Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Venice inscribed (v): Jan Morris

‘When you have wandered around this city for a time, and examined a few of its crooked displays, and inspected some of its paradoxes and perplexities, you will realize that much the most curious thing in Venice is Venice itself.’ No one living today has been writing about La Serenissima longer than Jan Morris: these words I have quoted come from her 1960 book, Venice, and now she has published her latest, Ciao, Carpaccio!, only a few months before her ninetieth birthday.

This new book is sub-titled ‘An Infatuation’, an infatuation with the Renaissance painter, Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1520), famous for his dazzling deployment of the rich rusty colour sometimes known as Venetian red. And in celebrating Carpaccio, Morris celebrates, too, her long love of Venice.

A word about the book itself. It’s an unusual oblong format, like an old-fashioned autograph album. Some of Carpaccio’s canvasses are exceptionally wide, and this book’s dimensions suit well the dimensions of those paintings. Its dust jacket shows a small portion, greatly enlarged, of Carpaccio’s Miracle of the True Cross at Rialto (c.1500): four gondolas are being steered across the crowded waters of the Grand Canal by gondoliers more gaudily attired than their passengers, who sit patiently under flimsy-looking awnings. A fluffy white poodle trails her tail. At the waterside, a group of onlookers watches the scene, some though gazing not at the melée on the canal but straight out at us, looking at them. Most are sporting what Jan Morris calls ‘the black Venetian cap of fashion’; several wear gowns or cloaks of Venetian red.

Ciao, Carpaccio! is a masterclass in ekphrasis, the depicting in words of something seen – a picture, most commonly, but a sculpture or object also – upon which the writer reflects and comments. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts are two of the most-cited examples, and Morris  quotes from Auden’s when discussing the Miracle of the True Cross at Rialto. So much is happening in the picture that the miracle itself – a madman healed by a fragment of the True Cross – appears ‘almost in brackets as it were’, according to Morris. The real focus of the painting seems to be the scene in front of the Rialto Bridge and the procession of gondolas cluttering the canal.

To art historians the interest of the picture lies in its observation of the everyday activity, architecture and costumes of the city. In his obsessive detailing of buildings, backgrounds, people and animals, Carpaccio seems to anticipate Canaletto, but he is like Canaletto on speed: his is a surreal dreamland Venice. Those gondolas, for instance, are not in the least like gondolas as we know them today, nor even like gondolas as they appear in other paintings of Carpaccio’s time. They are not so much foreshortened as miniaturized, leaving the gondoliers almost no stern to stand on. The elongated fórcole are too fanciful ever to have been forerunners of the modern oxbow oarlocks; indeed, the gondolier on the left appears to have no fórcola at all. But however cavalier he might have been about gondolas, Carpaccio was the Alexander McQueen of Venetian costume. Look at the skintight breeches worn by the black boatman: they are extraordinary. Who else would have recreated in their silver, grey and white pattern the three-dimensional trompe-l’oeil designs found in Venetian church floors from this period?

The one painting by Carpaccio nearly all tourists see is the 12 feet long portrait of the Lion of St Mark: it hangs in the Doge’s Palace. And it’s the one painting entirely devoid of people. In the foreground the winged lion steps ashore, hind legs still in the water, one forepaw on dry land and the other holding an open book with its text, PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEA. But mainland Italy this isn’t: the stony terrain is hostile; sinister weeds have been parched in the sun. In the background, however, the whole Venetian waterfront stretches serenely from Piazza to Arsenale, the great Venetian shipyard, whence full-sailed argosies are setting confidently out to sea. But the lion is what we notice. His face fascinates Morris:

It is an odd face, set against its saintly halo and looking sidelong out at me. Its eyes seem at once sardonic and a little melancholy. Its forehead is wrinkled. Its mouth could be snarling, but could be smiling. Its teeth look as though they might be false. All in all it is a curiously ambiguous countenance, and its expression strikes me as knowing and slightly impish … 

‘A curiously ambiguous countenance’ is exactly right. But it’s not lions, it’s the people and the ordinary incidents of life that matter most to this artist. So I’m happy, too, to share Morris’s sense that in such incidents Carpaccio reveals what she calls ‘the true nature of his genius’. She concludes: ‘I believe he is above all a supreme artist of that simple, universal and omnipotent virtue, the quality of Kindness.’ 

There is a valedictory feeling about Ciao, Carpaccio! I doubt whether Jan Morris intends to publish anything further on Venice, the city that made and has sustained her reputation as one of the great travel writers of our age. So I have gone back to the final paragraph of her first Venetian book: 

When at last you leave these waters, pack away your straw hat and swing out to sea, all the old dazzle of Venice will linger in your mind; and her smell of mud, incense, fish, age, filth and velvet will hang around your nostrils; and the soft lap of the back-canals will echo in your ears; and wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder a pink, castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles of the Serenissima.

It’s a fine leave-taking; and re-reading it now teaches me that the Venice Jan Morris was describing then matches in every detail the Venice she cherishes still in the paintings of her beloved Carpaccio.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) the dust jacket of Ciao, Carpaccio!; (ii) tromp l’oeil flooring in the sanctuary of Santa Marie degli Miracoli, Venice.

[Quotations: from Venice (1960; 3rd ed. 1993 London: Faber and Faber) pp.214, 304; from Ciao, Carpaccio! (London-New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014)      pp.32 (the Lion of St Mark) and 171 (the quality of Kindness).

Here are links to my previous posts about Venice:

Text and illustrations © the author

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