Entertaining anthologies of writing–extracts from novels, letter, diaries, poems, histories, guide books–about or set in the destination. Lively introductions to each excerpt make them a pleasure to browse, a mine of fascinating insights to enjoy at home or to supplement a guide book on site.
4th June–27th November 2011 www.labiennale.org
The Biennale, the world’s leading modern art exhibition, is upon us once again. ‘An exuberant invitation to take part in growth and change’ (Rev John-Henry Bowden, former Chaplain of St George’s, Venice)? Or the emperor’s new clothes?
Well, Jackie Wullschlager , the Financial Times’ influential art critic and no enemy of the new, really doesn’t like British artist Mike Nelson’s installation: it is ‘fatuous, self-regarding art’ and ‘the most vapid show the British pavilion has ever sponsored’. But among the things she does like are the three Tintorettos. Sorry, Tintorettos? Not by any chance by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto because of his father’s trade of cloth dyeing, with the not very modern dates of 1519–94?
Indeed, the very same. Two of the three paintings are from the Accademia (the Creation of the Animals and the Transport of the Body of St Mark), the third is a Last Supper from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore ‘painted in the last year of his [Tintoretto’s] life … the last of numerous paintings he produced on this subject, one which had fascinated him all his life … what is memorable above all is the disquieting presence of ethereal spirits and angels which emerge from the dark background, perhaps harbingers of the death of this deeply religious painter’ (quoted from Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Venice).
But the Biennale’s Chairman, Paolo Baratta, has a simple explanation: the show hasn’t lost faith in the new, Tintoretto’s works are exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini ‘as a warning to living artists to not indulge in conventions!’ (the exclamation mark is from his press release). And while Curator Bice Curiger maybe protests a little much she is surely right when she says, ‘These paintings by Tintoretto, one of the most experimental artists in the history of Italian art, exert a special appeal today with their almost febrile, ecstatic lighting and a near reckless approach to composition that overturns the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance. The works will play a prominent role in establishing an artistic, historical and emotional relationship to the local context.’
All excellent, and we at the Blue Guides look forward with enthusiasm to a creeping juxtaposition of great, historical Venetian art alongside the thoroughly modern in the pavilions of the Giardini and halls of the Arsenale at future Biennales.
Reviewed by Thomas Howells
Venice is covered in a number of Blue Guides: there is the main Blue Guide Venice 8th edition, by Alta Macadam, as well as a Blue Guide Literary Companion Venice. And just out, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia, in the new Blue Guides Travel Monograph series.
The latest book by Charles Freeman, freelance academic historian and historical consultant to the Blue Guides (published by Yale University Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-300-12571-9).
The subtitle, ‘How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe’, sounds more universal than it actually is: the relics in question are exclusively Christian; the book makes no mention of the hair from the Prophet’s beard in Istanbul, for example, nor of any shrines there may have been in Muslim Spain. This is not a criticism; it is simply a fact that helps one to know what one is getting. We are talking about early Christianity, a subject on which Mr Freeman is extremely knowledgeable (and no less opinionated).
The book is a splendid read. It begins with a stirring account of the murder of Thomas Becket and goes on to examine the multifarious and mysterious ways in which early Church Fathers got distracted from the task of helping their flock to follow Christ’s model and fretted instead about whether the Holy Foreskin needed to have been rejoined to Jesus’ body after the Resurrection, or whether women entered Heaven in male form, as being representative of a higher state of being.
Freeman is particularly good on the vulnerability of relic cults to the onslaughts of science. ‘When an earthquake hit Venice in 1511,’ he tells us, ‘the Patriarch interpreted it as a sign from God in response to the increase of sodomy in the city. After all, the city’s prostitutes had been complaining that their own business was suffering as a consequence of this diversion in sexual behaviour. The diarist Marino Sanudo, who recorded the earthquake with his customary detachment, noted that the ensuing days of fasting, procession and preaching might have helped improve piety, “but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at all”….Sanudo is reflecting a growing understanding of the natural world.’
And yet, and yet… We may enjoy a little giggle at the idea that St Helena of Athyra possessed a ring that could quench sexual passion and owned a handkerchief that cured toothache, but how many of us have fondled crystals, tied copper bangles to our wrists, kept a scarab beetle in our pockets? The human need for tangible totems or amulets is as strong today as it ever was. A large part of the immense appeal of Freeman’s book is that it reminds us all of this foible. Which, on the scale of foibles, is a relatively harmless one. To the medieval mind, ‘Relics are the portents of heaven shining in their glory among the dross of sinful humanity.’ Nowadays we grope after transcendence in a variety of other ways. But the hope of shining glory is undimmed.
Reviewed by Tonsor
Charles Freeman is the author of Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World, published by Blue Guides.