Venice And Tintoretto
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE fall of Venice dates from the League of Cambray; but her victory over the crowd of her assailants was followed by half a century of peace and glory such as she had never known. Her losses on the mainland were in reality a gain, enforcing as they did the cessation of that policy of Italian aggression which had eaten like a canker into the resources of the State, and drawn her from her natural career of commerce and aggrandisement on the sea. If the political power of Venice became less, her political influence grew greater than ever. The statesmen of France, of England, and of Germany studied in the cool, grave school of her Senate. We need only turn to Othello to find reflected the universal reverence for the wisdom of her policy and the order of her streets. No policy, however wise, could, indeed, avert her fall. The Turkish occupation of Egypt, and the Portuguese discovery of a sea route round the Cape of Good Hope, were destined to rob the Republic of that trade with the East which was the life-blood of its commerce. But, though the blow was already dealt, its effects were for a time hardly discernible. On the contrary, the ac-cumulated wealth of centuries poured itself out in an almost riotous prodigality. A new Venice, a Venice of loftier palaces, of statelier colonnades, rose under Palladio and Sansovino along the line of its canals. In the deep peace of the Sixteenth Century, a peace unbroken even by religious struggles (for Venice was the one State exempt from the struggle of the Reformation), literature and art won their highest triumphs. The press of the Aldi gave for the first time the masterpieces of Greek poetry to Europe. The novels of Venice furnished plots for our own drama, and became the origin of modern fiction. Painting reached its loftiest height in Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Paul Veronese.
The greatest of colourists sprung from a world of colour. Faded, ruined as the city is now, the frescoes of Giorgione swept from its palace fronts by the sea-wind, its very gondoliers bare and ragged, the glory of its sunsets alone remain vivid as of old. But it is not difficult to restore the many hued Venice out of which its painters sprung. There are two pictures by Carpaccio in the Accademia which bring back vividly its physical aspect. The scene of the first, the Miracle of the Patriarch of Grado, as it is called, lies on the Grand Canal, immediately in front of the Rialto. It is the hour of sunset, and dark edged clouds are beginning to fleck the golden haze of the west which still arches over the broken skyline, roof and turret, and belltower, and chimneys of strange fashion with quaint conical tops. The canal lies dusk in the eventide, but the dark surface throws into relief a crowd of gondolas and the lithe glowing figures of their gondoliers. The boats themselves are long and narrow as now, but without the indented prora which has become universal; the sumptuary law of the Republic has not yet robbed them of colour, and instead of the present " coffin " we see canopies of gaily-hued stuffs supported on four light pillars. The gondolier, himself, is commonly tricked out in almost fantastic finery; red cap, with long golden curls flowing down over the silken doublet, slashed hose, the light dress displaying those graceful attitudes into which the rower naturally falls. On the left side of the canal, its white marble steps are crowded with figures of the nobler Venetian life; a black robe here and there breaking the gay variety of golden and purple and red and blue; while in the balcony above a white group of clergy, with golden candlesticks towering overhead, are gathered round the demoniac whose cure forms the subject of the picture.
But the most noteworthy point in it is the light it throws on the architectural aspect of Venice at the close of the Fifteenth Century. On the right the houses are wholly of Mediaeval type, the flat marble-sheeted fronts pierced with trefoil-headed lights; one of them, splendid with painted arabesques, dipping at its base into the very waters of the canal, and mounting up to inwreathe in intricate patterns the very chimneys of the roof. The left is filled by a palace of the early Renaissance ; but the change of architectural style, though it has modified the tone and extent of colour, is far from dismissing it altogether. The flat pilasters which support the round arches of its base are sheeted with a delicately tinged marble; the flower work of their capitals and the mask inclosed within it are gilded like the continuous billet moulding which runs round in the hollow of each arch; while the spandrils are filled in with richer and darker marbles, each broken with a central medallion of gold. The use of gold, indeed, seems a " note " of the colouring of the early Renaissance; a broad band of gold wreathes the two rolls beneath and above the cornice, and lozenges of gold light up the bases of the light pillars in the colonnade above. In another picture of Carpaccio, the Dismissal of the Ambassadors, one sees the same principles of colouring extended to the treatment of interiors. The effect is obtained partly by the contrast of the lighter marbles with those of deeper colour or with porphyry, partly by the contrast of both with gold. Everywhere, whether in the earlier buildings of Mediaeval art or in the later efforts of the Renaissance, Venice seems to clothe itself in robes of Oriental splendour, and to pour over Western art before its fall the wealth and gorgeousness of the East.
Of the four artist-figures who in the tradition of Tintoretto's picture support this " Golden Calf " of Venice, Tintoretto himself is the one specially Venetian. Giorgione was of Castel Franco. Titian came from the mountains of Cadore; Paolo from Verona. But Jacopo Robusti, the " little dyer," the tintoretto, was born, lived, and died in Venice. His works, rare elsewhere, crowd its churches, its palaces, its galleries. Its greatest art-building is the shrine of his faith. The school of San Rocco has rightly been styled by Mr. Ruskin " one of the three most precious buildings in the world "; it is the one spot where all is Tintoretto. Few contrasts are at first sight more striking than the contrast between the building of the Renaissance which contains his forty masterpieces, and the great Mediaeval church of the Frari which stands beside it. But a certain oneness, after all, links the two buildings together. The friars had burst on the caste spirit of the Middle Age, its mere classification of brute force, with the bold recognition of human equality which ended in the socialism of Wyclif and the Lollards. Tintoretto found himself facing a new caste-spirit in the Renaissance, a classification of mankind found on aesthetic refinement and intellectual power; and it is hard not to see in the greatest of his works a protest as energetic as theirs for the common rights of men. Into the grandeur of the Venice about him, her fame, her wealth, her splendour, none could enter more vividly. He rises to his best painting, as Mr. Ruskin has observed, when his subjects are noble-doges, saints, priests, senators clad in purple and jewels and gold. But Tintoretto is never quite Veronese. He cannot be untrue to beauty, and the pomps and glories of earth are beautiful to him; but there is a beauty too in earth, in man himself. The brown, half naked gondolier lies stretched on the marble steps which the doge, in one of his finest pictures, has ascended. It is as if he had stripped off the stately robe and ducal cap and shown the soul of Venice in the bare child of the lagoons. The " want of dignity " which some have censured in his scenes from the Gospels is in them just as it is in the Gospels themselves. Here, as there, the poetry lies in the strange, unearthly mingling of the commonest human life with the sublimest divine. In his Last Supper, in San Giorgio Maggiore, the apostles are peasants; the low, mean life of the people is there, but hushed and transfigured by the tall standing figure of the Master, who bends to give bread to the disciple by his side. And above and around crowd in the legions of Heaven, cherubim and seraphim mingling their radiance with the purer radiance from the halo of their Lord; while amidst all this conflict of celestial light the twinkling candles upon the board burn on, and the damsel who enters bearing food, bathed as she is in the very glory of Heaven, is busy, unconscious a serving maid, and nothing more.
The older painters had seen something undivine in man; the colossal mosaic, the tall unwomanly Madonna, expressed the sense of the Byzantine artist that to be divine was to be inhuman. The Renaissance, with little faith in God, had faith in man but only in the might and beauty and knowledge of man. With Tintoretto the common life of man is ever one with Heaven. This was the faith which he flung on " acres of canvas " as ungrudgingly as apostle ever did, toiling and living as apostles lived and toiled. This was the faith he found in Old Testament and New, in saintly legend or in national history. In The Annunciation at San Rocco a great bow of angels streaming either way from the ethereal dove sweeps into a ruined hut, a few mean chairs its only furniture, the mean plaster dropping from the bare brick pilasters; without, Joseph at work unheeding, amidst piles of worthless timber flung here and there. So, in The Adoration of the Magi, the mother wonders with a peasant's wonder at the jewels and gold. Again, The Massacre of the Innocents is one wild, horror-driven rush of pure motherhood, reckless of all in its clutch at its babe. So, in the splendour of his Circumcision, it is from the naked child that the light streams on the high-priest's brow, on the mighty robe of purple and gold held up by stately forms like a vast banner behind him. The peasant mother to whose poorest hut that first stir of child life has brought a vision of angels, who has marvelled at the wealth of precious gifts which a babe brings to her breast, who has felt the sword piercing her own bosom also as danger threatened it, on whose mean world her child has flung a glory brighter than glory of earth, is the truest critic of Tintoretto.
What Shakespeare was to the national history of England in his great series of historic dramas, his contemporary, Tintoretto was to the history of Venice. It was, perhaps, from an unconscious sense that her annals were really closed that the Republic began to write her history and her exploits in the series of paintings which covers the walls of the Ducal Palace. Her apotheosis is like that of the Roman emperors ; it is when death has fallen upon her that her artists raise her into a divine form, throned amid heavenly clouds, and crowned by angel hands with the laurel wreath of victory. It is no longer St. Mark who watches over Venice; it is Venice herself who bends from Heaven to bless boatmen and Senator. In the divine figure of the Republic with which Tintoretto filled the central cartoon of the Great Hall every Venetian felt himself incarnate. His figure of Venice in the Senate Hall is yet nobler; the blue sea-depths are cleft open, and strange ocean shapes wave their homage, and yet more unearthly forms dart up with tribute of coral and pearls to the feet of the sea queen as she in the silken state of the time with the divine halo around her. But if from this picture in the roof the eye falls suddenly on the fresco which fills the close of the room, we can hardly help reading the deeper comment of Tintoretto on the glory of the State. The Sala del Consiglio is the very heart of Venice. In the double row of plain seats running round it sat her nobles; on the raised dais at the end, surrounded by the graver senators, sat her duke. One long fresco occupies the whole wall above the ducal seat ; in the background the blue waters of the lagoon, with the towers and domes of Venice rising from them; around, a framework of six bending saints; in front, two kneeling doges in full ducal robes, with a black curtain of clouds between them. The clouds roll back to reveal a mighty glory, and in the heart of it the livid figure of a dead Christ taken from the Cross. Not one eye of all the nobles gathered in council could have lifted itself from the figure of the doge without falling on the figure of the dead Christ. Strange as the conception is, it is hard to believe that in a mind so peculiarly symbolical as that of Tintoretto the contrast could have been without a definite meaning. And if this be so, it is a meaning that one can hardly fail to read in the history of the time. The brief interval of peace and glory had passed away ere Tintoretto's brush had ceased to toil.
The victory of Lepanto had only gilded that disgraceful submission to the Turk which preluded the disastrous struggle in which her richest possessions were to be wrested from the Republic. The terrible plague of 1576 had carried off Titian. Twelve years after Titian, Paul Veronese passed away. Tintoretto, born almost at its opening, lingered till the very close of the century to see Venice sinking into powerlessness and infamy and decay. May not the figure of the dead Christ be the old man's protest against a pride in which all true nobleness and effort had ceased to live, and which was hurrying to so shameful a fall?
THE floods in the city have a different cause from those which desolate the mainland. The sea and the wind are responsible for them, and not the continual pour of rain upon the Alps. No doubt, before the rivers the Piave, the Sile, and the Brenta were canalised, and their mouths diverted from the lagoons into the open sea, a flood on the mainland would mean high water in Venice; but now the principal author of a flood in the city is " that son of a dog, the sirocco." A heavy wind blowing up the Adriatic for two days, and sending a turbid sea rolling on the sands of the Lido, virtually blocks the mouths by which the tidal waters escape from the lagoons into the open. The down going tide cannot pass out till it has lost its hour for falling, and begins to turn and rise again. Then it comes sweeping in before the wind, swirling round the point by Sant' Elena and the public gardens, streaming along the curve by the Riva degli Schiavoni, dividing at the point of the Dogana, where half the grey-green flood pours up the Grand Canal, and half fills the wider Giudecca from marge to marge.
The floods usually take place in the morning. As one opens the window a blast of warm, moist air streams into the room, wetting all the walls, and standing in drops on the scagliolo pavement; the air is thick and heavy, and charged with salt sea-spray; and far off, above the roofs of the houses, their reigns a continual booming noise, unremitting and impressive in its pervasivenessit is the roar of the sea on the Lido, two miles or more away. Then the small canal below the window begins to feel the incoming tide. The chips of hay or of wood, the cabbage-stalks and scraps of old matting, move uneasily, as if in doubt which way they are to go; then, with a final turn on their pivots, they yield to the current and sweep away towards the Giudecca. The colour of the water changes to a pale pea-green, not quite clear, but looking as if it had come fresh from the sea. Steadily the tide flows faster and faster under the bridge, and the market men and gondoliers secure their boats to the posts. So it goes on for an hour or more till the jade-coloured flood has nearly brimmed to the edge of the fondamenta, but not yet overflowed it. Then the water begins to appear in the calle; it comes welling up through every drain-hole and between the flags of the pavement, bubbling like a little geyser and making a low gurgling noise; for the sea begins to flood Venice under the pavements, and not over the fondamente, which are usually higher than the streets. Presently the baker puts out a board to serve as a bridge for his customers; but soon the water from the canal has joined that in the calle; the bridge ceases to be of use, and floats idly away. Presently the sea rises; it creeps under the large door of the palace, and swells the little pools that are bubbling up in the courtyard, and flows right out by the great gates on the Grand Canal, converting the whole cortile into a lake. Then the first boat passes down the calle stopping at the shop doors to pick up fares, and bare-legged men offer their services as porters from the high bridge steps to the upper end of the street, which is still dry. Indeed, the flood is an excuse for the display of bare legs, and half the population of the quarter are tucked above the knee. All the windows are full of women and children, laughing at the traffic below laughing at the thrifty, high-kilted housewife, out for her marketing, who grudges a centisimo for the boat and 'shrinks from the porterage; laughing at the thin shod dandy, whose hat was blown off and umbrella turned inside out, and who looks disgust at the wind ; laughing at the heavy man who nearly brings himself and his beaver prone upon the water. Then suddenly, without a moment's warning, there is a dazzling flash of lightning, a rattling peal; every face disappears from the windows, and all the green shutters go to with a bang.
The streets are full of people, most of them bound for the Piazza to see the fun. There is laughter and jesting everywhere, and the impression of a capital joke in bare legs and top boots; the people get their amusement out of it all, though the basements of their houses are soaking and their winter firewood slowly taking in the water. Here is one woman marching along through the flood, serenely regardless of indiscreet disclosure; another in a pair of high top boots, lent by her friend, who stands on the bridge and looks on. The Piazza is one large lake from the door of Saint Mark's up to the raised walk that runs under the colonnades,and right down the Piazzetta out into the stormy lagoon. Under the colonnades a crowd promenades or stands in the arches watching the boats, the gondolas, sandolos and barche, that charge two centisimi for a row. The bright mosaics of Saint Mark's facade, and the long lines of the two Procuratie seem to gain in colour and in form as thy rise right up from this level of the sea. The doves go wheeling about in the upper air, half in alarm at the unwonted sight below them. Hard by the two granite columns at the sea end of the Piazzetta, some speculators have fixed a rickety wooden bridge two planks wide, that leads to the Ponte della Paglia; but the wind is so high that only a venturous few attempt the passage, and more, it would seem, to keep the game alive than from any pressure of business, they are greeted with applause or laughter as they make the transit in safety or lose their hats on the way. Presently the water begins to go down, and then comes a regular stampede of all the boats in the Piazza, for once caught there, it is a serious matter to lift a gondola down to the sea. In a moment the bridge is broken up, and the boats, in extricable confusion, come streaming down the Piazzetta, bumping together or now and then giving an ominous crunch against the flags. There is laughter, encouragement, and help from the onlooking crowd. Any excuse serves for some one to rush into the water: a hand to this gondola, a lift to that barchetta. In a very short space the Piazza is empty once more. The water falls fast, leaving patches of green seaweed on the stones. Out towards San Giorgio and the gardens a heavy haze hangs in the sky; a wind laden with foam drives inward from the sea. There is the perpetual boom of the Adriatic on the beach, and the hot breath of the sirocco sweeping over the heaving grey expanse of water that breaks in waves on the marble steps and foundations of the Piazzetta.