Category Archives: Architecture

International Agatha Christie Festival

The 2017 International Agatha Christie Festival will take place from Wednesday, 13 September through Sunday, 17 September, in Torquay, the British seaside resort where Christie was born. This year’s festival emphasizes her connection to the Middle East, where she spent considerable time with her husband, archaeologist Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan.

The full schedule for the festival has just been posted, and it includes readings, films, concerts, tours, performances, and workshops. One of the highlights is likely to be the weekend-long Garden Party at Torre Abbey,

Torre Abbey

Torre Abbey

The historic Torre Abbey gardens “… will come alive with music, films, stalls and gastronomic delights for all the family.” There will be a garden marketplace and an open air screening of a classic Agatha Christie film.

Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, will be on hand to discuss his memories of the writer.

Given the setting and the theme, I wouldn’t be the least surprised if someone is the victim of murder most foul during the weekend. If festival guests are in search of clues clews, they’d be well-advised to begin by looking in the herbaceous borders….

Single-day passes start at £15, and top out at £150 for the Grand Tour Ticket.


Torquay is about four hours from London, by car or train. While it’s certainly proud of its most well-known daughter, the city’s greatest claim to fame is probably that it was the (fictional) home of Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty, prop.

Take a break and watch as Basil, suffering from a concussion, tries to avoid embarrassing some German guests by not mentioning WWII.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria Rides Again

The girl in the painting would soon become Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. She gave this portrait to the Emperor for Christmas after the two were engaged to be married. It became one of Franz Joseph’s most prized possessions, and hung on the wall above his bed for 60 years, until his death.

It was sold at auction in Vienna last month for €1,540,000 (US$1,721,643).


It’s curious how people, places, and things you’ve never been aware of can make an unanticipated appearance in your life, and gradually draw you in until they become, at least for a while, a prominent part of your existence. An exhibition of Victorian art at the National Gallery totally altered my views on painting, for instance, and led to an ongoing obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites. A few years ago, my appreciation for The Hunger Games eventually resulted in my spending an entire summer reading nothing but teen dystopia novels.

OK, some unexpected tangents are more rewarding than others.

Until a few years ago, I knew next to nothing about Sisi–sometimes written as  “Sissi”–the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. But then in Vienna, I visited the Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments in the Hofburg Complex and did The Grand Tour of 40 (out of 1,441) rooms of the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg imperial summer residence.*

Sisi as Empress

Sisi as Empress

The unconventional and brilliant Sisi has been on my mind ever since. She was a searcher, always looking for something different, something new. She hated court life, and spent months at a time away from the capital, travelling to Morocco and England, Egypt and Corfu, France and Malta, learning languages as she went. She championed the empire’s Hungarian subjects, and they, in turn, idolized her. She was only 16 when she married the 24-year-old Emperor. He loved her passionately; her feelings were less intense.

The more I learn about her, the more I want to know. I just recently discovered that her favorite cousin was another historical figure who has always fascinated me, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, builder of Schloss Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace, and patron of Richard Wagner. Researching that relationship immediately landed a spot on my To Do list.


*There are some ravishing pictures of those sites at the links, most of them found on the Net, but a few of them my own. You can also view some pictures of her partially restored apartment in the Museo Correr that I took when I was in Venice this spring.

Paradiso, and the Chamber of the Great Council

I didn’t take this photograph. I’m using it because it there was no way for me to come close to capturing the texture and detail of the massive painting behind the Doge’s throne in the Chamber of the Great Council. It’s titled Paradiso, and it was painted by Jacopo Tintoretto and the members of his workshop.

Click the image to enbiggen.

I first saw a picture of Paradiso in Venice: Art and Architecture, a two-volume, slip-cased entry in the superb series of art books that the Konemann publishing house released around the turn of the century. The picture took up two full pages of the oversized book.

I was thoroughly enraptured. Venice had always been near the top of my list of cities I dreamed of visiting, and that picture cinched the deal.

And now I was here.

Paradiso is the world’s longest painting on canvas, and the Chamber of the Great Council itself is one of the largest rooms in Europe. It was here that the Great Council of Venice, made up of all patrician males over 25, regularly met to determine the fate of Venice.

I spent more than an hour in this room, moving from place to place, trying to absorb as much of the emotional atmosphere of the room as I could.

Like Schloss Neuschwanstein, like Sainte-Chapelle, like Château de Chenonceau.

A peak experience.

In the Doges’ Palace

We’re near the end, now. And we’re right back where we started, at Piazza San Marco.

For centuries, Venice was a dominant—sometimes the dominant—force in the commercial and cultural life of Europe, playing a role similar to that of New York City in the 20th century. The Doges’ Palace was Venice’s ultimate power center.

The Palace is adjacent to Saint Mark’s Basilica, and its entrance is just around the corner.


The Courtyard

You approach the palace grounds through this dim passageway…

…which opens to the central courtyard, and a magnificent assemblage of architecture. It’s a much smaller space than Piazza San Marco, but every bit as awe-inspiring..

Emerging from that shadowy entrance into this exquisite space is similar to going from Kansas to Oz.


“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold…”

Beautiful as the exterior is, it doesn’t prepare you for the grand rooms of the Palace.

This is why I keep going back to Europe. It takes centuries of civilization for a society to create an environment like this.


In the Armory

Every palace needs an armory.


The Reason I Came to Venice

There’s one more room in the palace still to visit: The Chamber of the Great Council. It gets a separate posting.

Odds and Ends at Mocenigo Palazzo

In what seems like a familiar story, Palazzo Mocenigo was the home of a branch of the powerful Mocenigo family—seven family members became doges—for more than 300 years. The line died out in the mid-20th century, and the palace was willed to the city on the death of the last Mocenigo widow, with the stipulation that it become an art gallery to complement Museo Correr.

Today the museum is the home of the Study Centre for the History of Textiles and Costumes.* It also houses a mixture of partially restored period rooms, with their contents largely drawn from other Venice museums, and a small but fascinating section devoted to the history of perfume in Venice’s society and commerce.

A reconstruction of a perfumer’s workshop.

From the costume collection.

Remember the door that I plotted to steal from Ca’ Rezzonico? These waistcoats are worthy of that door.

I’ve decided that once I smuggle the door past customs and install it at home, I’m going to establish a detailed dress code for anyone who uses it. Vests like these will be required; if you think you can enter wearing your ratty black Ramones t-shirt, forget about it.


Murano, of course, like the picture at the top of the posting. They’ve been making chandeliers like this for centuries, but the design looks absolutely contemporary


*You can see some beautiful examples from the collection on the Mocenigo Palazzo’s page at the Google Arts and Culture site.

The Easiest Way to See Venice — Gliding up and down the Grand Canal

I’ve always thought that you can’t really begin to know a city until you feel comfortable using its public transportation. Usually, that means getting acquainted with the city’s subway routes and fare collection methods. In Venice, it means riding a vaporetto.

Vaporetti are water buses, and they serve both residents and tourists, with one not-so-slight difference: The basic fare for residents with a local ID card is €1.50, while for everyone else it’s €7.50. Venice hasn’t stayed rich for a thousand years by not looking out for the main chance.

At those prices, it makes sense for a visitor to buy a multi-day tourist travel card, which allows unlimited vaporetto use for a set fee, starting at €20.00 for one day.

Once you have your card, you’re set to explore Venice by water—the easiest, quickest, and most relaxing way to orient yourself to the city.


Along the Grand Canal

This is the best Travel Tip I can give anyone visiting Venice. Here’s what to do:

Go to the nearest vaporetto stop, and board the first boat from the No. 1 vaporetto line that comes along. The No. 1 line runs the length of the Grand Canal, which is Venice’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue in New York. Unless you board at the beginning of the route, you’ll probably wind up either riding inside, or standing on the deck.

Ride to the end of the line, at which point the boat will go out of service, and you’ll have to disembark.

Now find the nearby boarding dock for the return trip. Stay near the boarding point, so that you’ll be among the first people allowed on board. Then head immediately for the limited number of seats in the outside areas at the front or the back of the vaporetto.

You’ll have a comfortable seat with a terrific view as you ride to the end of the line.

Repeat as often as desired.


You can ride on the inside, which is convenient if the weather’s bad, but for the best trip, try to get an outside seat.

This wonderful mature couple spent the entire trip drinking Prosecco from the bottle and making out like teenagers. Venice does that to people.

Ca’ Rezzonico, Where I Fantasized about Stealing the Furniture

New day, new palace.

Ca’ Rezzonico, another magnificent 18th century palazzo, fronts on the Grand Canal. It’s now the Museum of 18th Century Venice.

Like every other great building in Venice, it comes with a story.

Work on the palace began in the mid-17th century, but the original architect died, and the owners ran out of money, so the building was left incomplete. Giambattista Rezzonico, a merchant of Venice, bought the palace a hundred years later, when his family’s wealth and power was at its peak. The building was completed in 1758, in time to welcome a visit from Rezzonico’s younger brother, Carlo, who had been elected Pope under the name Clement XIII. At Ca’ Rezzonico, you can still see the large papal throne Clement used when he visited.

Fifty years later, the Rezzonico family was extinct, and the palazzo went into a slow decline. Along the way, it was the final residence of the poet Robert Browning, who died there. Eventually, in 1935, it was sold to the Venice Town Council.


Ca’ Rezzonico now houses some finest 18th century furniture in the city. I eyed many of the exquisite pieces with covetousness in my heart. If I could have figured out a way to stuff some of the furniture into my now-depleted knapsack and smuggle it back to Washington, I would have done so in a second.

Unfortunately, and not for the first time, I was unable to bend the laws of physics and the universe to my will. The furniture remains in Venice. But I do have some pictures…

Tapestry chairs.

A perfect desk.

OK, I definitely have dibs on this door.  It grabbed my attention the second I entered the room.

If I had a door like that, I would probably only walk through it when I was formally dressed, and I’d certainly require a background check before I’d let anyone else use it. And they’d have to wear gloves.

I wonder if I could find a young Arts major in DC who would be willing to do something similar to a door in my condo? Seriously.

This painted chest belongs close to the door.