Thursday 30 July 2020

Walks with Lorenzetti: Venice, Memory, Tourism

Just as A Partial India was a re-working of my travel notebook for India, so Walks with Lorenzetti re-visits a 1988 trip I made to VeniceA Partial India and the notes it is based on try to capture the unrepeatable impact of seeing India for the first time.  Walks with Lorenzetti is quite different.  Although it was a particularly intense few days in Venice, it was far from my first trip there.  I brought with me other memories of the city and elsewhere, as well as various kinds of relevant knowledge built up over the years before.

Walks with Lorenzetti therefore goes beyond simply re-working one of my travel notebooks.  It weaves in other major strands, including three of the city's greatest creators and their art: the music of Vivaldi, the paintings of Canaletto, and the writing of Goldoni.  Above all, it follows in the footsteps of another book: Guido Lorenzetti's Venice and its Lagoona forgotten masterpiece that deserves to be better-known.  I hope the following pages will help to achieve that.



Introductory Chapters

The book
The itineraries
The man

The Twelve Itineraries

I - First act: eighth itinerary
II - First night movement: Allegro più ch’è possible
III - First portrait: Antonio Vivaldi
IV - Second act: ninth itinerary
V - Second night movement: intermezzo
VI - Second portrait: Carlo Goldoni
VII - Third act: third itinerary
VIII - Third night movement: capriccio
IX - Third portrait: Antonio Canaletto
X - Fourth act: fourth itinerary
XI - Fourth night movement: finale
XII - Fourth portrait: itinerant biographies


The personal tempest

Venice and its Lagoon



I will thus have helped to make my city more known, which is as much to say to love it more.

Not far from the west end of the Piazza San Marco, in Via 22 Marzo, there was an antiquarian bookshop.  In its window were displayed a number of engravings of churches and I in Venice.  On my last day in the city, driven by an old obsession with these survivors from the past, I went in to take a closer look.

It was like something out of a Dickens novel or a setting for a second-rate film: the archetypal old bookshop in which crucial discoveries are made, or terrible, long-buried secrets revealed.  Around the walls were glass-fronted bookcases.  Within and on top of them, piled up to the ceiling, there were heavy tomes covered in a characteristic orange-brown leather, many of them cracked with age.  There were also numerous prints showing aspects of Venice, mostly of the more popular tourist sights.  The tables and chairs in the room were from a previous age, dark and heavy, with generous proportions and swelling forms.

The scene was presided over by one of those grand old Italian ladies, probably in her early sixties, who looked as if she were a contessa reduced by a tiresome quirk of history to selling off family heirlooms.  Her proud bearing informed you that whatever price you paid for a book or print, it could never be enough to recompense her ineffable condescension in selling it to you.  Her Italian was of such a cut-glass clarity that it seemed you saw rather than heard the words, as if they were chiselled in some fabulously rare marble or basalt which hung in the air before you.  Her name was Signora Liliana Forreto Cassini, presumably the widow of the original proprietor, Giocondo Cassini, whose name the shop still bore.

I asked whether she had any engravings of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa.  Her patrician features softened into a friendly smile; she seemed genuinely pleased that I wanted something off the beaten track, something which would allow her to show her stock’s depth which was otherwise lost on the tourists who, like their forebears, were often rich but indiscriminate.

She dug among tightly-packed drawers and neatly-tied folders until finally she came up with a small collection of engravings of the more obscure corners of Venice.  Among them were two copies of precisely the scene I sought: the church of Santa Maria Formosa and its square.  According to the Signora Cassini, one of the prints was an original from the eighteenth century, the other a later pull from the same plates.  I opted for the latter, which was indistinguishable from the other except for its price.

The artist’s name was not identified on the print.  I assumed it was some anonymous eighteenth century figure.  I asked the woman whether she knew anything about the draughtsman and engraver.  To my surprise she said it was after an original painting by Canaletto, engraved by Antonio Visentini.

Back in England, I began to discover more about the work.  The print of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa formed number eight in the third series of engravings first published in 1742.  There are several paintings which show very similar scenes.  One is in the collection of the Duke of Bedford, at Woburn Abbey; another is owned by the Earl of Cadogan; and a third is in a private collection in Italy.  The exact viewpoint and lighting is different in all of them, and it is the last of the three which seems to be the original of the etching.

The scene is taken from the northern end of the campo, looking straight across at the church and its campanile.  The viewpoint is about twenty feet off the ground, possibly from one of the windows of the building opposite. However, Canaletto habitually painted his scenes from positions which would have been completely inaccessible to him, for example twenty or thirty feet above the Grand Canal, so it would be an unwarranted assumption to suppose that Canaletto drew this exact scene from life.  Canaletto frequently made sketches from the ground and reconstructed the particular viewpoint he needed.  Indeed, a sketchbook in the Accademia contains five views of the campo, sketched right to left, taken from the level of the square.  There are also two drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor which show a very similar scene, but from a higher vantage point.

In the engraving it is a very spacious view, with the campo pushing the buildings to the back and sides of the picture.  The parallels with the last scene in the third series, which shows the Piazza San Marco from the west, are striking.  There is the same head-on view of the church, the same flanking buildings with exaggerated perspective which seem to channel the viewer’s eye towards the facade.  The sense of openness which the broad view of the campo produces is reinforced by the empty expanse of sky overhead: apart from a few patches of light haze, Visentini has drawn his characteristic thin straight lines across most of the sky.

To the left are the Dona and Vitturi palaces.  At the back, next to the church, is the Palazzo Malipiero-Trevisan.  Many of the palaces’ balconies bear pots of flowers.  From behind a shutter in the top corner of the building furthest to the left, a stray curtain blows in the wind.

The church roof is under repair.  There are piles of wood leaning against its eastern apse and on the well-head nearby.  Shops on the left display some of their wares outside.  From Canaletto’s annotations to his sketches, we know that the shops were those of a mattress-maker - a sample is clearly visible in the shop opening - a grocer, a fruitier, a mirror-maker (again with some oval examples evident) finishing up with a rag and bone shop the other side of a small alleyway.  In addition, under the campanile on the right, though barely visible because of its size in the engraving, is the stall of a greengrocer.  Most of these are reproduced with surprising distinctness, a testimony to Visentini’s skill as an engraver.  With its concentration on the everyday rather than the conventionally grand, the view of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa is one of Canaletto’s most intimate works.

Between these shops and across the square, people mill everywhere in what is a surprisingly busy scene - far busier than it is today.  There are 69 people in the picture, more than any of the other engravings in the series except those views of the Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and of the Piazza San Marco.  There are numerous children, and three dogs - one of Canaletto’s trademarks. People cross the campo carrying vegetables; some carry pails to draw water from the central well-head.  A man enters his house on the right, while a young woman on the left looks out from one of the palace windows, perhaps waiting for a handsome young gentleman to bow to her.

Judging by the consecutive pages in his sketchbook, it is reasonable to suppose that Canaletto planned this scene in a single day.  From details in the picture we can guess more exactly the time of year and the hour.  There is a chill in the air: people wear thick cloaks which they hold close around themselves.  Early spring perhaps.  It is mid-morning, judging by the sun, and the shops’ activity indicates a weekday.  We know that the scene was painted before 1742.  It could well have been sketched around 1735, when the first series of etchings came out; as they started to sell Canaletto may have turned his mind to a second series and begun making a few sketches.

In the foreground, in front of all the others, two figures seem to be engaged in a heated conversation.  The man behind, older and in a wig, is talking to the younger man in front who wears a tricorn hat and is wrapped in a cloak.  The latter seems a little disdainful.  The older man is Vivaldi, the younger, Goldoni.  Canaletto has caught them as they cross the square discussing the details of their collaborative opera ‘Griselda’ shortly to produced at the theatre of San Samuele during the Ascensiontide fair.

Canaletto certainly knew Vivaldi; he painted scenery for some of his earlier operas.  He probably knew Goldoni, if only by sight and reputation, since the young dramatist was the talk of Venice as Vivaldi’s comments reveal in Goldoni’s report of their first meeting.  All three knew the Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Goldoni visited the nearby Grimani palace, and Vivaldi was born and lived in the vicinity.  Canaletto clearly knew it.  All three men were in Venice in the spring of 1735.  The conjunction could have happened.

But I am alike indifferent to the scholar’s quibbles and the statistician’s probabilities.  For me, that brief moment one cold spring morning has its own reality.  The abiding facts are that Visentini’s engraving of Santa Maria Formosa hangs on my wall, that I have understood, however imperfectly, the congruent wisdoms of Vivaldi, Goldoni and Canaletto, that I have been to Venice.

When I remember the scene, I do not see the second edition of a competent representation of a little-known corner of Venice, with some conventional and anonymous figures thrown in to populate the composition.  Instead, I see a tiny shaft of light issuing on the left from a narrow alleyway between the mirror-maker’s and the rag and bone shop; the long, narrow street leads to the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, passing on the way over a small bridge set at an angle over a canal which girdles a nondescript palazzo.  I see that light leading from the alley into the campo, in which for one instant, Vivaldi, Goldoni, Canaletto and everything that lies at the end of that alley are caught up together in a unity; and that instant and unity will endure as long as the image of that scene, and these words which are a counterpoint to it, also endure.  Together, they are my memento of Venice.

Walks with Lorenzetti

Wednesday 29 July 2020

The personal tempest

It is either an incident from Stazio’s ‘Tebaide’ or a myth regarding the birth of Paris or again an interpretation of philosophical naturalistic concepts in a composition in synthesis of the eternal force of rebirth of creation in the world by nature or of human beings, or lastly the ‘dream of Polyphilus’ (hypnoerotomachia).

Anyone who sees Venice for the first time is fortunate; but in the circumstances of my first visit, I was particularly so.  A friend had given me the address of a foresteria - a kind of hostel - near Santa Maria Formosa.  My initial steps in Venice were therefore purposive; as I followed the signs to the Piazza San Marco, crossed that great open space, and then dived into the warren of streets, it was not as someone who wandered helplessly from beauty to beauty, but more as one who could assign each new sight some provisional, personal meaning by virtue of my journey past them.  The monuments of Venice became my milestones.

The foresteria was hidden away in one of the less frequented parts of Venice, between Santa Maria Formosa and Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  Tourists seldom strayed there, and I was able to begin to colonise this corner for myself, uncorrupted by any previous knowledge, and to get to know Venice from the inside rather than through one of its more formal set pieces.

The foresteria lay at the bottom of one of those long, narrow alleys which abound in Venice, with high shuttered houses on each side.  At the end of the alley, you crossed a small humped bridge at an angle.  The path turned off to the right past a high and forbidding wall, and then snaked left.  In the wall were a pair of massive doors, and next to them an entryphone.  The wall formed a small courtyard, completing the empty corner of a high L-shaped building.  This was the foresteria.

It was run by a religious organisation, and used as a permanent hostel for university students in Venice.  Spare beds were rented out to travellers.  I rang the buzzer, explained that I was looking for a room, and was admitted to the courtyard.  Weeds grew among the broken flags, and flower pots and bicycles lay against the wall.

The front door was opened from above, and I went up to the first floor where the warden lived.  The small flat was furnished in a typically heavy Italian style of many years ago.  The man was in his fifties, short, balding and uncommunicative.  A woman, presumably his wife, stood behind the door of an adjacent room talking quietly to someone, perhaps their child.  The warden took my passport and then showed me to my room upstairs on the next floor.

As might be expected in a hostel run by a religious institution, there were separate dormitories for men and women.  My room had three double bunk beds, only one of which was already taken.  On the ceiling there were crude frescoes of pink, chubby putti; ancient cracks cut through them.  Otherwise the room was bare.  To reach the bedrooms you went through a low doorway from the main hall, past a tiny bathroom.

The hall Itself was magnificent.  It was about twenty feet high, with dark rafters overhead.  A long trapezium in shape, it looked out onto water on two of its sides: the small canal, over which the diagonal bridge from the alleyway passed, curved round to the left, girdling the building for much of its perimeter.  The foresteria had clearly once been the palazzo of a comfortably wealthy Venetian family, probably built in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  Despite the characterless, institutional furniture - a few metal and canvas chairs and trestle tables - it was easy to imagine the hall’s former days of glory.  Perhaps as the last vestige of that time, a huge and incongruous black grand piano stood to one side of the room.

One end of the hall was filled by a high window of leaded lights reaching to the ceiling.  When the sun shone upon the canal outside, its hundred fractured images were cast upon a nearby wall.  At the other end there was a small kitchen, and in the middle of the wall opposite the door to the bedrooms was another door leading to the separate rooms of the Venetian students.

There were currently two of them, both female.  One was slightly built, with the fair hair and slightly aquiline nose which suggested a Roman heritage; the other was formed on an ample scale, a shapely young woman with long black hair, a rounded face and piercingly dark eyes.  Her name was Manuela, short for Emmanuela, and she spoke with a slight Venetian lisp.

My first visit to Venice was short and intense, just three days.  I devoted each day to wandering around a different area of the city.  At this stage I had not yet discovered Lorenzetti, so though my itineraries were often directed at a particular landmark - Santa Maria della Salute, the Arsenale - the paths were random and unformed, and along the way I missed the subsidiary details and the significance of the whole.  To begin with, Venice was beautiful but undifferentiated.

In many ways, this was probably fortunate.  Just as the great masters of literature presuppose basic reading skills, so Lorenzetti is best understood after a grounding in the grammar and vocabulary of the city.  His is an advanced course: he teaches you how to weave together the weft of art and the warp of history into a tapestry that is Venice.  But without those first self-taught lessons, the visitor is simply overwhelmed with information.  The first visit is a kind of cultural vaccination, a prophylactic against the Lorenzetti disease - aesthetic exhaustion - in its most virulent form.   It also allows the tourist a chance to form a few personal opinions before being confronted with the almost inarguable weight of Lorenzetti’s lifelong scholarship.

The first day I visited the Accademia Gallery, the next I went out to the Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, and my final day was spent travelling out to the island of Torcello.  I walked along countless alleys, crossed innumerable bridges and courtyards, visited churches, palaces and galleries, but without the thread of Lorenzetti’s itineraries on which to hang these experiences, I can no longer recall when I went where.  As Venice itself appeared to me then, my first impressions formed a huge, insoluble labyrinth.

But my Venetian trip as a whole, with its great unstructured cargo of memories, remained with me vividly.  I had visited the city as just part of an extensive Europe-wide tour which took in France, other parts of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland; but it was the multi-faceted image of Venice which burnt fiercest in recollection.

So much so that I knew I would eventually try to preserve these memories in writing.  It did not happen immediately; I went to Venice for the first time in 1979 and returned there in 1981.  But it was not until 1984 that I felt ready to attempt the translation of some of those images and experiences on to paper.  Ideas had been growing within me all this time, often deeply hidden and rising only occasionally to the surface in the form of a sudden memory; but it took certain crucial events of that year to cause everything to come together into a coherent whole.

At this time in my life I wrote with pencil and paper.  Corrections, especially of a major nature, were difficult.  As a result, I tended to plan out in my head my writing in a comprehensive fashion, and then tried to capture it on paper in one sitting.  This extreme approach meant that I was forced to wait until I felt the pressure of concentration - if not inspiration - sufficiently strong to carry me through what was necessarily a long and intense process.

I remember that it was a Sunday in April, almost exactly six years after the events, that I started to plan out a short story based on this first visit to Venice.  For two hours I paced around the room, advancing the story with my advancing steps.  In trying to hold all the facts and feelings in my head at once, I felt like one of those circus performers spinning more and more plates on sticks: there was the same sense of elation, and growing panic, as more plates - more words - were added; the same knowledge that the greater the success the nearer the failure.

Then, at 11 am, I started writing.  Nearly twelve hours and seven thousand words later, I finished, mentally exhausted but feeling as if delivered of a great burden.  There was a sense of achievement in that I had written the story I had set out to capture; but joined with this was the omnipresent sense of failure, the sense that once again the work had slipped away in the act of creation.  For this reason I found it impossible to read the story once finished, and it was years before I was able to approach it with sufficient objectivity to lessen my natural distaste.

It is always a curious experience to read writing from deep in your past, especially if that writing embodies strong experiences.  The words and images have a strange resonance: they are clearly of you - the lineage is manifest; and yet they are also equally clearly distinct from you, since the you which exists now has moved so far from its earlier incarnations. This explains the ambivalent feelings such re-discoveries tend to excite: you squirm over the gaucheries, and yet are touched by the simple charm, surprised and moved by the innocence and ingenuousness - long since unattainable.

The short story is derived almost entirely from my first trip to Venice; its form is based now loosely, now more closely, on my itineraries, and likewise its plot on my experiences.  There is the journey across Venice to the foresteria, the visits to the Accademia, the excursions to the islands.  More importantly, it is about an emotional path, a journey to knowledge.

The main character is a student of art history whose approach to his discipline is essentially academic, and therefore necessarily limited.  He himself is similarly callow.  One of the intersecting themes of the story concerns his search for a painting, the ‘Assunta’ of Titian, one he knows well from illustrations, and one that has always impressed and moved him.  Eventually, and unexpectedly, he discovers the picture in the course of his wanderings through the city.  But he finds it curiously unsatisfying.  In the meantime he has come across another painting, one which proves initially more mysterious than the other, but ultimately far more potent: Giorgione’s ‘La tempesta’, which gives the short story its title.

Through his slight acquaintance with Manuela, a young Venetian studying at the university and living at the foresteria, and with another young Briton staying there who loves her - eventually to self-destruction - he comes to understand what qualities and meanings that picture may hold.  As a result, he gains a far deeper - because intuitive as well - understanding of both Venice and himself.  The identification of Venice with the emotional, so-called feminine aspect of life is simplistic and unoriginal, but it provided me with the central equation necessary for making sense of the disparate elements of my own experiences in Venice and back in England.

Re-reading ‘La tempesta’ now, I am struck by how much effort I wasted trying to describe Venice.  It is foolish to attempt what so many others have done well, though never well enough.  To endeavour to capture that overpowering but elusive city with words - or indeed in images or music - is clearly folly.  If it were possible to reduce the essence of Venice to anything which can be caught in this way, the city itself would not exert the unique fascination it has.  After more than 500 years as a byword for harmony and beauty of form, the mountain of words, images and sounds Venice has generated still stand only as pale shadows of our own experiences amidst the city’s reality.

I am also struck by how the narrative shifts between fact and fiction, between the true details of my first visit to Venice, and the added elements which somehow help make sense of those details.  Indeed, at this distance I can no longer securely distinguish between some of the facts and some of the fictions.  I kept no notebooks on that trip; in many respects, ‘La tempesta’ is the only record I have, together with my memories.  Reading it again, some of it is immediately familiar, while some strikes only faint chords; but are these memories of reality, or memories of the creation of an alternative reality?

In the end, it does not matter.  Reality only exists in our flawed perceptions and even more untrustworthy memories.  What matters is the value of what I retain and create from those experiences.  Art, or least my writing, allows me to sift and select, modify and add, until I have recreated a version which in its contemplation today and, I hope, tomorrow, allows me to feel that something remains of my past, that out of my life something exists which will be able, however imperfectly, to transcend me and all the irrelevant details I have lived through.  It means that some of my travels - in the broadest sense - were not random wanderings, because here at least I have imposed a sense of form on them.

Walks with Lorenzetti

Saturday 25 July 2020

XII - Fourth portrait: itinerant biographies

I make no claims whatsoever that my work is free from errors, deficiencies or inexactitudes.

Lorenzetti’s last itinerary is rather different.  All are collections of noteworthy sights, arranged into convenient paths.  One obvious grouping is the great sequence of constantly varied masterpieces along the banks of the Grand Canal.  Clearly these works had to be included in any conspectus of Venice; and yet access by land would be immensely long and tedious.  Lorenzetti’s solution, a metaphorical walk down the Grand Canal, is an apt compromise and fitting conclusion to the whole series.

But even by such initiatives Lorenzetti was not able to encompass everything he wanted to include, still less everything the city has to offer.  He therefore adds at the back of the book chapters on the major art galleries, the lagoon and its islands, even information on the nearby mainland.  His knowledge continually spills out beyond the confines of his self-imposed structures.

Knowledge and experience are ever thus, refusing to fit neatly into the predetermined shapes of science and art.  Much of the artifice of art lies in accommodating this inchoate experience in as compact and coherent a form as possible.  Lorenzetti’s book exemplifies both the power and the problems of that accommodation.

Lorenzetti’s itineraries do not purport to be exact records of his own experiences as he created and travelled round them.  They are composites, built up from years of research, years of painstaking investigation on the ground.  By contrast, my own itineraries as I followed in his footsteps are essentially literal reports of what I found and felt as I walked with Lorenzetti on successive days.

But not quite literal.  Just as Lorenzetti himself was forced to relegate some of his experiences and knowledge to a twelfth chapter, and still more to later, unnumbered sections, so I too have incidents and experiences which, for various reasons, are not contained in my descriptions above.

First of all there are the large-scale re-arrangements.  Life makes no allowances for the Lorenzetti walker.  Churches hold services, galleries are closed, and other quotidian details prevent you from following the master as literally as you might like.  For example, I went on my second tour - the Ninth of Lorenzetti’s itineraries - in the afternoon of the day I followed his Eighth.  The Accademia gallery was closed by the time I got there, so I went the next day.  Similarly the Gesuati church was not yet open.  By the time I had continued with my walk and returned to the Gesuati, the church of La Salute was closed, and had to wait to the following day too.

On that same first day another important deviation from the Lorenzetti path occurred.  When I arrived on the Zattere and found the Gesuati closed, I decided to go across to the Giudecca.  I had often stared across at this ghostly vision, this thin strip of land floating uneasily on the waters.  As I took the vaporetto, I was struck by just how wide the Giudecca canal is: it felt quite unnerving leaving behind the safety of Venice proper.  Moreover, I have had this lingering distrust of vaporetti, as if they were possessed of mischievous minds of their own, ever since one took me far away into the lagoon only hours before I was due to leave Venice.  It had all felt so symbolic.

Now, however, I found myself on the fondamenta of the Giudecca, looking back across at the Zattere.  It was a very strange experience, seeing those familiar sights - the Dogana, the Doge’s palace and the rest - so far away.  It was as if I were in some doppelgänger world, parallel to yet separated from the other.  Moreover, by some trick of light or perspective, that distance seemed to increase the longer you stared at it, as if the two side were drifting apart.  I was surprised to learn from Lorenzetti that Michelangelo lived here for a while during his exile from Florence. Somehow it is hard to imagine the ultimate exponent of the hard outline surrounding flat tints in this city of soft edges and peacock colours.

I went into a tiny café there, its minimalist decor offering odd juxtapositions: a garish photo of San Giorgio Maggiore, a faded print of Italy’s football squad, a pennant for Florence, and a still-life oil painting.  The clientele were similarly dour: old men with thick glasses and stern-faced women, one with mad eyes clutching huge blue boxes.  They stared suspiciously and silently at this invasive tourist.

Afterwards I went east further along the fondamenta to the church of Il Redentore - another church in commemoration, this time of deliverance from the 1576 plague.  The facade is very like that of the nearby San Giorgio Maggiore, unsurprisingly since they are both by Palladio.  But this is a cooler version, not so aggressively thrusting as the other.  From its steps the facade is particularly impressive as the edges of the pediments throw deep shadows.

The interior is completely different from the austerely classical S. Giorgio.  Il Redentore looks homely and comforting.  The fact that it was Christmas, and there was an ornate crib with candles and lamps everywhere, and saccharine Italian hymns playing softly in the background, added to this effect.  It was also dark now, so Palladio’s design slipped into the shadows leaving only a general feeling of warmth and a safe space.

I went outside again into the dusk.  I passed along to the church of Zitelle, which was closed.  The facade looked like derivative Palladio, flat and without energy.  The view from here was stunning: San Marco lit up but half obscured; the Dogana glaring with its golden ball; La Salute rising proud at the end of the Grand Canal; L’Ospedale della Pietà illumined too.  San Giorgio Maggiore had been lit with an eerie glacial glow, and now floated on the black waters; tiny pink lights appeared along the Zattere and Riva degli Schiavoni.  The bells of the city were ringing: not peals but four distinct notes, played according to some impossibly complex rhythm.

On that same eventful first day I also visited the Peggy Guggenheim gallery.  On previous trips to Venice I had sought in vain for this collection which is hidden away around the back of La Salute.  It was a pleasure to find it now, and not just for the sense of satisfaction its final discovery gave.  It was warm, and after a morning and afternoon spent wandering a bitterly cold Venice, such warmth was welcome.

It also offered a much-needed cultural respite.  My eyes had surfeited on ancient images cargoed with history and meaning, so the sight of Jackson Pollocks with all their abstract energy and disregard for representation came as a relief.  At the same time, their intricate web of lines seemed at one with the city’s own fine mesh of alleys and waterways.  It refreshed my exhausted senses - so much so, that I returned here the next day too, for much the same reason.

The Guggenheim collection was situated on the Grand Canal.  From its galleries you could walk out onto a small balustraded area and watch the boats pass by.  But this grandstanding of Venice and of material and artistic wealth also had its melancholy side.  As well as the permanent collection there was a temporary exhibition of photographs showing Guggenheim herself with famous twentieth-century artists.  She looked desperately unhappy.  Even with all this art, all this visual namedropping, even with this collection to preserve her name, the photos said she was living a sham, that her collecting like that of so many other great collectors was obsessive and defensive, and that her great public munificence was born of a terrible personal loneliness.

On my last day, after following Lorenzetti’s fourth itinerary, I went to another collection, that in the Correr Museum.  This is one of my favourites.  First, its location along the south side of the Piazza San Marco means that the view from its windows alone is worth the price of admission. But more importantly, this is a museum of Venice’s past: it is Venice’s memory of itself.

As if to emphasise the continuing relevance of that past to the present, at the start of the museum there was a painting of the city made around 1650; barely a building has changed.  A little further on, I was greeted by another image which seemed strategically placed, a striking ‘Portrait of Amedeo Svajer’ by Antonio Canova.  The subject weighed around 30 stone, and had what looked like a skinned rat on his shoulder.  In its monstrous secularism it offered to my eyes a pointed contrast to the thousands of pinched and worthy images of saints which fill the churches of the city. This was, after all, the civic museum.

There seemed little overall organisation to the place, which only added to its charm, to the sense that it was a kind of artistic lumber room for the city.  Each room seemed to have a theme, but any links between successive rooms and themes were recondite, relating perhaps to ancient and arcane mysteries.

One room was full of superannuated lions of St Mark, another had nothing but portraits of apprehensive looking Doges - with their wigs and hats they looked like sheep in fancy dress.  Yet another displayed row upon row of commemorative coins, a sight made the more melancholy by the sense that each of these thousands of coins had been cast specifically to preserve the memory of a notable person or event; now, people and events had been reduced to fading words on dusty and yellowing labels.  A room was hung with ranks of third-rate madonnas, redundant in this city filled with masterpieces on the same theme, but touching because of their redundancy, their third-rateness, their exile here like cloistered gentlewomen.  One of the final rooms was filled with cases of Urbino maiolica, the unforgettable blues and yellows and greens falling peacefully like a balm upon the eyes.

My other major divergence from Lorenzetti occurred in the morning of my last day.  I had been wandering around the back of the Accademia Gallery, in a part of Venice which is picturesque, but which attracts few tourists.  I was walking without any real goal, and without Lorenzetti, when I found myself by San Pantalon.  Passing along the salizzada of the same name, I came to the church of the Tolentini.  It had been around just here that I had stayed during my second trip to Venice.  I looked along the doorways, and there, just as I had remembered it, was the entrance to the Locanda Stefania.

I recall many years ago ascending the long narrow staircase to the top floor, and entering through double doors to the reception area.  There was a heavy, late middle-aged man with thick grey hair who showed me his one remaining room, a tiny single costing 10,000L.  The use of opaque green glass everywhere made the locandia very light and rather cold, and lent it a sub-aqueous air, as if submerged in a canal.

Finding the locanda was hardly of great moment to me, unlike revisiting the foresteria near Santa Maria Formosa, where I stayed during my first visit to Venice, which unleashed powerful emotions. But it did offer a further link with my past, strengthening the feeling of continuity in this city, the sense that nothing is ever lost here, that every memory is held and endures.  Finding the locanda was like discovering and opening up a casket which had been buried years before, and retrieving small, personal objects of no great value in themselves, but interesting because of their unlooked-for survival.

These, then, were the places I visited outside Lorenzetti’s itineraries. They were part of my biography, but were not assimilable in his larger scheme.  Just as important to me were the places which I did not visit this time, but which figured strongly in my personal mythology of the place, and whose absences I regretted.

Chief among then was the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.  For anyone passing along the Riva degli Schiavoni, it hovers as a constant presence across the waters.  The first time I went to Venice, I was soon drawn out to it, taking the No.5 vaporetto from one of the cluster of floating stops a little way along from the Ducal palace.

It is a strange feeling being marooned on that small paved space in front of the church.  There is always the momentary fear that the boat will not come back.  The sight of the church’s interior is enough to dispel such minor considerations.  It must be one of the most perfect buildings ever created in terms of the balance of its constituent parts.  The lack of ornament contributes enormously: everything is smooth surfaces, clearly articulated spaces and cool colours.  In this context its physical isolation outside becomes an inevitable correlate and extension of a spiritual one inside.

It comes therefore as something of a relief to ascend in the lift to the top of the campanile, away from all this control and rigour.  The view from here is one of the best in Venice.  You look across to the set pieces of the Ducal Palace, San Marco, the Piazza; you see the whole of the city laid out before you like a map.  The varied hues of the roofs, the oranges, the browns, the reds, the yellows, create a rich quilt of colours which is spread over the city.  Dark grooves seem to be cut in this cloth, tell-tale signs of the criss-crossing canals below.  From up here, Venice looks like neither a city of streets, nor of canals; it is of a third kind, which is related to both, but distinct.

Where the Isola S. Giorgio to the south of Venice seems to be watchful, with its vigilant bell-tower keeping guard over the city, the Isola San Michele to the north - which I also did not visit - seems to be quite apart, ignoring all that happens there.  San Michele is the island cemetery of Venice, a kind of deathly version of the city: where everything there of ordinary life happens amid the unreal world built on water, so here death too operates as usual, but in its own watery world.

The isolation is reinforced by the high wall which surrounds the cemetery.  As you approach on the vaporetto which stops on its way to the outer islands of the lagoon, you can see only the church of San Michele, and the walls, and above the latter, a few dark cypresses.

Even more than with the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, stepping off here feels like leaving this world for the next.  Perhaps, you think, dying is like this.  Inside, the cemetery is both peaceful and beautiful.  The eye is struck by the regular rows of graves and monuments, a regularity all the more impressive for being so alien to Venice with its perpetual corners and curves.  Also notable are the flowers everywhere which make the solemn scene a mass of colour.  But even the blooms speak of death: they are all cut flowers, withering daily.

At one end of the cemetery there is a gate opening out on to the lagoon.  It faces the city, and through the gate’s bars you can gaze as if at another land, just as the dead gaze across at our island of the living perhaps.  It feels like an immense privilege that, unlike the dead, you are permitted to leave this cemetery island and return to Venice.

The final destination I failed to reach on this occasion lies beyond San Michele.  Beyond even the nearby island of Murano, the so-called island of glass, which in form is a miniature version of Venice itself, in its bridges and churches and narrow streets, and even down to the serpentine main canal which cuts it in two.

It requires a journey on the vaporetto deep into the lagoon, out past all the nearby islands, out through the guiding rows of splintering wooden staves placed to mark the channels through the mud.  Venice soon disappears into the haze and the mists, and you are alone on the waters.

Eventually two towers emerge; one belongs to the island of Burano, the other to Torcello.  Isolated, and little known to the tourist, Torcello is an extraordinary place.  Today, all that remains of its former glory is the Romanesque cathedral, probably built in the tenth century.  It is most famous for the well-preserved mosaics which date from 800 years ago.  Once, though, Torcello was Venice itself: it was here that those fleeing from the invasions on the mainland first built their homes and their churches, their palaces and cathedrals.  Most of the island today is mud covered with grass and reeds; but it is the mud from which Venice arose, and on which it still stands.  To visit Torcello is to step back to the origins of Venice.

These, then, were the places I visited but did not record, or those that I did not visit but remembered.  But even incorporating these events, my itineraries are still the barest bones of my time in Venice, just as Lorenzetti’s work, for all its ungraspable detail, is only a fraction of what he saw and learnt in a lifetime.

Above all, whole areas of experience are missing in both.  For example in Lorenzetti’s itineraries, and in mine, no mention is made of food: it is assumed that the tourist is sustained by spiritual and cultural nourishment alone.  Nor is there any reference to the need for pauses, rest or sleep. Instead, Lorenzetti’s Venice is a place of pure and unremitting aesthetic experience, one in which the city’s spatial concentration of artistic riches is mirrored in a temporal compression which omits all of life’s more mundane moments.

Rest and sustenance are not the only aspects of common humanity apparently glossed over in the book.  Throughout, Lorenzetti remains almost as impassive as the stones of the city he describes.  He seems to proceed everywhere with equanimity, walking through a landscape undifferentiated by emotion.  His eulogies are temperate, his condemnations measured.  If he makes a judgement, you can be sure it is the fruit of decades of experience and rumination, and is not the unconsidered reaction of a moment.

In the end his willed objectivity, his abstention from emotionalism, become almost frightening in their success, so at variance are they to our own feelings when confronted by the same masterpieces.  It could be argued that our whole response to Venice is in some sense emotional since the overpowering richness of its experience passes beyond the bounds of logic and categories.  Throughout its history, Venice has been a city for sensualists, hedonists and aesthetes, never for rationalists.

However, it would be a mistake to characterise Lorenzetti as unfeeling. The whole of Venice and its lagoons bespeaks a profound love for every aspect of the city, its art, its history, and its people.  Its intensity is manifest not overtly in glib exclamations, but in the dedication it took to produce over 1000 densely-packed pages; in the major part of a life it consumed - as only a passion can consume; in the self-sacrifice of its quiet tone and its perpetual self-effacement.

When, as a shorthand, we refer to this book as ‘Lorenzetti’, we are more correct than we know, in that the man gave so much of himself to produce it that in effect he became his book.  But the final result of those labours is something quite different, something quite antithetical to the self-glorification that implies, something far more precious.  Lorenzetti’s ‘Venice’ is a true distillation of Venice itself.

Walks with Lorenzetti

XI - Fourth night movement: finale

Even without letting oneself go in romantic dreams, a tour in a gondola on a moonlit summer night in the Pool of San Marco, or in the deep shadows of the internal canals, is always profoundly moving.

On the eve of my departure from Venice, I did not have time to take one final walk.  Instead, I packed, left the hotel and boarded a motor launch which took me first into the depths of the city, into that other maze, then out above the Fondamente Nuove into the wider waters.  As dusk fell, the air grew chill.

Night is a good time to leave Venice.  By day, there is no way to extract yourself painlessly from the scenes around you: as you are forced to move away from the city, the eyes linger now on this detail, now on another, until each in turn is torn from sight.  The descent of darkness casts a deadening pall over the buildings and canals and campi; like a half-anaesthetised patient, your gaze passes over the shadowy forms without feeling the full anguish of imminent loss.  More importantly, as night falls, Venice itself disappears, to be replaced by another, more ghostly vision.

As proof of the disjunction between these two cities, even that passport to the Venice of light and colour, Lorenzetti, lies useless in your hands after twilight.  The world he describes is a world of distinct images; the paths he maps out for you are signalled by visual clues.  Venice by night does not recognise either the images or Lorenzetti’s definitive capture of them.  By night you can walk down the most familiar of alleys, cross the best-loved of campi, linger on the most memorable of bridges, and they will all be strangers to you.

Venice by night is a deeply claustrophobic city.  The lanes are dimly-lit, the campi are invisible without lights to show their extent, and canals are simply seamless rolls of the blackest cloth, pierced occasionally by the reflected moon.  In the darkness and the silence, the coffin-shaped gondolas seem to come into their own.  By day they look skulking and incongruous amidst the snub-nosed barges, the roaring motor launches and the brisk vaporetti; by night they are the undisputed aristocrats of the waters.

To be lost by day in Venice is richly rewarding: you discover unsuspected by-ways, secret corners.  Ultimately you will find a busy street, or at least a signpost to the Piazza San Marco.  After dark, no street is busy, and the signposts seem to be invisible.  To be lost in Venice by night brings out all the irrational fears in you, makes you too aware that this is an impossible city, great palaces and cathedrals built on rotting wooden stakes driven into the mud of a rising lagoon.

If you must leave Venice - and you must or you will be poisoned by its richness - leave it by night.  Then you are losing the dubious half-sister of the Venice you know; the other, daylight Venice remains intact, waiting for you.  Its uniqueness makes it paradoxically easier to leave than cities of lesser attractions: the least acquaintance engenders the certain knowledge that you will always return.

So in leaving this Venice of the night, I was not sad.  As the motor launch pulled away north, into the darkness, I gazed back.  The lights of that crazy, magical world gradually disappeared; it was as if the money were running out in a thousand coin-operated lighting systems all over the city.

Walks with Lorenzetti

X - Fourth act: fourth itinerary

This itinerary passes through the characteristic lower class Sestiere of Castello.  It includes the Church of Sta. Maria Formosa.

Santa Maria Formosa - San Lorenzo - Santa Maria Formosa 

The fourth itinerary is quite unlike the rest of Lorenzetti’s walks in character.  It strikes out into the relatively unknown eastern reaches of Venice.  This is no longer a guided tour of a city you wish to know better; this is another city altogether, though clearly a sibling.  The itinerary culminates in the intimate surroundings of Santa Maria Formosa.  For most tourists this is likely to be as strange and unfamiliar as the rest, even though it lies only a little way off from the Piazza San Marco.  For me, though, reaching it is like coming home.

For once, the initial stages of the itinerary repeat those of another.  I leave the Piazza San Marco under the clock tower, and pass along the bustling Mercerie to the Campo San Zulian.  The previous itinerary had also reached this point, but there Lorenzetti had hurried on with other goals in mind, leaving full contemplation to another time.

Now he stops and points out the curious facade, a window in the pediment, its stones covered with grime and soot, easily missed by those rushing past.  It is as much a monument as a religious building.  There are inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew extolling the virtues of the church’s benefactor, and there is a small relief by Sansovino depicting him.

But Lorenzetti has dived down a tiny alley by the side of the church, and passed over a couple of bridges.  Following him, to my surprise I find myself already in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa; for a moment I feel lost, disoriented: Santa Maria Formosa was supposed to be the conclusion of our walk, and to form the climax of my stay in Venice.  Its sudden, unexpected presence here is like a small but frightening betrayal of all that Lorenzetti’s ordered itineraries stand for.

But I am over-reacting: in fact we are just skirting the campo.  To be more precise I am in the Campiello Querini-Stampalia, near the gallery of the same name.  As is often the case, Lorenzetti makes this gallery a small itinerary of its own, which he places at the back of his book.  Today the gallery is closed, so I have no choice but to follow the main itinerary rather than make a diversion.

I pass over the Fonte Ruga Giuffa, then down the Ruga Giuffa itself.  To the left there is the Palazzo Grimani.  A left turn takes me down the beautifully named Salizzada Zorzi, a transformation of the name Giorgio.  After a bridge and a long, straight road, I emerge in front of the Lorenzetti’s own church of San Lorenzo or St. Lawrence -  Lorenzetti  means ‘the family of the little Lawrences’.  The saint’s death was particularly horrible: he was martyred by being slowly roasted alive on a griddle.

His church is situated at the bottom of a deep courtyard, surrounded on two sides by high buildings, which reaches down to the Ponte Lorenzo where I now stand, a spot little changed from its appearance in Gentile Bellini’s ‘Miracle of the Cross which fell into the Canal at S  Lorenzo’ in the Accademia Gallery.  The church facade is very simple, built of dark bricks, but very strong.  It is also rather melancholy.   As Lorenzetti writes, the church was damaged in the First World War; he also wrote - in 1926 presumably - that it was in the process of restoration.  It still is, a sad state for what is an impressive building.

Once more Lorenzetti takes a small turning which no tourist would ever find except by chance, and having found it would certainly never take.  After passing the Scuola of San Giorgio Schiavoni with its fine collection of Carpaccio paintings - also closed today -  I move on and enter a real warren of backstreets.

There is the Campo Ugo Foscolo, commemorating where that brooding poet lived.  Once it was called dei Gatti - of the cats - apparently a wonderful mangling of the phrase ‘i legati’ - the legates - since the latter used to live here too.  The names generally have a certain charm round here: there is the Ponte della Scoazzera - the bridge of rubbish - and the Campo a Fianco della Chiesa - the square alongside the church.

Lorenzetti’s maps are hard enough to follow when he gives detailed instructions on how to find the well-known streets.  There is no indication of distance either in the text or from the maps, and exactly when you turn left or cross a bridge is unclear.  Around here things are even worse.  I reach the Calle del Cimitero - Cemetery Avenue - but search in vain for Lorenzetti’s next marker, the Calle dietro il Campo della Confraternità - itself named for its relative position.  Uncharacteristically for Venice, there seems to be a large open space, or several smaller ones connected together, with blocks of houses dotted around like islands of an archipelago, making it hard to sense overall direction.  For a period I am lost.

At last I find the exit, which takes me to the Church of San Francesco della Vigna, so named after the vineyard which was left to the original friars in 1253.  The facade is familiar, not because I have seen it before - which I may have done in my previous wanderings in Venice - but because it is a typical Palladian design, with his favourite twin pediments, one piercing the other.  It is built on a massive scale, and unlike San Giorgio Maggiore, or his church of Il Redentore, you can move back from it and take in its proportions in a way that you cannot with those other churches, built as they are on the edge of the sea.  But even with this building, Palladio has been unlucky: the right-hand side is obscured by a block of flats built too near.

The interior is rather four-square, and done out in the same grey and white as Santa Maria della Salute.  It is light and airy, and according to Lorenzetti’s description, packed with works of minor artists.

From there, I pass along more backstreets, and then to Barbaria delle Tole, an interesting street which emerges alongside the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  It is a busy and bustling thoroughfare, clearly one of the shopping centres for the district.  The sounds carry strangely; as I walk along I can hear a woman’s voice from one of the upper stories of a house beside the road.  She shouts and screams unremittingly.  No one else takes any notice.

Before reaching the end of this street, the path turns left down a small side alley, over a couple of small bridges, and then suddenly I find myself in the Calle Lunga, a narrow alley I walked down many times every day during my first visit to Venice.  As past maps on to present, my feet remember the paving stones.  True to its name, the alley is long, and at the end it opens out into the attractive Campo Santa Maria Formosa - the Square of Shapely Mary.

The name of the church derives from the legend of the visions of the seventh century San Magno, Bishop of Oderzo, to whom the Madonna appeared in the form of a shapely matron.  According to the tradition relayed by Lorenzetti, Santa Maria Formosa was one of eight churches built by the saint.  Whatever its origins, we know that it was rebuilt at the end of the fifteenth century to a design of one Mauro Coducci, a prolific architect who was responsible for many of Venice’s famous landmarks, including one side of the Piazza San Marco.  Aptly enough, then, Santa Maria Formosa was designed partly in imitation of the central part of San Marco.

The connection goes deeper, as if the architect had been haunted by the image of San Marco and its campanile in the great piazza.  Viewed from the north end of the Campo Sta. Maria Formosa, the church and its campanile bear a striking resemblance to San Marco seen from the west end of its piazza.  It is more a similarity of spirit than details; the styles are quite different.  Santa Maria Formosa is transitional between late Renaissance and early Baroque in its two main facades, facing west and north.  The latter is the more ornate.

It has an elaborate doorway - not used at present - with two columns supporting a broken circular pediment.  Above it, there is a lunette window, and above that, a further small pediment.  The broad roof passes via two volutes to four simple arches which flank the doorway, each of which is separated by ionic pilasters.  There are three portrait busts of the Cappello family, one above the doorway, and two either side above the nearest arches, and five statues along the top of the pediment.  The high dome has been rebuilt several times, once after an earthquake in 1688 and again after an incendiary device damaged the church and its contents in 1916.

The campanile is more boisterously Baroque, and was built in 1611.  The belfry and pinnacle are wildly ornate, and over the entrance there is a grotesque mask which moved Ruskin to write in his ‘Stones of Venice’ one of his eloquent splutterings which seem so disproportionate to their occasion. Indeed, he characterises Santa Maria Formosa as one of the first examples of what he calls ‘grotesque renaissance’, given over to the glory of Man not God, and cites San Moisè and Santa Maria Zobenigo as other offenders.

It all seems a bit much for this quiet little church.  Though as Lorenzetti and Ruskin note, Santa Maria Formosa was once an important place of pilgrimage for no less a person than the Doge himself.  On the occasion of his annual visit to commemorate the rescue of Venetian brides from the hands of Slav pirates by the local makers of marriage chests, the Doge would receive a straw hat.  This ceremony took place for centuries - possibly seven of them if the legends are true - until the fall of the Republic itself in 1797.  As a sad reminder of this lost continuity, the last hat ever given is kept in the Correr Museum.

I enter the church, and am greeted by what looks like a typically unpretentious seventeenth or eighteenth century interior, and moreover a living parish church.  With his customary meticulousness, Lorenzetti details each work of art to be found there, including the altarpiece of Santa Barbara which won Palma il Vecchio great renown in his day. Appropriately enough for this church, the female saint is what Lorenzetti calls “a splendid type of buxom female beauty”.

Every time that Lorenzetti launches into one of his extraordinarily detailed descriptions of a church’s interior, its architects, sculptors and artists, I am amazed at the effort expended, the doggedness with which he seeks out every work, consults every authority on its attribution, its quality.  I feel embarrassed that I cannot do justice to this dedication, this diligence, even on a site which is of such great personal significance to me.  I can only wander around, looking at as much as I can, flicking through his book, then stumble out into the cold open air again, saturated with facts and images, my head buzzing.

Outside, Lorenzetti is still eagerly dragging me forward, imparting information.  He tells me about the beautiful private houses in Campo Santa Maria Formosa: the Palazzo Malipiero-Trevisi, Palazzo Vitturi, Palazzo Doria, Palazzo Priuli.  Lorenzetti could doubtless tell me even more: the names suggest rich and complex histories; constraints of space alone preclude it.

Some other things he does not tell me.  He omits any mention of the palazzo wall opposite the church, beloved of the Venetian children who pound a plastic football against it again and again, causing arrhythmic, hollow thuds to echo around the square.  He says nothing of the well-head in the middle of the campo; he never mentions my favourite café on the corner of the Calle Lunga, with its dog-eared copy of the pink Il Gazzettino dello Sport on the counter and screwed-up paper napkins on the floor like gross confetti; nor refers to the pizzeria where, as an early customer in a hurry, I ate my last meal before leaving Venice for the first time, and which has since turned into a popular restaurant called ‘Il burchiello’.  He even remains silent about what lies at the end of the Calle Lunga.  But I expect too much: such a book would be a personal Lorenzetti; the one he left us is universal.

So, almost reluctant to leave this magic square, I follow in the footsteps of the master once more.  He is taking me round the back of the campo, over a bridge from which I can see the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, reminding me how near I am to that landmark.  He leads me down a calle and over a bridge or two, to the Ponte delle Bande, so-called as one of the first bridges to have parapets, and then to the Calle della Guerra, leading to the Campo della Guerra via the Ponte della Guerra - clearly a place of strife, this - where one of those daft Venetian street battles took place between rival factions in the city.  The losers of these melees on bridges still without parapets ended up in the canal, often as not with broken heads and bones to boot.

And all this a stone’s throw - and a few probably were thrown in these little wars - from the august and dignified San Marco.  Once more my guide has brought me safely home to the haven of the Piazza.  And yet however glad I am to have accomplished my itinerary, to have reached my goal, I am still a little sad to part from Lorenzetti, to have left behind all the hidden corners of the city.  Leaving them and striding across the open space in front of San Marco is a little like leaving the claustrophobic world of Venice for the ordinary world outside.  We will always hanker for those special, secret places - like the tiny backstreets way out east, like the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, like Venice itself.

Walks with Lorenzetti