The Venetian Empire at Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Venice.

The Venetian Republic in times of plague

The Venetian lagoon at sunset, the time of day when people in isolation traditionally gathered to sing the Te Deum. The island shown here is the old hospital island of Sacca Sessola. Image ©Blue Guides.

The Venetian Republic had to take steps to contain infection in the city as early as the 15th century. Their dependence on trade, bringing merchant ships from the East, meant that they were particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease (just as we are told today that globalisation has favoured the spread of Coronavirus). Venetians held that the ease of infection could well be attributed to flying particles in the air, a theory confirmed by scientists many centuries later.

The Venetians were able to make use of some of the islands in the lagoon, either for isolation hospitals or as quarantine stations. The 12th-century pilgrims’ hospice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was taken over by the Augustinian monastery of St Mary of Nazareth in 1423 and became the first-known permanent isolation hospital in Europe. The name Lazzaretto is a corruption of ‘Nazareth’, with a secondary etymology from Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. A lazzaretto or lazaret came to be a general term for a quarantine station. Right up until the 18th century those who were confined on Lazzaretto Vecchio would stand on the bank looking towards Venice at sunset each evening and sing the Te Deum together in thankfulness for their escape from contagion.

Perhaps the most interesting of the Venetian quarantine islands is Lazzaretto Nuovo. Local archaeologists and volunteers have restored some of its buildings and carried out excavations and the island is open to visitors on certain days. In the centre of the island is the Tezon Grande (one of the largest public buildings in Venice, more than 100m long), which was used to decontaminate ships’ merchandise. The goods were fumigated outside, using rosemary and juniper, or soaked in salt water in specially-constructed canals, or covered with vinegar. The splendid wood roof has been restored and the original brick herring-bone pavement survives. On the walls are some interesting inscriptions made by sailors in the 16th century. Some 200–300 sailors, merchants, and travellers could also be housed in isolation on Lazzaretto Nuovo, in small cells built against the perimeter wall, each with its own kitchen, fireplace and courtyard (in old prints the island can always be identified by its forest of Venetian chimneys). Today the island is inhabited by herons, cormorants, swamp hawks, kingfishers and egrets. A sea dyke has been constructed to the west, in an attempt to protect it from acqua alta, and a pilot project has been carried out close to the landing-stage which demonstrates that water can be purified by plant biology. The island also has its own website and a full description of what you can see there is given in our Blue Guide Venice. Ironically, research work for the next edition of Blue Guide Venice was interrupted a few weeks ago by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Another island, San Clemente, housed a quarantine station for overseas visitors until it became a large monastery in 1645. The island of Sacca Sessola (pictured above) was occupied by a hospital until 1980. San Lazzaro degli Armeni, and island just off the Lido, was used from 1182 as a leper colony and after occupation by the Benedictines was given to an Armenian Catholic monastery in 1717.

All visitors to Venice will be familiar with the church of Santa Maria della Salute, which stands guard at the entrance to the city, right at the beginning of the Grand Canal. It was built in 1631–81 in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630–1, which had claimed the lives of some thirty percent of the population (46,000 people). The Doge visited the Salute annually on 21st November, in a procession across a pontoon of boats from San Marco. Every year on the same date this Venetian festival is still celebrated and crowds throng to the church to receive a votive candle.

by Alta Macadam

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

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

“Assumption of the Virgin”, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The “Assumption of the Virgin” in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

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

Venice before Easter

Easter always marks the moment in the year in Italy when there are the most visitors: from then the crowds will remain a fixture until midsummer. So a visit to Venice in these first spring days can be all the more rewarding.

Photo: Wikicommons.

But at any time of year there are campi which always remain truly Venetian, and one of these is the large Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio which almost entirely circles the church of the same name in the sestiere of Santa Croce, not far from the railway station. It is a place where the locals sit and talk on the benches scattered here and there under the few trees, and the children come to run about and play games. Indeed on sunny afternoons, when you enter one of the several doors into the church, you will often find a child playing hide-and-seek in the porch or hear the crash of a football against the exterior, and the sound of the fun taking place outside is always present. But this only makes the church an even more delightful place to explore, and there are plenty of reminders that you are in the House of God, especially in Lent when some of the works of art are shrouded in purple cloth, a tradition once found in the churches all over Italy. Perhaps the church’s greatest treasure, the Crucifix by Paolo Veneziano (1324), with its painted terminals intact, cannot, therefore, be seen in this period: it still hangs in the apse but is a dramatic sight totally hidden from view by a drape which will only be pulled off on Easter morning.

There is an extraordinary variety of beautiful sculptures, paintings, and architectural features preserved in every nook and cranny of the church. Statues of the Madonna abound: a Byzantine statuette shows her holding a spindle, having just risen from her chair; there is a very ruined little Virgin orans in a niche; she carries a (now headless) Child in another little carving which has echoes of French medieval works; and there is a large painted wood statue of her from a few centuries later. The main altarpiece on the apse wall is a Madonna Enthroned with Saints, a typically eccentric work by the great painter Lorenzo Lotto. Also in the sanctuary, set in to the walls, are two marble inlaid Crosses, particularly unusual for their large dimensions. The painter whose works can be seen in almost every church in Venice, Palma Giovane, can be particularly appreciated here, from his large horizontal canvases in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, and those, even larger, in the aisle chapels (including the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence), to his cycle of paintings made to decorate the entire Sacrestia Vecchia in 1581. In the same year Palma Giovane’s much more famous contemporary Paolo Veronese painted the altarpiece in a chapel close by, of three saints, which features a lovely little putto above flying down towards them bringing their martyr’s palms. The Sacrestia Nuova (which has a ceiling painting by Paolo Veronese) is a veritable little museum of paintings, one of which, by Francesco Bassano, includes portraits of the painter’s family as well as Titian sporting a red hat, all of them in the crowd listening to St John the Baptist preaching.

The architecture of the church is also noteworthy, from the typically tall detached campanile dating from the 13th century to its wonderful wooden ship’s keel roof, installed in the following century. There is a rare shiny green marble column traditionally thought to have come from Solomon’s palace, but in any case dated to the 6th century, and a delightful Greek cipollino marble font (probably very ancient) by the west door provided with a little marble ledge for a child to sit and recover after its total immersion. The paintings by artists from the Veneto across the centuries include one of the best works of Giovanni Buonconsiglio (Three Saints, 1498), and, from the 17th century, works by Giulio del Moro, Padovanino, and Schiavone. A painting of the Madonna and Saints is a typical work by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, dated 1764.

I always try to come back to San Giacomo dell’Orio whenever I visit Venice, even though it never needs ‘up-dating’ for the Blue Guide Venice. The church stays open all day (7.30am to 7pm) and the two sacristies are shown on request by volunteers from 8.30 to 4.30 pm (unless they leave a note on the door that they have slipped out for a quick lunch or a coffee).

by Alta Macadam

Italian Venice: A History

R.J.B Bosworth, Italian Venice: A History, Yale University Press, 2014.

R.J.B. Bosworth is addicted to the mingling and competing atmospheres that make up the history of Italian cities. In his book on Rome, Whispering City (reviewed here), he showed how the conflicting pasts of the ‘Eternal City’ were continuously rearranging themselves as one or other faction achieved control over the narrative. Here he applies the same approach to Venice, surveying the city’s history after it was absorbed into mainland Italy in 1866.

Bosworth’s survey is valuable because there is only one full-length English study of Venice’s recent history on the market, Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City 1797–1997, also from Yale (2002). Plant’s is a rich and beautifully illustrated volume, Bosworth’s more penetrating and cynical, and the two together now give the Venice enthusiast a full perspective on a period that has traditionally been neglected in favour of the centuries of Venice’s greatness.

In 1866, the economy of Venice was in a precarious state with the Austrian port of Trieste a major rival for trade. Infant mortality was high and the poor, living on the lower floors of historic buildings, suffered from damp and overcrowding, with employment limited to traditional crafts. In the later 19th century some fresh opportunities were offered by cotton, tobacco and the Stucky flour mill (recently repurposed as the Hilton Hotel), as well as expansion on the mainland at Mestre but the city has never created its own sustainable economy independently of tourism. 31,000 Venetians were unemployed in 1931.

As a result two Venices co-exist throughout this book: the Venice of partying along the Grand Canal and the Venice of an underemployed local population locked in poor housing. While in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1920s, the song-writer Cole Porter and his coterie of young Venetians were taking advantage of Porter’s wife’s absence to disport themselves in her dresses and snort cocaine, 40 percent of the population, according to an estimate of 1933, supplemented their diet with molluscs picked at low tide from the polluted rocks and mud. Typhus was endemic.

Yet Venice has always had competing identities. Was the city founded by refugees from Troy and so equal to Rome in antiquity or did it emerge under the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation in 421? The Patriarch Guiseppe Sarto, later pope Pius X, naturally favoured the latter. When the Campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in July 1902 without damaging the Basilica, he soon had a sacred image of the Virgin on the altar as a thanksgiving for her protection. This austere prelate set in place an uncompromising distaste for the frivolity of life in the palazzi of the Grand Canal. Yet once canonised, the visit of his embalmed body to Venice brought out massive crowds as it made its way up that same canal in a vessel rowed by eighteen oarsmen in 18th-century dress. Bosworth does well to remind us of the persistent Catholicism of a city that has provided three recent popes from its patriarchs.

One patriarch, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, appointed in 1935, proved an adept supporter of the Fascist regime, celebrating its victories, applauding the alliance with Nazi Germany and mixing quotations from Mussolini with those of the gospels. Obsessed with swearing and the lascivious dress of women, Piazza was upstaged by the city’s most successful industrialist, former governor of the conquered Libya and Minister of Finance, Giuseppe Volpi, whose flaunting of Fascist culture in the shape of music and film festivals as well as the well-established Biennale, allowed him to claim that Venice was the vetrina or showcase of Italy and himself as ‘the last doge’. With such flamboyant propagandists for the regime, it was disappointing that police reports (well exploited by Bosworth) repeatedly showed the refusal of the city’s population to take on board, or even to understand, the transformation in attitudes required of them. When an attempt was made to exclude the polite, traditional lei, and replace it by the more militant voi, the gondoliers robustly replied that the language taught to them by their mothers was quite good enough. Eighty percent of the city’s Jews survived the war, many concealed by their neighbours.

As Mussolini’s regime crumbled, there was much reshuffling of allegiances. Venice had suffered badly in the First World War, bombed, and almost captured after the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917. The Second World War was ignored as much as possible and the façade of Fascism quickly abandoned on Italy’s surrender. Between January 1943 and January 1944, membership of the local Fascist party tumbled from 88,000 to 4,000. It was as if an acqua alta had receded without leaving much debris. Volpi was especially adept. Briefly imprisoned because of his adherence to Fascism, his contacts got him out of prison. Escaping to Switzerland, he then bought himself back to respectability by a large donation to the Resistance movement and the handing over of his newspaper, Il Gazzettino, to the Christian Democratic Party. The US general Mark Clark obligingly praised the city for its resistance to Fascism and its transfer of its facilities to the liberators intact. A bronze statue of La Partigiana, ‘the [female] partisan’, near the Giardini, now commemorates the successful resistance of the city to Fascism and Nazism.

The pressures are immense, even if a canny survivor, Massimo Cacciari, mayor of the city in 1993–2000 and 2005–2010, a former Communist philosopher who championed free enterprise once in power, proved able to manipulate them. However, the factions that support or oppose any attempt to change the fabric of the city, from the Calatrava Bridge to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre, create the image of a petrified city edging, as often before in its history, towards extinction. The weight of the traditional refrain, com’era e dov’era, ‘how it was and where it was’, still grips Venice, supported not least by its more romantic visitors. Polly Coles’s Venice and the Politics of Washing (reviewed here) evokes the harassed lives of the remaining inhabitants. ‘Only God can now save us,’ remarked the former Marxist Cacciari.

In a concluding meditation, Bosworth notes how the primary narrative of the city’s past denies its contemporary history by focusing too heavily on a supposed past period of greatness (to which optimists believe the city can return). Perhaps in a tourist city, where so much energy is diverted to extracting profit from its visitors, this is inevitable; but Bosworth’s sober perspective is an important and informative one that can only add to a greater understanding of a city that risks being suffocated as much by literary gush (some fine examples quoted by Bosworth in his Introduction) as by the acqua alta.

Meanwhile behind all the cosmetic changes lurks the cumbersome and vastly expensive MoSE barrier, its completion long promised. The world waits to know whether it will solve the problems of flooding or, as some sceptics suggest, simply trap the river waters that run into the lagoon. The patriarch had better keep his sacred statues of the Virgin Mary at the ready.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of the Historical Introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

Venice and the Politcs of Washing

W.D. Howells, Venetian Life, first published in 1866, and Polly Coles, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice, Robert Hale, 2013.

A recent review of Polly Coles’ The Politics of Washing claimed that it was the most perceptive book on Venice since W.D. Howells’ Venetian Life. In a field that includes J.G. Links’ Venice for Pleasure and Jan (then James) Morris’ Venice, that is a bold claim for both of them but it gave me the excuse for reading Howells for the first time as well as exploring the ‘political’ challenge of how far a newly arrived resident can pull out their underwear (and which garments) on a backstreet (backcanal?) Venetian washing line.

W.D. Howells had worked for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign team and his reward was a year as consul in Venice, at that time under Austrian occupation. He is well educated and curious, but perhaps rather brash and impatient with a city where no one seems to do much. There is, for a sturdy Protestant such as himself, far too great a reliance on the Madonna breaking through the clouds and sorting out calamities and plagues. He soon settles into the routine, however, and when called upon to provide the annual report of ‘Commercial Transactions’ feels ‘a vague feeling of injury during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity.’ None of his compatriots seems to need his help and so he is free to observe daily life and to battle with the intricate personality of Giovanna, his housekeeper, she of the capacious pockets where unwieldy keys, lumps of beeswax, pictures of the Virgin and an illegible account book jostle with each other. Giovanni’s growing power over Howells and his wife is linked to the diminishing number of hours she attends them, but so entangled are they by her family and hangers-on that it is only by moving to a completely different part of the city that they can escape her web.

Howells was writing for an American audience, for most of whom Venice must have been a fantasy, and he exaggerates the picturesque and the ruffians. Yet he has literary skill and his account of arriving in Venice by night and his evocation of the coldness of a Venetian winter are haunting. Despite some good passages and insights, however, too much of the book is a mishmash: some history, interrupted by comments on the hierarchies of society, then a discussions of gondoliers, all of it without really penetrating what makes Venice survive as a city. His best chapter is perhaps his last, written seven years later when he was back in Massachusetts, where he describes how he camped out in lodgings in part of the Palazzo Giustiniani, in a fine position on the Grand Canal. One of the delights that all the male residents enjoy is swimming in the canal when the new tide brings fresh water. There is a more measured and reflective tone in this chapter, something that is often missing in the jumble of what has gone before. Overall, I would certainly rate Howells well below Morris, who is much more sensitive to the nuances of Venetian life.

In The Politics of Washing, Polly Coles, the English partner of an Italian violin-maker, cannot escape being totally immersed in the life of the city (in more ways than one as the floods intensify). There is the education system to negotiate for a start (the couple have four children) and she finds it distant and often sterile for her lively offspring. I never knew that there was quite so much Latin and Greek in the syllabus of the liceo classico. The conventions by which parents accept responsibility for their wayward children and apologise for them even though it might be the inadequacy of their teachers that is to blame is beautifully explored.

The fresh tides here are not those from the lagoon but from the massive influxes of tourists and much of Coles’ life is spent dragging her trolley through crowded streets and missing appointments because the vaporetti are too full for the residents to fit onto them. Coles shares my own belief that it is only in the early morning that one can fully appreciate Venice today. I really enjoyed this book, not only because Coles writes so well but also because she is sensitive to the people, both native and foreign, who surround her all too closely on a daily basis. How far can one risk one’s partner’s Y-fronts fluttering down into one’s neighbour’s garden and what would be the social consequences she would have to live with if they did? What are the conventions in using ‘tu’ and ‘lei’ a) in a conversation with a friendly Italian woman 20 years her junior and b) during a blazing row with her partner when ‘lei’ seems justified to express distance and disdain but turns out to be so inappropriate that it makes him collapse into laughter?

No one should go to Venice without reading this book as it will, perhaps, make them more aware that beyond the burger bars and overpriced pasta, there are people who have known the city since birth but have now become strangers in it, as the privates spaces and the traditional shops that used to serve them dwindle. Though Coles is a newcomer herself, she acts as a sympathetic champion of those who are being pushed to the margins by the cruisers depositing their ‘See Venice in two hours’ crowds. Their social network soon tells them exactly how alta the acqua is, which passageways are still open and where one can browse books in one’s wellies (stivali impermeabili), as the less nifty tourists flounder about in the swirling waters. As the artificially contrived Carnival gets under way in Piazza San Marco, the rowing clubs set off in the opposite direction, with Coles and her friend Jane negotiating a flat-bottomed sanpierota crammed with flags and children, to what is essentially a retaliatory fancy-dress village fête for the locals.

Less visible are the other residents, those who have drifted in from the east to work as carers, and who have only each other to sustain themselves now that children and family are far away. They are the new representatives of the East, the Schiavoni of the 21st century, a reminder that Venice has always been awash with foreigners—although most now stay only long enough to buy their Carnival masks and gelati before clambering on board their cruise ships again. This is a sobering book in many ways, a narrative of a self-destructing and sclerotic city where the ancient landing-posts are all too often submerged. I am happy to place it alongside James Morris’ own memoir of living with a family in Venice in the 1950s (now reissued and updated by the author)—but what a difference sixty years has made to the magic of the city.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman