Saturday, November 04, 2006

Venetian tapestries

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1878

Moth-eaten and faded, pale with their age and long imprisonment in dark halls into which the sunlight never crept, are the old Venetiaan tapestries. You may see them to-day, drooping, faint and humble, about the windows of the dingy shops, among the grotesque brasses, the deep-toned laces, the dark tomes and jewelled reliquaries. They shudder at every footfall -- broken old aristocrats, so long recluses through poverty that the light of day and the noise of humanity are full of terror and foreboding to them.

At a regatta-time the poor pale phantoms rise from their graves in the iron-bound coffers or the joyless banqueting halls, and flutter mournfully from under the window arches, mocked at by the stone satyr heads, or sweep below to a balcony nigh to the water's edge -- a faint color space with tones of yellow and green, darkening with the figure outlines, reproducing the shifting color effects of the palace front behind and the changeful waterway below, forming an ascending scale of harmony that gives to the wide sweeping way that subdued pearly quality of color that the old painters of the last century, Canaletto and his followers, felt and expressed -- so unconciously mournful, so symbolic of the city's decay. It is an aspect that could have been made prominent only at a time when human action had ceased to interest, and the artist soul fell back upon accessory.

On festa the damasks make blood-red stains against the gray stones, turning them to white. They have served through victory feasts and holy-tides, have symbolized rejoicing over warrior and monk, but they still glow warm in the noon-time sun, for there is in them something sturdy and martial -- the strong old democratic force that blots itelf darkly against the poor faded patrician fabrics.

They still linger in the churches, those old velvets and damasks with the odor of the centuries upon them. They glow crimson about the columns, or cover the walls, framing in the fair-haired pictured shapes. Threads of gold and silver gleam suddenly in the alter light from their tissues. In the sacristies, upon the alters, in the robes of the priests, the draperies of the holy tables, the hangings of sacred places, their rich, deep tones, mellowed by the centuries, wrought in crimson, pale green, faint yellow, are all caught up in one exquisite harmony in the soft taper glow.

The history of the sea-city is inwrought with these stately arazzi, so grand and royal in their very humiliation, no less than with the great canvases that the dying republic bequeathed to its posterity. The relation is even closer, for the soft yielding folds of the arazzi could enter secret places that were closed to the unbending canvases. In the farthest chambers of the palaces, where men bared their hearts one to another, thinking their plots secure, lurked the listening arras, waiting for their victims! What treacherous footsteps were muffled by the indulgent tapestry! What lovers' heads it touched in blessing as they passed through the portals, brushing aside the heavy folds; what death-doomed caressed with its comforting hands! Courtly, politic old nobles, these arazzi of Venice, gaining a foot-hold in every household, indulgent and liberal to guilt as to innocence -- philosophic spectators of the great tragedy of life, with no personal interests at stake.

In the early age of the republic there was weaving of stuffs in Venice, but stuffs simple, severe, of single purpose and religious aim -- stuffs that hung in long straight folds on the pious men, and draped the saintly women in noble curves. It was in this mood that the earliest artists of Venice worked, those to whom had come down the simple traditions of the early Church and their exponent, Art, and therefore, when they overlaid the domes of the basilica with holy shapes throned in a golden glow, they made their humanity higher than their garments, draping them in the coarse dark serge of the poor and the lowly. And this mood held good wherever sweet and simple thoughts were uttered upon canvas through all succeeding years.

photos borrowed from Olga Volchkova


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