By Kevin O’Sullivan
Consider this. You’ve come up with a brilliant idea for a mini series on the British grand tourists who travelled through early modern Europe, the places they visited, the foods they tasted, the ideas they borrowed, the things they saw. The second of four instalments details the link between the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire and the architecture of early modern Florence and Rome. In the corners of these majestic cities it uncovers the influences borrowed by the architect Christopher Wren in the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral, the greatest monument to his elaborate and uncompleted plans to transform and rejuvenate a devastated London.
So far, so good, you might think.
But then you place your knowledgeable and articulate presenter (Kevin McCloud of the excellent Grand Designs) on the floor of the Medici Chapel in Florence and have him gaze up at the simple beauty of its Michelangelo-designed dome. McCloud utters something profound about the master’s craft, about this being architecture as power rather than architecture for the people. This is, he tells us, the place where ‘classical mythology meets dynasty, without the shoulder pads. Come to think of it, with the shoulder pads.’
And there it is: the slap in the face for the unsuspecting viewer, the reminder that this is diet history, history zero, history free, or whichever faddish description most tickles your fancy. But is it forgivable?
Just about. The concept is good, McCloud – who converses easily in Italian with local experts – is comfortable in his role, and there are enough interesting ideas and side stories to hold the viewer’s attention. You can forgive a detour to Arezzo and the image of McCloud drinking his way through the highest quality local Chianti (bottled there since 1416) when it is balanced by his description of the eighteenth century English tourists who liked to consume five or six bottles of wine per day, maintaining their hygiene on long coach tours by rubbing vinegar in their underarm and groin areas (ouch). And it’s just about possible to excuse his trip to an ice-cream maker in Florence for his description of how it was first brought to the table of King Charles II and made its way into fashionable British society.
But it is the architectural history – McCloud’s area of expertise – that holds the most interest. In an hour’s journey we are led through the construction of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence to the enduring majesty of the ancient Pantheon via the vastness of St Peter’s in the Vatican. With just a little subtlety in the presentation and the London connection, it works. Wren may never have seen St Peter’s, but his reliance on it for inspiration for St Paul’s echoed his colleague John Evelyn’s belief that the basilica had a beauty ‘surpassing any building now extant in the world’. McCloud is visibly moved by his opportunity to glimpse Michelangelo’s original model of his vast construction. But the Duomo and St Peter’s were not Wren’s only influences. The silver lining in this story comes in McCloud’s guided tour through the parallels between St Paul’s towering architecture and the curves and detail of Donato Bramante’s tiny Tempietto, built in 1502.
It may be, as someone recently described the late Keith Floyd’s gastronomical journeys through France for the BBC, that the subject is just a sideshow for the more interesting travelogue, but in this case, when McCloud gets it right – which is often enough to persist with it – it works. You can view Sunday night’s programme here or catch up with the first in the series, on France and northern Italy, here, and next week’s programme (Sunday night, 21.00, Channel 4) covers ancient Rome and the food and culture of Naples. But a note to all history producers, directors and presenters: please, spare us the 1980s soap references.