Venice (part IV)

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Titian has painted universal life. When he listens to its voices, one would say that he was indifferent. They all enter into him with equal rights; the bodies of children, the flesh of women, virile faces, gorgeous or sober costumes, architectures, the earth with its trees and its flowers, the sea, the sky, and all the wandering atoms which make it impossible for the sea and the sky to cease combining their forces. Creative enthusiasm raises him to such a height that his serenity does not desert him even when this entire world, assimilated and recreated in a new order, issues from him in waves continually increasing in length and breadth. He organizes his world into symphonies in which everything that is human resounds in uninterrupted echoes through everything that lives with an instinctive and obscure life, where everything that is material penetrates the human forms and fuses with them for eternity.

In Venice one no longer finds detached edges in the diamond of the atmosphere, there are no more of those imperious lines cutting out the hills and the graded terraces against the sky. There is nothing but the space in which objects tremble, combine, and become dissociated; a world of reflections, modified, inverted, suppressed, or renewed repeatedly by the hours of the day and by the seasons; it is an animated opal in which the iridescence of the light, seen through watery vapor, forbids the defining of colors and lights and causes the very forms to appear like transitory objects which are continually coming forth from matter in movement only to return into it and be merged with it before issuing forth again. On the palaces, red-brown or purple, or covered with a crust of musty gold, all the colors of the prism are awakened, are effaced, come to light again, and prolong themselves as if drawn out in thick strokes, to render obscure the quivering contours of stones in the dull water in which the fermentation of organic matter caused phosphorescences to roll. The mirror of the sea casts its reflections into the vapors that arise from it under the downpour of light, and when these vapors pass in clouds over the glistening canals, the sky throws back thick shadows upon them and reflects the airy phantom of the waters in which the choppiness of the waves mingles the turquoise and the vermilion, the greens, the golden yellows, the reds, and the oranges of the facades decorated with flags and of the processions of gondolas.

All the painting of Titian is here, and after it all the painting of Venice, and after the painting of Venice all the painting that has life, which sees colors penetrating one another, reflections playing upon surfaces, transparent shadows taking on color—painting in which no tone is ever repeated in the same manner, but dominates by discreetly reminding one of itself, thereby awakening in the eye the vibration of neighboring hues, the luminous life of the world, creating a spontaneous symphony not one beat of which will be born of matter without our being able to discover the cause of it and to seek its effect in the whole of its extent. Doubtless, the discipline gained from the work of Mantegna, later on the influence of Rome, and above all the sensuality which led them necessarily to discover form, the form full and circular which we invariably discover at the conclusion of an investigation into plastics, caused the Venetian painters to see everything gravitating around the volumes which alone are capable of giving us a durable and solid image of the world of our senses. But the Venetians never attained sculptural expression, and Sansovino, their sculptor, who came, however, from Florence, even developed among them a conception of form which, in its shading, vagueness, and grandeur approached that of their painting. Titian always stops at the instant when, at the edges of the mass that turns before him to vanish in the distant plains, he observes the quivering caress of the atmosphere which, by the gradation of its values, unifies the mass with the volumes of the forests, the clouds, the mountains perceived in the distance. Line has disappeared. The spots of color graded down evoke form sufficiently for it to participate in the life of all space. So the continuity which gives life to the work is no longer found in that inner instinct for social solidarity which, for the artists of the Middle Ages, held things together by invisible bonds; neither is it found in the intellectual arabesque which defined this unity for the mind rather than for the senses: it is in the mutual dependence of all the elements of the world, the forms, the lines, the colors, and the air that unites them; and if, among the Venetians, the moral sentiment seems to efface itself from life, it is to allow the rise, in an irresistible explosion, of the sensual sentiment of the whole body of nature which Christianity had forgotten. Titian not only prevented the original sin of breaking through the symbolic frontiers within which Michael Angelo had inclosed it once more, but, by bringing about a more perfect unity in the infinite complexity of all the relationships whose logical interweaving makes a harmonious and living universe, he finished the work of Masaccio, completed that of Bellini, consecrated that of Giorgione, and, before Rabelais, before Shakespeare, before Rubens, before Velasquez and Rembrandt, and long before the German musicians, he announced the modern spirit. He created the symphony. He is the father of painting.

The aristocratic nature inherited from his noble ancestors had been tempered by the elementary force of the country where he was born, at the foot of the Tyrolean Alps, among the lakes and the beech forests above which rises the rampart of the pink Dolomite peaks. Cima da Conegliano had had before his eyes the same mountain landscapes, the same transparent skies, and the blue waters in which sleep the silhouettes of the fortified castles, and when he painted the delicate altar pictures whose clearly defined figures recall his master Giovanni Bellini less than they do Mantegna, he supplied from his own mind scarcely more than the subtle frame, aerial and poetic, which he purposed to give them. Titian, who was less than twenty years younger, certainly knew him and studied him, and sought in his work the confirmation of his own presentiments. Later on, whenever he left Venice-and he departed frequently, especially after the descent of Charles the Fifth upon Italy—he carried with him his sense of space trembling from molecular vibration, and when, on his travels, he found himself among lakes. woods, and plains sown with low cottages and clusters of green oaks, he felt the confused poetry of the earth as it had never been felt before.

Thenceforward, space enveloped with its waves the pagan poems with which he was overflowing; they expanded in great dazzling shapes of coppery flame, in fruits that rolled from baskets amid the clang of tambourines and cymbals during the stormy afternoons when Dionysius and his train of nude fauns and bacchantes burst forth with a great clamor from thick woodlands. The men of those times, having escaped from the Christian world, possessed such reserves of love that they could yield to their passions without haste, without turning back, without loss of vigor, with the peaceful certitude of nature's elements. While the bacchanale roars and voluptuousness mingles its panting breath with the cry of the panthers, the earth breathes like a beast. The skies are full of low-hanging clouds charged with lightning; blue vapors arise like a sweat; a subterranean sap circulates through the soil, scatters white foam on the surface of the brooks, and swells the black thickets where nude men and women, clasped in each other's arms, glow like red gold. But it is only with Tintoretto that the human drama will resound to the borders of the thunderous sky in tragic clouds and purple lightning. Here space is unconscious whether its storms strain the nerves of men and women; the men and women are unaware of the fact that they are participating in the heedless symphonies in which the violence of the primitive instincts is only one note in the sound from the dark thickets, in the murmur of the fountains, in the breaths of hot air that drive along the clouds, in the distant lowing of the herds that descend the sloping meadows, and in the great silence of the plains that vanish in the vapor of the summer days.

The beautiful mature bodies of the Venetian courtesans were displayed before him on broad beds, wearing only a necklace about their throats, and holding a tuft of roses in the hollow of their hands, or they lay under the trees before a kneeling faun; and the beautiful, mature bodies glowed with the same serenity that he had found in the earth. They were waiting. Love was for them a thing accepted unaffectedly, filled with a tranquil intoxication, without disquietude or remorse. Their eyes were the calm eyes of animals, in which swim the russet reflections of their heavy hair and of the space gathering around them which envelops them in amber. Their breasts rose and fell slowly, their bellies had waves of muscles which merge in the angle of shadow formed by the broad thighs as they come together. With his brush Titian amassed the heavy atmosphere in order to knead it with the substance of the soil, the pulp of the fruits, and the sap of the oaks. And with it all he mingled that winelike purple dipped in gold, which is like a triumphal background for the Venetian apotheosis, which weighs on the shoulders of the bishops in the penumbra flaming within the churches, which dyes the robes of the Doges, unfurls itself from the top of masts and balconies and floats behind the gondolas, which shimmers on facades, stains the walls and floors in the halls of the Ducal Palace with blood as if it were rising through the pores of the stone dungeons below where the Council of Ten caused its decrees to be executed, fills the twilights, trembles in the reflections of the lanterns at the evening water-festivals, and which the sails of the ships trail over the sea.

When Titian abandoned that impassive sensual idealism which was the dominating force of his activity, he discovered in the somber purple, lit up by golden spangles, and tempered by fire and sulphur, a powerful and tragic atmosphere, enabling him to enter the human drama with the decision and vigor of which only a great spirit is capable, a spirit which continued to grow up to his hundredth year. It is that bloody light shed by the flickering torches which brings out of the shadow, where the executioners torture Him, that terrible "Christ Crowned with Thorns," painted, as was the "Pieta," one of the most melancholy and human works in the history of painting, when he was more than ninety-five—a painting in which there was a premonition of the genius of Rembrandt. It is this bloody light which rises with the dawn and streaks the black iron armor of Charles the Fifth as he comes forth from a black wood, his livid countenance touched by red reflections as he bestrides a black horse caparisoned with red—a horrible symphony of murder, a painting of night and of blood.

Thus there were two directions to his nature which parted at the common center of his limitless receptivity and of his acceptance of life; to organize themselves into vast sensual poems, or to scrutinize the moral world with a cruelty as impassable as his lyricism had seemed. There are no portraits, in Italy or elsewhere, which surpass his. They have that power of defining character which caused the Florentines—Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Verrocchio, Ghirlandajo, Filippi Lippi, Botticelli at times, and even Benvenuto—to produce such terrible effigies, concentrated, nervous, frenzied, and cut out in the mold of passion. Only, these are draped with decorative fullness and searched out with a tranquil penetration unknown to Florence. The fever that consumed her painters no longer exists in Titian. He can paint with a sincerity so uncompromising that it leaves to the Caesars and to the popes their malformed skulls, their atrophied masks, their jaws of beasts, and their hideous and low mien; he can describe those black-garbed silhouettes, those muscular hands that clutch the hilts of swords, and those pale countenances with haggard eyes, all those violent men made for murder as women are made for love. It is the period in which the Condottiere holds Italy in his grasp, when Machiavelli writes The Prince. Titian's heads summarize all Italy, from the ferocious portraits of Antonello da Messina who had brought to Venice the oil painting of the Flemings, and from the tightly drawn faces of Giovanni Bellini to the broad, somewhat soft effigies of that fine painter Paris Bordone, and to the great figures of the Doges which momentarily arrested the disordered, gorgeous, and brutal vision of Tintoretto.

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