A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I reviewed Edith Templeton’s travel book The Surprise of Cremona back in the Spring, I said that I would be taking her on holiday with me to Italy later in the year. This I did, and got rather more than I bargained for. This is the tale of my Travels with Edith (and an excuse to post some holiday snaps as well).
My holiday was a guided tour to Ravenna and Urbino, with trips to Classe and Rimini on the side, with emphasis on the art and architecture of the region. The highlights of Ravenna would be visits to the astonishing buildings that survive from the 5th and 6th centuries, when it was the capital of what remained of the Western Roman Empire, and their breathtaking mosaic decorations. In Urbino, we would be concentrating on the art of nearly a thousand years later, in Federico Duke of Montefeltro’s magnificent 15th century palace. It was the sort of holiday that came with a reading list beforehand (yes – that sort). Edith was not on that reading list, and I felt a little shortchanged. I had found her chapters on Ravenna and Urbino so stimulating that I couldn’t wait to see what she had seen and described so vividly. I contemplated writing to the tour company to press her case. However, about three hours into the holiday, I began to see what the problem might be in using her book as a tour guide. Sooner or later, I would see what she had seen etc. etc., but not necessarily in the right order.
As we had only five days to see as much as possible, we were taken by coach straight from the airport to Classe. This was the seaport of Ravenna, now left high and dry by the receding Adriatic, and there is very little to see but flat green fields, a great big sky and … an enormous 6th century basilica in the middle of nowhere. So, over the first of several very delicious Italian lunches, just across the road from the Basilica, I hauled Edith out of my bag and reminded myself of what she had to say about Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. Goodness, but it whetted my appetite.
‘Sant’ Apollinare […] is an exceedingly long stretched sausage of a basilica, made longer in appearance by two rows of pillars which divide the aisles from the nave; its length is still further underlined by two long, straight ribbons of mosaics which run along the nave and right up to the altar. […]
The ribbon on the left has twenty-six virgins, and I quite believe it that they are because they look so bored. The ribbon on the left has twenty-six martyrs. In the choir, very large, Sant’ Apollinare presides over the lot, with lambs at his feet, on a grass-green ground.’
I’ll leave Edith right there, and come back later to the immensely fascinating insights she has about these virgins and these martyrs, because they simply weren’t there – only a series of completely forgettable 18th century frescos of Archbishops. In the immortal words of the ‘Vicar of Dibley’ sketch – wrong church. Sant’ Apollinare in Classe has the wonderful choir, and the Saint and the gorgeous green ground and the enchanting sheep, and that is all. It was a delightful, gentle introduction to the wonders of this corner of Italy – but after reading Edith I had been expecting so much more and I was puzzled and not a little cross with her.
On to Ravenna, which is a charming but not at all magnificent little city. Edith did not find it entirely charming, but ‘touristy’, and she talks of walking from the main piazza to San Vitale through ‘mean streets’. Ravenna, after all, has been a backwater since long before most of the major cities in England were built. To its out of the way position we owe the survival largely intact of these astonishingly ancient churches and monuments.
Edith did love the Piazza, which she likened to a pretty little reception room (though by mentioning in the same breath St Mark’s Square in Venice she sounds like Mr Collins comparing Mrs Phillips’ parlour to the small summer breakfast room at Rosings), and it is there that she spotted, and allowed herself to be picked up with the greatest of chivalry and elegance by, a group of rich, bored, youngish-oldish men she called ‘The Tired Ones’. The word ‘playboy’ seems redolent of a former age now (though I have seen it turn up in the subtitles to ‘Montalbano’ recently, so maybe it’s hanging on in Italy) but it fits the bill here. Their Alfa Romeos are lined up in the square ready to whisk Edith off to Classe, or San Marino, or a delightful trattoria she would never have found by herself. I loved the square, too – if you want your ice cream sundae to put you over the drink-drive limit, I recommend you sit down outside the Caffe Roma and ask for Affogato – ice cream, cream and a treble of the exotic liqueur of your heart’s desire. No-one is allowed to park an Alfa Romeo there any more, but I think I might have spotted a Tired One – elegantly inhabiting a table, with his cigarettes, newspaper and laptop, hair swept romantically over the collar and cashmere sweater draped suavely over the shoulder. I really wish I’d seen him expertly pick up a modern day Edith – it would have been a pleasure to see a Tired One at work.
Of the glories of Ravenna, San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia are the most spectacular. On San Vitale Edith is endlessly worth reading, and her sins are more of omission than inaccuracy. San Vitale is a complex circular basilica, with apses and galleries, and a magnificent choir clad in the most beautiful mosaics. The centre piece is the figure of Christ with apostles, and he is flanked by famous panels of the Emperor Justinian on one side and the Empress Theodora on the other, with their respective entourages. Now, the Empress Theodora is Edith’s sort of gal, having worked her way into the Empress gig via the ‘actress’ route. Naturally, she was the brains behind the Empire, and Edith takes great enjoyment in telling us all about her.
‘Theodora had all the traits which one might expect her type to possess. She was inordinately cruel and implacable, whereas her husband was easy-going and could be influenced by anyone who knew how to flatter him. She also was the greatest stickler for court etiquette, and no ceremonial was too stiff for her. […] [S]he was very moral, and hounded low class tarts from the streets and placed them in reformatory institutions. Yet she was a feminist through and through, and when it came to cases of unfaithfulness, she always took the side of the unfaithful wives against their husbands. In this I see an expression of her belief that women had more grit than men. And, as far as she was concerned, it was true.’
Edith is a brilliant companion in S. Vitale. She describes the effect of the mosaics as walking through golden showers, and is erudite, if selective, in describing the scheme (far more interested in the Imperial Couple than in any of the biblical scenes). For some reason she fails to notice (or at any rate record) the one duff note about this beautiful building – the circular nave is infested with 18th century frescos rioting all over the vault which are to my mind wholly out of keeping with the 6th century mosaics in the choir. She does however describe these buildings when she was visiting them (in the 50s) as dull and dingy in condition, whereas now they are beautifully clean and spruce – so perhaps these frescos were mercifully hidden under layers of ancient candle smoke. Her other lapse is quite an amusing one – she mistakenly describes the central figure in the choir vault as a horse – easy mistake to make, even if the Horse of God is not all that common in Christian iconography (though I do agree it is quite a horsy lamb).
Edith, just as I did, goes into raptures over the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. She is right in describing the little building in the precincts of San Vitale as looking rather like a public convenience from the outside. She is spot on in describing the effect of coming in from the bright sunlight to the darkness of the interior, then, as the eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, seeing the dull fire of the light through the alabaster windows, and the starry firmament of the vault gradually resolve itself. It is a stunning building and even earlier than the other monuments, dating back to the 5th century.
‘The deliberate creation of darkness is calculated to fill the beholder at first with the feeling of being lost. Then, gradually, the stars appear on the sky, the leaves and apples grow out of the night, and the saints move forward like a revelation which appears only when one is ready for it, and one is seized with a foreshadowing of that remembrance which will come when the soul awakens from its sleep.’
So, quickly, before we leave Ravenna, what about those Virgins and Martyrs? They belong to another church altogether – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna. It is another 6th century basilica (they are like buses in Ravenna), but here there is no magnificent choir, just the ribbons of mosaics in tiers upon tiers in the nave. Edith has done what anyone who has seen the two churches would really love to do – she has eliminated the boring 18th c. archbishops in Classe, obliterated the horrible baroque choir in Nuovo, created the perfect basilica, and located it in Classe. Accident? Design? Poetic licence? Too many Martinis? It is much better placed in Classe, this perfect church, as it means that she can be driven there by a Tired One in his Alfetto, and on the way back she can expound her wonderful theory as to why these rather monotonous works of art work aesthetically and spiritually. She needs an audience for this.
‘The strange thing is that, though these mosaics should be boring, they are not. One can look at them forever.
I admit they are not exciting. The deadly opposite of exciting is boring. But the praiseworthy opposite of exciting is soothing. The mosaics are soothing. If one looks at them long enough one sees that each figure, though essentially the same, is different from the others in a small way. The face is different. The folds of drapery are different. The tilt of the head and crown is different.
It occurs to me that it is this difference in the frame of sameness that does the trick.
Looking at these mosaics is like lying on the seashore and watching the waves break on the sand. Each wave rolls up in the same way, dissolves into foam and vanishes, and each time this happens … the tongues of spray mingling with the water are formed … into slightly different arabesques.
It is also like being in church and listening to a litany of the Holy Virgin. The Virgin is addressed by many names, all similar, yet each different. The virgins and martyrs are really a litany presented in mosaics.
During the drive back … I try to air my pleasure about this discovery of mine.
‘This is no art criticism,’ says the Tired One at the wheel. ‘This is sheer irresponsible fantasy. But of course, you are a woman.’ ‘
Well, I don’t care if she did get the wrong church and spoil my first few hours in Italy – I think that is a wonderful insght, and this passage, and all her other interpretations, really helped me to appreciate the mosaics. Her technical analysis of why coarse-grained mosaics look so lively and lifelike was so enlightening – these images have to work and make an impact for viewers at ground level, so features are lined in black, and shading effects achieved by putting complementary colours together. Close up, it’s rather startling, but on the walls of these towering buildings, it works.
This post is becoming very long, and I haven’t even followed Edith to Urbino yet. This will take less time, as she was not entirely complimentary about the city, though she did with typical insight draw out some of its charm, and made some observations that – ahem – I agree with. She prepares the traveller from Ravenna for the old chestnut of ‘crossing the Rubicon’, for which all that is needed is just a good pair of wellies. When she gets to Urbino she is disapproving of the hospitality, though rather tickled to be offered a bed in the hotel in the ‘Reading Room’. She complains of the boisterousness of the inhabitants (it is election time, so many of them are on the streets and in an excitable state), and looks balefully on the Cathedral and the Palace (the magnificent achievement of the Federico, Duke of Montefeltro in evolving a mighty fortress into a renaissance palace cuts no ice with her).
However, she does note with approval the stunning views of the beautiful landscape of Le Marche from Urbino’s twin hills, and the charm of the glimpses of blue-green hills through alleys that run like ribs of a leaf from the main streets. She notes that the buildings (that she describes as ‘patrician’) and the streets are all constructed from the same warm pink-grey brick, which makes Urbino into a harmonious whole.
Urbino is the site of Edith’s great battle cry in favour of Raphael and against Piero della Francesca. I think that part of her animus against Urbino is that she considers that Raphael, who was born and brought up there, is undervalued in his native city, whereas the handful of Pieros in the Galleria Delle Marche in the Ducal Palace are almost the focus of pilgrimage. So, she fights Raphael’s corner in a doughty fashion: ‘If I had to turn out copy for an advertisement for Raphael, I would write ‘Rely on Raphael. He’s always got that something extra.’ ‘ However, the ‘Owl’ (her term for an academic type) showing her round the gallery insists that Piero della Francesca’s ‘Mortification of Christ’ (now generally known as ‘The Flagellation‘) is the finest piece in the collection. Dear Edith makes no attempt to understand it:
‘It is the mortification of Christ, and Christ is mortified indoors while a few Roman soldiers are standing outside. Neither Christ nor the others seem to care about what is happening. Piero has carved the painting into two halves by means of a pillared hall. This two-halves effect is very unpleasing. It makes the thing look unfinished and undigested, and one cannot help asking why Piero did not paint two separate pictures instead?’
Fortunately, our party had the most excellent Owl, who took much time and great pains to help us understand this most enigmatic and richly detailed painting, and I am glad that I did not rely on Edith here, as I should have failed to appreciate one of Urbino’s great treasures.
Well, I think Edith and I have delighted you all long enough. For all her navigational errors, I would not have travelled without her for all the tea in China. Opinionated, brusque, rude, argumentative, dismissive, enthusiastic, erudite, witty – and wildly imaginative – she was the greatest of fun. So, I do recommend her as a guide to Northern Italy – only do take a Rough Guide and a SatNav as backups. Meanwhile – I’ve just spotted a holiday based on Cremona for next year, so it is possible that my days of travelling with Edith are not yet done!
Edith Templeton: The Surprise of Cremona. London: Pallas Athene Arts, 2001. 245pp
First published: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954.