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Simon Schama’s 10 forgotten wonders of the world

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Simon Schama’s 10 forgotten wonders of the world

Visual Arts

Simon Schama’s 10 forgotten wonders of the world

Think Suleymaniye Mosque, not Hagia Sophia... Where to see underrated gems of art and architecture around the world

Many of these wonders are a bit of a trek but all are worth the mileage. Others are located in more familiar places such as Istanbul, Agra or Rome but not on the standard must-see lists.

© Album / Oronoz

1) Ice Age paintings in the caves of Tito Bustillo (c22,000BC-10,000BC)

Because of the damage done to fragile Palaeolithic paintings by human presence, many of the most spectacular sites such as Altamira and Lascaux are off-limits. But there are still some available for visits (book well ahead) and Tito Bustillo in the province of Asturias in northern Spain is one. Walk along a dry river bed for 25 minutes, through jagged glades of stalactites and stalagmites until you reach paintings of horses and reindeer, painted in violet, black and yellow; images of confounding naturalism: an unforgettably affecting communion across the millennia.

2) Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Saint Germain-en-Laye, outskirts of Paris. La Salle Piette (c38,000BC-8,000BC)

The holy of holies of Ice Age art is the Salle Piette, named for the great 19th-century palaeontologist Edouard Piette, who was one of the few to believe that the bison paintings at Altamira were the real thing. Piette gathered an astounding collection of carved bone and wood, flint burins and tools, and left them to the museum. What will make your heart leap is the masterpiece at the heart of the collection: the so-called “La Dame à la Capuche”, found in a cave near the village of Brassempouy in south-west France in 1894 and dated to 23,000BC. Barely 3cm high, and made from mammoth ivory, the carving of the brows, nose and etched lines on the head are accomplished with such startling skill that for a long time, the figurine was deemed a fake. It isn’t.

3) Sanxingdui, Sichuan, China. Bronze Age (c1700BC-1100BC)

In China, but not of it; an entire civilisation that came and went without leaving any documents allowing posterity to trace its social and legal character. What it did leave, in vast grave sites, was an immense trove of bronze masks, some colossal, others mortal-scaled but covered with gilt decoration. While the casting technology is similar to that practised in ancient China downriver on the Yangtze, the faces made by the Sanxingdui craftsmen (not to mention a bronze tree full of birds) bear no resemblance to anything else found in China. The museum is about an hour’s drive from Chengdu.

© Balan Madhavan/Robert Harding

4) Calakmul, Mexico (c5th-9th centuries AD)

This one will test your determination: a flight from Mexico City to the port of Campeche, then another four-hour drive south to reach the Snake Kingdom of Calakmul. The relative inaccessibility means there may be more spider monkeys than tourists. The site has some of the grandest monumental buildings Maya culture built — soaring, stepped, platform pyramids, their tops piercing the forest canopy; tombs and terraced temples looking down on plazas for the theatre of ceremonial and social life (including the mass ritual execution of captives).

© Alamy

5) Donato Bramante’s “Tempietto” in the cloister courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome (c1502)

A tiny, architectural gem of the Renaissance, perched on the site of what was thought to be St Peter’s crucifixion, commissioned by the king and queen of Spain, and which gave Bramante the chance to sketch, in an actual building rather than on paper, the prototype of what a fully Christianised version of a Roman temple might look like. The answer was circular, surrounded by a peristyle of Tuscan Doric columns, crowned with a dome seated on a drum. It’s just 15 metres in diameter but has an almost musical harmony about it.

6) Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul (1550-58)

This is the one many tourists pass over while making a beeline for the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The supreme achievement of Mimar Sinan, Suleyman the Magnificent’s master builder, the mosque was consciously meant to surpass Hagia Sophia. At its corners are four (a number reserved for the sultan) elegantly soaring minarets, and a huge cupola pierced by 240-odd windows that turn the interior into a bowl of dazzling light. The dome (like St Peter’s) is supported by four massive piers but, colossal though they are, they somehow do nothing to arrest the great upward lift of vision and spirit, and it’s the indivisibility of the light that stays with you long after you depart.

7) Itimad ud Daulah tomb, Agra, India (1622-28)

Forget the Taj, or at least ensure you have enough time to see the exquisite building rather insultingly known as “Baby Taj”. It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s powerful consort Nur Jahan, for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, exiled from Persia but who brought its lacy architectural vernacular with him. The delicately decorated exterior, ornamented with jasper, onyx, topaz and carnelian, is enough of an eyeful, but it’s the interior that will leave you thunderstruck. On the walls are a paradise garden of flowers and plants, drawn with the Italian technique of pietra dura, planed down semi-precious gems. The ceiling is encrusted with embossed painted surfaces so that it burns and crackles with radiance.

© Shutterstock

8) Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo: Treppenhaus ceiling, Bishop’s Residenz, Würzburg, Germany (1752-53)

You really don’t want to have lived your life and have missed this: not so much a painting at all (albeit the biggest ceiling fresco in the world) so much as a head-spinning Omnimax designed by Papa Tiepolo to work on two levels — that of the celestial realm of the gods, Apollo at the centre enthroned in peachy Venetian glow; and that of the mortals of the terrestrial world, ostensibly the tired theme of the Four Continents but here painted with unnerving vitality. The figures are optically contrived to move as you do, and when you make the turn on the landing of Balthasar Neumann’s staircase, you find yourself in a great raucous circus of humanity along a thunderous exotic bestiary.

9) El Anatsui, The School, Jack Shainman Gallery, Kinderhook, New York (1984)

The galerista and dealer Jack Shainman bought a school in this pretty town and converted it into a hospitable space for his collection. Make a beeline for the spectacular work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian who lives and works in Nigeria and who is one of the world’s greatest living artists. At first sight, flowing over the walls of the gallery, his huge abstract drapery seems like an outsized fabric carrying with it memory of the artist’s family, who wore kente cloth for festive occasions. It is in fact made from thousands of flattened bottle tops woven together with copper wire. The object marries ancient tradition with the hangover detritus of the modern African metropolis.

10) Mu Xin Museum, Wuzhen, China (2015)

Wuzhen is — be warned — a major domestic Chinese tourist attraction. Planted on an island site surrounded by reflecting pools (and bypassed by the crowds) is a stunningly graceful Modernist museum designed by Hiroshi Okamoto and Bing Lin, devoted to the life and work of the local-born writer and artist Mu Xin. Imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, barely escaping with his life, then subjected to forced labour, Mu Xin used the paper supplied for his weekly confession to write diaries, poems, short prose and finally exquisite landscapes that drew deeply on the remembered tradition of northern Song painting; all beautifully displayed in the museum. Officially, Mu Xin is now a hero of Chinese art, but there is still some ambiguity about his status, especially under the increasingly conservative regime. You won’t have to fight crowds here, more’s the pity.

Simon Schama on the new ‘Civilisations’ and the origin of great art

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