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    Venice: An Early Impression

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    Chapter 3
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    There would be much to say about that golden chain of historic
    cities which stretches from Milan to Venice, in which the very
    names--Brescia, Verona, Mantua, Padua--are an ornament to one's
    phrase; but I should have to draw upon recollections now three
    years old and to make my short story a long one. Of Verona and
    Venice only have I recent impressions, and even to these must I
    do hasty justice. I came into Venice, just as I had done before,
    toward the end of a summer's day, when the shadows begin to
    lengthen and the light to glow, and found that the attendant
    sensations bore repetition remarkably well. There was the same
    last intolerable delay at Mestre, just before your first glimpse
    of the lagoon confirms the already distinct sea-smell which has
    added speed to the precursive flight of your imagination; then
    the liquid level, edged afar off by its band of undiscriminated
    domes and spires, soon distinguished and proclaimed, however, as
    excited and contentious heads multiply at the windows of the
    train; then your long rumble on the immense white railway-bridge,
    which, in spite of the invidious contrast drawn, and very
    properly, by Mr. Ruskin between the old and the new approach,
    does truly, in a manner, shine across the green lap of the lagoon
    like a mighty causeway of marble; then the plunge into the
    station, which would be exactly similar to every other plunge
    save for one little fact--that the keynote of the great medley of
    voices borne back from the exit is not "Cab, sir!" but "Barca,
    signore!"

    I do not mean, however, to follow the traveller through every
    phase of his initiation, at the risk of stamping poor Venice
    beyond repair as the supreme bugbear of literature; though for
    my own part I hold that to a fine healthy romantic appetite the
    subject can't be too diffusely treated. Meeting in the Piazza on
    the evening of my arrival a young American painter who told me
    that he had been spending the summer just where I found him, I
    could have assaulted him for very envy. He was painting forsooth
    the interior of St. Mark's. To be a young American painter
    unperplexed by the mocking, elusive soul of things and satisfied
    with their wholesome light-bathed surface and shape; keen of eye;
    fond of colour, of sea and sky and anything that may chance
    between them; of old lace and old brocade and old furniture (even
    when made to order); of time-mellowed harmonies on nameless
    canvases and happy contours in cheap old engravings; to spend
    one's mornings in still, productive analysis of the clustered
    shadows of the Basilica, one's afternoons anywhere, in church or
    campo, on canal or lagoon, and one's evenings in star-light
    gossip at Florian's, feeling the sea-breeze throb languidly
    between the two great pillars of the Piazzetta and over the low
    black domes of the church--this, I consider, is to be as happy as
    is consistent with the preservation of reason.

    The mere use of one's eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and
    generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their
    profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it,
    keeps playing with it--thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the
    atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting
    himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation
    beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian "effect." The
    light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to
    Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all.
    You should see in places the material with which it deals--slimy
    brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and
    sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft
    iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred
    nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue
    against every object of vision. You may see these elements at
    work everywhere, but to see them in their intensity you should
    choose the finest day in the month and have yourself rowed far
    away across the lagoon to Torcello. Without making this excursion
    you can hardly pretend to know Venice or to sympathise with that
    longing for pure radiance which animated her great colourists.
    It is a perfect bath of light, and I couldn't get rid of a fancy
    that we were cleaving the upper atmosphere on some hurrying
    cloud-skiff. At Torcello there is nothing but the light to see--
    nothing at least but a sort of blooming sand-bar intersected by
    a single narrow creek which does duty as a canal and occupied by
    a meagre cluster of huts, the dwellings apparently of market-
    gardeners and fishermen, and by a ruinous church of the eleventh
    century. It is impossible to imagine a more penetrating case of
    unheeded collapse. Torcello was the mother-city of Venice, and
    she lies there now, a mere mouldering vestige, like a group of
    weather-bleached parental bones left impiously unburied. I
    stopped my gondola at the mouth of the shallow inlet and walked
    along the grass beside a hedge to the low-browed, crumbling
    cathedral. The charm of certain vacant grassy spaces, in Italy,
    overfrowned by masses of brickwork that are honeycombed by the
    suns of centuries, is something that I hereby renounce once for
    all the attempt to express; but you may be sure that whenever I
    mention such a spot enchantment lurks in it.

    A delicious stillness covered the little campo at Torcello; I
    remember none so subtly audible save that of the Roman Campagna.
    There was no life but the visible tremor of the brilliant air and
    the cries of half-a-dozen young children who dogged our steps and
    clamoured for coppers. These children, by the way, were the
    handsomest little brats in the world, and, each was furnished
    with a pair of eyes that could only have signified the protest of
    nature against the meanness of fortune. They were very nearly as
    naked as savages, and their little bellies protruded like those
    of infant cannibals in the illustrations of books of travel; but
    as they scampered and sprawled in the soft, thick grass, grinning
    like suddenly-translated cherubs and showing their hungry little
    teeth, they suggested forcibly that the best assurance of
    happiness in this world is to be found in the maximum of
    innocence and the minimum of wealth. One small urchin--framed,
    if ever a child was, to be the joy of an aristocratic mamma--was
    the most expressively beautiful creature I had ever looked upon.
    He had a smile to make Correggio sigh in his grave; and yet here
    he was running wild among the sea-stunted bushes, on the lonely
    margin of a decaying world, in prelude to how blank or to how
    dark a destiny? Verily nature is still at odds with propriety;
    though indeed if they ever really pull together I fear nature
    will quite lose her distinction. An infant citizen of our own
    republic, straight-haired, pale-eyed and freckled, duly darned
    and catechised, marching into a New England schoolhouse, is an
    object often seen and soon forgotten; but I think I shall always
    remember with infinite tender conjecture, as the years roll by,
    this little unlettered Eros of the Adriatic strand. Yet all
    youthful things at Torcello were not cheerful, for the poor lad
    who brought us the key of the cathedral was shaking with an ague,
    and his melancholy presence seemed to point the moral of forsaken
    nave and choir. The church, admirably primitive and curious,
    reminded me of the two or three oldest churches of Rome--St.
    Clement and St. Agnes. The interior is rich in grimly mystical
    mosaics of the twelfth century and the patchwork of precious
    fragments in the pavement not inferior to that of St. Mark's. But
    the terribly distinct Apostles are ranged against their dead gold
    backgrounds as stiffly as grenadiers presenting arms--intensely
    personal sentinels of a personal Deity. Their stony stare seems
    to wait for ever vainly for some visible revival of primitive
    orthodoxy, and one may well wonder whether it finds much
    beguilement in idly-gazing troops of Western heretics--
    passionless even in their heresy.

    I had been curious to see whether in the galleries and temples of
    Venice I should be disposed to transpose my old estimates--to
    burn what I had adored and adore what I had burned. It is a sad
    truth that one can stand in the Ducal Palace for the first time
    but once, with the deliciously ponderous sense of that particular
    half-hour's being an era in one's mental history; but I had the
    satisfaction of finding at least--a great comfort in a short
    stay--that none of my early memories were likely to change places
    and that I could take up my admirations where I had left them. I
    still found Carpaccio delightful, Veronese magnificent, Titian
    supremely beautiful and Tintoret scarce to be appraised. I
    repaired immediately to the little church of San Cassano, which
    contains the smaller of Tintoret's two great Crucifixions; and
    when I had looked at it a while I drew a long breath and felt I
    could now face any other picture in Venice with proper self-
    possession. It seemed to me I had advanced to the uttermost limit
    of painting; that beyond this another art--inspired poetry--
    begins, and that Bellini, Veronese, Giorgione, and Titian, all
    joining hands and straining every muscle of their genius, reach
    forward not so far but that they leave a visible space in which
    Tintoret alone is master. I well remember the exaltations to
    which he lifted me when first I learned to know him; but the glow
    of that comparatively youthful amazement is dead, and with it, I
    fear, that confident vivacity of phrase of which, in trying to
    utter my impressions, I felt less the magniloquence than the
    impotence. In his power there are many weak spots, mysterious
    lapses and fitful intermissions; but when the list of his faults
    is complete he still remains to me the most interesting of
    painters. His reputation rests chiefly on a more superficial
    sort of merit--his energy, his unsurpassed productivity, his
    being, as Théophile Gautier says, le roi des fougueux.
    These qualities are immense, but the great source of his
    impressiveness is that his indefatigable hand never drew a line
    that was not, as one may say, a moral line. No painter ever had
    such breadth and such depth; and even Titian, beside him, scarce
    figures as more than a great decorative artist. Mr. Ruskin, whose
    eloquence in dealing with the great Venetians sometimes outruns
    his discretion, is fond of speaking even of Veronese as a painter
    of deep spiritual intentions. This, it seems to me, is pushing
    matters too far, and the author of "The Rape of Europa" is,
    pictorially speaking, no greater casuist than any other genius of
    supreme good taste. Titian was assuredly a mighty poet, but
    Tintoret--well, Tintoret was almost a prophet. Before his
    greatest works you are conscious of a sudden evaporation of old
    doubts and dilemmas, and the eternal problem of the conflict
    between idealism and realism dies the most natural of deaths. In
    his genius the problem is practically solved; the alternatives
    are so harmoniously interfused that I defy the keenest critic to
    say where one begins and the other ends. The homeliest prose
    melts into the most ethereal poetry--the literal and the
    imaginative fairly confound their identity.

    This, however, is vague praise. Tintoret's great merit, to my
    mind, was his unequalled distinctness of vision. When once he had
    conceived the germ of a scene it defined itself to his
    imagination with an intensity, an amplitude, an individuality of
    expression, which makes one's observation of his pictures seem
    less an operation of the mind than a kind of supplementary
    experience of life. Veronese and Titian are content with a much
    looser specification, as their treatment of any subject that the
    author of the Crucifixion at San Cassano has also treated
    abundantly proves. There are few more suggestive contrasts than
    that between the absence of a total character at all commensurate
    with its scattered variety and brilliancy in Veronese's "Marriage
    of Cana," at the Louvre, and the poignant, almost startling,
    completeness of Tintoret's illustration of the theme at the
    Salute church. To compare his "Presentation of the Virgin," at
    the Madonna dell' Orto, with Titian's at the Academy, or his
    "Annunciation" with Titian's close at hand, is to measure the
    essential difference between observation and imagination. One has
    certainly not said all that there is to say for Titian when one
    has called him an observer. Il y mettait du sien, and I
    use the term to designate roughly the artist whose apprehension,
    infinitely deep and strong when applied to the single figure or
    to easily balanced groups, spends itself vainly on great dramatic
    combinations--or rather leaves them ungauged. It was the whole
    scene that Tintoret seemed to have beheld in a flash of
    inspiration intense enough to stamp it ineffaceably on his
    perception; and it was the whole scene, complete, peculiar,
    individual, unprecedented, that he committed to canvas with all
    the vehemence of his talent. Compare his "Last Supper," at San
    Giorgio--its long, diagonally placed table, its dusky
    spaciousness, its scattered lamp-light and halo-light, its
    startled, gesticulating figures, its richly realistic foreground-
    -with the customary formal, almost mathematical rendering of the
    subject, in which impressiveness seems to have been sought in
    elimination rather than comprehension. You get from Tintoret's
    work the impression that he felt, pictorially, the great,
    beautiful, terrible spectacle of human life very much as
    Shakespeare felt it poetically--with a heart that never ceased to
    beat a passionate accompaniment to every stroke of his brush.
    Thanks to this fact his works are signally grave, and their
    almost universal and rapidly increasing decay doesn't relieve
    their gloom. Nothing indeed can well be sadder than the great
    collection of Tintorets at San Rocco. Incurable blackness is
    settling fast upon all of them, and they frown at you across the
    sombre splendour of their great chambers like gaunt twilight
    phantoms of pictures. To our children's children Tintoret, as
    things are going, can be hardly more than a name; and such of
    them as shall miss the tragic beauty, already so dimmed and
    stained, of the great "Bearing of the Cross" in that temple of
    his spirit will live and die without knowing the largest
    eloquence of art. If you wish to add the last touch of solemnity
    to the place recall as vividly as possible while you linger at
    San Rocco the painter's singularly interesting portrait of
    himself, at the Louvre. The old man looks out of the canvas from
    beneath a brow as sad as a sunless twilight, with just such a
    stoical hopelessness as you might fancy him to wear if he stood
    at your side gazing at his rotting canvases. It isn't whimsical
    to read it as the face of a man who felt that he had given the
    world more than the world was likely to repay. Indeed before
    every picture of Tintoret you may remember this tremendous
    portrait with profit. On one side the power, the passion, the
    illusion of his art; on the other the mortal fatigue of his
    spirit. The world's knowledge of him is so small that the
    portrait throws a doubly precious light on his personality; and
    when we wonder vainly what manner of man he was, and what were
    his purpose, his faith and his method, we may find forcible
    assurance there that they were at any rate his life--one of the
    most intellectually passionate ever led.

    Verona, which was my last Italian stopping-place, is in any
    conditions a delightfully interesting city; but the kindness of
    my own memory of it is deepened by a subsequent ten days'
    experience of Germany. I rose one morning at Verona, and went to
    bed at night at Botzen! The statement needs no comment, and the
    two places, though but fifty miles apart, are as painfully
    dissimilar as their names. I had prepared myself for your
    delectation with a copious tirade on German manners, German
    scenery, German art and the German stage--on the lights and
    shadows of Innsbrück, Munich, Nüremberg and Heidelberg; but just
    as I was about to put pen to paper I glanced into a little volume
    on these very topics lately published by that famous novelist and
    moralist, M. Ernest Feydeau, the fruit of a summer's observation
    at Homburg. This work produced a reaction; and if I chose to
    follow M. Feydeau's own example when he wishes to qualify his
    approbation I might call his treatise by any vile name known to
    the speech of man. But I content myself with pronouncing it
    superficial. I then reflect that my own opportunities for seeing
    and judging were extremely limited, and I suppress my tirade,
    lest some more enlightened critic should come and hang me with
    the same rope. Its sum and substance was to have been that--
    superficially--Germany is ugly; that Munich is a nightmare,
    Heidelberg a disappointment (in spite of its charming castle) and
    even Nüremberg not a joy for ever. But comparisons are odious,
    and if Munich is ugly Verona is beautiful enough. You may laugh
    at my logic, but will probably assent to my meaning. I carried
    away from Verona a precious mental picture upon which I cast an
    introspective glance whenever between Botzen and Strassburg the
    oppression of external circumstance became painful. It was a
    lovely August afternoon in the Roman arena--a ruin in which
    repair and restoration have been so watchfully and plausibly
    practised that it seems all of one harmonious antiquity. The
    vast stony oval rose high against the sky in a single clear,
    continuous line, broken here and there only by strolling and
    reclining loungers. The massive tiers inclined in solid monotony
    to the central circle, in which a small open-air theatre was in
    active operation. A small quarter of the great slope of masonry
    facing the stage was roped off into an auditorium, in which the
    narrow level space between the foot-lights and the lowest step
    figured as the pit. Foot-lights are a figure of speech, for the
    performance was going on in the broad glow of the afternoon, with
    a delightful and apparently by no means misplaced confidence in
    the good-will of the spectators. What the piece was that was
    deemed so superbly able to shift for itself I know not--very
    possibly the same drama that I remember seeing advertised during
    my former visit to Verona; nothing less than La Tremenda
    Giustizia di Dio
    . If titles are worth anything this product
    of the melodramatist's art might surely stand upon its own legs.
    Along the tiers above the little group of regular spectators was
    gathered a free-list of unauthorised observers, who, although
    beyond ear-shot, must have been enabled by the generous breadth
    of Italian gesture to follow the tangled thread of the piece. It
    was all deliciously Italian--the mixture of old life and new, the
    mountebank's booth (it was hardly more) grafted on the antique
    circus, the dominant presence of a mighty architecture, the
    loungers and idlers beneath the kindly sky and upon the sun-
    warmed stones. I never felt more keenly the difference between
    the background to life in very old and very new civilisations.
    There are other things in Verona to make it a liberal education
    to be born there, though that it is one for the contemporary
    Veronese I don't pretend to say. The Tombs of the Scaligers, with
    their soaring pinnacles, their high-poised canopies, their
    exquisite refinement and concentration of the Gothic idea, I
    can't profess, even after much worshipful gazing, to have fully
    comprehended and enjoyed. They seemed to me full of deep
    architectural meanings, such as must drop gently into the mind
    one by one, after infinite tranquil contemplation. But even to
    the hurried and preoccupied traveller the solemn little chapel-
    yard in the city's heart, in which they stand girdled by their
    great swaying curtain of linked and twisted iron, is one of the
    most impressive spots in Italy. Nowhere else is such a wealth of
    artistic achievement crowded into so narrow a space; nowhere else
    are the daily comings and goings of men blessed by the presence
    of manlier art. Verona is rich furthermore in beautiful
    churches--several with beautiful names: San Fermo, Santa
    Anastasia, San Zenone. This last is a structure of high antiquity
    and of the most impressive loveliness. The nave terminates in a
    double choir, that is a sub-choir or crypt into which you descend
    and where you wander among primitive columns whose variously
    grotesque capitals rise hardly higher than your head, and an
    upper choral plane reached by broad stairways of the bravest
    effect. I shall never forget the impression of majestic chastity
    that I received from the great nave of the building on my former
    visit. I then decided to my satisfaction that every church is
    from the devotional point of view a solecism that has not
    something of a similar absolute felicity of proportion; for
    strictly formal beauty seems best to express our conception of
    spiritual beauty. The nobly serious character of San Zenone is
    deepened by its single picture--a masterpiece of the most serious
    of painters, the severe and exquisite Mantegna.

    1872
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