Friday 24 July 2020

VII - Third act: third itinerary

In this itinerary the main point of interest is contributed by the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, which is one of the most important centres of Venetian history and art.

Campo San Lio - Santa Maria dei Miracoli - Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Lorenzetti’s itineraries seem to start as systematic explorations of the exits to the Piazza San Marco.  In turn he tries now this, now that sottoportico; thereafter he allows himself to be led by the genius of the place.  The third itinerary is notable for the number of times the path doubles back on itself, as if trying to throw someone off the track, to lose them in Venice’s intimate labyrinth.

I begin by passing under the Arco dell’orologio into the Merceria.  As with so many of Lorenzetti’s walks, your first steps follow the crowds as they pour out of the great Piazza.  But then suddenly, Lorenzetti will swoop into some dark side alley, leading nowhere apparently, possibly a dead-end, which no tourist would dream of taking.  Thus he abstracts you from the public Venice, and takes you by the hand to show the secret places.

So it is now: shuffling along the busy Merceria de San Salvatore is a penance; I feel part of the mob, walking without seeing.  Then Lorenzetti is gone; I follow him down the tiny Calle degli Stagneri which is quiet and empty.  Across the Ponte de la Fava, there is a typically cut-off church, a bare brick facade which reminds me of Gerona’s great cathedral.

It is not often that the narrow winding streets of Venice become claustrophobic because they are normally inhabited, with windows and doors as tokens of a comforting human presence.  Not the Calle e Ramo de la Fava: it sidles past Santa Maria de la Fava in a mean and skulking fashion; the church’s walls seem to press down upon you.

It is a relief to arrive at the Campo San Lio, a delightful little square which I have never seen before.  Or have I?  It is hard to tell in Venice, where streets and squares and canals are superficially similar, and where a slight change of viewpoint can transform the landscape.  It is like a game of deceit and confusion practised by a whole city.

As I survey the half-familiar scene, it brings to mind a passage in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, where Proust, through his narrator, describes how one day he sought in vain to retrace his steps to a mysterious region deep within the heart of Venice which he had discovered by chance the night before.  Somehow I feel that it was here that he was thinking of.

Proust may never have found that magical kingdom again, but he did come back from Venice with something even more precious: the key both to his life, and to his life’s work.  The crucial incident of his largely autobiographical novel - the sensation of a rocking paving stone in the Piazza San Marco - which later reveals to him the redemptive power of memory, presumably occurred during one of Proust’s visits to the city.

He had gone there following in the footsteps of his own Lorenzetti: Ruskin.  Proust had worked on translating several of Ruskin’s works, including the Bible of Amiens, a minute and imaginative rumination on the cathedral of the city Ruskin called the ‘Venice of France’.  Proust’s memories of Venice were therefore a deeply complex amalgam of his own experiences, Ruskin’s, and of his memories of Ruskin.  Thinking of Proust lost at night, I remember that during an earlier visit I too once wandered here in the dark without any sense of location or direction, but it is only the memory of a memory, and one which in recollection has now acquired subtle overlays of a Proustian and Ruskinian cast.

I move on to the Campo Santa Marina, another small, charming square I appear not to know, or can remember only distantly.  And yet it can only be a few hundred metres from the Piazza San Marco.  The square is deserted except for a stunningly beautiful, black-haired young woman who is gesticulating with grand sweeps of her hand as she uses an isolated public phone.  The richly modulated tones of her rising and falling voice reach out into the otherwise silent square.  She looks like a metaphor for something.

At the Ponte del Cristo, three canals meet, providing one of those characteristic Venetian scenes of bridges, water, alleys, palaces and sky, all arranged in a complex yet harmonious composition.  The nearby Fondamente dell’Erbe is famous for just such reasons, and crops up repeatedly on postcards, and in amateurs’ paintings.  There is a particularly attractive Gothic palazzo at the end of the fondamente, with a memorable carved wooden door.

Quite unexpectedly, the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli stands before me. It seems that this itinerary delights in these sudden surprises, this springing of sights upon the tourist.  In this respect Venice is quite unlike the typical pattern of other great cities, where the grand monuments signpost themselves well in advance, giving you a chance to prepare your reactions, to ease yourself into the experience gently.

It is tempting to apply the church’s name to itself; it does seem something of a miracle in stone.  The facade is unusual in its design: high and narrow, with a rose window surrounded by gorgeous marbles and porphyry.  Without looking miniature, it seems totally intimate, a perfect jewel of a building.

Inside, the stonework is even more impressive.  Like the facade, the interior follows its own rules.  The altar is raised with a balustrade; there is a gallery at the back.  Everywhere there is carving, semi-precious stone, gilt.  The walls are covered with a rich grey marble veined like blue cheese.  The surfaces seem bubbling and alive.  The floor is also marble.  The simple barrel vault is coffered, with 50 or so square paintings of saints and patriarchs.  The optical effect is curious: the regularity of the design lends the whole a kind of hypnotic power.

The church’s carving is almost too detailed to take in,  Around the base of the main arch over the altar swim mermaids and cherubim.  The supporting pillars of the gallery are solid stone made to look like plants’ tendrils. In what is truly a miracle of stonemasonry, the marble has cavities and piercings which seem to deny the solidity of the rock and call into question its structural function.

I emerge from this cool, stony world, and I am struck once more by the full force of Venice’s unique smell: a pungent, choking odour of musty decay and sweet putrefaction.  Venice must be a continual delight for a dog, the olfactory correlate of what we humans experience through sight.

Habituated once more to this heady perfume, I walk around the outside of the church, and note how its aspect changes.  From the Ponte dei Miracoli the pilasters on the outer wall align themselves like a line of palings; from the Piazza Santa Maria Nova the whole ensemble looks like a compact locomotive shouldering its way forward.

From there I pass through more unknown, unfrequented alleys and across small, out of the way bridges, until I arrive at the great campo of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  Immediately I am back in the tourist’s Venice.  After San Marco and the Rialto bridge, the great gothic church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is probably one of the most popular sights in Venice.

Outside there is the famous equestrian statue of Colleoni by Verocchio. And yet statues are curious things; especially in a city well-endowed with them, it is often quite easy to overlook them entirely, or to see them as some kind of urban furniture without further significance.  The superb plinth on which the statue rests is the work’s worst enemy.  From the ground, all you can see is the belly of a horse bestridden by a thickset man.  Quite rightly Lorenzetti chooses to illustrate this powerful piece by a close-up of the man’s face, a wonderfully disdainful scowl playing across its features.  But few of us ever see this except in photographs.

Just as few of us will have pondered on the determinants of the monument’s current position: why here?  However scrupulous we are as tourists, however rigorously we scrutinise the details of a work of art, we still take so much for granted.  Even the example of Lorenzetti’s constant questing after underlying facts and reasons may not be enough to shake our habits of a lifetime.

For example, the monument’s present location involves a telling anecdote. Colleoni was a Venetian general who at his death bequeathed to Venice a considerable legacy - on condition that an equestrian monument was built to his memory in the Piazza San Marco.  This placed the city elders in a quandary: they wanted the legacy, but building a statue in the Piazza San Marco was forbidden - which is probably why to this day it retains its spaciousness untrammelled by untidy clusters of monuments.  As a compromise, the elders decided to place the statue outside the Scuola San Marco - once one of the great guilds of Venice, now the main hospital - which is adjacent to the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, reasoning that this must have been what the general meant given the well-known statute.

Casuistry or not, the final position chosen is appropriate enough if only because so much of Venice’s history - its great men, and monuments to them and their deeds - ended up in the church alongside.  Reflecting this, Lorenzetti spends 10 pages of the smallest type describing the treasures within.  Along the way he lists hundreds of works by hundreds of artists - including a couple of Lorenzettis - which must have brought a wry smile to the lips as he wrote his otherwise near-anonymous work.

Externally the church is rather grim and unprepossessing.  In its unadorned heaviness no greater contrast could be imagined to the light and charming facade of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, just a few steps away. Providing a foretaste of what lies within, there are sarcophagi containing the bodies of ancient Venetian worthies beside the main west door.

As I step inside I am overwhelmed by the scale of the place; I had forgotten just how impressive it was.  I had also forgotten the sheer density of monuments it contains.  Many English churches and cathedrals seem to be as much memorials to the local history and society - the nobility, the clergy, the military, the gentlefolk - as a house of god. But they are nothing compared to Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  It is a huge brick barn, a Victorian railway terminus, a Battersea power station, whose every surface has been colonised by attempts to stave off oblivion.

It is dark: there are few windows, and those that there are high up and admitting little light.  Dwarfed by the surroundings, people move around quietly, as if intruding.  I look up and see the huge beams set athwart the nave, bound together on the tops of the columns with little attempt at elegance; all is functional here.  It seems appropriate enough for this very down-to-earth church.

As so often in Venice, I wonder how I can hope to take it all in.  The answer is, I can’t, of course.  All I can do is to look, trying to follow Lorenzetti.  Even he must have found this the ultimate challenge of his organising tendencies.  He may have spent more time and pages on the works within San Marco, but at least there was some overall scheme of things offered by the great series of mosaics, a plan he could follow.  Santi Giovanni e Paolo has no such structure; instead, its growth has mirrored the growth of Venice itself, its monuments have accreted like the buildings of the city and the dates in its history.

Lorenzetti tries his best to master this building, this world.  He turns it into another itinerary, a walk within a walk.  Starting from the west side of the interior, he proceeds in an anticlockwise direction, noting down the features as he goes.  But it is hard following him.  Necessarily he must jump from one monument to another; how he makes those jumps is sometimes contingent rather than logical.  I find that it is neither easy reading him sequentially and trying to pick out the corresponding features, nor looking for his descriptions of sights which catch my eye.  I am not helped by the darkness which spreads a gloom and dubiousness over everything, nor the increasingly numbing cold which seems concentrated rather than dispelled by this great building.

The inside of the facade wall is a huge cascade of marble ornaments and figures, bound together by Classical architecture.  All in all, it looks like the outside of another church, mysteriously transported here.  They are three monuments to Doges, as are most of the memorials in Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  After their death nearly all the Doges were brought to the church and buried amid redundant pomp.

The second altar in the right hand aisle provokes Lorenzetti to one of his scrupulous art historical explanations of shifting provenance.  An altar piece starts out as in the Mantegna tradition, is assigned to Giovanni Bellini, then in turn to Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bonsignori, before being recognised as a magnificent painting, certainly by Bellini.

As I walk around, I am struck here and there by particularly fine carvings, noble monuments, dramatic effects.  But there are simply too many to remember.  Any one of these would be a prize exhibit in most museums.  There we would study it for hours, monographs would be produced detailing its every nuance; in time we would get to know the piece well.  Here, even willing myself to look and remember, using Lorenzetti as an aide-memoire, everything begins to merge, monument into monument, statue into statue, name into name.  So much for memorialisation.  Santi Giovanni e Paolo has within is walls more Renaissance works than practically any museum on earth; this single building alone deserves days of study.

I take refuge in the Chapel of the Rosary on the north side of the nave. After the cold, dark bareness of the church itself, it is like entering some local paradise.  It is small, warm and there is the sweet smell of incense in the air.  It is alive with sculptures and carving and painting, but the more intimate scale makes them all more apprehensible.  On the right hand side there are wooden dossals carved out of the richest, darkest wood imaginable; the whole effect is sensuous in the extreme.

To view the works of art here you insert 200 L. into one of the lighting devices.  Then, for a few minutes, a blaze of light illuminates the chosen work.  I enjoy these machines.  They are practical, enabling you to see works of art without the threat of damage from continuous high levels of lighting; they are economical - you pay for the light you use; and they are often dramatic in their effects.  For example when I first entered the nave and had walked down halt its length, the high altar suddenly sprang out of the darkness as if god had descended and claimed his own.  In fact someone had merely inserted their two 100L. coins, but set against the dark background in this huge space, the illumination was totally of a piece with those other effects of histrionic manipulation - the maudlin images, the forests of wavering candles, the beatified gory relics perched on velvet, the heady waft of incense - so beloved of the Catholic Church.

Although this chapel is a haven of peace and warmth, reading Lorenzetti I realise it is also a sad emblem of the vulnerability of all art,  According to his notes on the works here, a disastrous fire in 1567 destroyed masterpieces by artists such as Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto and Palma il Giovane, not to mention some others of the dossals which I had already been impressed by.  Throughout Lorenzetti there is the occasional reference to war damage caused by bombing or shelling - the war referred to being the First World War.  Amidst all this beauty it seems incredible that anyone could contemplate such an act of barbarousness as to destroy anything here, here where every stone seems such an affirmation of what mankind can create.  Yet compared to some acts of destruction - Warsaw, Dresden, Monte Cassini  - Venice has escaped the depredations of war relatively unscathed.  It does, however, bring home the fragility of Venice, and the gaping wound it would leave in civilisation if it were ever to be lost.

Fortunately, perhaps, I am pulled back from these gloomy thoughts by the sight of a fellow walker with Lorenzetti.  Someone with the red-backed Italian edition of the book enters the Chapel, and gazes around at the walls and the works just as I did.  Although no sign passes between us, I feel that we are part of a secret freemasonry, the Lorenzetti Lodge of the Great Order of Venice.

Reluctantly I leave this haven and emerge once more into the dark and the cold of the church.  Night is beginning to fall, as is the temperature according to my frozen hands which can barely hold open Lorenzetti.  The church is emptying of people; the odd priest walks around dressed in his sombre black vestments, his expression as cheerless as his clothes.  I gaze at the wall I have attempted to grasp; behind me lies another, just as rich, just as intimidating in its richness.

I move over to the chancel.  Either side of the high altar are two massive pulpits, built of rich marble.  More sarcophagi and images of defunct doges.  The high altar itself is grand and highly elaborate, though surprisingly there is no stunning masterpiece above the altar itself.  In this respect, Santi Giovanni e Paolo cannot compete with that other gothic masterpiece, the church of Santa Maria dei Frari, whose altar is crowned with one of the most powerful religious paintings, Titian’s ‘Assumption’.  Perhaps the lack of a central focus in Santi Giovanni e Paolo is appropriate for a building where the periphery is so important.  Santa Maria dei Frari exists almost as showcase for Titian’s masterpiece; Santi Giovanni e Paolo is more democratic in allowing equal weight to its many masterpieces.  It is the fox who knows many things to the Frari’s hedgehog who knows one great one.

Ultimately it is that richness which defeats me now.  Even grasping my talismanic Lorenzetti cannot save me from the cultural exhaustion this place induces.  Santi Giovanni e Paolo is almost a distillation of Venice, concentrated into this forbidding space.  It is a kind of ark of the city’s masterpieces, saved from the treasure of works which have otherwise been swept away through time.  As the proud repository of the city’s art and history, it is appropriate that its facade should be unwelcoming to tourists - descendants of the hordes who helped despoil it.

I might think that Lorenzetti has failed me here; but of course it is me who has failed Lorenzetti.  Although placed as the third itinerary, it is in some sense an advanced walk with the master, not to be undertaken lightly.  Only those who are culturally strong should attempt it.  Ideally, you should approach it as a mountain in itself, to be conquered when fresh, not as a foothill in a chain, approached when already exhausted.

That exhaustion which I feel is also part of a larger malaise: I have been in Venice for three days now.  From past experience, I know that three or four days spent looking hard and honestly are as much as I can take.  Beyond that point a kind of cultural blindness sets in: you see only churches or paintings or sculptures - generalisations which wash off with the next image.  It is fortunate that I am returning home tomorrow.  Venice is a mistress who demands too much, and - worse - gives even more.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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