Ferrara Day 2 – Botanical Gardens, Museo della Cattedrale & Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara

Day 2 didn’t begin so well. After a night of constant hypos (low blood sugars) I woke feeling like death and couldn’t face eating breakfast. Once the other half had eaten though and I managed to get up and about we headed out for our second day!

We started out at the Botanical Gardens which is tucked away by the University of Ferrara. And let me tell you, it’s an incredibly peaceful place with some beautiful flowers and, the most important part, a pond for tortoises!

Right before we left, we watched one of the tortoises make a break for it. Literally he was so determined to get out he yanked himself up on the side of the pond and found a hole in the fence. And once he was free….people say these creatures are slow but this guy moved like he was strapped to a rocket!

After the gardens we decided to head to the Archaeology Museum. It was a bit of a walk, however we ended up walking along the Via Savonarola. This street was renamed in 1870 due to it’s links with Savonarola – it is said that the friar was born on this street at number 19. It was also the road on which Lucrezia Borgia’s lover, Ercole Strozzi, was murdered in 1508.

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The archaeology museum is housed within a Renaissance Palazzo known as the Palazzo di Ludovico il Moro, but actually named the Palazzo Costabilli. Legend has it that the Palazzo was commissioned by Il Moro as a place to escape should things get gnarly in his home town, however it was actually commissioned by a member of the Este’s court – Antonio Costabilli.

Today the palazzo houses a collection of beautiful Etruscan artefacts found at the archaeological site of Spina – once a thriving city that was then swallowed by the waters of the Po delta. Given that I studied archaeology at university and then worked in the field for a time, this place brought back some wonderful memories and reminded me why I loved studying archaeology so much. The artefacts on display are utterly beautiful ranging from pottery bearing mythical scenes to gold diadems and gorgeous jewellery.

We were the only people in the museum while we were there, meaning that we got to wander about unhindered. Whilst this was nice, it did make me wonder just how the place survives on so little footfall.

After a pitstop at the hotel whilst we waited for things to open after their lunch time siesta, we headed to the little Cathedral museum. Sadly the Cathedral itself was closed for renovation work so we didn’t get to see inside, however the little museum just over the way from it was open and let me tell you – bloody wonderful. And of course we stopped for some gelato on the way…

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The museum, set within the Church of San Romano, holds a number of artefacts relating directly to the Cathedral and the patron Saint of Ferrara, Saint George. It’s not a very big museum however I highly recommend popping in if you have a spare half an hour or so, as they have some utterly stunning artefacts and works of art inside, including the famous Madonna della Melagrana (Madonna of the Pomegranate) – a sculpture by Jacopo della Quercia that is considered to be one of the greatest Renaissance works of all time.

The works of art are utterly stunning and many of them show Saint George killing the dragon or undergoing execution. And yet again there were very few people in this museum while we were there, which really does seem a shame as this museum is well worth a visit.

Another pleasant day in all, finished with another fantastic dinner of Tagliatelle and chocolate salami. The next day would be our final full day in this gorgeous city so we planned to get an early night. Alas, this didn’t happen. It just so happened that our hotel room faced the courtyard of the hotel which served as a restaurant, a restaurant not actually owned by the hotel which was kind of weird. Anyhow, the noise went on until midnight, meaning that we wouldn’t get much sleep for the last day. Never mind, at least the bed was comfy and the AC was on!

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Ferrara Day 1 – Castello Estensi, Museo Civico di Storia Naturale and Corpus Domini

The city of Ferrara is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a long time given it’s connection to both Girolamo Savonarola and Lucrezia Borgia. The city itself has a long and varied history but is best known for the buildings that went up during the Renaissance, including the magnificent Castello Estensi (which let me tell you, is STUNNING). The City was also one of the first truly modern cities and a hub of both art and culture.

The moment you get to Ferrara it really is like stepping back in time – the buildings are almost all originals and the side streets…oh my GOD, the side streets. As you wander through the twists and turns of old Ferrara it really does feel like you’re back in the 1500’s.

Our first evening was spent basically looking for somewhere to eat after an incredibly long day of travelling and we ended up at a little pizzeria right by our hotel. All I’ll say is this – bloody lovely. As for our hotel – it was situated in a converted Palazzo that dates back to the fifteenth century. All throughout are bits of the original building poking through including these stunning doors half way up the marble staircase.

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On the first day we got up crazy early and ate a hearty Continental breakfast before heading out to the Castello Estensi – somewhere I was REALLY looking forward to seeing. This imposing castle really takes your breath away when you first see it – and even the second time. And third. And fourth. Construction of this castle was began in the fourteenth century after a revolt in the City led to the rather nasty death of Tommaso da Tortuna, a city official whose actions had led to the revolt in the first place. The whole episode convinced Niccolo II d’Este that he really needed to build somewhere more defensive, that could keep his family safe if something like that ever happened again. So construction of the castle began in earnest. Each successive Este ruler added to the construction of this magnificent building but during the Second World War it was badly damaged during extensive bombing of the city. In 2002 an extensive restoration project was began to restore the castle to its former glory. More recently, in 2012, one of the towers partly collapsed after an earthquake and underwent restoration.

From the moment we walked into the Castello, I was in awe. Absolutely in awe.

The strange thing about Ferrara is that most of the museums close over lunch time. This is probably due to the fact that it’s not really a very touristy place. So after a nice lunchtime respite back at the hotel we headed back out and ended up at the Museum of Natural History.

I have just one thing to say about this..damn nature, you scary.

Following this, we took a walk across the city and went in search of the Convent of Corpus Domini. This place was of particular interest to me due to its connection with Lucrezia Borgia. During her years in Ferrara she spent a lot of time there and, when she passed away in 1519, was buried there along with other members of the Este family.

If I’m honest, I really wasn’t expecting to be able to get in. Corpus Domini isn’t what I would call open to the public – rather they will let you in if you ring the bell and ask but it has to be during a small window in the afternoon. Apparently sometimes even if you do that, they don’t always let you in. I must stress as well that it’s very important to speak at least a little bit of Italian. We were let inside by the caretaker who was a lovely gentleman. He showed us the tombs and explained who was buried where and allowed us a few quiet moments of contemplation. I found myself getting very, very emotional standing where Lucrezia Borgia rested with her husband, mother in law and two of her children – it truly was an honour to be allowed inside the very quiet, still working convent and I only have good things to say about the Nuns who reside there and their caretaker. It was an absolutely fantastic experience and one that I will never ever forget.

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On This Day In History – May 19th 1536 – Anne Boleyn is Executed

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May 19th 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn, who had been arrested and tried for the crimes of incest and treason, was executed at the Tower of London.

I’ve been quite open about my Tudor Burnout, however Anne Boleyn was one of the first historical women who I learned about. Her story has always struck a chord with me, and I have always admired her strength and determination. Many still see her as a villain in Tudor history and many still call her a witch who had six fingers. This is, of course, a complete lie. Anne Boleyn was a woman who had so much determination and courage, who sought change and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. Unfortunately, despite giving birth to a little girl who would one day rule England, she was unable to provide King Henry VIII with what he truly wanted – a son. And, unfortunately, she made enemies of some of the most powerful men in Henry’s court.

At 9am on 19th May 1536, Anne Boleyn knelt down on the scaffold at the Tower of London. She was dressed in a grey gown with a crimson kirtle beneath and it was reported by a witness that she had “never looked so beautiful”. Before she knelt, Anne gave a speech to the gathered crowd, asking that they pray for the King as he had always been good to her. She then asked the crowd to pray for her, “And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me”

Then, with Anne kneeling and blindfolded, the headsman – a swordsman sent from Calais – asked for his assistant to bring him his sword. Anne moved her head to try and track the assistant’s movements. The headsman then stepped up behind the kneeling Queen and removed her head with one swing of the sword.

Her body and head was then gathered up by her ladies and placed in an arrow chest before being taken to the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, within the walls of the Tower. She was then buried in an unmarked grave beneath the altar, near the body of her brother – she would later be joined by another Queen, and her kin, Katherine Howard.

Today, her place of burial is marked by a simple yet beautiful slab by the altar in the chapel, along with those who were buried alongside her. It truly is a peaceful place, a place to sit and reflect upon the history of those who lost their lives and were buried within this sweet little chapel. Today you can visit the chapel and see the grave of Anne Boleyn and the others buried there, whilst on a guided tour of the Tower. I would highly recommend doing so, for anyone interested in the history of the Tudors.

Further reading:

The Lady in the Tower – Alison Weir
The Life & Death of Anne Boleyn – Eric Ives
The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown – Claire Ridgway
1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII – Suzannah Lipscomb

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Why I chose to write about the Anglo – Saxon period – by Matthew Harffy

Today I am absolutely thrilled to have Matthew Harffy on the blog for the first date of his blog tour, to celebrate the paperback release of his fantastic novel “Killer of Kings” – I’m currently reading this book and let me tell you, it’s brilliant! I’ll be reviewing it as soon as I’ve finished. For now though, I’ll hand over to Matthew as he talks about just why he chose to write about the Anglo Saxon period!

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Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms,Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

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People often ask me why I chose to write about the Anglo-Saxon period. The answer to that question sounds like a typical author’s cliché answer, such as, ‘the characters have a life of their own’, ‘I cannot not write’, and, one of my favourites, ‘I don’t choose what the characters do, I just write their story as they tell it to me’. I have heard writers say all of the above in one form or another, and I have even said some of those things myself. I used to think they were all trite answers that authors would trot out in order to sound mysterious and intriguing. That is, until I became an author myself and realised that there is an element of truth in every one of them! I suppose that is the case with most clichés. And, as is so often the case with clichés, even though my answer to the question about how I decided on the period to write about sounds contrived, it is actually true.

You see, I didn’t set out to write about the seventh century. This early mediaeval period, often referred to as being in the Dark Ages, chose me.

I can remember the moment when the seed of the first book in the series, The Serpent Sword, was sown. That was one October night back in 2001. But before I get to that, I need to give a bit of my history which will explain why that seed took root.

My parents moved us all to Northumberland when I was nine years old. I didn’t have the easiest time at school there. Being from West Sussex, my accent marked me as an outsider, which the girls seemed to like and the boys appeared to hate. This resulted in me being popular with the girls and being bullied by many of the boys.

But even though school wasn’t always fun, I loved the countryside that surrounded the small village of Norham where we lived. Northumberland is much more rugged and sparsely populated than the south east of England and everywhere you turn there are reminders of the distant past. The village of Norham itself, nestling beside the broad expanse of the River Tweed, is overlooked by the crumbling ruins of a Norman castle and its mediaeval church once housed Robert the Bruce’s forces when they besieged the castle for seven months in 1318. The land is hilly and wild and the coastline is rocky and dotted with ruins, such as the picturesque and magnificent Dunstanburgh Castle, which sparked my youthful imagination.

One of the most famous castles on that coastline is Bamburgh. The fortress that stands on the mighty crag overlooking the North Sea is huge and built in a mediaeval style, having been significantly restored in the nineteenth century. But for a long time I never understood the castle’s significance to the region from long before it was a stone castle that played an important role in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses.

We moved away from the area when I was still a child, but it had a lasting effect upon me and my view on the world. I remained interested in the natural world and also in castles and the people who had lived in them. Growing up in the eighties, I became obsessed with fantasy novels and films and played role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where larger-than-life characters battled evil creatures with swords, spears, shields and magic.

Years went by and so it was in 2001, with my first daughter asleep in her cot and my wife working late, that I found myself watching a documentary on television about Bamburgh Castle and graves which archaeologists were excavating there. The graves dated from the seventh century and earlier and the programme spoke of the importance of Bamburgh, or Bebbanburg as it was known then, in the early mediaeval period. This was the time of the Anglo-Saxons, whom I knew little about at the time. Bebbanburg was the capital of the northern kingdom of Bernicia. I had never heard of such a place, but in the seventh and eighth centuries Bernicia and its neighbouring kingdom Deira, which when unified became Northumbria, were some of the most important kingdoms of the British Isles and even of Europe!

That television programme gave me a brief glimpse into the past of a landscape that I hadn’t visited for twenty years. And something about it spoke to me. I rushed upstairs and started to write the first scene of what would become, many years of research and writing later, the first novel of the Bernicia Chronicles, The Serpent Sword.

As my writing and research continued over the ensuing years, I discovered that the period was perfect for writing epic, gripping thrillers. Good stories need conflict and the seventh century is full of it. You have the Anglo-Saxons invading from the east battling with the native Britons who they referred to as the Welsh (which derives from the Old English for foreigner!). There is the clash between old pagan religions and Christianity. And there is even the conflict between the Roman Christianity coming from the south, and the Irish form of Christianity, spreading from the west and the north. Most of the kings of the time died in battle and there was subterfuge and intrigue aplenty. On top of all of that, there were very few written records, meaning there is a lot of leeway for a novelist to create original stories. I realised that I was able to write stories that indulged my love of swords and battles and great heroes, grounding them in a real historical time and place. The only real difference from the fantasy books and games I loved was that there were no dragons and no magic, though of course, the people of the time believed in both.

And so you see, I did not make the decision to write about the early Anglo-Saxon period. If I hadn’t lived in Northumberland as a child, perhaps that television documentary would never have resonated with me in the way that it did. But as I look back, I am so pleased that my parents chose to move to Northumberland, as without that experience the seeds for The Serpent Sword might never have found fertile ground in my mind and I’m sure that my life would have been much less interesting and rewarding as a result.

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[Review] The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell

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When the ship of dreams sank, so did the Edwardian era.
In this original and meticulously-researched narrative history, Gareth Russell considers the real story of the Titanic, and the seismic shift of modernity the 1910s have come to mark in the West.

Had she survived her first voyage, The Titanic probably would have dated like other ocean liners. Instead, within a week of setting sail on 10th April 1912, the disaster of her sinking had turned her into one of the biggest news stories of the century. Writing in his signature prose, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of six first-class travellers to immerse us into the Edwardian era while demonstrating how modernity shook up the class system of the age.

Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; “son” of the British Empire, Tommy Andrews; captain of the industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish immigrant Ida Straus; and model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Each subject’s unique story offers insights into the established hierarchy during the fin de siècle of pre-war Britain and America, the Titanic’s respective spiritual and economic homelands. Through these entwining lives, Russell investigates social class – its mores, its foibles, its accents, its etiquette, its benefits, its casual or intentional cruelties, its potential nobility. Those nuances also invite analyses of the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the aristocracy, the American Gilded Age, the Irish Home Rule crisis, and Jewish-American communities.

The Titanic is the vessel in which we can extrapolate lessons on hubris, folly, greed, love, class, magnificent courage and pitiable weakness. She carried thousands of people and, in that way, she still has thousands of stories to tell. Drawing on brand new and unpublished materials, journal entries and film archives from the time, The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World focuses on the symbolism of the Titanic as the floating symbol of Anglo-American success, its clientele an apt illustration of the limitless – technological, financial – possibilities of its time.

I was absolutely honoured to receive a review copy of Russell’s latest book, having read and utterly adored his book on Katherine Howard – so when I received this book I was seriously excited to get stuck in. I must admit it’s taken me a while to get through it, but the fault is entirely my own thanks to that bothersome thing called real life getting in the way. When I did pick it up I found myself lost in the past, on board the Ship of Dreams as it set sail from Southampton and as it sank into the icy waters. I’ll say it now – this book is an absolute gem and needs to be read by everyone, whether they know a lot about the Titanic or not.

Russell once again proves himself to be a master of his craft with a narrative that is both chock full of facts and drama, telling the story of a number of passengers through the medium of eye witness statements and other sources – with such a well known event in history it is hard to believe that there is anything new to uncover, yet Russell has done the impossible. He has crafted a meticulous re-telling of the sinking of the Titanic and how its demise during the early hours of April 15th, 1912, saw the end of the Edwardian era, and his narrative is so incredibly moving that there are many times whereupon I felt myself moved to tears – from the accounts of the sounds those within the water made going silent, to the psychological trauma affecting the survivors, this is a brilliant non fiction narrative that really will tug on your heartstrings and make you see the sinking of the Titanic in an entirely new light.

As someone who lives close to where the Titanic sailed from, I jumped at the chance to read and review this book. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I did. Russell has done a phenomenal job crafting this book and it really has to be placed up there as one of the greatest books ever written on the Ship of Dreams.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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