In Time for Valentine’s Day: A love letter to E.M. Forster and literary Italy

The other day I picked up a century-old novel about which I’d completely forgotten and it struck me that it contained a theme about which many authors – myself included— have written: the romantic, transformational allure of Italy. Bursting with art and history, blessed with warmth and beauty and busty women crying out, “Mangia, mangia,” Italy is an everflowing source not only of romance, but of one particular idea about romance: the idea that traveling to a new place is the best possible way to leave timidity and stodginess behind. To go to Italy even briefly, some of our favorite books tell us, is to have a chance at becoming a new, more passionate person.

No wonder then, that Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert made it her first stop on a global search for the better life. Of course, she found love later in the trip. In Italy, she only gained weight. But that first exercise in indulging the appetite is more than a simple metaphor for becoming ready for love. It seems, in Italy anyway, like a very real and necessary preamble. How can one find passion while counting calories? Why not have seconds, and another glass of wine? Why not, indeed.

It’s no surprise that Gilbert’s mega-bestseller would attract criticism, though, including the barb that it is naïve to expect so much pleasure, love, and enlightenment all from a simple trip. But that’s exactly what travelers have expected—and in cases beyond even Gilbert’s, what they have sometimes found. Six years before Eat Pray Love, Laura Fraser authored another book in the “rebound and find love in Italy” subgenre with her 2001 memoir, An Italian Affair. Fraser, abandoned by her husband, heads off to Italy, and has a tryst with a professor from Paris, which in turn becomes a truly global love romp. Like Gilbert, Fraser gets to have her cake and eat it too, finding a partner who appreciates her plump curves, labeling them “sportif.” Hotel bedroom scenes are woven with descriptions of grilled eggplant, lemon-sauteed sole, tomatoes and bruschetta. Most memorable in An Italian Affair is the use, for the entire length of the memoir, of the second person. Fraser writes her memoir as if it is happening to you. It’s a bold choice, but Italy is bold. Take it or leave it.

Skipping past an assortment of late twentieth century renovation memoirs about falling in love with Italian real estate, I’m going to switch now from memoir to fiction, from female authors to a male one. A Room With A View by E.M Forster tells the funny and charming story of a young couple breaking free of their repressive, British, middle-class chains and falling in love while on Italian holiday. This novel was made into a classic Merchant Ivory film starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, charmingly upset by a sudden kiss on a violet-covered Tuscan slope. Violets—and vistas— can do that, we’re told.

But there is another Forster novel that explores the Italian theme as well. The one I had entirely forgotten about—and am glad to have rediscovered—was published three years before A Room With a View, in 1905. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread tells a similar story of Britons enchanted and transformed by lands to the south. Here on the very first page is Philip, one of the upright (and uptight) main characters, waxing both romantically and imperiously about Italy to his sister-in-law Lilia, whose train to Tuscany is just about to pull away: “ ‘Remember,’ he concluded, ‘that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gemignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.’

When I read this line the other day, I realized, with both pleasure and puzzlement, that it reminded me of a small speech I’d written into my own new novel.

In The Detour, to be published on Valentine’s Day, an apolitical art expert named Gerhard, who is working for the Nazis in 1938 Munich, counsels his protégée, as the younger man recalls: “(Gerhard) had begun to revive his own memories of that fabled, sunny country: The hill towns and piazzas. The ruins and vistas. The frescoes and fountains. And a certain woman he had met somewhere—I think it was a town called Perugia, or maybe Pisa. The relationship lasted no more than a few days but had meant the world to him, and I had been bold enough in my naïve youth to ask, ‘But how can something like that matter if it only lasted a few days?’

The fact that the younger Bavarian, every bit as uptight as a Forster character, can’t imagine what can happen in a few days proves his mentor’s point. Young Ernst Vogler needs a dose of Italy more than anyone. In The Detour, he gets it.

As Forster realized, the only problem with the transformational-power-of-Italy theme is that we still bring our old selves with us on any journey. Violets and vistas, bruschetta and buxom ladies, and still—it’s so hard to abandon the British stiff upper lip or the German preference for order. Yet, it’s such fun to watch characters—and ourselves—yearn to be more than we were back home.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you. And don’t forget: Mangia! Mangia!

A new review for The Detour from Library Journal

In 1938, Ernst Vogler is sent to Italy by the German government to bring back for Hitler a famous ancient statue, Myron’s The Discus Thrower. Vogler is a sad case. Afraid to speak up about what is happening in Germany, he falls back on obedience to orders as a lifeline; his passion for art is only “a substitution for other losses.” Sneaking out of Rome with the statue tucked safely in back of a truck, Vogler is accompanied by two Italian brothers, both policemen. They have three days to reach the German border. But time has its own logic in Italy, and one brother has his own agenda. There are betrayals. People die. Vogler’s schedule is thrown to the winds. Then, unexpectedly, Vogler is given the gift of love with a beautiful and passionate woman in the lush countryside of Piedmont.

VERDICT: Romano-Lax is singularly gifted: she creates full-fledged, engaging characters and writes compelling narrative. Some of her descriptive passages take your breath away. The author’s The Spanish Bow was a hit. This novel will make a splash, too, for the same reasons.

[See Prepub Alert, 8/21/11.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

A Family Trip to Italy, with Tips

Romano-Lax family in front of Rome's Trevi Fountain

In my second novel, The Detour, young German art lover Ernst Vogler is unsatisfied with knowing his favorite classical statue, The Discus Thrower, only through photographs. Only by seeing this ancient work of art in person will he come to know more about the statue’s value and what it has to say to him about physical beauty and the ultimate meaning of art.

Like any person inclined to travel, I, too, love to see works of art, historic buildings, and landscapes in person. No amount of library research can compete with an afternoon walking through the streets of Rome—that chaotic city of ancient ruins and fountains and plazas buzzing with people, cars, and scooters.  Or an evening in Tuscany or the Piedmont, walking past vineyards, and grocery shopping for cheeses, fruit, and wine.  

Every book I’ve written has required travel of some kind, and I’ve always brought along my husband and children: to Puerto Rico, France, and Spain for my first novel, and to Italy and Germany for my second. During our Italy trip, my son was 15, and my daughter  was 11. My son is an art aficionado who always travels with a sketchbook, so he couldn’t get enough of museums, usually lingering in each gallery long after my feet were begging for a break. My daughter, on the other hand, suffers from premature museum exhaustion. For her, a better experience than any museum was being set free at dawn in a Roman farmer’s market, with a handful of coins and an assignment to bargain for strawberries using the few words of Italian she’d learned. Some souvenir shopping, a gelato at the Piazza Navona, and a visit to the Trevi Fountain is more her style.

At our next stop, in Tuscany, all of us loved staying for a week just outside Florence in a compound of medieval, stone-walled apartments still owned by the Machiavelli family. (We brought two copies of The Prince along­—the regular version, and a graphic novel treatment that also covered Renaissance politics and philosophy.) Later, we headed northwest to the Piedmont, a place suggested by my husband, who had starting reading about that region’s wine and truffles, and found us an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast in a quiet valley. If not for his early interest, the last third of my novel might have taken place in another out-of-the-way region, like Umbria or Lombardy.

If I were sharing advice with other travelers, especially traveling families, I’d suggest:

Prepare. With our kids, we watched several historical documentaries about the ancient Romans (Caesars and gladiators aplenty), and about artists like Caravaggio, Bernini, and Michelangelo. Those stories made our later walks through Rome and Florence come alive

Rent apartments, cottages, or villas; there are endless options online. We’ve done this in many foreign countries and haven’t stumbled into a bad deal yet. For a short while, you feel like a local. Having more hangout space than a hotel room makes for easier afternoons and evenings with children (or any small group) and less pressure to pack the day with formal sightseeing. You can cook your own food, which in Italy, is great fun, because it gives your day some structure. Walk to the local market, sample food and practice your Italian, walk home and cook. The simplest homemade pizza and pasta is astounding, using authentic Italian cheese, meat or seafood, tomatoes, and basil.

Seek out some of the lesser-known museums. The Uffizi in Florence is famous for good reason, and Rome’s National Museum has lots to see. But our favorite museum was the smaller Museo e Galleria Borghese in Rome. Housed in a sumptuous 17th century villa surrounded by an urban park, the collection includes statues by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, ancient mosaics and more. Reservations are required, and visitors are allowed two hours to see the collection, but this planning requirement—a little intimidating at first—reduces crowds and makes the visit more worthwhile, especially for kids who are tired of feeling trampled.

The author with family, at a Piedmont B&B, making homemade pasta

Take a cooking class. We found ours in an affordable bed-and-breakfast in the Piedmont. Our host couple spent a long evening with us, allowing all four of us to help make two kinds of homemade pasta, one of them filled with squash, and a cheesy mushroom risotto that took hours (and which I’ve never managed to duplicate perfectly at home). At the dinner itself, also attended by other B&B guests, we tasted about seven wines and liqueurs, most of them made by the lodge owner. This class and included meal cost no more than forgettable restaurant meals in Rome and Tuscany. 

Indulge your touristy side, too. Our original trip plan was Rome, Tuscany, and Piedmont. Our 11-year-old daughter really wanted to see Venice. (I’d seen it years before, and remembered it as beautiful but a little kitschy.) Luckily, we let her talk us into it. We stayed just outside Venice to reduce the cost, and took public transportation into the city of canals. Seen through my daughter’s eyes, it was completely magical. Most of our time was spent riding around on the vaporettos (water taxis), including at night, when the canals are all lit up. We didn’t hit any major attractions­—we just wandered, people-watched, and did a little sketching, painting, and journaling on the side. To this day, my daughter reminds us of what an amazing two days it was.

 

Third Reich Beefcake


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Shy Ernst Vogler didn’t even want to take off his shirt to swim. He wouldn’t have fared well with these body-proud German lads.

I gave a brief art history talk in Homer, Alaska last week and prepping a slideshow, I stumbled upon some wonderful new images to help demonstrate the world of The Detour (1938 Germany) and perhaps why my main character, Ernst Vogler, might have been a little concerned about his own physical imperfections. The Nazis certainly promoted a fascination with the “ideal” physical form, and seemed to have no inkling that images like the one above were just a teensy bit homoerotic.

This photo and several more from Mensch Und Sonne (Men and Sun), a forgotten Nazi-era bestseller, appear in a 2011 article in Spiegel online. Just a taste provided here:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was ‘Mensch und Sonne’ simply overlooked, or was it ignored by Nazi authorities?

Adam: No, the opposite. The SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), advertized for Surén’s book, even giving it an entire page in a pre-Christmas issue. In it they say: “We want a strong and joyful affirmation of body awareness, because we need it to build a strong and self-confident race.” Nudity was seen partly as a means of encouraging the “health of the race.” And if that also happened to serve the voyeuristic desires of readers, that was accepted.

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This one isn’t as artsy or as fully nudist, but it’s still wonderfully strange. I imagine a Nazi era caption: “Don’t worry, young men — physical labor is fun!”

But what about the women? Don’t worry, they’re well-represented in Mensch Und Sonne, usually wearing even less than the guys. Some particularly peculiar examples of nude, athletic women imitating happy frogs here.

Art, Power, and Responsibility: Harlan — a great documentary elevated by empathy and nuance

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss, a documentary by Felix Moeller, available now on Netflix.

You’re a top German director with an adorable young starlet of a wife (think Reese Witherspoon with chubbier cheeks), as well as a taste for romantic melodrama, and you’re asked by the Minister of Propaganda to make a dramatic feature with an anti-Semitic theme.  Do you walk away, knowing that future film funding will be difficult to acquire? Do you go ahead and make it, but do a lousy job on purpose? Do you make it the best movie you can, because you’re driven as an artist and believe it’s possible to keep politics out of the equation? After all, even Shakespeare commited an act of anti-Semitic caricature, in the person of Shylock; are artists bound to moral choices, or are they commited only to self-expression?  

And what do you do in the years that follow, when you are one of the few artists charged and later acquitted for having committed a crime against humanity, but the world seems convinced of your culpability?

Many of these same questions about art, propaganda, and personal responsibility inspired my novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour. No wonder, then, that I was so swept up by this true story, told with great intelligence, empathy, nuance and sensitivity, by German documentarian Felix Moeller. Until recently, I’d never heard of Moeller or his subject, Veit Harlan, but I was so impressed with this film that I’m recommending it to anyone who shares my interest in the time period and in artistic/ethical dilemmas in general. Beyond those issues, it’s simply a great film about family. The reverberations of one man’s career choices are shown in the lives of his children and grandchildren, who have struggled under the Harlan legacy.    

Harlan — The Shadow of Jew Suss (2008; distributed in the U.S. in 2010; I found it on Netflix this week thanks to my mother-in-law’s recommendation) tells the story of the Third Reich’s most popular — and now, mostly forgotten — movie maker. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was actually more famous than Leni Riefenstahl, another documentarian who was taking cues from Minister Goebbels. 

Veit Harlan made romantic tear-jerkers seen by tens of millions of Europeans, including “Jew Suss,” a crude anti-Semitic film that was required viewing for the SS. It’s been banned in Germany for years, and some members of Harlan’s own family hadn’t seen the film until recently, but its reputation cast a shadow over several generations. It’s the time given to these family member’s reactions that makes this documentary stand out. Two children of Harlan’s ended up marrying Jewish spouses (neither marriage succeeded). One of these daughters converted to Judaism and later committed suicide. One son became an environmentalist, seeking redemption in anti-nuclear activism. Another son became an exceptionally forthright filmmaker, speaking out against his father’s own ethical missteps– a public stance that at least a few other family members frown upon. The three granddaughters shown in the film are mostly baffled by how cheesy and banal Harlan’s notorious “Jew Suss” film was. The youngest generation seems to reject personal guilt by association, but they do embrace responsibility — at least in the form of remembering and continuing the dialogue about art, propaganda, and the consequences of our actions. I think all of the family members were incredibly brave to appear in this documentary. They’ve done a great service by being candid and thoughtful, resisting platitudes, vitriol,  defensiveness or easy answers. And I greatly admire Felix Moeller for giving voice to so many shades of interpretation, which continue after the documentary’s end in several post-film interviews. If only most of us were willing to think and speak so openly about the collision of personal and public history, including the dark and irreconcilable parts.

The Discus Thrower: a forgotten symbol from my own family’s German-American past

The original idea for my second novel, The Detour, was sparked by seeing a photograph of the ancient Greco-Roman Discus Thrower statue, and a footnote explaining that Hitler was obsessed with the work and insisted upon buying it, against the objections of many Italians, in 1938. (I wanted to know why Hitler wanted it so badly, what he was seeing in the statue that I couldn’t fathom at first, and why this would have significance on the eve of World War II.)

That’s the novel’s trigger, but it’s not everything. After the novel was finished, I started asking myself about what in my own background made me so curious about athletic symbols, German culture, and the idea of physical perfection in the first place.

I am descended from German and Italian ancestors, and I married into a Jewish family that includes relatives who barely escaped the Holocaust—as well as some who didn’t. All of those facts inform this novel and my own thematic and philosophical concerns.

But if I can take just one side of that family story today: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my maternal grandfather, John Cress, German-American (among other mixed ethnicities), a high school gymnastics and springboard diving coach well-known in the Chicagoland area. He was part of one of the nation’s earliest college gymnastics teams, at the University of Illinois, in the 1930s, when the sport was not particularly well-known. Later, he introduced some of the first gymnastic programs to several high schools. A gymnastics invitational is named after him, and he was inducted into the Illinois Gymnastics Hall of Fame. But he was also a student of history, a member of the military, and a former vaudevillian who performed gymnastic tricks of agility, strength, and grace at fairs and circuses. My mother and aunt were raised performing athletic stunts and visiting the German-American “Turner Halls”—community centers with a strong fitness component that really launched the idea of physical education in America.

My grandfather­—“Papa Coach,” as everyone knew him—instilled all of us with that classic German concept, “Sound mind, sound body.” He did everything he could to promote our participation in sports. This is the positive side of the German (and Ancient Greek) obsession with the ideal, physical human form. The corruption of that idea– which my grandfather and his fellow Turners did not support– is the Nazi obsession with genetics, a false idea about the perfection of the Aryan race.

In his 70s, my grandfather was hospitalized after a cycling accident in which he was training on the icy track of an outdoor velodrome, getting ready for sprinting races. When the doctor found out how he’d fallen­ and broken his hip—at that age—he was astounded.

When I look at the Discus Thrower statue, I see Mediterranean features that in some way resemble my own, a balanced muscular physique that resembled my grandfather’s, and an idea, in an extreme and corrupted form, which came close to wiping out my husband’s family. Every good idea, taken too far, can become grotesque.

If my grandfather were alive today, he might or might not see how he helped inspire this novel. Only today, when I went searching for a graphic to accompany this post, did I discover that the logo for the German-American Turner Society, of which he was proud, is the central image and object of The Detour: a discus thrower.

On Names: an interview in parts, with author Andromeda Romano-Lax

Names seem to matter a lot in your books. The narrator of your first novel, The Spanish Bow, was named Feliu, a name that almost means happy (Feliz). The narrator in your forthcoming novel, The Detour, is named Ernst.

Yes, Ernst, which sounds an awful lot like earnest. Which he is­­—often to a fault. As the narrator himself also reveals, it also means “willing to battle to the death,” which he is not. Ernst is like most of us: he really just wants to live. In 1938, that meant keeping a low profile, trying not to anger his superiors, or be targeted by army bullies, or raise any alarms. But by trying so hard to live, he doesn’t live at all. And he knows—as he witnesses the disappearance of his mentor, and even as he experiences the joyless affection of another self-servingly cautious co-worker, a Munich secretary­—that this way of living isn’t living. What he experiences in Italy is something altogether different. Through his road adventure with Cosimo and Enzo, but most of all by meeting their sister Rosina, he experiences spontaneity, friendship, pleasure, and a little terror, too. As well as new views, bluer skies, food and family and hospitality and (am I giving away too much?) some unbridled sensuality. Flesh, instead of marble. It breaks him out of his paralysis. It awakens something real in him—something that will end up sustaining him long after the Italian trip, which is a good thing, given that the clouds of war are on the horizon. 

As for his last name, Vogler: Originally, I did not pick it for any intentional meaning (it means simply “fowler” or “bird catcher” in German). But reflecting on it now, it does sound like “vulgar,” a word that now means indecent, but used to have no negative connation. It once meant simply “common.” And Ernst is a common man: not fully heroic. It is perhaps too much to expect perfect heroism of most people who happened to be entering adulthood just as the Nazis came to power. What is amazing is that some people did manage to have integrity and skepticism about the Nazi project. Ernst’s mentor, Gerhard, whom we meet only briefly, is one of those men.

As for Enzo (short for Lorenzo) and Cosimo: these are common Italian names, which happen to correspond to famous members of the Medici political dynasty, a Renaissance family known for their patronage of art.

And your name?

Ah yes. Writing The Detour­—a novel about a Roman copy of a Greek statue purchased by a tyrant who is intent both on destroying the Jews and acquiring all of the Europe’s finest art (among many despicable plans), I realized I would never come up with a novel that better matches my own name and my own heritage, both by birth and marriage—as well as my own thematic and philosophical concerns. “Andromeda” is from Greek mythology, “Romano” means from Rome, “Lax” is Jewish—and all those cultures and heritages are bound up with the central issues of the story. It’s a strange convergence, and it helped me to feel that I was telling a story I was meant to tell—whether it was ever published or read. I wrote it to explore my own passions and questions, to follow the road from Rome, and to see where that road led.

Art and film as Nazi Propaganda: The Discus Thrower and Leni Riefenstahl

(Herr Rothel) turned to Keller. “Do you remember, in Berlin, the lady documentarian — Leni — who was filming the Games?” P. 142, The Detour  

Several minutes into the dramatic opening of Leni Reifenstahl’s film Olympia, an epic depiction of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the classical Discus Thrower statue turns and turns—becoming a living man, Nordic muscles bulging as he demonstrates bodily perfection against a stormy landscape*. The imagery links the Greek classical legacy to modern athleticism and the strivings of the Third Reich, a linkage that Nazi leaders worked hard to make, in support of their Aryan ambitions for genetic purity and political domination.    

In the Detour, young curator Ernst Vogler is sent to Rome to escort home the purchased statue, an object that had captured German interest since before the Olympia premiere. (In fact, efforts to acquire to the Discus Thrower statue date back to the reign of King Ludwig I, and Hitler sealed the deal in 1937.)  Art was an essential tool in the Nazi propagandist toolbox, and film—still a young medium in those Third Reich days—proved exceptionally powerful in spreading images and ideas, often wordlessly.

Few filmmakers succeeded at pleasing their fascist funders while collecting international accolades as handily as Leni Riefenstahl. A close friend of Hitler, who became smitten with her as an actress in early alpinist films, Riefenstahl’s first big break behind the lens came with the filming of Triumph of the Will, a “documentary” (with Hitler as executive producer) of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, attended by 700,000 Nazi supporters.  

Film buffs point out the use of pioneering cinematography techniques in both Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl herself claimed she was only participating in cinema verite, recording major political events and cultural moments as they happened. Skeptics point out that Riefenstahl helped plan and stage the rally­—far exceeding her neutral role as mere observer. In an amazing 1975 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag penned an exceptionally thorough critique of Riefenstahl as both an artist fascinated with physical beauty well beyond her German film years, and as a “Fellow Traveler,” the label given in denazification trials to those who were friendly to and benefited from the Nazi regime.

Even recently, film critics continue to debate and reappraise their views on Riefenstahl’s artistic legacy. According to Wikipedia: (Film critic Roger) “Ebert states that Triumph is ‘by general consent [one] of the best documentaries ever made’, but added that because it reflects the ideology of a movement regarded by many as evil, it poses ‘a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?’  When reviewing the film for his “Great Movies” collection, Ebert reversed his opinion, characterizing his earlier conclusion as ‘the received opinion that the film is great but evil’ and calling it ‘a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.’

But the most damning statements against Riefenstahl have been made in association with one her most forgotten films—Tiefland, a universally panned film about Spaniards, using gypsies as extras.  As it turns out, those gypsies were collected from a concentration camp near Berlin, and sent back after filming. Many of them died at Auschwitz. To the end of her days, Riefenstahl tried to cover up this episode from her glamorous past, claiming she’d met many of the gypsies after the war, still alive; that she had not realized what their fates would be; and that she’d had no direct hand in selecting them from camps as forced film-extra labor. Riefenstahl took a young German filmmaker, Nina Gladitz, to court for her own documentary about the scandal, and effectively shut down the film, even though a German court found for Gladitz on all but one count, agreeing that Riefenstahl had known the extras were from a camp.  In 2002, a Roma group took Riefenstahl to court for denying that gypsies were exterminated in the Holocaust, and she was forced to make a statement clarifying the historical truth of the matter.   

Leni died in 2003 at the age of 101, at the end of a long life spent trying to reinvigorate and defend her reputation. Obituaries recorded her mixed legacy. Some called her the most talented female director of the 20th century, on par with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and a dancing, acting “femme fatale” besides. Others called her a cold opportunist, claiming to be apolitical at one moment, and gushing with Nazi pride the next. As she wrote to Hitler in a telegram, after the Nazis captured Paris in 1940, “With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany’s greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”

*I’ve chosen not to embed the opening of Olympia (Part I), because copyright issues are fuzzy, but it’s available on Youtube. Depending on how the introduction has been edited, the Discus Thrower is usually shown around minute six, following a dramatic opening featuring many classical statues, including the Barberini Faun, another German classical-art acquisition that is still on display at Munich’s Glyptothek.

One good museum and two great ones, in Rome and Munich

I paused, tongue sticky against the ridged roof of my mouth, admiring the recognizable figure of Myron’s ancient Athenian Discus Thrower: an image of the perfect male specimen, captured in a sporting posture of dynamic tension. … Gerhard’s taste had favored the Italian Renaissance, especially Bernini. My taste, my self-education, my training, my fixations favored this: controlled, classical, iconic excellence. Page 21, The Detour.

In The Detour,  24-year-old Ernst Vogler is compelled to see firsthand the famous Discus Thrower statue, a Roman copy of an earlier Ancient Greek marble that Hitler insists on acquiring as an artistic symbol of the Third Reich, and which the young Vogler must accompany back to Munich.

I needed to see it, too, of course. The best thing about being a research-driven historical novelist is the necessity, and the absolute passion, for seeing the places and objects that play a role in one’s reality-seeded, imagination-shaped stories.

In real life, Hitler bought the statue for five million lire and had it transported by rail north from Rome. It was on display for a year at the Glyptothek Museum in Munich. Nine years later, after the war, it was repatriated to Rome again, where it can now be seen in the National Museum, displayed alongside other classical works in a fairly plain, white-walled room (with some smudges on the walls, and a surprising lack of tourists, compared to the astoundingly crowded museums of Florence, including the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David resides).

If you are fascinated by the Discus Thrower you’ll want to see it in its current setting, at the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme), near the railroad terminus, where there are many additional examples of sculpture from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. (Busts of Caesars, aplenty.) There, you can marvel—as Ernst yearns to marvel— at the incredible realism and dynamism of a marble masterpiece that dates back to the first flowering of our modern ideas about the human form and its artistic representation.  But let me share two additional sculpture-rich museums that wowed me even more than the Museo Nazionale Romano (or Florence’s Uffizi, for that matter).

Rape of Persephone by Bernini, in Borghese Museum

Rome’s Museo e Galleria Borghese requires some advance planning: you have to buy an advance ticket and then wait for your prebooked two-hour time allotment. As a parent traveling with two kids, one in love with art and the other prone to premature museum exhaustion, I was skeptical about this inflexible booking requirement, all to see a smaller museum set apart from the city, in a lovely park. But the intimacy of the setting and the control of crowds is part of the museum’s appeal. The other part is the collection itself. Each exquisite object (collected by the Cardinal Scipione Borghese) is set in various sumptuous corners of the 17th century villa. This is what art, owned privately –rather than exhibited in more generic, modern-day art museums– would have looked like. The Borghese has paintings (our favorites were the ones by that Renaissance rascal, Caravaggio) and ancient mosaics, but its sculptures alone are entirely worth the visit. Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, a gloriously three-dimensional piece (and here you can walk all the way around it)  depicts the hand of Pluto pressing into the “skin” of Persephone’s thigh in such a lifelike manner that one can’t believe that tender thigh is really cold marble.

As impressive as the Borghese, and requiring no advanced ticketing, is Munich’s Glyptothek, a museum dedicated exclusively to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.  Built during the reign of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a classical art aficionado), it also sits in the dark heart of Nazi history, little of it interpreted or well-marked at present, unfortunately. Evidently, Munich has always been more reticent about interpreting its Nazi past than Berlin; though there are plans for a new Munich-based “Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism.”

Down the street is the site of the Brown House, Nazi headquarters. Across from the museum is the Konigsplatz,  where the major Nazi rallies were held. This coincidental overlap of classical art and Nazi policy- and image-making is no coincidence at all, of course; Hitler advocated for art and made use of art as national symbol.

After acquiring the Discus Thrower, one of his earliest, potent symbols of the Greek legacy (a love of sport and the perfect body, to be warped into Nazi Aryan idealism), Hitler allowed the statue to be displayed at the Glyptothek for a year, after which the museum was closed, due to the war. The Glyptothek was destroyed by bombs and was not restored and reopened until 1972.

Believing, as at least some of my Italian characters do, that Italian art belongs in Italy, I felt strange visiting this Munich museum. Part of me wanted to assume that German curators could not have displayed an Italian work as beautifully and devotedly as the Italians themselves. Alas—while it says nothing at all about art policies during times of peace or war—the Glyptothek is a stunning museum, a place where the Discus Thrower would have found an aesthetically suitable home.  With unadorned brickwork, high ceilings, and arched doorways, the current museum honors both ancient and modern aesthetics in its design. Statues are spaced well and natural light makes the stony rooms glow. Instead of bust after bust after bust, there is plenty of breathing space. One room is devoted to fighting warriors, taken from a Greek temple pediment.  In another room, the amazing Barberini Faun, an ancient Greek original, dreams with his legs splayed and Dionysian brow slightly furrowed. Nearby, a Roman copy of a fat marble baby tugs on the neck of a squalling goose.  When we visited, some intriguing modern sculptures were displayed between the ancient ones, the juxtaposition providing wry commentary.

Elsewhere on our trip in Munich, we saw other signs of an art-loving populace and had great experiences everywhere we went, including out in the public squares, where musicians played to appreciative crowds. Hitler was not the only German to hold art in high esteem and fortunately, the dark past has not cast an obliterating shadow over Germans’ love of art and music today.

P.S. An ideal art guide to peruse while planning a trip to Europe? Rick Steves’ Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler, by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Includes not just what to see but how to appreciate it, with great, clear writing about time periods, artistic innovations, masterpieces and why they matter. Our entire family loved this book and read aloud from it often while traveling.

The Detour Down Under

 

Fun news this week from a part of the world I’d love to visit: Murdoch Books will be publishing an Australia/New Zealand edition of THE DETOUR, retitled, THE ART LOVER. I like that title, and I love AU/NZ — have never been to either country but would love to have an excuse. The Murdoch Books edition will be out in spring 2012.

The resiliency of the human spirit…

From noted historical fiction author C.W. Gortner:

“With elegance and an eye for the unexpected, Ms Romano-Lax distills the often overwhelming anguish of World War II into this elegiac tale of an earnest young art curator’s journey into Italy, where he finds himself caught between his reverence for the past and the horrors of the future. An evocative portrait of one man’s passage into maturity and the resiliency of the human spirit, even in the midst of the unimaginable.” – C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

First blurb for The Detour

From Mary Doria Russell, author of A Thread of Grace, The Sparrow, and Doc :

“As Nazi Germany passes from living memory, novels that allow the reader to travel its ethical landscape are increasingly important. Andromeda Romano-Lax has a fine feel for moments of clarity that are recognized only in hindsight, when chance and personal defects — moral and physical — combine to produce heroism, or mediocrity, or cowardice. A convincing novel, beautifully written.”

This was a great blurb to receive from an author I admire for her both her fine writing and her painstaking historical research. Thank you, Mary Doria Russell!

Two versions of the Discus Thrower

 

Why is this Discus Thrower statue (top picture), on display at the British Museum, looking at his feet? Answer: it’s head was wrongly restored. The copy of the Discus Thrower at the National Museum in Rome — the same copy on which my novel is based (bottom picture) — shows the proper positioning.

Both of these copies are based on an original Greek bronze, now lost, by an artist named Myron. We’ll never know for sure what an ideal, original Discobolus looked like, but for Ernst Vogler, the German art curator in my novel, the minor differences are exceptionally important and only the best artistic rendition can bring this marble image of vitality to life. In Vogler’s mind, the statue in the bottom picture is the real masterpiece. What he will do to transport it safely from Rome to Munich, despite the efforts of many to distract or deceive him? That’s the premise of The Detour.  

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