Tag Archives: Venice

The mosaics of Torcello

4 Feb

 

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In an essay by Kathleen Raine on ‘Yeats’ Holy City of Byzantium’, there is a quotation from A Vision in which Yeats speaks of mosaicists as being at the heart of a community of philosophers and craftspeople and painters:

‘I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosopher worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even  . . . . I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious aesthetic and practical life were one, the architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic-worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.’

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Santa Maria de Assunta, central apse

 

Kathleen Raine, in her essay, suggests that the dome of the old Aghia Sophia in Constantinople ‘would have been inlaid with those mosaic figures who seem to stand in an optical space outside, not behind, the surface on which they gleam’. Of course, the mosaics of Aghia Sophia are gone now, and Constantinople is – and has been since 1453 – Istanbul. But I am wondering whether the mosaics of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Venice, which I visited last month, don’t have that same quality of occupying a space beyond their immediately visible surface. The effect of these images, which we observed for only ten or fifteen minutes on a quick visit to the island, was dramatic and lasting. My own photos were not very good, so I have downloaded some that I found on the Italian Ways website.

We had taken a boat tour of three islands (Murano, Burano and Torcello), but I was only really interested in Torcello, which was the first of the islands in the Venetian lagoon to be occupied, in the sixth century or so. It was – and is – an island of low lying marshland, but it grew to sustain a population of around 20,000 between the 7th – 11th centuries, when its inhabitants started moving to the island that constitutes modern Venice, almost certainly as the result of a malaria epidemic. The island became depopulated, its buildings raided for materials and stone to be rebuilt in the new place. All of its great buildings and palaces have utterly vanished, and its population now is around 75. Only a few buildings and two churches remain, one of which is the Assunta.

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View of Torcello with the Basilica of the Assunta in foreground

We walked along the bank of the single canal that divides the island as far as the church and then returned straight back to our waiting launch. It was a cold and rather bleak winter’s afternoon. I cannot remember there being any birds, though I imagine there must have been. Once inside the church, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity with the place – one of those rare sensory responses that you cannot quite identify, and which afterwards strike you as carrying a message you cannot decipher. Something like déjà vu, but not exactly. Afterwards it occurred to me that perhaps I visited with my parents as a young child; I cannot remember (and doubt whether my siblings will either, and both my parents are dead) but I had a strong sense that I had been there before.

Thinking back to the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, reflecting on the mosaics we found there . . . and reading the essay by Kathleen Raine on Yeats’ ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ I am reminded of the way the mosaic makers of Byzantium, and early Venice, were philosopher-craftsmen or women – and the mosaic makers’ art was something assimilative, in the sense that mosaic synthesizes from the world and makes concrete, fixes in time ideas and emotions and colours and pieces of stone and ceramic and other shapes from the material world, creating something shapely and beautiful and somehow, at the same time, apart, looking in on us as though ‘outside, not behind the surface on which they gleam . . .’

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Inverted City

7 Jan

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Here in the city of water, our hotel has a sign in the bathroom: ‘Water is a very scarce natural resource of immense value.’ No doubt this is true, but how strange that we should be reminded of it here, of all places.

An afternoon spent visiting islands. On returning from the sad island, Torcello, we sail past Murano in the dark, the bells tolling across the water from a church tower, the swash of the water against the hull as we pass, a sense of departure foreshadowing that of the definitive journey, and I am reminded that – as Peter Ackroyd notes in his book Venice: Pure City – ‘the endless presence of water breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness . . . it is shapeless. It has depth but no mass.’

Venice is a place of doubleness and of inversions. The watery essence of the city seeps into every thought, every perception, and then replicates it in a reflection. Stone and water; water and stone. Ackroyd again: ‘When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.’

The inversion of one world in another: if you get to visit below the Doge’s Palace you can see how the reflection of the upper world in the lower finds expression in inscriptions outside the prison cells set at canal level, which are numbered in inverted Roman numerals: Λ, ΛΙ, etc. Apparently this was done to remind the prisoners that they were now in a shadow zone, a place in which the normal rules of the surface no longer held sway; that they had entered another, upside down world – had themselves become other.

 

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Venice story

6 Jan

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It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money.  He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.

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Something we cannot see

20 Apr

Two men and mountain

I have never been a great rummager, but perhaps that is changing. Last Sunday I was passing a second-hand bookshop in a quiet corner of Dorsoduro, Venice. In among the boxes of old photographs, no doubt excavated from house clearances, I come across this image. Among hundreds of pictures of Venetian wedding parties, fisherwomen on the Lido, grandees posing before their canal palaces, and ordinary family snaps of forgotten events, my eye selects this one, and for some reason I have to have it. Why has this photograph found its way into a box outside this rundown emporium of old books and discarded objects on the Fondamenta Briati?

Who are these men and what are they doing? Both are looking down, perhaps at a long trench that has been dug out of the hillside, or at something on the ground that we cannot see. A stick or branch protrudes from the ground beneath them at an angle of 45 degrees, but the men’s gaze appears to be fixed on something just the other side of this. Behind them stretches a line of buildings, and a church suggestive to me of the South Tyrol or Alto Adige. The man on the left carries a cane or walking stick, but he is not leaning on it. His companion, who wears a hat, is entirely occupied by the sight beneath him. His posture suggests a slight buckling or sagging, as though in reaction to the thing he has identified that cannot ever be communicated beyond this stolen moment in time. Perhaps it is the future he sees, emerging from beneath him like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, back turned towards the future. Perhaps it is an aleph, hidden among the shards and pebbles. Perhaps it is nothing of the kind, just a few bones, or a piece of broken mirror reflecting light. Behind them the mountains rise like a tsunami.

 

 

 

 

 

Brodsky’s Venice

15 Apr
Colleoni statue with bird, evening.

Colleoni  (he of the three testicles) and bird, evening.

I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I could not get on with, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’

When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord.  And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.

The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?

And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!

And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.

Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.

Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.

 

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-knowledge is blue

12 Jul

Marcel Proust

 

I like it when very distinct sources come up with the same material. One of the pleasure of writing a blog lies in sharing this kind of weird shit with my readers.

What to make of this?

Marcel Proust, in the last volume of A la recherché du temps perdu, having lost his footing on an uneven paving-stone, is reminded of an instance in Venice when, similarly, he had lost his footing, and through a process of accumulated memories of this kind attempts to measure the definitive instance of recall, the moment in which the whole process of revelatory recollection comes together. And his moment of revelation arrives in the colour blue, or azure:

The happiness that I had just experienced was indeed just like that I had felt when eating the madeleine, and the cause of which I had at that time put off seeking. The difference, purely material, was in the images each evoked; a deep azure intoxicated my eyes, impressions of coolness and dazzling light swirled around me and, in my desire to grasp them, without daring to move any more than when I had tasted the madeleine and I was trying to bring back to my memory what it reminded me of, I continued . . . to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one.

It would seem that this swimming about in the blue, as an image of self-awareness, or imminent revelation, was something familiar to the ancient alchemists. Lindy Abraham, in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery writes:

[T]he mercurial water and alchemical quintessence are frequently described as being sky blue or azure. Paraclesus introduced the symbol of the sapphire from the Cabbala into alchemy, where it came to signify the arcane substance. Thomas Vaughan described the tincture as having the colour of a certain inexpressible Azure like the Body of Heaven in a clear Day.’ He called the Stone ‘an azure Heaven.’ Elsewhere Vaughan wrote that the water of the sages was a ‘deep Blew Tincture’. To clothe in an azure shirt or garment means to make projection of the tincture on molten metal in order to convert it into silver or gold.

And finally Thomas Vaughan himself,  alchemist and brother of the great poet Henry Vaughan writes in his Aula Lucis:

Hence you may gather some infallible signs, whereby you may direct yourselves in the knowledge of the Matter and in the operation itself, when the Matter is known. For if you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it – which cannot be without our secret fire – you shall find that the matter no sooner feels the philosophical heat but the white light will lift himself above the water, and there will he swim in his glorious blue vestment like the heavens.

If you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it . . . prepare, dear reader, to swim into the livelong blue.

 

 

 

 

 

Map of Venice

18 Jul

 

Here you are in the cerebral cortex, one fictional street leading into another campo of the imagination, the calli lined with deceit, each turning an extenuating circumstance into an invasion of the blind. No rabbit holes, no fox dens here, only the supercilious scrutiny of the gulls, and an exhausting labyrinth in which one false turning leads to another, and you have entered an unknown place where the sun has no welcome. You take another turning, glance at the name of the alley which bears no relation to the name on your or any other map, continue with a sense of desolate determination, long ago having lost all sense of your eventual destination, only to come across it unawares, as though the city had ensnared you, laid an ornate trap. You are forever the victim of your own confidence in finding the way. You propose a direct route – according to the map, of course – only to find that the phenomenal agglomeration of stone and water gets in the way, and you appreciate once again that the map describes instead a fictional version of the island, a kind of alternative city, one of many. Later, seated by a canal, staring at the reflection of the water on the side of an illuminated building, you come to another understanding; that what is being described in all these false turnings, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, intended paths, projected destinations, humorous asides and double bluffs, is a map of yourself, or of anyone else you care to name, and the city you are attempting so desperately to navigate likewise remains unknowable.