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For the past two years I have been reading and rereading a large, mostly-unknown book on Italian art and culture by the Russian essayist Pavel Muratov, called “Figures of Italy,” or Obrazi Italii in the original Russian.
[Find an accompanying translation of an extended excerpt of the text here.]
I first heard about the book from Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, another encyclopedic survey that set itself up as a bulwark against cultural misunderstanding (in James’s case, against the aggressive forgetfulness of the twenty-first century). By far the most compelling figure in it, to my mind at least, was a turn of the century Russian writer named Pavel Muratov, whose great volume on Italy—which James translated as “Turns of Italy,” though I read it as “Figures of Italy”—had slipped since its publication into an almost total obscurity. “Essayist, critic, novelist and playwright,” James wrote, sounding a little like a newscaster trying to describe a hurricane, “[Muratov] was also the most learned, original and stylistically gifted Russian art historian of his time, and he wrote at least one book well equipped to last beyond his time and ours as well.” Later, he confronted Obrazi Italii’s untranslated status with a bellow of full-throated frustration. “The book is just too good to be true, and until somebody translates it into appropriately neat English the enthusiast will always run the risk of being thought to have made it up.”
I admit I thought he might have, for despite his best efforts the picture of Muratov I encountered in Cultural Amnesia made him sound less like an actual person and more like a myth. It painted him as a swashbuckling polymath, and his masterpiece as exactly the kind of Atlantis that was better-off left undiscovered, if only to avoid the disappointment of bringing it to light. Still, I could not help but be intrigued by Obrazi Italii. I wanted to see what had made it “last,” in James’s phrase—wanted to see if it had lasted, or if the passage of time had tarnished its once-precious contents past legibility, as was happening so often these days. I was so intrigued, in fact, that within a few hours of reading about it, I had ordered a copy, which I was informed would be delivered to my house in either one week, or, given “difficult shipping conditions,” within a later period of between three and six months.
It arrived four days later, appearing on my doorstep in a swaddling of string-tied butcher’s paper. Unwrapping this packaging, I saw that the gilt on its title was worn, no doubt by years spent moldering in some distributor’s warehouse. But the binding held as I creaked open its cover to a frontispiece whose eyes appeared to be staring at something over my right shoulder:
The portrait of Muratov that greeted me from the opening pages of Obrazi Italii was not of the rakish corsair that James’s description had led me to expect; on the contrary, it was the picture of a calm man—of a man who had achieved calm, not by walling himself up in coarseness or expertise, but by keeping his eyes on some distant fixed point. Indeed, the overall impression that it gave was one of vulnerability, even fragility, as if its subject had been surprised in one of the “privileged moments” that Victorian art critic Walter Pater (whom Muratov translated into Russian) understood as being the potential result of a mind coming face to face with great beauty. For Pater, such quasi-religious epiphanies allowed the person experiencing them to feel, if only for a moment, that they had escaped the constraints of their everyday lives; but the most interesting thing to me about the look on Muratov’s face was how aware it seemed to be of its own limitations.
It was a look that I would encounter repeatedly in Obrazi Italii—one that I would come to recognize as a fingerprint of a sensibility that otherwise kept itself hidden, like a tour guide standing tactfully off-camera. By that point, I had tracked down enough biographical information to get a working theory of where its ambivalence might have come from. For example, I knew that Muratov had started his writing life as a military historian, working in 1904 on articles about the Russo-Japanese war, in which he had also served as a field volunteer. As was the case with many men of his generation (Muratov was born in 1881), Russia’s unexpected defeat in that conflict gave him a skepticism about order that would last the rest of his life. At the same time, it galvanized his dissatisfaction with the general disorder of turn-of-the-century Russian life, prompting him to look for answers in two directions: back towards the forgotten roots of his culture, and outwards at traditions whose example might offer some alternate way forward. It opened him up, in other words, providing him with the material and impulse to fashion himself into the kind of poised and self-sufficient man who could not just survive his era, but flourish in it. A Renaissance man.
He was not the first person to try this, of course; he wasn’t even the first Russian, as he makes clear in the preface to the first volume of Obrazi Italii. Published in 1911, two years after Muratov’s initial revelatory trip to Italy, the book is flushed with the kind of exuberance that one might expect from a young writer discovering his subject. But the thing that struck me first when I picked it up was how careful Muratov is to connect his beloved figures back to the larger, often more complicated processes that had brought them into being in the first place. In the preface, for example, he examines some of the forces that had gone into making the Obrazi themselves, explaining his ambitions at the same time as he situates them within the larger context of more general feelings towards Italy expressed by his own time and tradition:
In any book written about Italy, provided that Italy serves in it as the destination of some “pilgrimage of the soul,” there are bound to be many lyrical pages. In this book, the individual and personal has found expression not only in the tenor of the prose, but also in the selection of specific figures from Italy’s boundless and inexhaustible stores. . . . Still, I would like to think that these individual shadings of thought, interest, and sympathy are not too isolated. It seems to me that in the particular subjects that have been selected for this book, and the approach that has been taken towards them, the spirit of our age has expressed itself incidentally. One might hope, at least, that this book articulates an attitude towards Italy that is not mine alone, but is rather shared by others in our time.
Gracious though it may be, Muratov’s statement here is also a bold display of the broadmindedness that Obrazi Italii has in spades, unlike many books of art history. A generous defense of this deficiency might be to say that it is an unavoidable professional hazard; that, as Henry James said, “Relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” But whereas for James, the realist novelist, the messiness of life was a problem solved by the finished artwork, for Muratov it was the work—for when it came to Italy, the pictures had already been seen, and the portraits hung. The challenge, then, was not simply to select a novel group of figures from the general store, but to expand the frames themselves, nudging readers out of their Paternian comfort zones and into the larger fields whirling around them, if only so that they could return to their reveries with a richer understanding of what they were looking at.
The form of Obrazi Italii was helpful along these lines—and then here, again, I could see that Muratov had been smart in the relations he admitted. Interestingly enough, a fair number of these were not books of history or aesthetics (although he had read exhaustively in these fields as well), but of the travel writing that had flourished in the more Western-looking Russia of the post-Petrine eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The relatively unspecialized nature of these reports, which tended to be written either by aristocrats, or by writers speaking to a broad public, meant that in his search for domestic predecessors Muratov was mostly limited to non-specialists—writers like Nikolai Gogol, whose fluorescent descriptions of Rome effectively annexed Italy for the Russian imagination. (“After him, Italy does not have to be a foreign country to us,” the preface notes.) But it was the larger, pan-European example of writing about the Grand Italian Tour that presented Muratov with a model of how to structure his own enthusiasm into something more than letters home.
By the time it reached him, the genre of travel writing had already realized a high degree of sophistication, although without of course reaching the explosive blossoming that it would achieve in the second half of the twentieth century. As epitomized by Goethe in his blockbuster Italian Journey (not to mention Victorian English writers like John Addington Symonds, whose Sketches and Studies in Italy was a key inspiration for Muratov’s study), it could incorporate elements of biography, criticism, painterly description and even memoir without ever feeling tied down to any particular one of these forms. It could tack as the situation demanded, switching its approach with the light-hearted spring of a traveler changing horses. The trick was to filter its various tactics through a single persuasive sensibility—one that, for all its apparent dissipation, still felt like it was in hot pursuit, whether the grail sought was a perfect bottle of Chianti, or the elusive spirit that Muratov’s countryman and contemporary Osip Mandelstam called “world culture.”
Ideally, it would be both (as on an ideal trip); for as so many of Muratov’s predecessors had demonstrated, one of the beauties of Italy was the way that it mixed the normally-separated realms of spiritual and earthly delight, creating a space in which the two could enrich one another. This is especially true in the considerations of art and artists that arrested me periodically in Obrazi Italii, like towers sprouting from the already-spectacular landscape. Often this juxtaposition of figure and ground can reveal startling correspondences, opening up entire worlds that the casual traveler or jaded resident might not have even guessed were there. In the consideration of Giovanni Bellini in the first volume, for example, Muratov places the Venetian painter against a half-lit landscape, where “water chains and muffles thought, the way, indeed, it muffles sound here, causing a deep silence to settle on the heart.” Held in this meditative flow, Bellini’s spacey, somewhat stoned-looking Madonnas take on a weird fluidity, like fish seen through a glass-bottomed gondola:
Giovani Bellini painted quite a few Madonnas, who are rather simple, serious, neither mournful nor smiling, but who are always submerged in placid and earnest contemplation. They are hushed and contemplative souls; a sort of balance suffuses them—and wasn’t this true of the artist himself as well? At first glance, he seems too stolid, dull and even uninteresting for us. But he is one of those masters that one comes to understand better with time. . . . No one else can concentrate his viewer’s thoughts into a sort of unspecified focus the way he can, so as to lead him to a state of self-forgetfulness and purposeless contemplation. Such contemplation is dispassionate and has no purpose. Or, better yet, its purpose is unknown, which makes contemplation itself the highest goal of the artistry. Bellini’s wide-ranging imagination finds itself frequently turned towards simple things; it willingly mixes the great and the small. Often he will paint the kind of landscapes, trees or mountains that one’s mind always returns to in Venice. In the background of his “Transfiguration” is a road down which a peasant is driving his ox; in the background of one of his Madonnas a man is riding a horse, two men are arguing under a tree, and a monkey is sitting on a marble vase, on which the artist’s signature is written. Thus we see the artist’s deep thoughtfulness: that diffusion of thought and feeling that occurs so often on the border between waking and sleep, or life and death.
Muratov’s contemplation of Bellini sinks the artist’s vision into the Venetian landscape that a lazier commentary might have mistaken it to be triumphantly hovering over. At the same time, his tracing of the painter’s “self-forgetful and objectless contemplation” provides a further, more abstract (self) reflection, since it describes exactly the kind of meandering “deep thoughtfulness” that Muratov’s own prose frequently follows. This is the way of the traveler, the tourist—the pellegrino, as he might have been called in Dante’s time. It is a path that, in its constant motion, is open to moments of startling synthesis, while at the same time refusing to be chained to past insights—as if it understood that the various revelations that it had of its figures were written, not in stone, but on the water that fellow Italophile John Keats used to sign his name on.
Indeed, it is the fluid, flighty nature of the prose in Obrazi Italii that allows it to take off so frequently, moving us onto further angles and consistently broader views. So, in the chapter immediately following Bellini’s, Muratov shows us a completely different Venice: the “old Venice” of Tintoretto and Carpaccio, with its “combination of rose and gold tones with green [portending] already the future glory of the Venetian colorists.” As viewed through such tinted portals, this brighter, more healthily-lit city might seem to be one of languid contemplation—a sort of above-ground antidote to Bellini’s sunken ruin. But, as Muratov is careful to remind us, the reality of the situation was much harsher. Indeed, with its intrusive governmental regulation of citizens’ lives, the Venice of the early sixteenth century appears less like an oasis and more like a prison yard—one whose elegance is a grim testament to one of Europe’s earliest and most successful police states. “Every person at that time, whether they wanted to be or not, was in the service of that ‘bright’ republic. And everyone served it in some way. And in everything that to a contemporary viewer of these canvases seems like a happy and fortuitous combination of richly clothed people, foreign servants and richly-woven fabrics, there was at one point the hidden governmental ideal, and the ‘use of society’ was present invisibly in all these events.”
Informed by such difficult historical facts, Muratov’s perceptive eye cannot help but find the “invisible presence” of governmental scrutiny everywhere in the period’s art: in the opulence of Carpaccio, or the paintings of Titian in which “there is no sadness and no one smiles,” even in the distilled humanism of Tintoretto, for whom “the Venetian government was good, insofar as it pushed the activity of each of its workers towards its utmost limit.” No one escaped, in other words; and yet it would be a mistake to make it sound like Muratov’s musings on the Venetian school reduces them to a kind of New Historical accretion. On the contrary, as always in Obrazi Italii, the last word in his discussion of Venice is given to the great art that, in its passage through the vicissitudes of its time, manages to somehow represent both the truth of history and the human face scowling out from underneath it:
Tintoretto is not a psychological painter; character does not really interest him, for character is only an occasional and fleeting fragment of the unitary human spirit. Some of the patricians he painted were good, others were evil, some were cunning, others were benevolent—but is this really important? Or is the most important thing the humanity that they contained, which was eternal and general—the element of life itself that animated their heavy bodies draped in red fabric, sparking their gazes and roiling the thought beneath their enflamed skulls?
The sparks thrown by Tintoretto’s smoldering gazes leapt across the centuries separating Imperial Venice and pre-Revolutionary Russia easily, to the point that, considering the Venetian painter’s self-portrait, Muratov was reminded of “the features of Browning, Tolstoy—the features of the great men of our time, our thinkers and poets.” Similarly, with the complicating perspective of hindsight, I could glimpse reflections in Muratov of events that the writer could not have foreseen in 1908, from the cataclysm of the world wars to the ruthless police-state that Russia would soon find itself sleepwalking through. Indeed, encouraged by his fortuitous stumble, I found my mind wandering, somewhat surprisingly, toward more recent antediluvian eras—for despite the centuries that separated us, I was starting to feel like there was something contemporary about Obrazi Italii: a familiar atmosphere that it breathed every time I opened it, like the fried ozone of a sky about to storm.
The feeling of imminence—that is, of an indefinite but unignorable something hanging over the world, like a sword above a bed or a comet on the horizon—became increasingly important to my experience of Obrazi Italii, as its narrative moved past the bright surfaces of the first volume and into the deeper shadows of the second. This is the volume in which we arrive in Rome itself, the city that earlier glances have hinted Muratov considers to be a kind of super-figure of Italian life: a structure made out of other structures, like a beehive made of honeycombs. As befits such a richness, the hum of his meditation here could occasionally feel dizzying. But it was one of the most effective parts of the pages on the Eternal City that, in them, Muratov frequently lingered over moments that felt decidedly minor, or at least whipped up out of a series of fleeting and incremental shivers:
The severe beauty of the walls of Palazzo della Cancelleria, the bluish silver and finely sculpted roses beneath their windows, strike one like spring ice crystals lit up by a flash of sun. Here you feel the chastity of that strength which the Renaissance was suffused with. . . . A little further on the empty square in front of the enormous Palazzo Farnese appears. Its beautiful interior courtyard lingers in one’s heart, as a feeling of perfectly-achieved poise and ideal harmony.
Muratov’s recapitulation of the lace-like fretwork in the Palazzo della Cancelleria is typical of his prose in the Obrazi’s second volume, which so often approaches its objects from the side—not as isolated “masterpieces,” but as knots or keyholes, through which different but complimentary forces can be traced and considered. Depending on the crack in question, these forces can range from more predictable displays of sight and sound, to the subtler touches of smell, atmosphere, or color that Rome offers up to the considerate visitor. Often, they are touched or carried in some way by the distinctive Roman light, which pervades the second volume of Obrazi Italii so completely that at times it seems to be serving as a kind of connective tissue, as if Muratov were using it as a stand-in for the act of thinking itself, or at least for the equilibrium that thought inevitably works towards. Indeed, there are times where the real subject of his description seems to be not examples of art, places, or even people, but the relatively fleeting moments in between these things, which appear here almost by accident, like bystanders in a Polaroid:
Never does the light of Rome and the blue of the Roman sky seem so beautiful as when we exit the underground labyrinth [of the Roman catacombs] with a still burning cerini in our hand—the long thin candle, which leaves a thin film of wax on our palms. From that point on the campagna surrounding Rome is somehow strangely connected with presentiments of the emptiness hidden beneath it; of the gaping black entry into the world of nonbeing, the night that swallows both the shadow and the dust of a man.
Muratov connects the flourishing aboveground world of the Roman campagna with the “gaping black” of the catacombs hidden underneath it, not through an accumulation of historical facts, or even a straightforward statement, but via a physical sensation that anyone who has ever emerged from a dark cellar in the middle of summer can relate to. The traveler steps up and into the light, accomplishing a passage from below to above, death to life, and myth to reality that is both enchanted and enchantingly familiar. This is at least partly the point, since, as Muratov suggests, in addition to being timeless, such a juxtaposition of past and present is also inveterately Roman, meaning that it is an effect of this place in which “everything that one’s gaze lands on is a grave.” It is a paradox that comes from being Eternal and yet at the same time eternally full of the life that nineteenth-century traveler Jean-Jacques Ampere found “idle and yet at the same time occupied . . . peaceful and various, quiet, though without boredom, full, though not exhausting.” In this way, though it may seem monumental, the Rome encountered in Obrazi Italii is really more of a marketplace, a bustling crossroads in which the imposing Houses of God can intersect, sometimes serenely, sometimes surreally, with the Hellenistic “love of the small world surrounding man.”
Still, I could see that even a Romanophile like Muratov had to admit that every house casts its shadow, just as every campagna perches, whether we realize it or not, on a catacomb. In this vein, the most interesting commentary on Italian domestication that I found in Obrazi Italii appeared not in the multiple long chapters on Rome, but in the briefer section on Pompeii that surfaces almost immediately after it, like the dot on an exclamation point. At a scant two pages, this is the shortest section in the Obrazi; but it felt like a center, or at least like the kind of bottle-episode in which the larger themes of a season are recapitulated, at the same time as they find themselves subtly reversed:
The feeling of stone, which is one of the most important feelings of ancient life, can be felt with unusual strength on the streets of Pompeii. And the heat of the sun is nowhere experienced so vividly as on these stone streets. The Pompeii of today is almost devoid of coolness, but the thought of shade informs every ruined Pompeian house or courtyard. Beneath this cloudless sky, shade was classical man’s devoted companion over the course of his day, the first wonder of the world that the child of antiquity opened his eyes upon. Its stripe led the long straight streets, delineating the ovals of theaters and the squares of the peristyles, pooling in the cannelures of the columns and etching every detail of the entablature. Its animating gilt is the only thing that has not fled the walls and cobblestones of Pompeii.
After so much water, stone; after so much light, shade . . . and yet, formally at least, nothing about the picture seems to have changed. Here again everything is flowing and yet measured, like the Pythagorean swirl of a snail shell—and not just in the ruins themselves, either, but in the language that describes them, which now shadows scenes with the same fine-tipped delicacy that it once applied to lighting. Similarly—in a way that mirrors the procedure he has already led us through in Rome, Venice, Florence, and so many other bustling sites—Muratov gives our eyes time to adjust to Pompeii’s hidden inner life: the genius of a loci that, though it may be deserted in space, is inhabited in time. And genius it is—for to our surprise, the figure that appears unblinkingly before us is not just another wax seal of Itallo-Hellenic domestication, but a portrait so perfected that it seems to waver on the border of caricature:
The Pompeiian did not spend his time on the street; his life outside his house ran its course in spacious forums, baths, the theater. And far more important than this shared social life was the domestic one that he lived behind his walls. The love of the home built Pompeii. Never since then has man taken as much pain and derived so much joy from existing in his own private cell. What astounds us about the layout of the Pompeiian house is its attempt to divide space into the smallest possible compartments, and to fit these compartments against one another as snugly as possible. The small dimensions of the Pompeiian rooms surprise us, but no less surprising is the fact that some of these houses contain upwards of sixty such rooms. In the midst of these innumerable bedrooms and living rooms, which could only be distinguished from one another by the gaze of their house-proud patriarch, stretched the inner courtyards—the half-open atrium and the fully-open peristyle. With amazing regularity, these are repeated in every Pompeiian home, in the exact way that, on the streets of the city, we see repeated the precisely identical cisterns, corners, counters. Regularity and order, in this way, ruled both on the streets and inside the home. . . . Every Pompeiian house was a temple of lares and penates.
The Pompeiian house achieves a perfect inhabitability that is of course also perfectly hypothetical, since no one can actually live in it anymore—and then in this way, characteristically, the figure that Muratov drew from it felt weirdly hollow to me. For all its interlocking lines and shadows, it was put together in a way that seems to leave the most important part of the story out, or at least unexpressed, like a man outlining a bullseye by shooting everywhere except directly at it. But if lares and penates aren’t the total of Muratovian figuring then what is? The volcano that is barely even mentioned in the chapter, despite the fact that its eruption is the one thing that most people know about it? This didn’t seem right either, although it at least acknowledged the atmosphere of charged latency that the chapter feels like it’s marinating in, like a horror movie that manages to be terrifying precisely because its monster never shows itself. And then maybe it is this last feeling, rather than any specific irony, which makes this chapter seem so representative, for more than any particular pre- or even post-sentiment of disaster, the sensation that “Pompeii” distills is one of absence, even loss. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner famously wrote. And yet if there is one thing that we can say, definitively, about the inhabitants of Pompeii—as we can say it about the rest of the Italian Renaissance’s gallery of geniuses, no matter how much we admire and are fascinated by them—it is that they are not here. Look for them around every corner, under your boot soles, under so many lids, and what you will find is traces, shadows, silhouettes. Presences, in other words, which as travelers we journey to stand before, offering our blood to so that they might tell us their story.
If the first volume of Obrazi Italii was Muratov’s hymn to Italy, and the second the consummation and implied reversal of this hymn, then the third and final volume of the book was a more dirge-like capitulation: a return that sought to follow the lessons of rebirth and renaissance offered by Italy at the same time that it made more tangible an ambivalence that had been implicit in many other parts of the book—maybe even in the entire project itself. For if extending our attention into finer and broader perception leads us to question the very substances that held it in the first place, then what is the point of travel? Or, to put it another way, what’s the point of revisiting the old world if the lesson it has to teach us turns out to be the conditional, fleeting, and perhaps even fundamentally empty nature of all human achievement?
Though it did not answer them explicitly, the third volume of Obrazi Italii felt increasingly haunted by these questions, which made sense given the circumstances under which it was written. For though the narrative of Muratov’s journey through Italy is presented as a single unbroken Tour, the real-life trips that went into making this composite were in fact quite separate. In the case of the third volume, which was completed over ten years after the first two, in 1922, and published by an émigré publishing house in Leipzig in 1924, this separation was particularly consequential. It comprehended not just a critical period in Muratov’s evolution, but one of the most dramatic decades that European history has ever witnessed. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable phrase, these were the years of “the crack-up”: an eruption of what in hindsight appeared to be latent forces into revolution, economic depression, pandemic, and of course the titanic First World War. Muratov, who fought in the last of these as an artillery officer, as he had in the Russo-Japanese conflict, experienced many of these changes up close. He called the October Revolution of 1917 “barbaric,” and had been forced by the subsequent cultural purges to leave Russia permanently, in 1922. He could not help but be affected by these upheavals, nor could he ignore the fact that such disasters seemed to pose a radical critique of the very edifice of European culture that the first two volumes of the Obrazi Italii had been built on. And yet reading the book I found no mention of World War I or the October Revolution—or almost none. On the contrary, the Tour just kept keeping on, oblivious—willfully so, it felt to me—to the storm breaking around its walls.
Still, I couldn’t deny that one of the more interesting effects of reading Obrazi Italii had been how much it sensitized me to the subtler presences lingering under even the most straightforward-sounding story—so much so that, by the time I reached the last section of Muratov’s travels, I could hear a distinct tone of melancholy in his commentary: a bass note that he returned to so consistently that I began to suspect it was not necessarily just about what we were observing. Sometimes this sound even became specific and personal, foregrounding the ruins that Muratov himself was looking at, and providing context for the weariness that was beginning to suffuse his journey:
It is the rare traveler who has never experienced a moment of unwarranted depression. At these moments, evenings spent in a foreign city seem intolerable to him; heavy and dreamless the nights suffered between the strange walls of whatever hotel he’s ended up in. After inhospitable Parma I found myself experiencing this heart-sickness one day in the middle of a deserted and dust-covered street in unassuming Cremona. The late summer day was inclining towards evening, and the sun had cast its unpleasantly slanting rays on the square in front of the ancient cathedral and on its uppermost towers. In the dim motley there appeared on its inner wall the confused and crowded frescos of Romanino and Pordenone. I hurried to leave the church and sat at a table in a small café on the main street. The dusk of the provincial day was gathering with sluggish boredom. Dressed-up families and garrison officers were crowding around to listen to military music in the public garden. A faint-hearted urge to depart Cremona immediately, without seeing any of its beautiful terracotta or the murals of Campi, overcame me.
Muratov’s urge to flee was framed as a generalized moment of overstimulated ennui, but the touch that really set him shuddering was Cremona’s display of small-town militancy, and the enthusiasm that it was greeted with by families and officers decked out in their Sunday best. Brief though it was, the eruption of patriotic boosting cut through the general atmosphere of appreciation in a way that did not occur in earlier volumes. Disturbed from his café, Muratov rallied himself and us into the chapel of Corpus Domini, which turned out, surprisingly, to “belong to the select number of places that everyone must see without fail in Italy.” Or maybe this isn’t surprising at all, since the point of this whole interruption, as becomes clearer the further we get into the chapter, is not to discredit the Tour, but to validate it, proving in a typically Muratovian way that no matter how much the world intrudes, Italy itself is somehow always bigger, deeper, more engrossing.
Still, the tinny sound of that military parade lingered, sifting down to my sensitized ears like the sound of an alarm-clock ringing through heavy sleep. I did not want to wake up; but by the time the familiar sight of Venice had begun to loom into view again, I could see that I didn’t have much of a choice. In their steady accumulation, such momentary intrusions had become part of the tour itself. The world was coming to an end, as any student of history knows it does periodically—especially a student of those smaller and more contained histories that occur in art, when the universe appears to begin out of nothing, flourishing and then dying in the span of a generation. Particularly for those periods whose genius consists precisely in their openness and sense of possibility, the moment of perfection can end up looking deadly in hindsight, a vault so majestic and culminating that it turns out to be a cul-de-sac for everyone else:
In the works of Leonardo everything that the charm of the quattrocento has consisted of is put to death: its gracious imperfection, its romantic inconsiderateness, the secrecy of its sleepwalking and the sweetness of its inarticulateness. On the wall at Cenacolo Vinciano, due to the years-long effort of a great mind, all of this is thought through, thought out, expressed to the ultimate degree. Here the quattrocento was brought to an issue and summed up—at a moment it didn’t expect to be. The inopportuneness and premature nature of Leonardo’s art was what made it so poisonous—as is typical of the wounds inflicted by geniuses. When he began painting his “Last Supper,” Benozzo Gozzoli was still filling the Campo Santo in Pisa with his juvenilia, Botticelli was weaving his way through the limpid compositions of the Sistine chapel, Ghirlandaio still had not managed to make a start on his Florentine frescos, Michelangelo was a ten-year-old boy and Raphael and Andrea Del Sarto were in their cradles. Piero Della Francesco was still alive; his students, Melozzo da Flori and Luca Signorelli had painted their best painting cycles; in Venice, Bellini and Carpaccio had just come to flower, Mantegna was working on the Triumph of Caesar in Mantua and Ercole de’ Roberti reigned in Ferrara. The quattrocento reached its culmination, so it seems, at the exact moment when Leonardo with the whole force of genius and will was ushering it into the past.
Like so many of the figures in the Obrazi, Leonardo fascinated Muratov for the way that he stands at the intersection of forces that are usually understood to be opposites. His consummation contains within it, like the black eye at the center of the white side of a yin/yang symbol, the quattrocento’s consignment—and yet, within the larger context of Italian history, it is clear that even this isn’t the entire story. If the high-point of “The Last Supper” implies, by its very mastery, a historical endpoint that was invisible to its contemporaries, then the opposite has to be true as well. The quattrocento flourished and died; but in death, it released the energies that it had up to that time been hoarding, shattering like a seed-pod in a way that was not only inevitable, but beneficial. The forces moved out and move on, dispersing from Athens to Rome, and from Rome to who knows where else. New York? Moscow? Beijing? The possibilities are endless, not because history is always repeating itself (or not just because of that), but because the empty center of all human figuring means that something will always remain unexpressed and undiscovered, no matter how ultimate a particular moment appears to be. The story will go on, so long as there are human beings around to tell it, transforming what seemed to be endings into stops along some larger journey. The Tour continues, not just to exhaustion, but past it, into renewal, and to see that all we have to do is step back—to look at and think of ourselves in larger and deeper contexts than we are used to. As Muratov shows us how to do.
Still, the question remained, to quote that other prodigious mental traveler, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Where do we find ourselves?” Where did I find myself, after two years of traveling through this book that did not really take me anywhere, but whose way of looking and thinking somehow both removed me from my historical moment and plunged me more vitally into it, at least for a little while?
In some ways this is the easiest question to answer, as Muratov’s writing demonstrated. For if the real Grand Tour is ongoing and endless, then any spot can serve as a finish line, just as any end can kick off (potentially) a renaissance. All roads lead home, meaning, in the Obrazi Italii’s case, to Venice—although here Muratov’s vision was typically equivocal. The Venice that he found in 1922 was not the one that he “left” in 1908. Indeed, it was not even in the same place a lot of the time, as he discovered while roaming through a once-favorite spot, the Villa Pisani at Stra, which provokes him to ask, “Venice . . . has it not disappeared here, in order to yield place to somewhere else?” Rhetorical though it is, the question underlined, for me, a point that had already come to seem indisputable by that late point in the Obrazi. For Muratov, Venice was a place, of course; but at the same time, “Venice” was a mood, an atmosphere, a spirit. It did not stay put, much like Italy itself, which meant that part of being a good traveler was understanding that, in keeping with the Heraclitean nature of the universe, even the ground already covered needed to be constantly re-examined. It had to be looked at with fresh eyes if only so that I, as a reader, could inhabit it, “making sense” of my particular place instead of just sliding blithely past it towards some further destination.
This was true for literature too, of course, which is perhaps why it felt equally important to me to try to think of how Obrazi both epitomizes and (in a way that recalls, on a smaller scale, Muratov’s description of Leonardo) transcends its particular context. At first, predictably, it was the similarities between Muratov’s project and the more familiar high points of Modernism that stood out most clearly. “In my end is my beginning,” as that other Paternian, T.S. Eliot, wrote in his own spatio-temporal reclamation project, stating with prophetic boldness a superimposing view of time that his Russian contemporary would have no doubt approved of. But unlike American modernists like Eliot, who attempted to shore up against the very idea of ruin, Muratov in Obrazi Italii found a way to be open to disaster, as if he understood that, though painful, the defeat would also prove fruitful—as it had so many times in the past. In this way, his book served as an obverse, not just to the reactionary Anglicism of Eliot’s Four Quartets, but to perhaps the most famous failure of its era, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a book which, despite similarly tapping the roots of quattrocento Italy, ended up a kind of self-parody of the conservational attitude towards the past that possessed both Pound and Muratov.
A huge part of this, of course, had to do with Pound’s extraliterary antics, most significantly with his very public embrace of Italian fascism, which made the Cantos utopian project to resurrect the city-states of the Italian Renaissance seem less visionary than prodigiously naïve. But it is important to remember that in his open desire to mix art and politics—to use the energies of reverie as a kind of battery, capable of changing the way that people saw and lived—Pound was hardly an exception. On the contrary, he was representative of the artists of his time, many of whom saw Europe and America in the first two decades of the twentieth century as places where the normal boundaries separating art and life were blurring, creating a space where hitherto-undreamed of realizations of human potential might actually be possible. Writing from within such a labyrinth of possibility, Pound convinced himself that the way out was by retracing one’s steps: to return to those historical high points—Renaissance Italy, Jeffersonian America, Confucian China—where human energies had appeared capable of ordering the world. In this way, his focus was not that different from many of the Russian writers who were forced by the increasing authoritarianism of the newly-installed communist regime to emigrate, either externally or internally. But there was a difference too, as I thought I could see most clearly in the ecstatic explanation of the Cantos that William Butler Yeats wrote home after visiting Pound in Rapallo in 1922:
Now at last he explains that it will, when the hundredth canto is finished, display a structure like that of a Bach Fugue. . . . He has shown me upon the wall a photograph of a Cosimo Tura decoration in three compartments, in the upper the Triumph of Love and the Triumph of Chastity, and in the lower certain events in Cosimo Tura’s day. . . . I may, now that I have recovered leisure, find that the mathematical structure, when taken up into imagination, is more than mathematical, that seemingly irrelevant details fit together into a single theme . . .
Yeats’s ecstatically-expressed wish—that “seemingly irrelevant details” would “fit together”—was the dream of his time, one that the promise of the Cantos (which were still mostly unwritten at the time of his visit to Pound) mirrored. But it was not Muratov’s wish, as seemed obvious to me when I placed the description that Yeats and Pound made of the frescos at Schifanoia next to the description that Muratov himself made of these in the first volume Obrazi. At that point, before the nightmare of the coming decades, he had as much of a right as Pound to sound hopeful; and yet there is a pensiveness in his description that seemed to prefigure the later considerations that he must have made in 1924, when he and other Russian emigres (including the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, Maxim Gorky, and Nina Berberova) were living in the Italian town of Sorrento, only a few hundred miles from Pound and Yeats:
The feeling of a sort of simple and orderly joy in life, a belief in the eternal joy of life suffuses each of the frescos of the Ferrara cycle. Borso is unceasingly merciful and generous, and a sublime smile is forever on his lips. All his hunts are successful, his judgments just, his entourage made up of the beautiful young and experienced old, his horses of the famous Mantuan breed, his dogs and hawks masterfully trained. The courtiers are learned and polite, the women graceful and adept; their lives unfold in a sort of eternal holiday, in light work and innocent amusement. But Cossa was no flattering transcriber of courtly life—the entertainments of d’Este’s court held for him the same value as work being done in the fields. He painted them side by side, with the same love, and the same delight. . . . Everything that he saw intoxicated him.
Muratov’s vision is a picture of harmony in life, but it is presented as a kind of dream. The difference is critical, since it highlights the attitude that separates Muratov the twentieth-century observer from Cosa the fifteenth-century painter, as it separates him from Pound the Utopian American as well. The tone remains light, perhaps even sardonic—but it is loving too. It recognizes the dream of the painting as just that, a dream, meaning something whose realization is not possible. Implicitly, therefore, it understands its own attraction to this vision as a second, just as wistful imagining, one that admires Cosa’s achieved completeness, but cannot share it. The past is not past. But it is where we find ourselves—if only by accepting the fact that, mysteriously, in those rare moments when we are able to stand in its presence, we are the ones who are not there.
Such an acceptance—of absence, of lack, above all else of the deep contingency of a world whose fragments can only fit together temporarily and imperfectly—felt like an anticlimactic place to end up after two years of reading. At the same time, there was something consoling about it, or at least fitting. After all, if there was one thing that Obrazi Italii had demonstrated to me, it was that the past is never perfect, and that therefore the task of making it live is ongoing, unfinished, and partial. Turning to it for shelter and confirmation we find ourselves exposed, like shut-ins emerging after months underground—and this is good, since it reminds us that really everything is on the move, and that in order to feel at home, even briefly, we have to keep moving ourselves, or at least keep the memory of movement alive in us, like swimmers feeling the ocean inside us after a day at the beach. So we practice with books, pictures, or, if we’re lucky, by traveling. Often even these things don’t help, or maybe they help mysteriously, obliquely, like genies in fairy tales.
The Renaissance man Pavel Muratov lived out the last two decades of his life in self-imposed exile in Paris, England, and finally, on a friend’s rural estate in Ireland, where he died on October 5th, 1950. Strangely, it was exactly as he’d predicted it would happen, at least according to his close friend Boris Zaitsev, who later admitted that Muratov had told him that he would die at the same age as his father had—sixty-nine years old. By that point, he had blended with typical quietude into the life of the surrounding Irish farmers, working in the garden, and writing tirelessly on a variety of topics, from Russian and Byzantine iconography to military history. His friend Nina Berberova described him once as “a man of quiet, who understood storms, and a man of inner order, who understood the inner disorder of others.”
Josh Billings is a writer and translator who lives in Farmington, Maine. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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