Thursday, July 08, 2004

July 6-7, Venice

The Beaver-Republic (as Goethe put it)

After getting to our hotel on Tuesday afternoon I went out exploring the city and looking for the Scuola di San Rocco. This was an extraordinary building. It reminded me of Sorolla in the Hispanic Society--almost a life's work preserved on the walls of a kind of lay-temple. The colors seemed to be suffering from age. The shadows were mostly all the same black-brown, and various evidence suggests that the paintings were once much lighter. I can easily imagine this based on Tintoretto's other work which we saw in the Accademia the next day. It would be glorious to see that building as it originally appeared, I am sure. As it is, the works are very impressive in size and style, but I can't say that I feel inspired by the compositions, somehow. Perhaps things are too literal, or too self-consciously posed.

This museum contained one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen: the Martyrdom of St. Mark by Giovanni Bellini. It's one of those works that I didn't have to try to appreciate. Love for this painting just washed over me like a wave as soon as I saw it. It feels grand and humble at the same time. The color and shapes of the forms are sublimely simple and beautiful. There is a rhythmic dynamism to the movements of the figures and the shapes of color. The landscape and architecture in the background are light and expansive, and the whole painting gives a wonderful sense of a public space. Like in Giotto, a story is related in a beautifully direct manner. All the figures seem to be alive and fully human, which conveys to me a sense of compassion for humanity in all its different forms, good and evil, high and low, rich and poor, man and woman, young and old. I have always felt that awareness and compassion were essentially the same thing. Violence, which is a state of mind before it is an action, is basically a lack of interest in other peoples' reality. The artist who portrays a caricature of evil people furthers the cycle of violence which he is condemning. This painter, by contrast, seems to take an interest in the humanity of these people, even though they are committing a horrible act. Perhaps that is another way this painting seems to me related to Giotto.

The canvas has a strange shape which would have accomodated a large door in the central lower portion. I think it would be better hung over a door now, because as it is the part which is missing from the usual rectangular scheme seems to be just that--a missing part. If it were wrapping around a door, there would be a narrative purpose to the shape. The trail of the saint's blood on the left side of the painting would lead directly through the space of the door to connect to the saint's body just on the other side. Thus the human space of the door would intersect in a sense with the passage of the saint's body across the scene of the painting, giving us a sense that the saint's body was being dragged across OUR path. It seems like it should be hung this way now, so that people can experience this.

Bellini's other works were very diverse. I am extremely impressed with the genius of this artist. I don't know how any of this will feed into my work, but I feel that it is already in my soul. I bought a book of Bellini's work in the shop at the museum. In this book there is a picture of his Baptism of Christ in the chiesa di Santa Corona in Vicenza. The head of Christ in this painting may be the most beautiful thing I have seen in oil painting. Only Rembrandt's late self-portrait in a beret, in the National Gallery, Washington D.C., which I saw in Boston last year, comes to mind with a similar force for me. I wish that I could see this painting in real life.

As for the rest of the museum:
I didn't find the gothic works here as compelling as those in Florence. There was an amazing painting of an angel with gold armor that stood out in relief. Many of the gothic paintings were beautiful, but I didn't find them as energetic or sensual as the ones in the Uffizi.

One painting made me laugh: it was a gothic triptych featuring, among other saints, a Saint Peter the Martyr who was stooping to give a blessing to a small person at his feet, all the while with a gigantic blade in the shape of a meat cleaver buried about four inches deep in the top of his skull, oozing blood.

Side by side with Bellini's huge masterpiece hung two bizarre works by a painter whose name I have blocked out. Huge canvases absolutely obsessed with hundreds of identically painted columns and indistinguishable turbaned gentleman of Venice. The mechanical highlights on every turban and column had the effect of making me feel anxious. I don't understand how anyone could look at such a painting without experiencing discomfort.

I had no idea previously of Veronese's unbelievable abilities. I had a similar response as that to Tintoretto. I can only hold these great masters in the highest esteem, and feel that I am in no place to criticize those who stand so far above me. That said, the works don't evoke the basic response in me that is my reason for being an artist. They don't seem to move my heart. Perhaps I have been looking at too much art.

The large, late work of Titian's which I sketched in miniature is darkly mysterious. The use of paint and the dark, muted colors, together with the mystery of the composition, evoke the emergence of an inner vision, as if this painter were looking beyond his life, or he is like a snake shedding some old skin late in life, emerging in a new dark and silver form which had been growing, developing underneath the old one for years. I don't know enough about this artist's life and work to really understand this transformation, and I cannot explain this impression, but it grips me somehow.

The Church of the "Frari"
A beautiful gothic church in brick-- a relief from all the baroque extravaganzas we have been seeing. I looked at two very impressive Titians, although the Assumption of the Virgin over the alterpiece made me think of a number in a broadway musical. Again, I almost feel like a blasphemer to say such a thing--I have such a high respect for Titian--but the use of figures in this way seems somehow overextended, if that makes any sense. As if the enthusiasm for numbers and size of figures had overgrown its boundaries and was taking over the world on its own account. Maybe by descent I have the same kind of cultural soul as the Protestants, and I simply don't understand this profusion of characters and figures in Catholicism. Still, it doesn't bother me in Michelangelo, or in Bellini's paintings.

I also admired a work by Rubens and an altarpiece by Bellini, in a side chapel.

I wish that I could be in this city when there are fewer tourists here, and that I could have time just to wander in it and draw. There are quiet impressions lurking here underneath all the hubub of the tourism.


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