We photographed everything, remembered nothing …

I saw my first “selfie stick” in 2014, during my visit to the 9/11 Memorial in New York.   Four months later I was in Piazza San Marco in Venice and it seemed that everyone around me was taking photographs almost continuously. I was flicking through my sketchbook earlier today and found this page of sketches that I made over the course of about an hour whilst in Venice. I found a brief, perverse pleasure in drawing other people photographing themselves in front of Venice’s landmarks.

As John Ruskin wrote in Stones of Venice (1851-53) “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him”.   Were he to visit Venice now he would almost certainly decide that the tools have won.

Happy New Year.



Venice’s green fringe

Back in April I commented on how little green I saw in Manhattan (see “A walk along the High Line”); however, I think that Venice probably beats Manhattan by some distance as the most built-upon city I have visited.   So close together are the buildings crammed onto the islands that comprise the city that there is very little space for any greenery or vegetation at all.   There is, moreover, nowhere equivalent to Central Park where locals can escape the urban fabric. I’ll go one step further and make the bold suggestion that Venice is the only city in the world where the most prolific type of vegetation is algae.

The algal growths are conspicuous at water level all around Venice: green lettuce-like fronds covering the steps, as in my picture below (taken close to Piazza San Marco).   I could recognise this as the genus Ulva, which we have encountered in other posts (see “The River Wear in Summer”) but not the species, though a quick hunt on the internet suggests that the most common species in the brackish water of the Venice Lagoon is Ulva rigida, a species that we do have in the UK.   I also found an estimate that a million tonnes of U. rigida biomass is produced each year in the Venice Lagoon, largely as a result of the nutrients that enter the lagoon.   Venice’s long tradition as a trading centre has resulted not just in the wonderful architecture and art that surrounded me throughout this trip but also in a densely-populated industrialised hinterland, the Veneto, as well as the city itself.   Much of the domestic and commercial waste made its way into the Venice Lagoon, leading to high concentrations of many pollutants.


Ulva cf rigida coating steps near Ponte di Paglia, Venice, September 2014.

Phosphorus is an important limiting nutrient for algae, as I have explained in earlier posts, and I was interested to read that the city has banned the sale of phosphorus-containing detergents, in an effort to reduce concentrations washed down the drains and into the lagoon.   However, a final twist to the story is that there are also long-term plans to build a flood barrier across the entrance to the lagoon in an effort to reduce the number of occasions when the city is flooded.   Yet, when this is completed (expected in 2017) it will not only stop water from the Adriatic coming into the city, it will also inhibit the movement of polluted water from the lagoon into the open sea.


Cuomo, V. Peretti, A., Palomba, I, Verde, A. & Cuomo, A. (1995). Utilisation of Ulva rigida biomass in the Venice Lagoon (Italy): biotransformation into compost. Journal of Applied Phycology 7: 479-485.


Walking in Tintoretto’s shadow

The profusion of great art in Venice was an incentive not just to look but also to get out my own sketch pad and have a go.   There is no better way to appreciate Tinotretto’s very physical approach to the human body than to try to emulate his work.   The individuals in Tintoretto’s paintings are very muscular and are presented in dynamic poses, depicting images from the Bible, early Christian mythology or Venetian history.   Tintoretto makes great use of light and shade and, also, continues Titian’s experiments with colour.   Simply looking at images such as Cain and Abel in the Accademia reminds us that artists such as Tintoretto were as highly trained in anatomy as the doctors of the day. Indeed, artists could actually use their anatomical knowledge more productively than surgeons in an era when active interventions through operating were likely to lead to painful deaths from subsequent infections.


Sketches based on Tintoretto’s paintings in the Accademia and Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, September 2014.

Following the maze of small streets in Venice from the Accademia brought me to Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where walls and ceilings are covered by Tintoretto’s work.   It is hard to fully appreciate Tintoretto without developing a crick in the neck as some of his most technically sophisticated work consists of ceiling panels. Look up at the ceiling and you see an image of St Roch (“San Rocco”, much loved in Venice for his intercessions during a plague) in full single-point perspective. The ceiling is roughly ten metres above the ground yet the impression is that St Roch’s head is twelve metres above us and that there is open sky far above him.   Think about the steps needed to create this image: first, you work out the sketches on paper, then you have to scale up these working images and transfer the outlines to the ceiling.   When you were actually painting you would be crammed between the top of the scaffolding and the ceiling, constantly bent at uncomfortable angles and unable to step back, as most artists like to do, to check that the perspective that you worked out so carefully on paper, is working in practice. You will not see your work from a distance that allows you to check the perspective until the scaffolding has been removed.   And, as you travel around Venice, you see that Tintoretto painted many, many of these technically-challenging ceiling panels over the course of his career. His achievement is – and please permit me the use of a sorely-overworked adjective here – awesome.

Still reeling from the visual feasts in the Accademia and elsewhere in the city, I sat myself down on a step at the point where the Rio di Palazzeo joins the Canale Grande to make some of my own experiments in capturing human form.   A short distance along from here is the famous [bridge of sighs] so it is a popular route for the gondolas that carry tourists around the city.   Sitting here with a sketch book gave me the opportunity to observe a sequence of gondoliers as they swung their boats into the canal towards the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) and to capture their movements with a pencil.   Capturing the relative position of hands, arms and legs at same point in the stroke was not easy and, after the first few attempts, I realised how much I drew upon experience as much as on reality. I captured the basic form of the scene – relative positions of gondolier, boat and horizon – then filled in details with stock shapes that I had drawn before, underpinned by the very shaky knowledge of anatomy that a modern fine art graduate posseses.   Then I looked back and adjusted these to fit the reality that I saw in front of me.   This was all before I started to think about colour (surely a capital crime in Titian’s home town?).   The result probably says more about my lack of practice at figure drawing than it does about the verité of modern Venice but, after a day of admiring the energy that fills Tintoretto’s canvases, the awe that I experienced in the Accademia is tempered by plenty of humility.


Sketches of gondoliers, from close to Ponte di Paglia, Venice, September 2014.


A watercolour sketch of a gondolier close to Ponte di Paglia, Venice, September 2014.

The Geography of Art


Feeble excuse of the year coming up:

I have a meeting with some Italian colleagues next year but the flight times on Monday were not very convenient, so I decided to spend a weekend in Venice so that we can get down to work bright and early on Monday.   The reward for this noble act of self-sacrifice is the opportunity to gorge myself on art for the weekend.

As a part-time lecturer in a Geography Department, I find myself walking Venice’s narrow streets and pondering how art has geographies of its own. I have been fascinated by the history of art for some time, but my travels this year have made me acutely aware of just how time and space are tightly knitted together.   Why, for example, does Venice have relatively few paintings by Titian, its most famous Renaissance painter, yet so much by Tintoretto?   Why haven’t I yet seen a Canaletto here? Or, take the story back a few steps, what was it about Venice that allowed Titian to flourish in the first place?


Left: A Canaletto-free zone: the Accademia gallery in Venice; right: Titian’s Tobias and the angel, photographed in the gallery.

I was at the National Gallery’s Making Colour exhibition a couple of weeks ago, which reminded me how the pigments from which artists derive their colours also have complicated stories, none more so than ultramarine, the intense blue pigment so conspicuous in Titian’s work. Once you know that it is derived from a rare mineral extracted from mines in Afghanistan it cannot be a coincidence that a city that built its wealth on trade with the Orient also bred artists who made bold experiments with colour.

The Titian / Tintoretto distinction is interesting.   I don’t have internet in my rented apartment as I write this so what follows is speculation but Titian was a superstar artist of his time who worked for many clients around Europe. Many of these paintings were sold over time and made their way to the art markets.   Napoleon, apparently, removed many Titians from Venice, which is why the Louvre has a good collection. Tintoretto, on the other hand, spent most of his career in Venice producing religious-themed art for institutions, several of which are still extant.   The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the supreme example of this.   If you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel to Venice.   Indeed, if you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel around Venice.   There are cities where the great art is concentrated in a few galleries – London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, New York, for example. And then there are cities such as Rome and Venice which are, themselves, the galleries.

Canaletto’s absence is easier to explain: he was the eighteenth century equivalent of the many, many purveyors of tourist gee jaws that line the streets around the tourist honey-pots.   His canvases are really glorified postcards, telling the world about a Grand Tour undertaken by wealthy young men in the eighteenth century. That is why there are so many scattered around stately homes in Britain.   I am, frankly, not missing them. There are so many other artistic delights in Venice – Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini have fascinated me as much as the Tintorettos – that I expect to be fully entertained without venturing beyond the end of the seventeenth century at all.