Umbrellas in Venice

I WAS delighted to notice in the latest blizzard of our second New England winter that I was not alone in sporting an umbrella to offset the fierce blast of snow on my face! What a versatile invention the umbrella! Among my favorite artistic homages to the umbrella is the small watercolor ``Umbrellas in the Rain, Venice'' painted by Maurice Prendergast in Venice in 1899.

What makes this image such a satisfying encapsulation of Venice? Prendergast has not turned to face the vast infinitude of sky and water of Guardi's and Canaletto's 18th-century compositions. But his view has indoor scale as an apparently random fragment of architecture and figures, a medley of muted rainy-day colors swimming against luminous architecture.

Perhaps it is his choice of site that strikes us: Prendergast is not looking down the Piazza San Marco or through its adjoining Piazzetta to the Lagoon. But he stands on the quayside promenade that stretches along the Lagoon from the formal water entrance to the city, from San Sovino's Library to the Arsenal.

Prendergast focuses instead on the intersection of the water and land transportation systems, where the bridge, the Ponte della Paglia, arches over the narrow canal, the Rio di Palazzo, that runs from the Lagoon along the east side of the Doge's Palace.

Perhaps we are intrigued with the conjunction of architectural monuments: the 14th-century water fa,cade of the Doge's Palace with its Gothic tracery carved with Islamic delicacy, the rusticated Renaissance prisons designed by Rusconi in 1560, and the medieval bridge.

Or do we respond to the umbrellas? Prendergast's other paintings of this bridge record the sunny brilliance of parasols in Venice. There the parasoled figures are seen from above, from the balconied window of the Great Council Hall of the Doge's Palace. (Some of the shadow cast by the balcony of this sculptured and pinnacled window, inserted in 1404 by Masegne, is visible in the upper left corner of our watercolor.)

Umbrellas have an unusually long and politically symbolic history in Venice. In 1177, when Doge Sebastiano Ziani made peace between the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and Pope Alexander III, the umbrella was one of the symbols of authority (harking back to ancient Egypt and Nineveh) - along with the candle, sword, stool, and eight flags - given in gratitude to the Doge and his successors, and carried in ceremonial processions until the fall of the Republic in 1797.

A late 16th-century painting of the presentation of this ceremonial umbrella to the Doge, making his authority equal to that of the Pope and emperor, has hung in the Great Council Hall since the artist Gambarato replaced Carpaccio's 1474 image of the same subject, destroyed in the 1577 palace fire.

Did Prendergast turn our view toward the palace and fill that view with umbrellas as a veiled tribute to Venetian history? And do the saturated puddles of color, indicating the umbrellas, in turn pay tribute to the glass and stone tesserae making up the mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco a few hundred feet away?

In any case, the popular rain umbrellas, like many other aspects of modern life, pose unusual problems in Venice. When clusters of umbrella-clutching people crowd onto the narrow funnel of a bridge, or one umbrella-toting individual ventures onto a constricted ancient street, the medieval and modern can meet jarringly!

But Prendergast records in this watercolor a portion of the Venetian cityscape that bears witness to real success in the history of the city's ongoing challenge of reconciling preservation and progress.

The Ponte della Paglia, constructed in 1360 at the edge of the Lagoon where ships anchored to unload straw (paglia), was built and enlarged in 1847 as part of the Austrians' continuation of Napoleon's policy of improving the street and canal systems. And the gas streetlight, poised here at the pivot point of the picture (with another at the left margin) was in place by 1843. These 19th-century amenities - like the new steel-frame umbrella that lightened the popular 18th-century rain-umbrella throughout Europe - stand as landmarks of progress achieved with grace.

Prendergast carefully constructed this image: His scratchy pencil underdrawing appears through the layered washes of pigment. His unerring color harmonies include a rainbow constellation of umbrellas at the corner of the Doge's Palace, and wide and delicate modulation of the blond tones of the architecture. In the foreground, in the small sailor-suited boys, the straw-hatted girls, and the two ladies of fashion leaving the bridge (with parasols!), he draws individuals out of the crowd. And in the puddly pavement beside him, Prendergast playfully reevokes the bridge and umbrellas.

Umbrellas in Venice for Prendergast act as portable versions of the ever-present arcades. Giving shelter, articulating space, they enlarge the stature and sphere, no longer of doge, emperor, and Pope, or even of the three men on the bridge, but of all womankind! Hats off to Prendergast! (Umbrellas up!)

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