The Stones of Venice

"Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction . . . I would endeavour to… record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice." – Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

Venice is a place that is difficult to summarise in conventional terms. A place of so many different styles seems best described as a set of fragments; the light shimmering on the fade waters of the lagoon, images of the Virgin Mary (even included in glass and metal shrines in the canals), the crumbling white I…strian marble, cracking plaster revealing rotted brick, the gondalas like Turkish slippers riding the waves, the chiming of the bells, red Veronese and white Istrian diamond patterns in the tiling, the seaweed and mussels clinging to the canal walls, the splashing of the waves, the minaret like campaniles, wells in each square, seagulls resting on wooden buoys, images of dragons, sphinxes and winged lions adornining squares, the precarious roof gardens, the capricious (if not Escheresque) medieval streets where serendipity is of rather more use than conventional navigation. Grandiosity and decay sit side by side. As a city it is an anomaly; a place of refuge that became the seat of empire, the product of the accretion of Roman, Byzantine styles. In its present form it is less of a subject in its own right than an object for the gaze of others. The city whose churches are adorned by works from Titian, Vivarini and Veronese became a place depicted instead by foreigners like James, Whistler, Mann, Monet and Turner. It is trapped like a fly in amber, forever preserved more or less as it was at the fall of the Republic, when its history ended.

The one exception to this is the Lido. Until recent times this was simply a sandbank that did little to disturb the oppressive flatness of the lagoon; Byron would ride his horses here; the nearby island of Saint Lazarus, which housed the city’s Armenian community and a rather Central European church spire, is rather older. The church of San Nicolo is easily the oldest structure on the island, the scene of Venice’s marriage to the sea. It’s a somewhat understated church with a brick exterior and painted pink campanile. The local cemetery (incongruously, this is also where the city’s Jewish cemetery can be found) is nearby, whose large mausoleums have potted plants and welcome mats for visitors to enter and use the small chapel. Watering cans are on sale to water the flowers planted on the graves. Lizards flit across the stones in the late afternoon sun. Today, these stand alongside an old flack tower errected during the second world war; the Lido is indeed the only part of Venice to include fascist architecture, such as rather drab casinos and cinemas. It’s main street also features an art deco hotel, albeit not the one Von Aschenbach stayed at, its exterior covered in beautifully painted stucco sculptures of the muses. There’s an art exhibition on at the time I visit and a car painted in red with the hammer and sickle is parked outside. A large black Buddha statue rests further down the main street. A cat bathing in the afternoon sunlight looks suitably unimpressed.

By contrast, the view that greets one at the Piazza San Marco is essentially the same as that depicted by Canaletto, with the conflicting styles of the gothic and Byzantine cathedral next to Sansovino’s classical Loghetta and Biblioteca. The iconography is equally conflicted, with St Theodore’s column representing the city’s links with Byzantium next to the winged lion of the stolen Saint Mark, representing the city’s independence. I begin with the Doge’s Palace and following Ruskin’s recommendations, examine the decoration on the capitals outside; kings, moors, birds, beasts, knights and allegories. Entering inside, the inner courtyard (itself a rather Arabic concept) is lined with colonnades and is overlooked by a clock on a facade filled with Sansovino sculptures that backs onto the Basilica. The Palazzo is entered through a gold and white stucco staircase leading to rooms filled with maps, globes and images of the winged lion. The walls are decorated with paintings by Titian, Carpaccio, Bellini, Bassano, Tiepolo and Veronese. Inevitably, the central Council Chambers is the most impressive, with its paintings of all the Doges (save the black space where Faliero should be), and Tintoretto’s Paradise fresco. Coming across Bosch’s Triptych of Heaven and Hell, I finding myself once more responding to them rather more readily than the Titian and Veronese paintings, perhaps due to perverse surrealism being their dominant mode rather than the crude allegories of god blessing Venice elsewhere in the palace. Later rooms show other aspects; magistrates in eighteenth century portraiture, the prison cells and bridge of sighs.

Inevitably, this is followed with a visit to the dark and cave-like Basilica of Sant Mark, with the half light glittering across the gold and marble mosaics. Images pullulate across every surface and leave the eye disorientated. The treasury still houses works taken from Alexandria (as well as the corpse of Saint Mark), including the inevitable holy relics, the bone encased in previous metals that simulate the limbs that once contained them as well as a reliquary in the shape of a domed church. As with the Piazzo itself, the originally simple Basilica design has been added to, with gothic spires, painting by Veneziano and later artists as well as statuary on the outside and the more incongrous Tetrarchs statue of Dioceletian. This is followed by the Correr Museum, where I am most struck by a Chinese statue of Marco Polo. Bewhiskered and with round eyes, the statue is covered in gold and in all other respects Buddha like. The interior dates from the Napoleonic era and seems to have been designed in imitation of Nero’s palace. The first exhibit is a set of Canova reliefs of Homeric scenes, followed by his statues of Priam, Daedalus and Icarus. The museum also houses an eighteenth century library, complete with Murano chandelier as well as various items like globes, maiolica, cassone, maps and Sevres porcelain. The highlight of the museum is its art gallery though, beginning with the Byzantine work of Paolo Veneziano, proceeding onwards to the more gothic work of Stefano Veneziano and Bartholomeo Vivarini and from thence to the Renaissance and the Bellini family, as well as exhibiting some works by Damaskinos and El Greco. As ever, I find the religious subject matter of all these periods decidedly hostile; it is possible to enjoy them as abstract pattern and colour but as little else. Conversely, a painting like Carpaccio’s The Courtesans or Brueghel’s Adoration of the Magi are quite different, both displacing the christian in favour of the human. The collection also has a painting in the school of Bosch, The Temptations of St Anthony, which I also enjoy; it seems fitting company for the paintings by Dali and Ernst that I saw a few days later. Finally, the museum also houses a smaller Ancient History section, containing busts of the Roman Emperors, Hellenic statues of the defeated Galatians, Assyrian reliefs and Egpytian statues (as well as a somewhat homoerotic statue of Dionysus and a satyr).

The following days are dedicated to exploring the city; from Castello to the Dorsoduro, San Polo and Cannaregio. The church of San Giuliano in San Marco is an especially elaborate baroque church, with Veronese paintings and a nearby wall relief of St George (who seems especially popular here in spite of not being its patron saint) and an iron dragon as a street sign (rather reminding me of Barcelona). I also note some rather odd calendars on sale in some of the squares. I walk to Santa Maria Dei Miracoli in Canaregio, one of the particular highlight of my visit. The outside is firmly encased in every hue of marble on a comparatively small Renaissance building tucked beside a canal. The interior shares this, with the wooden barrel roof also being studded with paintings in addition to the Pietro painting of the Madonna that the church grew around (most churches in Venice seem to have been founded through some vision of the Virgin or a bird leading out to a reed bed, something that reminds me of the founding of Tenochtitlan more than anything else). For a complete contrast, the gothic Santo Stefano in Castello represents another highlight of my visit. The same red and white diamond patterning seen on the outside of the Palazzo Ducale can be seen on the interior walls here, next to leaf frescos painted atop the arches and a studded ship’s keel roof. The pillars are covered in red cloth, something I note in several of the churches. The arches have to be supported by corss beams, presumably due to the lack of firm foundations. The interior is filled with elaborate gothic, classical (one of the equestrian monuments being especially striking hung on a church wall) funerary monuments, including some by Canova and Lombardo, as well as paintings by Vivarini and Tintoretto. San Francesco della Vigna is a pleasant church with a pink and white campanile, offset by an elaborate facade designed by Palladio.

The church of Santa Maria dei Giglio has an especially elaborate Baroque facade, showing maps of the city. Its sacristy is not dissimilar to that at Saint Marks, setting silver reliquaries in the dubious company of a painting by Rubens, while the rest of the church places Tintoretto in the equally strange company of a Creto-Byzantine Madonna icon. The same holds true for the rather understated Santa Maria Del Formosa, which sets a Byzantine icon alongside a Vivarini triptych. Ruskin disliked this church for a baroque gargoyle at the base of its rather pleasant campanile (on grounds I can rather understand) but also for decorative facade by Codussi designed to honour the Venetian nobility rather than god (on which point, I am considerably less in sympathy with Ruskin). Santa Maria Della Salute is rather more famous than any of these, but its Baroque dome seems a more familiar design than many of the city’s other churches (in spite of the Byzantine references). It too has a Byzantine icon taken from Crete, from the time it lay within the Venetian empire. Titian’s painting of Saint Sebastian in the church is especially striking; it is the first of many in a city routinely decimated by plague and which had come used to invoking him as a patron. The city’s interest in Saint Sebastian is nowhere better exemplified than in the church of San Sebastiano. Sebastian appears in a painting by Veronese in a church whose walls are lined with works by him, even covering the organ. Any part of the wall not containing a painting is home to a trompe l’oeil effect. There is even a stone sculpture of him outside, in the place normally reserved for the Virgin Mary.

Another highlight was Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It’s funerary monuments are very bit as ornate as those of Santo Stefano, such as the Mocenigo tombs, supported by griffin sculptures while others are emblazoned with double headed eagles. Otherwise, the interior is more plain, in bare stone and redbrick, save for the red painted arches and cross beams. This time it is Bellini who depicts Sebastian in a triptych. Other paintings include Giovane and a Vivarini triptych. The ornate sacristy is filled with Veronese paintings and rather recalls the Doge’s Palace. Similar in style is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The main nave here is largely empty, filled only elaborate funerary monuments. Most of these are in conventional styles, including one to Titian, which leaves Canova’s pyramid all the more striking. It looks as if it should be Pere LaChaise or Highgate, with veiled figures and angels entering the tomb. Next to it is something equally odd, with Moorish bearers and skeletons. The church has been described as a pantheon, given the numbers of the great and the good buried here (though Monteverdi only merited a floor plaque). There is than an elaborate wood and gold choir and beyond that is something altogether more elaborate; here the brick walls are painted and are hung with works by Titian. The sacristy is dark, covered with wooden panels, and here Veneziano, Vivarini and a Bellini triptych can be found, alongside a wooden clock by Lombardo. The Gesuati in Cannaregio is more rococo than classicist, with the walls covered in floral patterns of green and white marble, even down to representing a set of curtains around the pulpit and gold on the ceiling. The weight was enough to cause subsidence and the chapels around Titain’s painting of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom are riven with cracks and damp. Its namesake in the Dorsoduro, is a more plain baroque church, with paintings by Tiepolo and Tintoretto and the unusual presence of the earlier church it replaced alongside. The Carmini is perhaps not the best building in the city, but it is quite unusual; paintings depicting the history of the Carmelite order hang on either side of the nave under the ceiling, with dark wood and gold statues beneath. The pillars are again wrapped in red cloth. The windows have red curtains, giving the place a rather gloomy effect. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a lay fraternity, has a rather spartan, churchlike, hall on its groundfloor, while its dark wood panelled upper floor has more of the feeling of a sacristy, lined with Tintoretto paintings of the New Testament. A collection of Maiolica and Iznik ceramics is on display in an annex. Similarly, the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni is devoted to Carpaccio, showing narrative cycles based on the lvies of St George, Tryphone and Jerome on the ground floor. The upper floor is also more elaborate, though there is something rather bathetic about its painting of fraternity members in Biblical scenes (not unlike a painting of god, the Doge, Dogessa and the guild of poulterers or St Christopher fording the Venetian lagoon).

The church of Madonna Dell Orto is another of the city’s highlights, with an exterior that most closely approximates Northern Gothic. Inside, it is perhaps rather more understated, with painting on the interior of the arches and paintings by Tintoretto, with a set of rather apocalyptic themes of the day of judgement and the golden calf. Nearby is Santa Alvise, with a rather bizarre set of paintings showing the theft of the body of Saint Mark (whose corpse, needless to add, is perfectly preserved). The interior feels more like an art gallery than a church, with an ingenious trompe l’oeil ceiling by Bastiani that seems to extend the church several storeys upward. More striking is a cycle of Carpaccio paintings, alongside works by Tiepolo and Giovane. The church of San Geremia, is a rather bland affair, with some gothic paintings of Lucia (whose stolen corpse the church contains) and Geremia. The church of San Giobbe is also rather uninteresting, save for one chapel containing a glazed terracotta ceiling in beautiful blues and greens, Lombardo carvigs and a Vivarini triptych in the sacristy. San Giovanni Elemosinario, also built to house a pilfered saint’s corpse, contains a Pordenone painting of Saint Sebastian, alongside various Titian paintings. The building is largely hidden in the Rialto market (certainly when compared to the nearby San Giacomo di Rialto, with its large, if entirely inaccurate, clock) and is mostly rather austere, save for a sudden lurch into baroque splendour in one of the side chapels. San Giacomo dall’Orio is a rather more spartan church, with only the capitals and ceiling woodwork gilded below its ship’s keel roof. A Byzantine style cross by Veneziano hangs in the centre of the nave (several of the columns and font are looted from Byzantium). The church is mostly home to Giovane paintings (especially in its sacristy). Of lesser note, is San Giobbe, a simple building with a wooden rood and some Tiepolo paintings.

San Giorgio dei Greci is hidden in a small courtyard, whose iron railings are overgrown with ivy. The wellhead, walls and exterior mosaics are decorated with representations of George and the Dragon, and the interior with its walls of iconic paintings by Damaskinos, also features him. Finally, there is San Zaccaria, a building with one of the most impressive facades and one of the one of the most drab monochrome interiors in the city, the walls of paintings by the likes of Bellini and Vivarini notwithstanding. There is also San Giovanni in Bragora, the church where Vivalid was baptised, with its lovely Vivarini triptych and San Martino with another saint’s corpse and trompe l’oeil ceiling. Across from the main island lies La Giudecca, with its Palladian churches, Santissimo Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore. In spite of paintings by Tintoretto, Bassano and Vivarini, I find myself sympathising with Ruskin’s preference for gothic over classicism; there’s something rather puritannical about Palladio’s designs. The first example of classicist architecture in Venice is the Arsenale though, with its clock towers and lion statues (stolen from the Peloponnese).

For all of the corrosion of the city’s walls through brine laden winds and subsidence, nature is something largely banished from Venice. Its narrow streets accommodate few trees or grass. One of the few exceptions to this is the more easterly districts. The Giardini area is filled with public gardens, divided by a boulevade dedicated to Garibaldi. A statue of the man himself stands at the entrance, atop a large rock down which water spills. Ferns and moss have grown over the rock and terrepins sunbathe at its base or swim alongside carp in the waters below. The gardens are otherwise filled with statuary; a bust of Richard Wagner, a rostral column and assorted statues in a Roman style. The pine trees continue to San Elena, where birds sing as the sun sets. The small church at the end of the island has a rather unpleasant modern campanile but also a beautiful set of cloisters, filled with plants.

Nature is more of an emphatic presence at the outer island of Torcello. Once the first settlement on the lagoon, it is now all but deserted. Ruskin opened The Stones of Venice with an account of the fall of previous maritime empires like Venice and Tyre, in comparison to a Britain that still ruled the scenes. By contrast, Torcello reminds me more of Jeffries’s After London and a recent account of what London would like after having been deserted by humanity for hundreds of years; the last thing to collapse would be Canary Wharf, standing above what have reverted to swampland. In Torcello, the trees, reeds and broom grow thickly over what would once have been a settlement. Egrets and herons can be seen flying. The tower of its erstwhile cathedral looms large over the island and can be seen for miles around. As you draw closer you come into a piazza that must once have been equivalent to San Marco. Today, the cobbles are broken up with weeds and parts of the building lie in ruins. The quiet of the lagoon seems unearthly. Statues and ornaments stand silent witness around the square. The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta itself is home to a dramatic gold mosaic of the day of judgement on one wall (complete with skeletons, demons and ouls burning in hell) and the Virgin at the other. As Ruskin notes, together for the bright and airy character of the church, it was an obvious expression for a people in need of reassurance and hope after the Hun incursions. Plain romanesque arches are supported by elaborate corinthian columns, the walls are decorated with images of peacocks with the floor glitters with a rainbow of marble patterns. A museum stands on the the opposite side of the piazza, including early mosaics, a gold iconostasis and various reliefs. It also includes a history of objects found in the lagoon; Roman lamps, a bust of Hermes, Etruscan metalware, Egyptian statues and other votive objects.

The Island of Murano is rather less interesting, with most of its palaces having been torn down. One of the most interesting buildings is the lighthouse, with an Eric Gill style sculpture of the Madonna at its base. The church of San Pietro Martire is a modest white and red affair, with frescos between the arches and a collection of paintings by Bellini and Veronese. More striking is Santa Maria e Donato, with its mosaic flooring with depictions of eagles and rabbits (nastily depicting the triumph of christianity over the pagan), alleged dragon bones hung behind the altar and a mosaic of the Madonna in the apse. Saint’s bones are once more stored under the altar, as at Saint Fosca at Torcello.

More fascinating is the Bocklin like island of San Michele. The product of the Napoleonic era, it feels more like Pere LaChaise than the rest of Venice. The grid layout seems alien to a city whose streets are so chaotic. As often in Latin countries, many graves are simply in shelves, with photos on the outside of each box and an electric light illuminating a fake candle. Where there are conventional graves, the cemetery takes on the aspect of a flower garden, with the plants growing profusely. Ornate tombs line the walls of the cemetery, at corners and intersections and in cloisters; everywhere white marble and orange brick prevails beneath the shade of cypresses. The orthodox and protestant tombs are in their quarantined areas and both have become decidedly more ramshackle. A larger tomb in the orthodox sections has mosaics ion the outside, but the graves of Stravinsky and Brodsky are somewhat nondescript. So too proves the case with Pound in the dilapidated Protestant cemetery where the presence of Highgate style angels seems decidedly odd.

Venice’s art galleries are split between medieval and renaissance paintings on the one hand and the modernist collection in the Guggenheim on the other. The Guggenheim begins with a futurist collection reminiscent of the Estorick collection; Boccioni, Balla and Severini. Peggy Guggenhiem’s own collection bifurcates between broadly abstract or expressionist works, like Braque, Kandinsky, Delaunay and Picasso (as well as a large Pollock collection) and surrealism, including Brauner, Delvaux, Dali, Ernst, Chirico and Magritte. Although I enjoy most of the collection, it’s the surrealist paintings I enjoy the most. There’s also a good sculpture collection; Giacometti and Brancusi. At the other extreme, is the Ca’ d’Oro and Accademia. Ca’ d’Oro is a palazzo on the ground canal. Entering inside through a gothic gate, one walks through a verdant courtyard into the ground floor portego. Statues of satyrs and gods are scattered around and the waves of the lagoon lap against the steps. The floor is mosaic, decorated with stones from North Africa and Greece. The collection is most famed for a Mantegna painting of (unsurprisingly) Saint Sebastian, as well as Carpaccio Annunciation and a striking Andrea Bartolo coronation of the Virgin. Again though, I’m most impressed by Titian’s profane Venus at the Looking Glass. There’s also a collection of Flemish works; a Van Eyck crucifixion, Van de Velde seascapes and a Van Scorel painting of the Tower of Babel that distinctly resembled the more famous Brueghel. Finally, there is the Accademia. Again, it begins with Veneto-Byzantine artists like Veneziano and Vivarini, containing some rather grandiose depictions of the Book of Revelations and the coronation of the Virgin, though Carpaccio’s Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Martyrs on Mount Ararat and his Ursula cycle is probably the most dramatic. Inevitably, Saint Sebastian is again much in evidence, with two paintings of him by Bellini. The gallery then progresses onwards to the Renaissance, with Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, though I am again most struck by Lotto’s Portrait of a Young Man in his Study. The collection again progressed forward, showing Claude-like paintings of ruins by Giuseppe Zais, a series of architectural fantasias by Marieschi, Gaspari and Battaglioli. There’s also the handful of Canaletto pictures to remain within Venice.

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