It’s been some years since I’ve been in Venice, and I found the state of the Piazza S. Marco disturbing. I was appalled by the huge ads for clothing and champagne which dominated both the Piazza and the Piazzetta — now the subject of a formal protest published in the Art Newspaper (“Ads of Sighs,“) The Art Newspaper, Friday, October 8, 2010), to which the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, has given a reply worthy of Glenn Beck: “If people want to see the building they should go home and look at a picture of it in a book.” Shame! The Accademia is also encased in one of these ads. The more I saw of them the more detestable I found them. And they only bring in “€40,000 a month for three years to cover part of Doge’s Palace overlooking the lagoon and connecting with the Bridge of Sighs—less than two pages of advertising in a daily paper.” The ad in the Piazza was notably tasteless, even mildly pornographic, with its implied comparison of gushing champagne to an ejaculation and the drinking of it to fellatio. In spite of this swinishness, Orsoni deserves credit for denying one advertiser permission to display gigantic nudes of the actress Julianne Moore, but it looks as if he is ushering in a brave new world in which the principal tourist destinations of the world will be draped in commercials, as if they were the equivalent of the Superbowl.
A structure built around the Campanile also constricted the vast space, but it was above all the crowds that assaulted the nerves. The increase in the number of tourists visiting Venice is hair-raising. Consider these figures:
1960 – 1.563.427
1970 – 1.940.239
1980 – 2.487.687
1990 – 2.760.068
2000 – 3.562.728
2007 – 5.875.370
2008 – 8,842,874
The aforementioned advertisers are getting a huge bargain, considering that all of those visitors will have monkeyed their skins into the Piazza S. Marco.
Yet, if you look at some of the canvases by Gabriel Bella in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, you’ll see similar throngs — mostly of citizens, who have turned out to celebrate one of the many festivals which once enlivened the Venetian calendar. Of course they’re dressed for the occasion, and not in tee shirts and running shoes: the festive costumes seemed to make the crowds one with the city in that peculiar harmony of city and inhabitant which once gave Venice its special character. Today tributaries from around the world keep the crowds at these dizzyingly increasing levels, at least during the warmer months and Carnival. Years ago there never seemed to be many restaurants in the city. Now there are hundreds, most of them singularly unappealing, all ready to drag in tourists from the street. Fortunately we rented an apartment with a decent kitchen, and, when a maitre d’ by the Rialto tried to entice us in, I could answer that “Si mangia meglio a casa.” The maitre d’ and his waiters laughed and agreed heartily. (We came to regret that apartment in the end, I have to say, because of the execrable business practices of the rental agent. One should be extremely careful in selecting these. I’ll post a more detailed account on tripadvisor.com.)
Yet these crowds seem to congregate pretty consistently around S. Marco and the Rialto. If you head away from these centers, you’ll find much more room to breathe, especially if you go to a museum. You may even find yourself alone, as we did for a good while in the Palazzo Grimani and the Fondazione Querini Stampalia.
Vittorio Sgarbi, Superintendent of the Venetian State Museums, in his introductory label to the small Giorgione exhibition in the Palazzo Grimani, mentions how the palace, recently restored to at least a shadow of its former glory as the seat of one of the great Renaissance collections of antiquities, has received surprisingly few visitors since it opened to the public in December 2008. As a remedy, he has inaugurated a series of exhibitions to attract a less specialized audience to these splendid interiors — none the less spectacular for their fragmentary state. The exhibition and the illustrious name attached to it seem to have had little effect: we were alone through much of our visit, eventually encountering a couple of Italian groups and a pair of Polish ladies, who avidly discussed the Tempesta at great length. Perhaps the word got around that the exhibition consisted only of old friends from the Accademia, which were not even joined by the S. Giorgio Altarpiece from nearby Castelfranco. It also seemed that none of the tourists — and there weren’t that many of them — in the Accademia missed these three masterpieces by the great Venetian painter enough to make the hour’s walk over to Santa Maria Formosa to see them. All the better for us, who were able to enjoy them in peace. Imagine the crowds if the Tempesta were to travel to the Met, the Getty, or the National Gallery in Washington.
Unfortunately we were too late for Dott. Sgarbi’s press conference, in which he invited his friend, the porno star Vittoria Risi, to pose in the nude as a tableau vivant next to Giorgione’s ruined fresco from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Apparently some of his colleagues, who were not present, were outraged. They can only have been jealous of his entrepreneurial spirit and his luck with women.
Speaking of Giorgione and the female nude, I must share an anecdote. I had the great good fortune to have been the student of Sydney Freedberg. Giorgione was one of his favorite topics, and he had particular views of his own about the authorship of various early 16th century Venetian paintings, which have been attributed either to him or to artists like the young Titian or Sebastiano del Piombo or others. His views are enshrined in a footnote in his Pelican volume on 16th century Italian painting. Sydney was also a connoisseur of women, and in a lecture he spoke most passionately about the revulsion he felt for the model in the Dresden Sleeping Venus, which he accepted as a work of 1507-08. “Her body is absolutely disgusting,” he said, “enough to make one want to become homosexual!” Try saying that in a lecture hall today.
Giorgione will be followed by Bosch and other artists, but the Palazzo Grimani remains a treasure in its own right, not least for the decorations by the former Raphael assistant, Giovanni da Udine, the curious ceiling canvas attributed to Francesco Salviati, with its inconsistent facture, and even the small reproduction of the Suovetaurilia relief, which is now in the Louvre.
This supremely elegant and monumental Julio Claudian relief, found in the Campus Martius, which depicted the triple sacrifice of pig, sheep, and bull, which the ancient Romans performed on important occasions calling for purification or protection of the city boundaries, was one of the treasures of the Grimani collection, but it was unlikely ever to have been housed in the Palazzo Grimani. This fifteenth century drawing by an artist from the Venetian mainland gives the relief a harsh, archaic quality lacking the in the original. Since the relief was probably in the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani at the Palazzo S. Marco (Palazzo Venezia) in Rome at the time, the artist presumably accompanied or visited the Cardinal there. The relief was sent to Venice in 1587 as part of the Grimani gift to the city, and it was installed in the Library of S. Marco — which is now partly covered by a Bulgari billboard.
After trying out the engulfing and extremely comfortable paper seats in the Grimani café, we moved on to the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, drawn by the great early painting by Giorgione’s teacher, Giovanni Bellini. Yet there was so much else to enjoy and to learn from there — not least the building itself, with the elegant mises à jour of the ground floor and gardens, executed by Carlo Scarpa in the early 60’s, with a new entrance space by Mario Botta, and the institution it houses. The Fondazione was created by the last descendant of the Querini Stampalia family, Count Giovanni, preserving the palace, the decorations, the art collections, and the library for future generations. It is not only a museum and a reasearch center, but a lively educational institution, most immediately evident to me in the several people of all ages, who were busily filling sketchbooks in the galleries and during the outstadnding concert of music by Vivaldi and Alessandro Scarlatti we heard that afternoon. The bookshop’s (Qshop) mixture of museum publications and whimsical examples of contemporary design reminded me of the Cooper Hewitt in New York. There was no opportunity to try the Qcoffee, which looks like a fairly serious restaurant, and is open for dinner in the evening.
Like the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, the Wallace Collection in London, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Querini Stampalia displays paintings within the context of the global decoration of the palace, including tapestries, furniture, china, porcelan, medals and coins, musical instruments, and miniature models of artilllery. There is also a collection of prints and drawings. Apart from its own virtues, this kind of display opens the visitors’ eyes to new aspects of whatever medium they favor. Some of the contexts even seem a bit eccentric, like the early tondo of the Madonna and Child by Lorenzo di Credi hanging over the bed in the otherwise consistently eighteenth century decor of the bridal chamber. Just off it we found an intimate boudoir with pleasing neo-classical stucco work uncovered during a restoration. Small oils by Michael Sweerts and fluid landscapes by Pietro Muttoni (called della Vecchia, 1603-78) were especially charming. I might well have passed over these in a picture gallery.
The nucleus of the paintings collection consists of important canvases by 17th and 18th century Venetians, like Sebastiano Ricci, Pietro Longhi, and Giambattista Tiepolo, enriched with masters like the Neapolitan Luca Giordano and the Genoese Bernardino Strozzi, who worked in Venice late in his career. This very late Madonna and Child shows an almost eccentric aspect of Strozzi’s work. However, there is also a substantial group of paintings from the sixteenth century and earlier, including superb examples of Palma Vecchio, Vincenzo Catena, and of course that supremely great early Bellini.
At five there was an excellent free concert, just less than an hour long, with mandolin sonatas by Vivaldi and Alessandro Scarlatti, organized by the Scuola di Musica Antica and played by Lars Forslund, accompanied by Lorenzo and Mario Parravicini, cello and harpsichord. Forslund was the master of about every nuance of dynamics and tone you could imagine in the mandolin, as well as some you might not. He could make the instrument sharp and piercing, as well as muted and dark. The accompaniment was spirited and sensitive, and the acoustics produced a robust, present sound, perfectly right for this music, which might well have been played in the palazzo during the composers’ lifetimes.
The nearby church of S. Maria Formosa, designed by the Codussi, is a quattrocento treasure. Of the many splendid objects within it, I’ll mention only one, because it is a particularly rarity: a large altarpiece of the Virgin adored by Saints behind the main altar by Giulia Lama (Venice, c. 1685 – after 1753), who has not quite made it into the pantheon of women artists. The daughter of a painter, she led a reclusive life and left little record behind her. Her training with Piazzetta is evident in this altarpiece, but she brings an eccentric character of her own to the work — risky exaggerations of perspective and figure drawing — which makes it linger in the memory. The post card I purchased of the work masculinized the artist’s name to Giulio: that’s how obscure she is.