Archive for Titian

Oct
29

Seeing red

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This isn't blood, nor is it paint.  It is the color reflected from the red awning at the Rialto fish market.

This isn’t blood, nor is it paint. It is the color reflected from the red awning at the Rialto fish market.

I wanted to title this post “My Name is Red,” even though doing so would have meant stealing it from Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk.  I was happy to exploit him because his novel of that name is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read.  Anybody who can start a story with “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well,” has my vote.

Back to red.  For some reason I notice it early and often. I have no theory as to why; maybe it’s that red has been throwing itself in front of my face.  It is, after all, one of the more assertive colors in the spectrum.

Venice and red have a long and glorious coexistence, and I do not refer to the torrents of hemoglobin spilled in its incessant wars. (Speaking of bloodshed, did you know that arterial blood is bright red, while venous blood is a dark maroon? If anyone wants to know my source, it isn’t Johns Hopkins Hospital — it’s “13 Ways to Make Fake Blood.”)

No, the marriage of Venice and red takes us back to the Great Days, when Venice’s claim to fame was supported, among other things, by a number of exceptional products: glass, of course, and there was teriaca, a three-weird-sisters preparation believed to cure everything you can name, and many that you can’t even imagine.

And then there was the sumptuous color known as “Venetian red,” first documented in 1753, though I assume it had already been in use for a number of centuries.

“The skilled dyers of Venice, in particular, were known for their ability to create gorgeous red dyes,” writes Amy Butler Greenfield in her book, “A Perfect Red.”

“The deepest and most resplendent reds,” she goes on, “collectively known throughout Europe as ‘Venetian scarlet,’ were the envy of all who saw them.  Throughout Europe, dyers tried to imitate these reds without success, perhaps because no one thought to add arsenic, an ingredient used by the Venetians to heighten the brilliancy of their dyes.” Perhaps the arsenic supply was being diverted to other uses.

Like any trade secret upon which fortunes were built, Venetian dyers did everything to conceal their recipe, to the point of inventing macabre tales of specters haunting the dyeworks, to keep the curious at bay.  (I would have thought the stench alone would have been enough of a deterrent.  But what I call “stench” was clearly the ravishing odor of money.)

Although I did find a recipe for Venetian red dye, I’m not going to share it, partly because it’s pretty complicated and not something you should consider trying in your kitchen, and partly because I’m convinced that whatever result you obtain wouldn’t truly match the refulgence of the original.

Then there were the Venetian painters, who also found a way to make red their own.  Even on canvas, “Venetian Red is a pure iron oxide with real wow factor,”  as Matisse Professional Artist Acrylics and Mediums  puts it in its catalogue.

“It gets its name because the natural iron oxide deposits inland from Venice were this color which was midway between the deeper violet iron oxides found near Pozzuoli and the common red oxides found elsewhere,” Matisse continues. “The Venetian painters used this color with flair and particularly as a result of Titian’s usage of it, it became a famous color throughout Italy…This same shade of red oxide is found in the stone age cave paintings in France and when discovered they were clearly as vibrant as the day they were painted 16,000 years earlier…”

I would continue this treatise but feel my mind wandering away into foggy byways of minutiae.  And anyway, maybe you don’t care about red, even though eight seconds of research reveals that it represents just about everything in human existence: fire and blood; energy and primal life forces; desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, and thirst for action;  love, anger, warning or death; confidence, courage, and vitality.

I forgot to add danger, sacrifice, beauty, national socialism, socialism, communism, and in China and many other cultures, happiness.

Also hatred and sin.

If you have any urges left over, you can distribute them among the greys and fawns, or devote them to cornflower, saffron, or Mughal green. I’m taking the high road.

Red paint, red liquids, red pomegranates.  This must be the place.

Red walls, red drinks, red pomegranates. This must be the place.

Whoever lives in that apartment realizes what a tremendously dull corner it is, and clearly is doing everything possible to combat and vanquish it.

Whoever lives in that apartment realizes what a tremendously dull corner it is, and has decided to combat it with National Wash Red Things Day.

As soon as you start to look around, you begin to see red everywhere. Not to be confused with "seeing red." That's what happens when the vaporetto skips a run in the fog.

As soon as you start to look around, you begin to see red everywhere. Not to be confused with “seeing red.” That’s what happens when the vaporetto skips a run in the fog.

Wild grape provides shade in summer and color in the fall.  Unfortunately, it provides wine never.

Wild grape provides shade in summer and color in the fall. Unfortunately, it provides wine never.

It seems that everyone wants to sit, or try to sit, on one of the red marble lions by the basilica of San Marco.  I'm not sure how many bears have succeeded so far; this may be a first.  Erin go Bragh, or whatever the Swiss say.

It seems that everyone wants to sit, or try to sit, on one of the red marble lions by the basilica of San Marco. I’m not sure how many bears have succeeded so far; this may be a first. Erin go Bragh, or whatever the Swiss say.

The red of the Venetian flag, or gonfalone, is so much more impressive than just plain old red.

The red of the Venetian flag, or gonfalone, is so much more impressive than just plain old red.

The patriarch of Venice, mons. Francesco Moraglia, has an exceptionally lovely smile, and his way with people is surpassed only by his garb.

The patriarch of Venice, mons. Francesco Moraglia, has an exceptionally lovely smile, and his way with people is surpassed only by his garb.

Gondolier Said Rusciano pounds the final blows onto his forcola before the regata of SS. Giovanni e Paolo.  Red is the color of the winner's pennant, but in this case, it wasn't the color of the winner's boat.

Gondolier Said Rusciano pounds the final blows onto his forcola before the regata of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Red is the color of the winner’s pennant, but in this case, it wasn’t the color of the winner’s boat.

I love the rain, it scatters so much of the city around.

I love the rain, it scatters shards of the city all over the streets.

I presume the red boat was staying within the posted speed limit; it would have been hard to have exceeded it.

I presume the red boat was staying within the posted speed limit; it would have been hard to have exceeded it.

I wonder if she has any trouble falling asleep at night.

I wonder if she has any trouble falling asleep at night.

I'm sorry for the crabs, but when boiled they turn out to be a great color.

I’m sorry for the crabs, but when boiled they turn out to have a great color.

The traditional "bocolo," or single long-stemmed red rose, which is bestowed on April 25 to one's beloved, has in this case evidently inspired some pensive

On April 25, St. Mark’s feast day, men are expected to bestow a “bocolo,” or single long-stemmed red rose, on their beloved.  He seems to be unaware that she is looking so pensive.  Pensive and red roses are not a good combination, at least when she’s not looking at you.

And speaking of flowers, here the seller is in red and the bloom is white.

And speaking of flowers, here the seller is in red and the blooms are white.  And the fog is grey, as usual.

What are the odds of getting a red tourist, carpet and broom in the same frame? In the Piazza San Marco, the odds appear to be excellent.

What are the odds of getting a red tourist, carpet and broom in the same frame? In the Piazza San Marco, they appear to be excellent.

 

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Jan
29

Venice goes to the dogs

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Venice used to be famous for cats, but they have somehow relinquished their mythic stature. When I came to Venice back in 1804, there were still scattered outposts where old ladies would leave food for the stray cats, near makeshift little huts. Now the only place I can be sure of seeing a feline is either roaming the cloister at the city hospital, or on or near a few windowsills in the neighborhood. The once-abundant freelancing cats have been rounded up and stowed in a pound on the Lido.

Instead of cats, there are dogs.

Arguably the most famous Venetian dog, here waiting for Saint Augustine to finish having his vision and do something fun. (Vittore Carpaccio).

When Lino was a lad, families were still large and didn’t have extra food to waste on a dog  just to play with.  The only dogs who were given room and board had to work for it, like retrievers or hounds.  No need for a guard dog, that’s what grandmothers are for. Or, as Lino put it, “What was there for a dog to guard?  Most people didn’t even have tears to cry with.”

Nor was there extra money to spend on trips to the vet, not to mention the wardrobe.  Now not only are there dogs everywhere, many of them dress better than I do, though they tend to belong to people (often, but not always, women) who confuse them with human children.  I once saw a woman on the vaporetto, holding her dog on her lap, cradling it like a baby. No, the dog wasn’t sick.  I can’t remember if it was wearing a bonnet.

Probably the second-most famous dogs, in another painting by Carpaccio. This is a detail from a picture depicting the menfolk out hunting in the lagoon; hence, these ladies are waiting for them to return. Evidently even playing with the pets palls after a while -- everyone here is immobilized by boredom.

I amuse myself by tracking the changing fashions in the world of Fido and Rex (though here people tend to like the name Bobi).  Like other fashions, it’s hard to discover a reason for it, but evidently either you can get tired of a dog faster than your nose-ring or skateboard, or you just really need to be like everybody else. Or you didn’t care about your dog in the first place.

First, there were Afghan hounds. It seems strange now, but this is true.  Then all of a sudden everybody had boxers. They traded these in for beagles.  Then came a rash of Jack Russell terriers.  Now that I think of it, it’s been a while since I saw a beagle — they used to be everywhere.  And the Jack Russells are mysteriously fading away too.

Now we have a mixed bag, with a few of the above (not the Afghans, those are long gone), joined by a few French bulldogs, an English bulldog, a couple of Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, a batch of Shih Tzus, assorted terriers, and a smattering of spaniels of various sorts.  There are also plenty of mutts, I’m glad to note.  They never go out of style.

There is an organization which seeks homes for abandoned dogs, and their notices taped on municipal surfaces are very touching and very repetitive.  There is a photo of the dog, of course, with its name and a paragraph describing its sad past — and some of these dogs have been through torture — and a description of the dog and its character.  This is the repetitive part.  You’d be amazed how many dogs are “sweet.”  Hulking, tiny, old, blind, their primary trait is sweetness.  This is wonderful, especially if true, but it does make all these animals sound like animated stuffed toys.  If you want to sell an apartment in Venice, the crucial word is “luminoso” (full of light).  If you want to donate a dog, you’ve got to call it sweet.  I realize that “cranky, demanding, and incontinent” won’t inspire many offers, but still.

Detail from "The Entourage of Cleopatra" by Giambattista Tiepolo.

This passion for dogs is far from being some new aberration, at least according to centuries of Venetian art.  It’s pretty clear that the patricians have always been dog-crazy.  Look at any number of Venetian paintings, even at random, and you’ll see that where two or more are gathered together, there will be at least one dog.

When I go to a museum or church or palace here, I don’t admire the brushwork or the color scheme, I play Find the Dog. It’s a very satisfying game because you know there is at least one, and often more.  It’s like a treasure hunt.

Someone might tell me that the dogs are there in their purely symbolic capacity, like other animals in European art such as peacocks or bees. Dogs, as we all know, typically represent fidelity, obedience, protection, courage and vigilance. All excellent traits which would be valued here, as anywhere. Scholarly sources don’t mention its symbolizing sweetness but they are obviously not well informed.

But by the way most dogs are depicted, they don’t seem symbolic at all.  Most of them have got more personality than many of the people around them — just like now.

"The Dinner at Emmaus," by Paolo Veronese. The grownups can eat and talk all night if they want, the kids have got the dogs to play with.

"Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet," by Tintoretto.

"The Last Supper," by Tintoretto (detail).

What started me on all these ruminations is the fact that, for however much the dog might be adored here, it remains the quintessential insult-figure.  “I cani di ta morti” (your beloved deceased family members are dogs) is absolutely the worst thing you can say to a person here, so bad that you don’t say it unless you intend to make that person your enemy forever.

This is occasionally modified to “ti ta morti,” which I think means that you have left a small window open for future reconciliation. Or at least haven’t branded yourself as irredeemably vulgar.

You can substitute “porceli” (pigs) for dogs, which is the only way you can make the insult worse.

This dog seemed perfectly happy in this position.

You don’t have to say it to the person, you can also merely say it about the person.  “Why did your boss make you work last Sunday?”  “Because she’s got morti cani.”   If the situation warrants it but I don’t want to utter the death blow, I soften it by merely referring to the person and his or her behavior as having or being M.C.  In any form, it’s such a useful expression that I wish there were a corresponding phrase in English, but I haven’t found it, or managed to invent it, yet.

"The Happy Union" from "Four Allegories" by Paolo Veronese.

I will have to pursue further research on the subject of insults because I am under the impression that the main force of the phrase doesn’t come from the dogs, but the fact that the insult is aimed at your family.  In Rome, the corresponding vilification is “i mortacci tua” — again, an imprecation against your dead relatives.

Your typical insulting Anglo-Saxon doesn’t tend to invoke either death (unless it’s yours) or your relatives (unless it’s your mama).  Therefore death and your family status appear to carry a freight of meaning here which must come from some extremely deep Mediterranean source.  Perhaps the Phoenicians devised it, along with the alphabet.

I sometimes wonder what dogs say about each other.  “Your dead relatives are humans,” probably.

Stay on the safe side and don’t ever refer to dogs or people in the same sentence. Especially not if you observe how much the animal and its owner resemble each other.

"Danae," by Tintoretto.

"Boy with Dogs in a Landscape," by Titian.

 

"Cupid with Dogs," by Paolo Veronese. I think it would be more accurate to call it "Dogs with Cupid." Or maybe he could have just left Cupid out of it altogether.

 

 

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