Monday, March 9, 2009

Crown of Creation

I brought my copy of the Stones of Venice with me on the boat to Torcello. Theoretically, the ride from San Zaccaria to Lido to Punta Sabbioni to Treporti to Burano provided plenty of time to reread Ruskin's eight-page chapter devoted to it. Unfortunately, the mountains were so breathtaking that I ended up on deck, outside. I had never seen the moutains while heading north and west toward them, on a day when they were perfectly visible in every detail, close, cradeling the hills, the deltas of the rivers, the salt marshes and the silvery lagoon. The snow was brilliant white atop the peaks and below the snow line, charcoal velvet was turning green.

Torcello is absolutely flat. The church and its square Lombardesque tower are the singular and iconic elements of an otherwise uneventful expanse of reeds, marshes, and the snaky fingers of the lagoon sluicing them, stretching as far as they eye can see. Here you see what Venice was before the canals were paved in stone and the palaces built along them.

Ruskin's view of Torcello is based on the straightforward proposition that the people who took up residence here were brave and stalwart and crushed by calamitous circumstances. They were not happy to come; they were not carefree fishermen and salt harvesters. They were men of consequence who loved the places they were fleeing, and took as much with them as they could: marble pillars and carvings, bricks from Roman buildings, whatever pieces of their former homes they could get into a flat, shallow-draught boat they brought. They were fugitives in a salt marsh whose only redeeming characteristic was that it protected them from successive waves of invaders. It was a hard life, built from scratch, on an unstable island of fishermen's huts and birds and brush, surrounded by the phantasmagoric lagoon which was lethal to invaders who did not know its ways. Vigilant, they could breathe free. They could see the entire lagoon around them from the 200-foot stone tower they built, and at its base they built the finest church they could, beginning in the seventh century.

Ruskin also bases his views on the proposition that the buildings men build are an expression of their fundamental character. His analyses of arches and windows and walls point out the purpose for which these things are necessary and the relative strengths of the different solutions that evolved to meet them. For example, he points out that the foliated gothic arch (see picture, left) is in fact the perfect solution for both strength and beauty. They are the least susceptible to corruption by the natural stresses of walls and roofs, and they are beautiful to the eye, the fusion of dolce et utile, beauty and utility, and for that reason they are, to Ruskin, perfect.

Of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta he writes that the elements "are expressive at once of the deep sorrow and the sacred courage of men who had no home left them upon earth, but who looked for one to come, of men 'persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed.' I am," Ruskin continues, "not aware of any other early church in Italy which has this peculiar expression to such a marked degree."

Ruskin was profoundly religious, and his religion suffuses his perception, but I do not find it intrusive. I gather from it the same sense of awe I feel at Big Sur or a Giotto chapel. His religion is inseparable from the joy he reads in these ancient carvings and which he ascribes to their creators. Thus seen, these works are a hymn of celebration to the beauty and variety of creation, and hence to the majesty of god. You can substitute your own god, or anyone else's. I don't think it makes a difference, nor if you have none at all. They are merely masks to give form to a mystery that lies beyond our comprehension. But we can feel it. Ruskin felt it here in Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, and so do I.

Going about his business of looking, Ruskin exercised the most amazing powers of observation. His drawing, cataloging, systematizing of gothic ornament is the work of sheer mad genius. It is as brilliant as it is eccentric. His eye was unfailing. There is no one better to point out the singular genius of a place such as this. I sit in a pew dead center in nave, midway between the stark altar in front of the apse at one end, and the astonishing towering mosaic at the other end.

The first and most important characteristic of this church, Ruskin says, is its luminousness. As opposed to the "excessive gloom" of San Marco, and even in comparison with other notable basilicas in Italy, which, he says, "are like sepuchral caverns compared with Torcello, ... there is something especially touching in our finding the sunshine thus freely admitted into a church built by men in sorrow."

Today the sun is brilliant and the church is filled with light. It is possible to see every detail clearly. The light fills the space and reveals its character, the stones open up like storybooks. Ruskin goes on to discuss the carved marble screens in front of the altar, pairs of lions and of peacocks, and then spends two entire pages on the pulpit, because in his telling, the pulpit reveals the history and meaning and character of the men who created this place.

I set the book aside. Ruskin has done everything possible to prime me for the moment. It is time to yield to it.

One thing I have learned studying Ruskin is that a building is like a language we must learn. It comes in bits and pieces, an awkward recognition of tropes, until we master the terms enough to put it together into a coherent sentence. We measure the width and breadth of it, its extent, and then look at the details to see how it fits together, enlarging our vocabulary, apprehending the subtle and witty ways in which these ancient artists chose to amuse our eyes while ornamenting the sacred interior spaces of the building.

And it is just that. A sacred interior space. There are many in the world. I have been to several, but all in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I don't think the flavor matters. What makes these spaces holy is that they were created with the intention to be that. To make that happen, the best artists available were employed to design and ornament the spaces. This is true of every civilization that has ever walked the earth.

Santa Maria Assunta is very plain on the outside. Inside, a particular story unfolds. Here, fleeing people who had lost everything and faced only uncertainty created a space to meditate upon eternity. The decorations are as beautiful as they could possibly make them, and there were severe limitations. But the soaring human spirit broke through the limitations of means and material and with what was at hand created a hymn to the beauty and the bounty of god.

It is a place that asks you to sit quietly and think about these things. It invites you to lose yourself in the stories it has to tell, carved into its marble and emblazoned in brilliant mosaic on the walls.

In Ruskin's day the tower was open and untended, the deserted gate, he notes, flapping open. Today it is scaffolded for restoration work and costs 4 euros to enter, but inside it remains the same. The stairs and ramps that ascend to the top are arranged on interior arches that spring out of the walls with the rhythmic regularity and strange symmetry of an M.C. Escher composition. From the top it is easy to see that Torcello is as much mired in a boggy plain as it is encircled by a body of water. The lagoon is largely so shallow that, except for the deep navigation channels, the low tide exposes the undulant islets almost entirely.

The tower stands sentinal, both guardian and place-marker. Although the island has only 20 inhabitants now, at its peak it had 20,000 residents, maybe more. The city was wiped out by a wave of malaria, the mosquitoes flourishing on an imbalance of fresh water over salt in the north lagoon. By then, the center had been unalterably moved to Rivo Alto, the cluster of islands upon which Venice is built.

What remains on Torcello is the best it had to offer: its ravishing natural beauty, and its proud church and campanile.

If any you have found any of this intriguing, you would probably enjoy the brief chapter entitled [ TORCELLO] in Ruskin's "Stones of Venice."

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