I would never have understood Symonds’s description if I hadn’t travelled to Venice

This from Lucinda Matthews-Jones on John Addington Symonds, Venice and literary tourism:

“In the weeks leading up to the recent NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference, hosted by Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, I read the following passage from John Addington Symonds’s The Fine Arts, the third volume in his Renaissance in Italy series:

Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase, with her palaces of porphyry and marble, her frescoed facades, her quays and squares aglow with the costumes of the Levant, her lagoons afloat with the galleys of all nations, her churches floored with mosaics, her silvery domes and ceilings glittering with sculpture bathed in molten gold.

I included this passage in my conference paper as an example of Symonds’s ‘Venice register’—typical of his diction and figurative language when describing Italy’s “sea city”. On my first reading I hit the seventh word and paused. Chrysoprase. What was that? A Google search revealed it was a semi-precious stone, and a Google Image search revealed it was green in colour, somewhere between jade and aqua-marine, veined through with lines of a darker shade. After this moment’s distraction on the Internet, I thought little more of Symonds’s use of this stone in his writing.

A few weeks later I found myself on a plane landing at Marco Polo Airport, Venice. A short bus ride later I was at the Piazzale Roma catching a vaporetti on my way to San Marco. It was then I noticed the water—its colour, its movement and its differing shades. A striking phrase resurfaced in my mind: “Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase”. What I had assumed to be Symonds’s purple prose, yet another example of his hyperbolic tendencies, proved to be a rather exact description. The canals were indeed a striking shade of blue-green, and everywhere I looked, the luminous brine was interspersed with dark fronds of seaweed.

This moment was revelatory. I would never have understood Symonds’s description if I hadn’t travelled to Venice. I would never have sympathised with nor understood his paradoxically literal use [of] metaphor. I would never have fully shared his affective response to Venice’s dilapidated beauty and rich colour palette. My understanding of the way Symonds envisioned the city had changed. Was this unquantifiable? Certainly. Was it sentimental? Perhaps. But there had been an undeniable shift.”

If you want to understand Symonds’s description for yourself, here’s information on visiting Venice.

Plantin Museum in Antwerp gets you close to Master Printers and their Ideals


© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

I never visit the Plantin Museum at Antwerp without feeling that I have come closer to the master-printers and their ideals. Here is the only great printing establishment of the past that time and the inroads of man have left intact. The beauty of the building, the harmony of the surroundings, the old portraits, the comfort yet the taste shown in the living-rooms, – all show that the artist-printer sought the same elements in his life that he expressed in his work. Entering from the Marche du Vendredi, I find myself face to face with a small tablet over the door on which is the device of Christophe Plantin, “first printer to the King, and the king of printers.” Here the familiar hand, grasping a pair of compasses, reaches down from the clouds, holding the compasses so that one leg stands at rest while the other describes a circle, enclosing the legend Labore et Constantia. Within the house one finds the actual type and presses, and designs by Rubens and other famous artists, that were employed in making the Plantin books. The rooms in which the master-printer lived make his personality very real. In those days a man’s business was his life, and the home and the workshop were not far separated. Here the family life and the making of books were so closely interwoven that the visitor can scarcely tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

William Dana Orcutt, In Quest of the Perfect Book (Little Brown, 1926)

Go here for visitor information on Antwerp.

Another stop on your literary tourist bucket list

If you listened to my Biblio File conversation with Jean Louis Maitre, you’ll know that Christophe Plantin was born near Tours, France and moved to Antwerp in the mid-1500s where he founded a printing company. After his death, it was taken over by his son-in-law Jan Moretus. The Plantin Moretus Printing company was sold to the city of Antwerp in 1876. Within a year the public was able to visit the living areas and the printing presses. In 2002 the Plantin-Moretus museum was nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2005 was inscribed onto the World Heritage list.

The Museum has an exceptional collection of typographical material, the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world, many sets of dies and matrices, and an extensive library. All sorts of typographic masterpieces originated here, including the Biblia Regia, the Bibla Polyglotta and Ortelius’s atlases.

By some miracle the museum, located only feet from the river, twice escaped destruction. First during the Spanish invasion of 1576, second in 1945 when V1 bomb exploded outside the building. It should be mentioned that during the autumn of 1914 the Brits dispatched troops to protect Antwerp, among them were volunteers including Rupert Brooke, Douglas Jerrold and Charles Morgan. Ford Modox Ford published a poem entitled Antwerp in 1915. You can read it here.

Visitor information on Antwerp can be found here.

Alice’s Adventures in Oxford


Christ Church. Credit Bduke at en.wikipedia

By Angela Youngman

A city of dreaming spires and black robed undergraduates with bikes hurrying to lectures, Oxford is also home to one of the most celebrated characters in literature. It was here that one blazing hot day in the summer of 1862, that an Oxford don named named Charles Dodgson took a little girl named Alice Liddell and her sisters rowing on the river Isis. Leaving Folly meadow, they rowed down to Godstow for a picnic during which Dodgson told a story about Alice encountering a white rabbit with a pocket watch and muttering he would be late. The rest is history.

Better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson wrote down the story and it has delighted readers ever since. Iconic scenes such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party with a Dormouse being stuffed into a teapot, playing card soldiers and gardeners painting roses red are instantly recognizable. Many of these scenes are based around places that Alice knew in Oxford – and visitors can still see many of these locations today. Both Alice and Lewis Carroll lived at Christ Church College, part of Oxford University. Alice’s father was Dean of the College, while Carroll was one of the lecturers. The College was Carroll’s home from 1851 to his death in 1898 . He started writing his famous story while living in The Cloister of Christ Church College.

A picture of Lewis Carroll can be seen in the dining room near the door, while Dean Liddell’s portrait is close to the High Table. Just behind the High Table is an intriguing winding stair, which is known as the Rabbit Hole! Nearby is Christ Church Cathedral where Carroll worshipped daily, sitting in the Canons and Students stalls. Alice Liddell also came here with her family to attend services, most frequently on Sundays. Leaving the College via a path through the Meadows, it is possible to walk directly in Alice’s footsteps. The poplar trees were planted on the orders of her father, and Carroll’s photograph of the site shows this identical view. Punting and rowing on the river is still a feature of Oxford life. There are many boats for hire, just as Carroll hired one for his party. Godstow Lock and the meadow where Alice and her sisters heard the story still remain, with lots of space for picnics.

Across the road from the Deanery on St Aldates is another reminder of Alice. A little shop now bears her name. It was here that Alice went to buy sweets. The old lady in charge of the shop had a bleating voice, and the shop frequently flooded. Carroll referred to this in his book Through the Looking Glass when he wrote that Alice was ‘in a little dark shop, leaning with her elbows on the counter, and opposite her was an old Sheep, sitting in an arm-chair knitting, and every now and then leaving off to look at her through a great pair of spectacles’ and that goods floated away in the water.

Not far away is the Museum of Natural History where Lewis Carroll and Alice saw the remains of a Dodo, while the Museum of Oxford has an fascinating display of Alice memorabilia such as Alice’s Crest Book, her Red Cross medal for fund raising efforts during the First World War and a wonderful biscuit tin specifically commissioned by Lewis Carroll to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Angela Youngman is a writer and journalist with numerous books linking travel and literary/film sites. She is the author of Discover Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: The writer, the stories, the places

Audio: Visit the Museum of Typography in Tours, France

Better known for its wines, the perfection of its local spoken French, its cathedral and chateau, the city of Tours France also has a surprisingly rich historical connection with printing and typography. I was in Tours recently and visited the Musee de la Typographie.

It may be small, but it’s full of all sorts of different kinds of old printing equipment and tools, typefaces, woodcuts and handmade paper. As one visitor put it:

“Muriel Méchin, the owner takes you on a personal discovery tour of his museum, including printing off some examples for you to take home on a press from the 1800s. I have been to many printing museums, but this is the first I have found that contains compositors tools such as the Moule à Arçon, a hand-held individual character casting device, that was the forerunner of the mechanical Monotype and Linotype machines hundreds of years later.You can actually handle many of the exhibits which most museums forbid.

Muriel has published a very informative book which we were able to purchase; it is chock full of historical information and illustrated with photos and drawings explaining the history of a most interesting industry that goes back many hundreds of years. The museum is free.”

Since Muriel doesn’t speak English, I sat down with his colleague Jean Louis Maitre to talk about the museum and the fascinating printing history of the region.

If you like English spoken with a thick French accent, you’ll love listening to Jean Louis.

For information on visiting Tour, click here.