Gleanings from Vasari’s LIVES and THE COLLECTOR OF LIVES, by Rowland and Charney

March 8, 2018 at 11:54 pm (Art, Italy)


This is the second and final post on Vasari’s Vite (Lives) and the biography Collector of Lives.

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his monumental sculpture of David, Piero Soderini, who occupied the  high post of Gonfoloniere of Justice in the government of Florence, arrived on the scene. As he gazed upon the great artist’s masterwork, he voiced the opinion that David’s nose was too thick. Whereupon Michelangelo proceeded – or appeared to proceed – to remedy this imperfection. Vasari describes what happened next:

Michelangelo, realizing that the Gonfaloniere was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind him nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his left hand along with a little marble dust that he found on the planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tap lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by little without retouching the nose from the way it was. Then, looking down at the Gonfaloniere who stood there watching, he ordered:

‘Look at it now.’

‘I like it better,’ replied the Gonfaloniere: ‘you’ve made it come alive.’

David by Michelangelo Florence Galleria dell’Accademia

Vasari knew many of the artists that he wrote about it; he also knew that  people loved hearing inside jokes and gossip about those same artists. His Lives is thus filled with such anecdotal material. Some of it may be apocryphal; but such stories enliven his text and are a major aspect of what makes it still so readable and entertaining.

“Vasari’s stories tend to endure, even when scholarship overturns them.” Rowland and Charney in The Collector of Lives

In 1506, during the excavation of a vineyard in Rome, workers broke through to the remains of the Golden House (Domus Aureus). This was an elaborate palace-cum-park created by Nero, built from 64 to 68 AD following the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of 64 AD. Workers soon found  themselves uncovering an extraordinary sculpture: the Laocoon Group.

Not only was this work astonishing in and of itself, but it exercised a profound influence on Michelangelo, who happened to be in Rome when it was first brought out of the earth and back into to the light of day. (When the work of excavation was complete, the Laocoon Group was brought to the Vatican, where it still is, and where I saw it several decades ago.)

Here are Rowland and Charney on the subject of the Laocoon:

The statue is astonishing for its realism, the hyper-accurate musculature of Laocoon and the adolescent bodies of his sons as they struggle against the tightening coils of the serpents, one of which is about to bite Laocoon’s flank. It is a frozen moment of highest tension. Muscles are taut, the serpent’s jaw is set to clamp down, an expression of adrenaline-pumped effort,, pain, and hopelessness can be read in the face of Laocoon.

The authors go on to point out that this is an extremely different effect than that which Renaissance sculptors normally strove to convey in their work.

During the High Renaissance, when so many great artists were at work in northern Italy and in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, painters established workshops where apprentices ground pigments, prepared canvases, and performed other tasks. If an apprentice showed promise, he could learn technique from the master. In fact, many masters emerged from this system, Vasari himself among them.

Painter’s workshop, by Philip Galle, c.1595

There’s an interesting post on this subject at the Art Post Blog.

Rowland and Charney have a vivid description of what it must have been like to work in such a place:

In a Florentine painter’s studio…scents of linseed oil, sweat, and sawdust would have greeted the visitor outside the door. Ideally, the large windows would face south to catch the best possible light, and  the studio had to be tall enough, and wide enough, to accommodate altarpieces of all sized. Sawdust, scattered on the floor, absorbed splatters and facilitated cleaning as apprentices. like Vasari, aged eight to eighteen, mingled with older paid assistants, bustling around the space, sweating profusely into grimy leather smocks, laughing, cursing, mopping, grinding pigments, creating an atmosphere that was surprisingly lively and social.

They add that the image many of us carry in our minds of the lone artist struggling to achieve his  goal simply did not apply here. For example, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of Wittenberg ran “a veritable factory.”

(I can never hear of Wittenberg without thinking of Hamlet: “Go not to Wittenberg,” the Queen implores her son, thereby sealing her fate, his, and that of many others at the ill-fated Danish court.)

This paragraph on Leonardo da Vinci pretty well sums up the man’s astonishing achievements:

Leonardo’s legacy in art was far greater than his modest output would suggest. The development of techniques like sfumato (the intentional blurring of color to create a smoky, atmospheric effect),  chiaroscuro (the dramatic focus on emerging from darkness),  and replicating nature with as much accuracy as possible (such as employing “atmospheric perspective,” in which objects far in the distance appear hazier, as we view them through layers of atmosphere, and pinpoint accurate anatomy as studied from dissections) all made a lasting impression and influenced future generations of artists. His books (on art, and on mathematics) helped to disseminate his ideas. His inventions, more of them designed than actually built, showed tremendous forethought: he was the first to conceive of helicopters, machine guns, tanks, parachutes, foldable bridges, and more.

(And still with me is the moment last December when my sister-in-law Donna and I stood before Leonardo’s other worldly masterpiece The Virgin of the Rocks, in London’s National Gallery.)

Vasari did not want to elevate any artist to the level of his revered and beloved Michelangelo; nevertheless, he readily acknowledged the supreme gifts of Raphael:

His colours were finer than those found in nature, and his invention was original and unforced, as anyone can realize by looking at his scenes, which have the narrative flow of a written story. They bring before our eyes sites and buildings, the ways and customs of our own or of foreign peoples, just as Raphael wished to show them. In addition to the graceful qualities of the heads shown in his paintings, whether old or young, men or women, his figures expressed perfectly the character of those they represented, the modest or the bold being shown just as they are. The children in his pictures were depicted now with mischief in their eyes, now in playful attitudes. And his draperies are neither too simple nor too involved but appear wholly realistic.

The School of Athens, Raphael’s famous fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican (1509-1511)


Raphael’s Alba Madonna has long been one of my favorite works of art in Washington’s National Gallery. Painted circa 1510

Vasari brought home to me the importance of Masaccio in the evolution of Italian painting. I hadn’t realized how key his contribution was:

The superb Masaccio completely freed himself of Giotto’s style and adopted a new manner for his heads, his draperies, buildings, and nudes, his colours and foreshortenings. He thus brought into existence the modern style which, beginning during his period, has been employed by all our artists until the present day, enriched and embellished from time to time by new inventions, adornments, and grace.

Masaccio’s achievement and influence are all the more astonishing when the brevity of his life is taken into account: he died at the age of 26. Vasari appends a rather provocative speculation to his remarks on this artist:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Vasari does not elaborate on this startling conjecture; rather, he goes on to note that upon hearing the news, the great painter  and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was grief stricken and exclaimed: “‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’”

Masaccio, San Giovenale Triptych, 1422


Masaccio Expulsion, 1424-25

Rowland and Charney assert that had Vasari not made note of several women artists, we might not know about them. They refer specifically to Sofonisba Anguissola and her sisters – she had six of them! – and Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna. Vasari had actually had occasion to meet Sofonisba and three of her sisters when he was visiting Cremona, where their family belonged to the local aristocracy. He  was deeply impressed by a particular work of Sofonisba’s:

The Chess Game, 1555


This year in Cremona I saw in her father’s  house a painting by her hand made with great diligence showing her  three sisters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, with such diligence and attention that they truly seem to be alive and missing nothing but the power of speech.

As for Properzia de’ Rossi, she was famous primarily for her carvings on nuts and on fruit pits.  I read somewhere that this meticulous endeavor was deemd especially well suited for a woman to undertake, as it required both patience and diligence.


Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone (Simone) Cassai, called Masaccio 1401-1428

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), 1483-1520










Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Properzia de’ Rossi (?), 1490-1530









Giorgio Vasari, self-portrait, (1511-1574)

Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564









Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait 1532-1625

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Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel









It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists



The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:


What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:








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‘Somewhere deep in the soul of the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.’ – Paganini’s Ghost, by Paul Adam

December 31, 2017 at 10:38 pm (Italy, Music, Mystery fiction)

This is a great mystery for lovers of both classical music and Italy. Gianni Castiglione is a luthier – a maker of violins and other  stringed instruments. He lives and works in Cremona, a city that has long been the center for this exacting art. Previous practitioners include Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and Andrea Amati. Instruments crafted by these past masters still command steep prices. In the ways that count, though, they are priceless.

Luthiers also condition and repair existing instruments, and it is in this capacity that Gianni has been sought out by Yevgeny Ivanov, a youthful violinist whose career is just taking off, and his imperious and overbearing mother, Ludmilla. The mystery begins with this seemingly straightforward encounter and gains in complexity until, I admit, I was having some trouble keeping track of the cast of characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But as is so often the case with this kind of crime fiction, it didn’t bother me. I was  so thoroughly engaged with the lore of the violin and its fascinating history, especially as it relates to that brilliant and tempestuous legend, Niccolo Paganini. Also helpful is the fact that Paul Adam’s prose is exceptionally fine. In this scene, Gianni is working on a violin that was once Paganini’s. He’s working under time constraints and has to get it right:

I was conscious of the time ticking by as I worked on the violin, but I tried not to let it disturb me. I also tried not to think of the status of the instrument. I had to regard it as an ordinary violin, not the violin that had belonged to the most celebrated virtuoso in history. But it wasn’t easy. Every time I touched it, I was aware that Paganini’s hands had been there  before mine. His fingers had held it; his chin had rested on the front plate; his breath had drifted over the varnish. Somewhere deep in the soul off the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.

Handling the violin gave me a strange feeling of transience. It had been made two centuries before I was born and it would survive long after I was gone. It wasn’t passing through my life; I was passing through its life, just as Paganini had passed through it.

Niccolo Paganini, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1819

Paul Adam studied law at Nottingham University before embarking on a career in journalism. He is the author of twelve novels for adults, including the two that currently comprise the Cremona series. He has also written the Max Cassidy Trilogy for young readers.

In the above bio, I could find no indication of where or when Adam’s deep love for, and knowledge of, the violin had come into his life. Fortunately, I found an interview in which he explained that he’d played the violin as a child and long been interested in its history and in the city of Cremona.

Paul Adam

I finished this novel several weeks ago, but it’s been brought vividly to mind by an extremely poignant essay I just read in The New Yorker. Entitled “A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act,” it is also about a young violinist and the power of music to exalt and to heal.


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Donna Leon’s Venice ambivalence

June 30, 2017 at 9:38 pm (Italy, Mystery fiction)

  Yes – well, this is not news, exactly. That ambivalence is once again present in Earthly Remains, the author’s latest Guido Brunetti novel.

First, there’s this:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that has been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating  bill.

Then some ninety pages later, there’s this:

Another bridge, then open water on one side. On the other was the Basilica and the Palazzo, and Brunetti had the sudden realization that, though none of this belonged to him, he belonged to all of it.

Illegality, incompetence, indifference, venality, stunning beauty, inescapable history – all there, all part of the rich stew that makes up present day Venice.

And then, there’s that other problem….

Donna Leon’s image graced the cover of the Spring 2017 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine:

The feature piece was written by Oline H. Cogdill, whose reviews and analyses of crime fiction are always a pleasure to read. For me, the surprising nugget here was the news that Donna Leon has shifted her primary residence to a small village in Switzerland that consists, she avers of “a couple hundred people, a couple hundred cows.” Although she still spends a lot of time in Venice, she avoids the city in the summer months. The brutal influx of tourists has at last become intolerable, a sad commentary, I think.

Leon has written about this problem in previous novels. In By Its Cover, she describes Brunetti’s shock when he’s suddenly confronted by an ocean-going behemoth of a cruise ship. Here’s what I wrote in my blog post:

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Earthly Remains is not concerned with the tourist scourge per se; rather, it’s about a type of ruination that Venetians themselves bring on their own city. It’s a sad story, replete with the disillusionment that Brunetti, a decent and caring man, all too frequently experiences in the course of his work. The almost total absence of his family  – the astute and shrewd Paola, and their children Raffi and Chiara – from the narrative only serves to accentuate the bleak atmosphere.

I wrote about this novel in a recent post about pacing in crime fiction in general and noir fiction and film in particular. At the time I was about a third of the way in and becoming impatient for the plot to take shape. I was also reading Colin Harrison’s thriller You Belong To Me. The latter really had me in its grip. And yet Earthly Remains ultimately won me over, while Harrison’s book began to pale beside it.

At any rate, time spent with Commissario Guido Brunetti is invariably time well spent. I am grateful that in the crowded world of mystery fiction, both he and his creator persevere.

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“…the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” – The Classical World by Nigel Spivey

October 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm (Art, History, Italy)

spivey  A marvelous book on ancient history, as these  excerpts must show:

Freud had followed the excavations at Troy with passionate interest, and eventually came to liken his own methods of psychoanalysis to an archaeological process of ‘peeling away’ layers in quest of some residual ‘truth’ that had become ‘mythical’ over time….the significance of Freud’s reaction to the marble relics of classical Athens lies precisely in the sensation that caused pangs of filial piety. The Acropolis was symbolic not only of Athens at the height of her ancient glory in the mid-fifth century BC, but of civilized values generally. So for Freud, and for many others, it symbolizes a bourn, a destination, for the human spirit, amid the amber glow of columns standing on a rocky mass.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece. [click to enlarge]


The sources…tell us that Alexander, though well proportioned, was not a physically large man…Yet…by consensus, [he] possessed a commanding presence, radiating from his eyes. These generated much comment, regarding their size, colour and glistening quality, but above all their contribution to a ‘heavenwards gaze.’ Accordingly, many images of Alexander show him as if transfixed by some distant prospect. Admirers took this as a symptom of his ‘divine inspiration’ (enthousiasmos). He appeared superhuman.


The Alexander Mosaic, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, now preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum (I have seen it!)  [click to enlarge]

Alexander on Horseback

Alexander on Horseback, Hellenistic bronze


The villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus




The paintings from this room, relatively well preserved, are among the loveliest pictures from antiquity — at least, in their cumulative effect; they create a vista that seems like an earthly paradise. Only when we peer closer do we notice a strange level of biodiversity here. Flowers that bloom in the spring, such as blue periwinkles, appear with fruit that mature in autumn, such as quince. Birds — quails, thrushes, nightingales — animate the foliage, regardless of their migratory habits. Such is the marvel of the Golden Age created by Augustus.

Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla

Caesar Augustus

Caesar Augustus


Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding his son's hand. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding the hand of his son Ascanius. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

The commission to compose an epic about Rome’s arch-founder Aeneas was, we are told, reluctantly undertaken by Virgil. He worked upon it for a decade, licking its lines into shape (as he put it) as a mother bear would tend her cubs. He died, in 19 BC, without finishing it to his satisfaction, and asked his friends to burn the manuscript. Fortunately for us, those friends disobeyed the poet’s wishes.The Aeneid survives as proof not only that epic could be written, after Homer, but also that epic could grow, in moral scope,  beyond Homer….With Virgil, the epic tradition resonates with concerns of justice and sympathy, earning him the critical accolade of writing ‘civilized poetry’. His capacity ‘to harmonize the sadness of the universe’ – the dictum approved by scholar-poet A.E. Housman as poetry’s purpose – has endeared Virgil to pessimists down the ages; in his time, however, Virgil articulated a vision of Roman identity that made the construction of empire a mission of laborious benevolence.

The Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
(excerpt published in the March 7 2016 issue of the New Yorker)

Elsewhere Anchises,
Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley
Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there,
Those due to pass to the light of the upper world.
It so happened he was just then taking note

Of his whole posterity, the destinies and doings,
Traits and qualities of descendants dear to him,
But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?

This is what I imagined and looked forward to
As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.” But Aeneas replied:
“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not

Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

What is purported to be Virgil's tomb, pointed out to us as we sould on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius behind us.

Burial vault purported to contain  Virgil’s tomb, pointed out to us as we stood on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius at our backs (in 2009)

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil 70 BC-19 BC

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil
70 BC-19 BC


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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

July 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy, Music)

Dynast11  I finally finished it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.

So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.

Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:



[Click twice to enlarge]

In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as  Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.


Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus (born Gaius Octavius) 63 BC – 14 AD

(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)

Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of  the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.

She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

from the Wikipedia entry


Livia Drusilla, also know as Julia Augusta 58 BC – 29 AD



statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)

The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:

The approach to Capri by boat

The approach to Capri by boat

As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:

2009 May - Walking the Amalfi Coast 182-X2I was stunned. We had gone from history to prehistory, and were now reaching all the way back to the kingdom of myth.

Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.

Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD - 41 AD

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD – 41 AD [Photo by Louis Le Grand]

Next up: Claudius:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC - 54 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC – 54 AD

Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. THe series caused a sensation on this side of the Atlantic and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. The series created a sensation and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome

Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 AD – 58 AD

Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)

As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.

But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.

Nero and Agripppina

Nero and Agrippina

How was she ultimately rewarded?

Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.

Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in.

By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby –  and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:

A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not –  and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.

Nero as he might have looked at one of his 'shows'

Nero as he might have looked at one of his ‘shows’

Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.

Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.

The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.


A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.

These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:

  89231   tumblr_mk1jczyHLs1rrnekqo1_1280


These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)

Roman_Blood_cover  17406306411


KeyJaro  I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall.  I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)

Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: 12172 . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.

This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:

Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.

IMG_20160728_201332  This is my own copy of Memoirs of Hadrian. I’ve had it since 1982 and intend to have it always.

Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014.  61HHV3wB42L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:

After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.

Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.


Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!

The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.

From the Naxos site




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The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon

July 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

51h0TPh95SL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  Commissario Guido Brunetti has been tasked with investigating what is essentially a cold case. Fifteen years ago a teenage girl, Manuela Lando-Continui, was found floating in one of Venice’s canals. Pietro Cavanis, a bystander, pulled her out of the water, but not before serious brain injury had occurred. Cavanis, an alcoholic, remembered almost nothing of what occurred that day. As for Manuela, she was in a coma for a period of time. When she finally awoke, it was with the mental capacity of a seven-year old. There would be no growth, no change, as the years passed.

A dinner party at the home of his wife Paola’s parents serves to introduce Brunetti to Manuela’s grandmother, Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui. The Contessa requests a private meeting with him at a later time. At that meeting, she reveals to Brunetti the full extent to which her heart has been broken by Mauela’s  cruel fate. Added to her anguish is a suspicion that there’s a dark secret hidden behind that fate. Quite simply, she wants that secret brought to light. Can Brunetti do anything to make that happen?

His initial response is negative. But the Contessa is in her eighties. She is frail and death-haunted. She yearns to know the truth before it is too late.

It did not sound to him as though the Contessa were after vengeance. Perhaps she believed that simply knowing what had happened to her granddaughter would lessen her pain. Brunetti knew how illusory that belief was: as soon as a person knew what had happened, they wanted to know why, and then they wanted to know who.

Even so, compelled by the Contessa’s urgency and her distress, Brunetti finds that he cannot refuse her. He will, he assures her, do what he can.

And so begins an investigation unlike any other, circuitous and serpentine, full of shocks and false assumptions, culminating in more than one stunning revelation.

Throughout this compelling narrative, Donna Leon’s ambivalent feelings about her adoptive homeland peek coyly around every corner. Venality and bureaucracy rear their ugly heads with depressing regularity. But there is goodness at the ready to combat them, especially in the person of Brunetti’s partner in this inquiry, Commissario Claudia Griffoni.

As for Brunetti, he finds his solace and his refuge in the literature of the ancients – Apollonius this time – and in the companionship of his close-knit family.

This scene occurs after yet another grueling day of the investigation:

His spirit was at peace by the time he reached home. Paola was happy for his kiss of greeting and the children pleased to have his full attention during dinner. As he ate his bean soup, knowing there was only lasagne to come, he wondered why this wasn’t enough for so many people….

Later, when Paola came back to place the deep dish of lasagne on the table, Brunetti looked at her, looked at his children, and said: ‘How happy this makes me.’ His family smiled their agreement, thinking he meant the  food, but it was the last thing on Brunetti’s mind at that moment.

(That said, the food in this novel is described in the usual mouthwatering detail.)

I’d like to add, without inserting a spoiler, that in my view many contemporary novelists lose their way as they approach the conclusion of their respective narratives. The opposite happened with this novel: the ending was exactly apt, and deeply moving as well.

I’ll say no more except to assert  how much I loved The Waters of Eternal Youth. I’m having trouble settling on what to read next; this book set the bar so high.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

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“‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’”

June 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm (Art, books, History, Italy)

51ODkof-fHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_  As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’

Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.

(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:

The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’

The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)

Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.

Tom Holland

Tom Holland

As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:

It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations  among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….

One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.

In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.

Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.

Baron de Montesquieu 1689-1755

Baron de Montesquieu 1689-1755

Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.

I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in  a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”

Professor J. Rufus Fears 1945-2012

Professor J. Rufus Fears 1945-2012

9783822854549-uk I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:






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It’s ancient history: Robert Harris brings his Cicero trilogy to a stunning conclusion

June 10, 2016 at 10:33 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Music)

Here are the three novels in the trilogy:


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I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.



Marcus Tullius Cicero 106 BC – 43 BC

Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:

Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course,  Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)

Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.

So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.


For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!

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Revisiting a Donna Leon novel proves a worthwhile endeavor

November 20, 2015 at 3:00 am (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

2464531  I’ve been a faithful reader of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series for quite a few years now, so that when I began preparing to lead a discussion of The Girl of His Dreams, I did not expect much in the way of previously unknown facts to emerge in the course of my research. Nevertheless, they did. I’m not speaking of perception altering revelations, but rather of subtle, belated realizations. These cast both the novel and the author in a somewhat different light, for this reader.

I started out with Donna Leon’s life. Now, this is a subject where details are notoriously thin on the ground. In 2010, the blogger at About “Donna Leon” queried, rather peevishly I thought:

There’s no information about her education; when, where, and if she went to college or university, and if so, how far she got before she quit? Her last employer says she wrote on her application that she had been in a doctorate program, had completed all the required coursework but had not submitted a dissertation. But again, no indication of dates or institutions. Why not? What’s so secret about where and when you went to college, and what degree-level you attained?

(There’s more along these lines. The blogger, who gives his name as Ken Kellogg-Smith, seems almost to cherish a sense of personal injury over Leon’s steadfast withholding. He wouldn’t be the only one who feels this way.)

519WObeIicL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  There’s a bit more on offer in My Venice and Other Essays, published in 2013.  In this collection, Leon affirms that she was born (in 1942) and raised in Montclair, New Jersey:

“My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother.”

The above is actually a quote from an interview with Tim Heald of The Telegraph in 2009. It’s obvious that Leon wishes this brief statement to be the end of the story. In the essays she dilates somewhat on the subject of mildly eccentric aunts and uncles. She does not seem to harbor a particular animus toward any one of them.

As for her education, Leon states that she did graduate work in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t specify exactly where. In his article, Tim Heald states that she “did a doctorate” in Indiana, her specialty being 18th century novelists. (Again, no specific educational institution is named.) So did she tell him this at the time of the interview? Is what we have here a bit of deliberate misinformation?

I must confess that what I was really hoping to gain from the essays was some disclosure regarding Leon’s personal life. It was a vain hope, however, and I can’t say I was surprised.

[An almost entirely irrelevant aside: I was born in 1944 in West Orange, New Jersey, only a short drive from Montclair, where my grandparents owned and ran a confectioners shop. I like to think that as kids, Donna Leon and I might have been there at the same time, browsing the aisles  for favorite candy – mine was candy dots Candy_Buttons –  and hearing mischievous  boys asking the proprietor – my grandfather – if he had Prince Albert in a can. “You do? Well. let him out!”  11-1-11-rpiper_0035-copy]

What is  fairly certain is that Leon knocked about teaching English in various places – Iran, Saudi Arabia, China – until the 1980s. She then decided it was time to put down roots somewhere. She had close friends who lived in Venice, so that is the place she too chose to live.

Before zeroing in on the books in general and The Girl of His Dreams in particular, I provided some brief information on several relevant aspects of Italian civic structure and society. The Brunetti novels being police procedurals, I reviewed the way in which law enforcement entities function in the country. Then, because Gypsies – or Rom, or Romani people – figure prominently in the narrative, we talked a bit about the origin and present status of this famous but little understood (by me, anyway) ethnic group. Finally, because the parents of Brunetti’s wife Paola are referred to as the Count and Countess, I provided some background as to the history of titled nobility in Italy. (All three subjects are covered in detail in their respective Wikipedia entries.)

Donna Leon’s career as a writer of crime fiction happened almost accidentally – certainly incidentally. Leon, a passionate lover of baroque opera, was chatting backstage with some musicians after a performance. They were engaged in bad mouthing a certain prominent conductor (purportedly Herbert von Karajan). Speculation arose as to how such a person could be cleanly removed from the world stage.  It occurred to Leon, an avid reader of crime fiction, that  this would be a great premise for a murder mystery. Thus, in the pages of Death at La Fenice did Helmut Wellauer come into existence, if only to be quickly dispatched backstage. Commissario Guido Brunetti has proven far more durable.

Mystery novelist Donna Leon continues the long tradition of foreigners writing about Venice. No other city has been so celebrated by its expatriate writers and visitors, from Ruskin’s glittery tributes to Henry James’s hesitant adoration to Thomas Mann’s fatal seduction.

Dr. Toni Sepeda, literature and art history professor and close personal friend of Donna Leon

In The New Republic, Peter Green sums up the Brunetti series this way:

…the audience [Leon] aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.

When I first began my re-reading of The Girl of His Dreams, my confidence in my choice for the reading group of this particular title in the series was somewhat shaken. The novel opens with the presence of the entire Brunetti family at the funeral of Guido’s mother. It is a deeply poignant scene.But Leon pulls back from this sadness as Brunetti returns to his official duties. The first of these involves looking into the activities of a non mainstream religious leader who may be scheming to bilk his followers of their money and possessions.

This investigation is not especially compelling and may lull the reader into thinking that this will be a gentle read. Just shy of the midpoint of this short, tightly structured novel, that expectation is shattered.

The body of a young girl is discovered floating in one of the canals. The scene in which she is pulled from the water is harrowing in more ways than one. Vianello, Brunetti’s second in command, does most of the work. Brunetti stands close by ready to grab him. It is pouring down rain.There is a danger that he’ll slip on the seaweed, possibly striking his head on the hard stone or going into the water.

She was small with fair hair that fanned out from her head. Brunetti looked at her face, then back at her feet, and then her hands, and finally he accepted that she was a child.

Vianello struggled to his feet like an old man. Suddenly there was a surge of noise, and then silence and only the sound of the rain hitting the water. They looked up, and there was Foa, the boat floating silently a hair’s breadth from the embankment.

The image of the girl, fair hair fanned out and clothes sopping wet, will haunt Brunetti throughout the novel. His sense of personal anguish over this cruel death will not leave him. At the same time, thoughts of his mother come from to time, but these are of a far more benevolent nature.

In The Girl of His Dreams, the character of Guido Brunetti shines forth in all its vulnerability and humility. One feels that his quest for justice is of the old school. He has no illusions about the possibility of achieving this goal, in Venice or anywhere else on Earth. But the effort must be made, especially on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them. (In the back of my mind I’m hearing Linda Loman’s beseeching cry, echoing down the corridors of time: ” …attention must be paid!”)

In the end the sadness, the ephemeral quality of human life that was so vividly bodied forth at Guido’s mother’s funeral, has reasserted itself. There is one small ray of consolation, though, and it comes from an unexpected source, about which I will say no more  at present.

Paola Brunetti, no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting herself, is deeply appreciative of her husband’s rare and fine qualities. At one point she calls him her shield and her buckler. As strong a woman as she is, she knows how much she depends on him. (The domesticity of  Guido and Paola, with their son and daughter frequently joining them for delicious meals, is one of the major selling points of the series.)

It has been noted that Donna Leon minces no words when she trains her gimlet eye on contemporary Venetian culture (not to mention the scourge of tourists that regularly descend in hordes on the city). You get plenty of this in the above mentioned essay collection. And yet, you’ll have moments like the one in which Guido and Paola are strolling the city at night, and she turns to him and says, “We live in paradise, don’t we?” This moment of supreme savoring occurs in Falling in Love, the latest entry in the series. And in The Girl of His Dreams, Vianello asks if Brunetti if her could even conceive of living somewhere else. He answers, inevitably, in the negative.

(Donna Leon has thus far not allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. It’s been alleged that she’s afraid of alienating her friend with her sharp critiques if the city. She claims that it is simply a desire not to be famous where she lives.)

The members of AAUW Readers who attended this discussion were uncommonly perceptive in their comments and observations. I doff my cap to you, ladies – Thanks!

I prepared a reading list for the group. Here it is:


My Venice & Other Essays, by Donna Leon
Brunetti’s Venice, by Toni Sepeda
Brunetti’s Cookbook, by Roberta Paniaro
Venetian Curiosities, by Donna Leon


City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
A Venetian Tale and Lucia, by Andrea Di Robilant
The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova, by Paul Strathern (not read by me)


Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan


Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin (set in various locales in Italy)
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb (set in Florence)
Salvo Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily)
The Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio (set primarily in Bari, in the Apulia region of southern Italy) This author has also written several standalone novels. I was especially impressed by The Silence of the Wave.

The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt (I have not read these):
Remember to consult for information about books in a series and for books specifically set in that country.
The Girl of His Dreams is the seventeenth novel in the Guido Brunetti series. There are currently twenty-four Brunetti titles, with the twenty-fifth, The Waters of Eternal Youth, scheduled for publication in March of 2016.

“An American in Venice,” the most recent feature piece I’ve found on Donna Leon, appeared in Publishers Weekly in March. It provided me with a very pleasant surprise; namely, that she and I have a favorite mystery writer in common: Ross MacDonald, creator of the private eye Lew Archer:

“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”

Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.

Leon adds that Brunetti could be seen as “Lew Archer with a wife.”

I recommend this video interview with Donna Leon:


Many are the cultural riches that Venice has bestowed on us all. I recently created a post illustrating some of the art work that’s featured in The Girl of His Dreams.  Now here is some of the music.

First: Il Complesso Barocco is a performing arts organization that’s dear to Donna Leon’s heart:







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