Venice is one of those cities whose mythology will captivate you, and whose place in history has ensured a rich cultural heritage that will continue to amaze and enthrall. I have never been to Venice, but my fascination for the city goes back a long way, ever since one of my mother's aunt told me - I must have been about seven - about the bridge of sighs, which featured on a piece of cloth she had bought there once. From then on, my fascination has increased with every new piece of information.
I'm currently reading Salley Vickers' beautiful novel Miss Garnet's Angel which is set in Venice, and which wonderfully weaves the plot into the very fabric of Venice, which is always half-legendary. In the course of this reading I as reminded of a painting by Giambattista Tiepolo, seen below, in which Neptune gives his gifts to La Serenissima, the city of Venice. It is a beautiful painting with that pale colouring so often seen in Tiepolo's paintings. It is a perfect allegory of Venice's lordship of the seas, Neptune, the ocean god, offering his cornucopia overflowing with pearls, corals and gold, while Venice arrogantly receives him in her bedchamber, flanked by the lion of St. Mark, the city's patron saint. But there is also a sinister undertone. Venice is pointing towards Neptune, almost to keep him at arm's length as if he is too eager, to unpredictable to embrace, and as she does this, her arm forms a shape reminiscent of the Venetian lagoon which is that borderland where sea and city meets. This serves, perhaps, as a chilling reminder that although Venice is the queen of the seas, she is also at the sea's mercy, which threatens to overflow the buildings and to force the structures underwater.
When first I saw this painting in 2010 I was amazed by the beauty and succinctness of the composition, and this as the time when I was just learning to appreciate Tiepolo's art. In response to this I wrote a poem titled Allegory of Venice, in which Tiepolo's allegory is further fleshed out, including a wider range of Venice's inhabitants. The poem takes its metre and rhyme scheme from Robert Browning's A Toccata of Galuppi's which also deals with Venice.
The pictures in this blogpost are all taken from Wikimedia.
Neptune bringing Venice his gifts
Giambattista Tiepolo, c.1750
Allegory of Venice
For Giambattista Tiepolo
Ah, dear Venice, noble city of the crystalline lagoon,
Once she ruled a splendid kingdom, fickle as the changing moon;
Hark to me, my dearest reader, as I sing her with my tune.
See her leaning on the lion, yet in truth she is the beast;
Of a thousand mundane vices love of gold is but her least,
Scores of servants, high and lowly, come to partake in her feast.
See there's Neptune, ancient sea-king, how he prances like a whore,
Gold and amber, pearls and jewels, taken from his ocean's store
While his pallid eyes are captive to the maid who asks for more.
Said I maid? Hah! Falsely spoken, she's a wench as Neptune is,
Kings and angels seek to please her, they would kill to catch a kiss
And then bring her spoils of slaughter, asking gently: “like you this?”
There's the pope in his tiara with a sceptre in his hand,
He attempts to be her master, catch her in a nuptial band
But his hopes will sift through fingers like the fine Venetian sand;
And the clergy, born of Venice, deacons, bishops, cardinals
Change their paraments for garlands, singing mundane madrigals,
All to please their mother city and her lavish festival.
Piazza San Marco and the Doge's palazzo
Now the Doge with his ringlet, followed by a train of ten,
Comes to wed the sea and city with the bravest band of men,
What a mistress is then Venice who must wed and wed again?
After him the six remaining of the city's oligarchs,
Chosen by the lesser council, wont to wander in the dark,
Rooting evil in the making, rarely do they miss their mark,
While the captain, Neptune's squire, master of the mighty fleet
Issues with his galeases from the Arsenal to greet
This the loveliest of cities where the water paves the street;
And from out the canalettos come gondolas one by one,
Bearing gifts of Eastern riches and the Oriental sun;
Each aspire to be greater than her other bastard sons.
Ponte di Rialto
Then the merchants, mundane monarchs, all emerge in rank and file,
Dressed in pomp, displaying riches, tossing ducats with a smile
And fair Venice feigns to love them with her maiden-mother guile,
While they tread on dead and dying to excel in tradesmen's art,
Blood and semen, knaves and merchants constitute a kingdom's heart,
They all hoard to last for ever, not preparing to depart.
And the women! Ah! The women! Decked with gems and rimmed with gold,
Wives and mothers, sisters, daughters, cheering Venice in her fold,
Both her children and her rivals, mistresses of bought and sold,
See their baubles and their trinkets, worlds have died to place them there;
If their faces are like suns, then all their jewels must be spheres,
Each a universe of vanity, greed, deception and despair.
Then the guilds with waving banners enter in the proud parade,
Bearing relics, sacred remnants, and the produce they have made:
Books and crystal, frail and fragile, doomed to wither, break and fade;
Much like Venice, situated, like all transitory things,
On a throne of brittle pillars in the fashion of a king
Whose good deeds are meant to shadow all the misery he brings.
Grand Canal from Palazzo Flangini
Here the painters, ah, the painters, lapdogs to the Ocean Queen
Dressed in colours gay and lively, golden, blood-red, blue and green,
Come to make their queen immortal, come to paint the festive scene.
Now the citizens in costumes, some like wild men of the woods,
Some with twigs stuck in their head-dress, some in grey monastic hoods,
Some like guildmen, some like brewers wont to taste their own sweet goods.
Ah, the masks, the men, the women! Fornicators hid in veils;
Painted in a crimson colour or a deadly tint of pale,
“Life is short, we must enjoy it, time is cruel, man is frail.”
There among them move the harlots, painted faces, verdant sleeves,
Who can tell them from the ladies masked and dyed, ah who will grieve,
It's the carnival, dear reader, tell a lie, it is believed.
So they prance along the water mirroring the azure sky,
“Venice surely lasts forever, it will never fade or die,”
This they say and they believe it, as I said: tell but a lie.
But a black-cloaked ancient sire moves about them with a train
Of disciples dread and hoary, they know such a hope is vain;
It is Death and all his aspects come to shake the lion's mane.
Here is Greed with gilded daggers, stabbing blindly in his rage,
Here is Lust who pricks his arrow in the hearts of fool and sage,
Here is Plague with blots to blight them regardless of their name or age,
Here is Envy to consume them on his everlasting pyre,
Here is Hatred to destroy them and his twin named Blind Desire,
Here is Malice to corrode them with an inward kind of fire;
These and others, all Death's minions, come to take them, man or maid,
Some will drown in crystal water, some will die at point of blade,
Even Venice, maiden-harlot, and her glories all will fade.
- June 25 – August 09 2010
Francesco Guardi, c.1760