Interesting to read this account of a journey – not the author’s first to the area – while travelling through part of it. The writing makes me regret I did not include a trip to Aquileia in our itinerary. It makes one realise that it’s not possible to do everything and that there is an awful lot of human history to see.
The striking thing about Hamilton’s book is his forensic approach of church architecture and decoration. It seems that each and every ecclesiastical site is for him a veritable museum full of artefacts, artistic styles and architectural techniques. Even the smallest of churches is treated with the same meticulous eye and pen.
A second and utterly memorable part of his work is how his historical paradigm is so completely different from that of the contemporary traveller. He spends most of his time in Austria. It was indeed only in the 1950s that Trieste, for instance, became part of Italy. Piran was a Venetian city. Places have been part of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Papal States, Venice, Genoa – and more than once! Serbia, Byzantine empire, Roman empire, Greek, Slovenian, Croatian, Kingdom of Naples, Norman… Our eyes can only see the world it has experienced. And so when the contemporary traveller visits places like these, we somehow cannot shake off the assumption that the historical evidence ought to fit into the same paradigm. We all know that Maribor used to be Marburg, that Bratislava used to be Pressburg, that it was once the capital of Hungary… But how much of this is merely part of our specific and therefore biased assumptions? Hamilton seems fully aware at all times that the very identity of these places has been transformed many times, but he is also aware of the fact that the most powerful influence is always found in the identity of those who live there. His approach to culture is rather anthropological for today’s tastes, but he is usually sympathetic, except when exigencies of travel intervene. It must also be recorded that there have been, even recently, major population movements, expulsions and attempted genocides. It’s all part of the history… human, at that…
The quality of his portrayal makes me want to revisit the area quite soon and travel down the coastal towns and islands of the Adriatic. There is much to see, though the ramshackle quaintness he encountered is certainly no longer in evidence.
A surprising and often-encountered aspect of the book is the number of times he and his party of travellers are stopped by police, immigration officers and the like on grounds of security. They were carrying cameras and the official types could not comprehend that people wanted to record architectural details such as mullions and roofs. They must surely be spies or thieves or both. In an era where there is a photo every centimetre, where we travel freely without borders and even use the same currency across countries, one has to utterly thankful for the changes. Tell that to the British.