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Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Season’s Greetings

This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.

1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.


Related title: Pilgrim’s Rome

2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.


Related title: Blue Guide Emilia-Romagna

3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.


Related title: Blue Guide Friuli-Venezia Giulia

4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.


Related title: Blue Guide Sicily

5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.


Related title: Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Lakes (pub. date to be announced)

6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.


Related title: Blue Guide Florence

7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.


Related title: Blue Guide Rome

8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.


Related title: Blue Guide Piedmont

9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.


Related title: Blue Guide Venice

10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.

Related titles: Blue Guide Liguria and Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino

12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.


Related title: Blue Guide Budapest

09.04.2017
18:01

Venice before Easter

Photo: Wikicommons.

Easter always marks the moment in the year in Italy when there are the most visitors: from then the crowds will remain a fixture until midsummer. So a visit to Venice in these first spring days can be all the more rewarding.

But at any time of year there are campi which always remain truly Venetian, and one of these is the large Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio which almost entirely circles the church of the same name in the sestiere of Santa Croce, not far from the railway station. It is a place where the locals sit and talk on the benches scattered here and there under the few trees, and the children come to run about and play games. Indeed on sunny afternoons, when you enter one of the several doors into the church, you will often find a child playing hide-and-seek in the porch or hear the crash of a football against the exterior, and the sound of the fun taking place outside is always present. But this only makes the church an even more delightful place to explore, and there are plenty of reminders that you are in the House of God, especially in Lent when some of the works of art are shrouded in purple cloth, a tradition once found in the churches all over Italy. Perhaps the church’s greatest treasure, the Crucifix by Paolo Veneziano (1324), with its painted terminals intact, cannot, therefore, be seen in this period: it still hangs in the apse but is a dramatic sight totally hidden from view by a drape which will only be pulled off on Easter morning.

There is an extraordinary variety of beautiful sculptures, paintings, and architectural features preserved in every nook and cranny of the church. Statues of the Madonna abound: a Byzantine statuette shows her holding a spindle, having just risen from her chair; there is a very ruined little Virgin orans in a niche; she carries a (now headless) Child in another little carving which has echoes of French medieval works; and there is a large painted wood statue of her from a few centuries later. The main altarpiece on the apse wall is a Madonna Enthroned with Saints, a typically eccentric work by the great painter Lorenzo Lotto. Also in the sanctuary, set in to the walls, are two marble inlaid Crosses, particularly unusual for their large dimensions. The painter whose works can be seen in almost every church in Venice, Palma Giovane, can be particularly appreciated here, from his large horizontal canvases in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, and those, even larger, in the aisle chapels (including the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence), to his cycle of paintings made to decorate the entire Sacrestia Vecchia in 1581. In the same year Palma Giovane’s much more famous contemporary Paolo Veronese painted the altarpiece in a chapel close by, of three saints, which features a lovely little putto above flying down towards them bringing their martyr’s palms. The Sacrestia Nuova (which has a ceiling painting by Paolo Veronese) is a veritable little museum of paintings, one of which, by Francesco Bassano, includes portraits of the painter’s family as well as Titian sporting a red hat, all of them in the crowd listening to St John the Baptist preaching.

The architecture of the church is also noteworthy, from the typically tall detached campanile dating from the 13th century to its wonderful wooden ship’s keel roof, installed in the following century. There is a rare shiny green marble column traditionally thought to have come from Solomon’s palace, but in any case dated to the 6th century, and a delightful Greek cipollino marble font (probably very ancient) by the west door provided with a little marble ledge for a child to sit and recover after its total immersion. The paintings by artists from the Veneto across the centuries include one of the best works of Giovanni Buonconsiglio (Three Saints, 1498), and, from the 17th century, works by Giulio del Moro, Padovanino, and Schiavone. A painting of the Madonna and Saints is a typical work by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, dated 1764.

I always try to come back to San Giacomo dell’Orio whenever I visit Venice, even though it never needs ‘up-dating’ for the Blue Guide Venice. The church stays open all day (7.30am to 7pm) and the two sacristies are shown on request by volunteers from 8.30 to 4.30 pm (unless they leave a note on the door that they have slipped out for a quick lunch or a coffee).

by Alta Macadam

Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation

Pallas Athene, London, 2014.

 

The first time I found myself searching around in Carpaccio’s paintings was when I was writing my book on the Horses of St Mark’s. Had the Venetian Carpaccio ever used the horses as a model? An early match I got was the horse in the centre of his gruesome Martyrdom of the 10,000 at Ararat (Accademia, Venice), a depiction of the massacre of a Christian army by the Persians. The horse there faces forwards, has lifted his left front leg and turns his head in much the same way as the fine gilded copper steeds which were then overlooking the Piazza San Marco from the loggia of St Mark’s. Jan Morris goes further. She notes how actual horses had become rare in the city in Carpaccio’s day(he was active between 1490 and 1520).  Sumptuary laws forbade extravagant harnessing; horses were banned from the Piazza and the new stepped bridges were difficult to negotiate. In compensation, Morris sees the St Mark’s horses everywhere in Carpaccio’s work, ‘all fine, every one of them, perhaps Carpaccio had modelled them all, if only subconsciously’ on the originals on the loggia.

 

Ciao Carpaccio is a delightful work of serendipity, ‘a self-indulgent caprice’ as the author puts it. Jan Morris does not claim to be a serious art historian but her eye is a lot more sensitive than many professionals and certainly, unlike some, she has the capacity to enthuse. Her book is all the better for revelling in what she sees and enjoys in Carpaccio’s paintings. And there is, of course, so much to see: the sumptuous clothing of his subjects, the intricacies of Venetian architecture and above all the meticulously observed details from everyday life. Too little is known about Carpaccio but he must have been fun to be with. He always has an eye for what’s going on at the edges of the formalities. Everywhere there are asides, vignettes of birds, playful children or beautifully-painted ships moored alongside some distant quay. Often Carpaccio’s love of display ensures that the subject of the painting is pushed completely to one side. So when the relic of the True Cross, encased then (as it still is) in the recently restored gold reliquary in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, draws forth the demon from a demented man, you can hardly see him high up on his loggia whereas below are the bustle of well-dressed crowds and some wonderful swaggering gondoliers in front of the early wooden Rialto bridge.

 

Carpaccio loves a parade. It is time for everyone to show off in extravagant hats, with plenty of music from trumpeters to add to the mood of excitement. He cannot avoid display, so that his Holy Family on the flight to Egypt would have been seen by any pursuer many miles off thanks to the typically Carpaccio bright red of Joseph’s cloak—and how did the Virgin manage to get hold of such a magnificent brocaded cloak for herself?

 

Yet Carpaccio is also a master of domesticity, as with Ursula’s well-ordered bedroom or the scholar’s study where Augustine works. Both, typically for Carpaccio, have dogs, a lapdog for Ursula and Morris’ ‘Carpaccio dog, a tough urchin mongrel, cocky, feisty and fun’ squirrelling around in Augustine’s study as our border terrier, Dipity, does in mine. And then on a shelf, among other antique curiosities of Augustine’s imagined 5th-century interior, is a small bronze horse, surely a copy of one from St Mark’s? All these works are beautifully reproduced, the illustrations taking up as much room as the text, so that Ciao Carpaccio makes a splendid small present for someone special.

 

Carpaccio was influenced by a popular text, the Golden Legend by Jacobo de Voragine, the must-have book for all those painting scenes from the lives of saints (Carpaccio drew from it for his magnificent sequence from the life of St Ursula, now in the Accademia). Ursula is destined for martyrdom along with the 11,000 virgins who accompany her, but it is almost as if menace is beyond Carpaccio. The Hun who is due to martyr her after she and her companions have disembarked at Cologne simply sits around looking bored. He certainly does not look as if he has it in him to massacre virgins. In another famous sequence, in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Carpaccio gently mocks the monks who are fleeing the friendly and somewhat mystified lion that arrives at their monastery with Jerome.

 

The paintings in this Scuola shows another influence on Carpaccio, the Orient, always in the minds of the venturesome Venetians but with added impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans some fifty years before. Many of his subjects—Jerome in Bethlehem, the proto-martyr Stephen in Jerusalem, St George triumphing over the dragon in Libya—are set in the East, and Carpaccio does his best to make this clear, using woodcuts of Jerusalem or an actual gateway in Cairo to provide a backing. There is even an obelisk in one of his depictions of St George.

 

Jan Morris concludes with a study of Carpaccio’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, now in the Brera in Milan. (Titian’s version is still in Venice, in the Accademia.) It is inspired by another ancient text, the Protoevangelium of James, that tells of the early life of Mary and how she was taken in to the Temple in the years before her betrothal to Joseph. The little girl kneels humbly on the steps while her parents stand proudly ‘like parents seeing off their child to summer camp or boarding school,’ as Morris engagingly puts it. But there is another child, a little boy shown with an antelope on a lead and a rabbit chatting to a priest leaning on the balcony of the temple. For Morris, this lad encapsulates the essence of Carpaccio, his quality of kindness. Perhaps it is because his sense of fun, a tenderness to his subjects and an unabashed love of colour for its own sake predominate that he is never numbered among the greats in art; but Jan Morris reminds us just how much pleasure he gives us, as he surely does for her.

See Ciao Carpaccio on amazon.com. See it on amazon.co.uk. For a more formal and wide-ranging treatment of Carpaccio's work, see Patricia Fortini-Brown’s Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio, Yale, 1988.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Charles wrote the historical introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Italian Venice: A History

R.J.B Bosworth, Italian Venice: A History, Yale University Press, 2014.

R.J.B. Bosworth is addicted to the mingling and competing atmospheres that make up the history of Italian cities. In his book on Rome, Whispering City (reviewed here), he showed how the conflicting pasts of the ‘Eternal City’ were continuously rearranging themselves as one or other faction achieved control over the narrative. Here he applies the same approach to Venice, surveying the city’s history after it was absorbed into mainland Italy in 1866.

Bosworth’s survey is valuable because there is only one full-length English study of Venice’s recent history on the market, Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City 1797–1997, also from Yale (2002). Plant’s is a rich and beautifully illustrated volume, Bosworth’s more penetrating and cynical, and the two together now give the Venice enthusiast a full perspective on a period that has traditionally been neglected in favour of the centuries of Venice’s greatness.

In 1866, the economy of Venice was in a precarious state with the Austrian port of Trieste a major rival for trade. Infant mortality was high and the poor, living on the lower floors of historic buildings, suffered from damp and overcrowding, with employment limited to traditional crafts. In the later 19th century some fresh opportunities were offered by cotton, tobacco and the Stucky flour mill (recently repurposed as the Hilton Hotel), as well as expansion on the mainland at Mestre but the city has never created its own sustainable economy independently of tourism. 31,000 Venetians were unemployed in 1931.

As a result two Venices co-exist throughout this book: the Venice of partying along the Grand Canal and the Venice of an underemployed local population locked in poor housing. While in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1920s, the song-writer Cole Porter and his coterie of young Venetians were taking advantage of Porter’s wife’s absence to disport themselves in her dresses and snort cocaine, 40 percent of the population, according to an estimate of 1933, supplemented their diet with molluscs picked at low tide from the polluted rocks and mud. Typhus was endemic.

Yet Venice has always had competing identities. Was the city founded by refugees from Troy and so equal to Rome in antiquity or did it emerge under the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation in 421? The Patriarch Guiseppe Sarto, later pope Pius X, naturally favoured the latter. When the Campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in July 1902 without damaging the Basilica, he soon had a sacred image of the Virgin on the altar as a thanksgiving for her protection. This austere prelate set in place an uncompromising distaste for the frivolity of life in the palazzi of the Grand Canal. Yet once canonised, the visit of his embalmed body to Venice brought out massive crowds as it made its way up that same canal in a vessel rowed by eighteen oarsmen in 18th-century dress. Bosworth does well to remind us of the persistent Catholicism of a city that has provided three recent popes from its patriarchs.

One patriarch, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, appointed in 1935, proved an adept supporter of the Fascist regime, celebrating its victories, applauding the alliance with Nazi Germany and mixing quotations from Mussolini with those of the gospels. Obsessed with swearing and the lascivious dress of women, Piazza was upstaged by the city’s most successful industrialist, former governor of the conquered Libya and Minister of Finance, Giuseppe Volpi, whose flaunting of Fascist culture in the shape of music and film festivals as well as the well-established Biennale, allowed him to claim that Venice was the vetrina or showcase of Italy and himself as ‘the last doge’. With such flamboyant propagandists for the regime, it was disappointing that police reports (well exploited by Bosworth) repeatedly showed the refusal of the city’s population to take on board, or even to understand, the transformation in attitudes required of them. When an attempt was made to exclude the polite, traditional lei, and replace it by the more militant voi, the gondoliers robustly replied that the language taught to them by their mothers was quite good enough. Eighty percent of the city’s Jews survived the war, many concealed by their neighbours.

As Mussolini’s regime crumbled, there was much reshuffling of allegiances. Venice had suffered badly in the First World War, bombed, and almost captured after the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917. The Second World War was ignored as much as possible and the façade of Fascism quickly abandoned on Italy’s surrender. Between January 1943 and January 1944, membership of the local Fascist party tumbled from 88,000 to 4,000. It was as if an acqua alta had receded without leaving much debris. Volpi was especially adept. Briefly imprisoned because of his adherence to Fascism, his contacts got him out of prison. Escaping to Switzerland, he then bought himself back to respectability by a large donation to the Resistance movement and the handing over of his newspaper, Il Gazzettino, to the Christian Democratic Party. The US general Mark Clark obligingly praised the city for its resistance to Fascism and its transfer of its facilities to the liberators intact. A bronze statue of La Partigiana, ‘the [female] partisan’, near the Giardini, now commemorates the successful resistance of the city to Fascism and Nazism.

The pressures are immense, even if a canny survivor, Massimo Cacciari, mayor of the city in 1993–2000 and 2005–2010, a former Communist philosopher who championed free enterprise once in power, proved able to manipulate them. However, the factions that support or oppose any attempt to change the fabric of the city, from the Calatrava Bridge to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre, create the image of a petrified city edging, as often before in its history, towards extinction. The weight of the traditional refrain, com’era e dov’era, ‘how it was and where it was’, still grips Venice, supported not least by its more romantic visitors. Polly Coles’s Venice and the Politics of Washing (reviewed here) evokes the harassed lives of the remaining inhabitants. ‘Only God can now save us,’ remarked the former Marxist Cacciari.

In a concluding meditation, Bosworth notes how the primary narrative of the city’s past denies its contemporary history by focusing too heavily on a supposed past period of greatness (to which optimists believe the city can return). Perhaps in a tourist city, where so much energy is diverted to extracting profit from its visitors, this is inevitable; but Bosworth’s sober perspective is an important and informative one that can only add to a greater understanding of a city that risks being suffocated as much by literary gush (some fine examples quoted by Bosworth in his Introduction) as by the acqua alta.

Meanwhile behind all the cosmetic changes lurks the cumbersome and vastly expensive MoSE barrier, its completion long promised. The world waits to know whether it will solve the problems of flooding or, as some sceptics suggest, simply trap the river waters that run into the lagoon. The patriarch had better keep his sacred statues of the Virgin Mary at the ready.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of the Historical Introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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Venice has been one of the world’s leading destinations for the cultural traveller since the 18th-century Grand Tour.

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Venice and the Politcs of Washing

W.D. Howells, Venetian Life, first published in 1866, and Polly Coles, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice, Robert Hale, 2013.

A recent review of Polly Coles’ The Politics of Washing claimed that it was the most perceptive book on Venice since W.D. Howells’ Venetian Life. In a field that includes J.G. Links’ Venice for Pleasure and Jan (then James) Morris’ Venice, that is a bold claim for both of them but it gave me the excuse for reading Howells for the first time as well as exploring the ‘political’ challenge of how far a newly arrived resident can pull out their underwear (and which garments) on a backstreet (backcanal?) Venetian washing line.

W.D. Howells had worked for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign team and his reward was a year as consul in Venice, at that time under Austrian occupation. He is well educated and curious, but perhaps rather brash and impatient with a city where no one seems to do much. There is, for a sturdy Protestant such as himself, far too great a reliance on the Madonna breaking through the clouds and sorting out calamities and plagues. He soon settles into the routine, however, and when called upon to provide the annual report of ‘Commercial Transactions’ feels ‘a vague feeling of injury during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity.’ None of his compatriots seems to need his help and so he is free to observe daily life and to battle with the intricate personality of Giovanna, his housekeeper, she of the capacious pockets where unwieldy keys, lumps of beeswax, pictures of the Virgin and an illegible account book jostle with each other. Giovanni’s growing power over Howells and his wife is linked to the diminishing number of hours she attends them, but so entangled are they by her family and hangers-on that it is only by moving to a completely different part of the city that they can escape her web.

Howells was writing for an American audience, for most of whom Venice must have been a fantasy, and he exaggerates the picturesque and the ruffians. Yet he has literary skill and his account of arriving in Venice by night and his evocation of the coldness of a Venetian winter are haunting. Despite some good passages and insights, however, too much of the book is a mishmash: some history, interrupted by comments on the hierarchies of society, then a discussions of gondoliers, all of it without really penetrating what makes Venice survive as a city. His best chapter is perhaps his last, written seven years later when he was back in Massachusetts, where he describes how he camped out in lodgings in part of the Palazzo Giustiniani, in a fine position on the Grand Canal. One of the delights that all the male residents enjoy is swimming in the canal when the new tide brings fresh water. There is a more measured and reflective tone in this chapter, something that is often missing in the jumble of what has gone before. Overall, I would certainly rate Howells well below Morris, who is much more sensitive to the nuances of Venetian life.

In The Politics of Washing, Polly Coles, the English partner of an Italian violin-maker, cannot escape being totally immersed in the life of the city (in more ways than one as the floods intensify). There is the education system to negotiate for a start (the couple have four children) and she finds it distant and often sterile for her lively offspring. I never knew that there was quite so much Latin and Greek in the syllabus of the liceo classico. The conventions by which parents accept responsibility for their wayward children and apologise for them even though it might be the inadequacy of their teachers that is to blame is beautifully explored.

The fresh tides here are not those from the lagoon but from the massive influxes of tourists and much of Coles’ life is spent dragging her trolley through crowded streets and missing appointments because the vaporetti are too full for the residents to fit onto them. Coles shares my own belief that it is only in the early morning that one can fully appreciate Venice today. I really enjoyed this book, not only because Coles writes so well but also because she is sensitive to the people, both native and foreign, who surround her all too closely on a daily basis. How far can one risk one’s partner’s Y-fronts fluttering down into one’s neighbour’s garden and what would be the social consequences she would have to live with if they did? What are the conventions in using ‘tu’ and ‘lei’ a) in a conversation with a friendly Italian woman 20 years her junior and b) during a blazing row with her partner when ‘lei’ seems justified to express distance and disdain but turns out to be so inappropriate that it makes him collapse into laughter?

No one should go to Venice without reading this book as it will, perhaps, make them more aware that beyond the burger bars and overpriced pasta, there are people who have known the city since birth but have now become strangers in it, as the privates spaces and the traditional shops that used to serve them dwindle. Though Coles is a newcomer herself, she acts as a sympathetic champion of those who are being pushed to the margins by the cruisers depositing their ‘See Venice in two hours’ crowds. Their social network soon tells them exactly how alta the acqua is, which passageways are still open and where one can browse books in one’s wellies (stivali impermeabili), as the less nifty tourists flounder about in the swirling waters. As the artificially contrived Carnival gets under way in Piazza San Marco, the rowing clubs set off in the opposite direction, with Coles and her friend Jane negotiating a flat-bottomed sanpierota crammed with flags and children, to what is essentially a retaliatory fancy-dress village fête for the locals.

Less visible are the other residents, those who have drifted in from the east to work as carers, and who have only each other to sustain themselves now that children and family are far away. They are the new representatives of the East, the Schiavoni of the 21st century, a reminder that Venice has always been awash with foreigners—although most now stay only long enough to buy their Carnival masks and gelati before clambering on board their cruise ships again. This is a sobering book in many ways, a narrative of a self-destructing and sclerotic city where the ancient landing-posts are all too often submerged. I am happy to place it alongside James Morris’ own memoir of living with a family in Venice in the 1950s (now reissued and updated by the author)—but what a difference sixty years has made to the magic of the city.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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