Friday, September 12, 2014

City of a Hundred Isles

John Singer Sargent, by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1907 - collection National Portrait Gallery, London

The 19th century writer Henry James once observed, “The mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough.” (Italian Hours)

That may be so, but this hasn’t stopped painters, writers, and photographers from trying to capture the essence of the watery city in paint, prose, and print. One man who tried harder than most was the American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Born in Florence to American parents, he felt very much at home in Italy all his life. He visited Venice many times between the 1880s and 1913. While he was primarily famous for his portraits, he painted hundreds of impressionistic watercolors of Venice that seem expressly designed to illustrate the descriptions of the city by some of the world’s greatest writers. 


“…there she lay again before him, that ineffable mooring-place, that dazzling mixture of fantastical buildings that the Serenissima offered to the spellbound eyes of the incoming seagoer.” ~ Death in Venice, Thomas Mann

Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice
“Underneath Day's azure eyes,
Ocean's nursling, Venice lies, 
A peopled labyrinth of walls,
Amphitrite's destined halls.”
~ Lines Written among the Euganean Hills, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Libreria
“Venice glowed and plashed and called and chimed again; the air was like a clap of hands, and the scattered pinks, yellows, blues, sea-greens, were like a hanging-out of vivid stuffs, a laying down of fine carpets.” ~ The Wings of a Dove, Henry James 

A Venetian Canal
“We returned up the Grand Canal in our gondola. We watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their rosy surfaces, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which people go out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset.'
~ Albertine Disparue, Marcel Proust
Rio di San Salvatore
"The great basilica, with its low domes and bristling embroideries, the mystery of its mosaic and sculpture, looked ghostly in the tempered gloom, and the sea-breeze passed between the twin columns of the Piazzetta, the lintels of a door no longer guarded, as gently as if a rich curtain swayed there.” ~ The Aspern Papers, Henry James

The Piazzetta
“White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest . . .
White phantom city, whose untrodden streets
Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting
Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky.”
~ Venice, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

The Grand Canal
 And last but not least.....

“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out the wave her structures rise,
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sat in State, throned on her hundred isles.”
~ Childe Harold (Canto IV), Lord Byron

The Prison