Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Holiday Reading

Sintra - a 15C Portuguese castle, a 19C Portuguese myth?
Photo by Antonio Garcia
            Another holiday-related blog for high summer. The very first lecture I attended as an undergraduate was given by the Regius Professor, J.H.Elliot, on ‘Studying history at Oxford’. His main message, as he stood in his gown in front of an audience of 300 nervous teenagers, was that a historian simply had to travel, and see as much as possible.

        Nearly 20 years on, that advice seems ever more sensible. And one of the reasons why those interested in history should travel is not just because of all the out-of-the-way, below-the-radar, off-the-beaten-track historic sites waiting to be found, but also because of the bookshops usually attached to them. Behind the postcards and nick-knacks in the shops of very minor French chateaux, or Maltese Roman villas, or Polish archdiocesan museums, there are usually obscure local history books for sale – some dusty, some glossy – which, as my husband has impressed on me, you will probably never see again. 


            I buy these books because it’s useful to read about a place after you’ve visited it (enhancing the experience retrospectively), and because they are packed with pictures of unusual Renaissance sites and sights which I might use in teaching and lecturing. However, some of them are works of inspirational scholarship by local historians, illuminating the history of a wider region, or period, in brilliant microcosm. If you happen to be near Lisbon this summer, I’d recommend the official guide to the late medieval royal palace at Sintra by Jose Custodio Viera da Silva – a thoughtful, evocative essay on the methodological difficulties of working out the form of the original castle, and the changing popular perceptions of Sintra, as it inspired Portuguese myth-making in the 19C. And if you’re in Frejus, in Provence, and read French, a must-read is the little book L’imagier de Frejus by Georges Puchal and Colette Dumas. A study of the 14C paintings in the city’s cathedral cloister, it is a marvellous piece of detective work, a case-study in how visual and literary motifs could be transmitted across Europe, to produce such striking, peculiar works of art in a given locality. These are portable, worthy holiday souvenirs which score high on historical imagination. And you'll also get a big smile from the gift-shop staff if you buy them.

Frejus - how did those monsters get on the ceiling?
Cathedral cloister, photo by Guido Agostini

1 comment:

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