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The Bellini Madonna

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Elizabeth Lowry on Venice


The Visitable Past: Some Venetian Sources for The Bellini Madonna


Venice has always been a place that exists in the imagination as much as in reality. It has been painted, written about and turned into film by so many visitors from abroad that you could justly say there are two Venices: the actual city on the Adriatic and that palimpsest of texts and images that occupies the public domain and is part of the public memory. You don’t need to have travelled to Venice to have been there. By the same token, it is a destination that resists efficient dismemberment by guidebook even when you are there: Venice can’t be filleted in a weekend or even a week. There are simply too many layers to work through—too many corners, too many stories, too many sunsets, too much water; too much history, too much art.

Our abiding modern image of Venice as a splendid sepulchre both preserving and entombing a glorious past owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century English imagination, in particular. In the itinerary of the Grand Tour—that rite of passage once undertaken by well-born young Englishmen that involved an extended trek through Europe in search of culture and the roots of western civilization—Italy was a de rigueur stop; Venice, the jewel in the crown. In the nineteenth century the English went to Italy for months at a time to commission paintings, mingle with the aristocracy, and pick up antiquities (sometimes, they picked up the aristocracy: Anglo-Italian marriages could be a mutually advantageous by-product of the Grand Tour). From the 1860s, the high period of American Venetophilia, English sojourners in Venice were increasingly joined by leisured American tourists, writers and painters. Some of the more well-to-do rented or bought palazzi where they kept open house: in the 1880s the glittering guest list of the Daniel Curtises at the Palazzo Barbaro included John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Edith Wharton, Henry James and, of course, the aged Robert Browning.

Browning, like James, travelled to Venice often throughout his life (his son Pen would later acquire that wedding cake on the Grand Canal, the eye-poppingly baroque Palazzo Rezzonico). Browning and James were both drawn by the lure of what James called ‘the visitable past’, the promise of intimate contact with a civilization that had fed the sources of their own art. Browning especially was attracted by the vigour and the robustness of Renaissance culture: the largeness of its personalities, its ambition and its optimism, qualities on display everywhere in Venice’s colossal marbles and lustrous canvases and waterborne palaces. He and James both enjoyed the hospitality of a wealthy American hostess called Katherine de Kay Bronson, who owned a house on the Grand Canal and a country villa in Asolo, a hilltop town in the Veneto some forty miles to the north-west of Venice. It was to Asolo that Browning went in the autumn of 1889, when he was busy revising the poems in the collection that was to be his last, Asolando.

Browning was now seventy-seven years old. His celebrated marriage to the poet Elizabeth Barrett, which had caused a scandal when they eloped together in 1846, belonged to another era: Elizabeth had died in 1861. Browning knew that his own career was also drawing to a close. He was one of the most lionised and popular poets of his age, but all who met him testified to his peculiar guardedness. When Henry James was introduced to Browning he was perplexed and not a little horrified at the apparent difference between Browning’s real-life personality and the sophisticated, finely-tuned sensibility he’d been led to expect from the poetry. The Robert Browning James encountered was loud and cheerful and garrulous; his opinions were clichéd and his health strapping; he ate well and chattered undiscriminatingly and told awful jokes. Shocked, James put Browning into one of his stories, “The Private Life”, as the bafflingly bluff—or insufficiently “subjective”—writer Clare Vawdrey: “He never talked about himself; and this was a topic on which, though it would have been tremendously worthy of him, he apparently never even reflected.”

Had he but known it, James had already put his finger on the answer to the mystery. If Browning was not “subjective” enough, this was entirely deliberate: long experience of having his most intimate feelings made public property had taught him not to refer to his private life if he could help it; if possible, not to reveal anything personal to himself at all. His vexed resistance to exposing his inner self to the public gaze extended to his poetry—throughout his career he made a technical virtue out of not speaking in his own voice on the page. His preferred form was the dramatic monologue, in which a character (who might be made up, or have some historical basis) addresses an unseen audience.

As an artistic strategy it is a strikingly effective way of revealing the human personality in action. And indeed, one of Browning’s abiding themes was the relationship between art and its human subject, most searchingly addressed in a number of dramatic monologues which he wrote about artists. Set in Renaissance Italy, they reflect the Victorian fascination with the period—with its sumptuousness, its dynamism, its unparalleled belief in the human animal. Perhaps the best known is “My Last Duchess,” first published in 1842. The poem is impressive in being, quite literally, a perfectly achieved picture in words: it recreates the portrait of a beautiful young woman, recently deceased, as described for us by her widower, the art-loving Duke of Ferrara. Ferrara is too much of an art-lover, perhaps. The poem makes it shockingly clear that he not only killed his wife, but actually prefers the image of his dead duchess to the original since the image is inert—he can dominate it in the way he could never dominate the living woman. Though the poem is ostensibly about art, it is the humanity of the duchess that makes the strongest impression, however. The pen portrait is just as lifelike as the painted one: we are left with an exhilarating sense of the girl’s animation and joie de vivre long after her murderous husband has once again tried to muffle her up.

After “My Last Duchess” Browning would go on to write some of the best poems of his career about the theme of artists and their work: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Pictor Ignotus.” Yet all the indications are that he lost his faith in art, and poetry, by the end of his life. Asolando, his last work, exudes a sense of exhaustion and disappointment, a loss of faith in the creative impulse that had previously sustained him, and an overwhelming awareness of the sterility of art for art’s sake. The once burning bush, he writes, is bare. A flower is just a flower; “Man, bird, beast are but beast, bird, man.” Yet Browning, as “My Last Duchess” so eloquently shows, always knew that art—the pursuit of pattern—is meaningless unless it is humanized, rooted in the real.

When I began to write The Bellini Madonna it was this apprehension of Browning’s, rather than the details of his celebrated marriage, that interested me most. The Bellini Madonna is set partly in Asolo during Browning’s stay of 1889 with Mrs Bronson, and Browning wanders in and out of the narrative, as guarded as when James met him, if a little more worn. He came ready made. The real challenge lay in creating the novel’s present-day narrator, Thomas Lynch—who resembles the Duke of Ferrara in his greedy aestheticism—and gradually investing him with some of Browning’s later poetic insights: his disillusionment with abstractions, his awareness that the world is too random and various, too intractable, to be contained by art. Desperate to prove the existence of an uncatalogued Madonna del prato by the great Venetian master Giovanni Bellini, Lynch worms his way into the ancestral home of the Roper family in Berkshire, where he finds a diary kept by James Roper while on the Grand Tour in Asolo in 1889, containing clues to the painting’s whereabouts. As Lynch tries to unravel James Roper’s hints, he is drawn into a sexual cat-and-mouse game with Roper’s great-granddaughter, Anna. She is as ingenuous as Browning’s Duchess, as lovely and as vulnerable, and Lynch’s developing relationship with her upsets all his assumptions about the superiority of possessing an image of a woman to the real thing. By the close of the book Lynch, too, is a murderer of sorts, but with this difference: he is a Ferrara agonisingly aware of the crime he’s perpetrated.

There is also a genuflection, in the novel’s plot, to Henry James’s great novella about nineteenth-century Venice, The Aspern Papers. But the key to it all—the figure in the carpet, as James would say—is Giovanni Bellini himself. Dürer really did visit Bellini in 1506, and he really was in the habit of writing copious letters home about his travels abroad. In real life, however, Dürer was far more interested in how much paintings could sell for than what they looked like. The missing Madonna in the book is entirely invented, as is every detail of her creation and every scrap of her provenance. Bellini’s astonishing qualities as a painter, however, are not.

Why Bellini? Of all the painters of the Italian cinquecento, it seemed to me that he best expressed that quality of compassion for his human subject that Browning managed to convey in “My Last Duchess.” Browning never wrote a dramatic monologue about Bellini, but he surely should have. The founder of the Venetian school of painting, Bellini raised Venice to a centre of Renaissance art that rivalled Florence and Rome. He was one of the pioneers of the new medium of oil paint, and his luminous use of dense colour introduced volume into representations of the human body in a way that had never been attempted before. His madonnas are fully three-dimensional: they seem to tremble and breathe. They are so girlish, so bruisable. You can easily imagine them not feeling quite equal to the part they’ve been called on to play, biting their nails, eating cherries, riding around on mules. They are striking examples of humanity, rather than ciphers in a devotional message. If Dürer learned anything from Bellini it was how to import this naturalism into his own work: just look at the Madonna of the Rose Garlands, which he painted in 1506 for Venice’s community of German merchants, and compare its easy fluidity to the didactic linear style he had favoured previously. This is the moment when the Renaissance reaches the north, when ideas give way to flesh.

Browning died in Venice, at the Palazzo Rezzonico, on the day that Asolando was published; his body was interred in Westminster Abbey. Bellini is buried in the cemetery of the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola, but his real monuments are to be found everywhere in Venice, and beyond. You can visit Bellini’s San Giobbe altarpiece in the Accademia, his Frari Triptych at Santa Maria Gloriosa, his Sacra Conversazione in San Zaccaria; but you probably already know these madonnas without even realizing that you do, just as Bellini’s stunningly corporeal angels and putti—struggling to balance their oversized lutes on their knees, or tilting their podgy bottoms at us, or glancing shyly up as they try to master their flutes—are reproduced in almost every book on the history of painting in the western world. They persist in the fund of common images we have all, at some time, had access to. His art and his surprisingly modern vision of humanity are as much a part of our shared imaginative inheritance as Venice itself.