Beyond the rain-lashed windows, the beautiful garden was a sea of verdancy – hardly surprising, after this apology for a summer. Everyone hungered for sun. But was it safe to flee England? Did anyone understand the difference between green and amber counties, and the requirements for quarantine? Could we predict what the government would do? Might it move confidently forward from procrastination to permissiveness, or would some bad figures send it scuttling to the panic button? As the down-pour intensified, guesses were made. We then moved on to stories about past excursions, in the days when “amber” merely meant a colour-coding which did not appear on foreign traffic-lights, because foreigners would never obey it.
One of our number, who combines loyalty to the Church of Rome with despising the current Pope, wondered where he would spend the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which falls on the 15th of the month. This stimulated anecdotes about those remarkable events, the Palii in Siena, one of which is held on the following day. The Palio has two principal features: a parade and a horse-race. Each year, ten of the seventeen Contrade, or city wards, take part. For the previous few days, their youngsters process around the city centre, rehearsing for the pageantry, though not quite in full medieval costume. It is hard to imagine their British equivalents in a similar role.
I have seen a Palio once. As patience is not among my vices, I feared that the parade might go on too long. Not so: I found it gripping. The horse race brings everything to a climax. The jockeys, undernourished weasels from Sicily, have to negotiate three circuits of treacherous bends. They are allowed to use the whip, on other horses as well as their own. Falls are frequent, and a riderless horse can win the race.
Inevitably, the end is followed by mayhem and raucous allegations of foul practice. (Extraordinary as it might seem, not all Sienese are convinced that all Sicilians are absolutely trustworthy.) Hundreds of scuffling youngsters square up to each other. But those partaking in fisticuffs only use the flats of their hands. This local version of football hooliganism has escaped from a production of Cav and Pag. Anger quickly subsides as everyone’s attention turns to the banquets which occupy the rest of the evening, and much of the night. By the small hours, the Piazza del Campo is awash with the young of Siena, all flown with wine, and with equal quantities of good humour. The atmosphere is not reminiscent of Leicester Square.
Talk of the Assumption led us in a north-easterly direction, to Venice and to a great female portrait: perhaps the greatest of all. Enter the Church of the Frari. Imagine that it is the Feast of the Assumption, and let your imagination soar, to the resplendent era when the Serenissima was mistress of the seas. As befits such a sumptuous occasion, the congregation is magnificently attired: jewellery, gold, cloth of gold – and that is only the men. Process down the nave, in the company of the ghosts of the great, to the most awe-inspiring sight of them all.
There is the Virgin, raised from the tomb, all the frailties of old age cast aside, once again the tremulous young girl of the Annunciation and the Magnificat, as God the Father leans forward to welcome home His Handmaid, to be Queen of Heaven. Ruskin thought that the Tintoretto Crucifixion in the Scuola di San Rocco was the greatest painting in Venice, and indeed in the entire world. The late John Julius Norwich gave the palm to the Bellini altarpiece in San Zaccaria. For what little it is worth, my vote goes to the Titian, which adorns Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and resonates through every syllable. It seems a long way from discalced, tree-hugging Francis of Assisi, but – Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. Leave the tree-hugging to the present Holy Father.
By now, the rain had abated while we had enjoyed a few beakers full of the warm South. Moreover, no-one had mentioned Boris Johnson, inflation, the Northern Ireland protocol or any other aspect of Brexit. Term was over, so we were determined to luxuriate in the indolence of high summer and let the English climate be damned. It will be autumn soon enough, and nothing ever happens in August, or so they say.
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My late and dear friend Frank Johnson always enjoyed pouncing on anyone who thought that it was safe to take August off from geopolitics. He would remind them about the First World War, the final moves towards the Second World War, the build-up to the Suez crisis. He would also point out that in both August 1933 and the same month in 1934, Hitler made crucial moves towards the consolidation of power. Let us hope that the Chinese believe in the sanctity of August, which must surely take precedence over navigation disputes in the South China Sea. Let us wish our sailors calm seas and a prosperous voyage, while we at home enjoy some decent weather.