Venice - an artistic afternoon

Like any popular city Venice's 'must see' highlights are overrun at this, the start of the season. Yet, like any other such city, the crowds dissipate as soon as you turn from the beaten track and the place is returned to you in an atmosphere through which it might conceivably be seen.

I have never quite understood why people allow themselves to be corralled in that way by their apparently necessary guides (even as I played the role of guide in a distant past). As an aside, when we simply discuss 'racism' as an obvious moral failure, utterly deplorable, I think we ought to reflect on the all too human need for 'familiarity', 'group cohesion' and the translation of the alien that such groups suggest; and, reflect on when does a helpful defence become an unacceptable aggression? What are the conditions we need to dwell in felt safety with one another, rather than simply default to moral exhortation and legal sanction?

Sitting by a canal on my last afternoon, a glass of wine at hand, you looked up at a variegated collection of brick buildings, in much varied states of repair and decline, with only an occasional boat or passerby to ruffle the prevailing calm, admiring the human nature of the architecture and the way time shapes colours into infinite hues.

I had come from the Academy, one of Venice's premier art museums, that ran through, mainly Venetian art, from the 14th to 17th century. Like every gallery what heightens the pleasure is encounters with the actually loved and known and the wholly unfamiliar.

In the former category was a small Pierro della Francesca of St. Jerome piously being attended by the pictures patron, knelt in prayer, and interestingly central to the picture. St. Jerome that most cantankerous of saints, has a Bible open on his lap, gesturing to a passage, whilst his eyes bore skeptically into the patron's face. And four saints by Crivelli with his signature underlying sense of doubt underpinning their apparent saintly surfaces.

In the latter category was Paolo Venezicenio and a fourteenth century panel painting of the Life of Christ, one of whose scenes was of the Last Judgement. There on Christ's enthroned right are the saved, ranks of prayerful beings, awaiting paradise but on the left no unscrupulous sinners, being carted to hell by gleeful demons, but simply a burst of purging fire, emerging as bold, abstracted colour from the base of Christ's throne. Hell as purgatory or Hell as extinguished being - either rather suggestively modern views of judgement and finality?

There was also a scene I had not seen painted (or recalled seeing) before (though, in fact, it is moderately common) and here there were two - of the 10,000 martyrs, Christian soldiers, killed by the King of Persia at the request of a Roman Emperor; and, of course, this being the 15th/16th century, the Persians had taken on unmistakably Ottoman form (as here in Durer's representation of the same theme).

It was a beautiful three hours spent with an unfolding period - Medieval through Renaissance to the beginning Baroque - with classical tales beginning to emerge alongside the overwhelming Christian vision (and often suborned to it).

The dominant painter was the Venetian Mannerist, Tintoretto, and here is one of his most Venetian paintings - Venetian merchants stealing the body of St. Mark to bring him to Venice! Stylised, dramatic and mysterious - who exactly are the shades that flee to the left and why?


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