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Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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them for after-execution, not to have a finished picture
thrust upon them. To which Tintoretto answered that
this was his method of designing, that he could not do
otherwise, and that designs and models ought to be so
executed, in order that no one should be deceived as to
their ultimate effect; and finally, that if they did not
wish to pay him he willingly made a present of the picture
to the saint. " And thus saying," adds Vasari, " though
there was still much opposition, he produced such an
effect that the work is there to this day." Ridolfi,
enlarging the tale, describes how the other painters,
stupefied by the sight of so great a work executed in so
few days and so exquisitely finished, gathered up their
drawings and told the fraternity that they withdrew from
the competition, Tintoretto by the merit of his work
having fairly won the victory. Notwithstanding which
the heads of the corporation still insisted that he should
take away his picture; declaring that they had given him
no commission to paint it, but had desired only to have
sketches submitted to them that they might give the
work to whoever pleased them best. When, however, he
flung the picture at their heads, so to speak, and they
found themselves obliged to keep it, whether they liked
it or not (for they could not by their law refuse a gift
made to their saint) milder counsels prevailed, and finally
the greater part of the votes were given to Tintoretto,
and it was decided that he should be paid a just price
for his work. He was afterward formally appointed to
do all that was necessary for the future adornment of the
scuola, and received from the society a grant of a hundred
ducats yearly for his whole life; he on his side binding
himself to paint a picture for them every year.

This proceeding proves the justice of what Vasari says,
Always with a certain half-amusement. "These works,
and many others which he left behind him, were done by
Tintoretto so rapidly that when others scarcely believed
him to have begun he had finished; and the wonderful
thing was that though he had adopted the most extra va-



THE PAINTERS. 279

gant methods in the world to secure commissions, yet,
when he failed to do so by interest or friendship, he was
ready to sacrifice all gain and give his work at a small
price, or for nothing, so as to force its acceptance, in
order that one way or other he should succeed in getting
the work to do."

Ridolfi adds that the Scuola of San Rocco, when com-
pleted, became in itself a sort of Accademia,

The resort of the studious in painting, and in particular of all the
foreigners from the other side of the Alps who came to Venice at that
time ; Tintoretto's works serving as examples of composition, of grace,
and harmony of design, of the management of light and shade, and
force and freedom of color ; and, in short, of all that can be called most
accurate and can most exhibit the gifts of the ingenious painter.

The pilgrim from beyond the Alps, who follows his
predecessors into the echoing halls of San Rocco, can
judge for himself still of the great works thus eulogized,
and see the picture which Tintoretto fixed upon the roof,
while his rivals prepared their drawings, and which he
flung, as it were, at the brotherhood when they demurred.
His footsteps are all over Venice, in almost every church
and wherever pictures are to be seen from the great
" Paradiso " in the Council Hall, the greatest picture in one
sense in the world, down to the humblest chapels, parish
churches, sacristies, there is scarcely an opportunity
which he has neglected to make himself seen and known.
According to the evidence of the historians of art, Titian
never forgave the boy whose greatness he had foreseen,
and there is at least one subject, that of the Presentation,
which the two painters have treated with a certain simi-
larity, with what one cannot but feel must, in the person
of the younger at least, have been an intended rivalry.
These two splendid examples of art remain, if not side by
side, as the pictures of Turner hang beside the serene
splendor of the Claudes in our own National Gallery,
yet with an emulation not dissimilar, which in some
minds will always militate against the claims of the artist
whose aim is to prove that he is the better man. The
same great critic who has been the life-long champion of
Turner against the claims of his long dead rival has in
like manner espoused those of the later master in Venice.
And in respect to these particular pictures, they are, we



280 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

believe, a sort of test of art understanding by which the
Illuminati judge the capacity of the less instructed accord-
ing to the preference they give. However that may be,
Tintoretto's greatness, the wonderful sweep and grandeur
which his contemporaries call stravagante, the lavish
power with which he treats every subject nothing too
great, too laborious, for his hand cannot fail to impress
the beholder. He works like a giant, flinging himself
abroad "upon the wings of all the winds"; with some-
thing of the immortal Bottom in him, determined to do
the lion too, at which a keen observer like Vasari cannot
but smile; and yet no clown but a demi-god, full of
power, if also full of emulation and determination to be
the best. But the man is still more remarkable than his
work, and to the lover of human nature more interesting
an ideal Venetian, rather of the fifteenth than of the
sixteenth century, in his imperious independence and
self-will and resolution to own no master. All the arro-
gance of the well-to-do citizen is in him; he who will
take the wall of any man, and will not yield a jot or tittle
of his own pretensions for the most splendid gallant or
the greatest genius in Christendom; one who is not to be
trifled with or condescended to nor will submit to any
parleying about his work or undervaluing of his manhood.
No fine patrician, no company even of his townsfolk, he
was resolved should play patron to him. He did not
require their money one large ingredient in such a
character; he could afford to do without them, to fling
his pictures at their heads if need were, to execute their
commissions for love, or, at least, for glory, not for their
pay, or anything they could do for him; but all the same
not to be shut out from any competition that was going,
not to be thrust aside by the foolish preference of the
employer for any other workman; determined that he,
and he only, should have every great piece of work there
was to do.

Ridolfi, who lingers upon every incident with the pleas-
ure of an enthusiast, and who is entirely on Tintoretto's
side against Titian and all his fine company of critics,
tells how the painter once inquired with the ttafve&of&n
ignorance which he was rather proud to show of all court
practices and finery what was the meaning of a certain
act which he saw performed by King Henry of France



THE PAINTERS. 281

on the occasion of his visit to Venice. Tintoretto had
made up his mind to paint a portrait of the king, with a
sort of republican sentiment, half admiration, half con-
tempt, for that strange animal, and in order to do this
threw aside his toga (which his wife had persuaded him
to wear, though he had no real right to that patrician
garment), and, putting on the livery of the doge, mingled
in the retinue by which his majesty was attended, and hung
about in the antechambers, marking the king's individ-
uality, his features and ways, until his presence and
object were discovered, and he was admitted to have a
formal sitting. The painter observed that from time to
time certain personages were introduced to the king,
who touched them lightly on the shoulder with his sword,
adding divers ceremonies. What did it mean, he asked
with simplicity, probably somewhat affected, as the
courtier chamberlain, who was his friend, approached
him in all the importance of office? The Polonius of the
moment explained with pompous fullness, and added that
Tintoretto must prepare to go through the same cere-
mony in his own person, since the king intended to make
a knight of him. Ridolfi says that the painter modestly
declined the honor more probably strode off with sturdy
contempt and a touch of unrestrained derision; very
certain that, whatever Titian and the others might think,
no king's touch upon his shoulder, or patent of rank con-
ferred, could make any difference to him!

And notwithstanding that all the historians are anxious
to record, as a set-off against these wild ways, the fact
that he was very amiable in his private life, and fond of
music, and to suonare il liuto, here is a little story which
makes us feel that it must have been somewhat alarming
if he had any grievance against one, to be left alone with
Tintoretto. On some occasion not explained, the painter
met Pietro Aretino, the infamous but much-courted man
of letters, who was the center of the fine company, the
friend of Titian, the representive of luxury and corrup-
tion in Venice, and invited him to his house, under pre-
tense of painting his portrait.

When Aretino had come in and disposed himself to sit, Tintoretto
with much violence drew forth a pistol from under his vest. Aretino,
in alarm, fearing that he was about to be brought to account, cried out,
" What are you doing, Jacopo ? " "I am going to take your measure,



282 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

said the other. And beginning to measure from the head to the feet,
at last said sedately, "Your height is two pistols and a half." "Oh,
you mad fellow! " cried the other, recovering his courage. But Aretino
spoke ill of Tintoretto no more.

Perhaps it is the absence of what we may call the
literary faculty in these great painters that makes their
appeal so much more exclusively to the connoisseur in
art, to the critic qualified to judge on technical and
classical grounds, to the expert, in short, than to the
amateur who seeks in pictures and in books the sympathy
of humanity, the fine suggestion which rouses the im-
agination, the touch that goes to the heart. The earlier
masters, perhaps in all regions (after they have a little
surmounted the difficulties of pictorial expression),
possess this gift in higher development than their suc-
cessors, who, carrying art to its perfection of design and
color, not unusually leave the heart and the imagination
of the spectator altogether out of the reckoning. The
Bellini and Carpaccio are all strong in this impulse, which
is common to poet and story-teller, whether in the graver
paths of history or in the realms of fiction. They
appeal to something in us which is more than the eye;
they never lose touch of human sentiment, in the Venetian
streets all full of a hundred histories; in the legends of
love and martyrdom which are of universal potency; in the
sweetest ideal of life, the consecrated women and chil-
dren. Ursula wrapped in maiden sleep, with the winged
angel knight touching the sweet edge of her dreams; or
throned in a simple majesty of youth and sacred purity
and love divine, the Mother holding up to men and
angels the Hope and Saviour of mankind; or with a
friendly glow of sympathetic nature diffused all round,
the group of neighbors gazing at the procession in the
Piazza, the women kneeling on the edge of the water-
way to see the sacred relic go by. Such visions do not
come to us from the magnificence of Titian or the
gigantic power, stravagante, of Tintoretto. A few noble
heads of senators are all that haunt our memory, or
enter into our friendship from the hand of the latter
painter; and even they are too stern sometimes, too
authoritative and conscious of their dignity, that we
should venture to employ such a word as friendship.
Titian's senators are more suave, and he leaves us now



THE PAINTERS. 283

and then a magnificent fair lady to fill us with admiration
but except one or two of such fine images, how little
is there that holds possession of our love and liking, and
as we turn away, insists on being remembered! Not
anything certainly in the great "Assumption," splendid
as it is, and perfect as it may be. Light, shade, color,
science, and beauty, are all there, but human feeling has
been left out in the magnificent composition. I return
for my part with a great and tender pleasure to the
silence and vast solemnity of the Frari, where that one
young serious face in the great Pesaro picture looks out
of the canvas suddenly, wistfully, asking the meaning of
many things, into the spectator's heart with a feeling
that this is about the one thing which the great Titian
has ever said to me.

It is impossible and unnecessary for us, standing in
the place of the unlearned, to go into full detail of the
painters of Venice, or discuss the special qualities of
Cima in all his silvery sweetness, or the gentle Palma, or
the bolder Pordenone, or the long list of others who
through many glowing and beautiful pieces of painting
conducted art from perfection to decay. The student
knows where to find all that can be said on the subject,
which has indeed produced an entire literature of its
own. When all is said that can be said about the few
inaccurate dates, and mistaken stories, with which he is
credited, Messer Giorgio of Florence, the graphic and
delightful Vasari, remains always the best guide. But,
alas! he was not a Venetian, and his histories of the
painters of Venice are generally modified by the reflec-
tion, more or less disguised, that if they had but had
the luck to be Florentines they might have been great:
or at least must have been much greater even the great
Titian himself.

We have ventured to speak of some of the works of
Titian as decorative art. The productions of the last
great painter whose name will naturally recur to every
lover of Venice, the splendid and knightly Paul Veronese,
claim this character still more distinctively as if the great
republic, unapproachable in so many ways, had seized a
new splendor, and instead of tapestries or humbler mural
adornments, had contented herself with nothing less than
the hand of genius to ornament her walls. These wonder-



284 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

ful halls and balconies, those great banquets spread as
upon a more lordly dais of imagination and exquisite
skill, those widening vistas of columns and balustrades
thronged with picturesque retainers, the tables piled
with glowing fruit and vessels of gold and silver, in a
mimic luxury more magnificent than any fact, transport
the spectator with a sense of greatness, of wealth, of
width and space, and ever beautiful adornments, which
perhaps impairs our appreciation of the art of the painter
in its purer essence. No king ever enlarged and furnished
and decorated his palace like the Veronese; the fine
rooms in which these pictures are hung are but ante-
chambers to the grander space which opens beyond in
the painter's canvas. It is scarcely enough, though
magnificent in its way, to see them hanging like other
pictures in a gallery, among the works of other masters
for then their purpose is lost, and half their grandeur.
The " Marriage of Cana" is but a picture in the Louvre;
but in Venice, as we walk into such a presence and see
the splendid party serenely banqueting, with the sky
opening into heavenly blue behind them, the servants
bringing in the courses, appearing and disappearing
behind the columns, the carpet flung in all its Oriental
wealth of color upon the cool semi-transparence of the
marble steps, the room, of which this forms one side, is
transformed forever. Were it the humblest chamber in
the world, it would be turned into a palace before our
eyes. Never were there such noble and princely decora-
tions; they widen the space, they fill the far-withdrawing
anterooms with groups worthy the reception of a king.
Mr. Ruskin gives a lively account, from the records of
Venice, of how Messer Paolo was had up before the
Inquisition, no less, on the charge of having introduced
unbecoming and undignified figures, negro pages, and
even little dogs, into pictures meant for the church
where, indeed, such details were, no doubt, out of place.
But Paul of Verona was not the man to paint religious
pictures, having no turn that way. He is a painter for
palaces, not for churches. Mind of man never devised
presence chamber or splendid hall that he could not have
rendered more splendid. Notwithstanding the promi-
nence of the negro pages, and many an attendant beside,
his lords of the feast are all the finest gentlemen, his



THE PAINTERS. 285

women courtly and magnificent. It is the best of company
that sits at that table, whether the wine is miraculous or
only the common juice of the grape; even should the
elaboration of splendid dress be less than that which
Titian loves. The effect is a more simple one than his,
the result almost more complete. So might the walls
of heaven be painted, the vestibules and the corridors:
still leaving, as poor Florentine Andrea sighs in Mr.
Browning's poem, " four great walls in the New Jeru-
salem " for a higher emulation,

" For Leonard, Raphael, Agnolo, and me"

to try their best upon.

The fashion of fresco painting on the outsides of the
houses still continued, and was largely practiced also by
Paolo Veronese; but let us hope that the far more splen-
did internal decoration supplied by his pictures had some
effect, along with the good sense native to the Venetians
and their sound practical faculty, in putting an end to so
great a waste of power and genius as these outside pict-
ures proved. They were already fading out by Paolo's
time, sinking into pale shadows of what they had been,
those pictured images with which Giorgione and young
Titian had made the ugly German factory for a moment
glorious: and the art which had been so superb in their
hands had sunk also to the execution of pictured colon-
nades and feigned architecture, such as still lingers about
Italy, not to anyone's advantage. Upon such things as
these, false perspectives and fictitious grand facades with
imitation statues in unreal relief, even Paolo spent much
of his time, though he could do so much better. And
thus the fashion wore itself into poverty and decadence,
as fashions have a way of doing, going out in ridicule as
well as in decay.



PART IV. MEN OF LETTERS.
CHAPTER I.

THE GUEST OF VENICE.

NOTHING can be more difficult to explain than the
manner in which the greater gifts of human genius are
appropriated to some regions lavishly, to some scarcely
at all, notwithstanding that the intellectual qualities of
the race may be as good, possibly indeed may reach a
higher average in the one neglected than in the one
favored. We fear that no theory that has ever been in-
vented will suffice to explain why the great form of
Dante, like a mountain shadowing over the whole penin-
sula, should have been given to Florence, and nothing to
Venice, not so much as a minor minstrel to celebrate the
great deeds of the republic which was the most famous
and the greatest of all Italian republics, and which main-
tained its independence when all its rivals and sisters lost
theirs. Petrarch, too, was a Florentine by origin, only
not born there because of one of the accidents of her
turbulent history. Boccaccio, the first of Italian story-
tellers, belonged to the same wonderful city. But to
Venice on her seas, with the charm of a great poem in
every variation of her aspect, with the harmonies of the
sea in her very streets, not one. We have to find her
reflected in the mild eyes of a temporary visitor, in the
learned and easy yet formal talk of the friendly canon,
half French, half Italian, who, all the vagaries of his
youth over, came, elderly and famous, and never without
an eye to his own comfort and interest, to visit the great
Mistress of the Seas, taking refuge there, "in this city,
true home of the human race," from trouble and war and
pestilence outside. The picture given by Dom Fran-
cesco, the great poet, laureate of all the world, the friend
of kings and princes, is in some ways very flattering to

286



MEN OF LETTERS. 287

our city. He was received with great honor there as
everywhere, and found himself in the center of an en-
lightened and letter-loving society. But his residence
was only temporary, and, save Petrarch, no poet of a
high order has ever associated himself with the life of
Venice, much less owed his birth or breeding to her.
The reader will not fail to recollect another temporary
and recent visitor, whose traces are still to be seen about
Venice, and whose record remains, though not such as
any lover of poetry would love to remember, in all the
extravagance and ostentatious folly natural to the char-
acter of Lord Byron; but that was in the melancholy
days when Venice had almost ceased to be. Save for
such visitors and for certain humble breathings of the
nameless, such as no homely village is entirely without,
great Venice has no record in poetry. Her powerful,
vigorous, subtle, and imaginative race has never learned
how to frame the softest dialect of Italy, the most musi-
cal of tongues, into any linked sweetness of verse. The
reason is one which we cannot pretend to divine, and
which no law of development or natural selection seems
capable of accounting for.

Petrarch was not only a poet, but a patriot in the
larger sense of the word a sense scarcely known in his
day. Perhaps the circumstances that he was an exile
from his birth, and that his youth had been sheltered in
a neighboring country, from which he could see in all the
force of perspective the madness of those Italian states
which spent all their strength in tearing each other in
pieces, had elevated him to that pitch of enlightenment,
unknown to the fierce inhabitants of Genoa, Venice, and
Florence, each determined to the death that his own city
should be the first. Petrarch is worthy of a higher niche
for this than for his poetry, a civic wreath above his
laurel. His first appearance in connection with Venice
is in a most earnest and eloquent ietter addressed to his
friend Andrea Dandolo, the first serious chronicler of
Venice, and a man learned in all the knowledge of the
time, whom the poet, who probably had made acquaint-
ance with the noble Venetian at learned Padua, or in
some neighboring court or castle whither scholars and
wits loved to resort, addresses with an impassioned
pleading for peace. One of the endless wars with Genoa



288 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

was then beginning, and Petrarch adduces every argu-
ment, and appeals to every motive above all " Italian
as I am," to the dreadful folly which drives to arms
against each other

the two most powerful peoples, the two most flourishing cities, the
two most splendid stars of Italy, which, to my judgment, the great
mother nature has placed here and there, posted at the doorway of the
Italian race. Italians, for the ruin of Italians, invoke the help of
barbarous allies [he adds]. And what hope of aid can remain to un-
happy Italy when, as if it were a small matter to see her sons turn
against her, she is overrun also by strangers called by them to help in
the parricide ?

But not even the enlighted Dandolo, the scholar doge,
thought of Italy in those days, and though the poet's
protest does not seem to have alienated his friend, it was
entirely without avail. Two years after, in 1353, an em-
bassy, of which Petrarch was one of the principal mem-
bers, was sent from Milan, on the part of the Visconti, to
attempt to negotiate a peace. This was not his first visit
to Venice, and it cannot have been an agreeable one.
One of the chroniclers indeed says that much as Doge
Andrea loved the poet, and strong as was the attraction
of such a visitor to a man of his tastes, the occasion was
so painful that he refused to see Petrarch. It does not
seem, however, that this was the case, for the poet, in a
subsequent letter to Dandolo, reminds the doge of his
visit and its object. After two battles, after the Helles-
pont and the Ionian sea had twice been reddened by
such a lake of blood as might well extinguish the flames
of cruel war, "as mediator of peace, I was sent by our
greatest among great Italians to you, the most wise of
all the doges, and to your citizens. Such and so many
things I said in the council over which you presided,
such and so many in your private rooms, as must still
remain in your ears. But all was in vain; for neither
your great men, nor, what was more wonderful, yourself,
could be moved by any salutary counsel or just prayer
the impetuosity of war, the clamor of arms, the remains



Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 29 of 35)