Off to Venice with my wife and daughters. We stay near the Arsenale and enjoy the local neighbourhood, where my children delight in the sweary perambulations of Gianni, from bar to bar, greeting all as he goes. Once, we spot him being welcomed at lunchtime through a dark doorway by a nun who smiles away his rough greeting. We try to explain to the children that Gianni’s presence here is a good thing, and his acceptance by the neighbourhood as exemplary. The girls’ fear of Gianni fades. In the evenings, they run across the little square in front of the Arsenale entrance and its great marble lions.

Campo Arsenale

I take my old volume of Adrian Stokes with me, a heavy copy of Book II of the Critical Writings that doubles the weight of my carry-on bag. I wonder without concern if I will find his writings on Venice as exhilarating as I remember or portentous and silly.

Stokes II

Whenever I brought friends to Venice from my home in Bergamo I would begin the ‘tour’ not in Piazza San Marco but in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Partly, of course, this was to pig-headedly make a point, but also because this place served, for me, as the ideal introduction to the city. And you could sit beneath the statue of Colleoni, the great mercenary of Bergamo, and drink a beer for a fraction of the cost of a coffee in St Mark’s. 25 years later, the beer remains good value, and the square still the perfect place to begin the contemplation of Venice. Admire Verocchio’s great statue, pop into the Basilica to see the Bellini and the wonderful tombs by Pietro Lombardo, and then wander round the corner to Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli

Stokes is brilliant on this church: “Pilasters, with their arch mouldings lying upon the bright marble wall-space, are the inner dark ferment in architectural form upon this marble. The darkness of the windows is like a residue both of the inside of the church and of the dark canal.” They do, and it does; he gets it right. He then places these observations into his complex world view, what he calls his ‘ideal living process’: “But they also provoke, and this church provokes, an image of the inner life; not this kind of inner life or that kind of inner life, but inner in the abstract in outer form. The stress of other art is one kind of inner ferment in outer form rather than upon the fact of outer form itself.” Portentous? Maybe. Certainly hard, tough to follow and challenging, yet still exciting and daring. The thrill of someone making the case for the importance of art.

We take the ferry to Mazzorbo in the lagoon on the greyest of perfect lagoon days, no separation between sky and water; we enjoy an excellent lunch and then walk round the island and over the wooden bridge to Burano, from where we take the ferry home. We see the Bellini in San Zaccaria and I note the house in the corner of the square that draws the attention of Stokes, who contrasts this simple, outward expression with its northern opposite, a pantomime witch’s forest cottage where the devilry is all within. Here, in the corner of what is still a quiet square: “An entire and generalized spirit is upon the outside: animation of oblong and circle is complete.”


Before we leave, we wander down Via Garibaldi to have breakfast. Gianni stumbles into a bar to have his first beer of the day. Gianni, outside and out of the state’s control, the expression of a living community’s humanity and openness. I would like to think Mr Stokes would nod in approval.

David Quick