions and his gleaming gilded tableware were famous. At a gala banquet which he gave in honour of Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian, on the eve of the latter’s departure for Mexico to take up his imperial appointment, the centrepiece, which drew gasps of wonder from the assembled guests, consisted of four hounds sculpted from butter attacking a wild boar confected out of sausage. It is difficult to gauge what motivated Revoltella. Was it business? Insecurity? A desire to impress? Ambition for social status, or for acceptance? A genuine regard for art? Did he have good taste? It is hard to say. His palace is a deliberate showpiece, but is neither impressively original nor depressingly vulgar. His chosen philosophers, whom he had sculpted at the top of the main stairs, were Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Leibniz: not thinkers, as such, concerned with the destiny of the soul, but physicists and mathematicians, an Italian, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German. His collection of paintings contains the kind of thing that one might expect from a man of his time and status: Biedermeier portraits and romantic images of the Orient: there is a good Cairo street scene by Ippolito Caffi. In the study hangs a vivid Egyptian landscape showing the Suez canal slicing its way up from the Red Sea to Port Said.

From the library (which contains a copy of Revoltella’s own travel journal, which he wrote during his trip to Suez in 1861), a false door designed to imitate a bookshelf leads through to a small cabinet, once a bathroom, where some of the early treasures of the collection are housed, among them a model by Canova for his famous heroic nude statue of Napoleon holding a celestial ball intended to carry a Winged Victory. (The completed statue, in Carrara marble, never pleased the little emperor. He felt that the golden Victory figure appeared to be flying ominously away, and the statue was consigned to the vaults of the Louvre until purchased by Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, who displayed it in his London home, Apsley House. It is still there.)

The collection in the adjoining building is rich in Italian art of the 20th century. De Chirico, Morandi, Carrà, Sironi, Burri: all are represented by at least one work. Particularly interesting are the local Trieste painters, whose work is less often seen in international collections. Piero Marussig is the best known; but also interesting are Carlo Sbisà (1889–1964), who found inspiration in the Italian Renaissance, and Bruno Croatto (1875–1948), known for his powerful realism.

The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo

by Charles Freeman

At the end of a recent tour of Friuli in October, I asked members of my group what they had enjoyed most, High on the list were the Tiepolos in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine. Commissioned in the 1720s by the Patriarch of Aquileia, Dionisio Dolfin, member of an aristocratic Venetian family, they were designed to highlight the link between the Patriarch and the patriarchs of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps the two finest works are Rachel hiding the idols from her father, Laban, and The Judgement of Solomon. Their state of preservation is remarkable.

The Judgement of Solomon (1726), fresco in the Patriarchal Palace of Udine. The subject was a popular choice of decoration for public buildings which also served as law courts.

Tiepolo was still young, just thirty, when he began his commission, but already his work is assured. The colours are rich, the soaring perspectives painted with the confidence that was to stay with him throughout his Europe-wide career. He always comes across to me as someone who loved painting for its own sake, not as a means of sorting out some internal angst.

So it was frustrating to arrive at our next destination, the vast Villa Manin, and to find that we were a few weeks too early to see the majestic Tiepolo exhibition that opened there on 15 December (and lasts until 7 April). It is open every day, even on the afternoon of Christmas day (further information and booking on the Villa Manin website).

The exhibition boasts a wide scope. There are works from Venice and the villas of the Venetian countryside, where Tiepolo spent much of his life, many of which have been brought back from the galleries as far flung as new York, Montreal, Helsinki and Stockholm. Several of the canvases are enormous—luckily the central rooms of the Villa Manin can take them—together with the preparatory drawings for them. So the vast canvas (7m by 4m) of St Thecla freeing the city of Este from the plague, from Este cathedral (completed in 1759 in commemoration of a plague of 1638) is there together with the preparatory study now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The opportunity has been taken to restore the canvas: in fact there is a sense of opulent generosity about this exhibition that is far removed from the austerity that is afflicting so many Italian archaeological sites at the moment.

The exhibition is linked to the Patriarchal Palace in Udine and the Sartorio Museum in Trieste, which contains a fine cache of Tiepolo drawings. So the show promises a true feast for those who find themselves drawn to an artist who is perhaps the finest Italian painter of the 18th century.

Udine and Friuli are covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy. Charles Freeman is historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

The mystery of the veiled virgins

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

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

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