As ever the new year brings news
of the new Donna Leon Brunetti novel. It's called A Refiner's
Fire, which is a departure from the usual clichť-phrase
titles; and it's centred, it seems, on teenage gang wars in
Venice. Further novelty, verging on actual shock, is provided by
it coming out in July, not the spring. As a wise man once said -
After several years plagued with
jabs, tests, summer tooth extractions, pains in the leg, and
Covid I am very, very happy to report that 2023 saw none of
these signs of mortality. It was instead characterised by
memorable trips and fascinating genealogical discoveries.
My traditional March first trip of the year was a
guided tour of the big churches of Medieval Champagne based in
Reims, including Laon, Troyes and Saint-Remi Ė all familiar from
lecture slides, and even better in real life. The only downer
was how cold it was, outside the churches in the wind, and
inside them too. The unexpected pleasure, for me anyway, was the
tour, tasting and lunch at the MoŽt et Chandon Champagne House
in Epernay. They even went to town for the two veggies too: we
got separate plush printed menus, and the five vintage
champagnes that accompanied the courses were, I was assured,
chosen to compliment the veggie options too.
April I took a solo trip to Verona and Venice, for the
freshening up of my churches page and the big Carpaccio
exhibition respectively. May saw a guided tour of Umbrian towns,
which got me (finally!) to Assisi, which was very much not a
disappointment. The food was not a let down this trip either,
culminating in the famous and photographable Isle of Asparagus.
In our hotel in Perugia we were disturbed by Netflix film crew
and a posse of Italian Jane Austen fans all dressed up for
Charles's Coronation. In Perugia I also discovered Tuscan
Mostarda, made with apple and cinnamon, one of the flavours of
the year, and had my first Amarena gelato. Things got more
Tuscan in June, with a trip to Lucca and Pisa Ė the former
because Iíd had trips to Lucca so cancelled by Covid and the
latter to finish off the Pisa page that Iíd begun pre-Covid.
Lucca was also where I had the weirdest and most
unpleasant experience of the year. July was a guided four days
coaching it around 14 of the medieval Churches of Suffolk.
Then things went all 18th-century and Tiepolo, with a Courtauld
Summer School week called
A Society of Spectacle: Seeing and Being Seen in
July, and in September a guided tour around the Venetian
Terraferma. The trip was taken because I'd never been to Vicenza,
Palladio would get investigated, and I fancied a revisit of the
Scrovegni Chapel, especially after Assisi. Also included was a
visit to Castelfranco to see Giorgione's altarpiece, which is
one of the few of his works I've never seen, and the happy
introduction, for me, to Asolo.
Genealogically the year was a bit of an emotional
roller-coaster, as detailed and illustrated in entries below, from last year's Season's Greetings, through the 6th of February
and the 26th of August to, most thrillingly, discovering in
November that I had a genius forebear who has his own museum in
London, with a cafe, and who was on the £20 note in the 1990s.
Not much can beat that, I hope
youíll agree. Next yearís guided trips so far include Burgundy
and Piero country, and Iím also looking to get a bit archaeological,
with Roman Naples, or maybe even Egypt! I wish you similar trips
and impressive relatives, or maybe just staying home in the
warm, with cake and cats perhaps. Much happiness anyway.
If you're not a Brit of a
certain age you might be
puzzled and need to click
My Top 10 Books of 2023
The Count of Monte Cristo
Jess Kidd The Hoarder
The Bee Sting
The Whalebone Theatre
Two top books by Nina Allan were read, but I didn't
realise until I was compiling this list.
My Top 12 CDs of 2023
All the Eye Can See
Strange Dance/Live at Evolution Studios
First Two Pages of
Frankenstein/ Laugh Track
Lanterns on the Lake
Versions Of Us
Just to Please You
Judie Tzuke Jude The
Adventures of a Medieval Bard
Narcisse au Parnasse:
Works for Lute and Theorbo from the French "Grand-SiŤcle"
Palestrina, Vol. 7
El Cant de La Sibil.la & Draumkvedet
A Haunting in Venice
Venice: City of Pictures
A Wandering Through Life
I cancelled the Cardiff trip
mentioned below, as it was looking like being too wet and
wintry a time, and as I type this at the end of the week I
should have been away, it's been a week of constant rain, with
Storm CiarŠn sweeping Europe.
In better news, having found a 5th great-grandfather who was a
saddler in Smithfield, called Adam Greenlaw Gray, who lived
near St Bartholomewís church (my new London fave Ė itís so
Romanesque inside!) and who was married and had his children
christened there, I discovered that his wife, Elizabeth
Faraday, was the sister of Michael Faraday! So Michael
Faraday's dad is my 6th great-grandfather.
My assertion in my last post
that I'd had my last trip of the year is looking premature. I
recently found that an ancestor of my dad's mum, called Jabez
Phillips, was born in Bassaleg, in Wales near Newport, and in
1779 got married in Michaelston-y-Fedw, also not far from
Newport, and now basically a suburb of Cardiff. So I've booked a
week in Cardiff later this month, with a cathedral I missed
last time and a tempting cemetery adding to the appeal. And
then there's the shops selling fresh-baked Welsh Cakes. Then I
read about an rather large exhibition of 16th-century Venetian
art in Munich over the winter so we've booked a week there in
December. Christmas markets providing the extra appeal this
time. I do realise how lucky I am BTW.
trip was a very good one, but looks like being my last of the
year. Patrizia, the tour manager on the trip, an old friend who
is also the wife of a good friend of these pages, has set me to
thinking by recommending a stay in Venice of a month to really
get to know the place. This idea is now getting seriously
pondered. In Italian this is known as 'putting a flea in my ear'
it seems. Also there's a new, surprise, Donna Leon book of
reminiscences, which consists of a sequence of short chapters,
we're told, and so sounds like another of those large-font,
wide-line-spacing , blank-page-infected jobbies, but I'll let
you know. I had my Covid vaccine booster a couple of days ago
too, and so far I'm not suffering the pains which began the day
after my jab last year and invalided be off of a Lucca tour. It
was the Pfizer vaccine this time, though, like the others I've had, and
not the Moderna from a year ago. Who knows?
August was a bit dingy and
uninspiring but then came the hottest week in September ever,
or something, which has now cooled down a bit, but tomorrow
Iím off to the Venetian Terraferma for a few days, where itís
going to be as hot as it was last week in Tooting. Cunning.
When I get back Iím booked for my Covid booster. I toyed with
not getting it, after my suspicious immediate intense calf
pain last year, which meant I had to cancel a trip to Lucca.
But as it can be argued that a booster should be the right of
everyone, and not just us oldies, it comes as a twofer with
the flu jab, and that refusing it sides you with mad anti-vaxxers
and varieties of anti-ULEZ loonies Iíve signed up.
Having lost a boxer ancestor,
as I may have mentioned, Iíve gained an artist. Tracing back my
Haite forebears Iíve come to George Charles Haitť (Ancestry
doesnít seem to do accents.) He created the iconic Strand
magazine cover (see right) and knew everyone, including
Oscar Wilde Jerome K. Jerome, Aubrey Beardsley, and John Tenniel.
His grandfather is my 4x great grandfather, and he didnít have
to punch anyone to get rich. He left £6751 to his wife and
daughter, equivalent to £336,284 now. Pardon my mentioning it
but it makes such a refreshing change from the dying in the
workhouse much more common for my forebears.
Being half way through the
summer slump - no trips to Italy until the weather cools off,
and nothing much getting published - the yen to book a trip or
two is strong. I was prompted to book a week's guided tour of
the Venetian Terraferma for a pretty prosaic reason, but also
because I've never been to Vicenza, I fancy a revisit of the
Scrovegni Chapel, and I've never even heard of the Prealps!
The latter day includes a visit to Castelfranco to see Giorgione's
altarpiece, which is one of the few of his works I've never
Reviews April -
The Borgia Portrait
Philip Gwynne Jones
The Venetian Candidate
Churches of Suffolk Trips
Lucca and Pisa Trips
Verona & Venice
And suddenly there's a new
novel by David Hewson in prospect. It's out on the 1st of August
and it's called The Borgia Portrait. It's the second in
his period-spanning series featuring reluctant detective
and ex-archivist, Donald Clover. The first one
The Medici Murders managed to
squeeze into the plot, aside from many Medici, the Saint Ursula
cycle, Veronica Franco, prostitution, the Ponte delle Tette, the
run-down Lido, the Danieli, and Casanova. The
new one revolves around murdered toffs and an erotic portrait of
Lucrezia Borgia, and again features Casanova, via a crucial
document telling of one of his adventures.
Just back from five days
looking around medieval churches in Suffolk. There were 18 on
the itinerary, but I only managed 14 of them. It was the
first of my two trips to East Anglia this summer. While I was
away the new Philip Gwynne Jones novel dropped onto my doormat
and on the trip I was recommended two authors new to me -
thanks Julia! - both of whom have historical novel series with
at least one of them set in Venice. So a certain Venetian
flavour to my summer reading is predicted.
So that's a trip abroad for me
every month from March to June, only one of them not to Italy,
two guided and two solo. My trip next month is five days being
taken around Suffolk looking at churches, eighteen of them! My
next planned trip to Italy is Florence in October, which sees
Jane, my nearest and dearest, returning to travel abroad
post-Covid. (It didn't happen!) The only Venice-set novel I've reviewed this year
has been the new Donna Leon, but the new Philip Gwynne Jones is
coming soon. And he's just announced that he's embarking on a
new series set in Sicily, whilst continuing to write about
Nathan and Venice.
A trip that takes you from a
country where it's so cold you still need three layers (11į) to
one that's looking like providing t-shirt weather (26į) is
always going to be an attractive prospect. (None of my last
trip's too-cold-for-gelato nonsense). When the trip is to take
in Assisi, which has so long been top of my list of fresco sites in
Italy I've yet to visit, you can
easily understand my excitement. It's a week away, it's a
guided tour, and involves staying in Perugia, another city
new to me.
And while I was typing the
above Minnie the cat came and stomped on the keyboard and
created the tasteful character combination below. I think I'll
use it as a dinkus.
I'm home for Easter from my Verona and Venice trip. The
weather, especially in Venice, was not as gelato-friendly as I'd
hoped, but a good time was had. The
report is up and now I'll be getting down to working on those
cities' pages on
updating info, adding loads of new photos and mining the many
new books and guides I bought..
Reviews February/March 2023
So Shall You Reap
The Victorian London Grime Glut:
London: The Great Transformation 1860Ė1920
Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London
Lee Jackson Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against
Sarah Wise The Blackest Streets:
The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
I'm off for a week in Verona and Venice tomorrow. I've
spent a few weeks on the relevant pages over on
ChurchesofVenice, updating and planning, and my
ticket for the Carpaccio exhibition in Venice
has been bought. I'm also looking forward to temperatures
around 20į, especially as today here in London it was dingy,
rainy and barely got above 10į. Gelato weather beckons!
March marks the
official beginning of the Fictional Cities New Year, the first
weeks usually bringing the new Donna Leon,
my birthday, and my first trip of the year. Next Wednesday I'm
off on a guided trip around Medieval Champagne, based
As trip season
and the fertility of the spring publishing rush are weeks off
still, I've let my current genealogical obsession take further
hold, and gotten immersed in the grim realities of Victorian
London, where lots of them lived, and so many of their children
died. See above list for the fruits reviewed, and see right for a mugshot of my 3-times great grandfather Joseph Burks (aka
Burke). He got five years 'Penal Servitude' in 1879 for nicking
stuff, including some rolls of carpet and backgammon tables.
Evidently they had to hold their hands like that in the photos
to show any missing fingers or tattoos. The first bollards
dated to this period too, by the way, and the changes in their
use and number reflects a lot about recent London history.
As we near the
end of the first month of the new year the weather is still
cold, with a tendency toward cloud and our government is still
incompetent, with a tendency towards corruption. Oh well, it was
two years ago that the socially-distancing chap from Cat's
Protection left Lily and Minnie on our doorstep (see right).
Also there's a new Donna Leon on the way, of course, in March
and with a clichť title - So Shall You Reap. For the new
Philip Gwynne Jones, The Venetian Candidate, we'll have
to wait until July, but I'm sure it'll be worth it. And this
year marks the 25th anniversary of this site's creation.
declawing of Donald and Boris 2022 still saw wisdom, compassion
and competence in woefully short supply in the public realm. Art, travel and
genealogy remained essential sources of comfort and joy.
Iím happy to report that 2022 began well - full of travel, with
reality returning at a heartening rate. On spring trips to
Florence, Toulouse & Conques, and Venice & Ferrara I experienced
the gradual reduction of testing, restrictions and mask-wearing.
These trips were interspersed with visits to Broadstairs,
Norwich and Hereford & Worcester in my own country. The summer
saw something a falling off: no trips, but lots of medical
testing. All of this probing and scanning turned up nothing but
good news, but then I had to have a tooth out, and it took three
hours. My mouth recovered, then after trips to Norwich and Palma
& Modena I got debilitating leg muscle pain, suspiciously soon
after my Covid booster jab. It meant that I had to cancel a
guided trip to Lucca, a city that was also the destination of a
thrice-cancelled trip during the lockdown years. Thereís
something about being housebound with pain that puts one off of
booking future trips. But then, after a month of painkillers and
Neurofen ointment (wittily called Phorpain) the pain went away!
So I booked four trips to look forward to in 2023 - Medieval
Champagne in March, Umbria (including Assisi, at last) in May,
South Tyrol in June and Suffolk Churches in July.
The spring 2022 trips got many photos taken to add to my
churches sites, though, and the Ferrara pages Iíd begun during
lockdown thereby got finished and presentable. Pages for Pisa
are coming along, and Milan and Modena are being considered.
But Iím leaving the best until last. 2022 will now be going down
in the annals as the year I discovered the joys of genealogy.
Iíve yet to trace any Italian ancestors, but finding out that
the Cottons came from Norwich in the 19th century, bringing
their shoemaking skills with them, explains my affinity for that
city. Trips around London checking out the places where my
relations lived and were married and christened and buried have
seen some pleasurable reconnections too. I also found two famous
Firstly Tom Cribb, aka The Black Diamond, who was a world champion
bare-knuckle boxer in the 19th century. Much represented in contemporary
prints, there is also a plaster model of him in the British Museum, and he
features in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and in Regency
Buck by Georgette Heyer. There's even a pub, round the back of
the National Gallery, of which he was landlord and which is now named
after him. Heís my 4 times great grandfather.
2023 Except he isn't. Due to my trusting other peoples'
trees early on I accepted a grandson of Tom Cribb as my
ancestor, but he isn't, so neither is Tom.
The lyrics of the satirical song The Vicar of Bray tell of a
vicar who changes his beliefs to please the ruling party, being
concerned only with keeping his job. The song dates to the 17th
century, the Restoration period, and Francis Carswell was The
Vicar of Bray from 1665-1709. He is my 8 times great
grandfather, and the most likely subject of the song.
To the right is a chunk of the marriage records for Ansford in
Somerset showing the wedding of William Speed and Mary Palmer in
1616, they being my 10 times great-grandparents.
So there you have it. The world at large gets no better, but
next year Iíve got much travel, my state pension, and my
Freedom Pass to look forward to. The health horizon is
looking cloud-free this year too, so letís have hope.
My Top 12 Books of 2022
Book of Colours
Jo Browning Wroe
A Terrible Kindness
The Slowworm's Song
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and
The Night Ship
The Marriage Portrait
Laurie R. King
This series of novels
featuring Mary Russell and her much older sidekick
Sherlock Holmes have been my recent comfort-reads,
and this one was even better.
Christopher de Hamel
The Posthumous Papers of the
Beyond the Burn Line
My Top 10 CDs of 2022
I Could Be Asleep If It Weren't
You Belong There
The Heart is Strange
Dragon New Warm Mountain I
Believe In You
Watching Worlds Collide
Reviews September &
The Hearts of All on Fire
Damian Dibben The Colour
The Medici Murders
Parma and Modena
The Marriage Portrait
leg pain is over! Hallelujah! In a painkiller-free burst of
clarity, optimism and the need for trips to look forward to I have
booked four guided tours in 2023! Medieval Champagne in March,
Umbria (including Assisi) in May, South Tyrol in June and
Suffolk Churches in July. Which leaves a tempting gap in April
for some solo church exploring, somewhere in Italy, and the
Carpaccio exhibition in Venice. Onward!
The leg pain
mentioned below has got a bit better, but not enough for me
not to have to cancel Lucca, where I should be as I type this.
Damn you Moderna vaccine! But I've just finished The Colour
Storm, a fine and spicy take on the life of Giorgione; and had an email to say that two new books are on the
way, one on Siena and the other a biggie about Carpaccio, so
all is not pain and disappointment.
September took me
first, then to
Parma and Modena later in the month, This last trip
was swiftly followed last week by a visit to the health centre
for my Covid vaccination booster, which was itself
followed by extreme muscle pain in my right calf, a
known side effect evidently. And then the parent company of
Art Pursuits, the company I'm going to Lucca with on the 17th,
went bust. The trip to Lucca is going ahead, we're told, so
I'll just fret quietly about my pain waning by then.
Meantime I'm enjoying the rollicking new novel from David Hewson,
The Medici Murders, which does the old
echoes-across-history thing with the murder of British TV
historian on the same bridge where Lorenzino de'Medici was
murdered, he having fled Florence after killing his cousin,
Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence, in 1537. It's the first
in a series, we're told.
has been pretty much a-trip-a-month, making up for lost time.
August was a month of medical stuff - tests and a tooth
but all is now good and more trips loom - three booked and
more planned. And that's without the tempting guided art tours
I'm hearing about for 2023. I'm smiling!
April to July 2022
Philip Gwynne Jones
The Angels of Venice
Hereford & Worcester
Maria Luisa Minarelli
Murder in Venice
Ferrara & Venice
Death in the Floating City
June turned out
a bit of a stop-at-home month, full of Ferrara-centric work on
Churches of Venice, my new-found genealogy obsession, and
medical appointments. But all is now clear, and my health is
in the clear, for some English summer destinations, a
Courtauld Summer School week, and two Italian trips in the
Autumn. First up is Hereford and Worcester tomorrow, for some
cathedral and cemetery action. Reading that Hereford Cathedral
is having work done and is covered in scaffolding would've
been dispiriting, had I not read it in a guidebook from 1858.
Still, it's nice to know that one of the main banes of
has not changed much in a hundred years. July also sees the
publication of site-fave Philip Gwynne Jones's new novel
The Angels of Venice. So, what with a clean bill of
health, trips aplenty, and juicy reads, the future's looking
Back from my trip to
Ferrara and Venice, and boy was it hot - the upper 20sįC. But
lots of photos were taken, churches visited, and gelati and
pastries scoffed in both cities.
Only really the
mask-wearing remains of the Covid measures, on public
transport and in some churches, although I was on one
occasion blessed with hand
wash from a nun.
Having been on three trips abroad and two in the UK so far
this year I plan to stay at home now for a bit, probably until
September/October. I'm looking at plenty of work to get my
Ferrara church page presentable and my Venice
pages freshened up.
This time next week I'll
be packing for my trip to Ferrara and Venice, where I'll be
selflessly devoting myself to photographing churches and
eating gelato. It'll be my first trip to Venice, and first
solo trip to Italy, since November 2019. In Venice I'll also
be checking out the now-finished conversion of the
ground-floor rooms at the Accademia to gallery space which,
since August 2021, has included a new big room of church art
of the 17th and 18th centuries. Not our favourite centuries,
but still. The new display presents 63 works, many not
previously on display for space reasons. There's a few
rarely-open churches being used as Biennale satellite venues
too, and temperatures are looking to reach around a comfortable 23į.
The need for the personal locator form for entry into Italy
ceased on the 1st of May and the NHS covid-jab proof
is now only needed for entry into the country, not restaurants
and galleries anymore. FFP2 masks are still compulsory on flights into
Italy and on public transport there. A minor pain, and weird after the UK's relaxation of all
rules, but not as bad as February.
Just when you thought it was
safe ... my
guided trip to South Tyrol in June has just been cancelled,
due to too-low numbers. It seems that not everyone thinks it's
safe yet. The silver lining is that I now have a swathe of free
weeks in June
giving scope to book my own destination(s) in Italy.
to March 2022
The Prisoner of Paradise
Toulouse, Conques & Albi
The Dark Heart of
Marco Vichi Ghosts of the Past
Give Unto Others
D.V. Bishop City of Vengeance
Book of Colours
Encouraged by the news that from the 1st of March entry to
Italy no longer requires a pre-trip Covid test, just the
proof of vaccination and the passenger locator form, I've booked a
week in Ferrara and Venice in mid-May!
I'm just back from Florence -
my first trip to Italy since Venice in November 2019 and my
first trip abroad since my Covid-cursed trip to (not) see the
Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent in March 2020. So thatís two
years of lockdowns, staycations and online courses, but no
getting out of my own country. Rules have been relaxing very
fast in England of late but Italy was still not taking any
chances. The planned papal visit didn't happen, but they sure
had all the blue chairs ready.
Wonders never cease! I've just had an email from Donna Leon's
publisher asking if I'd like a review copy of her new one
Give Unto Others, due early in March. After 24 years of
having to ask nicely, and often getting no reply, this is
heart-warming. Anyway, I said 'yes', so expect a review sooner
than later. Also on the way is the new one from David Adams
Cleveland, Gods of Deception, due towards the end of April. It
is evidently not heavy on the Venice content this time, but
he's earned his inclusion over the past three novels, and it's
another long 'un - 928 pages.
Things are moving, for good it seems, in the right direction
in Britain, COVID-measures-wise. On Thursday 27th the recent
harsher rules are being relaxed, and today an easing of the
need for tests for travellers coming into the country has been
announced, taking effect on the 11th of February. Iím feeling
full of hope about my trips to Florence in February and
Toulouse in March, but I've just had a tour to Lucca in late
March cancelled. They said it was because the numbers were too
low due to current trepidation, but rumour has it was also the
fact that BA don't fly to Pisa on Thursdays at the moment.
I've moved my money to a guided trip to South Tyrol in June. I
know next to nothing about the region but it looks
interesting, having been Germany until it was given to Italy
So it looks like my foolish optimism might be well-founded
So that was 2021, but letís let it rest in peace and move on.
Things are looking good for 2022.
Trepidation and playing it safe are all well and good, but
sometimes a chap just has to take a chance, and book a week in
Florence in February. It's a guided tour, which I don't really
need, but it's a favourite art historian and a couple of old
tour friends are on it. Added attractions are the Brancacci
Chapel putting up scaffolding for restoration that the public
is going to be allowed up on, the new Fra Angelico rooms in
San Marco and Santa Croceís new entrance, open areas and
circuit. Booking a guided trip also means someone else is
taking care of the tests and forms. But I'll be crossing my
own fingers. March is full of postponed tours and a homecoming
niece, but April and May are pretty empty and crying out for
returns to Venice, Ferrara, Verona... the list is long and the
In other news, the cats presented us with their first dead
mouse, left to be found when I came down in the morning on
Thursday. Suspicion fell on Minnie, who likes to bring gifts
and has a special meow to signal this. These gifts are mostly
from the garden, usually bits of wood, leaves, or twigs. Then
Friday I had to deal with five gifts of baby mice, all alive,
and all taken back out into the garden, so it's possible that the five
included repeat appearances.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!