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Valuable Insights Marred by Silly Errors
on 3 March 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin McCloud's four-part television series. (Why is it not available on DVD?) I thought his marrying of certain architects and architectural movements in England with certain buildings and styles in Italy and Greece was an imaginative reworking of the traditional Grand Tour programme; the combination of times and places seemed genuinely here to have historical meaning, reflected in concrete examples found in parks and on high streets throughout the land. I was looking forward to reading the book, therefore, to learn some more. But unlike many books of TV series, this one told me little more.
McCloud is a designer and architect, so this is very much a designer's and architect's Grand Tour. For those with a more artistic bent, wanting to witness the painting and sculpture (as well as the architecture) of the Italian Renaissance, then Brian Sewell's series (on DVD) is to be recommended instead. For those without a focus on the arts but wanting to explore the idea of the Grand Tour, then the books by Jeremy Black or Christopher Hibbert are can be recommended in their different ways.
The book consists of an introduction and twelve chapters that are uneven in length. In his opening sentence, McCloud states immediately that he is no expert on the Grand Tour. Rather than present a basic history, "we took a more cursive and personal route ... [focussing on] four big ideas in the history of Big Ideas." So we have Inigo Jones's introduction to Palladianism; Christopher Wren's "domological detective story"; the marrying of archaeology and design by the Adam family; and the Romantics' rediscovery of Greece and of nature.
The book is co-written with Isabel Allen, but we are not told who she is or what her expertise encompasses. There is no map, no index, no glossary, no references, and no notes (but there is a list of further reading). These should immediately have put me on my guard, and indeed I was soon surprised to find that Mr McCloud admits Paris has power and composure but no passion or romance. Really? Seven pages later we are told that Inigo Jones was the "first proper architect in this country". Really? Later we read, "To avoid the mountains, ... Grand Tourists would travel south to Marseilles or Cannes." Really? Some maybe, but most went over the Alps. I can cope with errors of view, but when it comes to errors of fact, such as mistaking the sex of Hester Thrale, I almost gave up reading any further.
It's by no means all bad; I do give this book four stars, after all. McCloud has some perceptive things to say about Venice, for example, but I am more inclined to believe what he has to say about its buildings than about its social history; building bridges there deliberately so that men could look from below up inside a woman's skirt indeed! Having said that, I then read how Palladio "never built within the city of Venice itself." What a strange statement! How about San Francesco della Vigna or Santa Maria della Carita, or San Pietro di Castello? Even the Giudecca and San Giorgio are within Venice.
McCloud makes the valid point that British town planning has never in practice achieved the heights of the grand sweeping gestures of Paris or Rome because these latter cities relied on the absolutism of a Louis XIV or a Pope. Arguably, the closest London has come in these stakes was the work of John Nash for the Prince Regent. Post-medieval Britain always placed trade above art in that respect.
There is a welcome expansion of the traditional Grand Tour to Greece, and I liked the display of postcards showing views of the many and various museums and town halls in Britain that based themselves to a greater or lesser extent on the Greek temple form. But even here, the embarrassing errors keep coming, such as when we are told that Ancient Greece operated for most of its existence as a republic, or that it was "inundated" with Grand Tourists during the Napoleonic Wars.
And McCloud is good to have taken the Grand Tour further in time to the point where the Nature Sublime became reason enough for the journey: "In the quest for the Sublime the more Romantic travellers began to view man-made art and architecture as less important than the landscapes themselves." John Ruskin becomes the guiding light in this part of McCloud's book, under whose aegis "glaciology, the Sublime, buildings and art all meet ..."
Much of this book is more photograph than text, but many of the full-page shots have no caption to tell you what they are. I think if all the pictures were taken out of it, the remainder would be a very slim volume. But all credit to McCloud for the stirring words at his journey's end. It was a journey that I would willingly take with him again, because he is good company and he does have some very interesting and insightful things to say. It's just a shame that the truth of his story is marred by silly errors of fact and judgement.