Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ruskin--Part XVIII

This will be the second to last of the Ruskin posts. As a response to the...well, I saw the exact, right word, and then I lost it again before my fingers could hit the keys...insipid niceness and easy accomodation of my rivals for supremacy in the blogosphere that have recently settled themselves far too comfortably in these pages, I am going to be adopting a far colder, more pointed, even revolutionary attitude on the site. Anyway, that is what people want, and they will respond to it.

Picture 1--Palazzo Foscari. "The noblest example in Venice of the fifteenth century Gothic...but lately restored and spoiled, all but the stonework of the main windows. The restoration was necessary, however..." I am through with celebrating palaces and all this aristocratic architecture and values they want to beat us about the head with, but which can't nourish us, our intestines not being finely wrought enough to digest them cleanly. In the section on the Church of St Giorgio Maggiore, there is a good and long (I wrote this accomodating piece of prostration before I realized it wasn't doing me a damn bit of good) essay on Tintoretto's altarpaiece in the north transept The Martyrdom of St Stephen. The "freedom and ease" with which the leaf of a book (the Mosaic history) is crumpled is "as characteristic of the master as any of the grander features" (this image shows, by the way "how the blind rage of the Jews was violating their own law in the murder of Stephen"). Later on, Ruskin remarks that "It is almost impossible to praise too highly the refinement of conception which withdrew the unconverted St Paul into the distance, so as entirely to separate him from the immediate interest of the scene, and yet marked the dignity by which he was afterwards to be raised, by investing him with the colours which occurred nowhere else in the picture except in the dress which veils the form of the Godhead." The run of painters, he argues, could not have pulled off such exquisite subtlety. I haven't been able to find a great picture of this painting on the internet, but here is one that comes with the voice of a droning tour guide at least. (Now the new me starts in earnest). One of my revolutionary aims will be to make it possible and normal for human beings to engage with real works of art and beauty without looking or feeling like jackasses (Another is to have myself fitted with dignified tailor-made clothes, which I have never had before. To which my wife would doubtless say, "Other people would want to end hunger or something like that...").

In the note on the Church of St Gregorio, it is mentioned as being beside the Church of the Salute, which made me think about how close together churches were built in all the ancient cities of Europe. Rome famously has 981 churches, and London had 107 in the one square mile of the City prior to the fire of 1666, of which 21 survived and 51, plus St Paul's Cathedral, were rebuilt. Many of these churches are within no more than a block or two of each other; none of them that I know of supports an active congregation of more than a handful of members now, if they are even still functioning as churches. It is one of those things which is obvious enough once one examines it, but is rather striking upon a first casual amble around the old quarters of these cities.

Picture 2. I don't get angry at (presumably) ordinary people having a good time rather than humbling themselves in awe at great sites and straining to improve their dim understanding of what such greatness entails. Ruskin presumably would have, as well as most of the canonical writers and scholars who lived before 1960. They expected something more out of men. The mirthful, even blasphemous exploits of men like Byron and Casanova amid such scenes may be tolerated because they are such superior spirits and talents; the frivolities of the lesser sorts of men should expect to meet no such tolerance.

Libreria Vecchia--"by no means to be missed, whatever may be sacrificed to see them", according to Ruskin: a beautiful and strange Madonna, by Bendetto Diana; two noble Bonifazios; and two groups, by Tintoret, of the Provedditori della Zecca. I can't make out whether these paintings are still to be found at this location however. The library itself seems still to exist.

Ruskin's flamboyant description of the grotesque sculpted childrens' heads tied up by the hair on the altar steps at the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli merited being quoted in a mainstream modern guidebook I happened to look into in my researches, for what it's worth.

Picture 3--Chiesa di Santa Maria de Miracoli. Of course I did not see this church on my brief visit there. I find the pictures of it to be especially impressive, in spite of my new skeptical attitude towards received wisdom and opinion.

Church of St Moise--Tintoretto's representation of Christ and the disciples: "He never loses sight of the fact that all were poor, and the latter ignorant; and while he never paints a senator or a saint, once thoroughly canonized, except as a gentleman, he is very careful to paint the Apostles, in their living intercourse with the Saviour, in such a manner that the spectator may see in an instant, as the Pharisee did of old, that they were unlearned and ignorant men; and whenever we find them in a room, it is always such a one as would be inhabited by the lower classes."

Although I have a tendency to fetishize Christian art and certain theological writings that appeal to me, I am not actually a believer, i.e. I am not a citizen of Christendom or any other community of the spirit (I don't like atheists--especially self-satisfied ones--however, so I am looking for a way to avoid identifying myself as one of them). My wife was brought up in the Episcopalian church, and she has gotten the children going to that church and involved in some of the activities there--all of which I generally approve of--so as it turns out I have ended up going there a lot too, much more often certainly than I ever I thought I would. This is a very liberal church as churches go: gay bishop, gay marriages, abortionist on the vestry, male and female priests who run off with each other though already married to other people. You would think this would all be right up my alley given my social aspirations but to be honest I find myself, if it is to be the case that I am going to be a regular churchgoer for the next fifteen years, daydreaming about at least making my weekly show under the slightly more exacting auspices of Rome. My wife will have no truck with the Pope however, and in her mind as I was never confirmed I have no claim to being a Catholic at all, though I think this is not exactly true, that baptism carries some status with it. I have never, to my knowledge, been officially excommunicated. Nonetheless as things stand I will probably have my funeral and be buried as a Protestant, and no one will ever suspect anything was ever otherwise. That is why men must ever make these records of themselves.

There is more German tourist trashing to get to however, the scene this time being before the picture of San Rocco in the Hospital by Tintoretto in the Church of St Rocco: "In order to show what waste of human mind there is in these churches of Venice, it is worth recording...there came in a party of eighteen German tourists, not hurried, nor jesting among themselves, as large parties often do, but patiently submitting to their cicerone, and evidently desirous of doing their duty as intelligent travellers. They sat down for a long time on the benches of the nave, looked a little at the "Pool of Bethesda", walked up into the choir, and there heard a lecture of considerable length...they then turned and went slowly out of the church, not one of the whole eighteen ever giving a single glance to any of the four Tintorets, and only one of them, as far as I saw, even raising his eyes to the wall on which they hung..." To be honest I think he is a bit overcritical. Art appreciation requires a peculiar combination of relaxation (namely freedom from extraneous concerns), intensity (readiness to receive and engage with impressions) and organization of the mind to form solid ideas from the impressions, that requires a lot of practice and habit of thought to attain. People should not delude themselves as to the quality of their overall experience/engagement, of course, but I have always considered even fleeting instances and glimpses of deep engagement and understanding to count for something in a man's life.

Picture 4--Scuola di San Rocco. Where the biggest hoard of Tintoretto masterpieces is to be found. In Ruskin's estimation one of the three most important sites in all of Venice.

I have written myself a note at this point to "comment on neglect even of famous pictures". I assume this refers to neglect by me as well as other visitors, even such as may have come a long way with some idea of seeing such pictures as one of the main purposes of the trip. I have touched on my ideas about this before on this site, namely that it is very difficult to incorporate something, even something of uncommon beauty and excellence, semi-permanently into one's mind, such that said object as it were lives with one always, on a single viewing, no matter how much effort or concentration one puts into it. I think you have to encounter things variously, in different moods, different seasons or kinds of days or times of one's life, to have some awareness of it in a variety of contexts before meaning can begin to sink in to you; it is the same generally with women, or important friends, or other interest. Of course there are always exception, one-time encounters where the impression is so overwhelming as to remain with one always; but these are necessarily rare.

Here it is, the three most precious buildings in Italy for pictures, according to Ruskin: the Sistine Chapel, the Campo Santo of Pisa--I would not have guessed it (I have not been there or anything to have an opinion)--and the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.

Picture 5--The Campo Santo runs behind the Dome, I believe.

"Exactly in proportion to a man's idiocy is always the size of the letters in which he writes his name on the picture that he spoils."

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