Love Letter to Italy

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Dear Italy.  Cara Italia. Thank you for beautiful Venice – photo taken during my, ahem, “significant” birthday visit to the Venice Carnival in 2015, my fourth visit to my favourite Continental city. Thank you for Assisi, a holy place which really does seem holy, for your beautiful lakes, for your magnificent historical cities, for your pretty little towns, for your stunning mountains, and for your orange and lemon groves and your fields of olives, vines and sunflowers. Thank you for your lovely cafes on the shores of the lakes, and overlooking the Bay of Capri, and in beautiful little town squares, where you can spend an evening with ice-cream and cappuccino. Thank you for your gloriously complicated history, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thank you for veal Milanese and limoncello and Asti Spumante. And for the fact that every town in Tuscany has its own special cake or pastry, so that you feel obliged to try all of them! And for those little marzipan things that they make in Sicily, and for arancini, and for Murano glass and Burano lace and gondolas. Thank you for the processions that you hold to honour saints I’ve never heard of: they make for fascinating watching!

Thank you for ‘Italia 90, for Serie A which we all got into during the ban years, and for your lovely southern music which we murder into football chants and Cornetto adverts! Thank you for being the setting for so many books and plays, and for being the place that anyone lucky enough to be able to go on a Grand Tour made their priority. Thank you for the lovely old man in Sicily who stopped me in the street and told me that he’d seen me at a hotel (and he had, because he named it!) and thought I was lovely, and for the lovely old man in Pisa who told me that all English girls were beautiful – Italian men can be terrible flatterers, and it’s a wonderful confidence boost when you haven’t got any confidence!

Thank you for the man who, whilst dressed up as a gladiator in Verona, chatted away merrily with me about United beating Roma 7-1 – Italians, like Mancunians, love to talk about football, in any circumstances! Thank you for the Italian tour guide who sat with me on an island in the Venetian lagoon and listened to my tale of woe about not being able to get a job after leaving university, and told me that it would all be OK. Thank you for all the staff in the Sicilian restaurant who, because I was the annoying fussy idiot who didn’t want the stuff on the set menu which had been put on the table for everyone to share, kept bringing me plateful after plateful of alternative food to make sure I didn’t starve, even though I’d said I’d be fine with bread and salad.

So many special places … I’ve hardly got started!!

Venice is the star of the north, but there are also those beautiful lakes. I always say that I’ll buy a villa at Lake Como if I ever win the lottery. We’ll draw a veil over the time I trekked up a steep hill in 90 degree heat to find the site where Mussolini was captured, but, hey, it probably burned off some of the gelato calories! Lake Maggiore and its beautiful islands, and its hydrofoils which carry you off to Switzerland. Elegant Milan, a capital of football and a capital of fashion, and Genoa with its lovely port and its lovely buildings. And the little seaside resorts where I spent my first visit to Italy, when I was 3.

Moving a little further southwards, beautiful Assisi. There are a lot of places which are supposed to be holy, and sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. In Assisi, I do. I was so sad when it was badly damaged by an earthquake, and so glad to see that much of the damage had been repaired. Glamorous Portofino, and the little trains running between the Cinque Terre towns. The castles outside Parma. And, of course, stunning Tuscany – the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence with its fascinating history and Renaissance buildings, San Gimignano with its towers, Lucca with its little stalls in the streets, Siena with its lovely Palio and for the sandwich shop where they actually understood my manifold instructions about what I did and didn’t want … in fact, thank you to anyone in Italy who’s ever understood my Manchester-accented Italian!

And, of course, Rome – the magnificent Eternal City, with its incredible Roman remains, its grand buildings, its squares and its fountains. And the Vatican, although technically that’s not part of Italy. We’ll also draw a veil over the time I got chocolate ice-cream all down my T-shirt in St Peter’s Square: you can’t take me anywhere! Thank you for lovely Sorrento, and for the Neapolitan cafe that provided us with breakfast when our overnight ferry from Palermo docked late and we were horrendously hungry! For Capri, and for Pompeii – when you’ve had to do the Cambridge Latin Course at school, seeing Pompeii really is a thrill! And for Sicily – for Mount Etna, and for all those lovely little seaside resorts, Greek-built towns and steep villages.

I could go on for ever! And there are so many places in Italy which I haven’t been to and want to, and so many places that I’ve been to and want to go back to.  Thank you, Italy, for so much.  It is heartbreaking to see what you’re going through at the moment – it’s like some nightmare out of the Middle Ages, or even out of the Bible.  I know that good wishes from abroad aren’t going to help, but I find myself wishing that heads of state would send messages of support to Italy at this difficult time, and also to China, South Korea and anywhere else particularly badly affected.  Italy is a very special place to me, and I’m thinking of it and hoping that this horrible situation doesn’t get much worse and doesn’t go on much longer.

Lots of love – con amore,

Me xxx

 

 

Mediterranean with Simon Reeve – BBC 2

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Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic.  Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip.  Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean.  It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come.  It’s also been rather worrying.

No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they?  It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean.  Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East.  It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common.  The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean.  It’s sad, really.  I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010).   Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?

And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show.  It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be.  Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there.  Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts.  Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.

The series kicked off with Malta.  The George Cross island.  Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering.  There’s been quite a bit in the news about this.  Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady.  Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports.  It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there.  Something’s seriously rotten there.  It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known.  It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino!  Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all.  Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy.  They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over.  They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series.  They are super-powerful.  And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people.  It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life.  Frightening stuff.

Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean.  People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries.  Parts of Spain and France have also been affected.  It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.

Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that.  Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated.  Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment.  Maybe something will be done about it.  Efforts are at least being made.  Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas.  But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom.  I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past.   More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.

But the other section on Albania was just horrifying.  I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives.  These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations.  It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on.  We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him.  Just a young lad – just a kid.   He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might.  He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him.  He’s “in blood”.  And he’s hardly the only one.  Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position.  In Europe, in 2018.  Bloody hell.

It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.

The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy.  Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife.  The second episode was different.  First up, Cyprus.  Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city.  There was a barricade literally in the street.

I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone.  This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here.  Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government.  I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this.  Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques.  The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal.  This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.  I really hadn’t expected that.

Then on to Lebanon.  I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery.  I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries.  They just … go way back.  But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq.  It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting.   This is a huge problem now.  It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.  Things are very different now.  It’s not good.

Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah.  And they really do control it – “a state within a state”.  He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”.  Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.  Talk about gruesome.  And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus.  To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.

The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive.  We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water.  We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before.  The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals.  Impressive.

The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country.  99% of its imports arrive by sea.  99%!   It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before.  One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island.  It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off.  All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.

And from Israel to the Gaza Strip.  Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.

Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt.   The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.

However, there’s still some hope.  Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions.  She’s doing a great job.  And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity.  And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast.  They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope.  It’s a horrible mess.

Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken.  I think a lot of us would go with that.  It’s a very distressing situation.  So are most of the others covered so far in this series.  Crime.  Blood feuds.  Environment damage.  War, terrorism, dangerous borders.  It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all.  Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations.  This series is well worth watching.

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

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This book would have been a lot better had the author been able to decide what he actually wanted to write – a serious historical novel, a light romance or a rip-off of ‘Allo ‘Allo. He should have stuck to the light romance, because he did quite a good job of that.  The basic plot involved James, a British officer stationed in Allied-occupied Naples during 1943 and 1944, tasked with dealing with the numerous applications for British soldiers to be allowed to marry their Italian girlfriends, and his relationship with a young Italian war widow, Livia, who did the cooking at Allied HQ.   It was a reasonable enough idea for a book, but it was such a mix of different genres that it got a bit silly.

The Italian girlfriends were all prostitutes. That’s a stereotype of Naples that goes right back to the French invasion of Italy in 1494.  “See Naples and die” (of syphilis).  OK, obviously there was a lot more prostitution in wartime than in peacetime … but all the girlfriends?!  And, whilst there was mention of women being forced into prostitution because they had no other means of survival in wartime, they all rather seemed to be enjoying it – like Yvette and Mimi in ‘Allo ‘Allo.   And any Italian men who weren’t away fighting were involved in the Mafia: the entire city was a sea of corruption.  Meanwhile, the Americans were all loud and brash, whereas the British were all jolly good fair play types.  Throw in a few ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque language issues.  “Do you lick nipples?”  for “Do you like Naples?”  (as if an Italian would refer to Napoli as “Naples” anyway!). It would’ve worked quite well in a 1980s sitcom, but I don’t think the book was actually meant to be funny – well, not in a farcical way, anyway.

As a light-ish romance, it worked much better. There were all sorts of problems in their way.  He was meant to be discouraging relationships between soldiers and local girls, so it was going to look really bad if he embarked on one himself.  What were they going to do after the war – could he settle in Italy, or could she settle in Britain?  The back stories were quite interesting.  James  had been involved with a girl at home, and it was all very suitable but they were more like friends than lovers, and then she, going into the Land Army having transformed herself, had dumped him because she’d met someone she really loved.   Livia had loved her late husband, but had realised that she didn’t want the conventional life that a woman in Southern Italy was expected to lead.  And there was all this stuff about cooking, with detailed descriptions of meals, which was very entertaining and really good fun.

Then he suddenly seemed to have decided that, seeing as he was writing a novel set in wartime, he really ought to make it more serious … but went way overboard in doing so. Vesuvius erupted, but, thanks to an evacuation operation organised by the Allies, the effects weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been.  That is actually true.  James was in the thick of it all.  Well, OK, you want your main character at the heart of the action.  Livia’s father was injured, and, in order to get medication for him, she got involved with an unwanted Mafioso suitor.  She then turned down the said suitor’s proposal, and, in revenge, he arranged for her to be taken away as part of a group of women who were going to be sent to a brothel in the German-occupied part of Italy in order to try to win the war by infecting all the German soldiers with syphilis!   The author said that this was actually tried in France, incidentally.

However, en route to German-occupied Northern Italy, the women were shipwrecked! They were rescued by partisans, and joined up with them.  Some serious and interesting points were made about how close Italy came to becoming communist, and also about how the promises of equality made by communists might well have appealed to women used to the very patriarchal society of Italy, and Southern Italy in particular.  But the whole thing with the Mafioso suitor and the winning the war with syphilis and the shipwreck was just so OTT that it was hard to take anything seriously after that.

Meanwhile, James had given up his desk job and headed for the front line, and there were some effective descriptions of warfare, and of the death of his best friend … but it just didn’t fit very well with all the “lick nipples” stuff from earlier in the book. Then, of course, in the middle of wartorn Italy, he managed to find out exactly where Livia was, and … you get the idea.

You have to be a really brilliant author to pull off comedy (and some of the “comedy” in this wasn’t even very funny, and the stereotyping was arguably quite offensive), romance and serious history all in the same book, and Anthony Capella’s not in that league. It was all right, but he should have just made it a light romance with a lot of food talk.  He did those bits rather well.

 

 

 

 

Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean – BBC 2

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Word PressSicily has a rich and fascinating history, but it’s unfortunate that Michael Scott, especially in the second of these two episodes, seemed more interested in using it to fit his views on present-day political issues than in telling it for its own sake. Oh well. Despite that, it was a very interesting series on an island whose history probably isn’t very well-known in the UK. We started off – the indigenous inhabitants didn’t get much of a mention, but, to be fair, not that much is known about them – with Sicily being colonised by both the Greeks and the Carthaginians. I always feel as if the Carthaginian contribution to Western civilisation is overlooked. For a kick-off, we wouldn’t even have the Greek and Latin alphabets had they not developed from the Phoenician alphabet. And then there are all the trade routes. But, whilst the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans are lauded, the poor old Carthaginians only seem to be remembered for crossing the Alps with elephants!

Anyway, then along came the Romans – and a reminder that Sicily was the first Roman conquest outside the Italian peninsula. Having finished off the Carthaginians, and killed Archimedes – the Greek bloke who shouted “Eureka” in the bath – the Romans turned Sicily into a source of grain, creating large estates with absent landowners. They didn’t make much attempt to Romanise the island, which remained largely Greek culturally, and it became something of a backwater.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it fell to the “barbarians” … but not for long, because the Byzantines took it, and used it as a base for trying to retake mainland Italy. When the Lombards took control of Milan etc, Sicily remained in Byzantine hands, and for a while Syracuse even replaced Constantinople as the Byzantine capital. But then the Byzantines fell out amongst themselves, and a rebel naval commander called in the Arabs, who took the island over.

The Arabs – well, it was a mixed group of people, but the term “Arabs” is generally used (rather than “Moors” when talking about the Iberian peninsula) – made a very important contribution to Sicilian and general European culture and economics, notably introducing sugar, citrus fruits, improved irrigation systems and, according to some reports, maybe even pasta! No-one’s denying that … but Michael Scott didn’t half go on about it! I appreciate that he was trying to promote a better understanding of the Arab world and the historic links between it and the West, but this programme was actually supposed to be about the history of Sicily, not twenty-first century attitudes!

He then ignored the Vikings and moved straight on to the Normans. OK, the Vikings and the Normans were linked, but the Vikings did deserve a separate mention and they didn’t get one. However, the Norman period, especially the reign of Roger II, under whom Sicily became a kingdom in 1130, was particularly interesting, with Sicily becoming a very wealthy and powerful state, and comparable to the Caliphate of Cordoba in terms of multiculturalism. It was also in Norman times that Sicily moved away from the Eastern influence and became Latinised and predominantly Catholic. However, again, Michael Scott seemed more interested in trying to make a point about present-day issues than in the history of Sicily.

Due to succession issues, Sicily then came under the control of the German Hohenstaufens. Who was related to whom, and how, is very complicated and confusing, and it’s understandable that the programme didn’t try to go into all, but Scott could at least have tried to say a bit more about Swabian Sicily. Maybe the repression of the Islamic population of Sicily by the Hohenstaufens didn’t fit with his political agenda. He completely missed the Angevin involvement and the whole Sicilian Vespers thing as well, and jumped straight on to “six centuries of Spanish rule”.

Er, no – not quite that simple. Things all get very confusing in the Mediterranean in the 13th and early 14th centuries, with Counts of Barcelona and Kings of Mallorca and different branches of the House of Aragon and all the rest of it, but Sicily was ruled by a separate branch of the House of Aragon – and it was Aragon, not “Spain”! – until 1409, and only then came under the direct rule of the main branch. It was strangely unaffected by the Italian Wars, but it then got handed over to Savoy when everything got divvied up after the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, in one of those bizarre territorial swaps that went on in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, it got swapped for Sardinia and so came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs … and then, whilst the Austrians were off sticking their noses into Poland, was grabbed by one of the Spanish Bourbons. But the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), as it became, was definitely not ruled directly by Spain.

Black mark for oversimplification, Scott!   There are limits. Instead of explaining all this, he went on at length about the Spanish Inquisition. And chocolate. Not that the Spanish Inquisition isn’t important. And chocolate is definitely important. But a better explanation of the actual historical events would have been nice. He did at least manage to cover the 1693 earthquake and the rebuilding after it. The Napoleonic Wars pretty much skipped over, and it was straight on to Garibaldi. Biscuits were mentioned. So was British support for Garibaldi. The Expedition of the Thousand left from Sicily, so the island did play a very important role in Italian independence and unification, and became part of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Scott made it sound as if everyone in Sicily was ecstatic about this, ignoring the revolts and unrest which went on throughout the 1860s. Then he spent a lot of time talking about the mafia – but, OK, no-one’s going to make a programme about Sicily without talking about the mafia.

Then he finished the programme by going on and on about the refugee situation, and , whilst obviously this is a very important issue and one which is not being dealt with adequately, the programme was meant to be about the history of Sicily and he seemed to keep twisting that towards current political issues. The programme was supposed to be about the history of Sicily. I sound as if I’m being really critical, and I don’t mean to be – both programmes were very interesting, and there’s only so much you can cover in two hours. But I would prefer to be able to watch a historical documentary without modern politics being insinuated into it like that. It got a bit too much. But it was still a good series. Nice to have something different!

 

The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park

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Word PressThis really doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. However, it’s rather didactic and at times reads more like a textbook than a novel, so don’t read it if you’re in the mood for something light and easy. It must have taken an incredibly amount of research, and that’s all the more impressive when you bear in mind that the author was 89 years old when this was published.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was set in Renaissance Italy, so readers might well have been expecting a similar setting for the sequel. However, when this book opens, the action in this has shifted to an equally rich and glamorous but completely different setting – the court of the Sultan at Constantinople. Poor old Grazia drowned whilst trying to escape the Sack of Rome, but her husband was working as the Sultan’s chief physician and her son survived the shipwreck and was eventually reunited with his (step)father. The Sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who studied the Tudor era for A-level! – did indeed employ a European Jewish chief physician, although the real guy was Spanish rather than, like Judah del Medigo in the book, Italian.

The blurb on the back cover tells us that the book is about Danilo (Grazia’s son)’s illicit romance with a (fictional) daughter of the Sultan. That gives the impression that it’s going to be some sort of Mills and Boon type story involving every Western harem fantasy going. It isn’t! For a kick-off, as the author points out, life in the harem, certainly for a young unmarried princess, was more like being at a strict old-fashioned boarding school than the popular image of a harem as a luxurious brothel. Apart from Saida, the other women who feature prominently are Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana, the Ukrainian slave girl who, in a story you really couldn’t make up, became the Sultana, and Hafsa Sultan, Suleiman’s powerful mother. The author presents Hurrem as being rather annoying, but she was a very canny woman who gained a lot of influence. So, if you were expecting the sort of thing you got in that awful ’80s mini-series about the Victorian American woman who was kidnapped by Art Malik and ended up on Omar Sharif’s harem, think again!

The exotic element is there, but in a different way. There are a lot of references to Scheherezade. It’s an interesting reminder of how the Middle East used to be seen, before things there got into the horrendous mess that they’re sadly in now.  Think about, for example, damask silk, damask roses and damask oil. Then think about what the word “Damascus” brings to mind now. Think about the Arabian Nights and the Caliph’s adventures in Old Baghdad … then think about what the word “Baghdad” brings to mind now. Even bookings for Istanbul itself are apparently nose-diving, because people are, understandably, anxious about going there after the recent terrorist attacks. And think about the relative tolerance shown to religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and then think about what goes on now.

Moving on. The star of the show is Danilo, not Saida. We follow him through his education in the Ottoman system: for people not familiar with the running of Ottoman Empire, the system of taking boys from Christian families and forming them into an elite military corps is carefully explained. The book does suggest that families sometimes saw it as an honour to have a boy taken via the “devshirme” system, which is definitely not the impression I got when I went to Greece in 2015, but anyway! Danilo becomes part of the elite gerit team … which Wikipedia describes as “a traditional Turkish equestrian team sport played outdoors on horseback in which the objective is to score points by throwing a blunt wooden javelin at opposing team’s horsemen”.  The players are the sporting superstars of their day, and, of course, Danilo excels himself in a big match!  He also makes a good impression on the Sultan by being able to translate Western works about Alexander the Great, Suleiman’s big hero.  And so he’s invited to join Suleiman on his campaign to (re)conquer Baghdad.

When those of us in Britain, and on the Continent, think about Ottoman campaigns and wars, we think about those in Europe. Oh come on, we do! The Battle of Kosovo. The Fall of Constantinople – 1453, one of those dates that “every schoolboy knows”. The Battle of Mohacs. The Battle of Lepanto – how they do go on about that in Venice and Madrid, even now! Going back to my holiday in Greece, I was so over-excited about being in Lepanto (Naupaktos, to use its Greek name rather than its Italian name), that I spent ages taking photos of the beach and the monuments and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue. It is not like me to be the last one in the ice cream queue, but these are iconic names for historians. The 1683 Siege of Vienna, of course. They go on about that one a lot in Warsaw. And there are a lot of stories involving coffee, croissants and bagels. Lord Byron, all very “mad and bad and dangerous to know”, going off to fight the Turks for Greek independence. The Crimean War, although people sometimes seem to forget that that was actually about the Ottoman Empire and not about Britain and France having a totally unnecessary scrap with Russia. And Gladstone striding round Midlothian saying that it was time to drive the Turks “bag and baggage” out of Europe.

So. Baghdad.  No coffee, croissants or bagels.  Actually, I think coffee was mentioned, and Saida and Hurrem spent a lot of time talking about sherbet.  I presume that was the sort you drink, not sherbet dips or sherbet lemons!  Anyway, no croissants or bagels, but there was an awful lot of detail about other things.  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that there was no toilet paper and that hands were used instead, but most of the other stuff was … well, it was fascinating largely because it would just never in a million years have occurred to me to think about it!  For example, the water buffalo were leased.  Like you might rent a car these days, you could hire water buffalo if you wished to invade 16th century Iraq.  However, if you didn’t get the water buffalo back in time for the breeding season, you had to pay a penalty because the owner would be missing out on that year’s calves.   Loads and loads of stuff like that!  It is admittedly rather didactic in part, but it’s very, very interesting if you can concentrate on it.

This part of the story’s told largely by a series of letters sent by Danilo to his (step)father Judah, who’s back in Constantinople. Intertwined with it all is Danilo’s reading of accounts about Alexander the Great to the Sultan, and the Grand Vizier’s jealousy of him.  Danilo isn’t part of the army, so there aren’t any battle scenes, but then there wasn’t really that much fighting anyway.  It does come across that Suleiman was trying to emulate Alexander, and there’s possibly a bit too much emphasis on that and not enough on the realities of the 1530s, the clash between the Ottoman and Persian Empires.  It’s a clash between Sunni and Shia Islam, which sees the mainly Sunni Ottoman Empire end up in control of Mecca, Medina and, following this campaign, the historic caliphate capital of Baghdad as well.

Bearing in mind the role played by sectarianism in the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, that’s something we could probably all do with understanding rather more about. However, to be fair, this is a novel, so it’s not its job to educate people about the historical background to today’s political issues.  But it’s something that the reader is bound to think about.  We also see how the Kurds are caught up in the clash between the Ottomans and the Persians, something else that we could probably all do with understanding rather more about.

The book ends up, setting the scene for the third and final instalment in the trilogy, in Venice. Another gloriously rich and glamorous setting, and one which feels very safe and familiar after the journey from Constantinople to Baghdad and back.  But I really enjoyed that journey.  It’s not an easy read, and anyone who did read the back cover and was expecting a harem romance was probably thoroughly bemused to be met with water buffalo instead, but what fascinating material!  These books have been very popular in Canada, the author’s home country, but don’t seem to have met with much attention elsewhere.  That’s a shame.  They deserve to.

The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh by Marina Fiorato

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Word PressThis was quite entertaining, but it would have worked better as a Victorian adventure story for children: it was just way too unrealistic for a historical novel for adults. Having said which, some of it was based on a true story.  There was an Irishwoman called Kit Kavanagh, who disguised herself as a man and joined the English (later British!) Army, originally looking for her husband but becoming a successful soldier.  She fought in the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession, and it was only discovered that she was a woman when she was injured at the Battle of Ramillies.  She was later presented to Queen Anne, became a Chelsea Pensioner, and was buried with full military honours.  Strange but true!

Marina Fiorato’s changed Kit’s story to suit the purposes of her novel: in her version of events, Kit didn’t join the Army until the War of the Spanish Succession, and lived happily ever after with her second husband – which sadly didn’t happen in reality. I could have forgiven that, but I wasn’t very impressed with the liberties she took with the actual events of the war.  She likes to write about Italy so she placed Kit’s military career in the Northern Italian theatre of the war … but the fighting there was between the French and the Austrians.  The English/British weren’t involved.  There’s no way that the Duke of Marlborough, who appeared several times in the book, would have been anywhere near there!   Nor would his troops.  Not impressed!  The real Kit was at Blenheim, the best-known battle of the entire war – why not write about that?!

It then got really bizarre – and this bit was definitely not based on a true story. Kit somehow ended up in Venice, Marina Fiorato’s favourite city, and fell in with the Duke of Ormonde.  Ormonde did, of course, eventually become the commander of the British forces after Marlborough’s dismissal towards the end of the war, and probably was, as in this story, jealous of Marlborough for many years before that. In this book, Ormonde took Kit off to the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.  Lovely palace (I was there only last week!), but why on earth would the Duke of Ormonde, who fought in Spain and was then appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, have been there?!  No sign of any of the Borromeos: the only other person there was Ormonde’s castrato lover.

Anyway, Ormonde coached Kit so that she could pretend to be a French countess and spy for the Allies … er, but it turned out that he actually wanted to use the info against the Allies, to get Marlborough sacked. In the middle of all this, Kit heard that her husband’s regiment had been involved in a battle near Modena, rowed over to Stresa, took a horse, rode all the way to Modena – via the Brenner Pass, which is very interesting as the Brenner Pass links Italy and Austria so how you use it to get from Lake Maggiore to Modena is utterly beyond me! – and to the battlefield, found her husband’s body, buried it, then rode back to Stresa and rowed back to Isola Bella, all apparently in the space of one night.

She then found out about Ormonde’s plan and betrayed him to the Allies, but then the Allies thought she was a French spy, and then she said she’d fought in the Army, and then they didn’t believe her, and then the bloke she’d fallen in love with in the Army turned up and realised that she’d been a woman disguised as a man and then she’d disguised herself as a French countess, and then the Duke of Marlborough turned up and sorted it all out. Right.

It was fast-paced and entertaining, and, with a few tweaks, it would have worked very well as an adventure book for children, but it really was way too far-fetched to work that well as a book for adults. And I know that the author likes to write about Italy, but messing about with the events of the war like that … bleurgh! But the real story of Kit Kavanagh’s a very interesting one, and it’s nice that Marina Fiorato’s drawn attention to that.   It just could have been done a lot better!

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen

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Word PressThis isn’t a particularly good historical novel – two generations of the Visconti family have been mixed up, and a lot of the story’s more imagination than fact – but it’s quite interesting from a … hmm, what’s the word for historiography of historical novels?!  Whatever the word is, it’s interesting from that viewpoint!

In terms of the book itself, it’s supposed to be about the battle for power between Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona.  Mastina della Scala actually died nearly 40 years before GGM Visconti was even born.  Valentina Visconti (referred to in this book as “Valentine”), who famously married the Duke of Orleans, is shown in this book as having her marriage arranged by her brother, whereas in actual fact the marriage took place whilst her father was still ruler of Milan.  So it’s rather sadly lacking in historical accuracy!  However, the style of writing is interesting.  It’s all thee and thou and melodrama – the sort of things that young female authors (Marjorie Bowen was only 16 when she wrote this) in novels are often laughed at for writing; but this book was a huge bestseller in its day, and its portrayal of treachery and deception is, albeit in a very melodramatic way, quite impressive.

It’s also interesting that several publishers rejected the book because – shades of some of the comments which Emily Bronte got, although Marjorie Bowen was writing this in the early 20th century – they thought it was inappropriate for a 16-year-old girl to have written a book containing so much violence.

Expect theatrics.  Don’t expect historical accuracy.  But this isn’t a bad read, especially as you can get it for free in Project Gutenberg.   And the story of the book, perhaps more so than the story in the book, is really very interesting.

 

 

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Word Press Don’t read this if you’re looking for a happy ending. OK, it was fairly obvious that it was all going to end in tears, because with this sort of book it always does, but … well, it wasn’t the sort of ending in tears that I was expecting. Oh dear.

Anyway. This is the story of a First World War romance between Frederic Henry, an American serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, who meet in Northern Italy in 1917. Hemingway himself was wounded in Northern Italy in 1918, and took a shine to an American nurse at a Red Cross hospital there, which is how the story originated. It’s a theatre of the war which doesn’t really loom very large in the consciousness of the English-speaking world, and the on-off guerrilla warfare described in the book is quite a contrast to the trench warfare which is what we usually think of in connection with the Great War. The politics of the war aren’t really mentioned very much, and the book ends before the significant victory won by Italy (with more than a little help from her friends) in the autumn of 1918, which was really the final nail in the coffin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which meant that Italy was treated as one of the major victorious powers at the peace conferences and made significant territorial gains at the new rump German-Austrian state’s expense.

OK, I have now got totally off the point and I am going to stop myself before I launch into a long essay on the South Tyrol question. South Tyrol should be part of Austria. Instead, it’s part of Italy. This annoys me rather a lot. However, it isn’t really very relevant to A Farewell to Arms. The main war action of this book is the Italians’ retreat after their overwhelming defeat at Caporetto: thoughts of victory and getting their hands on South Tyrol, the Trentino, Trieste and the Julian March very definitely don’t figure. Getting back to Frederic and Catherine, it’s not at all clear what either of them are doing there. Why are Catherine and her fellow British nurse Helen Ferguson stationed in Italy, rather than in Belgium or Northern France or anywhere else where British troops are involved? And Frederic apparently happened to be in Italy when war broke out, although we’re not told why – Grand Tour? Study? Work? – and just decided he’d join the Italian army, but there’s no convincing explanation of why he did so. It wasn’t some sort of idealistic thing like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and he doesn’t seem like someone who was looking for adventure. So that’s all a bit weird.

And they’re both so bizarrely calm and laid back about everything! I wasn’t expecting Mills and Boon and melodrama, but nor was I expecting everything to be quite so calm. We’re having a baby and we’re in a war zone and in a foreign country, and we’re not even married. OK, whatever, don’t stress. The Italian police are coming to arrest me for desertion, so we need to get out of here and get right up Lake Maggiore to Switzerland at dead of night, in a little rowing boat on our own. OK, fine, I’ll just go and pack. I understand that this is Hemingway’s style, and it’s quite captivating in its way, but it takes rather a lot of getting used to.

It’s also worth mentioning that this was banned in parts of the US when it was first published, in the 1920s, and banned in Italy until the 1940s. The Italians didn’t like the focus on their defeat and retreat. The Americans didn’t like the fact that Frederic deserted, and the general anti-war message of the book, the feeling of the futility of it all; but apparently the main issue was that it was considered “vulgar”. Hmm. All right, we’ve got an unmarried couple getting up to what only married couples were supposed to get up to, but it doesn’t really get any more steamy that her creeping out of his bedroom in the morning. Hardly Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The ban says a lot more about Boston in the 1920s than it does about the content of the book.

So, is this a good book? Well, yes, it actually is. It feels as if there ought to be so much more in it, but sometimes simplicity works best, and in this case it probably does. There’s a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “Two things greater than all things are. The first is Love, and the second War”. This isn’t a great, dramatic, sweeping novel of love and war, but, in its own way, it’s a well told story of both. Just rather depressing.  In fact, very depressing.  But it doesn’t pretend not to be.

Duchess of Milan by Michael Ennis

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Word PressThis was about the rivalry between Isabella of Aragon (the Neapolitan branch), wife of the ineffective Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, and her cousin Beatrice d’Este, wife of Gian Galeaazo’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, the de facto ruler during Gian Galeazzo’s lifetime and later the next Duke of Milan. It was an original take on this fascinating period in Italian history, the age of the Renaissance and the Italian Wars, and it also made good use of the important cultural concept of “Fortuna”/fate. There was a lot of action and a lot of description, and many important historical characters were featured.

However … well, it was all rather depressing, really. There was always the feeling that everything was doomed to end in tears, that happiness wasn’t really attainable, and that the world was generally a rather cruel and miserable place. The author seemed very keen on pain and suffering, some of it verging on the sado-masochistic, and also seemed to have an obsession with using as many Italian swear words, the cruder the better, as possible.

If the makers of the TV series about the Borgias ever decide to make a similar series about the Sforzas, it will probably be exactly like this!  Good points and bad points!

And I’m now on the lookout for a book about Bona Sforza, Isabella and Gian Galeazzo’s daughter, who became Queen of Poland. All I’ve found so far is a recent reprint of a 1904 book, only available at extortionate prices, and one other book which only appears to be available in Polish, but I shall keep looking …

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park

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Word PressThis book was inspired by an exchange of letters between Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (and sister of Beatrice d’Este, whom I was reading about recently) and a young Jewish woman who was romantically involved with a courtier.  Isabella urged the woman to convert to Catholicism and marry her admirer, but the woman decided against it.  It makes a rather interesting contrast to some places, the obvious example being Spain – Aragon and Castile – where a convert marrying into a noble family would have been an absolute no-no.  Grazia, the heroine of this book, is, like the lady of the letters, a young Jewish woman, daughter of a prominent banking family, who has a romance with a Catholic courtier and is urged by Isabella to convert, but in Grazia’s case the decision is taken out of her hands when the man is paired off with someone else.

The book isn’t really about the romance between Grazia and (the also-fictitious) Lord Pirro, though.  It’s got a far broader sweep than that.  We see Grazia and her family – originally her parents and siblings, and later her husband – living in various different parts of Italy throughout the fascinating late 15th and early 16th century, the age of the Renaissance and the Italian Wars.  Ferrara, Bologna, Savonarola’s Florence, Venice as the Ghetto was being set up, Mantua, and, finally, Rome, ending with the infamous Sack of Rome in 1527.  All the cities are referred to by their Italian (proper) names, which is unusual in an English language book.  And we meet all sorts of people.  Prostitution features rather a lot, although only indirectly!   Grazia has a book published, and becomes Isabella d’Este’s secretary.  Various leading political and artistic figures of the time cross paths with the fictional characters.  And there are interesting descriptions of some lesser-known Jewish rituals, notably a cherem (excommunication) ceremony.

I’m surprised that I’ve never come across this book before, because it’s not like me to miss a book on the Italian Wars :-), but I’m not sure that it’s ever been published in the UK.  The author’s Canadian, and the book seems to’ve been quite a hit in Canada and the US but I can’t find any mention of it having been published here.  There’s a sequel out now, and a third book planned, but the sequel doesn’t seem to be available here either – although, in these wondrous times of the internet, it should be easy enough to get them from North America via Amazon.

It worked really well for me – I love getting stuck into the Italian Wars! – but there’s quite a lot to take in, and I can imagine that some of it might be hard going for anyone not familiar with either this period in Italian history or with some aspects of Jewish rituals and festivals.  It did work really well for me, though, as I’ve just said.  Well, apart from the ending, which I wasn’t keen on at all; but I’m still planning to get hold of a copy of the sequel, and shall be looking out for the final part of the trilogy when that appears.