Monday, 12 September 2016

Views of Florence

This is a view of the city from across the River Arno. From the left, Giotto's tower, the Duomo and the Palazzo della Signoria.

The building of the Duomo (cathedral) was begun at the end of the 13th century. When Brunellechi designed the dome in the 15th century, it was the first dome constructed in western Europe since Roman times.

The campanile (bell-tower) was designed by Giotto in the 14th century, and completed by other architects after his death.

From the tower, there are magnificent views over the city. This is the Palazzo della Signoria,

and the baptistery.
The baptistery dates from the 11th century, and features the famous bronze doors by Ghiberti. The cupola has mosaics in Byzantine style. Dante was baptised here.

The Palazzo del Popolo, otherwise known as the Palazzo Vecchio. It was built in the early 14th century, with many later additions. It was once the home of the Medici family. It faces the magnificent Piazza del Popolo. The Uffizi gallery is just round the corner.  

Do not be put off by the obviously unfinished facade of San Lorenzo! It contains some of Michelangelo's greatest work,including the Laurentian library and the medici tombs.

The Ponte Vecchio across the River Arno.

Crossing this bridge will bring you to the Pitti Palace of the Medici. From there, it's well worth climbing the hill to San Miniato al Monte, one of the oldest churches in Florence.

Finish at the Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic view over the city, which is where we started.

Friday, 2 September 2016

1968: The Year of Revolution

If 1967 was the "Summer of Love", then 1968 was the year of revolution. I remember it well, since it was my last year at Cambridge. There was great excitement on the student Left, and it was obligatory to stress your proletarian roots, especially if you'd been to a major public school. The inspiration, however, was driven almost exclusively by events abroad.
    Unlike the student Left of the 1930s, the inspiration did not come from Russia; and indeed the Soviet brand of socialism was specifically repudiated by most student radical leaders. The Soviet Union had long since ceased to be radical. Persecution of Russian dissidents increased in 1968, and in the summer came one of the salient events of the year. Alexander Dubcek of Czechoslovakia had led a promising movement towards a less oppressive form of communism. This attracted much popular enthusiasm, but on August 21st Russian forces invaded, to put an end to the "Prague Spring". Although there was no violence, these events finally killed any illusion that the Soviet Union could be considered a force for progress.
    More promising in some eyes was China, where Mao's "cultural revolution" was at its climax, as the former premier, Liu Siao-chi, having confessed to being a "capitalist roader", was expelled from the Communist party. He was to die miserably of ill-treatment; just one of many. The posters and scenes of mass action were undenaibly exciting.  and the extreme levels of death and destruction involved in the cultural revolution were not yet apparent to westerners, Then there was admiration of Cuba, with its young, charismatic leader, who was furthermore the enemy of the United States, the ultimate bad guy of 1968.
   The Cold War was in abeyance at this time, and the main great-power hostility was between Russia and China, with mutual and savage denunciation; so much so that some experts were even predicting a war in the near future. This potential conflict, however, was little noticed by student radicals in the west: the war that concerned them was, of course, in Vietnam. 

   By early 1968, American troops in South Vietnam were approaching half a million. In January came the Tet offensive, when for the first time the Vietcong launched direct attacks on the cities. Although all these failed, at enormous cost to the attackers, the American government became convinced that the war could not be won, and, with protests against the war, and against the "draft" that sent young men to serve in Vietnam, rising at home, began to search for a way out of the conflict. President Lyndon Johnson had done more for black Americans than any president since Lincoln, but his identification with the Vietnam war made him a deeply hated figure. I can well remember how his appearance on newsreels would bring a chorus of boos from Cambridge students. At the end of March, Johnson announced that he would not be running for re-election. The man looking most likely to succeed him, Bobby Kennedy, was then murdered in early June, leaving a serious gap in the leadership of the Democratic party.
   The demonstrations and sit-ins that swept college campuses in the summer of 1968 were paralleled in the Black community. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. For some time, his non-violent methods had been coming under attack from the more militant "Black Power" movement, but his death was greeted by a week of rioting and looting. At the Mexico City Olympics, two American athletes gave the Black Power salute on the medals rostrum, and were promptly sent home in disgrace. Left-wing student radicals and black power activists came together at the Democratic party convention in Chicago in August, where they were indiscriminately clubbed by Mayor Daley's police.

Simultaneously, similar but quite unconnected events were taking place in Paris. French students had their own grievances, and at the start of May clashes with the police erupted throughout the Latin Quarter. May 10th was the "night of the barricades". President de Gaulle at firdt seemed willing to make concessions, and at the end of the month announced new elections to the French National Assembly. Riots continued, but it quickly became clear that the students were isolated and lacked mass support: in particular, the powerful French Communist Party failed to back them. Next month the government banned demonstrations and outlawed many of the student bodies, and then won a landslide victory in the elections.

By comparison, protest movements in Britain, though widespread, were entirely derivative. They concentrated on Vietnam, despite the fact that not a single British soldier had been sent there: Harold Wilson's Labour government had, as we now know, successfully resisted intense American pressure to commit troops. Wilson's government had passed a number of important reforms: abolishing capital punishment, outlawing racial discrimination and decriminalising homosexuality; but in the eyes of the radical Left all this counted for nothing compared with the fact that Wilson gave verbal support to the American war. I witnessed Denis Healey, the minister of defence, being booed and heckled by students for this very reason. 
   The Rolling Stones captured the mood of 1968, with the song "Street Fighting Man" on their "Beggar's Banquet" album. It embodied what some radicals presumably wanted, and violence was predicted in Enoch Powell's notorious "Rivers of blood" speech, delivered in April. but in Britain, unlike in America and France, street fighting never really took off. 

In every case, the 1968 attempts at revolution not only failed, but led to distinct swings to the Right. In Czechoslovakia, Dubcek and his friends were expelled from the Communist Party, and the country settled down to a dreary few decades of low-level reression. De Gaulle resigned as French President in 1969, but was succeeded by his former Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou. In Britain, Harold Wilson unexpectedly lost the 1970 election to the Conservatives. And American politics saw a real and lasting sea-change. Ever since the Civil War, the old slave-owning states of the south had voted Democrat, largely because Lincoln had been a Republican. Lyndon Johnson expressed the fear that, by enacting his Civil Rights legislation, he could have lost his party the south; and in the 1968 Presidential election this did indeed happen. George Wallace, the openly segregationalist governor of Alabama, swept to victory throughout the south, and Richard Nixon was in consequence elected President by a small margin, in a clear negation of the hopes of the Left.

Jeremy Corbyn is my age. I suspect he formulated his ideas in the turmoil of 1968. I wonder if he has learnt anything since.

Monday, 29 August 2016


Everybody called him Sasha: he was never sure whether he had any other name. He could never remember a time when he had not been hungry or afraid. His earliest memories, which still resurfaced in his dreams, were of fighting: men shooting, buildings burning and bodies in the streets. He could barely picture his parents, who had both disappeared around that time. When the fighting had finished he was brought up by a woman who said she was his aunt, though she treated him more like a servant: setting him to chop firewood or shovel away snow, never giving him enough to eat and beating him if he complained. Eventually he ran away, and lived for a while by begging and stealing until he was big enough to get a job at Mr. Fenstein’s factory. He earned little there, for after years of malnutrition he was not strong enough for heavy tasks. His workmates jeered at him for his weakness and also because he could hardly read or write, and girls looked scornfully at his ragged clothes.
Then there was more fighting, and soldiers occupied the town. They spoke a strange language, but Sasha learned to pick it up; and when they found he was always willing to help them in return for food, they laughed and said he was a lad with promise. After a while they took him away for training.
The training was tough, and many of the duties very unpleasant, but Sasha never complained. Why should he? The barracks were far more comfortable than the doss-house which had been his home, and the food and clothing were the best he had ever enjoyed. For the first time in his life he was able to get washed and shaved properly, and have a decent haircut. Finally, when the training was completed, he was ordered to report to the railway station for transfer to his place of assignment.
As he dressed in his brand new uniform and looked at himself in the mirror, Sasha for the first time in his life felt a sense of pride. Now at last he had status: he was somebody! He walked through the streets and noticed that people who had once treated him with contempt now regarded him with wariness, even fear; and stepped off the pavement to make way for him. It made him want to smile, but he thought it best to keep his expression stern and hard. Now he was showing them! Now he could get his own back! And if Mr. Fenstein or anyone else failed to show him proper respect, he’d quickly demonstrate to them who was the boss now!
Sasha reached the station, where a train was drawn up. Much of it consisted of cattle trucks, but not for him! Oh no! He’d be travelling in a proper carriage with his new comrades, the other men of his unit!
It would probably be a long journey, because the destination painted on the train was somewhere he’d never heard of: Auschwitz.     

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Young Lloyd George

David Lloyd George, the most famous of Welshmen, was actually born in Manchester in January 1863; the son of two schoolteachers. Eighteen months later his father died, leaving his widow pregnant, and with a baby son. Fortunately her brother, Richard Lloyd, came to the rescue, helping the family move to his home at Llanystumdwy, a village in north Wales.
   Lloyd George later boasted that he was the first "cottage-raised man" to rise to the Premiership. This was strictly accurate, but Richard Lloyd was no downtrodden proletarian. He was a shoemaker (factory-made shoes had yet to appear), and as a skilled craftsman and a lay preacher in the Baptist chapel he was a respected member of the village community. He took great interest in his nephew's upbringing.
   Despite the limitations of local educational opportunities, Lloyd George was able to qualify as a solicitor, and set up a law firm in partnership with his younger brother William. (It was named, rather oddly, "Lloyd George and George"). He was active in local politics whilst still a teenager, and rose to prominence by his campaigns for the rights of local Nonconformists against the power of the established Anglican church, to which hardly any of the villagers belonged. As a result he was adopted as Liberal Party candidate for the local constituency of Caernarfon Boroughs, and in March 1890, following the death of its Tory M.P., was elected to Parliament by a majority of just 18 votes. He was to represent the constituency through to when he was elevated to a peerage just weeks before his death in 1945.
   There can hardly be a greater contrast between Lloyd George's background and that of Winston Churchill, his friend and colleague in the great reforming Liberal government before the First World War. Churchill was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, born in the splendour of Blenheim Palace and expensively educated at Harrow school; though he maintained he derived little benefit from it, and largely educated himself by extensive reading whilst a subaltern in the army in India. As an angry Conservative M.P. later remarked to Stanley Baldwin, the party's leader, "L.G. was born a cad and never forgot it: Winston was born a gentleman and never rememebered it".

Richard Lloyd's cottage can still be seen in Llanystumdwy.
This is the back door. The shoemaker's workshop is on the right. Inside there was a kitchen and parlour downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. As was usual in such cottages, there was no indoor lavatory; instead there was a privy at the end of the garden.
Inside, the cottage and workshop are maintained as they would have appeared. No photography is permitted inside, but instead there is an excellent Lloyd George museum in a modern building next door, which is well worth a visit.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Shrewsbury Parliament, 1283

King Edward I sumoned the third Parliament of his reign at Shrewsbury in the autumn of 1283. It was attended by a large number of lords, plus bishops, knights representing the shires of England and burgesses from the corporate towns. The reason for meeting there was because of Shropshire's proximity to the border with Wales. Edward's campaign to conquer Wales had led to the death of Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffudd the previous year, and then in June Llewellyn's younger brother Dafydd, after a career devoted to changing sides, had finally been captured near Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, in June. Edward was determined to make an example of him, and the Parliament was accordingly summoned to witness Dafydd's trial and execution.
   The verdict was inevitable. Dafydd was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be dragged at a horse's tail through Shrewsbury, hanged, cut down whilst still conscious, disembowelled, and his body cut into quarters and fed to the dogs. Such a savage and degrading punishment had never before been visited on someone of such high rank: as the chroniclers noted, with a touch of unease, it was "in previous times unknown".

   A few days after disposing of Dafydd, King and Parliament decamped to the home of Edward's Chancellor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Burnell, in a village a few miles outside Shrewsbury, which is still called Acton Burnell. Victorian constitutional historians believed that this was the first occasion when the Lords and Commons met separately, with the knights of the shires taking the momentous decision to place themselves alongside the town burgesses in the Commons; but there seems to be no certainty about this.
    Burnell, a career cleric, had been a member of Edward's household since the 1250s, and was now one of his most trusted advisors. Amongst other things,he drew up the Statute of Westminster, regulating how future Parliaments should be conducted. Edward tried several times to have him made Archbishop of Canterbury, only to have the appointment vetoed by the Pope, who, justifiably, objected to Burnell's immoral personal life (he had fathered five illegitimate children!) and the way he had accumulated vast personal wealth by blatant simony. He died in 1293.

These are some pictures of the surviving mediaeval buildings at Acton Burnell. In 1284 Bishop Burnell was given a "licence to crenellate" his house; that is, to build battlements; but it isn't really a castle. (In this way it is comparable with the contemporary Shropshire "castle" at Stokesay, which was built by another of Edward's friends: the wool-merchant Lawrence of Ludlow). What Burnell built for himself was a refined and sophisticated mansion, whose very lack of defensibility showed how the country was becoming more peaceful.

Nearby is the church of St. Mary, built at the same time; but little remains of the large stone barn where the Parliament is supposed to have met.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Great Orme Copper Mine, Llandudno

The Great Orme is a massive lump of limestone rock overlooking the seaside resort of Llandudno in north Wales. Copper ore, greenish in colour, seems to have been excavated from the site as long as 4,000 years ago, presumably in the first instance where the veins of ore outcropped on the surface. Later a vast quantity of waste rock covered the site, and it was only when this was removed after 1987 that a network of Bronze Age tunnels and caverns was discovered. These extend over five miles and reach a depth of  250 feet, but it is guessed that what has been excavated so far is only a small part of what is down there.
    The Bronze Age miners has no excavating tools other than picks of deer antler and shovels of the shoulder-blades of oxen. Some of the tunnels are so narrow that they must have been worked by small children. Working conditions, with no more light than that from little lamps of animal fat, can hardly be imagined. As veins became exhausted, the tunnels leading to them were filled with waste rock, which is now being painstakingly removed, so that some of the tunnels are now open to visitors.
     This is the entrance, on the right, with the exit to the left of it:-

A tour of the tunnels is a most interesting experience, but cannot be recommended to the very tall, the obese or the claustrophobic!

How these early peoples first discovered how to smelt copper from the ore, and to alloy it with tin (which is quite a rare metal) to make bronze; and whether these developments spread out from a central source or were discovered independently in different parts of the world, remains a mystery to archaeologists.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Dante: His Life and Times

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265, the son of a small-scale financier. He was only nine years old when, according to his own account, he first set eyes on the love of his life. She was Beatrice Portinari, also nine, the daughter of a near neighbour, and she was to dominate his poetical imagination. Of course, there was never any likelihood of them marrying, because such important matters were arranged by parents, and in 1277 Dante was formally betrothed to Gemma Donati. He was not yet twelve, she was about ten. They married, probably in 1286, and had several children.
   Nowhere in his writings does Dante make any reference to his wife. It was Beatrice who continued to fascinate and inspire him, and in 1283, he tells us, she actually deigned to speak to him for the first time. In the meantime he studied the great Roman authors, particularly Virgil and Cicero, under the tutorship of Brunetto Latini, a man whose soul he came to place in Hell. He began his first attempts at writing poetry, particularly about his love for Beatrice. But she had married Simone de Bardi in 1287, had children, and then died prematurely in 1290.
   Dante never forgot her, and many years later he would portray her spotless soul guiding him through Paradise in the final section of his “Divine Comedy”. In the immediate future, her death inspired him to the compilation and publication of his first collection of sonnets about his love for her, together with his commentary upon them: a book generally known as “La Vita Nuova”; the New Life.

Dante’s lifetime saw the start of a new style of painting in Florence, with Cimabue (1250-1302) and Giotto (1266-1337) foreshadowing the Renaissance. He certainly knew Giotto personally. It was also an age of great political turmoil in Italy. The great Emperor Frederick II, “Stupor Mundi”, “The wonder of the world”, who ruled Naples and Sicily as well as Germany, had faced a sentence of excommunication and deposition pronounced against him by Pope Innocent IV, and had finally died defeated in 1250. His illegitimate son Manfred managed to establish himself in southern Italy, only for Pope Clement IV to proclaim a crusade against him. The French warrior, Charles of Anjou, financed and supported by the Pope, defeated and killed Manfred at Benevento in 1266. Two years later Frederick’s 15-year-old grandson Conradin tried his luck with an expedition from Germany, but he too was defeated by Charles and then beheaded in the market-place at Naples, together with his equally young friend and supporter Frederick of Baden. This unprecedented act of violence against youths of the highest aristocracy shocked contemporaries, and fifty years later Dante was still upset by it, but the Pope rejoiced that the last of the “devil’s brood” had been extirpated. Dante, by contrast, rather admired Manfred, and placed his soul in Purgatory rather than Hell.
   This was not the end of disturbances in Sicily, because at Easter 1282 the people of Palermo suddenly rose up and massacred Charles’s French troops in the city, in a carnage that quickly spread throughout the island. (One of the many explanations of the mysterious word “Mafia” is that it is short for “Death to the French!”) King Peter of Aragon then claimed the throne of Sicily by virtue of his marriage to Manfred’s daughter, and the Pope, Martin IV, responded by excommunicating him and proclaiming a crusade against him. Such blatant abuse of spiritual weapons for purely political ends did much to discredit the papacy.

   The troubles of the papacy had, in fact, barely begun. Following the death of Nicholas IV in 1292 there was a hiatus of two years while the cardinals wrangled over the succession. Eventually they settled on a compromise candidate: an 80-year-old Italian hermit called Peter Morrone, who duly became Celestine V. Not surprisingly, this aged unworldly man proved to be a disastrous choice, and after a few months he was persuaded to abdicate, was imprisoned and died soon after. Inevitably, there were rumours that he had been murdered. Dante showed his contempt for Celestine by consigning him to the “Vestibule” just inside the gates of Hell: a region reserved for those who lack the courage to be either virtuous or wicked, and who are endlessly buffeted about by powerful winds.
   The next Pope was Boniface VIII, the scion of a powerful Roman clan. He had exalted opinions of the authority of the papacy, which soon involved him in a disastrous dispute with King Philip IV of France. The culmination came in 1303 when Philip’s minister, Nogaret, kidnapped the Pope and actually struck him in the face. Boniface was soon rescued by his supporters, but he was a broken man and died not long afterwards.
  After the brief papacy of Benedict XI, a Frenchman was elected Pope, as Clement V. But he took up residence in Avignon and never set foot in Rome. For the next seventy years, all the Popes were French, living at Avignon, and little more than puppets of the Kings of France. This then was the situation for the latter stages of Dante’s life. It is not surprising that he consigned Boniface VIII to one of the lowest circles of Hell, as we shall see.       

   All this left Italy, and especially Florence, divided into two rival parties; the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and the Ghibellines (supporters of the Emperor), and local feuding was very bitter. The Ghibelline families were driven out of Florence in 1266 and all their properties destroyed, thereby leaving an open space which is now the Piazza della Signoria; it being solemnly decreed that no building should ever be erected on such an accursed spot. It was against this background that Dante began his public life. He joined the Apothecaries’ Guild, fought for his city at the battle of Campaldino against Ghibelline forces in 1289, and began to make a name for himself in Florentine politics. He emerged as a fine orator, and in 1300 was elected one of the three Priors of the city, made a superintendent in charge of the roads and road repairs, and sent on a mission to Rome.
   But Florentine city politics was always riddled with factions, and the Guelph party soon found itself divided into rival groups known as the “Blacks” and the “Whites”; a split which seems to have been more about family rivalries than any ideological disputes. Dante’s sympathies were with the Whites. He was still in Rome in November 1302 when Florence was occupied by the troops of Charles of Valois, brother of Philip IV of France. The Black faction seized power and the Whites were driven out. Early next year Dante was charged in his absence with embezzlement of public funds and sentenced to death by burning at the stake. The death sentence was renewed in 1315, and even extended to include his three sons. Dante never set foot in his home city again.

The rest of his life was spent in a wandering existence round the cities of northern Italy, supported by various powerful families but never staying anywhere for more than a few years. In his work “De Monarchia”, published in 1308, he expressed his longing for a strong leader who could provide unity for Italy and for the whole of Christendom. He had hopes that first Charles Martel, grandson of Charles of Anjou, and then the Holy Roman Emperor Henry of Luxembourg might fulfil this role, but both died young with nothing achieved.
    Around 1308 he began work on his masterpiece, known as the “Divine Comedy”. It is set in Easter 1300, and describes in three books how he, guided by Roman poet Virgil, is taken firstly down through Hell, then up Mount Purgatory on the far side of the earth, and finally through the spheres of the planets and stars in Paradise.
   He takes the opportunity to bring many of his contemporaries into the story, especially in the first book, the “Inferno”, where he descends ever deeper inside the earth. Pope Celestine V, as was mentioned, is amongst other cowardly souls in the Vestibule. The Florentine Ghibelline leader, Farinata degli Uberti, is discovered alongside the Emperor Frederick II in the burning tombs of the heretics. Dante’s old tutor Brunetto Latini is placed among the sodomites; a fact which has puzzled scholars ever since, because Dante was always appreciative of the debt he owed to Brunetto’s teaching. Pope Boniface VIII was, of course, still alive when the story was supposed to be set, but Dante still manages to get a dig at him. In one of the lowest circles of Hell the poets meet the shade of Nicholas III, a notoriously corrupt Pope, who mistakes Dante for one of his successors and asks, “Are you here already, Boniface?” Finally they encounter the gigantic form of Satan himself, at the earth’s centre, like a maggot in the heart of an apple. Satan eternally chews on the bodies of Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius. This last scene always comes as a shock to modern readers, brought up on Shakespeare and accustomed to see Brutus as a heroic, patriotic figure, “the noblest Roman of them all”; but to Dante, who believed universal empire was God’s will for the world, the crime of Brutus and Cassius in killing Julius Caesar was almost as wicked as that of Judas in betraying Christ.
   The poets now pass right through the earth and reach Mount Purgatory on the far side (thus making it clear that Dante, as with all his educated contemporaries, knew that the world was round). Purgatory houses the souls of those who repented of their sins and who, after being purged of evil, will eventually be permitted to enter Paradise. (In later centuries, Luther, Calvin and other Protestant theologians denounced the whole notion of Purgatory) As mentioned above, at the entrance to the mountain he meets King Manfred, who is having to do penance for thirty times his natural life because he delayed repentance until just before his death in battle. Virgil conducts Dante to the summit of the mountain, but as a pagan he can go no further, and it is the shade of Beatrice who then guides the poet through the circles of Paradise, which are marked by the moon, the sun and the five visible planets, meeting saints and choruses of angels, until finally, beyond the stars, Dante is granted a sight of God himself. This vision of the structure of the heavens was ultimately derived from Aristotle.

Dante completed this third section of his great work around 1520, when he was living in Ravenna. The next year, returning to the city from a diplomatic mission to Venice, he caught malaria and died, aged 56.

  His sepulchre can be seen in Ravenna. In the 16th century Michelangelo was keen to build a tomb for him in Florence, but the Franciscan monks of Ravenna refused to release his bones, and even went to the lengths of hiding them to prevent a handover. They were not rediscovered until the nineteenth century.

   Dante is revered as one of the greatest poets of all time, but also as the originator of the modern Italian language.