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Mediterranean Hues

Art Books: What to Read Now

© Eric Sander, from Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast, by Curt DiCamillo (Flammarion, 2017)

BY Christian House
freelance arts and books writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

Published
In Books

This summer brought three books exploring how art has been enjoyed under the Mediterranean sun—a literary tour taking readers from the Salerno coastline to the alleyways of Catalonia via the hills of Provence. On route, there are sanctuaries, robberies and pastries.

Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast

View of Villa Astor above the Bay of Naples © Eric Sander, from Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast by Curt DiCamillo, (Flammarion, 2017)

When it came to choosing a house, the phenomenally rich financier, publisher and diplomat William Waldorf Astor favored the quiet life. At the end of the 19th-century, after a brief foray into politics, Astor fled America (where the press mocked him) and retreated to the estate he had bought at Cliveden-on-Thames in Buckinghamshire, England (where he even faked his own death to keep the hacks off his back). Next, he bought Hever Castle in Kent and pulled up the drawbridge. Then, in 1905, he purchased an ancient Italian estate where, finally, he got some peace.  

As detailed in Villa Astor, the site on Sorrento’s volcanic cliffs is best seen from the ferry to Capri. “So far as beauty is concerned, it is as near paradise as anything I expect to see,” Astor remarked. Fuelled by a perfectionist streak and a staggering bank balance, he turned a 19th-century villa into a haven of botanical gardens, Classical and Renaissance antiquities and objets d’art.

Astor’s antiquities were the equal of those in the V&A or the Metropolitan Museum. A survey of his treasures include Roman sarcophagi, busts and urns, a porphyry “Pompeian table” and a 15th-century marble bas-relief by Agostino di Duccio. He filled the bedrooms with Venetian glass and snuff bottles and didn’t mind putting priceless statues in the grounds. He also bought a lot of French cheese.

In his foreword, the present Lord Astor of Hever observes: “Framed within this repository of my great-grandfather’s favorite things, is the spellbinding view of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius.” “Willy” created 360-degree splendor: heliotrope and honeysuckle glimpsed through the windows, marble friezes and terracotta vases in the halls. 

This book combines historical insight—including passages on Astor’s attachment to the town of Sorrento and donations to local causes, his lush garden and fastidious approach to collecting—with envy-inducing photography. It is a required combination: with a place this extraordinary, words hardly do justice to its beauty and pictures fail to tell the human story behind its creation. 

*Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast is published by Flammarion

The Riviera Set

Sir Winston Churchill, left, sits with novelist William Somerset Maugham, right, on the terrace of Maugham’s Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat, France (1959). Photo credit: Associated Press

If the Amalfi coast was a haven for high society, then the French Riviera was where it made a splash. In the early to mid-20th-century the chateaux of the Côte d’Azur became the playpens of the rich and famous. And they brought their collections with them, as Mary S. Lovell explains in The Riviera Set, a book not so much about art as about where art goes for a holiday. 

One fan of the region was the British author William Somerset Maugham, who created an impressive domestic collection at Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. It was an ugly building with a beautiful view. So Somerset Maugham commissioned the American architect Barry Dierks—a master of elegant Modernism—to remodel its exterior. The writer then filled the house with Cézannes and Gauguins and a coterie of pretty young men.

Dierks’ most famous creation, and the focus of Lovell’s book, was the Château de l’Horizon, a symphony of white lines pinched between the Riviera’s railway track and the sea. Built in 1932 for the actress Maxine Elliott, it became a favorite destination of her friend Winston Churchill, who regularly arrived on painting trips. He would venture out with his easel, canvasses, hat and cigar box, and laughed when an elderly Frenchman told him that he needed a “few more lessons”. 

In 1948, Prince Aly Khan, the playboy son of the Aga Khan, bought the château. “Just think how marvelous my paintings will look in this house,” he remarked. “The Matisse—the Murillos—the Dufy, and the Picassos. It’s the perfect home for them.”  On crockery made by the Ramie family, Pablo’s potter, he fed Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney.  

The good times didn’t last. The cat burglars sniffed out the treasures hidden among the pines. In the late 1950s, a daring midnight heist at La Colome d’Or, the Provencal auberge where visitors dined next to works by Chagall and Matisse, prompted Somerset Maugham to reconsider the pictures on his walls. “I have never seen a house that so obviously invites robbers,” the mayor of his village told him. The writer’s Impressionist and Modern art collection was promptly consigned to Sotheby’s.

In 1960, Aly Khan died in a car crash and the party came to an abrupt end. The smart set still head south, of course but, as Lovell explains, things have changed beyond recognition since “the days when the worst possible behavior was to be boring”. 

*The Riviera Set is published by Little Brown

Barcelona Signage

Grafica de les Rambles: The Signs of Barcelona by Louise Fili (Princeton Architectural Press, out September 26) © 2017 by Louise Fili

As the Mediterranean hotspots continue to morph into the homogenized tourist traps we see everywhere else, Louise Fili’s Grafica de les Ramblas: The Signs of Barcelona provides a valuable reminder of the artistic, and social, history in danger. Modernisme, Catalonia’s florid brand of Art Nouveau, is writ large on Barcelona’s streets, where passers-by are stopped short by the period placards and awesome awnings of patisseries, pharmacies, cafes and department stores. But the developers are circling.

Fili first visited the city in the early 1970s, and recalls swooning at the swirling curlicues and distinctive typography on shop signage: “Fluid and poetic, enhanced by mosaics, gold leaf, stained glass, and wrought iron. It was love at first sight.” Modernisme fitted into a larger movement, which included Stile Liberty in Italy and Glasgow Style in Scotland. In Barcelona, however, many of the signs retain their relevance. They’re still attracting customers. 

I know: I was one. One of the book’s highlights is Forn De Pa Pastisseria, a Eixample bakery with a façade worthy of Guadí. On a recent visit to the city I watched its baker working his dough surrounded by trays of pasteis de nata. These, mostly family-owned, establishments blend commerce with elegance.

A graphic designer, typographer, historian and writer, Fili has brought her many talents to this project. And she has walked the avenues and passages to take photographs that detail not only the organic lines of Modernisme, but also the later, more geometric, Art Deco patterns. 

While some signs deliver elaborate scripts, others make their declarations sense paraules, relying on universal symbols—the optician’s spectacles, the pharmacist’s caduceus—boldly presented in neon, wood or paint. “In centuries past, this was the most efficient way for a merchant to connect with an often illiterate public,” Fili notes. 

And like all of the glorious designs recorded in this book, they continue to connect with locals, visitors—and readers. Cherish them while you can.  

*Grafica de les Rambles: The Signs of Barcelona is published by Princeton Architectural Press

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