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.

New Blue Guide Rome reviewed

“Gripping” and “delicious”: Harry Mount reviews The Blue Guide’s latest offering for Chapter House in the Catholic Herald.

Ever since 1918, Blue Guides have been the best guides to European cities.

No other guide has the sheer quantity of facts. For people who want to know why a building is where it is, who built it, when and in what style, they’re the only option.

Alta Macadam, a Florence expat, has been writing Blue Guides since 1970. Annabel Barber, Editorial Director of the Blue Guides, has, like Macadam, tramped every cobble (or black, basalt sanpietrino) of Rome’s roads, and the roads leading to Rome – the entry on the Via Appia is peerless.

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Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

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

SPQR and expressions of Rome

As work for the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome goes full steam ahead, we found ourselves coming up time and time again against the letters SPQR, reproduced all over the city, on lamp posts, manhole covers and public fountains, not to mention in ancient inscriptions. Here is a little piece on that and other familiar quotations from ancient Rome.

Public fountain on the Caelian hill.

The Latin acronym SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’) has been used since the days of the Republic to represent the Romans (significantly giving ‘the people’ equal status with ‘the Senate’). Today it stands for the municipality and it appears carved, embossed and stencilled in numerous places all over the capital. In fact, it is still such a familiar ‘word’ that it was chosen by the Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard as the title of her best-selling history of ancient Rome in 2015 (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome).

Many of the other familiar quotations still in use in the English language are—perhaps not surprisingly—linked to the most famous character in ancient Roman history, Julius Caesar. His famous quip ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’) is reported by Plutarch and is meant to have been the message sent back by Caesar to the Romans about how he was getting on with his military campaigns in Gaul. It sums up the character of a general who managed to conquer enemy territory with astonishing speed.

The ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, used to signify an irrevocable step or point of no return, refers to the river which marked the northern boundary of Italy with Cisalpine Gaul, the province which had been allotted to Julius Caesar. When Caesar descended with his huge army and crossed into Roman territory, he became in effect an ‘invader’ and although at the time it seemed he would have been able to take over the rule of the Empire on his arrival in Rome, in fact this was delayed for some years and he was not able to prevent the outbreak of a civil war. The exact date of the crossing is still disputed (perhaps 49 BC) and interestingly enough the exact location of the river (possibly no more than a stream) has never been established.

It was Shakespeare who first used the phrase ‘Et tu, Brute?’ (‘You, too, Brutus?’) in his play Julius Caesar, when the wounded hero recognises the renegade Brutus in the group of his assassins. Other expressions which have survived the centuries include ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ and ‘Rome was not built in a day’ (perhaps first used in the early 17th century by Cervantes and Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621).

One of the most famous re-interpretations to have survived is ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’), famously used by J.F. Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963 (‘All free men are citizens of Berlin: ich bin ein Berliner’), and subsequently voiced by political leaders as well as in public demonstrations against injustices. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the expression Civis Romanus sum was used in ancient Rome as a defence by citizens who were considered to have committed a crime (and St Paul, when condemned as a Christian, spoke out in his own defence as a Roman citizen): no Roman citizen could be condemned unheard, and nor could he be scourged or beaten without a fair trial. As a result of his citizenship, St Paul could not be condemned to death by crucifixion; he was beheaded instead. President Kennedy used the famous expression at a time when West Berlin was an embattled enclave surrounded on three sides by the hostile GDR.

by Alta Macadam. The new, fully revised and updated Blue Guide Rome (12th edition) will be published early next year.

A Time in Rome

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome. Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Originally published by Longman (1960). Reissued by Vintage Books.

Back cover of the 1st edition (1960)

I wonder how much the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) is read now? Bowen was of Anglo-Irish stock, a fine but delicate writer acutely attuned to the cadences and concealments of an elitist society that had lost its purpose in an independent Ireland. She has been described as ‘haunted by loss’, her characters pulled back into a past that cannot return. Perhaps it is this for which she is still remembered, as much as for her evocation of the atmosphere of a place, notably the Irish country house, or London in the midst of war.

It was for this evocation of place that I was recommended her A Time In Rome, a memoir from when she spent some months in the city in the spring and summer of 1958. What I had not expected when I ordered a cheap second-hand copy on the internet was a first edition still in its original dustwrapper. It is a pleasure to own. The author, with her aristocratic nose, elegant coiffure and several strings of pearls, is shown on the back, a shadowy arch of Septimius Severus behind the title on the front.

This is not a coherent account. It is, as I was told to expect, an evocation by someone who had time on her hands, is interested enough in her surroundings and its history, but perhaps prone to be didactic, making sure that we know all the ancient roads leading from Rome, the names of the gates in the Aurelian wall, and what might or might not count as one of the Seven Hills. She is brisk about the inadequacies of the Forum: ‘This might be an abandoned building-site, or outgrown giant playroom littered with breakages.’ We are firmly told how to negotiate the ruins despite there not being an entry gate just where she would have liked to start. She is not drawn to Roman ruins.

Her wanderings go hand in hand with her battles with her piante, the only maps of Rome that she can find. They are large and brittle and need to be unfurled every time they are used; in the winds ‘the Pianta forever was rearing up to wrap itself blindingly round my face’. There was a struggle to unfold them on a café tables without staining them with coffee or butter and there had to be frequent new purchases after each one disintegrated along its folds.

Still, despite her frustrations, Bowen allows herself to absorb the city. She enjoys the less pretentious restaurants, watching the regulars treating them like home, marvelling at the pride of the waiters, even in trattorie that have nothing to be proud of. The secret of success is ‘a matter of freshness, resilience, tenderness, and in the case of pasta sufficient slipperiness without oiliness’. She revels in the revival of Renaissance Rome, especially the Via Giulia, ‘One rejoices in positive spaces, like giant ballrooms, connected by corridors of perspective. The longer the distances to look down, the greater the pleasure.’ Despite an air of Protestant hauteur about the extravagances and intolerances of the Catholic Church, the vistas created by Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585–90) are especially valued. The pope ‘brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful.’ She is sensitive to the burgeoning of Rome’s spring in the Borghese gardens and other less known gardens. ’I associate the Parco Savello [on the Aventine] with singing birds, the columnar lines of the slender trees, and reposefulness—here in so green a space, at so great a height, above Rome.’ The garden frescos from the Prima Porta villa of Livia, the wife of Augustus, delight her and it seems, from the way she admires Livia’s grace and courage, that she found a kindred spirit in the empress.

When asked by acquaintances why she is in Rome, Bowen cannot give an answer. Her husband had died in 1952 but it had never been a close marriage (apparently never consummated). Her lover, a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, had married during the affair, which lasted over 32 years, leaving a possible life with him unresolved. She was overwhelmed with debts on her beloved Irish home, Bowen’s Court, which she would eventually have to sell. Rome may have been an escape but there is nothing to shape her apparently solitary days or her narrative. Her wanderings seem serendipitous, ‘one or another desire or curiosity shaped my courses for runs of days’. She is reticent, prefers to learn from watching rather than engaging in conversation.

So this is the memoir. Yet many of her letters to Charles Ritchie survive and I found a quote from one of them that was written from Rome. ‘I am leading a very gay, amusing, glamorous, sumptuous life’, she writes. There is nothing of that in her memoir and so a mystery hangs over this book. It is not one of the great evocations of Rome, it is too disjointed and digressive for that, but it intrigues. Who—the reader or Ritchie—was getting the correct version?

A Time In Rome is a period piece. Much of the writing is of quality as Bowen catches a mood of the city. There is a good description of the ceremony in St Peter’s in which the ageing Pope Pius XII beatifies Chinese Christians martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. ‘Half the lights in the world were already blazing, hanging in torrents from the roof, clustered against the carmine brocades clothing the columns, when on the ungated river of congregation we surged in, scaled to our places, waited’ as the pope processed among the frenzy of the crowds, ‘a scarlet spiked tree of gladioli’ carried before him. Yet there is a lot of Rome that she fails to catch, as if her mind never fully engaged with the city. I shall look out for the biographies—those by Victoria Glendinning (1977) and Neil Corcoran (2004)—and letters to find out why. I think she would have been happier in Florence.

Charles Freeman is the Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. Bowen’s ‘A Time in Rome’ is one of works featured in Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

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

Guide to the Via Francigena

The Via Francigena in Northern Lazio. Map and guide in English from the Touring Club Italiano, Itineraries on Foot series. Reviewed by Charles Freeman.

The Via Francigena, the road of the Franks towards Rome, has been known for over a thousand years since Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to travel to Rome for his formal investiture by pope John XV. The record of his journey in AD 990 lists each stopping place, 79 in all, and allows us to trace the route in detail. Sigeric crossed the Alps through the Great St Bernard’s Pass down into Aosta and then through what is now Piedmont into central Italy. As the flow of pilgrims increased and the route became used for trade and travel, cities such as Siena, hardly known in Roman times, grew rich on the proceeds.

The Touring Club Italiano has been working hard with Lazio Regional Council to open up the last 200km of the route. Much of the original, following the ancient Via Cassia, is now busy motorway and their recommended route is based on smaller roads and cart tracks that avoid noise and congestion but include all the original medieval sights that pilgrims will have seen. After a long first day from Radicofani to Acquapendente (30km) there are eight stretches of some 20km with hostels provided at each.

The guide is wonderfully thorough, with detailed maps of each leg of the route and blank pages for notes on each. The author, Alberto Conte, is sensitive to the beauties of the varied landscapes. If I ever take the route I shall be glad to know where there is a swimming pool close to the path and that the owner of the fruit stall in San Lorenzo Nuovo gives passing pilgrims a free piece of fruit. Original paved stretches of the Via Cassia appear from time to time. Thanks are still due to pope Gregory XIII who provided a bridge over the River Paglia in 1578, at a spot where sudden torrents had led to many pilgrims being drowned. There are tips on local wines and traditional dishes of the region alongside boxed sections on each of the major towns. It is useful to know that in September one cannot gather hazelnuts in the Torri d’Orlando as the farmers deliberately leave them on the ground before they are collected. It is tempting, as they are reputed to have the finest flavour in the world!

Yet it is the remnants of the churches, shrines and sanctuaries that grew up along the path that are probably most of interest. At Bolsena, in the 11th-century church of Santa Cristina, the footprints of the 4th-century martyr left on a rock can still be seen but it is the blood of Christ, spilling from a host onto the floor in 1263 after a priest doubted the miracle of Transubstantiation, that is the main attraction. The cathedral of Santa Margarita at Montefiascone, the city favoured as a residence by medieval popes, has the third largest dome in Italy after those of St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Florence. In Viterbo the quarter of San Pellegrino, ‘the Holy Pilgrim’, still unchanged from medieval times, shows off the wealth accumulated from the flocks of pilgrims. Capranica, goat country, was a favourite haunt of the humanist Petrarch. One also passes close to the Etruscan city of Veii, of some nostalgia to me as I worked reassembling some of its domestic pottery at the British School in Rome back in 1966. And so finally into Rome, where the route ends in front of St Peter’s.

There were extensions of the Via Francigena south of Rome for those pilgrims who wished to continue to the East. These are shown on a large pull-out map in the pocket of the guide although the routes are not yet signposted on the ground. Overall this is a beautifully presented and thoughtful guide that will do much to open up forgotten treasures of Lazio. I have got as far as noting its checklist of what to take and wear on the road.

I am grateful to my old pupil, now Professore Simone Quilici, who is heavily involved in such projects, for giving me a copy of the guide when I last met him in Rome.

The Roman Forum Reconstructed

Book review of Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

The Western Forum, with the Curia, Arch of Septimius Severus, Temple of Saturn and Tabularium.

It needed quite a lot of collaboration between kind friends before I could own a copy of this book. It is a lavishly detailed and illustrated study of the western end of the Roman Forum throughout its history, and is understandably pricey. One of the authors, James Packer, is a professor of Classics and an authority on the Forum of Trajan that adjoins the original Forum. He has excavated here and on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. His collaborator, Gilbert Gorski, is an architect who specialises in illustrating reconstructions. Between them they have produced a truly magnificent volume.

The area of the Forum they have chosen for their intensive study includes the Tabularium on the eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, which still looks down on the valley with its original lower storey acting as a foundation for later medieval buildings. The furthest building to the east is the circular temple of the Vestal Virgins. On either side of the Via Sacra which runs through the Forum are two grand basilicas, the Basilica Julia on the south side below the Palatine and the Basilica Aemilia which is next to the Curia or Senate House. The Curia stands largely intact in the form in which it was rebuilt by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. This area encloses several temples, three triumphal arches, of which that of Septimius Severus (dedicated AD 202–3) is the most imposing today, and the rostra or speaking platforms.

Before discussing each building in detail, Gorski and Packer provide an architectural history of the Forum. From the start there are extensive reconstructions, notably, in the first chapter, vistas of the ensemble in its heyday. Panoramic fold-outs add to the luxury of the volume. This chapter covers the building types, techniques and materials from the reconstruction of the Forum by Augustus with an overview of his most important commissions. What is lacking is coverage of his other major projects outside this designated area, notably the Temple of Mars Ultor to the north. The authors can only give this a brief mention and so the wider study of Augustus’ vast building programme—82 temples in all are said to have been restored by him after the neglect of the late Republic—is inevitably limited.

Yet a broader history of imperial Rome is not the purpose of the book which benefits enormously from a focus that charts the evolution of a specific space over the centuries. The second chapter surveys the later reconstructions and restoration of the Forum until the end of the Empire. There were new buildings, such as the Temple to Antoninus and Faustina, begun by the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 141 after the death of Faustina his wife, and complete by 150. Fire was a continual hazard. Often this gave scope for new building but by the time the Basilica Aemilia was completely destroyed during Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, there was little incentive, or resources, to rebuild it. The city government closed off the ruins from sight with a brick wall, part of which still stands. Melted coins from the fire can still be seen in the basilica pavement. It was, surprisingly, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, then ruling from Ravenna, who restored some of the decaying buildings in the late 5th century. The statue of the Eastern emperor, Phocas, set up in 608 on an earlier column, is the last recorded monument of the ancient Forum.

The bulk of the volume examines each of the major buildings one by one. So there is a description of the site and its previous buildings before the new commission. In some cases texts or even inscriptions survive that honour the patron and the background to the decision to build. So Augustus celebrates the return of the standards captured by the Parthians with a small triumphal arch. His successor, Tiberius, uses the spoils of campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia to rebuild the Temple of Concord and grace it with Greek statuary. The temple is later used by the senators as an alternative meeting place to the Curia. The Portico of the Dei Consentes (honouring in its origins the gods of Olympus) was developed as a series of shops faced by the columned portico itself by a succession of emperors from Titus through to Hadrian in the 2nd century.

Overall the book is a triumph of digital reconstruction. Not least of its glories is the imaginative use of illustrations, coins that show the original buildings, fragments of the cornices or paving, earlier depictions of the ruins before they had vanished still further. Photographs show the interior of the Curia when it was the Baroque church of Sant’Adriano and a page displaying the various marbles gives a hint of the vanished opulence of the interiors. So generous are the illustrations that there is even room for alternative reconstructions; what kind of roof did the Temple of the Vestal Virgins have and did the Basilica Julia have a second-storey terrace or not? The final chapter concentrates on how visitors over the centuries would have seen the Forum as they entered it.

After all the bright, shining—and perhaps rather clinical— reconstructions, the end has to come. There is a final view from the late 6th century that shows the buildings still standing but the bronze chariots and horses from the triumphal arches have vanished. Grass is growing in their place and the pavements too are full of weeds. This melancholy scene is suitably backed by a thunderous sky.

Much survived into the Middle Ages with some buildings used as strongholds by one aristocratic faction or other. However the mass of stone or marble was too tempting for the popes. So Poggio Bracciolini records the Temple of Saturn in 1402 as ‘almost intact with fine marble work’. By the time he visited Rome again in 1447 ‘the Romans’ had taken the cella and part of the portico of the temple to the lime kiln, detached the columns and demolished the rest. Houses then filled the site as the rest of the Forum gradually silted up.

The frontispiece shows the view of the Forum from an opulently marbled pavilion in the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine Hill. Two toga-ed Romans stand together scrutinising plans of what lies before them. They turn out to be our authors and who can deny that their intensive study and knowledge of the buildings entitle them to be honorary Roman citizens. Few of their forebears would have known as much about the centre of their city as they do. The have produced a sumptuous and informative book which I will treasure.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.