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Posts tagged ‘Roman’

The Sicily Series | Part I – Catania, Black City

Over the last few weeks, the Daily Norm was all about Marrakech, and the highly spiced rose city will resonate long in the minds of Norms and the Daily Norm writer. But now this blog has headed back to European shores, albeit not far from the desert sands of Morocco. For one of the Mediterranean’s most southern points, and its largest island, is the Italian island of Sicily, known for some as the ball being carefully nudged by the point of Italy’s toe. Famous for its volcanoes, its mafia, its voluminous seafood and rolling agricultural land, for its ruins and its baroque splendour, Sicily is a veritable melting pot of historical and cultural highlights, and the perfect location for any aesthete on holiday.


But Sicily is a large island and we would be pushed to do it all in the time available. So with only a little over a week at our disposal, we concentrated our energies on the Eastern coast, and the lands above and beneath the mighty shadow of Mount Etna, one of Europe’s most active and prominent volcanoes. With its proximity to Greece as well as Italy, the Eastern side of Sicily is one heavily characterised by a history of both Greek as well as Roman civilisations, not to mention the Arabic and Spanish influences which also made their mark during their respective occupations. All of these influences were clear to see upon our first stop in Sicily, in its second biggest city and the tenth largest in Italy: Catania.


Both the scale of this bustling city, as well as its historical and geographical influences were immediate upon arrival in Catania. Bracing ourselves behind the wheel of an all-too-new hire care, our first encounter with Catania was with its wild roads, filled with drivers, irritated by the heat and paying little attention to generally accepted driving rules. Mercifully unscathed, it was only when we parked that we were able to calmly appreciate Catania, a city whose roads seemed to stretch off into an eternity of traffic jams sparkling like slowly moving jewels, whose streets are crammed with more churches than there are shops, and whose landscape is rendered tiny by comparison with the mighty silhouette of Etna which is omnipresent in the background, wherever you look.


For me, Catania was a city with much of the hectic disorder of Naples, but with the refinements of Rome. It is one characterised by the breadth of its architectural splendour, from frequently arising Roman and Greek remains squeezed between more modern houses, to the exquisite quality of its baroque architecture. And above all, it is one which has earned its epithet: “black city”, forged as it is from the lava stone which nearby Etna has regularly granted the city, Surprisingly hard but tellingly cratered, the lava stone from which Catania is built is a true testament to this city’s unavoidable relationship with its nearby volcano – both the source of its wealth, and the constant threat of its destruction.


Perhaps it is this vulnerability which gives Catania the undeniable spirit which pervades it. Its residents can be excused for living by the ethos: carpe diem. After all, Etna is continuinuously erupting, and no one can ever be sure just when the next large eruption will reach this heavily inhabited Sicilian city. So seize the day we certainly did, passing 24 hectic hours in Catania in what was a relentless conveyor of churches, coffees, aperol spritz and lots of pasta. And what a great beginning to our Sicily trip it was!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Provence Odyssey | Saint-Rémy: Day 6 – The Grandeur of Ancient Glanum

You join us in the Provençal village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a picturesque little town, at one time home to none other than Vincent Van Gogh, whose insatiable appetite for Provence’s mighty colour palate was more than satisfied by the staggering beauty of these undulating landscapes, peppered with olive trees and cypresses, with fields of golden wheat and others with lavender, and stood in the midst of them all, the towering limestone massif of Les Alpilles, a 24-km chain of mountains between the Rhone and Durance rivers.

Yet while the mighty majesty of the Alpilles mountain range towering above the horizon has the power to hold tourists and artists alike in its all-conquering grip, there is something else set amongst the foothills of this great imposing mountain range which has the power to inspire awe-struck admiration in equal measure: this time a structure built not by nature, but by man, but a structure so ancient and yet still so classically magnificent in all its detail and grandeur that it appears to have defied nature itself. For as it turned out, Van Gogh is far from being Saint-Rémy’s only attraction: For a mere stroll along from Saint Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh was an inpatient for a year between 1889-1890, are the incredible ancient remains of the Roman town of Glanum, an archeological site which is so comprehensive that it is a rival to Pompeii; an ancient monument so beautiful that it glows like a precious crystal in the midst of the limestone hulk of the Alpilles around it, the vast mountains into which this ancient Roman town appeared to integrate so seamlessly as though nature herself had intended it.

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The gateway to the Glanum remains is pretty startling: a triumphal arch built during the reign of Augustus and the Mausoleum of the Julii, said to be one of the most perfectly intact mausoleums remaining from ancient Rome. Both monuments are brilliant in their complexity and incredibly intact – and yet these imposing structures stand innocuously by the main road from Saint-Rémy to Les Baux, with no cordons, no tickets and no guards. The result is a superb opportunity to interact with the indomitable grandeur of Roman architecture, and to do so quite freely with neither impediment nor cost. And yet it worries me – for how long can these incredible structures remain in their current excellent state of preservation, when they are so unguarded from harm?

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While this magnificent arch, which once formed the Northern entrance to the town of Glanum, was free to see, the remains of the town were not – but such was to be expected from an archeological museum almost as vast as the great remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And what they may have lacked in Pompeian decoration, they surely made up for in scale, in the variety of buildings discovered and on view, and in the magnificent setting of this town which, carved literally into the steep sides of the Alpilles must surely be strong competition for Pompeii’s Vesuvius-backdrop.

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Glanum, which today includes monuments aplenty, half-preserved temples, the remains of public baths, the roman forum, and several houses, was built in 27 BC but abandoned in 260 AD when it was overrun and destroyed by the Alamanni. Subsequent floods and weather conditions meant that the abandoned ruins of the town gradually became covered with sediment and mud, and there it lay, undiscovered, until excavations began to rediscover the town in 1921. Now it is one of Provence’s most visited sites, and one can see why. The scale of the find is pretty unique, and the ability to scale the steepsided valley of the Alpilles and see the town from above, with the modern Saint-Rémy in the distance is particularly special.

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We adored Glanum, and for us it provided a much unexpected cultural delight on the outskirts of a little town already proving to be so abundant in sensual delights for the earnest visitor. A hearty slice of history in an area so exuding charm; a man-made ancient monument which so artfully augments the beauty of its celestial natural surroundings.

DSC03591 DSC03612 DSC03644All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Provence Odyssey | Arles: Day 4 – Dodging the Mistral

They say that you have not experienced Provence until you have experienced the Mistral, a ferocious wind unique to Southern France, which accelerates as weather forces push the wind down the Rhône Valley – that very same valley on which the city of Arles, our second destination, finds itself rather inconveniently placed. And so, when waking on our fourth day, the tell-tale crystalline blue skies which are a commonplace characteristic of the mistral wind may have shone brightly through our three-fold bedroom windows, but the very distinctive sound of multiple shutters banging in the breeze foretold a day whose weather conditions would be far from Mediterranean calm.

Indeed as we set out from our lavish hotel (more about that later) into the maze-like streets of this characterful little French city, the complex system of roads did very little to dispel the savage Mistral wind – in fact they had quite the opposite effect, forming funnels along which the wind forced its aggressive way through, such that at every new corner, we were almost knocked sideways by a freshly zealous gust.

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Mercifully, not all corners of Arles were battered by Provence’s fiercest of inhabitants, and taking shelter in the Place du Forum (on the site of the town’s old Roman forum), we were able to enjoy the full unhampered heat of the sun over a breakfast of pastries and café. And concluding therefore that these Romans must have chosen their sites strategically, we went off in search of the city’s further archeological heritage, hoping that in doing so we may dodge the Mistral leaving us to appreciate the history.

Our plan was met with little success at the first of our stops – the old Baths of Constantine – which were situated right next to the Rhône which of course was the apex of the storm. Despite this unwelcome tour partner, we were nevertheless wowed by yet another startling well-preserved example of Roman architecture, the ruins including an imposing semi-circular wall bearing the signs of the baths’ former magnificence, their size testament to their use as public baths for all of the town. It was, as ever, fascinating to see the remnants of how ingeniously the Romans had used underfloor heating to heat the water, and how masterfully they had constructed their buildings as evidenced so clearly by the strength of the leftovers still around today.

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But the brilliance of Roman Arles did not end there, nor with the great amphitheatre which we had visited the previous day. Rather, just south of that great stadium, visitors to the city are literally spoilt for choice by the remains of a great Roman Theatre, whose semi-circular auditorium is still intact, and used for cultural performances to this day. For my Dominik and I, it was the less intact ruins, but the piles of rubble and stumps of columns that truly fascinated the most – like poetry in their decay, these seemingly scattered remains reminded me of the epic paintings of the Romantic age, when the adventurous young gentlemen of Britain’s most aristocratic families would set off on a grand tour of Europe to discover the very best of its classical heritage. Placing the “roman” in “romantic”, these odds and ends, still bearing the exquisite details of what once would have been stunning architectural centrepieces, made for one wondrous sight after another, and Dominik and I spent a good hour photographing obsessively, as well as reclining all over said rubble in suitably decadent poses – Tyra Banks would have been proud.

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After a lunch of plump, fresh salads enjoyed in yet another safe haven from the wind (check out my foodie post tomorrow) we decided to cut our losses and fight the forces of nature no longer. Instead we couldn’t help but return to the ultimate in all-weather sancturies: our super indulgent, exquisitely chic hotel: the Hotel Particulier. Set in the sumptuous grounds of a 19th century mansion built by the Mayor of Arles on the outskirts of the city, this truly boutique of hotels (for most hotels calling themselves thus are far from it) provided the obvious shelter from the wind, and the perfect excuse for mid-trip afternoon of indulgence – for here, amongst the jasmine covered walls of the perfectly manicured courtyard garden, the wind felt reduced to a mere breeze which helped the sweet perfume of the garden’s flowers waft gently across the grounds.

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Just as design has been employed so elegantly to create an atmosphere redolent of the most superb of luxuriant utopias, so too had this little garden haven managed to tame the wild savagery of the Mistral. And so it was there, next to a long perfectly turquoise pool, served glasses of wine by the perfectly manicured waiters and accompanied by the gentle sounds of trickling water, that we enjoyed the remainder of our second day in Arles – a well deserved rest before our Provence Odyssey continued.

I leave you with more photos of the superb Hotel – a real piece of paradise in the midsts of Arles’ history-soaked streets.

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 


Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

The stories of Pompeii and Herculaneum are renowned throughout the world. The very mention of their names is synonymous, not with the towns standing on their site today (Ercolano, in the case of the latter), but with the catastrophic volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius in Southern Italy which totally obliterated these small Roman cities on 24 August, AD 79. It is an eruption which has gone down in tectonic history as one of the most devastating eruptions in the last two millennia, an event whose very details were captured in the contemporary writings of Pliny the Younger, as well as in the rich geological history which the layers of ash and pumice which spouted out of the volcano can now provide. However, perhaps the greatest irony of this eruption was that in causing the total destruction and devastation of two Roman cities, and then blanketing the burnt urban carcass in several metres of dense ash and pumice, the eruption had the converse effect of actually preserving, sometimes perfectly, a imprint of Roman urban life, providing one of the largest ever discovered archaeological hauls of Roman remains so rich and diverse in its breadth that it provides 21st century audiences with a truly unique insight into societal life some 2,000 years ago.

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Pompeii today

It is this rich collection of excavated artefacts around which the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, is centred, a singularly unique exhibition and a first of its kind, because so many of the pieces on show have never been seen outside of Italy before. The exhibition results from the direct collaboration between the British Museum and the Archaeological Superintendancy of Naples and Pompeii, and consequently some absolute gems of Pompeian and Herculenean society are now in London for the first time.

7581646784_0e07b3c010_zConcentrating on the daily lives of the Romans living in these doomed cities, the exhibition is cleverly curated so that the various items on display are grouped thematically into the rooms of a “house” in which they would have been found. In meeting this objective, the layout of the show is based on a reconstructed idea of what a real Pompeian house (the so called “House of the tragic poet”) would have looked like. Consequently, after a large cinematic presentation which provides a well-animated introduction to the show, you start off in what would have been a Roman street, where various paraphernalia of trading life can be seen. Then, heading inside, you enter the atrium, the hall way of a Roman house which would have been flooded with light owing to the skylight which plunged through the centre of most Roman atriums. In this room, the objects on show included some stunning marble statues with barely a chip or scratch in sight, mosaics which would have lined the hallway floor reminding visitors to “Beware of the Dog”, and frescoes depicting the possible Roman occupants of the houses – here what is thought to be the baker Terentius Neo and his wife.


To the right of the atrium, a gallery set out as the bedroom included some quite incredibly preserved Roman wooden furniture, including a rocking baby crib and a stool, as well as an elaborately carved bed stead (all now heavily carbonated). Meanwhile to the left, what would have been the salon area for entertaining included an explanation of what has since become known as the “Pompeian style” of interior design, which comprises exquisitely detailed mosaic flooring, and walls painted with highly realistic and often stylised frescoes in four principal styles, all sharing common themes of richly elaborate pattern together with boxes showing pastiches and scenes from life or mythology, as well as the use of deep colours, generally rich reds and golds and blues. detailI was completely awestruck at just how sophisticated Roman art was – the shadows and tone of human skin as painted on these frescoes rivals anything done in the renaissance, and makes the art of the medieval era, which of course came along hundreds of years after the Roman empire fell, look completely childish and naïve. As for the mosaics, some of the pieces on show were nothing short of astounding, not least a mosaic depicting sea creatures, with its incredibly realistic depiction of fish and other ocean creatures of every size and variety – I love the powerful composition with a staring octopus at the centre appearing almost to enter into battle with the lobster.

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But perhaps my two favourite rooms of this “house” were the garden area, which came decked with some luscious garden frescoes, and the kitchen, which was packed with some incredibly contemporary looking cooking paraphernalia. I loved the tranquillity of the garden space, and can imagine how beautiful it must have been to stroll around colonnaded walkways, painted with these verdant green frescoes, depicting birds and lush plants, while at the centre a fountain would trickle, a sign of ultimate wealth in its extravagant use of precious water for entertainment.

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As for the kitchen, I was astounded to see what had been discovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum – actual figs, ripe on the day of the eruption, now preserved as carbon forms under the ash; and a loaf of bread, still imprinted with the name of the slave who baked it! The utensils too were fascinating to see – what looks like a colander for straining vegetables, but punctured with holes forming their own elaborate pattern into the metal; and there too was a pot ingeniously conceived just for the fattening up on dormice (which would then be roasted and ate dipped in honey).

Colander detail

Colander detail

Carbonated bread

Carbonated bread

But after this fascinating stroll through Roman life, the inevitable ending to the story follows suit, like the inescapable tide of history washing over Roman life like the pyroclastic surge catapulted down the volcano, wiping out city life in seconds. The “death” part of the exhibition is as poignant as the “life” section is revealing. Particularly startling are the plaster casts of the dead, found in Pompeii. These casts were made from filling in the gap left in the hardened ash once the bodies underneath rotted away. What we had before us then wasn’t an actual body, but a shadow of one; a poignant and again unique insight into the death of these now faceless humans, cowering away from the extreme heat at that moment of their instant death. Who could not be saddened by the sight of a whole plaster cast family, with the baby still shown laden in its blanket. And don’t forget the dog – that poor animal met his fate in the same way too. Incredibly and moving stuff, that brings us face to face with the tragedy that was Pompeii and Herculaneum, AD 79.

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This exhibition is a must see for anyone living in London or soon to visit. On until 29 September 2013, it still has a fair stretch to go, but be not complacent – it’s extremely popular and advance booking is essential. You can get your ticket on the British Museum website. Unless you’re heading Italy-way anytime soon, this exhibition comes highly recommended as a unique insight into a civilisation now dead, but not lost.