Mediterranean Dialogues


Eva-Maria Troelenberg

Down the Nile, to the land of the Etruscans,
to the fantastic happiness

Every historic date has a prologue. Things hardly ever begin where we begin to count. It is said that long before 1905 the Villa Romana was once inhabited or even owned by the Egyptian Viceroy Ismail Pasha l. Once that thought has entered your imagination, you can almost see him sitting there in the gently sloping garden, in the shadow of the cypress.

It is however, in all likelihood, a rumour cleverly conceived under conditions of splendid arbitrariness; the kind of story that in hindsight could always mean its exact opposite. Or maybe simply a mighty travesty.

Elective affinities

"We decided to travel to Cairo the next day to ask my father Ismail Pasha, who was at the time very busy with the construction of the Suez Canal, to take a trip to Etruria, which I had long ago grown fond of, in order to spend a life of infinitely great, insanely mad, utterly fantastic happiness with Ramsud there. He, my father, owned a palace in a fairy-tale bamboo grove, peppered with all kinds of surprises, and he proceeded to support the fine arts of a blithe spirit from afar."

These lines are taken from a fictional travelogue by Michael Buthe, who in 1976 worked in Florence for ten months as a Villa Romana Fellow. In his story, which he illustrated with pen and ink drawings, he constructed the elective affinity between his alter ego Saladin Ben Ismail and Ismail Pasha, whose regency as Viceroy of Egypt had ended almost exactly a century earlier. It is not only on the time axis that the reference to the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, initially appears to provide a precise anchor point for this ingenuous entanglement of time and space; the geographical and spatial coordinates also seem clear: from Alexandria the journey leads the narrator, his companions and his lover Ramsud across the sea, past Corfu, Crete and Athens, and finally to Ostia. The story continues over land from Rome to Florence:

"Ismail Pasha´s villa was just outside the city, on the road to Siena. And so we came via the Ponte Santa Trinita, which is supposedly the most elegant bridge in the world, to the torch-lit Porta Romana and the Via Senese, in order to take up our lodgings at the villa, this palace of Ismail Pasha's that was to be our home for the next few months, and put a temporary end to our wanderings. The flag of the double lion and the sun was raised to summon good fortune."

Whether the historical Ismail Pascha, whose regency is interpreted not only as a time of reform and renewal but also of economic turmoil in Egypt, ever did set foot in the villa on the Via Senese, we do not yet know. He did in fact live in Italy for some time between his abdication in 1879 and his death in 1895, and even lived in various houses in Florence: for a short time during the 1880s, he owned the Palazzo Scala-della Gherardesca.

Is Buthe´s travelogue, inspired (with great poetic licence) by a half-forgotten Florentine anecdote, only one of the many versions of the grand tour that are still cultivated today? An essentially conservative standard exercise in modern artistic biographical optimisation, conceptually translated into an expressive word and mind game? All in all, simply an Oriental fantasy, an almost prototypical projection screen for the pursuit of a happiness that is perhaps impossible to articulate elsewhere?

© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2015
photo: Albert Coers

Maybe so, but it is a fantasy with multiple hidden meanings. The reverse direction of the journey, which leads from the Orient to Italy and rather than returning home, leads away from the imaginary father figure of Ismail Pascha, is at the very least a smart artistic device. Introduced as the builder of the Suez Canal and therefore a player in an age on the cusp of rational, technological modernity, he constitutes the modern abutment to the narrator´s movements. In contrast, the latter is always travelling towards an ever more purposeless, emphatically reiterated fortune or happiness. This effectively overrides any teleological purpose of direction - the outlook goes far beyond a mere historicising othering or masquerade.

The Renaissance had erupted

This journey opens up, not only two, but countless time levels - an effect that constantly renews and multiplies itself through the continuously swelling entourage: "It really is great the way these millennia converge there." Coca Cola is drunk, and Simon & Garfunkel provide the soundtrack, but along the way the cast of world history make their appearances: from Hermes to Napoleon, from Cleopatra to Marilyn and Mae West. In the port of Ostia, Lucretia Borgia awaits, surrounded by three million cardinals, and offers herself as their tour guide on the journey to Florence. There is constant flamboyant flirting, coupling and celebrating, before everything culminates in a great Florentine travesty:

"Florence was more beautiful than ever, Santo Spirito had its daily Festival of Transvestites, who strutted along holding pink flamingos on delicate leashes, absorbing the men´s ardent glances Ramsud, Lucretia, Cesare Borgia, Savonarola, Cosimo di Medici and little Strozzi - we all sat in a sledge of brilliant stones…"

It is not by accident that the emphatic-tempered party of travelling revenants enters Florence with an apodictic, entirely affirmative statement: "The Renaissance had erupted." It must have been a Renaissance in the widest, freest and most generous sense, the reinvention of a huge, all-reversing, and at the same time naive, personal cosmos.

In the end, what started as a rumour has evolved into an intimation of the legitimacy of happiness as a purpose and motive. It is thus - even from today's perspective - a Mediterranean utopia.

All quotes and images from:

© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2015
photo: Albert Coers

Eva-Maria Troelenberg is an art historian. Since 2011 she has been Head of the Max Planck Research Group Objects in the Contact Zone – The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max Planck Institute. In March 2015, she organised the Arts and Humanities Symposium Unmapping the Renaissance together with Angelika Stepken and Villa Romana Fellow Mariechen Danz in Florence.


Marco Ferri, Four Seasons di Firenze: un altro prossessore arabo. [10.06.2015]

Villa Romana. Gegenwart eines Künstlerhauses, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH Bonn, ed.: Villa Romana, Bonn, Florence, 2013

Gerda Wendermann, Spurensuche im Florenz der siebziger Jahre, in: Ein Arkadien der Moderne? 100 Jahre Künstlerhaus Villa Romana in Florenz, Berlin, 2005