CHURCHES AND PICTURES
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
One day in the gallery of the Venetian Academy a family party of the English, whom we had often seen from our balcony in their gondolas, were kind enough to pause before Titian’s John the Baptist. It was attention that the picture could scarcely demand in strict justice, for it hangs at the end of a suite of smaller rooms through which visitors usually return from the great halls, spent with looking at much larger paintings. As these people stood gazing at the sublime figure of the Baptist,—one of the most impressive, if not the most religious, that the master has painted,—and the wild and singular beauty of the landscape made itself felt through the infinite depths of their respectability, the father of the family and the head of the group uttered approval of the painter’s conception: “Quite my idea of the party’s character,” he said; and then silently and awfully led his domestic train away.
I am so far from deriding the criticism of this honest gentleman that I would wish to have equal sincerity and boldness in saying what I thought—if I really thought any thing at all—concerning the art which I spent so great a share of my time at Venice in looking at. But I fear I should fall short of the terseness as well as the candor I applaud, and should presently find myself tediously rehearsing criticisms which I neither respect for their honesty, nor regard for their justice. It is the sad fortune of him who desires to arrive at full perception of the true and beautiful in art, to find that critics have no agreement except upon a few loose general principles; and that among the artists, to whom he turns in his despair, no two think alike concerning the same master, while his own little learning has made him distrust his natural likings and mislikings. Ruskin is undoubtedly the best guide you can have in your study of the Venetian painters; and after reading him, and suffering confusion and ignominy from his theories and egotisms, the exercises by which you are chastised into admission that he has taught you any thing cannot fail to end in a humility very favorable to your future as a Christian. But even in this subdued state you must distrust the methods by which he pretends to relate the aesthetic truths you perceive to certain civil and religious conditions: you scarcely understand how Tintoretto, who genteelly disdains (on one page) to paint well any person baser than a saint or senator, and with whom “exactly in proportion to the dignity of the character is the beauty of the painting,”—comes (on the next page) to paint a very “weak, mean, and painful” figure of Christ; and knowing a little the loose lives of the great Venetian painters, you must reject, with several other humorous postulates, the idea that good colorists are better men than bad colorists. Without any guide, I think, these painters may be studied and understood, up to a certain point, by one who lives in the atmosphere of their art at Venice, and who, insensibly breathing in its influence, acquires a feeling for it which all the critics in the world could not impart where the works themselves are not to be seen. I am sure that no one strange to the profession of artist ever received a just notion of any picture by reading the most accurate and faithful description of it: stated dimensions fail to convey ideas of size; adjectives are not adequate to the ideas of movement; and the names of the colors, however artfully and vividly introduced and repeated, cannot tell the reader of a painter’s coloring. I should be glad to hear what Titian’s “Assumption” is like from some one who knew it by descriptions. Can any one who has seen it tell its likeness, or forget it? Can any cunning critic describe intelligibly the difference between the styles of Titian, of Tintoretto, and of Paolo Veronese,—that difference which no one with the slightest feeling for art can fail to discern after looking thrice at their works? It results from all this that I must believe special criticisms on art to have their small use only in the presence of the works they discuss. This is my sincere belief, and I could not, in any honesty, lumber my pages with descriptions or speculations which would be idle to most readers, even if I were a far wiser judge of art than I affect to be. As it is, doubting if I be gifted in that way at all, I think I may better devote myself to discussion of such things in Venice as can be understood by comparison with things elsewhere, and so rest happy in the thought that I have thrown no additional darkness on any of the pictures half obscured now by the religious dimness of the Venetian churches.
Doubt, analogous to that expressed, has already made me hesitate to spend the reader’s patience upon many well-known wonders of Venice; and, looking back over the preceding chapters, I find that some of the principal edifices of the city have scarcely got into my book even by name. It is possible that the reader, after all, loses nothing by this; but I should regret it, if it seemed ingratitude to that expression of the beautiful which beguiled many dull hours for me, and kept me company in many lonesome ones. For kindnesses of this sort, indeed, I am under obligations to edifices in every part of the city; and there is hardly a bit of sculptured stone in the Ducal Palace to which I do not owe some pleasant thought or harmless fancy. Yet I am shy of endeavoring in my gratitude to transmute the substance of the Ducal Palace into some substance that shall be sensible to the eyes that look on this print; and I forgive myself the reluctance the more readily when I remember how, just after reading Mr. Ruskin’s description of St. Mark’s Church, I, who had seen it every day for three years, began to have dreadful doubts of its existence.
To be sure, this was only for a moment, and I do not think all the descriptive talent in the world could make me again doubt St. Mark’s, which I remember with no less love than veneration. This church indeed has a beauty which touches and wins all hearts, while it appeals profoundly to the religious sentiment. It is as if there were a sheltering friendliness in its low-hovering domes and arches, which lures and caresses while it awes; as if here, where the meekest soul feels welcome and protection, the spirit oppressed with the heaviest load of sin might creep nearest to forgiveness, hiding the anguish of its repentance in the temple’s dim cavernous recesses, faintly starred with mosaic, and twilighted by twinkling altar-lamps. Though the temple is enriched with incalculable value of stone and sculpture, I cannot remember at any time to have been struck by its mere opulence Preciousness of material has been sanctified to the highest uses, and there is such unity and justness in the solemn splendor, that wonder is scarcely appealed to. Even the priceless and rarely seen treasures of the church—such as the famous golden altarpiece, whose costly blaze of gems and gold was lighted in Constantinople six hundred years ago—failed to impress me with their pecuniary worth, though I
“Value the giddy pleasure of the eyes,”
and like to marvel at precious things. The jewels of other churches are conspicuous and silly heaps of treasure; but St. Mark’s, where every line of space shows delicate labor in rich material, subdues the jewels to their place of subordinate adornment. So, too, the magnificence of the Romish service seems less vainly ostentatious there. In other churches the ceremonies may sometimes impress you with a sense of their grandeur, and even spirituality, but they all need the effect of twilight upon them. You want a foreground of kneeling figures, and faces half visible through heavy bars of shadow; little lamps must tremble before the shrines; and in the background must rise the high altar, all ablaze with candles from vault to pavement, while a hidden choir pours music from behind, and the organ shakes the heart with its heavy tones. But with the daylight on its splendors even the grand function of the Te Deum fails to awe, and wearies by its length, except in St. Mark’s alone, which is given grace to spiritualize what elsewhere would be mere theatric pomp.1 The basilica, however, is not in every thing the edifice best adapted to the Romish worship; for the incense, which is a main element of the function, is gathered and held there in choking clouds under the low wagon-roofs of the cross-naves.—Yet I do not know if I would banish incense from the formula of worship even in St. Mark’s. There is certainly a poetic if not a religious grace in the swinging censer and its curling fumes; and I think the perfume, as it steals mitigated to your nostrils, out of the open church door, is the reverendest smell in the world.
The music in Venetian churches is not commonly very good: the best is to be heard at St. Mark’s, though the director of the choir always contrives to make so odious a slapping with his bâton as nearly to spoil your enjoyment. The great musical event of the year is the performance (immediately after the Festa del Redentore) of the Soldini Masses. These are offered for the repose of one Guiseppe Soldini of Verona, who, dying possessed of about a million francs, bequeathed a part (some six thousand francs) annually to the church of St. Mark, on conditions named in his will. The terms are, that during three successive days, every year, there shall be said for the peace of his soul a certain number of masses,—all to be done in the richest and costliest manner. In case of delinquency, the bequest passes to the Philharmonic Society of Milan; but the priesthood of the basilica so strictly regard the wishes of the deceased that they never say less than four masses over and above the prescribed number.2
As there is so little in St. Mark’s of the paltry or revolting character of modern Romanism, one would form too exalted an idea of the dignity of Catholic worship if he judged it there. The truth is, the sincerity and nobility of a spirit well-nigh unknown to the Romish faith of these times, are the ruling influences in that temple: the past lays its spell upon the present, transfiguring it, and the sublimity of the early faith honors the superstition which has succeeded it. To see this superstition in all its proper grossness and deformity you must go into some of the Renaissance churches,—fit tabernacles for that droning and mumming spirit which has deprived all young and generous men in Italy of religion; which has made the priests a bitter jest and byword; which has rendered the population ignorant, vicious, and hopeless; which gives its friendship to tyranny and its hatred to freedom; which destroys the life of the Church that it may sustain the power of the Pope. The idols of this superstition are the foolish and hideous dolls which people bow to in most of the Venetian temples, and of which the most abominable is in the church of the Carmelites. It represents the Madonna with the Child, elevated breast-high to the worshipers. She is crowned with tinsel and garlanded with paper flowers; she has a blue ribbon about her tightly corseted waist; and she wears an immense spreading hoop. On her painted, silly face of wood, with its staring eyes shadowed by a wig, is figured a pert smile; and people come constantly and kiss the cross that hangs by a chain from her girdle, and utter their prayers to her; while the column near which she sits is hung over with pictures celebrating the miracles she has performed.
These votive pictures, indeed, are to be seen on most altars of the Virgin, and are no less interesting as works of art than as expressions of hopeless superstition. That Virgin who, in all her portraits, is dressed in a churn-shaped gown and who holds a Child similarly habited, is the Madonna most efficacious in cases of dreadful accident and hopeless sickness, if we may trust the pictures which represent her interference. You behold a carriage overturned and dragged along the ground by frantic horses, and the fashionably dressed lady and gentleman in the carriage about to be dashed into millions of pieces, when the havoc is instantly arrested by this Madonna who breaks the clouds, leaving them with jagged and shattered edges, like broken panes of glass, and visibly holds back the fashionable lady and gentleman from destruction. It is the fashionable lady and gentleman who have thus recorded their obligation; and it is the mother, doubtless, of the little boy miraculously preserved from death in his fall from the second-floor balcony, who has gratefully caused the miracle to be painted and hung at the Madonna’s shrine. Now and then you also find offerings of corn and fruits before her altar, in acknowledgment of good crops which the Madonna has made to grow; and again you find rows of silver hearts, typical of the sinful hearts which her intercession has caused to be purged. The greatest number of these, at any one shrine, is to be seen in the church of San Nicolò dei Tolentini, where I should think there were three hundred.
Whatever may be the popularity of the Madonna della Salute in pestilent times, I do not take it to be very great when the health of the city is good, if I may judge from the spareness of the worshipers in the church of her name: it is true that on the annual holiday commemorative of her interposition to save Venice from the plague, there is an immense concourse of people there; but at other times I found the masses and vespers slenderly attended, and I did not observe a great number of votive offerings in the temple,—though the great silver lamp placed there by the city, in memory of the Madonna’s goodness during the visitation of the cholera in 1849, may be counted, perhaps, as representative of much collective gratitude. It is a cold, superb church, lording it over the noblest breadth of the Grand Canal; and I do not know what it is saves it from being as hateful to the eye as other temples of the Renaissance architecture. But it has certainly a fine effect, with its twin belltowers and single massive dome, its majestic breadth of steps rising from the water’s edge, and the many-statued sculpture of its façade. Strangers go there to see the splendor of its high altar (where the melodramatic Madonna, as the centre of a marble group, responds to the prayer of the operatic Venezia, and drives away the haggard, theatrical Pest), and the excellent Titians and the grand Tintoretto in the sacristy.
The Salute is one of the great show-churches, like that of San Giovanni e Paolo, which the common poverty of imagination has decided to call the Venetian Westminster Abbey, because it contains many famous tombs and monuments. But there is only one Westminster Abbey; and I am so far a believer in the perfectibility of our species as to suppose that vergers are nowhere possible but in England. There would be nothing to say, after Mr. Ruskin, in praise or blame of the great monuments in San Giovanni e Paolo, even if I cared to discuss them; I only wonder that, in speaking of the bad art which produced the tomb of the Venieri, he failed to mention the successful approach to its depraved feeling, made by the single figure sitting on the case of a slender shaft, at the side of the first altar on the right of the main entrance. I suppose this figure typifies Grief, but it really represents a drunken woman, whose drapery has fallen, as if in some vile debauch, to her waist, and who broods, with a horrible, heavy stupor and chopfallen vacancy, on something which she supports with her left hand upon her knee. It is a round of marble, and if you have the daring to peer under the arm of the debauchee, and look at it as she does, you find that it contains the bass-relief of a skull in bronze. Nothing more ghastly and abominable than the whole thing can be conceived, and it seemed to me the fit type of the abandoned Venice which produced it; for one even less Ruskinian than I might have fancied that in the sculptured countenance could be seen the dismay of the pleasure-wasted harlot of the sea when, from time to time, death confronted her amid her revels.
People go into the Chapel of the Rosary here to see the painting of Titian, representing The Death of Peter Martyr. Behind it stands a painting of equal size by John Bellini,—the Madonna, Child, and Saints, of course,—and it is curious to study in the two pictures those points in which Titian excelled and fell short of his master. The treatment of the sky in the landscape is singularly alike in both, but where the greater painter has gained in breadth and freedom, he has lost in that indefinable charm which belonged chiefly to Bellini, and only to that brief age of transition, of which his genius was the fairest flower and ripest fruit. I have looked again and again at nearly every painting of note in Venice, having a foolish shame to miss a single one, and having also a better wish to learn something of the beautiful from them; but at last I must say, that, while I wondered at the greatness of some, and tried to wonder at the greatness of others, the only paintings which gave me genuine and hearty pleasure were those of Bellini, Carpaccio, and a few others of that school and time.
Every day we used to pass through the court of the old Augustinian convent adjoining the church of San Stefano. It is a long time since the monks were driven out of their snug hold; and the convent is now the headquarters of the Austrian engineer corps, and the colonnade surrounding the court is become a public thoroughfare. On one wall of this court are remains—very shadowy remains indeed—of frescos painted by Pordenone at the period of his fiercest rivalry with Titian; and it is said that Pordenone, while he wrought upon the scenes of scriptural story here represented, wore his sword and buckler, in readiness to repel an attack which he feared from his competitor. The story is very vague, and I hunted it down in divers authorities only to find it grow more and more intangible and uncertain. But it gave a singular relish to our daily walk through the old cloister, and I added, for my own pleasure (and chiefly out of my own fancy, I am afraid, for I can nowhere localize the fable on which I built), that the rivalry between the painters was partly a love-jealousy, and that the disputed object of their passion was that fair Violante, daughter of the elder Palma, who is to be seen in so many pictures painted by her father, and by her lover, Titian. No doubt there are readers will care less for this idleness of mine than for the fact that the hard-headed German monk, Martin Luther, once said mass in the adjoining church of San Stefano, and lodged in the convent, on his way to Rome. The unhappy Francesco Carrara, last Lord of Padua, is buried in this church; but Venetians are chiefly interested there now by the homilies of those fervent preacher-monks, who deliver powerful sermons during Lent. The monks are gifted men, with a most earnest and graceful eloquence, and they attract immense audiences, like popular and eccentric ministers among ourselves. It is a fashion to hear them, and although the atmosphere of the churches in the season of Lent is raw, damp, and most uncomfortable, the Venetians then throng the churches where they preach. After Lent the sermons and church-going cease, and the sanctuaries are once more abandoned to the possession of the priests, droning from the altars to the scattered kneelers on the floor,—the foul old women and the young girls of the poor, the old-fashioned old gentlemen and devout ladies of the better class, and that singular race of poverty-stricken old men proper to Italian churches, who, having dabbled themselves with holy water, wander forlornly and aimlessly about, and seem to consort with the foreigners looking at the objects of interest. Lounging young fellows of low degree appear with their caps in their hands, long enough to tap themselves upon the breast and nod recognition to the high-altar; and lounging young fellows of high degree step in to glance at the faces of the pretty girls, and then vanish. The droning ends, presently, and the devotees disappear, the last to go being that thin old woman, kneeling before a shrine, with a grease-gray shawl falling from her head to the ground. The sacristan, in his perennial enthusiasm about the great picture of the church, almost treads upon her as he brings the strangers to see it, and she gets meekly up and begs of them in a whispering whimper. The sacristan gradually expels her with the visitors, and at one o’clock locks the door and goes home.
By chance I have got a fine effect in churches at the five o’clock mass in the morning, when the worshipers are nearly all peasants who have come to market, and who are pretty sure, each one, to have a bundle or basket. At this hour the sacristan is heavy with sleep; he dodges uncertainly at the tapers as he lights and extinguishes them; and his manner to the congregation, as he passes through it to the altar, is altogether rasped and nervous. I think it is best to be one’s self a little sleepy,—when the barefooted friar at the altar (if it is in the church of the Scalzi, say) has a habit of getting several centuries back from you, and of saying mass to the patrician ghosts from the tombs under your feet and there is nothing at all impossible in the Renaissance angels and cherubs in marble, floating and fatly tumbling about on the broken arches of the altars.
I have sometimes been puzzled in Venice to know why churches should keep cats, church-mice being proverbially so poor, and so little capable of sustaining a cat in good condition; yet I have repeatedly found sleek and portly cats in the churches, where they seem to be on terms of perfect understanding with the priests, and to have no quarrel even with the little boys who assist at mass. There is, for instance, a cat in the sacristy of the Frari, which I have often seen in familiar association with the ecclesiastics there, when they came into his room to robe or disrobe, or warm their hands, numb with supplication, at the great brazier in the middle of the floor. I do not think this cat has the slightest interest in the lovely Madonna of Bellini which hangs in the sacristy; but I suspect him of dreadful knowledge concerning the tombs in the church. I have no doubt he has passed through the open door of Canova’s monument, and that he sees some coherence and meaning in Titian’s; he has been all over the great mausoleum of the Doge Pesaro, and he knows whether the griffins descend from their perches at the midnight hour to bite the naked knees of the ragged black caryatides. This profound and awful animal I take to be a blood relation of the cat in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo, who sleeps like a Christian during divine service, and loves a certain glorious bed on the top of a bench, where the sun strikes upon him through the great painted window, and dapples his tawny coat with lovely purples and crimsons.
The church cats are apparently the friends of the sacristans, with whom their amity is maintained probably by entire cession of the spoils of visitors. In these, therefore, they seldom take any interest, merely opening a lazy eye now and then to wink at the sacristans as they drag the deluded strangers from altar to altar, with intense enjoyment of the absurdity, and a wicked satisfaction in the incredible stories rehearsed. I fancy, being Italian cats, they feel something like a national antipathy toward those troops of German tourists, who always seek the Sehenswürdigkeiten in companies of ten or twenty,—the men wearing their beards, and the women their hoops and hats, to look as much like English people as possible; while their valet marshals them forward with a stream of guttural information, unbroken by a single punctuation point. These wise cats know the real English by their “Murrays;” and I think they make a shrewd guess at the nationality of us Americans by the speed with which we pass from one thing to another, and by our national ignorance of all languages but English. They must also hear us vaunt the superiority of our own land in unpleasant comparisons, and I do not think they believe us, or like us, for our boastings. I am sure they would say to us, if they could, “Quando finirà mai quella guerra? Che sangue! che orrore!3” The French tourist they distinguish by his evident skepticism concerning his own wisdom in quitting Paris for the present purpose; and the traveling Italian, by his attention to his badly dressed, handsome wife, with whom he is now making his wedding trip.
I have found churches undergoing repairs (as most of them always are in Venice) rather interesting. Under these circumstances, the sacristan is obliged to take you into all sorts of secret places and odd corners, to show you the objects of interest; and you may often get glimpses of pictures which, if not removed from their proper places, it would be impossible to see. The carpenters and masons work most deliberately, as if in a place so set against progress that speedy workmanship would be a kind of impiety. Besides the mechanics, there are always idle priests standing about, and vagabond boys clambering over the scaffolding. In San Giovanni e Paolo I remember we one day saw a small boy appear through an opening in the roof, and descend by means of some hundred feet of dangling rope. The spectacle, which made us ache with fear, delighted his companions so much that their applause was scarcely subdued by the sacred character of the place. As soon as he reached the ground in safety, a gentle, good-natured looking priest took him by the arm and cuffed his ears. It was a scene for a painter.
- The cardinal-patriarch officiates in the Basilica San Marco with some ceremonies which I believe are peculiar to the patriarchate of Venice, and which consist of an unusual number of robings and disrobings, and putting on and off of shoes. All this is performed with great gravity, and has, I suppose, some peculiar spiritual significance. The shoes are brought by a priest to the foot of the patriarchal throne, when a canon removes the profane, out-of-door chaussure, and places the sacred shoes on the patriarch’s feet. A like ceremony replaces the patriarch’s every-day gaiters, and the pious rite ends.
- After hearing these masses, curiosity led me to visit the Casa di Ricovero, in order to look at Soldini’a will, and there I had the pleasure of recognizing the constantly recurring fact, that beneficent humanity is of all countries and religions. The Casa di Ricovero is an immense edifice dedicated to the shelter and support of the decrepit and helpless of either sex, who are collected there to the number of five hundred. The more modern quarter was erected from a bequest by Soldini; and eternal provision is also made by his will for ninety of the inmates. The Secretary of the Casa went through all the wards and infirmaries with me, and everywhere I saw cleanliness and comfort (and such content as is possible to sickness and old age), without surprise; for I had before seen the Civil Hospital of Venice, and knew something of the perfection of Venetian charities. At last we came to the wardrobe, where the clothes of the pensioners are made and kept. Here we were attended by a little, slender, pallid young nun, who exhibited the dresses with a simple pride altogether pathetic. She was a woman still, poor thing, though a nun, and she could not help loving new clothes. They called her Madre, who would never be it except in name and motherly tenderness. When we had seen all, she stood a moment before us, and as one of the coarse woolen lappets of her cape had hidden it, she drew out a heavy crucifix of gold, and placed it in sight, with a heavenly little ostentation, over her heart. Sweet and beautiful vanity! An angel could have done it without harm, but she blushed repentance, and glided away with downcast eyes Poor little mother!
- “When will this war ever be ended? what blood! what horror!” I have often heard the question and the comment from many Italians who were not cats.