Tag Archives: Venice

Blasting & Blessing: a rainy day edition

cats considering the nature of rain

It’s rained a lot in London over the past few days. Surely, though, that’s no bad thing?

For while it would be wrong to underestimate the greater and lesser inconveniences of rain — flooding, the hazards posed by deceptive reflections or slippery pavements, cabin fever on the part of those who, for whatever reason, won’t go out when it’s wet — there’s a lot to be said for the miscellaneous pleasures of swimming in an outdoor pool when it’s raining, going out for the sort of walk where it doesn’t matter at all how soaked one gets, or indeed, as far as that goes, staying in, and enjoying civilisation’s greatest perk — the primal satisfaction of observing gale-force winds and driving torrents from the safety of a warm, dry, comfortable, sociable shelter. Bless buildings.

Some man-made structures deserve more blessing than others, though, which brings us to the subject of Crossrail. In a word, blast Crossrail. For those of you fortunate enough to live in ignorance of this eye-wateringly expensive, entirely pointless enterprise — proof positive, as if we needed any more of it, that Britain is no good at all at les très grandes projets — Crossrail is a scheme involving digging up much of central London over a period of half a decade, demolishing historic buildings and causing unendurable levels of disruption to local residents and workers, in order to connect by rail a number of locations already connected by public transport. Yes, quite. Continue reading


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La Serenissima, with building works


Clichéd or not — personally, I think the cranes almost redeem the rest, shimmering shot-silk Bacino and all — this view goes some way toward explaining why Fugitive Ink has gone a bit quiet recently. As does this, the lack of English-language commentary notwithstanding. As, for that matter, does the concept of the school half-term holiday.

Normal service will, however, be resumed very soon indeed.


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Not the typical Roman holiday …


To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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‘Sickert in Venice’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), c. 1905-06, Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

It’s hard to know what to make of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), some of whose Venetian paintings and drawings make up Sickert in Venice, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June 2009.

Britain typically imagines its art historical tradition to be primarily pastoral, decorative or based in formal portraiture. Sickert scarcely registers on any of these indices. As an artist whose working career spanned seven decades, it’s hard to know where to place him amongst his contemporaries. His cultural identity is also confusing. The son of a Schleswig-Holstein-born artist father and a half-Irish, half-English mother, most of his childhood was spent in Munich; he was entirely at home in Dieppe and Paris, close not only to a mistress and illegitimate son but also to his teacher and mentor Degas; as the present exhibition attests, he lived in Venice, at the time an economical choice, for the better part of several years; his application of paint derived as much from Velasquez and Goya as from the examples of his actual teachers and contemporaries; the semi-American Whistler was variously his studio assistant, colleague and irritating competitor. Yet this most cosmopolitan, ‘European’ of artists nevertheless achieved his most notable success in depicting London — not an imperial, ceremonial or even picturesque vision of London, either, but the grubby unlovely Camden Town, quartier of music halls, bedsits and whores — with the sort of devoted obsessiveness unmatched by anyone else before or afterwards, Hogarth and Auerbach perhaps excepted. Continue reading


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Ancient and Modern: Palladio at the Royal Academy


Architectural exhibitions are, by default, flawed exercises. Few curators would have the nerve to stage, say, a Titian blockbuster without a single Titian painting on view, a marble-free Bernini show, a Schiaparelli crowd-pleaser offering the curious not a single faded frock or frill. And yet the celebration of a lacuna — a high-profile Hamlet minus the prince — is a matter of necessity in the world of architectural exposition. Goethe once claimed, apparently, that architecture is frozen music. If so, the best a curator can offer is a glimpse of the score. The actual performance takes place on some other stage entirely.

Hence the inevitability with which the Royal Academy’s excellent Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy comes to be made up out of sketches, plans, notes, printed pages, painted portraits, sections and facade elevations, near-doodles, a set of drawing instruments in a leather case, maps, and of course those meticulously-constructed lime and beechwood models, smelling of varnish and scholarly obsession — dolls’ houses made by angels for princes, immodest household shrines of formal perfection, each one as cleanly excised from the environmental matrix encasing actual buildings as inital intention ever can be from deed or subsequent doubt. Continue reading


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Blasting and blessing: a Lemsip edition

It’s Friday. High-spirited young men with a gift for sponteneous song have been sent by Thames Water to excavate the pavements outside our house. Meanwhile, no amount of coffee, medication or indeed George Osborne-induced indignation seems likely to liberate me from the constraints of a cold that is, as you may soon have cause to observe, acting as noticeably upon my ability to tap out words in re-cog-nis-able En-glish as it is on my sinuses, lymph nodes and generalised will to remain upright. So, well, Palladio can wait. For today, this is will have to do.

The laziest bit of public art commissioning in living memory. Having complained about it when it seemed only likely to happen, the defects of this project are no more venial on account of their sheer predictability. Of course the availability of sponsorship money from News International should surprise no one, as One and Other is, ultimately — the hallowed all-old rhetoric notwithstanding (says the artist: ‘My project is about trying to democratise this space of privilege, idealisation and control’, although if he hadn’t said it, everyone would have assumed he had anyway) — little more than a machine for generating outrage — and where there’s outrage, there’s publicity, right? Personally, I’d rather have spent the money on a pension for some ex-RBS hate-figure, if only because I truly don’t believe that there’s a banker on earth who’s as cynical as our Mr Gormley.

A good decision. Well, clearly there was something a bit manipulative in the fact that it coincides with this, which may or may not be a good decision — I’ll leave that for people who know more about it all than I do. But these are lean times, as we’re learning, and so we’ll take our moments of admiration for the Obama administration where we can find them.

Most of the human race, commentariat included, for treating this whole nonsense with the contempt it so lavishly deserves. Continue reading


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The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Some civilisations vanish. Others endure, at least at the level of shorthand signifier, conjuring up in a single, highly-charged word vast networks of association — networks, it must be said, often weak on detail, depth or historical accuracy, yet boundlessly rich in the stuff of imaginative sympathy, normative distancing, moral disgust or approbation.

In that sense, Byzantium — the subject of the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 — is still very much with us. It never really went away. Contemporaries, both Muslim and western Christian, of the later Eastern Empire had obvious reasons for denouncing a major geopolitical rival as untrustworthy, cruel, effeminate and worldly — while retaining a sly regard for Byzantium’s imperial wealth, splendour and occasional military successes. Later, once republican Rome had again become the measure of all things, at least for reasonably well-educated people in Western Europe and dependent territories, it became possible to despise Byzantium simultaneously as a debased — which is to say, altered — form of classical civilisation, and at the same time, as unalterably despotic, reactionary, God-bothered and doomed. Its thousand-year history was reduced to nothing more than ‘a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’, as Gibbon put it, sounding only slightly more enthusiastic about Byzantium than Montesquieu and Voltaire had done previously. And thus it was that, by the time at which Ruskin, Yeats and Cavafy all began to invoke Byzantium within the ambit of their own differently modernist writing, they did so more with reference to what Byzantium meant, that with what it might, at some point, actually have been.

It’s this tension — the ever-widening gap between the historical Byzantium and its literary, artistic and moral cognates — that lends the current Royal Academy exhibition a sharp polemical edge. Without it, the experience might well have added up only to 350 marvellous objects, most rare indeed and a few of them astonishingly beautiful, deployed theatrically across ten rooms, dimly lit, dressed with a light gloss of scholarly commentary and packed, even early in the morning, with far too many visitors — each of them presumably lost in the creation or revision of some inner, highly personal, differently-inflected version of ‘Byzantium’. Continue reading


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On rebuilding the Bucintoro

Canaletto, The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day, c. 1732.

Flashy patriotic gesturing on the part of assertive yet less-than-independent statelets is rarely a good thing: at best it comes across as crass and faintly risible, while at worst, these first notes of a comic-sounding overture presage not some entertaining opera buffa, but rather tragedy following the usual script of material destruction, fratricidal violence and the energetic fostering of apparently ineradicable emnities, none of it any the less sad for being, all of it, so thoroughly predictable.

Perhaps, then, one should greet the news of the rebuilding of the Bucintoro in muted tones. The Bucintoro was, of course, the famously opulent Venetian state barge, first constructed in 1300 but then successively reconstituted and elaborated, so that the 1728 version (pictured above), the fourth Bucintoro, had swelled into an enormous confection of lion-studded, velvet-swagged, gilded magnificence, manned by 40 sailors and propelled by 168 oarsmen, and equipped with a main salon that could easily seat 90 guests. The vessel played a central role in one of the greatest of La Serenissima’s civic rituals, La Sensa, carrying the Doge out into the Bacino on Ascension Day, so that he could throw a gold ring into the Adriatic, reaffirming as he did so the symbolic marriage which had, for centuries, bound Venice in fruitful union with the sea. Continue reading

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Just looking: Bellini and the East at the National Gallery

Last December I tried to write a review of the Royal Academy’s Turks exhibition. I didn’t succeed.

At the time I blamed this on the fact that Turks was, in some ways, such a richly annoying experience. On the day I visited, the rooms were so tightly packed with jostling pre-Christmas hordes, locked in all-absorbing battles with truculent audio-guides, that it proved impossible even to glimpse the more popular exhibits, let alone figure out what they were, or, indeed, why they were so popular. By way of consolation, I had only the 500-page, £50 catalogue to help clear up any minor questions once I’d fought my way free of the crowds and made my way home. And as for those perennial lurking doubts about the wisdom of serving up as a melange of art, education and entertainment a series of artefacts originally intended as something else altogether, much worried over on here — well, Turks did nothing to dispel them.

But with hindsight, there may have been more to my failure than a cocktail of misanthropy, laziness and the unweildy nature of that catalogue. If I’d actually written my review of Turks, I’d have noted that this was far less a conventionally didactic exhibition, or even a theatrical and crowd-pleasing one, than an exercise in the most naked and unabashed PR. Put simply, Turks showed every sign of displaying its artefacts solely in order to make a particular series of points: that the Turks are really very much like us (by which I mean cosmopolitan, reflexively liberal, apparently secularised Europeans), that Turkish culture has always been very similar to our own, and that, in short, whatever else the Turkish people may got up to over the past millennium or so, there is no reason to assume that they are necessarily scary Muslim fanatics, subsidy-hungry Third Worlders, or the sort of uncultured barbarians who might, within living memory, have had some serious problems regarding human rights, military coups and organised crime, not even to start to mention Armenia or Cyprus.

Turkish delight
Simplicity invariably requires hard work. Doubtless the presentation of such a streamlined, soothing picture involved a fair bit of editing, excision and ornamentation on the part of the exhibition’s curators. While items from halfway across the world were included — in part, I suppose, because they constitute some of the jewels of the collection of the Topkapi Saray Museum, which loaned generously for this show — explanation of the selection criteria was vague, if only because the alternative might have meant playing up the theme of far-side-of-the-Bosphorous ‘otherness’ at the expense of pan-European inclusion. So conflict and conquest were played down. Religion, certainly, was played down, except where it was polytheistic, syncretic or very, very tolerant. And where there was, unavoidably, a bit of difference, it was aestheticised as exotic and beautiful, rather than politicised as divisive and dangerous. At the same time, congruences between the court culture of East and West — of which there are, admittedly, many — were very much played up. Medieval Turks? Medieval Europe? What’s the difference?

No, the message could hardly have been more obvious had someone got round to putting it up in lights on the façade of Burlington House. The Turks, having been so very much like the rest of us for so very long, will make entirely proper and unexceptionable European Union partners.

Eastern promise
All of which may be perfectly fair, or alternatively, may be dangerously tendentious nonsense. The rights and wrongs of Turkish accession to the EU were not, however, the point of the review I was trying to write, nor are they really the point here.

When it came to writing that review, my problem was that the politics of Turks got in the way of everything else, leaving me with the feeling that those objects had, somehow, been badly served by the rhetorical function they were forced to perform. And this was a shame, if only because I felt so very ready for the sort of exhibition I wanted Turks to be. Having seen the stunning Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands at the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House back in the bleak spring of 2004, I was left wanting more. For understandable reasons, Heaven on Earth had emphasised the complicated, fascinating interplay between Russia and its Islamic neighbouring states. Now, however, I was hungry to learn more about what happened when East met West, what took place at the margins where Christianity and Islam clashed and interlocked — not just as some sort of scrying-glass into which I might peer for news of the geopolitical future, either, although to be honest I probably wanted that too, but primarily as a tale worth hearing in its own right.

In retrospect, I probably should have paused, just for a moment, to wonder why I hoped that an art exhibition would be the venue for such high-powered enlightenment. But this question didn’t occur to me at the time. Instead, I simply regretted that the ‘message’ delivered by the show had been a crass and dubious one, rather than a sophisticated and compelling one. And so the review of Turks never got written, the catalogue found its own few inches of double-reinforced shelf-space somewhere in my study, and the RA turned its PR skills to the services of an infinitely more objectionable regime. It wasn’t a very satisfactory conclusion.

Make mine a Bellini, please
I was reminded of all this recently by the National Gallery’s Bellini and the East, showing in the Sunley Room until 25 June 2006. The exhibition is organised in conjunction with the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, where it appeared last year.

If Turks was huge, tattered tapestry, its sporadic magnificence let down by intrusive modern ‘restoration’ and over-cleaning, Bellini and the East is more the delectable miniature, tiny but intense, all the better for attempting to concentrate its force. Like most exhibitions, obviously it has its flaws, and we’ll get to those in due course. Suffice to say, for now, that these are more than outweighed by its pleasures. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s well worth making the effort over the course of the next month.

The story around which Bellini and the East revolves is a compact one. In 1479, less than thirty years after the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, an important painter named Gentile Bellini was sent from Venice to the strange, half-European, half-Asiatic city which the Turks had begun to call Istanbul. There, Bellini spent some time as a guest of that cultured, intelligent and highly successful jihadiste, Sultan Mehmed II, before returning to Venice. Bellini and the East focuses on that visit, during which Bellini produced (apparently) a handful of exquisite drawings as well as the strange, damaged yet weirdly compelling Portrait of Mehmed II, and the dreamy, engimatic Seated Scribe.

Yet perhaps because of its compact character, the sense of so much history packed into such a tiny space, Bellini and the East raised all sorts of broader questions as I started to make my way around the smallish Sunley Room. What can it have been like to witness that terrible thing, the death of Byzantium, and what legacy did Byzantine culture, our last direct link with the Classical civilisations, bequeath to Western Europe? And once Crescent overtook Cross, what was the result? What sort of conflicts, accommodations, compromises, borrowings and thefts began to connect the courtly culture of Istanbul with its equivalents amongst the republican city-states and princely courts of Europe?

Lions with wings
On and on the questions came, growing more complicated and improbable by the moment. Well, maybe it’s just me, but more or anything connected with La Serenissima sends my mind racing in this incontinent, irresponsible, thoroughly enjoyable way. But I don’t think it is just me, actually, because if it were, I doubt that the list of English-language books on Venice would be nearly as long as it is. Rather, it’s a quality of Venice herself. There is something about Venice’s sheer peculiarity that seems to compel not only pleasure, but pleasurable speculation, too.

For as even the most incurious day-tripper soon discovers, Venice is the most magnificent of mongrels — a melting-pot that’s been stewing away for a millennium or more now. Venice is the hardy if odd-tasting fruit of intermingled faiths, linguistic groups, nationalities, ethnicities and ways of living almost beyond number. Even now, its ability to absorb sub-Saharan Africans with suitcases full of fake Prada bags, or the ambitious victims of Balkan conflicts, or indeed North Americans in pursuit of a particular strand of High Culture, never fails to astonish. In London, we tend to treat Venice as a theme-park of the elegantly moribund, but in fact Venice is at least as alive, even now, as our own great city. For is there anywhere else on earth that can swallow up anyone, anything, so voraciously, yet remain so resolutely herself?

And by the same token, it hardly takes brilliance to see that Venice’s architecture, the tangled network of canals, the whole texture of that man-made demi-paradise resembles nothing else in continental Europe — although even if it did, Deborah Howard would have explained it all to the rest of us in Venice and the East, an eye-opening book that’s as elegantly written as it is learned, which is saying a lot. Thus it was pleasing to discover that, along with exhibition curators Alan Chong (from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum) and Caroline Campbell (now at the Courtauld Institute), Howard is one of the contributors to the well-illustrated if sometimes confusingly-organised catalogue of the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

For as I moved around the exhibition, trying to understand the connections between the various items on display, my thoughts kept turning back to Howard’s book. One of the main things I took away from Venice and the East was the notion that the cultural transfers which nurtured Venice were not the result of any single trading relationship or period of conquest, but rather, the consequence of a non-stop two-way traffic — ebbing and flowing in volume, perhaps, but persisting in various forms over many hundreds of years. After a while, under the force of such a narrative, distinctions between ‘East’ and ‘West’ start to dissolve. The result is that many items familiar not only from the paintings of Carpaccio or Giovanni Bellini, but from those of Van Eyck, Memling, Holbein and others as well, take on a double aspect. The ornate carpets, the glassware, the ornamental vessels of various sorts, the exotic robes and headdresses, even the cuspid arch — all these seem, in a very real sense, emblematic of ‘our’ Christian Middle Ages, yet all came from the East and would have reminded contemporary viewers of a Holy Land only intermittently freed from the control of the Infidel. Venetian words that are now a part of our own language — ghetto, arsenal — have Arabic roots, but their associations speak clearly enough of international conflict and tense relations between those of different faiths.

Complicating all of this even further is the love-hate relationship binding Venice with Byzantine Constantinople, one of the great Christian cities of the world, sacked with incredible ferocity by Christian armies — with Venice very much at the forefront — at the end of the Fourth Crusade. Again, there is so much of Byzantium in what we know of Venice — the Pala d’Oro, the four bronze horses on the façade of San Marco, countless relics, icons and treasure — that at times it becomes impossible to separate the two. If Venice is unthinkable without the Islamic world, it is equally inconceivable without the Orthodox Christian one.

In short, then, the tale told by Howard in Venice and the East is neither an inspiring one of irenic co-existence, nor a gloomy one of perpetual and inevitable conflict. Rather, it’s both at once, with Venice, for geographical and historical reasons, serving as a microcosm of what went on elsewhere, albeit to a less extreme degree. So instead of the simple and encouraging teleology of Turks, we have something denser and more ambivalent. And that, I thought to myself as I went round the exhibition, is the stuff of which Bellini and the East, too, is made. The realisation made me happy, because I very much admire Howard’s book. It seemed pleasing to think that I could slot the items before me into a story I already knew, while at the same time, expecting their presence to enrich, deepen and somehow validate the narrative.

Sailing to Byzantium
Bellini and the East is a seriously enjoyable exhibition. Throughout, the explanatory material is excellent — concise but intelligent — while the display of the objects and overall appearance is far more attractive, more visually aware, than in many past National Gallery shows. (Americans in Paris was also remarkably good-looking — have the National Gallery’s curators made a conscious decision to raise their institutional game in terms of sheer sensory appeal?)

Confined to a small space and hinging on a handful of works, the organisation of Bellini and the East is straightforward enough. First comes the build-up, with some very necessary scene-setting about Mehmet II and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Then comes a nod to cultural interchanges. We turn next, briefly, to Byzantium’s legacy. Finally, we arrive at the inner sanctum of the exhibition and stand contemplating, first, a case of bronze medals, and then, finally, the small group of works generally believed to survive from Gentile Bellini’s visit to Istanbul.

The thread running through all these various topics is Gentile Bellini himself. His work, or at any rate, work associated with him is adduced to articulate each of the main themes. Thus we have his rather stern and unlovely portrait of Caterina Cornaro; his cover for Cardinal Bessarion’s reliquary where, while the figures are pretty dire, the attempt to reach across visual traditions in order simulate an icon is fascinating; an enthroned Virgin and Child illustrates the architectural and decorative bonds between West to the East. What, then, to make of the artist whom the Venetian Republic sent to Istanbul, and who was sent back, with a glowing letter of recommendation from the Sultan, just over a year later?

Non-celebrity big brother
Extremely famous in his own time, Gentile Bellini is now to a great degree obscured by the shadow of his younger brother Giovanni, who not only left a relatively large quantity of first-class work, but who was also, famously, teacher both to Giorgione and to Tiziano Vecellio. Indeed, the careers of these three are so closely intertwined as to leave a few key works bouncing around, attributed first to one artist and then to another, and sometimes to all three at once. Linked so intimately with two of the most admired artists who’ve ever lived, Giovanni’s reputation remains an enviable one. Some historians go so far as to hand him the palm for inaugurating the High Renaissance in Venetian art — which, of course, has to be a Good Thing, as it places this calm, devout, decorous maker of altar-pieces and creator of interior decoration in the forefront of the militant avant garde of art’s progress — and what could be better than that?

Gentile, on the other hand, as if by some immutable law of contrasts, has been far less fortunate. As the head of the family art ‘firm’ (his father Jacopo was also an important Venetian painter, having studied with Gentile da Fabriano, who was one of the first Venetians to make an impact on the unshakeably parochial collective consciousness of Tuscany) Gentile tended to concentrate on official commissions, both for the Venetian republic and for Venice’s thriving scuole. Doubtless, during his lifetime this stirred up plenty of resentment and envy amongst his peers, as did the fame he achieved on his visit to Istanbul. But it’s also the case that very few of Gentile’s works have survived, and those attributed to him are often in wretched condition. His important paintings for the Palazzo Ducale, for instance, were long since reduced to ash. His paintings for the scuole are scattered, where not simply lost. Many other surviving works are suspected of being workshop copies. All of this, for obvious reasons, could hardly have failed dampen critical enthusiasm for him.

Perversely, then, those months spent in Istanbul — an anomalous sabbatical in the midst of a brilliant, successful career — have done more than anything else to keep Gentile’s memory afloat. Vasari, amongst others, was clearly fascinated by this liason between a culture that shunned the image, and another intent on propagating it. Nineteenth century Orientalists found in the visit a recipe for much romantic and colourful speculation. (Incidentally, in the present semi-secularised moment we are apt to treat the Islamic and Judaic prohibitions on images as odd aesthetic quirks, but to a fifteenth century Venetian the issues would have been marginally more immediate and interesting, not least as the schism between the Eastern and Western churches involved differences on the proper role of images. The sacred texts of all three great monotheistic faiths include warnings against the making of images; it’s less odd that Islamic societies sometimes banned the making of images than that Christian societies so very rarely did so.)

As we’ve seen, Gentile’s story also dovetails well with current preoccupations. That fabled meeting between, on one hand, a painter so closely tied into the central organising narrative of Western art history, and on the other, a Muslim conqueror who was, by all indications a sensitive consumer of European painting, is almost too good to be true when it comes to cross-cultural daydreaming. We see this, for instance, in a Richard Dorment’s review of the exhibition. There’s almost the sense, in some reviews of the show, that if we looked hard enough at these works we too might find a way of reconciling two sets of apparently inimicable ways of living. Clearly, I’m not the only one who finds it hard to look at little pictures without needing to extrapolate from them, by force if necessary, Big Conclusions.

Surface tensions
Before we worry about that, though, let us pause to consider a few of the individual exhibits. Of the works on show, the portrait of Mehmet II is one of the most memorable. It’s also, frankly, a mess. It doesn’t take an expert to notice that the condition falls short of, say, the hyper-real clarity of Giovanni Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan. In places (portions of the turban, the sultan’s nose) the quality of the (re)painting is more or less what one might expect to find on any competently-executed pub sign. But all the same, there’s something a little bit magical about the way the head and shoulders emerge from the black background, about the arched frame and the cloth of honour in front of the figure, and certainly something in the sultan’s expression, which seems to combine a variety of emotions. Looking at it, I couldn’t help but feel that here was at least the wreck of a real, individualised, human portrait, combining — as the best works of Giovanni Bellini sometimes does — the sad reflectiveness of Flemish painting with the distinctive colour and emphatic rhythms of late fifteenth century Venetian art.

And then there are the drawings. The exhibition includes seven sheets, executed in dark brown ink, borrowed variously from the Louvre, British Museum and Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Franfurt. More than anything — and much to my surprise — these reminded me of John White’s drawings of the British settlement at Roanoke, dating from the end of the sixteenth century.

Of course, there are vast differences. Bellini, as we have seen, was as skilled an artist as the Venice of his age had to offer, which is saying a lot. In contrast, White, from the little that is known about him, seems to have been a surveyor and administrator first, an artist only incidentally and rather controversially. So when it comes to visual sophistication, there’s hardly any comparison. But at the same time, much seems to connect the two. In each case, the result of their efforts is a sort of ethnographic record, produced centuries before the term was even invented — the fruit of curiosity about the outlandish sights and strange occupants of a distant and fabled land, coupled with a desire to document these wonders, to share that sense of wonder with friends and neighbours at home. Bellini seems to have been just as fascinated by the myriad ethnic groups, religious sects and otherwise oddly-costumed subcultures that rubbed shoulders in late fifteenth century Istabul, as White was with the aboriginal occupants of the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. Yes, one can easily imagine a practical side to this project, with Gentile intending to re-use these exotic figures in future paintings for many years to come. But leave ‘art’ to one side for a moment. Part of what appeals in each man’s work is the sheer freshness of that encounter with something unexpected, the pleasure to be had in discovering and, though drawing, capturing the previously unknown.

But neither, standing in the National Gallery in front of these seven drawings, can we forget ‘art’ forever. At their best, these drawings are almost inexpressibly satisfying. The mark-making is, much of the time, so feather-light and flawless as to seem hardly the work of human hands — elsewhere, so clear, definitive and unarguable as to look downright supernatural. The balance between meticulousness and economy rarely falters. There’s skill here, as well as something very like enchantment. We know very little about the subjects the drawings depict, or why they were executed, but their freshness is more or less unfailing. More than anything else in Bellini and the East, they looked like unproblematic evidence of Gentile’s genuine importance, not only as a near-accidental link between two worlds, but as an artist. And if doubts surface later, it happens hours afterwards, only once the spell cast by these fragile, powerful things had begun to fade.

Are you sitting comfortably?
And then, finally, there is the Seated Scribe, borrowed from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum — in some ways the culmination of Bellini and the East, located right at the exhibition’s heart. A drawing with colour and gilding applied on top of it, this is an extremely strange work, and very hard to place. It helps to learn that the image was cut down, and that the Arabic inscription in the upper right-hand corner was added later, because the oddity of both of these features enhances their unfamiliar, non-European quality. But even after one makes the mental effort to strip away reality, to imagine a larger, inscription-free drawing, the image still seems a more plausible bridge than most between the visual traditions of the Islamic East and Christian West.

The artist — we’ll assume for the moment that this means Gentile rather than someone else altogether, although that’s far from clear — has depicted a lavishly-dressed young man with rather delicate features, seen in profile, sitting cross-legged on the floor, quill poised, ready to write or maybe draw on the tablet held on his lap. The young man wears a large white turban and a very opulent robe the colour of lapis lazuli, decorated with patterns in gold and silver. The robe is rendered in a flat, not particularly naturalistic manner, which, along with the very non-Western pose and the strangeness of the costume itself, gives the work an oddly hybrid appearance. Finally, it’s probably worth pointing out that this little work is only 18.2 cm x 14 cm in its present form — which is to say, very small indeed. It’s a feature that doesn’t come out in reproduction, yet actually matters quite a lot in real life, since it connects it more squarely with miniature-painting traditions rather than with the larger portraits it otherwise might be thought to resemble.

Very little is known about The Seated Scribe. We don’t actually know who, if anyone, it represents, or where it was made, or exactly why it was created in the first place. Wherever it originated, it seems fairly certain that by the mid sixteenth century, the drawing had migrated to the Persian Safavid court, where it was pasted into an album belonging to the youngest son of the Shah and admired as an example of fine European workmanship. Several Persian artists went on to copy it. One such Persian copy is on show at the present exhibition.

Human nature being what it is, the desire to make comparisons between the original image and the copy is irresistible. And there are, indeed, plenty of differences. The copy separates into big areas of strong local colour far more easily than does the original, where the garments tend to blend together into a single pyramid-type shape. In the copy there is no attempt at all to render the pattern of the fabric naturalistically where it falls into folds or curves around the body. The facial features of the figure are clearer, more distinctly drawn in the copy than in the original, where the modelling is very soft indeed. Whereas the original doesn’t show the scribe’s feet, the copy depicts a single foot poking out, at an angle that looks odd to Western eyes, from the bottom of the garment. And, in an alteration that seems less fascinating to me than it does to some observers, the tablet, which in the original is left bare, in the copy becomes a drawing, representing what looks like a male figure. The seated figure has revealed himself, not as a scribe at all, but as an artist.

West is best (or perhaps not?)
In a thoughtful essay by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, brought to my attention here, Pamuk makes much of the way the copyist has changed the image from a portrait to a self-portrait:

In so doing [the Safavi copyist] reminds us how little Muslim artists knew about the western art of portraiture, and most particularly the concept of the self-portrait, and how they were beset by anxieties about their technical inadequacies in these areas.

And this, in a sense, starts to hint at one of the defects of Bellini and the East, or at least a defect in the way that some of us experienced it.

As was mentioned above, there is no particular reason to think that A Seated Scribe is in any sense a portrait. Nor do we really know much about who painted it, or where it was painted, or why. It seems fairly clear, in contrast, that the copy was made in about 1600, which is to say, more than a century after the original was probably executed — and the copy was probably produced in Persia, not Istanbul. Further, while Pamuk seems, strangely, to lump together ‘Muslim artists’ as if they constituted an homogenous body, this was hardly the case. After all, a Safavi painter, working at the start of the seventeenth century, would himself have been heir to one of the great traditions of miniature-making — a strongly Chinese-influenced heritage whose protagonists excelled in producing small, brightly-coloured evocations of people going about their daily lives.

Pamuk seems to suggest that the copyist, ‘beset by anxieties’, wanted to paint more like a Western artist. But why not assume that the copyist took pleasure in translating the older, Western-style work into something more agreeable and graceful within a different visual tradition? Why assume that a preference for naturalism is the direction in which all painting ought to aspire? Why assume that the best sort of portrait is one that replicates, camera-like, what the subject looks like, rather than representing his qualities in other, possibly equally sophisticated ways? And anyway, why assume that any vaguely plausible picture of a person must, of necessity, be a portrait?

Love amongst the ruins
If all of that suggests a degree of frustration with one particular take on Bellini and the East — and probably I should reiterate that Pamuk’s article is a thoughtful and thought-provoking one, well worth reading, even if the conclusion bothered me a bit — this in many ways admirable exhibition itself is not without a defect or two of its own. By far the most serious of these has to do with what it tells us about Bellini himself.

Gentile Bellini is, as mentioned above, the central lynch-pin holding the exhibition together, his work the linkage between its disparate themes, his journey to Istanbul the narrative impulse propelling the entire project. Unfortunately, however, virtually all the works included in Bellini and the East are either of questionable attribution, or have been restored extensively — or in many cases, both.

Walking around the exhibition, especially on a second visit, there was a strong sense of ‘change and decay / in all around I see’. For however much one trusts the attributions in the present catalogue, there’s a bleak sort of fun to be had in looking up the relevant works in, say, the National Gallery’s own older catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools (first published 1951, revised 1961, most recently reprinted in 1986), and chart the gradual transformation of various relevant works.

From the older catalogue one learns, for instance, that the Virgin and Child Enthroned is ‘very much worn … extensively repainted … the flesh parts in their current state show little of Gentile’s style’. Sultan Mehmet II, for its part, is only listed as ‘ascribed to’ Gentile, with the following rather pessimistic comment: ‘There are now only traces of a very much worn and neglected old picture here, almost entirely repainted, especially in the figure …’ The self-portrait of Gentile may be neither a self-portrait, nor indeed the work of Gentile himself. Even The Seated Scribe has often been plausibly attributed to artists other than Gentile, as the exhibition catalogue itself makes entirely clear. On and on the list goes, raising a dozen new questions for every one it answers. The overwhelming impression is one of many damaged fragments held together by the mucilage of hope and faith. And although the foregoing are clearly theological virtues, they are not necessarily curatorial ones.

Yet whatever the exhibition catalogue may say, the labels next to the actual paintings in the National Gallery are almost entirely silent on the subject of destruction, doubt and loss. At the practical level one can see why this is the case. What if virtually nothing on view in the Sunley Room is actually, in its present state, the product of Gentile Bellini’s own hand? The result would, by definition, be an exhibition that tells us little about Gentile’s qualities as an artist, that lacks a strong connection with the whole Bellini and the East story, that can’t quite deliver the authentic frisson of close association with this most poignant, evocative and suggestive of cross-cultural encounters. And while the admirable Peter Campbell over at the London Review of Books feels that all of this simply delivers valuable information about the relevant workshops, I’ve got to admit that I, for one, would have gone away feeling just that little bit cheated if Bellini and the East had included nothing by the relevant Bellini, and not actually that much from the East, either.

For the East, per se, is not exactly over-represented in Bellini and the East. Yes, there are a few icons from Constantinople, which are well worth seeing — although, at the risk of reprising a weary old trope, one might pause here to wonder whether this demotion to mere works of art is not a source for sorrow. But what of the art of Islam? Perhaps this is a mistake, but I remember only a single work — that copy of The Seated Scribe — representing the entirety of the much-misunderstood riches of Islam’s visual traditions.

And this, too, is a problem. Deprived of context, deprived of Islamic build-up or Islamic follow-through, what are we to learn from this single, stranded item — an Eastern copy of a Western work — about the nature and potential of cross-cultural traffic? The problem isn’t that it tells us nothing. Rather, the message, however unconsciously articulated, is all too clear. Western art may have learned various things from the East, but what’s important is their novelty in Western art, not their rootedness in an alien culture of which we know little. The impact of Western art on the East is given even less attention. We leave the exhibition perhaps wiser about the Venice of the late sixteenth century, but no less ignorant about the Istanbul that was growing up out of what had so recently been Constantinople. We see Bellini’s drawings, the images he brought home, but are offered no Eastern images with which to compare them, meaning that we can know nothing of the biases and misreadings he may have brought to his account. One could go on, but there’s little point. The frustrations, at least, should be clear enough. True, Bellini and the East was meant to be a mini-exhibition, tightly focused on its topic. I do understand that. At the same time, however, it was disappointing to be offered not a lens, however small, but instead, yet another mirror. Bellini and the East had seemed to offer more than that. Or was I expected too much, once again, of an art exhibition?

By way of a conclusion
We have come a long way. Still, there’s one more point left to address, if only because it in some sense encompasses everything I’ve written above, as well as some of the awkwardness and uncertainty with which those things have, so obviously, been written.

The central theme of Bellini and the East was always going to be a difficult one to present. As we’ve seen, not an enormous amount is known about what happened during the few months that Gentile Bellini spent at Mehmet’s court, either, and what is ‘known’ relies almost entirely on second-hand reports. So there’s a limit to how deep that narrative can go. Whereas, in contrast, if one steps back for a moment from the smaller, more immediate story, the broader topics touched upon are potentially so vast that those fragile panels and sheets of paper sometimes seems to float helplessly on their surface, bobbing gently, waiting to be carried this way or that by arguments far removed from the circumstances of their actual making. Is it right, or at any rate, is it what was intended that the art should end up illustrating the history, rather than the history illuminating the art? I found myself worrying about this quite a lot on the way home from Bellini and the East.

And that, I suppose, is why exhibitions like Turks, or Bellini and the East, no matter how happy or hellish the act of viewing them may have been, turn out to be the least easy to review. More explicitly than most other exhibitions, they raise a question that I, for one, find persistently hard to answer: how are we meant to experience the works laid out for our curiosity and delectation?

Is it, for instance, enough — or indeed, is it even possible — simply to admire the miscellaneous items on show as ‘art’, with all that means and doesn’t mean, more than five hundred years after the fact? Well, I rather admire people who claim to be able to do this, but I am unable to emulate their achievement. Those stern bronze medals, the Florentine maiolica jug ambivalently celebrating the existence of the Great Turk, the slightly battered cover of a much-venerated reliquary — try as I might, I can’t quite make these things ‘work’ for me on a formal level, as opposed to a practical one — or rather, perhaps the practical one just seems marginally more important, more interesting.

And while the drawings and paintings might seem a softer target for ‘High Art’ exceptionalism than other species of artefact, for me, anyway, the problem still persists. The meticulously-constructed vertical rhythms and arching curves of Gentile’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned are beautiful, true enough — but I can’t help regretting that the painting is here in the National Gallery, briefly diverting the brighter sort of tourist, rather than ornamenting a consecrated altar in an ancient church, encouraging the faithful to pious contemplation and devotion, as its maker presumably intended. By the same token, as astoundingly lovely as Gentile’s drawings of Mehmet II’s court still look — and surely they were meant to be lovely, to delight and amaze as much as to record or inform — their loveliness is only a tiny part of what they were all about, merely an elegant means to a higher end. So did they ‘work’ — not in our usual vexed art criticism sense, but in terms of achieving Venice’s foreign policy goals, or boosting the Bellini family stock of eye-catching images, or to communicate some sense of personal fascination and excitement? Come to think of it, do we really even begin to know what they were meant to achieve? And more to the point, can we really drown out such questions, as we stand before those little sheets, with our exclamations at the delicacy and sureness of each line?

But on the other hand, the alternative position can seem equally unsatisfactory. If it’s possible to make a text mean almost anything you want it to do — and as someone with a 1990s-vintage PhD in history from Cambridge University, I can promise you that this is most certainly the case — then it really is child’s play to make an artefact turn somersaults in the furtherance of any fashionable case of your choosing. These things have all been ripped out of their original context, re-categorised in terms of origin, purpose and quality again and again, misunderstood in ever-new and different ways by generations of well-intentioned amateurs and specialists before turning up here, to speak about today’s particular preoccupation.

On one hand, the objects are themselves relics, talismans providing a reassuringly physical link with a past we need to remake again and again in order to validate our present. We love them for their genuine intimacy with the long-vanished at least as much as we admire their slightly ersatz and retouched present-day physical beauty. Mute and obedient under glaze and glass or in their climate-controlled cases, these objects provide our historical fantasies with something around which to coalesce, just as pearls eventually obscure the irritant grains of sand. Or to put it another way, reprising a point framed only as a complaint above, what we ‘learn’ from historical art exhibitions of this sort is to a great extent what we might learn from looking in a mirror. Our own questions are thrown right back at us — but because they are ours, we of course find them interesting, and only later realise how little we had by way of any answer.

Turks, with that strident special pleading, showed up all too clearly the defects of using art as illustration. In part, this may have had something to do with the defects of the argument thus illustrated. For several critics, Bellini and the East, in contrast, seemed to be making a much more subtle if even more soothing point. Yes, there will inevitably be conflict between different peoples and cultures, it seems to say — but art, above all else, offers a means of mediating that conflict. Even the most vicious differences can be dissolved with mutual curiosity, admiration for the best of each other’s traditions, shared styles, cultural transfers, the benign and modest triumph of syncretism. In that sense, Venice, that magnificent hinge connecting East with West, becomes a template for the world. Alteratively, another reading, marginally less cheery, might note the rather one-sided nature of cultural traffic as portrayed in the actual exhibition, plus a bit of inbuilt and perhaps unconscious Western triumphalism, and thus might further detect a fantastic vision whereby, just because the West accepted the number ‘0’, astromomy and gunpowder from the East somewhere back in the Middle Ages, then the East ought to accept the onrush of evanglical, messianic liberalism today.

Or is that pushing it all too far? Almost certainly so.

Bellini and the East is, after all, a small exhibition, occupying a single smallish room. So perhaps it speaks only about a particular set of objects, encouraging us to look more closely at them and to think about how they relate to one another. Because after all, that’s the other problem with using art as illustration. Taken too far, it encourages us to do what we’re all too likely to do anyway, which is to note each item momentarily, file it away under some sort of categorical label (‘medal’, ‘altarpiece’, ‘old stuff’) and move on to the next big idea — or, if the exhibition is too crowded and uncomfortable, just move on.

The first casualty of such an approach is the experience of actually looking properly at the art; the next is the pleasure or at any rate intensity of emotion to be had from engaging with it; the third is the whole sense of an individualised encounter, a really personalised engagement, with something that someone else produced, perhaps quite a long time ago, for some purpose we’ll never fully be able to reconstruct, in circumstances we’ll never fully be able to understand. Sometimes, if we’re being honest, meeting an object at the level of aesthetic regard may, for all its imperfections, be a more realistic and satisfactory goal than any other. At Turks, probably I should have found an unpopular khaftan lurking in some lonely corner and spent time trying to get to grips with its design, execution and, well, beauty. At Bellini and the East, certainly, the happiest moments were those when I was shocked out of my theorising by a particular red enjambed against a particular teal blue. Hard lessons, these, for someone who not only can’t remember whether the love for art or history came first, but who, worse still, still isn’t quite sure that it’s possible to distinguish between the two. At Bellini and the East, in any event, the conundrum is, at least, a thoroughly engaging one.
Bunny Smedley has recently been reading a bad biography of Clement Greenberg, which she hopes to review here soon.

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Beyond Criticism (almost): Titian at the National Gallery

19 February, 2003
ART: Beyond criticism (almost)
Titian at the National Gallery

Difficult loves
Probably it says something important about Titian that it is so hard to write adequately about him — either that, or perhaps the critical language has simply been so profligate for so long in its expenditure of superlatives that, confronted with actual genius on this level, it has no choice but to retreat into a stunned and swoony silence.

Or so it seems to me, anyway. Although I’m confident that Tiziano Vecellio (late 1480s?-1576) was the greatest painter in oils who has ever lived, I not only realise that there are plenty of people out there who dislike his work, but indeed remember with some embarassment those far-off days when I, too, preferred the near-hallucinogenic verisimilitude of Van Eyck and Holbein, the suave good manners of Van Dyck or Vermeer or even the obsessive eccentricities of Uccello or Carpaccio to the more demanding pleasures that Titian offered instead. But perhaps, if we are being honest here, that is no small part of Titian’s greatness? After all, his core following has never been amongst the general public, with its taste for magic-trick literalism, local colour and good clear outlines — or, as far as that goes, amongst small children blessed with encyclopaedic knowledge of their parents’ Skira art books but of little else, which more or less sums up my pre-Titian days.

No, his work isn’t easy. Titian has always been an acquired taste — a taste awoken early amongst a few sophisticated patrons, and later also critics and connoisseurs, but always, first and foremost, evident amongst practicing painters. Vasari, El Greco, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Poussin, Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Manet, Sargent, Picasso, Balthus, de Kooning, Rothko — each learned a different lesson from Titian, and each was the stronger artist for it. Ultimately, then, one could argue (especially tempting, incidentally, if one has come to sixteenth century Venice via the critical language of mid-twentieth century New York) that Titian’s real importance boils down to the facts of oil as a medium — its qualities, its limitations, and what visual effects, in extremis, it can be made to achieve. Legend has it that Reynolds bought a Titian canvas for the sole purpose of scraping it down to discover the Old Master’s ‘secret’; Van Dyck owned a whole room full of Titians; several of Titian’s works are now known only through the meticulous copies made of them by Rubens. And by the same token, any amateur who has come to admire painterliness as a quality in the art of other ages eventually ends up back with Titian, and that extraordinary seven or eight decade long career of unparalleled innovation, experimentation and general unremitting brilliance. Not only painters, but photographers, cinematographers and graphic designers are still trading off his legacy. He still has the capacity to shock, seduce and silence whole rooms of critics. No wonder it is hard to find the words in which to encompass such pointedly non-verbal achievements.

History does not help
Nor do the facts of Titian’s life make writing about him any easier. On one level, a great deal is known about him — not least, in comparison with earlier generations of artists such as Giotto or Masacchio — but at the same time, even more remains unknown. Not only the date but indeed the decade of his birth remains the focus for some vicious scholarly debates; in his early working life it is very difficult to seperate his oeuvre from that of his master Bellini or the brilliant if short-lived Giorgione; certainty about the exact chronology of his work, especially in the 1530s and 1540s, rests on fairly arbitrary assumptions about stylistic development interleaved with educated guesswork rather than matters of fact; while there is no way of knowing whether some of the more loosely-painted late works were absolutely revolutionary in nature or simply sadly unfinished, this has not prevented the formation of some notably strong views on the subject, rarely expressed with anything other than the icy, colocynthian fury of a zealot in the presence of doubt.

Yet when facts fail us, it is human nature to collapse into the welcoming arms of creative analogy. Fancifully, we can compare Titian with Picasso (those long, productive lives; the women; the literary and musical friends; the early and lasting fame; the international reputation; the problematic late work) or even, in a coat-trailing sort of way, with Andy Warhol (the parties; the celebrity portraits; the workshop method; the devout if misunderstood Catholicism; the fascination with the connections between violence and eroticism). And there is doubtless something in this — can anyone deny that Titian, given the chance, would have contemplated becoming the world’s most high-profile multi-millionaire superstar Communist, or at the same time that he would have painted the late Shah of Iran if the price was right, no matter how much it annoyed more squeamish souls on the New York arts scene? Yet the end of the day, the collective efforts of Aretino, Vasari, Ridolfi and a few miserable scraps of documentary evidence can never even approach the texture and complexity of biographical information provided by Apollinaire or John Richardson, let alone the unmanageable mess of evidence out of which someone will someday concoct a satisfactory account of Warhol. And given how little, despite all that information, we can ever know about the motivations and intentions of these much more recent artists, it is easy to feel discouraged by sheer distance from Titian. It is possible to read thousands of pages about Titian and feel not the tiniest bit closer to the man whose fingerprints are so poignantly visible in many of those late works.

Back to the pictures
So perhaps the most important thing one can write about the National Gallery’s current Titian exhibition, sponsored by Barclays, is simply that it brings together something like 45 paintings by the artist himself. There are some astounding experiences to be had here. The National Gallery is understandably pleased with itself for managing to re-unite for the first time in centuries four of the five mythological panels commissioned by Alfonso d’Este — the fifth panel is, like much of Titian’s work, lost — with results that will not be forgotten quickly by anyone lucky enough to spend time amongst them. But in any event, whatever one thinks of Titian, and whatever one’s preferences amongst his vast, varied and unwieldy body of work, it is undeniable that there are some absolute masterpieces of Western painting here. In that sense, the exhibition is simply above criticism. The works say more than I am ever going to be able to write about them. Anyone with any interest in painting will already have realised the absolutely necessity of visiting the National Gallery over the next few months.

Inevitably, though, the experience of wandering amidst these marvellous paintings stirs up all sorts of thoughts — some of them obvious, some of them marginally less so.

Against basements
First amongst the obvious thoughts is the realisation — no less powerful for its lack of novelty — that the National Gallery is burdened with the most hideous, pokey, airless, charmless, uncharismatic exhibition space in the entire world. There may be something, somewhere, that would benefit from being hung under that low ceiling with all its strange spiky metal bits and distracting grilles, illuminated solely by artificial light, but whatever it is, I have yet to see it displayed in the Sainsbury Wing.

Obvious? Well, yes, but it must be said that this matters in more than simply formal or aesthetic terms. You’ll have noticed, perhaps, my boring adherence to the view that hanging Renaissance pictures as ‘art’ not only robs them of essential context, but forces upon them, as it were, an alien and illegitimate context, making it even harder for us to see anything in them that their makers might possibly have intended.

Boring or not, though, the problem has rarely been more strikingly illustrated as it is at this exhibition, not least because when it comes to Titian’s work, the alternative also exists. Titian’s Assunta, to choose the most extreme example, still hangs in the Frari exactly where it was meant to hang; not only is it still lit and framed exactly as Titian (and his patrons) wished it to be lit and framed, but it still functions, at least potentially, exactly as they meant it to function — as a working part of a more general iconographic and liturgical programme, drawing together everything from the Crucifix surmounting the choir screen to the reredos and the sacramental worship still carried on in front of it. It has managed to hold onto its devotional functionality. Likewise, a state portrait hung in the Escorial or the Pitti Palace, surrounded by high cornices and brocade and marble and arms and courtly gravitas, retains at least some vestige of the power and majesty it was once intended to project. Surroundings play a part in determining the scale of a work, not just visually but intellectually and psychologically, too. At Capodimonte, one still approaches the great Titians down the length of a long, high room at the top of an endless flight of stairs, for all the world as if one were approaching some very great monarch indeed.

So when compared with all that, there is something inescapably forlorn about the shabby, shameful exile into which Titian’s works are now being forced, all in the name of a concept of ‘art’ that would doubtless have surprised Titian had he lived the requisite extra centuries necessary to discover it. Squeezed in under that low ceiling in the National Gallery’s basement and surely hung far lower than it was ever meant to be, The Vendramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross not only looks silly — the figures are too big and the perspective doesn’t work — but also looks pointless, especially when compared, for instance, with the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, still surrounded by its intended architectural setting and still making its own set of doctrinal and dynastic points. The same holds true for the portraits, in which the hang seems to downgrade the sitter at the expense of the paint itself. And as for what Titian’s erotic works lose by being hung as they are, in mixed company in a grey asexual basement, one can scarcely begin to imagine.

So that’s one obvious complaint. The second is equally obvious, and perhaps equally inevitable in any monographic exhibition involving the National Gallery. It relates to conservation.

That cleaning question again
The old battles are the best ones. As mentioned, this amazing exhibition has gathered together the four extant major panels that once decorated Alfonso d’Este’s own study, as well as several of the smaller panels that once hung above them. Seeing these hanging next to each other is, for any Titian enthusiast, an unforgettable and (at the risk of sounding appallingly precious) a deeply moving experience. Given the condition of the paintings, it may also be a unique one. Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (c. 1514), later modified by his pupil Titian, usually hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in the United States of America; Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1520-23) hangs in the National Gallery; The Andrians (c. 1523-24) hangs in the Prado, as does The Worship of Venus (c. 1518-20). Each canvas has experienced its own unique set of trials and tribulations over the centuries, including bad handling, injudicious overpainting and aggressive cleaning, and each bears its own distinctive scars. This is a near-inevitable feature of old paintings. And indeed, on one level it pales into insignificance before the thrill of seeing how convincingly the space of the four canvases intermingles, how the colours play off each other and how the theme of Dionysian abandon (one would almost think Titian had been reading his Nietzsche) is replayed in different keys, as it were, in each of the four canvases.

But at the same time, it would be impossible not to realise that Bacchus and Ariadne looks jarringly unlike its fellows in several different ways. The colours are far harsher; that distinctive softness, the fruit of so many layers of glazes, that was so central to Titian’s early technique is nowhere to be seen; Bacchus’ billowing drapery stands out against the dark blue sky with all the subtlety of a cardboard cut-out. Worst of all is that deeply nasty glaze with which the National Gallery insists on coating everything, sending the light beaming off from its hard surface with all the gravitas and tactile appeal of a plastic carrier-bag. If Titian had painted in acrylics, this is the sort of thing he might have produced, but since he didn’t paint with acrylics, it is hard to argue that his work has not been very badly mistreated indeed. And yes, I do realise that more ink has been spilled over the vexed issue of the cleaning of Bacchus and Ariadne than almost any other painting on earth, and I do see that it has a long history of damage — but if this is the only problem, why does every single National Gallery painting in the show (there are, I think, eleven) have similar problems? A comparison between the surface of the Uffizi’s Flora, or the Capodimonte Pope Paul III, or the Pitti Palace’s Piero Aretino, or the Escorial’s St Jerome in Penitence — and the list could be extended — with the surface of any National Gallery Titian should — and yes, I realise this is strong language — be a source of profound shame to anyone involved in any capacity with the National Gallery. It is extraordinary that the National Gallery still speaks of ‘saving’ art for the nation when this is what they end up doing to it.

Catalogue of errors?
A third obvious comment relates to the catalogue. In some ways, it is an impressive exercise — not least, given the very affordable price of the softback version. But in several cases, the printed text seems to have a rather uncertain relationship with the actual exhibition. Although The Flaying of Maryas is very much on show — indeed, by my reckoning it is one of the greatest masterpieces there — the catalogue makes only a glancing reference to it, rather than treating it as an exhibit; meanwhile that other great masterpiece, the so-called Sacred and Profane Love, is promised in the catalogue but was nowhere to be seen in the exhibition.

As for the writing itself, its strengths overshadow a number of annoying weaknesses. There is a good introductory essay by Charles Hope, that only deteriorates at the very end into a festival of axe-grinding on what this formidable Titian scholar takes to be the unfinished nature of some of Titian’s late work — and that is only slightly undermined by the active distancing from Professor Hope’s conclusions that goes on in some of the other essays. I would have liked to have read something about this exhibition by Paul Joannides, too, since his Titian to 1518 is one of the best books I have ever read about the painter. Perhaps, however, this was simply a scholarly fault-line to wide to cross?

The notes and bibliography are helpful. The quality of the plates is by no means bad. But when it comes to the list of individual pictures, I found myself missing some fairly basic information. Who had previously owned these works? Who had commissioned them, and why? Where were they originally hung? And have they always been assumed to be by Titian, or not? Again, I know that none of these are easy matters, and in some case they are highly contentious ones, but they are central to any attempt to make sense of Titian’s life and work, and hence to any monographic exhibition. Such information would also have improved the explanatory panels in the actual exhibition, which — with their faintly facile injunctions about where one ought to look, and their scatter-gun bits of history — are vulnerable to charges of dumbing-down. The virtue of didactic material is that one can turn to it if one wants; if one simply wants to look, then it does no harm. And as for the ‘Titian After Dark’ programme of events, of which the National Gallery seems to proud — well, I fail to see what watching a Woody Allen film has to do with understanding or even enjoying sixteenth century Venetian painting. As with the Bacchus and Ariadne desk clocks and commemorative plush cushions, there is something about this which makes me come over all priggish and uneasy. I can only hope there are financial imperatives afoot which, if successful, Titian himself would have been the last man on earth to criticise.

Of Romantic notions
But that is enough, and perhaps far too much, by way of complaint about what is, ultimately, one of the most stunning exhibitions I have ever seen. ‘Stunning’ is, I think, the right word. As with Picasso or Goya, there is a strong, indeed almost overwhelming sense of personality that asserts itself — forcibly and not always pleasantly, either — amidst these paintings, so that one feels (while all the time realising the feeling is, of course, a silly Romantic notion) that one has somehow been in the frankly overwhelming presence of the painter himself — not only discovering, painting by painting, his doctrinal beliefs and devotional preferences, his attitude towards political power, his experience of fame, his sexual predilections and his pride in his own craft, but increasingly feeling that one is becoming complicit with all of these things oneself, as if it were somehow necessary to see the world henceforth in a different way.

So what is the world of Titian like? Of course, as I wrote above, it is only a silly Romantic notion to pretend that any such thing is recoverable — and yet after a couple of hours amongst the paintings, its outlines seem clear enough. Titian was at least forty by the time the earliest portents of religious reformation began to make themselves felt across Catholic Europe; his faith may have been no less profound for appearing comfortable, confident and unproblematic; being (alas) modern, we tend to see in those late pictures a Christian reframing of richly human issues, whereas it is perfectly possible that Titian was much less arch and much more urgent when he inserted his aged, balding, infirm frame into painting after devotional painting. Titian adored, almost literally, political power, not only for its own sake but because it brought in its wake other things he adored, such as money and prestige. The compliments he paid it in portrait after portrait come across as entirely genuine, and have not cheapened as the years have gone by — indeed, they still make up the lingua franca of personal images, whether of third-world dictators, provincial brides or Tory leaders. And there’s a reason his language became the one we have all adopted. The Venetians may have worn their power elegantly — all those red and black robes, the gold chains and rich furs tightly regulated by sumptuary laws — but that was because Venetian power hierarchies were sufficiently internalised that only the most subtle of outward signs were necessary. This left much more scope for individualisation, gesture, a sort of personalisation rather grandly overriding the necessity to indicate rank or status. It is easy to forget how sub-heraldic portraiture was before Titian came to grips with it; it is easy to forget how shocking, even notorious, these pictures were in their own day.

But then Titian also adored his own fame, not only because it also brought to him money and prestige, but because he, like Arentino, was arrogant enough to enjoy the fact that princes and prelates eventually had to ask favours on more or less any terms he wished. What more could a Renaissance painter ask of life? He gloried in his own skill, his inventiveness, his facility and his visual wit, but he was also self-doubting, sometimes turning an unfinished painting to the wall for years and then glaring terribly at it when he saw it once again. He loved Venice, that most man-made of cities; he loved children and dogs; he loved dining and quarrelling and causing trouble with his friends; he loved doing his part to maintain the status of his family through making money and buying land. He loved the blue distant hills of Cadore as well as the brackishly reflective surface of the Lagoon; he loved classical antiquity only slightly less than he did actual, warm, damp, living flesh; he loved being the greatest artist since Appelles, which is undoubtedly what he felt himself to be. And yet in his greatest painting — the unfinished Pieta which perhaps was intended to rest over his own grave, but which now reposes in the Accademia in Venice — he referred to works including a wonder-working print from his early youth, the altar-pieces of his old master Bellini and the sculpture of his greatest rival Michelangelo. And if we could understand the constituent parts of this mixture of humility, pride and who knows what else, doubtless we would know all that is worth knowing about Titian — or at any rate, as much as he knew himself.

He was no Michelangelo, anyway
When it came to sex, Titian’s tastes are also fairly clear. Like many Venetians of his age and class (and also, incidentally, like Picasso) he took a relaxed attitude to homoerotic attraction and gave it a central place in several early works, including perhaps the enigmatic Bravo. Yet there can be little doubt that he was passionately, primarily interested in women.

An Englishman named Fynes Moryson, writing a travel guide at the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote that the Venetians, when choosing a wife, ‘desire fat women with great dugs’. If this is true — and art history provides plenty of supporting evidence — here again, Titian was a typical Venetian, although perhaps more fascinated by womanly thighs and buttocks than in breasts per se. His girls are also, it must be said, a notably self-reliant lot, their fingers so often trailing purposefully deep into folds of fabric or vanishing mysteriously behind the horizon of an upraised leg — all of which will surprise no one cognisant of Venice’s reputation amongst early modern pornographers. Whatever else they may be, however, Titian presents them as strong, confident, highly individual and a good deal more than simply acquiescent in any erotic adventures that might be underway. All of which is unsurprising, for Titian probably based them on Venice’s notably able, resourceful courtesans rather than on virginal girls — or even on women blessed with the bodies of fourteen-year-old boys and the sexual appetites of gay men, which more or less sums up the publicly acceptable heterosexual tastes of our present-day, deeply weird West. The model for Flora, her frayed shift slipping down from one of the most electrifyingly erotic passages of painting in the history of art, was probably a courtesan, as was the model for the still-stirring Prado Danae — and as were, in a paradox that probably seems odder to us than it did to Titian, the models for any number of soft-eyed, red-lipped, tender-looking Virgins presiding over Titian’s devotional paintings. Successful Venetian courtesans might hope, after all, to grow rich, old and very comfortable in the grandest circles through an alchemical blend of aptitude, application and good luck. So perhaps it is a little more than Romantic fancy to assume some degree of fellow-feeling, verging on respect, existing between Titian and the women who were his models.

Uncomfortable truths
This is all very good, because it gives us a politically-correct, post-feminist, richly right-on Titian. Yet at the same time it risks turning a blind eye to one final quality that emerges, perhaps more strongly than any other, from Titian’s work — not least towards the end of his life, when his fame and wealth meant that he was able to paint more or less what he liked, taking only a moment out here and there to add a finishing brushstroke or two to some mass-produced studio offering. And here, in these late works, it is fairly obvious that Titian was deeply interested (as, incidentally, was Goya) in the relationship between beauty and horror, sexuality and suffering, tenderness and the starkest sort of terror.

In a way, it is otiose to set out to prove this. It emerges so naturally from the late paintings, indeed, that one need hardly mention it at all — were it not for the fact that in a world of 700-word art reviews and gallery PR people, a great artist needs also to be a likeable artist — a nice person, really, or if not exactly nice, at least bad (cf. Caravaggio, for instance) in an acceptable sort of way. But if you think I’m making this up, look at any number of Titian’s late autograph works (some of them on show at the National Gallery): St. Margaret and the Dragon (Prado), the magnificent Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (Edinburgh), the sad battered wreck that is Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection), The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), The Death of Acteon (National Gallery), all those Penitent Magdalenes with their blotched and tear-stained faces, even his Annunciation (San Salvador, Venice), the Martyrdom of St Lawrence (Escorial), The Crowning with Thorns (Munich), the three Tarquin and Lucretia paintings (assuming, as I think I probably do, that the Vienna one is by Titian), St Sebastian (Hermitage) — and, last but never conceivably least, The Flaying of Marsyas (Kromeriz, Czech Republic).

And this, I suspect, is another reason why so many people simply do not like Titian’s work, even if they have not exactly spelled out their uneasiness in exactly these terms. Titian can, really, be astoundingly unpleasant. The unpleasantness is in no way softened by the insistence on balancing, at least in the onlookers’ eyes, the physical and psychological aspects of someone else’s suffering. Or to put it another way, it isn’t the little dog lapping up the blood in The Flaying of Marsyas that’s really shocking — it’s Marsyas’ own complicity, his exhausted acquiescence in the inevitability of the scene that Midas, with his handsome bemused half-smile, is watching just as we do. Yet of course — Romantic notions aside — we cannot know why this theme surfaces in Titian’s work as often as it does. All we know is that it does surface, as familiar as a signature, throughout the late work, until it’s as much a part of what it means to be a ‘Titian’ as the brushwork or the handling of colour.

The beginning of the end?
But that, I suspect, is quite enough about a streak of sadism discerned in a painter who died nearly two hundred years before the term was even coined. After all, there is much more than cruelty in this exhibition. The National Gallery’s own Virgin and Child is so tender and intimate that one can’t help but wonder whether Titian painted it from memories of a long-dead lover and her (and his) own infant child. The Self-portrait from Berlin is a strange echo of Paul III in the compromises it reaches between the physical weakness and psychological acuity of old age, and remains inexpressibly moving. The portrait of the twelve-year old papal grandson Ranuccio Farnese (sent home to what one anachronistically hopes and, indeed, sentimentally insists must have been his anxious mother) still looks like a sweet, shy yet praeternaturally dignified little boy. In an astounding fit of generosity, given the recent behaviour of the National Gallery, the Duke of Northumberland has loaned the remarkable Georges d’Armagnac, Bishop of Rodez, with his secretary Guillaume Philandrier, where no amount of surface damage can obscure the mesmerising psychological drama played out between the beatific calm of the master and the poised energy of his servant, hanging on his every word. And then there are the streaked and haemorrhaging skies, the spiky blue bell-towers and distant pastures that were Venice’s enduring gift to Titian, and one of the quieter yet no less profound delights of this exhibition.

So why is it, then, despite this palpable genius, that so many people don’t like Titian — that I, for such a long time, didn’t like the very artist who now seems to me the greatest painter ever to work with oils? Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to a strange sort of collision between illusionism, coercion and modernism. What, after all, do we want from painting? If it’s an accurate replication of the visible world, there is no need to fear the painter. Like Christopher Isherwood’s disingenuous but useful slogan, this would allow the painter simply to act as an eye, conveying what we were not there to see. And if the painter is simply an iconographer, that too is no threat, because in that case the painter is hardly a person at all, but simply a conduit for divine truths. But if, on the other hand, the painter is actually an individual, capable of all the same unpleasant quirks of personality and capacity for self-serving fibs as all the rest of us, what are we to do? Titian, with his later, freer style, seems to me to have been asserting two things, purposefully interlinked — first, that it was possible to see the most astounding things through the eye of the artist — but secondly, at the same time, that one would have to be brought up short at every turning, and reminded of one’s absolute dependence on the artist — on his vision, his skill, his mediation. Yes, it’s coercive. It actually verges on being a bit brutal. But in its violence, its coerciveness and its supreme self-consciousness lie the very deepest roots of modernism, expressionism, and individualism in art.

What’s it like to look at all of this? Of course there are moments of intensely personal communion, even of religious reflection of a very profound sort. Titian was, in that sense too, a very great painter. Yet I can only say that it is an experience not unlike digging one’s teeth into some luscious fruit and then being told that what one is eating is, in fact, a late-season apple from an old tree in the middle of a garden in a far-away place called Eden.

Am I suppose to pretend it does not taste sweet? Words fails me.

Titian, sponsored by Barclays, will be at the National Gallery from 19 February – 18 May 2003, and then at the Prado Museum in Madrid from 9 June – 7 September 2003. At the National Gallery, tickets cost £9 each (£7 concessions).

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