Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Itineraries

Each location, each  reference, as it was noted was checked individually on the spot by personal inspection in the various places.

In Lorenzetti’s book, the itinerary is all-pervasive.  Not only do the twelve explicit paths through Venice form the bulk of the work, the general principle of the itinerary runs through the rest of it like a hidden thread.

The idea was a stroke of genius, at once obvious yet audacious.  Lorenzetti wrote a book which said: turn left and you will see a beautiful building; walk on a little further, and you will find a church,  He took tourists by the hand and guided them.  Hitherto, travel books had done anything but that: they did not guide, they rambled loquaciously over a certain physical, historical and artistic region.  If most of the principal sights of a town were covered, it was in no very systematic way.  Lorenzetti’s achievement was to take the huge and rich collection of experiences we call Venice, and to weave them into a tapestry of brilliant colours and - most importantly - bold designs.

In this, he was undoubtedly aided by the city itself.  Nowhere else in the world is so much concentrated into so confined a space.  It is as if by some miraculous form of cultural osmosis, the lagoon itself has leached out of the myriad islands which make up Venice all trace of mediocrity or ugliness, leaving only a sifted sediment of masterpieces. As a result, it is not only easy to find adjacent works of art, it is almost impossible not to.  Every building has an equally interesting neighbour, every church has a famous campo, every canal two or three historic palazzi.

Lorenzetti’s task, then, was to select from all the possible routes past these masterpieces, and to construct a path which was both coherent and practical.  After all, however much the itineraries may smack of artistic surfeit, they are intended as realistic and useful.  If we find them too demanding, it can only be that we belong to a race of cultural dwarfs after one of giants.

The choice of the Piazza San Marco for his first itinerary was easy.  It is not just physically the centre of the city, the largest open space, but has long been the historical centre, where secular and sacred sit together in artistic convocation, the ducal palace and the procuratie alongside the ducal chapel of San Marco itself.  Moreover, both of those two main buildings offer such a wealth of art within their confines, that if the tourist could see nothing else, visiting them would provide memories enough.  So rich in fact are they, that Lorenzetti not only provides one of his characteristic little fold-out maps of the whole itinerary, but he also offers four others showing the internal disposition of the buildings.

Thereafter, with the exception of the final itinerary, he remains committed to the Piazza San Marco as his starting point.  But granted this pivot, in the second itinerary Lorenzetti ranges as far away from the circumscribed world of the first as he possibly can, perhaps offering a contrast to the claustrophobic examination offered there.  Now the tourist is encouraged to stride out right to the easternmost tip of the main island.  The accompanying map seems to partake of this vertiginous foray: the red, spidery line of the path veers madly away, almost out of control, until it is finally reined in and returns to the safety of the Piazza San Marco.  It is almost as if Lorenzetti had not yet learned how to curb the powerful concept of an itinerary: it charges away and is barely saved from a headlong dash into the lagoon itself before Lorenzetti finally masters it and brings it back home.

Perhaps in reaction to this, the third and fourth itineraries are more compact again; they delight in diving through mazes of tiny backstreets.  After showing us the macroscopic scale of Venice, Lorenzetti seems to be concentrating on the almost invisible details, on the microscopic life it exhibits.

More confident now, Lorenzetti takes off on three more wide-ranging walks in the fifth, sixth and seventh itineraries.  Moreover, none of them ends up back at the Piazza San Marco.  Instead, like children who have learnt to cross the road, the tourists are allowed to take the vaporetto back to the landing stage outside San Marco.  The map of the seventh itinerary is notable for the number of canals indicated in addition to the thin red line.  Hitherto, the plans have sketched only brutally truncated forms of the canals; from now on, we are allowed to see a little more of that other logic which underlies the city.  Once more, it is as if Lorenzetti has grown to trust us with this extra knowledge, this extra responsibility.

Appropriately enough, after all these far-flung excitements, the eighth and ninth itineraries stay nearer home: the former investigates the very kernel of the city, wrapped around on three sides by the Grand Canal, while the ninth restricts itself to the equivalent region on the opposite bank.

The tenth and eleventh itineraries explore the remaining region so far untouched.  The latter concentrates on that area encompassed by the first of the two great oxbow bends which go to make up the reverse ‘S’ of the Grand Canal, while the former takes a long path through the southernmost part of Venice.  The map of the tenth itinerary is noteworthy for the way the appearance of part of the island of Giudecca makes the Grand Canal look like some subsidiary to the Giudecca Canal below it - as if the Venice we know had been embedded in a larger, embracing one.

Lorenzetti’s last itinerary is another master-stroke.  Perhaps poking gentle fun at our new-found mastery of his paths through the city, he concludes with one that is particularly challenging: the twelfth itinerary requires the tourist to walk down the Grand Canal.  One problem is that such an itinerary involves two paths, one along each side of the canal.  Lorenzetti solves this by the simple expedient of using the left-hand pages of his description for the left-hand bank, and the right-hand pages for the other.  Each spread’s facing pages mirror the facing banks.  The map of the Grand Canal itinerary is also striking: with its numbers running along both sides, it resembles an anatomical drawing of some giant segmented millipede; its legs are the stubs of the canals which empty into it

Given the itinerary’s origin in a desire to impose form on a dizzying profusion, the walk along the Grand Canal is the logical conclusion. Just as each itinerary is like a thread which binds together a series of sights and objects, so the central cord of the Grand Canal binds together each of them into a larger fabric.  It is a fitting end to Lorenzetti’s grand design; but he still has much to tell us, and the obsession with itineraries grips him still.

Even before the twelve formal itineraries, Lorenzetti had preceded them by three others: the first an itinerary through the idea of Venice, the second through its history, and the third through its art.  Now he follows those twelve named itineraries with yet more: some which wind their logical and unswerving way through the art collections of Venice, room by room, picture by picture; still others which sail out into the lagoon, taking in successively the islands of San Michele, Murano, Burano and Torcello.

At Murano, the old urge to embark on a codified walk re-asserts itself: pointing out that Murano is curiously similar to Venice in its general aspect, Lorenzetti uses this as an excuse to provide another mini-itinerary, complete with a small, and rather half-formed map.  Once on Torcello, he admits defeat: so little is left on this island - a street, a piazzetta, and the glorious but lonely cathedral - that even he cannot conjure up an itinerary from it all.  Just as the islands in the lagoon seem to be fainter and fainter echoes of Venice itself, so the itineraries they give rise to fade away to nothing.

As if exhausted, almost admitting defeat, Lorenzetti makes his final itineraries covert and disguised: the obsessive indexes, that is, walks through the alphabet, new ways of ordering the information he has already gathered, explained and structured.  Aptly enough, this great work of paths and directions closes with that ultimate itinerary, that walk through the itineraries themselves, the General Index.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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