Sunday, 6 April 2014


Off to Florence. Writing in 1884, W Cope Devereaux was upset that he was being overcharged:
    We found the climate of Florence bright and pleasant, bracing and healthful, but it was rather too dear a place for those with a limited income. We had heard that it was an expensive city, and so indeed we found it, for with all our efforts to be economical our bill at the Hotel de Russie was astonishingly high; nor were we alone in this experience, our fellow-travellers averring that it was quite necessary "to cut down your hotel bill, and not to pay quite all that was demanded, as you were always overcharged". ... As far as I have seen of Italian travel, it is a system of "spoiling the Englishman," whenever there is a chance, and the traveller might save himself the trouble of ever taking his hand out of his pocket. As a specimen, we were actually charged a franc each for four small mutton cutlets, and three francs (2s. 6d.) for a cauliflower! Of course I complained, and got one or two francs knocked off.
Which raises the question of why he went to Florence in order to buy a cauliflower. Taking inflation into account, that cauliflower probably cost the same as a small car today, which seems absurd until you consider that wealth distribution was far less equitable in 1884. There were lots of very poor people who had no money whatsoever, and a few extraordinarily rich people, who could afford to have their luggage carried around in monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks. Reading through Devereaux's book I'm struck by the thought that in 1884 we were the Americans. While the actual Americans were taming the West we, the English, were going abroad with wheely suitcases, shouting at the locals and demanding that they speak English.

Deveraux goes on to moan about tipping:
    At present there seems a private understanding among the servants, that one and all are to establish some sort of claim on you, thus: - you ring - the chambermaid appears; you ask for candles—she withdraws and sends the sommelier with them; and every trifling duty is performed by a different personage, instead of one servant taking the entire attendance, to whom you might feel some satisfaction in giving a remuneration. I think that, under the present regime there is little doubt that the visitors pay the servants wages rather than the landlord, and therefore the item of "attendance" charged in the hotel bill is simply a fraud.
Tipping is still a point of controversy today. I have no doubt that if you scour the works of Plato you will eventually find something about tipping. It's one of those subjects that never grows old. I wonder what else the chambermaid would have been prepared to do for a few francs, eh? Or perhaps she could have posed for some naughty pictures in her chambermaid's outfit.

In 1884 photography was an established technology but still difficult and expensive; plates and lenses were slow, which is one of the reasons why contemporary nudes tended to be draped on sofas as if asleep or dead. It was many years away from being accepted as a legitimate art form. Devereaux mentions photography in passing:
    While in Paris ... I was struck with the number of indecent photographs by no means to be confounded with works of art, in the windows of shops in the Rue de Rivoli, and indeed almost everywhere; such photographs, as we should never allow to be exhibited in London, yet here nothing was thought of it. Even ladies stopped to examine them without a blush.
Pornography has long been a driver of technology, it was often opined that broadband internet, CD writers, larger monitors... huge external hard drives, comfortable chairs etc were driven as much by a desire to amass huge quantities of pornography than by a desire to watch pirated non-pornographic films. No doubt scads of wealthy young gentlemen in the latter half of the 1800s took up photography as an excuse to persuade women to take off their clothes, so that the moment could be savoured again and again (this is why nude models generally charge more than prostitutes).

Devereaux had nothing much to say about Florence otherwise. Today it is clean, neat, nice-looking, perhaps a bit dull. From Rome I took a high-speed train, which is cheaper if you book in advance, with the complication that you have to pick specific times. On that high-speed train I travelled faster than anyone had travelled in William Devereaux's time, faster than anyone ever travelled with British Rail.

Of all the Euro-nations Italy has had the most eventful past, and as a consequence it occasionally feels like a piece of blu-tack that has been stretched and squeezed too much. Ancient Rome was one of the grandest cities of its time - of all time - but beyond the ancient ruins and tourist attractions modern Rome feels anonymous. London's Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are world-famous, but the Roman equivalents are dull grey buildings which resemble a naval academy and a university campus respectively. Rome doesn't seem to have a main shopping street akin to Oxford St, and even though it has a large river going through it, there's no equivalent of Tower Bridge. Termini station is larger and busier than Waterloo or Paddington, but the main concourse is just a big dark hole, and there's nothing romantic or dramatic about it. Exit Waterloo and you're on the South Bank, looking across the Thames at the Houses of Parliament; exit Termini and you're in a large bus park, and to the left is a McDonald's and some poor people and cheap hotels.

Rome no doubt has nightclubs and art galleries that would make my heart weep, and people live and fall in love there and lead epic lives and die in the street for things they believe in, but the same is true of any city. As I wandered Rome I remember shouting at the paving slabs and passing cars, "what makes you special, Rome? Answer me!", and I'm very grateful to the local carabinieri for helping me to find my medication and deciding not to press charges.

It was in my shoe. I don't know how it got there. I had to take it off because the echoes were too loud.

Florence is famous for its art, and for "Stendhal Syndrome", a condition whereby people are overcome by the art and have to lie down. I was immune to this because I grew up in the 1980s. The most famous art museum in Florence is the Uffizi, which has a one-two punch; you go through a neatly-designed collection of Italian artwork first*, followed by some non-Italian art which is surprisingly easy to miss because it's slightly off the obvious path through the museum.

The art itself made me sick, in the "Jesus and the moneylenders" sense, because it was so cynical. Endless Madonnas and Children painted by artists who were probably bored of the subject, for churches that just wanted something to put on the wall, to impress churchgoers who would rather have been out drinking. The only thing that moved me was a tombstone from ancient Greece. Two and a half thousand years ago a man carved out a message so that people might remember the dead.

* Strictly speaking, the first thing you experience is a steep staircase. Which may be where Stendhal Syndrome comes from.

The one painting that everybody recognises is Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which is faded but still draws a crowd. Classical nude paintings are generally not very sexy and Birth of Venus is no exception, but the model has a gorgeous face and she's very attractive on a platonic level. I would marry her, we would sleep in separate rooms and I would have a mistress and a golden bicycle.

No-one is sure whether Venus was a real woman or just a figment of Botticelli's imagination. Whoever she was she's dead and gone now. The painting provided the inspiration for a scene from Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a terrible film remembered only for that one scene, and only because uncropped hi-def copies have a glimpse of part of Uma Thurman's right nipple for a few frames. Men remember that kind of detail.

Botticelli seems to have used the same model in Madonna of the Magnificat. Either that, or he had a particular dream woman:

It's tempting to say that women were more natural back then, but paintings are even more fake than photographs. They took months to produce and were filtered through the mind and talents of the painter. Ms Venus has anatomically impossible shoulders and an inhuman neck, and it looks to me as if her eyes are wonky.

Venus has the kind of face that makes men feel inadequate. Because she doesn't need you. And if you tried to keep hold of her you'd end up destroying something beautiful.

Botticelli's paintings were commissioned by the church or very wealthy people, and like all the classical art in the Uffizi and other museums it was commercial art. The paintings in the Uffizi weren't created because the artists had a unique vision that they wanted to explore, or because they had something to say about the human condition; they were created because the artists were paid to churn out illustrations for the local clergy, or produce portraits of wealthy businessman and their wives. A lot of it was hack work produced by the artist's assistants for people who simply needed something to brighten up their church or living room. Classical artists were the Cecil Beatons of their day. They were employed by, and had to flatter, people who had blood on their hands, or who kept the blood off by living in gated communities while the world burned around them. Italy's history is full of blood and fire, full of broken stone monuments paid for with blood, built on ashes.

I took my Olympus XA and some Kodak Portra 160, which has a subtler colour palette than Kodak Ektar. Apropos of nothing Florence has the only other Arnold Coffee I have ever seen (the first was in Milan); it stands out because it resembles Starbucks, which is unusual because there are no Starbucks in Italy at all. The Italians have their own coffee.

The CIE are immigration processing centres; "lager" in this context means "camp", as in laager.