#166: ESCAPE. Some books remain in memory forever connected to the occasion of our discovering them. Some books have gone with us on particular trips: one copy of Nicholas Nickleby went with me around England, one of Call Me By Your Name around northern Italy. Would I have had or made the time to read the 1500 pages of Les Miserables recently without the nine weeks’ isolation of the Covid pandemic?
So, during the days of the pandemic and the protests against the murder of George Floyd, it might seem the height of frivolity to be writing about one of those Dead White (Straight) European Males, and, to top it off, of Venice, at a time when, due to travel restrictions, the city might as well be floating on the Sea of Tranquility as on its usual unruly salt lagoon. But a copy of Jan Morris’s Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation (Liveright, 2014) fell into my hands recently and pushed aside all my other reading. It’s a rectangular little handful of a book in a deep red binding, apropos to Carpaccio’s frequent use of that color in his paintings. Opening it at random, we fall immediately into the distinctive world of the man’s work: various versions of the Virgin Mary, from a very douce kneeling child in a Presentation to a swooning mother at the foot of the Crucifix; several Saint Georges and Ursulas; Saint Jerome (or is it Saint Augustine?); and, every bit as important, the milling crowds of Carpaccio’s various events, with animals both domestic and bizarre in attendance. The many settings—Jerusalem, Silene, Brittany—do tend to bear some family resemblance to his own Venice, and the costumes are those of Carpaccio’s day. He has been barred, critically, from the first rank of artists, for all that he showed such originality in creating specific maritime detail in his works, for his Orientalist touch (so fitting to Venice), for his creation in painting St. Ursula’s chamber of having done the first Renaissance interior, or, with his “Young Man at Madrid,” the first Italian full-length portrait. But I would think being discovered by Jan Morris would be much recompense for this perceived limitation. This little monograph, which she calls a “self-indugent caprice,” surrenders to the cheerful side of Morris’s writing and is simply an extended greeting of affection and delight: “Ciao, Carpaccio! Come sta?” She lingers over details; she laughs at absurdities; she peers at and points out the corners we won’t notice for ourselves (his fascination with headgear, for instance, including one particularly sumptuous turban, which for years she thought “a small boy with his head in his folded arms, so sympathetically is it painted.”) “He lacks the aura of tremendous sublimity that the very greatest practitioners have projected down the ages, but instead I think he may possess some separate, simpler genius.” Who would need more? Here is a book to hold you and cheer you until Venice returns from its lunar inaccessibility, perhaps even a little image of our hoped-for days, an escape from where we’re living through right now.