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.

The town upon which Combray is based


Marcel Proust’s aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Jules Amiot, lived at No. 4 rue du Saint-Esprit (subsequently renamed rue du Dr. Proust after Proust’s father) now a museum, in Illiers-Combray (the only town in France to have been renamed after a fictional village). This house was where young Marcel stayed with his family and the one he recreated, with all of its complicated associations, in A la Recherche du temps Perdu.

No visit to Illiers-Combray is complete without first reading George Painter’s masterful biography Marcel Proust,. ’At Illiers’, he writes,

‘…the church and grey street and gardens of Combray are there for all to see; the village spires perform their strange movements, the two ways of rolling plain and narrow river lead for ever in opposite directions, and nevertheless meet. In the real topography of Illiers the mysterious significance of the symbolical landscape of Combray was already latent.’

With Painter’s help the motivated Literary Tourist can find the streets, houses, gardens and walks which constitute such an integral part of the Proustian maize. He or she can even eat madeleines, which for centuries have been made here in the shape of scallop shells, because Illiers was on the route to the shrine of St. James of Compostella in Spain, and the pilgrims wore shells on their hats.

The young Proust came frequently to Illiers, visiting regularly until he reached his teens, at which point education and bad health took him elsewhere, often for long stays by the sea, in Beg-Meil and Cabourg. In 1902 he returned on his own to look at the church of St. Jacques through the eyes of John Ruskin, whose writings on architecture had impressed him deeply.

For information on visiting Combray, check out the Office de Tourism de Combray here.