Category Archives: History

Oh, Vicenza (pt. 1)

We spent last (extended) weekend in and around Vicenza in Northern Italy. Although I don’t live far away from that particular provincial town, it’s one I’ve never visited or had the opportunity to explore. It lies just west Venice and many will travel through or past it when travelling from the Lagoon City to visit the more famous ‘sister’ town Verona. But like many small Italian towns it’s well worth the visit, not just because it lies off the beaten tourist track but because it’s full of hidden treasures which otherwise you may not get to see and savour. Vicenza is the city of Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect who basically brought classical architecture into the present, re.inventing its symmetrical lines, sense of perspective and harmony for what we now know as the Renaissance. he Quattro Libri dell’architettura are the fundamental writings for all of modern architecture.

Just outside the town is one of his most famous buildings, the Villa La Rotonda, built on a hilltop overlooking the town on one side and the rolling hills on the other.


Nearby is the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, another fine country ‘palace’ with a nice tidy garden and foresteria or ‘guest house’ to one side.


Back in town there’s plenty to see of course (you may need two or even three days if you like your sightseeing to be leisurely), first and formost the Teatro Olimpico, again a Palladio design, although like most of his more magnificent work it was never completed in his own lifetime and it was up to others to work out what he had intented. The theatre itself is relatively small but inside it contains a real stone facade as a “backdrop” which must be the most incredible thing that’s ever been built inside any theatre in the world.


Breathtaking hardly describes it well enough.




The party’s over

This may not be totally appropriate on ‘VE’ (Victory in Europe) Day, but today I came across this amazing footage of Berlin, Germany’s devastated capital, at the end of WWII, posted by the Berlin Channel on youtube. Despite the sunshine, and the occasional almost smiling faces you definitely get a ‘the party’s over’ kind of feeling. Not exactly VE Day, but it’s definitely ‘the day after’ …

I suppose the occupying allies were still partying however, and the Soviets are out in full regalia, as you will see.

Music in the Great War

ImageRadio 3 are coming full on with the World War One centenary celebrations this and next week with a series of programmes under the Music of World War One umbrella. Full details here.

I must admit that my initial enthusiasm for such “celebrations” (I use the term loosely) has rather died down, possibly die to an overkill, especially by Aunt Beeb. But never mind, there’s plenty to choose from and to be honest I am looking foward to this special concert by the Vienna Philharmonic which will be broadcast live from the Vijecnica National Library in Sarajevo on Saturday 28th June. Among the composers featured is one Alban Berg, a new name on me so look forward to hearing some of his work for the first time.


A very Happy Un-birthday

Shakespeare baptism and deathI completely omitted to post anything in celebration of William Shakespeare’s “birthday”, commonly given as April 23rd (last week).

But as by now a lot of people know this wasn’t his birthday at all, and in fact we don’t actually know when he was born, only when he was baptised – 26th April 1564 and when he died – 23rd April (bingo!) 1616.

Anyway, should you wish to ‘celebrate’ in any way this week and you really don’t want to sit through another Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet then you could do no better than listen to this week’s Words and Music on BBC Radio 3 (click here), with 75 mins worth of “poetry, prose and music inspired by Shakespeare”. But click in haste as the broadcaste will be available but until next Sunday (4th Maye)! (weak attempt at Shakespearean language..)

Which brings me to my little grouch about Words and Music : why oh why can’t we have a download/podcast of each programme after they’ve been broadcast? These programmes are so well put together and of such good quality that it seems a shame they have to disappear after a week.

But as The Bard himself would have said: “Parting (with a one week only netcast) is such sweet sorrow”, or “If (words and ) music be the food of love, play on…”.

Happy Un-birthday Mr. Shakespeare.

edit: having published this post, WordPress spookily informed me it was my 23rd … 


Hello and welcome back. It is with no small amount of shame that I realise how long it’s been since I last posted here on this blog and for that I must apologise.  It’s a brand new year, 2014, and one that I have realised is full of quite a few special anniversaries, not least my own fiftieth birthday which is all too rapidly approaching.

One hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War is probably the one that will get the most coverage.  Its historical importance is of great significance of course: from shaping Europe and its individual countries and indeed leading them, and the world, into war once more just over twenty years later. Reading material on the events of 1914 is abundant, although I am glad to have completed Paul Ham’s excellent and succinct  1913: Eve of the War on Kindle at the end of last year.

WWI diary extract (Nat. Archives / BBC)

On the same subject I also learned from the Today programme this week that The National Archives have made availabl eon-line a series of WWI diaries which give an amazing insight into the war and the men who were involved. You can sign up for free in order to help with the mammoth task of ‘tagging’ the diray pages with names, dates, places and so on. See Operation War Diaries (in collaboration with Zooniverse).

mcww1Similarly the BBC are also producing the usual high quality specialist broadcasts regarding World War 1 under the Music and Culture of WW1 umbrella. Check out the podcasts page and in particular Radio 3’s WW1 – Music on the Brink highlights page.  (NB  it doesn’t seem to be appearing on i-tunes!)


More 2014 anniversary posts to follow!

Like a Virgin..?

…or would you just prefer the usual, sir? … really bad and possibly sexist joke to come back with after such a long time away, but I just had to get it off my chest. Anyway all this to mark the fact that Virgin Records are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year with a whole lot of special record re-issues, new compilation albums, an exhibition and the like. Details are all given over on the special “40 years of disruptions” site.

richard-bransonI suppose it’s right in a sense to do all this since Virgin has come to be one of the most well known commercial success stories, and brands, of our age. Starting firstly with a student rag (aptly named ‘Student’) then moving on to slightly illegal grampohone record trading, young upstart Richard Branson (right) went on to form the Virgin record label, which then became a chain of record stores, then an airline company, then a mobile phone company, a chain of gyms, and even a bank. Whatever you think of Branson you’ve got to hand it to him – he had great insight and courage, and perhaps most surprising of all knew very little about music.

Although Virgin Records actually issued four LPs on their launch in May 1973, the most famous is of course Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which bears the all important V2001 catalogue number. Close on its heels came Gong’s Flying Teapot and  Faust’s Faust IV. The label set out to be a flagship for prog rock, much in vogue at the time, even though Oldfield’s debut was almost a genre in itself and indeed, as some may say, was the start of the ‘new age’ genre which materialised much later. Oldfield’s early life  and work and the making of Tubular Bells (and Virgin Records) was the subject of a recent BBC4 documentary. Catch up with it if you can.

Personally I  associate Virgin Records more with the label’s second phase, ie. the punk and new wave years, when they turned their  back on prog, Oldfield et al in favour of the new upcoming bands such as XTC, The Human League, Magazine, Simple Minds and (as they used to say on the telly adverts) many many more.  Flicking through my own vinyl collection from back then it’s surprising to see how much “Virgin” there was, some of the best music often dressed in some of the best sleeves too.

Catch up with Virgin40 celebrations here, and have a browse around their shop (or  “store” if you will) here.

Expo 58

Well I’m slowly getting back into some kind of routine now the August holidays/mayhem/anarchy is over, although due to stuff that will be going on over the next few months (new house – say no more) perhaps I won’t be able to give as much attention to this blog as I would like.

Any road up, this morning – quite by chance – I discovered that Brummy-born novelist Jonathan Coe is about to publish his new novel Expo 58. Coe is one of those authors whose novels I have consistently enjoyed and indeed devoured one by one over the years. What  A Carve Up, The Rotters’ Club (also made into a decent TV drama series) and The House of Sleep to name but a few. I must get round to re-reading those some time or other although right now of course I’m looking foward to Expo 58, described by the man himself as

…… a rather elegaic story, shot through with the sense of regret that seems inevitable when we look back on the hopes and dreams of an earlier era ­ whether these dreams involve the peaceful co-existence of nations, or the possibility of love between individuals. ”

The story is in fact set in 1958, in and around the Brussels Expo of that year, a time when Europe was at last  shaking off the post-war depression and really looking forward to a modern era. A new optimism and The Swinging Sixties were just around the corner. I often wish I’d been a young adult in those years – it must have been very exciting.

Doing a bit of web-researching into (read: googling) “Expo 58”, I see that it was in fact the reason why the Atomium monument / sculpture was erected, and what a wondrous sight it is too.

There are also lots of fabulous retro-graphics from the era , like this advert for the Soviet Union’s pavilion. They were obviously reaching out for a whole brand new world as can be seen in this:


and this:

visit soviet pavilion

I can’t wait to find out if the Soviet Pavilion is featured in Jonathan Coe’s novel! 

Expo 58 is out in paperback on Viking, 5th September (I think) and in Kindle format. Expo 58

More of the Soviet Pavilion propaganda here .

This was a map

Very nice post on medieval maps over on this week, featuring among others the Mappa Mundi placed on show in the cathedral of my home county town of Hereford.

Mappa Mundi, Hereford Cathedral (pic: wikipedia)

I’ve seen it quite a few times and proudly show it to friends when visiting the area although perhaps never really had a proper look at it, probably because you’d need a lot of time to do so. To quote  Simon Garfield (via “There are approximately eleven hundred place-names, figurative drawings and inscriptions, sourced from biblical, classical and Christian texts…In its distillation of geographical, historical and religious knowledge the mappa serves as an itinerary, a gazetteer, a parable, a bestiary and an educational aid.On The Map, S. Garfield, 2012.

Glad to see that the Vatican Museums’ Gallery of Maps is also featured in the post, even though these are more Renaissance than medieval, dating back to 1580-1585 . I visited said museums and indeed the gallery during a 24 hour trip to Rome at the beginning of this month. The forty maps are an astounding cartographical collection which possibly holds no parallels in the known universe. Maps covering most of Italy are featured in the lavish gallery, depicting its regions from Lombardy and the Piedmont in the North, right down to Sicily in the south, which is curiously depicted ‘upside down’, which if you think about is how it would have been “seen” from the Holy See.

map of Sicily in the Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums (from