Venice, Christian conception, Ravenna style, early mosaics

Once you turn around to face the altar, however, the joyous literalness of Venice is behind you. A very different atmosphere emanates from the luminous white-washed basilica, with its three simple naves, carried on eighteen Greek columns with leafy white marble capitals. Ruskin compared it to an ark, and indeed there is that feeling about it: a sense of a covenant between God and the early settlers, with the bishop, as Ruskin says, being their pilot -- a common early Christian conception. A marine light flows in through the high, rude windows, and the Nereid and the denizens of the deep are just behind you. Representation is kept to a minimum, and all attention is directed by the ushering columns to the plain stone altar, literally a table, and to the gold vault above, which symbolized the celestial light. Against this gold background, on a kind of rug-like platform stands the mosaic Virgin, a sober figure in a dark blue fringed dress, holding the Child in one arm while the other is folded stiffly against her breast. She is very thin, compressed to a narrow, sad reminder, a dark, single exclamation point on the empty gold vault. Her expression is strict -- more than that, forbidding, as though she were the superior of a harsh, penitential order. Even this is not strong enough; her expression is accusatory.

Below her there is a band of Apostles in the Ravenna style. In the right side-chapel, there are some charming early mosaics, of angels with a lamb; in the main nave is a lovely basrelief of lions and peacocks; in the right nave, Attila's Chair, said to be the seat from which the tribunes administered justice under the Exarchate. The church also contains the bones of St. Heliodorus, first bishop of Altinum, and an inscription, the earliest in Venetian history, noting the foundation of the Cathedral in the names of the Emperor Heraclius and Isaac the Exarch.

What remains most haunting, however, is that strange figure of the Virgin, small and slender and taut, like a severe little statue raised up to a great height. She is not Byzantine, despite her austerity. Nor is she Ravennate, if there is such a word. She is officially enrolled as a "capolavoro" of the Venetian school. Yet there is nothing like her in Venice, and her sad, accusing gaze seems to be fixed on the Venetian caprices of the "Universal Judgment" -- half a century earlier -- as if in condemnation. She appears, an isolated perpendicular, to be a peculiar place-spirit of Torcello, a sobering, unwavering beacon in the empty Cathedral, itself a lighthouse of an extinguished faith.

Something of this obstinate faith survives in the redhaired boy who explains the mosaics. He heard me one afternoon explaining them myself to a friend, and it cannot have been professional rivalry that caused him to interrupt. "After the Crucifixion," I was saying, "Christ is supposed to have gone down to Limbo --." "Not 'supposed'; 'E did," the boy cut in, peremptorily. This was a disconcertingly far cry from the Venetian sacristans with their "Che bello," "Che luce," etc. Torcello is "something different," as the tourists say to each other. Ruskin's notion of medieval Venice, "città apostolica e santa," receives support from Torcello, just as the operatic conception of Venice as a northern Naples receives support from Burano and Chioggia, while the glass-blowing town of Murano, with its ogival palaces, arches, arcades, and porticoes, proffers a glimpse of the sybaritic Renaissance Venice that was a kind of specious "Florence in-exile". Bembo and Tasso and Aretino lived on Murano; it was a breezy garden retreat for humanist gentlemen, who collected art-objects and rare botanical specimens, engaged in Platonic dialogues, and perused Greek and Latin volumes in fine Venetian bindings. Murano was a sort of "folly" and fell into decline in the seventeenth century; it was revived as an industrial town at the end of the nineteenth century, when the glass-industry made a comeback. That is the eerieness of the lagoons; Venice is ringed by a series of dead cities, each representing a Venecian possibility that aborted.

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