Venice, restorations, Universal Judgment

The Venetians are enthusiastic restorers. The paintings of the Doge's Palace have been worked on by gangs of restorers ever since the eighteenth century. That is perhaps why, at least to my eyes, they look so verveless; even Tintoretto's great blue circling "Paradise" is a disappointment, close up -- I prefer the cartoon for it in the Louvre. Except for the Veronese "Industry" with her marvelous spider web on the ceiling of the Sala del Collegio and Tinto retto 's "Marriage of St. Catherine" in the same room, Tiepolo's "Neptune Offering Venus the Gifts of the Sea" on an easel in the Sala delle Quattro Porte and the bonneted figure of the Doge Grimani in the large semi-Titian in the same room, these yards of paint and canvas seem dead and honorific. A better idea of these masters can be formed in the Scuole and the churches, long neglected by the restorers, or in the Academy, which got most of its paintings during the nineteenth century from private collections, or in the various small museums -- the Correr, the Quirini Stampalia, the Ca' Rezzonico -- which were themselves private collections until recent years.

As every visitor knows, only one original mosaic -- the left-hand one -- has survived on St. Mark's façade. The others are "restorations." A less advertised fact is that the Torcello mosaics have been restored too, particularly the "Universal Judgment." I myself would never have noticed this, had I not been told. But it pains more expert people, who say that it has lost its depth and sparkle, which were due to the uneven setting of the old tiles. The whole Cathedral and Santa Fosca too have undergone restorations; their baroque ornaments have been stripped from them and some new brick has been laid in, to give them once again their bare, primitive aspect. I do not find this objectionable here on Torcello, for the restoration only emphasizes a truth about these churches, which is that life has fled from them.

You pay your admission and enter the Cathedral. In the depths of the church, behind the altar, high up, is the Virgin against a gold background. Facing her, on the entrance wall, is the "Universal Judgment". A solemn confrontation, thinks Ruskin, and in theory it ought to be: the Last Things -- death, resurrection, immortality, judgment -- confront the First Thing -- the mystery of the Incarnation. But the real effect is quite different. You must turn your back on the Virgin to look up at the Universal Judgment ( 12th century, Venetian, Byzantine iconography), and this wheeling has a significance, certainly not intended, but nonetheless real.

The Universal Judgment is arranged in five tiers, with the Crucifixion above and a praying Madonna in the lunette over the door: the Descent into Limbo; Christ in Glory with the Madonna and Saints; the Resurrection of the Body; the Elect separated from the Damned; Bliss and Eternal Fire. It is a solemn arraignment, and the huge mosaic at first sight is awe-inspiring, as the Greek mosaics are. But the Christ in Glory, which should, in the Greek notion, be the radiant center of the story, is the most perfunctory of the panels. Interest is dispersed to the "amusing" aspects of the narrative: the Angel, on the right-hand side of the third panel, with the Last Trump, represented as a sort of tuba-horn, and his companion Angels with flutes, blowing a summons to a pagan Nereid, in bracelets and anklets and head-dress, to release the manikin bodies that have been devoured by man-eating fish and spotted sea-serpents and other monsters of the sea, while, on the left-hand side, two land-based Angels pipe to the Lion, king of beasts, seated outside his cave, to order his minions to cough up their half-devoured prey; the damned, in the fourth panel, being chivied into hell, where the devil, a hoary grandfather in blackface, sits dandling a soul on his lap, while the Elect, across the way, look on, like spectators at a sporting event. In the bottom panel, Eternal Fire, with its curly flames licking naked old debauchees, diverts attention from Bliss; in the top panel, majesty is sacrificed to the spectacle of a reluctant, protesting, unregenerate Adam in a white beard being pulled along by a stern Redeemer, Who is obliged to use force to get the old fellow out of his soft life in Limbo.

All this is orthodox theology. The Last Trump does indeed call for the Resurrection of the Body -- "all those whom the flood did and fire shall o'erthrow" -- and one of the pleasures of the blessed will be to look down over the banisters into hell and watch the damned being tortured. Yet one cannot help smiling over this mosaic, because the Venetian concreteness and visualizing power has turned eschatology into a quirkish folk legend that is not far from the novelistic tales of Carpaccio. The tuba-horn, the costumed Nereid, the spotted sea serpent sitting up like an obedient Fido with his victim between his jaws -- these lively details, painted in bright, clear colors, red and white and turquoise, are pure Venetian fantasy, which is always an extension of Venetian common sense and logic.

All that is left of Byzance in this mosaic is the stupendous size of it, the monitory figure of the Redeemer with his cross, and the two hieratic Archangels in Oriental dress on either side of the top panel. And, of course, the ladies' fashions.

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