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Colour and Light

It was known as Venezia la bella, an incomparable union of art and life. A Byzantine historian of the fifteenth century compared it to an exquisitely proportioned sculpture. In its setting upon the waters, it was born to be painted and engraved. Some have even suggested that it looked better on paper and on canvas than it ever did in the light of day. In the drawings and paintings of Venetian life, from those of Jacopo Bellini in the middle of the fifteenth century to those of Francesco Guardi in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the setting and architecture of the city take precedence over the activities of its inhabitants. The physical space, and the stone face, are preeminent. Who can remember any of the human figures in Canaletto? In the many images of the public processions of Venice, the spectators and the participants become part of the architecture; the buildings themselves seem to embody the harmony and joy of the people. The stone is a monument to human will but, in the process, the stone itself becomes revered. The presence of stone—walls, stairways, balustrades and alcoves—is very noticeable in Venetian painting.

The city might have been composed by a painter seeking symmetry and contrast, weighing the vertical against the horizontal, combining shapes and colours in the most harmonious whole. Latin elements are balanced against Greek elements, Gothic against Byzantine, in order to symbolise the sway of different empires. The sight lines are perfect, as in the stage scenery for a play or for an opera, and the perspective subtly diminished. The details and motifs are carefully mingled. The co-ordinates of the public buildings were appraised in the light of Renaissance theories of numbers, so that the vistas have a mystical or magical enchantment. It was another form of power.

Guardi’s paintings of the city are called vedute or views, emphasising the primacy of the eye in the city. Everything is for display. The first album of Venetian “views,” a series of relatively inexpensive engravings, was published in 1703. Generations of travellers noted that the absence of dust in Venice guaranteed that the great houses and churches would remain relatively bright and clean. One of the reasons why there were, and are, so many balconies and terraces in the city was to provide vantage points from which the beautiful scenario could be observed. It is sometimes hard to know whether the art imitated the reality, or whether the architecture was inspired by the paintings. In Tintoretto’s “Paradiso,” placed in splendour within the ducal palace, the figures of saints Theodore and Mark, of Moses and of Christ, are arranged one to another in the same positions as their respective principal churches in Venice. So a civic aesthetic is immortalised in paint. Public space becomes artistic space.

Venice was pictorial in another sense, with the frescoes of Tintoretto and Giorgione and others adorning the outward walls of the principal houses. There was a unique appetite in the earliest cities for wall painting, as in the frescoes of Bronze Age Knossos or in the wall paintings uncovered in the ruins of the world’s first city, Catal Huyuk in Mesopotamia. It is as if the conditions of urban living prompted the desire for colour and display. In Venice, the essential city, that desire was given full expression. A traveller from the court of Burgundy in 1495, Philippe de Commynes, noted that most of the great houses along the Grand Canal had painted façades; so he dubbed Venice urbs picta, or painted city.

In the early part of the sixteenth century Pietro Aretino described Venice as if it flowed from the brush of Titian. “Ever since it was created by God,” he wrote in 1537, “never has the city been so embellished by such a lovely picture of lights and shades … Oh how beautiful were the strokes with which the brushes of nature pushed back the air, separating it from the palaces in the same way as Titian does in painting his landscapes.” The lights and darks “created the effects of distance and relief.” The city then becomes a living painting, a work of art in its own right. Yet if a city is a work of art, does it in some sense cease to be a living city? Whistler commented that the people and buildings of Venice “seem to exist especially for one’s pictures—and to have no other reason for being!” This of course has been the fate of Venice in more recent years, and it raises questions about its ultimate authenticity.

If we conceive of the city as artefact, something made and not found, then we will understand something else about the nature of Venice. We might say that the cities of the mainland, like London or Rome, were indeed “found.” They were part of the natural world before they boasted walls and gates; they were part of the lie of the land, and their growth into cities was a product of many hundreds of generations of settlement and toil. Venice is not that kind of city. It was created. It is a magnificent invention. It is an inspired improvisation at the hands of man. It was from its beginning artificial, a product of a battle against nature itself. The houses did not grow out of the ground. They were built up, piece by piece. The cities of the mainland were always in part defensive structures. Because of the sheltered position of the city of the lagoon, the instinct for defence was displaced by the appetite for display. There was no natural evolution, therefore, but an artificial construct that can only be preserved by further intervention.

The modern restoration of the city offers an instructive lesson in the nature of the artefact. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Giambattista Meduna and his successor, Pietro Saccardo, “restored” large portions of the basilica of Saint Mark’s, including the south and west façades; curved lines were straightened, and old marble was replaced with new; the pavement of the left aisle was remade rather than renovated; columns and capitals were scraped clean. It became essentially an imitation or simulacrum of the medieval structure, so that we can say part of the great church was constructed in the 1870s and 1880s rather than the eleventh century. The architects wished to revert to some original state of the basilica; but, in a building created by accretion and assimilation, there never was any original state. The church represents a process rather than an event.

Its new campanile was constructed in the early years of the twentieth century, after the collapse of the original early-sixteenth-century tower. The new campanile may look genuine, to the casual observer, but it is in essence a fake; it is a facsimile designed to maintain the illusion of the tourist that he or she is walking through an ancient city. This architectural quietism never in practice works. Nothing can be rebuilt “as it was”; the very fact of rebuilding precludes that possibility. The larger houses of the city have been restored to look more authentically “Venetian,” as already noted, with brighter colours and more regular ornamentation. Such restoration is connected with a loss of nerve, and a loss of identity. After the fall of the republic at the hands of Napoleon, in 1797, the city lost its authority in the world. Its economy was eclipsed with its power. Over the past two centuries it has attempted to create a phantom of its glorious past. It has become in part a fantasy city.

The process has been called, in somewhat ugly terms, the “aesthetification” or “commodification” of Venice. The nineteenth-century French architect, Eugène Viollet-le-duc, suggested that to restore a building is “to reconstitute it in a more complete state than it could have been at any given moment.” Thus we have the fullness of the public (rather than the local and private) Venice, more complete than it was in any one period, inviolate, idealised, conceptual, transcending the general inflictions of time. It has never looked more medieval than it does now. Yet in another sense it resembles a visage swollen and unreal after too many face-lifts.

The light of Venice is as important as its space and form. The light on the water casts illumination upwards and outwards. The sunlight plays upon the walls and ceilings, with an incessant rippling effect; it stirs the air and makes everything dance. What is solid is diffused. Buildings shimmer against the surface of the water. Stone becomes colour on the water. It can make the battered marble and the weather-stained brick, the slime on the surface of the canal, seem marvellous. There is a sparkling light, on winter days. But the characteristic of Venice is a pale soft light, like a drifting haze, powdered, part wave and part cloud. It is a pearly iridescent light wreathed in mist. It is drawn from the horizon and the sea as much as from the sun. It lends everything unity.

That is why Venetian painters have always been drawn to the gleam of light upon water, of the reflection of figures and of objects. There are many mirrors, of local manufacture, in Venetian painting. The art of Bellini has always been celebrated for its luminosity, for its ability to charge the air with light. The diffuse sky and the bright horizon contain a glowing world. The surfaces of his canvases emit and receive light. As in the streets of the city itself, even the shadows become sources of light. It is a truism that in Venetian painting colour, rather than contour, is the key. Surely this is related to the vision of reflections in the water?

Light was, in every context, a token of splendour and of nobility. In the twelfth-century chronicles, the basilica of Maria Assunta was celebrated for pellucida claritas or admirable lightness. The range of associations is intrinsic to the power of the word. The polished flooring of Venetian houses known as terrazzo, compounded of lime and well-powdered stone, was prized for its ability to reflect light; it was buffed and polished with linseed oil until it shone, as everyone testified, “like a mirror.” Venetian houses were always designed to catch the light. In the sixteenth century it was noted that the windows were made of glass rather than paper or waxed cloth; according to Francesco Sansovino they “were bright, and full of the sun.” There were of course gloomy recesses, dark courtyards, and hidden passages; the Venetians were affected by the chiaroscuro of brightness and shadow. It was part of their nature. It is part of their painting.

There was a passion for artificial light. The chandeliers or lampadari of Venice, seeming to float in the great upper spaces of Venetian apartments, were renowned for the myriad and innumerable crystals that seemed to vie with the sparkle of the water outside the windows. Venice was the first city in Europe to have, in 1732, its streets lit by lamps. London followed in 1736. In this period an English traveller, Edward Wright, noted that “the Venetians are excessively lavish of their white wax tapers, in their processions, at their night-litanies.” When these lights were seen mingling with the jewels, the gold, the crystal and the silver there was “such a glittering, there was scarce any looking upon them.” This is a quintessential Venetian effect, this glittering. It is related to the glittering of the sea all around. Light is the life-giving force. It quickens life. It is an emblem of vivacity and vitality, both associated with the Venetian temperament.

The numinous is luminous. Light is the first created thing. If light is seen as a spiritual substance, then it changes the way we look at the world; the streets and buildings are illuminated by the divine, and are thus themselves sacred. Light has always been depicted as a sign of heavenly grace. There is a light of holiness, and a light of vision. The Renaissance churches of Venice, designed by Codussi and Palladio, exclude any frescoes or mosaics from their interiors; the walls are purely white. In this way the quality of the light was preserved. The Istrian stone of Venice is, in the sunlight, dazzling.

The passion for colour existed, like the veneration of light, as a token of energy and bravura. It was a symbol of being. The harmony of colours was akin to the warmth of the sun. In Venice the term was colorito rather than colore, intimating the active and expressive possibilities of colour. The nineteenth-century English artist William Etty described Venice as “the birthplace and cradle of colour.” In the same century John Ruskin noted that the Venetians resembled the Arabs in “their intense love of colour which led them to lavish the most expensive decorations on ordinary dwelling houses”; in addition they possessed “that perfection of the colour-instinct in them which enabled them to render whatever they did, in this kind, as just in principle as it was gorgeous in appliance.” So they coated their palaces in porphyry and gold, where the northern architects employed oak and sandstone. The inner walls of the houses were hung with painted leather or with green and crimson damask. There is expansive colour in the brilliant polychromaticism of their architectural detail, in marble and in mosaic. The basilica of Saint Mark’s is a hymn to colour. We may also surmise that this was a culture in which sensory experience was deeper and more intense than our own; in which beautiful colour, and beautiful sound, had a more direct impact upon the human consciousness. Taste, and smell, and sight, and hearing were stripped bare. Life itself was altogether more vivid. The world had not lost its aura.

It was not coincidental, perhaps, that the city itself was the centre of the pigment trade in Europe. The painters of the Netherlands and the rest of Italy would purchase their colours from Venice, where there were merchants who specialised in that trade. Here were the finest orpiment and realgar, used for yellow and for orange, as well as vermilion and lead white. There is the famous “Venetian red,” a red earth extracted from the Veneto and characteristically to be seen in fifteenth-century Venetian painting. It was said to be as red as the blood of Christ. The dyeing industries of the city, indispensable in the production of luxury textiles, guaranteed the supply of the pigment known as red lake. The history of fashions in colour—as red lead, for example, gave way to orange at the end of the fifteenth century—would also be a history of human sensibility.

The Venetian painters often pursued the most expensive colours for the sake of their price and rarity. Thus, for example, the profound violet blue of Bellini or Titian was taken from the ground semiprecious lapis lazuli of what is now Afghanistan; red pigments from silver or sulphur were valued very highly. The Venetian republic was the home of saffron imported from the East. In his Grande Dictionnaire de la Cuisine, Alexander Dumas père remarked that it was “to spices that we owe Titian’s masterpieces.”

What are the colours of the most serene city? There are of course the sacred colours, Bellini’s colours, blue and gold. Many of the public buildings of Venice were decorated with a blue sky of night irradiated by stars of gold. Upon the Pala d’Oro, the richly metalled altar screen in Saint Mark’s, panels of translucent blue enamel were set within golden borders. It was heaven’s colour. Blue is the colour of calm and serenity, adopted in the most serene city. In the paintings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the most favoured colour was a deep blue. There was the violet blue of the sky, and the greenish blue of the soft distance. The colours of salmon, magenta, orange and white are reflected upon the blue and green waters. The sails of the fishing boats, upon the lagoon through the centuries, were orange or crimson.

There is also green, so much wished for in a city of stone. Bellini luxuriated in deep green. The Venetian builders loved green marble. It was an intimation of the natural world, so that we can speak of forests of marble springing up in the city. It was a reminder of the sap and the leaf, of the miracle of rebirth. Ruskin noted that one of the favourite chords of Venetian colour “was the sweet and solemn harmony of purple with various greens.” There is the pink of dawn, too, and the pink of evening. Henry James described it as “a faint, shimmering, airy, watery pink; the bright sea-light seems to flush with it and the pale whiteish-green of lagoon and canal to drink it in.”

Is this a just description of the water, pale whiteish-green? What is in any case the colour of water? The colours of the sea approaching Venice were once distinguished by the porti into which they issued. Thus the waters from the Lido were red, those from Malamocco were green, and those from Chioggia were purple. What is the colour of the waters in the canals and in the lagoon? They have variously been described as jade green, lilac, pale blue, brown, smoky pink, lavender, violet, heliotrope, dove grey. After a storm the colour changes as the water becomes aerated. On a hot afternoon the waters may seem orange. The colours of the sky, and the colours of the city, are refracted in little ovals of ochre and blue. It is all colours and no colour. It reflects, and does not own, colour. It becomes what it beholds.

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