Venice (part VI)

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Venice had seen the hour when, especially with Titian, she had become conscious of herself; she had seen, broadening out to the very limit of space, everything that constituted her own substance, her palaces, her feasts, the water of her lagoons, the flesh of her women, the wooded plains, and the horizons of the mountains which extended to her gates. Hence, the somewhat somber harmonies—golden, red, and blue—which resounded in her skies. Tintoretto had used the dramas of space, mingling them with the substance of Venice, to give expression to the dramas which burned in his heart. Veronese takes possession of space, to incorporate it with the solid and material life which spreads out its setting before his dazzled eyes. But as there is no drama in him, as his vision of life is external and formal—the most highly colored, it is true, the most luminous, and the most magnificent that ever was—he is not himself, he is under the spell of Tintoretto or Titian whenever he looks on dark seas, on tragic seas, or an atmosphere charged with lightning. For him the seas must be a dusty gray, in veiled emerald and sapphire, the skies of rose and so distant that one can see nothing like it except in the feathers on the neck of certain white birds; for him there must be the freedom of the broad sea where the wind blows the foam into a spray, and limitless space filled with vibrating particles of silver.

Doubtless, Veronese, who came from the mainland, had seen that cold silver even as Moretto, the painter of Brescia—and the instructor of Moroni, the studious observer of popular figures, of workmen at their labor, of merchants, and of learned men—had perceived it in the air, on the glaciers of the Alps, and on the white clouds which passed over the lakes. But never, without Venice, would Veronese have warmed that silver with the rays of the sun made iridescent by watery vapor; never would he have caused it to penetrate into the material of robes, into the skin, into the hair of women, into the volume of the waters and the grain of the marbles; never would he have mixed it so constantly as if to give an appearance of airy transparence to the whole, to the torrents of colors that deluged his canvases, streaming in glittering sheets, and falling in cascades, to rebound and scatter in a mist of harmonies traversed by the light.

The gesture of his figures, correct and living, is a decorative expression. He interprets the movements of the surface of the mind such as one observes at a feast when men reveal to the eyes of others only so much of themselves as will enhance their importance in the world. And that is certainly not to say that Veronese is a worldly painter. Van Dyck has not yet come upon the scene to establish the painter of the world of fashion, the man who will first mislead painting and then dishonor it. The worldly painter is the slave of a world, whereas Veronese subjects the world to the sovereignty of a genius which moves between the almost undefinable limits of its own caprice and of its own judgment. To him luxury is an object, the same as are the trees, the flowers, the fruits, the sea, the sky, a nude woman. It is an object whose splendor, tonality, and power he also possesses, Veronese, who loves it for the prodigious spectacles that it affords him at every moment, as if it were the sudden and miraculous harvest of three centuries of adventure, of glory, and of effort. He is the poet of luxury, the greatest poet of luxury, the only great poet of luxury who without doubt existed. At least, I see no other, and for me he suffices.

Serious people, I know well, have declared him "superficial." That is their privilege. But I should like them to begin, at least, by penetrating to the complex and secret center of his period. It is true that one does not discover, in these figures which pass before him, a single deep sentiment that expresses itself in an inclination of the head, a glance, a hand extending itself or drawing back, an embrace, a parting—all that is a permanent part of us, all that makes us strong and that makes us weak, that we hide with shame, that is sometimes humiliating and sometimes sublime, when we are aware that we are under surveillance. One watches the noblemen who pass by, one leans from balconies to see the procession of gondolas dragging red, black, or green velvet in their wake, one caresses the luxurious dogs, one converses while looking elsewhere, one fills the cups, one offers baskets of fruit, and one listens absent-mindedly, and never with the heart, to music that is placed during magnificent feasts amid which the sound of glass and silver is heard. But the profundity of Veronese is not there. It is in his immeasurable power to combine his sensations with the expression which he imparts to them. If we are to understand by painting the art of organizing colors symphonically, there never was and there never will be a greater painter than this man whose very name, when it is pronounced, resembles the shimmer of pearls and of gold pieces. The world rises up before him like a sea of highly colored visions so multiple, so complex, and so interpenetrated that when they issue forth from him, it is like a universe in which we had perceived only paleness and murmuring, and whose voices burst forth suddenly in triumphal sonority. The colors do not live separately. One cannot determine them. They all enter one another to destroy and to recompose one another. And they are all analyzed to the last degree in order to construct the pictures of Veronese as if they were an immense prism in which Nature re-forms herself, quite unaided, in the interplay and interpenetration of the tones, the shades, the reflections, even as the light re-forms Nature every second of the day from sunrise to sunset.

That which remains, especially when one surveys those palaces with their high arcades, those bright forests of balconies and colonnades which Andrea Palladio opened upon space, when one sees those beautiful forms detaching their trembling outlines against the palpitation of the air, are the inclined profiles against the background of the sky, those great kneeling women, with dragging trains, the glory of their prostrate bodies, and those broad gestures, those obeisances, those noblemen with embroidered robes, those servitors, those musicians, that overpowering splendor which remains of the vision; it is the clear and well-defined memory of a mighty tumult, of an orchestra in which the dresses and the hangings, their reds, their greens, their oranges, their blacks, their pinks, their yellows, and the multicolored flagstones, and the flowers and the fruits and the crystals spread upon the tablecloths, the skin like mother-of-pearl, the hair shot through with gold and amber, and the aerial harmonies all playing together and answering one another, abounding in rolling harmonies and scales which mount unceasingly and descend back and forth from one end of the keyboard to the other, sending forth in great waves the voices of the flesh, of the stuffs, of the marble, and of the sea, and making, as it were, a great sound of festival carried to us by the wind.

Veronese is the painter of the glory of Venice. He has celebrated her strength and her wealth and her dominion over the waters. He saw the clouds tremble in her forms and in her reflections. He unfurled her flags in the light. He mounted the terraces of the palaces of the Orient to see the procession of the Doges when they went forth to cast their wedding ring into the Adriatic. On his palette he ground all the pearls of the sea that her victorious fleets gathered in. And in the train of those fleets he followed the curve of the globe and divined the aspect of the azure sails which cradle him in the ether.

In introducing the rays which traverse space, its coolness, its murmurs, its breezes, into poems of mythology, in which the necessity for love is affirmed with a tranquil lyricism, he joined with a chain of gold and of leaves the spirit of antiquity with the new paganism which was to flower later on in the soul of Watteau. In this sumptuous and sensual Venetian, in the trees clothed in ivy and moss from which red flowers burst forth, in the subtle forms, nude or veiled with light purples which palpitate on the waves like rose petals, one recognizes the dawn of that illusive poetry which, two centuries after him, was to sing the smiling and brave death of the old aristocracies.

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