Some readers may be lucky enough this holiday season to experience one day, or just a moment, however fleeting, of balmy fulfilment, when everything is perfect. When you just want to freeze everything, capture the sense of satiated pleasure and take it home with you.
The Anglo-American artist John Singer Sargent had one such day when he was painting friends on the terrace of a villa in the Alban hills close to Rome during the summer of 1907. Taking a break for refreshment, he joked that they should all take strychnine: such was the depth of his contentment that he wanted to lie down and die. The hit ITV series about the escapades of the Durrell family in 1930s Corfu evokes more simply the Mediterranean’s symbolic power to resolve and soothe harassed minds.
Henry James had an expression for such an intense emotion framed by his own time in Italy: “an excess of serenity”. Anglophile French writer Madame de Staël, whose 1807 novel Corinne was about how the Mediterranean can affect the British, coined her own phrase for it: “the Sensation of the South”. It is a sensation that recurs in our cultural consciousness: from EM Forster’s A Room with a View – caught in the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film version with Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy gazing over the Arno as she ponders a freer way of living – to Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, published nearly 30 years ago and now something of a period piece, but which spawned a genre showing middle-class British lives reconfigured in the southern sun.
In all this there is something fundamental: what is beautiful and desirable about the Mediterranean is also redemptive. The painter and critic Roger Fry summarised such an idea in 1915 after a depressing period spent working for the Quaker war relief in the Meuse region. “I know quite well,” he wrote on escaping to Cassis on the Côte d’Azur, “whenever I get to this Mediterranean country that I ought never to leave it. It all seems just right, the right kind of colours and shapes everywhere.” After two worlds wars recapturing those colours and shapes was one way British art recovered from the austere visions of conflict.
Still more basic than topography are our perceptions of sensual perfection, so often filtered through a Mediterranean lens. An exhibition a few years ago at the British Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, illustrated how this frisson developed. It was no accident that the nude re-entered British art after the no-go era imposed by early Victorian evangelicalism by means of gingerly undressing the classical Mediterranean. The link between the Med and sensuality in the British mentality has worked as much – maybe more – for homoerotic love. A Problem of Greek Ethics in 1883 by AJ Symonds, the historian of the Renaissance, was in effect the first study of homosexuality to be published in Britain. “Italy devours the body and soul of me,” Symonds wrote, recalling his yearning for Florentine youths and Venetian porters closely observed during his many visits to the country.The passion is about more than physicality: it’s about emotional, even spiritual, revival. English literature abounds with stories of damaged lives mended under Mediterranean conditions. William Somerset Maugham followed his first gritty novel of London lowlife, Liza of Lambeth, with a travelogue, The Land of the Blessed Virgin, in which a young Londoner finds happiness in Andalucia. Maugham said it was autobiographical. Spain to him, as for Earnest Hemingway, was always a healing country and more important than the exotic colonial locations he also sometimes wrote about.
Greece – if only the Greece of our imaginations – offers a similar therapy in the Aegean adventures of Shirley Valentine. But the point of the story is not that a bored Liverpudlian housewife finds satisfaction in the arms of a local fisherman, rather that she comes to see a way of re‑engaging with her existence. On Kalokairi, the fictive island of “Summer” in Mamma Mia!, both the original film and its sequel, complications in personal lives can be resolved against all the odds. What matters in this recurring formula is not Mediterranean reality but how our idea of it refracts through the shimmering mirage of wants, desires and needs at home.
There is no reason, of course, why themes of desire and renewal could not be played out against other backgrounds in British imaginations. They often are in a globalised world. But the warm south – the phrase comes from John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” – lies at the very heart of the Romantic tradition in Britain. Nowhere else has been so central to our aesthetic quests. In the 18th century, British Romanticism was shaped by grand tourists scouring the Mediterranean for new forms of expression in painting, architecture, design and other arts. When you go to the foyer of the British Library in Euston, London, and look up at the great glass-and bronze tower rising through the central spine of the interior, what you see is the original library of Joseph Smith, the canny patron of Canaletto, collected in Venice between 1700 and 1763 and which used to adorn his palazzo on the Grand Canal.
Perhaps the primal moment in the evolution of Romantic feeling occurred on the beach at Viareggio in Tuscany on 16 August 1822: the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body after his drowning in the Bay of Spezia. There is no comparable event triggering similarly powerful currents in British culture (not even the death of Byron two years later in Greece, if only because the latter had cut loose so completely from British roots). Shelley’s incinerated remains – except his heart, which Mary Shelley took home to Chelsea and allegedly afterwards carried around with her – were buried in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome, close to the grave of Keats. Then a quiet rustic nook, it became consecrated ground for a pilgrimage, and thousands continue to visit it, though today it is by a busy road junction and metro station. But that such a place exists in Rome is telling.
Our ideas about the Mediterranean have never been all sweetness and light, of course. The Italian assassin was a stock figure in Jacobean drama. EM Forster’s Lucy is thrown on her heels by the suddenness of a murder she sees in a Florentine square, while Patricia Highsmith’s chilling portrayal of Italy as dream-into-nightmare in The Talented Mr Ripley shows how deep this sense of lurking evil goes. When coming to terms with the terror of religious fundamentalism in our own times, writers in English often revert to versions of Mediterranean mythology – Kamila Shamsie in Home Fire, for example.
As for Spain, the “black legend” of its aggressively devout Catholicism preyed on the British Protestant mind for centuries. In Victorian times, Spanish painting was usually regarded in English art criticism as unhealthy, full of anguish and pain. When the National Gallery tentatively acquired its first Spanish works they were met with consternation. It was not until the 1890s that an El Greco made it to Trafalgar Square. Byron had a term for this flip-side of the Mediterranean: “the fatal gift of beauty”. It is through such a mingling of loveliness, danger and death that the warm south instils in us a scintillating fascination.
But the Mediterranean “pull” in British culture was also subject to countervailing pressures, often expressed through satire. In the early 1700s William Hogarth lampooned the craze for Italian opera in London, especially its screeching overpaid castrati, in A Rake’s Progress. The owners of sparkling new Palladian-style villas, a few of them at Twickenham laid out on a pretence that the lower Thames was the Brento, with exposed terraces unsuited to English conditions, got themselves laughed at for being “proud to catch cold at a Venetian door”. Later the obsession with Mediterranean landscapes irritated William Wordsworth, whose love of Cumbria led him to argue in his Guide to the Lakes – a bible of subsequent domestic tourism to the area - that an Englishman should “congratulate himself on belonging to a country of mists and clouds and storms, and … think of the … cerulean vacancy of Italy as an unimaginative and even sad spectacle”.
Mediterranean elements in British life and culture were always interspersed with powerful nativist reactions, the feeling that in painting, literature and much else the soundest ideals were at home. Those who felt that way were often impelled by a contrary tug towards what the cultural historian Peter Davidson has called “the Idea of North”. This was true, for example, of William Morris, and it affected his friendship with the artist Edward Burne-Jones, a lover of all things Renaissance. “I quarrel now with Morris about art,” Burne-Jones lamented: “He journeys to Iceland and I to Italy – which is a symbol.” It was a symbol of a basic divide in British culture.
The bifurcation of north and south that the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell described in her novel of that name in early Victorian England therefore had implications in British life going beyond the mere advance of industrialism. Gaskell has the dynamic factory-owner, Mr Thornton, praise the hardy Teutonic spirit over the softness of the Greeks, only – as their mutual feelings grow – for Margaret Hale to gently chide him, “You are a regular worshipper of Thor”. This tendency in British psychology to recede both northwards and southwards reflected much the same thing: a thirst for identity and fulfilment, tinged by nostalgia and loss. Where Germans, engaged on a similar search, have instinctively disappeared into their forests, Wagner-style, the British continue to look somewhere other than their own homeland, just over the horizon, but not always in the same direction or zone of temperature. It is a sign of a persisting uncertainty as to their own cultural condition.
This brings us, all too compellingly, to where the British find themselves today: shifting, receding, still seeking some definition of what they are and where they are heading. But the pervasiveness of the Mediterranean impulse in our national makeup, the way that it shapes our senses and emotions, our very idea of the beautiful, as well as its interaction with more insular tendencies, yields a basic conclusion. The British, like the Spanish, are fully European, but this European-ness is of a distinctive kind, one with a built-in tendency to drift to the margins. Still, that this is an authentic way of being European is undoubted, and any attempt – in culture as in political economy – to override it can only end in an embarrassing debacle, the stark future outlines of which are getting clearer almost by the day .
• Robert Holland’s The Warm South: How the Mediterranean Shaped the British Imagination is published by Yale.