Books: Independent choice

Cultural tourism by Stephen Brook
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Peter Demetz, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1949 and settled in the US, is irritated by the popular conception of Prague as the "magical city". As a Yale professor, it irks him that its thinkers and scholars, writers and artists, have been overshadowed by the supposed alchemical antics of Rudolph II and John Dee. His Prague in Black and Gold (Allen Lane, pounds 20) is an exercise in demythologising which succeeds best in the earlier sections, where he analyses the development of the Libuse legend - a prophetess who foresaw the greatness of the city - and examines Bohemia's great heroes: the reforming emperor Charles IV and the heretical preacher Jan Hus. Demetz then relates how Bohemia descended into chaos during the Hussite wars. Tensions between Protestant nobles and Catholic Habsburg rulers, Germans and Slavs, and between everybody and the Jews, remained unrelieved until the end of World War II.

The latter part of the book is less easy to read. No large personalities leap from the pages. President Masaryk is hazily portrayed, and the life of the great novelist Jaroslav Hasek rattles by in a couple of pages.

In the concluding chapter, Demetz returns to his native city in 1990. He cannot puzzle it out; it is both familiar and alien. Yet despite the embittered tone of this book - understandably, since the Jewish half of his family perished in the death camps - it remains a valuable history of one of Europe's most alluring cities.

Geraldine Norman has a less visceral connection with her subject, the vast Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. The first half of The Hermitage: the biography of a great museum (Cape, pounds 20) is a slog, chronicling how the Tsars ingested the major art collections of their era. Tiresome potted histories link these accounts. Errors accumulate: Pope Pius XII (died 1958) turns up in the 17th century. Only after the Revolution does the text spring to life, becoming a triumph of material over style.

Desperate for foreign currency, both Lenin and Stalin sold off many of the Hermitage's greatest paintings. The details Norman provides of these sordid transactions are riveting, as is her account of the Terror and the survival of the museum during the siege of Leningrad. This history makes clear that most visitors merely skim the surface when focusing on the Hermitage's marvellous paintings. Only the Louvre can rival the Hermitage in scope as well as size.

During the latter stages of World War II, the Russians pillaged the museums of Germany, especially of Berlin. These events are described both by Norman and by Ronald Taylor in his Berlin and its Culture (Yale, pounds 29.95). Taylor's book is encumbered by the fact that Berlin hardly took off as a cultural phenomenon until the late 19th century. So the reader must plod through accounts of minor architects, painters and musicians before history offers the more rewarding subjects of Fontane, Kollwitz, Grosz, Brecht, Fritz Lang and Gunter Grass. There is little sense of interaction between the city, as a collective entity, and the artists working within it.

The result is a series of biographical sketches rather than an exploration of how a great city expressed itself in art. Only in excellent chapters on Nazi Berlin and East Berlin does sketchiness give way to sustained examination of two especially grotesque periods in the life of the city.

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