Venice (part V)

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Between Tintoretto and Titian, who resemble each other so much at first view, as Veronese resembles them, as all the Venetians resemble one another when the eye lets itself be dazzled by those heaped-up forms now brilliant, now somber under the red sunlight of the horizons of the sea, there is, however, even if their language has often the same images and the same sonorousness, almost an antagonism of soul. We see two Italians, two Venetians, of whom one might be a Greek, the other a Hindu. With the former, despite the grandeur of his creation, simple and sober though it is, a rhythm to which his exuberance yields as a river of blood yields to the heart, the will, issuing from the same sources as his sensibility, rises to the same plane, and without effort. With the latter, it is an orgy, a panting and torn rhythm like that of an element which has burst its dykes, the will ever straining to resist the frightful and continual assault of the most sensual nature that without doubt ever appeared in Occidental art, the will ever swept away and whirling like a straw in the wind. A torrent of sulphur and lava after the regular eruption of the autumns, the springtimes, and the summers.

He is a Michael Angelo in reverse. He had seen him, he would have liked to resemble him. "The coloring of Titian and the drawing of Michael Angelo," he said. He was never either the one or the other. He was never entirely master of himself, and the thing about him that astounds us is his perpetual defeat, even as the thing in Michael Angelo that subjugates us is his perpetual victory. He was Tintoretto, and that is a great deal. It is something so great that one hesitates at the threshold of the work, declaring it hollow and loose through fear of entering upon it. He was one of the miracles of art, something supremely elegant like naked strength, and as vulgar as strength that tries to don a garment, "the most terrible brain," said Vasari, "that painting has ever possessed"—a bestial hero.

In the history of his mind there are obscure depths. So much strength could well up only from an abyss of sensuality and torment. His life of passion is confused. It is filled with silent or brutal tragedies resulting from his unquenchable desire. He worked by the light of lamps, moving his tumultuous crowds about in the shadow where fires are flickering. He was a musician. He surrounded his painting with the sound of agonizing harmonies which the violoncello snatched in the contractions of his heart. He was swept away in the symphonic storm which arose from all of that intoxicating and triumphal painting, and with which Veronese mingles the voice of sonorous instruments the better to glorify life and heaven. He lived in the sinister glare of visions of color and of monstrous sensations which did not leave him a minute of repose.

With frescoes and with canvases he covered a hundred walls of churches, of palaces, of schools, and cloisters—often for nothing, merely for his own satisfaction. He was like a subterranean gulf, too choked with flames, stones, and smoke, and with a mouth too small to give them an outlet. Everything issued from him in explosions, and scattered at random in ragged pieces, in a rain of ashes and soot, and in sparks that mounted to the zenith. As others improvised a madrigal, he improvised epics. As others handle physiognomies and gestures through colors and volumes, he handled the crowds, the sea, and the clouds through his light and darkness—not according to the dictates of his mind, but according to the dictates of the savage instincts imposed by his senses. The crowds, the sea, and the clouds were voices that responded to his tempests.

His forms interwoven, disjointed, combating each other or falling to pieces, clustered like grapes or loose, drawn out and shaken from one end to the other by the ideas and feelings that were swept away in the vertigo of a mind consumed by the anguish of fecundation—these forms he had not the time to incorporate into the wall in order to form a block. Powerful in structure, made to suffer by his haste, but which he cannot carry further, being always driven onward in the delirium of his imagination, he allowed the forms to blend on the wall like the dust and sand scraped off by a hurricane. The Italian arabesque which Titian had carried into the substance of space floated in whirlwinds like a broken garland, and when he managed to unite its pieces with the flame of his dream, it dragged after it such masses of tangled forms that it disappeared under them. What does it matter! One felt the arabesque in the quivering depths, in the very dynamism of that tangle. The sudden gesture that strikes or curses or implores is so spirited, it appears in the midst of the drama with such vigor, that it carries with it the whole drama, which we re-enact in our minds. One might say that the painter, from the visible side of the forms, was giving expression to all the invisible surfaces which are made to converge by the lines of force, in the hand, the arm, the leg, the torso, or the face in action. Like an athlete overwhelmed by the rising tide of a confused, organic matter in which only the light of intelligence could distinguish differences and impose directions, Tintoretto grasped the situation in its entirety and wrestled with it so vigorously that it was suddenly formulated, characterized, and organized in all its elements at once. He plunged so deeply into the substance of Venice that only his forehead rose above it. But with what a fiery glance he caused its life to shine forth! Greco bursts from him like a flame, like a hymn from the Paradise, that concert of angels, the masterpiece of the painted symphony, in which the subject does not appear, but in which the blue, the silver, the red, the amber, and the gold exalt, in a sonority, now veiled, now triumphant, the glory of space, of music, and of the eternal rhythm under which the universe will henceforth appear to man when he has felt its presence in his heart.

When the spirit mounts in whirlwinds, one discovers where the fire is burning. Tintoretto is the most truth-revealing of all the Venetians. His lyricism belongs to the soil. Venice, the resplendent, lives in him surely, the theatrical and romantic Venice of the processions and the Orient, but also the trivial Venice, the southern and Levantine port where the colors which dye the robes and draperies of the triumphs were made from the rotting rags that ferment in the humidity and the sun. The house of the father of Jesus is a carpenter-shop, the crowd that climbs to Calvary with him is the crowd of the Riva degli Schiavoni, and the tumult of the Crucifixion is the clamor of a mob. Workmen's tools, bread, and meats lie about in disorder with necklaces of pearls or of coral, mirrors, and golden combs. The odor of the sweating crowds and the odor of the beautiful women intoxicated him like blending poisons. The swan that caresses the splendor of Leda has come out of a chicken coop.

The history lived each day gave life even to the anachronism. The men of that time had not the leisure to ransack libraries. And then they had always the Mediterranean mind. It did not change much more than the soil and the light. The turbans, the patrician robes, the animals, and the marvelous fruits entered into the palaces of Venice to meet Italian merchants and women with bare shoulders; and the immobile Orient brought by the sailors with their wares and their tales mingled biblical history with living history, pagan legend with sensual truth in the eternity of the second which was seized by a man of genius. Tintoretto is the historian of the terrible Republic.

That which vivifies and dramatizes the whole, which links it with his spirit, is the somber Venice of the stormy days and evenings, the Venice whose pavement and black waters shine with sulphurous reflections. Here are vistas, the silver seas, and skies having the transparence of colored diamonds; here above all are nocturnal seas, skies in which the clouds are thick and viscous like clots of blood. There are the orange and the sinister coppery tones that Titian had not perceived until the end of his life, when the twilight of the years was darkening like that of the sky, phosphorescent greens like the mold on the sticky soil of the markets where the mud of the lagoon is poured out with the fish; and there are vinous reds that turn almost black and in which the gold gleams no more save as a star gleams when it is about to be extinguished.

In this murky atmosphere, the great nude bodies of the Venetian women shone in splendor. Each time that Tintoretto encountered woman, a kind of concentration of the forces which he was incessantly exchanging with the external universe took place in him. Even when he was painting the "Last Judgment," even at the moment when he was hurling her into endless torment, he covered her with ardent caresses. The fumes of intoxication which mounted to his brain from everything that had a form, a color, a perfume, or a sound, and that caused a kind of purple mist to rise before his eyes was suddenly dissipated. The divine substance in which it became elaborated and which transmits the human flame invaded him like a dawn. Everything was transfigured. Tintoretto sang of the flesh with such a lyric exaltation that, with a single bound, he cleared the threshold of that loftier region into which the incessant effort of his moral idealism had not been able to gain him admission. Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian had remained deeply within the orbits of a calm sensuality into which descended the gold that comes at the end of day when the somber sun floods everything with its memory ; the gold that comes at the end of the seasons when the vegetable world stores up in its tissue all the rays shed during the summer months. Tintoretto joins with Veronese to break through the shining gates inside of which the mind meets the light. And when they come to celebrate the apotheosis of woman, upon whom the soul of Venice, in the sixteenth century, concentrates all its passion, both of them come forth from the bedchamber of purple where the reclining forms had been shown to the eyes of Titian a mass of blond light; they go beyond the edge of the dark forests in which the nude bodies illumine the bluish shadow, they cross the lagoon only to fix upon their palette the opal and the coral, and the opaque or translucent stones which turn with the shadows of the palaces inverted amid the scintillation of the waves. As if to compel the soul of the world to enter the great sacred bodies, the hollow of the backs, the fleshy haunches, the breasts, the arms, the thighs, the knees, and the necks of mother-of-pearl weighed down by the blond hair braided with great pearls, they mingled the amber and the foam of the waters with the glittering space showered with the ashes of stars, where the snow of the solitudes with the azure of night and the mist of the nebulae stream forth like milk. The conquerors of the sea have made the conquest of the sky.

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