Monday, 28 August 2006

One cannot visit Italy without seeing some fantastic frescoes. Young Wenlock and I spent an hour or so queuing up outside the Vatican so that we could traipse through the museums before ending up in the Sistine Chapel, but given its reputation, the ceiling was always going to be a bit of a disappointment. I did quite like the Last Judgement, but Young Wenlock was more taken by Hannibal invading Italy on the wall of the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

Frescoes being found indoors, usually, and restrictions placed on taking photographs, the rest of this post will be illustrated by other people's pictures. What I have found, however, is that they rarely tend to capture the colourfulness of the real thing.

Siena has some wonderful frescoes. Simone Martini's Maesta of 1315, in the Palazzo Publico, is a great deal brighter and bluer than this picture (or the larger version that it links to) would have you believe. You might get a better idea of the colours from the Siena website, but their picture is so very blurred.

Opposite the Maesta is a slightly controversial fresco, the Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano. If it really is also by Martini, as has long been believed, it would be one of the earliest Italian portraits. It would also have anachronistic castles. There is therefore an increasingly strong case (supported by suggestions of previous works underneath this one, that it is not by Martini, and that it may be a 16th Century fake. But even if it is a later work it is still spectacular.

Martini is good, but the really star of Sienese frescoes was Ambrogio Lorenzetti, whose Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-1340) is also in the Palazzo Publico. This is a set of six pictures. Two are allegorical images of Siena under good and bad governments (the former is better preserved than the latter). Then there are pictures showing the effect on town and countryside of good and bad government. The former are, again, better preserved than the latter).

Next time I will say a bit about Florence, including the fantastic frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Capella Tornabuoni of Santa Maria Novella.

Thursday, 24 August 2006

One reason for continuing with the Wenlock Grand Tour, despite Mrs Wenlock's accident (she is recovering very well, and should be out of her sling in two weeks from today), was that the third part of the journey would put us in Siena at Palio time.

Strictly speaking, the Palio is a silk banner, as seen on the left, being paraded from the Duomo. In practice the word is used to refer to the horse race for which it is the prize. There are two races each year, on 2 July and 16 August, and Siena is packed in the days leading up to the race, despite the fact that, as an event, it makes no real concessions to non-Sienese. The Palio remains a thoroughly local event.

The race is contested in the Piazza del Campo, in the heart of the town, between horses representing ten of the city's seventeen contrade, or districts. In the days before the race itself practice races are run, and it is not uncommon to run into the horse of one or other contrada at the front of a passionate, chanting crowd of its contradaioli, on the way to or from one of these races. On the right is Zodiach, wearing the colours of Nicchio, the Noble Contrada of the Shell. I will say more of the race in another post.

The contrade are far more than supporters of a particular team in a horse race. They play a role in almost all the major rites of passage of every Sienese life, from a second baptism in your native contrada's fountain (the Wenlock Heir is shown here beside the fountain of Pantera, the Contrada of the Leopard), through education - summer camps for the youth of the contrada, for instance, marriage - almost invariably in the contrada's own Church, and support, both social and financial, in old age.

The territories of the different contrade are marked out on building walls, so that you can always tell in whose patch you are walking. In this case we are in the territory of Bruco, the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. The contrade are often given credit for the remarkably low levels of crime in Siena. However some (but by no means all) of the contrade have historic rivalries with each other - Pantera and Aquila, the Noble Contrada of the Eagle, for instance. In the build-up to the race, these rivalries can turn into street fights among small gangs of contrada youths. It is therefore sensible to be conscious of the risks of wearing the yellow and turquoise of Tartuca, the Contrada of the Turtle, when wandering the streets of Chiocciola, the Contrada of the Snail. Little street markers help.

But in Palio time the street markers are supplemented by the banners that fly from every building, and run down every street. The two banners on the left mark the border between Tartuca and Chiocciola, although we saw no signs of trouble as we walked by.

As might be expected, there is more noise and enthusiasm within the contrade who have horses running in the race than among those that do not, and the whole North-Eastern corner of town was a quiet refuge from the crowded masses, with Istrice, Lupa, Giraffa, Leocorno and Civetta taking no part, and of the competing contrade only Bruco amongst them.

It is not only the banners that brighten up Siena in Palio time. Frequently we heard the sound of drumming coming down the streets, signalling the passage of a procession of contrada heralds heading to or from one or other of the pre-Palio ceremonies. Here the banners of Oca, the Noble Contrada of the Goose, and Valdemontone, the Contrada of the Ram.

All seventeen contrade carry their stemme, or banners, in these parades, and indeed on the day of the race there are even representatives of six other contrade, Gallo (the Chicken), Leone (the Lion), Orso (the Bear), Quercia (the Oak Tree), Spadaforte (the Broadsword) and Vipera (the Snake) that no longer exist, following the decree of 1729 which set down the present boundaries.

The Palio is not some folkloric pageant. It has been in continuing existence since the Thirteenth Century, and while it has evolved in many ways (the current contrada heraldry is 19th Century, as the Royal insignia of the Savoy King Umberto on many of the stemme attests). I cannot claim to have understood much of what we saw while we were in Siena, but I found it fascinating. I am glad that we were there for it, and I look forward to going back some day, with a deeper understanding of how Siena works, to appreciate another Palio. I do know, however, that I will never be able to be properly part of it, as I am not Sienese. But that, I think, is one of the Palio's great strengths.

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Most people, looking for the remains of the Empire in Rome, head for the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Forum. Queuing for ages in the former, and surrounded by crowds of fellow visitors in the latter, it is frankly impossible really to imagine what life was like when these places were in use. In any case, all you see are the remains of public buildings - mostly temples and triumphal arches.

The site of Ostia Antica, a 20-minute train ride away (1€ single fare) provides a huge contrast.

There are temples and baths here, of course (rather a lot of baths). There is a theatre too. But there are also ordinary houses, and taverns and snack bars. And they are very well preserved.

Young Wenlock was particularly taken by this caupona by the Marine Gate (towards the top left of the aerial view. Like many of the buildings in Ostia (but like few Imperial Roman buildings anywhere else) the Caupona of Alexander and Helix has intact walls and a ceiling. It dates from the early 3rd Century AD, and standing inside it one can almost imagine what it was like in its heyday - not unlike some contemporary Italian drinking establishments, I suspect.

The theatre at Ostia ("not as big as the one at Caerleon," according to Young Wenlock, who went there on a school visit) has been restored somewhat, and is used for dramatic productions. Behind the theatre lies the Forum of the Corporations (the tree-filled area just to the right of the theatre in the aerial view). This is a wonderful place. It was, apparently, where one would go to find somebody to transport goods. It consisted of an open square with a collonade or cloister around it. The cloister had a mosaic floor, and each patch of mosaic reflected the goods that the shipper, whose little office was behind that part of the cloister, dealt in, or the part of the world with which they traded.

Apparently the "MC" on the amphora in the picture has been interpreted as meaning that this was the office of traders from Mauretania Caesariensis (modern Algeria). Whether the fish signify that they dealt specifically in fish products, I do not know. Since the staple ingredient of all Roman dishes is dormice garum, a fermented fish sauce, this would certainly be possible. Perhaps MC salsamentum was the HP Sauce of its day.

The barely legible inscription above this creature reads STAT SABRATENSIVM. Sabrata is modern Libya, and this is suggested to be a dealer in wild animals or ivory products from there. There is a second elephant mosaic, but the beast is the wrong way up for good photography. He may well have been advertising wild animals from Egypt.

I didn't take as many photographs as I might have done, given the need to keep an eye on the Wenlock Heir, so I cannot show you the apartment blocks, the mausolea, the comfortable houses with frescoed walls still in place, the several other baths with spectacular mosaics which it was quite possible to walk on, or the public toilets. All I can do is recommend that if you are interested in Roman ruins, this is better than the Forum in Rome, and possibly better than Pompeii. It is certainly less crowded. Once you get past the theatre and the baths of Neptune next door, the site seems almost deserted, even in the middle of summer.

Sunday, 20 August 2006

With so much travel involved in the Grand Tour, and with the Wenlock Heir's predisposition to spend the heat of the day splashing around in swimming pools, and with such trips being, in principle, about relaxation and enjoyment, selecting the right reading matter was an important part of holiday planning in the Wenlock household. I wanted, as far as possible, books that would give me a feel for the places we were visiting: Rome, Florence and Siena. For Florence a useful starting point was Fictional Cities, which is perhaps why I did better on that city than on the other two.

The one book that covered Siena was Mary Hoffman's City of Stars. This is the second in the Stravaganza series, young adult books set in an alternative 16th Century Italy and involving visitors from 21st Century North London to a world dominated by the De Chimici family. The focus of City of Stars is a version of the Palio, Siena's famous horse race (of which much more in another post). The third book, City of Flowers, addresses an alternative Florence, and the machinations of the head of the De Chimici family, which bare considerable similarities to aspects of de Medici activities. Highly recommended.

Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus is a brilliant capturing of late 15th Century Florence, when the de Medicis were briefly eclipsed, folowing the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, by both the invading armies of the Holy Roman Emperor and by the fanatical preaching of Giralamo Savonarola. She captures the growing menace of Savonarola's rabble rousing, the approaching French army, and the threat of plague brilliantly, entwining it around a brilliantly characterised heroine. I found this book a real page-turner, but one that was also deeply satisfying to look back upon; a rare combination.

Mark, at Mostly Books, suggested Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, although it is not set in Rome, Florence or Siena. I have read and enjoyed all of Eco's earlier novels (of which Baudolino might have been the most relevant to this trip) and had planned to read this one at some point anyway, so Mark did not need to nudge me very hard. Like all of Eco's books it contains plenty of philosophical speculation, on identity and memory in particular. The protagonist is a man who has lost his memory of his own life, but not of all the facts that he has learned through the years. Eco uses this device, among other things, to explore the Italian national psyche during the Second World War, and how this was reflected in popular culture - comic books, popular music and so on. If this makes it all sound very dry, it shouldn't do. It was a wonderful book and, unusually for a novel, it is richly illustrated with examples of the popular culture which it discusses. I learned a great deal from it about Italy in the second quarter of the last Century.

I picked Christobel Kent's story of goings on among the English expat community in Florence, A Party in San Niccolo, from the review on Fictional Cities and I was not disappointed. As the review makes clear this is a book that contains murder and mystery without being a murder mystery. It helped give me a feel for Florence before we arrived, but the story takes place in the spring, when the streets of town are not packed with tourists, whose activities rather drown out any sense of what the city is like to live in year-round.

Judy Astley's Blowing It was a complete break from Italy, but was just the sort of book to read while dealing long-distance with insurance companies and others while sorting out Mrs Wenlock's emergency flight home. Judy claims that it is not one of her best, but it is still a well-constructed tale of a slightly unconventional family almost falling apart and eventually sorting themselves out. The central character, Lottie, is married to the former lead singer of a 70s soft rock band (Charisma, described as a cross between Fairport Convention and Fleetwood Mac, which I still struggle to imagine). Their philosophy of life tends to involve throwing themselves into new ventures without much thought for the consequences, and with the income from Charisma's back catalogue falling their latest plan, to have a "gap year" themselves, now that their youngest child is about to do the same before University, involves selling the huge but crumbling family home, to the horror of their somewhat conventional children.

I found Emma Tennant's Felony in the BM Bookstore in Florence. It has to count as liteary fiction on many levels. It tells of Claire Clairmont's last days in the late 19th Century. Clairmont was a friend and lover of Byron and Shelley, and was with them at the Villa Diodati near Geneva when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre. In her eighties she lived in Florence where she was preyed upon by an American sea captain with a Shelley obsession who hoped to inherit her papers when she died. This (true) story was the inspiration for Henry James' The Aspern Papers, and Tennant weaves an account of James researching and writing that book in the 1880s with Clairmont's woes in the 1870s. Interesting, if not quite as gripping as Dunant's story.

Meanwhile the Wenlock Heir, having visited the site of Ostia Antica, spent his free hours devouring the series of Roman Mysteries written by Caroline Lawrence. He found these so gripping that he would bring them along to restaurants, and at times would choose reading over splashing about in the pool. He worked his way through five of the series and would have read more if I could have found them in the local shops.

Saturday, 19 August 2006

Back from Italy. Not the smoothest of Grand Tours, as a result of Mrs Wenlock slipping and falling on the way down from the Tarpeian Rock. She did not hurt herself quite as badly as, say, Spurius Cassius did, but she did break her arm and dislocate her shoulder. She therefore returned home to recuperate, leaving me to continue the adventure together with the Wenlock Heir.

Over the next few days I will post some edited highlights of our peregrinations, starting with What We Read On Our Tour, and going on to cover such issues as the best meals we had (although Wenlock does not claim to be a foodblog), the best frescoes (although Wenlock is also no artblog), and the best elephants we saw (which is closer to Wenlock core business). Regency allusions will probably be thin on the ground, but I shall do my best to slip them in when I can.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks, as the Wenlock family is about to head off on the Grand Tour, visiting Rome, Florence and Siena, by means of tunnels under the sea, and great horseless carriages running on metal rails.

It was in preparation for this adventure that I dropped in on Mostly Books, in Abingdon, to pick up some holiday reading. I have mentioned Mostly Books here previously, but this was the first chance I have had of visiting, and seeing how Mark and Nicki were doing after exactly a month in business. That's Mark in the picture, and so far he seems to be surviving.

The shop is very pleasant. In addition to the main shelving area (as seen in the photo at the bottom), there is a separate room for children's books, in which children can amuse themselves while their parents browse among the main shelves, and then there is a courtyard at the back, where coffee is served at weekends. The courtyard seems incredibly quiet and peaceful, despite it being right in the heart of a busy town, and near a rather bust street.

Mostly Books is a fairly small bookshop, and cannot carry everything, but I was pleasantly surprised how many of the books on the shelves were ones that I had read and enjoyed. It gave me confidence that I would probably enjoy many of the rest too. In the end I came away with a copy of Umberto Eco's latest, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which Mark is currently reading himself, and the latest by Judy Astley, Blowing It, not because it has anything to do with Italy, but because she's a friend of mine and I liked the last one of hers that I read. Those two, combined with Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus, already on my to-be-read pile, and Mary Hoffman's City of Flowers, which Mostly Books had on stock order but which had not shown up, should keep me going until, well, until the train reaches Rome...

If you are in or around Abingdon, then do go and visit Mostly Books (and tell them that I sent you). Abingdon is a bit of a traffic nightmare, but there are car parks available and, something that I only discovered after parking illegibly on the pavement, there is free motorcycle parking tucked away just behind the bookshop.

I'll be back in just over two weeks, armed with pictures, now that I have a camera that works.