Sunday, January 10, 2010

Circle, Square, Man

The next day dawned cold and out came the umbrellas and the leather boots. Walking with an umbrella in Venice takes a certain amount of skill as the 'calle' are so narrow, some wide enough for only one person, that there is a lot of tipping- to the side- away from oncoming traffic and raising or lowering umbrellas, like a little pas de deux, as people weave in and out of each other. Unlike here or even in Singapore people generally walk on one side- their right- so the side step is rarely needed.

We strolled purposefully, but still slow enough to digitally record even more charming vistas, around the canal following the maze of calles over pontes past Ponte di Rialto in the general direction of the Accademia Bridge and Galley. Ponte dell'Accademia, or the Accademia Bridge, is one of only four bridges that cross the grand canal in Venice. It joins the sestiere of San Marco with Dorsoduro at the final bend in the busy S shaped Canale Grande.

The long wooden bridge that curves over the waterway was actually meant to be only temporary. The original steel bridge, built in 1854, was substituted for the first wooden Accademia Bridge in 1932 and when it began to fall apart a competition was announced to design a new one. In 1985 the rotting temporary bridge was replaced yet again by a wooden replica despite public preference for a stone one.
More recently Venice's council wants the bridge redesigned to accommodate wheelchair access but is not willing (or maybe able) to pay for it so bidding construction firms will have to prove their abilities to also come up with the estimated 5 million euro sponsorship required. Noone seems too optimistic.

The view from the bridge is enchanting, like many of Venice's vistas. We were lucky, I think, as the morning was so dismal there were few people out. The ubiquitous African men selling fake Gucci handbags and umbrellas far out numbered the tourists.

The lack of people on the bridge translated to a complete lack of people waiting to buy tickets for the Accademia Gallery and yet again despite being warned about queues that stretched the circumference of the building, as entry is limited to 100 at any one time due to fire regulations, we were the only ones there. Out of all the gallery and museum options in Venice we had chosen Galleria dell'Accademia because for the first time in a long time Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man was on show. Such is the delicacy of the single yellowed A4 size page with the iconic pen and ink naked man in a a square, that it is usually kept behind closed doors. As fate would have it we were in Venice during it's latest showing seven years after the previous outing. On January the 10th it went back into it's climate controlled, darkened room.

Founded in 1750 the gallery houses some of Venice's most magnificent and most treasured works by artists Venetian as well as from some of it's more artistic admirers.

After surrendering our small daytrip backpack at the front desk (you'll get it back in exchange for 0.50 euro at the end) we climbed the huge stone staircase that leads into a kind of foyer, the first 'room', filled with 14th century mostly religious paintings depicting saints and biblical scenes in brilliant golds and rich reds and greens.

They are labelled with the title-which is often explanation enough- artist, date and sometimes the latest date of restoration. At the beginning of this and each of the successive rooms is a stand with helpful and sometimes lengthy laminated explanations of the paintings in the room, in both English and Italian. It would have taken more than one trip to read every inscription and study every painting so we wandered the walls going back and forth between rooms as something caught someones eye and either deserved sharing or required further explanation.

Arranged in chronological order the gallery winds its way around 24 rooms that were once three separate buildings. During the invasion of Napoleon in 1807 it was moved for safekeeping to the Scuola della Carità, the Convento dei Canonici Lateranensi and the church of Santa Maria della Carità- a school, a convent and a church. We dallied through titles such as 'Coronation of the Virgin' and 'Madonna and Child with two Votaries' by Paolo Veneziano 'Christ before Pilate' and 'Kiss of Judas', by an unknown Venetian painter from the 14th century. Then works from late 15th and early 16th centuries including 'Carpaccio’s Crucifixion' and 'Glorification of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat' by Giovani Bellini. Then Bellini's series of Madonna's painted during the Renaissance period. Considered one of the most influential painters of his time (and he lived to the ripe old age of 90!) there are many of Bellini's works in the Accademia often depicting Venetian scenes. Two of his later works, 'Procession in Piazza San Marco' and 'Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo' record when remnants of 'the True Cross' (believed to be actual remains of the cross Jesus was crucified on) were bought to the city.
There are huge rural scenes of the area too, complete with dancing rubenesque women,romantic crumbling archways and tumbling streams. The 10th room is completely dominated by 'Christ in the house of Levi' by Paolo Veronese (Caliari). Plush, decadent and crammed with activity it was originally a rendering of the Last Supper but had to be renamed when the Inquisition threatened to charge him with heresy.

As you can probably tell I devour all things historical especially when they are to do with culture and religion but I also love art. We have collected art from emerging as well as some from established artists for many years now although much of our New Zealand stuff is back 'home' in storage. Thankfully the boys have grown up with my obsessions and are quite used to me heading straight for the nearest gallery or museum, church or temple and will indulge my dilly dallying...for a while- actually quite a while now. I like to think some of my appreciation has rubbed off. M, in particular, enjoys the controversy, symbolism and drama.

Anyway after a couple of hours both feet and eyes were getting tired and we still had not seen what had led us across the bridge in the first place. And then there it was tucked away in a room not much wider than a hallway, arguably one of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous works, thanks to Dan Brown... Vitruvian Man.

Based on the presumption of Roman architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, that the proportions for the structure and arrangement of manmade structures should be based on the natural laws of harmony and beauty which can be best symbolised by the symmetry and proportions of the human body, being the earthly model of divine perfection. His idea was that the human body, arms and legs extended, should fit exactly into both the circle and the square, symbols for heaven and earth(mortal existence). Vitruvian Man is thus the perfect illustration of the duality of man- his potential divinity and grounded mortality- which was an idea originally expressed by Pythagoras at least two millennium before Leonardo da Vinci.

There were plenty of attempts at illustrating this idea before da Vinci but the squashing of the figure into both shapes always resulted in unbalanced limbs. Da Vinci, who spent years perfecting his depiction of the human form by dissecting actual human bodies before drawing detailed diagrams and illustrations, eventually worked out that for the drawings proportions to work the square could not have the same central point on the human body as the circle (the navel) but actually needs to be a bit lower.

Even though M and I had seen the global travelling da Vinci exhibition in Singapore I could not help being surprised at it's small size. It's clarity, though, after all these years is impressive.

Back outside in the cold and the damp we decided to walk to Santa Maria della Salute on the same side of the Canale Grande. She sits right on the end of the peninsula, exposed on all sides to the days creeping chill which seemed appropriate for a 'plague church'.

For nearly three years beginning in the summer of 1629 Venice was hit with waves of Bubonic Plague wiping out almost a third of the population. The city, frightened and desperate that all medicines and prayers were proving futile, devised a plan. A procession around Piazza San Marco was organised and for three days and three nights most of Venice's 10 000 survivors marched, with lit torches, solemnly around the square. In the end a more significant but equally elaborate gesture was called for and a declaration was made-if the city was saved the Venetian Doge promised to build a church, more beautiful than the rest, dedicated to, not just a saint, but to the Virgin herself. The story goes that the very next week the weather changed and the humid conditions that had been aiding the course of disease cleared.

The epidemic slowed and just two weeks later it had diminished altogether.

La Salute's, as she is most often called, distinctive location was chosen because of its easy processional access from the Piazza San Marco, just across the end of the canal. After a competition to decide the architect for the dramatic double domed basillica, construction was begun. More than 300 000 posts support her weight and prevent the octagonal stone and marmorino(brick covered with marble dust)structure from sinking into the lagoon.

This stunning expression of gratitude and piety, considered classic Baroque, is chock full of Marian symbolism. From the outside; the dome- her crown, the dimly lit interior -her womb but from the inside the entire structure of the cavernous space could be likened to an upturned chalise or reliquary (a container for religious relics). The octagonal design and the eight altar niches inside mirror the eight points of the Virgin's emblematic star. The high altar is a beautiful serene Byzantine Madonna and child.

The church was finally consecrated on 21st November 1687.

It seemed an appropriate place to visit on Christmas Eve but even inside the church the temperature must have been close to freezing so we decided to keep moving. Back outside we made our way again towards the Accademia Bridge and then, as it was beginning to get dark, towards the lights of the Rialto, probably the most famous of Venice's big bridges.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Oh, facinating. I wonder what Da Vinci would do today, were he alive? I'm so jealous of your trip!