Sunday, 17 August 2014

Artaserse: Leonardo Vinci (1730)

(directed by Diego Fasolis, 2012)

«««««

Before we start, I should emphasise: not the artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), but the composer Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730). I must also add a disclaimer. As you may remember, I know nothing about the technicalities of music. In this field I am, more than ever, merely an enthusiastic amateur. That's especially the case in Baroque music, which must be one of the most technically complex and elaborate areas of classical music. However, as I've said before, I am entirely fascinated by the phenomenon of the castrati and, as such, this particular opera (and performance) was one I couldn't resist. 

The last few weeks have been very hard, not least because I will soon be moving jobs and leaving behind a team of people I love deeply, but going on to some truly exciting things. It's a terrifying time, but a thrilling one too. And, as I've tackled interview preparation, setbacks and crises of self-belief, my one constant has been Artaserse. With one last warning for excessive enthusiasm... let's plunge into a multimedia romp through a superb opera.

I ended up with this 2012 recording, directed by Diego Fasolis, because I was on a mission to buy every album by Philippe Jaroussky that I could find. I came across Jaroussky about a year ago, when I bought his Carestini album and fell in love with his crystalline countertenor. Shortly afterwards I bought his album Farinelli: Porpora Arias, mainly because it had 'Alto Giove' on it and that's an aria that always makes me go weak at the knees. (Actually, I think Jaroussky's live rendition of it is far more successful than the CD recording, where he seems to have a bit of a wobble on the opening messa di voce, but that might just be me.) Then I bought his Virtuoso Cantatas and then, thanks to Tom Holland's Twitter feed, I discovered his meltingly beautiful Cum Dederit from Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, which he absolutely nails - it's the kind of track you listen to dreamily, late at night, in a candlelit room with a glass of Tokaji. And then I discovered Vinci's 1730 opera Artaserse, a rarely-performed work which was recorded in 2012 both as a theatrical performance and as a CD. More to the point, this is an opera with a difference. Five of the six main roles were written for castrato singers and there are some formidably difficult arias. It's no wonder that it's so little performed. But in this particular production, five of the world's leading countertenors gathered to take on the challenge of this dizzying music, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. 

I have the DVD and the CD and I've been listening to the CD on repeat for practically the last fortnight, so I want to talk about the music first, and then go on to the performance later. There are two arias in particular I want to focus on. Incidentally, I have to apologise publicly to Alan, Jess and Heloise, all of whom have been in the firing line over the past fortnight and have been subjected to me bouncing up to them (in person or by email) and making them listen to fragments of the opera, while exclaiming, "Isn't this incredible?!!!" To their credit, none of them told me to go away, no matter how tempting that must have been. 

Semira resists her unwelcome suitor Megabise  |  Arbace and Artaserse in a quiet moment  |  Semira trapped again by Megabise
To give you a brief overview of a very labyrinthine plot: the scheming Artabano, whom I shall call the Grand Vizier whether he technically is one or not, plots to take control of the Persian empire. To do this, he plans to put his son Arbace on the throne and so the opera opens with Artabano's murder of the king, Serse. He frames Serse's eldest son, Dario, as the murderer and so Dario's younger brother, the inexperienced Artaserse, finds himself obliged to condemn his brother to death. However, no sooner has Dario been executed than chaos erupts. After the murder, Artabano had given the bloody sword to Arbace to dispose of; and Arbace was seen with it in the palace gardens. Alarm all round. Arbace is hauled before Artaserse and thrown into prison, despite protesting his innocence - but, due to his filial piety, he refuses to explain why he's innocent, because that would mean having to place the blame on his disloyal father. Artabano is shocked. This isn't what he'd planned, but he has to play along. Quietly, he and his ally, the general Megabise, try to think of a way to get Arbace out of prison. Publicly, Artabano disowns Arbace and protests his own loyalty to Artaserse, who now becomes king, even though he doesn't feel ready. To make matters worse, he's tormented by Arbace's betrayal. Arbace is his closest friend and also his potential brother-in-law: Arbace is in love with Artaserse's sister Mandane, while Artaserse himself (very neatly) is in love with Arbace's sister Semira. With the ambitious Megabise and Artabano skulking at his heels, and deprived of the one man he trusts, Artaserse decides to do what he can to save his friend, and springs Arbace from prison. But his generosity backfires when Artabano thinks that Arbace's sudden disappearance just means that Artaserse has had him executed - and he is determined to get his revenge on the young king. The moral of the story? Your Grand Vizier is not your friend.

It's important to note that I'm not a big fan of opera per se, but Artaserse won my heart from the opening chords, with an allegro sinfonia that is so gloriously grand and perky, I want it for my ringtone (or my alarm clock). I find it impossible to listen to it without a stupidly big grin on my face. It was the perfect opera for me: every aria sparkles, everyone gets their moment in the sun with some ridiculously elaborate ornamentation, the music is compulsively whistlable, and there's never a dull moment. There's also a beautiful balance between elegant introspection and crazy extroversion. Jaroussky plays Artaserse (who was played by Raffaele Signorini in the original 1730 production) and, as the biggest celebrity in the cast (and the prettiest), he gets to be the poster-boy for the production. Franco Fagioli plays the hero Arbace (a part created for the great castrato Carestini). Max Emanuel Cenčić takes the role of Mandane (created for Giacinto Fontana; and, as I understand it, Cenčić was one of the driving forces behind the entire revival project, for which he should be congratulated). Valer Barna-Sabadus makes a startlingly elegant Semira (first played by Giuseppe Appiani); Yuriy Mynenko is Megabise (played originally by Giovanni Ossi); and Daniel Behle, the sole tenor in the cast, takes on the treacherous Artabano himself. This part was played by Francesco Tolve in the original cast; Behle is in the CD version; the role is performed by Juan Sancho on the DVD.

The triumphant conclusion of Vo solcando un mar crudele  |  Artabano browbeats the naive Artaserse  |
Artaserse in torment over his condemnation of his brother, supported by Semira, Mandane and Artabano
As I said, two arias stood out for me and, to my surprise, neither of those was performed by Jaroussky (although his beautiful rendition of Per pietà, bell' idol mio came in a very close third place). In second place was the gorgeous Tu vuoi ch'io viva o cara from the third act of the opera, which is a duet between Arbace and his sweetheart Mandane. It's one of the most romantic duets I've ever heard. Like everyone else (except Artaserse), Mandane believes Arbace to be dead – so when he suddenly turns up at the palace, she's shocked to the core and, as you might imagine, furious that he didn't let her know sooner. The most beautiful song follows, in which his voice audibly woos and seduces hers. At first he tries to win her over and she resists, brushing him off – 
ARBACE: Sentimi. (Listen to me.)
 
MANDANE: No!
 
ARBACE: Tu sei... (You are...)
 
MANDANE: Parti dagli occhi miei; Lasciami per pietà! (Get out of my sight; Leave me, for pity's sake!) 
But then he persists, gently, wooing her, refusing to be put off, and at least in the Fagioli / Cenčić version you can hear the moment when his gentle insistence – 'Cara!' ('Darling!') – melts her – her lines become more fragmented, her 'No!' becomes less fierce and more yearning (for once, this is a woman saying ‘no’ but really, really meaning ‘yes’), and then in the following lines their voices twine together in the most incredible way, the notes winding in and out of one another… it’s such a splendid performance. And Fagioli’s and Cenčić's voices work so well together – Fagioli's voice is richer across a wider range, so he takes the lower notes, and Cenčić's voice is rich but a little lighter and easily soars up to the more feminine part of the duet. It’s just stunning. 


So, if that was in second place, the gold medal was taken by Fagioli's solo performance of the aria Vo solcando un mar crudele, which concludes the first act.* Arbace is thrown into emotional turmoil by the fact that he can't save himself without betraying his father, and this turns into a showpiece aria of epic proportions. If you don't know what the song's about, it actually all sounds rather jolly - and the way it's performed in the DVD rather backs that up - but the more I listen to it, the more I realise what a challenge it is. I hadn't come across Fagioli before and yet I'd barely heard him sing a few lines before I was riveted. His voice has such richness and such range - velvety and rounded and powerful whether it's down at the tenor end of the spectrum, or soaring effortlessly up into the dazzlingly high reaches of the soprano range. How does he do it? Next to him, the rest of the cast (despite their brilliance) sound a little hollow and forced on the high notes, or at least a bit thin. But not only is Fagioli's range incredible. His vocal acrobatics are unbelievable. Sure, he has to take a breath now and then, in a phrase which Farinelli et al. would probably have been able to dash off in one go, but Fagioli casually throws in the kind of rippling coloratura that makes you listen with your mouth hanging open. There's one moment when he descends into a tenor note and then, mere seconds later, his voice shoots up to a note so high that in the Farinelli film they could only get it by splicing a female soprano's voice into the mix. (If anyone's listening, can't we get another film or TV series about Farinelli with Fagioli playing him? It would be magical to see someone in the role who can tackle that kind of music without digital doctoring.)


Well. You get the point. Fagioli has completely bowled me over. I've already pre-ordered his album of Porpora arias, which is coming out in the autumn (and I've just booked tickets to see him at the Wigmore Hall on 21 September!). I still love Jaroussky, of course, but his gorgeously ethereal, pure voice seems to work best with slightly different music. Take the Cum Dederit I mentioned earlier, for example, or Lascia ch'io pianga, both of which suit his crystalline tones very well, but I can’t imagine him playing Arbace with as much panache and drama as Fagioli.

And so, the DVD. I have to kick off with a further comment. With music of this sort, I am hugely biased by my fondness for the performances in Farinelli. If I were going to perform one of the great castrato arias, I would jolly well want to make my entrance on a chariot descending from the heavens, dressed in gold, crimson and fabulous plumes, thank you very much. If you're going to do Baroque, in my opinion, you should darn well do it properly: so I was a bit alarmed when the first clips I saw on YouTube (of Arbace's and Artaserse's duet) suggested that everything was a bit monochrome. Hah! I needn't have worried. When I watched the whole thing, there were flowing lace cuffs, Rococo gowns, crazy feather collars and really rather scary jackets with massively padded shoulders. Fagioli, God bless him, performed Vo solcando un mar crudele wearing a periwig of architectural proportions, an 18th-century suit and heavy make-up. He looked very much like I imagine a castrato would have looked – and it was fantastic. You must watch the clip on YouTube (linked above), because in the stage performance his voice goes even higher than on the CD. It's just mental. For his duet with Cenčić (again, see above), poor Fagioli gets into something which looks distractingly like a costume from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, while Cenčić is taken out of his Rococo frock and put into a feathered headdress with wings and a big frothy skirt. The fact they can both pull out the heart-melting beauty of the music despite looking rather silly just confirms how brilliant they are. And, to some extent, it emphasises that you should listen to the music before watching it, because then you'll be able to lose yourself in its splendour before being distracted by the staging.

There is nothing wrong with the staging, but it is self-consciously artificial. During the overture, you watch the singers wander on, chat to one another and stroll down to the front of the stage to watch the orchestra, before being taken off to the sides of the stage where we watch their dressers put the finishing touches to their wigs and costumes. It's cleverly done, and it reminded me a bit of the all-male version of Twelfth Night, where you watched the actors transforming into their parts - I suppose it's a good way to acknowledge the artificiality of the performance you're putting before the audience. But a part of me yearned for something grander and more over-the-top (though Vo solcando un mar crudele went a long way towards mollifying me, with Fagioli's cascading wig and structured frock coat, and the showers of gold at the end). For all that, this performance is just dazzling. For it to have won my heart - when I'm not even all that keen on opera - is a very big recommendation. As an insight into historical performances, it's tantalising. Fagioli's performance is especially captivating and, though we will never know what Farinelli and his ilk really sounded like, it's tempting to believe that he gets someway towards the staggering virtuosity of their voices (those glittering, tumbling cascades of notes!). Above all, we're fantastically lucky to have a record of six such fine singers coming together for such an unprecedented project. Had I known this was happening in 2012, I've have almost chewed my own arm off to get there (so it's probably fortunate that I didn't), but as it is, I'm going to be on the lookout for any concerts by these very talented young men, and I hope that the critical success of this performance might convince other directors to give us more glimpses of the grandeur of the 18th-century stage.

The dream team: Jaroussky (Artaserse)  |  Fagioli (Arbace) |  Cencic (Mandane) |  Barna-Sabadus (Semira)  |
Mynenko (Megabise) |  Behle (CD Artabano) |  Sancho (DVD Artabano)
* Incidentally, does anyone know if Vinci's Vo solcando un mar crudele covers the same part of the story as Broschi's Son qual nave ch' agitata, written for the 1734 collaborative opera Artaserse and performed by his brother Farinelli? I would think so, judging by the similar spirit of the titles, but I don't know the 1734 version at all, beyond what's in the film Farinelli.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Fool's Assassin: Robin Hobb

(published by Harper Voyager, £20, or available from 12 August from Amazon)

««« ½

Fitz and the Fool: Book I

On 12 August the first book in Robin Hobb's new trilogy will be published, reacquainting us with characters whom we last met ten years ago in the heart-rending Fool's Fate (or during last year's reread, in my case). I was thrilled to be granted a review copy of Fool's Assassin, which I've been mulling over for some months; and, as publication date draws nigh, it's time to share my thoughts. As you know, Hobb's books have played a crucial role in my formation as a reader, and ever since I heard that a new trilogy was in the pipeline, I haven't been able to help feeling rather anxious. Let me explain.

The first two trilogies about Fitz - The Farseer and The Tawny Man - tell an evocative and powerful story in which adventure and political intrigue are combined with a masterful and sympathetic first-person narration. They are beautifully balanced, full of poise. Hobb is extremely good at giving just enough information to tease and tantalise us, without taking the final step that would rip away the veil and destroy the magic. I wondered whether a new trilogy would be able to maintain that sleight of hand and tight control. And I had more personal qualms. What if I didn't like what I found? What if the characters no longer 'rang true'? And, most crucially, would the story feel as if it had to be told? How could it grow organically out of the earlier books, when they ended on such a tidily resolved note? Despite my love for the characters and this world, I was concerned that this book might just feel like an excuse to bring Fitz back. And, although I very much want to tell you that this series is gripping and just as overwhelmingly brilliant as the earlier books, I'm not going to do that just because it's by one of my favourite authors and features two of my favourite characters. The series is going to have to work for it. It's tough being one of my favourite authors: I get very uncompromising. And, for now, the jury is still out.

We open the book at Withywoods, the country estate where Fitz (known to all as Tom Badgerlock) and his beloved wife Molly have built a comfortable life for themselves. Fitz is in his late forties and, although this will come as a shock to anyone who's spent much time in his company, he's actually content. He has the woman he loves, affectionate stepchildren, and the gratitude of the court at Buckkeep, where Dutiful is now king and Fitz's daughter Nettle is Skillmistress. But fear not, fellow Hobbers: we've barely stepped into the story before dark undercurrents start to emerge. Although Fitz has put his days of quests and dragons behind him, he's still haunted by memories of Nighteyes and the Fool; and, although he plays at being a country gentleman, you only have to scratch the surface to find the assassin underneath. Molly is ailing with an unspecified illness which seems to be weakening her mind as much as her body, and Fitz is terrified of being left alone again. And then he hears rumours of strange messengers who seem to be trying to find him, but who are being hunted down en route to prevent them reaching him. The past begins to rear its head once more and Fitz will soon find that, even after all these years, danger can still strike too close to home.

The rest of the post goes into more detail, with some spoilers, so I strongly advise you only carry on if you've already read the book (and then I hope you'll tell me what you make of it all).

Ahem. Now, much as I love Fitz, I've often felt that the Farseer books don't really spark into life until the Fool comes onto the scene. In the present book, this proves to be an issue. If a character is named in the title of the book, and the title of the trilogy, and is name-dropped every couple of chapters, the law of Chekov's Gun states that he has to turn up before the final page. But Hobb cuts it pretty fine. Indeed, even the book's title comes from a conversation that takes place only in the last few pages, rather than reflecting what happens in the story. It's a little misleading, although it does allow Hobb deliberately to toy with our expectations. (This leads to some slightly unconvincing moments: I simply don't believe that Fitz would have mistaken even another White for the Fool for any length of time.)

The main divergence from the spirit of the earlier books is the introduction of a second first-person narrator. I grant you: I can hardly complain that this disrupts the flow of the story when I enjoyed the interplay between two first-person narrators in Doctrine of Labyrinths, but it's a slightly different case. If we were starting with entirely new characters it wouldn't bother me at all as long as it made sense. However, what I've always loved so much about the Farseer books is that we get to immerse ourselves so deeply in Fitz's own mind. It's the contrast between what he does and what he feels that gives the books their deep emotional charge. And this was weakened by the introduction of Bee's chapters, especially towards the end, when I felt that she was taking over as narrator from Fitz. I really don't want that to happen. ('I'm losing him!!!' I scrawled in my notes at the time.) While I understand that it will be useful to have a narrator in the 'other place' as we go into the second book, I have a strong dislike of precocious child characters. One of the strengths of Assassin's Apprentice was that Fitz was looking back at his childhood and so we didn't really need a plausibly childlike narration. Bee, however, sounds far too grown up even though we're meant to accept that she's intellectually and emotionally advanced for her age. For me, she feels slightly more like a plot device than a real person: a way to kick off a new narrative arc. (And, for heaven's sake, why has no one twigged that she's a White Prophet? You'd have thought that Fitz, of all people, would have noticed that.) Furthermore, of course, I slightly resent Bee because she promises to become a bit of a third wheel in my favourite fictional partnership and I really don't want anything to change the dynamic which made the earlier books shine.

Fitz himself hasn't changed that much and, actually, the fact that he hasn't is significant. Perhaps I wasn't concentrating in the earlier books, but I hadn't realised that one of the effects of his Skill-healing would be to slow down the aging process. This gets over the problems I'd anticipated in having an older protagonist, because it means that although Fitz is technically in his fifties by the end of the book, he's got the looks, energy and abilities of someone twenty years younger. (Perhaps that's just to reassure any readers who prefer not to have well-seasoned fantasy heroes?) Something I did find odd is that he doesn't make more of an effort to follow up on the thwarted messengers at an earlier stage. From what we've seen of him in the past, we know that he's committed to his friends and I don't think it likely that he would just sit back and puzzle about the fact that the Fool might be in trouble. Admittedly, now that the Skill print on his wrist has gone, there isn't much he can do... But I spent the first six books shouting at him for being an idiot because he goes blundering into fragile situations like a bull in a china shop, while here, by contrast, I sometimes felt he was being an idiot for not doing enough. Needless to say, once the Fool arrives, it's as if nothing has changed between them, although I wonder how long Hobb can preserve the delicate balance she built up in The Tawny Man. There were points in this novel where she almost seemed to be parodying her own elusiveness, as Fitz keeps being forced to deny pointed questions from other characters about his 'closeness' to his old friend. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am not remotely surprised she bans fan-fiction.

So now, waiting for the second book (!), I feel slightly in limbo. This first instalment was a little bit of a disappointment. It felt overly padded out with scene-setting and minutiae, and things took a long time to get going, much as they did in the meandering Rain Wild Chronicles. Yet I still trust Hobb. I hope that, in book two, we'll be off on an adventure again and that she will return to the tightly-plotted, rich and emotionally convincing style of writing which made her earlier Farseer books such a joy. I must emphasise, of course, that this is only my opinion. I've already spotted some glowing reviews on LibraryThing: no doubt we'll see many more reviews coming out when the book is published, and many of them will be very good, because people will understandably just be delighted to have Fitz and the Fool back again. For me, however, it's important to acknowledge the teething problems.


Fellow Hobb readers: please do let me know what you think of the novel when you get round to it. Am I being overly blinkered and resistant to change? Is it a mistake to want the Farseer books to continue in much the same spirit as the earlier novels? Or do you agree with some of the concerns I've mentioned above? I would be grateful to know what others think. So far I feel rather troubled that I can't love this as much as I desperately wanted to. Of course, if anyone would like to drop me an email to discuss the plot in more detail, with no need to worry about spoilers, I will be more than happy to dissect the book with you!

Oh, and just in case you feel there isn't enough angst in this volume, we finish with a promise that we're about to embark on the darkest period of Fitz's life. Which, knowing Fitz, is saying something.


I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.



Robin Hobb's novels:

The Farseer Trilogy
Book II: Royal Assassin
Book III: Assassin's Quest

The Liveship Traders

Book I: Ship of Magic
Book II: The Mad Ship
Book III: Ship of Destiny

The Tawny Man

Book I: Fool's Errand
Book II: The Golden Fool
Book III: Fool's Fate

The Rain Wild Chronicles


Book II: Dragon Haven
Book III: City of Dragons
Book IV: Blood of Dragons

Other

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Anno 1790

(Season 1, 2011, available from Amazon)


I've been meaning to write about this for ages and, if I don't do so now, I will completely forget to mention it; and that would be a shame, because this really is rather good. You'll be aware by now that I don't really do crime fiction. It's not that I have a problem with it per se, but I prefer historical fiction and fantasy, and there are plenty of those books to keep me amused for now. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, of course, but the Millennium Trilogy is about as far as I got into the Scandi-crime field. However, I recently stumbled across Anno 1790, an excellent 2011 TV series from SVT (the Swedish national broadcaster), which combines crime investigation, historical drama and just a hint of illicit romance. It's full of gorgeously bleak, brooding views of 18th-century Stockholm and features a sensitive, educated and equally brooding hero. Plus, the poster design reminded me inescapably of A Royal Affair, which must be intentional, because there are some similar themes: love triangles, Enlightenment versus tradition, handsome doctors, and so forthObviously I was totally hooked.

Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers) is an army doctor serving at the bitter end of the Swedish war against Russia in 1790. As a principled and humane man, he is sickened by the death and misery he sees around him and, when the fighting is done he decides to make his way home and set up as a professional physician. En route he stops off in Stockholm to see that his wounded comrade, Simon Freund (Joel Spira), is safely returned to the house where he works in peacetime as a tutor. Dåådh never quite manages to continue his journey. Freund's employer Carl Fredrik Wahlstedt (Johan Kjellgren) is the head of the Stockholm police force, such as it is, and when he loses his criminal inspector, he persuades Dåådh to fill the post. Dåådh is uniquely qualified, of course. His skills as a physician allow him to undertake a primitive kind of forensic study which brings him closer than ever before to the truth of a crime. His Enlightened beliefs mean that he always looks for the human motivation in the cases he studies. And his youthful involvement in revolutionary politics make him only too well aware of the dangerous undercurrents broiling beneath Stockholm's apparently placid surface. But his fitness for the role isn't the only thing which keeps him in Stockholm. From his first meeting with Wahlstedt's intelligent, undervalued wife Magdalena (Linda Zilliacus), Dåådh utterly loses his heart to her, even though he knows he can never have her. The scene is set for an exquisitely tormented romance.

Magdalena  |  Dåådh  |  Freund  |  Nordin  
The crimes themselves aren't really the main story here. This is a world on the cusp of change, which is trying to dig in its heels for as long as it can. Young idealists are plotting in the shadows, waiting for their chance to strike at royal power and bring down the oppressive monarchy. They're also keen to strike at their old comrade, now that Dåådh seems to have gone over to the establishment. In reality, his only crime is trying to exert a more measured, reasoned kind of change from within, rather than pulling down the very fabric of society and starting again. It's a febrile time. Yet Stockholm's blinkered social elite, represented by Wahlstedt, cling to their traditions and refuse to learn from the example of their unfortunate French neighbours. There's a strong sense that if they ignore the new, it'll all just go away. Dåådh's old-school colleague Nordin (Richard Turpin) is trying the same tactic with the young upstart who's suddenly been promoted over him and is making him look bad.

The struggle between tradition and idealism is reflected in the challenge posed by science to religion. An atheist and intellectual, who has studied Voltaire and Descartes, Dåådh is the face of this new generation. He doesn't just face opposition from the likes of Nordin and Wahlstedt, however. Even Freund, who is now Dåådh's sidekick, flatmate and close friend, finds it hard to accept the changing sensibilities of the time. Genial, loyal Freund struggles to live up to the standards demanded by his devout faith and all too often ends up drowning his perceived imperfections in alcohol - much to Dåådh's exasperation. At least Freund can comfort himself that he's helping Dåådh lay down the law with justice and fairness. You get the feeling, in fact, that Dåådh has saved Freund twice over: once on the battlefield and once by giving his life a sense of purpose beyond the confines of a bottle.

I'm a big fan of subtle dramas in which much is left unsaid, and this is a little gem. Dåådh, Magdalena and Freund each have their own demons and hidden torments, but they struggle against them oh-so-politely. For most of the series, everything is sublimated into lingering glances across crowded rooms, conversations where lips and eyes are saying entirely different things, or, in Freund's case, just getting absolutely blind drunk. I wish I knew whether a second season was planned. There doesn't have to be one - this one finishes at a point which would afford a tidy conclusion - but I'd really rather like to spend more time with the characters. If nothing else, it's made me even more keen to go to Stockholm one day. If you can get hold of this, I heartily recommend it. In fact I may end up buying a copy so I can rewatch it at my own pace and savour the details I missed the first time. I should probably emphasise that it is in Swedish, as you might expect, but there are subtitles of course. Oh, and I'm rather tickled to discover that there's actually even Anno 1790 fanart: yes, folks, nowadays everything has a fanbase...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

No One Here Gets Out Alive: Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman

The biography of Jim Morrison

(published by Plexus, £12.99, or from Amazon)

«««
To be a poet entailed more than writing poems. It demanded a commitment to live, and die, with great style and even greater sadness; to wake each morning with the fever raging and know it would never be extinguished except by death, yet to be convinced that this suffering carried a unique reward.
The Doors's debut album was among the first CDs sent by my uncle in my correspondence course on classic rock. Being an impressionable young thing at the time (oh, it was all of three years ago), I was struck by the face on the cover: the brooding stare from under lowered lids and the tumbled mass of dark hair. And the music wasn't half bad either, with its weird lyrics and dreamy rhythms: in fact, the album swiftly became one of my favourites. But I never paid much attention to the band themselves. When I went to Paris with my parents back in 2004, before I'd really heard of the Doors, we went to Père Lachaise; but, while Mum sought out Jim Morrison's grave, I homed in on Oscar Wilde's. And then, a few weeks ago, someone gave this biography to our village fete book stall. I decided it was time to learn a little more.

The book was first published in 1980 and its authors are respectively a rock writer and a personal friend of Morrison's, so its credentials are pretty good. As a child of the mid-'80s who missed out on all the fun of the late '60s and early '70s, I thought it gave a rich flavour of the times: the drugs, the controversy, the radicalism and, perhaps most surprisingly, the incredible innocence. But there are drawbacks. This is not the kind of moderate, arm's length, balanced biography that I'm used to. It verges on hagiography. 'My personal belief', notes Sugerman in his foreword, 'is that Jim Morrison was a god... Oh hell, at least a lord'. His poetry, lyrics and artistic vision are handled with awe. There is no question of their worth or significance, and anyone who dares question their brilliance is implicitly dismissed as insufficiently smart, creative or 'hip'. It all feels very dated now, the hippyish slang and the worldview where witches, shamans and the transcendence of reality are taken for granted. In a more secular, more cynical age it feels over-earnest and naive, but it's the philosophy of the time rather than the book that has that effect. What struck me most about the biography itself were the feverish descriptions of Morrison's personal appearance. Some felt as though they were lifted from a romance novel:
[He] flexed his lithe but muscular arms and chest, marbling the muscles of his stomach, bunching those of his neck. With his wavy dark hair and sunken cheeks he looked like David come to Hollywood, a fist in a glove of black kid.
Wow. The writing isn't necessarily bad, but it feels as if it's ended up in the wrong kind of book. This is pretty typical of the whole: we are given character descriptions and scenes as if we're reading a novel about Morrison's life rather than a factual account. Given the slightest chance, the prose bubbles over into exuberance. For example, Morrison's college friend Felix Venable is 'the fourth arch-kook of the Golden Age, a loquacious, blond Mephistopheles'. And the authors describe Morrison in the early days of the band: 'In dark chino pants and T-shirt, hair curling to his collarbone, an unshaven Botticelli face, he lurked around the kinetic flash and shadow of the Whiskey a Go Go dance floor'. It's all slightly mad. But, despite myself, I rather liked it. And it certainly kept me reading.

If I read a biography I don't have to find the subject sympathetic or likeable in order to enjoy it: indeed, often the most interesting people have something of the night about them. But the thing that stops this being a truly great biography is that the authors are too close to their subject. They're still entranced by the Morrison myth, without seeming to realise that they're describing events which show their Byronic hero being unpleasant, misogynistic, self-centred and breathtakingly crass. His behaviour to the women in his life seems to have been particularly reprehensible. But the authors rationalise this behaviour to themselves as the evidence of inner tortured genius, and they apparently expect the reader to do the same. Unfortunately I couldn't get past seeing it as evidence of a petulant, childish spirit, always desperate to get attention by fair means or foul, deeply needful of a reaction from the outside world. As time went on, he needed that more and more, just as he needed more and more alcohol to prop up his facade. I was extremely surprised that the authors felt able to conclude on a positive note:
I believe Jim's trip was about life. Not temporary life but eternal bliss. If he had to kill himself to get there, or even to get a mite closer to his destination, that was all right. If there was any sadness at the end of Jim's life, it was the grief of instinctive, mortal clinging. But as a lord, as a visionary, he knew better.
Really? In a way, this closing note troubled me more than the rest of the book. Where was any evidence of this vision or lordship? To explain away a tragic, isolated death as the culmination of some kind of shamanistic seeking made me feel rather uncomfortable, and I fully confess that's because I can't quite get my head around the spirit of the time, with my more detached, more cynical millennial attitude. Since this book was published, we've seen other young people follow in Jim Morrison's path: young people with talent who found a way into a permissive world which not only welcomed their talent but also offered them the potential for self-abuse and then turned the spotlight mercilessly on them until - intentionally or not - they found a way out. Seen in the light of Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison seems less like a visionary lord, and more like another tragic young man.

Overall, this is an absorbing glimpse of the world of the late '60s and early '70s, and the authors' passion for their subject gives the book an immediacy and verve that are rare in more staid, conventional biographies. Morrison was obviously an extremely charismatic man who had a great impact on those around him, and it's difficult to appreciate the force of his personality without having lived through the period. From an outsider's point of view, and from what I've seen of his poetry, he seems slightly overrated (I've got The Lords and the New Creatures somewhere in my library), but I certainly enjoyed reading this. It was fun - perhaps not quite in the way it intended to be - and it infused a little bit of '70s colour into my grey '00s world.

More than ever, I find myself wondering: What were my parents getting up to at this date? Mum? Dad? Over to you.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Corambis: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, but available second-hand from Amazon)

««« ½

Doctrine of Labyrinths: Book IV

With scarcely a break for breath, it was onto the final volume in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series. After the rather indecisive feel of the third book, I was glad to find that Corambis knew exactly what it was trying to do from the first page, and I was glad to be back out on the road, with Felix and Mildmay contra mundum once again.

Exiled from the Mirador after his impassioned destruction of Isaac Garamond's sanity, Felix has been ordered north to the country of Corambis, which is far further than either he or Mildmay have ever dreamed of going. As they pass literally off the map and enter countries where Mélusine and her wizards are nothing more than the stuff of purple romance novels, they find themselves once again having to rely on one another as they come into contact with bewildering technology, and find that, once again, labyrinths are lurking everywhere. 

As the series continues, I've increasingly felt that the plot has become little more than a support for the characters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because I am quite happy to watch Felix and Mildmay struggling to get along with one another. What I mean is that they certainly stumble into plots and war zones and intrigue of various kinds, but there isn't an overarching narrative that provides a neat and tidy end. That's obviously a conscious decision on the author's part and, as well as briskly subverting what you expect from a fantasy series, it really does give the impression that we're only looking in at part of these characters' lives: that, no matter how much we might know of what's happened to date, there's going to be more beyond the scope of the novels that we will never know. I can't believe that the resolution of the series can possibly satisfy Felix for long, but who am I to judge? Also, please note that I say the 'plot' is only a support, rather than the 'world-building', which is a much richer and more elaborate thing. Throughout the whole series there have been allusions to history and stories and myths beyond the scope of the immediate plot we're following, as well as a sense of a much broader geography, and I am confident that if Monette wished she could expand very easily into other regions of her intricately-designed world.

Generally, I felt much more comfortable with this book than I did with the last one. I suspect part of that is because we were back travelling with Felix and Mildmay and, for me, those sections of the series have been much more rewarding than the parts when they're staying in one place, mainly because we get more interaction between them, and Mildmay gets to do more than just follow Felix around and be looked down on. It's also due to the style chosen for the third narratorial voice in this volume: we've lost Mehitabel, which I can't say I regret enormously, and gained a character whom I found much more interesting (but then I've always had a soft spot for noble suffering). Most significantly, however, the style of these chapters was very close to the faux-archaic style of The Goblin Emperor. It's as if Kay's voice is an inadvertent dry run for that of Maia. The world which we see in this fourth book is also much closer than that of The Goblin Emperor. Having mentally placed the action in the late 18th century, I was completely wrong-footed when Felix and Mildmay encounter not only a steam train but also a fantasy version of the London Underground, which naturally caused me no end of amusement. It's a playful upending of the usual fantasy tropes, which of course only develops further in the zeppelins and pneumatic message tubes of The Goblin Emperor.

And, as for Mildmay and Felix themselves, they once again find themselves tested to their limits by the frustration of loving one another but sometimes not liking each other all that much (as an only child, I understand this to be fairly typical of siblings). Certainly they need one another, because no one else in the world has ever cared for either of them without having ulterior motives; but, on the other hand, they know only too well how to rub each other up the wrong way. However, for once, Felix is forced to take responsibility for supporting them in Corambis, as Mildmay spends the first part of the book racked with fever. Naturally the way Felix chooses to go about this isn't the way anyone else would adopt, but that in itself testifies to the levels of emotional scarring beneath his flamboyant exterior. For his part, Mildmay forces himself past his comfort zone in another sense, as he decides to start learning to read and even contemplates actually getting an education. As ever, they both feel invariably like 'themselves', although I do slightly miss the more lively, vivacious Mildmay from earlier in the series. 

Incidentally, I feel compelled to point out that this series isn't for the squeamish. I'm no prude but it's fairly explicit throughout and, especially in books one and four, there are some strong sadomasochistic elements. The latter made me feel rather uncomfortable: I can understand that they make sense in the wider context of the character in question, but nevertheless there were points which went slightly beyond what I was looking for. For other people that won't be a problem, but at the same time I feel duty-bound to point out that the series won't be for everyone.

That said, I've been completely gripped by these books over the last couple of weeks and by their blunt, completely compelling use of characterisation. The relationship between the two protagonists is finely judged and, though I've said this several times already, I've never come across a narrative voice quite as distinctive, original and downright infectious as that of Mildmay. I said at the beginning that I'd kept reading after the first book almost entirely because of him: it was a gamble that paid off. Things didn't quite pan out as I'd expected, and perhaps the series does trail off rather than end with a bang, but again I suspect that is a conscious choice to avoid the cliches of fantasy novels. After all, this hasn't been a story about the defeat of a Dark Lord (thank goodness) or the destruction / discovery of magical artefacts: it's a more human tale about two people struggling to overcome their inner demons and to find redemption in one another's company. From that point of view, the series ends very appropriately: with a beautiful, subtle and curiously liberating note of hope.


Doctrine of Labyrinths

Book I: Mélusine
Book II: The Virtu
Book III: The Mirador
Book IV: Corambis

Other books by the same author

The Goblin Emperor (as Katherine Addison)

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Mirador: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, but available second-hand from Amazon)

«««

Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book III

We're back in the Mirador, two years after the events of The Virtu, and things have settled into a routine for our characters, though to call it a 'comfortable' routine might be pushing things. Felix is thoroughly enjoying being back in the limelight, casually tormenting his old enemies and wallowing in the adoration of the more impressionable members of the court. Behind closed doors, however, he's having a considerably less enjoyable time: his lover Gideon is unable to accept Felix's constitutional inability to be faithful, and Felix himself continues to be haunted by thoughts of his thwarted former master Malkar, as well as tormented by needs that he can't admit to anyone within the Mirador and which keep clawing him back to the Lower City. 

Mildmay silently chafes at his self-inflicted role as Felix's silent, unnoticed, unappreciated shadow, forced to watch his half-brother psychologically disintegrating in front of his eyes. As if that wasn't enough to deal with, Mildmay's own dreams are troubled by memories of his murdered girlfriend Ginevra. His current girlfriend isn't making life any better, and we understand that twice over because, in a departure from the last book in the series, we get to hear from Mehitabel Parr herself as well as Felix and Mildmay. She has found her feet as a successful actress in one of the city's theatre troupes, a job that opens up many more romantic options than Mildmay, despite the latter's undeniable appeal (yes, ladies, it turns out that, as well as being generally awesome, Mildmay is also a selfless lover: how far that can be called characterisation, and how much wishful thinking, I'm not sure). And one of Mehitabel's options in particular is the kind of offer that even an experienced actress can't refuse. But she, like all our characters, has her demons. In her case these take the form of the Bastion's spy Lieutenant Vulpes, who has found her out and is compelling her to stay true to her former profession as an informer. For his own part, Vulpes isn't having the best time of it either. His bosses have ordered him, regardless of his own wishes, to seduce Felix Harrowgate in an effort to find out more about the workings of the Mirador, and exactly how crucial Felix is to its stability, but Vulpes is finding to his cost that Felix is several steps ahead in the game.

It sounds confusing and, to be honest, it is a little. There were so many storylines flying around all over the place that they didn't always seem to fit logically together and what I was expecting to be the main plot - what the Bastion was planning, and how they were going to try to take Felix out, and what was going to come of that - seemed to be half-forgotten until the end. This did mean that we had the luxury of exploring lots of other pathways, such as the rivalries within Mehitabel's acting troupe, or finding out more about what exactly Felix does like (which isn't all that heart-warming), and watching Mildmay's inevitable and much dreaded reunion with his Keeper. For me, though, it meant that the book didn't really grip me in the same way as the first two volumes, when I was completely engaged in the story at hand. Perhaps the sudden proliferation of avenues was making a subtle stylistic comment on the importance of labyrinths in the plot, of course. But, if so, that was a clever idea that didn't quite come off.

Thus, for me, this was a bit of a weak link in the series. Even Mildmay and Felix seemed a bit trapped in repetitive cycles of angst and I never felt quite as engaged with either of them as I did in the first two books, though the frequent feeling of wanting to hit Felix hasn't gone away. Having said that (small spoiler ahead), I did want to give them both a big hug at one point: the prison scene at the end, where Felix's armour finally crumbles and Mildmay is completely adorable in trying to comfort him even though Felix has spent most of the book being a complete swine. I'm quite pleased that we're going to be heading off for further adventures beyond the Mirador in the next book, and hopefully things will settle down again once we get back out on the road. I don't know whether Mehitabel's narration will continue or not; I can't say I'll miss it hugely if it doesn't, but we'll see. 

And so... onto the next. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Idling in Italy (Florence)


Last week, in a spirit of spontaneity that's entirely uncharacteristic, I went on a last-minute trip to Florence. Work has been very intense this year, and that looks set to continue, so I was in desperate need of sunshine, gelati and the scent of pine, the chatter of cicadas and the quiet grace of frescoed churches. Fortunately I had a marvellous excuse. This summer everyone has been talking about the exhibition on Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, subtitled Diverging Paths of Mannerism, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Not that I needed much of an excuse to return. Florence has been a very important place for me ever since I first went there with my parents at the age of fifteen, my head full of A Room with a View and the Medici, Leonardo and Michelangelo. I managed to get there three more times in my student days, but it's been eight years since I was last there at the age of twenty-one. It was time to go back.

Although I only had the time to stay for two days - work snapping at my heels again - I'm deeply glad I went. It was hot - never less than about 30°C - but it was a welcome kind of heat: the sort of golden, honeyed warmth that you can feel soaking into your bones and doing you the world of good. If nothing else, I feel more like myself again. In the course of two days I managed to fit in a terrific amount, including the Pontormo and Rosso show and the exhibition on Jacopo Ligozzi at Palazzo Pitti, both of which I hope to write about individually soon. But I also had the chance to revisit some old friends and, rather excitingly, to venture outside of Florence to make my first visit to one of the Medici villas. Here are just a handful of my highlights (as I said, I was only there two days!).

The Villa Medicea at Poggio a Caiano

The Villa Medicea from the entrance. The sweeping staircase is a later addition to the original structure.
Having studied Pontormo's pictures at Palazzo Strozzi and his splendid Deposition at Santa Felicità, I decided to complete the set with a visit to the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. This sleepy little town lies thirty minutes west of Florence, just south of Prato. A bus (bound for Pistoia) runs every half an hour from the CAP office on Largo Fratelli Alinari, and stops right outside the villa itself, so it's very easy to get to. Once there, you feel a world away from Florence itself, with its hordes of tourists, tour groups and queues. Indeed, I walked around most of the villa by myself, and spent an idyllic few minutes killing time before the 10:30am opening by wandering in the gardens, with potted orange and lemon trees flanking the gravel paths, and the sun beating down among the pines.

Although the villa was originally bought and remodelled by Lorenzo de' Medici, construction came to a halt when he died in 1492 and it wasn't completed until Pope Leo X (his son) came to power. Later in the 16th century it became one of the preferred retreats of the Medici Grand Dukes: Francesco I de' Medici and his wife Bianca Cappello apparently died there within days of each other in 1587. Romantic rumour has it that they were poisoned by his ambitious brother Ferdinando, although in reality it's more likely that they died of malaria. (I don't know enough about the later Medici so ended up buying a book on the subject, which I'm looking forward to reading.) Apparently it was one of the first country retreats to discard the defensive fortifications of the medieval period and embrace the concept of the villa as a place of elegant relaxation and calming beauty, and it was decorated to match. 

Jacopo Pontormo, Vertumnus and Pomona, from the salone at Poggio a Caiano
The main draw of the villa nowadays is the salone on the first floor, which runs the depth of the house and was decorated in two phases. First, between 1513 and 1521, Leo X commissioned frescoes from Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio; and then, some fifty years later in 1578-82, Francesco I brought in Alessandro Allori to complete the decorative scheme. I'd come for the vivacious and deservedly famous fresco of Vertumnus and Pomona by Pontormo, which conjures up the lazy informality of a Tuscan summer afternoon. Although that would have been worth the trip in itself, I was delighted to discover the less familiar frescos by Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio. (Wikipedia's entry on Franciabigio describes his fresco, The Return of Cicero from Exile, as 'turgid', which strikes me as rather unfair. Cicero's face has the individuality of a portrait and the scene combines monumentality and subtle sfumato in a way that I rather liked.) According to the custodian, the frescoes have all been recently restored, which accounts for their remarkably vivid colouring. The general effect, with the coffered and gilded ceiling painted with the Medici device of the palle, is incredibly impressive. To make things even better, I had the room entirely to myself and was able to wander up and down for as long as I liked. 

It's true that there isn't a huge amount to see at the villa besides the salone, but since the bus costs only €4 for a return trip, and the villa itself was completely free, it's definitely worth an outing if you have the time, and if you fancy following the Medici off the beaten track.

The Cappella Medici

Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, and a detail of the fantastical landscape through which they travel
Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi are very much on the beaten track, but they're an established favourite of mine. It was rather wonderful to visit the Palazzo for the first time since reading Linda Proud's Botticelli Trilogy and A Gift for the Magus, and I amused myself by imagining Poliziano, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola walking in the courtyard or in the little garden beyond, with its fountain and statues. Upstairs I was ravished all over again by The Journey of the Magi, which unfurls around three walls of a room that was even tinier than I remembered, but even more exquisitely beautiful: a true feast for the eyes. The subject was primarily inspired by the Medici family's self-identification with the Three Magi, but it also commemorated the events of the Council of Florence, held twenty years previously in 1439. This attempt to reconcile Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Christianity was one of the most ambitious of its time, and it had been financially supported in part by Cosimo de' Medici, which meant that it was an occasion of both civic and dynastic pride. It brought the Florentines face to face with the exoticism of the east - with the Greeks and the Byzantines - and that unfamiliar flavour adds spice to the vividly detailed frescoes which the Medici commissioned to mark the event. (Of course, in the long run the negotiations would come to nothing, but they didn't know that yet.)

A marvellous cavalcade winds through a fairy-tale landscape, framed with abstract rocky bluffs and green hills dotted with cypresses and castles. The three kings - golden-haired Balthasar; stern, olive-skinned Melchior; and elderly, white-bearded Caspar - lead a train of followers which gives the impression of being a veritable who's-who of mid-15th-century Florence. Gozzoli is there in the crowd, staring rather challengingly straight out at the viewer (with his name written on his hat, just in case we risk missing him), and the men clustered about him all have such a lifelike air that they must be portraits. Beyond them, birds dart in the air, huntsmen chase deer and young grooms carry hunting-cats in jewelled collars perched on their saddles. There are even camels. It's a glorious example of a sacred subject in a secular context. Gozzoli was confidently breaking with the spirit of his training: while his master, Fra Angelico, had developed a newly austere artistic vocabulary through his religious frescoes at San Marco, Gozzoli transformed the Biblical story into an courtly extravaganza, like a splendid Book of Hours. I was fortunate enough to be there at a quiet time and it's simply magical: a tantalising glimpse of the world in which the young Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici grew up.

Santa Maria Novella

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Birth of the Virgin, Tornabuoni Chapel (detail)
This beautiful Dominican church contains some of the most wonderful 15th-century frescoes in the city. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Masaccio's Trinity with its pioneering use of perspective, but my feet always carry me straight to Domenico Ghirlandaio's stories of the Virgin and St John the Baptist in the Tornabuoni Chapel. Ghirlandaio is a great favourite of mine: he is easy to love, because he's a refined, elegant and urbane painter, and his pictures offer a beguiling snapshot of Renaissance Florence in the 1480s. His sacred scenes take place in a thinly-veiled facsimile of his city, witnessed by polite crowds of well-dressed onlookers who can be identified as Ghirlandaio's friends, contemporaries and patrons. Ludovica Tornabuoni, the patron's daughter, attends The Birth of the Virgin decked out in gold brocade; another member of the family, dressed in pink and gold, advances into the Birth of St John the Baptist. There's more gold brocade in The Visitation, where Giovanna Albizzi-Tornabuoni elegantly witnesses the Virgin and St Elizabeth greeting one another in the grounds of a Renaissance palace. The angel who appears to Zacharias isn't even noticed by the little knot of men who are deep in discussion at lower left: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino and Angelo Poliziano, the dazzling elite of Renaissance humanism.

As if this portrait gallery wasn't enough, Ghirlandaio also had a playful penchant for self-portraits: in the Tornabuoni Chapel he stands at the right-hand side of Joachim's Expulsion from the Temple, one hand casually propped on his hip, the other nonchalantly pointing to himself. (He appears in a similar pose, looking rather younger, in the Resurrection of the Boy in the Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinità; and again as one of the shepherds in the altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds in the same chapel.) I can't help feeling that Ghirlandaio's sheer delight in the glories of the natural world - beautiful women, fluttering draperies, architectural vistas - slightly overpowers the religious elements of his paintings; but I don't mind that at all, and it gives the frescoes a wonderful sense of liveliness. 

If you have time for a Ghirlandaio tour, you must go to Santa Trinità as well (I tried this time but got there just after Mass and was chased out as the church was closing), where in the Sassetti Chapel you can find portraits of Lorenzo de' Medici and his children, who are led into the scene by Poliziano (another must-see for those who've read Linda Proud's Botticelli Trilogy). Don't miss The Last Supper in the refectory at San Marco; and there's also an absolutely gorgeous Adoration of the Magi in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, although when I tried to get in there last week I found that the museum is currently closed for renovation. 

Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide watch Joachim being expelled from the Temple (detail, rather oversaturated)
And some more earthly recommendations...

I stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Donati, which really is in the most fabulous location. It's tucked away through a little archway on the Corso, opposite the church of Santa Maria dei Ricci (where there are free concerts of organ music every day at 7pm and 9pm). The Piazza del Duomo is a five minute stroll to the north; the Piazza della Signoria is two minutes away via the side streets; and the Casa di Dante is literally around the corner. The staff are polite and welcoming, and my room was just what I wanted in Florence: a cool red-tiled floor, plain white walls and shutters latched against the blazing sun. For those, like me, who just need somewhere to lay their heads, this is ideal, but it probably won't suit those who like more self-indulgent travelling: the best that can be said about the breakfast is that it's functional. One other problem I faced was that the first floor (and perhaps the second too) seemed to be given over to a residential summer school, and that meant quite a lot of students rushing around shouting and banging doors at rather inconvenient hours of the night. So do beware. But if, like me, location is the most important thing for you, and if you possess a pair of earplugs, this is a pretty fine base.

On two of my three evenings, I went to a little restaurant a couple of streets away from my hotel on the via della Condotta (at number 7-9): Il Cantastorie. As you know, I'm the kind of person who does judge a book by its cover and I also judge restaurants by their names, which seems to be as good a way as any to assess places that you don't know. I wandered in the first time just because I couldn't resist a place called 'the Ballad-Singer'. It turned out that their tagliata di manzo with rocket and parmesan was absolutely divine; and their spaghetti oglio e aglio on my second visit was also very good. It doesn't have outside tables but the large window had been completely opened, and so eating in the front dining room felt slightly like being in a loggia. As a single traveller, and a girl at that, my most important criterion is feeling comfortable in a restaurant, and this place was welcoming and friendly, but not to the point of making me self-conscious. Indeed, when I went back the following evening they recognised me, gave me the same table near the window and presented me with a glass of grappa at the end, which was nice of them. (Clearly they don't get many solo freckled girls who spend all evening with their noses in books.)

Peaceful cloisters at San Lorenzo  |  The Duomo and facade  |  A quiet cell at San Marco
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