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The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Thursday, June 12th

I have just written home to Emmy Lou: "This is the most fantastic city — it is a combination of Coney Island, the Orient, and the remains of 16th century splendor. We both feel that we are walking in a dream as we wander through the narrow streets and across the little bridges. Our room overlooks a canal, and last evening when a gondola drifted past, with a singer strumming a guitar and pouring out a melody as only Italians can, even our middle-aged hearts beat taster, and we felt exhilaratingly romantic."

The atmosphere seemed charged with romance from the moment we embarked on the big passenger boat last night, on the Grand Canal. We had asked for the Pension Della Venezia, which had been recommended to us, and we were instructed to take the boat to the Rialto Bridge. I shall never forget my sensations as the boat glided forth from the landing at the railroad station. I kept saying to Ary: "Isn't this silly! What a foolish kind of city! I feel am if I were riding in the "Tunnel of Love' in Coney Island!" It seemed so theatrical — the drifting boat, the dark night, the bright lights illuminating the ancient marble palaces along the shore*.

And then the Rialto Bridge loomed up, strikingly picturesque with its single high span, its parapet and balustrade, its covered arcades. We got off the boat at the station beyond the bridge. The streets were narrow — no wider than a side-walk — and dimly lighted. Figures merged from doorways or dark alleys with a suddenness that was startling — there were occasional bursts of laughter or fragments of song from open doorways — gondolas drifted past along the narrow canals. It was all very mysterious and a bit frightening and I held Ary's arm tightly. Finally we were at Bella Venezia and bargaining with the shrewd-faced proprietor for a room. Then, the little canvas bag safely in the room, we went out in search of coffee.

Again I clutched at Ary's arm as we walked through the maze of dark streets, past tiny cafes and shops and over little bridges. And then suddenly we came out into a large opening, and there was fairyland! It was colorful and bright — dazzlingly bright — it was tremendously wide, and it was gay with music. At one end was an Arabian lights building, indescribably striking in its Oriental splendor, and on all sides were long columnar shadow buildings, flat looking, like a stage set. Extending far out from these shadow buildings were row upon row of tables, crowded with men and women eating and drinking as the band played Viennese waltzes and in the center of this vast, brilliantly lighted space streams of people paraded, laughing and talking and eyeing the cafe crowds. And this was my introduction to St. Mark's Square!

This morning when I went to the window I almost expected to find that the canal had disappeared and it was all a dream. But no, there it was, and as I ate the breakfast which the maid brought up to me I watched the crowds passing on the bridge and the boats pulling up to the back door of the pension laden with baskets of vegetables and fruit.

After breakfast we set off for St. Mark's again, curious to know if it would still be glamorous by daylight. To my great satisfaction, I found it had lost none of its magic. The Cathedral itself with its Oriental character is amazing. The brilliantly colored exterior with its arches and Gothic tabernacles and Oriental domes and bronze horses is fantastic to behold, and the interior is fabulously extravagant with its marble walls encrusted with gold, its slender columns of rare stones, its mosaics, its statues, its altar-piece set with precious gems. To me the outstanding feature is the early Byzantine mosaics in the atrium, so naive in conception and so charming in color and design, especially the Adam and Eve series and the scenes of Noah and the Ark. But the entire structure delights one by its very lavishness and exuberance.

Adjoining the Cathedral is the Palace of the Doges, where the rich and powerful rulers of the Venetian Republic once reigned. More or less Gothic in style, its outer walls are encrusted with small pieces of marble in bright colors. The building was officially closed, in preparation for the holiday ceremonies which were to be held in the afternoon, but a special group of sightseers was being guided through and we joined them. They went through quickly and we had just a superficial glance at the dozens of vast halls, ornately decorated, with lavish use of red and gold, and the walls lined with huge paintings. We shall have to return to look at them at our leisure, particularly the many Tintoretto murals.

Before leaving the Palace the guide led us through the famous Bridge of Sighs, which was built to connect the courts in the Palace with the Criminal Prison adjoining. Externally it is a graceful structure, high above the waters of the Grand Canal, its sides enclosed and covered by an arched parapet above. But the interior is all gloom. You feel it closing in around you— the terrifying gloom and chill of this stone passageway and the damp, foul-looking cells beyond it. It was in this dread prison that centuries ago political prisoners languished in unspeakable misery, sometimes for months or even years, awaiting execution.

Back to the pension for lunch. Our waiter is French-born, and is happy to speak his native tongue. And there is a little red-cheeked apprentice waiter, a boy of about twelve, who trots solemnly from table to table, polishing glasses and silverware with a big white napkin. After lunch we went back to St. Mark's Square, where the holiday procession was forming — dignitaries of the church and of the city, groups of priests and monks and nuns, and hundreds of school children. The procession was elaborate, with robes and mawtles of scarlet and magenta, banners of red velvet and gold, tall, flower-decorated torches — all the elegance which characterized such festive events in the sixteenth century. For Venice and the Venetian art of that period were a triumph of gold, a glorification of surface richness and sensuousness, and even in their religion, although there were on the surface elements of humility, there was nothing truly spiritual.

*A few days later. Never once have I lost that sense of unreality. The city has come to be more familiar, the Coney Island aspect has worn away somewhat, but always it seems like one place set aside from all the rest of the world, where nature and man have conspired to create something of reckless fantasy.

Friday, June 13th

I am sure we will tell today's story over and over in the years to come, and probably people will think it is a fabrication. Surely it is only in Venice that it could have occurred, in this fantastic city, where no happening, no matter how bizarre, should ever surprise one.

It all concerned the lost passport. Ary has been uneasy about it and has had a presentiment of farther trouble. He has a terrible dread of bureaucrats and all that pertains to officialdom.

Early this morning we made our way over countless little bridges until we came to the American Consulate. The reception room was already crowded. Clerks were rushing back and forth with piles of letters and documents; American tourists, with worried expressions, were standing in groups about the room; Italian mothers with crying babies were sitting patiently while their husbands argued with the receptionists.

It seemed that we waited hours. Ary grew more and more nervous. Finally we were ushered into the office of the Vice-Consul in charge of passport matters.

The Vice-Consul himself looked harassed and exhausted. His desk was piled high with papers. A dark-haired secretary hovered over the desk, assorting papers, answering the telephone, taking swift notes as the Vice-Consul dictated to her. At last she left the room and the Vice-Consul turned to us.

Ary's hand shook as he laid on the desk the papers the serious young man in the Police Station at Milan had typed so laboriously. He started to recite the story of the lost passport. But the Vice-Consul, with merely a glance at us, had plunged at once into the many-paged document. Suddenly he straightened up stiffly and turned a flushed and angry face toward Ary.

"This name Kushner," he thundered, pointing accusingly to the document – “Who told you to use this name? Where did you get the name Kushner?'

Ary's knees were shaking. He looked in bewilderment at the police document and then at the angry official. He took a deep breath. "Why, why Kushner?” he stammered. "That was my mother's maiden name."

There was a look of suspicion on the Vice-Consul's face which we were unable to fathom. "Where did your mother get the name of Kushner?" he persisted.

Ary looked at him helplessly. "Kushner" he said, "Kushner was the name of my mother's father — my grandfather."

Where did this grandfather named Kushner come from, the Vice-Consul demanded. Did he have brothers, this grandfather named Kushner. What had happened to them? Did the brothers have children? Did Ary know any of them?

On and on went the questions, always coming back to the name Kushner. And all the while the man behind the desk eyed Ary with such a strange intentness. His look was suspicious — it was puzzled — now there was a note of eager friendliness — and again he drew back and his manner was cold and stern. Once he shook his head and muttered something to himself. He seemed to be going through some inner emotional experience.

By this time we were both thoroughly bewildered, and I could tell that Ary's nerves were at the breaking point. One more question about the Kushners and something would snap.

And just then the door opened and the dark-haired secretary appeared. She was carrying a sheaf of papers. When she spoke we could hardly believe our ears. For this time it was she who used the name Kushner. She placed the papers in front of the Vice-Consul. Then, "Will you please sign these, Mr. Kushner," she said.

When the secretary finally left the room the official turned to Ary. There was warmth in his manner now. The suspicion and indecision had vanished.

"I have never known anyone of my father's family, the Kushners" he began. "I have always wanted to locate some of them. My father died when I was very young. But my mother had a photograph of him. And as I have been recalling the photograph and looking at you, it seemed that you could well be my father's younger brother..."

He and Ary talked on and they established beyond a doubt that they are distant cousins. Eventually the conversation came back to the missing passport. The Vice-Consul dictated a cable to the State Department in Washington requesting a temporary passport for us. It should be ready before we left Venice, he told us.

When we returned to the Consulate in the afternoon, with the photos for our passport, we found that word of the morning's happenings had spread. Everyone seemed to be eyeing us with interest. The young man at the reception desk addressed Ary as "Mr. Kushner,” then blushed in confusion, and corrected himself. As for the Vice-Consul, he came out of his office to greet us, and he put a slip of paper in Ary's hand. "This is my address, and detailed directions for reaching my home," he said. "We are having a party Sunday evening. I shall expect you there."

Saturday, June 14th

Yesterday afternoon and again today we have been feasting our eyes on Venetian paintings. We have spent hours in the Palace of the Doges, where the walls are adorned with enormous canvases by Tintoretto and Veronese, the Scuola di San Rocco, where Tintoretto compositions based on themes from the Old and New Testaments predominate, and the Accademia, where one sees the whole range of the Venetian masters, including Jacobo Bellini and his sons Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian, Veronese, and again Tintoretto.

I told Ary I feel as if we have been swimming in color. For the Venetian painters of the Sixteenth Century were intoxicated with the newly discovered medium of oil paint, which permitted them to obtain color of a brilliance and an intensity hitherto unknown. They handled this new medium with consummate skill. Consequently that vague thing which artists call "painting quality", that intangible something which makes the canvas and the pigment "come alive", seems to permeate every mural and every portrait. And how perfectly suited this richness of color and of texture was to the spirit of opulence and elegance which characterized that period.

Titian gave to his portraits and figure compositions an incomparable sensuality of color and of form. No wonder that during his long life of almost a century he influenced every Venetian painter of his time. They all tried to emulate the great master, whose creations had such surface beauty, such excitement of the senses.

Veronese, solely preoccupied with this surface beauty, produced canvases of monumental size, which were marvelous spectacles, glittering pageants of figures and landscapes, of soldiers and prancing horses.

But to me it is neither Titian nor Veronese, but Tintoretto who dominates the scene in Venice. Of course one must remember that in those days the chief object of all Venetian painting, even the religious scenes, was the glorification of the Doges. Religion was looked upon as a branch of the State, and in the religious paintings the on-lookers, the saints, the apostles and other religious figures were quite frankly representations of the Doges, their chamberlains, their ladies, all bedecked with gleaming fabrics and glittering jewels. For example, the angel who appears as often in Tintoretto's Biblical scenes is a sophisticated looking blond who, you imagine, could have been a favorite courtesan of the ruling Doge.

Nevertheless Tintoretto rose above all this surface superficiality, and his paintings, although rich in color, are far more than merely sensuous. They have a power, a breadth, and a sweep of movement, a feeling of vast space, a vision that seams comic in its scope. What superb creations of his line the walls of the Seuolo and the Doges' Palace. To my mind the most impressive is the painting of Christ in Paradise, surrounded by a throng of heavenly angels. It covers the whole wall in one of the great halls of the Palace; you feel that it could just as easily cover the entire stretch of the heavens. A wonderful deep, blackish kind of blue predominates; the effect of the sky is dramatic, and the grouping of the angels has infinite grace and rhythm. (A sketch of this painting hangs in the Louvre, but the original is much more powerful.)

It is said that El Greco and Delacroix, among others, were greatly influenced by Tintoretto. One can easily see how the mysticism of El Greco evolved from this more earthly but soul-stirring vision of Tintoretto, and how Delacroix, taking his inspiration from Tintoretto's bold and exciting movement, developed his explosive and fiery romantic compositions.

Sunday, June 15th

Today was devoted to exploring the city, with emphasis on the romantic setting, rather than on paintings. We took the big boat (they call it the Vaporetta) down the Grand Canal, past all the marble palaces, once so proud and so impressive in their ornateness, now shabby, and as Ary says, mourning for their lost splendor. We sat at our-door cafes overlooking the water and watched the boats — the gondolas drifting slowly by, the cargo boats with their piles of wood, of stone, or of grain, the commercial steamers and the chugging little motor boats, a touch of twentieth century progress rather disturbing to the romantic tenor of the scene.

We walked for hours. I had always thought the canals were the only thoroughfares in the city and was surprised to find such an elaborate system of bridges and so many streets and squares and plazas. Starting out from the great gilt clock tower in St. Mark's Square we wound our way down the Merceria, the principal shopping street of Venice, until we reached the Rialto, the section about the Bridge, famous for centuries as the business district of the city, where foreign merchants met and did their trading.

We peered into shop windows and admired the fine laces and the red Venetian glass work. We gazed in fascination at the array of foods spread out in the windows of the restaurants. It seems that the restaurants vie with one another in the variety and attractiveness of the dishes which are placed on display. Even the dining room of our little pension boasts a display table laden with plates of sea food, cold chicken and roasts, fruit and vegetables, and cakes. (We avoid ordering any dishes that have been on the table for more than a day...)

The party at the Kushners' was the event of the evening. We arrived there late, tired and foot-sore after our long day of sight-seeing. To add to our discomfort, we had lost our way in the maze of streets and bridges, in spite of the explicit directions Mr. Kushner had given us. However, he and Mrs. Kushner welcomed us so warmly that we forgot our fatigue.

There were interesting guests — the group from the Consulate, several artists who were invited in Ary's honor, and other friends of the Kushners — quite a cosmopolitan crowd. Ary, who is eloquent in every language but English, in which he is shy and self-conscious, beamed with pleasure as he held forth alternately in French, German and Spanish. He was particularly happy when Peggy Guggenheim dropped in, for Peggy is known as a pioneer in the modern art movement, and the American modern painters admire her and feel they owe her a debt of gratitude. She asked us to come to see her in her marble palace on the Grand Canal, which we shall do.

Monday, June 16th

This was our last day in Venice, and it was a busy one. In the morning a visit with Peggy Guggenheim in her gleaming white marble palace. She was having a late breakfast, and while we waited for her a distinguished looking, white-haired man came in and introduced himself: "I am Herbert Read." I admire Herbert Read immensely, for his scholarliness and open-mindedness on the subject of art, and I had thoroughly enjoyed his talk at the Twentieth Century National Conference in Paris, in May. I told him so, and I think he was pleased. Ary and he talked together and were just getting into an interesting conversation about the role of the subconscious in art and the necessity of having a conscious check on it, when Peggy Guggenheim appeared. We looked at her very fine collection of paintings, most of which we remembered from New York. I was particularly interested in those of her ex-husband, Max Ernst, who was one of the pioneers of the surrealist school.

Another palace in the afternoon — this time to visit Professor G., whom we had met during our wait at the Consulate the other morning. He had tried to engage Ary in conversation about Italian painting and had insisted that we visit him.

The Palace was in a state of disrepair and the Professor bought it several years ago for a song. He has done a remarkable job in renovating it, but he explained that the constant pressure of the water is wearing away the foundations, especially since the motor boats bring a rush of water into the holes which have been hollowed out by rats. This is a very serious problem which threatens the entire city of Venice. However, in this particular case it is expected that the building will last several centuries more — three or four at least — so the Professor need have no worry about his investment!

There is a souvenir shop in one section of the main floor. The rest of the building is occupied by offices, except the top floor, where there are two enormous apartments, occupied by the Professor and his wife and their daughter and son-in-law. Fortunately there was an elevator to ascend. The Professor and his wife led us through a maze of rooms, rich with heavily carved woodwork and frescoed ceilings, and crowded with sumptuously upholstered furniture, heavy tapestries, crystal chandeliers, delicate china, and all sorts of finely wrought objects d'art. However the rooms were shuttered and dim, and I found the whole atmosphere stuffy and somewhat dreary.

Every room was hung with paintings, and we climbed a narrow winding stairway to the room where the Professor keeps the bulk of his collection. All in red and gold, the room originally was a library, the books having been stored in dozens of closets built into the wall and profusely ornamented in gilt scroll-work. Now they are an ideal store-place for the Professor's paintings.

He pulled out a number of canvases to show us. Practically all of them were late Renaissance in style and obviously of doubtful origin. Ary was quite polite until toward the end of our visit, when he told the Professor that he really has no interest in that period and infinitely prefers the earlier Italian paintings, particularly the Sienese School. Whereupon the Professor took us into a bedroom to show us a so-called "Lorenzetti" hanging over the bed. Unfortunately it had been retouched, he told us, and the eyes and nose spoiled.

I saw in the Professor a prototype of the "private" art dealer one finds in every large city where there are wealth and pretentious to art collection. We have seen these dealers time and again in the second-rate auction galleries in New York. With an almost imperceptible nod of the head they motion to the auctioneer their bid on the dimly painted portraits in heavy gold frames which have an "old master" air. A touch here and there and a vague but impressive sounding story as to their "discovery" and they are ready for resale at a high figure.

Before our visit was half over the Professor evidently realized the extent of Ary's knowledge of art. He would retreat with a little smile and a shrug whenever Ary questioned anything. But all in all it was an extremely pleasant afternoon and one more interesting experience to add color to our stay in this amazing city…

Monday, June 16th, continued.

We had invited the Kushners to have farewell dinner with us at the pension this evening. When we told the proprietor yesterday that we expected guests from the American Consulate, he was overcome with the honor that had befallen his establishment. He kept referring to "Signor the Consul" and after correcting him several times, we decided that he preferred to think of our guests as the Consul and his wife, so we made no further effort to set him straight. He insisted on ordering the dinner himself and said he would supervise it personally.

When we entered the dining room with the Kushners we found that the entire place had been cleaned and polished for the occasion. The waiters were wearing newly starched white jackets and stood about stiff and ill-at-ease. Our own waiter was flushed with excitement and his serving was really a virtuoso performance. The little red-checked apprentice waiter wielded his napkin with greater zeal than ever. He used it to polish the glasses, to clean the chairs, to wipe the perspiration from his forehead. Evidently he had told all the youngsters in the neighborhood about the distinguished guests that were expected, for every now and then a group of boys and girls would appear in the doorway and stand gazing open-mouthed at our table. Even the waiters from nearby cafes seemed to find it necessary to come in on some errand from time to time, and of course they cast a glance at our table and they passed by.

There were flowers on the table, and the food was really superb, from the antipasto to the delicious mélange of fruit in liqueur which is their special dessert. We were all in good spirits and the whole dining room beamed at us as we sat there talking and laughing. The proprietor looked in, and we called him over to our table and introduced him to the Kushners, and he was as thrilled as if he had received a decoration.

After dinner we walked over to St. Mark's and sat there at a cafe table taking in the gay spectacle for the last time. It was only when the two bronze men-at-arms at the top of the clock tower struck twenty-four (midnight) that we embraced our newly-found relatives and regretfully bade them "Arrivederci."

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