John Pope-Hennessy was one of the great art historians and museum people of the twentieth century; he served as director of both the Victoria and Albert and the British Museums, and later chaired the European Paintings Department at the Big Tomb o’ Art. Of his memoir, Learning to Look, the New York Times’s John Russell said, “It was as remarkable for its detailed recall, both private and professional, as for the pungency of its well-calculated indiscretions.” To me, the most alluring portion of the book is its tale of the making of an eye in the years before the Second World War. Tracking down every panel by Giovanni di Paolo was no easy feat then.

Vienna in 1936:

I had written to Ernst Buschbeck, the assistant director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with whom at least one of my contemporaries at Oxford had, while learning German, stayed as a paying guest. He was a charming, principled, voluble man, and I learned a great deal from staying with him. Not only about art, for he had a son called Herwarth, a pimply boy of sixteen, who was a member of the Nazi Party. In the clash between Buschbeck’s liberalism and the callow convictions of his son one saw played out a drama which must have been repeated in countless other Austrian households at hte time.

Before the Anschluss, Vienna was the mecca of art history, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum was the leading art museum in the world . . . . As a result, one looked at the magnificent collections critically, and the lessons that one learned from them were manifold. Returning there today, I still recall the long mornings (the museum then closed, as it does now, at three o’clock, and lunch at Buschbeck’s flat was at three-fifteen) spent looking at Giorgione’s Three Philosophers and the resonant purple-and-green Lucretia of Veronese and the ingratiating Jacopo Strada of Titian.

— John Pope-Hennessy, Learning to Look: My Life in Art, pp 47-48

Dining with a Hungarian prince of the Church:

The principal Sienese paintings in Hungary were, with one exception, not in Budapest but in the collection of the Prince Primate at Esztergom. The Prince Primate, Cardinal Seredi, was a Benedictine, and I secured a letter to him from the abbot of Downside which elicited an invitation to spend the night at Esztergom. Esztergom is easily acessible now from Budapest, but it was not so then. The journey from Vienna involved changes at Komarom and Almasfizito, and at Esztergom, which lies on a bend in the Danube, I was met by the cardinal’s administrator, Nicolao Este, a middle-aged man who spoke a little, but only a little, English and Italian and French. We drove together in a coach with two horses and a coachman in a bright blue uniform through muddy streets to the Archiepiscopal Palace. The picture gallery, containing Italian primitives and Hungarian panel paintings rescued by an earlier Prince Primate from local churches, proved of great interest. At six I was taken to tea with His Eminence, a big-built man with fingers covered with rings and a monumental, rugged brown face. He wished, he said, to practice his English, which proved exiguous, and tea did not go easily. Conversation was in the third person singular and one could apparently talk of nothing in his presence but the cardinal. (“His Eminence is the last great canonist,” said one of his staff helpfully. “He has just finished editing the seventieth volume of the canon law. I expect you used his edition in your studies at Downside.”) The cardinal spoke in the first person plural. I was bidden to dinner at half past eight, and before I was shown in, the monsignor deputed to look after me said, “His Eminence will talk Latin.” But try as I might, I could not describe my railway journey (or anything else, as a matter of fact) in Latin, and the conversation, such as it was, lapsed into pidgin German almost at once. But the dinner taught me what life in the sixteenth century must have been like. The cardinal and his staff ate very fast, using their fingers as well as their knives and forks, and there were two napkins, one with an embroidered monogram for one’s knees and the other to wipe one’s fingers on when they went in the sauce. There was no hot water in the palace, and the sanitation was disgusting.

pp 49-50


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