Schwartz thought that his love for art in museums was strong enough to assure his enjoyment of museums, even while acknowledging that they removed art from its original locations and contexts. Last month he took a shock to the system, in Venice. For Doeschka and Bernard.
As a museum junkie, I have long wilfully suspended whatever reservations I might have concerning the objects of my affection. The main one is that museums pluck art works – let’s talk about paintings – from the environment for which they were made and claim them for their own. This self-blinding attitude is easier to maintain for aficionados of Dutch seventeenth-century art than for many other schools, simply because most of the paintings made here were stand-alone objects that could be hung anywhere. But my easygoingness carried over to the museum display of other kinds of paintings as well.
Until a month ago. There we were, Loekie and I, staying with dear friends at their apartment in Cannaregio, Venice. Getting back to their place from the Arsenale, our first Biennale destination, with ground plan and guidebook in hand, we had to force ourselves to keep walking, passing one irresistible wonder after another. Then we came upon a sight past which we could not walk, the façade of the Gran Scuola di San Marco.
The elegant variations on a Venetian theme, the games played with perspective, to the point of making believe the façade was a painting, the freedom taken with strict forms, knowing you could get away with it – too much! When we came back the next day to go into the building, we were stunned again. Can you believe that this is actually the unmarked entrance to a hospital? To the Ospedale Civile Ss.Giovanni e Paolo? You enter a huge hall, with a little table at which a guard sits, directing patients down to the end and suggesting to tourists, who are also free to go that way, that instead they climb the stairs on the right to the magnificent first floor, with a splendid presentation on the history of medicine, supplied with expensive facsimiles that you can browse.
There, thanks to the special relationship that the scuola, a lay brotherhood, enjoyed with the patron saint of the city, a cycle of paintings of the story of St. Mark had been painted by Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, and Jacopo Tintoretto. These have however been removed and are now divided between the Accademia in Venice and the Brera in Milan, to be replaced in part by copies that are not even in the original locations. Why, we anguished. Those in the Accademia, rather than in a reconstruction of the spaces for which the paintings were made, are hung uninterestingly in typical museum spaces. The scuola has been robbed of a treasure that it engendered; it has been turned into a simulacrum of itself.
Our chagrin was augmented when we turned from secular to sacred environments, and the impact on them of museum values. Here is what I mean. Just look at the photo, of an altarpiece in the church of S. Pietro Martire on Murano, in contrast to a view, below, in the Accademia.
The canvas in the altarpiece, by Palma Giovane, shows a Madonna in an angelic heaven gazing down, and the Child she holds gesturing in blessing at Sts. Nicholas, Carlo Borromeo and Lucy. It is not mainly a painting at all. It is the centerpiece of a complete presentation in architecture and sculpture, to which a worshiper would climb the stairs to pay respect. The columns have the helical turn that characterize them as “Solomonic,” modeled on columns brought by Emperor Constantine from Jerusalem to Rome in the fourth century and given to St. Peter’s. The image derives status from carved symbols of sanctity and deity in higher spheres than saints or martyrs. The church wardens have arranged for the altar to be adorned with fresh flowers. It is illuminated by a chandelier made on Murano island, a twentieth-century addition to the ensemble. The installation of the chandeliers will have been blessed by a visiting bishop, bringing the lives and livelihoods of the locals into the historical and eternal veneration.
The Milanese reforming cardinal Carlo Borromeo was not beatified until 1610, so that the painting was a homage to a mortal who was known in his lifetime, perhaps even personally, to whoever commissioned the painting and its framing elements. Why he is combined with Nicholas and Lucy will have been known by the priests of St. Peter Martyr and the parishioners of the time. Perhaps it was donated by a man named Nicola married to a Lucia.
Most significant of all is that the image stands above an altar that is sanctified by a relic, perhaps of Carlo Borromeo, which would have been most accessible. The entire constellation comes to supernatural life, endowed by the relic, when a priest raises the host at it and then feeds it to the congregants, imparting salvation to all. That is what Palma Giovane (1548 or 1550-1628, no longer so young in 1610), was honoring with his creation.
And what do we see in the Accademia? Amputated fragments of such ensembles, lacking all that wealth of significance, association and stature, attached only to the incidental attribute that is the name of the artist. The museum condones – enjoins – the stripping of this wealth of meaning, to impose on it a fairly irrelevant art-historical nametag.
You see what this does to me! It turns me into a rhapsodist of oligarchic supremacy and Catholic devotion. Oy vei iz mir!
© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 31 October 2022.
Our experience of the Biennale, our first, was mixed, but above all we felt sheer appreciation for the immense effort to make the work of hundreds of artists available in such fabulous surroundings. One highpoint, in the Belgian pavilion, was The nature of the game, an addictive set of videos of children’s games, filmed over the years by Francis Alÿs. A complete set is freely available at https://francisalys.com/category/childrens-games/. Look at some, you’ll love them.
My ambition to attend Rosh Hashanah services at the stunning synagogue in the Old Ghetto, designed by Baldassare Longhena, was frustrated. A guard kept me out, saying that the synagogue was full. But I was able to go to the following Sabbath services, on the Sabbath of Repentance, Shabat Shuvah. That was made possible through my meeting with the custodian of the Jewish cemeteries on the Lido, the nonagenarian Aldo Izzo. We were introduced to him by Ruth Ellen Gruber, the maker of Jewish Heritage Europe. See the Halloween submission and take out a subscription. Here are these wonderful people in the old cemetery.
There is too much to tell, forgive me. After getting home, the following month was a period of rising tension and ever longer work days, getting the Dutch and English editions of my book Rembrandt in a red beret ready for printing. Stressful, but last Wednesday it was done – at least, it was taken out of my hands and sent to the press. Publication is scheduled for 2 December.
A closing memory of Venice, with all the sentiment I feel:
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