Tuesday 21 July 2020

The Book

Those who may wish to retrace and know all those testimonies of art and those recollections of its past that Venice preserves in its churches, its palaces, its galleries and in its very streets, may find help here, in this book of mine.

Lorenzetti’s Venice and its Lagoons looks and feels like a bible.  It is dense and compact, and its thousand pages of thin and fragile paper invite a reverential handling.  The resemblance is no accident: this is indeed a bible, the bible of Venice   It is not just a guide to the city, but to its origins, its history, its art, and its traditions.  As befits a bible, it offers a complete cosmology.

The first edition of this monumental work appeared in 1926.  It was 30 years before the second edition was printed - posthumously, but based largely on Lorenzetti’s revisions, and edited by his wife Maria Lorenzetti Ciartoso.  An English translation had to wait another five years.  It has a dark blue dust jacket, while the original Italian version has one of deep red.  Otherwise the format is identical.

After about 100 introductory pages of almost continuous text, the character of the work changes dramatically.  Most striking are the series of fold-out maps which occur throughout the work, like adumbrations of a pop-up children’s book.  The maps show regions of the city: the canals and lagoon are represented by a series of roughly parallel wave-like blue lines, bounded in black, around and over which a thin red line snakes.  Each map has one such line, apparently tracing out an itinerary through the city.  Apart from a few major churches and campi, there are no indications of exact location, just the floating, weaving line.  It is numbered irregularly along its length, starting at the Piazza San Marco from which all but one of the itineraries start, and reaching to anything between 40 and 90 or more.

Except for these maps, and the title page, which uses the dark red colour of the Italian dust jacket, the text is in monochrome throughout. The bulk of the book refers to the maps, structured around the numbers that appear on them.  Each number heads a sentence or paragraph, or sometimes gives rise to sections which run for pages.

Complementing the text are nearly 300 illustrations, the majority of which are photographs from Lorenzetti’s day, while 40 are historical engravings.  The latter are mostly taken from works by eighteenth century view painters such as Canaletto.  The cramped format of the pages, the type of paper, and the reproduction processes available for the first edition of the book imposed great constraints on the resulting quality and detail of the illustrations.  As a consequence, the provenance of an image - its maker and even its medium - is not always clear.

The absence of any sure distinction between engraving and photograph results in a convergence between past and present representations of Venice.  This effect, born of limitations in the printing process, in fact reveals a deep truth about the unchanging nature of the city.  Put another way, the photographs of churches and palazzi look, because of the indistinct outlines and pervading greyness, as if they were taken in the eighteenth century.  Paradoxically, the general absence of people in those same photographs also makes them appear to be from some distant time in the future when Venice has been abandoned for reasons unknown, and become a deserted site of ghostly memories.  Lorenzetti’s illustrations, like the city they portray, are temporally unlocated.

Moreover, disparate as their subject matter and original sources are, the printing process renders the illustrations with a kind of equality which endows them with one viewpoint and style which can best be called Lorenzettian.  Within that essential unity, it manifests itself in many ways.  It can be moody and romantic, like the haunting picture of gondolas tied up on the Riva degli Schiavoni, as the setting sun reflects in the waves’ splashed water on the paving stones; or like the magical painting of ships on the Giudecca canal, all diffused light and misty atmosphere.  It can be almost abstractly-classical, like the view of the library on the Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, half Vermeer, half Escher.  It can be powerfully grotesque as in the close-ups of the Colleoni monument or of the Capello effigy.  Or even bleakly expressionist, for example in Tintoretto’s ‘Agony in the Garden’, which is simplified to a harrowing study of black on black.

The illustrations are found throughout the whole book, as if Lorenzetti felt obliged to mirror the city’s visual generosity.  Even where the texture changes at the back of the book, with its 125 pages of indexes, there remain a few leavening images.

In their unvaried columnar format, and their relentlessness, the indexes offer a stark contrast to the main text’s constant variation.  The scale and scope of them are impressive: in all there are 244 books, 1458 artists, 1293 places, 1306 important and historic buildings, 192 monuments, and 298 illustrations meticulously detailed in their respective lists.  Venice seems to demand such obsessive naming and numbering from its devotees: when Ruskin came to produce a popular, abridged edition of The Stones of Venice, his huge sprawling study of the city, indexes still took up a third of the book.

This impulse to index, which Lorenzetti clearly shares, seems born of a desire to capture the sheer richness and multiplicity of the city.  It is as if he had felt that it was not enough for the tens of thousands of facts which he had sought out, hoarded and ordered, to be revealed and detailed on the itineraries which form the greater part of the work: he had to try to provide that information in as many ways as possible.  His indexes are different views of the same facts, like different cross-sections of a deeply complex object.  Together they offer alternative routes through the maze of his words.

The book impresses not just by this exhaustive content, but also by virtue of its sheer physicality.  Its more than one thousand pages, its dizzyingly small point sizes, its profusion of numbers, words, illustrations and lists, and the sheer density of their combination make it feel like a huge tome which has somehow been magically reduced, or, rather, like two or three huge books which have been crammed miraculously into this tiny space.

This feat of compaction, this achievement of a quart’s worth in a pint pot, was no empty act of intellectual virtuosity.  For all its riches, compression lies at the heart of the book, which is one whose form is fully determined by its content.  Its chosen instruments of explanation, the explicated walks through the city, are meant to be followed literally, not just metaphorically; Lorenzetti’s book is designed for practical use - to be carried, like a bible, and as a true guide, wherever you go in Venice.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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