Sunday, October 15, 2006

One ought to be required to pass a test before being permitted to enter St. Mark's

Miss Julia Garnet's severe schoolmarmishness was overwhelmed by the mysteries and aesthetics of Venice. Nonetheless, stern criticism did still invade her new-found generosity of spirit from time to time:

"The Japanese were out in force again. A party stopped and aimed a bank of phallic cameras at Adam and Eve. No wonder they felt embarrassed in their nakedness. Julia turned aside in disgust. Really, she thought, it should be made difficult not more easy to get to places of beauty. One ought to be required to pass a test before being permitted to enter St. Mark's."

This passage evoked my own recollections of techno-buff tourists with their large-lensed digitals or purring video cameras. Yes, they are often Japanese - who do seem to travel in little swarms --but most any nationality can be substituted in this picture.

Julia's uncharitable thoughts about the Japanese in St. Mark's Basilica reminded me of an incident in the Duomo, called La Collegiata, in San Gimigniano. I had been standing for a long time, awe-struck, below Taddeo di Bartolo's Last Judgement, taking in the gruesomely graphic -- even pornographic, some might say -- portrayal of what the Damned have to look forward to on the day of judgment. Out of respect for some readers' sensibilities, by way of illustration I have chosen to show Gluttony, one of the tamer details of the fresco.

Despite knowing that the intent of the horrific scenes was to strike fear in the hearts of mortal Christians, I was startled to find such images in a church, and I stood crunching my neck in the dim light, trying to take it all in. Suddenly, a tall, lanky middle-aged American man was at my elbow. His video camera whirred softly as he panned down the length of the fresco, his voice reverently low as he recorded his caption, "This is another painting in another church in Italy."

Guessing that he had no idea what he'd just filmed, I resented the intrusion --- until I imagined him getting home and sitting Granny and the kids down to show them the video of his trip to Italy. SURPRISE! That brought tears of malicious mirth to my eyes! Just that morning I had been lamenting how crowded Europe has become, as great numbers of people from all over the world have gained the economic means to travel. If they travel because they are really interested, I thought, that's a good thing. But if they are simply accumulating bragging rights, adding one more place to the list of where they've been, then that's something else entirely! In retrospect, it was very Miss Garnet -- strict and uncharitable -- of me!

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers would be a delightful book to read before your next trip to Venice. I suppose some might read it as a simple story of a spinster tuning in to Venice. But, as the layers are peeled back, there's a thought-provoking ethereal depth to it that I found intellectually gratifying.

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