Thursday 23 July 2020

IV - Second act: ninth itinerary

A walk along the characteristic Fondamenta delle Zattere and the visit to the Basilica of the Salute are the most interesting  parts of this itinerary, which also passes other churches, important for their art masterpieces as well as for the Baroque and XVIII. century styles of their architecture. 

The Accademia - the church of the Gesuati - the Basilica of the Salute

The ninth itinerary heads for one of the two main bridges which span the Grand Canal, by the Accademia gallery.  Crossing it, you are presented with an alternative view of Venice, quite different from that seen from the San Marco side, the usual vantage point of the tourist.  And yet it is also the version of Venice which most people associate with the city: the series of great palaces, now mostly hotels, leading to the grand sweep of the Molo and the Ducal Palace, with the campanile reminding us of the hidden presence of San Marco itself.  Appropriately enough in this city of mazes, to find the centre you must first move to the periphery.  Along the way, Lorenzetti takes in many fine churches, a token of their omnipresence in the city’s geography, history and art.

Starting from the west end of the Piazza San Marco I walk along one of the most popular thoroughfares in Venice, always thronged with tourists.  Passing alongside a dark building, the narrow street emerges in a light little campo which converges on a small bridge.  I walk to the bridge and then turn.  I am greeted by the wild luxuriant growth which is the facade of San Moisè, for in the independently-minded Venice, even Moses is a saint.

In a city best known for its characteristic Gothic and Classical architecture, the Baroque buildings always come as something of a pleasant surprise.  They delight with their monstrousness, their sheer exuberance. They seem almost too lively for this silent, brooding city as it sits hunched precariously above the waters.  The swags and looping volutes, the unusual palette of greens and greys and blacks, make San Moisè a memorable if not great church.

Over the bridge, I turn left down a small alley.  There is little to see, except a plaque on the wall of a nondescript building, noting it was here that a theatre once stood.  The work performed at its opening was Monteverdi’s ‘Arianna’, widely celebrated at the time as one of the greatest operas ever written.  Today, all we have from that composition is ‘Arianna’s Lament’, an appropriate relic.

I move on to another church, of Santa Maria del Giglio, or Zobenigo.  A double monument, this.  The name Zobenigo comes from the Jubanico family: extinct in the twelfth century, they live on through this connection eight hundred years later.  The present church also commemorates another family, that of the Barbaro, whose statues on the facade are joined by all kinds of naval paraphernalia - arms, trophies, galleys, ships - bearing witness to the military prowess of the family.  Another baroque extravaganza, Santa Maria del Giglio possesses rather more harmony of form than San Moisè.

Inside its compact space, there is a fine organ case carved with musical instruments.  Strangely, Lorenzetti omits to mention this.  Perhaps I am more aware of it because it reminds me of a similar tour-de-force of wood carving which I saw half a continent away in St. Michan’s, which stands beside the Liffey in Dublin, and best known for its ancient preserved corpses, the ultimate in funerary monuments.

The side altars are good examples of Baroque style at its best and worst.  Rounded pediments are rudely broken and encrusted with further shapes and figures.  For artists of this generation, less is less.  In the sacristy there is a rather horrible Rubens; he seems strangely out of place here, his style crude and bombastic.

Outside, proceeding over two more hump-backed bridges, placed close together and forming an interesting ensemble of curves and canals and campi, I arrive at yet another church.  San Maurizio is not what it seems: originally built in 1590, it was completely demolished in 1806 and immediately rebuilt - but with a different orientation.  Another small bridge brings me into the great Campo Santo Stefano.  Turning left I pass the sad form of the decrepit San Vitale to reach the Accademia bridge.

As I climb the wide treads, the wood booming and bending fractionally beneath my steps, I stop in the middle and gaze down the Grand Canal.  Each time I have been in Venice I have come here.  I relive the first shock of seeing a small garden at the foot of the bridge on the northern side, with a huddle of mature, dark trees in it; greenery is such an anomaly in Venice.  I wonder again who owns this daring aberration, this flouting of the city’s rules.

I turn back to the canal.  It is one of the classic views of Venice, with the bend of the water away to the left, the double panorama of palaces, culminating in the majestic sight of Santa Maria della Salute which hovers in the chill, slightly misty air.  Underneath me gondolas and launches pass, joined occasionally by the tubby bulk of the flat-topped vaporetti, packed with people.

Everybody crossing the bridge stops here to look, to take the obligatory photograph.  Everyone who has been to Venice knows this view.  But do we?  As I look east, I can count 19 palazzi from the Accademia to the Basilica. It is hard, however, to tell where one ends and another begins; the growth of Venice has been so organic that the buildings have merged into each other.  Lorenzetti notes only 18.  Whether or not I am right in the number, what do I know of those buildings?  Each one has a history stretching back hundreds of years.  A book could be written about each, its builders, its inhabitants, their lives, their dramas, the events it has seen.  Instead of this variegated detail, most of us see those 19 or so palaces as part of a whole, simply as a view from this bridge.  And this is one of the best-known scenes; what hope then have we of encompassing the byways?

I descend to what was once the church of the Carità, but is now the principal art gallery of Venice.  Strictly speaking this is not part of Lorenzetti’s itinerary.  Instead, he devotes to it a chapter of its own covering some 32 pages of densely-packed information, placed towards the back of the book.  Even this is only a selective tour of the highpoints.

Like the city itself, the gallery’s treasures could each be made the subject of investigation, could each reveal successive layers of incident and history.  But for practical purposes we must pick and choose, concentrating now here, now there, on particular masterpieces.

In many respects, viewing a gallery is like touring a city.  The building itself is laid out according to some pre-determined plan, usually historical, and designed to allow us to move in a reasonably logical and linear way from room to room and picture to picture.  It is a kind of distillation of the whole process of walking round a town.  Where the latter has notable sights which we will stop to contemplate, the gallery has its famous masterpieces which require us to halt a while.  Buildings we encounter as we walk may need detailed inspection.  We my wish to know who worked on it, who lived in it.  In a similar way with a painting, we will want to know the artist, the circumstances of its production, and perhaps the long journey it took through various owners to arrive at the gallery.

There is nothing more shocking than returning to a museum or art gallery to find that the collections have been re-arranged.  It is like revisiting Paris and finding that the famous sights have been moved around.  We get to know a gallery as we get to know a place, certain corners and sights become ours by virtue of the circumstances in which we first saw them.  To lose those places - just as to lose to the bulldozer a treasured spot in a city - is to lose part of ourselves.

So to ascend the marble staircase and enter the first gallery, to confront the tender ‘Madonna col Bambino’ by Paolo Veneziano is for me to awaken all the feelings which I had experienced on my first trip to Venice, and on my first visit to the Accademia.  The painting’s Byzantine-influenced style seems to reach out to the mosaics in San Marco, and back to the origins of Venice.  And the gentle image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child seem to stand as a symbol of the whole of the city.  However, on this occasion I am struck by the pair of tiny donors placed in the corners of the painting. That eternal human desire for memorialisation once more, the intrusion of the profane upon the sacred.

I encounter it again soon afterwards in Room IV.  A wonderfully stern San Girolamo glowers out of the picture, his scorn directed perhaps at another diminutive donor crouched in the corner, all rendered in the characteristically spare manner of Piero della Francesca.  In particular, I recognise the ochre-green colour of the hills which is so memorably his, a hue which may well be due to some mundane cause such as the ageing of his tints, but which now, irrespective of the reason, has become indissolubly associated with his name.

Piero della Francesca was a Tuscan, but one of the strengths of the Accademia is that its collection is centred around the special glories of Venetian art, although it also acts as a sad reminder of how much the city has lost of its heritage, despoiled time and again - occasionally by conquerors, but mostly by centuries of tourists, often British.

Room V is devoted entirely to Venetian paintings, most of them by Giovanni Bellini.  But for me the chief interest is two works by Giorgione, perhaps the most Venetian painter of them all.  Even his biography seems strangely appropriate.  Dead by the time he was 33 - on account of his love of a lady according to the two legends which have sprung up - his easily-romanticised life seems of a piece with this fragile, unreal city.  Like other geniuses who died young - Mozart, Keats - his work is all the more affecting for what it might have become, for the sense of boundless possibility unmarred by any disillusioning facts.

His pictures reflect this sense of mystery and pregnancy.  Very few authenticated works have come down to us; among those definitely lost, one of the most famous groups, the frescoes on the outside of the Fondachi dei Tedeschi near the Rialto, probably faded soon after his death.  Of those that have survived, most are deeply obscure, and have kept scholars happily in disputation for centuries.  The abiding proof of Giorgione’s genius is that we really do not need to know. The pictures work their own secret magic.

The two pictures in the Accademia are a case in point.  One is simply called ‘The old woman’, and shows a withered old crone.  Lorenzetti chronicles the to-ing and fro-ing of experts over this work’s authenticity. First it was attributed to Francesco Torbido, then it was promoted to Giorgione Manner, until finally literal and metaphorical restoration placed it among the handful of works from Giorgione himself.

This process has happened time and again throughout art history, and not only with Giorgione’s highly unstable oeuvre.  What is curious is that during all these re-assignations, the painting itself changes little.  It is interesting how our perceptions of a work shift according to how great we think we should find it.  Now that ‘The old woman’ is ‘authentic’, we can see it is a great and profound masterpiece; but what was it when attributed to Torbido?  Perhaps this obsession with names and reputation explains the modern tourist’s habit of spending more time reading the information beside the picture - which provides an indication of its ‘official’ greatness, and hence how moved we should be - than looking at the work itself and being moved spontaneously.

Apart from the old woman herself in Giorgione’s painting, there is a scroll with the inscription ‘col tempo’ - ‘with time’.  It is an astonishing meditation on ageing mortality for a young man in his twenties or thirties.  Astonishing too for the brightness which shines out from the eyes of the woman, as if the spirit within remained young while the box of the body aged around it.

The other painting is among the artist’s best-known.  Even if the provenance and attribution of ‘La tempesta’ were not as secure as they are - the work is first mentioned as being in Venice in the first years of the 16th century - it could come from no other hand but Giorgione’s.

It is perhaps his most baffling picture.  It shows a young woman in a verdant landscape suckling a baby on one side of a stream.  On the other, a young man with a spear gazes across at her.  There are no other figures.  Broken columns stand in the middle distance, together with classical ruins, a bridge, and further back a walled town under a stormy sky.  Lightning flashes.  Everything is painted with the soft chromatic burr which was to become the hallmark of the Venetian school, and formed the antithesis to the hard line of the Florentines exemplified by Michelangelo.  Here, colour and atmosphere are everything.

Even Lorenzetti is floored by this work: he offers no less than four possible interpretations of the scene, but in the end seems to accept that mystery is part of the painting’s charm.  For me, there are other reasons why the work is so powerful.  Again they relate to my initial visit to Venice - so strongly are my first impressions stamped on everything thereafter.  Wandering around Venice for the first time, trying to take the measure of the place, I came across the Giorgione quite unexpectedly.  It seemed to be so much of a piece with the city that I spent time in trying if not to understand it, at least to understand my response to it.  This is perhaps the secret of the picture’s enormous power: its rich complexity reflects back to us our own images and thoughts.

In a sense, anything after ‘La tempesta’ is an anti-climax, which is a strange thing to say about a painting as amazing as Veronese’s ‘Feast of Cana’ which fills an entire wall and totally dominates Room X of the Accademia.  Perhaps the work is its own worst enemy: how can we take in a picture constructed on such a gigantic scale?  When we learn to read a painting, we expect certain norms to be observed.  Size is one of them: even the most grandiloquent canvases by Rubens stay within reasonable bounds.  This Veronese does not.

It is no wonder then that each time I see it I discover more and more.  On this occasion, through staring long and hard at details, I spot the dwarf by the stairs - invisible to me before - and the gilt sculptures above the arches.  So what does it mean to say that I know this work if entire elements can escape me?

Our personal knowledge of art is by and large very superficial.  Scientific research has shown how our eyes dart to the principal elements - the faces, the features of people, the trees and road of a landscape.  It can be demonstrated that considerable areas of a picture receive only a quick sweep of peripheral vision.  It takes immense discipline to see rather than look at a picture, to apprehend each patch of colour, each brown, red and yellow, just as it takes great self-control actually to listen to a piece of music, to distinguish its successive notes, harmonies and rhythms, instead of hearing it mindlessly as a background to wandering thoughts.

On this occasion as an exercise I try to count the total number of figures, large and small.  It would be easy to mark them off on a photograph; carried out in the head the task taxes to the limit the mind’s ability to grapple with complex images and to remember unstructured information.  I make the number 64, but I am totally unconfident about the total.  Next time it may change, just as my perception of the work will doubtless be different.

Room XVII is one of the most Venetian.  In it I find images of Venice itself by artists such as Giovanni Migliora, Guardi, Bellotto and Canaletto.  But it is ironic that the latter’s single painting is practically the only work of that artist left in the city which he recorded so lovingly.  Also in the room are works depicting the people of Venice - the soft yet insightful portraits of Rosalba Carrera, the satirical scenes of Pietro Longhi.

I pass on then to Room XX where the great painting by Gentile Bellini hangs showing the procession in front of San Marco.  There are divergences from the present-day scene, but above all there is a haunting sense of continuity.  Nearby is Bellini’s ‘Miracle of the Cross which fell into the canal of San Lorenzo’, a rather strange production, if only because of the people in the canal - something you never see in Venice today.

On the way out I glance down into the courtyard.  My impressions of this have been transformed by knowledge: I now know that the facade opposite is by Palladio; as others felt with ‘The old woman’ when restored to Giorgione, I feel strangely - and wrongly - obliged to take note of it now.  Each time I visit the Accademia it is to renew my acquaintance with old friends; but each time I find things subtly different.  And this is right: without those small changes we would be trapped in an everlasting and repeating past.

Emerging from the gallery, I embrace orthodoxy once more and rejoin the Lorenzetti itinerary. The Rio Terrà Antonio Foscarini feels odd: it passes from one stretch of the Grand Canal to the Giudecca canal on the other.  It is too straight for a road in Venice.  The reason for this is simple: originally it was a canal which was filled in - a rio interrato.  The name of this new street bears witness to the suffering of Antonio Foscarini, a seventeenth century Venetian senator falsely accused of treason and strangled.  Then his innocence was established, his name was publicly exonerated.  However, having a street commemorate you seems poor recompense.

At the end of it I reach the Zattere, the broad promenade which runs along most of the Giudecca canal, and named for the rafts of timber which were moored here.  It is an eerie part of Venice.  Aside from the busy and very different Riva degli Schiavoni, nowhere else in the city has such an extended walkway by the water.  Moreover, the canal here is so wide - hundreds of yards across - that there is a strange feeling of isolation.  It is as if Venice were fragmenting into an archipelago of tiny islands separated by broad waterways.  It is also quiet; there are few tourists, despite the monuments hereabouts.

One of which is the majestic church of the Gesuati.  Externally, the facade is strong and simple.  The interior proves to be in total contrast to this forthright Classical entrance.  It is dark with deep shadows.  As in the best Baroque art, there is a strong sense of the theatrical.  A huge black and brooding altar rears up at the back of the nave.  Lorenzetti tells me that the church is rich in masterpieces of the XVIII century.  Possibly; I can make out swirling Tiepolos on the ceiling.  But I am more impressed by the general atmosphere; you could imagine a great and powerful God dwelling here.

Following Lorenzetti, I go further west along the Zattere, and look down the canal of San Trovaso - a name formed from the combination of Gervasio and Protasio.  There, just as Lorenzetti promises, is a curious boat building yard, or squero, looking quite unchanged from the grainy and indistinct illustration in his book.  Back along the Zattere, over a couple of bridges, I pass the house where John Ruskin, a kindred spirit to Lorenzetti in his love and devotion to the city, lived and worked.

Eventually, following the itinerary, I reach my final destination, the Basilica della Salute, built as thanks for deliverance from a terrible plague.  It was designed by Baldassare Longhena.  Although it took 56 years to complete, Longhena lived to see its consecration in 1687.  Few works on this scale can represent so completely the vision and effort of one man.  For fifty years he dedicated himself to this project; as well as to God, it stands as a monument to its builder.  In this respect, it has much in common with Lorenzetti’s own dedication to the completion of an equally colossal task.

The octagonal form is inspired.  Outside it creates a feeling of massiveness combined with grace; inside the weighty pile seems to float above the huge open space.  The exterior is notable too for the profusion of ornament, both in the form of the huge orecchioni, ear-shaped volutes which act as buttresses, and in the dome’s forest of statuary.  From a distance, it seems that a flock of angels has descended.

The interior is skilfully planned.  The huge octagon gives onto the flattened form of the presbytery.  At the back of this is the massive high altar, designed by Longhena himself, profusely ornamented, yet of a piece with its surroundings.  In its light and spaciousness, no greater contrast with the gloom and foreboding of the Gesuati could be imagined.

And yet as I stand and stare at the great vault rising above me, trying to take in the details, I am troubled.  I have seen so many churches today, how can I hope to hold all their individual details?  Churches at least have certain features in common: naves, altars, apses: they provide you with a basic frame of reference as your eyes pass over the scene.  But it is hard to do justice to the individuality of even one such building; seeing five or six in one day is cultural madness.  At times, walking with Lorenzetti serves to prove that even the most diligent tourist guide is fundamentally wrong-headed: everything must be seen for itself, by itself.

Perhaps Lorenzetti knew this, and his itineraries were merely nominal, ways of threading the pearls of Venice on a string.  Or perhaps he had passed beyond ordinary knowledge; his identification with the city had become so deep, his intimacy with every corner so profound, that his practised eye really could take in everything as he went around the familiar ways.  If so, his work becomes a kind of devotional handbook for lovers of Venice: we cannot hope to attain the beatific heights of the master, but we can use it as an indication of the path that lies before us.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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