Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Canaletto: View of the Salute

(Queen’s Gallery, London, until 12 November 2017)

In 1762, the young George III purchased en bloc the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. In doing so, he became at one stroke the owner of the greatest collection of Canaletto paintings and drawings in the world. These works have been in the Royal Collection ever since and now, gloriously, they’re brought together in a stunning exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, offering an abundance of Venetian delights. All in all, if you have any fondness for Venetian splendour, you must not miss this show.

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The Four Seasons: Laurel Corona

★★★½

When two young sisters are abandoned on the doorstep of the Pietà in Venice in 1695, they enter the care of an extraordinary institution: part foundling hospital, part secular convent, and part conservatorio. The girls of the Pietà learn to love God through the medium of music, whether by playing an instrument or by singing in the weekly Masses, which draw admiring crowds to the chapel beyond the grille that prevents any of the performers being seen. And the soloists of the Pietà become stars, their talents as well-known as any opera singer’s, even though they must remain screened away. Of these two abandoned sisters, one, the playful and exuberant Chiaretta, will turn out to have a voice that wins her legions of admirers. The other, Maddalena, looks in vain for an instrument that sparks the inner core of her being. But then she discovers the violin, at around the time that the Pietà hires a young priest to help with giving lessons: a virtuoso violinist and budding composer with flaming red hair, named Antonio Vivaldi.

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City of Masks: S.D. Sykes

★★

The Somershill Manor Mysteries: Book III

The first thing to bear in mind about this book is that it’s actually third in a series. This wasn’t made clear in the blurb for my Netgalley ARC, so I was immediately wrong-footed when it assumed much more knowledge of its protagonist, and his history, than I had. It’s part of the Somershill Manor Mysteries series, the first of which is Plague Land and the second The Butcher Bird. If you are interested in reading City of Masks, I strongly recommend you read those two first, as I think they would add considerably to your enjoyment. In my ignorance, however, and lured by the promise of a novel set in 14th-century Venice, I simply plunged straight in…

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Sérénissime! Venise en fête de Tiepolo à Guardi

Longhi: The Ridotto

(Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, 25 February-25 June 2017)

The Venetians went down dancing. As their commercial and military power ebbed away in the 18th century, they became famous for something else: their carnival. Visitors were drawn by the lure of the masquerade: by the temptation of anonymity, liberty and decadence. But Venice didn’t just come alive at that period between Christmas and the onset of sober, joy-killing Lent. On the contrary, there were festivals all year round: regattas to welcome distinguished visitors; state ceremonies staged like fabulous plays; and the theatre itself, finding its most sumptuous form in Venetian operas. This small-scale exhibition in an equally bijou museum focuses in on Venice en fête, a phrase for which there is, perhaps tellingly, no English equivalent. With the Royal Collection‘s Canaletto show looming on the horizon, like the Bucintoro hoving into view, I thought this would be an excellent way to whet my appetite.

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Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

Veronese: Conversion of the Magdalen

(National Gallery, London, until 15 June 2014)

The National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition is already being described as the one show that you have to see this year and glowing opinions have proliferated: from The Times’s five-star review to the enthusiastic post by the exacting Grumpy Art Historian. Needless to say, I’d been very much looking forward to it. And I was especially excited because, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a very enjoyable lecture by Matthias Wivel, one of the curators, who’d suggested a way of ‘reading’ Veronese’s pictures that I was keen to put to the test.

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Masquerade (Carnival in Venice)

Two masked figures on the Riva degli Schiavoni

Even on an ordinary day Venice feels unreal, suspended between sea and sky, a jumble of bridges and alleyways and damp brick walls, porphyry and gold mosaic, ogee arches and pinnacles of blindingly white marble. I’ve been there twice before, but had always dreamed of going to the carnival and so couldn’t have been more excited when my parents decided to make their first trip to Venice and asked me to come along as translator and guide.

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Scenes from an Execution: Howard Barker

Scenes from an Execution: Howard Barker

★★★

(National Theatre, London, until 9 December 2012)

Venice, 1571. The Serenissima, at the head of the Holy League, has defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto and the great Republic turns to the artist Galactia (Fiona Shaw) to immortalise the victory in an immense canvas. They are taking a risk: outspoken, liberal Galactia is no state catspaw. Sickened by the slaughter at Lepanto, she decides to turn the triumphalist canvas into a seething denunciation of war: a tumult of flesh and violence, blood and severed limbs. This will be no vision of Christian victory, but an accurate representation of a battle whose rate of slaughter wouldn’t be equalled until the First World War.

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Real Venice

Watanabe: Marco Andreatta as Pulcinella

(Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, until 11 December)

I’ve already mentioned this exhibition in the context of the wonderful portraits of Pierre Gonnord, who is one of the photographers who’s donated his work to be sold in aid of Venice in Peril.  When I wrote about Pierre Gonnord, I hadn’t actually been to see the show and had fallen in love with his photographs via the rather less imposing medium of the internet.  However, last Saturday, after visiting the Leonardo exhibition and then managing to get caught up in the Lord Mayor’s Show (which was great!), I finally made it to Somerset House.

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