OBITUARY: Peter Gunn

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015