Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Burbank with a McGregor: Bleistein with a Cigar?

I guess that technically it's now late summer as children all over the state have returned to school after the summer vacation. However, with the elevated temperatures most of us in Georgia are currently experiencing, it doesn't seem too preposterous to claim that summer is still well and truly with us.

I need it to be so for today's blog entry. Two European city guides were quite recently brought to my attention by their author. James H.S. McGregor is professor and co-chair of the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. He is an expert on Renaissance Italian literature (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch etc.) and is one of this country's leading authorities on all things Roman.

The latest additions to McGregor's long list of publications are two "travel guides": Rome from the Ground Up (2006), and Venice from the Ground Up (2006), both published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Unlike the usual travel guides you might find in your local bookstore, both of these works are for the more erudite traveler. They might be described as "literary" walking tours for the intellectually curious who want not just the high points but also the history of those high points in context.

As McGregor says in his introduction to the Rome guide:

Rather than sorting through the city layer by layer, vertically, this book explores an ideal journey through times and places that for the most part lie side by side. That ideal journey is at the same time an itinerary through the present-day city of Rome.

One of the distinguishing features of McGregor's guides is that they are so much more than just travel guides; they can be read as histories too. And when you consider that one of the author's most influential publications is his 1993 translation of Luigi Guicciardini's The Sack of Rome (Italica Press), you can appreciate that McGregor knows whereof he speaks.

The sack of Rome was one of the defining moments of Roman, and Western, history. As the translator says in his Introduction:

On May 5, 1527 Spanish, German, and Italian troops under the banner of the Holy Roman Emperor swarmed into Rome. Until December, when they were finally dispersed by plague, these troops plundered, tortured, raped, and murdered in the defenseless capital of Christendom.
The sack of Rome in 1527 was an event of tragic and decisive importance. It brought the Renaissance, the greatest period in Italian history, to its sudden and catastrophic end.

Adding authority to McGregor's guide is the fact that he lived in Rome for a year in the early 1980s as a fellow at the American Academy. I'm sure he could take the Spanish Steps five at a time!

What McGregor shows us in Rome from the Ground Up is how Rome recovered, prospered, and developed from its Etruscan origins through the beginning of the 21st century. As Booklist said of this guide and its author, "Where history, architecture, and travel find common ground is where this author dwells."

Turning now to Venice from the Ground Up, McGregor shows the same excellence as he does when writing about Roma. This is "a thinking person's guidebook" (Kirkus Reviews), and while I have never (to my great shame) visited Rome, I have a strong connection to the City of Canals; my parents spent their honeymoon in Venice, staying at a hotel on the Venice Lido, and in 1973 our family spent several days there seeing the breathtaking sights, marveling at the vistas, and looking for the honeymoon hotel (which had been converted into something else).

I can't think of Venice without being reminded of Luchino Visconti's superb 1971 film adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella, Death in Venice. Dirk Bogarde's Gustave von Aschenbach is luminous, and the movements from Gustav Mahler's 3rd and 5th symphonies give the film a depth and pathos appropriate to the location.

Venice is romance. Venice is history. Venice is beauty. Venice is art. When I made arrangements to return there with a companion a few years ago, I was hell bent on a grand time. I had booked flights, a hotel on the Lido, and was looking forward to taking the vaporetto over to Murano to visit the glass factories. Imagine my disappointment when we had to cancel the entire trip because my traveling companion, who is Asian, was required to apply for an Italian visa, which meant he would have to go in person to the Italian consulate in Miami. This was too much and too expensive. We went to Edinburgh instead!

Fortunately, McGregor's guide is perfect for the armchair traveler too. But those lucky enough to get there would be well advised to consider throwing Venice from the Ground Up into their suitcase before leaving. As the author states in his Introduction:

This book explores the culture of Venice that is imprinted most distinctly on its urban form--the webwork of canals and the counterpoint of bridges and walkways, soaring churches and crumbling palaces, the grand ceremonial Piazza San Marco and the peaceful neighborhood campi.

Unless you have a copy of John Julius Norwich's A History of Venice, I doubt you'll find anything as authoritative as McGregor's tome.

In T.S. Eliot's 1920 poem "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar," the American tourist Burbank has equipped himself with a Baedeker (a famous series of popular travel guides named for the man who first published them) for the City of Canals. James McGregor's two volumes are not your run-of-the-mill Baedekers; they are works of literary finesse for those who want to get below the well-known surfaces of these two Italian cities to understand them in a special way.

If Eliot's Burbank had equipped himself with a McGregor instead, he might not have fallen.

[Comments or questions about this blog entry? Please email me at I look forward to hearing from you.]