Suddenly,​ there was nothing to complain about. No cruise ships went up the Giudecca Canal. There were no tourists clogging up the narrow streets. Piazza San Marco was often completely deserted. On some bridges a few gondoliers stood around, but there was no one to hire them. Instead, dogs and their owners walked the streets, with no one pushing them out of the way. People greeted one another familiarly. They had the city back.

Suddenly, the intimate spaces were free. In San Polo, I could spend time in the side room that houses Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Stations of the Cross. I would never have that room to myself again. In the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, where the Carpaccios are, the woman at the door was almost glad to see me. It was like she was putting on a play that was about to fold. I sat for a while contemplating St Augustine in his sumptuously lit study. I liked that he threw books on the floor. No one came to the small gallery in the hour I stayed there.

It was late October. The days were foggy. By lunchtime, a pale sun fought to break through, and, for about an hour before it did, an unearthly and sickly yellow light clung to everything. And then there was sunshine. One day, however, the fog licked its tongue over Venice all afternoon as well. At twilight, a strange, dark blueness descended. I got a vaporetto from San Zaccaria to San Stae and there was no other traffic, none at all, on the Grand Canal. After dark, as I walked from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Santa Margherita, the restaurants were open, but hardly anyone was inside or even at the outside tables. When I bought ice cream, the little cup was put into a paper bag and I was warned not to eat it on the street. Even pulling your mask down for a second to sample ice cream was not allowed. Soon, the restaurants would be ordered to close at six o’clock.

One morning, I managed to gain early access to San Rocco. As I stood in front of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in the side room upstairs, I wondered if my eyes were more alert than usual because of the early hour. The different tones in the huge painting seemed incredibly clear. I could trace varying shades of pink, each one catching the light in a different way, or note the yellow tunic of the figure I supposed to be St John with what felt like fresh, or better, vision. I wondered if the new emptiness that had fallen on the city had somehow added clarity to the art.

As a good Catholic, I like the Crucifixion; indeed, I prefer it to the Resurrection, which always seems a bit too staged. Since I had been given this new gift of sudden acute vision in San Rocco, I thought that I should go and look at Tintoretto’s other versions of the Crucifixion in Venice. Maybe I would be able to see these better too, even if they were not as epic as the one in San Rocco. I made a few doomed efforts to get inside the church of San Cassiano, but it was always closed. Then one morning, on finding the side door open, I pushed it and went in. There was some sort of ceremony going on, with five or six people in attendance. It might have been a wedding, but it was hard to think who was marrying whom. Maybe a middle-aged black-haired woman was tying the knot with the little fellow beside her. I sought to sneak by them to get a look at the Tintoretto Crucifixion at the side of the main altar.

Even in shadow, this painting is startling. The three crucified figures are on the right-hand side, facing left. The painting is dominated by dark clouds. In the background, silhouetted against a brightness on the horizon are about two dozen looming lances and pikes. Most of the colours are sombre, except some textured pink in the garments. Because the painting is dark, I kept peering at it, trying to see it better. When I turned on the little light, I drew attention to my presence, and a young woman told me that I must leave. I let her know by a process of shrugging that I would depart in my own time. This caused her to make clear, as the light flipped off, that I should not turn it on again. What was strange was that the electric glow took all the mystery out of the painting, in which ominous cloud is set against embattled light, in which the viewpoint is oblique, in which shadow does more work than light. Seeing it in shadow seemed to satisfy the eye more than looking at it when illuminated.

This was true also of another Tintoretto Crucifixion, the one towards the back of the Gesuati, a church overlooking the Giudecca Canal. It was a rainy afternoon; some scarce light came in from the entrance, the main door having been left open. I sat for a while and tried to get my eyes used to the watery greyness because there was no artificial light available to focus on paintings. This Crucifixion was easier to see than the one in San Cassiano because the central image, taking up the whole top half of the painting, was Jesus on the cross, with radiant light painted behind him. This image lacked the complexity of the two other Crucifixions. More interesting than the hanging Jesus were the mourning figures below him. Most of the light, such as it was, focused on them. Intricate and intense work had been done on their faces and robes. They were huddled together; the robes seemed all made of the same material, with the same few colours, thus adding to the idea of them as a mass, a shocked cluster rather than a set of individuals. They faced away from the hanging saviour; only two outliers looked up at the cross.

Slowly, as I tried to disentangle each face and set of robes, I found that I could see the painting as well as I wanted to, even though the light was dismal. A day later, at the Accademia, I felt that it was too easy to see the large Tintoretto Crucifixion that had formerly been in the church of San Severo. The light was too modern, the colours were too clean, the seat in the middle of the large, high room too comfortable. I shouldn’t complain. The pose of the good thief – hanging off rather than on his cross – could not have been more intriguing. But I couldn’t understand why the lighting in San Rocco had been more satisfying and comforting than the lighting here, and why the daylight of early winter in the Gesuati was far more helpful than the crude electric light in San Cassiano.

At the Accademia, I turned from Tintoretto’s Crucifixion to look at Veronese’s Annunciation. The Virgin, who is almost cowering in the corner, looks frightened in this painting, and the angel is overbearing and hovering over one side of the room. The centre of the painting is empty, just interior domestic space, with some lovely tiling, an archway leading to what could be a little temple, with trees around it, and the pink and blue sky. Veronese made an image of pure harmony and then disrupted it at the edges with the presence of the angel and the frightened woman. For once, I was glad that I could see this drama in a gallery space and that the painting has been cleaned and restored. That meant that the glass vase on the balustrade to the right, which picks up the light in two inspired white daubs of paint and breaks the symmetry, could be clearly seen.

Suddenly, I discovered that there was a man in the next room, and he had just coughed loudly. He was sitting on the bench looking at a gallery guide and had his mask around his chin. For one glistening moment, my inner little fascist emerged. I stood in the doorway until I caught his eye. It seemed to me that he was Italian. I signalled to him that he should put on his mask. Ruefully, he did so. While I felt the glow that only self-satisfaction can bring, he will hate me for the rest of his days.

During my time wandering from church to church, a friend gave me a book called From Darkness to Light: Writers in Museums 1798-1898, edited by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi and Katherine Manthorne (Open Book, £34.95). Writers, it seems, have been grumbling about the lighting of paintings in Venice for some time. These include John Ruskin and Henry James, who, Mamoli Zorzi writes, ‘fell in love with the paintings in San Rocco despite not being able to see them properly’. Ruskin wrote that the three halls in San Rocco were ‘so badly lighted, in consequence of the admirable arrangements of the Renaissance architect, that it is only in the early morning that some of the pictures can be seen at all, nor can they ever be seen but imperfectly’.

In 1869, Henry James wrote to his brother that Tintoretto in Venice was ‘at a vast disadvantage inasmuch as with hardly an exception his pictures are atrociously hung & lighted’. ‘It may be said as a general thing that you never see the Tintoret,’ he wrote in an essay of 1882. ‘The churches of Venice are rich in pictures, and many a masterpiece lurks in the unaccommodating gloom of side-chapels and sacristies … some of them indeed, hidden behind the altar, suffer in a darkness that can never be explored.’ James had it in for San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, where I got to spend time on my own looking at Carpaccio’s St Augustine: ‘The place is small and incommodious, the pictures are out of sight and ill-lighted, the custodian is rapacious, the visitors are mutually intolerable, but the shabby little chapel is a palace of art.’

Mamoli Zorzi comes up with a marvellous phrase to describe this business of loving a painting more the less you can really see it: ‘We are facing an aesthetics of darkness.’ She goes on:

Darkness remains a constant element in the second half of the 19th century; it is interrupted only by candles. Even in the 1880s and 1890s, when gaslight was already in use and was on the brink of being supplanted by electric light, candles appear to have been the only source of light in the churches and in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. They were lit only during ceremonies, and snuffed out immediately afterwards for fear of fires.

James believed that Tintoretto’s Crucifixion was, Mamoli Zorzi writes, ‘the only picture which could be seen well in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco’ and described it ‘in a way that could be interpreted as a programme of a poetics: “It is true that in looking at this huge composition you look at many pictures; it has not only a multitude of figures but a wealth of episodes … Surely no single picture in the world contains so much of human life; there is everything in it, including the most exquisite beauty.”’ In his introduction to The Tragic Muse, James wrote again that the painting showed ‘without loss of authority half a dozen actions separately taking place’.

In his essay ‘Light at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco’, Demetrio Sonaglioni writes that ‘there is no evidence that gas or oil were ever used inside the Scuola.’ And it was not until 1937 that electric light was installed there. The system was created by the designer Mariano Fortuny who used ‘diffusing lamps with indirect light’. In 2014, these were replaced by a LED system. That is why I felt that I could see the San Rocco Crucifixion, without it being overlit or overcleaned.

All this business of light and shade kept me distracted until, once more on a vaporetto on the Grand Canal, I saw a motorboat that doubled as a water-hearse and plonked in the middle of it a coffin. It was like a moment that Thomas Mann might have conjured up and it made me plan to go to the Lido and take a look at the Grand Hotel des Bains, now a shell, where he set Death in Venice. More than sixty years after the story was written, Katia Mann, Thomas’s widow, in a book called Unwritten Memories, left an account of their trip to Venice in 1911:

In the dining room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. The boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

At Cook’s, when they went to book a sleeping-car on the way home, an ‘honest English clerk’ said: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t make the sleeping-car reservations for a week from now, but for tomorrow, because, you know, several cases of cholera have broken out; naturally it’s being kept secret and hushed up. We don’t know how far it will spread. You must have noticed, though, that many guests in the hotel have already left.’

The best part of the Lido is the journey there from Venice, and even better is the journey back, especially if it is close to sundown. It’s all pretty ordinary over there: I did not see or feel any literary ghosts, least of all those of Tadzio or his Teutonic admirer. It was a sunny afternoon on a disused beach. There was one swimmer, and there were a few men fishing at the end of a modest breakwater. Sand was piled up to prevent the Adriatic from encroaching too near the road on which the old Hotel des Bains stood, its gates padlocked.

I wonder if I am alone in still liking Death in Venice, even in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation. It has become common not to approve of her translations of Mann. This dislike may be exacerbated by the knowledge that she is the great-grandmother of Boris Johnson. Mann’s story has many small details – losing the luggage, the appearance of the old roué, the dishonest gondolier – that tally with Katia’s memory. Mann’s putting death and pestilence beside all the desire bubbling away in his protagonist Aschenbach satisfied some set of deep longings in his own nature. He loved disease and he could not stop thinking about sex; he was especially content, his diaries tell us, when dreaming about young men.

It is fascinating to watch him spread his own heightened fear of the exotic, feverish world beyond Europe as if mentioning the very names of the places would freeze the blood:

For the past several years Asiatic cholera had shown a strong tendency to spread. Its source was the hot, moist swamps of the delta of the Ganges, where it bred in the mephitic air of that primeval island-jungle, among whose bamboo thickets the tiger crouches, where life of every sort flourishes in rankest abundance, and only man avoids the spot. Thence the pestilence had spread throughout Hindustan, raging with great violence; moved eastwards to China, westwards to Afghanistan and Persia; following the great caravan routes, it brought terror to Astrakhan, terror to Moscow.

In the light of all this mephitic terror, it was a relief to have my temperature taken the next day when I returned to the Accademia. I had another plague on my mind, almost as a way of keeping away the one raging outside and perhaps even inside the gallery, although it was mainly empty. This plague happened in Venice in the last months of Titian’s life and is vividly evoked in ‘The Plague and the Pity’, the last chapter of Sheila Hale’s biography of the painter.

Between August 1575 and the following February, there were 3696 plague deaths in Venice, about 2 per cent of the population. Most of the cases were ‘in the slums and the crowded ghetto’, Hale writes. Soon, however, the authorities relaxed, lifting the ban on crowds, manufacturing and trade. But then fatalities rose again. The doge invited two medical experts to explain that ‘the infection was not plague but a famine fever that affected only the undernourished poor.’ A few days later, these experts were proved wrong when ‘the contagion spread like wildfire into the houses of rich and poor alike.’ ‘Doctors,’ Hale writes, ‘circulating the city in gondolas followed by barbers and Jesuit priests, took pulses, lanced boils, applied leeches and spread the contagion by marking the doors of contaminated houses with the infected blood of their patients.’ By the time the plague ended, it had done away with a quarter of the population of Venice.

Titian stayed in the city during the pestilence. He was at least 86; he might have been even older. He may have laboured on a number of paintings, but he definitely worked on one – the Pietà in the Accademia. Hale sees this as a quintessential piece of late work: ‘It is a commemoration of his artistic life, a dialogue with the paintings, sculptures and architecture that had nourished his genius, a final declaration of the capacity of paint to represent and improve upon stone sculpture, and a testament to his devotion to Christ and his mother Mary.’ Titian put a tiny portrait of himself and his son, a sort of token, under the lion in the right-hand corner. He died of fever in the middle of the plague. There is an account of a ‘long and elaborate’ funeral service, but it did not take place. He was carried through the plague-ridden city to the Frari and buried there. Soon afterwards, his son died of the plague.

The Pietà, then, is Titian’s plague painting, just as Death in Venice is Mann’s cholera story. The image Titian made is not, as other Pietàs are, an image of peace and resolution; the mother is not resignedly holding her son whose suffering is over. Rather, it is a painting filled with shock and panic. Something atrocious has just occurred. Maybe Titian made this great last painting as a way of keeping the noise outside at bay. In his studio, as the doctors of Venice were busy, he created his own mourners so that the public ones might keep away from him. Maybe he worked on making his stone in the painting embody real stone, the backdrop like a piece of sculpture, as a way of defying all the fuss out in the street.

One of the subjects to muse on as old age begins is how unfair life is. Venice is a good place for such thoughts. One day I walked down to Riva dei Sette Martiri which is where I stayed first in the city. I had a coffee and looked out over the misty water. I came to this very spot first in 1977, which is 43 years ago. If I have the chance to come and sit here in 43 years’ time, I will be 108. I realise that this is a most banal and useless subject for contemplation. But what else is there to think about?

There was quietness to ponder; maybe that was enough. When I stood outside the Accademia, the only sound came from a stray boat on one of the lesser canals and a vaporetto on the Grand Canal, a dutiful, useful ghost, taking the small population of Venice from one place to another while the hordes that normally come to the city remained crouched in their homes, fearful, socially distant. Once they come back, we can all start complaining again. Until they do, we will wear our masks and whisper about small mercies and think about light and shade.

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