by Madhu Kaza
* Located in the Dorsoduro section of Venice, the Gallerie dell'Accademia hold a collection of pre-19th century Venetian art.
[detail of “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo,” Gentile Bellini. c. 1500]
What if I walked through the doors of Europe (I am an immigrant, but not there; the doors swing open easily) casting aside much of my education, the narrow ways in which I’d been schooled to think about culture, history and art? What if I wandered through France and Italy not in a posture of submission and not as a student of Western Civilization? I know Europe well, even if I’ve hardly been there. I know how greedy (how desperate) it is for affirmation of its superiority to all other places. There is so much that is particular and beautiful there, no different from any place else with its own particular beauty.
What if I walked through the galleries of the Accademia letting my attention land where it wanted? This summer when I saw the painting, “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo,” I wondered what the canals were like in the 15th century; today no one swims or bathes in the water. But I didn’t spend much time reading about Gentile Bellini and the symbolism of the “miracle” he depicted. Instead this image made me think of the bodies of migrants and refugees that were in the waters off the Italian coasts. I’ve long been trained to look for beauty and to prostrate myself in the pursuit of knowledge. But I noticed when I had left the galleries that all the photos I had taken were of details, and that when I had looked at the paintings I had looked through them, reaching for something else: a correspondence.
[detail of “The Marriage of St. Monica,” Antonio Vivarini. c. 1441]
Why anyone might love Lila, the brilliant friend in Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, is because she is a brutal girl with a voracious intellect– no saint. She won’t be loved by a man.
The Camorrist Marcello Solara has asked for her hand in marriage. She flatly says no and abuses him. She had already threatened him with a knife long before he fell in love with her. Perhaps that’s why he fell in love with her. In time (two thirds of the way through the novel), he begins to attend dinner every night at her parents’ house and acts as if he owns her anyway. She refuses to speak to him or acknowledge him at all. He tells her that if she begins to see anyone else he will kill her.
There’s a scroll of text at the bottom of the painting by Vivarini [not included here] that reads “this is how St. Monica was sent to her husband by her father and her mother.”
A woman not unlike “La Vecchia” was sitting on a bench near that hiccup of a bridge that leads inland from the Giardini landing. Giorgione’s portrait shocked me when I came upon it after all those 15th century paintings of Madonna and Child or of various saints in their blessed robes. Or portraits of noblemen. Giorgione flew across the centuries toward us, that is how it seemed. I felt suddenly that Giorgione was someone I knew, or could know.
This is a country of the old and the dying someone said to me. The woman on the bench at Giardini was smaller in frame than La Vecchia, her features more refined. She was not quite the peasant, but she was an ordinary woman. She sat with three other elders on that bench and the rest of them seemed jovial. She sat very slightly apart. It was how she held her hand, that’s what I noticed. In a fist, almost pointing to herself.
[detail of “La Vecchia,” Giorgione. c. 1506]
[detail of “Angel Announcing and Virgin Announciated,” Giovanni Bellini]
You’d know in any case that he was an angel by this detail. Messengers are always fleet-footed (winged near the ankles, in truth). Look at his beautiful sandals. Light of step, he touches ground but he is of the air, always about to lift away.
And the folds of the dress, like crumpled paper.
There was one Bangla child this morning on Via Garibaldi in bright blue shoes, scooting around with one hand on the handlebar of his blue scooter and holding a pink balloon in the other. He was maybe three or four, an age at which one delights in spells of worldly and bodily autonomy. Such was his joy and assuredness that I did not look past him in search of parents. But of the African and South Asian communities of Venice, those who live and work here, so far I have otherwise only seen men on the street.
They have always been here.
[detail of “La Cena en Emmaus,” Marco Marziale. c. 1506]
He’s a beautiful man (in the 15th century way). When I look at the portraits, snapshots, selfies of our own times in which people are most often smiling, their expression reaching towards the viewer, I look for what’s not given, what’s unknowable. I search for a sign that a person has faced a camera and kept something for herself.
There’s no need to look for this opacity in 15th century portraits. The figures don’t reveal themselves easily. You can read the signs: the clothing, the color, the ornaments that demonstrate their status, but they remain recessive. And so, what delights me, here, is this hand, how it moves the portrait of the man forward. His hand rests lightly at that border, the threshold between his world and ours.
[detail of “Portrait of a Young Man,” Hans Memling]
I sat on the steps of Piazza San Marco, opposite the church, in late afternoon unable to move. I wasn’t yet ready to stand up and walk back into the sun. But something else, too. I felt in those moments that whatever was happening in the world, whatever there was to see, it was also happening here, but in the reduced form of stone and flesh. Then a group of Indian tourists walked by, weaving color back into the world.
In this portrait of Italians and Levantines, this is where I see Indians.
[detail of “Sacra Famiglia con Santa Catarine e Giovanni Battista,” Palma il Vecchio]
Cities and Signs. In each city, perhaps, I will end up finding the same things, though differently arranged. A ruin, a library, a museum, a hospital, an orphanage, a wound, a gift. Built in the 16th century the Hospital of the Incurables was once a place for syphilis patients to come and die. Later it became an orphanage. Later still the building functioned as a juvenile court. I’m not sure if its true that the building now houses some part of the Academy of Fine Arts. It sounds true. And isn’t it true that there was a plaque on the same brick wall that said Joseph Brodsky loved this place?