I would never have understood Symonds’s description if I hadn’t travelled to Venice

This from Lucinda Matthews-Jones on John Addington Symonds, Venice and literary tourism:

“In the weeks leading up to the recent NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference, hosted by Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, I read the following passage from John Addington Symonds’s The Fine Arts, the third volume in his Renaissance in Italy series:

Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase, with her palaces of porphyry and marble, her frescoed facades, her quays and squares aglow with the costumes of the Levant, her lagoons afloat with the galleys of all nations, her churches floored with mosaics, her silvery domes and ceilings glittering with sculpture bathed in molten gold.

I included this passage in my conference paper as an example of Symonds’s ‘Venice register’—typical of his diction and figurative language when describing Italy’s “sea city”. On my first reading I hit the seventh word and paused. Chrysoprase. What was that? A Google search revealed it was a semi-precious stone, and a Google Image search revealed it was green in colour, somewhere between jade and aqua-marine, veined through with lines of a darker shade. After this moment’s distraction on the Internet, I thought little more of Symonds’s use of this stone in his writing.

A few weeks later I found myself on a plane landing at Marco Polo Airport, Venice. A short bus ride later I was at the Piazzale Roma catching a vaporetti on my way to San Marco. It was then I noticed the water—its colour, its movement and its differing shades. A striking phrase resurfaced in my mind: “Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase”. What I had assumed to be Symonds’s purple prose, yet another example of his hyperbolic tendencies, proved to be a rather exact description. The canals were indeed a striking shade of blue-green, and everywhere I looked, the luminous brine was interspersed with dark fronds of seaweed.

This moment was revelatory. I would never have understood Symonds’s description if I hadn’t travelled to Venice. I would never have sympathised with nor understood his paradoxically literal use [of] metaphor. I would never have fully shared his affective response to Venice’s dilapidated beauty and rich colour palette. My understanding of the way Symonds envisioned the city had changed. Was this unquantifiable? Certainly. Was it sentimental? Perhaps. But there had been an undeniable shift.”

If you want to understand Symonds’s description for yourself, here’s information on visiting Venice.

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