Canada Slim and the Shrine of Italian Victories

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 December 2018

Picture if you will a lake without compare, a Mediterranean oasis immersed in the savage grandeur of alpine mountains.

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A merger of nature and history brought together to form a corner of Paradise, where sandstone meets spinosa, and lemons are kissed by oleander, where bay and cedar and orange dance together by shores where virgin waters gush out of living rock formed by ancient volcanoes encircled by periwinkles, heather, daisies and geraniums.

Where once the deer played, the wolf howled and the wild boar foraged and eagles and hawks once filled the skies, now ancient monasteries quietly crumble invisible as speed boats race and only the carp seem unimpressed by man’s ceaseless destructive cycles.

This is a land where the restless never lingered.

Through here marched Ligurians and Euganians, Etruscans and Enetites, Isarcs, Erectus and Celts.

Rome would drive an empire through here but all empires fall.

Let us speak mere mentions of the tribes Fabia and Polibia before they too fall before Ostrogoths, Goths and the Alemanni, who themselves were supplanted by Byzantines and Longobards.

Bishop saints and ancient churches stand and fall before Carolingian and Hun.

A lake that held secure in its bosom widows and heretics greeted Guelphs and Ghibellini and trembled as emperors rose and fell and Verona fought Venice.

Fall, Venice to Napoleon, the French to Austria.

Then cry the winds of freedom and join to form the new Rome, a proud Italy defiant regardless of the odds or whether king or Fascist, democrat or autocrat sits above all others in power and glory.

Upon this guarded Garda there is a spot of elegance and beauty, where magnificent vegetation thrives within a mild climate and where a famous, international sojourn lies among bright hills, large gardens, voluptuous villas and halycon hotels.

Gardone Riviera – Veduta

This is Gardone Riviera, a small town with a short history, designed by a German fighting for Italian independence whose peculiar impulses caused him to love the locale at once, inspiring him to construct hotels and found initiatives and cultivate contacts with the cosmopolitan world.

Soon would follow promenades and villas and the casino, but of all these nothing and no one enlivened this artificial tourist town more than Gabriele D’Annunzio: child prodigy of outstanding talent, poet, lover, man of society, father, journalist, novelist, playwright, pilot, francophile and art collector, war hero and conqueror, Fascist and anti-Fascist, architect and adventurer.

Ask not what did D’Annuzio do, for it is more remarkable how little he didn’t do.

On reading D’Annunzio’s tale and of his labour and the legacy of love that remains here, you may very well find yourself absolutely loving or loathing the man, but once you learn of this man you may find it difficult to forget the man or the mansion he built and named the Shrine of Italian Victories.

This is his story.

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D’Annunzio was born in the township of Pescara, in the province of Abruzzo, the son of a wealthy landowner and mayor of the town Francesco Paolo Rapagnetta d’Annunzio (1831–1893) and his wife Luisa de Benedictis (1839-1917).

Above: Gabriele D’Annunzio Birthplace Museum, Pescara

 

His father had originally been born plain Rapagnetta (the name of his single mother), but at the age of 13 had been adopted by a childless rich uncle Antonio d’Annunzio.

Legend has it that he was initially baptized Gaetano and given the name of Gabriele later in childhood, because of his angelic looks.

His precocious talent was recognised early in life and he was sent to school at the Liceo Cicognini in Prato, Tuscany.

He published his first poetry while still at school at the age of 16 — a small volume of verses called Primo Vere (1879).

Influenced by Giosuè Carducci’s Odi barbare, he posed side by side some almost brutal imitations of Lorenzo Stecchetti, the fashionable poet of Postuma, with translations from the Latin.

His verse was distinguished by such agile grace that Giuseppe Chiarini on reading them brought the unknown youth before the public in an enthusiastic article.

In 1881, D’Annunzio entered the University of Rome, where he became a member of various literary groups, including Cronaca Bizantina, and wrote articles and criticism for local newspapers.

In those university years he started to promote Italian irredentism.

 

(Italian irredentism was a nationalist movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Italy with goals which promoted the unification of geographic areas in which indigenous ethnic Italians and Italian-speaking persons formed a majority, or substantial minority, of the population.)

 

He published Canto novo (1882), Terra vergine (1882), L’intermezzo di rime (1883), Il libro delle vergini (1884) and the greater part of the short stories that were afterwards collected under the general title of San Pantaleone (1886).

Canto novo contains poems full of pulsating youth and the promise of power, some descriptive of the sea and some of the Abruzzese landscape, commented on and completed in prose by Terra vergine, the latter a collection of short stories dealing in radiant language with the peasant life of the author’s native province.

Intermezzo di rime is the beginning of D’Annunzio’s second and characteristic manner.

His conception of style was new and he chose to express all the most subtle vibrations of voluptuous life.

Both style and contents began to startle his critics.

Some who had greeted him as an enfant prodige rejected him as a perverter of public morals, whilst others hailed him as one bringing a breath of fresh air and an impulse of new vitality into the somewhat prim, lifeless work hitherto produced.

 

Meanwhile, the review of Angelo Sommaruga perished in the midst of scandal and his group of young authors found itself dispersed.

Some entered the teaching career and were lost to literature.

Others threw themselves into journalism.

Gabriele D’Annunzio took this latter course, and joined the staff of the Tribuna, under the pseudonym of “Duca Minimo“.

Here he wrote Il libro d’Isotta (1886), a love poem, in which for the first time he drew inspiration adapted to modern sentiments and passions from the rich colours of the Renaissance.

Il libro d’Isotta is interesting, because in it one can find most of the germs of his future work, just as in Intermezzo melico and in certain ballads and sonnets one can find descriptions and emotions which later went to form the aesthetic contents of Il piacere, Il trionfo della morte and Elegie romane (1892).

 

D’Annunzio’s first novel Il piacere (1889, translated into English as The Child of Pleasure) was followed in 1891 by Giovanni Episcopo, and in 1892 by L’innocente (The Intruder).

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These three novels made a profound impression.

 

L’innocente, admirably translated into French by Georges Herelle, brought its author the notice and applause of foreign critics.

His next work, Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death)(1894) was followed soon by Le vergini delle rocce (1896) and Il fuoco (1900).

The latter is in its descriptions of Venice perhaps the most ardent glorification of a city existing in any language.

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D’Annunzio’s poetic work of this period, in most respects his finest, is represented by Il Poema Paradisiaco (1893), the Odi navali (1893), a superb attempt at civic poetry, and Laudi (1900).

A later phase of D’Annunzio’s work is his dramatic production, represented by Il sogno di un mattino di primavera (1897), a lyrical fantasia in one act.

His Città Morta (1898) was written for Sarah Bernhardt.

Above: Poster of Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923)

 

In 1898 he wrote his Sogno di un pomeriggio d’autunno and La Gioconda.

In the succeeding year La gloria, an attempt at contemporary political tragedy, met with no success, probably because of the audacity of the personal and political allusions in some of its scenes.

Francesca da Rimini (1901) was a perfect reconstruction of medieval atmosphere and emotion, magnificent in style, and declared by an authoritative Italian critic – Edoardo Boutet – to be the first real, if imperfect, tragedy ever given to the Italian theatre.

At the height of his success, D’Annunzio was celebrated for the originality, power and decadence of his writing.

Although his work had immense impact across Europe, and influenced generations of Italian writers, his fin de siècle works are now little known, and his literary reputation has always been clouded by his fascist associations.

Indeed, even before his fascist period, he had his strong detractors.

 

A New York Times review in 1898 of his novel The Intruder referred to him as “evil“, “entirely selfish and corrupt“.

Three weeks into its December 1901 run at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome, his tragedy Francesca da Rimini was banned by the censor on grounds of morality.

 

A prolific writer, his novels in Italian include Il piacere (The Child of Pleasure)(1889), Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death)(1894) and Le vergini delle rocce (The Virgins of the Rocks)(1896).

He wrote the screenplay to the feature film Cabiria (1914) based on episodes from the Second Punic War.

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D’Annunzio’s literary creations were strongly influenced by the French Symbolist school and contain episodes of striking violence and depictions of abnormal mental states interspersed with gorgeously imagined scenes.

One of D’Annunzio’s most significant novels, scandalous in its day, is Il fuoco (The Flame of Life)(1900), in which he portrays himself as the Nietzschean Superman Stelio Effrena, in a fictionalized account of his love affair with Eleonora Duse.

His short stories showed the influence of Guy de Maupassant.

 

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica wrote of him:

The work of d’ Annunzio, although by many of the younger generation injudiciously and extravagantly admired, is almost the most important literary work given to Italy since the days when the great classics welded her varying dialects into a fixed language.

The psychological inspiration of his novels has come to him from many sources—French, Russian, Scandinavian, German—and in much of his earlier work there is little fundamental originality.

His creative power is intense and searching, but narrow and personal.

His heroes and heroines are little more than one same type monotonously facing a different problem at a different phase of life.

But the faultlessness of his style and the wealth of his language have been approached by none of his contemporaries, whom his genius has somewhat paralysed.

In his later work, when he begins drawing his inspiration from the traditions of bygone Italy in her glorious centuries, a current of real life seems to run through the veins of his personages.

The lasting merit of D’Annunzio, his real value to the literature of his country, consists precisely in that he opened up the closed mine of its former life as a source of inspiration for the present and of hope for the future, and created a language, neither pompous nor vulgar, drawn from every source and district suited to the requirements of modern thought, yet absolutely classical, borrowed from none, and, independently of the thought it may be used to express, a thing of intrinsic beauty.

As his sight became clearer and his purpose strengthened, as exaggerations, affectations and moods dropped away from his conceptions, his work became more and more typical Latin work, upheld by the ideal of an Italian Renaissance.

In Italy some of his poetic works remain popular, most notably his poem “La pioggia nel pineto” (The Rain in the Pinewood), which exemplifies his linguistic virtuosity as well as the sensuousness of his poetry.

 

In 1883, D’Annunzio married Maria Hardouin di Gallese, and had three sons, Mario (1884-1964), Gabriele Maria “Gabriellino” (1886-1945) and Ugo Veniero (1887-1945), but the marriage ended in 1891.

In 1894, he began a love affair with the actress Eleonora Duse which became a cause célèbre.

Above: Eleonora Duse (1858 – 1924)

 

He provided leading roles for her in his plays of the time such as La città morta (The Dead City) (1898) and Francesca da Rimini (1901), but the tempestuous relationship finally ended in 1910.

After meeting the Marchesa Luisa Casati in 1903, he began a lifelong turbulent on again off again affair with Luisa, that lasted until a few years before his death.

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Above: Luisa Casati (1881 – 1957)

 

In 1897 D’Annunzio was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for a three-year term, where he sat as an independent.

By 1910, his daredevil lifestyle had forced him into debt and he fled to France to escape his creditors.

There he collaborated with composer Claude Debussy on a musical play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (The Martyrdom of St Sebastian)(1911), written for Ida Rubinstein.

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The Vatican reacted by placing all of his works in the Index of Forbidden Books.

The work was not successful as a play, but it has been recorded in adapted versions several times, notably by Pierre Monteux (in French), Leonard Bernstein (sung in French, acted in English) and Michael Tilson Thomas (in French).

In 1912 and 1913, D’Annunzio worked with opera composer Pietro Mascagni on his opera Parisina, staying sometimes in a house rented by the composer in Bellevue, near Paris.

 

After the start of World War I, D’Annunzio returned to Italy and made public speeches in favor of Italy’s entry on the side of the Triple Entente of Russia, France and Great Britain.

Since taking a flight with Wilbur Wright in 1908, D’Annunzio had been interested in aviation.

Above: Wilbur Wright (1867 – 1912)

 

With the war beginning he volunteered and achieved further celebrity as a fighter pilot, losing the sight of an eye in a flying accident.

 

In February 1918, he took part in a daring, if militarily irrelevant, raid on the harbour of Bakar (known in Italy as La beffa di Buccari, literally the Bakar mockery), helping to raise the spirits of the Italian public, still battered by the Caporetto disaster.

Above: The harbour of Bakar

 

On 9 August 1918, as commander of the 87th fighter squadron “La Serenissima“, he organized one of the great feats of the war, leading nine planes in a 700-mile round trip to drop propaganda leaflets on Vienna.

This is called in Italian “il Volo su Vienna“(the flight over Vienna).

 

The war strengthened his ultra-nationalist and irredentist views and he campaigned widely for Italy to assume a role alongside her wartime allies as a first-rate European power.

 

Angered by the proposed handing over of the city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) whose population, outside the suburbs, was mostly Italian, at the Paris Peace Conference, on 12 September 1919, he led the seizure by 2,000 Italian nationalist irregulars of the city, forcing the withdrawal of the inter-Allied (American, British and French) occupying forces.

Above: Fiume, September 1919

 

The plotters sought to have Italy annex Fiume, but were denied.

Instead, Italy initiated a blockade of Fiume while demanding that the plotters surrender.

D’Annunzio then declared Fiume an independent state, the Italian Regency of Carnaro.

Flag of Carnaro

Above: Flag of Carnaro

 

The Charter of Carnaro foreshadowed much of the later Italian Fascist system, with himself as “Duce” (leader).

Some elements of the Royal Italian Navy, such as the destroyer Espero joined up with D’Annunzio’s local forces.

He attempted to organize an alternative to the League of Nations for selected oppressed nations of the world (such as the Irish, whom D’Annunzio attempted to arm in 1920) and sought to make alliances with various separatist groups throughout the Balkans (especially groups of Italians, though also some Slavic and Albanian groups) without much success.

D’Annunzio ignored the Treaty of Rapallo and declared war on Italy itself, only finally surrendering the city in December 1920 after a bombardment by the Italian navy.

 

D’Annunzio is often seen as a precursor of the ideals and techniques of Italian fascism.

His political ideals emerged in Fiume when he coauthored a constitution with syndicalist Alceste de Ambris, the Charter of Carnaro.

Above: Alceste De Ambris (1874 – 1934)

 

De Ambris provided the legal and political framework, to which D’Annunzio added his skills as a poet.

De Ambris was the leader of a group of Italian seamen who had mutinied and then given their vessel to the service of D’Annunzio.

The constitution established a corporatist state, with nine corporations to represent the different sectors of the economy (workers, employers, professionals) and a tenth (D’Annunzio’s invention) to represent the “superior” human beings (heroes, poets, prophets, supermen).

The Carta also declared that music was the fundamental principle of the state.

 

It was rather the culture of dictatorship that Benito Mussolini imitated and learned from D’Annunzio.

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Above: Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945)

 

D’Annunzio has been described as the John the Baptist of Italian Fascism, as virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D’Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the Italian Regency of Carnaro.

These included the balcony address, the Roman salute, the cries of “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!” taken from the Achilles’ cry in the Iliad, the dramatic and rhetorical dialogue with the crowd and the use of religious symbols in new secular settings.

It also included his method of government in Fiume: the economics of the corporate state, stage tricks, large emotive nationalistic public rituals and black-shirted followers, the Arditi, with their disciplined, bestial responses and strongarm repression of dissent.

He was even said to have originated the practice of forcibly dosing opponents with large amounts of castor oil, a very effective laxative, to humiliate, disable or kill them, a practice which became a common tool of Mussolini’s black shirts.

D’Annunzio advocated an expansionist Italian foreign policy and applauded the invasion of Ethiopia.

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Above: Flag of Italian East Africa

 

After the Fiume episode, D’Annunzio retired to his home on Lake Garda and spent his latter years writing and campaigning.

 

Although D’Annunzio had a strong influence on the ideology of Benito Mussolini, he never became directly involved in fascist government politics in Italy.

As John Whittam notes in his essay “Mussolini and The Cult of the Leader“:

This famous poet, novelist and war hero was a self-proclaimed Superman.

He was the outstanding interventionist in May 1915 and his dramatic exploits during the war won him national and international acclaim.

In September 1919 he gathered together his ‘legions’ and captured the disputed seaport of Fiume.

He held it for over a year and it was he who popularised the black shirts, the balcony speeches, the promulgation of ambitious charters and the entire choreography of street parades and ceremonies.

He even planned a march on Rome.

One historian had rightly described him as the ‘First Duce’ and Mussolini must have heaved a sigh of relief when he was driven from Fiume in December 1920 and his followers were dispersed.

But he remained a threat to Mussolini and in 1921 Fascists like Balbo seriously considered turning to him for leadership.

In contrast Mussolini vacillated from left to right at this time.

Although Mussolini’s fascism was heavily influenced by the Carta del Carnaro, the constitution for Fiume written by Alceste De Ambris and D’Annunzio, neither wanted to play an active part in the new movement, both refusing when asked by Fascists to run in the elections of 15 May 1921.

 

D’Annunzio was seriously injured when he fell out of a window on 13 August 1922.

Shortly before the march on Rome, he was pushed out of a window by an unknown assailant, or perhaps simply slipped and fell out himself while intoxicated.

He survived but was badly injured and only recovered after Mussolini had been appointed Prime Minister.

Subsequently the planned “meeting for national pacification” with Francesco Saverio Nitti and Mussolini was cancelled.

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Above: Francesco Nitti (1868 – 1953), Prime Minister (1919 – 1920)

 

The incident was never explained and is considered by some historians an attempt to murder him, motivated by his popularity.

 

Despite D’Annunzio’s retreat from active public life after this event, the Duce still found it necessary to regularly dole out funds to D’Annunzio as a bribe for not re-entering the political arena.

When asked about this by a close friend, Mussolini purportedly stated:

When you have a rotten tooth you have two possibilities open to you:

Either you pull the tooth or you fill it with gold.

With D’Annunzio, I have chosen for the latter treatment.

 

In 1924 D’Annunzio was ennobled by King Victor Emmanuel III and given the hereditary title of Prince of Montenevoso (Italian: Principe di Montenevoso).

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Above: Italian King Victor Emmanuel III (1869 – 1947)

 

Nonetheless, D’Annunzio kept attempting to intervene in politics almost until his death in 1938.

 

He wrote to Mussolini in 1933 to try to convince him not to take part in the Axis pact with Hitler.

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Above: Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945)

In 1934, he tried to disrupt the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini after their meeting, even writing a satirical pamphlet about Hitler.

Again, in September 1937, D’Annunzio met with the Duce at the Verona train station to convince him to leave the Axis alliance.

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Mussolini in 1944 admitted to have made a mistake not following his advice.

 

In 1937, D’Annunzio was made president of the Royal Academy of Italy.

 

D’Annunzio died in 1938 of a stroke at his home in Gardone Riviera.

He was given a state funeral by Mussolini and was interred in a magnificent tomb constructed of white marble at Il Vittoriale degli Italiani.

D’Annunzio’s life and work are commemorated in a museum, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani.

The Vittoriale degli italiani (English translation: The shrine of Italian victories) is a hillside estate in the town of Gardone Riviera overlooking  Lake Garda.

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It is where the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio lived after his defenestration in 1922 until his death in 1938.

 

The estate consists of the residence of d’Annunzio called the Prioria (priory), an amphitheatre, the protected cruiser Puglia set into a hillside, a boathouse containing the MAS vessel used by D’Annunzio in 1918 and a circular mausoleum.

Its grounds are now part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani.

 

The Prioria itself consists of a number of rooms opulently decorated and filled with memorabilia.

Notable are the two waiting rooms: one for welcome guests, one for unwelcome ones.

 

It is the latter where Benito Mussolini was sent to on his visit in 1925.

A phrase was inscribed specifically for him above the mirror:

To the visitor:
Are you bringing Narcissus’ mirror?
This is leaded glass, my mask maker.
Adjust your mask to your face,
But mind that you are glass against steel.

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The leper’s room is where D’Annunzio’s wake was held upon his death.

Its name comes from the fact that D’Annunzio felt that he was being spurned by the government due to their continued efforts to keep him in Gardone, rather than possibly in the limelight in Rome.

 

The relic room holds a large collection of religious statues and images of different beliefs, purposely placed together to make a statement about the universal character of spirituality.

The inscription on the inner wall reads:

As there are five fingers on a hand, there are only five mortal sins.

D’Annunzio wished to make clear hereby that he didn’t believe that lust and greed should be considered sinful.

 

A most unlikely relic is the distorted steering wheel of racing speedboat Miss England II, donated after the coppa dell oltranza powerboating trophy, organized under D’Annunzio patronage, was held in 1931.

Miss England II had crashed in a world speed record attempt, killing her pilot, Sir Henry Seagrave in 1930 (though winning the record nevertheless) and was rebuilt to race and win at Lake Garda the following year with Kaye Don at the helm.

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D’Annunzio, who was a syncretist (believer in all religions), deemed the distorted steering wheel “a relic of the religion of courage“.

 

The amphitheatre is the first major structure one comes across after entering the estate and was clearly based upon classic models, the architect Maroni even visiting Pompeii for inspiration.

Its location, like the other buildings of the Vittoriale undeniably offers a majestic view of Lake Garda, it is still used for performances today.

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References to the Vittoriale range from a “monumental citadel” to a “fascist lunapark”, the site inevitably inheriting the controversy surrounding its creator.

He planned and developed it himself, adjacent to his villa at Gardone Riviera on the southwest bank of Lake Garda, between 1923 and his death.

Now a national monument, it is a complex of military museum, library, literary and historical archive, theatre, war memorial and mausoleum.

The museum preserves his torpedo boat MAS 96 and the SVA-5 aircraft he flew over Vienna.

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The house, Villa Cargnacco, had belonged to the German art historian of the Italian Renaissance Henry Thode from whom it was confiscated by the Italian state, including artworks, a collection of books, and a piano which had belonged to Liszt.

D’Annunzio rented it in February 1921 and within a year reconstruction started under the guidance of architect Giancarlo Maroni.

 

Due to D’Annunzio’s popularity and his disagreement with the fascist government on several issues, such as the alliance with Nazi Germany, the fascists did what they could to please D’Annunzio in order to keep him away from political life in Rome.

Part of their strategy was to make huge funds available to expand the property, to construct or modify buildings and to create the impressive art and literature collection.

 

In 1924, the airplane that D’Annunzio used for his pamphleteering run over Vienna during World War I was brought to the estate, followed in 1925 by the MAS naval vessel used by him to taunt the Austrians in 1918 in the Beffa di Buccari.

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In the same year the protected cruiser Puglia was hauled up the hill and placed in the woods behind the house and the property was expanded by acquisition of surrounding lands and buildings.

Jutting out of one of the hilltops the cruiser Puglia makes a surreal sight.

It was placed there, with its bow pointing in the direction of the Adriatic, “ready to conquer the Dalmatian shores”.

The ship was equipped with a main armament of four 15 cm (5.9 in) and six 12 cm (4.7 in) guns, and she could steam at a speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph).

88.25 meters (289.5 ft) long overall and had a beam of 12.13 m (39.8 ft) and a draft of 5.45 m (17.9 ft).

She displaced up to 3,110 metric tons (3,060 long tons; 3,430 short tons) at full load.

Her propulsion system consisted of a pair of vertical triple-expansion engines, with steam supplied by four cylindrical water-tube boilers.

Puglia was capable of steaming at a top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph).

The ship had a cruising radius of about 2,100 nautical miles (3,900 km; 2,400 mi) at a speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).

She had a crew of between 213 to 278.

Puglia was armed with a main battery of four 15 cm (5.9 in) L/40 guns mounted singly, with two side by side forward and two side by side aft.

Six 12 cm (4.7 in) L/40 guns were placed between them, with three on each broadside.

Light armament included eight 57 mm (2.2 in) guns, eight 37 mm (1.5 in) guns, and a pair of machine guns.

She was also equipped with two 45 cm (18 in) torpedo tubes.

Puglia was protected by a 25 mm (0.98 in) thick deck.

Her conning tower had 50 mm thick sides.

Puglia served abroad for much of her early career, including periods in South American and East Asian waters.

She saw action in the Italo-Turkish War in 1911–1912, primarily in the Red Sea.

During the war she bombarded Ottoman ports in Arabia and assisted in enforcing a blockade on maritime traffic in the area.

She was still in service during World War I.

The only action in which she participated was the evacuation of units from the Serbian Army from Durazzo in February 1916.

During the evacuation, she bombarded the pursuing Austro-Hungarian Army.

After the war, Puglia was involved in the occupation of the Dalmatian coast, and in 1920 her captain was murdered in a violent confrontation in Split with Croatian nationalists.

The old cruiser was sold for scrapping in 1923.

While the ship was being dismantled, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini donated the ship’s bow section to the writer and ardent nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had it installed at his estate as part of the Vittoriale degli italiani museum.

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In 1926, the government donated an amount of 10 million lire, which allowed a considerable enlargement of the Villa, with a new wing named the Schifamondo.

In 1931, construction was started on the Parlaggio, the name for the amphitheatre.

 

The mausoleum was designed after D’Annunzio’s death but not actually built until 1955 and D’Annunzio’s remains were finally brought there in 1963.

The circular structure is situated on the highest point on the estate.

It contains the remains of men who served D’Annunzio and died during the Fiume incident and d’Annunzio himself.

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Luigi Barzini once argued that Gabriele D’Annunzio was perhaps more Italian than any other Italian, because for Italians the first purpose of life is to make life acceptable.

Life in the raw is notoriously meaningless and frightening, therefore dull and insignificant moments in life must be made decorous and agreeable with decoration and ritual.

Everything must be made to sparkle whether it be a simple meal, an ordinary transaction, a dreary speech, or a cowardly capitulation, all must be embellished and ennobled with euphemisms, adornments and pathos.

Not because Italians find life rewarding and exhilarating but because Italians are a pessimistic, realistic, resigned and frightened people.

Even though D’Annunzio was a penniless provincial son of a small merchant, he lived like a Renaissance prince, a figure of voluptuousness, surrounding himself with a gaudy clutter of antiques, brocades, rare Oriental perfumes and flamboyant, inexpensive jewellery.

He dressed like a London Beau Brummel, slept with duchesses, world famous actresses and mad Russian ladies, wrote exquisitely wrought prose and poetry, rode to hounds, hounded Italian politics with extreme right politics.

Like his role model Cola di Rienzo, D’Annunzio believed that facade and reality were one and the same thing.

Thus in seeking to disguise an ordinary origin in extraordinary finesse, D’Annunzio would lead an exceptional life.

As much as I am disgusted by his aggressive nationalism and appalled by his reckless reputation as a womanizer, D’Annunzio lived a life of overheated emotion and sexuality and was a man of original talent remarkable not only in his time but as well in the ambigous legacy he left behind.

I cannot but notice.

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Gabriele d’Annunzio: An Exceptional Life (Skira editore Vittoriale souvenir album) / The Rough Guide to Italy / Writers: Their Lives and Works (Dorling Kindersley) / Luigi Barzini, The Italians

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Canada Slim and the Magnificent Homeland

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 26 August 2018

There is something about the politics of a number of nations today (the United States, North Korea, the Philippines, Venezuela) that reminds me again and again of the late Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini biografia.jpg

Above: Il Duce Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945)

I have written about Mussolini before – his birth and his youth, his exile in Switzerland, his rise to power, his reign as Il Duce, his fall from power, his temporary reprieve through German assistance, his capture and his death – (See Canada Slim and the Apostle of Violence) – when speaking of the Lake Como town of Dongo and the village of Giulino de Mezzegra.

Dongo 1.JPG

Above: Dongo, where Mussolini was captured while fleeing to Switzerland

But I feel the need to speak of him again for we (the wife and I) visited the Lake Garda town of Salò which served as Mussolini’s de facto capital of the Italian Social Republic (23 September 1943 – 25 April 1945), a German puppet state of the Third Reich.

How did a man who once possessed absolute power over the whole of Italy (28 October 1922 – 25 July 1943) find himself reduced to being a mere figurehead for Nazi Germany?

And could one get a sense of that by visiting Salò over half a century later?

 

Salò, Lake Garda, Italy, Sunday 6 August 2017

Salò is one of the most important commercial and tourist centres of Lago Garda.

It lies in a spacious, seductive gulf on the slopes of Monte San Bartolomeo.

From the hills, resplendent in villas and olive yards, the viewer is rewarded by the grand immensity and glory of the Lake.

View of Salò and its bay

Above: Aerial view of Salò

According to a legend, Salò was founded by the Etruscan Queen Salonica.

There are some traces of the Roman colony Pagus Salodium: in the Lugone necropolis at via Sant’ Jago and findings of vase flasks and funeral steles in the Civic Archaeological Museum within the Communal Palace.

In 1377 Beatrice della Scala, Bernabó Visconti’s wife, chose Salò as the capital of Magnifica Patria (“the Magnificent Homeland“).

Bernabò e Beatrice Visconti.jpg

Above: Bernabo Visconti (1323 – 85) and Beatrice della Scala (1331 – 84)

Beatrice had walls propped up and a new castle built, of which sadly nothing remains.

On 13 May 1426, after a long period of war, the towns of the western bank  of Lake Garda spontaneously joined the Republic of Venice wherein they would remain for the following three centuries.

Above: Winged lion column of St. Mark (symbol of Venice)

Sansovino built the Palace of the Captain Rector (now the town hall) and during the 15th and 16th centuries the Duomo (Cathedral) took form.

Among the famous men who were native to Salò we must remember:

  • Gaspare Bertolotti (1540 – 1609) aka Gasparo da Salò, a famous maker of stringed instruments and inventor of the violin, whose bust is kept in the town hall.
  • Above: The bust of Gasparo da Salò
  • Pietro Bellotto (1625 – 1700), a painter who painted portraits for cardinals, popes and dukes and who after wandering from court to court he returned to Lake Garda to die
  • Above: The Old Pilgrim, by Pietro Belloto
  • Ferdinando Bertoni (1725 – 1813), composer, organist and prolific writer of church music and 70 operas
  • Ferdinando Bertoni.jpg
  • Above: Fernando Bertoni
  • Marco Enrico Bossi (1861 – 1925), composer, organist and music teacher, who established the standards of organ studies still used in Italy today and made numerous international organ recital tours
  • Above: Marco Enrico Bossi
  • Sante Cattaneo (1739 – 1819), painter known for his religious painting
  • Angelo Zanelli (1879 – 1942), sculptor who created the large Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the statue of Goddess Rome
  • Luigi Comencini (1916 – 2007), film director known for his Commedia all’italiana (Italian-style comedy) movies:
    • La bella di Roma (The Belle of Rome)
    • Tutti a casa (Everybody Go Home)
    • La ragazza di Bube (Bebo’s Girl)
    • Incompreso (Misunderstood)
    • Le avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio)
    • Lo scopone scientifico (The Scientific Cardplayer)
    • La donna della domenica (The Sunday Woman)
    • Buon Natale…buon anno (Merry Christmas…Happy New Year)
    • Un ragazzo di Calabria (A Boy from Calabria)
    • La storia (History)
    • Voltati Eugenio (Turn Around Eugenio)
    • L’ingorgo (Traffic Jam)
    • Signore e signori, buonanotte (Good Night, Ladies and Gentlemen)
    • Quelle strane occasioni (Strange Occasion)
    • Delitto d’amore (Somewhere Beyond Love)
    • Senza Sapere niente di lei (The Unknown Woman)
    • Infanzia, vocazione e prime esperienze di Giacomo Casanova, veneziano (Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence)
    • Il nostro agente Natlino Tartufato (Italian Secret Service)
    • Le bambole (The Dolls)
    • Il commissario (The Police Commissioner)
    • A Cavallo della tigre (On the Tiger’s Back (US) / Jailbreak (GB))
    • Und das am Montagmorgen (And That on Monday Morning)
    • Le sorprese dell’amore (Surprise of Love)
    • Mogli pericolose (Dangerous Wives)
    • Mariti in città (Husbands in the City)
    • La finestra sul Luna Park (The Window to Luna Park)
    • Pane, amore e gelosia (Bread, Love and Jealousy)
    • Pane, amore e Fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams (GB)/ Frisky (US))
    • La valigia dei sogni (Suitcase of Dreams)
    • La Tratta delle bianche (Girls Marked Danger)
    • Heidi
    • Persiane chiuse (Behind Closed Shutters)
    • L’imperatore di Capri (The Emperor of Capri)
    • Proibito rubare (Hey Boy)
    • Tre notti d’amore (Three Nights of Love)
    • La mia Signora (My Wife)
    • Il compagno Don Camillo (Don Camillo in Moscow)
    • La bugiarda  (Six Days a Week)
    • Mio Dio come sono caduta in basso! (Till Marriage Do Us Part)
    • Il gatto (The Cat)
    • Luigi Comencini 1971.jpg
    • Above: Luigi Comencini

Comencini’s films tell wonderful stories:

  • A missionary on his way to Africa has his suitcase stolen in Naples and, while trying to locate it, he comes to realize the suffering and poverty in the city needs his attention more.
  • A beautiful gold digger, mistakes a waiter in a Neapolitan hotel, for an Arab prince.
  • A woman searches for her missing sister in the morally degraded seaside of Genoa.
  • A police chief wants to marry and selects a woman as his bride but she is already in love with his shy constable.  Rejected, the chief turns his attention to the town midwife who returns his love but is hiding a secret….
  • A junior officer is shocked when Germans storm the base where he is stationed and his fellow Italian officers simply want to go home.
  • After receiving a tractor as a gift from a Soviet village, the mayor plans to twin the village with theirs. The priest tricks the Mayor into including him on the trip to Russia.
  • An aging American millionairess journeys to Rome each year with her chauffeur to play cards with a destitute man and his wife.  The annual scenario never changes: she donates the money so the Romans can play, then she wins the game shattering their dreams of escaping their poverty.  But now the Roman couple’s daughter wants revenge….
  • A girl raised by nuns marries a man only to discover on her wedding night that she married her brother….
  • Thousands of motorists are stuck in a terrible traffic jam for 24 hours.

But as films go the Italian horror art film Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom, directed by Paolo Pasolini, is shockingly more frightening than the Italian Social Republic ever was.

Salò focuses on four wealthy, corrupt Italian libertines, during the time of the Social Republic, who kidnap 18 teenagers and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, perversion, sex and fascism.

Salò has been banned in several countries because of all the graphic sex and violence and portrayals of rape, torture and murder.

Pasolini’s intentions were to use sex as a metaphor for the relationship between power and its subjects.

Saloposter.jpg

In Salò, the historically-informed mind is filled with confusion about a place so filled with contradictions:

Musicians and painters and movies that bring to brightest light the glorious potential that is man’s creative genius contrasted with a Führer’s puppet fascist frontier and a pornographic snuff film intended to somehow make a political statement revealing the darkest depths man can sink to.

 

But what can the visitor see today?

The Duomo di Santa Maria Annunziata has a memorable Renaissance portal by Gasparo Cairano and Antonio Mangiacavalli, 16th century paintings by Zenone Veronese, a polyptych of Paolo Veneziano and a Madonna and Saints by Romanino.

The Palazzo della Magnifica Patria is home to the Historical Museum of the Azure Ribbon, an exhibition of documents on Renaissance history, on Italy’s colonial wars, the Spanish Civil War and the resistance against fascism.

This latter part of the museum may feel ironic at first glance as Salò was the seat of government of Mussolini’s Nazi-backed puppet state, the Italian Social Republic.

Villa Castagna was the seat of the police headquarters, Villa Amedei was the head office of the Ministry of Popular Culture, Villa Simonin (today’s Hotel Laurin) was the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on via Brunati was located the Stefani Agency, Italy’s leading press agency during World War II.

Salò is a seismicity.

As the area around the lake is a seismic zone (a good place to measure earthquakes), in 1877 a meterological observatory and in 1889 a geophysical observatory (seismic station) were built, which became an important scientific research centre after the 1901 and 2004 earthquakes.

Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone.

Salò and Mussolini?

The former by earthquake one day?

The latter by gunfire.

 

Salò, despite its beauty, despite its importance, despite its hard work and industry, is a town branded by history, a place forever associated with a dying republic and a failed leader.

So as the mind meanders through the streets of Salò, let’s consider the man Mussolini and wonder how his personality compares with politicians of today.

 

What follows is a description of Il Duce as remembered by one of his contemporaries Luigi Barzini:

Luigi Barzini Jr.jpg

Above: Luigi Barzini, Jr. (1908 – 1984)

 

Mussolini grew up hating:

The Church, the army, the king, the police, the law, the rich, the well-educated, the well-washed, the successful, any kind of authority….

All the things he was later to defend.

 

He was a turbulent boy, determined to be first at everything, proud, quarrelsome, boastful, superstitious and not always very brave.

He picked quarrels for the sake of the fight.

When he won at games he wanted more than the stake.

When he lost he refused to pay.

He was expelled from two schools for having knifed two schoolmates.

Many of his companions hated him.

A few loved him dearly, fanatically, and followed him as their leader.

He is remembered for his harsh charm, his winning smile and his fierce loyalty to his friends and followers.

 

He was always persuaded that a great destiny was reserved for him.

Benito said to his mother when he was still a boy:

One day I will make the earth tremble.

He did.

 

Mussolini became a school teacher in 1901.

The following year he fled to Switzerland to avoid conscription.

At that time, the duty of a serious revolutionary.

Above: Police record of Benito Mussolini following arrest (19 June 1903)

He returned to Italy in 1904, as an heir had been born to the king and a general amnesty had been granted.

He became a village school teacher, served in the army (He turned out to be a good soldier, after all.), earned a new diploma as teacher of French in high schools, and did odd jobs as a journalist, socialist agitator and organizer.

Above: Young Benito Mussolini

He began to improve his oratory, slowly developing a technique which was to make him one of the best and most moving speakers in Italy.

He paid little attention to the logic and truth of what he said as long as it was energetic and stirring.

His gestures had rhythm and vigour.

He used short, staccato sentences, with no clear connexion between them, often with long and dramatic pauses, sometimes changing voice and expression in a crescendo of violence and ending in a tornado of abuse.

When the audience was carried away by his oratory he would sometimes stop and put to them a rheotrical question.

They roared their answer.

This established a sort of heated dialogue, through which the spectators became involved in decisions they had no time to meditate on.

 

By means of violent writing and incendiary eloquence, Mussolini rose in the socialist organization until, by 1912, he was made editor of the party newspaper, Avanti!.

Above: Benito Mussolini as editor of Avanti!

He was a very successful editor.

The paper’s circulation rose from 50,000 copies to 200,000 under his leadership.

The role of journalist was one of the few in his life he did not have to act.

He really was one, perhaps the best popular journalist of his day in Italy, addressing himself not to the sober cultured minority, but to the practically illiterate masses, easily swept by primitive emotions.

Those very qualities which made him an excellent rabble-rousing editor made him a disastrous statesman:

  • His intuitive and superficial intelligence
  • His capacity to oversimplify and dramatize
  • A day-by-day interest only in the most striking events
  • A strictly partisan point of view
  • The disregard for truth, accuracy, objectivity and consistency when they interfered with his aims
  • The talent for doing his job undisturbed by scruples, doubts or criticisms
  • Above all, an instinctive ability to ride the emotional wave of the day, whatever it was, to know what people wanted to be told and by what low collective passions they would more easily be swept away.

He made strange grimaces when he talked, used violent and unprintable words, had an impatient temper….

 

Yet Mussolini managed to attract faithful friends and fanatical followers.

Some of whom clung to him until the end.

 

There was something about him that startled and fascinated almost everybody, including some of his enemies.

Most people who knew him well, who spoke frequently with him, who worked for him, were the victims of his inexplicable charm.

They fell in love with him, unreasoningly and blindly, ready to forgive him everything: his rudeness, his errors, his lies, his pretentiousness, his obstinacy and his ignorance.

 

One of the men who had worked for him since 1914, Manlio Morgagni, committed suicide in July 1943, after writing these words on a piece of paper:

Il Duce has resigned.

My life is finished.

Viva Mussolini!

 

Mussolini attracted many women.

He treated them roughly, as he had the peasant girls of Forli (where he grew up), taking them without preliminary explanation on the hard floor of his study or standing them against a wall.

 

Few sensed his timidity, his insecurity, his desire for admiration and affection.

Mussolini was obstinate, deaf to criticism, self-willed and suspicious, as well as erratic and indecisive most of the time, prone to adopt the most recent opinion he heard.

He was irresolute and afraid.

 

In the summer of 1914, Mussolini denounced warmongers.

He headed one of his violent articles:

Who drives us to war betrays us“.

 

But then the journalist in him wavered when he felt he would lose followers by supporting the cautious government policy.

On 18 October 1914, without taking orders from or consulting the party leaders, Mussolini published an editorial urging war.

He was immediately dismissed from his job and expelled from the party in a stormy session.

He walked out crying dramatically:

You hate me because you cannot help loving me!”

 

With foreign and Italian money, Mussolini started his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia (People of Italy), which came out on 14 November 1914.

He immediately managed to gather more followers than he had had when editing Avanti! and more readers.

 

Italy entered World War I on 24 May 1915.

Mussolini went to war when he was called and served well as a corporal until he was wounded.

standing photo of Mussolini in 1917 as an Italian soldier

Above: Soldier Mussolini, 1917

After the war, when the frail structure of Italian political unity was endangered by civil strife, economic difficulties and the collapse of government, Mussolini used his paper to give vent to all his passions, to rally all the hot-headed veterans who found it difficult to return to dull civilian life, the very young men who felt that they had been cheated by not having been in the war, and all those who wanted a revolution, any kind of revolution.

 

On 23 March 1919, in Milan, he founded I Fasc (the League), a vague but determined organization which adopted a fiery and contradictory programme, so contradictory that it attracted dissatisfied and restless men from the right and left, anarchists and conservatives, businessmen and artists.

the Fasci italiani di combattimento manifesto as published in Il Popolo d'Italia on 6 June 1919

The confusion of the Fasci di combattimento (ex-servicemen league) reflected the disorderly but brilliant mind of Mussolini, his lack of principles and his constant inconsistency.

 

What Mussolini’s rheotric created, other men developed and their successes he would claim as his personal own.

Disgruntled anarchists across Italy violently seized regions and called them Fascist.

The March on Rome that would convince the King to make Mussolini Prime Minister wasn’t joined by the Fascist leader.

Mussolini and the Quadrumviri during the March on Rome in 1922

He arrived by train in Rome, borrowed a black shirt from one of the marchers and presented himself to the King as leader of the defiant assembly.

Even the black shirts themselves had been inspired by another man, Gabriele d’Annunzio, poet and self-proclaimed world’s greatest lover, who on 12 September 1919 led a band of 1,000 men to Fiume and conquered it for an Italy that had felt, despite being on the winning Allied side, that it had been cheated of territory and martial glory.

Gabriele D'Anunnzio.png

Above: Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863 – 1938)

 

And in one of history’s ironies, Hitler would borrow from Mussolini’s ideology his own brand of fascism and soon the student would far surpass and finally control the teacher.

 

Mussolini was dictator of Italy for two decades (1922 – 1943).

He was 39 when he seized power and 60 when he was forced to relinquish it.

Benito Mussolini seated portrait in suit and tie facing left

Above: Mussolini, at start of his dictatorship

He had shaped Italy according to his wishes, organized according to his theories, staffed by men educated and selected by him.

His powers were limitless.

Where his legal prerogatives ended, his undisputed authority and immense personal prestige began.

He ran the only official political party, so invasive and widespread that it interfered with the daily habits of millions of people 24/7 from the cradle to the tomb.

He decided the contents of all written material.

He had no opposition.

Mussolini was sole legislator, judge, censor, policeman, ambassador, general, the head of government, president of the Grand Council, President of the Council of Ministers, Minister of the Interior, of Foreign Affairs, of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, of Corporations.

What he didn’t run he controlled indirectly.

 

He was defeated by one man alone.

Himself.

 

He would become impotent in front of his enemies and of the arrogant ally he had encouraged and cultivated.

His grasp of world politics was over-rated.

He chose the wrong commanders, wrong strategies and wrong weapons.

He underestimated the will of the Italian people to suffer and die for a war they did not understand.

He believed his own propaganda.

He thought he had all the answers to all the riddles of the modern world.

 

He lacked raw materials, fuel and food to wage a long world war.

 

He lacked merchant ships to supply the far-flung theatres of war he had chosen to fight in.

 

His tanks were small, weak, slow, tin affairs, easily pierced by machine gun fire.

He had chosen them because they were cheaper and could buy them in bulk.

He said they were faster than the heavier models and more “attuned to the quick reflexes of the Italian soldier“.

 

He had no aircraft carriers.

His planes were good but too few to count and were not replaced fast enough.

 

His navy was efficient but not big or advanced enough to challenge the combined fleets he attacked.

They lacked radar which they never suspected existed.

What was missing in Italy wasn’t the courage or the will to fight but rather any kind of serious planning and organization behind the fighting men.

 

What had Mussolini really done with his time as dictator?

He promoted public works, built harbours, railways, roads, schools, autostrade, monuments, aqueducts, hospitals, irrigation and drainage networks, public buildings, bridges, etc.

But to get the exact measure of his achievements one must, first of all, subtract from the total all that would have been accomplished by any government in his place.

Subtract again how many projects that were just plain mistakes, decided for political and spectacular reasons rather than the hope of practical results.

Calculate how much money disappeared into the hands of dishonest contractors.

As a result, the sum total of Mussolini’s achievements is far out of proportion to the noise surrounding them, their fame and their moral cost.

 

What is the explanation for the inaction and ineffectiveness of Mussolini and why did he fail?

Mussolini was not stupid.

He was shrewd, quick to learn, wary, astute.

He could grasp a complex circumstance in a few minutes, face resolute opponents with success and usually take what intuitive decision any situation required.

The explanation of his failure is that he was not a failure.

He lost the war, his country, his mistress, his place in history and his life, but he succeeded in what he had always wanted to do.

It was not to make Italy safe and prsoperous.

It was not to organize Italy for a modern war and victory.

Mussolini had dedicated his life just to putting up a good show, a stirring show.

He played versatile and multi-faceted roles: the heroic soldier, the cold Machiavellian thinker, the Lenin-like leader of a revolutionary minority, the steely-minded dictator, the humanitarian despot, the Casanova lover,  the Nietzschean superman, the Napoleonic genius and the socialist renovator of society.

He was none of these things.

In the end, like an old actor, he no longer remembered what he really was, felt, believed or wanted.

As a showman his success was incredible.

Mussolini was more popular in Italy than anybody had ever been and possibly ever will be.

His pictures were cut out of newspapers and magazines and pasted on the walls of poor peasant cottages.

Schoolgirls fell in love with him as with a film star.

His most memorable words were written large on village houses for all to read.

One of his followers exclaimed, after listening to Mussolini announce in May 1936 that Ethiopia had been conquered and that Rome had again become the capital of an empire:

He is like a god.

Another responded:

Like a god?

No, no, he is a god.

Benito Mussolini saluting crowd

We laugh now when we see him in old newsreels.

His showmanship is like some wines which do not last or travel well, but which are excellent when consumed the year they are made in their native surroundings.

His technique was flamboyant, juvenile, ridiculous and highly effective.

Mussolini deceived the people.

He enjoyed a monopoly and was able to multiply his deceit by making good use of the newest communication techniques.

His slanted views and fabrications filled newspapers, posters, the radio, film screens, books, magazines and public discourse.

The majority of his captive audience believed most of what he wanted them to believe.

He loved a good show, enjoyed a good military parade, was comforted by a naval review and strengthened by a vast ocean of supporters in a city square.

He believed his own slogans.

He was amazed by the statistics he invented, thrilled by the boasts he made, stirred to tears by his own oratory.

He confused appearances for reality.

Truth was what it looked like and what most people liked to believe.

His show was always new and startling.

Only by keeping his public interested, thrilled, puzzled, frightened and entertained, could he make them forget the sacrifice of their liberty and their miserable poverty, unite them behind him, dishearten and divide his opposition, assure internal order and international prestige.

Mussolini was corrupted by his own spectacle and the people who surrounded him.

 

Great leaders, drunk with their own great importance and vast intelligence, think themselves infallible, surrounded by sychophants, all stumble and commit fatal mistakes.

Mussolini thought World War II was almost over when he entered Italy into it in June 1940.

He counted on the aid of Hitler in an emergency.

He trusted his own intuition and his luck.

But any reasonably prudent dictator should also have been prepared for unforeseen circumstances.

Mussolini was not.

He never knew what every military attaché in every foreign embassy in Rome knew.

Italy was ridiculously and tragically unprepared.

What blinded him?

He never even suspected that practically nothing was behind his show.

He never knew how really weak, disarmed and demoralized his country was.

He was badly informed, but he wanted to be badly informed.

The master of make-believe could not detect make-believe when practised by others on him.

His resistance to deception, which was never very strong, gradually dwindled and eventually disappeared altogether.

He needed bigger and bigger doses of flattery and deception each year.

In the end, the most sickening and improbable lies, as long as they adulated his idea of himself and confirmed his prejudices, seemed to him the plain and unadorned expression of objective truth.

In the end, Mussolini lived within his own private imaginary world of his own making.

He was shown only the things and the people that would please and comfort him.

Everything else was efficiently hidden.

 

The technique was so smooth that it even deceived Hitler.

Mussolini and Hitler saluting troops

Hitler’s favourable opinion of Mussolini, of Italian military preparations and the people’s devotion to the régime and to the Axis, made him commit several miscalculations which cost Germany the war.

Hitler had taken a big risk when he attacked Russia and tried to fight the war on two fronts, but he had a reasonable chance of winning despite heavy odds.

Hitler believed that he lost the Russian campaign because he had started four weeks too late.

He was four weeks too late because he wasted time to rescue the Italians bogged down in Albania in Mussolini’s ill-prepared attack on Greece.

 

Mussolini fell from power on 25 July 1943.

The allied armies had invaded Sicily only a few days before, all overseas possessions were lost, the Italian army had been destroyed in Russia, in the Balkans and in Africa, Italy was battered and paralysed by massive air bombardments, Germans were retreating.

All the big Fascist chiefs took part in a fateful meeting of the Grand Council and demanded that the command of all armed forces be turned over to the King.

Mussolini pleaded with them, cajoled them, threatened them and finally accepted his demotion.

 

The following day King Victor Emmanuel received Mussolini in his private villa and ordered his arrest.

 

There was no Fascist revolt when the news spread.

No faithful followers rose in arms.

Nobody kept the Fascist oath:

I swear to defend the revolution with my blood.

Nothing happened.

The show was over.

That’s all.

The people rejoiced simultaneously, for Mussolini had cost them much.

 

Mussolini was transported here and there in search of a place the Germans could not reach, to some islands at first, then to a ski resort hotel in the mountains of Abruzzi.

The Germans found him anyway, in spite of the fact that there was no road to the hotel and only a cable railway connected it with the lowlands.

They used gliders.

 

Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s headquarters, thanked his liberator, donned his old uniform and was named president of the puppet régime, the Italian Social Republic.

four color map of northern Italy with Italian Socialist Republic in tan, 1943

Mussolini’s capital was in Salò, comfortably on the direct road to the Brenner Pass, in case of sudden retreat to Switzerland.

As puppet president, Mussolini’s life was dismal.

He knew everything was lost.

He was a failure.

He had plunged Italy into the wrong war, at the wrong time, with practically no weapons.

The few moral and materialistic resources which existed, including the heroic courage of thousands of soldiers, were squandered by an amateur strategist who wanted to show his ally that he too was a mastermind.

Mussolini paid no attention to current affairs, read many books, wrote an enormous quantity of insignificance.

He was interested in only one thing:

How history would see him.

 

He knew the end had come.

 

Mussolini decided to trust his art as an actor: to disguise himself and flee.

He made up his mind to go directly to Switzerland, without wasting time in futile and bloody heroics, carrying all his money and documents to defend himself if he were tried as a war criminal.

On the road to Switzerland, he was found and arrested.

On 25 April 1945, Mussolini was executed and his body hung on display above a Milan petrol station.

Above: Mussolini (second from left)

Even in disgrace and death Mussolini had put on a public show.

 

In our journeys through Lombardy and around and amongst the northern Italian lakes, we neither sought out nor were overly interested in the life of this man over half a century deceased, but somehow Mussolini’s legacy quietly lingers here.

We would drive through Brenner Pass and later find ourselves spontaneously detour our Lake Como travels to the ornate gate of the pompous villa in the tiny village where he was executed, fascinated by the morbidity of everything.

Now on our homeward journey along the shores of Lake Garda we once again encounter the dark spectre of the man-monster that was Mussolini.

Salò once the home of musical genius and artistic endeavour seems now reduced to the embarrassing legacy of failed Fascist capital and unsavoury snuff film locale.

The August sun and horrid humid air seems somewhat chilled by the ghosts of the past.

Only the ignorant feel bliss here.

 

I wonder where and when the next dark Salò will be:

Somewhere in America?

Deep within North Korea?

On an island of the Philippines?

A village in Venezuela?

And as the world burns someone plays the violin….

{{{coat_alt}}}

Above: Coat of arms of the Italian Social Republic (or the Republic of Salò)

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / The Rough Guide to Italy / Lonely Planet Italy / Luigi Barzini, The Italians / R.J.B. Bosworth, Mussolini

Canada Slim and the Battlefield Brotherhood

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sometimes it is difficult not to believe in fate.

It strikes me as curious how my life, without planning it at times, seems to lend my writing its directions.

My wife and I live only a stone´s throw away from Arenenberg (a chateau famous for being the final domicile of Hortense de Beauharnais (1783 – 1837), the mother of French Emperor Napoléon III, 1808 – 1873) to the west of Landschlacht and the village of Heiden (final residence of Red Cross founder Jean-Henri Dunant) to the southeast.

Above: Arenenberg

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Above: Henri Dunant Museum, Heiden

For my research on the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli I travelled to Geneva to visit the Museum of the Reformation, and while I was there I visited the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) Museum in that same city.

Above: The ICRC Museum, Geneva

(Future posts on Zwingli and Dunant´s legacies are coming soon to you, my gentle readers, God willing.)

 

Last year´s summer vacation in northern Italy, without planning, found itself leading us to a place where the Swiss locales of Arenenberg and Heiden and Geneva all intersect: the village of Solferino.

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Above: Solferino

 

Lake Garda, Italy, Sunday, 6 August 2017

A glorious summer vacation found the wife and I travelling by car from Landschlacht in northeastern Switzerland to the Italian towns of Como, Bergamo and Sirmione since the last day of July.

We spent Friday and Saturday in Sirmione at the southern end of the Lago di Garda and were now driving to the northern end of the lake to the town of Riva del Garda for a further two nights.

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Above: Lago di Garda from space

(From there we would travel to Trento and Tirano and spend a night in Sils Maria back in Switzerland before returning home.)

(For an account of the adventures from Landschlacht to Sirmione, please see Canada Slim and the….

  • Land of Confusion
  • Island of Anywhere
  • Lady of Lovere
  • Dance Macabre
  • Company Town
  • City of the Thousand
  • Unremarkable Town
  • Voyageur´s Album
  • Holiday Chronicles
  • Borders
  • Smarter Woman
  • Distant Bench
  • Life Electric
  • Inappropriate Statues
  • Isle of Silence
  • Injured Queen
  • Quest for George Clooney
  • Road into the Open
  • Apostle of Violence
  • Evil Road
  • Lure of Italian Journeys

….of this blog.)

 

Lake Garda is a unique romance between the Mediterranean and the alpine, between nature and history.

Carlo Cattaneo described this corner of Paradise in 1844, a description still fitting 134 years later:

“Amazement would take the traveller to a place where the interference of man has been respectful of nature, the environmental beauty reaches levels it would be difficult to surpass.”

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Above: Carlo Cattaneo (1801 – 1869)

 

Six miles south of the lakeshore of Garda from whence the Peninsula of Sirmione stretches outwards is the small town (2,700 residents) of Solferino.

Like nearby San Martino, Solferino belongs to the history of Italy because of the Battle of Solferino and San Martino on 24 June 1859 between the allied French Army under Emperor Napoléon III and the Piedmont-Sardinia Army under King Victor Emmanuel II (together known as the Franco-Sardinian Alliance) against the Austrian Army under the Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830 – 1916).

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Above: Adolphe Yvon´s La Bataille de Solférino

 

It was the last major battle in world history where all the armies were under personal command of their monarchs.

 

Perhaps 300,000 soldiers fought in the important battle, the largest since the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

 

There were about 130,000 Austrian troops and a combined total of 140,000 French and allied Piedmontese troops.

Above: The Piedmontese camp, 23 June 1859

After the battle, the Austrian Emperor refrained from further direct command of the army.

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Above: Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria

The Battle of Solferino was a decisive engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence, a crucial step in the Italian Risorgimento.

The war’s geopolitical context was the nationalist struggle to unify Italy, which had long been divided among France, Austria, Spain and numerous independent Italian states.

Above:  Major battle sites of the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859

 

The battle took place near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, Italy, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

The confrontation was between the Austrians, on one side, and the French and Piedmontese forces, who opposed their advance.

Above:  Sardinian troops charge at San Martino (by Luigi Norfini)

In the morning of 23 June, after the arrival of emperor Franz Joseph, the Austrian army changed direction to counterattack along the river Chiese.

At the same time, Napoléon III ordered his troops to advance, causing the battle to occur in an unpredicted location.

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Above: Napoléon III, le Bataille de Solférino, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

While the Piedmontese fought the Austrian right wing near San Martino, the French battled to the south of them near Solferino against the main Austrian corps.

Above: The battle of San Martino

Above:  French infantry advances (by Carlo Bossoli)

The battle was a particularly gruelling one, lasting over nine hours and resulting in over 2,386 Austrian troops killed with 10,807 wounded and 8,638 missing or captured.

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The Allied armies also suffered a total of 2,492 killed, 12,512 wounded and 2,922 captured or missing.

Reports of wounded and dying soldiers being shot or bayonetted on both sides added to the horror.

In the end, the Austrian forces were forced to yield their positions.

The allied French-Piedmontese armies won a tactical, but costly, victory.

 

Napoléon III was moved by the losses, and for reasons including the Prussian threat and domestic protests by the Roman Catholics, he decided to put an end to the war with the Armistice of Villafranca on 11 July 1859.

The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861.

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Above: The flag of Italy

 

Henri Dunant already knew as a boy growing up in Geneva the value of social work, as his father worked in a prison and an orphanage helping parolees and orphans, while his mother worked with the sick and poor.

Dunant grew up during the period of religious awakening known as the Réveil and at age 18 he joined the Geneva Society for Almsgiving.

In 1847, together with friends, Dunant founded the Thursday Association, a loose band of young men that met to study the Bible and help the poor.

He spent much of his free time engaged in prison visits and social work.

On 30 November 1852, Dunant founded the Geneva chapter of the YMCA, and three years later he took part in the Paris meeting devoted to the founding of the YMCA´s international organization.

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Above: Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910)

In 1849, at age 21, Dunant was forced to leave the College Calvin due to poor grades and began an apprenticeship with the money-changing firm Lullin et Sautter.

After the apprenticeship was successfully concluded, Dunant remained as an employee of the bank.

 

In 1853, Dunant visited Algeria, Tunisia and Sicily on assignment.

Despite having little experience, Dunant was successful.

 

Inspired by his success, Dunant, in 1856, created a corn-growing and trading company called the Société financiere et industrielle des Moulins des Mons-Djémila on a land concession in French-occupied Algeria.

However, the land and water rights were not clearly assigned and the colonial authorities were not especially cooperative.

As a result, Dunant decided to appeal directly to the French Emperor Napoléon III, who was with his army in Lombardy at the time, his headquarters in the town of Solferino.

Dunant wrote a flattering book full of praise for Napoléon III with the intention of presenting it to the Emperor in return for the assignation of the land and water rights he needed in Algeria….

 

“I was a mere tourist with no part whatever in this great conflict, but it was my rare privilege, through an unusual train of circumstances, to witness the moving scenes that I have resolved to describe.

In these pages I give only my personal impressions…”

(Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino)

Above: Henri Dunant at the Battle of Solferino

Horrified by the suffering of wounded soldiers left on the battlefield, Dunant completely abandoned the original intent of his trip and for several days he devoted himself to helping with the treatment and care for the wounded.

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Dunant succeeded in organizing an overwhelming level of relief assistance by motivating the local villagers to aid without discrimination.

 

“Here is a hand-to-hand struggle in all its horror and frightfulness.

Austrians and Allies trampling each other under foot, killing one another on piles of bleeding corpses, felling their enemies with their rifle butts, crushing skulls, ripping bellies open with sabre and bayonet.

No quarter is given.

It is a sheer butchery, a struggle between savage beasts, maddened with blood and fury.

Even the wounded fight to the last gasp.

When they have no weapon left, they seize their enemies by the throat and tear them with their teeth….

 

The guns crash over the dead and wounded, strewn pell-mell on the ground.

Brains spurt under the wheels, limbs are broken and torn, bodies mutilated past recognition.

The soil is literally puddled with blood and the plain littered with human remains.

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From the midst of all this fighting, which went on and on all over the battlefield, arose the oaths and curses of men of all the different nations engaged – men, of whom many had been made into murderers at the age of twenty!….

 

The Army, in its retreat, picked up all the wounded men it could carry in military wagons and requisitioned carts, how many unfortunate men were left behind, lying helpless on the naked ground in their own blood!

Toward the end of the day, when the shades of night began to cover this immense field of slaughter, many a French officer and soldier went searching high and low for a comrade, a countryman or a friend.

If he came across someone he knew, he would kneel at his side trying to bring him back to life, press his hand, staunch the bleeding, or bind the broken limb with a hankerchief.

But there was no water to be had for the poor sufferer.

How many silent tears were shed that miserable night when all false pride, all human decency even, were forgotten.

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During a battle, a black flag floating from a high place is the usual means of showing the location of first-aid posts or field ambulances, and it is tacitly agreed that no one shall fire in their direction.

But sometimes shells reach them nevertheless, and their quartermaster and ambulance men are no more spared than are the wagons loaded with bread, wine and meat to make soup for the wounded.

 

Wounded soldiers who can still walk come by themselves to these ambulances, but in many cases they are so weakened by loss of blood and exposure that they have to be carried on stretchers or litters….

The poor wounded men that were picked up all day long were ghastly pale and exhausted.

Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupified look as though they could not grasp what was said to them.

They stared at one out of haggard eyes, but their apparent prostration did not prevent them from feeling their pain.

Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering.

They begged to be put out of their misery and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death struggle….

 

Anyone crossing the vast theatre of the previous day´s fighting could see at every step, in the midst of chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable and misery of every kind….

 

They fought all day long, pushing further and further ahead and finally spent the night near Cavriana.

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Above: Modern Cavriana

 

Next morning at daybreak they went back for their knapsacks, only to find them empty.

Everything had been stolen in the night.

The loss was a cruel one for those poor soldiers.

Their underclothes and uniforms were dirty and stained, worn and torn, and now they found all their clothing gone, perhaps all their small savings with it, besides things of sentimental value that made them think of home or of their families – things given them by their mothers or sisters or sweethearts.

Looters stole even from the dead and did not always care if their poor wounded victims were still alive….

 

Some of the soldiers who lay dead had a calm expression, those who had been killed outright.

But many were disfigured by the torments of the death-struggle, their limbs stiffened, their bodies blotched with ghastly spots, their hands clawing at the ground, their eyes staring widely, their moustaches bristling above clenched teeth that were bared in a sinister convulsive grin.

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It took three days and three nights to bury the dead on the battlefield, but in such a wide area many bodies lay hidden in ditches, in trenchesm or concealed under bushes or mounds of earth, were found much later.

They and the dead horses gave forth a fearful stench.

In the French Army a certain number of soldiers were detailed from each company to identify and bury the dead….

Unhappily, in their haste to finish their work, and because of the carelessness and gross negligence….

There is every reason to believe that more than one live man was buried with the dead.

 

A son idolized by his parents, brought up and cherished for years by a loving mother who trembled with alarm over his slightest ailment….

A brilliant officer, beloved by his family, with a wife and children at home….

A young soldier who had left sweetheart or mother, sisters or old father, to go to war….

All lie stretched in the mud and dust, drenched in their own blood.

 

The handsome manly face is beyond recognition, for sword or shot has done its disfiguring work.

The wounded man agonizes, dies, and his dear body, blackened, swollen and hideous, will soon be thrown just as it is into a half-dug grave, with only a few shovelfuls of lime and earth over it.

The birds of prey will have no pity for those hands and feet when they protrude as the wet earth dries from the mound of dirt that is his tomb….

 

Bodies lay in thousands on hills and earthworks, on the tops of mounds, strewn in groves and woods, or over the fields and plains….

Over the torn cloth jackets, the muddy grey great coats or once white tunics, now dyed red with blood, swarmed masses of greedy flies and birds of prey hovered above the putrefying corpses, hoping for a feast.

The bodies were piled by the hundreds in great common graves….

 

The crowding in Castiglione della Stivere became something unspeakable.

Above: Modern Castiglione della Stivere

The town was completely transformed into a vast improvised hospital….

….all filled with wounded men, piled on one another and with nothing but straw to lie on….

Men of all nations lay side by side on the flagstone floors of the churches of Castiglione….

They no longer had the strength to move or if they had there was no room for them to do so.

 

“Oh, Sir, I´m in such pain!”, several of these poor fellows said to me.

“They desert us, leave us to die miserably and yet we fought so hard!”

They could get no rest, although they were tired out and had not slept for nights.

They called out in their distress for a doctor and writhed in desperate convulsions that ended in tetanus and death….

With faces black with the flies that swarmed about their wounds, men gazed around them, wild-eyed and helpless.

Others were no more than a worm-ridden, inextricable compound of coat and shirt and flesh and blood….

 

There was one poor man, completely disfigured, with a broken jaw and his swollen tongue hanging out of his mouth.

He was tossing and trying to get up….

Another wretched man had had a part of face – nose, lips and chin – taken off by a sabre cut.

He could not speak, and lay, half-blind, making heart-rending signs with his hands and uttering guttural sounds to attract attention….

A third, with his skull gaping wide open, was dying, spitting out his brains on the stone floor.

His companions in suffering kicked him out of the way, as he blocked the passage….

 

Every house had become an infirmary….

It was not a matter of amputations or operations of any kind, but food, and above all drink, had to be taken around to men dying of hunger and thirst.

Then their wounds could be dressed and their bleeding, muddy, vermin-covered bodies washed.

All this in a scorching, filthy atmosphere in the midst of vile, nauseating odours, with lamentations and cries of anguish all around….

 

“Don´t let me die!”, some of these poor fellows would exclaim – and then, suddenly seizing my hand with extraordinary vigour, they felt their access of strength leave them, and died.

 

“I don´t want to die.  I don´t want to die.”, shouted a Grenadier of the Guard fiercely.

This man who, three days earlier, had been a picture of health and strength, was now wounded to death.

He fully realized that his hours were inexorably counted and strove and struggled against that grim certainty.

I spoke to him and he listened.

He allowed himself to be soothed, comforted and consoled, to die at last with the straightforward simplicity of a child….

 

The women of Castiglione, seeing that I made no distinction between nationalities, followed my example, showing the same kindness to all these men whose origins were so different and all of whom were foreigners to them.

“Tutti fratelli” – (all are brothers) – they repeated feelingly….

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The feeling one has of one´s own utter inadequancy in such extraordinary and solemn circumstances is unspeakable….

The moral sense of the importance of human life, the humane desire to lighten a little the torments of all these poor wretches or restore their shattered courage, the furious and relentless activity which a man summons up at such moments: all these combine to create a kind of energy which gives one a positive craving to relieve as many as one can….

But then you feel sometimes that your heart is suddenly breaking – it is as if you were stricken all at once with a sense of bitter and irresistable sadness, because of some simple incident, some isolated happening, some small unexpected detail which strikes closer to the soul, seizing on our sympathies and shaking all the most sensitive fibres of our being….

 

You cannot imagine how the men are stirred when they see the Post Corporal appear to hand out letters….

He brings us….news of home, news of our families and friends.

The men are all eyes and ears as they stretch out their hands greedily towards him.

The lucky ones – those for whom there is a letter – open it in hot haste and devour the contents.

The disappointed move away with heavy hearts and go off by themselves to think of those they have left behind.

Now and then a name is called and there is no reply.

Men look at each other, question each other, and wait.

Then a low voice says “Dead”, and the Post Corporal puts aside this letter, which will return with the seals unbroken to the senders….

 

On 24 June 1859, the total of killed and wounded Austrians and Franco-Sardinians numbered three Field Marshals, nine Generals, 1,566 officers of all ranks and some 40,000 non-commissioned officers and men.

Two months later, these figures (for the three armies together) had to be increased by 40,000, dead or in hospitals from sickness or Fever, either as the result of the excessive fatigues undergone on 24 June and the days immediately preceding or following, or else owing to the pernicious effects of the summer climate and the tropical heat in the Lombardy plain – or, in some instances, owing to the accidents due to the soldiers´ own carelessness.

Leaving all questions of strategy and glory aside, this battle of Solferino was thus, in the view of any neutral and impartial person, really a European catastrophe.”

(Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino)

 

Back in his home in Geneva, Dunant would write….

“As it was more than three years before I decided to put together these painful recollections, which I had never meant to print….

But if these pages could bring up the question (or lead to its being developed and its urgency realized) of the help to be given to wounded soldiers in wartime, or of the first aid to be afforded them after an engagement – if they could attract the attention of the humane and philanthropically inclined – in a word, if the consideration and study of this infinitely important subject could, by bringing about some small progress, lead to improvement in a condition of things in which advance and improvement can never be too great, even in the best-organized armies, I shall have fully attained my goal.”

 

Dunant set about a process that led to the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross by writing A Memory of Solferino, which he published with his own money in 1862, thus initiating the process.

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From 23 to 28 June 2009, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the battle, a series of events gathering thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers from all over the world took place in Solferino.

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Today, the area contains a number of memorials to the events surrounding the battles of Solferino and San Marino.

There is a circular tower, the Tower of San Martino della Battaglia, dominating the skyline, a memorial to King Victor Emmanuel II.

Built in 1893, it stretches 70 metres high above the battlefield.

In the town of San Martino is a museum with uniforms and weapons of the time and an ossuary chapel.

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In Solferino is also a museum, displaying arms and mementos of the time and an ossuary containing the bones of thousands of victims.

In nearby Castiglione delle Stiviere, where many of the wounded were taken after the battle, is the site of the Museum of the International Red Cross, focusing on the events that led to the formation of that organization.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning´s (1806 – 1861) poem “The Forced Recruit at Solferino” commemorates this battle.

Jospeh Roth´s (1894 – 1939) Radetzky March opens at the Battle of Solferino.

The battle was depicted in the 2006 drama Henri Dunant: Du Rouge sur la croix (English: Henry Dunant: Red on the Cross), which tells the story of the signing of the Geneva Convention and the founding of the Red Cross.

 

The weather is warm, owing to the pernicious effects of the summer climate and the tropical heat in the Lombardy plain, but the visitor instead feels cold.

The feeling one has of one´s own utter inadequancy in such extraordinary and solemn circumstances is unspeakable….

The moral sense of the importance of human life….

You feel that your heart is suddenly breaking – as if you were stricken all at once with a sense of bitter and irresistable sadness.

Leaving all questions of strategy and glory aside, this Battle of Solferino is a catastrophe.

Without the suffering we would not have the Red Cross nor understand why the cross is red.

“That moves you? Nay, grudge not to show it,

While digging a grave for him here:

The others who died, says your poet,

Have glory – Let him have a tear.”

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stanza XI, “A Forced Recruit at Solferino”)

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Sources:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Last Poems / Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino / Francesco Martello, Lake Garda: Civilization, Art and HistoryWikipedia

Canada Slim and the Land of Confusion

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 April 2018

Of the problems that plague me, one of the biggest is persistence:

The ability to keep on keeping on.

I have to constantly remind and encourage myself that “a professional writer is simply an amateur who didn´t quit”. (Richard Bachman)

With my two blogs – this one and Building Everest – I have to remind myself that I cannot get people interested in what I have to say if I myself am uninterested in what I am saying.

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In Building Everest I force myself each day to examine that day and ask myself what was interesting and unique about that day.

With this blog, which has (mostly) evolved into a travel blog in the two years since I´ve started it, I ask myself what was interesting about the places I visited and then I search for the words that will (hopefully) make you interested in (one day) visiting those places I´ve described.

As an English teacher I constantly remind my students that in all communication we must keep in mind one question: WIIFM.

What´s in it for me (the reader or recipient of this communication)?

 

Some places seem to sell themselves.

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How many millions of words have been devoted to places like Paris or Venice?

A collage of Venice: at the top left is the Piazza San Marco, followed by a view of the city, then the Grand Canal, and (smaller) the interior of La Fenice and, finally, the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

And rightly so.

Others, especially the less known or least promoted places, need more time and imagination not only to convince you of their merits, gentle reader, but as well to convince me that writing about them is worthy of my time and effort.

 

Both blogs are practice, a honing process, the necessary training ground for developing the skills to becoming a paid published writer.

 

But what´s in it for you, gentle reader?

Two things (I hope).

 

First, I want you to see that you and I are similar in our shared humanity and desire to understand.

In a travel article, one does not burden the reader with prologues such as this one, but immediately hooks the reader into involving him/herself in the middle of the promoted place.

I include these Landschlacht prologues to show the process by which I write this blog and thus hopefully encourage you to share your world and experiences, for I don´t wish to write alone but rather as a voice in a united chorus.

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Second, I want you to see what I see.

I not only want you to travel with me on my travels and share my experiences but I want to encourage you to travel and share your experiences and realize that travelling is not only a search to make the exotic seem familiar but as well it is the realization that the everyday familarity that surrounds us where we are is to someone else exotic.

 

I want to take you now, gentle reader, on a journey both in space and time.

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I want you to come with me to a place that has drawn others to it for centuries, a place not so famous in international circles but beloved at least by her countrymen.

And as we travel I want to introduce you to a travel companion on this particular journey, a man confused about who he was and what he wanted – a man much like myself (and perhaps like you yourself) – who possessed a bravery – as uncharacteristic today as it was in his day – to openly express his feelings in a manner so candid that it still continues to shock the reader centuries later.

I want you to imagine him not as buried bones and forgotten words inside dusty tomes but as a living, breathing man walking beside us.

For his thoughts and feelings of yesterday are thoughts and feelings still thought and felt today.

Though time and progress have changed the place he once knew, there is much that remains that he could still relate to.

And much about the place and the man I hope that you can relate to.

Come with us now to Sirmione….

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Sirmione, Lago di Garda, Italy, 4 August 2017

Lago di Garda is the largest, cleanest, least scenic, most overdeveloped and most popular of the Italian lakes.

Lying between the Alps and the Po Valley, this 370 square kilometre pool of murky water is firmly on many tour operator schedules.

Garda enjoys mild winters and breezy summers.

The northern sover wind blows down the Lago from midnight through morning.

The southern ova wind breezes up the Lago in the afternoon and evening.

This temperate climate is, these Riviera Bresciana resorts are, invaded by large mobs of package holiday clients and locust-like throngs of Austrians, Germans, Italians and Swiss.

To the north, the Lago is hemmed in by mountain crags and resembles a fjord.

On the most sheltered stretch of the Lago´s western shore lush groves of olives, vines and citrus trees grow, resulting in olive oil, citrus syrups and Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella wines.

As the Lago broadens towards the south, it takes on the appearance of an inland sea backed by a gentle plain.

The restless winds here have created one of Europe´s best windsurfing sites around Torbole and Malcesine on the eastern shore.

Within easy striking distance of the Milano-Venezia autostrada as well as rail and bus Connections from the main Lombardy towns, the southern shore of Lago di Gardo is particularly well-touristed.

Desenzano del Garda, the Lago´s largest town, is a major rail junction where buses connect with trains and several ferries ply their trade up to the northwest tip of the Lago and the town of Riva del Garda stopping off at other resorts on the way.

Desenzano doesn´t detain the visitor for long, though the lakefront is lined with bars and restaurants, though the castle has spectacular views and the Roman villa  preserves some fine mosaics, the busy road running alongside and the constant traffic on the Lago is an everlasting siren call to leave that few can resist.

So, why linger?

Instead….

 

“Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione, row!

So they rowed and there we landed – O pretty Sirmio!

There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow,

There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,

Came that “hail and farewell” of the Poet´s hopeless woe,

Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago,

“Brother, hail and farewell” – as we wandered to and fro

Gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda lake below

Sweet Catullus´s all-but-island, olive silvery Sirmio!”

(Alfred Tennyson)

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Above: Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892)

 

The Roman poet Catullus (87 – 54 BC) celebrated Sirmione, this narrow peninsula jutting out from the southern shore of Lago di Garda, as “the jewel of all islands”, thus his name is constantly invoked in connection with the place.

Above: Bust of Catullus, Piazza Carducci, Sirmione

Starting from the 1st century BC, Sirmione became a favourite resort for rich families coming from Verona, then the main Roman city in northeastern Italy.

Catullus praised the beauties of Sirmione and spoke of a villa he had in the area.

Sirmione remains a popular spot in a beautiful setting suffocated by luxury hotels, souvenir stands and tourists.

Go beyond the town battlements, away from the Rocca Scaliagara, that fairytale turreted fortress.

Escape, flee the throngs.

Walk out beyond the town to the peninsula´s triangular hilly head and lie in the shade of cypress and olive groves.

Linger not long, but pass San Pietro, for church frescoes won´t free you from the folks that follow you in search of food, alcohol, cool water and warm rocks.

Boldly march, tracing the path that runs along the edges of the Peninsula.

Ignore the warning signs of slippery rocks and tumbling landslides and continue up to the gate leading to the Grotte di Catullo, where the locals brag was Catullus´ villa.

It wasn´t.

What this was, what this is,  is the semblance of a Roman spa, white ruins where Romans came to take the waters from the hot sulphur spring that lies 300 metres under the Lago.

The scattered ruins, ageless and beautiful, bake quietly in the sun amongst ancient olive trees.

Fragments of frescoes and superb views of the Lago await the valiant wanderer.

We know from historical records that Catullus did retire to Sirmione, coming all the way from the Black Sea by boat, hauling it overland (!) when necessary so he could sail upon Lago Garda.

But what of the man Catullus and why do the folks of Sirmione insist he not be forgotten, even if his actual villa´s location remains uncertain?

For he was one of the Roman Republic´s greatest poets rivalling his contemporaries Lucretius and Cicero in the creation of a golden age of Latin literature.

 

62 BC, Rome

Quintus Valerius Catullus (22) had come to Rome from Verona, where his father was of sufficient financial and social standing to be frequent host to Julius Caesar himself.

Quintus himself owned villas near Tibur and on Lake Garda and had an elegant house in Roma.

Catullus speaks of these properties as choked with mortgages and repeatedly pleads his poverty, but the picture preserved of him by posterity through his poetry is that of a polished man of the world who did not bother to earn a living but enjoyed himself as a bon vivant among the wild set of the capital.

Despite his father´s friendship with Caesar, or because of this, Catullus – a familiar amongst Rome´s keenest wits and cleverest orators and politicians – opposed Caesar with every epigram at his disposal, unaware that his literary revolt reflected the revolutionary times in which he lived.

Catullus had tired of the old forms of Latin literature.

He wanted to sing the sentiments of his youth in new and imaginative ways.

Catullus was resentful of old morals perpetually preached by exhausted elders.

He announced the sanctity of instinct, the innocence of desire and the grandeur of dissipation.

He found life, love and literature revolved around every woman, married or not, who inspired him with comfortably casual love.

Catullus cultivated his friendship with the liveliest woman in his privileged circle, Clodia, whom he named Lesbia in memory of the Greek poetess Sappho of Lesbos whose works he translated, imitated and loved.

Above: Catullus at Lesbia´s, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Quintus was fascinated by Clodia the moment she “set her shining foot on the well-worn threshold”.

She was his “lustrous goddess of the delicate step”.

Her walk, like her voice, was sufficient seduction for any man.

Clodia accepted Quintus graciously as one of her admirers and the enraptured poet, unable to match otherwise the gifts of his rivals, laid at her feet the most beautiful lyrics ever produced in Latin.

A lover´s frenzy raged within him….

“Sparrow, delight of my beloved.

Who plays with you and holds you to her breast?

Who offers her forefinger to your seeking

And tempts your sharp bite?

I know not what dear jest it pleases my shining one

To make of my desire!”

Quintus was consumed with happiness, paid attendance upon her daily, read his poems to her, forgot everything but his infatuation….

History does not record how long this ecstasy lasted, but she who had betrayed her husband for Quintus found it a relief to betray him for another.

Quintus madly envisioned her “embracing at once 300 adulterers.”

In the very heat of his love he came to hate her and rejected her protestations of fidelity:

“A woman´s words to hungry lover said

Should be upon the flowing winds inscribed,

Upon swift streams engraved.”

When sharp doubt became dull certainty his passion turned to bitterness and coarse revenge.

He accused her of yielding to tavern habitués, denounced her new lovers with obscene abandon and meditated suicide, poetically.

But Quintus was capable of more nobler feelings.

He addressed to his friend Manlius a touching wedding song, envying him the wholesome companionship of marriage, the security and stability of a home and the happy tribulations of parentage.

Quintus travelled to Bithyia (Black Sea coastal Turkey) to find the grave of a brother.

Over it he performed reverently the ancestral burial rites and soon afterward he composed tender lines….

“Dear brother, through many states and seas

Have I come to this sorrowful sacrifice,

Bringing you the last gift for the dead.

Accept these offerings wet with fraternal tears,

And forever, brother, hail and farewell.”

His time in Turkey changed and softened Catullus.

The skeptic who had written of death as “the sleep of an eternal night” was moved by the old religions and ceremonies of the East.

In a small yacht bought at Amastria (Amasra), Quintus sailed through the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Adriatic, up the Po Valley to Lago Garda and his villa at Sirmio (Sirmione).

“Oh, what happier way is there to escape the cares of the world than to return to our own homes and altars and rest on our own beloved bed?”

 

Men begin by seeking happiness and are content at last with peace.

 

Sirmione, Lago di Garda, Italy, 4 August 2017

Our bed and breakfast accommodation, adequate though not overly attractive – (much as women describe me these days!) – lay three kilometres from the centre of Sirmione.

As the B & B was destined to be beyond bus line access and my wife determined to save costs by our not employing taxis our three-day/two-night sojourn in Sirmione meant one hour´s walk between the B & B and the city centre.

We who had been driving everywhere that past week found ourselves wearily trudging back and forth alongside busy boulevards lined much like North American City access ways with anonymous forgettable shopping malls and restaurants forever ignored by the Michelin Guide.

Concrete under our feet, the lakeshore invisible and unattainable, carbon monoxide replacing sea breeze and breath.

Still we made the best of the Sirmione experience that we could.

We ate expansively, drank copiously, swam gloriously in the Lago and in the pools of the Terme di Sirmione spa and bathed ourselves in the warm Italian sun on unforgiving rocks.

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We walked about Roman ruins searching for an ever-elusive emotional link with the ancient past.

 

One should not go to Sirmione in search of happiness but one can find contentment here.

Other English speakers did.

 

The Greek American soprano Maria Callas (1923 – 1977) had, like Catullus centuries before, a villa here.

Above: Maria Callas

The English writer Naomi “Micky” Jacob (1884 – 1964) moved to Sirmione because the weather was kinder to her tuberculosis-stricken lungs.

She was well-known in the town and her home was known as Casa Micky.

Micky wrote more than 40 novels and nearly a dozen autobiographies.

Her novels, best described as romantic fiction, tackled the problems of prejudice against Jews, domestic violence and the political consequences of pogroms in the 19th century.

Although not well-known nowadays, in her day Micky was a well-loved and much respected figure.

She, like Catullus´ poetic inspiration Sapphos, had intimate relationships with other women that were an open secret but never publicly disclosed during her lifetime.

She never gave up her home in Sirmione and died there in 1964.

 

Charles Schulz, the American creator of the famous Peanuts cartoons, on his way to Venice with his family lingered in Sirmione for a week in the 1950s.

He left against his heart describing Sirmione as “extraordinary”.

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Above: Charles Schulz (1922 – 2000)

 

The Pace (pah-chay) Hotel in Sirmione occupies a building with a particularly significant history – the union of an old hotel (Hotel Eden) and the Santa Coruna religious institute for children with heart problems or for persons suffering from nervous complaints.

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At a time when medicine wasn´t particularly evolved, the Lago di Garda was believed to infuse tranquillity and aid convalescence and healing.

Of the many visitors the Pace has hosted, including the aforementioned Charles Schulz, Catullus probably would have most connected with the American poet Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972).

photograph of Ezra H. Pound

Above: Ezra Pound

Like Pound, Catullus loved and hated in equal measures of extreme intensity, was capable of generous feeling, was unpleasantly self-centred, deliberately obscene and merciless to his enemies.

Both men danced poetically between love and lust, kisses and kaka, a mix of primitive coarseness with civilized refinement.

Their lines are salted with dirt to give literature taste.

Time magazine in 1933 described Pound as “a cat that walks by himself, tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children”.

 

During the winter of 1913 Ezra Pound was in Sussex (England) with William Butler Yeats, acting as the elder poet´s secretary.

Above: William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Temporarily free of the rush of London, each was assessing the other´s work and laying out new directions.

When Pound had almost completed an anthology of new poets, he asked Yeats if there was anyone he had forgotten to include.

Yeats recalled a young Irish writer named James Joyce who had written some polished lyric poems.

Portrait of James Joyce

Above: James Joyce (1882 – 1941)

One of them had stuck in Yeats´ mind.

Joyce was living in Trieste.

Why not write to him?

Pound wrote Joyce at once.

He explained his literary connections and offered help in getting Joyce published.

A few days later Yeats found Joyce´s “I Hear an Army Charging upon the Land” and Pound wrote again to ask Joyce if he could use the poem in his anthology.

Joyce, who had been on the Continent for nearly ten years, cut off from his nation and his language and so far all but unpublished, was surprised and encouraged.

He gave Pound permission to use the poem and a few days later sent a typescript of his book of short stories Dubliners and a chapter of a new novel called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, along with news that he would soon have a play ready.

A prolonged correspondence began, which grew into a long-standing friendship.

Because of World War I, the two innovators of modern fiction and poetry would not meet until June 1920, when Pound persuaded Joyce to come to Sirmione.

If seen through Pound´s eyes, one wonders if the men were satisfied with the results of their meeting….

 

2 June 1920, Sirmione

“In vainest of exasperation

Mr. P passed his vacation.

The cause of his visit

To the Eyetaliann cities

Was blocked, by a wreck, at the station.”

 

“A bard once in landlocked Sirmione

Lived in peace, eating locusts and honey

Till a son of a bitch

Left him dry on the beach

Without clothes, boots, time, quiet or money.”

 

Sirmione, Lago di Garda, Italy, 4 August 2017

I think much about Pound and Catullus during our long walks to and fro between B & B and town.

I think about how both men resolved in their lifetimes to know more about poetry than any man living.

I think about how both men were really at heart very boyish fellows and incurable provincials, both driven by a thirst for romance and colour, who stumbled magnificently in their individual follies at great cost to themselves.

 

I think about how Clodia, Catullus´ lover, epitomizes today´s modern woman in her determination to lead her own life as she chose, free to love and be loved by whomsoever she desired, a woman who lived and loved with irresistable grace and whose greatest sin was not adultery or lechery as it was her underestimation of the effects that lovers wronged could enact upon her.

 

A woman´s body and soul are hers to decide how they are to be shared.

It is the dimmest of hopes that a mere man is worthy of being her sole obsession throughout her lifetime.

 

I think of how the love of a woman (19) caused Ezra Pound (58) to walk from Verona to the town of Gais, Switzerland, a distance of over 450 miles.

He was so dirty and tired when he arrived that his girlfriend Mary almost failed to recognize him.

The lengths that love drives a man….

 

I think of the lengths my own personal Lesbia has driven me over the past two decades, including the three-kilometre concrete trudge twice a day.

Perhaps marriage is a lot like Sirmione.

One might not always be made happy here, but one is usually contented.

Sources: Wikipedia / Will Durant, Caesar and Christ / Reay Tannahill, Sex in History / The Pace Hotel, Sirmione / The Rough Guide to Italy / Lonely Planet Italy

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Island of Anywhere

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 January 2018

“This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome. 

´Cause Rotterdam is anywhere. 

Anywhere alone.  Anywhere alone.”

(The Beautiful South, “Rotterdam (or Anywhere)”, Blue is the Colour)

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There are a couple of songs that I enjoy listening to from this group:

“Don´t Marry Her” – purely for its shock value.

“Rotterdam (or Anywhere)” – for the feelings its lyrics inevitably generate within me.

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Above: Rotterdam

My wife recently bought me a new computer whose kinks and quirks I have yet to comprehend and overcome.

But these First World problems could have happened to anyone anywhere in the First World.

The sadness and annoyance at yet another piece of technology in my possession suddenly becoming obsolete, the frustration of having to master yet another new machine, I believe, are common emotions of someone of my generation trying to cope with the tools of a more modern time that make us sometimes feel obsolete as well.

During a break between completed errands in town and waiting for a train to take me to my only teaching job (at present) I spontaneously decided to visit the public library across the square from the Bahnhof (Train Station) St. Gallen.

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Above: Bahnhof St. Gallen

To the library´s credit they do possess more English language books than I do in my own personal library (though my wife doesn´t believe this to be true).

Spontaneously I grab the works of three authors whose writing I have hesitated to read for various irrational reasons: Jonathan Ames (because he has struck me as being elitist), Maya Angelou (too urban with themes common to the USA but almost unrecognizable to white Canadians) and Margaret Atwood (out of pure and simple jealousy for her success rather than any logical premise at all).

I need to grow beyond myself and try to read authors for the value and power of their words rather than reject them without reading their works because of stupid preconceptions.

I begin with Ames´  Wake Up, Sir! for the simplest reason of all: his name takes precedence alphabetically.

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My attempts to dispel my prejudices about Ames do not begin well….

In Chapter One, the damned hero of the book has a valet!

But I must admit that the opening situation of the book is one with which I can relate to….

Alan Blair, the protagonist of the novel, is awoken by his valet and informed that – Horror of Horrors! – his uncle is already up and about.

“It was only under these alarming circumstances that Jeeves would interrupt my eight hours of needed unconsciousness.

He knew that the happiness of my morning was dependent on having as little contact with said uncle as possible.”

I love my wife, but, like Blair´s uncle, she does not see how important solitude is to producing literature (or in my case, semblances of literature).

Like Uncle Irwin, my wife (being the well-organized German woman she is) has schedules that she adheres to, with a discipline well-trained soldiers would appreciate.

So, when she alters her schedule, I find myself suddenly in a funk and am uncertain as to how to recapture my muse with the alarming alteration of her presence demanding attention to herself rather than any attempts of creation I might be fostering.

Art is more akin to spontaneous ejaculations of expression and emotion, but even I realize that some amount of order and self-control are required to produce something worthy to be published.

Much like Uncle Irwin, my wife views sitting down and producing words on a computer (dead laptop or recently acquired mystery machine notwithstanding) akin to a kind of laziness.

For surely there are better things I could be doing with my time, such as household duties (husbands are, after all, unpaid valets), finding more employment as a teacher or requesting more hours at my “temporary” job as a barista.

She feels, and rightly so, that the inequality of our incomes puts an unjust burden upon her, but, in my defence, I argue that her education should leave her with a larger income than me and that money, as pleasant as it can be, is not the only criteria when it comes to devoting 80% of our lives to a job.

When work presents itself I do not shirk my responsibilities, but by the same token I do not want my life to be nothing more than living to pay bills.

I have more leisure time than she does as a doctor, but I would be lying if I said that I am not glad that I do.

I like having mornings to myself when I can write, or evenings when she has gone to bed exhausted and I am writing my electronic journal.

I like working weekends when the Café closes earlier than weekdays, leaving me free during the week – when I am not teaching – to go hiking or travelling while average people are chained to their workplaces.

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It is a fine thing to go hiking on a Sunday, but nature is truly a wonderland on a Wednesday when most everyone is working leaving the wilderness to myself alone.

That having been said, my ability to travel would not be possible (at least in the same manner I have grown accustomed to since we got married) were it not for her superior income.

And, understandably, she wants to have leisure time to travel as well, though her desire for solitude is rarer for her than mine is.

So, except for conferences, when she travels I usually accompany her.

And, it must be said, as too swift as our travelling together can be, travelling alone can, on occasion, make a place feel like Rotterdam or anywhere.

I can appreciate a sunset alone, but sharing that same sunset does lend the dying day a certain poignancy that solitude does not.

There is an Island that we both visited this past summer that listening to “Rotterdam (or Anywhere)” always brings to mind, for had I not been with her not only might I not have seen the Island, I might not have appreciated it without her by my side.

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Monte Isola, Italy, 4 August 2018

Traffic-free Monte Isola, Italy´s largest lake island, at over 3 km long and 600 metres / 1,969 feet high, at the south of the Lago d´Iseo, is defined by Italian legislation as an “area of particular importance from the natural and environmental point of view”.

Monte Isola (vom Westufer des Iseosees)

Above: Monte Isola

(Bureaucrats should never write travel literature.)

Accessible by hourly ferries from the lakeside ports of Iseo and Sulzano, Monte Isola is a magnet for daytrippers in summers and at weekends, so the Island then is unlikely to provide much solitude.

Still, mid-season or out of season, the Island is well worth a visit, to walk or cycle around the edge of the Island and for great views of the lake.

The population of the Island (1,800 inhabitants) is spread over 11 villages and hamlets.

There are several churches built between the 15th and the 17th centuries with frescoes, statues and altars in vernacular art.

With a total area of 12.8 square kilometres / 4.9 square miles, Monte Isola ranks as the largest lake island not only in Italy, but also in Central and South Europe.

Monte Isola within Lake Iseo

(The world´s largest lake island is Canadian: Manitoulin Island.)

The Island is served and reached by two main ports: Carzano to the north and Peschera Maraglio to the south.

There are indications of a Roman settlement, but the Island is first mentioned in a written document in 905 when it was listed among the properties of the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia.

The family Oldofredi, rulers of Iseo, built two strongholds on the Island in the 11th to the 19th centuries.

One of these, on the lower promontory of the Island, covered by olive tree and wine cultivation, is the Rocca Oldofredi-Martinego, built in the 14th century as a strategic and defense point and then turned into a residence by the Martinegos during the Italian Renaissance.

Members of the powerful Visconti family came to the Island to hunt in 1400.

In 1497 Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, gave the islanders some fishing rights and reduced their taxes.

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Above: Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466)

In the same year, Caterina Cornaro, Queen and last monarch of Cyprus, resided a while on the Island.

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Above: Caterina Cornaro (1454 – 1510)

During the 19th century the main industry on the Island was the construction of boats and the manufacturing of fishing nets.

In 2016, Monte Isola was the site of the Floating Piers by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Above: The Floating Piers

In Peschiera Maraglio is the single-nave Church of San Michele Arcangelo.

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Consecrated in 1648, this baroque church is notable for the many frescoes on the walls and ceiling and for its wooden carvings.

Climb the mountain from the small village of Cure in the middle of the Island.

The peak offers the most panoramic site of the Lago and from here it is possible to admire all the villages of both lakeshores, the natural reserve of Torbiere del Sebino and a large part of the mainland.

At the top, amongst walnut woods and ancient dolomite rocks stands the Shrine of the Madonna della Ceriola.

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This 13th century church was the first parish church on the Island and the Madonna, the protectress not only of the inhabitants of Monte Isola but the entirety of Lago Iseo, is represented by a 12th century seated wooded sculpture carved from the trunk of a turkey oak.

Wander the Island and feel soothed by the barely tamed bushy copse woods containing oak, bay, hornbeam, ash and fruit chestnut trees.

Brown kites fly above, while wild ducks and great crested grebes swim below.

Agriculture, once an island mainstay, is nowadays practised more as a hobby, yet, nonetheless, it is the maintenance of this ancient art that still plays a crucial role in the preservation of the landscape heritage, preventing the Island being overdeveloped as a Tourist resort similar to other major northern Italian lakes such as Garda and Como.

The 1,800 inhabitants of this lake oasis move about by motorcycle or mini-buses which connect all hamlets and the two main ports.

All connections to and from the mainland run between Peschiera Maraglio and mainland Sulzano (the route we took) or between Carzano and mainland Sale Marasino.

This ferry service, operated by Navigazione Lago d´Iseo, runs every 15 to 20 minutes from 0500 to midnight and every 40 minutes between midnight and 5 a.m.

On Monte Isola cars are banned and the only cars allowed are the ones used for community services (ambulance, doctor, police, priest and taxi).

Motorcycles are for the exclusive use of permanent Monte Isola residents.

Bicycles can be rented in Peschiera Maraglio and Carzano.

It takes about an hour to circumnavigate the Island by bike.

But it is recommended to walk.

Stroll down the old mule tracks….

(The tracks are old.

Not sure about the mules.)

And the paths leading from the Lago to the top of the Island and to the Shrine.

This is an extremely interesting site, both from a natural and an artistic point of view.

The island´s littlest church contains contemplative quiet beauty and is both the oldest and the highest point on Monte Isola.

The rest of the Island itself is worth a look and a linger.

Artistic churches surrounded by tiny squares and large pale stone houses, sunny arcades, companionable courtyards, lovely landscapes, a rough and simple people  –  some still using ancient wooden farm tools – set in a solid and certain architecture and proud heritage.

Siviano, the most populated hamlet, is the central core of the community.

Above: Siviano

Here, here, is the town hall, the Kindergarten, the Primary School and the Secondary School, the post office, the bank, the two supermarkets.

Peschiera Maraglio, the main harbour of Monte Isola, has a tourist office, another bank, a chemist´s, another Kindergarten, many restaurants, hotels and shops.

Here we gather at the water and cast our nets.

Above: Peschiera Maraglio

Carzano was also a fishermen´s village, also all about the fish and fish preservation.

Here, every five years, the fishing folk decorate all the streets of the village with handmade paper flowers to celebrate the religious feast of the Holy Cross, drawing more than 10,000 visitors to watch the spectacle.

Here on Monte Isola it is possible to sleep in small silent hotels and to savour the endless ways to eat a fish.

Here the olive oil is extra virgin…

(Not sure about the girls…)

The lake sardines are salted, dried and bottled in oil….

(Much like the tourists…)

And salami flavoured in unique Monte Isola ways….

(Similar to the local ladies?)

The wife and I strolled from Peschiera´s docks, occasionally popping into shops and then settled ourselves down by the shore to watch children splash joyfully in the water.

Ute swam for hours while I read some forgettable tome important only at that and for that moment.

Day Five of our vacation and this day we had driven (or to be precise she drove us) from Bregamo to Sulzano, via Crespi d´Adda and Clusone.

We parked the car near the ferry port in Sulzano and waited for the boat to arrive.

A man in an ambulance gurney is taken off the boat, an ambulance waiting to take him to an emergency room in some nearby town with a hospital.

Was he a resident?  A tourist?

Neither our Italian nor our courage was up to the task of enquiring as to the patient´s identity or circumstances.

On the Island while my wife waded amongst the crowd of mer-children the chilly recollection of the gurney man remained with me but not in a sad or morbid way.

I love my wife, but I won´t deny that my brain wanders off and wonders what it would be like to go somewhere, anywhere, and retreat to an “isolated” spot and devote myself solely to my writing.

(Of course, this is with the assumption that I have the financial means to do this, which, sadly, I do not.)

I fantasize about finding some remote village like Ezra Pound´s Rapallo, or some tranquil wilderness vista like Henry David Thoreau´s Walden Pond, or some artistic alcove like Ernest Hemingway´s in Paris, and devote myself purely to doing nothing but creation.

In my mind´s eye I see myself typing some novel or a magazine article in the early hours before dawn, strolling through the just-waking village to watch the sunrise and smell the baker´s first bread and rolls being prepared for sale, more writing in my small den until lunchtime, lounging in some intimate café soaking the afternoon sun into my bones like some self-indulgent cat, strolling to the harbour to see what cast of characters the lake has spawned this day, more writing just before sunset, down to the beach to watch the sun dissolve into dream tides of amnesiac waters, then walk with purpose and anticipation to my favourite restaurant and slowly sip glass after glass of some local wine until fatigue quietly whispers to me to return back to my bed.

I am not quite certain exactly where my writer´s retreat would be or whether it even could be.

My mind has had this writer´s retreat in Paris, in Ticino and Graubünden, in Lisbon, in Istanbul, and now on Monte Isola.

It wouldn´t have to be in Monte Isola or Istanbul, Lisbon or Paris, or in some remote hamlet in southern Switzerland or northern Italy.

It could be here.

It could be anywhere.

Wherever I go, there I am.

I think about the story of Caterina Cornaro (1454 – 1510), the last Queen of Cyprus (1474 – 1510), how she came to be a temporary resident here on Monte Isola after her husband died and Venice claimed control over Cyprus.

What must it have been like to be an exiled and deposed queen and living in isolation in an old fortress on an Island which has always been barely recognized by anyone?

Did she see her future as nothing more than a destiny of disillusioned despair and diminishment?

Does one need to be defeated, disillusioned and diminished before escaping to a retreat?

(Similar to Colin Firth´s character Jamie, in the film Love…Actually, retreating to a French cottage after he discovers his girlfriend having an affair with his brother.)

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I hope not.

Though my time on Monte Isola was short, decidedly too short –  time (and my wife) waits for no one and we had booked accommodation down the road some distance in Sirmione by Lago di Garda – I am still left with the desire to return some day to Monte Isola.

As good a place as anywhere.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir! / The Rough Guide to Italy / http://www.comune.monteisola.it

 

 

Canada Slim and the Lady of Lovere

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 1 January 2018

As another New Year begins the question turns to New Year´s resolutions, to make them or avoid them, and if made what those resolutions should be.

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Above: New Year´s Eve, Sydney, Australia

For example, some of us resolve to become fitter in the following twelve months, but those that know us know better than us that the sacrifice of time, effort and money required to do so isn´t truly who we are or really want to be.

Sometimes a person can be too close to a situation to properly see it for what it is.

Two women in my life recently caused themselves and others great friction, because they never accepted that their behaviour is harmful and refused to change their behaviour, despite being warned of consequences.

In fairness to them, it is often difficult to see beyond our own perspectives, regardless of what is said to us or what happens around us.

For example, I never truly appreciated how much I am liked by some of my regular customers when two evenings ago one of them spontaneously entered the Café and gave me a hug wishing me “Happy Holidays”.

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It wasn´t until I have reflected upon this several hours later that I realised that my response might not have been as warm and welcoming to him as it should have been.

Visiting him at his place of business bearing gifts of apology and remorse for my unintended coldheartedness is the first of my New Year´s resolutions.

For every person there are also situations that trigger a kind of blindness that makes it difficult to see anything besides the emotions the situations generate.

For example, nothing makes me see red more than bullies.

So, as a result, I have the most difficult time seeing American, Turkish or Filipino politics open-mindedly, for Trump, Erdogan and Duterte strike me as being the epitome of bullies in their behaviour.

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Above: Donald Trump, 45th US President since 20 January 2017

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Above: Recep Erdogan, 12th President of Turkey since 2014, 25th Prime Minister of Turkey (2003 – 2014)

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Above: Rodrigo Duterte, 16th President of the Philippines since 2016

These leaders and their followers can´t see, won´t see, what they are doing is wrong and truly believe that they are doing what is best and can´t comprehend, won´t comprehend, why others don´t see things as they do.

I was reminded of this last summer when we visited Lovere…..

Lovere, Italy, 4 August 2017

The Rough Guide to Italy doesn´t love Lovere very much.

“Lago d´Iseo raises your expectations:

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Descending from Clusone, the road passes through steep gorges, thick forests and stark angular mountains, at the foot of which lies the Lake.

(For a description of Clusone, please see Canada Slim and the Dance Macabre of this blog.)

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As Iseo is the 5th largest of the northern lakes and the least known outside Italy, you would imagine it to be more undiscovered than the others but the apartment blocks, harbourside boutiques, ice cream parlours and heavy industry of Lovere put paid to any notions that Lago Iseo might have escaped either tourist exploitation or industrialization.”

Lonely Planet Italy isn´t complimentary either.

“Lago d´Iseo is the least known and least attractive of the lakes.

Shut in by mountains, Iseo is scarred by industry and a string of tunnels at its northeastern end around Castro and Lovere, although driving through the blasted rock face at the water´s edge can be enjoyable.” 

And herein lies the problem.

Because so many English-speaking readers trust and faithfully follow the advice given by these two popular travel guides, they fail to discover that there might be more to Heaven and Earth than is expounded by these two guidebooks´ philosophies.

Automobiles are quick, efficient and quite liberating from the quirks of predetermined routes and set schedules, but much is missed if the destination is deemed superior to the possible discoveries that can be made if one stops and explores along the journey.

My wife and I, like many other automobile travellers, were restricted by time and money to how often we could leisurely stop and explore.

And that is a shame.

For had we taken the train from Bergamo to the harbour town of Iseo then a ferry from there to Lovere, we might have discovered a town far more deserving of compliments than the aforementioned guidebooks give it credit.

Lovere is much like Lecco in that it is considered far more unremarkable than it truly is.

(For Lecco, see Canada Slim and the Unremarkable Town of this blog.)

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At first glance of Lovere a person might be forgiven for thinking that somehow the road had led the traveller somehow back to Switzerland, for the houses in this town (of 5,000 residents) have overhanging wooden roofs, typical of Switzerland, yet united with the heavy stone arcades of Italy.

Lovere faces the Lago Iseo and is held in the warm embrace of a semi-circle of mountains behind.

The Tourism Council of the Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani includes Lovere as one of the I Borghi piu belli d´Italia, one of the small Italian towns of artistic and historical interest and one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.

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Being part of the crossroads of culture and conflict that this region has been for centuries, Lovere has seen different peoples struggle to possess it: the Celts, Romans, Lombards, Franks, the monks of the Marmoutier Abbey (Tours, France), the Bishops of Bergamo, the Republic of Venice, the Napoleonic French, the Austrians and finally Italians.

There are a few sights in town worthy of a look and a linger of a few hours: the Church of Santa Maria in Valvendra with works by Cavagna, Carpinoni and Marone; the Palazzo Tadini which is both historic palace and art gallery, with many beautiful paintings and magnificent marble sculptures, along with terracotta, porcelain, antique armaments, furniture and zoological collections; the Church of San Giorgio with Cavagana´s Last Supper and Palma the Younger´s Trinity with the Virgin; the Clarissan monastery of Santa Chiara; the frescoes of the Oratorio San Martino; the ancient fortifications of Il Castelliere Gallico.

Above: Basilica Santa Maria in Valvendia, Lovere

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Above: Palazzo Tadini, Lovere

Above: Church of San Giorgio, Lovere

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Above: Convent of Santa Chiara, Lovere

Above: Church of San Martino, Lovere

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Above: Fortifications of Castelliere Gallico, Lovere

This town is truly deserving of mention and preservation.

Yes, Rough Guide and Lonely Planet, there is industry here in Lovere, for the town possesses a metallurgic plant, Lucchini, which employs about 1,300 people and specializes in the manufacture of railroad wheels and axles.

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But this town is more than industry and churches and it has produced or adopted a few folks worthy of mention:

The English aristocrat, letter writer and poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762) resided in Lovere for ten years.

Above: Lady Mary Montagu (1689 – 1762)

The 1906 Nobel Prize for Medicine recipient Camillo Golgi studied in Lovere´s Liceo Classico.

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Above: Camillo Golgi (1843 – 1926)

(Golgi was known for his work on the central nervous system and his discovery of a staining technique called black reaction or Golgi´s method, used to visualize nerve tissue under light microscopes.)

The all-time leader in victories in motorcycle Grand Prix history, Giacomo Agostini was born in Lovere in 1942.

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Above: Giacomo Agostini

Leading cinema critic and author Enrico Ghezzi was born in Lovere in 1952.

Above: Enrico Ghezzi

And while these abovementioned four have world recognition (at least in their day), Italians and the locals of Lovere also won´t forget that the town has also produced Santa Vincenza Gerosa, Santa Bartolomea Capitanio, acrobatic pilot Mario Stoppani, as well as Italian liberators, athletes and politicians.

Of the more famous four the person that captures my imagination the most is the Lady Montagu.

The Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762) is today chiefly remembered for her letters from travels to the Ottoman Empire as wife to the British Ambassador, which have been described as “the very fine example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient”.

Aside from her writing, Lady Mary is known for introducing and advocating for smallpox inoculation in Britain after her return from Turkey.

Her writings address and challenge the hindering contemporary social attitudes towards women and their intellectual and social growth.

Mary began her education in her father´s home and to supplement the instruction of a despised governess, Mary used the library in Thoresbury Hall to “steal” her education, teaching herself Latin, a language reserved for men at the time.

By 1705, at the age of 14, Mary had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of documents), and a romance modelled after Aphra Behn´s Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).

By 1710, Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Edward Wortley Montagu (1678 – 1761) and Clotworthy Skeffington.

May corresponded with Edward, but Mary´s father rejected Edward as a prospect pressuring her to marry Skeffington.

In order to avoid marriage to Skeffington, Mary and Edward eloped in 1712.

The early years of Mary´s married life were spent in the countryside.

She had a son, Edward Jr., on 16 May 1713.

On 1 July 1713, Mary´s brother died of smallpox, leaving behind two small children for Mary and Edward Sr. to raise.

On 13 October 1714, Edward Sr. accepted the post of Junior Commissioner of the Treasury.

When Mary joined him in London, her wit and beauty soon made her a prominent figure at court.

Her famous beauty was marred by a bout with smallpox in 1715.

In 1716, Edward Sr. was appointed Ambassador to Istanbul, where they remained until 1718.

After unsuccessful negotiations between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, the Montagus set sail for England via the Mediterranean, finally reaching London on 2 October 1718.

The story of this voyage and of her observations of Eastern life is told in her Letters from Turkey, a series of lively letters full of graphic descriptions.

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Above: Flag of Turkey

Letters is often credited as being an inspiration for subsequent female travellers/writers.

During her visit Mary was sincerely charmed by the beauty and hospitality of the Ottoman women she encountered and she recorded her experiences in a Turkish bath.

She recorded a particularly amusing incident in which a group of Turkish women at a bath in Sofia, horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing, exclaimed that “the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for they tied up their wives in little boxes, for the shape of their bodies”.

Mary wrote about misconceptions previous travellers, specifically male travellers, had recorded about the religion, traditions and the treatment of women in the Ottoman Empire.

Mary´s gender and class status provided her with access to female spaces that were closed off to males.

Her personal interactions wth Ottoman women enabled her to provide, in her view, a more accurate account of Turkish women, their dress, habits, traditions, limitations and liberties, at times irrefutably more a critique of the West than a praise of the East.

Above: Lady Mary Montagu in Turkish dress

Mary returned to the West with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox.

In the Ottoman Empire, Mary visited the women in their segregated zenanas, making friends and learning about Turkish customs.

There she witnessed the practice of inoculation and eager to spare her children, she had Edward Jr. vaccinated.

On her return to London, Mary enthusiastically promoted the procedure, but encountered a great deal of resistance from the medical establishment, because vaccination was an Eastern custom.

In April 1721, when a smallpox epidemic struck England, Mary had her daughter inoculated and published the event.

She persuaded Princess Caroline to test the treatment.

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Above: Caroline of Ansbach (1683 – 1737), Queen of England (1727 – 1737)

In August 1721, seven prisoners at Newgate Prison awaiting execution were offered the chance to undergo vaccination instead of execution.

All seven survived and were released.

After returning to England, Mary took less interest in court compared to her earlier days.

Instead she was more focused on the upbringing of her children, reading, writing and editing her travel letters – which she then chose not to publish.

In 1736, Mary met and fell in love with Count Francesco Algarotti.

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Above: Francesco Algarotti (1712 – 1764)

She wrote many letters to Algarotti in English and French after his departure in September 1736.

In July 1739, Mary departed England “for health reasons” declaring her intentions to winter in the south of France.

In reality, Mary left to visit and live with Algarotti in Venice.

Their relationship ended in 1741, but Mary stayed abroad and travelled extensively.

She would finally settle in Avignon and then later Lovere.

After August 1756, she resided in Venice and resumed her relationship with Algarotti.

Mary received news of her husband Edward´s death in 1761 and left Venice for England.

En route to London, she handed her Letters from Turkey to Benjamin Sowden of Rotterdam, for safekeeping “to be disposed of as he thinks proper”.

Mary´s Letters from Turkey was only one set of memoirs written by Europeans who had been to the Ottoman Empire:

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 – 1592) was a diplomat in the Holy Roman Empire sent to the Ottoman Empire to discuss the disputed territory of Transylvania.

Above: Ogier de Busbecq

Upon returning to his country Busbecq published the letters he had written to his colleague Nicholas Michault under the title Turkish Epistles.

Busbecq is also known for his introduction of the tulip from Turkey to Europe.

Above: Tulip cultivation, Netherlands

Kelemen Mikes (1690 – 1761) was a Hungarian essayist, noted for his rebellious activities against the Habsburg Monarchy.

Above: Kelemen Mikes

Although backed by the Ottoman Empire, Hungarian rebels were defeated and Mikes had to choose a life in exile.

After 1715, Mikes spent the rest of his life in Tekirdag (near Istanbul).

His work is known as Letters from Turkey.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800 – 1891) was an officer in the Prussian army.

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Above: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

He spent four years in the Ottoman Empire as a military advisor between 1835 and 1839.

Upon returning to Germany, Moltke published Letters on Conditions and Events in Turkey (1835 – 1839).

As I ponder my visit to Lovere and think of how necessary and important the Lady Montagu observations about Turkey were, I am left with two distinct impressions:

First, Lady Mary saw what others did not see.

She viewed Turkey through her own perspective, inspiring generations of writers and travellers to express themselves in their own unique fashion.

Second, Lady Mary saw something about Lovere, a town possibly as ignored in her day as it is ignored in these modern times, that inspired her to remain until the siren call of love compelled her return to Venice and an old flame.

All of which reminds me that I, in my own humble way, have my own unique perspective on places that guidebooks ignore and that people might be inspired to visit.

And, as well, perhaps my observations about places and politics that are often misunderstood or ignored might encourage others to advocate positive changes to both our perspectives on these places and a rallying call to empathise with people rather than judging them for the inadequate governments that suppress them.

So, if I have any New Year´s resolutions, it would be to continue reading, travelling and writing about places both near and far.

Who knows what ripples my wee pebbles can cause?

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Sources: Wikipedia / Google / The Rough Guide to Italy / Lonely Planet Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Lamp Ladies

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 December 2017

In this season of goodwill and gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy, those who are healthy should especially be thankful, for we live in an age when life expectancy is higher because mankind has developed medicines and methods to extend life and restore health.

Granted there is still much significant progress needed, for far too many people still fall victim to the scourges of cancer and strokes.

There is still much we do not understand about diseases like Parkinson´s, AIDS and far too many others to comprehensively list here.

Even the common cold with its endless variety of mutations remains unsolvable and must simply be accepted as one of the countless burdens we must endure in life.

What is significant about today when compared with yesteryear is that common injuries are less likely to be fatal.

As well through the contributions of thoughtful compassionate innovators, our attitudes towards the care of the injured and ailing have improved.

Here in Switzerland and back in my homeland of Canada I have been hospitalized due to injuries caused by accidents: a fall from a tree (shattered shoulder), an axe slip (shattered foot), and a fall on a staircase (shattered wrist).

And though I also have medical conditions of anemia and celiac, neither these conditions nor the accidents I have had led to risks of fatality.

For prompt and compassionate medical attention provided to me ensured that I still live a functional, mostly painless, and happy healthy existence.

For the Christian West, Christmas is the season to show thanksgiving to God for sending His Son Jesus Christ to save our immortal souls, we also should not forget the human instruments of change that have assisted mankind to save our mortal flesh.

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I married a doctor, and, even though she is a children´s physician, knowing her has given me an appreciation of just how difficult a profession medicine really is at all levels of medical treatment.

From the surgeon whose precision must be matched with efficiency, to the specialist doctor whose diagnosis must be accurately matched with the most likely cause of the patient´s symptoms, to the technicians who operate machinery that can reveal the interior of a patient´s body, to the family doctor who must know when to send a patient to a specialist and when to trust his/her own treatment, to the pharmacist that must know what medicines do and how to administer them, to the administrator who must balance the needs of patients with the cost of maintaining those needs, to the cleaning staff who ensure that the health care environment is as sterile as humanly possible, to the therapist who teaches the patient how to heal him/herself, to the nurse who monitors and comforts the bedbound sick person unable to fend for him/herself…..

The world of health care is a complex and complicated system demanding dedicated people and a neverending desire to improve itself.

A visit to a London museum two months ago has made me consider how grateful I am that an Englishwoman had the courage to be compassionate, Christian, and transformed the world for the better.

London, England, 24 October 2017

As mentioned in great detail in my blogpost Canada Slim and the Royal Peculiar my wife and I visited Westminster Abbey, that necrophiliac fetish house for the Establishment.

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And folks whether or not they were avowed antiestablishment found themselves commemorated here.

The poet Shelley, despite wishing to be known as an anarchist artist and was buried in Rome, is memorialised here in Poets´ Corner, across from Viscount Castlereagh, a man Shelley loathed.

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Above: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

“I met Murder on the way.

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Above: Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769 – 1822)

He had a face like Castlereagh.”

Before leaving the Abbey, we briefly visited the Undercroft Museum with its death-worshipping collection of royal funeral effigies.

Until the Middle Ages, British monarchs were traditionally embalmed and left to lie in state for a set period of time.

Eventually, the corpse was substituted for a wooden figure of the deceased, fully dressed with clothes from the Great Wardrobe and displayed on top of the funeral carriage for the final journey.

As the clothes were expected to fit the effegy perfectly, the likenesses found in the Undercroft are probably fairly accurate.

Edward III´s face has a strange leer, a recreation of the stroke he suffered in his final years.

Above: Westminster Abbey effigy of Edward III (1312 – 1377)

His eyebrows came from a plucked dog.

Several soldiers are known as the Ragged Regiment due to their decrepit decay.

Frances, the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, holds what may be the world´s oldest stuffed bird, an African Grey parrot that died in 1702.

Above: Frances Teresa Stewart (1647 – 1702)

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that Frances was the greatest beauty he had ever seen.

Sadly she was disfigured by smallpox in 1668.

Sadly her final fate no different than that of her parrot.

Leaving the Abbey we see the Methodist Central Hall, an inadequate and unnecessary replacement to the building that once stood here.

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On this site once stood the Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden, opened in 1876, a grand Victorian entertainment venue.

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It housed palm trees, restaurants, an art gallery, an orchestra, a skating rink, the Imperial Theatre, smoking and reading rooms.

A variety of sea creatures were displayed here, but the Aquarium was often plagued by frequent plumbing problems, so the place became better known for the exciting performances staged here than for the fish.

Come one, come all.

See William Leonard Hunt, aka the Great Farini, the world renowned Canadian showman and tightrope walker!

Above: William Hunt, aka the Great Farini (1838 – 1929)

Gasp in awe at 14-year-old Rossa Matilda Richter, aka Zazel, the first ever human cannonball, as she (barely 5 feet tall and 64 lbs heavy) is launched through the air flying 30 feet or more!

Above: Rossa Richter, aka Zazel (1863 – 1929)

Protests were launched over the danger Zazel faced and for a while the venue was in danger of losing its license but crowds kept coming to see the performances.

By the 1890s the Aquarium´s reputation became disreputable and it became known as a place where ladies of poor character went in search of male companions.

The Great Farini and Zazel were one thing, but an Aquarium of ill repute was too much for Victorian propriety to accept.

The Aquarium closed in 1899 and was demolished four years later.

In 1905 construction began on the Hall for Methodists, Christianity´s least entertaining sect.

We headed towards the Thames and followed Millbank Road to a place which suffered the opposite fate of the Aquarium.

While the Aquarium lost its aura of entertainment and was replaced by a stodgy religious institute, opposite the Tate Britain Museum is an almost invisible plaque upon an unremarkable bollard that tells the reader that where the entertaining Tate stands once stood Millbank Prison.

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Above: Tate Britain

Millbank was built to serve as the National Petientiary and was used as a holding facility for convicts due for transportation to Australia.

“Near this site stood Millbank Prison which was opened in 1816 and closed in 1890.

This buttress stood at the head of the river steps from which, until 1867, prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey to Australia.”

Novelist Henry James called Millbank “a worse act of violence than any it was erected to punish”.

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Above: Henry James (1843 – 1916)

The phrase “down under” is said to be derived from a nearby tunnel through which the convicts were walked in chains down to the river.

A section of the tunnel survives in the cellars of the nearby Morpeth Arms, a pub built to seve the prison warden and said to be haunted by the ghost of a former inmate.

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Depending on their crime, prisoners could be given the choice of receiving a five-to-ten-year jail sentence instead of exile.

Among the many to be sent to Australia – and perhaps the unluckiest of them all – was Isaac Solomon, a convicted pickpocket and the inspiration for the character Fagin in Charles Dickens´ Oliver Twist.

Above: Isaac “Ikey” Solomon (1727 – 1850)

In 1827 Solomon managed to escape while being taken to Newgate Prison.

He fled England to New York, but then travelled on to Tasmania when he discovered his wife had been transported there for crimes of her own.

Upon arrival in Tasmania, Solomon was rearrested, shipped home to London, retried, reconvicted and sentenced to exiled imprisonment for 14 years….back to Tasmania.

We made our weaving way to Pimlico Tube Station, a unique station in that it doesn´t  have an interchange with another Underground or National Rail Line.

We rode the rails until Waterloo, the last station to provide steam-powered services and the busiest railway station in London / the 91st busiest in the world / the busiest transport hub in Europe.

I had once taken the Eurostar from Waterloo Station to Paris as one of the 81,891,738 travellers during the 13 years (1994 – 2007) Eurostar operated from here, before it began service from St. Pancras.

The clock at Waterloo has been cited as one of the most romantic spots for a couple to meet, and has appeared in TV (Only Fools and Horses) and in the film Man Up.

Waterloo Station has appeared in literature (Three Men in a Boat, The Wrong Box, The War of the Worlds), films (Terminus, Rush Hour, Sliding Doors), theatre (The Railway Children), music (the Kinks song “Waterloo Sunset”) and paintings.

Our destination – typical of travelling with a doctor – a hospital, St. Thomas Hospital, noteworthy for a male serial killer and a lady humanitarian.

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Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, also known as the Lambeth Poisoner, was a Scottish Canadian serial killer who claimed victims from the United States, England, Canada and Scotland.

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Above: Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (1850 – 1892)

Born in Glasgow, Cream was raised outside Quebec City.

He attended Montreal´s McGill University and then did his post-graduate training at St. Thomas.

In 1878 Cream obtained qualifications in Edinburgh.

He then returned to Canada to practice in London, Ontario.

In August 1879, Kate Gardener, a woman with whom he was having an affair, was found dead in an alleyway behind Cream´s office, pregnant and poisoned.

Cream claimed that she had been made pregnant by a prominent local businessman, but after being accused of both murder and blackmail, Cream fled to the United States.

Cream established a medical practice not far from the red light district of Chicago, offering illegal abortions to prostitutes.

In December 1880 another patient died after treatment by Cream, followed by another in April 1881.

On 14 July 1881, Danial Stott died of poisoning, after Cream supplied him a remedy for epilepsy.

Cream was arrested, along with Stott´s wife.

Cream was sentenced to life imprisonment in Joliet prison.

Cream was released in 1891, after Governor Joseph Fifer commuted his sentence.

Using money inherited from his father, Cream sailed for England.

He returned to London and took lodgings at 103 Lambeth Palace Road.

At that time, Lambeth was ridden with poverty, petty crime and prostitution.

On 13 October 1891, Nellie Donworth, a 19-year-old prostitute accepted a drink from Cream.

She died three days later.

On 20 October, Cream met 27-year-old prostitute Matilda Clover.

She died the next morning.

On 2 April 1892, after a vacation in Canada, Cream was back in London where he attempted to poison Louise Harvey.

Above: Louise Harvey

On 11 April, Cream met two prostitutes, Alice Marsh, 21, and Emma Shrivell. 18, and talked his way into their flat.

Cream put styrchine in their bottles of Guinness.

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Both women died in agony.

On 3 June 1892, Cream was arrested and was later sentenced to death.

On 15 November, Cream was hanged on the gallows at Newgate Prison and his body buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls.

Cream´s name does not appear in later McGill graduate directories.

No mention of those who mourned Cream´s victims is made either.

Ladies of the night lost in the shadows of Lambeth lamplight, fallen and forgotten.

Another medical professional is equally remembered at a site as inconspicuous as a prison burial ground: a parking lot.

On the south side of Westminster Bridge, a series of red brick Victorian blocks and modern white additions make up St. Thomas´s Hospital, founded in the 12th century.

At the Hospital´s northeastern corner, off Lambeth Palace Road, is a car park.

A hospital car park isn´t the most obvious location for a museum, but that where one finds the homage to Florence Nightingale, the genteel rebel who invented the nursing profession.

Born on 12 May 1820 at the Villa Colombaia, three decades before Cream, Florence Nightingale was named after the city of her birth, Florence, Italy.

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Above: Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

“There is nothing like the tyranny of a good English family.”

Florence was born into a rich, well-connected family though quite liberal in their attitudes.

Their circle of friends and acquaintances included the author Elizabeth Gaskell, the scientist Charles Darwin and the reform politician the Earl of Shaftesbury.

(For the story of the Earl of Shaftesbury, please see Canada Slim and the Outcast of this blog.)

Her maternal grandfather William Smith campaigned to abolish slavery and Florence´s father William Nightingale educated both her and her sister Frances Parthenope (after her birthplace of Parthenope, Naples) in French, Latin, German, mathematics, philosophy and science, then considered strictly male pursuits,

The Nightingales loved to travel – her parents´ honeymoon lasted so long that they produced two daughters before they returned home.

Growing up Florence visited many European cities.

She travelled to France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.

She enjoyed visiting museums, dancing at balls, and going to concerts, confessing at one point that she was “music mad”.

In 1838, her father took the family on a tour of Europe where they were introduced to the English-born Parisian heiress Mary Clarke, with whom Florence bonded.

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Above: Mary Clarke (1793 – 1883)

Clarke was a stimulating hostess who did not care for her appearance, and while her ideas did not always agree with those of her guests, “she was incapable of boring anyone”.

Clarke´s behaviour was said to be exasperating and eccentric and she had no respect for upper class British women, whom she regarded generally as inconsequential.

She said that if given the choice between being a woman or a galley slave, she would choose the galleys.

Clarke generally rejected female company and spent her time with male intellectuals.

However Clarke made an exception in the case of Florence.

They were to remain close friends for 40 years despite their 27-year age difference.

Clarke demonstrated that women could be equals to men, an idea that Florence did not obtain from her mother Fanny Smith.

Florence underwent the first of several experiences that she believed were calls from God in February 1837 while at her family home of Embley Park, prompting a strong desire to devote her life to the service of others.

Above: Embley Park

Devout and scholarly, Florence was not expected to do anything much apart from marry and procreate.

As a young woman, Florence was attractive, slender and graceful.

She had rich brown hair, a delicate complexion and a prominent, almost Roman, nose.

She was slim until middle age and tall for a Victorian woman, about 5´8″ or 172 cm in height.

While her demeanour was often severe, she was very charming and possessed a radiant smile.

Florence received several marriage proposals.

She was certainly not supposed to work, but Florence´s ambition was to become a nurse.

Her parents were aghast.

In the Victorian Age, nurses were known for being devious, dishonest and drunken.

Hospitals were filthy, dangerous places exclusively for the poor.

The rich were treated in the privacy of their own homes.

In her youth Florence was respectful of her family´s opposition to her working as a nurse, but nonetheless she announced her decision to enter the field in 1844.

Despite the intense anger and distress of her mother and sister, Florence rebelled against the expected role for a woman of her status to become a wife and mother.

“I craved for something worth doing instead of frittering time away on useless trifles.”

Florence came closest to accepting the marriage proposal of politician and poet Richard Monckton Milnes, but after a nine-year courtship she rejected him in 1849, convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing.

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Above: Richard Monckton Milnes (1809 – 1885)

Whether Milnes´ devotion to the writing of Marquis de Sade and his extensive collection of erotica had something to do with Florence´s decision remains unstated.

She knew that marriage would mean swapping one cage for another and felt that God meant her to remain single.

“Marriage had never tempted me. 

I hated the idea of being tied forever to a life of Society, and such a marriage could I have.” 

In the essay Cassandra, Florence wrote about the limited choices facing women like her and raged against the way women were unable to put their energy and intelligence to better use.

Florence´s parents allowed her to visit Rome in 1847 with family friends, Charles and Selina Bracebridge, hopefully to take her mind off nursing.

In Rome, Florence met the young politician, former Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert on his honeymoon with his wife Elizabeth.

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Above: Sidney Herbert (1810 – 1861)

Together Florence and Elizabeth visited convents and hospitals run by Catholic nuns.

Sidney and Florence became lifelong close friends and the Herberts would later be insturmental in facilitating Florence´s future nursing work.

Florence continued her travels with the Bracebridges as far as Greece and Egypt.

Her writings on Egypt in particular are testimony to her learning, literaray skill and philosophy of life.

Sailing up the Nile as far as Abu Simbel in January 1850, Florence wrote of the temples there:

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Above: The temples of Abu Simbel: the Great Temple of Ramses II (left), the Temple of Nefertari (right)

“Sublime in the highest style of intellectual beauty, intellect without effort, without suffering …. not a feature is correct – but the whole effect is more expressive of spiritual grandeur than anything I could have imagined.

It makes the impression upon one that thousands of voices do, uniting in one unanimous simultaneous feeling of enthusiasm or emotion, which is said to overcome the strongest man.”

At Thebes, Florence wrote of being “called to God”.

A week later near Cairo she wrote in her diary:

“God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him alone without reputation.”

During a visit to the Parthenon in Athens, Florence rescued an owl, which she called Athena.

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Above: The Parthenon

Athena always perched on Florence´s shoulder or in her pocket, with a specially designed pouch to to catch her droppings.

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Above: Athena (1850 – 1855)

Athena was a demanding creature who had to be bathed with sand daily.

When the badtempered owl died, Florence wrote:

“Poor little beastie, it was odd how much I loved you.”

Her sister Frances wrote a short story, The Life and Death of Athena, ensuring the little owl´s posthumous fame.

Rather than forget nursing as her parents hoped, Florence´s determination grew even stronger.

Later in 1850, Florence visited the Lutheran religious community at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein, near Dusseldorf, in Germany, where she observed Pastor Theodor Fliedner and the deaconesses working for the poor and the sick in a hospital, orphanage and college.

Above: Kaiserswerth Clinic

She regarded the Kaiserswerth experience as a turning point in her life, where she received months of medical training which would form the basis for her later care.

Florence learned about medicines, how to dress wounds, observed amputations and cared for the sick and dying.

She had never felt happier.

“Now I know what it is to love life.”

On 22 August 1853, Florence took the post of Superintendant at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street in London, a position she held until October 1854.

When an epidemic of cholera broke out in London, Florence rushed to nurse victims in the nearby Middlesex Hospital.

Florence read about the disaster facing the British army in the autumn of 1854.

Hundreds of soldiers were sent to fight with the French and the Ottoman Turks against the Tsar´s Russian army in the Crimea were dying of disease.

The Crimean War was the first time the public could read in the newspapers about how the troops were suffering.

Above: Map of the Crimean War (Russian version)

When the news broke of the disaster in the Army, polticians were criticised.

More soldiers were dying from disease, and from cold during the winter, than from enemy action.

“In most cases the flesh and clothes were frozen together.

As for feet, the boots had to be cut off bit by bit, the flesh coming off with them.”

The wounded arrived by the boatloads at the British Army´s base hospitals at Scutari in Constantinople (today´s Istanbul).

Reporting from the front lines in the Crimea, William Howard Russell, Times journalist, blamed disorganization and a lack of supplies.

Fellow Times journalist in Constantinople, Thomas Chenery, reported that the French allowed women to nurse, unlike the British.

After the initial battles in the Crimea, the conflict centred on the besieged port of Sebastopol, where Russian and Ukranian women nursed heroically.

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Above: The Siege of Sebastopol (September 1854 – September 1855), by Franz Roubaud (1902)

Conditions in the vast hospitals were horrific.

“Must men die in agony unheeded?”, demanded the Times.

The scandal provoked a public outcry.

Sidney Herbert, once again Secretary of War, wrote to Florence asking her to lead a group of women nurses – a new and risky idea.

Florence and her team of 38 brave women volunteer nurses that she trained and 15 Catholic nuns set sail for Scutari.

Florence arrived early November 1854 at Selimiye Barracks in Scutari and found that poor care for wounded soldiers was being delivered by overworked medical staff in the face of official indifference.

Medicines were in short supply, hygiene was being neglected and mass infections were common, many of them fatal.

There was no equipment to process food for the patients.

There was a lack of food, a lack of blankets, a lack of beds.

Casualities arrived, after a long journey, dirty and starving.

“It is of appalling horror!

These poor fellows suffer with unshrinking heroism, and die or are cut up without complaint.

We are steeped up to our necks in blood.”

At Scutari the nurses had to contend with rats, lice, cockroaches and an absence of sanitation and had to cope with long hours and hard physical work.

After Florence sent a plea to the Times for a government solution to the poor condition of the facilities, the British Government commissioned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design a prefabricated hospital that could be built in England and shipped to the Dardanelles.

A 19th century man wearing a jacket, trousers and waistcoat, with his hands in his pockets and a cigar in mouth, wearing a tall stovepipe top hat, standing in front of giant iron chains on a drum.

Above: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859)

The result was Renkioi Hospital, a civilian facility that had a death rate less than one tenth that of Scutari.

Florence reduced the death rate from 42% to 2% by making improvements in hygiene.

She implemented handwashing and other hygiene practices in the war hospital.

She organized the nurses and soldiers´ wives to clean shirts and sheets and the men to empty the toilets.

She bombarded Herbert with letters asking for supplies and used her own money and funds sent by the public via the Times, to buy scrubbing brushes and buckets, blankets, bedpans and operating tables.

“This morning I foraged in the purveyor´s store – a cruise I make almost daily, as the only way of getting things.  I am really cook, housekeeper, scavenger, washerwoman, general dealer and storekeeper.”

Every night she walked miles of hospital corridors where thousands of casualities lay, holding a Turkish lantern (fanoos) on her nightly rounds of the wards.

Florence would always dismiss the idea that she alone improved the Hospital.

It was a team effort.

In Britain, penny papers popularised the image of “the Lady with the Lamp” patrolling the wards.

Her work went beyond nursing care.

Florence treated the soldiers equally, whatever their rank, and also thought of their families´ welfare.

She wrote letters of condolence to relatives, sent money to widows, and answered inquiries about the missing or ill.

When the initial crisis was over, Florence also organized reading rooms.

As an alternative to alcohol, the Inkerman Café was opened, serving non-alcoholic drinks.

She set up a banking system so ordinary soldiers could send their pay home, rather than drink or gamble it away.

Stories of Florence´s devotion to the men flooded home to Britain.

One soldier wrote home of the love and gratitude for Florence felt by “hundreds of great rough soldiers”.

The men worshipped her.

During her first winter at Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died.

Ten times more soldiers died from diseases such as typhoid, typhus, cholera and dysentary than from battle wounds.

Scutari had been built on top of a huge cesspool.

With overcrowding eased, defective sewers flushed out and ventilation improved, death rates were sharply reduced.

Florence still believed that the death rates were due to poor nutrition, lack of supplies, stale air and overworking of the soldiers.

She came to believe that most of the soldiers at the hospital were killed by poor living conditions.

Florence believed that she needed to maintain military style discipline over her nurses.

“If a patient is cold, if a patient is feverish, if a patient is faint, if he is sick after taking food, if he has a bed-sore, it is generally the fault not of the disease but of the nursing.”

She wanted her nurses to be treated with respect by the men and doctors.

This meant no flirting with doctors or soldiers, no disobedience or drunkenness.

The first image showing Florence as “the Lady with the Lamp” appeared in the Illustrated London News early in 1855.

As the war dragged on, Florence´s work made her internationally famous.

“She is a ministering angel without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow´s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her.

When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.”

Florence hated what she called the “buzz fuzz” of celebrity, but she knew how to use public opinion.

Fame gave her power and influence to make changes, but she knew it obscured the achievements of others and the human cost of the war.

Florence´s image appeared as pottery figurines, souvenirs and even on paper bags.

Songs and poems were written about her.

When the US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “Santa Philomena” in 1857, it fixed Florence´s image forever as the Lady with the Lamp.

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Above: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

“Lo! in that house of misery

A lady with a lamp I see

Pass through the glimmering gloom

And flit from room to room.”

After contracting “Crimean fever” from infected goat´s milk, Florence suffered ill health.

After the Crimean War, Florence returned to Britain in August 1856, travelling under the name “Miss Smith” to avoid publicity.

Thin, exhausted and ill, she felt a sense of failure and grieved over the soldiers who did not return.

“My poor men lying in your Crimean graves, I stand at the altar of murdered men.

Florence devoted the rest of her life to ensure that they did not die in vain.

While Florence shrank from public appearances, she skillfully used her reputation and the authority of her name to convincethose in power of the need for health reform, starting with Queen Victoria, whom she impressed greatly when they met in Balmoral.

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882

Above: Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

For the rest of her days she would continue to suffer reoccuring bouts of fever, exhaustion, depression, loss of appetite, insomnia and severe back pain.

Unable to continue nursing, she devoted herself to health reform, founded the first training school for nurses at St. Thomas, campaigned to improve hospital conditions and championed the cause of midwives.

Often irritable, highly critical of herself and others, Florence worked on, writing hundreds of letters, gathering and analysing statistics, commenting on reports, briefing politicians and medical experts.

Prompted by the Indian mutiny of 1857, Florence began a lifelong campaign to improve the health of all Indians, not just British soldiers.

She studied the design of hospitals in Britain and across Europe.

Florence wrote Notes on Nursing to help ordinary women care for their families.

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She stressed the importance of cleanliness, warmth, fresh air, light and proper diet.

Florence wrote some 200 books, pamphlets and articles, and over 14,000 letters.

As well as nursing she wrote about religion and philosophy, sanitation and army hygiene, hospitals, statistics and India.

She wrote about her travels and the frustrations of life for educated women.

Florence changed society´s ideas about nursing.

She believed in looking after a person´s mental as well as physical wellbeing.

She stressed the importance of being sensitive to a patient´s needs and their environment to aid recovery.

She helped make nursing a respectable profession for women.

Her work proved an inspiration to many, including the founder of the Red Cross movement, Henri Dunant.

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Above: Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910)

Florence championed causes that are as just important today as they were in her day, from hospital hygiene and management, to the nursing of soldiers during war and afterwards, and healthcare for all around the world.

In recognition of her pioneering work in nursing, the Nightingale Pledge is taken by new nurses.

The Florence Nightingale Medal is the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve and the annual International Nurses Day is celebrated around the world on her birthday.

Florence Nightingale Medal.jpg

The Florence Nightingale Museum doesn´t just celebrate Florence as a devout woman who single-mindedly revolutionized the healthcare industry but as well it hits the right note by putting the two years she spent tending to the wounded of the Crimean War in the context of a lifetime of tireless social campaigning, and also mentions others involved in that same health care crisis.

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Dimly lit and curiously curated with circular display cases covered in fake grass or wrapped in bandages, this small museum is packed with fascinating exhibits, from Florence´s hand-written ledgers and primitive medical instruments to pamplets with titles like How People May Live and Not Die in India.

The Museum and the neighbourhood of Lambeth are worth exploring, especially in a world too full of Dr. Creams and too few Florence Nightingales.

Perhaps if our politicians visited more museums like the Red Cross Museum in Geneva or the Florence Nightingale Museum there might less incentive to cause war ourselves or to ignore wars far removed from us, such as Yemen – “a pointless conflict (that) has caused the world´s worst humanitarian crisis”.

Perhaps if we followed role models such as Florence we might one day truly find peace on Earth and good will towards man.

Sources: Wikipedia / The Rough Guide to London / Rachel Howard and Bill Nash, Secret London: An Unusual Guide / Simon Leyland, A Curious Guide to London / Florence Nightingale Museum / http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk