Northern Visions of the Mediterranean World
Edited by Gilbert Bonifas & Martine Monacelli
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013
Paperback. 228 pages. ISBN 978-1443850308. € 59
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
This collection of fifteen essays, plus a prologue, represents the revised proceedings of a conference on perceptions of the Mediterranean world by northern visitors that was held at the Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis in April 2012. The event brought together participants from many parts of the Mediterranean world but also from the north of Europe and even from Australia. Their common objective was ‘to decipher the ethos and to unravel the nexus of mentalités that determined the northern perception (or imagination) of a dark Mediterranean world and inspired its representation’ [xiii]. The time span of their contributions extended from the late sixteenth century to the years between the two world wars. The broad approach of most essays was anchored firmly in the humanities (literature, visual arts, travel narratives, diaries) however a few contributors adopted more of a social science perspective (trial proceedings, urban history, environmental change).
Many northern Europeans experienced the Mediterranean as part of the ‘Grand Tour’, being drawn to the lands of southern Europe by the grandeur of their classical history, their architecture, climate, atmosphere and countless other appealing features. In addition to these attractions, northern Europeans – predominantly Protestant in religious conviction – found ruins, poverty, squalor, corruption, violence and what they perceived as idolatry inherent in the practices of the Roman Catholic church. However, the distinction was not only a religious one, since most of the affluent visitors to the ‘horrendous South’ of Europe moved in social and spatial circles that shielded them from the slums, vice and poverty that was rife in some quarters of the towns and cities of their northern homelands.
Drawing primarily on literary sources, the first cluster of essays explores representations of southern Europe that were fuelled by deep-seated anti-Catholicism in Britain and elsewhere in the Protestant North, and were imbued by notions of national superiority and inferiority. Southern cities were depicted as foci of noble architecture set within a morass of ‘squalid streets, decrepit buildings and bad smells, [where] swarms of beggars and droves of parasitical priests and monks outweighed the beauties of the landscape, the picturesqueness of ancient ruins [and] the Mediterranean light’ [xix]. Detailed examples are provided from cities in Italy, along the Riviera, and in Portugal.
Turning from the Mediterranean scene to the treatment of southern European defendants in English courts during the nineteenth century, Neil Davie charts the widespread belief among lawyers and judges that Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and Turks were especially prone to committing crimes of violence and theft. Indeed, the geographical scope of the volume extends beyond the western Mediterranean lands into Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Syria, with the perceived horrors of the eastern Mediterranean being attributed to the characteristics of Islam and the Ottoman regime rather than to Catholicism.
Several essays stand rather apart from the literary majority. For example, Tylor Brand’s examination of the experiences of famine during World War I in Lebanon and western Syria draws upon diary materials housed in the American University in Beirut to reveal the overall social impact of hunger and disease, and the differential between local people, who suffered intense deprivation, and the teachers and students of the Syrian Protestant College, who escaped more lightly. Indeed, these scholars launched welfare initiatives that were supported by funds from American benefactors. Lisa Beaven’s study of the countryside of the Roman Campagna, which Grand Tourists declared to be ‘intensely sad, hideous and deserted’  is richly informed by contemporary descriptions of rural poverty and unhealthy marshland but does not explore recent work on ecology, malaria and climate change in comparable depth.
Editors Gilbert Bonifas and Martine Monacelli (both of the Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis) are to be congratulated for assembling an interesting and varied collection of essays on a controversial theme. Arguably, their book tells readers more about the values and prejudices of northern Europeans than about the fundamental characteristics of the Mediterranean lands and their people.
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