The Side Canals Of Venice
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN a forlorn corner of Venice, not far from the Madonna dell' Orto, where Cima da Conegliano's great picture is enshrined, we come to the grass-grown Campo St. Avis, with its blistered garden walls and cluster of crumbling buildings. There is plenty of time to look about us before the bottle-nosed custodian comes shuffling over the bridge with the keys of the little-frequented church. We have come to seek the earliest productions of Carpaccio, and here they are on the wall of the nave, eight in all and mere daubs, although the promising daubs of a gifted twelve year old boy. They are scenes from the Old Testament Job and his Comforters; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; Tobit and the Angel; Moses and the Tables of the Law; the Golden Calf; Joshua before the Walls of Jericho; Joseph's Brethren Imploring Forgiveness; Jacob and Rachel at the Well.
These early efforts of the future illustrator of the legends of St. George, St. Ursula, St. Jerome, etc., have little historic worth, but much historic interest, since all crudity and stiffness notwithstanding, they show the budding dramatic power and keen observation of the future master. And they are the only records of his youth, for few details are known of Carpaccio's life. Even the date of his birth is uncertain,but may be placed towards the middle of the Fifteenth Century, as he was an aged man at the time of his death in 1524. The first of his great works is dated 1490 the last 1522. It is a disputed point whether his name was Scarpaccia or Carpaccio, a disputed point whether he was a native of Venice or Istria; but recent research has almost decided this question in favour of the latter place. The St. Avis panels bear the painter's usual signature. In the quaint representation of Jacob's meeting with Rachel, we at once notice the horse stooping to feed. The action is very truthful, and the forelegs have the defect—disproportionate length common to all Carpaccio's horses. But, as in his after works, the story is capitally told, the central idea seized, although the brush is feebly handled, and the drawing that of a child.
This poverty stricken church must once have seen better days, for it possesses several excellent works of art; There is a fresco by Bonifazio The Last Supper almost identical in composition with the oil-painting by the same master in the Florence Academy. The Judas is specially remarkable as a study in red and brown. Here, too, are a couple of Tie polo's chefs d'a'uvre: the Scourging in the Temple, and Christ Sinking Under the Cross. They are noble paintings both for colour and design, and painted in the master's most serious mood. No frolicsome angels mar the solemnity of the themes. Nevertheless, like all this master's works, they bear a prophetic kinship with those of the French school of thirty years back. They might have strayed from the walls of the Luxembourg to this decaying Venetian church.
The last of the Venetian colourists is unfortunate in his surroundings, for some of his best productions are hidden in the Palazzo Labia, in the Canareggio quarter, near the rail-way station, and are seldom discovered by strangers. The palace stands sideways to the canal, divided from it by a stretch of pavement. It fronts an unsavoury Fondamento, whence, after ringing at a blistered door, you pass into a spacious entrance hall, foul with odours unmentionable and strewed with flakes of plaster dropped from the cracked and bulging vault above. A grandiose staircase faces the mouldy courtyard in the centre of the block. Ascending its grimy steps, you are met by a frowzy portress, fit guardian of decay, whose slip-shod feet lead the way into a lofty saloon with wide cracks in the walls and depressions in the floor corresponding with the unsightly bulges seen from below. Here are Tiepolo's frescoes of the loves of Antony and Cleopatra, and the Allegory of Fortune. The visitor's first impression is one of blank disappointment, for the story of the Egyptian queen is coarsely treated, though vigorous in design; and this buxom, blowzy Cleopatra, with ruff and stomacher and powdered toupee, so ostentatiously melting her pearl before the enamoured eyes of her Roman General, is, to say the least, a droll anachronism. But there is a charming group of pipers and trumpeters in the background, delicate, vaporous figures, somewhat after the manner of Hamon. On the opposite wall is seen the arrival of Mark Antony,and on the ceiling the Allegory of Fortune, a truly excellent work. It is sad that treasures like these should be left to perish amid all this dust and decay! A school of mosaic workers occupies the front rooms, and you have to pick your way among heaps of glass cubes, pots of cement, and a confusion of benches, tables and boys, to obtain a view of the remaining pictures. The rest of the building is let off to tenants of the poorest class who air their rags on the sculptured window-sills and balconies.
Sic transit gloria mundi! About a century ago this massive Renaissance palace was the meeting-place of the fashionable world, for the Labia exercised a princely hospitality, and had a private theatre, where many operas were acted by marionettes and sung by good artists behind the scenes.
On the same day, we gained admittance to the Palazzo Morosini, at Santo Stefano, one of the best preserved relics of olden Venice. It still belongs to the Morosini, and the present representative of the family allows it to be seen by special appointment. Landing at the water-door in a dark and narrow canal, you are received by ancient serving-men with shrunken faces and loosely hanging coats, and ushered straight into the Seventeenth Century. The chilly entrance hall is adorned with quaint oil sketches of the thirty-seven strongholds captured by Francesco Morosini in the Morea. The huge lanterns of his war-galley project from the end wall. There are full length portraits of the conquering Doge and of many illustrious ancestors. The Maggiordomo appears and gravely leads you upstairs into a long suite of saloons with gorgeous uncomfortable furniture, a large collection of pictures good, bad and indifferent—quantities of rare old china of Eastern and native fabric, and innumerable relics of the hero of the house, Doge Francesco, surnamed the " Peloponesiaco." There is his bust in bronze, with memorials of his prowess; and the resolute features are those of a leader of men. The one thing lacking to this typical Venetian dwelling is an outlook on to the Grand Canal. Nearly all the windows open upon the " Calle Stretta," or into mildewed courts; and the only sunny corner, at the angle of Piazza Santo Stefano, is devoted to the armoury, filled with spoils of victory over the Turks. A forest of infidel banners and flags droop from the walls in heavy silken folds, amid a store of Pasha's tails, shields, trophies of arms and armour, guns and mortars, statues, busts and bas-reliefs. This fortunate general captured no less than 1,36o pieces of artillery, and evidently looted on a vast scale, inasmuch as the lion's share of his gains must have gone to the State. The sun streamed into this picturesque hall and through its wide casements. We looked on to the flower-filled terrace of Countess Morosini's private rooms.
The gem of the picture gallery is Titian's portrait of Doge Grimiani : a marvellous painting of an astute old face, with piercing narrow eyes and seamed with countless wrinkles. His union with Morosina Morosini can hardly have been a love match, on the lady's part at all events. Beside this masterpiece hangs a good Sir Peter Lely, representing a bouncing blonde with frank blue eyes, supposed to be the portrait of Christina of Sweden.
The collection naturally includes many scenes of Venetian life by the prolific Longhi; they are very inferior to those in the possession of Mr. Rawdon Browne, but there are some female heads in pastel by the same master which are specimens of his best work.
This home of the Morosini is almost the only notable Venetian palace still owned by the family for whom it was built, and no other has retained so rich a collection of art-treasures and relics. But even at burning midday it was cold—cold as the grave. Surely, only disembodied spirits could take their ease in those stiff and chilly saloons! We could imagine the long-deceased Doge and a select company of family ghosts gravely stalking through them by night, and trying to warm themselves by sipping hot coffee for which the Doge had acquired a taste in the East from the dainty cups so primly ranged on shelves during the day. That there are ghosts in Venice is known to everyone. Is not that fine grim-fronted palace at the turn of the canal, Palazzo Contarini delle Figure, perpetually changing hands, because no tenant can long endure its nighty horrors? The present owner has stripped it of its furniture in the hope of getting rid of the ghosts, but no one takes it, and its supernatural occupants now have it all to themselves.