La Serenissima—“The Most Serene”—was the title the rulers of Venice bestowed on their powerful Republic, whose control of the Mediterranean brought the city untold riches. Its well-armed galleys defended the trade routes, and when Venice gained huge areas on the mainland, it was equally prepared to fight to hold its ground. Yet however many battles La Serenissima waged abroad, the capital itself remained calm in its splendid isolation. The shallow but treacherous waters of the Lagoon proved safer than castle walls.
Adept at the art of war but averse to its waste, the Venetians preferred to devote
their ingenuity and energy to the lucrative craft of commerce. Transforming themselves into expert mariners and shrewd merchants, the intrepid islanders constructed a business empire that became the envy of the world. Their enormous wealth produced an incredibly sophisticated civilization, and the fruits of their labors are still abundantly evident throughout the fabled Floating City, drawing countless visitors and inspiring paintings, watercolors, drawings, etchings, and photographs beyond number.
For half a millennium and more, the favorite sights and artistic subjects have remained the multi-domed temple to Saint Mark and the Piazza’s imposing Ducal Palace, Library, and Campanile; the stolid and showy palazzi arrayed along the Canal Grande; the magnificent basilicas and “minor” churches that outshine many cathedrals elsewhere in Christendom. During its glory days, Venice’s public spaces became stage sets where all classes, including foreigners in their exotic finery, were constantly on display.
For all its late opulence, La Serenissima was at base a pragmatic Republic, created by unremitting toil, bold experiment, and calculated risk-taking. But it was the splendor and supposed decadence of Venice as depicted by the 18th-century scene painters, or vedutisti, that captured the popular imagination, and forever fixed its hedonistic image. In the dramatic panoramas of Bellotto, Marieschi, Guardi, and above all Canaletto, luxurious Venice approached the high planes of allegory and myth—favorite motifs on many a palace’s frescoed ceilings. In their vivid renderings of the city and its extravagant displays of conspicuous consumption, the Queen of the Adriatic seemed from the realm of fantasy, especially to foreigners unprepared for such brilliance. Young English aristocrats on their Grand Tours were bedazzled, and bought canvases by Canaletto and the others in quantity: souvenirs of unaccustomed freedom and flamboyance that astonished their compatriots.
Even more imaginative foreign artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries were likewise besotted with the singular City in the Lagoon, where Nature’s spectacles, the gorgeous interplay of light and water, drew striking works from Turner, Sargent, Ruskin, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and less familiar figures too numerous to mention. Their romantic and Impressionistic approaches exert influence to this day, in both the large contingents of professional artists and the legions of amateurs, sketchbooks in hand and easels propped beside canals, who have become part of the “picturesque” scenery they try to capture.
Tom Parish has seen it all, studied what seemed most interesting in the grand tradition of painting in Venice, then decided to go his own way, artistically and literally. No need to go down old paths again. He has preferred to traverse different avenues, pursing other angles and ideas of Venice, particularly aspects most fundamental and unglamorous. Today, La Serenissima is of course far from tranquil, having grown less and less quiet since the stirring of steam engines and the vaporetti, then the boistrous motoscafi, not to mention the madding crowds that can overwhelm the city’s cultural attractions. But Parish’s paintings remind us that, even now, in the age of industrial tourism, it is possible to find placid canals, empty alleys, and quiet campi where one can experience the serenity of old. Such is certainly the case in Cannaregio, the district where Parish has enjoyed many sojourns. On large canvases he has limned, lovingly and in exquisite detail, the most characteristic elements—ordinary quays, doorways, windows, walls, passageways, courtyards, cobblestones, bridges, vernacular buildings—that constitute the fabric of the city. And always his acute attention fixes on the endlessly variable forms of water, the pervasive force determining Venice’s amphibious existence.
Superficially realistic, but slyly so, Parish’s compositions exhibit a control of focus and depth of field over broad spaces unlike the actual perception of the roving human eye. In his minute observations the artist is particularly fascinated by the decay and dilapidation that are slowly, inexorably occurring throughout the fragile city, wrought by the saline waters in which the islands that comprise it uneasily reside. Venice is the most artificial city in the world, and was from the beginning. In the Lagoon the Venetians had to create or consolidate the very land itself before building, on pilings. Over the centuries that soil has subsided, and more rapidly in recent times, while the water has risen, now flooding at record rates. Wherever the water reaches once-protected masonry, it moves up by osmosis and bricks expand, are dislodged, disintegrate. Well before, the plaster or intonaco cracks and falls, further exposing the substructure to the elements. Frugal by nature and inventive by necessity, the Venetians wasted nothing and recycled everything. And so from olden days the cost-efficient way to repair damaged brickwork has been by the method called scuci-cuci—literally, unstitch and stitch—removing the rotten sections and replacing them with new material. This patchwork results in marvelously mixed textures in a rich range of muted colors.
Today, sections of long disintegrating walls remain unattended, many quite large: fascinating visual fields that make Venice uniquely itself. It is this kind of wounded beauty that Tom Parish relishes and records in his art. Usually it is doubled by reflections in the waters—calm and smooth, agitated and infinitely mutable. The dynamics between the frangible works of man and the forces of nature are Parish’s central obsessions. On walls or water or wherever he fixes his (and our) gaze in his Venice works, the artist’s meticulous brushstrokes force attention on the mundane pleasures and quotidian mysteries abounding in his unpopulated, seemingly abandoned cityscapes. Parish has mentioned his admiration for Giorgio de Chirico, whose early works such as “The Disquieting Muses”/ “Le Muse Inquietanti” (1917) foreshadowed the Surrealists. Although Parish largely eschews the abstract and disjointed qualities of de Chirico’s “metaphysical” paintings, their puzzling, often eerie and uncanny atmosphere is very much part of Parish’s “programme,” especially in the pieces assembled in his current exhibition.
As ever a contrarian and artiste-provocateur, Parish discerns, combines, and embraces the strange within the ordinary. Viewing his evocative, sometimes unsettling yet oddly consoling collection is a bracing experience.
This essay written by art critic Joseph Parisi was published in the exhibition catalog Tom Parish: Silent Songs of Venice (Tom Parish: Canti Silenziosi Di Venezia) in 2012.