The Art of Contrast

VENICE, Italy — Venice presents a visual marathon, hinting at a city that can never hold enough examples of different methods of presentation, decoration, or commemoration. From the Renaissance paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese to the Gothic architecture of the basilicas, from the gaudy Venetian masks that are marketed to tourists to the simple red geranium flowers that bedeck the palazzos of the Grand Canal, one’s eyes are eternally entertained.

Every other year, the Venice Biennale—a vast and international contemporary art exhibition—increases this sense of visual bombardment. The city’s vistas are adorned by banners that display the Biennale’s trademark red, square logo. They announce the performances, special events and exhibitions that go on until November, held mostly in the national pavilions in the public gardens of the Giardini—the main site of the Biennale—but throughout the city’s various “sestieres” as well.

Sometimes, the city’s offerings become overwhelming, and it is at times like these that a distinct simplicity of statement affirms the worth of being surrounded by such artistic and historic treasures. Ezra Pound’s grave, lying in San Michele Cemetery, is one such visual relief from the abundance of ornamentation that sometimes overflows in Venice. The remarkable sense of contrast that it gives causes one to appreciate the city’s treasures even more.

In order to get to the grave, one must travel by vaporetto, the main form of public transportation, to a little island across a plane of water that lies to the north of the main island in the lagoon. You step right off the boat at Cimitero, where the city’s inhabitants—born high or low—rest in peace. At first, the expected emphasis on decoration can be found in the multiple bunches of flowers and ribbons, the specially-posed portrait photos that flutter by the graves, and especially the family-commissioned tombs that boast mosaic exteriors or neoclassical columns.

But Pound’s resting place is barely a tombstone. His plot is lined with a low marble border, and a large laurel bush dominates the space inside. Underneath, partially covered by ivy strands, is a small, marble plaque bearing the simple demarcation: “Ezra Pound.” In equal distance on the other side of the plot lies the plaque commemorating Olga Rudge, Pound’s long-term lover and intellectual companion. Passersby would not find the spot unless they knew that it simply had to be there, according to the map that underlines the “anyone who’s anyone” figures. (The modernist composer Igor Stravinsky lies in the next courtyard).

Perhaps it is just the act of getting out of the immediate city, or the blast of fresh air that one gets due to the traverse across to the tiny island, but Pound’s plaque gives a profound sense of relief. Maybe it is the sheer lack of graveyard pomp that calms his visitors, or the quirky fact that he lies in the “Rec Evangelical” (along with many other German, American, and British figures) that makes the pilgrimage to his grave shorn of the formalities of commemorative splendor and ostentation. Here, when one encounters a distinct lack of assured beautification, it does not seem for lack of intent to celebrate the object, or its meaning. Or perhaps it is because, apart from a lone sprig of daisies strewn by the plaque, previous devotees had placed plastic Bic pens and pencils by his name, maybe in the innocent and poignant hope that his brilliant literary genius might be conferred back to them.

The city of Venice seems to physically contract every two years when the Biennale brings hordes of museum directors, curators, collectors, and art world luminaries into the city for “Vernissage,” the opening week of parties, private viewings, and prize-giving. This period has the effect of overwhelming those who can just barely fathom the city’s permanent artistic highlights. So, even without the incessant chatter and social whirlwinds that begin the Biennale, a water-bound escape to the Cimitero would benefit anyone who feels relentlessly confronted by visual masterpieces and glories. Of course, one of the delights of Venice is the sheer supply of these works—there is always one more Carpaccio to see. But Ezra Pound’s minimalist plot provides a welcome respite from the grandeur of conventional and commercial beauty.

Emmeline D. Francis ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House.