Saturday 25 July 2020

XII - Fourth portrait: itinerant biographies

I make no claims whatsoever that my work is free from errors, deficiencies or inexactitudes.

Lorenzetti’s last itinerary is rather different.  All are collections of noteworthy sights, arranged into convenient paths.  One obvious grouping is the great sequence of constantly varied masterpieces along the banks of the Grand Canal.  Clearly these works had to be included in any conspectus of Venice; and yet access by land would be immensely long and tedious.  Lorenzetti’s solution, a metaphorical walk down the Grand Canal, is an apt compromise and fitting conclusion to the whole series.

But even by such initiatives Lorenzetti was not able to encompass everything he wanted to include, still less everything the city has to offer.  He therefore adds at the back of the book chapters on the major art galleries, the lagoon and its islands, even information on the nearby mainland.  His knowledge continually spills out beyond the confines of his self-imposed structures.

Knowledge and experience are ever thus, refusing to fit neatly into the predetermined shapes of science and art.  Much of the artifice of art lies in accommodating this inchoate experience in as compact and coherent a form as possible.  Lorenzetti’s book exemplifies both the power and the problems of that accommodation.

Lorenzetti’s itineraries do not purport to be exact records of his own experiences as he created and travelled round them.  They are composites, built up from years of research, years of painstaking investigation on the ground.  By contrast, my own itineraries as I followed in his footsteps are essentially literal reports of what I found and felt as I walked with Lorenzetti on successive days.

But not quite literal.  Just as Lorenzetti himself was forced to relegate some of his experiences and knowledge to a twelfth chapter, and still more to later, unnumbered sections, so I too have incidents and experiences which, for various reasons, are not contained in my descriptions above.

First of all there are the large-scale re-arrangements.  Life makes no allowances for the Lorenzetti walker.  Churches hold services, galleries are closed, and other quotidian details prevent you from following the master as literally as you might like.  For example, I went on my second tour - the Ninth of Lorenzetti’s itineraries - in the afternoon of the day I followed his Eighth.  The Accademia gallery was closed by the time I got there, so I went the next day.  Similarly the Gesuati church was not yet open.  By the time I had continued with my walk and returned to the Gesuati, the church of La Salute was closed, and had to wait to the following day too.

On that same first day another important deviation from the Lorenzetti path occurred.  When I arrived on the Zattere and found the Gesuati closed, I decided to go across to the Giudecca.  I had often stared across at this ghostly vision, this thin strip of land floating uneasily on the waters.  As I took the vaporetto, I was struck by just how wide the Giudecca canal is: it felt quite unnerving leaving behind the safety of Venice proper.  Moreover, I have had this lingering distrust of vaporetti, as if they were possessed of mischievous minds of their own, ever since one took me far away into the lagoon only hours before I was due to leave Venice.  It had all felt so symbolic.

Now, however, I found myself on the fondamenta of the Giudecca, looking back across at the Zattere.  It was a very strange experience, seeing those familiar sights - the Dogana, the Doge’s palace and the rest - so far away.  It was as if I were in some doppelgänger world, parallel to yet separated from the other.  Moreover, by some trick of light or perspective, that distance seemed to increase the longer you stared at it, as if the two side were drifting apart.  I was surprised to learn from Lorenzetti that Michelangelo lived here for a while during his exile from Florence. Somehow it is hard to imagine the ultimate exponent of the hard outline surrounding flat tints in this city of soft edges and peacock colours.

I went into a tiny café there, its minimalist decor offering odd juxtapositions: a garish photo of San Giorgio Maggiore, a faded print of Italy’s football squad, a pennant for Florence, and a still-life oil painting.  The clientele were similarly dour: old men with thick glasses and stern-faced women, one with mad eyes clutching huge blue boxes.  They stared suspiciously and silently at this invasive tourist.

Afterwards I went east further along the fondamenta to the church of Il Redentore - another church in commemoration, this time of deliverance from the 1576 plague.  The facade is very like that of the nearby San Giorgio Maggiore, unsurprisingly since they are both by Palladio.  But this is a cooler version, not so aggressively thrusting as the other.  From its steps the facade is particularly impressive as the edges of the pediments throw deep shadows.

The interior is completely different from the austerely classical S. Giorgio.  Il Redentore looks homely and comforting.  The fact that it was Christmas, and there was an ornate crib with candles and lamps everywhere, and saccharine Italian hymns playing softly in the background, added to this effect.  It was also dark now, so Palladio’s design slipped into the shadows leaving only a general feeling of warmth and a safe space.

I went outside again into the dusk.  I passed along to the church of Zitelle, which was closed.  The facade looked like derivative Palladio, flat and without energy.  The view from here was stunning: San Marco lit up but half obscured; the Dogana glaring with its golden ball; La Salute rising proud at the end of the Grand Canal; L’Ospedale della Pietà illumined too.  San Giorgio Maggiore had been lit with an eerie glacial glow, and now floated on the black waters; tiny pink lights appeared along the Zattere and Riva degli Schiavoni.  The bells of the city were ringing: not peals but four distinct notes, played according to some impossibly complex rhythm.

On that same eventful first day I also visited the Peggy Guggenheim gallery.  On previous trips to Venice I had sought in vain for this collection which is hidden away around the back of La Salute.  It was a pleasure to find it now, and not just for the sense of satisfaction its final discovery gave.  It was warm, and after a morning and afternoon spent wandering a bitterly cold Venice, such warmth was welcome.

It also offered a much-needed cultural respite.  My eyes had surfeited on ancient images cargoed with history and meaning, so the sight of Jackson Pollocks with all their abstract energy and disregard for representation came as a relief.  At the same time, their intricate web of lines seemed at one with the city’s own fine mesh of alleys and waterways.  It refreshed my exhausted senses - so much so, that I returned here the next day too, for much the same reason.

The Guggenheim collection was situated on the Grand Canal.  From its galleries you could walk out onto a small balustraded area and watch the boats pass by.  But this grandstanding of Venice and of material and artistic wealth also had its melancholy side.  As well as the permanent collection there was a temporary exhibition of photographs showing Guggenheim herself with famous twentieth-century artists.  She looked desperately unhappy.  Even with all this art, all this visual namedropping, even with this collection to preserve her name, the photos said she was living a sham, that her collecting like that of so many other great collectors was obsessive and defensive, and that her great public munificence was born of a terrible personal loneliness.

On my last day, after following Lorenzetti’s fourth itinerary, I went to another collection, that in the Correr Museum.  This is one of my favourites.  First, its location along the south side of the Piazza San Marco means that the view from its windows alone is worth the price of admission. But more importantly, this is a museum of Venice’s past: it is Venice’s memory of itself.

As if to emphasise the continuing relevance of that past to the present, at the start of the museum there was a painting of the city made around 1650; barely a building has changed.  A little further on, I was greeted by another image which seemed strategically placed, a striking ‘Portrait of Amedeo Svajer’ by Antonio Canova.  The subject weighed around 30 stone, and had what looked like a skinned rat on his shoulder.  In its monstrous secularism it offered to my eyes a pointed contrast to the thousands of pinched and worthy images of saints which fill the churches of the city. This was, after all, the civic museum.

There seemed little overall organisation to the place, which only added to its charm, to the sense that it was a kind of artistic lumber room for the city.  Each room seemed to have a theme, but any links between successive rooms and themes were recondite, relating perhaps to ancient and arcane mysteries.

One room was full of superannuated lions of St Mark, another had nothing but portraits of apprehensive looking Doges - with their wigs and hats they looked like sheep in fancy dress.  Yet another displayed row upon row of commemorative coins, a sight made the more melancholy by the sense that each of these thousands of coins had been cast specifically to preserve the memory of a notable person or event; now, people and events had been reduced to fading words on dusty and yellowing labels.  A room was hung with ranks of third-rate madonnas, redundant in this city filled with masterpieces on the same theme, but touching because of their redundancy, their third-rateness, their exile here like cloistered gentlewomen.  One of the final rooms was filled with cases of Urbino maiolica, the unforgettable blues and yellows and greens falling peacefully like a balm upon the eyes.

My other major divergence from Lorenzetti occurred in the morning of my last day.  I had been wandering around the back of the Accademia Gallery, in a part of Venice which is picturesque, but which attracts few tourists.  I was walking without any real goal, and without Lorenzetti, when I found myself by San Pantalon.  Passing along the salizzada of the same name, I came to the church of the Tolentini.  It had been around just here that I had stayed during my second trip to Venice.  I looked along the doorways, and there, just as I had remembered it, was the entrance to the Locanda Stefania.

I recall many years ago ascending the long narrow staircase to the top floor, and entering through double doors to the reception area.  There was a heavy, late middle-aged man with thick grey hair who showed me his one remaining room, a tiny single costing 10,000L.  The use of opaque green glass everywhere made the locandia very light and rather cold, and lent it a sub-aqueous air, as if submerged in a canal.

Finding the locanda was hardly of great moment to me, unlike revisiting the foresteria near Santa Maria Formosa, where I stayed during my first visit to Venice, which unleashed powerful emotions. But it did offer a further link with my past, strengthening the feeling of continuity in this city, the sense that nothing is ever lost here, that every memory is held and endures.  Finding the locanda was like discovering and opening up a casket which had been buried years before, and retrieving small, personal objects of no great value in themselves, but interesting because of their unlooked-for survival.

These, then, were the places I visited outside Lorenzetti’s itineraries. They were part of my biography, but were not assimilable in his larger scheme.  Just as important to me were the places which I did not visit this time, but which figured strongly in my personal mythology of the place, and whose absences I regretted.

Chief among then was the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.  For anyone passing along the Riva degli Schiavoni, it hovers as a constant presence across the waters.  The first time I went to Venice, I was soon drawn out to it, taking the No.5 vaporetto from one of the cluster of floating stops a little way along from the Ducal palace.

It is a strange feeling being marooned on that small paved space in front of the church.  There is always the momentary fear that the boat will not come back.  The sight of the church’s interior is enough to dispel such minor considerations.  It must be one of the most perfect buildings ever created in terms of the balance of its constituent parts.  The lack of ornament contributes enormously: everything is smooth surfaces, clearly articulated spaces and cool colours.  In this context its physical isolation outside becomes an inevitable correlate and extension of a spiritual one inside.

It comes therefore as something of a relief to ascend in the lift to the top of the campanile, away from all this control and rigour.  The view from here is one of the best in Venice.  You look across to the set pieces of the Ducal Palace, San Marco, the Piazza; you see the whole of the city laid out before you like a map.  The varied hues of the roofs, the oranges, the browns, the reds, the yellows, create a rich quilt of colours which is spread over the city.  Dark grooves seem to be cut in this cloth, tell-tale signs of the criss-crossing canals below.  From up here, Venice looks like neither a city of streets, nor of canals; it is of a third kind, which is related to both, but distinct.

Where the Isola S. Giorgio to the south of Venice seems to be watchful, with its vigilant bell-tower keeping guard over the city, the Isola San Michele to the north - which I also did not visit - seems to be quite apart, ignoring all that happens there.  San Michele is the island cemetery of Venice, a kind of deathly version of the city: where everything there of ordinary life happens amid the unreal world built on water, so here death too operates as usual, but in its own watery world.

The isolation is reinforced by the high wall which surrounds the cemetery.  As you approach on the vaporetto which stops on its way to the outer islands of the lagoon, you can see only the church of San Michele, and the walls, and above the latter, a few dark cypresses.

Even more than with the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, stepping off here feels like leaving this world for the next.  Perhaps, you think, dying is like this.  Inside, the cemetery is both peaceful and beautiful.  The eye is struck by the regular rows of graves and monuments, a regularity all the more impressive for being so alien to Venice with its perpetual corners and curves.  Also notable are the flowers everywhere which make the solemn scene a mass of colour.  But even the blooms speak of death: they are all cut flowers, withering daily.

At one end of the cemetery there is a gate opening out on to the lagoon.  It faces the city, and through the gate’s bars you can gaze as if at another land, just as the dead gaze across at our island of the living perhaps.  It feels like an immense privilege that, unlike the dead, you are permitted to leave this cemetery island and return to Venice.

The final destination I failed to reach on this occasion lies beyond San Michele.  Beyond even the nearby island of Murano, the so-called island of glass, which in form is a miniature version of Venice itself, in its bridges and churches and narrow streets, and even down to the serpentine main canal which cuts it in two.

It requires a journey on the vaporetto deep into the lagoon, out past all the nearby islands, out through the guiding rows of splintering wooden staves placed to mark the channels through the mud.  Venice soon disappears into the haze and the mists, and you are alone on the waters.

Eventually two towers emerge; one belongs to the island of Burano, the other to Torcello.  Isolated, and little known to the tourist, Torcello is an extraordinary place.  Today, all that remains of its former glory is the Romanesque cathedral, probably built in the tenth century.  It is most famous for the well-preserved mosaics which date from 800 years ago.  Once, though, Torcello was Venice itself: it was here that those fleeing from the invasions on the mainland first built their homes and their churches, their palaces and cathedrals.  Most of the island today is mud covered with grass and reeds; but it is the mud from which Venice arose, and on which it still stands.  To visit Torcello is to step back to the origins of Venice.

These, then, were the places I visited but did not record, or those that I did not visit but remembered.  But even incorporating these events, my itineraries are still the barest bones of my time in Venice, just as Lorenzetti’s work, for all its ungraspable detail, is only a fraction of what he saw and learnt in a lifetime.

Above all, whole areas of experience are missing in both.  For example in Lorenzetti’s itineraries, and in mine, no mention is made of food: it is assumed that the tourist is sustained by spiritual and cultural nourishment alone.  Nor is there any reference to the need for pauses, rest or sleep. Instead, Lorenzetti’s Venice is a place of pure and unremitting aesthetic experience, one in which the city’s spatial concentration of artistic riches is mirrored in a temporal compression which omits all of life’s more mundane moments.

Rest and sustenance are not the only aspects of common humanity apparently glossed over in the book.  Throughout, Lorenzetti remains almost as impassive as the stones of the city he describes.  He seems to proceed everywhere with equanimity, walking through a landscape undifferentiated by emotion.  His eulogies are temperate, his condemnations measured.  If he makes a judgement, you can be sure it is the fruit of decades of experience and rumination, and is not the unconsidered reaction of a moment.

In the end his willed objectivity, his abstention from emotionalism, become almost frightening in their success, so at variance are they to our own feelings when confronted by the same masterpieces.  It could be argued that our whole response to Venice is in some sense emotional since the overpowering richness of its experience passes beyond the bounds of logic and categories.  Throughout its history, Venice has been a city for sensualists, hedonists and aesthetes, never for rationalists.

However, it would be a mistake to characterise Lorenzetti as unfeeling. The whole of Venice and its lagoons bespeaks a profound love for every aspect of the city, its art, its history, and its people.  Its intensity is manifest not overtly in glib exclamations, but in the dedication it took to produce over 1000 densely-packed pages; in the major part of a life it consumed - as only a passion can consume; in the self-sacrifice of its quiet tone and its perpetual self-effacement.

When, as a shorthand, we refer to this book as ‘Lorenzetti’, we are more correct than we know, in that the man gave so much of himself to produce it that in effect he became his book.  But the final result of those labours is something quite different, something quite antithetical to the self-glorification that implies, something far more precious.  Lorenzetti’s ‘Venice’ is a true distillation of Venice itself.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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