BY Colm Tóibín in Opinion | 15 APR 24
Featured in
The Venice Issue

Colm Tóibín Observes Venice Through the Eyes of its Artists and Writers

A renowned novelist wanders the city's streets, immersed in its cultural offerings with one rule: no idling

BY Colm Tóibín in Opinion | 15 APR 24

In Venice, it is essential not to stroll or idle or appear leisurely or slack. No one in Venice likes a flâneur or anyone who lingers in a bar or a cafe or gawks for ages at some vista. It is essential in Venice to walk briskly, mark distance by the number of bridges to be crossed and have a pointed destination.

During the pandemic, it was notable that Piazza San Marco was always empty. This is because it never gets you more quickly from one place to another. It is for decoration; it serves no purpose. No one in their right mind would go near it. Merton Densher in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902) breaks this rule by sitting in Florian’s cafe in the square but he has no luck afterwards. Napoleon allegedly called the square the finest drawing room in Europe. He was not fortunate either.

Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Eric Scaggiante

Of all the human inventions, perhaps the most useful and inspiring is the corner. Venice is the great city of corners: sharp, declarative ones that lead towards a square or a wider street; odd, unexpected ones that lure you towards a dead end; absent ones in a space crying out for a corner; corners that seem merely useful; others that are, by any standards, unnecessary.

These corners battle hard against the watery light.

So, too, in the city, it is necessary to battle against the vice of sauntering, idly ambling. In Venice, as in life, it is necessary to have a clear aim, no time for dreaming or deviation. There are, thus, two ways of functioning in the city. The first is to select three great paintings and go to see them every day, having learned by heart the route so you do not have to make a nuisance of yourself in the street by hesitating, looking at your phone, turning around or appearing indecisive.

The second way is to choose three minor or lesser-known paintings that hang in places that are harder to find or in churches that are often locked.

I wish I could write about Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese and how, especially in that shivering hour or two after the dawn when deliveries are being made, I can see their great ghosts drifting into some side street and disappearing into a doorway. But I don’t see them. I don’t see Titian all worldly, well-dressed, his steps deliberate, his son, Orazio, following. I don’t see Tintoretto, unslept, his hair unkempt, late for something, unsure, always unsure, wondering if he could create a more disciplined line in his paintings. He moves as though someone is following him.

Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Eric Scaggiante

And Veronese: I have no sense at all of Veronese.

It is easier to imagine the dead who came here in the late 19th century. John Singer Sargent began to work in the city in the early 1880s, savouring the oblique and odd perspectives, the tiny and alluring details, the side canals, the marooned darkness, the poor. He saw the dramatic possibilities in obscure, shabby hallways and decaying, desolate backstreets. Thus, he could move between the gilded topography of the city, including some of its grandest interiors, and its hidden dinginess.

James first came to Venice in 1869 at the age of 26, returning many times over the next 40 years. His friend Constance Fenimore Woolson died by suicide here in January 1894. James brought one of his more tragic heroines, the heiress Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, to die in a palace in Venice. She turned her face to the wall, as the novel tells us.

It is necessary to battle against the vice of sauntering, idly ambling.

In Palazzo Barbaro, owned by the Curtis family, James, on his visits, had a bedroom set up for him in the modest library on one of the upper floors. A decade ago, when one of the kind Curtis descendants let me in to see the palace, I found that this same library, which I knew from photographs taken during James’s time in Venice, was utterly and completely untouched. No one, it seemed, had bothered to dismantle it. There were never many books.

I suppose I should have been overjoyed and cried out: ‘How moving, how marvellous! Nothing has changed. I feel as though James himself were among us!’ But I didn’t feel anything much. Indeed, if the room had been remodelled by some terrible Italian designer into a massive modern bedroom with a cool bathroom, I would have relished deploring vulgarity in all its guises.

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Palazzo Barbaro was to check a theory. I took the view that, when James stayed in the palace in the years after Woolson’s suicide, he could, from the balcony, see the place where she fell to her death. I imagined him standing there at twilight thinking about her.

But, when I stood there myself, I realized that, although James could see the spot, he was so interested in life – especially when there were posh people present – that he might not have gone at all onto the balcony to see where she died. He might have stayed in the grand salon or looked at something else from the balcony.

The great paintings that we must venture out to see in Venice are: Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1515–18) in the Frari, hanging over the high altar; Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565) in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, taking up a whole wall and better now that new lighting has been introduced; and Veronese’s Annunciation (1578) at the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

David Hoyle, Musings on War, c.2017, mixed media, 70 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Goswell Road, Paris
Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Eric Scaggiante

What I relish about all three paintings does not do me much credit. Yes, I love them, but so do we all. What I truly love, however, and often reflect on, is how openly and honestly I was overwhelmed by all three when I saw them first.

I came across all three by chance, the Titian in the Frari in the spring of 1977; I was not following a guidebook, nor was I with a friend. I was alone and wandering before I gave that up.

On good days, I love the Veronese most, even if I don’t fully admire the way it has been cleaned. Veronese’s angel is not just ready to pounce and announce, like many other angels in other versions of this scene. This angel, carrying high news from heaven, is all performance. It, or they, are suspended in the air, imposing, overdressed, almost awkward.

What a relief to stand in front of a painting of a saint who made himself useful.

On the balustrade, close to the Virgin in the Veronese painting, is a small glass vase, painted simply, just a daub of light. A scholar once tried to convince me that this has some immense symbolic significance. But I am simple: my parents kept me home on the days they were explaining symbolic importance in school. I know it is wrong, but I just see a vase.

The three lesser-known paintings worth seeing on duller days are, of course, actually quite famous in their own Venetian way. The first – St. Augustine in His Study (1502) by Carpaccio – is hanging in a strange, shadowy space known as the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. What is lovely to start with is how little effort this small room has made to help you to see Carpaccio’s paintings.

And since the Accademia, the city’s big museum, on the other hand, has made such an effort to make their Carpaccios bright and accessible to even the most elderly eye, it is a relief to stand in the badly lit Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni before paintings that are better, if only you could see them.

Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Eric Scaggiante

It is also a relief, for example, to stand in front of a painting of a saint who made himself useful, with no sign of the crucified Christ. In Carpaccio’s painting, is at his desk. Soon, he will start writing again, but just now he is looking out of the window. Close by on the pink floor is a little dog and some stray books.

It will help guarantee your social success in Venice if you know that Giambattista Tiepolo had a son called Giandomenico, whose Stations of the Cross (1745–49) are in the Oratory of the Church of San Polo. Since his father was still alive, young Tiepolo must have had fun making his blues paler and sadder and generally truer than the famous blues his father made.

And then, for a last sigh in Venice before you depart, there are the other smaller paintings of the Crucifixion that Tintoretto made dotted around the city. I wish I knew precisely when the Church of San Cassiano opens. (During the pandemic, I once found the door slightly ajar and crept inside, to the consternation of a couple who were, of all things, getting married.)

San Cassiano has a small, overdramatic Tintoretto Crucifixion from 1568, the sky all ominous and overworked. The three hanging figures are pushed over to the side. There are some weeds and brambles on the ground and the distant sky is pierced with pikes carried by soldiers.

Recently, I stood in front of this painting with a discerning friend.

‘But this is not very good,’ she said.

‘When did that ever matter?’ I was about to say, when a man with a key approached and told us it was time.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘No Idlers’

Main image: Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Eric Scaggiante

Colm Tóibín is an author. His work has been translated into over thirty languages. His next novel, Long Island, will be published by Pan Macmillan in May.