A Sense of Place: Impressions of the Mediterranean


Slide 1: Sian: welcome and introductions

Slide 2: Long the Muse of Writers


Sian: I’d hazard a guess that everyone here is suffering from the same virus. Once caught, it never leaves you. The chief symptom is an infatuation with the lands that border the Mediterranean Sea and the islands contained within it. Whether it is the (mostly) benevolent climate, the dazzling light, shimmering sea, the colours, culinary delights, or layers of history added by the people who have inhabited it, the Mediterranean has long been the Muse of writers from all quarters. At its best, their writing has captured a sense of place, evoking the memory of a city, island, landscape or culture for those who have visited, or lingered, and acting as an incentive for those who dream they may yet do so. There are so many writers and works to choose from, and I hope you will share your favourites later on. But we are going to start in Venice.


Slide 3: Venetian Masque: Henry James


Sian: The Aspern Papers, by Henry James, was published in 1888. It is the story of the narrator’s search for the love letters of a now deceased poet, the “Aspern” of the title. The narrator arrives in Venice determined to extract the romantic correspondence of the late poet from his now elderly lover, Miss Juliana, by courting her niece, solely, and ruthlessly, for this purpose. As a study in obsession and its consequences, where on earth, other than Venice, would you set such a tale?


The shimmering, watery, city of ghosts has captured the imagination of writers and poets throughout the ages, not to mention being an irresistible setting for modern day crime writers such as Donna Leon and Michael Dibden. Some of the best and most evocative descriptions of Venice are from this genre. But perhaps Henry James led the way with this mystery novella, evoking the strange mixture of other worldly beauty and the death, corruption and greed that lies at the beating heart of La Serenissima.      


Slide 4: The Aspern Papers     


Diane: “Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration. And somehow the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic, and resonant resembles a theatre, with actors clicking over bridges and, in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas. As you sit in your gondola, the footways that in certain parts edge the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it at the same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro against the battered scenery of their little houses of comedy, strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.


I was seldom at home in the evening, for when I attempted to occupy myself in my apartments the lamplight brought in a swarm of noxious insects, and it was too hot for closed windows. Accordingly I spent the late hours either on the water (the moonlight of Venice is famous), or in the splendid square which serves as a vast forecourt to the strange old basilica of Saint Mark. I sat in front of Florian’s cafe, eating ices, listening to music, talking with acquaintances: the traveller will remember how the immense cluster of tables and little chairs stretches like a promontory into the smooth lake of the Piazza. The whole place, of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble (the only sounds of the arcades that enclose it), is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation--that of the exquisite impressions received during the day. When I did not prefer to keep mine to myself there was always a stray tourist, disencumbered of his Baedeker, to discuss them with, or some domesticated painter rejoicing in the return of the season of strong effects. The wonderful church, with its low domes and bristling embroideries, the mystery of its mosaic and sculpture, looking ghostly in the tempered gloom, and the sea breeze passed between the twin columns of the Piazzetta, the lintels of a door no longer guarded, as gently as if a rich curtain were swaying there. 


One evening about the middle of July I came in earlier than usual - I forget what chance had led to this--and instead of going up to my quarters, made my way into the garden. The temperature was very high; it was such a night as one would gladly have spent in the open air, and I was in no hurry to go to bed. I had floated home in my gondola, listening to the slow splash of the oar in the narrow dark canals, and now the only thought that solicited me was the vague reflection that it would be pleasant to recline at one’s length in the fragrant darkness on a garden bench. The odour of the canal was doubtless at the bottom of that aspiration and the breath of the garden, as I entered it, gave consistency to my purpose. It was delicious--just such an air as must have trembled with Romeo’s vows when he stood among the flowers and raised his arms to his mistress’s balcony. I looked at the windows of the palace to see if by chance the example of Verona (Verona being not far off) had been followed; but everything was dim, as usual, and everything was still”. 


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Slide 5: Greek Idyll: Lawrence Durrell

Sian: From Venice our tour takes us eastwards to the Greek islands and a novel by Lawrence Durrell published in 1953. At the end of the Second World War, on release from an Egyptian jail, Lawrence Durrell obtained a military posting to the Greek island of Rhodes. The largest of the Dodecanese islands, Rhodes had been surrendered by Italy to the Allies in 1943. However, German forces subsequently took over most of the islands during the war and held onto them as besieged fortresses until the war's end. Durrell set up house there with Eve, who would later become his second wife, in the little gatekeeper's lodge of an old Turkish cemetery. His book on his time in Rhodes, Reflections on a Marine Venus, was inspired by this period and is a lyrical celebration of the island, as you can see from this excerpt. 



Slide 6: Reflections on a Marine Venus

Christopher: “Beneath us the blue carpet of sea stretched away to Anatolia, where, say the peasants, you may still see the claw-marks of marauding dragons graven in the mountains; stretched sinuously along the capes and faults of Marmarice to where, in the northern corners, the first faint silhouette of islands rose, like stepping stones, pointing to Cos.  Beneath us on the landward side stood the old stadium and the temple, now much restored by the misguided Italians. In this green and sleepy hollow, an old shepherd kept his flock of sheep, standing under the great oak-tree which crowns the amphitheatre. Descending the terraces slowly Sand points out all that remains of the ancient city – a few outcrops of stone-carved tombs on the crown of the promontory: and turning his finger like a compass completes the half-circle at Simbulli and Rodini. Yet the ground is still choked with red pottery and the delicate handles of lamps and oil-jars. Gideon everywhere turns them up with his stick and we wash the clay from them in the ditches, trying to assemble the fragments again, but in vain. 

Down on the mossy turf of the stadium the sheep browse and tinkle, looking like so many gold and silver insects in the sunlight, while their keeper comes slowly towards us to pass the time of day. He is an old man, with a deeply wrinkled face, and black sloe-shaped eyes which seem to have had all the good humour worn out of them. He speaks Rhodian Greek with its clipped sing-song accent and pastoral vocabulary. Sitting around him in the grass, smoking and talking, we hear the history of the last few years, of the privations endured under the Germans, of the ugly reprisals exacted from the Italian forces which tried to rebel after the fall of Italy.

Below us in the great amphitheatre where once the white city of Hippodamus lay, with its sacred groves and temples, its dazzling statuary and teeming dock-years, the Crusader town lours with its gross bastions, that keeps shining through the evening mist, topped by the minarets and the turning windmills of the Turkish quarter.

How far all of this is from its Greek setting, from the main current of its landscape tradition – this old swarthy peasant and his sheep on the green hill; the reclining figures of his daughters by the old well, raiding a fragrant violet-bed, and for their daily meal unwrapping from a dirty piece of paper a dozen sour olives. Against this backcloth, the towers and buttresses of the Knights rise into the sky, dark with the premonitions of an alien age, of alien ways. Yet the patient landscape has almost succeeded in domesticating the gothic north, it has sent wave after wave of tangerine-trees to assault the dark stone cliffs of the castle. It has choked the moat with almond and peach-blossom. It has coated the stern revalins with the iridescent sheen of moss kept moist from some invisible spring seeping through the stones…..”


Slide 7: Sicilian Splendour: Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sian: Our next port of call is Sicily, and the novel “Il Gattopardo”, the Leopard, written by Tomasi di Lampedusa. Published in 1958, yet in the best traditions of the 19th century novel, “The Leopard” tells the story of the family of Don Fabrizio Corbrera, Prince of Salina and member of the Sicilian nobility. The Prince and his family are living through times of great social and political change, the “Risorgimento”. Garibaldi’s troops have landed on the island presaging new times ahead. The most famous line from the work is precisely on this theme: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” declares Tancredi, the Prince’s nephew. The author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was himself born into a Sicilian aristocratic family in the mid nineteenth century and lived until 1957. The novel was published a year after he died, impoverished and unrecognised for writing what is arguably one of the greatest European novels. It is a sensuous evocation of Sicily, a vanished past, a celebration of life intensified by the palpable presence of death, delivered as only a Sicilian can. Here, Lampedusa introduces the family and the rococo splendour of their villa near Palermo. 


Slide 8: The Leopard

Alison: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen”. The daily recital of the Rosary had ended. For half an hour, the calm voice of the Prince recited the Sorrowful Mysteries. For half an hour other voices spun into the undulating hum the golden flowers of unlikely words: love, virginity, death. While it lasted, the rococco salon seemed to have mutated. Even the parrots, spreading their iridescent wings on the silk covered walls, seemed intimidated. The Magdalene between the two windows seemed a penitent rather than the beautiful fair-haired woman lost in who knows what reverie, as she is usually portrayed.

Then, his voice falling silent, the normal order of things was restored, the usual chaos. Bendicò, the Great Dane, aggrieved by his exclusion, emerged from the servants’ entrance, wagging his tail. Slowly the women got up and the retreating swirl of petticoats revealed, bit by bit, a mythological nudity drawn upon the milky background tiles. Only Andromeda now remained hidden by Padre Pirrone’s cassock, whose additional prayers prevented, for quite some time, the sight of silvery Perseus flying above the waves, rushing to her aid and to a kiss. 

On the frescoed ceiling, the divinities awoke once again. In praise of the glorious house of Salina, ranks of Tritons and Dryads from mountain and sea tumbled through raspberry pink coloured clouds and cyclamen towards a transfigured Golden Conch, suddenly so brim-full with exultation it appeared to neglect the simplest rules of perspective. Major deities, those princes among the Gods - a dazzling Jupiter, a frowning Mars, a languid Venus - preceded a crowd of lesser immortals happily supporting the blue emblem of the Leopard. They knew that for twenty-three and a half hours they would once again be lords of the villa. On the walls, the macaques returned to poking fun at the cockatoos.

Below this Palermitan Olympus the mortals of the house of Salina also descended hastily from their mystic spheres. The girls adjusted the folds on their dresses, exchanging pale blue glances and comments in the schoolgirl phrases of the day. For over a month, since the “uprisings” of the Fourth of April, prudence dictated they return home, to miss the canopied ceiling of the dormitories and collective cosiness of the Holy Redeemer. The boys were already scuffling with one another for possession of the San Francesco di Paola medal. Young Duke Paolo, the eldest and heir, longed to smoke, but afraid of doing so in his parents’ presence, continuously squeezed the braided straw of the cigar case concealed within his pocket, his gaunt face veiled in brooding melancholy. It had been a bad day. Guiscard, his Irish sorrel had seemed off form, and Fanny had not found a way (or was unwilling) to send him her usual lilac-tinted billet-doux. To what avail then the Incarnation of the Redeemer?”


Slide 9: Arabesque: Antonio Muñoz Molina 1991

Sian: Moving to the west, we now arrive in Spain, the city of Cordoba, and a work by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Muñoz Molina is probably one of Spain’s best-known modern literary exports. Born in Úbeda in 1956, he now lives and works as a writer and journalist in New York. Probably his most famous novels are “El jinete polacco” (The Polish Rider) and “Sepharad”. He was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1995.  In a work published in 1991, The Cordoba of the Omeyas, he evokes the Arabic essence of Cordoba, weaving a mixture of history, myth and legend to produce the story of a city that was the jewel in the crown of Al-Andalus under the rule of the Omeyas. Here he is, setting the scene, blurring the boundaries, and telling us that even to this day, to walk in the old part of Cordoba is to walk in an essentially Moorish city.


Slide 10: The Cordoba of the Omeyas

Jean: Early on in the day, at about eight o’clock, I awoke to the noise of bells announcing the first liturgy of the day. Through the window I could see the bell tower that was once a minaret, the brick coloured tops of the Mezquita walls, the crowns of palm trees emerging from its courtyard standing tall against the pale blue sky. As the morning advanced and the heat increased, the sky lost its colour and became almost white, a colourless, blazing midday sky against which light reverberated as against a lime-washed wall.

Surveying the pure colours of Cordoba in the early morning light reminded me of the clarity of the Moroccan landscape; its green oases, the red colour of the earth, the sensation of being in the Medina of Chefchouen, being in the midst of a silence peopled by footsteps, listening to the chant of the muezzin whose sound was amplified by a precariously perched loud speaker attached to the minaret’s window with a plastic cable. In Chefchouen, the normal sense of time we carry with us - like documentation, or the face we present to the world - was useless, like a watch that suddenly stops. But there was no sense of exotic anachronism. The time I spent wandering through the Medina was not strange to me, nor the sound of Arabic spoken there, nor the scent of wood-smoke and damp, trodden earth in the evening. In the afternoons of my childhood, I had lived and enjoyed that same archaic time and heard these sounds undisturbed by the noise of car engines. Listening to the muezzin, I remembered that as the sun went down, the faithful were being called to prayer. A dense darkness inhabited the interior of houses in the same way as it inhabited the courtyards of houses in Chefchouen and Cordoba.  Its women, seated together at windows, with sewing on their laps, had a cautious way of looking on to the street, as if they were still hidden by latticed screens and not by drawn net curtains. They did not put the lights on, instead remaining silent for a while, or conversing in murmurs. Nightfall must be awaited attentively to catch the precise moment of its arrival.

The metallic sound of the bells is more emphatic than the call of the muezzin. In Cordoba, every morning when I awoke, I undertook the strange task of imagining the now non-existent city whilst wandering through the real one. I had to search out the true Cordoba, as Quevedo had sought out the true Rome on his pilgrimage there. I explored ruins and researched books on the daily life and experience of those who lived two thousand years ago - those who saw the same light that I saw and whose hands and footsteps had worn the marble columns and floor of the Mezquita. After two thousand years, almost nothing remains of the city they inhabited, but the columns are still standing, and the Guadalquivir still flows between the sandy islets and thickets of oleander and reed with the same slow mythology of all sacred rivers. My task was to write a book on the Cordoba of the Omeyas, the inconceivable place that had once been the capital of the West”.

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Slide 11: Eternal City: Mark Twain 

Sian: And finally, it seems only fitting to finish our Grand Tour by returning to Italy, this time to Rome. However, the final offering is from a writer who has a rather more cynical view of all things Mediterranean. Mark Twain is one of those rare beings who seems to be inoculated against Mediterraneanitis. Or perhaps he had had a bit too much of Michelangelo all in one go by the time he wrote The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869.  Those of you who have attempted to get round a good portion of the Vatican Museums will recognise the symptoms of culture fatigue. Here he is, writing about his visit to Rome with his friend, the Doctor, and taking it out on an unsuspecting and long-suffering French guide, all guides referred to as “Ferguson”, whatever their nationality, who is valiantly attempting to impress his American visitors with the wonders of the Eternal City. 

Slide 12: The Innocents Abroad

Jeff, Christopher and Huw: “We have made it interesting for this Roman guide. Yesterday we spent three or four hours in the Vatican, again, that wonderful world of curiosities. We came very near expressing interest, sometimes—even admiration—it was very hard to keep from it. We succeeded though. Nobody else ever did, in the Vatican museums. The guide was bewildered—non-plussed. He walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in anything. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last—a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him: 

Ferguson: “See, genteelmen!—Mummy! Mummy!” 

MT: The eyeglass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever. 

MT: “Ah,—Ferguson—what did I understand you to say the gentleman’s name was?” 

Ferguson: “Name?—he got no name!—Mummy!—’Gyptian mummy!” 

MT: “Yes, yes. Born here?” 

Ferguson: “No! ’Gyptian mummy!”

MT: “Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?” 

Ferguson: “No!—not Frenchman, not Roman!—born in Egypta!” 

MT: “Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy—mummy. How calm he is—how self-possessed. Is, ah—is he dead?” 

Ferguson: “Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!” 

MT: The doctor turned on him savagely: 

Doctor: “Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for Chinamen because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us!—thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to—to—if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out!—or by George we’ll brain you!” 

MT: We make it exceedingly interesting for this Frenchman. However, he has paid us back, partly, without knowing it. He came to the hotel this morning to ask if we were up, and he endeavoured as well as he could to describe us, so that the landlord would know which persons he meant. He finished with the casual remark that we were lunatics. The observation was so innocent and so honest that it amounted to a very good thing for a guide to say. 

There is one remark (already mentioned,) which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes—as long as we can hold out, in fact—and then ask: 

“Is—is he dead?” 

That conquers the serenest of them. It is not what they are looking for—especially a new guide. Our Roman “Ferguson” is the most patient, unsuspecting, long-suffering subject we have had yet. We shall be sorry to part with him. We have enjoyed his society very much. We trust he has enjoyed ours, but we are harassed with doubts”.

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Slide 13: A Sense of Place: Impressions of the Mediterranean

Sian: That concludes….

Slide 14: Our Expert Guides

Sian: With special thanks…