Italy Unpacked – BBC 2


Word PressGiorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon have visited various parts of Italy in this programme which focuses on both history and food – a wondrous combination!  The three-part series which has just been shown covered Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, three parts of northern Italy which don’t tend to get the attention they deserve.  We got an interesting balance of cities – Milan, Turin, Parma, Bologna, Ferrara, Modena – and rural areas, including quite a bit about some of the old medieval pilgrimage routes.  I always find pilgrimage routes fascinating: they were the tourist trails of their day!  Or maybe more like the backpacker trails of their day – people just upping sticks and taking themselves off to “find themselves” or “discover inner peace” or whatever.  I’m always rather jealous of people who do that.  Although I’m never sure how they afford it!

I haven’t got a lot to say about this, because there’s not much point in my writing a list of the main tourist attractions of the area or a list of the food particularly associated with the different parts of it :-), but it’s always enjoyable to watch.  I probably spend too much time thinking about food, but it does fascinate me how different types of food are associated with different places, and with different times of year.  And Italy is wonderful!  All those stunning buildings, and all that … er, food!  After reading Eat, Pray, Love, I decided that the idea of spending four months in Italy to try to put your head together was one of the best ones I’d ever heard.  Improve your spoken Italian?  Go to Serie A matches?  It sounded amazing.  Then the author said that she’d put on over 3 stone whilst she was there.  Oh well!  But anything about Italian culture always makes excellent watching ;-).  Thank you for this, BBC 2!



The Burning Time by Robin Morgan


Word Press This claims to be based on historical fact, but it’s actually based on an early twentieth century theory which has been completely discredited and is, basically, a load of twaddle. It’s an entertaining book, with some wonderful, vivid descriptions – although it’s extremely infuriating that the author puts t’is and t’was instead of ’tis and ’twas, and her attempts at Irish dialect sound like a bizarre cross between Scottish, West Country and Yorkshire – but it’s presented as being historically accurate when it really isn’t.

It’s based around the Kilkenny witch hunt of the 1320s, something which definitely did take place. Witch hunts in the British Isles are usually associated with the late 16th and the 17th centuries, but they went on before and after that as well. Dame Alyce Kyteler, a wealthy woman living in the Kilkenny area, and several people associated with her, were accused of witchcraft by a fanatical churchman called Richard de Ledrede. Alyce herself escaped, and is thought to have lived out the rest of her life in England. Her son was, thanks to his powerful connections, let off fairly lightly … on condition that he pay to have the local cathedral re-roofed. The poorer people accused, without money or connections, were imprisoned, and one of them, Dame Alyce’s servant Petronilla de Meath, became the first person burned as a witch in Ireland, in 1324.

The whole witch hunting thing was utterly horrific. I was in the Pendle area on Sunday, and being there always makes me think about witch hunts. People murdered – there’s no other word for it – because of a bit of hearsay, the word of someone who had a grudge against them, knowing a bit of herbal lore, having a mole on their body … it was just horrendous. And, as Robin Morgan says, a lot of it was about misogyny and a lot of it was about money. However, she claims that up to nine million people may have been killed as a result of witch hunts, whereas the usual estimate is around fifty thousand. And the way things are portrayed in this book … well, as I’ve said, it’s all based on a totally discredited theory.

The idea is that pre-Christian, pagan ideas continued to be practised across the British Isles and Europe well into medieval times and beyond. Now, there is an element of truth in this. Hallowe’en is very definitely pinched from the Celtic festival of Samhain, and a lot of traditions relating to Easter, and indeed the very word “Easter”, are also pinched from pre-Christian times. Some old traditions lasted … well, probably until industrialisation and urbanisation. But what’s shown in this book is nonsense. For a kick off, some old traditions may have lasted but that doesn’t mean that people were worshipping pagan gods and goddesses, setting themselves up in covens, casting spells and carrying out pagan rituals. The way it’s shown is actually a bit insulting to the memory of pagan times: some of it sounds as if Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle are about to turn up!   Most of it doesn’t, to be fai;, but it’s based on modern Wicca, which was only developed in the twentieth century. There is an idea that Wiccan traditions have been handed down from pre-Christian times, and that’s all tied up with this theory that the witch hunts were really all about persecuting Wiccans, but it just isn’t the case. This isn’t in any way meant as a criticism of modern Wicca – the world would be a much better place if all religions would concentrate more on nature – but it was not practised in today’s form in the 14th century.

These ideas all seem to be linked up with the growth of interest in folk culture in the 19th century, which again is all tied up with nationalism. And another issue with this book, linked in with that, is the strange ideas which some American authors have about Ireland. I read a book last year, called “Away”, by an author who seemed quite convinced that everyone in 19th century Ireland thought that people could literally be away with the fairies.   The idea that the witch hunts were about persecuting Wiccans isn’t particularly associated with Ireland, but Robin Morgan seems to’ve got it all mixed up with this idea of Ireland as a land of faerie folk!   She claims that Christianity in medieval Ireland was a syncretic religion of pre-Christian traditional beliefs and a bit of Catholicism. Maybe she’s got Irish Catholicism confused with the genuine syncretic religions found in parts of South and Central America!  Even better, she claims that Catholicism in Ireland was imposed by the English! In the High Middle Ages. I’d love to know who she thinks St Patrick was, in that case!

This version of events is actually considerably more interesting than what really seems to have happened, which is that Alyce Kyteler was denounced by her stepchildren because of bad feeling over money, and various other people sadly got caught in the crossfire. But it’s quite frightening how these alternative theories of events – not this particular witch hunt, but witch hunts in general – can be presented as fact. There are a lot of theories about … well, a lot of things. Take the idea, famously presented in The Da Vinci Code but around well before that was published, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and they had children and their descendants have for nearly two thousand years been protected by a secret society. Some of the ideas in The Da Vinci Code, about the suppression of the idea of the mother goddess by misogynistic religions, come across in this book too, incidentally – and the fact that most, if not all, major religions are misogynistic is one thing that certainly is true. Anyway, the point is that long, involved theories about history can be formulated with very little evidence. Sometimes they can be very dangerous, when they’re used against a particular group of people.  This idea about the widespread practice of Wicca in the Middle Ages, and witch hunts being all about attacking it, really isn’t given any credence by any respected historian. This is an entertaining book, but it claims to be based on historical fact and it just isn’t.

Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2


Word PressThis 15-part series didn’t start off very promisingly, but got better and better as it went on.  I was originally expecting some sort of epic coast-to-coast trip, but I suppose that would have been too much train time and not enough sightseeing time.  It started off with three days in New York, which, whilst New York is a very interesting city, was hardly very original.  We see more than enough TV programmes set in New York, surely!   And the historical talk, as far as it went, was mainly about the Gilded Age, which isn’t my thing.  Then several more days in New York state.  He finished that leg of the trip at lovely Niagara Falls, which is spectacular and always worth seeing shots of (although I wish he’d mentioned that the American town of Niagara Falls used to be called Manchester, something that hardly anyone seems to know!), but, from a historian’s viewpoint, the series only really got interesting when he then headed south.

First up, and still north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Pennsylvania.  Philadelphia!  Gettysburg!  Two places of which I have very cherished memories of visiting, two places steeped in history.  And the fascinating Amish country.  Then south to Maryland and Washington DC.  I’m so glad I’m not the only person who felt that a trip to Washington DC wouldn’t be complete without visiting Ford’s Theatre!  And then to wonderful Virginia.  Mount Vernon!  And I’m so jealous that he went to Manassas Junction!  And I note that the term “Bull Run” was never used once.  Then to Richmond, capital of Virginia and one-time capital of the Confederacy.   Such a stupid, stupid idea to have the Confederate capital so close to the border, but anyway.  And then moving back in time, to Williamsburg and, finally, to Jamestown.  Much more my sort of thing than some Gilded Age art gallery!

This isn’t specifically meant to be a historical series, but a few interesting points came out of it.  One was the way that the Civil War/War Between The States is spoken of as being a war about slavery.  It wasn’t!  It wouldn’t have happened were it not for the issue of slavery, and, thankfully, it brought about the end of slavery in the United States, but war was declared by the Union in order to force the eleven states of the Confederacy back into the Union against their will.  How is that any different from Serbia bombing the hell out of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to force them back into Yugoslavia?  If, following the last general election, in which the Tories won an overall majority but got only one seat in Scotland, Scotland declared independence, David Cameron sent the British Armed Forces to invade it, four years of brutal killing and devastation followed and Scotland was then put under martial law, would that make David Cameron the greatest Prime Minister of all time?  I’m not trying to be controversial: I just have a lot of problems with the whole thing of “saving the Union”.  It wasn’t under external attack.  Some states just wanted to declare independence.

OK, rant over!  What else?  Well, as Michael Portillo said to a local historian, the way in which the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and the settlement of Plimoth has become the founding myth of what became the USA, with Jamestown, which was very definitely there first, largely ignored.  Is that all about the Civil War/War Between The States?  That’s certainly what the local historian seemed to think.  The reverence shown for the great George Washington.  And, sadly, the way in which both racial segregation and vast socio-economic divides still exist in the US.

As I said, not the best of starts, but it turned into a very interesting series.  I don’t think anyone’s quite sure if this is meant to be a history programme, a travel programme or a programme about railways, but, whatever it’s meant to be, it works well.  Great British Railway Journeys is back next week, but it’s going to be four weeks of repeats.  Fingers crossed for a new series, whether in Britain, Europe or the US, very soon!




The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright


Word PressEliza Lynch was an Irish courtesan who met Francisco Solano Lopez, son of the president of Paraguay, in Paris in 1854, and became his mistress.  She went to Paraguay with him, they had several children together, he succeeded his father as president, and she became the country’s de facto “first lady”.  Paraguay in those days was a wealthy country, but it was ruined by the Paraguayan War, in which it was defeated by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and many historians claim that Eliza Lynch was responsible for Lopez deciding to start the war.  She followed him throughout the fighting. He was killed in battle and she was thrown out of the country.

This book doesn’t explain any of that very clearly or in very much detail, though.  It’s a short book, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, and a lot of it involves the musings of a (presumably) fictitious Scottish doctor who was also in Paraguay at the time.  It’s not a great historical novel, but, to be fair, it doesn’t really claim to be – it’s one of those dream-like, internal-angsty, books, the sort that reviewers in broadsheet newspapers make you feel as if you ought to enjoy but which, IMHO, aren’t a patch on “proper” historical novels!    Still, it’s got me interested in the subject matter, and I shall certainly be trawling the internet for more info about Eliza Lynch.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal


Word PressWhat a weird book this is!  Maybe I’m missing the point of it, but it was just very … er, weird.  Our Hero, whose life story the book tells, is Fabrizio del Dongo, second son of an aristocratic family in Northern Italy.  In his late teens, he decides to run off and join Napoleon, who’s just escaped from Elba.  So far, so good – all very Boys’ Own-ish!  He does end up at Waterloo, and then he’s arrested/nearly arrested numerous times, but eventually he makes it safely to Switzerland, with the help of his aunt.  Everyone assumes that he’s having an affair with his aunt (which he isn’t), but no-one seems at all scandalised by it.  Then he gets back into Italy, and enters the Church.  Oh well, so much for being Boys’ Own-ish.  However, he spends most of his time off with various different mistresses, which again no-one seems scandalised by.  Then he kills an actor in a row over a woman, and, whilst people think it’s very shocking that an aristocrat should get into trouble for killing an actor (if there was any irony/sarcasm about this, it got lost in translation), he’s eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Then various people all try to poison each other.  Then Fabrizio is eventually freed, with the help of a) his aunt and b) Clelia, daughter of a high-ranking official.  Clelia and Fabrizio are in love, but she marries someone else and he becomes a high-ranking churchman.  However, they have become lovers, but only meet up at night because she’d vowed never to see him again so says they can only meet in the dark!  Er, very Arabian nights.  They can’t run off together because Clelia’s husband would never let them take his and Clelia’s son (who is actually Fabrizio and Clelia’s son), so they abduct the kid and tell the husband that he’s died.  Then the kid actually does die.  Clelia dies of a broken heart because her son’s died, Fabrizio dies of a broken heart because Clelia’s died, and the aunt dies of a broken heart because Fabrizio’s died!   Well, what a jolly ending!

On top of Fabrizio’s goings-on, there’s a lot about factionalism and political intrigue at court, which seems very interesting … except that none of it’s true!  Parma at this time was ruled by Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa and widow of Napoleon.  She’s never mentioned.  It’s like a Ruritanian court with fictional rulers and courtiers, except that it’s set in a real place at a specific time.

Weird.  Very, very weird!

No Place for a Lady by Gill Paul


Word PressThis is a rather simplistic novel about two well-to-do British sisters both caught up in the Crimean War, one as a nurse and one as the wife of an Army officer.  The storylines aren’t particularly well-developed or convincing, but it’s all right as an easy read … insofar as anything about the Crimean War, a stupid, horrendous waste of life, which should never have happened (modern day politicians complaining about each other’s policies on Syria would do well to have a long, hard think about the events of 1853-6), can ever be easy.  And it has its moments: there’s an interesting description of soldiers’ wives seeing the Charge of the Light Brigade from afar, there are some reasonably well-expressed descriptions of hospitals, and there’s an excellent portrayal of the all-too-often overlooked Mary Seacole.  Florence Nightingale came across as rather a bossy-boots, but I’m not arguing with that!  It’s just not very … deep.  There are a few minor annoyances – people in the 1850s would not have thought of themselves as living in “Victorian” times, an officer’s wife would not have given her name as “Mrs Lucy Harvington” rather than “Mrs Charles Harvington”, and the British spelling/pronunciation at the time would have been “Sebastopol” rather than “Sevastopol” (I was lucky enough to visit the place in 2008, and I kept calling it Sebastopol with a b because I’m just so used to thinking of it as such!) – but generally the book seemed fairly well-researched, just too … basic and simplistic.  Still, it’s OK as a bedtime read, especially after a hard day!

Oh, and I was interested to read, in the afterword, the thanks expressed by the author to Natasha McEnroe of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London.  I wonder if she’s read Natasha’s short story about Christmas at Pretty Maids ;-).



The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone


Word Press

This was a bestseller when it was first published in 1934 (ETA – oops, sorry, 1961, not 1934!), and it’s still a stunning book now, a novel about the life of Michelangelo. For some reason, I hadn’t read much about Michelangelo previously. When we “did” the Renaissance at A-level, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at their height of their fame, so, when asked to name some famous figures of the Renaissance, everyone chorused “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello” :-), but we were only asked to write about two of them and I chose Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Michelangelo comes across in this book as being a far more attractive character than either of those two – so dedicated to his work, and supporting his family.

And I hadn’t really realised that he’d have preferred to focus solely on sculpture, and was more or less bullied into painting the Sistine Chapel by the Pope of the time, Julius II. So much of his life and career was dominated by powerful figures demanding that he do this, that or the other. It’s well known that some of the leading talents of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo da Vinci, moved around between different courts, but it’d be nice to think of that as being like the top football clubs all competing to sign the best players, whereas in fact it was mainly about politics and Michelangelo only got a limited say in where he was going to go next, and even less say in what he was actually going to do when he got there.

The chaos of the Italian Wars comes across very well in this, as does the decadence of pre-Counter-Reformation Rome. The two cities in which Michelangelo spent most of his time were Florence, his home city, caught up in power struggles between the Medicis, Savonarola and the invading French and Habsburg armies, and Rome, where wealthy families competed to have one of their own elected as the next Pope. Even within the world of the arts, there were feuds, rivalries, factions and power struggles. And he just wanted to get on with his sculptures.

There was one particularly touching scene, and I’ve got no idea whether it’s based on fact or whether it’s a work of the author’s imagination, but I really hope that it’s based on fact. Bartolomeo Pitti, a minor member of the well-known Pitti family of Florence, came to Michelangelo and commissioned a sculpture from him, saying that it would mean the world to him and his wife if they could “help a work of art to be born”. Then there was a follow-up scene, equally touching, in which the completed sculpture – and the sculpture itself is certainly real, and still in existence, known as the Tondo or the Pitti Madonna – was taken round to the Pittis’ home, and Bartolomeo Pitti and his wife and family were absolutely overjoyed with it. Such a contrast to the Popes and some of their powerful families and their aggressive demands for works with which to show off.

It’s a long book. Michelangelo lived to be 88. And it’s absolutely wonderfully written. I only wish that I’d come across it sooner. Very, very highly recommended.