Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Although I have seen Gulliver's Travels in the form of film, theatre and children's book, I have neveer before read the full classical version. Having read the first part I am surprised at how satirical it is; in fact I am coming to the conclusion that Jonathan Swift was using it mainly as a platform to explore what must have been then quite radical ideas on sociology and politics. There are ideas on child-rearing, legal systems, morals, republics, and monetary policy - among many other things. He was obviously encouraged by the ideas of the Enlightenment to think about alternative worlds. He says a lot about the stupidity of war - pointing out that all it needs is someone in power to advocate a certain way of breaking open an egg, and for another to disagree, for people to go to battle, and lives to be lost.

It is also funny in its crudity. Gulliver is expelled from Lilliput because of his unorthodox manner of quenching a fire in the queen's rooms of the palace. Thereafter she is thoroughly disgusted, and refuses to return - and I can't say I blame her. However, I am not sure I would regard his action a capital offence.

I am reading the book on my Kindle. This is useful because it helps me find definitions for the unfamiliar words, and also, more interestingly, the words which then meant something entirely different from what they mean today. I am learning yet more about the eighteenth century.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Memoir of my Life (Volume 1) by Giacoma Casanova

Having finished my research on what life was like in the eighteenth century, I am going to complete my study by looking at the eighteenth century voice. The two voices I have chosen are those of Giacoma Casanova and Jonathan Swift, since both of these have lives that neatly span the century, and are therefore representative.

I began by reading Giacoma Casanova's Memoirs on my Kindle. I hadn't expected them to be quite so entertaining. It starts with the young boy suffering a nose bleed. In some accounts I have heard it described as a haemorrhage, and that is indeed what it seems to be. His beloved grandmother takes him on a gondola to see a witch, who heals him with ointments, enclosing him in a smoky atmosphere and chants. Excellent pre-enlightenment stuff! And it cures him. When he arrives home, he is, as predicted, visited by a mysterious beautiful woman at night, which seems very much a symbol for the rest of Casanova's life.

Soon afterwards, he has his first sexual encounter with a girl, only slightly older than he is, called Bettina. Bettina is somewhat duplicitous, and to get out of a sticky situation involving another older boy, she pretends to have spasms. These, Casanova wryly observes, are only cured by exorcism - not from their usual parish priest, but from a younger one who is better looking. She is rescued from her complicated situation by a bad bout of smallpox. Since Casanova has already had the disease he stays with her, and he gives graphic descriptions of the course of the disease, including the smell of the pustules, and the sick room in general. When she is past the crisis he warns her that if she scratches she will ruin her looks, and he observes that for a girl such as Bettina this is a most effective remedy for itching.

Although there is a bravado in his account, the account itself strikes me as generally honest (albeit the character he describes is inherently dishonest). He blames his promiscuity on a 'natural' excitement (which he can do nothing about, not that he would want to), and he seems to sometimes blame his female companions for knowingly inducing this in him. He loves women, and yet even while he is loving them he is, at the same time, deceiving and abusing them.

Apart from these encounters, which he describes with none of the guilt or self-reproach that is evident in the English diarists of Behind Closed Doors, there are other entertaining scenes, such as when he gives a sermon with no preparation whatsoever.

I have left Casanova at the end of volume one (of ten, I believe), and his departure from Venice for Rome. I feel I have learnt a lot about the social mores of an eighteenth century gentleman in Venice. It is a life of pleasure, and very much supports Monsieur Monnier's account of the place. I will come back to read the rest later.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Eighteenth Century: Venice

Continuing my investigation of the eighteenth century, I return at last to Venice, which at that time was the home of Casanova. Russell Davies, in a recent series based on Casanova's memoirs for TV, portrayed Venice as a place of masquerades and sumptuous silken clothing, which from my reading seems to be an accurate evocation.

Before unification, Italy consisted of several city-states or regions, and Venice was one of the more influential. I read a little about the city in John Julius Norwich's History of Venice, but his focus tends to be political and there is little from the modern era, so I decided to try elsewhere. A google search produced Venice in the Eighteenth Century by Philippe Monnier.

Philippe Monnier was from Geneva and certainly loved the place. His prose is rich, maybe a little too rich, and after a short while it began to seem like hyperbole. This helped to give an impression of what must have been (and still is) an extraordinary place. The Venice of the eighteenth century had had a glorious past, but was now on the cusp of decline, but even so continued to indulge in months-long carnivals and masquerades. Like the population of the Western World at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the inhabitants of Casanova's Venice were relying on promises and times past. I suppose it could be read as an analogy for how we live now. The aim, Philippe Monnier says, 'The aim was to live contentedly and carelessly, not thinking of tomorrow.'

Marriages, like those in England and France of the time, seemed to be ones of convenience rather than love, and it was common for women of all classes to have a cavalier as a companion. A cavalier would be secured on the same footing as a doctor or confessor, and would be expected to be a shadow at her side. He would carry her gloves, her handkerchief, and her lap dog. He would be on hand to call a boatman, and supply spare change and visiting cards (when these were required), and sharply reprimand anyone he considered to be insufficiently respectful. There were some that questioned the morality of this arrangement; but apparently the husbands were all quite happy with it, and saved them the bother of accompanying their women on tiresome social engagements.

A large proportion of women did not marry, but entered convents which were decidedly unchaste. Monnier records concerts and nuns with low necklines and pearls hiding (only partly) behind screens.

Just as now there were many poets and authors, and the entire population had what Monnier considered to be a natural appreciation of music, opera, theatre and comedy. Most people played a musical instrument and took dancing lessons, and as well as bursting into song at the slightest provocation (in parts) played out dramas (presumably of both the intentional and unintentional sort) in the piazzas and lanes during everyday life. It seemed to be a place determinedly dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure.

The book ended with the following sentiments, which I have summarised:

Venice has been losing empire since the discovery of America. One by one the ports have been lost. Poverty can be seen in the buildings with cracking house fronts and gaping walls and boarded up windows. Galleries have been emptied of their treasures. Everything is for sale. Patricians have lost rank. They are becoming poorer, their cloaks threadbare, and their lace discoloured.

The poorer the city grows, the more extravagant she becomes. The factories may be deserted; but the hundred and thirty-six casini and the five thousand Venetian families receive company every evening, and their drawing rooms are crowded.

As Venice declined so France was poised to rise, and in the century after that it was the turn of England, and then, after that, the USA. Just as Anjet Duvekot says it is all one big merry-go-round...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Eighteenth Century : England

So, having learnt about the exciting background to the Enlightenment and the fomenting of revolution in France, I turned to Behind Closed Doors to learn about life in eighteenth century England.

The tone, as suggested by the title, is quieter and more personal. The eighteenth century was a time when the idea of a polite society began to dominate. Just as in tenth century Japan there were many rules of behaviour, unwritten, but known and obeyed by everyone who wished to fit in and advance up the societal hierarchy.

In some ways it was as though the Enlightenment had not happened. The offence of witchcraft was only abolished in 1736, and superstitious practices continued (e.g. a shoe buried behind the hearth bringing good luck) until 1800.

The first chapter described the general domestic set-up at the beginning of the century. There was little privacy; servants might sleep with children or next to the masters. The landlady kept the keys and was in charge of who went in and out and when. There was a shutting in at a preordained time, and the watch was called at eleven o-clock. Anyone caught out after this was consigned to the watch tower.

The second chapter dealt with the life of single men. Unlike their continental counterparts they seemed uptight about women and sex, regarding passion only as a part of marriage and a means of having children and continuing the line. They dined out at clubs, chop and coffee houses, they carried swords and wore linen shirts, breeches, stockings and waistcoats. They didn't sew unless they were tailors. They danced, played musical instruments and drank tea.

On marriage, the woman generally held sway over the decorating; it was considered bad form for the husband to interfere too much. Decoration usually only occurred on marriage. The housewife then became the manager of the household. The complexities and domestic division of labour in middle-class households was considered in chapters three and four.

In chapter five other living choices were considered as the large house gave way to smaller villa mid-century, and these were decorated with just as much care. Chapter six, my favourite chapter, dealt with the wallpaper and upholstery. An unusual and not very interesting topic you might think, but there turned out to be quite a lot to it. First there was the colour choice; all of these had specific meanings, and as well as being subject to fashion, were regarded as being suited to particular rooms (because of their perceived degree of masculinity or femininity).

Chapter seven dealt with the importance of class and the role of the married and unmarried woman. Following the revolution in 1688, Great Britain had become liberal and more democratic. However this democracy did not extend to the home, or indeed to females. Unmarried women were sometimes expected to take the role of unpaid domestic servant quite cheerfully, while married women sometimes led unhappy lives under a tyrannical husband. But each usually had a sanctuary - either a sitting room or a closet.

One in five women did not marry, and if not taken in by a relative, tended to congregate together in rented accommodation. Some towns and streets were famously dominated by women. They had characteristic furniture and accessories, including the all-important tea-making kit which had recently become popular. On the continent such women would live together in a convent, where they would entertain and be entertained by male visitors according to John Julius Norwich in the History of Venice, but in non-conformist England these institutions were viewed with suspicion.

Another contrast with the continent (or at least France according to the book What Life Was Like During the Age of Reason) was the attitude of society to women and science. In France it was acceptable for a woman to be interested in science ('What? And leave behind my microscope?' exclaims a young woman when her lover suggests an elopement in a French play), whereas in England science was regarded as purely the province of men ('A woman makes a ridiculous figure , poring over globes , or thro' a Telescope...' opined a character in an English play of 1730).

Instead women were expected to indulge in craftwork: embroidery, featherwork and shellwork, even pictures made from dried seaweed. A woman was expected to always have her 'work' alongside her; it was thought to keep ennui at bay, which if left unchecked could result in melancholia and suicide. However, kitchens were also the site of women's expertise, and by the end of the century these were separate places, sometimes they could be considered laboratories of experimentation in themselves.

The evolution of the smaller, more intimate meeting place was a big feature of eighteenth century life - in England as well as on the continent. Salons and dinners were where issues and ideas of the day were discussed, and the seeds of revolutions - both dramatic and more quiet - artfully sewn.

Behind Closed Doors is a useful and interesting accompaniment to the TV series. Thanks to Yale University Press for the review copy. My apologies for taking so long to get round to reading it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Eighteenth Century: France

For some reason, the eighteenth century was little covered in history lessons when I was at school. So in the last week or so I have decided to learn a little more. This has become a three-book odyssey travelling from France, over to England and then back down to Venice. Each book showed a separate aspect of the era, and altogether I found it a very rewarding experience. I now feel I know a lot more about how it was to live in the era of The Enlightenment, which some call The Age of Reason, others call The Early Modern Era (late part) but which I shall call The Eighteenth Century.

The first book I read was this: What Life Was Like During the Age of Reason (by the 'editors of Time-Life') which spanned the time 1660 until 1800 in France. This was a short book with lots of pictures, and I particularly liked the introduction which neatly set the scene.

The Renaissance (the fourteen and fifteenth centuries) was the time when western Europe emerged from the dark ages and rediscovered ideas from the Greek and Roman (and, I suspect) Chinese civilisations. They turned from studying God to man, and these ideas were developed in the sixteenth century with people like Martin Luther and John Calvin reforming the church, and Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei using mathematics to describe nature. In the following century, the seventeenth, observation and mathematical analysis increasingly became more important, as man became more confident he could explain what was around him without resorting to the presence of the divine. Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke and Isaac Newton led to the conviction that science, reason and observation rather than religion, dogma or revelation was the way to the truth - the 'Enlightenment'.

In 1661 Louis XIV was crowned King of France. He was a relic from the days before Enlightenment because he was considered semi-divine, and God's representative on earth. He lived extravagantly, rather like the nations of the twentieth century century, beyond his means. And, also like the modern world, it was his descendants that had to pay. He built up debt and persecuted protestants, but also led to a cultural flowering in France, with the establishment of Academies.

He was succeeded by the five year old Louis XV in 1715. He inherited debt and in consequence his people were taxed: half of what they earned was claimed by the King. A huge gulf developed between the rich and poor. The strength of the commoners grew: they could purchase titles and jostled nobility. Jesuits were driven out and Protestants were still banned. Free-thinkers like Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet) scoffed at them all.

In 1774 Louis XVI came to the throne. Unrest grew, and the king was undermined by the new middle class, the Duc d'Orleans and the rise of the free-thinker. Tax was still punitive, and the poor were still desperately poor. 45% died before the age of 10.

After examining the lifestyle of the Royalty, the book goes on to deal with the Bourgois, the petit Bourgois, and then individuals like Joseph d'Hémery (chief of police) and Madame de Coudry (midwife extraordinaire) and a typical journeyman called Jacques-Louis Menetra who was befriended by Rousseau. The tension builds until the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror.

Altogether I found it to be an excellent book for a quick, accessible look at pre-revolutionary France.

Many thanks to my mother for lending me this copy!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The First Factory

Last year, I was invited to go to a library in Derbyshire to speak, so I thought that while I was there I would visit a Derby Museum. It was reputed to be the site of the first factory in the world - a silk mill set up by a man called John Lombe.

Unfortunately, the talk was cancelled, so I put off going to the museum for a while, which is a shame because when I eventually decided to go I found that the whole thing had been shut because of the cuts. So, to console myself, I ordered a book called The Transformation of a Valley which gave me a little more information about the origin of this auspicious factory.

I learnt that the plans for the Derby silk mill came from Italy as a result of industrial espionage. In my efforts to find out more about this I came across Gavin Menzies's book, 1434,. Gavin Menzie is a controversial historian, but I found the main premise of the book not too far-fetched or surprising. It was this: that in 1434 a fleet of Chinese ships reached Venice, and it is this that started the Renaissance.

I know from my reading of Joseph Needham's work that the Chinese developed many things (including hydraulically powered silk mills) long before the west, and I also know that by 1434 there had been communication, albeit a slow and dislocated one, between China and the West for several hundred years.

What I didn't know was that Leonardo da Vinci's 'inventions' (including silk mills) were not really his, but simply elaborations of diagrams of predecessors like Giovanni Battisa Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio and Mariano di Jacapo ditto Taccola. Some of Francesco di Giorgio's diagrams (and therefore Leonardo da Vinci's) were strikingly similar to Chinese ones in the Nung Shu - a popular encylopedia written just a few years before di Giorgi's. How these Westerners got their hands on these presumably Chinese designs is a moot point, but I am quite happy to believe that it was via this fleet of ships - given any evidence. Unfortunately, Gavin Menzies has not yet found any that absolutely convinced me, but maybe some will turn up eventually . There certainly seem to be almost-convincing rumours.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it very interesting, especially since it led me to this: The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice by Luca Mola. This was a scholarly study about how the Silk Industry around Venice (and to some extent the whole of Italy) developed from what was a cottage industry before 1434 to an industrial enterprise (using these Chinese-style hydraulic silk mills).

The secret of how the hydraulic silk mills operated was jealously guarded, but from time to time, reckless Italian mill workers (maybe having got into debt) would run off to another town taking their secrets (on both milling and weaving silk) with them. Their home city would often have a price put on their head, and instruct agents to set their new homes alight. Clearly a lot of people knew of the mills, but it would make sense that the Lombe brothers would need plans of how the mills worked in detail in order to produce one of their own. Accordingly, Thomas Lombe was dispatched to Italy to find out exactly how the silk mills operated.

The Luca Mola book points out that the mills in Verona and Vicenza employed hundreds of people, just as (presumably) the Chinese mills had too. If this is the case, then John Lombe's mill in Derby cannot be the 'first factory in the world' (that crown must belong to the Chinese), but it was still a first for the British Isles, and the start of an industry that would, for a short while, become extraordinarily important.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Anatomy of Norbiton

If you have a little time to spare, I highly recommend a visit to Toby Ferris's Ideal City of the Failed Life in Norbiton, South West London.

It's a weirdly mesmerising experience. Enter and become happily lost. The essays nest, link and envelope. For me it truly was like entering another place. I have a feeling that W.G. Sebald would love this concept if he had lived long enough to come across it. In a way it seemed to me to be a development of his art.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another prize listing for Patrick McGuinness!

After being long listed for the Booker, I see in the BBC News that Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is up for a prize again! It has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award.

Congratulations Mr McGuinness! And Seren...!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Flesh and Bronze by Alison Leonard

I've known Alison Leonard quite a few years now, and this is the second book of hers that I've had the pleasure to read. The first was a book for children called Tinker's Career, which I remember as engrossing - a short book, and also one I couldn't bear to put down until it was finished. This one, which I bought from her book launch a few weeks ago, I read on my Kindle, and also listened to on my ipod. Its main publication is through the new audiobook publisher 'Books Are Loud' which Alison and a few of her cohort from Manchester Metropolitan University have set up . More details on the MMU website here.

Flesh and Bronze is extremely well read by Julia Franklin, and it a pleasure to listen to her voice, but since I tend to listen to audiobooks at night in bed and tend to drift off while listening to them, it was great to be able to read the ebook version too. Just as in Tinker's Career, I found that after a few pages I became addicted to reading this one too, pausing now and again to note the passages I particularly appreciated (and there were many) on my Kindle.

The story concerns one of Degas's former models, Juliette. One day, after Degas's death, she sees 'herself' as a beautiful young woman captured in bronze as Degas portrayed her, and this model 'herself, Beautiful' becomes a recurrent symbol of what she was, and how she still is within. Juliette is now much older and poorer. She pauses to rest in the doorway adjacent to the window in which she has seen her statue, and is eventually invited into the stairwell of the Parisian apartment by the kindly concierge.

The model is owned by a man called Didier, who aspires to accomplish great art of his own, but who has been damaged by life, just as much as Juliette. 'Trouble is' (notes Juliette) 'marble truth was too much for him. It is for most of us in the end.'

What happens next, and how Juliette's and Didier 's lives inform each others, and how they learn and are changed as a result, forms the main narrative of the book. Along the way the readers learns about Juliette's life, and also Didier's. Degas is there too, and although his presence and aspects of his life (such as his attitude to the Dreyfus affair) are important, he is never really the focus of the story.

The story is very well-researched, and this research skilfully handled with a light touch. I especially liked the passages on bronze casting, which were vivid, very interesting and added greatly to the feeling of authenticity of the setting and characters. I also learnt a lot about Degas, and living in turn-of-the-century Paris. Altogether, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Parallel lines.
Some waver out; while others stop
bluntly. A fat ending, as if the pen left the page
still full of ink.

So much has happened since you left.
I don't know what you'd make of it all.
I like to imagine you'd be pleased.
You have a new niece. With hazel eyes, like yours, and a face that seems
to accommodate a grin much more comfortably than any other expression.
I wish you could see her.
I imagine you'd smile.

Her life - a line that has only just started.
Parallel to yours.
No intercept.

Monday, November 07, 2011

What I'm Doing 36:

What I watched last:

Norwegian Wood directed by Anh Hung Tran.

Haruki Murakami perfectly transposed onto the screen! Sure, it was slow - but it needed to be. I felt it was a little like poetry leaving spaces to fill in. I found this satisfying because I think it strongly evoked the book, but maybe it is not so satisfying for someone who hasn't read the book - and who prefers to be entertained and not work too hard. There were some beautiful scenes, and I thought the translator of the subtitles did a grand job (not that I know any of the original Japanese, of course, but just judging on the end result).

What I'm listening to:

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Since I've only just started, and it is very long, I should think this will keep me going for some time.

What I'm reading (i) on my Kindle:

Re-Vamp, an anthology of speculative fiction edited by Die Booth and L.C. Hu.

What I'm reading (ii) on paper:

The top four are 'work' (i.e. research for my novel), whilst the bottom three are pleasure and have been given to me by publishers. At the moment I am in the middle of the Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice by Luca Mola - which is completely fascinating.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Body Visitors

I would just like to share a quote I have just come across on a website about plagues. I felt it too good to keep to myself.

'When St. Thomas à Becket was prepared for burial in England in 1170, he was found to be wearing (from the outside in) (i) a large brown mantle, (ii) a white surplice, (iii) a coat of lambs' wool, (iv) a woolen pelisse, (v) another woolen pelisse, (vi) the black robe of the Benedictine order, (vii) a shirt, and (viii) a tight-fitting suit of coarse hair-cloth covered on the exterior with linen. During preparation for burial the cold English air stimulated so many of the critters occupying his hair suit that it "boiled over with them like water in a simmering cauldron."'

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Rome Day 4: Streets, alleyways and executions

Our last day, and we made our way by bus to Rome's 'original hill' (according to the top 10 guidebook), the Quirinal. By Roman times it seems to have become an upmarket suburbia of villas, temples and baths. After the fall of the empire, and the subsequent depopulating of Rome, it reverted to countryside and, I suspect, might soon have become another Wroxeter. The entrance to the frigidarium of the great baths of Diocletian, still stands, however,

because in 1561 the pope commissioned Michaelangelo to use the ruin as the basis of a church, the Santa Maria degli Angeli. The resulting space (which incorporates some of the original Roman pillars) is only half the area of the original, but even so gives a magnificent impression of marbled space.

Inside there was a small exhibition dedicated to Galileo, a retrospective look at his conflict with the church, attempting a reinterpretation of the relationship between things spiritual and scientific. On the floor was a type of solar calendar

using light from the sun and the moon from a vent high in the ceiling to determine the date - sundial-fashion.

Outside, in a small courtyard, the link with science continued, with a bronze statue of Galileo standing amidst the Roman remains - a gift from the China Centre of Advanced Science and Technology and WFS and designed by its director and winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, Professor Tsung Dao Lee.

Another inconspicuous exterior, this time of scaffolding and tarpaulin, led to yet another Santa Maria nearby. This time the Maria was 'della Vittoria' and the interior was a much smaller 17th century Baroque church - stuffed full of Bernini statues. One of the most famous depicted the 'Ecstacy of St Theresa'. St Theresa was a mystic, whose descriptions of spiritual ecstasy reminded me very much of the descriptions of shamanic trances and transcendental meditation I've read. It seems to me that the human mind is just as much an unknown space as the celestial one above us.

We moved on, continuing by bus to the Campo de Fiori - the place where Galileo's predecessor Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake.

He was executed for heresy of declaring that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. He now looks down on fruit stalls and packets of multi-coloured pasta and preserves.

Following Walk 1 in Elizabeth Speller's book, we walked down the neighbouring narrow streets that looked as though they had been there for ever (or at least since medieval times)

with interesting shops

enticing alleyways

bridges linking neighbours

backyards with scooters

and shrines, each lit with either streetlight or candle.

A bus ride took us along an older street: the Apian Way

and the Catacombs of St Callisto, and for about an hour we were led through the complicated underground passages by an English-speaking priest. Like a vacated ants' nest of cavities, these passages were drilled from the soft black volcanic tuff and were once filled with the bodies of the early Christians, with a couple of special little highly-decorated crypts reserved for popes. The catacombs are vast, with four levels deep into the ground - although only the two upper layers are open to the public - and the tunnels snake around each other in a confusing network. The passages themselves are quite narrow and low, and the tour is not something I would recommend for the more claustrophobic visitor. We were not allowed to take pictures.

It was now four o'clock, and we were becoming conscious of time running out. After taking the bus back into town we managed to get into the Forum before it closed, and wandered around yet another ancient street

trying to work out what was temple, tomb, living place, shrine..

and after a while left - bemused and with the increasingly sure of our conviction that in order to understand any of it we would need to come back - with Amanda Claridge's guide, and possibly a human one too.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Rome Day 3: Stendhal's Syndrome

There are several ways to the Vatican: down one of Mussolini's widened roads, where St Peter's dome shines at the end, drawing you forward, almost like a spiritual promise

or down one of the narrower medieval streets, where the cathedral is seen in more bashful glimpses.

Older streets are generally more interesting, I find, and this one yielded the oldest hospital in Rome with a revolving drum in its wall,

where in times past foundling babies could be left incognito: a pragmatic solution to a sad and ever-present problem: unwanted children and inadequate birth control.

Which leads me (neatly and not irrelevantly) to the vast square of St Peters and its circumnavigating queue (even though the basilica would not be open for several hours yet) and onwards to the walls of the fortress of the tiny Vatican state

with its guards self-consciously modeling the ancient uniform.

We queued. Then, having gained entrance to the impressive modern vestibule, queued some more (or rather formed part of a huddle)

gave a somewhat cursory glance at Roman carvings

and rooms full of later ones

and elaborately painted ceilings

with their guards who had lost interest long ago (I have given him a hat to disguise his identity)

to a darkened room with an Egyptian mummie

and another, strangely stuffy one (even though it seemed large and airy) hung with tapestries

then an even more magnificent ceiling (although we were led down it the wrong way - it only made sense looking back)

while the lower walls

and upper walls

and ceilings grew ever more splendid

until we reached the Sistine chapel accompanied by recorded messages not to take photos (so I didn't, but still the cameras flashed) and to remind us that we were standing in a place of worship. We stood. We gawped. We made appreciative noises with a thousand others, shoulder to shoulder, sucking in air that had just been breathed out, waiting for a gap between the press of warm bodies and a suitable time to elapse before we confessed we'd had enough, and glad to escape

...and although we could appreciate the magnificent skill and incredible wonderment of Michaelangelo's work, confess quietly to ourselves that actually we preferred the simplicity of this

that we found this quiet face was more affecting, and for me, at least said more about the glory of God and man, and that even this painting in a shrine we saw later in an anonymous alleyway

seems just as heartfelt, since it is kept so simply and sincerely alive with this symbol of devotion.

At the front of Elizabeth Speller's book she describes 'Stendhal's Syndrome' - 'a dizziness, panic or paranoia caused by trying to see too many artistic or historical artifacts in too short a time'. In Rome, of course, this is a constant danger. We walked on - back into the city and the Pantheon

(a beautiful building with an 'oculus' open to the sky) - a pagan temple converted to a Christian one. Then, eventually, by accident, came across the Marcello Theatre - a smaller version of the ampitheatre.

'What is that?' A woman asked me, when she saw me taking photographs, so I told her, and she laughed. 'There's just so much, isn't there?'

We agreed. It is difficult to keep appreciating such magnificence. Everywhere in Rome, it seems, there is some ancient splendour. It soon becomes background, and needs a smaller detail to bring it into focus. The next day I found such a fact, and it was this: when the Jewish population of the Roman ghetto was being persecuted during the second world war those tiny apartments in the Marcello Theatre became a temporary hiding place. So now when I look at these photos it is this Marcello Theatre that I want to see again, because, in some ways, its seems to be the most memorable and significant thing I saw that day.