Beauty and its double


During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said  that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).   

To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.


This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.

Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).


Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.

So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:

Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.

The dreary sea (and what is writ in water)

Well, not exactly the sea – but a view of the dreary Mersey, like a slab of wet concrete, through the window of Tate Liverpool. But we find the sea inside, contained in vast canvases by Turner and Twombly, turbulent, swelled by storm; the manifestation of the Sublime, as Ruskin defined it, a perilous beauty inherent in what is dangerous, terrifying.

The sea is contained inside us as well; Ruskin talks of ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings’. Both Turner and Twombly depicted the story of Hero and Leander, star-crossed, storm-tossed lovers, as a illustration of the Sublime. In Turner’s painting, the towers of Abydos fade in the twilight gloom, while the Hellespont gleams under a crescent of moon; its glow is casts long corridor to Sestos on the opposite shore, which is not visible, but we know that Hero is there, waiting (we also know that Leander will drown trying to cross the sea to her, and when Hero discovers her lover is dead, will throw herself from her tower into the sea to join him). To the right, there are nymphs or angels emerging from the water, almost water themselves – ghostly in the dim light. I don’t know if Turner would have known Keats’s poem on a Leander gem, where he evokes ‘sweet maidens … with a chastened light / Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white’, for whom Leander is ‘a victim of your beauty bright’, but Keats could be speaking directly about Turner’s extraordinary light effects, and Turner could be realising Keats’s maidens in paint.

Twombly knew Turner’s painting, he knew Keats’s poem. The first panel of his quadriptych shows Leandro being tossed in the sea, a manifestations of his churning passion; the next two panels show the sea overtaking and erasing his passion, his presence – the triumph of nature over man (and of the processes of nature over human emotion), until the final panel leaves us with nothing, apart from the final line of Keats’s poem: he’s gone, up bubbles all his amorous breath. A very Twomblyesque notion – there is nothing that remains of our passion and fury once we are silence and ash. Just words, paintings.

Twombly said ‘painting is a fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’, his take on the Sublime perhaps. That makes me think of Turner’s contemporary,Caspar David Friedrich, and his painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (not the actual sea, but a sea of fog, a haze of confusion and doubt).

I think of Byron swimming the Hellespont in honour of Leander, which makes me think of the Louis Edouard Fournier painting of Byron attending the funeral of Shelley, drowned in 1822 (which we had just seen the same morning in the Walker Art Gallery).

Shelley is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with Keats, who died the year before him; and Keats’s epitaph reads: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.