OUTER BEAUTY, INNER JOY: CONTEMPLATING THE SOUL OF THE RENAISSANCE
The first time I came to Italy, I arrived in Venice on a sunny September day and stepped out of the train station into another world. The usual street vendors were displaying their wares, and swarms of tourists surged along the streets and in the squares. But this scene from daily life was unfolding against a backdrop of sparkling waterways and buildings of unbelievable beauty. The art and architecture of the place leaped out at me. I screened out the tourists and began to absorb the ancient vibrations of the city.
So began my Italian ‘second life.’ I found myself returning to Italy again and again, with shorter periods between trips. The continued exposure to the ancient sights impressed themselves in my mind, working a kind of slow alchemy, drawing me deeper into the contemplation of their forms and essence.
Eventually I began to delve into the writings of the Renaissance, for it was primarily the work of this period that compelled me. Perhaps I was inspired by the courage of the artists who broke from dogma, and in returning to the study of the past, found a new freedom of expression. They studied the wisdom of ancient esoteric traditions that said love and beauty could be a route to divine insights. They wanted to act as a conduit for the all-originating Source they believed in, to bring an immaterial substance into form. Thomas Moore, in his Care of the Soul, speaks of the Renaissance artists, theologians, and merchants who “cultivated a concrete world full of soul. The beauty of Renaissance art is inseparable from the soul-affirming quality that tutored it.”
I realized that in order to fully appreciate the work of Renaissance artists, it would be important to enter into the essential impulse that inspired their creations. And I also realized that through viewing these works, it would be possible to become transformed by them. The artists brought the qualities of harmony, proportion, order, and a unique beauty or grace into their productions. What new essence can seeing and absorbing the energy from these old creations bring to an individual’s life? I think it’s possible to find, in the Italian Renaissance writings and art, a way to initiate a Renaissance in one’s own life.
In making Outer Beauty, Inner Joy I was following my inner driving force, or daemon, as Plato called it. Working with these words and images helped connect me with the energy of the writers and artists presented here. I hope this book will be a springboard for those wishing to explore more deeply the art and literature of this time and place, taking the best of what the Renaissance had to offer, and incorporating it into their own lives. The subject of the Italian Renaissance is vast, its story complex, and I am focusing here only on a few elements that have impressed themselves upon me. There are many more players in this story who have not been included. This book is simply a brief encapsulation of the way I’ve understood what I’ve been reading and discovering, but the depths of knowledge to be found in this subject continues for me without a visible end in sight. These pages are only a dip into the Renaissance, one which may lead the reader to a longer and more profound immersion, and one that I think can be beneficial in reawakening a part of ourselves that may have grown dormant in the modern, technological world. I believe that the only way to deal with the immense problems we face today will be through recognizing the union of the material and spiritual worlds, cultivating tolerance for all great spiritual traditions, and deepening our connection to each other and to the planet.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF POLYPHONIC MUSIC IN 16TH CENTURY VENICE
Music had always played a major part in the society and culture of the Republic of Venice, and the 16th century was a time of great musical innovation. The Cathedral of San Marco was the center of musical activity, and since the Republic and the Cathedral came under the jurisdiction of the Doge–the chief magistrate–rather than any ecclesiastical authority, Venice developed very different musical and liturgical traditions from Rome. There were many parades and processions of state, fusing civic and religious elements, in which music performance was an integral part. The Scuole, confraternities which served as religious and charitable organizations, also played a vital role in the cultural and ceremonial life of the city. The largest and most important of these confraternities, the Scuole Grandi, maintained musical establishments for long periods of time, and employed musicians for their concerts, religious processions, and participation in state celebrations. Wealthy private citizens supported musicians, too, and many music-loving nobles became patrons for ensembles of musicians in the same way as the ruling houses of Mantua, Ferrara, or Urbino. A great number of people possessed musical instruments, and all the classes enjoyed making music and listening to it.
By the 16th century, Venice had also become an important center of music publishing, and composers came from all over Europe to benefit from the new technology of the printing press. Many printers were also active musicians and composers, and they played a direct role in the arranging of the pieces they published. In addition to being a center of musical excellence, Venice had many workshops for the manufacture and export of musical instruments. Still another event in the history of music in the 16th century was the growth of the Commedia dell’Arte, a form of improvisational theatre. After about 1550, troupes of traveling players began to perform in Lombardy and the Venetian Republic, and soon the best troupes were invited to play in courts all over Italy and Europe.
But it was the polyphonic style which developed at the Cathedral of San Marco which became Venice’s greatest legacy to the history of music. Before the 9th century, plainsong, a type of chant consisting of a single, unaccompanied melodic line, sung in a free, rather than a measured rhythm, had been the liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church. Then an early form of polyphony called organum developed, in which one voice at an interval was added to enhance the harmony. Over time, composers began to write more parts that were not just simple transpositions and created true polyphony, with several interweaving melodic lines. Between 1317 and 1318, Marchettus of Padova, a musical theorist and composer, wrote two major treatises on plainchant and polyphony. These treatises, which were widely copied and disseminated, proved to be greatly influential during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Polyphony became firmly established in Venice by way of the Franco-Flemish school. By the 15th century, musicians in the low countries (modern day Netherlands and Belgium) were already using polyphony in sacred music, and many came to the major centers of Italy: Rome, Ferrara, Florence, and Milan, where they influenced Italian composers. The election of Flemish composer Adrian Willaert as maestro di cappella of the Cathedral of San Marco in 1527 (a post he retained until his death in 1562) proved to be a turning point in the history of music. Employing San Marco’s unique, spacious interior with opposing choir lofts, Willaert divided the choral body into two sections and wrote antiphonal music in which these choirs sang successive, often contrasting phrases of music, united by the sound of the organ. The effect proved to be magnificent, as the sound bounced off the main dome and choir area, aided by the capacious acoustical space. There may also have been additional platforms, or palchetti, built to accommodate instrumentalists during larger festivals. These ‘cori spezzati,’ or split choirs, represented a significant shift from former polyphonic compositions, and through his work as a musician, teacher, and composer, Willaert helped to establish the Venetian School–a group of outstanding composers including Cipriano de Rore, Giseffo Zarlino, Claudio Merlo, and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. They created great works suited to Venice’s unique cultural and religious traditions and received acclaim from all over Europe.
From Hobby Natura, November 2009. Click to see the printed article in English and Italian.
LIVING IN VENICE
I’d been coming to Venice for years, and it was always a place of respite for me, an oasis where I could escape the noise and confusion of New York, my home town. I’d rent an apartment and stay two, three, or four weeks at a time. Here I could shake off the jitters of a high-speed pace of life and curb the feeling that time was slipping away all too quickly.
Venice felt safe and stable, especially compared with New York, where everything is always changing, and buildings are continuously being torn down and put up. Of course things are changing in Venice too, but slowly, and not so visibly. With the lack of cars and the virtual impossibility of building any modern structures, except for the Calatrava bridge at Piazzale Roma. Venice truly is a world apart, seeming to exist in its own unique time and space.
Very little ‘business’ except the tourist trade exists here anymore. The Venetian population is steadily diminishing, and Venetian craft shops and traditional bars are being bought by foreigners. Still, except for the motor boats, television antennae, and the way tourists talk and dress these days, many things have remained more or less the same. Venice is still hanging on to some remnant of an old way of life.
Now I’ve decided to stay for an extended period of time. When I arrived last November, it was bone-cold, damp, and foggy. But the presence of waters all around me and the gray skies had a calming, protective effect. It was so very quiet, like a cocoonâ€”quite the oppostive of New York, “the city that never sleeps.”
But New York is big, you can travel vast distances and still be in ‘The City.’ Buildings are tall, but from a certain height, you can see for miles and have a sense of space. Here I can also walk and walk, but there is a sense of restriction: walls are everywhere and most apartments face one. Now the feeling of being in a protective space, the feeling I used to love when I came here for short periods of time, is often accompanied by one of being too enclosed. Even looking out to sea, I feel I’m cut off from the rest of the world.
Perhaps this constraint confers another kind of freedom though. Over the centuries, writers and artists have found inspiration in Venice; there are few distractions and the city impels a kind of interiority, making it a good environment in which to concentrate and to create. Creative people often feel that they don’t ‘fit in’ to normal society, but find a sense of belonging here. The longer I stay in Venice, the more the city seems to become a part of me, and I of it. The streets feel like they are ‘mine.’ People who love Venice become very possessive of it.
Venice can be alternately melancholy or cheerful in an otherworldly way. On its melancholy days, the peeling walls and dark waters impart a sense of foreboding and gloom. It’s on days like these that I notice the pictures of the newly departed that are pasted up on walls. And the evidence that time has worn this city down becomes more striking. So many palazzi are abandoned and decrepit, their windows dark. They seem to be in mourning for their former glory. I wish I could go back to the Renaissance for a day or two, back to when the buildings were frescoed and decorated with gold, when travelers poured in from all over Europe to hear concerts in convents and conservatories; or to the 19th century, when it was still possible to swim in the canals and go to the ‘Bagni,’ to bathe in fresh or salt water and take mud baths.
Still, the art and architecture live on. I go to Rome for a weekend, and the eternal city is wonderful. It’s open, filled with parks and big spaces. It also has glorious art and architecture. But these exist side by side with modern buildings and speeding motorists. Rome is happening, it’s young, it’s ‘now.’ When I return to Venice, it feels a bit old and shabby, small and close. Yet soon the walls and water entice me into their domain, and I again give in to their magnetism. I often think of the many public events and rituals that were once held in many parts of the city: Musical processions, marriage festivities, theatrical performances, political parades. Somehow, the walls must have absorbed these vibrations and retain them still.
â€” excerpt from Hobby Natura Magazine, December 2008 Click to read the full article and see more photos of Venice.
RENAISSANCE GARDEN DESIGN AND THE VILLA D’ESTE
The things formed by nature serve as art’s material, while a single formless thing serves as nature’s material.
Set against the backdrop of the rolling countryside of Tivoli, a short bus ride into the hills above Rome, the Villa D’Este fulfills the Renaissance ideal of garden design as a perfect unity between art and nature. One of the tenets of the Neo-Platonic philosophy of the Italian Renaissance, which pervaded the art and literature of the time, held that an individual life was to complete God’s creation and make the world a more beautiful place. And while nature was already perfect in its pristine state, it could also be used as the artist’s material. During the Renaissance garden design grew to be an art equal to architecture. Rich families were the trendsetters in garden design. They expressed their appreciation for the beauty of the outside world by creating homes and gardens that combined the indoors and outdoors in a unified space.
Renaissance artists and poets had a penchant for evoking the spirit of a past ‘golden age,’ and writings on Arcadia and other mythic Greek gardens of bliss and perfection were an inspiration in Renaissance garden design. Arcadia was an artistic product, not a garden like any on earth, but a place of ideal beauty, where mythological creatures and human beings co-existed in a state of purity. A Renaissance garden was nature brought to its height of perfection by the artist’s touch. Renaissance literature also contains many references to the locus amoenus, or ‘pleasant place’-where one could escape life’s pain and struggles and rest in the contemplation of harmony and beauty. A book which particularly influenced Renaissance garden design is Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Strife of Love in a Dream, published in Venice in 1499 with 168 woodcuts. Set among ancient architectural settings with the harmonic properties and proportions revered by Renaissance artists, it tells the story of a man searching for his ideal love, who he finds in a perfect garden by a fountain of Venus.
In conformity with the Renaissance garden scheme, the Villa D’Este is geometrically laid out, its main axis balanced by cross axes, and has around five hundred jets in various kinds of water features. Comissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II D’Este, Governor of Tivoli, work began on the Villa D’Este and its gardens in 1550. The Cardinal took much of the marble used in the building of the gardens, as well as some of the statues, from the ruins of the nearby Villa Adriana, the one time retreat of Emperor Hadrian. Ancient Roman methods of hydraulic engineering had to be used to enable a sufficient supply of water, from the Aniene River and the Rivellese spring, to power all of the fountains, cascades, and pools. Designed by architect Pirro Ligurio, an architect steeped in knowledge of the ancient world, Villa D’Este like other Renaissance gardens has lots of space, pathways, grottoes decorated with paintings and mosaics, and statues of gods and goddesses. Although Villa D’Este was created for the enjoyment of the nobility, the legacy of this Renaissance patron and the artists who worked for him now benefits everyone who cares to visit. Included today in the UNESCO world heritage list, the Villa D’Este is a tour de force in the late Renaissance mannerist style of garden design and architecture.
One first enters a courtyard with a fountain on a side wall containing a sleeping nymph lying in a grotto, surrounded by apple boughs. These symbols recall the Greek mythological creatures known as the Hesperides, nymphs who care for a garden of great joy and contentment, said to be located on a blessed island near the ancient world ocean. And the apples in the Garden of the Hesperides were supposed to confer immortality. The rooms in the Villa itself also contain many references to classical Greek and Roman mythology and are the work some of the great Mannerist artists. From the main Sala, or central large room, there is a magnificent view down the central axis of the garden. No other Italian Renaissance garden has a more lavish display of fountains as the Villa D’Este.
The Fountain of the Organ contains a kind of hydraulic and pneumatic system that once played tunes evocative of birds and wind. Today, thanks to modern organ specialists, it again plays music. It is decorated with reliefs of Apollo, the inventor of music, and Orpheus, whose melodious voice was said to calm even wild animals.
The fountain of Diana of Ephesus has water flowing from her numerous breasts, symbolizing fertility and abundance, both of nature and of intellect. This goddess, known as Artemis to the Greeks, originated in Ephesus in present day Turkey, where her sacred temple was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Other fountains include the Fountain of the Dragon, the Oval Fountain, and the Avenue of the Hundred Fountains.
Click for more information on Villa D’Este.
LIGHT, COLOR, MAGIC: THE FASCINATION OF VENETIAN GLASS
The word “Murano” is synonymous with the highest quality glass made in the world. For hundreds of years, the artisans of Murano have been innovators in the design and production of all kinds of glass objects: vases, bowls, mirrors, light fixtures, glasses, dishes, paperweights, jewelry and precious art.
You can find all of these and more in factories and showrooms on Murano, and in shops in central Venice. Murano is a lagoon island, which, like the city of Venice, is made up of a cluster of smaller islands connected by bridges. Just seven minutes by boat from Venice, Murano is easily reached by taking a vaporetto, water taxi, from the Fondamente Nuove or from San Zaccaria.
Click to read more about Murano glass on thesavvygal.com.
DIVINE WINE BARS: A TASTE OF VENICE
A visit to La Serenissima, the most Serene Republic, as Venice used to be called, calms the mind, delights the senses, and, like all of Italy, awakens the taste buds. The quality of Italy’s food and wine is legendary, and during the Renaissance Venice was most famous for its sophisticated cooking. Although today the city is known more for its art, beauty and peaceful way of life than for its cuisine, Venice does have its own traditional ways of enjoying the fruits of the field.
Arriving in Venice you make your way by foot or boat through a world of ancient wonders: Gothic and Renaissance palaces, ancient stone bridges, gondolas on the canals, busts of angels and faces in bas-relief on the facades of buildings, open-air markets, store windows displaying hand-blown glass, people of all nationalities mingling on the streets.
Click to read more about Venice’s wine bars on thesavvygal.com.
LOVE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE STYLE
“Judah Abrabanel, known as Leone Ebreo, author of Philosophy of Love (1558)” We humans can aspire to become angels by way of love.
Eastern cultures have a long tradition in using sexuality not only for pleasure and procreation, but also as a way to grow spiritually. During the Renaissance in Italy, many people became intrigued with this very link between sexuality and spirituality. A vision of the human body as a work of beauty and the pursuit of love in all its forms began to spread through society.
The 14th century welcomed a rebirth of interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Scholars recovered manuscripts that had been in the keeping of monasteries during the Middle Ages. Artists and architects looked closely at buildings and statuary from the time of the Roman empire, and they became fascinated with ideals of classical composition and beauty.
Artists admired sculptures of the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world. The perfectly proportioned bodies of these ancient statues affirmed Plato’s idea that that the physical world is a representation of a perfect and changeless Divine world. Thousands of nudes were painted and sculpted during the Renaissance. In the hands of the great artists, the fragile, primal, naked human form gained a divine perfection, one that seemed to transcend mortality.
Nude images decorated both public and private spaces. Italian aristocrats had their villas adorned with frescoes and statues. Michelangelo created his giant David to stand in the center of Florence; his Adam, to grace the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The physical body could now be accepted as part of the manifestation of God, the One Supreme Being.
Marsilio Ficino, who made the first complete translation of the works of Plato from Greek into Latin during the 15th century, found similarities in the Platonic and Christian concepts of love. He taught that human love and friendship in its highest form, which he called Platonic love, can mirror the soul’s love for God.
Influenced by Ficino’s teachings, educated men and women began talking and writing about sexual love in terms of spiritual bonds. They said that sexual relationships, when true love existed, could be a stepping stone to Divine love. Renaissance writers spoke of two kinds of physical love.
The first kind was driven by lust, in which one person uses another for immediate gratification. This kind of selfish physical love, which could satisfy the body’s appetite but not the soul’s desire for union, could only bring the individual down to the level of animals. Once completed, this kind of love could even turn to hate.
Another kind of love, true love, was said to exist when two people wished to unite their souls as well as their bodies. Since physical love can never bring about the lasting union of two souls, in this kind of relationship sexual union can’t quell the flames of desire. On the contrary, it only serves to increase it. Therefore, this kind of love was said to be limitless and eternal.
Erotic longing is really a longing to merge with something greater than ourselves, they said. For isn’t every kind of human love a force that holds the promise of taking us beyond the limitations of our individual selves? Therefore, they reasoned, carnal love is of the same essence as divine love, and, when used for the highest good of both partners, contains the seeds of immortality.
KEEPING ANGELS IN MIND
I’ve always liked to keep images of angels near me. Over the years, I’ve acquired a variety of carved and painted angels purchased in Italy where I frequently travel. In Italian Medieval and Renaissance art, angels are ubiquitous. Whenever I go to Italy, I see angels all around. The ones created centuries ago look out from bas-reliefs and carvings in ancient architecture, and from paintings in churches and museums. Nineteenth-century angels keep a compassionate watch at graveyards. Newer angels, created by modern-day artists who are keeping alive an old tradition, gaze at passersby from shop windows.
I’ve also taken many photographs in Italy-of art, architecture, landscapes- whatever beautiful and inspiring scenes have attracted my eye. Recently, I’ve been photographing Renaissance art and architecture for a book, and of course angels are included.
Going through my slides, picking which photos to use, I started noticing images of angels that seemed to be calling out to be printed. During the time that I was printing and matting the angels, and afterwards, when I had placed them together in their own box, I found myself dwelling on their images in my imagination. Now whenever I felt fearful, my mind would immediately go to my portfolio of angels.
The act of photographing and printing the angels has made them alive for me in a way in which they hadn’t been before. Not only that, but I’ve also started feeling connected to the people who made the angels in the first place.
The spirit of the angels had to pass from a mysterious and invisible dimension into the hearts and minds of the artists who carved and painted them over the centuries. So I’m partaking both of that invisible realm from which angels come, as well as of the spirit of the people who made them.
As I contemplate the images of the angels, I notice myself softening, feeling more compassion for others as well as for myself. At the same time, the people in my life seem to be acquiring the helpful qualities of angels. But when people don’t behave as I wish they would, or I do something for which I find it hard to forgive myself, or things turn out differently than I might have wished, I turn my attention back to the angels.
During the Renaissance, Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola said, “It’s not freedom from the body, but spiritual intelligence which makes the angel.” It seems that keeping angels in mind is helping me to lift myself up and to live in a better way.
The season of Carnival
Makes the whole world change.
Whoever is well, whoever is ill
Carnival brings happiness to all.
Whoever has money spends it;
Whoever has none wants to find it;
Take a job or sell yourself,
To go out and have a good time.
Here’s the wife, there’s the husband,
They go wherever they choose;
Each one runs to take a chance
To go and play, to go and dance. La stagion del Carnovale
tutto il Mondo fa cambiar.
Chi sta bene e chi sta male
Carnevale fa rallegrar.
Chi ha denari se li spende;
chi non ne ha ne vuol trovar;
e s’impegna, e poi si vende,
per andarsi a sollazzar.
Qua la moglie e lÃ il marito,
ognuno va dove gli par;
ognun corre a qualche invito,
chi a giocare e chi a ballar.
Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), Venetian playwright
Translation by Julianne Davidow
From its pagan roots in ancient Rome, to the Christian festival of life before the austerities of Lent, Italian Carnival survived through the ages, spreading through early modern Europe.
The word carnival, carnevale in Italian, is derived from the medieval Latin term carnem laxare, “leave the flesh,” or carnem levare, “lift or take away the flesh.” Before making sacrifices for Lent, Carnival allowed people the pleasures of the flesh –whether that meant the eating of meat, or the sensual enjoyment of one’s own body.
Carnival was traditionally a time of death, regeneration and rebirth. Until 1525, a bull and twelve pigs were ritually sacrificed in Piazza San Marco, Venice. Doge Andrea Gritti, who ruled from 1523 to 1538, instituted reforms to bring the Carnival season to a higher level. He brought architect Jacopo Sansovino to Venice to build the Marciana Library, Procuratie Nuove, governmental offices, and the Mint, making the Piazza the one we can see today.
In Italian cities, the streets swirled with all kinds of entertainment at carnival time: Plays, pagents, fireworks, parades, and dancing.
Rome had races, with both animals and men, and warlike games took place in Piazza Navona. In Florence, crowds in masks, on foot and on horseback, moved among floats with actors portraying characters from classical mythology, such as Paris and Helen from the Trojan War or gods such as Eros, Greek god of love, and Dionysus, god of wine and revelry. Even Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci were employed designing floats.
In the Republic of Venice, there was dancing in the campos, and drinking and brawling in alley ways. Balls were held in palazzi and on boats on the Grand Canal. Carnival season in Venice lasted from the feast of St. Stephen, December 26th, until the beginning of Lent. Images of sexuality, birth, and death were contained in allegories performed as public entertainments. There were many sexual parodies, and it was also a common custom to celebrate marriages at this time of year. People enjoyed watching fireworks and human pyramids, but cruel jokes and drunken escapades were also common.
All classes of Venetians walked in maschera, in masks and costumes, disguised. Everyone, rich and poor alike, could partake in a great game of pretend. People took on new identities, allowing their ‘real’ selves to die while they put on the clothes of other members of society. It was a time of reinvention, a time to act out fantasies. The poor could pretend to be rich, men could be women, sinners could dress as saints.
Even nuns in convents were known to dress up, both in secular women’s and men’s clothing. Many convent inmates put on plays. Revelers serenaded the nuns from beneath the covered windows, hoping to be let in.
VENICE IN MY DREAMS
On the night of January first, 2002, I dreamed that a woman came into my bedroom and wrote the word Venice on the wall. She resembled an old person I had met at a party that day, but a young version, with long blonde hair. Maybe it’s the same woman, a sixteenth-century courtesan, who lives in a novel in my head.
The next day I remembered how the last time I was in Venice, I’d imagined dressing in the kinds of clothes this courtesan wore, in the city where she lived. I had been researching Renaissance Venice for some time, reading about Veronica Franco, a sixteenth-century courtesan and poet. But recently I hadn’t been thinking much about traveling. I had a lot of pressing things to do at home in New York. After the dream however, when I looked at the web page for the city of Venice and discovered that Carnival began on February first, I found myself making plans to go there.
Like almost every New Yorker, I’d experienced great anxiety during 2001. None of the assumptions I’d made about my life could be taken for granted anymore. I’ve always been the kind of person who contemplated mortality on a daily basis, but now I’d become even more painfully aware of each moment slipping away, and needed to regain some sense of equilibrium. Whenever I’ve felt troubled I’ve found solace in Venice, and it was good to know I’d soon be there again.
I have an enduring fascination with Venice. For years before I went there for the first time, I had been having dreams with a few Italian words thrown in, although I had never studied the language. Once I ev/a/pen dreamed I was in a room overlooking a canal.
On another occasion, I was in a jewelry store and felt compelled to buy a small gold charm, a winged lion holding a book. Later I learned that this is the lion of St. Mark, patron saint of Veniceh2. St. Mark’s lion was the symbol of the Venetian city-state known as La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic, which, until Napoleon arrived and conquered her, had been an independent community for almost a millennium.
Now Venice has turned into an expensive Disneyland, lined with souvenir and designer clothing shops, attracting throngs of tourists from all over the world. When John Ruskin, author of The Stones of Venice, returned in 1845 after a lapse of six years, he was distraught over the decay that had taken place since his first visit. One hundred and fifty years later, I can only with difficulty try to imagine the splendor of the city during the Renaissance, when palaces were covered with porphyry and gold.
It’s still Venice, though, and the stones and buildings retain the vibrations of a thousand years of history. The first time I went there, in 1990, I spent the week in a daze, walking for hours. Surrounding me were Gothic and Byzantine palaces, ancient stone bridges, gondolas on the canals, busts of angels and faces in bas-relief on the facades of buildings, open-air markets, store windows displaying hand-blown glass, people of all nationalities mingling on the streets.
Each time I return, I have the sensation of being enveloped by something old, something real, something lasting. Thereâ€™s an eternal feeling about the city, even as it crumbles into the sea.
After the plane reservations have been made and an apartment rented, I realize how relieved I am at the prospect of escaping New York City to return to a place where the only two modes of transportation are by foot or by boat. But the vaporetti, water taxis, are motorized and packed with tourists these days. So I prefer to walk or take the traghetto, the gondola service between two opposing points along a canal. That way Iâ€™m more in sync with the old ways.
I’ve never been able to feel a part of any particular group, church or organization, being more of a “solitary meditator.” But these days, no prayer or practice can stem my fear as dark waters of chaos swirl about the world. And although there are many religions and nationalities in New York, none seem intrinsic to the place. But in Venice, the vestiges of some of its once vast array of public rituals and calendrical rites still remain. As an independent Republic, Venice had a cohesive societal structure that allowed it to remain stable despite the tremendous forces for change that were occurring all around. Public rituals supported and sustained this unity and stability. Venetians of all classes identified strongly with their city, believing that it was a place chosen by God and that they were a chosen people. Legend has it that a mystical bond was established between Saint Mark and Venice when he stopped there while evangelizing in Italy. He had a dream in which an angel came and spoke the words that are now written on the book held by the winged lion: “Peace to you Mark, my Evangelist.” The angel also told him that his body would eventually rest there. And, according to legend, his relics were brought to Venice from Moslem controlled Alexandria in 827 or 828.
This, then, is the myth of Venice as a Renaissance Utopia, with a selfless ruling class, a balanced constitution, and a lack of social tensions.
Gabriele Fiamma, a fifteenth-century writer said: “I was born a Venetian and live in this happy homeland, protected by the prayers and guardianship of Saint Mark, from whom that Most Serene Republic acknowledges its greatness, its victories and all its good fortune.”
Ah, to be able to share in that feeling, if only for a little while.
â€” excerpt from Rosebud