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Raphael Rubinstein

The Poet
of Geometry:
A Venetian Tale


Although my wife, Elena Berriolo, was born and raised in Liguria, on Italy’s western coast, her family is in part of Venetian origin. Her paternal great-grandparents, Luigi Ferrari and Teresina Zambón, were born in Venice and remained there until the First World War, when they, like many other Venetians, fled from the threat of the Austrian army. In 1915, Venice was repeatedly bombed by Austrian warplanes and naval vessels; while some of their targets were military, such as the Arsenale, which was attacked in May, cultural sites also suffered, most significantly Giambattista Tiepolo’s ceiling at the Scalzi church, destroyed by a bomb in October. The wartime exodus from Venice included even the famed glassblowers of Murano, who closed down their factories and relocated to other Italian cities for the remainder of the war.
          After leaving Venice with his wife and children, Ferrari, born in 1859, reestablished himself on Italy’s eastern coast, for a time in Genoa, then up the coast to Savona, where he worked as chief accountant for a company in the coal industry (he had been similarly employed in Venice). His life there passed uneventfully, and he died of a stroke in 1940 in the Ligurian village of Stella San Martino, where he, his wife, children and grandchildren had fled following the outbreak of the Second World War.
          A bibliophile and amateur of art and literature who spoke numerous languages, Ferrari never attended school; all his considerable education was provided at home by tutors. As the only son of a widowed mother (his father died when he was young), he was also able to avoid military service. It was during his prolonged bachelorhood—he would not marry until 1898, at the age of 39—that Ferrari embarked on a visual-art project which would come to occupy nearly all his free time until well after his marriage: making meticulous copies in watercolor and ink of large sections of the mosaic pavement of Venice’s greatest architectural monument, the Basilica di San Marco. This project, which ultimately comprised some 160 drawings, united two of Ferrari’s passions, Venetian history and precision. Compositionally, the drawings reprise the geometric ingenuity of the Byzantine mosaic tradition, while their execution follows the exactitude of 19th century engineering. Looked at now, they—somewhat surprisingly— evoke Minimalist art, despite their late medieval sources and their fin-de-siècle provenance.
          While most visitors to the Basilica turn their gaze upward, to the Bible-inspired mosaics that encrust the walls and ceilings and to the church’s Byzantine architecture, there have always been a few who have paid attention to the masterpieces underfoot. Dating mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries, these extensive mosaics, which cover the entire floor of the vast Basilica, are prime examples of Cosmatesque decoration. (Among the few later additions to the San Marco pavement are two noteworthy mosaic panels designed by Paolo Uccello, who spent several years in Venice in the 1420s.) Named for the Cosmati, a Roman family that excelled in mosaic work for several generations, such mosaics are distinguished by their incredibly complex geometry and artful combining of colored stones and glass. They can be found in many Roman churches of the period, but rarely outside the Italian peninsula. As well as being instances of unequalled mathematical beauty, their geometrical designs––which incorporate Greek and Roman motifs, and much recycled marble from Roman columns––are encoded with theological and ritualistic meaning, as well as functional cues for those attending religious services.
          One artist-pilgrim who paid attention to the San Marco mosaics was John Singer Sargent, whose 1898 painting The Pavement is dominated by an expanse of buckling, worn marble and mosaics that emphasizes the watery aspect of the floor remarked on by so many observers. Shadowy archways and nearly invisible walls in the background are barely illuminated by a beam of light struggling through a high window. The painting gives one an idea of the challenges facing any late-19th-century visitor interested in making precise observations of the basilica’s interior. Another American visitor impressed by the mosaics was Henry James. In his early short story “Traveling Companions,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1870, James wrote of the “many carpets of compacted stone, where a thousand once-bright fragments glimmer through the long attrition of idle porphyry and malachite, from long dead crystal and the sparkle of undying lamps.” This was before the Basilica became the object of extensive, and often ill-judged, restorations. In an 1882 essay, subsequently reprinted in Italian Hours (1909), James addresses this subject, contrasting the before and after:
          “What I chiefly remember is the straightening out of that dark and rugged old pavement—those deep undulations of primitive mosaic in which the fond spectator was thought to perceive an intended resemblance to the waves of the ocean.” At the time that James was writing, a good deal of this “old pavement” was already gone. If, he continues, “throughout the greater part indeed the pavement remains as recent generations have known it—dark, rich, cracked, uneven, spotted with porphyry and time-blackened malachite, polished by the knees of innumerable worshippers.…in other large stretches the idea imitated by the restorers is that of the ocean in a dead calm, and the model they have taken the floor of a London clubhouse or of a New York hotel.” This judgment is echoed, albeit with less ornate prose, in the 1898 edition of Grant Allen’s popular Historical Guide to Venice, which observes that part of the mosaic pavement “has been ‘restored’ and straightened with disastrous effect: the older wavy portion is exceedingly lovely.”

RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN’s books include a collection of poems (The Basement of the Café Rilke, 1997), a selection of autobiographical prose (Postcards from Alphaville, 2000) and a volume of art writing (Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Critcism 1990-2002), all from Hard Press Editions. A French translation by Marcel Cohen of In Search of the Miraculous was published in 2004 (Editions Grèges Montpelier). He is a Senior Editor at Art in America.

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