Mortimer Menpes.

Venice online

. (page 6 of 11)
Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 6 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


wide sweep and power. He turned to religion,
not because it was a duty, but because it answered
the needs of the human heart because it helped
him to forget the mean and sordid side of life,
braced him to his work, and consoled him in his
days of despair. The Bible was not to him a
cut -and -dried document concerning the Christian
religion, but a series of beautiful parables pointing
to a finer life. Then, Tintoretto asked himself,
Why keep to the old forms and the old ideals?
Why should the saints and biblical people be



112 VENICE

represented as Romans, walking in a Roman back-
ground ? He himself thought of them as people
of his own kind, and painted them as such. Thus,
he argued, people became more familiar with the
Bible, more readily understood it.

Tintoretto painted portraits not only of Venetians,
but also of foreign princes. Although he painted
with tremendous rapidity, the demand was greater
than the supply. His paintings were popular.
They gave pleasure to the eye, and stimulated the
emotions. He painted people at their best, in
glowing health and full of life. Under his marvel-
lous brush old men became vigorous and full-
blooded. His pictures give the same sort of
pleasure as one finds in looking upon a casket of
jewels they are just as deathless in their brilliancy.
The portrait that the popular taste called forth in
Titian's day was just about as unlike the typical
modern portrait as you could possibly imagine,
the colourless, cold, unsympathetic portrait of the
fish-eyed mayor in his robes.

At the age of fifteen, Jacopo Robusti tinto-
retto, the little dyer was brought by his father,
Battista Robusti, to the studio of the great painter
Titian. There he stayed for a little while, until
one day Titian came across, in his bottega, some



THE HOUSE WITH THE BLUE DOOR



PAINTERS OFTHE RENAISSANCE 113

drawings that showed promise. On discovering
that they were from the hand of Jacopo, he sent
the boy away. Young as he was, Tintoretto had
all the arrogance of the well-to-do citizen. He
would brook no man's No, and would not yield
his own pretensions for the greatest genius in
Christendom. He did not need money : he was
independent : and he started boldly to teach him-
self. Boiling with rage at the affront Titian had
put upon him, he was determined to make a career
for himself. He studied the works of Michael
Angelo and of Titian, and inscribed upon his studio
wall, so that his ambition might always be before
his eyes, " II desegno di Michael Angelo, e' il
colorito di Titiano." He studied casts of ancient
marbles, and made designs of them by the light of
a lamp, in order to gain a strong effect of shadow.
Also, he copied the pictures of Titian. Seeking,
by every means in his power, to educate himself, he
modelled figures of wax and plaster, upon which
he hung his drapery. And always, whether paint-
ing by night or by day, he arranged his lights so as
to have everything in high relief. Tintoretto's
inventions for teaching himself were endless.
Often he visited the painters' benches in the piazza

of St. Mark's, where the poor men of the profession

8



114 VENICE

worked at painting chests and furniture of all kinds.
In those days there were too many painters. The
profession was overdone. Many young men who
had real genius worked at the benches. Titian was
the great man at the moment, and Palma Vecchio.
But Tintoretto did not care. He forced his work
down men's throats gave it to them for nothing
if they would not pay for it. He was always ready
with his brush, and would paint anything from an
organ to an altar-piece. He worked like a giant,
with tremendous sweep and power ; no subject was
too great or too laborious ; and always he had a
desire to do his best.

Tintoretto would not be trifled with or con-
descended to. He would not have his work under-
valued, and would allow no patrician, not even a
prince, to play the patron to him. He was deter-
mined not to be set aside. He flung his pictures
at people's heads, and insisted on undertaking any
great piece of work there was to do. Thus,
Tintoretto's pictures are to be seen everywhere in
Venice in almost every church, every council-hall,
every humble chapel, every parish church, every
sacristy. He neglected no opportunity to make
his work known. He worked with extraordinary
rapidity. Whenever Tintoretto came across a



CANAL IN GIUDECCA ISLAND



PAINTERS OFTHE RENAISSANCE 115

fine fair wall he prevailed upon the master-mason
to allow him to paint it. A fifty-foot space he
would cover with avidity, asking nothing for his
work but the cost of the material, giving his time
and labour as a gift.

Portraiture was the outcome of realism, and one
of the most important discoveries of the Renais-
sance. People began to feel that they wanted not
only then* affluence in possessions, but also their
own individual faces and features, handed down to
posterity. Thus portraiture began to creep in.
At first it appeared in the churches under cover of
saints and Madonnas ; gradually it became possible
to distinguish one from another it was not always
the same face. Painters took models from life as
their saints. But portraiture in painting was very
slow in reaching perfection. Sculpture had ac-
complished that long before; now that the latest
craze was for portraiture, it was the sculptors who
were the most prepared to take it up, and stepped
forward to execute commissions. They had plenty
of material in the way of old Roman coins and
busts. Donatello and Vittore Pisano were the two
men who first offered to satisfy the new want.
Donatello executed marvellous studies of character,
and Pisano medals such as have never been seen



116 VENICE

before or since. But even these men, fine as their
work undoubtedly was, felt that the public could
not long remain satisfied merely with the sculp-
tured portrait. They must have colour. Dona-
tello, therefore, began to stain and colour his busts,
showing that painting, not sculpture, was to be
the portrait art of the Renaissance. Vittore Pisano
also gave up his sculpture, and turned his atten-
tion to portrait - painting ; but he was only an
amateur in this direction, and did not meet with
much success. No portrait-painter of any merit
was produced hi that generation. The idea was
entirely new. Men had not had sufficient time in
which to study the human face. The next genera-
tion ushered in Mantegna, who painted a marvel-
lous portrait of Cardinal Sciramo ; but he went too
far in the other direction. He painted his man as
he was as he saw him, line for line. He painted
the soul and heart of him and the soul and
the heart were black. Venice was revolted with
such a portrait. It seemed indeed indecent that a
man's character should be laid bare in such a way.
It was a picture they did not care to hang in the
Council Chamber, a picture that was unpleasant to
live with. The Cardinal belonged to the State.
His honour was their honour, and it must not be



defiled. The Venetians came to the conclusion
that portraits must be painted not in full-face but
in profile. Thus the characteristics of a man, if
they be not pleasant, do not come out clearly.
This accounts for the number of profile portraits.
The age wanted an agreeable portrait. This
Giorgione provided. He realised that the treat-
ment must always be bright, joyous, romantic.
His followers trod in his footsteps : the master's
style was too strong and pronounced to be much
deviated from. Giorgione seems to have reached
the topmost height of art at that period. Even
Titian, for a generation after his death, followed in
Giorgione's lines ; only, Titian's work was a little
more sober, a little less sunny. He had the sense
to see that Giorgione had expanded the old rule
and done something worth adopting, and for a
time he simply followed this joyful outburst. His
early years fell at a time when life was glowing,
radiant, almost intoxicating in its vigour. But
youth and joy cannot last ; nor could the Renais-
sance spirit. Gradually the trouble and the strife
from which the whole of Italy was suffering
filtered into Venice, and cast a serious aspect over
art and social life. Venice, of all the states in
Italy, was the last to feel this sobering influence.



118 VENICE

She had been defeated both in battle and in com-
merce ; and, although she was not totally crushed
under the heel of Spain, life was not the end-
less holiday it promised to be. Men took them-
selves more seriously, and the quieter pleasures of
friendship and affection began to be more sought
after. Religion revived in importance. Men
clung to it, as they always do in time of trouble,
for comfort and support. It was no longer a
political sentiment, but a personal one. Art de-
clined as the sunshine and the gaiety that had fed
and nourished it ebbed away. When men began
to feel that individually they were of no avail, that
they were subject to the powers round about and
above them, the death-blow of great art fell.
Titian was influenced by his environment, and
his painting changed completely. He produced
pictures that would have been looked upon with
scorn in his earlier days. The faces of his men are
no longer smooth and free from care. One saw
there struggle and suffering, and all that life had
done for them. But Titian was not a pessimist at
heart. The joy and gaiety in which he had been
brought up formed part of his character. What-
ever changes may have happened to his country
politically, nothing could alter that entirely. And



THE ORANGE SAIL



PAINTERS OFTHE RENAISSANCE 119

it was no doubt this early training and the
atmosphere in which he was brought up that
made his pictures the masterpieces they were.
You notice the men who came after Titian how
they began to decline. For example, Lorenzo
Lotto had been brought up in the heyday of the
Renaissance ; but the new order of things, the
change from national virility to national decadence,
enfeebled him. Then, again, the coming in touch
with poets and men of letters, victims flying from
the fury of Spain, was a new stimulant to art.
It did not exactly improve it ; but it certainly
changed it.

A fine period of painting does not come in a
day, nor does it end in a day ; and, although the
universal interest in the Venetian school dies with
Titian and Tintoretto, it does not die unnoticed.
The torch of art flickered up many times in Venice
before it was finally extinguished. The men who
came immediately after Tintoretto had not the
strength to start off on any new lines. They
simply fell back on variations of the earlier masters,
showing much of the masters' weaknesses, but few
of their great qualities. Some even were so in-
artistic as to attempt to pass off their pictures, on
ignorant people, as Titians and Giorgiones. How-



120 VENICE

ever, before the Republic disappeared there were
two or three men who took the first rank
among the painters of the period, provincial artists,
men whose art was sufficiently like her own to be
readily understood, such as Paul Veronese. The
provinces were not declining so rapidly as Venice
was. They were less troubled by the approaching
storm. Men there led simple, healthy lives ;
Spanish manners were long in reaching the pro-
vinces, and, when they did, the people were slow
to succumb. Men in the provinces had stamina,
simplicity, and courage with which to meet the
new order of things. They combined ceremony
and splendour with childlike naturalness. Con-
sequently, the works of Paul Veronese delighted
the Venetians. The more fashionable and cere-
monious private life in the city became, the more
were the people charmed with his simple rendering.
Gradually the taste of the Venetians turned
towards pictures in humble quarters in the pro-
vincial towns and in the country. In the Middle
Ages the country was so upset that it was not safe
for people to venture out of the city ; but with the
advance of civilisation this state of affairs was
altered. People began to delight in country life.
The aristocracy took villas in the provinces, and



A QUIET RIO



the poorer people wanted representations of them
in their houses. The painters of the period, Palma
and Bonifacio, began to add pastoral backgrounds
to their works. But the first great landscape
painter was Jacopo Bassano. His treatment of
light and atmosphere was masterly, and his colour-
ing was jewel-like and brilliant. It was Bassano
who started that great Spanish school which
was to culminate in Velasquez. Venice did not
produce many great painters in the eighteenth
century only three or four. The city itself
remained unchanged : it was just as beautiful, still
the most beautiful and luxurious city in the world :
it was the people who changed. They became
apathetic, placid, and drifting, perfectly contented
with one another and with their lots in life, never
trying to better themselves in any way. There
were no difficulties, no problems to be solved.
People were just as gay as they were serious, just
as much interested in paintings as they were in
politics. This was a vegetable period.

It is strange that such a demoralising time should
have seen the rise of a great master; but it
certainly saw him in Canaletto. That artist
differed from nearly all the Venetian painters in

that he had complete mastery of technique. His

SA



122 VENICE

work is just as fine technically as that of Velasquez
or that of Rembrandt. It shows marvellous dex-
terity and power. He understood his materials
better than any other Venetian painter better
even than Giorgione.

Guardi and Tiepolo followed Canaletto. In
Tiepolo's work especially you realise the character
of these eighteenth-century people. At that time
Venice was sliding downhill rapidly. Her people
were aping dignity. They dressed extravagantly,
not so much for the love of colour and splendour
as for swagger. They were degenerating rapidly.
Here and there lesser masters appeared ; but
Venetian art became poorer and poorer, until it
reached the condition of the present day, when in
Venice there is no art at all. The kind of work
which the people appreciate sickens and saddens
you those sunlit photographs glazed with blue
to counterfeit moonlight, and tricky, vicious water-
colours, brutal pictures with metallic reflections
and cobalt skies, all wonderfully alike, all with
the same orange sail, and all equally untrue.

Year by year painters continue to paint Venice
without the public showing signs of weariness.
Perhaps the failure of the artists to reproduce the
undying charm of that dazzling jewel of cities is






HUMBLE QUARTERS









PAINTERS OFTHE RENAISSANCE 123

both the excuse and the reason for the pertinacity
of the tribe. Womanlike, she eludes them ; man-
like, they pursue. Few have seen the real Venice,
the Venice of Ruskin and Turner and Whistler.
Venice is not for the cold-blooded spectator, for
the amateur or the art dabbler: she is for the
enthusiastic colourist and painter, the man who
sees, and does not merely look.

Sir Edward Burne- Jones was wont to declare
that to paint Venice as she should be painted one
must needs live for three thousand years : the first
thousand should be devoted to experiments in
various media ; the second to producing works and
destroying them ; the third to completing slowly
the labour of centuries. He would never have
dreamed of spending a painting holiday beyond
Italy that is, unless he had been permitted to live
for over five thousand years ; and even then, it was
his firm opinion, no man could paint St. Mark's,
which was unpaintable mere pigment could not
suggest it.



BIO DI SAN MARINA



STREETS, SHOPS, AND
COURTYARDS



A SQUERO OR BOAT-BUILDING YARD



STREETS, SHOPS, AND
COURTYARDS

IN the crooked and bewildering streets of Venice,
which open out from the great piazza and lead all
over the city, one sees the true life of the people.
It is there that the poor congregate. The houses
teem with humanity. There the true Venetians are
harboured. One comes to know them well, and the
manner of life they lead ; and so gay and light-
hearted are they, it is strange if one does not like
them in spite of all their faults. Was there ever
more irregularity than in the streets of Venice ?
All the houses seem to be differently constructed.
Some are lofty ; others are squat ; some have bal-
conies and chimney-pieces thrust out into the street
so as almost to touch the houses opposite. Nearly
every house has at one time been a palace, and each
is in a different stage of decay houses that have
once been the homes of merchant princes, palaces

127



128 VENICE

in which perhaps even Petrarch may have feasted,
inhabited now by the poorest of Venetians.
The weekly wash flutters from the balconies (the
linen of Venice is famed for its whiteness), and
frowsy heads appear at Gothic windows. Worms
have eaten and rust has corrupted everything
destructible. Yet now and then one is astonished
at the preservation of certain portions of the
buildings. In that labyrinth of streets one never
knows what surprise may be in store. You will
come across beautiful early - Gothic gateways
covered with sculptured relief and inlaid designs of
leaves ; a fourteenth- century palace with the faint
remains of the paintings of some artist with which
at one time it must have been covered ; lovely
remnants of crosses let into the walls ; Renaissance
wells of the sixteenth century ; delicately- carved
parapets ; a great stone angel standing guardian at
some calle head ; irregularly twisted staircases of
the fifteenth century ; a Gothic door with terra-
cotta mouldings ; and churches without number.
Some of the finest architectural gems in Europe
are here, and almost every house is invested with
a strange history. The place seems inexhaustible.
As you walk in those old streets the shadows
of the mighty dead go with you those great



THE WEEKLY WASH



STREETS, SHOPS, COURTYARDS 129

men who lived glorious lives for Venice and for
art. There is an old-world atmosphere about the
streets. They twist and turn, and sometimes are
so narrow that there is scarcely room for two
people to pass each other; at times they are so
dark and still that the scuttling of a rat into the
water makes one start. Venice is full of contrasts,
full of the unexpected. It is as if Providence,
seeing fit that one's eyes should not become
satiated with beauty unalloyed, throws in little
marring touches shocks to your feelings, cold
douches of water, as it were in order to give value
to the marvellous colouring and antiquity of the
water city. For example, from the world of
Desdemona, where one can fancy one sees her lean
from a traceried window and catch a distant echo
of a mellow voice out on the water singing a
serenade, it is rather a shock suddenly to find your-
self in the piazza of St. Mark. It is easy to lose
oneself in the streets of Venice. In a minute
you can step from the past to the present, and find
yourself among the marbles of St. Mark's and the
arcades of the Ducal Palace in the tourist's Venice,
amid glittering shops full of modern atrocities,
mosaic jewellery, wood-carving, imitation glass, and
what not Americans and other globe-trotters



130 VENICE

staring up at St. Mark's, laughing and reading
their guide-books.

For all artists and lovers of the picturesque the
side streets of Venice calle, as they are called are
fascinating beyond words. Every house has a
character peculiarly its own. Each is in a way
unique and totally dissimilar to its fellows ; each
is proud in the possession of relics of architectural
beauties. Every street is made up of magnificent
palaces and churches, fine examples of architecture
in such rich and varied wealth and diversity of
styles that one is almost overpowered. There are
old Gothic palaces, venerable specimens of Re-
naissance or Venetian period. Time indeed has
laid heavy hands upon them ; but it seems to have
augmented their charm. This homely aspect of
Venice interests. The old houses and the rickety
archways appeal to the observer, if he be not too
keen of smell. Here are marvellous and varied
combinations of rich colouring weather-worn
bricks, grated windows, and brilliant shutters
picturesque and shabby by the lapse of time, and
shops half lost in gloom. Most of the houses are of
distempered rose-colour at the top and moss-green
at the bottom. The sun shines on the roof, and
the water laps at the base. There are land-gates



A BACK STREET



STREETS, SHOPS, COURTYARDS 131

and water-gates to most of the houses one opening
upon a canal, the other upon a courtyard.

I lived for six months in Venice, and have seen
these streets under every possible aspect. I have
seen them in the early morning, at mid-day, in the
evening, at night, in the rain, in the sun ; and I
can never decide at what time of the day they
appear most fascinating. Perhaps it is after a rain-
shower, when every tone upon the old walls is
brought out and accentuated greys and pale sea-
greens and the old Venetian red with which so many
of the houses used to be distempered. The shops
in Venice are very thickly set. Most of them
open right down to the ground, and the wares,
which are varied, appear to ooze out into the street.
Here is a corn-dealer's shop with open sacks of
polenta flour of every shade of yellow ; there a
green-grocer's shop where vegetables are sold such
a wealth of colour in the piles of tomatoes, veget-
able marrows, and great pumpkins cut down the
middle to display their orange cores. The richer
shops, however, are blocked up several feet high,
and have latticed windows.

I love to wander through these streets at night,
when the squalor and the misery of Venetian life
are hidden by the darkness, and one sees only



132 VENICE

beauty. Here are subjects for the etcher, for
Rembrandt and Frans Hals, marvellous effects
of light and shade. The streets are pitch-dark ;
there is nothing to mar the lovely fair blue nights
of Venice no vicious shaft of electric light to
bleach the colour from the sky. These side streets
are lit by the candle and the lamp. Perhaps the
most picturesque of all the shops at night are the
wine-shops. There one sees, beneath some low
blackened doorway, a rich golden-brown interior.
In the midst of this golden gloom one dim oil-
lamp is burning the most perfect light possible
from the painter's standpoint : by it, the dark
faces and gesticulating hands of the men gathered
round a table are turned to deep orange. This
is all one sees growing from out the encircling
gloom faces, hands, and a few flecks of ruby
light, as the glasses are raised. Every shop down
these narrow streets has its shrine to the Virgin
Mary, with its statuette, its fringes, and its flowers ;
and at night these shrines are illuminated according
to the poverty or the wealth of the proprietor
some have only a tiny dip, others have a candle or
a group of candles, while well-to-do folk boast a
row of oil -lamps. Rich or poor, each has its
offering, its tiny beacon. The children may go



STREETS, SHOPS, COURTYARDS 133

without bread, and the mother may lack warm
clothing; but the Holy Mother must not be
robbed of her due. There is certainly a wonderful
simplicity of faith about these people. The cook-
shops are fascinating by night. There are in-
numerable stalls ; in fact, nearly all the shopping
seems to be done from stalls ; even the butchers
have open-air stalls. At night chestnut-roasters,
toffee -vendors, pumpkin -and -hot -pear men hold
full sway. These are generally surrounded by
groups of open-mouthed children gazing with
delight at the long twisted strings of toffee in the
hands of the operator. Almost a still greater
attraction to the young folk of Venice is the
chestnut-roaster ; he generally takes up his position
in the courtyards, as does the coffee -roaster.
Courtyards seem to be the favourite haunts of
the coffee-roasters, partly, I suppose, because all
the doors of the houses round about open into
them, and housewives can be easily supplied. They
seem to be constantly roasting coffee berries night
and day ; the whole place reeks with the fragrant
odour. They are picturesque by day, these busy
workers, but far more picturesque by night, when
the gleam of their ovens shows orange in the purple
gloom, and the leaping flames light up the faces of



134 VENICE

the children round about, handsome little faces
with a certain grandeur in them boys with
bronze cheeks, dark hair, olive complexions, black


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 6 of 11)