Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes (1947)

My sense of loneliness made the throng of life in the drab back-streets more vivid. The film of dirt on the hairy legs of the girl who shuffled ahead of me in wooden soled sandals, the urgent shrill cries of the ageless women behind the street stands, the beggars, the boys who wandered barefooted through the streets pimping for their sisters who were still in their teens, the tawdry make-up of a woman standing hopefully beneath the tinsel-decorated lamp-lit shrine of the Madonna at the street corner, the poverty and the dirt, and the sour smell of streets that had no proper sanitation… (p.127)

This is a very short thriller (158 pages in the Fontana paperback) in two starkly contrasting parts: first, the mood and feel of recently demobbed English sailors at a loose end and kicking around the Cornish coast; then a travelogue across recently liberated Italy in all its poverty and corruption. It packs a lot of description, history and feeling into a small space.

The plot

A man adrift

David Cunningham captained Royal Navy landing craft during the war. In the first few pages he is holed up in the Cornish boarding house where he and his true love holidayed before the war. While he was away serving, she married a RAF pilot who was subsequently killed and then she was killed in a German air raid. Her mother sent on a box of jewellery and trinkets. Just to complicate matters, he fell for another woman on a short home leave but now the war is over, and he’s reunited with her and her mother and family, he realises he’s not ready for marriage, he doesn’t know what he’s ready for, he’s confused and disorientated, so he’s run away to this remote Cornish house.

He stares moodily into the fire. The landlady says, ‘Why don’t you go find out about the wreck along the coast?’

Turns out a big landing craft got washed ashore onto rocks in a narrow cove the year before. Another disgruntled vet, Stuart McCrae, bought it off the Admiralty and is living in it. (In a typical Innes coincidence, their paths actually crossed during the war, when Cunningham piloted his landing craft carrying tanks onto the beach at Anzio where, amid the chaos and corpses, the very brave McCrae stood amid the shells and bullets and guided him in.)

Floating the boat

Over a scotch and war reminiscences, David says he thinks he can float the landing craft. And so the first 50 pages are a long and detailed description of how he wangles equipment off Navy mates, then rigs up scaffolding, gantries, hawsers and cables and dragoons passing tourists into helping build a rock and sand slope, with which they manage – despite various setbacks (some fierce storms destroy all their work and they have to start again) – to get the LC back into the water. Along the way they pick up another stray ex-Navy man, Dugan, an engineer who fixes the motors, and who knows another bloke, Boyd, from Plymouth who signs on as crew.

They name the ship Trevedra after the nearby village.

The Monique storyline

Turns out one of the local holiday-makers who they persuaded to help building the ramp and gantries, is a newspaperman. He publishes a piece about their epic labour in a national newspaper, along with photos which prompts a surprising amount of ‘fan mail’, which he passes on to our chaps. Among the 124 letters is a moving one from an Emily Dupont. She married a Frenchman in the 1920s and lived in Paris. In the war her husband and son were killed. At an early stage of the German invasion, she packed off her daughter to stay with Italian cousins for safety. She writes that, if the guys are travelling to Italy, as the newspaper reports, could they please please please look for her daughter, Monique. The letter encloses a photo of a pretty 15-year-old and the address of the people she was sent to stay with.

The business deal

Meanwhile McCrae proposes a simple business set-up. He and Cunningham go 50-50 in a new company. The two crew get a percentage of profits. Cunningham will be captain and have absolute authority on the ship. McCrae will negotiate cargo and business deals. They shake on it. While Cunningham finalises the ship’s refurbishment, McCrae goes off to London to do business. He comes back with the news that Italy – which they both know – is poverty stricken, and desperate in particular for all forms of transport. McCrae has fixed up with an old Army pal to buy some knackered Bedford lorries and spares. They’ll load these with fags and booze and sail to Italy, selling at a good price and use the money to buy a return cargo – probably all the rare wines and liqueurs Italy is famous for, and British soldiers came home with a taste for, but which are difficult to obtain here. A mate of his in London has agreed to distribute any fine booze they bring back and is already making enquiries about potential business customers.

Very thorough of Innes to put in these details. Very plausible account. And very typically ordinary, low level, not international corporations. Very much the man on the street, the demobbed soldier or sailor trying to start again from scratch, as in Killer Mine.

Sailing to Italy

Fairly uneventful, full of accurate and evocative descriptions of the sea which are Innes’ trademark.

Post-war Italy

The novel’s deep value may come less from its plot than from its searing and moving descriptions of post-war Italy, a corrupt and devastated shambles. Innes gives powerful descriptions of war-torn Naples, the damaged people and buildings. They dock, meet their business contact and dispose of the lorries and cigarettes on the spot for a big profit, then bank the proceeds and have a night on the town. Next day they are invited to a swanky party of a local bigwig up on the hill at Posillipo. In this swish villa, among the sleek men and scantily dressed women, Cunningham and McCrae are revolted at the contrast between the chattering rich and the absolute poverty in the city below, where people are literally starving to death.

When the bigwig, Del Ricci, takes them for a business chat and proposes buying the landing craft for double its market value, McCrae loses his temper: He knows Del Ricci is an ex-fascist, he knows he wants to use the landing craft to run guns to support his extortionate business practices, and he gives a big speech about how many British boys died horribly to liberate this country, not to give it back into the hands of fascists and crooks like him. When Del Ricci goes for his pocket pistol, McCrae lays him out with a big British punch. In the taxi back to the port Cunningham warns him, you shouldn’t have done that…

Looking for Monique

While McCrae pursues business contacts, Cunningham asks their local fixer to track down the address Emily Dupont gave him for Monique. Slowly the trail unfolds. Seems the address he was given was for a dodgy apartment block, a ristorante on the ground floor and brothel above it, with one respectable apartment where the Galliani family lived along with Monique. But the present owners say family and girl are long gone. They moved to a farm in the country.

Cunningham sets off to find her, taking Boyd, the cockney sailor, with him, telling McCrae they’ll be back in a day or two. He is so upset by the waste and horror of war, by the poverty and misery of Naples that – suddenly – finding her for her mother feels like a mission, a purpose, to try and put something right in this screwed-up world.

In fact it takes many days to follow the trail: first to a dusty farm, where Cunningham finds two old ladies. They confirm that the family from Naples came to stay here along with the girl. But at the end of the war, they describe a sickening incident when the Germans parked an 88mm flak gun by the farmhouse and used it for a while to defend a nearby bridge. When the Germans left, they set fire to the farmhouse. When the menfolk tried to intervene, the father was covered in petrol and set on fire, the others shot in the face. It is a revolting story, and typical of the violence and brutality Innes’ war-haunted protagonist sees all around him. Every road and hill and village brings back terrible memories of the war and its atrocities…

The women think Monique is in the village of Pericele. Boyd and Cunningham drive on through the killing grounds of the war, towns and cities flattened or pock-marked with artillery and bullet marks. Pericele turns out to be an impoverished dump and the parish priest a shifty creep who lies to them. After much prevarication it they discover that Monique has been sold into semi-serfdom to the village bully, Mancini. They track her down to a stream on his farm where she is dressed in rags and tells them how Mancini routinely whips her and beats her: he wants her to come begging to him for sex. She bursts into tears. Boyd and Cunningham are appalled at the humiliation and degradation of this still very young woman, but they see Mancini coming towards them in the distance, along with farmhands carrying shotguns. Boyd and Cunningham beat a hasty retreat but promise to return for her that evening.

That night Cunningham and Boyd, true to their promise, return to Mancini’s farm, parking the car some distance away and sneaking up quietly on the silent buildings. They discover Monique has been locked in the outdoor privy. But they make too much noise getting her out and Mancini comes roaring out of his house with his bullwhip. Cunningham tackles him and there is a bitter, unglamorous fight there in the farmyard muck. By wriggling free of his jacket Cunningham manages to get to his feet and run to the car Boyd has ready. They escape at top speed but, by the time they arrive back in Naples, Cunningham realises all his money, his wallet and his passport were in the damn jacket.

Stuck in Naples

Boyd and Cunningham make straight for the docks only to be stunned to learn that the Trevedra has sailed without them! What! Surely McCrae would never leave them. When they go to the bank where they happily deposited their profits a few days before, they discover McCrae emptied the account before leaving! What! I immediately suspected that McCrae has been killed by the mafioso he insulted and hit up at the hilltop villa.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and Boyd and Monique, united by their midnight exploits and their plight, pawn Cunningham’s watch and reluctantly move into the very sleazy apartment block-cum-bordello where Monique lived when she first came to stay in the city. It’s dirt cheap and has the advantage that the madam is tolerant of them. Also that it brings them into contact with the raddled old deserter who lives in one of the rooms and forges documents. The British Consul had agreed, reluctantly, to grant Cunningham a temporary passport to replace the one he left behind at Mancini’s farm, but refused point blank  to give one to Monique. Now, when Cunningham returns despondent from a day going to various offices (consulate, bank, harbour office), Boyd and Monique proudly show Cunningham her forged passport and travel documents. Job done.

The man who was paralysed

That night the forger asks them round for drinks. In a melodramatic scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle, he is given a long monologue in which reveals himself to be an embittered and crippled Scotsman, who got into various types of trouble in the Army, before deserting at Monte Cassino and making his way to Naples. He had always fancied himself an artist but here in a city racked by crime, discovered his true métier was forging papers, at which he has now become a master. The melodrama of his early escapades with the Army and then setting-up as a master forger, switches to lachrymose sentimentality as he starts talking about his dear old mum back in the wee Scots village of Ballachulish. He makes Cunningham swear to tell her – using his authority and swank as a former officer – that her son was a success, a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and bonny baby boy. But that, tragically, he was cut down in a street accident and has passed away. He’s forged the papers and even a will. He is, he points out bitterly, dying of syphilis anyway. He just wants his dear old mother to maintain her illusions.

— This extraordinary chapter is built from paper-thin clichés – how the idealistic young man slowly realises he is a rotten artist and becomes disillusioned; how he hates and loathes the Army and all its brutality; how he hates the pukka, public-school-educated officer class who had effortless confidence in everything they do; how the one and only ‘true’ work of art he ever made was the portrait of fair Monique, back when she was living with the Gallianis, and inspired by her beauty and innocence etc. Switching back to bitterness, he vents his scorn on the raddled Neapolitan prostitute he now lives with and her bastard son. The whole thing reeks of Victorian melodrama and is enjoyable as a remarkable reversion to the sensationalist fiction of the 1880s and 90s.

But it isn’t a completely random insertion: it also serves to move the plot along, because the paralysed man says that, if Cunningham swears on the Bible to take the message to his wee old mother, he’ll tell them what happened to their ship. Cunningham swears on the Bible. The paralysed man reveals that he forged papers for the Trevedra. He forged papers giving it a new name and naming its legal owner as Del Ricci. Aha. It all falls into place. Rather than buy the ship off the offensive McCrae, Del Ricci has just stolen it.

The paralysed man says it’s currently moored at Porto Giglio, on an island near Elba. He gives our chaps the name of a local ex-partisan and communist who very much wants to prevent the neo-fascist Del Ricci becoming the dominant power on this western coast. He says he’s arranged a rendezvous with this man, nicknamed the ‘Little Octopus’, at the trattoria in the Vicoletto Berio the next morning.

The Little Octopus

Our chaps meet the Octopus. When they tell him where the boat is moored, he makes arrangements and tells them to wait that night at a point on the road out of town. That night they have all their bags with them, and jump aboard the lorry carrying sacks of flour which arrives to collect them. They drive for hours north towards Rome and then west to the coast. Here they park at a harbour and load into a waiting island schooner, a filthy vessel run by an even filthier old captain, all spit and vino. The schooner sails out to Porto Giglio. Cunningham notices feet sticking out from under one of the collapsed sails. The Octopus notices and smiles cruelly. ‘If you live like a rat you die like a rat,’ he says. He shows Cunningham the cigarette tin and lighter with Del Ricci’s initials. They’ve murdered him. A little later his body is dropped overboard. Boyd comments that there is no law in this god-forsaken country and, on the evidence of this novel, there really doesn’t seem to be.

The schooner sails into Porto Giglio, where they execute their simple plan. They deliberately bump the schooner against the landing craft, which is moored in the centre of the harbour. The LC’s crew come out and start arguing and shouting, as Italians do, whereupon our lot of Italians hold them up at gunpoint. It could have been left at that, but again there is an excess of violence as, once they have tied and gagged the sailors, the Octopus proceeds to torture one of them with the tip of his lighted cigarette, stuffing a rag in his mouth to stifle the man’s screams. He is in the middle of doing this when Boyd on the bridge is overpowered by a baddy who’d been hiding below-decks. The Octopus shoots him without hesitation. Brains splatter onto Monique’s dress. She had wanted to see ‘fighting’. Now she realises she doesn’t like it.

The tortured baddy reveals that McCrae and the other crewman, Dugan, are in the lockers in the stern. Cunningham releases them, very much the worse for wear for having no food or water for two days. With that the Octopus says farewell. He has murdered his rival and deprived his organisation of a useful vessel. ‘How can we repay you?’ asks Cunningham. ‘Oh, you will return to Italy one day and maybe I will need help. That is all I ask.’ And he and his men climb back aboard the schooner and are gone.

Cunningham sets a course away from Italy out into the clean bracing air of the Mediterranean. McCrae and Dugan are recovering in the cabin. Boyd is running the engines. In an image which recurs in several later books, Cunningham guides Monique’s hands onto the spokes of the wheel and feels her warm body press back against his. They are in love. The future is going to be good.

Thoughts

As you can see the plot is pretty over-ripe, tipping into Victorian melodrama at points, but nonetheless it is gripping and well-told. It could have made a taut b&w 1950s movie starring one of the square-jawed English heroes from the time.

But the book is really worth reading for the tremendous flavour it gives you of a devastated Italy immediately after the war, the poverty and squalor and hopelessness, among which sit islands of opulence and plenty, all overlaid by the menacing presence of fascist bullies and mafia criminals. The drive through former battlefields as Cunningham relives the heat and sweat and blood and spilling guts of dying men in every village and field is very powerful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing glamorous or redeeming in the war that Innes describes. And the Italy he portrays couldn’t be further from the tourist fantasia of our times.

It’s powerful testimony to a now-distant and terrible era.


Credit

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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