Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Venice: An Early Impression

There would be much to say about that golden chain of historic
cities which stretches from Milan to Venice, in which the very
names--Brescia, Verona, Mantua, Padua--are an ornament to one's
phrase; but I should have to draw upon recollections now three
years old and to make my short story a long one. Of Verona and
Venice only have I recent impressions, and even to these must I
do hasty justice. I came into Venice, just as I had done before,
toward the end of a summer's day, when the shadows begin to
lengthen and the light to glow, and found that the attendant
sensations bore repetition remarkably well. There was the same
last intolerable delay at Mestre, just before your first glimpse
of the lagoon confirms the already distinct sea-smell which has
added speed to the precursive flight of your imagination; then
the liquid level, edged afar off by its band of undiscriminated
domes and spires, soon distinguished and proclaimed, however, as
excited and contentious heads multiply at the windows of the
train; then your long rumble on the immense white railway-bridge,
which, in spite of the invidious contrast drawn, and very
properly, by Mr. Ruskin between the old and the new approach,
does truly, in a manner, shine across the green lap of the lagoon
like a mighty causeway of marble; then the plunge into the
station, which would be exactly similar to every other plunge
save for one little fact--that the keynote of the great medley of
voices borne back from the exit is not "Cab, sir!" but "Barca,
signore!"

I do not mean, however, to follow the traveller through every
phase of his initiation, at the risk of stamping poor Venice
beyond repair as the supreme bugbear of literature; though for
my own part I hold that to a fine healthy romantic appetite the
subject can't be too diffusely treated. Meeting in the Piazza on
the evening of my arrival a young American painter who told me
that he had been spending the summer just where I found him, I
could have assaulted him for very envy. He was painting forsooth
the interior of St. Mark's. To be a young American painter
unperplexed by the mocking, elusive soul of things and satisfied
with their wholesome light-bathed surface and shape; keen of eye;
fond of colour, of sea and sky and anything that may chance
between them; of old lace and old brocade and old furniture (even
when made to order); of time-mellowed harmonies on nameless
canvases and happy contours in cheap old engravings; to spend
one's mornings in still, productive analysis of the clustered
shadows of the Basilica, one's afternoons anywhere, in church or
campo, on canal or lagoon, and one's evenings in star-light
gossip at Florian's, feeling the sea-breeze throb languidly
between the two great pillars of the Piazzetta and over the low
black domes of the church--this, I consider, is to be as happy as
is consistent with the preservation of reason.

The mere use of one's eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and
generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their
profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it,
keeps playing with it--thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the
atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting
himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation
beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian "effect." The
light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to
Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all.
You should see in places the material with which it deals--slimy
brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and
sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft
iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred
nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue
against every object of vision. You may see these elements at
work everywhere, but to see them in their intensity you should
choose the finest day in the month and have yourself rowed far
away across the lagoon to Torcello. Without making this excursion
you can hardly pretend to know Venice or to sympathise with that
longing for pure radiance which animated her great colourists.
It is a perfect bath of light, and I couldn't get rid of a fancy
that we were cleaving the upper atmosphere on some hurrying
cloud-skiff. At Torcello there is nothing but the light to see--
nothing at least but a sort of blooming sand-bar intersected by
a single narrow creek which does duty as a canal and occupied by
a meagre cluster of huts, the dwellings apparently of market-
gardeners and fishermen, and by a ruinous church of the eleventh
century. It is impossible to imagine a more penetrating case of
unheeded collapse. Torcello was the mother-city of Venice, and
she lies there now, a mere mouldering vestige, like a group of
weather-bleached parental bones left impiously unburied. I
stopped my gondola at the mouth of the shallow inlet and walked
along the grass beside a hedge to the low-browed, crumbling
cathedral. The charm of certain vacant grassy spaces, in Italy,
overfrowned by masses of brickwork that are honeycombed by the
suns of centuries, is something that I hereby renounce once for
all the attempt to express; but you may be sure that whenever I
mention such a spot enchantment lurks in it.

A delicious stillness covered the little campo at Torcello; I
remember none so subtly audible save that of the Roman Campagna.
There was no life but the visible tremor of the brilliant air and
the cries of half-a-dozen young children who dogged our steps and
clamoured for coppers. These children, by the way, were the
handsomest little brats in the world, and, each was furnished
with a pair of eyes that could only have signified the protest of
nature against the meanness of fortune. They were very nearly as
naked as savages, and their little bellies protruded like those
of infant cannibals in the illustrations of books of travel; but
as they scampered and sprawled in the soft, thick grass, grinning
like suddenly-translated cherubs and showing their hungry little
teeth, they suggested forcibly that the best assurance of
happiness in this world is to be found in the maximum of
innocence and the minimum of wealth. One small urchin--framed,
if ever a child was, to be the joy of an aristocratic mamma--was
the most expressively beautiful creature I had ever looked upon.
He had a smile to make Correggio sigh in his grave; and yet here
he was running wild among the sea-stunted bushes, on the lonely
margin of a decaying world, in prelude to how blank or to how
dark a destiny? Verily nature is still at odds with propriety;
though indeed if they ever really pull together I fear nature
will quite lose her distinction. An infant citizen of our own
republic, straight-haired, pale-eyed and freckled, duly darned
and catechised, marching into a New England schoolhouse, is an
object often seen and soon forgotten; but I think I shall always
remember with infinite tender conjecture, as the years roll by,
this little unlettered Eros of the Adriatic strand. Yet all
youthful things at Torcello were not cheerful, for the poor lad
who brought us the key of the cathedral was shaking with an ague,
and his melancholy presence seemed to point the moral of forsaken
nave and choir. The church, admirably primitive and curious,
reminded me of the two or three oldest churches of Rome--St.
Clement and St. Agnes. The interior is rich in grimly mystical
mosaics of the twelfth century and the patchwork of precious
fragments in the pavement not inferior to that of St. Mark's. But
the terribly distinct Apostles are ranged against their dead gold
backgrounds as stiffly as grenadiers presenting arms--intensely
personal sentinels of a personal Deity. Their stony stare seems
to wait for ever vainly for some visible revival of primitive
orthodoxy, and one may well wonder whether it finds much
beguilement in idly-gazing troops of Western heretics--
passionless even in their heresy.

I had been curious to see whether in the galleries and temples of
Venice I should be disposed to transpose my old estimates--to
burn what I had adored and adore what I had burned. It is a sad
truth that one can stand in the Ducal Palace for the first time
but once, with the deliciously ponderous sense of that particular
half-hour's being an era in one's mental history; but I had the
satisfaction of finding at least--a great comfort in a short
stay--that none of my early memories were likely to change places
and that I could take up my admirations where I had left them. I
still found Carpaccio delightful, Veronese magnificent, Titian
supremely beautiful and Tintoret scarce to be appraised. I
repaired immediately to the little church of San Cassano, which
contains the smaller of Tintoret's two great Crucifixions; and
when I had looked at it a while I drew a long breath and felt I
could now face any other picture in Venice with proper self-
possession. It seemed to me I had advanced to the uttermost limit
of painting; that beyond this another art--inspired poetry--
begins, and that Bellini, Veronese, Giorgione, and Titian, all
joining hands and straining every muscle of their genius, reach
forward not so far but that they leave a visible space in which
Tintoret alone is master. I well remember the exaltations to
which he lifted me when first I learned to know him; but the glow
of that comparatively youthful amazement is dead, and with it, I
fear, that confident vivacity of phrase of which, in trying to
utter my impressions, I felt less the magniloquence than the
impotence. In his power there are many weak spots, mysterious
lapses and fitful intermissions; but when the list of his faults
is complete he still remains to me the most interesting of
painters. His reputation rests chiefly on a more superficial
sort of merit--his energy, his unsurpassed productivity, his
being, as Théophile Gautier says, le roi des fougueux.
These qualities are immense, but the great source of his
impressiveness is that his indefatigable hand never drew a line
that was not, as one may say, a moral line. No painter ever had
such breadth and such depth; and even Titian, beside him, scarce
figures as more than a great decorative artist. Mr. Ruskin, whose
eloquence in dealing with the great Venetians sometimes outruns
his discretion, is fond of speaking even of Veronese as a painter
of deep spiritual intentions. This, it seems to me, is pushing
matters too far, and the author of "The Rape of Europa" is,
pictorially speaking, no greater casuist than any other genius of
supreme good taste. Titian was assuredly a mighty poet, but
Tintoret--well, Tintoret was almost a prophet. Before his
greatest works you are conscious of a sudden evaporation of old
doubts and dilemmas, and the eternal problem of the conflict
between idealism and realism dies the most natural of deaths. In
his genius the problem is practically solved; the alternatives
are so harmoniously interfused that I defy the keenest critic to
say where one begins and the other ends. The homeliest prose
melts into the most ethereal poetry--the literal and the
imaginative fairly confound their identity.

This, however, is vague praise. Tintoret's great merit, to my
mind, was his unequalled distinctness of vision. When once he had
conceived the germ of a scene it defined itself to his
imagination with an intensity, an amplitude, an individuality of
expression, which makes one's observation of his pictures seem
less an operation of the mind than a kind of supplementary
experience of life. Veronese and Titian are content with a much
looser specification, as their treatment of any subject that the
author of the Crucifixion at San Cassano has also treated
abundantly proves. There are few more suggestive contrasts than
that between the absence of a total character at all commensurate
with its scattered variety and brilliancy in Veronese's "Marriage
of Cana," at the Louvre, and the poignant, almost startling,
completeness of Tintoret's illustration of the theme at the
Salute church. To compare his "Presentation of the Virgin," at
the Madonna dell' Orto, with Titian's at the Academy, or his
"Annunciation" with Titian's close at hand, is to measure the
essential difference between observation and imagination. One has
certainly not said all that there is to say for Titian when one
has called him an observer. Il y mettait du sien, and I
use the term to designate roughly the artist whose apprehension,
infinitely deep and strong when applied to the single figure or
to easily balanced groups, spends itself vainly on great dramatic
combinations--or rather leaves them ungauged. It was the whole
scene that Tintoret seemed to have beheld in a flash of
inspiration intense enough to stamp it ineffaceably on his
perception; and it was the whole scene, complete, peculiar,
individual, unprecedented, that he committed to canvas with all
the vehemence of his talent. Compare his "Last Supper," at San
Giorgio--its long, diagonally placed table, its dusky
spaciousness, its scattered lamp-light and halo-light, its
startled, gesticulating figures, its richly realistic foreground-
-with the customary formal, almost mathematical rendering of the
subject, in which impressiveness seems to have been sought in
elimination rather than comprehension. You get from Tintoret's
work the impression that he felt, pictorially, the great,
beautiful, terrible spectacle of human life very much as
Shakespeare felt it poetically--with a heart that never ceased to
beat a passionate accompaniment to every stroke of his brush.
Thanks to this fact his works are signally grave, and their
almost universal and rapidly increasing decay doesn't relieve
their gloom. Nothing indeed can well be sadder than the great
collection of Tintorets at San Rocco. Incurable blackness is
settling fast upon all of them, and they frown at you across the
sombre splendour of their great chambers like gaunt twilight
phantoms of pictures. To our children's children Tintoret, as
things are going, can be hardly more than a name; and such of
them as shall miss the tragic beauty, already so dimmed and
stained, of the great "Bearing of the Cross" in that temple of
his spirit will live and die without knowing the largest
eloquence of art. If you wish to add the last touch of solemnity
to the place recall as vividly as possible while you linger at
San Rocco the painter's singularly interesting portrait of
himself, at the Louvre. The old man looks out of the canvas from
beneath a brow as sad as a sunless twilight, with just such a
stoical hopelessness as you might fancy him to wear if he stood
at your side gazing at his rotting canvases. It isn't whimsical
to read it as the face of a man who felt that he had given the
world more than the world was likely to repay. Indeed before
every picture of Tintoret you may remember this tremendous
portrait with profit. On one side the power, the passion, the
illusion of his art; on the other the mortal fatigue of his
spirit. The world's knowledge of him is so small that the
portrait throws a doubly precious light on his personality; and
when we wonder vainly what manner of man he was, and what were
his purpose, his faith and his method, we may find forcible
assurance there that they were at any rate his life--one of the
most intellectually passionate ever led.

Verona, which was my last Italian stopping-place, is in any
conditions a delightfully interesting city; but the kindness of
my own memory of it is deepened by a subsequent ten days'
experience of Germany. I rose one morning at Verona, and went to
bed at night at Botzen! The statement needs no comment, and the
two places, though but fifty miles apart, are as painfully
dissimilar as their names. I had prepared myself for your
delectation with a copious tirade on German manners, German
scenery, German art and the German stage--on the lights and
shadows of Innsbrück, Munich, Nüremberg and Heidelberg; but just
as I was about to put pen to paper I glanced into a little volume
on these very topics lately published by that famous novelist and
moralist, M. Ernest Feydeau, the fruit of a summer's observation
at Homburg. This work produced a reaction; and if I chose to
follow M. Feydeau's own example when he wishes to qualify his
approbation I might call his treatise by any vile name known to
the speech of man. But I content myself with pronouncing it
superficial. I then reflect that my own opportunities for seeing
and judging were extremely limited, and I suppress my tirade,
lest some more enlightened critic should come and hang me with
the same rope. Its sum and substance was to have been that--
superficially--Germany is ugly; that Munich is a nightmare,
Heidelberg a disappointment (in spite of its charming castle) and
even Nüremberg not a joy for ever. But comparisons are odious,
and if Munich is ugly Verona is beautiful enough. You may laugh
at my logic, but will probably assent to my meaning. I carried
away from Verona a precious mental picture upon which I cast an
introspective glance whenever between Botzen and Strassburg the
oppression of external circumstance became painful. It was a
lovely August afternoon in the Roman arena--a ruin in which
repair and restoration have been so watchfully and plausibly
practised that it seems all of one harmonious antiquity. The
vast stony oval rose high against the sky in a single clear,
continuous line, broken here and there only by strolling and
reclining loungers. The massive tiers inclined in solid monotony
to the central circle, in which a small open-air theatre was in
active operation. A small quarter of the great slope of masonry
facing the stage was roped off into an auditorium, in which the
narrow level space between the foot-lights and the lowest step
figured as the pit. Foot-lights are a figure of speech, for the
performance was going on in the broad glow of the afternoon, with
a delightful and apparently by no means misplaced confidence in
the good-will of the spectators. What the piece was that was
deemed so superbly able to shift for itself I know not--very
possibly the same drama that I remember seeing advertised during
my former visit to Verona; nothing less than La Tremenda
Giustizia di Dio
. If titles are worth anything this product
of the melodramatist's art might surely stand upon its own legs.
Along the tiers above the little group of regular spectators was
gathered a free-list of unauthorised observers, who, although
beyond ear-shot, must have been enabled by the generous breadth
of Italian gesture to follow the tangled thread of the piece. It
was all deliciously Italian--the mixture of old life and new, the
mountebank's booth (it was hardly more) grafted on the antique
circus, the dominant presence of a mighty architecture, the
loungers and idlers beneath the kindly sky and upon the sun-
warmed stones. I never felt more keenly the difference between
the background to life in very old and very new civilisations.
There are other things in Verona to make it a liberal education
to be born there, though that it is one for the contemporary
Veronese I don't pretend to say. The Tombs of the Scaligers, with
their soaring pinnacles, their high-poised canopies, their
exquisite refinement and concentration of the Gothic idea, I
can't profess, even after much worshipful gazing, to have fully
comprehended and enjoyed. They seemed to me full of deep
architectural meanings, such as must drop gently into the mind
one by one, after infinite tranquil contemplation. But even to
the hurried and preoccupied traveller the solemn little chapel-
yard in the city's heart, in which they stand girdled by their
great swaying curtain of linked and twisted iron, is one of the
most impressive spots in Italy. Nowhere else is such a wealth of
artistic achievement crowded into so narrow a space; nowhere else
are the daily comings and goings of men blessed by the presence
of manlier art. Verona is rich furthermore in beautiful
churches--several with beautiful names: San Fermo, Santa
Anastasia, San Zenone. This last is a structure of high antiquity
and of the most impressive loveliness. The nave terminates in a
double choir, that is a sub-choir or crypt into which you descend
and where you wander among primitive columns whose variously
grotesque capitals rise hardly higher than your head, and an
upper choral plane reached by broad stairways of the bravest
effect. I shall never forget the impression of majestic chastity
that I received from the great nave of the building on my former
visit. I then decided to my satisfaction that every church is
from the devotional point of view a solecism that has not
something of a similar absolute felicity of proportion; for
strictly formal beauty seems best to express our conception of
spiritual beauty. The nobly serious character of San Zenone is
deepened by its single picture--a masterpiece of the most serious
of painters, the severe and exquisite Mantegna.

1872


Henry James