Author Archives: Joanna

Escapist romance : must it always be set in Italy or Greece?

woman overlooking seaToday (Friday) I finished reading a romantic novel featuring a heroine who finds love over a summer in Italy. Classic escapist romance. It’s not a genre I read much—more on that later—but this one was from an author I admire and I hadn’t read any of her books for a while.

So it was timely. And I enjoyed the story very much.

There are, as you probably know, loads of books in this genre. But my reading got me thinking and asking questions.

Why are they so popular?
And why are they mostly set in Italy or Greece?
Aren’t there other places for a heroine to find love? Continue reading

Divided by a common language? Britspeak vs USspeak

divided by a common language, half and half apple“Divided by a common language” was, I thought, something that Churchill (more from him below) said in relation to the UK and the USA. Checking, I found I was wrong. It was George Bernard Shaw, echoing Oscar Wilde. Never mind who said it. This week, I’ve been finding out how right it is.

It happened like this…

I had submitted a contemporary urban fantasy novel to a New York publisher. The editor came back asking for the full MS. (Cheering in Maitland Manor, natch.) But this publisher specifically asked that all submissions be in US spelling. That made me think.

question markWhat if the US editor doesn’t understand my Brit language? After all, my MS had pavements and lifts instead of sidewalks and elevators. I decided I’d go through the MS and change all the offending words and phrases from British English (BrE) to American (AmE). Wouldn’t take long, I thought.

Er, no. Continue reading

Christmas and New Year Greetings with Christmas books

The Libertà hive has got into the habit of relaxing over Christmas and New Year. Probably reading Christmas books! Which means no blog, sadly. The next “proper” blog will appear on Sunday 7th January, 2024.

In the meantime, we hope all our readers had a very happy Christmas and we wish you a prosperous and healthy New Year. Busy fizz

And if Santa didn’t bring you any Christmas books, there are some that the hive would recommend. (Since hive members wrote them, we would, wouldn’t we?)
What’s more, our cute cat loves them… Continue reading

Mosaics: just a few coloured stones laid on the ground?

Roman mosaic Nennig, Germany

Vibrantly coloured Roman floor mosaic, Nennig, Germany, 3rd century AD

In my recent travels, mostly exploring Mediterranean history (including Romans and Greeks) I’ve seen an awful lot of mosaics like the ones in Italica. I’ve even watched curators working to restore a mosaic in Pompeii.

But I’d never thought much about the fundamentals of creating a mosaic.

Mosaics are just a lot of coloured stones laid on the ground in a clever pattern, aren’t they?

Nope. There’s much more to it than that.

Engineering mosaics to last

If the coloured stones (tesserae) were simply laid on the ground, even if they were grouted together with mortar, they wouldn’t have lasted long. And many of them, as we know, have lasted for thousands of years. They had to be hard-wearing. They were going to be walked on.

semi-dome, christ pantocrator, capella palatina, Palermo

Capella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily

Not all of them, of course.

Some mosaics were for wall decoration as you can see in my earlier blog showing some of the incredible religious mosaics in Sicily.

Like this one here where the colours and all that gold really sing.

Hidden layers

Floor mosaics have lots of hidden underpinnings. (Wall mosaics probably have a lot less. Not sure on that, but it sort of stands to reason, doesn’t it?) In the museum in Ecija near Seville (called Astigi by the Romans) there are wonderful floor mosaics plus an explanation of how they were made. In pictures, I’m glad to say. Continue reading

Olive Oil in Spain: the Romans started it…

The Romans started it? Really?

olive trees from 13th century with olive grove behind

A pair of 13th century olive trees, Medinat Al-Zahara, Spain

My post title is a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Southern Spain had been growing olives and making olive oil long before the Romans arrived. (I posted about the first Roman city in Spain in a recent blog.)

But the Romans turned olive oil into an enormous industry. It’s an industry that still continues today. Drive through Andalucia and you will see mile after mile of olive trees. Nothing but olives. Mostly not nearly as old as the ones in my picture here, though olive trees can live for millennia.

Olives as monoculture

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

It’s a monoculture. With all the risks that monoculture brings. Of course, it can bring great prosperity if the product is in demand—there was huge demand for olive oil in the Roman Empire and there still is, worldwide—but that monoculture is vulnerable to weather, to disease, and to pests.

Remember what happened to French wine as a result of phylloxera in the mid-19th century? Growers wonder whether the same, or worse, will happen as a result of new diseases, especially Olive Quick Decline Syndrome spread by insects. OQDS has been in Italy for the last 10 years or so and has recently been detected in Spain and Greece. Those 3 countries plus Portugal produce about two-thirds of the world’s olive oil. Spain is by far the biggest producer, with between a third and half the total.

olive oil with Italian label

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

As a cynical aside, I was told that in the USA, people don’t buy Spanish olive oil. They buy Italian oil. (All those Italian immigrants?) So a very large amount of Spanish olive oil is shipped in bulk to Italy for bottling. It is then sold as “olive oil bottled in Italy” or “imported from Italy” which allows buyers to assume they are buying olive oil grown in Italy. Looking at the figures, I can well believe it, since Spain produces 4 or 5 times as much as Italy does.

Romans needed olive oil for…?

Continue reading

Hughenden, Disraeli, and World War 2 secrets

Hughenden Manor, home of Benjamin Disraeli

Hughenden Manor by Paul stock.adobe.com

Hughenden Manor  (near High Wycombe) is known as the home of Benjamin Disraeli, later Earl of Beaconsfield, who was one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers. And reportedly her favourite, even more so than Lord Melbourne.

But Hughenden had a more recent, and secret, role for the British state.
Of which, more later. Continue reading

Italica, the first city of Roman Spain: with geology problems

Roman Italica, Spain, panoramaLast week, I was visiting sites in Roman Spain (and sites from other periods too, but those are for another blog). The first Roman site was Italica, near Seville.

Italica was the birthplace of Trajan (he of the column, Emperor 98-117 AD) and also Hadrian (he of the wall, Emperor 117-138 AD). That reminded me, vividly, that not all Roman Emperors came from Rome.

Bust of Sulla now believed to be Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus (previously believed to be bust of Sulla)

Italica was founded long before either of those famous emperors, though. It dates back to the Second Punic War, the one with Hannibal and the elephants.  (You may remember learning about Rome’s decades of wars with Carthage and the latter’s eventual total destruction in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War. Carthago delenda est and all that, regularly declaimed by Cato the Elder?)

The Roman victor in the Second Punic War was Publius Cornelius Scipio whose victory in 206 BC at the battle of Ilipa (near modern Seville) ended the Carthaginians’ presence in Iberia. Scipio—later given the epithet Africanus for his final victory over Carthage—founded Italica for his wounded soldiers.
Well, he couldn’t easily send them back to Italy, could he?

Italica: old city and new city

There isn’t much sign of the old city, the vetus urbs founded by Scipio, as it now lies under the modern town of Santiponce. But Emperor Hadrian favoured Italica and gave it a lot of money to build a new, more splendid city. Much of that has been excavated and can be visited. EU citizens get in free. (Brits, sadly, don’t. Dontcha lurve Brexit?) Continue reading

The Hanseatic League (Hanse): zenith and decline

Hanseatic League stall with spices and exotic fruits

Replica of Hanseatic League (Hanse) stall selling spices and exotic fruits

Hanse trade was vast

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the rise of the Hanseatic League or Hanse. It became very powerful—and extremely rich—simply by working really hard and trading very cleverly. To give you an idea of how extensive Hanse trade was, take a look at this graphic from the Hansemuseum of all the items traded through Bruges (click to enlarge to read):

Hanseatic League imports and exports through Bruges Kontor

imports: cloth at the top, metals, foodstuffs, weapons, exotic animals, luxury goods and more 
Exports: jewels, pearls, carpets, parchment, sugar, weapons, furs, sponges, dyes and more

Clearly, if you were wealthy enough, you could buy practically anything known at the time. At the top of the blog, I’ve repeated last week’s image of a replica spice stall. But there are more. Continue reading

The Hanseatic League (Hanse): origins and growth

Hanseatic League trading range 16th c.

Hanseatic League trading range in the 16th century and key trading partners

Who in Britain has heard of the Hanseatic League (in German, die Hanse)? And yet the Hanseatic League was probably the most powerful trading network in northern Europe for centuries, from its inception around the 12th century until its demise in the 17th.

What’s more, one of the Hanse’s prime locations—you may be surprised to learn—was London. In 1176, King Henry II granted merchants from Cologne the privilege of establishing their own trading post in London. And from then on, their business flourished.

I recently visited Hanseatic League cities and towns in Germany, from Berlin to Lübeck. Continue reading