Lisa Hilton

The splendour and squalor of Venice

In his celebration of Venetian art, Martin Gayford is keenly alert to the city’s spectacular contradictions

Whistler’s haunting ‘Giudecca’, 1879-80 [Bridgeman Images]

Hard by the Rialto, in a densely packed and depressingly tacky quarter of Venice, the church of San Giovanni Cristosomo houses one of Giovanni Bellini’s most luminous and exquisite paintings. ‘I Santi Cristoforo, Girolamo e Ludovico di Tolosa’ is known to locals as ‘the Burger King Bellini’, after the fast food outlet opposite the church door. In any other city, the picture’s exquisite handling of light and complex mingling of Christian piety with Renaissance Neo-platonism would grant it a museum of its own, but in Venice its principal spectators are weary tourists in line for a Whopper.

Martin Gayford’s paean to Venice as ‘a huge, three-dimensional repository of memory’ is constantly alert to such anomalies. The city itself embodies perhaps the greatest concentration of art treasures the western world has ever known; yet, as he brilliantly demonstrates in his latest book, it has always been a site of conflict between squalor and splendour. The six panels of Jacopo di Barbari’s glorious view of the lagoon in 1500 depict the axes of the trade routes of a great bazaar. When Sansovino was engaged to ‘patricianise’ San Marco in 1527, tawdry trinket stalls disfigured the piazza then as now.

It is from Venice that the European tradition of oil painting derives – the city’s ‘greatest gift to the world’

Renoir claimed to be ‘powerless’ against Venice, which Monet described as ‘too beautiful… untranslatable’. But in examining Venice’s history through the story of its pictures, Gayford has succeeded in doing the impossible – that is, finding something new to say. Progressing through six centuries, the narrative loops through time, tracing connections between contemporary and classical art to demonstrate Gayford’s thesis that new ways to paint make new ways to see.

The revolution begins with the Bellini dynasty, and Gayford vaults the psychological crevasse between the 15th century and the present with élan, recovering the vitality, energy and thrilling modernity of its innovations.

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