Venice (part VII)

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This poetic divination is all the more admirable that the century which followed was quite silent in Venice, whereas the same century, through the men of the north of Europe, through Poussin, through Claude Lorrain, and through Rubens, was preparing Watteau. Even during the time of Veronese, with Bassano, whose wine-colored reds and opaque shadows now invade the darkening backgrounds, with Schiavone and his declamatory landscapes, and with the abundant trivialities of Palma Giovine, the artistic life of Venice sinks into vulgarity, as her sensual life is swallowed up in a low and weakening debauch. In the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth especially, Venice is the gambling house and brothel of Europe, to which she no longer offers anything more than the elegance and the amusements of the carnival, in which the bizarre fantasy of Pietro Longhi, one of the last of her painters, and the verve of her musicians, Pergolese and Cimarosa, alone supply whatever elegance of spirit there is. After having lived by her work, she lived from her income—that is to say, from the work of others. No society, no civilization can endure that.

And so the Watteau of Venice is Tiepolo. A dancer of obeisances furnishes the hint for the great melancholy poet of evenings and of voluptuousness. He is the decorator, necessary to this world, which has substituted the pleasure of the rabble for the mighty exaltation of the senses. Amiable, witty, and conscienceless, he is the Casanova of painting, a worldly Jesuit brought forth by a rotting society. An adroit painter, certainly, with marvelous skill in arranging boudoirs and ballrooms, he scatters his tones and his forms with the ease of a lord who spends prodigally what does not belong to him; an ingenious, spontaneous, and free colorist, but overfacile and slight in his brilliance. The flesh of the Venetian women disappears under their rouge.

In the majesty of the space in which the great painters had dipped their brushes, he could find no more than a few pretty tones and shades, commonplace fundamentally and appearing as if they had been washed by the rain which had at the same time cleansed the verdigris and the gold of the palaces reflected in the canals. He lost his sense of atmosphere in hesitating for a while among the last painters of Venice, impressive painters who still seize, among the old, red-brown stones, the iridescent imprint of the air pierced by the light but to whom the city seems so old-fashioned and small that they appear to belong to another race than that of the masters of the past; they seem to be describing other places and speaking another language. Guardi can no longer perceive space save as something that quivers over the walls, or is pressed into the narrow frames of his little canvases, attenuated, and mingling only with the surface of things, which become precise and isolated and thin, like the pictures themselves with their sounds of festivity and the silence of the heart. Or they are muddy and confused, but perhaps all the more sensitive that they contain something of the moist earth, the mold, and are mottled by the phosphorescences fermenting in the waters. Canaletto sees space as something more vast, to be sure, and partaking more of the substance of the palaces, of the sky, and of the canals, but he seizes upon it jealously and caresses it and pampers it—one is tempted to say that he treats it as material for chamber music. He is no longer a maker of symphonies: he is a melodist of the air. Where Titian or Tintoretto, or more especially Veronese, handled five hundred instruments at once to magnify the immense harmony spread abroad from the vault powdered with stars to the pearl and coral treasury of the seas, he takes up his violoncello in which lie dormant sonorous tones, which he awakens discreetly, with a restrained, veiled accent, monotonous, and slightly poignant, like a secret lament and the tenderest of farewells. An almost uniform light, at once reddish and silver, lies peacefully upon his pictures, bathing them in its glow and seeming like the last sigh of an autumn upon which fall the ashes of stars of its last beautiful night. As with Guardi, there is nothing left but the water and the stones; as with Guardi the air grows thin before it finally dies. Inversely, the same thing occurred among them as occurred among the primitives of Venice. The late painters regret losing the sense of space even as in the early men we get our presentiment of it. It was that which gave them the sweep, the certitude, and the strength that are no longer found in this period of forgetfulness.

And it was, above all, through space that the glory of Venetian art had existed. By introducing air into painting, it had brought life into it and a continuity—no longer abstract, but active and visible—among the forms that are combined, the planes that recede, and among all the fragments of solid, liquid, or aerial matter which are determined one by the other and pass from one to the other by an infinitive number of transitions that, in his role, the great painter makes us feel without unveiling their mystery. Through her sense of space, Venice is a single block in extent as she is in time, bringing about a momentary communion between the ancient spirit and the modern spirit, between the Moslem world and the Christian world, between Asiatic indifference and Occidental optimism.

For Venice is indifferent. She accepts indiscriminately all the materials which the tide of the world brings within reach of her senses. And Venice is idealistic, because she groups these materials into new organizations, because she is forever generalizing. Her imagination is not given to inventing, but to combining images, and to revealing to us the real by describing it to us shorn of all the accidents and the details which mask its meaning for us; and it is through her imagination that Venice remains Italian and enacts, in the Passion Play of Renaissance Italy, the last act of the poem. To Italy the life of passion revealed a world close to her inner truth. She passed from one form to another to realize, in an effort of synthetic harmony, her need for a standard form in which her desire should recognize itself.

So, in her ensemble, Italy, where, during the Middle Ages, the social bond existed only as an idealistic and passionate reaction, in the heart of a few, Francis of Assisi, Dante, and Giotto, Italy, in need of equilibrium at the time when that social bond which had escaped her was loosening everywhere else, sought the means of adapting the individual through his spirit and his senses to the social and natural surroundings which were being continually changed by the evolution of man. Through Florence and Rome and Venice, by means of the intellectual arabesque and the sensuous passage, Italy gave us that which our needs demanded.

As her rise had been very rapid and the summits she reached had been very lofty, her fall seemed all the greater, and her silence, during three centuries, seemed all the more discouraging. Broken into ten fragments by the politics of the Church, she was unable to recreate for herself the moral life which would permit her to affirm anew her power of idealism in the face of the unified neighboring nations. But such a force does not die. It lives with a latent life as imperishable as the force introduced by Italy into the universe. The fragments have drawn together, the same blood flows through them and knits them together, all the members of the new body feel their solidarity and send back to the nerve centers the fluid which makes them move. The very conditions of modern life, reuniting hostile cities, permit Italy's individuality of passion to rest upon a wider area, that it may define itself once more.

The Italy of to-day presents the spectacle of a country in an irresistible ascent. Its renaissance is a material one, as were those of Florence and Venice at first. But we have no right to condemn the expressions of her inner life of to-day by the expressions of that inner life which formerly was hers. Art is a result, not a beginning. What will remake the Italian soul is not the professional of painting, of sculpture, of literature, or of music who is more lamentably abundant perhaps in modern Italy than in any other place. It is the crowd that passes by the works of the present without seeing them, even as it passes before the works of the past. It seems that Italy already desires, in a hesitating Europe, to play that role of the leaven that produces new forms out of a contempt for habit and for the moral rules laid down by weary peoples. The countryside is cultivated, the cities are powerfully active, children swarm everywhere, and obscure life indifferently brings forth its revolutionary pressure. The effort which it is making to live will once more teach this great people how bread and wine are made for our hunger and our thirst.

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