Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 7
The Frari – The Accademia di Belle Arti –Titian’s Assumption – The Metopes of the Parthenon – Original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael – The Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Venice, September 1833.

A gondola dropped me at the Frari, where we French, accustomed as we are to the Greek or Gothic exteriors of our churches, are struck by the facade of a brick basilica unprepossessing and ordinary to the eye; but in the interior the harmony of line, and disposition of mass produces simplicity and a calm of composition which enchants.

The Frari tombs, set in the lateral walls, adorn the edifice without cluttering it. The magnificence of the marble gleams on every side, the delightful ornamental leafage testifies to the end of ancient Venetian sculpture. On one of the paving stones in the nave one reads these words: Here lies Titian who emulated Zeuxis and Apelles. The stone lies beneath one of the painter’s masterpieces.

Canova’s sumptuous sepulchre lies not far from Titian’s slab: the sepulchre is a realisation of the monument which the sculptor had conceived for Titian himself, and which he later executed for the Arch-Duchess Marie-Christine. The remains of the creator of the Hebe and the Magdalen were not all buried together in this structure: thus Canova inhabits the realisation of a tomb made by him, but not for him, which is only a half-cenotaph.

From the Frari, I went to the Manfrin Gallery. The portrait of Ariosto is alive. Titian has painted his mother, an old woman of the people, grimy and ugly: the artist’s pride is felt in the exaggeration of the woman’s age and poverty.

At the Accademia di Belle Arti, I hastened to the painting of the Assumption, discovered by Count Cicognara: there are ten large male figures at the foot of the painting; note the man, gazing at Mary and transported by ecstasy, at the left. The Virgin, above this group, rises from a semi-circle of cherubs; there are a multitude of admirable faces lost in glorification: a woman’s head at the right, at the end of the curve is of indescribable beauty; two or three divine spirits are thrown horizontally across the sky in the bold and picturesque manner of Tintoretto. I am not sure if an angel standing does not display too earthly a sentiment of love. The Virgin’s proportions are good; she is covered by a red robe; her blue sash floats in the air; her eyes are raised towards the Eternal Father, appearing to her, at the culminating point. Four distinct colours, brown, green, red and blue, adorn the work: the aspect of it all is sombre, the character not idealised, but of an incomparable natural truth and vivacity: yet I prefer the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, by the same painter, which can be seen in the same room.

Facing the Assumption, lit with much artifice, is the Miracle of St Mark, by Tintoretto, a vigorous drama which seems rather to have been carved from the canvas with mallet and chisel than painted with a brush.

I passed to the plaster casts of the Metopes from the Parthenon; these casts have a triple interest for me; in Athens I saw the empty spaces left behind by the ravages of Lord Elgin, and, in London, the marbles he removed whose casts I found in Venice. The errant destiny of these masterpieces is bound up with mine, and yet Phidias did not fashion my clay.

I could not tear myself away from the original drawings by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Nothing is more engaging than these sketches of genius, owed only to its studies and caprices; it admits you to intimacy; it initiates you into its secrets; it allows you to learn by what degrees and effort it achieved perfection: you are delighted to see how it made mistakes, how it realised and redressed its errors. Those strokes of the crayon traced on a table corner, on a wretched scrap of paper, retain nature’s marvellous abundance and simplicity. When one thinks that Raphael’s hand has traversed those immortal fragments, one wishes oneself inside the glass that prevents one kissing the holy relics.

I relaxed from the admiration I felt in the Accademia di Belle Arti by an admiration of a different sort in Santi Giovanni e Paolo; so one refreshes the spirit by a change of study. This church, whose unknown architect followed in the footsteps of Nicolo Pisano, is rich and vast. The apse which contains the main altar presents a kind of upright conch; two sanctuary altars abut this conch laterally; they are tall, narrow, with multi-centred arches, and separated from the apse by grooved planks.

The remains of the Doges Mocenigo, Morosini, Vendramin and other leaders of the Republic, rest here. Also the skin of Antonio Bragadino, defender of Famagusta, to which Tertullian’s expression can be applied: a living skin. These famous tombs inspire a deep and painful sentiment; Venice herself, the magnificent catafalque of her warrior magistrates, double coffin of their remains, is nothing but a living skin.

Stained glass and red draperies, by veiling the light in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, add to the religious effect. The countless pillars, brought from Greece and the Orient, have been planted in the basilica like alleys of foreign trees.

A storm arrived as I was wandering about the church: when the trumpet sounds who will wake all these dead? I would have said there were as many below Jerusalem in the Valley of Jehosaphat.

After these visits, returning to the Hôtel de l’Europe, I thanked God for having transported me from the pigs of Waldmünchen to the pictures of Venice.