Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The personal tempest

It is either an incident from Stazio’s ‘Tebaide’ or a myth regarding the birth of Paris or again an interpretation of philosophical naturalistic concepts in a composition in synthesis of the eternal force of rebirth of creation in the world by nature or of human beings, or lastly the ‘dream of Polyphilus’ (hypnoerotomachia).

Anyone who sees Venice for the first time is fortunate; but in the circumstances of my first visit, I was particularly so.  A friend had given me the address of a foresteria - a kind of hostel - near Santa Maria Formosa.  My initial steps in Venice were therefore purposive; as I followed the signs to the Piazza San Marco, crossed that great open space, and then dived into the warren of streets, it was not as someone who wandered helplessly from beauty to beauty, but more as one who could assign each new sight some provisional, personal meaning by virtue of my journey past them.  The monuments of Venice became my milestones.

The foresteria was hidden away in one of the less frequented parts of Venice, between Santa Maria Formosa and Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  Tourists seldom strayed there, and I was able to begin to colonise this corner for myself, uncorrupted by any previous knowledge, and to get to know Venice from the inside rather than through one of its more formal set pieces.

The foresteria lay at the bottom of one of those long, narrow alleys which abound in Venice, with high shuttered houses on each side.  At the end of the alley, you crossed a small humped bridge at an angle.  The path turned off to the right past a high and forbidding wall, and then snaked left.  In the wall were a pair of massive doors, and next to them an entryphone.  The wall formed a small courtyard, completing the empty corner of a high L-shaped building.  This was the foresteria.

It was run by a religious organisation, and used as a permanent hostel for university students in Venice.  Spare beds were rented out to travellers.  I rang the buzzer, explained that I was looking for a room, and was admitted to the courtyard.  Weeds grew among the broken flags, and flower pots and bicycles lay against the wall.

The front door was opened from above, and I went up to the first floor where the warden lived.  The small flat was furnished in a typically heavy Italian style of many years ago.  The man was in his fifties, short, balding and uncommunicative.  A woman, presumably his wife, stood behind the door of an adjacent room talking quietly to someone, perhaps their child.  The warden took my passport and then showed me to my room upstairs on the next floor.

As might be expected in a hostel run by a religious institution, there were separate dormitories for men and women.  My room had three double bunk beds, only one of which was already taken.  On the ceiling there were crude frescoes of pink, chubby putti; ancient cracks cut through them.  Otherwise the room was bare.  To reach the bedrooms you went through a low doorway from the main hall, past a tiny bathroom.

The hall Itself was magnificent.  It was about twenty feet high, with dark rafters overhead.  A long trapezium in shape, it looked out onto water on two of its sides: the small canal, over which the diagonal bridge from the alleyway passed, curved round to the left, girdling the building for much of its perimeter.  The foresteria had clearly once been the palazzo of a comfortably wealthy Venetian family, probably built in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  Despite the characterless, institutional furniture - a few metal and canvas chairs and trestle tables - it was easy to imagine the hall’s former days of glory.  Perhaps as the last vestige of that time, a huge and incongruous black grand piano stood to one side of the room.

One end of the hall was filled by a high window of leaded lights reaching to the ceiling.  When the sun shone upon the canal outside, its hundred fractured images were cast upon a nearby wall.  At the other end there was a small kitchen, and in the middle of the wall opposite the door to the bedrooms was another door leading to the separate rooms of the Venetian students.

There were currently two of them, both female.  One was slightly built, with the fair hair and slightly aquiline nose which suggested a Roman heritage; the other was formed on an ample scale, a shapely young woman with long black hair, a rounded face and piercingly dark eyes.  Her name was Manuela, short for Emmanuela, and she spoke with a slight Venetian lisp.

My first visit to Venice was short and intense, just three days.  I devoted each day to wandering around a different area of the city.  At this stage I had not yet discovered Lorenzetti, so though my itineraries were often directed at a particular landmark - Santa Maria della Salute, the Arsenale - the paths were random and unformed, and along the way I missed the subsidiary details and the significance of the whole.  To begin with, Venice was beautiful but undifferentiated.

In many ways, this was probably fortunate.  Just as the great masters of literature presuppose basic reading skills, so Lorenzetti is best understood after a grounding in the grammar and vocabulary of the city.  His is an advanced course: he teaches you how to weave together the weft of art and the warp of history into a tapestry that is Venice.  But without those first self-taught lessons, the visitor is simply overwhelmed with information.  The first visit is a kind of cultural vaccination, a prophylactic against the Lorenzetti disease - aesthetic exhaustion - in its most virulent form.   It also allows the tourist a chance to form a few personal opinions before being confronted with the almost inarguable weight of Lorenzetti’s lifelong scholarship.

The first day I visited the Accademia Gallery, the next I went out to the Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, and my final day was spent travelling out to the island of Torcello.  I walked along countless alleys, crossed innumerable bridges and courtyards, visited churches, palaces and galleries, but without the thread of Lorenzetti’s itineraries on which to hang these experiences, I can no longer recall when I went where.  As Venice itself appeared to me then, my first impressions formed a huge, insoluble labyrinth.

But my Venetian trip as a whole, with its great unstructured cargo of memories, remained with me vividly.  I had visited the city as just part of an extensive Europe-wide tour which took in France, other parts of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland; but it was the multi-faceted image of Venice which burnt fiercest in recollection.

So much so that I knew I would eventually try to preserve these memories in writing.  It did not happen immediately; I went to Venice for the first time in 1979 and returned there in 1981.  But it was not until 1984 that I felt ready to attempt the translation of some of those images and experiences on to paper.  Ideas had been growing within me all this time, often deeply hidden and rising only occasionally to the surface in the form of a sudden memory; but it took certain crucial events of that year to cause everything to come together into a coherent whole.

At this time in my life I wrote with pencil and paper.  Corrections, especially of a major nature, were difficult.  As a result, I tended to plan out in my head my writing in a comprehensive fashion, and then tried to capture it on paper in one sitting.  This extreme approach meant that I was forced to wait until I felt the pressure of concentration - if not inspiration - sufficiently strong to carry me through what was necessarily a long and intense process.

I remember that it was a Sunday in April, almost exactly six years after the events, that I started to plan out a short story based on this first visit to Venice.  For two hours I paced around the room, advancing the story with my advancing steps.  In trying to hold all the facts and feelings in my head at once, I felt like one of those circus performers spinning more and more plates on sticks: there was the same sense of elation, and growing panic, as more plates - more words - were added; the same knowledge that the greater the success the nearer the failure.

Then, at 11 am, I started writing.  Nearly twelve hours and seven thousand words later, I finished, mentally exhausted but feeling as if delivered of a great burden.  There was a sense of achievement in that I had written the story I had set out to capture; but joined with this was the omnipresent sense of failure, the sense that once again the work had slipped away in the act of creation.  For this reason I found it impossible to read the story once finished, and it was years before I was able to approach it with sufficient objectivity to lessen my natural distaste.

It is always a curious experience to read writing from deep in your past, especially if that writing embodies strong experiences.  The words and images have a strange resonance: they are clearly of you - the lineage is manifest; and yet they are also equally clearly distinct from you, since the you which exists now has moved so far from its earlier incarnations. This explains the ambivalent feelings such re-discoveries tend to excite: you squirm over the gaucheries, and yet are touched by the simple charm, surprised and moved by the innocence and ingenuousness - long since unattainable.

The short story is derived almost entirely from my first trip to Venice; its form is based now loosely, now more closely, on my itineraries, and likewise its plot on my experiences.  There is the journey across Venice to the foresteria, the visits to the Accademia, the excursions to the islands.  More importantly, it is about an emotional path, a journey to knowledge.

The main character is a student of art history whose approach to his discipline is essentially academic, and therefore necessarily limited.  He himself is similarly callow.  One of the intersecting themes of the story concerns his search for a painting, the ‘Assunta’ of Titian, one he knows well from illustrations, and one that has always impressed and moved him.  Eventually, and unexpectedly, he discovers the picture in the course of his wanderings through the city.  But he finds it curiously unsatisfying.  In the meantime he has come across another painting, one which proves initially more mysterious than the other, but ultimately far more potent: Giorgione’s ‘La tempesta’, which gives the short story its title.

Through his slight acquaintance with Manuela, a young Venetian studying at the university and living at the foresteria, and with another young Briton staying there who loves her - eventually to self-destruction - he comes to understand what qualities and meanings that picture may hold.  As a result, he gains a far deeper - because intuitive as well - understanding of both Venice and himself.  The identification of Venice with the emotional, so-called feminine aspect of life is simplistic and unoriginal, but it provided me with the central equation necessary for making sense of the disparate elements of my own experiences in Venice and back in England.

Re-reading ‘La tempesta’ now, I am struck by how much effort I wasted trying to describe Venice.  It is foolish to attempt what so many others have done well, though never well enough.  To endeavour to capture that overpowering but elusive city with words - or indeed in images or music - is clearly folly.  If it were possible to reduce the essence of Venice to anything which can be caught in this way, the city itself would not exert the unique fascination it has.  After more than 500 years as a byword for harmony and beauty of form, the mountain of words, images and sounds Venice has generated still stand only as pale shadows of our own experiences amidst the city’s reality.

I am also struck by how the narrative shifts between fact and fiction, between the true details of my first visit to Venice, and the added elements which somehow help make sense of those details.  Indeed, at this distance I can no longer securely distinguish between some of the facts and some of the fictions.  I kept no notebooks on that trip; in many respects, ‘La tempesta’ is the only record I have, together with my memories.  Reading it again, some of it is immediately familiar, while some strikes only faint chords; but are these memories of reality, or memories of the creation of an alternative reality?

In the end, it does not matter.  Reality only exists in our flawed perceptions and even more untrustworthy memories.  What matters is the value of what I retain and create from those experiences.  Art, or least my writing, allows me to sift and select, modify and add, until I have recreated a version which in its contemplation today and, I hope, tomorrow, allows me to feel that something remains of my past, that out of my life something exists which will be able, however imperfectly, to transcend me and all the irrelevant details I have lived through.  It means that some of my travels - in the broadest sense - were not random wanderings, because here at least I have imposed a sense of form on them.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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