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Travel as it was — and as it can be.

A Fortnightly Review of

Chloe Chard
A Critical Reader of the Romantic Grand Tour: Tristes Plaisirs
Manchester University Press, 2011 | 272pp | £17.38 $27.05

Gwendolyn Leick
Tombs of the Great Leaders: A Contemporary Guide
Reaktion Books 2014 | 336pp | £25.00 $35.28

 by ANTHONY HOWELL.

Tristes Plaisirs – A Critical Reader of the Romantic Grand Tour, By Chloe Chard, taken from Amazon.comHOW REFRESHING IT is to encounter an academic with a sense of humour. Chloe Chard is just that, pulling out the anecdotal plums that her material may store in the recesses of its rich pudding. Again and again I found myself pausing to savour felicities of expression in the passages she has chosen for us in A Critical Reader of the Romantic Grand Tour: Tristes Plaisirs. I was struck, for instance, by a certain Don Ignazio “profusely salivating the floor” before offering his opinion as to whether a faun is stealing a kiss from a bacchante or receiving it without much objection.”

There is a parallel to be drawn, I feel, between the ‘era’ of the grand tour between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the start of the First World War and my own time, that is, since the end of the Second World War and now. Both have been times when there has not been a direct threat to the UK and when it has been possible to wander freely about Europe. Both times have seen the growth of sensibility (perhaps at the cost of the down-to-earth perspective that war affords). For the Victorians, this was the development of the romantic sense of empathy; for us it’s an upsurge of correctness and protectiveness and sentiment about animals. Because there is this parallel, a book on the romantic grand tour is of particular interest to us.

Chard’s reader provides us with generous portions of writings by Charles Dupaty, Maria Graham, William Hazlitt, Anna Jameson, Sydney Morgan, Henry Matthews and Hester Lynch Piozzi among others, and the book includes a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources together with comprehensive footnotes which often succeed in raising an eyebrow.

THE GRAND TOUR was an initiation ceremony for insular Brits who were liable to be dismayed by the smooth contours of the Apollo Belvedere, coming as they did from counties where a man was considered handsome if he did not frighten his horse. Whether you took the tour or not, it was thrilling to read about it, and those who published accounts of their travels were the best sellers of their day. Travellers are cited from earlier centuries, but the heyday for these romantics was a time when neo-classicism was ‘modern’. The writers were generally steeped in Latin, so one can’t help but appreciate the classical balance of their often extensive sentences.

These diarists embrace the language of mood, and very often they seem more interested in their own inner states than in what prompted the feeling.

There is a distinct leaning towards the description of the sensations aroused by everything, from Alps to Apollos. These diarists embrace the language of mood, and very often they seem more interested in their own inner states than in what prompted the feeling. Thus the journals are as much portraits of the travellers themselves as they are of places, and of course for some writers, such as Sterne, “observing the observers” and the locals amounts to the subject matter. For Sterne’s grumpy protagonist it is particularly those of the opposite sex. After all, human beings are almost as interesting as statues. The travelogues may also be spiced up by fashionable drama, Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée is fictitiously written by a lady who is taking the tour to recover from a broken heart. Chard observes that: “as she progresses through France and Italy, the traveller minutely assesses every place she visits for its therapeutic or destructive effects on her, and for the insights it offers into her own condition.”

Chard focuses on the key features of the tour, the Alps, Rome and Naples. The Alps may represent a sublime experience, but that has its ups and downs. Rome is art and history. Naples (with neighbouring Vesuvius and buried towns) is history as well as a confrontation with the powerful forces that provoke eruptions – a more sensuous sublime perhaps – that might just lead to an affair. By the time you have ascended Vesuvius you are so attuned to the effects of landscape that nature herself becomes a character with emotions.

Part of the introduction is devoted to discussing the tropes of 19th century travel writing – where hyperbole may risk becoming bathos – as the sublime may descend into the ridiculous – but then there is litotes, “affirmation by the negative of the contrary” for those writers who value irony and understatement when attempting to describe the indescribable. Our guide is a keen analyst of language and draws our attention to the devices employed by her authors to express the wonders of their journey while on occasion dissing the attempts of others:

“Jameson, picking up a copy of Eustace’s Tour at the inn at Terni, claims that his laboriousness has prompted in her a physical gesture of disgust: ‘I…quickly threw down the book with indignation, deeming all his verbiage, the merest nonsense I had ever met with: in fact, it is nonsense to attempt to image in words an individual scene like this.’”

WHAT I FIND significant about these chosen passages is that they herald the stream of consciousness that distinguished so much twentieth century writing. By embracing “a resolute digressiveness,” the texts often amount to something we are accustomed to find in French literature, and perhaps in the German of Jean Paul Richter, but less commonly in English – the prose poem. And so the writing, as much as the vista, may at times carry us away, and while some see being carried away as dubious, others embrace it and revel in the liberation – as is expressed by Mary Shelley in one of her journals:

Why am I not in Italy – Italian sun & airs & flowers & earth & hopes – they are akin to love enjoyment freedom – exquisite delight – if they are not them they are masked unto them – but here all wears the hue of grimmest reality – a reality to make me shriek upon the ear of midnight – but I must not.”

Reading this book, we can readily imagine the English in Naples, watching the extravagant, if vulgar, Emma Hamilton adjust her classical poses, as they seek an antidote to their national failing – common sense. Their propensity towards a phlegmatic approach may be explained by the climate in which they were brought up. Chard cites Montesquieu, who claims, in De l’esprit des lois (1748), “that cold air has a bracing effect on bodily fibres and warm air a relaxing effect. As a result, changes in climate correspond to different degrees of receptiveness to sensory gratification.”

But travel has its ennuis, prompting Stendhal to confess that he is ‘disgusted with admiring.’ Sometimes the unsavoury poverty of the locals gets in the way of appreciating the sights. However “cleanliness is enemy of the picturesque,” and anyway it is natural for pleasure to mingle with disgust. The dirt of course could also be of the mind. As these staid travellers were subjected to increasingly heavy doses of nudity in art, there grew in them an uneasy awareness that “art is not concerned only with the ideal.” But squeamishness was to be overcome, whether it concerned peering over a precipice or contemplating the thuggish musculature of the Farnesian Hercules.

Constantine Henry Phipps, 1st Marquess of Normanby, taken from Wikimedia FoundationSOME EXPRESS DOUBTS that coming south in search of better weather is likely to do you much good. And in a chapter entitled ‘Danger and Destabilization’, Chard introduces us to the Marquess of Normanby’s short story ‘Change of Air’ – a cautionary tale concerning one Augustus who, in the words of Sir Thomas Morgan, “died in Italy, where he went for the recovery of his health.”

Some of the dangers were real enough. Mal Aria, for instance. The etymology is interesting, suggesting both bad air and a nasty whining song. I don’t suppose that the water can have been that good for you either. From, her last chapter, on gastronomy, I deduce that these tourists so often saw so much through rosy tints mainly because they were pissed for much of the time – since the boozing began at noon, before the sights of Pompeii had been seen, over some “cheerful and elegant repast, on bread and fruits, and perhaps a bottle of Malvoisie or Champagne.”

Other dangers might be deemed more romantic than actual, a loosening of the stays leading, if not to unbridled licentiousness, at least to some slip in decorum, and then, more notably, the possibility of being taken by the banditti. True, Maria Graham witnesses an authentic and nasty murder scene during her Three Months passed in the Mountains East of Rome, but for others the nearest they come to such brigands might be a canvas by Salvator Rosa. Ransoms were supposed to be in order, the more you paid the more of the captive you got back. This prompts me to my own anecdote: when my wife and I visited friends of my family, Dennis and Iona Wright, in Teheran, back in the days of the Shah, we were told that they had been captured by just such brigands while on a riding tour, high up in the mountains between Teheran and the Caspian Sea. They were kept for a fairly entertaining week, and then released unharmed as they had simply refused to divulge their names or their address, or the fact that Dennis was the British ambassador.

One is struck by the sharpness of some of the comments about the art the travellers have set out to see. Several are quick to remark the mannered pretentiousness of Canova’s graces – and express a preference for Thorvaldsen (who is also more to my taste). Very often a project that begins as a rhapsodic paean to loveliness, harmony, tastefulness and delicacy evolves into a far more complex debate as the tour progresses.

Whether quoting absurd views on connoisseurship or an observation concerning a lady of about 17 or 18 who “had faithfully copied rude antiquity in all its parts,” Chard cannot resist identifying the humour, whether conscious or unconscious, that pervades texts which may sometimes be read with inappropriate solemnity. At the same time, I admire the way she communicates her perception as to the nature of the sublime – where grandeur and incompletion may be elided – as much in the recital of an improvvisatrice as in, let’s say, a slave by Michelangelo – or how she identifies key issues of ambivalence in appraisal, whether from a Freudian or from a feminist angle.

Everything is as clearly articulated and as finely developed as in the text of any more abstract post-modernist guru, but it is all neatly anchored in her subject – as can be said of Claude Levi-Strauss when he writes about structuralism and applies it to the peoples of the Amazon in Tristes Tropics. So to my mind, Tristes Plaisirs is destined to become as much of a classic in its own right as Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s Philosophy of Nonsense or Loiterature by Ross Chambers. It is an entertaining as well as an illuminating read!

Toms of the Great Leaders: A Contemporary Guide, by Gwendolyn Leick, taken from Amazon.comTHOUGH NOT EXACTLY guided, the grand tour was conspicuous for its itinerary – and there seems to have been a specific set of things that it was de rigeur to have seen – for how could one debate the issues, were they not common to most of the participants? Admittedly, some took in Bologna, while others passed straight through it, but in general there was a conformity about what the tour constituted. Today, a traveller may identify a project, and adhere to their own schedule, rather in the manner of a concept artist adhering to a particular set of self-chosen rules. Such is the case with Gwendolyn Leick, whose Tombs of the Great Leaders has just been published by Reaktion Books. In the last few years, she has visited a large number of the mausolea built in recent times.

Gwendolyn Leick is Austrian, and many years ago I visited several of the baroque churches of her native Styria with her. As well as admiring the architecture to which she led me, I was fascinated by the skeletons of the saintly displayed in the interiors of these churches, the nakedness of their ribs often hidden by ribbons wound deftly around the bones. On the first page of her weighty book, Leick mentions the mausoleum of Ferdinand XI, the Hapsburg Emperor, in Styria’s capital, Graz, as being a building which fascinated her as a child. Clearly the fascination endures.

The word itself was coined for the tomb of one Mausolus, a petty king whose monument at Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) was nevertheless sufficiently grand to qualify as one of the seven wonders of the world. Leick gives us a brief but lucid history of ancient and medieval sites, then deals with the safeguarding of the immortality of communist leaders, the burial places of Fascist leaders (who couldn’t be embalmed because the commies did that), then the mausolea for the fathers of emerging nations. A fascinating chapter concerns “temporary mausolea” – for those such as Chiang Kai-Shek at Chihu in Taiwan, which is intended for a final resting place on the mainland of China, and for Yasser Arafat at Ramallah – destined ultimately for Jerusalem.

For hunter-gatherers the possibly harmful influence of the deceased was something to be banished. The dead were to be hidden in the ground. This fear “seems to be based on the notion that the living cannot be truly living unless the dead are completely dead.” However, as humanity starts to gather together in cities, the dead may become power objects, and burial becomes more conspicuous, possibly to ensure one’s own mortality or to promote the notion that one is able to communicate to supernatural beings on behalf of the community.

But it is not always the incumbent who decides on his funerary arrangements. Regimes which survive the demise of their principle architect may wish to recruit the power of the dead to ensure that the the ship of state, as they envisage it, can sail serenely on.

MANY REVOLUTIONARY LEADERS have expressed the wish to be dispersed in death. Lenin would be turning in his grave to think that he lies embalmed today in his own mausoleum, having been put there with considerable pomp and circumstance by Stalin (who he really didn’t like). Today there is little information about Lenin at his place of visible rest, since his relationship with the current regime is uneasy. Nevertheless, though Boris Yeltsin proposed burial (and oblivion), no one has had the nerve to mess with Vladimir Ilich, but no one wants to make a fuss about him either.

Zhou Enlai wanted his ashes scattered over the rivers and mountains of China, but nevertheless ended up with a memorial chamber within Mao Zedong’s mausoleum after Mao’s fallibility was acknowledged and the ruthlessness of his “cultural revolution” was seen as misguided. Thus Zhou’s new chamber allowed Mao’s mausoleum to be downgraded somewhat, so that he could henceforth be seen as “but one of a series of significant personalities.”

In Viet Nam, Ho Chi Minh, who disliked the spendthrift gesture of Lenin’s embalmment, wanted his ashes buried in a hill and visitors to plant trees as his memorial. This was not to be. Russian and Vietnamese experts embalmed his body and while American bombs rained down on Hanoi he was spirited away in a huge glass coffin to an air-raid shelter at a secret location, “after a perilous journey across difficult terrain and rough roads, using a specially modified truck with reinforced shock absorbers.”

When the Americans attacked this area he was moved back to Hanoi, and then, when floods threatened, back again to his air-raid shelter, then to a deep cave by a river in the middle of a forest. In all, he was moved more than five times before ending up in a cube 70 foot high, built out of grey marble from the hard-won provinces “below the 17th parallel (the initial military demarcation line between North and South Vietnam)” and from Marble Mountain, an ancient holy site.

Together with a precise structural analysis of the architecture, which reveals the meanings, intended and unintended, that accrue to each monument, we get the background and a profile of the leader installed there, so that we understand his significance (I don’t think any are female).

LEICK SHOWS HOW the materials used to construct a mausoleum generally contribute to its symbolic significance, as does the emphasis of its architecture. Ancient history is often evoked. Just as the mausoleum of Augustus in Rome suggests an ancient tumulus of the Etruscans, thus asserting his distinguished stock, so a recent mausoleum in Africa may have a seemingly “rural” exterior while revealing a modernity within. Together with a precise structural analysis of the architecture, which reveals the meanings, intended and unintended, that accrue to each monument, we get the background and a profile of the leader installed there, so that we understand his significance (I don’t think any are female). Leick covers almost all of these memorials – though she did miss Marshal Tito’s House of Flowers in Belgrade, which would have interested me since Tito is one of my heroes.

What brings the book alive is Leick’s account of her own experience when entering each funerary precinct. At some, security is lax and the dress-code casual – and this reflects the state’s attitude to the leader current at the time of the visit – respected perhaps, but not to be overdone – while at other sites, high stepping guards parade and strict rules about what to wear apply.

When she arrives at the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung at Pyongyang in North Korea and tells her guides that she has come especially to see it, the guides remark “that in their experience such a request (is) unprecedented and…a recommendable example of interest in the Great Leader.” For the North Koreans themselves, “only those citizens who have been bestowed the badge bearing the likeness of the Great and/or the Dear Leader, are admitted…This provides a mechanism to monitor citizens’ participation in this rite, which for those privileged enough to reside in the capital to begin with, is a serious commitment.”

Leick’s detailed account of this visit both fascinates and appals. The interior is complex and far from austere. “With its labyrinthine corridors and stairways, it reminded me of the enchanted castle in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.”

There is a moat replete with swans, and moving walkways “like those in airport terminals….No one was allowed to walk on them and people had to stand very still in groups of two, passively conveyed along a distance of 1,000 metres. At the end of this conveyor strip, rolling brushes removed any remnants of dirt from footwear while gusts of air from automatic fans blew dust off the clothes.”

Thus “mechanically purified,” the author moves through halls and vestibules and a statue of Kim Il Sung bathed in “glowing orange pink light,” into the dark and gloomy ‘Hall of Tears’, where elation changes to despair encouraged by an intoned commentary that evokes the “deep grief experienced by the Korean people during the three years of mourning after the Great Leader’s death.” But redemption prevails in the next room. Here, where white-gloved soldiers holding polished machine guns guard the crystal coffin, one bows deeply, then proceeds

“around all three sides, bowing each time, though not behind the Great Leader’s head…He wore a dark suit and tie and his face looked very fresh and rosy. His still shiny, greying hair had been neatly brushed. The Great Leader appeared to be in excellent condition.”

This book provides a funerary history of the twentieth century that is unique it its scope, and it is particularly stimulating because it is neither a Euro-centric nor an Anglo-American view of our times but a genuinely global reading. How odd that this epoch may well be remembered as the one when more people were mummified than at any time since the Egyptians! As Geremie Barmé puts it, “The Mummy is the greatest communist.”

It’s a pretty thorough account of who was important to whom and where, but it’s also laced with humour and surrealism. I was reminded of Dean Swift’s “big endians and little endians” as it became clear while reading that statehood thrives on divergence, unless that divergence tears it apart. In Bangladesh this is expressed by the assassination of two generals in reasonably quick succession, the one favouring an Islamic Bangladesh, the other a Bengali Bangladesh. Their respective widows head rival political parties now, and when one is swept into office, her husband’s mausoleum gets spruced up, while the other widow’s husband’s mausoleum gets fly-posted and its gatehouse may be utilised as a makeshift kitchen strung with washing lines while a few goats complete the domestic set-up.

Image of The Presidential Burial Ground of Chiang-Kai Shek, Taken from Author's CollectionIn the presidential burial ground of Chiang Kai-shek, there is “the only sculpture park in the world dedicated to a single person.” It is full of decommissioned and re-assembled statues of Chiang which have “been rescued from various dumps and depots around the country after the Taiwanese nationalist Democratic Progress Party had come to power.”

In Africa, whose mausolea are also given a chapter, the concrete canopy above the resting-place of Laurent-Désiré Kabila is held aloft by five massive fists, while in Ghana, Nkrumah’s reputation has had its ups and downs and at one point the statue at his mausoleum was overturned and decapitated. Now the statue has been resurrected, and his head sits next to him, on its own plinth!

Tomb of Agostinho Neto, Taken From Author's CollectionMost beautiful, to my mind, is Agostino Neto’s toga-clad rocket in Luanda, which is only rivalled by Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi: a fabulous dome clad in white marble, rising above “huge, parabolic-arched doorways, disconcertingly reminiscent of McDonald’s ‘golden arches’, which pierce each of the four tapered facades of the mausoleum.” It is surrounded by rivulets and gardens, and illuminated at nightfall.

Leick’s own favourite is clearly the mausoleum of Attaturk in Ankara, which combines austerity with a subtle dignity, but perhaps her enthusiasm is also informed by her admiration for that truly great man who, as the tomb’s architects put it:

“…rescued us from the Middle Ages and showed us that our real history resided not in the Middle Ages but in the common sources of the classical world.”

A gallery from Gwendolyn Leick’s collection:

 ♦


Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

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