OBITUARY: Peter Gunn

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The Independent Online
Peter Gunn was a writer of elegance and originality, finding unlikely subjects for his fascinating biographies and combining a love of history and architecture with a wide knowledge of letters to create his own genre of "travel" book.

His first book was the widely acclaimed Naples, a palimpsest (1961), in which he describes how the successive rulers of that city, Greeks, Romans, French, Spanish, French again and finally northern Italians, laid their cultures one over the other, obliterating only partially the traces of previous cultures. So that the city was like a palimpsest, a parchment that has been re-used after the previous writing on it has been erased.

Naples is an unusual place. The beautiful bay, with its sweep of mountains and Capri on the horizon, contrasts with the noise and chaos of the labyrinthine streets of the centre; and the warmth and gaiety of the people contrasts with the petty (and not so petty) crime so frequently encountered by visitors. Anglo-Saxons tend either to hate it or love it. Gunn (like Norman Lewis) loved it and felt at home among Neapolitans.

It was in Naples that he and I met and became friends, when he was researching for his Companion Guide to Southern Italy, eventually published in 1969. His extensive knowledge of the South, his interest in art and his strong sense of history make this a wonderful book and it seems extraordinary that Collins never issued it in a paperback edition: there seems to be no comparable guide to this most attractive part of Italy.

The book sent me down the coast of Puglia to see the series of magnificent Romanesque cathedrals that is one of the unsung glories of Italy, and made me see Naples with new eyes. The richness of the fabric of the old town, with its glorious mixture of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and especially Baroque architecture, is beautifully captured by Gunn, as is the shambly nature of it all: magnificent churches nestling side by side with street markets and wine shops.

Gunn would have loved the "open door" policy of Naples' current enlightened administration, which has made many more of these gems accessible to the public. How much, too, he would have welcomed the contemporary renaissance among Italy's wine growers. Writing in the 1960s of Norman Douglas's dictum that the way to find good wine in the South is to "pounce" on it, Gunn laments that he had had "some sadly unrewarding pounces".

He also wrote about France but Italy was a special favourite of his and the witty and lively text he wrote to accompany Roloff Beny's photographs make The Churches of Rome (1981) a most stimulating book. We are all the poorer that he never managed to publish his Dukes of Urbino.

The special feature of Gunn's own kind of travel book is the fusion of history, literature and art, perhaps seen best in Normandy: landscape with figures (1975) but a stimulating feature of the books on Burgundy and the Yorkshire Dales.

Visiting Peter Gunn in Swaledale was an uplifting experience. Amidst the most splendid scenery in England he would tell you of his latest enthusiasms, a newly discovered opera or a new person, who might subsequently appear in one of his biographies (Vernon Lee, 1964; My Dearest Augusta, 1969) and ask you about yours, for he was always intellectually curious. And we would laugh a lot, about the media, about politics (especially Italian politics) and about bizarre happenings in the Dale.

He was immensely civilised, with wide interests in music and painting; he enjoyed food and drink; and he liked good company and conversation. A handsome man with great style, who carried himself ramrod straight even in old age, he had a reserved manner which was generally belied by a twinkle in the eye that, among friends, could so easily transform itself into that magical smile, even into near collapse as he pin-pricked some flatulent piece of hype. My enduring memory of him will be the laughter.

John Messenger

Peter Nicholson Gunn, writer: born Sydney, Australia 15 August 1914; married 1953 Mrs Diana Tufnell (nee James; one son); died Arques-la-Bataille, France 4 October 1995.