Venice (part II)

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It is thanks to the unity of the Venetian symphony in which the stone, the atmosphere, and the water, the life of the people and of the princes, and commerce and history so spontaneously unite their multiple relationships in so narrow a space, and in surroundings so dense that great painting appeared in Venice almost mature from the very first, without offering the spectacle of the feverish struggle between memories and presentiments in which Florence had consumed her genius. Within fifty years it forged one of the most trustworthy weapons to meet the demands of the world in quest of new rhythms. It granted to material nature and our need for pleasure the dignity of immortal elements. Her sensual idealism burst forth with such force that it came quickly to its realization, and died as quickly from its own excesses. Venetian painting had scarcely any primitives.

Or rather, it was outside of Venice that her painters went to seek initiation. If we except the ill-determined but certain contribution of Jacopo d'Avanzo and of Altichieri, the old Veronese decorators who were contemporary with the last Gothic artists of Florence, it was Siena above all, the school of mysticism, who through Gentile da Fabriano kindled the fire on the hearth of Venice, which was nevertheless destined to devour the last vestige of mysticism in Italy. Gentile, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, had worked in Venice as well as in Rome, with Pisanello, the Veronese. The latter derived from Florence where Andrea del Castagno had taught him painting. He retained the sharp affirmation of the Tuscans, their spirit of decision, and the accent which is necessary to cut into the metal with a firm lone of the medalist. Not since the days of the Syracusans had there been seen this firmness of casting, this savory and delicate modeling, this penetrating and vigorous elegance of expression. The innumerable sketches with which he filled his sketch books, when the ships at the Piazetta discharged the exotic animals, the multicolored birds, the butterflies, and the unknown insects, rendered his hand supple for engraving. Almost Japanese in his grasp of the peculiarities of the animals, almost German in his sustained power of detail and in the somewhat linear quality of his material—like Mantegna, like da Vinci, and like so many other painters of northern Italy toward which Germany, through her merchants and her soldiers, had been descending continually for ten centuries—he saw Venice with Gentile, even before the Venetians did. Both artists came from the western slope, with minds almost mature. Both of them adored the processions, the trailing robes, the gold chains, the hats, the turbans, the furred cloaks, the magnificent confusion of peoples, and the wild maelstrom of the crowds in action. In return, it was through them that Italy, with Pinturricchio and with Gozzoli, accepted the picturesque invasion of the sailors and of the Orient and carried the first elements of romanticism into the Shakespearean cycle.

Jacopo Bellini, the true initiator of Venetian painting, had, moreover, come to know through others beside Pisanello the vigor of the old Tuscans. After Giotto, before Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi, Donatello had spent a long period at Padua, at the gates of Venice, where he had impressed all the local artists. Padua, celebrated from the beginning of the thirteenth century, was another Florence, almost as rich in activity and in influence, but of a less literary character; more realistic, more scientific, to use the word which would later have been applied. Almost all the young painters of northern Italy—notably those strange Ferrarese, Cosimo Tura. Ercole Roberti, Francesco Cossa especially, and Mantegna, rougher and wilder, as poor and ragged as a wolf—went through, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the atelier of Squarcione of Padua, a great collector of ancient sculptures, who had traveled in Italy and, what was rarer at that time, in Greece. Padua, far more than Florence, submitted to the true influence of antiquity, toward which she was more directly led by the neighboring city of Venice, with its constant relationship with the Greek world and its merely nominal Christianity.

If the genius of Mantegna was able to resist the dangerous influence of a culture too strong to be accepted in his time, it was because the time burned with an incomparable flame. It was also because he found in the needs of his race the generalizing spirit evoked in the ancient times. He was perhaps the only man in Italy to draw direct and permanent inspiration from the marbles brought from Greece or discovered in the ground. Passionately he studied the collections of Squarcione; he did collecting himself and longed to go to Rome to see what remained of the crumbling walls and the buried temples. And it was through him that the soul of antiquity participated most substantially in building up the skeleton of a world which was obstinately seeking the sources of an old ideal. But happily his expressive vigor overpowered his erudition. The eye does not stop with the folds of the togas, the chariots, the acanthuses of the colonnades, the legends, the palms, the candelabra, the laurels, the crowns of consular pomp, and the external attributes of the triumphal processions which his learning enabled him to reconstitute for Italy, and the loss of which she had regretted. Though he was haunted by his care for historical accuracy and for local picturesqueness, though he was pursued by the memory of the Roman bas-reliefs hollowed out in the sarcophagi, the tense force of his lyricism overcomes all things and carries them away. An implacable will power casts the sculptural groups in a metallic mold from which the hard sound of the new universe escapes in spite of him. It is in vain that he restrains, presses down, and disciplines the life that rises within him: it makes the armor crack; it swells the breasts, the arms, and the legs of the women; it bursts forth into the light and into the deep blue sky all sown with white clouds. It vibrates in the arrows which the pitiless bowmen shoot at Saint Sebastian. A strange artist, who tried to drink at every dried-up spring and who, finding only dead stones there, still knew how to animate them with that kind of intellectual frenzy in which a world eager for knowledge could console itself for its loss of feeling. This Latin sap, this noble Greek idealism which all his life he thought he owed to the works he studied so long and so closely, was already tormenting his race in the military statues and the meditative children of Donatello. He loved, without having been taught, the nude youth, the women who dance in a round with an animal grace, the thick garlands of verdure stifling the fruits, the great precious landscapes that seem to be engraved with the edge of a diamond, the lofty architectures, the old Italian cities chiseled on the hills from which thin trees arise, the roads, and the carefully tilled farms seen through the transparence of the morning. That reserve so difficult of approach, that vigorous elegance, that great virile drawing of a man accustomed to attacking the copper plate, that geometrical order in the scattered groups, those gestures whose sureness made them solemn and hieratic, almost funereal, like a farewell to dead ages—all that belongs to him. In it Piero della Francesca alone might have pointed out the indelible trace of his own thought, and Italy's impetuous spring toward her tragic possession of the definitive form beyond which Michael Angelo was to find a gaping abyss of nothingness. Andrea Mantegna is so sure of approaching absolute realities by means of his hard roads that, to give rhythm to his stride, he plays upon a harp of iron.

A mind of such vigor necessarily exerts upon the leading men, who are beginning to be tortured by the soul of Venice, an influence all the more lively that his mind differs from theirs. Mantegna was the bone structure which the gorgeous city covered with flesh and skin and over which she spread the splendor of her scenery and the glory of her sky. The painting of Crivelli, who was also trained by Squarcione, sad painting, as withered as dead wood, possesses really nothing which could lead one to suspect the approach of that vibration of living matter in which Giorgione, thirty years later, will see the birth of a new world. But Jacopo Bellini, who loved Mantegna enough to give him his daughter, has already seen the Venetian purple trembling in the dark basilica where the smoke of the candles rises like a vapor of blood. The double influence of his master Gentile da Fabriano and of his son-in- law Mantegna will affirm itself in his two sons through attaining, in the following generation, a harmony at the moment of maturity.

Giovanni Bellini started out from Mantegna, to cover the distance that leads to Giorgione. He lived ninety years and, in the course of even his life, witnessed the great dramatic movement which was to permit the painters of Venice to reject Platonist rationalism and to recover, at the end of their longing, the Dionysian spirit of the ancient world, dulled by a thousand years of repressed desires, weighed down by the deep voluptuousness and by the optimism resulting from sensuality, which it had voluntarily accepted. The dryness and the severity of the master of Mantua were to be absorbed little by little into his maturing sensibility as the century advanced. He was the permanent witness and the principal actor in the decisive effort in which Venice discovered herself. While the Florentines were searching frantically for expressive line and for anatomical modeling, he had already discovered the secret of living modeling, and of the great simplified surfaces which give to bodies their fullness, their posture, and their weight. To be sure, they did not yet quiver under those waves of blood which cause their flesh to beat when they stretch out in the shade of the trees before Giorgione or Titian. Certain traces of primitive asceticism reveal their skeleton, dry up their skin, and tighten their faces from which suffering has not quite departed. But all of them, especially the Madonna and Child, are arrayed in those reds and those blues enveloped in gold which will be remembered by the painters to come; a tranquility of soul causes them to forget the outraged mothers, the time of misery and massacres, and the dignity which obtains when we freely accept the functions of nature and attend to their performance without compunction. Toward the end of his life, the true light and the sky of Venice and sometimes the great forests which Titian will love enter into his pictures, and the somewhat cut-up landscapes of his earlier period begin to have mellower lines, to grow gentler, and to breathe deeply. He gets a glimpse of the sea. He perceives the vibration of the world. He has almost completely shifted the scene of the drama and given over to space the form which, until then, had been a semiprisoner of the moral sentiment. He is the first to define the thing which lays the very foundation of the nature of Venice—its universal sensualism.

It rested, moreover, with the two sons of Jacopo to supply the great Venetians with the elements of the poem. Giovanni sought the expansion of the form in the currents that originate at its center and that carry it outward. Gentile himself brought to Venice the whole exterior of the earth, the sky, the foreigners, the Orient of which he had caught a glimpse and had felt deeply during a triumphal journey to Constantinople. While the Vivarini of Murano, hard and virile painters of the military age, were already watching the silken banners floating over the magnificent processions, Gentile was observing Venice from nearer by, its painted façades, its pink and green houses, its heavy canals, the carpets hung from the balconies, San Marco resplendent with gold and the solemn processions where the pure blacks were luminous alongside of the brilliant reds. There was scarcely any atmosphere as yet, but instead an almost uniform ashy blondness. Lazzaro Sebastiani will not introduce his warm and golden harmonies until a little later. It is as if a crowd were already richly bedecked, but motionless and symmetrical, and as if waiting for some one to give it life. It was imperative that the most poetic imagination in the history of painting—perhaps with that of Gozzoli—summarize the work which ranges step by step from Gentile da Fabriano to Gentile Bellini in order to give its scope to that romantic Orientalism in which Shakespeare will gather up the inexhaustible, impetuous, and moving material that flows with the torrent of his dramas. When Vittore Carpaccio had traversed the world, there was in the cradle of Venetian thought something else besides flesh, space, and color; death, love, voluptuousness, and the extraordinary vividness of a dream had suddenly come in with the legend and with life. A fairy vision floated in the flags, the sound of pearls and of gold, of hope, and of memory. Painting was free to transpose all the victories over desire and illusion into their absolute harmonies.

When one confronts the work of Carpaccio with that of the two Bellinis, one seems to see a rough drawing of the powerful trinity through whom the glory of Venice has stretched across time. Giovanni, Gentile, and Carpaccio are Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto: a Titian less fully developed, less in harmony with all the elements of life which he encompasses symphonically : a more timid Veronese who distributed with far less luxuriance all the fabulous treasures of the seas amassed by four or five centuries of commerce and victories; a Tintoretto less stormy, less tragic, but one who is quite as impassioned and so free in his rapture, so abundant and fresh that, beside him, the soul of the great dramatist of painting seems troubled and as dangerous as a poisoned river.

Like the good primitive that he still was, Carpaccio told all that he knew in each one of his canvases. It is true that he knew much. One may love him for his anecdotes, for he is a wonderful story-teller. But the anecdote, always transfigured and magnified, always a motive for painted decorations and transpositions, is lost in the poetic sentiment which lifts up and frees everything. The sea is covered with boats and with ships. The city is as exact and new as that which Bellini paints, but more somber harmonies announce its maturity. Through their high arcades, the palaces permit us to see masts with pennants flying from them, the multicolored pavements of the great docks where merchants and promenaders come and go before the vessels at anchor. We see also leprous houses, dirty clothes hung from one façade to the other across the plague-ridden canals, and the incredible swarm of beggars, boatmen, jugglers, and ruffians. There are people everywhere: in the streets, on the staircases, on the bridges, and on the terraces. Lords and ladies file by, people are chatting, people are parading, people bend the knee before princes who receive in the open air. Palm trees grow in solitary squares, an unexpected camel is seen outlined at the corner of a dock, and the lion of Saint Jerome actually treads the pavement of the Piazetta dragged along by a black lion-tamer around whom the street boys dance gayly. Carpaccio mingles with the crowd, he listens, he gossips, he is out of doors all day long. The violins and the brass instruments of the showmen creak and snore; the showman's nasal patter excites jest and laughter. The good painter is in the very first rank. Everything amuses him, but if one keeps one's eye upon him one sees why his face becomes serious at times. In some corner he has seen a strange isolated figure which holds his attention: a sick man, an old woman, a sorcerer, a monkey dressed up, or a buffoon, and at once the problem of destiny is before him, with the ugliness or the evil or the sneering of the devil at the turn of the flowery road. . . He becomes pensive and turns aside, the sound of the music dies away. The women whose faces are too heavily painted, with heavy mops of dyed hair, signal to him from a balcony. He goes up. And here he is in the company of filthy little dogs, obscene monkeys, and cooing doves, and is confused by the thick perfumes and the shining eyes. He yields, he is sick at heart, he is sad, he wanders aimlessly. From the streets he peers to the recesses of solitary rooms. And here he finds peace. When he sees little girls sleeping in their little bed, he visits them with the fairies and goes away on tiptoe after having placed a pretty bouquet on the table. He has already resumed his place in the processions and the festivals, amid the bishops dressed in red and gold. He knows that the blasts of the trumpet will bring forth people from the houses, and spectators to lean from the windows, and he knows that the spectacle is all for him. Then he sails with the ships. To all the far corners of the earth he follows the good Christian knights who go forth to fight the dragon. History, legend still heavy with troubled Gothic poetry, life invariably unforeseen, the dream which is sometimes of blood, all these things clash together in throngs—precise, almost devoid of gesture, but carried along by a decorative and dramatic sentiment into a lyricism of color from which the soul of Venice blazes forth with such ingenuous pride that neither Titian nor Tintoretto nor Veronese will be any the less sensible of it when they come to express it with their greater means. A charming spirit, very Italian, very Oriental, a trifle barbarous, a trifle mad, who feels coursing through him a breath of freedom that brings with it in a hundred thousand scattered images the marvelous echo of the great voyages which are beginning, the presentiment of the islands of perfume, the forests filled with golden birds, the unknown tribes, and the new constellations. The blues, almost black, of the dead water, the forest of red banners, the reds and the greens which are wedded by a glaze of golds, the fanfare of the skies, the seas, the buildings, the great lace robes, the blues, the greens, the blacks with their deep and sustained accompaniment of the reds burst forth in dull sonorous tones which seem to echo in the trumpets of the heralds.

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