La Dolce Vita

It’s a beautiful sunny day when I arrive at the centre of ancient Rome. It’s an odd experience seeing so many ancient buildings that remain largely intact; I begin by walking round the Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine before walking round the Palatine Hill; the Severian Palace, and the Circus Maximus. Finally, I walk around the Forum; the Curia, the Arches of Titus and Septimus Severus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina the House of the Vestals, the Temple of Saturn and the Basilica of Maxentius. The sub burns fiercely but I can stop at the Farnese Gardens with its Papyrus grasses and Bougainvillea where there is a fountain from which cold water gushes out. The Coliseum has a small exhibition with sculptures of Jupiter and Ganymede, Ptolemy and Sappho; I’m amused by a cat sneaking into the shadows. I’m more surprised by the Kestrel I see resting on the Palatine ruins. I then go for a walk into the Capital, past modern sculptures of Augustus, Nerva and Trajan that overlook the forum of Augustus, the Torre delle Milizie and Trajan’s markets. I then come to Trajan’s column and the Victor Emmanuel monument. Augustus said that he left Rome clad in marble; the ruins I saw that day were mostly bereft of their marble cladding leaving burnt red brick beneath. But the Victor Emmanuel monument perhaps gives a good idea of what the original buildings might have looked like; in truth, the building is rather brusquely grandiose, mostly reminding me of the works of Stalin or Ceaucescu. Lastly that day, I walk round to the church of Santa Maria in Aracaoeli and the Piazza del Campidoglio with its statues of the Dioscuri. I walk down the Aracoeli staircase past the Theatre of Marcellus to the church of Santa Maria Cosmedin and the nearby temples of Heracles and Portunus.

The following day, I travel away from the centre of Rome out to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. There’s a military ceremony commemorating the liberation of Italy after WW2 in a nearby park and I go to have a look at the nearby Protestant cemetery. This is also a cat sanctuary so the place is filled with cats snoozing in the shade. It feels more like a garden than a cemetery; Pomegranate trees grow throughout and flowers bloom in the midst of weeping angels and the graves of Keats and Shelley. I walk on to the church of San Saba with its frescos, and the church of Santa Maria in Dominica with its mosaics, before arriving at the Baths of Caracalla. Though not as intact as the Coliseum, the baths are on a larger scale and much of the mosaic flooring remains in situ. I then walk past the Lateran obelisk to the cathedral of San Giovanni with its coffered ceiling; I especially like the cloisters with its sculptures of lions and sphinxes. I then walk onwards to San Maria Maggiore with its mosaics before going to St Paul Within the Walls; it’s rather odd to see a Burne Jones design fitting in so neatly in a Roman surround, especially when the church otherwise has so many of the hallmarks of GE Street. Nearby is another highlight from my visit; the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane; here, Borromini’s designs put me in mind of an Italian Hawksmoor. The interior is austere with a pure white predominating in much the same way as in English Baroque. From here, I walk to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This is perhaps only notable for two things; the fact that it is constructed out of the Baths of Diocletian and the Mitoraj sculptures. The Mitoraj sculptures on the door are a golden bronze that shines in the afternoon sunlight, while one of them on the interior is a brilliant white in the light that floods down in the gloom of one of the side chapels. Lastly, I visit Santa Prassede with its frescoed naves and mosaic ceiling in its side chapels, the church of San Martino ai Monti and San Clemente with the Mithraeum deep beneath the church.

The following day I visit St Peters and walk around for a while outside alongside its colonnades and Egytpian obelisk. After a rather long queue through airport style security to get in, I get inside to see Michaelangelo’s Pieta and the statue of St Peter. The cavernous interior is rather dark, lit by flashes of lit beaming through the windows of Michaelangelo’s dome. I proceed down to the Necropolis and the tomb of St Peter and re-emerge blinking into the sunlight. After that, I walk down towards the Tiber and the Castel San Angelo. The interior of the mausoleum is less like a castle and more like a labyrinth; I find that I frequently have to reverse course and retrace my steps. The interior encompasses a beautiful hall filled with wall frescoes of Hadrian and various mythological figures, a strange modern exhibition with pocket watches suspended from the ceiling and, of course, the chamber where Hadrian’s ashes were probably interred. I then walk over the bridge filled with Bernini’s angels and walk for a bit along the Tiber. Eventually, I come to the Ara Pacis. The gleaming modern pavilion seems somewhat at odds with the overgrown wilderness of the Augustus mausoleum next to it, but on the inside it does showcase the marble reliefs and bucrania freezes. I then decide to go for a walk through the centre of modern Rome, beginning at the Piazza del Popolo with its Sphinxes and Egyptian obelisk, before visiting the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Sant Agnese, Sant Agostino the column of Marcus Aurelius and the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a particularly striking experience; although adapted to serve as a church, the interior remains much the same as it was during the Empire. I also look seeing Sant Ivo alla Sapienza; again, this Borromini design reminds me of Hawksmoor, particularly the way All Soul’s College is framed by its cloisters. Other highlights include the gothic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva; the whimsical Egyptian obelisk balanced on the back of an elephant is counterpointed by a gloomy dark gothic interior filled with tombs and monuments. Lastly that day I visit Trajan’s markets. Once again, the interior is surprisingly well preserved with a central vaulted arcade and long passageways, which lead out into a garden at the base of the Torre delle Milizie and down to the forum.

The next day, I visit the capitol. I’m amuse by the presence of the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus recreated as topiary and have a look around the Mamertine prison before going into Capitoline Museum. There’s an exhibition about the work of Michaelangelo on; including his busts of Brutus (compared to a rather more vulpine Roman version) and his (somewhat excessively muscular) statue of christ. Other highlights of my visit are the original Roman wolf, a bust of Medusa, statues of Tritons alongside a golden Hercules, the original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, frescos of Hannibal and his elephants, the giant bust of Constantine, the Capitoline Venus, a bust of an Amazon warrior, the flayed statued of Marysas, Egyptian Sphinxes & Scarabs, the dying Gaul, the famous fountain statue of Mars, mosaics of tigers devouring antelopes. Upstairs, I also enjoy paintings by Reni, Caravaggio, Veronese and Pietro di Cortona. Afterwards, I visit the Arch of Janus before walking across the Tiber and visiting San Bartolomeo on the Isola Tiberina before visiting the Trastevere area of Rome. I start by visiting Santa Cecilia in Trastevere with its Bernini statue of the saint (I later see a copy in the saint’s tomb in the catacombs) before visiting Santa Maria in Trastevere with its wonderful mosaics. Walking back into the centre of Rome I walk past the Cat Sanctuary (not a great of energetic activity going on here) and the church of San Marco.

The following day is forecast to be rainy and I decide to visit the Vatican Musuem. After a rather tedious hour long wait, I finally get into the Egyptian section (possibly not the best idea; the crowds make it feel more like a visit to Oxford street than anything else). The highlights here are several Egyptian sarcophagi and statues of Anubis, Ptolemy and Antinous, before I proceed through the Assyrian and Palmyran sections to the sculpture gallery. This has sculptures and statues of most ancient mythological and historical figures; Ganymede, Paris, Athena, Augustus and Dionysus catchy my eye. I pause outside to look at the courtyard of the pines with the ancient lions of Nectanebo counterpointed by the modern scupture by Pomidoro in the centre of the courtyard before I walk onto the octagonal court with the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon. Returning inside, I walk through the room of the Muses to the Rotunda with its statues of Antinous, Hercules, Augustus, Claudius and the Roman mosaic at its centre. I leave this section by walking past the sarcophagi of Helena & Constance before visiting the Etruscan section. I find myself lingering for a while here, mostly as the relative peace and quiet makes it much easier to enjoy the exhibits. Amongst the works I like here are a bronze statue of Mars, funerary sculptures, bronze bosses and lion sculptures. I then walk through the galleries of tapestries and maps into the apartments with their frescos by Raphael and Pinturicchio. Eventually, this leads to the gallery of contemporary art, virtually all of which has few obvious connections to catholicism; paintings by Bacon, Van Gogh, Sutherland, Dali and Matisse. Finally, this leads to the Sistine chapel. Lastly, I come to the Pinacoteca; paintings by Lippi, Gozzoli, Vivarini, Raphael, da Vinci, Reni and Caravaggio.

The following day and I complete my visits to the main museums of Rome with Palazzo Massimo. The undoubted highlight is the frescos from the House of Livia, with their detailed depictions of trees, flowers and birds. Running close to this is the Discobulus statue, the veiled statue of Augustus, the Niobid, the bronze sculptures of the boxer and Hellenistic prince, a bust of Sappho, bronzes from the Nemi ships, a relief of Antinous, the sleeping hermaphrodite, frescos from the Farensina villa and the vast marble sarcophagus. I briefly visit the church of Santa Maria Della Victoria before walking out of the city along the Aurelian wall and the Via Appia Antica towards the catacombs. Firstly, I visit the catacombs of San Callisto with the crypt of the Popes and of Saint Cecilia before visiting the catacombs of Saint Sebastiano, with its frescoed pagan tombs. The sculpture of Sebastian in the church above is quite extraordinary, being far more openly sexual than the similar sculpture of Cecilia. Lastly, I visit the tomb of Cecilia Metella.

The next day, I visit the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, with its mosaics, ceiling frescos before heading out to Rome’s botanical gardens. Black and green lizards near ponds and a turtle basks on a stone in the middle of a lake in the Japanese garden. Koi carp swim lazily below. The lily flowers are about to seed while the date palms above are filled with fruit. After this, I visit the Palazzo Barberini, stopping to visit the Gesu church on the way. The Palazzo’s twinned staircases by Bernini and Borromini buttress an interior filled with frescos by Pietro da Cortona. I particularly note paintings by Lippi, Sodoma, Holbein (oddly, a painting of Henry the Eighth), Bronzino, Tintoretto,El Greco, Titian, Reni, Caravaggio and Salvator Rosa. Finally, I take the metro out to EUR. It’s an odd place; long boulevards lined with austere monumental architecture but with no pedestrians. The traffic is incredibly busy though, so crossing a road takes quite a while. On my final day in Rome, I visit the Borghese gardens and the Etruscan museum at the Villa Giulia. This is particularly notable for a preserved tomb interior complete with frescos, funerary sculptures, bronze bosses and sculptures from preserved temples. I particularly like a plate with an elephant leading its young on it.

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Italian Journeys

In many respects, Venice and Florence could have been conceived of as diametrical opposites. The former is a maritime city whose delicate and colourful architecture spans a panoply of styles. Its politics were best described as democratic oligarchy, a structure that produced a remarkable degree of stability and continuity. Its art tended towards the impressionistic, utilising broad brush strokes. By contrast, Florentine architecture tends towards the squat and militaristic, with terracotta brown as its dominant colour. The landlocked city lacked Venice’s political stability as much as it lacked its architectural profligacy, with a series of revolts, occupations and authoritarian rule for much of its history. By contrast, its art tended towards colourful pastels and was characterised by its precision and realism.

Looking round Piazza Signoria makes much of this contrast obvious; the space is relatively small when compared to the Piazza San Marco, with the crenellated bulk of the Palazzo Vecchio seeming to intrude into square like an unwelcome guest. The equestrian statue of Cosimo stands firmly at the centre of the square. The other sculptures are equally testaments to violence; Donatello’s Judith with the head of Holofernes, Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa, Giambologna’s rape of the Sabine women, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and, of course, Michaelangelo’s David. Ammannati’s statue of Neptune emerges as something of an exception. Equally though, it’s even more plausible to read the Cellini and Michaelangelo sculptures as frank celebrations of gay sexuality, with no attempt at modesty in either case. Certainly, Ammannati later came to regard his nude statues as sinful celebrations of the flesh.

The Palazzo Vecchio itself proves rather more graceful on the interior than its martial exterior might suggest, beginning with Michaelozzo’s frescoed courtyard. Much of the interior walls were frescoed by Vasari and Ghirlandaio, sometimes depicting pergolas with birds perching within them on the ceiling, sometimes depicting grotesques similar in style to Nero’s golden house and sometimes showing mythological like Penelope and Esther. The most elegant room is clearly Eleonora’s chapel, its walls and ceiling covered in Bronzino’s frescos, whose colour almost seems luminescent in the dark. An interesting comparison is afforded by the earlier Palazzo Medici, whose showpiece is the Gozzoli Chapel, whose walls are frescoed with an entire landscape showing the journey of the Magi. The effect is rather like that of walking into a Brueghel painting. The baroque Giordano frescos in the nearby gallery form a rather unfavourable comparison to it. I also visit the much smaller Palazzo Davanzati, a more typical example of how the Florentine nobility lived, with thick shutters to block out the cold and bright frescos of red and green patterns on the walls.

The next thing I want to see are the two major churches in Florence; Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. The exterior of Santa Maria, with its white and green marble arches, looks as if it should be in Cordoba. The interior is quite different with frescos by Filippo Lippi, Masaccio, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio appearing behind a cross by Giotto. Its cloisters contain a rather faded Ucello fresco and a considerably better preserved Buonaiuto fresco in the chapter house. Santa Croce rather reminds me of Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in that it forms a pantheon of Florentine society; the walls are lined with monuments for Michaelangelo, Rossini, Galileo and Dante. The cloisters similar contain an underground corridor lined with funerary monuments and gravestones. A Cimabue crucifix and Giotto frescoes compete the picture of a gothic church that reached its apex during the renaissance but the most interesting part of the church may be the Pazzi Chapel, a dome built by Bruneschelli. The interior is austere, its symmetry uninterrupted by functional requirements (like Michaelangelo’s Medici chapel) with fake doors and windows inserted where necessary. The only decoration or colour comes from a set of Della Robbia ceramics. All of which leads us on to Bruneschelli’s own churches.

It comes as a surprise when walking into Florence’s cathedral to see Arnolfo’s original Gothic construction, which is belied by the presence of a dome and not hinted at from the white, green and pink marble on the exterior. The result comes over as something resembling the Gibbs design of St Martin in the Fields. Where the exterior is unusually colourful for Florence, the interior is decidedly plain, with a pair of trompe l’oeil monuments by Ucello and Castegna and Ucello’s clock as the main items of note inside a rather empty interior. The dome is the exception with its Vasari frescos and stained glass roundels by Ucello and Donatello. The Baptistery is something quite different again; entering through Pisano and Ghiberti’s doors leads to the glimmering and gleam of the ceiling’s gold mosaics, the only ones I encounter in Florence. The church of San Lorenzo shares Bruneschelli’s preference for domes with Santa Maria del Fiore, but is purely classical, its smaller scale seeming to work rather better with the austerity of its interior. By contrast, the interior of the Chapel of Princes is heavily frescoed, its walls lined with layers of different marbles and with statues of the deceased Medici. Michaelangelo’s New Sacristy is more in keeping with Bruneschelli’s spartan design, but gains the claustrophobic air of a room with no doors, as each wall is lined with fake windows and doors, each wall facing a set of symbolic opposites as if they were facing a mirror; action and introspection, night and day, dawn and dusk, life and death. The Spedale degli Innocenti is another Bruneschelli designed building, with sets of labyrinthine cloisters that lead to a well hidden museum with a collection of Della Robbia ceramics, some especially grisly relics and a Ghirlandaio painting. The nearby church of Santissima Annunziata rather impresses me for for the slightest of reasons; an anteroom to the main building, lined with fake windows out of which painted faces peer. The last church of note in central Florence is Orsanmichele, a guild church with sculptures by the likes of Donatello on its blank exterior and whose dark exterior requires electric lighting to illuminate the ceiling frescos.

The following day I brave crossing the Ponte Vecchio and its legions of expensive jewellery and leather shops over to Oltrarno, which plays the part of Richmond to Florence’s London. Bruneschelli’s church of Santo Spirito is one of the simpler buildings on the outside, with its yellow plaster facade and tiled dome, but the interior is the equal of San Lorenzo, with a trompe l’oeil ceiling and paintings by Allori and Filippino Lippi in the side chapels. Some of the wooden predella designs are as striking as the paintings. I don;’t get to see that much of the interior of Santa Maria Del Carmine but the Masolino frescos inside the Brancacci chapel are probably the best preserved that I see in the course of my visit to Italy. The nearby church of San Felicita is comparatively nondescript save for a jarringly coloured Pontormo painting; mannerism as a form of renaissance postmodernism. I walk up to the Pitti palace, with its unprepossessing, if not openly brutalist, exterior. The central courtyard is relieved somewhat by the inclusion of a grotto and a range of grotesques that offset the repeated statues of Hercules (surely the Medici equivalent of Stalinist sculpture or the works of Arno Breker). The Boboli garden continues this theme, with its combination of classical statues along long ornamental avenues and grotesque gargoyles or bizarre images of naked dwarves riding turtles. The presence of modern sculptures by the likes of Mitoraj rather tends to tip the scales in favour of the bizarre and arcane. The absence of flowers in favour of a set of green shades serves to throw the sculptures into greater relief, remaking the garden into a form of theatre. The garden seems rather popular with cats, to judge by the number who decide to take a mid afternoon siesta in its shade. I walk back up the hill where the church of San Miniato perches at its summit. Its marbled facade looks out over the city, while the light filters into the dark gothic interior to illuminate the Gaddi frescos. Beneath it, the Piazza Michaelangelo offers even better views of the city, albeit with a verdigris coated replica of David surrounded by legions of souvenir stalls at its centre.

The silverworks gallery at the Pitti Palace compares rather favourably to similar wunderkammers I’ve seen in Germany and Denmark, with its customary display of amber, coral, rock crystal and ivory carved into impossible and surreal forms, something enhanced by a set of jade Aztec artefacts. As one might well expect the main strength of the Palatine gallery here is portraiture, with good examples from Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Botticelli, Tintoretto and Perugino. Beyond that some of Salvator Rosa’s landscapes, Gentilleschi’s Judith, Reni’s Cleopatra, Rachel Ruysch’s still lives, and various Madonna and Child interpretations by Raphael and Botticelli. If the Palatine Gallery seems somewhat like a storage area for the Uffizi with the addition of a more ecclectic list of artists like Van Dyck, Rubens and Murillo, the Modern Art Gallery seems more like an exercise in representing the precise artworks that led to Marinetti’s furious denunciation of nineteenth century and the advent of futurism, which also happens to be the point the Modern Art gallery stops just short of. Much of the earlier works inevitably tend towards the historicist, offering some interest from showing artists like Fattori representing Italian history rather than having it interpreted for them by Northern European artists; conversely there’s also a section for works by those artists like Lensbach as well as paintings by Elizabeth Chaplin. The most successful works tend to be those concentrating on contemporary depictions of the Risorgimento, although some of Galileo Chini’s proto-futurist paintings of Thailand tend to leap out.

The next day is, inevitably, taken up with the Uffizi and the Accademia. The Uffizi is perhaps unusual amongst Europe’s galleries in that its building has almost as much pride of place as the paintings. To enter the gallery, you walk past rows of niches filled with the likes of Giotto to Leonardo and then into long corridors filled with Roman busts and sculptures at floor level, Vasari frescos on the ceiling and paintings of the European nobility immediately beneath them. I’m slightly taken aback to see Henry the Eighth or Elizabeth the First here, and even more so by the Ottoman sultans or the Ethiopian king. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the galleries are initially ordered in the same chronological order as Vasari’s lives of the artists, beginning with Giotto and Cimabue. With works like Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi, this iconographic style begins to give way to something more like individual portraiture in a setting that recognisably anticipates landscape painting. It’s a progression that’s continued in Filippo Lippi’s work but while works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Pallas and the Centaur and Primavera may be the stuff of cliche now at the time as sensuous and profane a painting as that must have seemed every bit as revolutionary as Picasso. From that point onwards even religious paintings like Leonardo’s Annunciation were cast in the vein Botticelli had established, while portraiture by the likes of Mantegna, Perugino, Bellini, Della Francesca, Raphael and Bottecelli himself begins to emerge with the stress on the depiction of individuals rather than idealisations. The two most noteworthy Italian artists after Botticelli are Venetian, with Titian and Tintoretto, where the same sensuality as seen in Botticelli is supplemented by a sense of texture and surface lacking in Florentine art, followed by Caravaggio where the gallery houses his extraordinary Medusa, placed alongside works influenced by Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique, such as Gentileschi. The Uffizi does diverge from Vasari’s grand narrative in the galleries given up to Northern European art he would have seen as barbarous, with series of works by Memling, Weyden, Durer, Cranach and Holbein. I still feel that Northern European art was the superior of the two, with Memling and Weyden bringing the same sense of individuality to religious paintings as Cranach and Holbein did to portraiture. By contrast, Del Sarto’s paintings gain from small incidental details, as in Madonna of the Harpies rather than in the depiction of the personae themselves.

After the Uffizi, it’s perhaps inevitable that the Accademia is something of a disappointment. It does have excellent paintings by Ghirlandaio, Lippi, Bartholemo and Perugino, but it is ultimately of note for only one thing: Michaelangelo’s David. It is quite an odd experience seeing the original having seen replicas and images of it so many times, particularly given that the scale of the original does seem to diminish many of the sculpture’s flaws, like the lack of proportion to the hands and face. The Accademia is also running an exhibition of Bartolini’s works, ranging from a copper bust of Napoleon to a plaster bust of Liszt. The collection of his plaster casts, many of them for works I’d seen at Pisa, is also rather striking, albeit rather perversely for presenting the imperfect in a city more renowned for the opposite. In contrast to the Accademia, the Bargello’s collection is rather less reliant on a single piece, with its central courtyard being filled with pieces by Ammannati before one passes into a gallery dominated by Michaleangelo’s Bacchus and Cellini’s coquettish Ganymede. Again, the rather blatant gay sexuality is rather surprising. Inevitably, the highlight is David once again, this time in Donatello’s rendition. Where Michaelangelo emphasises the masculine, Donatello’s interpretation with its feathered hat is more androgynous, something that must have seemed rather more apparent with the original gilding. Other things that leap out include Giambologna’s bird sculptures, Ghiberti’s Baptistery panels and Limoges reliquaries.

Florence’s smaller museums and galleries offer more idiosyncratic views onto its history, like the San Marco monastery with its series of Fra Angelico frescos in each monk’s cell (very frequently of the same scene, with the crucifixion being the most common; a form of renaissance mass production). The church of the same name is striking for its Byzantine mosaic, one of the few in evidence in Florence. The Archaeological Museum proves to have an exceptional collection of Etruscan and Roman artefacts, from sarcophaguses that retain their original paint, the wonderfully fantastic Chimera of Arezzo to the Idolino of Pesaro. The Egyptian section is housed in Victorian galleries painted in an Egyptianate style from lotus columns to stars on the ceiling. The Egyptian collection is also rather impressive, from a relief of the Goddess Mut to a large collection of sarcophagi.

The Botanical garden in Florence is rather small but it does afford some welcome relief on an oppressively hot and humid day. Water lilies bloom in the pond near the Lotus reeds, while a Wollemi pine and a Medlar tree grow nearby. Walking round periodically leads indignant cats to emerge from beneath the undergrowth with their sleep interrupted; a set of kennels at the back of the garden suggests they are on the staff. Nearby is the Scalzi cloister, with its monochrome Del Sarto frescos and skull motifs on the columns. The Synagogue is one of the striking buildings on the Florentine skyline, with its copper dome and pink marble facade and proves to be having an open day that afternoon. The interior presents a trompe l’oeil set of Moorish designs.

Pisa forms as much of a contrast to Florence as Venice does. The enormous plain of the field of Miracles is unlike anything in Florence’s cramped streets. Two colours, the white of the stone and the green of the grass starkly dominate the entire scene, while the architecture itself forms a synthesis of the Romanesque and Moorish, with the occasional element of early Gothic decoration. The first building I visit is the Baptistery whose cavernous interior forms something of a contrast to the cathedral, where Cimabue’s apse mosaics compete with Pisano’s pulpit sculptures, Del Sarto’s paintings and Galileo’s lamp hanging down from the panelled ceiling. I find myself agreeing with Ruskin that the cemetery is the outstanding building; a Gothic cloister containing sarcophagi from the Roman, Etruscan and Medieval periods through to the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, so that tombs by Ammannati and Pisano appear next to work by Bartolini, Dupre and Thorvaldsen in front of frescos depicting hell, Genesis, the last judgement and the triumph of death. The cemetery is in many respects a self contained history of how the universe has been mythologised, from Mithras slaying the demon bull, through to medieval memento mori through to weeping angels. Inevitably, once I’ve finished with the cemetery, this leaves the tower, which is perhaps the least interesting building on the Field of Miracles, although I do find myself somewhat surprised by the extent of its lean. Last but not last, the museum contains a number of items like the original Hispano-Islamic griffin that sat atop the cathedral roof and sinopie drawings of the Campo Santo frescos. I then walk back past the ruins of the old fortress and across the Arno to one of Pisa’s smaller but underrated buildings; the church of Santa Maria del Spina, a tiny gothic chapel by the side of the river. I then walk past the old cathedral of St Paul on the Arno (closed for renovation) and the somewhat dilapidated Chapel of St Agatha, which has weeds growing out of its roof.

In Siena, the hill winds its way to the central Campo and from thence to the elaborate gothic cathedral. The interior is rather more elaborate than either Florence or Pisa, with a star pattern on the ceiling, marbled striping on the pillars, sculpture by Pisano, Della Quercia and Becafumi and an allegorical mosaic pavement on the floor. Side chapels act as hosts to Bernini and Donatello sculptures, but the most striking parts of the building are the Piccolomini library with its Pinturicchio frescos and the Baptistery with its Pietro frescos and Donatello sculptures. The hospital of Santa Maria della Scala opposite the cathedral proves rather labyrinthine on the inside, with a set of frescos above ground giving way to an apparently endless series of corridors and rooms that form the city’s archaeological museum, comprising a series of reliquaries, Etruscan funerary monuments and a cart formerly used in religious processions. Outside again, the city’s campo by virtue of amphitheatre shape invites comparison with a stage in the way it frames the Palazzo Pubblico, the only interruption being a Della Quercia fountain. The interior of the Palazzo certainly does bear comparison to Doge’s Palace in Venice with Simone Martini’s allegories of justice, good government and the Virgin as the city’s patron in its central chamber, frescos by Beccafumi through to Sala del Risorgimento, with its nineteenth century continuation of the palace’s historical themes. The palace museum holds a gold rose tree crown, a gift to the city from the Papacy.

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.