Lagoon Tunes

Five Centuries of Music in Venice

by H.C. Robbins Landon, by John Julius Norwich
Schirmer, 200 pp., $29.95

Most of the illustrations in Five Centuries of Music in Venice evoke sonorities, as does the cover showing two of Carpaccio’s clamant trumpeters miraculously walking on water. Many of the pictures, some 175 in black and white and forty pages of them in color, portray musicians playing instruments. What the book lacks is an insert of a tape or compact disc of Gabrieli canzonas, Monteverdi madrigals, and Vivaldi concertos.

And an intelligent text. True, its quoted passages, taken together, would make an attractive anthology, from Tarkington in 1517 to Wotton, Nashe, Coryat, Addison, Mary Wortley, Montague Beckford—oddly not Dr. Burney, which would have improved the chapter on the eighteenth century—down to Howells and James. The Childe Harold canto is here, Wordsworth’s “gorgeous east in fee” sonnet, and Browning’s Galuppi, but only one of these heartthrobs relates to music. Best of all is Cassiodorus, writing from Ravenna: the Venetians live “like sea birds, with their homes dispersed…across the surface of the water, and secured only by osier and wattle against the wildness of the sea.”

John Julius Norwich’s introduction is peculiar in more than one respect. To describe St. Mark’s he borrows a patch of Ruskin’s deepest purple (the “vaulted porches” are “ceiled with fair mosaic”), then turns to the Doge’s Palace on his own. Its color, he says, varies from “the palest apricot in the morning sun to the colour—and apparent texture—of smoked salmon after a rainstorm.” But smoked salmon comes in many shades, rain or shine, and can be grainy and striated as well as smooth. No less odd are Lord Norwich’s composer-painter analogies, in which Titian is the Mozart of Venetian painting, Veronese its Liszt, and Tintoretto, “there can be no doubt,” its Beethoven, this in a book that does not include the one picture that might have been expressly painted for it, Veronese’s Marriage at Cana (in the Louvre), with its portraits of Titian playing the double-bass, Tintoretto the viol, and Veronese himself the viola da braccio.

Remarking on how little Venice has changed in the last two centuries, Viscount Norwich tells us that the acoustic properties of San Marco “swamped complex counterpoint,” and “this is as true today as it was in the time of the Gabrielis” (hardly a surprise, the building being the same). But in comparing Bellotto’s eighteenth-century view of the Scuola di San Marco with a recent photograph from the same perspective, his myopic or occluded eye fails to notice the swamping, or subsidence, of Venice itself, the thirteen steps from canal to terra firma in the Bellotto vs. the three steps today.

Viscount Norwich does not avoid redundancies (“pointing forward to the future”) and the adverb that negates the statement it is intended to modify (Titian’s “almost uncanny sureness of touch” confirms that his touch remains merely canny), and his adjectives show a preference for subjective-emotive expletives over specificity. A Giovanni Bellini altar-piece is “sublime,” Venetian …

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Letters

What’s a Girl to Do? July 16, 1992