Venice (part III)

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The last of the Bellinis was finishing his long labor of technical preparation and of the maturing of the senses, and Carpaccio was collecting, in a burst of intense rapture, all the decorative and picturesque elements upon which the great painters will draw for almost a century, at the moment when Venetian power was shaken by the fall of Constantinople, which closed the Orient to her, and by the maritime discoveries which gave to the world a new center of commerce. The city then recoiled upon herself to reach her depths through the soul of her artists. Venice was like a being overflowing with strength and health whose need to organize life against the incessant assaults of difficult surroundings and of semibarbarous peoples had left no time to indulge in pleasure. Once the city had tasted of pleasure, she yielded herself without restraint; she gave herself over to the desires and the energy of which her senses had accumulated so rich a store. She died of it, like those animals so bursting with life that they die in the act of reproduction. Her death transmitted to the future, in inner wealth, the outward opulence which she had amassed for six centuries.

Giorgione, Palma, Lorenzo Lotto, Bonifazio, Basaiti, Pordenone, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian, all pupils or disciples of Giovanni, arrived together to pluck the fruits which were bending down the branches, and at the same time to celebrate, in a frenzy of painting never attained before, the rehabilitation of material nature, to which man is invariably forced to return when he has been wandering for too long a time in the beautiful desert of the pure idea; to celebrate also the death struggle and apotheosis of that sensuality of which the ancient world had bequeathed the legend. From that time on, like products of the earth, overflowing pellmell from baskets filled to overflowing, and spreading over the roads to the rhythm of the step of those who carry them, the pictures and frescoes are scattered in the palaces, on the walls, in the churches quite as much and even more than in other places—telling the story of the festivals, fetes, dances, concerts in great miraculous settings, the depths of the skies, the forests, the springs, the nude flesh quivering with warmth as it awaits the passage of love.

The unity of sentiment, of action, of surroundings, and of life was such that one among the painters of this time may define almost all of them. Titian contains the whole of Venice, from the Bellinis to Veronese and even to Tiepolo. But Titian is more than sketched in Giorgione, born the same year with him and dying two thirds of a century before him; and if the pious and gentle and discreet Lorenzo Lotto, who, before Veronese, saw the fine ash of Venice raining upon his color, has gathered up only certain surface reflections from the greatest painters, Palma and Sebastiano del Piombo, Basaiti and Bonifazio himself, and even the severe Pordenone who was officially his rival, all resemble Titian. They all have, in a less ample and less personal way, the larger part of his profound quality. Moreover, they had no hesitation about borrowing ideas and images. They lived by continuous exchanging, like the population and the atmosphere of their city. It is in times of national anaemia that the artists resort to economies. When life has this exuberance, it takes no note of its borrowing. The creeping vines of tropical forests do not prevent the trees about whose branches they entangle themselves from growing tall and wide. Among all the contemporaries of Titian, we find the same abundance, the same compelling and peaceful power of transposing the elements of the universe into a new order, generalizing and lyrical, and of bathing life and the space in which it moves in the golden amber of the background, from which there arises a red vapor.

The "Concert Champêtre" marks the decisive moment of the great painting; it is the point of departure for Titian. The symphony is born and wells up suddenly; its waves seek and penetrate one another; all the blood of Venice is concentrated in a single heart, a warm heart, regular and calm, which sends forth life with the admirable power of him who is master of himself. A world which is to die, for the first time and with all its means affirms the immortality of desire, of music, and of the intelligence, by associating them with unchanging nature, which offers itself up for their justification. The powers of fecundation retire into themselves and wait in the depths for the moment of full maturity. With Giorgione, the autumn of Venice begins, a heavy splendor, the sonorousness of the seasons when the fruits seem to concentrate the flame and heat of the sun, when their translucent purple barely arrests the light, when the evening is copper-colored, when the women, glowing under their first caresses and heavy in their first maternity, adorn their flesh with great necklaces of amber. Their skin is golden and almost somber, as if the blood that flushes it had received through it a kiss from each one of the burning days which have dawned since the world learned the meaning of pleasure. And yet, in the heart of the deep landscape where they he, the blue landscape sinking in the distance, their bodies take on a royal splendor like a living sun which spreads over the russet cottages and over the noble groups of trees a glow so warm and so rich that it seems to forbid the winter from returning and the night from falling again. We scarcely know Giorgione, we cannot affirm the authenticity of more than three or four of his works, but we cannot imagine them otherwise than bathed in the atmosphere of a late summer afternoon, when the motionless light is amassed in the stifling shadow, when one would imagine that the wind rose only to make us perceive perfumes which until then had been in material form. Perhaps it was well that he died young, thus giving time to the more severe and patient genius of Titian to gain possession of itself. His painting is as intoxicating as an overheavy wine.

It has been said of this painting, of Titian's above all, of that of Veronese, and of all the painters of Venice, with the exception perhaps of Tintoretto, that it is altogether objective, that it never reveals the opinion of the artist respecting the meaning and the morality of the world. It is a question of words. There is no one among those for whom form is but a means of translating pure ideas, whether he is called Giotto, or da Vinci or Michael Angelo, who is not gifted, in the highest degree, with the sense of living reality and who does not incorporate it with his own substance after having experienced it passionately. There is no one among those for whom form is an end, whether he is called Titian, Rubens, or even Velasquez, who does not discontinue his objectivism the moment that he is finished assembling the elements of his work in order to transpose them all into an imaginary reality which will define his mind. All the languages that we speak, painting as well as the others, symbolize our thought, and whether it accepts or does not accept the world, the world which it expresses will be a living world if our thought is living; our thought will live if the world which expresses it has been penetrated by that thought. Michael Angelo and Titian, though, without doubt, they started from different horizons, meet halfway along their journey.

Titian, in this group of great Venetians at the beginning of the heroic period, is, moreover, through his great compositions, his nudes, his landscapes, and his portraits, the one among them all who most frequently returns to Nature in order to concentrate her in the narrow space of a canvas, after having co-ordinated in his will and his desire all the elements of form, color, light, and sentiment, through which she imposes love. Palma Vecchio, who is so magnificent with his big, blond-haired women, abandons himself to the intoxication of painting the colors of flesh and of stuffs; he has not that rhythm, as vast as sensibility and as tense as reason, by means of which Titian presents his thought to us. Sebastiano del Piombo, who lived for more than thirty years at Rome, is captivated there by the masters of its school. Superb painter he is, with a somber splendor that glows about his dark women with their peaceful eyes, with their large, full bodies, almost animal in character, wherein something of the immense circulation of life that Venice will discover in nature penetrates the thick muscles, the breasts, the backs, the arms, and the legs, as if the sense of volume which Rome gave were too limited to maintain this life and had allowed it to overflow on all sides. But he is dominated by Raphael, to whom, in return, he reveals as much of Venice as Raphael needed in order to make his work a synthesis of Italy, and he is dominated even more by Michael Angelo, whom he will imitate too frequently. Giorgione is dead, Lorenzo Lotto effaces himself in his discreet melancholy, Pordenone, Basaiti, and Bonifazio remain artists of the second rank. Titian is to fill an entire century summarize the whole extent and duration of Venice, reveal Tintoretto and Veronese to themselves, dominate Europe through the works which he sends forth behind the armies of Charles the Fifth, define forever the language of painting, project upon the future the shadows of Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Poussin, Watteau, Delacroix, and the modern landscapists, and justify, by his last works, the audacities of the artists of our time.

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