Saturday, August 8, 2009
An Open Letter to John Pull
I have a confession to make. I was less than candid. When I sent you off to see Peter Greenaway's Le Nozze di Cana I was operating on hearsay; I hadn't seen it yet. When you live here you have a slightly different attitude toward these things. I had already studied the brilliant recreation of the painting, and I had, I thought, plenty of time.
When you were blown away by it I of course knew I had to see it sooner rather than later and when I looked at your brochure I realized it would be closed most of August and open only a couple weeks in September, so I decided to get my ass over there; which I did today, after you left.
So here's what I have to say about it. You listened to what I had to say on just about everything else, so bear with me just a little bit longer.
It was a great pleasure to have you in Venice again. I hope you enjoyed sharing La Biennale with me as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.
Le Nozzi di Cana / The Wedding Feast at Cana
The view from San Giorgio, across St. Mark's Basin is the Pomp and Circumstance splendor of San Marco: the Zecca and the Biblioteca, the Campanile, the Clock Tower, the Basilica and Doge's Palace, the Piazzetta and the Molo all in the proper distance across the water to appreciate their scale and mad splendor.
Up close Palladio's Church of San Giorgio is too big to see. It looks better in full frontal from the Punta della Dogana, which is the perfect spot from which to appreciate the mass and volume of its superimposed facades. The adjacent Benedictine monastery is apricot, reminiscent of the Spanish baroque palazzi of Naples, stone cartouches on pastel stucco.
The show is in the Refectory Palladio created for the monastery. You enter through twin cloisters. The first is pink, perfect high renaissance. The rear cloister, pale lemon with deep green cypress trees, shows its Byzantine and Gothic origins clearly. You can stand in the center, between them, and see both through elaborate stone arches. The symmetry and simplicity is peaceful and in no way prepares you for the vestibule into the Refectory.
The vestibule is Roman in its grandeur and in its scale and in it you can see the origins of the style which was appropriated by, and became associated with, Napoleon, conflated with the impact of his Egyptian campaign. On either side of the central stairway leading into the refectory is a dry fountain of highly polished marble the color of blown roses; each basin resembles a sarcrophagus set in a niche of awesome proportions, its lion spouts ready to pour into the dry pool below. The doors are impossibly high and ascending the stairs you feel like a Roman senator stepping into an idealized antechamber.
This is where the monks ate. The room is rectangular, its proportions Palladian proportions, Vitruvean proportions. These relationships change our appreciation of the space around us and our place in it. It is like walking into Valhalla. You feel like a god.
Veronese's Le Nozze di Cana, on the far wall, is the size of a classic movie screen. As I wrote about before, this Nozze di Cana is a hightech recreation of the original which cut out and taken to Paris by Napoleon, and which the Louvre would not return to Venice when the refectory was restored. The magic of digital technology recreates it and raises the question of what it means to be a reproduction to profound new heights.
Because the space was designed by Palladio to embody Renaissance ideals, it is monumental and symmetrical, with four perfectly shaped, majestically simple windows on each side as suited to the humble monks as St. Peter's is suited to the poor carpenter's son from Bethlehem.
Renaissance chant begins the show: a capella voices on an organ ground. I don't know what it was but it sounded like Gabrielli to me. In addition to the light show that brings the painting to life in ways we never dreamed possible, projections are repeated in the smooth spaces between the windows, details blown up large, with subtitles of the spoken dialog in both English and Italian.
This work is sui generis. Looked at simply as the anatomy of a great Renaissance masterpiece it is revelatory. But it is so much more. It is a fantasia on a theme by Veronese, and opens up the world of the painting for us to inhabit and experience. Faces are pin-pointed, the painting is flipped and revealed in three dimensions, the light changes from velvety night to radiant day, from clear sunlight to driving rain. The Tinkerbelle light that leads our eye through the crowd of characters leaves a trail like a firefly on a hot summer night.
The drama of the moment when Jesus transforms water into wine is refracted through multiple prisms. There are 125 individuals in the painting, and every one has a face and a story; we hear what they are thinking and saying about the astonishing moment they are experiencing. The banquet is treated as a Venetian banquet of Veronese's time. Typical of the genius and wit are the comments by the rich and elegantly robed oenophiles: -- "the color is good. Is it safe? It has almost a smart sparkle..."
The water having been transformed to wine, and everyone having registered their opinion upon the circumstances, the vision silences their voices in a brilliant lightning and thunder storm accompanied by a crescendo of Gabrielli splendor.
As brilliant in conception as in execution, it is about as good an intellectual and artistic orgasm as there is to be found these days.
Le Nozzi di Cana was preceded by a groundbreaking project using Rembrandt's Nighwatch and another with Leonardo's Last Supper. Other shows planned include Valasquez's Las Meninas, Picasso's Guernica, Jackson Pollock's Echo: Number 25, Monet's Waterlilies, Seurat's La Grand Jatte, and will culminate with Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
It's a lot to look forward to.