Mrs. (Margaret) Oliphant.

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

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of Titian, the representative of luxury and corruption in
Venice, and invited him to his house, under pretence 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,'
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 imagination, the touch
that goes to the heart. The earlier masters perhaps in all
regions (after they have a little surmounted the difficulties


To face paye


of pictorial expression) possess this gift in higher develop-
ment than their successors, who, carrying art to its per-
fection of design and colour, 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 storyteller, Avhether
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 tho
sweetest ideal of life, the consecrated women and children.
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 sym-
pathetic nature diffused all around, the group ef neighbours
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, stravagaate, 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 authori-
tative 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 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, colour, science, and beauty, are all there, but
human feeling has been left out in the magnificent com-
position. 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 Por-
denone, or the long list of others who through many glow-
ing 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 Yasari, 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 reflection, 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
splendour, 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-
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

in.] THE PAINTERS. 339

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 antechambers 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
colour upon the cool semi-transparence of the marble steps,
the room of which this forms one side, is. transformed for
ever. 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 decorations : 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 prominence

B B 2




of the negro pages, and many an attendant beside, his
lords of the feast are all the finest gentlemen, his women
courtly and magnificent. It is the be/;t of company that
sits at that table, whether the wine is miraculous or only

V ^3BI^


the common juice of the grape : even should the elabora-
tion 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

in.] THE PAINTERS. .541

Florentine Andrea sighs in Mr. Browning's poem, '-four
great walls in the New Jerusalem " for a higher emulation.

"For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo, and me "

to try their best upon.

The fashion of fresco painting on the outsides of the
houses still continued, and was largely practised also by
Paolo Veronese : but let us hope that the far more splendid
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 pictures 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 colonnades and feigned architecture,
such as still lingers about Italy, not to any one'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.




"VTOTHING can be more difficult to explain than the
-L i 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 favoured. We
fear that no theory that has ever been invented will suffice
to explain why the great form of Dante, like a mountain
shadowing over the whole peninsula, 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 re-
publics, and which maintained its independence when all its
rivals and sisters lost theirs. Petrarch, too, was a Floren-
tine 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

en. i.] MEN OF LETTERS. 34.'j

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 interests, 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 Francesco, the great poet, laureate
of all the world, the friend of kings and princes, is in some
ways very flattering to our city. He was received with
great honour there as everywhere, and found himself in the
centre of an enlightened 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 character 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 have never learned how to frame the softest dialect of
Italy, the most musical 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 neighbour-
ing 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 letter 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 acquaintance with*the noble Venetian at learned
Padua, or in some neighbouring court or castle whither
scholars and wits loved to resort, addresses with an im-
passioned pleading for peace. One of the endless wars with
Genoa was then beginning, and Petrarch adduces every
argument, 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, thu
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 enlightened 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 embassy, of
which Petrarch was one of the principal members, 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

i.] MEN OF LETTERS. :545

this was the rase, for the poet, in a subsequent letter to
Dandolo, reminds the doge of his visit and its object. After
two battles after the Hellespont 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 ami
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 im-
petuosity of war, the clamour of arms, the remains of
ancient hatred having closed the way." The letter in which
Petrarch repeats this fruitless attempt at mediation was
written in May, 1354, a year after, and still with the same
object. The Venetians had been conquerors on the first
occasion, but the fortune of war had now turned, and in
September of the same year Doge Andrea died, just before
one of those final and crushing defeats which Venice over
and over again had to submit to from Genoa, without
ever ceasing to seize the first opportunity of beginning

It was not, however, till several years after that it
occurred to the much-wandering poet to fix his habitation
in Venice. This was in the latter portion of Petrarch's
life. Romance and Laura had long departed out of it.
He was already the crowned poet, acknowledged the
greatest, and, save for an occasional sonnet or two, cul-
tivated divine poetry no more. He was a person of ease
and leisure, much courted by the most eminent persons in
Europe, accustomed to princely tables and to familial-
intercourse with every magnate within reach, accustomed,
too, to consider his own comfort and keep danger and
trouble at a distance. Disorder and war and pestilence
drove him from one place to another from Milan to Padua,


from Padua to Venice. He had fulfilled many dignified
missions as ambassador to various courts, and he was not
a man who could transfer himself from one city to another
without observation. It would seem that when, driven by
the fear of the plague, and by the horror of those continued
conflicts which were rending Italy from day to day that
Italy which he was almost alone in considering as one
country he turned his eyes towards Venice, it was with
some intention of making it his permanent home : for the
preliminary negotiations into which he entered show a
desire to establish himself for which he does not seem to
have taken any such precautions before. One of the best
known of all facts in the history of literature is that the
poet left his library to the republic, and the unworthy
manner in which that precious bequest was received. But
it has not been noted with equal distinctness that the
prudent poet made this gift, not as a legacy because of his
love for Venice, which is the light in which it has generally
been regarded, but as an offer of eventual advantage in
order to procure from the authorities a fit lodging and
reception for himself. This, however, is the true state of
the case. He puts it forth in a letter to his friend and
agent Benintendi, the" chancellor of the republic, in whose
hands it would seem he had placed his cause. A certain
plausible and bland insistence upon the great benefit to
Venice of a public library, of which the poet's books should
be the foundation, discreetly veils the important condition
that the poet's own interests should be served in the

"If the effort succeeds," he says, "I am of opinion that your
posterity and your republic will owe to you, if not their glory, yet at
least the opening of the way to glory. And oh ! " he adds piously,
'' if it had but been thought of when the commonwealth was governed
by that most holy spirit to whom, as you who knew him well will
understand, it would have afforded so much delight. For my part, I
do not doubt than even in the heavens he is glad of our design, and
anxiously awaits its success. I believe also that, looking down lifvingly
without a grudge, it will greatly please him, having himself earned


such glory and honour as no other Venetian doge did before- him, that
the glory of instituting a public library should have been reserved for
the fourth of his successors, a man also so excellent, a noble doge and
zealous of the public good."

This invocation of the sainted shade of Andrea Dandolo
the much-lamented doge, to sanctify an effort the immediate
object of which was the acquisition of a handsome house for
Dom Francesco the poet, has a flavour of Tartuffe, or at
least of Pecksniff, which may make the reader smile. It
was however a perfectly legitimate desire, and no doubt
Petrarch's books were valuable, and the suggestion of a
public library an admirable thing : and it was to the credit
of the republic that the bargain was at once made, and the
poet got his house, a palace upon the PJva degli Schiavoni
the Palazzo delle due Torri, now no longer in existence,
but which is commemorated by an inscription upon the
house which replaces it. It was situated at the corner of
the Ponte del Sepolcro. In the curious illumination, taken
from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, which the
reader will find at the head of a preceding chapter, the two
towers are visible, rising from among the picturesque roofs,
over the quay from which the Eastern merchants, the Poli,
are to be seen setting out upon their voyage.

This was in the year 1362. He had visited Venice in
his youth when a student at Bologna. He had returned
in the fulness of his fame as the ambassador of the Prince
of Milan to negotiate peace with Genoa, though the attempt
was vain. He was now approaching his sixtieth year, full
of indignation and sorrow for the fate of his country,
denouncing to earth and heaven the horrible bands of
mercenaries who devastated Italy, bringing rapine and
pestilence and for his own part intent upon finding a
peaceful home, security, and health. His letters afford us
a wonderfully real glimpse of the conditions of the time.
In one of them, written soon after his settlement in Venice,
to an old friend, he defends himself for having fallen into


the weakness of age, the laudator teinporis acti. He
reviews in this epistle the scenes in which his youth and
that of his friend were passed, the peace, the serenity, the
calm of these early days, comparing them with the uni-
versal tumult and misery of the existing time, denying
that the change was in himself or his ideas, and painting
a dismal picture of the revolution everywhere the wars,
the bands of assassins and robbers let loose on the earth,
the universal wretchedness. "This same city," he adds,
" from which I write, this Venice which by the far-sighted-
ness of her citizens and by the advantage of her natural
position appears more powerful and tranquil than any
other part of the world, though quiet and serene, is no
longer festive and gay as she once was, and wears an aspect
very different from that prosperity and gladness which she
presented when first I came hither with my tutor from
Bologna." But these words are very different from the
phrases he employs in speaking of other cities. Venice, as
has been seen in previous chapters, had trouble enough
with the mercenary armies of the time when they were in
her pay : but she was safe on her sea margin with the wide
lagoons around her, unapproachable by the heavy-mailed
troopers who might appear any day under the walls of a
rich inland city and put her to sack or ransom. With all the
force of his soul the poet loathed these barbarous invaders,
the terror of his life and the scourge of Italy, into whose
hands the Italian states themselves had placed weapons for
their own destruction ; and it is with a sense of intense
repose and relief that he settles down in his stately house
looking out upon the wide harbour, upon San Giorgio
among its trees, and the green line of the Lido, and all the
winding watery ways, well defended by fort and galley,
which led to the sea. The bustle of the port under his
windows, the movement of the ships, would seem at once
to have caught, with the charm of their novelty and wonder,
his observant eyes. Shortly after his settlement on the

'J'o face page 34S.



Riva lie wrote a letter full of wise and serious advice to
another friend, who had been appointed secretary to the
pope an office not long before offered to himself. But in
the very midst of his counsels, quoting Aristotle on the
question of art, he bursts forth into comment upon In
nautica, to which, he says, "after justice, is owing the
wonderful prosperity of tins famous city, in which, as in a
tranquil port, I have taken refuge from the storms of the
world. See," he cries, "the innumerable vessels which
set forth from the Italian shore in the desolate winter, in
the most variable and stormy spring, one turning its pro\v
to the east, the other to the west ; some carrying our wine
to foam in British cups, our fruits to natter the palates of
the Scythians, and, still more hard of credence, the wood
of our forests to the Egean and the Achaian isles ; some
to Syria, to Armenia, to the Arabs and Persians, carrying
oil and linen and saffron, and bringing back all their

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