Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Long War: Christian Cameron

This really is going back a bit. I came across these books in January, which proved to be an odd month for reading: I had plenty of time for it, but little mental capacity. I was either waiting around at airports, wiling away transatlantic flights with a flimsy attention span, or wilting after intellectually intense days of training. In short, I needed good, solid entertainment and by chance I unearthed a series that was just the ticket: Christian Cameron's Long War books. The primary appeal was that the series focuses on the Greco-Persian wars. As you know I've been eagerly looking out for fiction dealing with that period. I bought the first book, Killer of Men, last last year and enjoyed it over the Christmas holidays, so was keen to read more of the story. After four books in a row, I confess my interest has petered out slightly but, even if it just serves as a reading log, I wanted to say a few words about the novels I've read so far. In flavour, these began reminding me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred series, although personally I find Arimnestos of Plataea a more interesting and charismatic hero.


★★★★

You've got to give the cover credit for making its point clearly and simply, but it doesn't really do justice to the story. This is the typical kind of 'historical fiction for men' design: a wild landscape, with a single object (sword, spear, shield, helmet) given centre-stage. The title threatened a thuggish, violent, blood-drenched sort of story, but fortunately it was a bit more than battle, grunting and generalised pillage. In fact, I thought it was really very good.

I loved the narrative voice: old Arimnestos is telling his life story to his young daughter and her friends, among whom is a young writer from Halicarnassus, which made me smile. Arimnestos' tale opens with his boyhood in modest but proud Plataea, training with his bronze-smith father and learning letters and weaponry from the old priest up on the hill. But the clouds gather: as his family grows wealthier, a feud develops and festers. It marks Arimnestos' own fate when, after one of his first battles, he comes round to find himself sold into slavery and bound for the luxurious cities on the Ionian coast. Here he grows to manhood as a privileged slave in a wealthy household in Ephesus, making friends with his young master Archilogos and pining after Archi's sister Briseis. And he just happens to be in Ephesus at a crucial time, round about the late 490s BC, when the Ionian Greeks are growing tired of their Persian overlords and things are about to start getting very interesting indeed. 

Yes, Ionia was a Persian satrapy. And that, of course, was what really captured my attention. I learned a lot about the Ionian revolt but also about the fact that it grew out of a long period of peace, stability and relatively low taxes. The Persians were good masters, and Cameron emphasises that constantly. I'd assumed of course that a book about a Greek warrior at the time of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea would demonise the Persians and trot out all the old stereotypes, but Cameron did the exact opposite. Arimnestos warms to these exotic, civilised foreigners who come to visit his well-connected master: particularly the satrap Artaphernes (Darius I's brother) and three of his bodyguards. Despite their unforgivably effeminate habit of wearing trousers, the Persians can't do much wrong for Arimnestos: they're brought up to be courteous, loyal, honest to a fault, and formidable soldiers. But he does find it funny that they're not remotely interested in boys at all: on the contrary, they're so susceptible to pretty women that (in a memorable turn of phrase) adultery is pretty much a national sport. It's the first book I've read which has created such a vivid and appealing picture of the society, even if it does leave you with the vague sensation that the Persians spent all their time at war, drinking tea and fighting duels over women. Rather like the 18th century, actually. 

It was a promising beginning, with a pacy story and attractive characters. But I'm the first to admit that maybe I enjoyed the book for slightly the wrong reasons, and the later instalments didn't grab me quite so strongly, as you'll see.


★★★

The first book contained such a wealth of adventure that even one of the great battles of the ancient world couldn't quite lift this one to the same level. It begins with Arimnestos home again in Plataea, determined to devote the rest of his days to being a good bronze-smith. Of course that doesn't happen. His old friend Miltiades runs into trouble in Athens, and so Arimnestos marshals a few of his friends and sets out to see whether he can help. Athens is starting to become an interesting place: Miltiades is just one of several men who have an interest in the city's political future, and Arimnestos encounters two other figures who hope to turn the Persian crisis to their advantage: Aristides, a supporter of the oligarchic status quo, and the rabble-rouser Themistocles. Having honed his skills as a navarch in Killer of Men, Arimnestos continues his marine education by indulging in a bit of Mediterranean piracy and boosting both his income and his kudos as a leader. With men of his own to follow him, he starts to become an ally worth having. 

Like Killer of Men, this has some fairly epic battle scenes (as you might imagine from the title), but although I normally enjoy getting my teeth into the clash of bronze, I began to get just a little tired of it here. I think part of the problem was that this book moved away from the character-centred approach of the first novel and, in feeling less engaged by Arimnestos himself, I felt less engaged by the story constructed around him.


★★★

After Marathon I hoped for a book with slightly fewer battles and slightly more context and character development, and I suppose that in a way I got the latter (though without stinting on battles). If you're not a fan of naval battles, this book might challenge your commitment, as large parts of it take part at sea. Arimnestos begins the novel in a dark place and, to frank, it just gets even darker when he's captured and enslaved on a Phoenician gallery under the evil Dagon. Long scenes of rowing, beating and mental torture pile one on the other: it all gets a bit grim and, by the time Arimnestos' fortunes improved, I was looking forward to spending the rest of the book on land. That wasn't to be, though. After a brief spell in Syracuse, Arimnestos' taste for adventure kicks in again and he begins wondering about the source of the tin trade, somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules in a place called Alba. Before you know it, we've got to get our sea legs back and accompany Arimnestos on a long voyage north around the coasts of Iberia and Gaul, taking every chance to annoy the Phoenicians en route. 

In some ways it's a boy's own tale of plucky sailing and, in isolation, it might have captured my imagination with its descriptions of all sorts of different Iron Age cultures, from Carthage to the coast of Britain. But the problem for me is that all of this feels like a distraction. As a reader, I'm itching to know more about Ionia and Athens and Persia, and it's difficult to suddenly switch all my attention to the North Sea. The thing is, I understand why Cameron has to do this. Having done the Battle of Marathon, he has to find a way to fill in ten years before the next round of clashes at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. He can't just start a book by saying, "And so, a decade later..." As such, it's a good use of time that couldn't really be spent doing much else, and it gives us a chance to peek beyond the borders of the Mediterranean world. But, at least on this first reading, I was eager to get back to Greece and find out what lay in store next...


★★★

I read the rest of the series primarily to get to this book, in which (due to a complex series of events involving the Olympic Games and Leonidas' wife Gorgo) Arimnestos finds himself sent as part of a diplomatic mission to Susa. Imagine my gurgling delight! Right into the heart of the Great King's empire, just in time to meet the new king Xerxes and to witness the first Babylonian Revolt. Result! Despite the less gripping aspects of the previous two books, I felt confident that I was in for something pretty special here. I've been to Susa in my own imagination, but there's something rather exciting about seeing a place through other, better informed eyes, and so I was itching to see what would happen and who we might meet there.

It was a bit of a disappointment, I must admit. A relatively brief part of the book was spent in Persia and, for someone who's taken such care to give a balanced and refreshing take on the Persians in general, I felt that Cameron didn't extend the same attention to Xerxes. In the few pages that we spend with him, Xerxes never develops much beyond Herodotus' view of him: mercurial; a bit limp; probably not really kingly material; pressured into going to Greece by belligerent advisers like his cousin Mardonius. (That bit was all right: I've never liked Mardonius.) But it was a strangely bloodless characterisation. And, although we get to see Xerxes' mother Atossa in passing, there were a few figures whose absences I mourned. I also, naturally, felt a bit narked that so much effort was spent setting up the Babylonian Revolt, only to have it fizzle out in the background once Arimnestos returns to Greece. Much of that, I know, is down to my own historical obsessions, but even objectively it made for surprisingly unsatisfying reading. When I found myself essentially scan-reading the Battle of Thermopylae at the end of the book, I decided that this was a sign I probably needed to take a bit of a break before joining Arimnestos again.

Overall thoughts

These are perfect books for travel reading: light, full of adventure and peppered with humorous touches and moments of pathos. And the most interesting thing about them is that most of the named characters were real people: Themistocles, Aristides, Miltiades, and even Arimnestos himself. Despite everything I've said here, I enjoyed them and I am grateful for Arimnestos' company during some very long journeys. However, none of the books ever really engaged me emotionally to the extent that, say, Gates of Fire managed. I think part of the problem, for me, was that the series really did start to focus on battles to the exclusion of the genuinely interesting social context of the first book. I'm not averse to the odd battle, but Cameron is a deeply knowledgeable military reenactor and the books show where his enthusiasms lie. His writing makes for some extraordinarily vivid descriptions of what it feels like to fight in a phalanx, run in full panoply or march home exhausted after a battle, but there are also moments where the tactics all started blurring into one, and I found it difficult to remember which naval battle I was in, who we were fighting (and why), and what the date was. Mea culpa. One day I'd like to read Salamis and Plataea - after all, I'm missing some of the best bits - but I think I need a break from battles for the immediate future.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Inheritors: William Golding

(my edition out of print, but Faber & Faber have a new edition, £7.99, or from Amazon)

★★★★

In September last year, the Guardian published an article by Judy Golding (William's daughter) about The Inheritors. I read it at the time but have only just tracked it down again, and it already makes me want to reread so I can savour the complexities that I missed first time round. But even my quick first read of the article lodged the title in my mind. When I saw a lovely old Faber & Faber edition in Oxfam a few weeks ago, I snaffled it. It's a short book, easy enough to get through in a few hours, and it helps to read it in a headlong rush because the spell isn’t broken and you feel yourself more effectively transported into this haunting world. In some ways it’s best to read it completely cold, because very little happens for much of the novel, and it’s not what happens that’s important so much as how it happens. Spoilers follow (just skip to the final paragraph if you prefer not to know more.) 

All that happens for the first part of the book is that we follow a family group as they migrate from their winter shelter down by the shore to their summer residence up in the hills. Lok is the naïve, childlike character through whose eyes we see the excitement of the journey, rendered comforting by the familiar summer cave at the far end. Little Liku shares his relish for the adventure, but the other adults are troubled by concerns that happy, simple Lok can’t comprehend. For this journey is not the same as all the others. The log by which they cross the river (they have a deep fear of water) has been moved and they must find a way to reach the far side. Mal, their group elder, is weak and sick, and Lom’s mate Fa is preoccupied. Ha, whose quick mind and problem-solving skills ultimately take them across the river, is equally troubled. For they are no longer alone in their summer refuge. 

On an island in the middle of the river, smoke rises from between the trees and the family glimpse strange creatures, whose behaviour grows steadily more threatening. As you gradually realise, without it ever being spelled out, Lok and his family are Neanderthals, a tiny remnant of what was presumably once a much larger community, clinging on to their established migration patterns in a changing world. The strangers on the island, the New People – with their alarming high-browed faces and prominent chins, white as bone – are Homo sapiens, the ancestors of modern humans, and the book looks at how this encounter between past and future plays out. There’s no real indication where in the world we are, although it's a temperate zone and thus probably somewhere in Europe (though there are wild cats and hyenas). Going back to the Guardian article, I see that Golding conceived it as Savernake Forest in England. As for timing, from the evolutionary state I would guess it’s set sometimes around 40,000 or 35,000 years ago, in the brief window when the two species coexisted. 

Seeing things from Lok’s perspective, which is simplistic even by Neanderthal standards, you grow to understand the gentle natural rhythms of his world. Thought and memory are hard concepts to explain; the family try to describe the ‘pictures’ they have in their heads; to some extent they can communicate simple emotions and ideas among the group without the need for speech. Each day is structured around the simple tasks of gathering food and wood for the fire, which is a sacred thing carried carefully from site to site. The people live very frugally, never hunting for themselves as they believe spilling blood angers their earth-spirit (Oa), but taking meat as and when they find carcasses killed by predators. There is no long-term plan: survival, day-to-day, is all that matters. Change is hard to process and abstract problems are hard to tackle. Contrast this with the dynamic, aggressive attitude of the Homo sapiens group, which has built shelters, crafted boats with which to travel on the rivers that so terrify the Neanderthals, and which has created a blood-soaked religion focused on a hunter-god figure. The culture clash is shocking and profoundly destructive, not just to Lok's family group, but also to their values and habits. Golding puts it well in her article when she talks about Lok and Fa being like innocents in Eden, who fall from grace by witnessing - and later sinking to the level of - the violence and alcohol-consumption of the New People.

Golding creates a poetic, dreamlike world which lulls you with the gentle patterns of Lok’s thought and which emphasises the cataclysmic rift caused by the arrival of the Homo sapiens community. There are times when it is slow and when Lok, for all his endearing naïveté, becomes a trifle trying as a ‘narrator’, but Golding was clever to choose him because it is a classic collision between innocence and worldliness. Beautiful and heart-breaking, it’s a book that’ll stay with you long after you finish it, and which makes you think more closely about evolution, coexistence and the brutal, often senseless laws of survival. 

It’s the first Golding I’ve read and it was the subject rather than the writer which appealed to me, but perhaps I’m doing him a disservice? Which of his other books should I look out for? (Lord of the Flies is a given.) And are there other books you’d recommend on this prehistoric period? A friend of mine at school swore by Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series and that might offer an interesting balance to Golding’s tale of culture-clash. Has anyone read those books? Are they worth a go?


Apologies for the hiatus in posting. This last month really has been a mensis horribilis, with the deaths of two much-loved members of my family, work stepping up a notch, two business trips and several other factors contributing to the general angst. The best I can say for it is that it's over. On the bright side, I do have several posts lined up to prove that not all was doom and gloom: I also discovered some wonderful books and films. 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Artarserse: Johann Adolf Hasse (1730)

(Martina Franca 2011; now available on DVD from Amazon)

★★½ 

I think you all know this story now. If not, you clearly don't read this blog enough. However, if you'd like to refresh your memory, check here and possibly also take a look here.

In late February 1730, Hasse's Artaserse opened at the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, mere weeks after Leonardo Vinci's version premiered in Rome. Musically there's quite a contrast: Vinci's simple lyricism gives way to Hasse's ornamentation, bells and whistles. And it's not just the music that's different. Metastasio's ink was barely dry on the libretto, but Hasse engaged the theatre's resident poet Giovanni Boldini to make some changes. Arias were cut or replaced, recitatives rewritten, and the end of the first act altered so that Mandane, not Arbace, had the closing aria. The last change might have been forced on Hasse. Unlike Vinci, he used female singers (Venetian laws were more tolerant than those in Rome). His prima donna was the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Somewhere I've read that she flew into a rage after reading a first draft, realising that Arbace had much better arias than Mandane. Hasse gritted his teeth, went to his primo uomo and asked for permission to change the end of Act 1 so that Cuzzoni ended in the limelight. Luckily for Hasse, his Arbace was being played by Farinelli, the nicest guy in 18th-century opera, and he agreed. Hasse made it up to him by writing a new showpiece in Act 3, in the place of what would have been L'onda dal mar divisa. Farinelli's Parto qual pastorello may not be the most insane Baroque aria ever written, but is possibly the craziest that anyone nowadays has tried to sing.

Considering that they premiered almost at the same time, it's rather neat that revivals of both Vinci's and Hasse's Artaserse were put on within months of each other in 2012. I'm not sure why it's taken so long to get the Hasse DVD out, but let's be grateful that we've got it at all. It was produced for the Festival della Valle d'Itria in Martina Franca, and staged outside in a public square, which has a certain impact on the set - monolithic and rather static. The acting is also on the static side: people tend to sing with one foot up on a step, and there aren't many occasions when you have a sense of the interaction between the different characters. As for the costumes, they made me think of a 20th-century dictatorship: black military uniforms with gold braid and red stripes. The ladies have rather unflattering Empire-line gowns  in dusky colours; they gain frogged boleros in the second half and glittering tiaras for the finale. The overall feel is rather dark and oppressive: entirely appropriate, you might say, but it lacked exuberance both aesthetically and dramatically.

Hasse also chose a different pattern of voice types. His Artaserse is a tenor (Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani), which is logical because tenors usually sing the role of the ruler or patriarch. Artabano, by contrast, becomes an alto (Sonia Prina). The chameleonic Prina is on fine form as a white-haired old man, chewing the scenery at every opportunity. Her technical flair is astounding, but in a way she doesn't quite seem able to leave it alone: the bubbling coloratura risks taking over everything. The key exception, I should note, was her Pallido il sole, which was beautifully elegiac. While her performance was great, I can't shake off the niggling feeling that Artabano should be a tenor. He's the older figure after all and, although he's not explicitly the ruler, he's the one pulling the strings. Artaserse, by contrast, is a young, idealistic lover and so it's more intuitive that he would have a higher, lighter voice. That also plays into his characterisation as a naive, rather floundering chap. Giustiniani has a nice clear voice and was perfectly fine in the role, but he didn't give Artaserse a lot of personality. Crucially, I wasn't really convinced by his supposedly deep friendship for Arbace. They don't spend much time together, because here Artaserse runs off before Arbace sings Parto qual pastorello, and even when they are interacting I didn't get a huge sense of emotional engagement. 

Is this a poisoned chalice I see before me? Arbace prepares to swear his innocence.
From left: Mandane (Schiavo, in purple); Semira (Bove, in grey); Artaserse (Giustiniani, in the crown); Arbace (Fagioli, with chalice)
Another change surprised me too. Semira (Rosa Bove) becomes a low mezzo or contralto in Hasse's version. This changed my entire perception of the character. I'm used to thinking of Semira as  fluttery, sweet and unworldly, but Bove's performance was much more powerful. She benefits from some feistier arias: compare Hasse's writing of Se del fiume altera to Vinci's (no link available to Valer singing it; sorry). Bove's Semira seemed exasperated rather than threatened, and even when Artabano gives her away to Megabise you don't feel that she's helpless. On the contrary, I was just waiting for her to knee him in the groin. Bove also has a kind of Persian handsomeness, which is rather fitting. As for Megabise himself... I am not objective, as you all know, and I really don't like Hasse's take on him full stop. I'm narked by the added recitative which tells us he's nothing but a gutter rat who's been given his big break by Artabano, to whom he is thus slavishly loyal. But even getting beyond my historian's spluttering, I found him the weakest character here. That's not to say Antonio Giovannini isn't good: his voice is light and agile, and he had some very enthusiastic responses from the audience. It's just that I found his voice a little bit thin, and very high, so that he seemed almost insubstantial. And the role didn't give him much of a chance. By making Semira stronger, you diminish Megabise, and in this production he's less of a lecherous general and more of a mildly sexually frustrated pencil-pusher. Plus, his glasses with the military uniform kept reminding me of Himmler, which was unfortunate. He's so much Artabano's creature that it's a bit of a shock to hear he's had the initiative to fight a duel with Arbace at the end. 

Arbace is, once again, sung by Franco Fagioli, so business as usual there. Right from the off, he has some seriously complicated music: Fra cento affanni develops some killer ornaments in the da capo section, and that's even before we get to the positively acrobatic Parto qual pastorello. But that's what you get when you're singing a part written for Farinelli. Typically, Fagioli tackles it with aplomb, diving between head and chest voice like an agile cormorant, and the audience clearly loves it. Overall, his characterisation is much the same in Hasse as it is in Vinci. One difference is that Hasse's Arbace is even more idiotically noble ("What? You're freeing me? You mean I have to escape and avoid certain death? Must I?"). Another is that his relationship with Mandane is a lot more physical and tactile here than in the Vinci version. Perhaps that's because Fagioli felt slightly more comfortable getting into public clinches with Maria Grazia Schiavo than with Max Cencic, but that's just my own assumption. 

Sonia Prina (Artabano)  |  Franco Fagioli (Arbace)  |  Maria Grazia Schiavo (Mandane)
But this has an important impact on the reading of Mandane's character. In this version she comes across as softer and more fragile, intensified by the fact that her rage aria Dimmi ch'un empio sei is omitted and instead she gains Che pena al mio core, in which she explains her torn sympathies between father and lover, and her desperate suffering. Plus, Hasse includes the 'dagger scene', where Mandane is about to kill herself when Arbace rushes in to stop her, just before the duet, so again we see her frailty. She's more obviously conflicted in Hasse - too much so, perhaps. When she marches in, demanding Arbace's blood in Act 2, it feels if it's come out of nowhere whereas, in Vinci's version, the last time we saw her she was absolutely livid with him, so it makes more sense. I've seen Schiavo in other things and I like her a lot, but here I felt she didn't manage to wring all the emotion out of the role. Ultimately, I like my Mandanes to be imperious but vulnerable - my favourite remains the splendid Marina Comparato in the Terradellas version. It pains me to say it, but in this Hasse production Semira is actually more majestic than Mandane.

I understand, of course, that I am horribly biased towards Vinci's version, but I just feel this production lacks a bit of fizz. The music is much more ornamental than Vinci's, which makes for lots of impressive skipping around and flamboyant trills, but I don't think it does such a good job of getting the story across. That said, the cast are strong and there are some jaw-droppingly spectacular arias - not just Parto qual pastorello, but Artabano's S'impugni la spada, which isn't actually by Hasse at all but by Vivaldi (presumably another example of Baroque 'borrowing'). And, while understanding the limitations of an outdoor stage, I'd have liked just a bit more exuberance in the costumes and set, and generally more emotional engagement in the acting. Although the Vinci version is self-consciously artificial and (let's face it) a bit camp, the cast seem to be having a huge amount of fun, and it casts a spell which this production, for all its dark naturalism, simply can't match.

For those who can handle Italian, there's a rather fun half-hour 'making of' documentary about the Hasse production, with cast and crew talking about the story, rehearsal footage and some clips from the final performance.

Now we just have to wait for someone to stage the Terradellas version, and for a full recording (please) of J.C. Bach's setting. I still live in hope that the Royal Opera House might revive the Arne version which, despite the ghastly 18th-century English translation, seems from photos to have been the most visually magnificent production of the opera ever staged.

Hard choices: Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Artaserse)  | Rosa Bove (Semira)  |  Antonio Giovannini (Megabise)

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Island of Ghosts: Gillian Bradshaw

(currently out of print, but available second-hand from Amazon)

★★★★

Hot on the heels of The Beacon at Alexandria, I turned my attention to the other Bradshaw novel I had lined up, and I'm delighted to say that Island of Ghosts proved to be equally enjoyable. Like Beacon it has a classical setting, this time in Roman Britain in 175 AD, and it's written in the same easy, engaging style. Indeed, its protagonist is thoughtful and self-contained, much like Charis, and there are familiar themes of displacement and the difficulties of finding one's path as an outsider.

This book reminded me of the importance of a good first line. 'We mutinied when we reached the ocean'. Who wouldn't want to keep reading after that and find out the who, why, where and when?  It turns out that we are on the French shores of the English Channel in the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and our narrator Ariantes is the princely commander of a troop of Sarmatian horsemen. Most have never even seen the sea before. On realising they've been posted to Britain, an island so far out of sight that they can't even believe it exists, they panic. Ariantes and his fellow princes Arshak* and Gatalas find themselves in the first of many awkward situations where they must decide what to trust. Do they rely on their own experience and intuition, which urges them to avoid the apparently endless ocean, or on the word of their Roman 'hosts'? And there's the rub. The Sarmatians are 'auxiliaries' to the Roman army, but that courteous title fools no one. They are hostages: the flower of Sarmatian youth bargained away by their people as part of a deleritous peace treaty with their Roman enemies. They have seen their families killed, their herds scattered and their wagons burned (largely in retaliation for their own bloody raids upon the Romans). Now they've been forced to swear oaths to serve the very men who, until recently, they'd cheerfully have killed and scalped to win glory among their people. They hate their captors but, as they're perfectly well aware, their captors return the sentiment, none more so than the embittered centurion Facilis.

That culture clash is at the heart of the book and much of its drama comes from the different ways in which Ariantes and Arshak deal with it. Arshak, proudest and noblest of the commanders, chooses to rebel at every turn, swaggering around in his coat of scalps and doing all he can to show the Romans that he's still a dangerous force. Ariantes is more moderate and sensible, more amenable to the idea of cooperation. While his countrymen sneer at him for Romanisation, he strives to find a way to understand and to be understood. And the more Ariantes watches and listens, as they travel north to their postings along the great Wall, the more he sees that it isn't a case of Roman against Sarmatian. The very fabric of Roman Britain is a patchwork, with Britons of different tribes living alongside those from other parts of the Empire. And the fabric is fraying. Ariantes' friends might long for revenge against those who've forced them into servitude, but there are even stronger revolutionary movements among the native peoples of the island. When Ariantes and Arshak become aware of a lethal conspiracy to force out the Romans and restablish British kingdoms, they find that it threatens everything they've come to value: their friendship, the safety of those they love, and their own identity as Sarmatians. Where should assimilation stop?

For all that political wrangling, this is a personality-driven story. Ariantes is a hugely sympathetic narrator: he's the kind of intelligent, humane spirit that you'd find in a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. The book's just as much about his efforts to come to terms with his past and his present as it is about the intrigues. Yet there are a few wonderful set-pieces: the arming of the Sarmatian host in their plumes and golden scale armour was a scene I'd love to see on film, mainly because I find it hard to imagine exactly what they'd look like. I wasn't at all familiar with the Sarmatians before reading this (I got my wires crossed and spent most of the book thinking they were responsible for that distinctively red Roman-era crockery: turns out that's Samian ware). Wikipedia tells me they were an Iranian people, which makes sense because their names have linguistic links to Persian and they, like the Persians, were fire-worshippers and formidable cavalry archers. When I read Bradshaw's descriptions of their charges with lowered spears, I couldn't help wondering whether there wasn't some kind of basis here for the legends of Arthur and his knights and, as ever, it seems that someone got there before me. It also turns out that Arthur's 'knights' in that very bad 2004 film (which I watched and promptly forgot) were shown as Sarmatians, albeit from 300 years later than Bradshaw's story. Intriguing ideas...

Anyway, the summary is that this is another very engaging novel from Bradshaw, and definitely something to recommend if you've enjoyed either Beacon or books like Sword at Sunset, of which it kept reminding me. Plus, it's opened my mind to a new way of thinking about the Arthur legend and a very interesting new ancient culture of which I knew nothing before. Naturally, I'm going to be on the lookout for more Bradshaw, perhaps venturing towards her Byzantine books next...

Artists' impressions of Sarmatian heavy cavalry like the troops that appear in Bradshaw's novel
* Note for Baroque opera fans: the Latin translation of Arshak is Arsaces, i.e. Arsace, which made me smile.


Monday, 22 February 2016

Arminio: George Frideric Handel (1737)

(Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 17 February 2016)

★★★½

Tusnelda (Layla Claire) and Arminio (Max Cencic) with their children
So, by a remarkable stroke of luck, my business trip coincided with the Karlsruhe Handel Festival. By even more remarkable good fortune, Parnassus were staging their new production of Handel's Arminio on the night I arrived and there was an excellent seat still free right in the centre of the eighth row of the stalls. As they say, it would've been rude not to.

I'd never come across Arminio before and, as the related CD recording hasn't yet been released, had no way to familiarise myself with the music. Handel House's website provided me with a synopsis, from which I learned that once again I was going to be witnessing a Baroquified version of ancient history (but I can't blame Metastasio this time, because the libretto was written by Antonio Salvi). Arminio takes us back in time to 9 AD, when the Roman army under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were pushing ever deeper into Germania, in the hope of destroying the last vestiges of resistance. The essentials, as ever, are historically true: the young German noble Arminius resented Roman incursions, probably all the more because he'd spent his youth in Rome as a hostage, but the military education he'd had there proved very useful. Posing as an ally, he persuaded Varus to divide his forces in order to tackle an invented rebellion. Varus sent three legions into the heart of the Teutoburg Forest, none of whom were ever seen alive again. It was such a crushing defeat that the Romans permanently scaled back their ambitions in the region. Presumably the patriotic German subject appealed to Handel, and would be likely to please the Hanoverian elite in London, but as ever the operatic story bore precious little relationship to reality.

Arminio (sung by Max Cencic) is prince of the Cherusci and, as the story opens, he receives news that the Romans have just won a great victory over his allies and are heading his way. Persuaded by his wife Tusnelda (Layla Claire) to fight another day, he flees in disguise with his family, only to be captured. When brought before the Roman general Varo (Juan Sancho), Arminio refuses to capitulate despite the example of his father-in-law Segeste (Pavel Kudinov), who has gone over to the Roman side and is now a trusted adviser to Varo. With the dashing prince thrown into prison, Varo and his sidekick Tullio (Owen Willetts) sack his castle and plan for his execution. Arminio himself, certain that he will die, tries to protect his family by asking Varo to take care of his wife after his death - a request that delights Varo and horrifies Tusnelda. Meanwhile, in Segeste's castle, his dandyish son Sigismondo (Vince Yi) fritters away his days mooning over Arminio's feisty sister Rumise (Ruxandra Donose), only to be plunged into despair when his father announces that it's not possible for him to marry the sister of a traitor. What is to become of Sigismondo's heart? Will Arminio escape from the scaffold? And will the lustful Varo have his wicked way with the virtuous Tusnelda?

Varo (Juan Sancho) and Arminio (Max Cencic) | Sigismondo (Vince Yi) rebuked by his sister Tusnelda (Layla Claire)
Watermarked photos from here, due to lack of other production images
I felt a bit of trepidation, and not just because I didn't know the story. Last time I saw a staged Parnassus show it was Catone in Utica at Versailles and for all the fine singing, I wasn't alone in feeling that the production itself was woefully lacking. What to expect this time? But it turned out that I was in for a real treat: sumptuous 18th-century costumes (with a 19th-century Napoleonic twist for the Romans), a set of concentric rotating stages which was both simple and effective and, most important of all, excellent acting. One of the big problems with Catone was the way that people just stood around on the stage, but Arminio was narrated as much by the acting and reactions of its cast as by the singing itself. The costumes and set are down to Helmut Stürmer, but Cencic himself directed it and you've got to give it to the man: he can tell a story. From the opening scene, with the family's banquet interrupted by the arrival of a mortally wounded messenger, to the poignant prison in which Arminio bids farewell to Tusnelda, the whole thing felt tightly-plotted and driven by its own narrative momentum. I thought it was especially brilliant to have Arminio's and Tusnelda's children on stage: it heightened the emotional impact and allowed you to imagine what was truly at stake.

When I get to hear the CD I might change my mind, but at the moment I don't feel that Arminio's one of Handel's best. It also takes a while to get going, though things began to perk up in Act 2 when Cencic was finally unleashed on Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà, swiftly followed by Claire singing Tusnelda's Al furor che ti consiglia. I was extremely impressed by her, actually: for me she was the discovery of the night. I've never come across her before but she has a bright, warm soprano and she can handle both defiance and emotion with ease; her acting was especially graceful, given the large panniers she had to deal with. If Claire was the noble, elegant lady then as seconda donna Donose got to have a lot more fun, playing the role of Rumise very much for laughs. She's a gifted comic actress but, because I was focusing on the slapstick, I didn't get such a clear idea of her voice; I liked what I heard, however, and I'll look forward to listening a bit more closely on the CD. Juan Sancho played the villain with aplomb, as ever, although at least this time he didn't have to play the tyrannical father. Dressed in head-to-toe leather, his Varo was handsome, quietly dangerous and, as it turned out, a complete bastard. Sancho was projecting his voice better than he did at Versailles, and perhaps it's because of this that I thought his Spanish accent seemed particularly strong. The role of nasty father was taken on by Pavel Kudinov, who was at his funniest when playing straight man to Vince Yi's foppish Sigismondo. You could just see it in Segeste's face: 'What have I done to deserve a son like this?!' Unfortunately, due to trains, I had to miss the final scene and left just after Segeste had tied Sigismondo to a chair and was threatening to emasculate him with a pair of large pliers - a threat to which Yi responded by soaring up into an even higher register than usual.

Tusnelda, Rumise (Ruxandra Donose) and Sigismondo | Tullio (Owen Willetts), Segeste (Pavel Kudinov) and Varo interrogate Tusnelda
Watermarked photos from here, due to lack of other production images
With three countertenors in the cast, it was always going to be interesting to see how they compared. I hadn't heard Owen Willetts before and thought he started off a little shakily, but he'd warmed up by Act 2 and has a nice, melodious voice of a similar type to Cencic's. Again I'll need to listen to him a little more closely on the CD. Yi probably stole the crown for flamboyant singing: he's very good at clipped machine-gun coloratura and I'm always amazed at high his voice sits, but I think sometimes he falls into the trap of pushing for notes that are slightly too high even for him. I'm also still troubled by the slightly metallic edge to his voice, for all its dazzle. Like Donose, he was a superb comic actor and nobly sported an enormous and very silly wig throughout, fluttering a feathered fan and generally pushing camp to the extreme. Cencic, however, stole the day. He was on extremely good form and, when he's singing at his best, there are few if any who can match his control and range. I've already mentioned his Sì, cadrò, with its insane coloratura, and we had more swagger from him in Act 3 with Fatto scorta al sentier della Gloria, but he was at his most meltingly sublime in the gentler arias and his Vado a morir in the prison nearly brought tears to the eyes. It wasn't just his singing though. When I've seen Cencic in staged things before, he's either been rather effete (Arbace in Catone; the eponymous Alessandro) or actually playing a woman (Mandane; Sant' Alessio's Sposa). This was the first time I'd seen him go for proud, rugged manliness and he did a damn fine job of it, suppressing all his habitual hand-gestures. When he came on in Act 3 with a shirt open to the navel, and started brandishing a sword, I confess to being surprised... in a good way. Seriously, it was a very good performance.

I don't know enough to say much about the orchestra, save that in Act 1 they occasionally sounded a bit ragged and it took a while for them to tighten up. I should emphasise that this wasn't down to the harpsichordist, an admirable young local musician who'd stepped in at the last minute after Armonia Atenea's own harpsichordist had suffered some kind of nasty accident (my German wasn't good enough to understand the details, but it provoked groans of sympathy from the audience). Nor, unfortunately, can I comment on the final chorus because the performance was slightly running over and I couldn't risk missing my train, but I very much hope that there might be either a broadcast or a DVD in due course. Filming was taking place on the night I was there and, for added flavour, you can watch a 3-minute trailer on YouTube which suggests there might be more footage waiting to be edited somewhere. Let's hope. It's definitely a production I'd like to see again, not so much for the music, I confess, but for the lovely costumes and sets. It really was a fine example of how to stage something in a traditional way without it feeling staid. 

All in all, a great night out despite the three-hour round trip on the train. I must see if I can wrangle some more business trips to Frankfurt at this time of year...

Tusnelda | Segeste finally meets his match in Arminio
(I presume this last picture is from the final scene, because I didn't actually see this)
Watermarked photos from here, due to lack of other production images

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Out and About near Frankfurt

Following on from my post about Frankfurt itself, here's what I managed to see on two trips outside the city, with pictures, of course. Both Karlsruhe and Würzburg are a little over an hour from Frankfurt by train and the connections are pretty regular, so it's easy to do as I did and go just for a morning or afternoon. Right. Let's continue...

Karlsruhe Kunsthalle

Alexis Grimou, Portrait of a Girl | Jean-Etienne Liotard, Portrait of Caroline-Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt
Nicolas de Largillière, Portrait of a young man | Johann Georg Dathan, Portrait of an old woman in Hussar's uniform (details)
Karlsruhe didn't endear itself to me as a town: all the main streets are currently being dug up and, in short, the place is a mess. Fortunately it has redeeming features, one of which is the Handel Festival and another its impressive little art gallery. (There's also a good collection of prints and drawings here, though I didn't have time to see any of it and stuck with the pictures.) There's a local slant to the earliest parts of the collection, featuring some names that were unfamiliar to me, like the Master of the Bodensee whose Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John has a remarkable embossed gold-ground ornamented with leaves, flowers and kneeling harts. Other names were better-known: there's a world-class collection of Cranachs, including the small paired roundel portraits of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast and a familiar Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, and an pair of grisaille martyrs by Matthias Grünewald, in which the thin linen folds of their gowns and their tumbling curls are rendered with breathtaking skill. There were few Italian pictures overall, although one of those few was a lovely Lorenzo di Credi tondo of the Madonna and Child with St John.

Lorenzo di Credi, Madonna and Child with St John | Matthias Grünewald, A Sainted Martyr (St Lucy?)
Fabric from Frans Pourbus's Potrait of Louis XIII | Joos van Craesbeeck, The Temptation of St Anthony (details)
The French paintings really were a strength, though. There were pictures by Poussin and Vouet and a super little pastel Portrait of Caroline-Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt by Liotard, not to mention a portrait of a dashing young hunter by Largillière, which displays a dazzling treatment of his silver-trimmed blue silk frock coat. Splendid fabrics were also in evidence in a pair of portraits by Frans Pourbus the Younger of Louis XIII and his sister Elisabeth, both of them decked out in white silk embroidered with slashes and gold. There's even a Rembrandt Self Portrait. But I can't round up without mentioning two quirkier pictures that caught my eye. One was a bizarre but brilliant portrait by Johann Georg Dathan, described on the label as Portrait of an Old Woman in Hussar's Uniform, from around 1749. And that's exactly what it was: the lady's softly crumpled face looking out from beneath a flamboyant feathered cap, and a sword gripped in her fist. I bet there's a good story behind this picture. And, last but not least, there was a nightmarish Temptation of St Anthony (c1650) by Joos van Craesbeeck, who'd either been looking at too much Bosch or smoking something very odd: a disembodied man's head seems to have washed up on a beach and bird-shaped demons clamber from his mouth, while a flap in his forehead opens to reveal little figures including an artist working on a canvas. St Anthony himself looks wearily resigned ("Not all this again?") as he is tempted by a harlot brandishing a nautilus cup. It really was an unexpectedly good collection and I'm thrilled to have seen it.


The Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg

Anonymous Netherlandish Portrait of a girl | Portrait of two women with a parrot (detail)
A musical angel from Starnina's altarpiece | Detail from the Lamentation by Riemenschneider
When I was in Würzburg, for reasons I shall explain below, I decided to pay a quick visit to this museum which occupies one wing of the Residenz. It's a university museum, tucked away on two upper floors reached by an out-of-the-way pillared staircase: one floor houses an art gallery and the other an antiquities collection. The paintings are fairly modest, with lots of later copies after Renaissance masters and a few pictures by the founder, who was himself an artist in the monumental Neoclassical mode. There are, unsurprisingly, a few Tiepolos and, when I went, a sketchbook of drawings on blue paper by Giandomenico was on view. But for the most part I was attracted to pictures for their character and quirkiness: the solemn, elongated face of a girl in a Netherlandish portrait; a double portrait of two women in mob-caps, one of whom has a parrot perched on her hand (the label was missing, so I've no idea who it was by); and, one of the better pictures, a Portrait of Sixtus Oelhafen by Schäufelein. On show in a special exhibition on 'The Glance in Art', there was an impressive gold-ground triptych by Gherardo Starnina, with industrious music-making angels; and in the final room there was a carved Lamentation by Tilman Riemenschneider, the brilliant German sculptor, who ran a studio in Würzburg.

Greek Geometric-period covered bowl with horses, 8th century BC | Greek bowl with a musical siren, 4th century BC
Egyptian plaster mummy-portrait, 1st century BC | Persian on Bactrian camel, c. 440 BC
But the most fascinating part of the collection is up in the antiquities museum. This is only open in the afternoons and I arrived early, but the custodian took pity on my pitiable German and my air of confusion, and allowed me in to have a look around. It was a very pleasant surprise. There's material running through from the Egyptian to Roman periods, but the highlights are their Greek ceramics, particularly red-figure vases, of which there's a dazzling assembly. I noted that there was a disproportionate number of banquet scenes and, probably as a result of that, a much larger of women present in the decoration than usual. Some are hetaerae, including the poor girl who's steadying a drunk youth's head while he's sick (painted on the bowl of a drinking cup, which says something about Greek humour), but there are also female musicians and a scene of an Athenian girl helping her brother with his armour. And on one vase I saw, to my delight, a painting of a Persian (or, since the figure's beardless, perhaps an Amazon?) riding a Bactrian camel, wrapped up in a cloak against the highland cold, his characteristic zig-zag leggings peeping out underneath. The unknown artist has, fittingly, been given the moniker The Master of the Würzburg Camel, which I think is rather lovely. A fascinating group of artefacts and very highly recommended if you have the time. (Entry is free, too.)


The Residenz, Würzburg

The garden façade of the Residenz
But the real reason I'd come to Würzburg was the Residenz. This was begun in 1720 by the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, who'd decided to move down from his castle up on the hill at Marienburg. Sending servants back and forth to the town was proving too expensive and it was time to economise. It's rather amusing to realise that the Residenz began life as an attempt to save money, because it now houses one of the most dazzling Baroque decorative schemes in the world (and is a UNESCO world heritage site because of it). Its fame is down to two men, employed by another of the Prince-Bishops in the mid-18th century: the master stuccoist Antonio Bossi (1699-1764) and the Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). This was the first time Tiepolo ventured out of Venice for any length of time, so the financial incentive must have been staggering to induce him to journey north across the Alps with his two sons, Giandomenico and Lorenzo, in tow. First they painted the Imperial Hall, in which the Prince-Bishops celebrated their links with the Holy Roman Empire, and then Tiepolo was asked to turn his attention to the vault over the main staircase. Like the Imperial Hall, he was to paint a scheme carefully devised by others: this time, nothing less than the four corners of the world (Australia had been discovered but no one knew enough about it to bother including it). Each is represented by a beautiful, commanding woman surrounded by bystanders in colourful exotic dress, and all the riches of their respective regions. The Olympian gods look down benignly from the clouds overhead and, at the end over the main landing, above the court of Europe, geniuses lift a framed portrait of the Prince-Bishop himself. The fresco measures about 680 square metres and Tiepolo and his team painted it in only 218 days. It's still one of the biggest vaults ever created.

The centre of the Asia side of the monumental fresco over the main stairs
The staircase fresco is the showpiece, and rightly so. It's recently been restored to remove stains and repair cracks and the result is deeply impressive, if not quite as gorgeous as it would be with Venetian sun streaming through the windows. The Imperial Hall is equally stunning, though, with its clever mixture of trompe-l'oeil and genuine sculpture, such as the frescoed musician whose painted instrument projects over the edge of a window recess and, at its top, transforms into a real trumpet. Papier-maché is moulded into tumbling draperies and there's stucco everywhere, ranging from subtle decorations on the walls to fully sculpted angels. Bossi and Tiepolo were evidently a bit of a dream team. There are state rooms too, which rather pale in comparison to the glamorous reception rooms, and usually you can see the State Gallery and Garden Hall too, but these were closed for restoration when I was there. 

Mars and Venus holding court on the ceiling of the vault
However, despite the frescoes and the stuccoes, perhaps the most amazing thing about Würzburg is that it's there at all. The town authorities were fairly sanguine during the war, pointing out that there were no munitions factories nearby - Würzburg is a university town, famous for its medicine, its hospitals - so there was no need to fear air raids. They were right. Almost. Then, in March 1945, a squadron of Lancasters came over and bombed the town to pieces. Photos in the Residenz show the heart-rending result: a town of ruins. 75% of the Residenz was destroyed (although compared to many other buildings it got off lightly). The wing with the state rooms was nothing but a shell: what you see now, from the ground up, has been patiently and admirably reconstructed from detailed photographs taken before the bombing. The roof above Tiepolo's vault fell in but, by some miracle, the vault itself took the weight and stood firm. The visit becomes a far more sober and poignant experience when you realise how close all these wondrous things came to being destroyed. If you have the time, I'd recommend going on one of the English-language tours, which gives you a lot of information on the building's recent history as well as its dazzling 18th-century past. There's no doubt about it: Würzburg is a treasure and I'm deeply glad I decided to make time for it.

If you won't be able to make it to the Residenz yourself, you can take a very detailed look at Tiepolo's frescoes over the staircase and in the Imperial Hall through these two books (both of which I bought and which seem very thorough and interesting): Tiepolo's World (staircase) and Tiepolo's Empire (Imperial Hall). 

The centre of the America side of the fresco, showing America with her retinue

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Art in Frankfurt

Frankfurt skyline
I've had quite a few business trips over the last few months, but this week's expedition to Frankfurt came together in a particularly satisfying way. I was only there for one full day, but thanks to cunning planning of my flights and a relatively brief business meeting, I had plenty of time free to explore the city's museums and to take two very exciting trips to nearby towns. In a blissful stroke of luck my trip coincided with the Karlsruhe Handel Festival, so I even managed to squeeze in a performance: you can read about Arminio in another post. All in all, I had a wonderful time and here are a few recommendations if you should ever find yourself in that part of the world.

The Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Ernest Deger, Head of a girl | Lucas Franchoys II (?), Portrait of a man
Lotte Laserstein, Russian girl with compact | Vermeer, The Geographer
If you're pressed for time, the one thing you should see in Frankfurt is the Städel. Naturally I gravitated towards its old masters, but it also has some wonderful modern paintings. Among its greatest treasures are a very early Monet, The Luncheon, painted in 1868/9 before he took the plunge into Impressionism, and the grand portrait of Frankfurt's most famous son, Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787) by J.H.W. Tischbein. My own favourites tended to be a bit quirkier: Max Beckmann's Double Portrait (1923), for example, which brings together the wife and mistress of the then-director of the Städel, neither of whom looks delighted with the concept. I also loved Lotte Laserstein's bold, preoccupied Russian girl with compact (1928), and I was captivated for a while by the new acquisition, Under the Console by Edgar Ende (1933). This made me think of Plato's myth of the cave, with most of humanity curled up in the safe, familiar darkness, while a lone figure dares to look outside and brave the light of a new world. There were also two particularly lovely Nazarene paintings, a style I've always been fond of because it replicates the aesthetic and style of Renaissance painting. The exquisite Head of a girl by Ernst Deger (1935) is one of the most graceful emulations of Raphael I've seen, while a picture that piqued my particular interest was a Self Portrait by Johann David Passavant (1818). I know Passavant as the author of important books on Raphael and early print-making and, rather shamefully, hadn't ever realised he was also a painter and, in later life, director of the Städel. It was a delightful surprise to come face to face with him.

Altobello Melone, Narcissus; Johann David Passavant, Self Portrait;
Bartolomeo Veneto, Flora; Perugino, Madonna and Child with the infant Baptist (details)
There were some familiar faces among the Old Masters such as Vermeer's Geographer (1669). It goes without saying that it's a masterpiece but to see it in the flesh is to be struck all over again by the sheer perfection of its lighting. I was also very happy to see Bartolomeo Veneto's Flora, probably a portrait of a courtesan, which used to be thought a picture of Lucrezia Borgia and still appears on covers of her biographies: it's a knowing, sensual picture, a symphony in white and green and blue. There's a serenely beautiful Madonna and Child by Perugino, in which the Madonna looks more like one of his Perugian Sibyls; and a little Narcissus by Altobello Melone, who with his long blond hair has the individuality of a portrait. And I was amused by a Portrait of a man attributed to Lucas Franchoys II, which shows a debonair chap who holds a letter loosely in one hand and rests his head on the other in a dandyish gesture. The portrait has a melancholic tinge, but the sitter seems too self-satisfied to really pull it off. There were Tiepolos - though I'd see plenty of those another day - and a remarkable altarpiece made for the Frankfurt Dominicans by Hans Holbein the Elder, in which the wings present the genealogies of Christ on one side and the Dominican order on the other, with curling vines connecting the different generations. But perhaps the most shocking and memorable painting was Rembrandt's Blinding of Samson. It's bloody, violent and visceral: one soldier has grappled Samson to the floor; another points a halberd at him; another wrenches back his wrists with a chain; and a fourth grinds a sharpened stake into his eyes with gruesome concentration. It's a macabre, magnificent thing.

Raphael, Compositional study for the Disputà, c.1508 (detail)
Very quickly: if you're interested in works on paper, the Städel also has a superb collection of prints and drawings. I was able to spend a few hours in their study room poring over their French 16th and 17th century drawings, and also had the chance to look at three of their great treasures: Titian's forceful drawing of St Sebastian, preparatory for the Averoldi Altarpiece, Raphael's silverpoint study on pink paper for The School of Athens, and his pen drawing for the Disputà in the Vatican. But they have all sorts of other wonderful things too, and the friendly team are keen to make the public more aware of the collection. For a taster, have a look at this catalogue; for opening times and appointments see here.


The Liebieghaus

Sumerian worshipper | Tanagra-style figurine of a coquettish woman | Palmyran funerary bust | 15th century Madonna and Child
Just around the corner from the Städel is the Liebieghaus sculpture collection, which when I was there had a temporary exhibition called Dangerous Liaisons, about the porcelain, prints and paintings of Rococo France. I'm not a big fan of porcelain, but one of the most delightful pieces in that show was a little statuette of a very fashionable lady having her vertiginous hairdo done, the hairdresser teetering over her on a ladder. To my delight, there were three robes à la francaise in flowered silks on loan from the costume department of the Frankfurt Opera, but unfortunately no photography (or dressing up) was allowed in the exhibition. As for the permanent collection, there's an impressive assembly of material including some good classical antiquities. For example, there was a sculpture of a rather adorable Sumerian worshipper in a fringed kilt, a mummy portrait of a pretty young girl with large dark eyes, a Tanagra-style figurine of a coquettish woman and a funerary bust of a smart Palmyran woman, who was making a strange horned gesture with her fingers. The medieval section had a case of 9th-century ivory plaquettes, one of which showed a scene at Mass with a choir of monks singing lustily away at the lower edge, and a most peculiar walnut sculpture of Christ and St John the Evangelist, in which John leans dreamily against Christ's shoulder and Christ stares over his head in the manner of a sinister Svengali. I also fell very much in love with a painted hardwood 15th-century sculpture of the Madonna and Child. It's not the largest museum, but there are plenty of things to see and it's especially fun at the moment with the Dangerous Liaisons show in full swing.


And there's more to come...

For my two trips outside Frankfurt itself, see the next post and for Arminio, see here.
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