Letter from Venice 2

We took an afternoon excursion to far-flung Pellestrina in the outer reaches of the Lagoon.  There you find a mass of colorful houses, similar to those on Burano, and especially you get to see and climb the murazzi, the dike or levee that holds back the sea from the Venetian Lagoon.  There are three gates for ships to go in and out, one at the Lido, one at the Malamocco, and one at Chioggia.  Pellestrina is the last village before Chioggia.

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We climbed the steps to the top of the murazzi, from which you get a good view of the Adriatic, on which there is a modest beach.  The Moses Project, which has been underway for three years and requires another three for completion, will consist of underground gates at the three portos that can be raised to complete the enclosure of the Lagoon effected by the murazzi.  You also get the sense of the fragility of Venice, its vulnerability to watery invasion.  My friend Franco, who runs a fleet of boats and cars for excursions, sent me an email as follows:

“If you walk on the top of the Murazzi (dike) you can see how narrow and fragile is the protection of the lagoon from the water of the Adriatic Sea.  People remember the year 1966 when ‘Acqua Grande’ (high water) started to enter into the Lagoon from this little dike.  I was a little boy when my father with a venetian rowing boat took me in St. Mark’s Square and I remember the water so high, 2 meters, St. Mark’s it was to me like a giant swimming pool, I thought really that the city was sinking.”

On the way back from Pellestrina we stopped off at the Lido to see the old Jewish cemetery dating from 1389, according to Lorenzetti.  It turned out that the cemetery was closed, and we could only see a few tombstones from the gaps in the gate.  They were very suggestive, but I am not sure what they were suggesting; one of them showed two naked men with curved high-domed hats carrying, suspended from a beam, what appears to be a bunch of grapes, or maybe apples, or possibly even pomegranates.  I will have to check out the iconography with some of my more learned Ebraico friends. Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 9.54.31 PMThere is a Manet show at the Doge’s Palace.  Manet is not one of my top favorites, but is always worth looking at, and this show has been assembled from farflung museums all over Europe and the U.S.: Germany, Belgium, the Getty, the Met, Spain, Italy of course, Switzerland, Hungary, and most of all from the d’Orsay in Paris.  The d’Orsay sent a total of 55 works, including the Olympia (1863), which has never left France before.  One review of the show says:

“Parallels are drawn between Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, which Manet saw during his travels and which is on loan from the   Uffizi Galleries in Florence, and between Le Balcon (the balcony), 1869, and Vittore Carpaccio’s Due Dame Veneziane (two Venetian ladies),             painted around 1495, on loan from Venice’s Museo Correr.”

There is a smaller Déjeuner sur l’herbe from the d’Orsay, presumably because that museum would not release the famous big one (probably one of its star attractions), and we thought the best ones were the Reading (1865), the Croquet Game (1873), and the Moonlight on Boulogne (1868).  But I have to admit that I thought the best pictures in the show were by my old favorites Guardi (Ridotta di Palazzo Dandolo, 1740-50) and Carpaccio (Two Venetian Ladies, 1495), with two dogs and three doves and a goose.  The cydistus Carpaccio is justly famous for his animals.

I took a picture of the church of St. Moses for my grandson Moses Lemann, whose 11th birthday is imminent, to show him that his patron saint is watching over him.  Ruskin, of course, found that church “grossly debased…remarkable for manifestation of insolent atheism…marking the period of consummate degradation.”

In the afternoon we took in three churches, two new and one old (for us).  San Sebastiano, way out in the eastern extremities of Dorsoduro, a 16th century church, is a veritable Veronese warehouse (his tomb is there too), and his paintings decorate the entire ceiling, the walls, and the choir.  Surely there is no place with a more concentrated exposition of his work, and an art professor could no doubt conduct an entire seminar on Veronese without leaving the church of San Sebastiano.  The facade of the church is by Scarpagnino (completed 1548).

San Nicolo dei Mendicoli is even farther out, almost at the pymatic tip of Dorsoduro, and is one of the oldest churches in Venice, dating from the 7th century.  It is small and unpretentious, with a modest but pleasing exterior, in a very quiet quarter of Venice.

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Finally we couldn’t resist a return to the Frari, this time with Ruskin in hand to view his critique in the presence of the monuments victimized by his curmudgeonity.  Of all of the monuments in the Frari (and there are many), the tomb of Doge Pesaro (1669), with its telemons (male caryatids) by Longhena and various oddball creatures particularly caught his scorn; here’s what the old fulminator has to say:

“We are now in the latter half of the seventeenth century; the progress of corruption has in the meantime been incessant, and sculpture has here lost its taste and learning as well as its feeling.  The monument is a huge accumulation of theatrical scenery in marble: four colossal negro caryatides, grinning and horrible, with faces of black marble and white eyes, sustain the first story of it; above this, two monsters, long-necked, half dog and half dragon, sustain an ornamental sarcophagus, on the top of which the full-length statue of the Doge in robes of state stands forward with its arms expanded, like an actor    courting applause, under a huge canopy of metal, like the roof of a bed, painted crimson and gold; on each side of him are sitting figures of genii, unintelligible personifications gesticulating in Roman armour; below, between the negro caryatides, are two ghastly figures in bronze, half corpse, half skeleton, carrying tablets on which is written the eulogium…and it seem impossible for false taste and base feeling to sink lower.”

Of course Ruskin was an equal-opportunity fussbudget, and is tersely dismissive of the tomb of Canova:

“The tomb of Canova, by Canova, cannot be missed; Consummate in         science, intolerable in affectation, ridiculous in conception, null and void   to the uttermost in invention and feeling.”

I don’t care for the tomb of Canova, but I still like the Pesaro.  Ruskin’s dyspepsia was no doubt due to the well-publicized horror of his wedding night.

And so we take leave of the Serenissima, insatiate of its charms and wonders, and with high hopes of enjoying and exploring them further.

Thomas B. Lemann

One Response to “Letter from Venice 2”

  1. Sydney and I are en route to Venice, where we will walk in your steps, dearest Tommy, but will never be able to fill your shoes.
    Walda B

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