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Stones of Venice

If it is a city of stone rather than earth or leaf, for example, does that make it an unreal city? Oswald Spengler believed that the development of civilisation could be marked by the transition from plant to stone, and in that sense Venice might be considered the most civilised of cities. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the wooden city was slowly dismantled, it became a little kingdom of stone. It has all the appearance of solidness and stability, all the stronger because of its constant companionship with water.

There is no natural stone in Venice. So it had to be bought or stolen. It is the old story of the floating city. There was a time, after the capture of Constantinople, when every boat sailing to Venice from that city was obliged to carry a consignment of stone. It was used as ballast. Yet much had to be purchased. The marble of Venice came from Carrara and from the island of Paros. Trachite stone, from the Euganean hills, was used for paving the calli and the campi. Dark or red stone was imported from Verona; it was mottled with chips or pebbles of harder stone that resembled islands surrounded by channels. The lighter stone of Verona, pink and grey, changes tone according to the seasons and to the light. It is perfectly suited to the city. Pink granite, and porphyry, came from Egypt. And there was abandoned and disused stone, stone from the old churches and houses of the lagoon islands. Stone was so precious that it was used and used again. The spoils of ruins laid the foundation for new buildings in a continual process of regeneration and reinvention. The gravestones of the Roman dead became parts of Christian churches. An altar to the sun god, taken from Aquileia, was re-employed in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s. It can truly be said that Venice was built upon antiquity. It harbours past ages.

There are also more exotic stones. The Venetians loved the coloristic effect of agate and malachite, amethyst and cornelian. The ultramarine used on the façade of the great house on the Grand Canal, known as the Ca d’Oro, was made of powdered lapis lazuli from Badakhshan. The Venetians loved coloured and richly veined stone—green porphyry and black granite, stone with red stripes on a white ground, stone with white stripes on an orange ground. In the church of Saint Mark, there are more than fifty different types of stone.

But the principal stone of Venice was quarried in Istria. Istrian stone endures heat and cold; it is easily worked and, most importantly, it resembles its sister stone, marble. Once it has been smoothed and polished, it can scarcely be distinguished from that material. It is an example of Venetian show. It was used as foundation for the great houses and churches. It was used for sculpture, for framing doors and windows, for columns and for keystones, for quays and coats of arms.

There is one important fact about the stone. It is a limestone. It comes from the action of the sea, made up by the unimaginable compound of billions of marine creatures. It represents the compacted time of the sea. It is the essence of sea. When Auden imagined a limestone landscape, he could hear the murmur of underground streams. It is indissolubly connected with the life and history of water. Marble itself is also limestone, hardened and changed so that it is more resistant to the sea air. That is why it was often used upon the façades of the churches and greater houses. So the sea has become, by metamorphosis, the stone of Venice. The stone glows with the inner translucence of the ocean. It glistens. It gleams. It shimmers. It has been described as a forest of marble, springing upward from the petrified trees within its foundations. Ruskin devotes many paragraphs, in the aptly entitled Stones of Venice, to the designs of foliage and flowers sculpted in stone; the ornamentation is so careful that the stone leaves of a vine are every one varied in position. There are branches and twisting tendrils, drifting leaves and bunches of grapes; every rib and vein of the foliage may be copied exactly. It is a way of commemorating nature, but it is also a way of mocking it.

The visitors come to Venice precisely because of its stone. For the traveller, it is a city of buildings rather than of people. Stones are the life of the city. There is a tradition of sacred stones. Stones in the form of Byzantine crosses were set into the front of palaces. Arrangements of oval stones and stone crosses are found on many churches and houses. Above the Gothic doorways are generally to be found tympana of stone, carved with angels or with saints. Stone was a way of giving form to spirit. There are stones of faith and there are stones of scripture, with passages from the Bible inscribed upon lintels and gateways; there are stones of the law, on which legal precepts and decrees were carved; there are stones of punishment, the sites of public justice and of execution; there are stones of infamy to mark places of treachery and disgrace, the words on one stone column declaring that it “was erected, in view of the public, to be a terror to others, and a warning for ever to all.” These tokens go very far back, to the primitive belief in stone as the image of God found in cultures as diverse as those of India and Celtic Europe, Melanesia and the Americas. It happens that these beliefs were perpetuated by the very special circumstances of the floating city. Precious stones were also magical stones. Rilke once described Venice as a “stone fairy tale.”

The Venetian painters lavished their wealth of colour and of invention upon stone. In Carpaccio and Veronese, in Bellini and Tintoretto, there are vistas upon vistas of stone. It is the landscape of their imagination. The public buildings of Venice elicited from them a profound veneration and respect. The staircases and columns, the hallways and turrets, are their real subject. Their sensibility lies behind Canaletto’s later meticulous rendering of the city’s architecture. Canaletto’s painting “The Stonemaker’s Yard” is a meditation upon the power and potential of stone. His canvases were generally prepared with a brick-red ground.

But Venice has a secret. It is also accurate and appropriate to describe it as a city of masonry. It is in large part built with brick, artfully faced with marble or with stucco. In the most profound sense, it is deceptive. The great palaces are constructed out of brick. The churches, and the dwellings, are of brick. It is in truth a city of baked clay, taken from the earth of the mainland. Yet it is clothed with marble and limestone in homage to the sea rather than to the earth.

The brick and stone of Venetian buildings have on occasions been compared to the flesh and bone of the human body. The glow of limestone has been likened to the glow of flesh. So the stones may live and move. The stones of Venice seem light. The buildings are aerated, ready to rise from their moorings and soar into the empyrean. When the narrator of Proust’s Time Regained stumbles in the entrance of the Hôtel des Guermantes in Paris, he is thrown back in time to the moment when he stood upon two uneven paving stones in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s; the moment of vision afforded him overwhelming happiness, obliterating time and space in a euphony of sensation between past and present. The stones of Venice brought him joy and indifference to death.

Many legends and superstitions surround the stone of Venice. In some veined marbles strange shapes appear. On a wall of Saint Mark’s, for example, two slabs of marble were sawn apart; they revealed the image of a bearded hermit with his hands folded in prayer. There is scarcely a stone in that edifice that has not been sanctified by legend or report. Here is to be found the rock from which Moses drew water. Here are stones upon which Christ walked, or upon which His blood was spilled. On the wall facing the piazzetta, beside the basilica, are two groups of porphyry images. It is believed that they are four Saracens who were turned to stone in the act of robbing the basilica of its sacred treasures.

In another part of Venice, by the Salizzada del Pignater, there is lodged above an arch a heart made of brick; if two lovers touch it, their passion will last for ever. Statues suddenly move or vanish. On the night of Good Friday the statue of Judas, in the Madonna dell’Orto, was said to rise in flight for Jerusalem; he was accompanied by the stone images of Justice and of Faith on the roof of the same church. The statue of a merchant, still to be seen in front of one Venetian house, was supposed to cry in February when the air was colder than any stone. The good and the innocent, if they placed their hands upon the breast of the merchant, would hear his heart beating. Many of the legends of the city are preoccupied with one central fear—that the stone will come alive. There are stories of stone lions bounding into life, of wizards that could turn stone into flesh, of a column by Saint Mark’s that on foggy nights secreted blood. If Venice has turned the natural world into stone, its secret longing might be to reverse the miracle and once more to become fresh and yielding. Stone represents the longing to die, a tendency and a yearning to be found in every city. God created the natural world, as the Venetians were taught, but humankind made the city. After his murder of Abel, Cain became the founder of cities. Cities represent the primal curse, and the abandonment of natural ties. Venice is their avatar.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of the early-sixteenth-century doge, Leonardo Loredan. Note the sumptuousness of the dress and the strict serenity and reticence of his gaze. This severity was part of the official imagery of the Venetian state. (photo credit i3.1)

A seventeenth-century painting, attributed to Joseph Heintz, depicting an audience with the doge in one of the chambers of the ducal palace. The government of Venice had perfected the art of self-presentation. Every political act had its own ceremonial. All the actions and decisions of the state were hallowed by tradition and sanctioned by divine authority. (photo credit i3.2)

Three eighteenth-century Venetian lawyers, depicted by Pietro Uberti. They were dressed for the part, and indeed every Venetian was clothed according to rank and status. The lawyers had an especial place in Venetian life, where it was believed that the people were more fond of talking than of doing. There was a saying to the effect that a Venetian law only lasted for seven days before being forgotten. (photo credit i3.3)

An early-fifteenth-century tempera by Jacobello del Fiore depicting justice and the Archangels. The justice of Venice became one of the myths of Venice. It was deemed to be ancient. It was deemed to be divinely inspired. It was related, in ultimate form, to the judicial salvation of humankind. (photo credit i3.4)

A photograph of the lion’s mouth in the ducal palace, where evidence of scandal or wrongdoing was posted. It was one of the many mouths that became a post-box for accusations against any Venetian. The lion’s mouth was of course a Venetian invention. It was the mouth of the city, a capacious orifice of whispers and rumours. It meant that there was a general atmosphere of surveillance, even in the most private quarters of the city. (photo credit i3.5)

An eighteenth-century engraving of Pozzi Prison of Venice. The “pozzi” were the wells of Venice and this underground dungeon, close to the waters, was named after them. It had a reputation for noisomeness, with the suggestion that it were better to be entombed alive than to be lowered into the hole. (photo credit i3.6)

Dream of Saint Ursula, painted by Vittore Carpaccio in 1495. The sacred interior is directly modelled upon Venetian interiors. Here are two double-arched windows, and two white Greek vases with a plant in each. The lower walls are covered with green cloth. There is a reading-table covered by a red cloth, and a very small three-legged stool covered with crimson cloth. On the table are a book and an hourglass. (photo credit i3.7)

The Tailor by Pietro Longhi. This eighteenth-century painting portrays one of the most important figures in Venetian patrician society. The Venetians had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost childlike delight in dressing up. The patrician women of Venice, like the lady in the painting, in particular loved sumptuous attire. (photo credit i3.8)

The Geography Lesson by Pietro Longhi. The Venetians were expert, and famous, cartographers. They were looking for fixity and certainty, in their watery world. They were guided by the twin imperatives of trade and of travel, both of them embodied in the figure of Marco Polo. In this painting a fashionable patrician lady consults a globe with a pair of compasses in her right hand; an open atlas lies at her feet. (photo credit i3.9)

The Perfume Seller by Pietro Longhi. Perfume was one of the many luxuries in which Venice traded. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented. Note the ladies in Carnival costume, a mantle of silk or velvet that covered the head and shoulders known as the bauta(photo credit i3.10)

A wooden image of the Madonna of Mercy, carved and painted in the sixteenth century. Images of the Virgin were displayed everywhere in Venice. Hers was a popular devotion. There were many shrines on the corners of the calli, with a votive lamp burning before the Virgin. There was not a Venetian home, however humble, without its picture of the Virgin. (photo credit i3.11)

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, painted in the fourteenth century by Paolo Veneziano. This painting has the form and quality of an icon, and indeed images of the Madonna were venerated in Venice as the workers of miracles. The Virgin was also the archetypal “mother,” in whose capacious embrace the sons and daughters of Venice could rest. (photo credit i3.12)

The Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni Battista. The cult of Mary penetrated every aspect of Venetian society. There were more than three hundred altars, in the fifteenth century, devoted to the worship of the Virgin. Venice was the Virgin, too, because she had never been assaulted. She was inviolate and immaculate, protected by the waves of the sea like a precious girdle. Mary is peace. Peace is stability. (photo credit i3.13)

The Tempest painted by Giorgio da Castelfranco, otherwise known as Giorgione, in the early fifteenth century. In his study of this quintessentially Venetian artist the English critic, Walter Pater, declared that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” In Venice oil paint can be liquid music. (photo credit i3.14)

Young Woman at Her Toilet by Giovanni Bellini. This painting of 1515 is evidence that the Venetians believed colour or colorito to be the mother of painting. They enjoyed the bliss of its warm and capacious embrace. Colour was soft and intimate and harmonious. That is why Venetian painting has often been associated with the depiction of the female nude. The naked woman can be said to be the invention of the Venetian artists of the sixteenth century. (photo credit i3.15)

Venus of Urbino by Titian (detail). The sensuousness and voluptuousness of Venetian art are most clearly seen in the female nudes of Titian. Planes and lines are supplanted by curves. His art is alive. It captures the movement and the appearance of life. It captures the effect of the transient moment. It is ardent. It has no sense of calculation or theory. (photo credit i3.16)

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