Thursday 25 October 2012

At the National Maritime Museum

I gave a talk there on Venice's maritime empire recently - obscuring a perfectly good slide of a Canaletto (and apparently grasping a Venetian sailor by the head). Thanks very much to Louise Simkiss and the team for a very warm welcome. Followed up by a fascinating cruise up the Thames to Westminster, something I've never done before. A great day out.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Lowering the Venetian flag in Perast

In September I went, courtesy of Zegrahm Expeditions, to visit some outer reaches of the Venetian empire along the Dalmatian coast, which I have long been curious about, but never visited. My interest had been aroused many years ago by Jan Morris’s romantic evocation of the Venetian sea, by the long association the Venetians had with what is now Montenegro and its outposts along the Albanian coast. It started with a circumnavigation of Sicily – spectacular not least for a shattering thunderstorm in Syracuse, which kept us trapped for a long hour in the porch of the city’s cathedral with a confirmation party of smartly dressed Sicilians whilst thunder crashed and Bangladeshi umbrella salesmen demonstrated the effectiveness of their wares in the atomic rain:

 A day later we entered the long Mediterranean fjord of Kotor at dawn, a deep water harbour backed by the dark hills of the Balkans. The ship followed the sinuous curves up to Kotor itself, a red-roofed, splendidly walled miniature of an Italian city nestling under the Black Mountain, once covered with pine trees, but stripped bare over the centuries to plank out Venetian ships. The Dalmatian coast provided the wood to construct their galleys and merchant ships and the seamen to sail them. On the outer wall of Kotor, there’s still a Venetian lion, proudly proclaiming the sovereignty of Venice.

Just down the coast, the sea captains’ village of Perast and off shore the wonderful island sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rocks – a miniature seaman’s church embellished with silver votive plaques commemorating miraculous salvations from storms and shipwrecks. In many places – Crete for example – the Venetian empire was felt as an oppressive yoke, but here with great affection. In Perast’s maritime museum a painting of the Republic’s final hour. On August 23 1797, three months after Napoleon marched into Venice, the Austrian navy arrived in Perast and the lion banner was hauled down for the last time. It was an emotional moment. Captain Joko Viskovich made a ringing speech in the local language, people wept and kissed the flag: “The history of this day will be known throughout all Europe, how Perast has maintained, with dignity, to the very end, the honour of the Venetian flag, honouring it with this solemn act, lowering it to the ground, bathed in our universal and bitter tears’. Stirring stuff!

The last day

Monday 15 October 2012

Dolphins in the Bosphorus

It has to be said that the blog has not exactly been active lately, but this week I was lucky enough to stay in  Istanbul on the banks of the Bosphorus. In the early morning, with the water flat calm, the sun just coming up - before the heavy criss-crossing of ferries from the Asian to the European shore and the cavalcade of huge tankers to and from the Black Sea - I was rewarded with the sight of a line of dolphins arcing in and out of the water about twenty yards in front of me, in shallow curves, black fins cutting the surface, as I walked on the hotel terrace, a fantastic sight and a reminder of the wonderful wealth of this extraordinary waterway. So rich was the Bosphorus in marine life in ancient times that in the migration season, it was said that you could scoop bonito from the water with a net from the windows of water-side houses. The dolphin features deeply in the iconography of Constantinople, stamped on coins, carved on city walls - an emblem of grace, nobility and beauty - a sign of good luck, a reminder that this is a city garlanded in water, like a glimpse of the sea caught at the end of a street. And by association I remembered Patrick Leigh-Fermor, whose biography was published last week, for two astonishing pages in Mani on the transformative magic of dolphins: ''These creatures bring a blessing with them. No day in which they have played a part is like other days.' And it's true. I felt touched by some light enchantment. I thought about them all day.