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On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light

In the art of the Venetian artist Canaletto (Antonio del Canale, 1697–1768), Venice returned to one of her oldest habits: the depiction and celebration of her own beauty. Unlike the works produced in Venice’s heyday, however, Canaletto’s art and that of his contemporary Francesco Guardi (1712–93), both of whom were at work in the last decades before the end of the Serene Republic, was a depiction without the glorification of earlier times. And the works attained international fame in the artists’ own lifetimes.

Canaletto’s views of Venice and its canals were exported widely, especially to England through the British Consul, Joseph Smith. Their popularity was due in part to the outstandingly rendered light and shadow which suffused the ordered spaces. His works give remarkable delight to the eye both from a distance and from close to. Canaletto came to London between 1746 and 1754 and painted it: in his views of the northern city, he performed the remarkable feat of making the banks of the Thames look as serenely lovely as the Bacino di San Marco. Stillness is all in Canaletto.

Canaletto: The Grand Canal and Church of the Salute viewed from the Bacino

The works of Guardi are far less serene.

Here, the coruscations of light and vibrancy of atmosphere reveal a diametrically different response to the city’s beauty, a response which was only appreciated many generations later, once European sensibilities had been educated to see things differently by the Impressionists. For Canaletto, the light is the vehicle of his passion for the architecture: for Guardi the architecture is a necessary receptacle for his passion for the light.

Guardi: the Church of the Salute and the Bacino treated in less serene, more Romantic way

The works of both these masters remind us that so much of Venetian art, indeed so much of the fascination of the city, has always depended upon its unique light—immediately, tangibly different from anywhere else in Italy because of the surrounding water which constantly modifies it. It is this that explains the primacy of the the visual sensibility in Venice: it has produced no internationally great writers, poets, thinkers or scientists. Venice has no Dante or Leonardo, no Galileo or Machiavelli; but it produced painters whose universal influence has been incomparable, because of one fundamental lesson they imbibed from the endless modulations of their native light. They instinctively understood how light in painting is the vehicle of human empathy.

An extract from the introduction to Blue Guide Venice. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved

Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion

The religions practised in the later Roman empire were many and various. There was the official state cult, of course, centred around the great triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. But many other cults from different parts of the empire also flourished. There were the Egyptian religions, for example those of Serapis and Isis. There was the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother, which originated in Asia Minor. There were Jewish communities of traders and merchants. And there were Christians.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull from the Mithraic shrine at Londinium. Displayed in the Museum of London.

The cult which most resembled Christianity and which appears to have represented a serious challenge to it, was that of Mithras, which traces its origins to Persia. Like the cult of Isis and also that of Jesus Christ, Mithraism was a “mystery” religion, in other words a faith that is concerned primarily with a realm that transcends the worldly sphere and which seeks to show initiates how to attain admittance to it. Mystery cults focus on truths that are inexplicable by man’s experience or understanding, and promise some kind of redemption or rebirth. Mithraism was particularly concerned with ideas of enlightenment, of moving from a realm of darkness to a relam of light. Some 500 sanctuaries are known, 35 of them in Rome itself, and 18 in its port city of Ostia. They were always underground, in the basements of buildings or in caves. At the eastern end of the sanctuary, the god was shown with attendant deities with torches. This represented the light towards which members were moving. Mithraism was especially popular among soldiers, which is why we find Mithraea in far-flung outposts such as Londinium in Britannia and Aquincum in Pannonia. Slaves and ex-slaves were also attracted to the cult, although women were excluded from it. One of the cult’s attractions was its graded hierarchy. Initiates moved upwards through a series of ranks just as a soldier might do, or a slave who was working towards freedom. The highest grade, a ‘Father’, was probably reserved for a leader of a congregation, and it was an important enough honour to be recorded on gravestones.

A Mithraean sanctuary typically held a sculpture or relief of Mithras shown seated astride a great bull, holding back the animal’s head and slitting its throat in sacrifice. The sacrifice of a bull is crucial to the cult—it is usually seen as a force Mithras must conquer to release the fertility of the earth. The spirit of the bull, it was believed, was released by its death, and its blood falling on the ground brought regeneration and renewal. Animals join in, as if working against Mithras. A serpent and a dog suck the wound, perhaps to prevent the blood nourishing the earth. A scorpion is often shown attacking the bull’s testicles as if to destroy its fertility. The cult draws on ancient Eastern parallels, including Zoroastrianism. Mithras himself is typically depicted wearing a Phrygian cap (from Phrygia in Asia Minor), which was used by the Romans as a recognizable symbol of the East.

There seems to have been some competition between Mithraism and Christianity over converts, but as Christianity grew more powerful it moved to obliterate Mithraism, and overtook it altogether. By the end of the 4th century, after the edicts of the emperor Theodosius, Christianity was the only mystery religion that survived. Its spread and popularity was due in large part to the fact of its wide appeal for women.

Text adapted from Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World © Blue Guides.

Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer

What does the great Dutch painter Vermeer (1632–75) have in common with Pontormo, the Florentine Mannerist (1494–1557)? At first glance, nothing. They were born in different parts of Europe almost a century and a half apart. But there here are two paintings, one by each artist, and whenever I see one of them, I’m always reminded of the other.

The first is Pontormo’s Visitation, painted c. 1530 for the church of St Michael at Carignano, near Florence
The other is Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662), in New York’s Metropolitan Museum


How can a 15th-century Mannerist, painting in an age and a city where princely families and the Catholic church commissioned great works of art, possibly have produced anything faintly similar to the output of a bourgeois, struggling Dutch painter whose patrons–the few he had–were mere artesans?

What is it that makes these two works seem alike–at least to me? Is it the bold use of colour, for which Pontormo is so famous. Because Vermeer’s use of colour is extraordinary too. That great slab of lapis-blue skirt. The way the ruddy hues of the carpet are reflected in the jug and silver dish. Is it the crisp folds of the drapery and the shadows they cast? Is it the faint sfumato that softens the outlines of the faces? Is it the peculiar, detached absorption with which the women are going about their tasks: the one a housewife, immersed in domestic chores; the others biblical characters, playing the ineluctable roles they have been cast?  Is it the economy with which each image reduces itself to the essentials, with only the merest incidental detail (the man in the background of the Pontormo picture; the silk thread hanging out of the trinket box in the Vermeer)? Or is it the way the light falls upon the women’s skin, illuminating it, making it gleam (the housewife’s right arm as she opens the casement; the hands of the Virgin and St Elizabeth)? Or is it perhaps the way that the human figures seem like props while the stage sets they occupy are three-dimensional?

Both these paintings were intended for secluded contemplation: one in a church, the other in a private dwelling. I love them both.

The Amphitheatre of Londinium

That the Roman city of Londinium boasted an amphitheatre was never subject of dispute. Its precise location, however, was unknown until comparatively recently. Excavations close to the old Roman road now known as Watling Street, during the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988, revealed its stone foundations. Those are now preserved and open to the public, in situ where they were found, under the gallery.

The amphitheatre was built around AD 70, the same year that the Colosseum was begun in Rome. It was, understandably, considerably smaller, with seating for around 6,000 spectators as opposed to the Colosseum’s 75,000–although when you consider that 6,000 people represented about a quarter of the entire population of the city, it must have seemed a giant building indeed. Most of it was made of wood. Even in the following century, when it was improved and given stone entranceways, the tiers of seats would still have been of timber. The surviving remains are scanty: an illuminated backdrop showing scenes of raked seating and combatants in the arena gives a sense of the original dimensions of the building. In front of it is the surviving section of the eastern entrance to the arena, with side chambers that were perhaps guards’ houses or pens for wild animals. What is most remarkable are the preserved sections of timber drainage channel, complete with a silt sump to collect debris and prevent the drain from getting blocked. It operated by natural gravity, to flood the arena for mock sea battles, and to drain it again.

In common with most of the public structures of Roman Britain, the amphitheatre fell out of use in the 4th century, when the land fell prey to Scots, Picts and Saxons and when the emperors, harried by problems closer to home, stopped sending troops to defend this far-flung island. By the mid-fifth century, Londinium was an abandoned wasteland.

Backdrop of seating and pugilists
Section of preserved under-floor timber drain
21.09.2012
17:05

Edward Lear and Crete

The well-known nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear paid a short visit to Crete in 1864. He was coming from Corfu, where he had lived for nine years; when the British government returned the Ionian islands to the Greek state, the British community dispersed. At that point in his life he needed to find a warm place for his indifferent health and to produce another book like his Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, which had sold steadily. Lear chose Crete, and arrived in Chania on 11th April, with his faithful valet George Kokali and armed with Pashley’s Travels in Crete. Although he was aware of the presence of Venetian monuments and of some earlier ruins, what he was searching for were beautiful, exotic landscapes that he could sell in England, possibly in a book reworked from notes in his diary. Crete proved a disappointment in many respects. The landscape, vast, rugged and raw, did not lend itself to artistic composition according to the classical canons. The weather did not help and living conditions, from the food to the ever-present fleas and the state of the pavements, proved a perennial source of complaint. The only things that seemed to cheer him were the wine, the birds and the flowers. Lear took more notice of the latter than of the people. Unlike Pashley he makes very few ethnographical observations, even though he spoke Greek and took lodgings with local people.

Lear first travelled west in the Kissamos direction, venturing as far south as Topolia. He then went back to Chania for the Akrotiri and continued east to Souda and Aptera, cutting across to Vamos and Lake Kournas, finally sailing from Rethymnon to Megalokastro (i.e. Herakleion), which failed to impress him. He continued south, ascending Mt Juktas on the way. This he pronounced ‘Cumberlandish’, a term that he had already applied to Lake Kournas and of which he was obviously fond. The Mesara reminded him of the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon, but wanting in colours, lines and shape, and Mt Ida, around which he skirted from Tymbaki on his way north through the Amari Valley, was forever lost in the clouds. Lear was probably relieved to arrive back in England on 11th June. He had with him some 200 sketches and a diary: nothing of either was ever published in his lifetime. A few drawings were reworked and completed on commission and are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The bulk of the sketches found their way onto the London art market in the late 1920s. The Gennadius Library in Athens has 92; the remainder are in private collections and museums. The diary was published in 1984.

An extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

To mark the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, the Ashmolean Museum is currently running an exhibition entitled Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense.

 

The mystery of the veiled virgins

Moulded in stucco above the west doorway of the Lombard Tempietto in Cividale del Friuli is a famous frieze of six graceful female figures appearing in single file on either side of a narrow aperture. Below the aperture is a semicircular door hood carved with Eucharistic symbols of  grapes. On either side of the narrow aperture, the two outermost women are richly clad. Their heads are crowned and in their hands they carry regalia or offerings: a cross and a diadem. The two figures nearest to the aperture are dressed very plainly. Their heads are veiled and they have no crown. Nor do they bear any gifts or royal trappings: they merely extend their hands towards the aperture itself, to show—-what? Are their hands raised in supplication? In adoration? What would the aperture have contained? What would have appeared at its narrow window? The date of this beautiful work of art is the eighth century AD.

Moving to Rome, to the district of Trastevere and the great church dedicated to the Virgin, Santa Maria in Trastevere. The façade of this church is adorned with a long mosaic frieze depicting a procession of ten female figures, five on each side, approaching a central Madonna and Child. The six outermost women are very richly clad in embroidered gowns. Their heads are crowned and they bear lamps, each with a darting vermilion flame. The four women closest to the Virgin, however, are only veiled. They have no crowns and their lamps are unlit. The date of this equally lovely work is the twelfth/thirteenth century.

But what is the significance of it all? I have no answer. Perhaps it is mere coincidence. But I am still sleuthing. Any help or suggestions would be very welcome.

Venice without the crowds

People often worry that a trip to Venice will be marred by excess numbers of their fellow human beings. True, the city gets very crowded at certain times of year, and yes, there are ever fewer Venetians and ever more wretched carnival mask shops. But overcrowding afflicts only St Mark’s Square, the Accademia Bridge (and the route between the two), the Riva degli Schiavoni, Rialto and sometimes the island of Murano. Other parts are as tranquil as they were when Ruskin came to sketch them. Below are my top ten favourites (list still in progress).

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