Thursday, 13 October 2016

Letter from Venice (12) 13-10-16

I order a simple acqua frizzante and it arrives with a tall glass full of ice with a thick segment of lemon and in a heavy glass bottle. The waiter unscrews it, places it before me and walks away. I squeeze a large dose of lemon juice into the glass. The ice cold drink is thrilling and cleansing. I am sitting on a terrace projecting into the sea of what must be one of the great promenades of Europe –the Fondamenta Zattere. The Giudecca canal, in front of me, is not really a canal but a 250 yard wide shipping lane thronged with every kind of vessel from the size of a rowing boat to, on occasion, the Passenger Liners so much held in derision by some Venetians. It’s like Piccadilly Circus on water. Opposite I survey the low, even skyline of the facades on the Giudecca, beautifully punctuated and dominated only by the three churches in sequence of Redentore, Zitelle and, as a perfect full stop, San Giorgio, and fronted by the orange-topped piers of the boat stations. Above all of this is a perfect blue sky streaming with sunlight in which I am happy to bathe. To my left I look down the wide Fondamenta Zattere disappearing to a vanishing point, somewhere beyond the golden ball of the Punta della Dogana, past the high shoulders of the Gesuati. People disappear into or emerge from this distance as I watch. It is a perfect compostion. Green seawater sloshes and spills onto the Fondamenta.

Twenty minutes later I am at the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museum of 18th Century Venice – the period before the terminal decline which came with the end of the Republic in 1797 when Napoleon arrived and then departed handing Venice over to the conservative and repressive Austrian Empire. It is a baroque container of marvels which I leave three hours later in a state of exhaustion to sit, my legs dangling over the edge of a canal, grateful to be resting while consuming life-saving and wonderful pear and lemon sorbets bought from a shop on the Campo San Barnaba. Mounting to the first floor I am ushered into the vast ballroom which is two stories high and contains the largest golden chandeliers I have ever seen. The Rococo furniture is extraordinary. Ebony blackamoors with glaring eyes made in white paste with rusting metal chains around their necks make jardinières and even the supports for the arm rests on the chairs heavily carved with human forms on every available wooden surface. There are also life size similar figures with clubs and horse’s heads at their feet. A suite of ten more rooms ensues notable for four of Tiepolo’s extraordinary ceiling frescoes, one of which shows Marital Harmony and a host of accompanying virtues. Soft radiant light stream from heaven as putti gambol about the cloud-borne chariots of the protagonists crossing the skies so triumphantly above us. There are gorgeous pastel portraits, glass chandeliers form Murano, and rooms complete with green-laquered chinoiserie in the furniture and the décor. Everywhere is resplendent decadence.

The second floor contains the Portego Picture Gallery with paintings by Venetians such as Lunghi, Guardi and Canaletto together with lovely, sadness-tinged landscapes by Zucarelli. Finally there are the zany, ironic frescoes of Giandomenico Tiepolo. I reach the top and third floor, already tired, to encounter the Egidio Martini collection of literally hundreds of paintings from the Veneto. It is this that finishes me off. I descend to the floor giving onto the Grand Canal. On the small pier I step back to look at the façade, noticing that the low chain across the edge of the pier is the only thing between me and the water just in time. The façade bears gigantic grotesques peering down onto the passing boats – art truly in the service of power.

I depart through a courtyard under the building where Robert Browning died. Sitting there is a beached 18th century gondola complete with the little black shed you see in Canaletto paintings and in which one imagines many a water-borne tryst took place.

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