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    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

Another Venice ?

The Doges of Venice, upon their inauguration, performed a ceremony of marrying the sea, symbolizing extension of their dominion to all the elements. And in few places are land and sea so intimately entwined as in Venice. The Grand Canal and its tributary canals are all arms of the sea, making the voyages of Venetian merchants and adventurers to the Levant and to Byzantium seem no more than local expeditions. From the top of San Giorgio, where the dragon-slaying saint surveys the Lagoon and the passing ships, the dense network of canals and streets invites exploration.

Venice from the top of San Giorgio

Venice from the top of San Giorgio

On closer inspection, Venice is harder to fathom. On San Marco, or in the maze of streets, on the Ca’ d’Oro or in the Church of Santa Maria de la Salute, there seems to be a reassuring solidity. Yet Venice’s magnificent palazzi are built on pilings that are constantly sinking into the sea. Sea-level surfaces are sometimes underwater, and back-entrances are surprisingly slummy-looking. Viewed from out on the open water, Venice is revealed as a few islands barely above sea level, sparkling and floating, the whole city and all its treasure a mirage.

Venetian architecture, as many have noted, lacks refinement. San Marco is a hodge-podge of precious materials looted from around the Mediterranean.

San Marco

San Marco

Outside, as Mary McCarthy wrote in her indispensable book Venice Observed, it ‘looks like an Oriental pavilion — half pleasure-house, half war-tent, belonging to some great satrap.’ Many of its details are whimsical and intriguing, such as the childrens’ jacks, and the rain-washed multi-colored marbles look like an abstract painting. Inside, she writes,

‘Inside, glittering with jewels and gold, faced with precious Eastern marbles, Jasper and alabaster, porphyry and verd-antique, sustained by Byzantine columns in the same materials, of varying sizes and epochs, scarcely a pair alike, this dark cruciform cave has the look of a robber’s den.’

How true. In this marvelous mélange of sacred and profane, the spoils of war are transformed into objects of worship. The Venetian Republic pioneered and brought to perfection the mercantile blend of commerce, diplomacy, and war. Holy Wars such as the Fourth Crusade were primarily a business opportunity, which the Venetians exploited with an ecumenical indifference to religious belief. The spoils accumulated by the Venetian merchant marine had to be made respectable, and were thus converted into a glittering fantasy of wealth. The monstrous reception room with the gilded painting on the ceiling, intended perhaps to intimidate visitors, is part of the overall effect.consigliomaggior The brilliant marbles and elaborate Byzantine facades, reflected in the shimmering waters, said: ‘There’s always more where that came from’.

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco

There wasn’t, of course. Venice’s mercantile empire eventually crumbled, due to the increasing vulnerability of the Silk Road to attacks enroute to the Orient, the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople, and finally the Suez Canal which bypassed the old trade routes. Later the Dutch and British East India Companies adopted the Venetian mercantile formula and extended it to the New World.

Venetian architecture is designed to display opulence rather than good form; the facade is all that matters, rear views are not to be seen by anyone whom the owner wishes to impress. Whistler, though, found the charm in these neglected precincts.

Whistler, Doorway

Whistler, Doorway

Venice is a great stage-set, a place for the rich and wanabe-rich to savor an aristocratic life-style, a city of make-believe, an eternal carnival; a place to be transported in a gondola while the gondolier sings ‘Volare’; to sip cappucino with as much nonchalance as one can muster, or a drink at Florian on the Piazza, dine on Seppe alla Veneziana (squid in its own ink) at a restautant on the Zattere, surreptitiously consult a map, watch recent arrivals struggle with heavy suitcases up and down gracefully arched bridges (because it’s the servants’ day off), and purchase the candy-colored Murano glass, or a mask to disguise one’s identity. In a strange reversal of reality and reflection, it seems as if the canals exist not only for transport, but to confirm the city’s existence, as if the shimmering watery depths contained the real Venice. Mary McCarthy observes of this curious double-world,
Canal reflections

Canal reflections

‘The perennial wonder of Venice is to peer at herself in her canals and find that she exists — incredible as it seems. It is the same reassurance that a looking-glass offers us: the guarantee that we are real. In Canaletto and Guardi, the Venetian image is affirmed and documented: the masks and the bobbing gondolas, the Rialto Bridge, the Dogana, and the blue curtain of the Salute blowing in a freshened breeze.’

One of Venice’s attractions is that the practice of pleasure in all its various forms seems to be its main industry. This was not always so (it used to be only a sideline). It takes an effort of imagination to recall that Venice was once the center of a commercial empire, its palazzi doubling as warehouses. Venetian merchants invented double-entry bookkeeping, the foundation of modern accounting, not usually considered a sybaritic pursuit. (They never bothered to codify their accounting — that was done by two visitors from Sansepolcro, the artist Piero della Francesca who obtained Oriental pigments from Venetian merchants, and Luca Pacioli.) The decline of empire left the Venetians with little to account for, so they turned their energies to leisure.

Venetian Carnival, photogravure etching

Venetian Carnival, photogravure etching

This too was a new invention, requiring a very different organization of life from that imposed by agriculture and commerce. The new nobility, in fact, defined itself by its leisure, creating a demand for goods with no utilitarian purpose. ‘Venice’s most wonderful invention’, Mary McCarthy writes,

‘ — that of the easel-painting — was designed solely for pleasure. Painting, up to Giorgione, had a utility basis: the glorification of God and the saints, the glorification of the state (in the pageant picture), the glorification of an individual (the portrait). Giorgione was the first to create canvases that had no purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, the production of agreeable moods, as Berenson puts it. They were canvases for the private gentleman, for the house, both new conceptions that rested on a new premise: the existence of leisure.’

In this too Venice proved prescient: What was once the preoccupation of the few became the mass tourism of the many — Venice now draws 20 million visitors per year. Undaunted by crowds and high prices, they stream in, though rarely venturing outside San Marco and the Rialto. This leaves the Dorsoduro and San Croce surprisingly empty, where unexpected treasures may nevertheless be found at nearly every vaporetto stop. At Ca’ D’oro, for example, only one stop from the Rialto, the little Franchetti museum is a gem; even the tiles in the entrance-way are a delight.

Franchetti tiles

Franchetti tiles

In Venice, such discoveries seem inexhaustible. One returns, regardless of the congestion, for these, and because no two vaporetto rides are the same, and the maze of streets assures even residents that they can follow a different path to their destinations every day. And the light, changing from brilliant sunlight to mist-filtered diffusion to ghostly twilight and back again, presents an ever-changing aspect. There is nothing else like it in the world.

Blue Lagoon, photogravure etching

Blue Lagoon, photogravure etching

 

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And yet other cities have been described as ‘another Venice’, which almost always proves to be misleading. Saint Petersburg, Russia, has been described as ‘the Venice of the North’. Peter the Great may even have had Venice, as well as Paris, in mind when designing the city in 1703 which he hoped would rival those European capitals. Like Venice, it is built at an estruary on the banks of numerous islands, and has a great many bridges (539). A few of them, like this one with gryphons,

St Petersburg Gryphons

St Petersburg Gryphons

are on a scale suitable for foot traffic, but most are traversed by cars and trucks, which diminishes any comparison with Venice. The main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt, is not near a canal, and the larger canals do not have that both-sides-of-the-water ambience that gives Venice its intimacy. But St Petersburg has a magnificent night skyline,
St Petersburg, Russia, at night

St Petersburg, Russia, at night

a world-class museum (the Hermitage),
The Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Hermitage, St Petersburg

a church (the Resurrection) that is as elaborately ornamented
Resurrection Church, St Petersburg

Resurrection Church, St Petersburg

as any in Christendom, and has certainly fulfilled the ambition of its founder to be a great cultural and maritime center. Not another Venice though.

Livorno, Italy has a district called ‘Venezia’ with canals designed by Venetian architects, and the unusual octagonal-shaped Church of Santa Canterina. But neither the canals nor the churches have Venice’s wealth of Byzantine ornament. Livorno’s harbor has more the aspect of a fort — the Fortezza

Livorno

Livorno

— than a pleasure-palatial entry into a magical kingdom like that of Venice. But Livorno has a down-at-heels indifference to tourist traffic that is a welcome relief from more popular cities, like Venice or Pisa. Hammer-and-sickle graffiti co-exist with the best-stocked U.S. Army-surplus store in Christendom,
Mercantino Americano

Mercantino Americano

the Mercantino Americano. It was at Livorno that the Medici defeated the Mediterranean pirates in the 17th century, and it was from Livorno that Garibaldi launched his ‘Expedition of One Thousand’ to liberate Sicily and unify northern and southern Italy. A free port with a glorious maritime history, but another Venice — no.

Amsterdam too has been described as another Venice. It has graceful canals which still serve as active waterways, and the bridges across them are of a scale that invites walking. But the Dutch are too neat and orderly for their city to be considered Venetian. The canals form semi-circular loops, like ring roads, around a central core — very efficient and easy to navigate, but lacking the chaos of walking through a maze of alleys in Venice and winding up at a ca’ with no bridge. If one could imagine Venice as a clean well-organized quiet place (I can’t), then the peripheral canals of Amsterdam might be that place.

A Canal in Amsterdam

A Canal in Amsterdam

But Venice without its chaos, its absurdist touches like traffic lights on waterways, its vibrant commerce, its proud decrepitude like that of an aged dowager countess, its Byzantine splendor, would not be Venice.

Then there’s the ‘Venice of the East’, Suzhou, China, depicted in numerous websites. Venice was founded in the fifth century, and Suzhou’s founding occurred sometime between a millenium previously or two hundred years later (that being the range of various sources). It was well-established when Venetian explorer Marco Polo described Suzhou in 1276 as a land of ‘six thousand bridges, clever merchants, cunning men of all crafts, very wise men called Sages and great natural physicians.’ The two cities are comparable in their mingling of maritime and terrestrial life, and in their merchant class which developed the entrepot possibilities of their locations. Both cities grew rich on trade and became centers of inland and maritime empires. Now only about 200 bridges remain, but like Venice’s they are mostly suitable for walking. Suzhou may be the closest thing to ‘another Venice’, or Venice to ‘another Suzhou’. They are official sister cities.

The urge to replicate European models occasionally takes an absurd turn, as in Shanghai, where developers rebuilt an entire English town (‘Thamestown’) in 2006, complete with fish-and-chips shops, a statue of Winston Churchill, and half-timbered Tudor-style houses. It looks dreadful.

Thamestown replica, Shanghai

Thamestown replica, Shanghai

Not content with only an English town, developers are also building German, Swedish, Italian, Canadian, Spanish, Traditional Chinese, Southern Chinese, European Harbor towns on the edges of Shanghai. They look even more dreadful. Very few people want to live in such places. They seem to produce the environmental distress known as ‘disorientation’.

Inauthenticity and fakery in art can do the same thing; that is often the intention. The urge to cause discomfort in viewers has been a well-established trope in certain circles of the Western art establishment since the 1960s. The remedy for this is the watchword of this site: ‘See for yourself’. Learn to spot fakery in all its guises, including those with the highest price tags. In replication there is no spontaneity, no joy, no chance discovery. Authentic artwork — and real life — have all of these. Art lifts the spirits, puts the world in a new perspective, enables visions to be realized, creates the enthusiasm and positive energy needed for other practical tasks. So, whenever tempted to banish art to the realm of the peripheral, banish that thought instead! Because real art releases the imagination to pursue and realize new visions and the means to accomplish them.

Venice sunset, from the Lagoon

Venice sunset, from the Lagoon

Even more than its fabulous sunsets, than the ethereal light of of a thousand reflections in its canals, than its graceful domes, hidden byways, and arched bridges, it is this chaotic lively unexpected Venice that endears itself to artists and visionaries.

Printed from: http://www.kamprint.com/views/?p=406 .
© Peter Miller 2017.

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