No country has put together such a variety of architectural masterpieces over such an extended period of time as Britain, yet we still see our buildings as inferior
This summer, I spent some time in Rimini, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Knocked around a lot in the Second World War, Rimini retains some fine Roman treasures. The Riminese, though, are heroically indifferent to their ancient architecture.
Twice a day, commuters into the city crossed the Rubicon, the river a few miles north of Rimini that Caesar crossed to fight Pompey in BC49. These commuters used the main bridge into town – a bridge built under Caesar – as the principal thoroughfare during rush hour. Juggernauts and 12-year-old kids on tinny motorinos thundered across the bridge, coating the marble inscription to Caesar in a thin layer of soot.
The British aren’t as cavalier as this when it comes to antique buildings. Because we have so few of them, we carefully fence off the few stumpy columns at Verulamium behind a big, red “Keep Out” sign.
But as soon as we get a strong suit in another set of buildings, we take them utterly for granted. We’ll trudge through the heavy heat of a Tuscan summer to track down a Romanesque church with one spectacular thing in it – a Piero della Francesca fresco cycle, perhaps. But from year to year, we ignore the equally spectacular Romanesque church in our next-door village. OK, it might not have a Piero della Francesca fresco in it. But the chances are that it will be richer than most Italian churches in its tombstones, memorials and sheer architectural variety.
Of course there were flashes of genius in other countries that outsoared our artistic high points. We must be careful before we call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania? But because no country has been as rich as Britain for so long, no country has put together such a variety of marble, limestone and brick masterpieces over such an extended period of time.
As well as those churches, think of our cathedrals, country houses, castles, Georgian terraces, Victorian palazzo pubs, Art Deco cinemas – the most eclectic collection of buildings in the world. We are a nation of architecture addicts: the National Trust, with 3.5m members, is the biggest society in the country, and dwarfs every other heritage organisation in the world. But we still think our buildings are somehow inferior. Time to let the scales fall from our eyes.