Tag Archives: Italy

Not the typical Roman holiday …

Torcello

To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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On rebuilding the Bucintoro

Canaletto, The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day, c. 1732.

Flashy patriotic gesturing on the part of assertive yet less-than-independent statelets is rarely a good thing: at best it comes across as crass and faintly risible, while at worst, these first notes of a comic-sounding overture presage not some entertaining opera buffa, but rather tragedy following the usual script of material destruction, fratricidal violence and the energetic fostering of apparently ineradicable emnities, none of it any the less sad for being, all of it, so thoroughly predictable.

Perhaps, then, one should greet the news of the rebuilding of the Bucintoro in muted tones. The Bucintoro was, of course, the famously opulent Venetian state barge, first constructed in 1300 but then successively reconstituted and elaborated, so that the 1728 version (pictured above), the fourth Bucintoro, had swelled into an enormous confection of lion-studded, velvet-swagged, gilded magnificence, manned by 40 sailors and propelled by 168 oarsmen, and equipped with a main salon that could easily seat 90 guests. The vessel played a central role in one of the greatest of La Serenissima’s civic rituals, La Sensa, carrying the Doge out into the Bacino on Ascension Day, so that he could throw a gold ring into the Adriatic, reaffirming as he did so the symbolic marriage which had, for centuries, bound Venice in fruitful union with the sea. Continue reading

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