Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part XIX

In lieu of a special Christmas post, or a song, I will simply write Merry Christmas here and leave it at that. I had been grouchy that Christmas had become too much about chocolate and not enough about booze in recent years, but Santa stuck a few airplane bottles of scotch and Maker's Mark and Courvoisier in my stocking, which appeased me. It has still been a few years since I have been to an even remotely good holiday party, and all the people I knew who used to throw them are now dead, but I have been persuaded that it is not over for me, that there is yet a chance I will find my way into another one someday, and this has calmed me down somewhat as well.

This is as well the long-promised last post on Ruskin. This is mostly going to be like the last little walk, the last meal, the last hurried drop into a shop to get a snack for the ride before heading out of town. There are a few more observations on paintings, a few more overlooked churches noted, and then--Goodbye Venice.

Picture 1--Tintoretto--The Visitation--Scuola di San Rocco. Referring to the halos of light around the edges of dark forms, particularly the knee of St Elizabeth: "The daguerreotype has shown--what the naked eye never could--that the instinct of the great painter was true, and that there is actually such a sudden and sharp line of light round the edges of dark objects relieved by luminous space." I thought this was an interesting observation/insight into the capabilities of the mind and senses stripped of the aid of what is now a ubiquitous technology. Seeing how the Scuola di San Rocco was regarded as one of the highlights of all Italy for the most persnicketty 19th century Grand Tourists--Henry James, for one, was also a fan--I could not help wondering again how I happened to miss it. I still have the guidebook I took on that trip, the 1996 Lonely Planet Italy, and while it is not prominently touted, it does call it "one of the great surprises of Venice and under no circumstances should be missed". In the winter it was only open from 10am to 1pm. Admission was L8,000, which was about $4 at the time. I guess as the name Tintoretto did not mean anything special to me at the time--I somehow managed to avoid until my mid-30s all the effusive praise that is given to this painter, which now all of a sudden I encounter everywhere--and I just overlooked it. The Golden Book of Venice, a souvenir book of pictures such as I often pick up when I go somewhere--one might be tempted to chuckle, but I actually find I look at these souvenir books quite frequently when I am in need of some cheering, and my children like to look at them too--devotes page 102 to this sight, with pictures of the scuola and the chiesa and a brief paragraph about the art inside, in which the "magnificent staircase" and "breathtakingly beautiful cycle of paintings" are noted, but every page of the book is awash in similar superlatives about whatever building is featured on it, so there was nothing in this book to make me think I had missed anything more than usually extraordinary either. I looked on Rick Steves's web page to see if this had eluded him, but he had it covered, down to a personalized tour/commentary of 16 of the key paintings (in typical Rick style though, he recommends a hour to see the whole place). By the way, admission is now 7 Euros, and they are open in winter from 10 to 5. It was just me, I guess. I was the only one not in on the secret.

Picture 2--Tintoretto--The Crucifixion--Also at the Scuola di San Rocco. Ruskin: "I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator; for it is beyond all analysis and above all praise." For what it's worth, I noted in my searching the internet to find this painting that a number of people had written that this painting is absolutely staggering to see in person, and that, even more than is usual, reproductions do not do it justice.

More Basics of Painting type material, still more or less fresh news to me of course, regarding the Baptism in the Scuola di San Rocco, which I was not able to find a definite picture of: "The effect...is valuable as showing his recognition of a principle unknown to half the historical painters of the present day,--that the reflection seen in water is totally different from the object seen above it, and that it is very possible to have a bright light in reflection where there appears nothing but darkness to be reflected."

Picture 3--Adoration of the Shepherds--Scuola di San Rocco. "...he does not, with German sentimentality, make shepherds and peasants grateful or sublime, but he purposely vulgarizes them...He will not put out his strength upon any man belonging to the lower classes; and in order to know what the painter is, one must see him at work on a king, a senator, or a saint."

The internet is of course rendering the necessity of reference books of all kinds more or less obsolete--I don't think this should be the case, but if people don't want to or think they need to use them, there they go--but I would still like to get a good, readable post-1870 but pre-1970 Lives of the Saints, which is one thing I don't have. I might then be able to glean more colorful information about San Rocco, or St Roch as he is known in English. From what I have found on the Internet it seems that: 1. He was French, from Montpellier, which is a city that for some reason has always had romantic connotations to me (I have never been anywhere near that part of the country). 2. When he was 20 he gave his fortune to the poor. 3. He cared for the sick during an outbreak of plague, and is frequently invoked as protections against the plague by Catholics to this day. 4. Once retreating into the woods to die, for reasons which are not explained, a dog followed him bringing food from his master's table which preserved the saint's life, after which the saint became a protector and patron of all dogs. 5. He was arrested as a spy and languished in prison for 5 years before dying at the age of 32. 6. Modern scholarship has questioned whether this St Roch is really a historical saint or if he has been confused with St Roch of Autun who died in 660 (this guy lived 1295-1327).

I want to acknowledge here the link to this series that was made by the fine and more notable blogger Gil Roth, whom I knew back at St John's College when he was in the graduate program there, albeit moreso on the basketball court rather than in the arena of ideas, which is where one is ideally supposed to form relationships at that august institution. Gil currently writes a weekly account of his readings in Montaigne which is somewhat similar to my literary postings--I don't want to give the impression however, especially to any non-SJC readers who might stumble upon this post rather than one of his own, that he does this because he is fatally infected with and limited by the St John's way of experiencing life. Such enthusiasms for the college as he sometimes expresses are those of a man who, by all appearances, is capable of functioning successfully in the regular social, professional and academic worlds that the majority of the educated population inhabits, and therefore have some merit.

Picture 4--Church of Santa Maria della Salute.

On the Marriage in Cana in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute: "The cicerone, who escorts the stranger round the sacristy in five minutes, and allows him some forty seconds for the contemplation of a picture which the study of six months would not entirely fathom, directs his attention very carefully to the 'bell' effeto di prospettivo,' the whole merit of the picture being, in the eyes of the intelligent public, that there is a long table in it, one end of which looks farther off than the other..." The next sentence struck me at the moment, for whatever reason, as a perfect evocation of the mostly highly European culture/mind: "The table is set in a spacious chamber, of which the windows and the end let in the light from the horizon, and those in the side wall the intense blue of an eastern sky." To me, that is just it; the table and windows arranged and situated just so to give the mind rein to comprehend its own noble relation to the universe. That is the Western ideal.

On now to the Church of St Trovaso, and the painting of The Temptation of St Anthony. There is an image of a woman representing the lusts of the flesh who has "flames playing about her loins". I don't have anything particularly to say about it--I suppose it is a fairly common device in art--but I suppose the idea appealed to my imagination at the time.

Picture 5--Church of St Trovaso.

Here is my last notation in the whole book, a quotation regarding the Last Supper in the Church of St Trovaso: "There is singular baseness in the circumstance that one of the near Apostles, while the others are, as usual, intent upon Christ's words, 'One of you shall betray me,' is going to help himself to wine out of a bottle which stands behind him." Besides the obvious observation that the guy reaching for the wine bottle at the crucial moment of the address would have been me all over if I had been there, I think the image really is pulled off inspiredly in the painting, judging from the reproductions I have seen. Its baseness in the setting rings true even if intellectually one does not oneself really believe it truly base.

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