Wednesday, 22 July 2020

I - First act: eighth itinerary

In this itinerary we cross such characteristic places such as Campo di S. Stefano and Campo Sant’Angelo, and we also see buildings of remarkable interest such as ‘La Fenice’ theatre.

The Museo Fortuny y Madrazo - Ramo and Campiello di Sant’Angelo - ‘La Fenice’ Theatre

Lorenzetti’s eighth itinerary winds through the core of Venice.  It is bounded by the Piazza San Marco to the east, and to the north, south and west by the great loop of the Grand Canal as it turns back on itself before opening out into the Pool of San Marco.  Because of its circumscribed nature, the area seems even more densely packed with incident than the rest of Venice.  The itinerary is notable for the number of theatres it takes in; it is perhaps appropriate that the city which democratised opera and passed its last years in the greatest and most spectacular performance of all - ignoring its imminent downfall - should have at its centre these memorials.

As with all the itineraries, I start in the Piazza San Marco, and strike off down one of the side alleys.  It is as if the Piazza is a smooth, deceptive surface, and the buildings and world which lie around it a vast and complex subterranean city.  The eighth itinerary begins by diving under a narrow archway, the Sottoportico dei Dai.  The past immediately crowds around me: barely visible in the darkness, there is a tablet recording the ‘fraternal help given by the Neapolitan people to Venice during the struggle against Austria.’  The name of the passage, and of the bridge it leads on to, may, according to Lorenzetti, commemorate the game of dice or dadi authorised here in the fourteenth century, or else refer to a Daniele dai Dai who lived here.  It is unlikely that we will ever know; the only certainty is the name which lives on, teasing us with possibilities.

Passing over the Ponte Tron - the Venetian tongue can produce the most un-Italian sounding combinations - I reach in turn the Fondamente, Ponte and Calle Goldoni.  Venice does the eighteenth century dramatist proud: in addition to these streets named after him, the city has erected a statue in his memory.  And yet his contemporaries in other fields such as Vivaldi and Canaletto - both arguably greater artists - barely feature in the cityscape.  Perhaps Goldoni’s vivid depictions of his fellow citizens, the articulation of their daily concerns, and the crystallisation of their language into art has earned him this public gratitude.  From the Ponte Goldoni there is a typical Venetian sight, with canals and bridges criss-crossing into the distance like something out of an Escher drawing.  The light early mist adds its obvious but affecting romance as the successive scenes fade as they recede.

Suddenly the Grand Canal appears before me.  It is easy to forget how much it winds and curves; and in a city without main streets you soon lose any sense of direction.  As a result, Venice can sometimes seem like a nightmare city: whichever way you turn there is no end or exit, only the omnipresent water.  On the Riva del Carbon, named after the coal-carrying boats which once moored here, I arrive at the Palazzo Loredan.  One of the virtues of Lorenzetti is that he helps individualise the myriad palaces along the Grand Canal.  Travelling past them on the vaporetto, you are aware abstractly that each is unique, and yet your experience of them blurs into a glorious but undifferentiated panorama.  Lorenzetti divides this backdrop, rations the richness, and goes on to expose the historical currents which have brought together the elements of art and architecture, the names and the nobility associated with each.

Although a delight to read, Lorenzetti is not always easy to follow with the feet.  Despite walking with the book in hand, it takes me some time to track down the Calle Loredan.  From there I move on to the Ponte del Teatro Rossini.  Built by the Grimani family, who owned several theatres, it was originally the Teatro di San Benedetto, and the largest in the city before ‘La Fenice’ was built.  Demolished this century, it has been replaced by a cinema housed in a rather tasteless modern building.  Nearby, on the other side of the bridge, is the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca, now the Court of Appeal.  It is the occasion of a characteristic touch from Lorenzetti, who cannot resist recommending even the ‘fine bronze door knocker’ as worthy of inspection.

I pass under another sottoportico, not named by Lorenzetti, which smells strongly of rotting vegetables, through several backstreets - but all of Venice is backstreets - to the Campo San Benedetto.  This is a small but surprisingly powerful space, irregular in shape, and crowded in by the high buildings which loom over it,  The church has a plain facade, half hidden by an adjoining decrepit structure.  Next to it is the Palazzo Martinengo; rather eerily, a pediment of the church eats into the front of the palace. Opposite both is the huge and imposing facade of the Palazzo Pesaro, also known as the Palazzo degli Orfei, once the seat of the Philharmonic Society l’Apollinea.  Externally it looks rather forlorn; some of its great gothic windows are bricked up, and an air of desolation and decay hangs over it all.

Despite these appearances, the Palazzo is open to the public, and is in fact a museum, though not in the neat Anglo-Saxon sense.  The Palazzo was bought by a Spaniard, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, who made Venice his home.  He restored the building, and after his death his widow presented the palazzo and its contents to the city in 1956 as a memorial to him.

The entrance is hard to find: hidden away round the corner in a tiny dead-end alley.  It leads to a small, dark courtyard, with high walls on three sides.  The museum lies on the first floor, up a splendid wooden staircase. Huge dark oak beams are visible in the roof; I wonder how old they are: the palazzo was built in the fifteenth century by unknown architects.

The museum itself is locked, so I descend to hunt among the warren of rooms on the ground floor, the original servants’ quarters, perhaps.  Finally I manage to knock up the custodian of the place, a typically sleepy Italian attendant who seems surprised but not unduly annoyed that a visitor has turned up for a museum which is, after all, off the beaten track, and has little to offer in the way of famous masterpieces.  Even Lorenzetti is stumped for much to say about it.  

We ascend the steep and winding stairway again.  The tall door with its old round leaded windows is unlocked, and I am admitted.  Having paid some nominal entrance fee, I am left to my own devices.  As I move through the first rooms, all quite silent, and encounter the crazy collection of objects, it is like entering an old attic stuffed with dusty and forgotten mementos, or like stepping back into the past.  There are Moorish helmets, monumental casts, a huge set of wooden steps, lights with great white umbrella-like reflectors.  Curious lamps hang from the ceiling in the form of damascened shields, but made of cloth.

In glass cabinets, unmarked, are more casts: a miniature version of the Belvedere torso, two copies of Wagner’s deathmask.  Confronted by them, side-by-side, I want to ask “why two?”; but a more sensible question is “why one?”  Venice played an important part in Wagner’s life - as well as writing his seminal work ‘Tristan and Isolde’ here, he also died in the city; but why should anyone want an image of death, not the Wagner who lives on in his music, but the inert form of the flesh he inhabited?

A smaller room off to the side offers a total contrast to the others. Where they were dark and full of heavy hangings, this is light and airy.  It has been painted as a pavilion, with grottoes and views of distant country scenes.  The dominant colour is green, a hue which is almost absent from Venice.  Once you are in the city, you accept its norms; trees and grass are alien here, and you soon forget them.  Which makes this room all the more surprising and disconcerting.  In the corner there is a simple Duchamp-like basin, with a crude tap above it.  All around there are gaudy daubs of old paint; it could almost be a piece by de Kooning.  Above it, as a final touch, is a dried ram’s head, made of clay.  I cannot tell if this corner is a composition, a work of art, or just a chance collocation of an artist’s tools of the trade.

Returning to the main hall, I encounter what I presume is the principal unchanging exhibition, perhaps a hundred brightly-coloured pictures, the majority of them depicting young, naked women.  Amidst the emptiness of the echoing rooms, the quaint artist’s equipment, the pale plaster casts, these images of youth and beauty are almost shocking in their vigour and affirmation.  In an act of great humility, or perhaps great arrogance, none of them is signed, though clearly they are by the same hand, presumably that of the owner of the palazzo.  In confirmation of this, there is a picture in the same style of these very rooms.  It shows an artist’s studio, with heavy drapes everywhere - just as in this exhibition.  Light streams in through an open window.  In the corner of the painting is a grey-bearded man at an easel.

It is curious to behold the scene now as it was then, and yet for there to be such a gulf in time.  Are any of those young models still alive?  They could be.  What memories do they have of this Spanish gentleman who painted them half a century ago?  What was he trying to express in these constant representations of them?  Plastic form?  Evanescent beauty?  Eroticism? What did his wife think of his works - was she jealous, proud, indifferent?  And in leaving the palazzo to the city, did she stipulate, through piety or masochism that these paintings should always be displayed?  Together with the faint odour of the canals, these questions, and hundreds more, hang in the air.

At the far end of the hall, through a door marked ‘Emergency Exit’, there is a bare and dusty room, full of strange objects.  There is a cutaway model of a domed theatre.  In the middle of the room are two indescribable devices which look like a cross between dynamos, phonographs and who knows what.  Lorenzetti refers to a “theatre lighting system” invented by Fortuny y Madrazo and “bearing his name”; presumably these are examples.  Whether they are still used and his name lives on seems unlikely.  Instead, it is only through the occasional visitor to his palace that the effects of his time on earth continue to linger.  For one who was clearly rich, and probably relatively gifted, this is a poor end.  But still better than that accorded to most of us.

On the way out, I notice one painting which is signed; why?  What caused this momentary weakness?  It seems an apt note to leave on.  The custodian locks up after me, shutting this world away.  While I have been inside, he has sat patiently at his wooden table with its exiguous supply of tickets and petty cash tin.

Back with Lorenzetti, I cross the Ponte Michiel and Ponte dell’Albero, under which pass small canals heading towards the nearby Grand Canal. Standing on them I catch tantalising glimpses.  Between the tall walls of the enclosing palazzi, a great vertical shaft of light enters.  It is like a slit cut in a curtain; through it I can see part of the palaces on the opposite bank of the Grand Canal, as well as fleeting images of vaporetti and gondolas.

From there I move on to the Ramo and Campiello del Teatro where once the Teatro Sant’Angelo stood.  It was here that most of Vivaldi’s operas and many of Goldoni’s earlier comedies were first performed.  Today it is just a space.  It is hard to relate its silence with the excited and chattering crowds which once must have filled it.

Passing along the Fondamente Narisi, I see another unexpected vista: a view of two bridges and, more mistily, Santa Maria Salute in the distance.  Then I reach the Campiello Novo o dei Monti, raised up some two on three feet above the surrounding streets, perhaps because it is built over a churchyard.  In the Piscina San Samuele, is the Palazzo Querini, decrepit and easily missed.  A tablet commemorating the young Francesco Querini who died during an expedition to the Pole ends rather gloomily with the thought that his death “reminds us that no human enterprise is glorious unless born of sacrifice and suffering.”  Nearby, another disturbing sign, though for a different reason: it says ‘Europa Driving School.’

In the Salizzada San Samuele I find Veronese’s house, which looks for all the world as if it had been built a few decades ago.  Reaching even further back into the past, I search out a tenth century well-head in the Calle Conner, only to find that I am trespassing on someone’s private land.  Since all of Venice is a museum, it is easy to forget people still live there.

Lorenzetti points out a fourteenth century relief of the Shoemakers’ Guild which bears their emblem - a shoe.  It sits quietly above a doorway in the Salizzada, making no fuss about its six hundred years, telling nothing about what it has seen.  Were it not for Lorenzetti, it would probably have been chiselled off by now.  His words, which began as a memorial to the details of his city, now act as their preservative.  Just as it did two hundred years ago, tourism today sustains Venice; and the visitors demand that Venice be constant, a repeatable experience.  Lorenzetti is the bible of that unchanging Venice, the touchstone of its durability.

The Campo San Samuele is a small space opening onto the Grand Canal, with a fine view of the Palazzo Rezzonico.  These small spaces are disorienting because they stop at the water’s edge: you cannot proceed as you would elsewhere in Venice; they are a reminder that the city is bounded.  San Samuele itself is striking: a fine Romanesque church out of place surrounded by all the Venetian Gothic.  Its facade reminds me of that of Saint-Germain-des-Prés opposite Les Deux Magots in Paris.

Turning back into the small alleyways, I search in vain for the Calle del Teatro where the Teatro di San Samuele once stood.  Another theatre owned by the Grimani family, it was here that Vivaldi and Goldoni briefly collaborated in one of those intersections of great artists’ lives which seem so remarkable to us, but which were probably of little importance to them.  The theatre was destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century, and now its location has become for me one of Lorenzetti’s missing places, present in his world, preserved in the aspic of his words, but for the moment absent from mine.  Passing on over a couple of bridges, I reach the Church of San Vitale.  Normally this is approached from the Campo San Stefano as you make for the Accademia bridge or vice versa; coming upon it in this way emphasises again how Venice is everywhere connected against expectations.

Today the church is in a rather sad state, its Palladian facade decayed and grimy, its doors locked.  It was a great shock to me when I realised that this was the site of the famous ‘Stonemason’s Yard’ by Canaletto in London’s National Gallery.  It is one of those images which has been with me since my earliest years.  I have memories of a reproduction of it on the wall of a teacher’s or headmaster’s study.  At that time I was more struck by the general scruffiness of the scene than by its greatness.  Later I was able to appreciate its poetical handling and sense of atmosphere.  But even then, I was still not reading the picture correctly.

For example, no matter now many times I saw the image, I did not register the presence of water.  Instead, I saw the stonemason’s sheds and the distant church joined by some indeterminate patch of land - at that time I did not know that there is no such thing as a patch of land in Venice: everything has been allocated, every use is deliberate.  Somehow my eyes overlooked the gondolas.  It was only much later still, after my first visit to Venice, that I realised that Canaletto’s picture showed what is today the Accademia gallery; the painted scene was hard to relate to reality - even though little else of substance has changed - because the most obvious element, the bridge, was missing.

Lorenzetti spends some time in the Campo San Stefano, which he clearly regards as the high point of this itinerary: he heads the whole chapter with an illustration taken from Visentini’s engraving of Canaletto’s view of the same.  But I pass through it quickly, stopping not even for the musical instruments formerly in the institution of the Pietà, where Vivaldi worked and was responsible for looking after the string collection.  I do try and see the church of San Stefano itself.  Unfortunately I get there just as it is closing - 11.30 a.m. - and so I am deflected from my itinerary by external forces.

I pass on to the Campo Sant’Angelo which offers a quietness normally only found in the smallest courtyards, and which belies its grandeur and expansiveness.  The Campo lies close to the geographical heart of the Eighth Itinerary, and hence to the centre of Venice.  As its emptiness demonstrates, most tourists are unaware of its existence; preferring to pass along the main thoroughfares from the Piazza San Marco to the Accademia bridge, they are in fact only a few steps away from a world that is quite different.

As you might expect, there is a fine labyrinth of streets and canals around here: the Ponte Storto, Calle Caotorta, Rio Menuo, and the Sottoportico San Cristoforo, giving on to the back of ‘La Fenice’ theatre.  Once more, I am thwarted by officialdom: the theatre is not open, so I am unable to view its “aristocratically luxurious” interior, or the monument to Goldoni by the splendidly named Luigi Zandomeneghi, who crops up a number of times in Lorenzetti’s meticulously researched book.

Zandomeneghi’s work occurs, for example, in the nearby Ateneo Veneto, commemorating even more obscure Venetians.  And in his lovingly complete description of the church of San Fantin, Lorenzetti himself preserves the name of another who might otherwise have slipped into oblivion.  On the left side of the church, beside the door, there is an annunciation by Cesare delle Ninfe, the “only known work by this artist” according to Lorenzetti.  Sad to think that a lifetime’s work, the long and hard apprenticeship, the constant struggle for commissions, the even greater struggle in the act of creation, should be reduced to these few words, together with the equally terse ‘second half of sixteenth century’ accorded to delle Ninfe in the Index of Artists at the back of Lorenzetti’s book.

Nearing the end of my first and Lorenzetti’s eighth itinerary, I move on through regions with increasingly extravagant names: along the Calle degli Assassini, over the Ponte della Cortesia, down the long, narrow Calle della Vida, as if I had entered into an allegory, to see the famous ‘snailshell’ staircase of the Palazzo dal Bovolo, which itself is like something out of a fairytale.  I look at it across a tiny, improbable garden - with grass - before boldly entering the public building, passing through a couple of barred but unlocked gates, and ascending the wedge-shaped turning steps for a way.  Close up, a staircase turns out to be a staircase; I return as I came, and content myself with a distant but more satisfactory viewpoint.

Then following Lorenzetti, I pass back along the Calle, Ponte and Fondamente Goldoni, to the Piazza San Marco.  In all, 64 points of interest are distinguished during the course of the eighth itinerary; but for Lonenzetti a point of interest may be anything from a twisting staircase to a masterpiece of a church steeped in history and filled with hundreds of works of art.  His simple enumeration cannot hope to encompass all the sights and shifting viewpoints along the way.  Nor does it try to; Lorenzetti’s work is notable for its matter-of-factness, its refusal to rhapsodise.  Perhaps this is the only possible course for a writer of a guide to the most seductive and vertiginously beautiful city in the world.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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