Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Man

The work has been fatiguing and complex, but I do not believe it has been completely in vain.

When I started writing this book, I began researching into the life of Giulio Lorenzetti.  I had intended to sketch the details of his birth, his marriage, his work and his death, to give a framework for the writing of his book which was itself a kind of biography, describing the Venetian Republic’s birth, its marriage to the sea, its artistic achievements, and its eventual decline and dissolution.  I soon drew a blank.  Lorenzetti does not figure in any of the standard art history reference books; even the Italian dictionaries of art I consulted ignore him.  In the catalogue of the British Library, there are just two books of his listed, one of them ‘Venice and its Lagoons’.  I thought of writing to Edizioni Lint, his publishers, or to the Italian embassy: surely somebody would have information on the man?

In the end, the more I read his book, the more it seemed that it contained all I needed to know about him.  Just as it had become his life, occupying more and more of his thoughts and his time, so his life had become the book, which mapped out his paths through Venice, and detailed his interests, his observations, his loves and obsessions. This process of fusion is so nearly complete and neatly dovetailed, that there are few blatant vestiges of the man in his words: the overt ‘I’ became redundant in a book which was all an expression of him.  Occasionally, though, Lorenzetti steps out from behind the scenery of the great theatre he had constructed and directed, and shows himself.

The work is at its most personal at the beginning, but soon fades away into apparently anonymous objectivity.  Lorenzetti’s introduction, a mere page or so, is written uniquely in the first person singular.  Even here he forgoes this opportunity to greet the world face to face.  Like a master of ceremonies, he soon moves out of the spotlight, preferring to introduce the book itself, as he gives a short summary of its shape, its itineraries, and the introductory chapters outlining the historical and cultural background.

In the first of these introductory chapters, there are one or two final glimpses of Lorenzetti peeping through the backstage curtain.  For example, in describing the unique character and romance of the Piazza San Marco, he cannot resist berating “the insupportable café orchestras that never give one a moment’s respite.”  A little later on, he inveighs against the decline in the quality of traditional Venetian workmanship, which he sees “mixed unfortunately with a great deal of rubbish in bad taste that is sold under the name of local curios, or ‘souvenirs of Venice’.”  But such outbursts are rare.

Lorenzetti also shows remarkable restraint in the face of this city of masterpieces; he knows too well that there is nothing more boring than an enthusiast’s endless rapture.  But even he is moved to poetry sometimes, as in his hymn to the wonder of San Marco:  “From this uninterrupted work of centuries a miracle of incomparable harmony and beauty has blossomed, with a beauty of line, colour and wonderful ever changing effects of light, especially at sunset when it assumes the appearance of something seen in a dream.”

This paean occurs in the first itinerary; thereafter, Lorenzetti adopts a far more measured tone.  It is almost as if he had allowed himself a final moment of unbuttoned response before reverting to his self-imposed sobriety.  A tiny crack in this otherwise unbroken surface is occasioned by an apparent triviality.  In a note on an unexceptional series of eight panels in the church of Sant’Alvise, he gives them as works of “a follower of Lazzaro Bastiani”.  But clearly his bile has risen on this issue: he adds a gratuitous and dismissive side-swipe that “Ruskin attributed them, absurdly, to Vittore Carpaccio, then a child of eight or ten.”  Lorenzetti does not suffer fools in his Venice gladly.

The final glimpse the book affords us of the man is, appropriately enough for someone who must have spent much of the time he was not walking around Venice surrounded by books, in the bibliography.  Among the six densely-packed pages there are ten works by Lorenzetti himself.  From the titles which he deemed worthy enough to be included with his sources we can form an estimation of what his principal concerns were, and with which of his other works he was most satisfied.

His interests were wide: as well as a work on the history and art of Torcello, he produced studies of Venetian masks and festivals, together with catalogues on maiolica and lacquerwork of the city.  But as the first of his works listed there, ‘Italian painting in the eighteenth century’ indicates, his main area of study was the final years of the Venetian republic.  This is corroborated by his comment in the introductory chapter of ‘Venice and its Lagoons’, where he says “the eighteenth century marks an awakening of new energies in art for Venice. For the second time she took the lead in all Italy.”  For all its earlier glories, Lorenzetti seems to have felt that the city and its art attained their most characteristic forms during these twilight years.

The book, then, can give us tantalising glimpses of the man; and yet so many fundamental questions remain unanswered - such as where the idea of the itineraries came from, how he ended up structuring the book in exactly the way he did, how his work affected his daily life, what his wife thought, and what hidden messages or secret memories lay buried within.  On all these, the book remains mute.

And yet after reading the book for a while, and walking with Lorenzetti along his paths through Venice, it is easy to feel that the growing acquaintance allows you to guess at some of these things, to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.  One of the defining characteristics of great art is that it grants you a sense not only of the magnitude of the artist’s achievement, but also of its cost.

So from reading the words, taking in the meaning and sharing the experiences, I feel that I know how Lorenzetti felt when he finished this monumental work - the sense of exaltation and exhaustion, of relief and sadness; I know the sense of pride he experienced when he held the first bound copy in his hands, the curious sensation that something he had created now had an existence independent of him; and I can detect too that shiver which must have passed over him as he realised that he had failed to capture fully his original vision, and that the task of revision he was compelled to attempt would end only with his death.

But the image born of my familiarity with his book which I prefer to keep, is different from all of these.  Just as Lorenzetti succeeded in capturing the essence of his city in its last years of glory, so I like to picture him at the close of his life.  He is bent with age and arthritis; he has bright grey eyes, and his hair is brilliantly white, combed back like a mane, receding slightly at the temples.  When he takes his customary walks around Venice, he leans on his metal-tipped cane held in his right hand, and goes tapping along the flagstones.

I imagine him standing in the middle of the Piazza San Marco, facing the cathedral’s facade, with the proud, gentlemanly form of the campanile to his right.  It is early spring, and there is a chill in the air, although the pale sun is out, casting long shadows on the Piazza. Lorenzetti is grateful that it is too early in the season for those terrible café orchestras.  The only sound is of footsteps on stone, and the low murmur of voices.

Lorenzetti is conscious that his task is nearly done; the second edition of his book is almost finished, and he is grateful that though he will soon die, his beloved wife Maria, who has shared so much of his life and his labours, will be able to see the work through to completion.  As he looks at the buildings around him, familiar now for fifty years, he thinks back over his life, of the times he has stood here in the Piazza, of the thousands of paths he has taken through his city, of the hundreds of thousands of words he has written trying to capture those paths and all that he has seen and felt on them.  And he thinks of all the men and women who created Venice, who came to these mud flats in the middle of the lagoon and built the most beautiful city in the world.  He thinks of their lives and the unimaginable details which formed them, and which went into the works they produced.

As he thinks of these artists, he imagines a huge crowd of them gathering in front of him in the Piazza San Marco, a grand and magnificent procession such as Gentile Bellini had recorded in his painting now in the Accademia Gallery just ten minutes’ walk from here.  He imagines them filing past him, smiling and saluting.  He smiles, and raises his cane slightly in recognition.

Now he imagines a different gathering.  These are not artists, but ordinary people, hundreds of them, thousands of them, of all ages and all nationalities.  So many now, that they are beginning to fill the piazza.  Lorenzetti gazes around, and sees all these people; he notices that they are holding copies of his book.  They seem to be waiting for something, waiting for him.  He nods as if in agreement, and begins to walk slowly across the Piazza, tapping his cane.  The crowd parts to let him through.  As he reaches the edge of the square, and is about to enter a narrow alleyway into the maze of backstreets he knows so well, he turns and gazes over the scene.  The crowd has formed itself into a huge procession. He turns back and begins to lead them on a walk through the heart of his kingdom.  We follow him to this day.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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