Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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Fórcola

June 6, 2013

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The fórcola is the strange looking oarlock on the rear of a Venetian gondola.  One of those objects whose form reflects centuries of use and gradual design evolution. In a little shop selling toys and ornaments, I bought a 3-D puzzle of one from a friendly and talkative craftsman who told me that this particular design is a fórcola for a boat that is somewhat more sporty than a regular gondola.

For me, it’s the perfect souvenir.  It sits on my desk at the office, and I take it apart and reassemble it endlessly as I sit in my chair, barely listening to the droning voices during pointless teleconferences.

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Rabbit Iconography

May 17, 2013

Poor wabbit!

I noticed this image on the porch of San Zeno in Verona, a splendid Romanesque church.  Rabbits have a curious set of associations in our culture, don’t they?

  • Cute and cuddly
  • Pesky and destructive
  • Fertile, too fertile
  • Innocent
  • Malign

Not sure what the Christian symbolism behind a rabbit being preyed upon is – I noted it on another facade in Venice, I believe.  One source implied that it alludes to the struggle of the human soul to elude Satan, but it is also true that rabbits sometimes represent souls in thrall to Satan.  There’s one in the lower portion of this detail from Bosch’s vision of Hell.


Venice Walk

May 16, 2013

Walking back to our apartment – canal, then an alley, then space.  That’s the progression of a walk in Venice.


Urban Flight

May 9, 2013

Venice can can get overwhelming:  the sun, the crowds, the art, the beauty…how much of stuff like this scene above can you take?  Sometimes you just have to flee the city.

Fortunately, The Lagoon beckons.  Within it, are several islands:  Murano for the glass manufacturers; the cemetery; Burano, a small island community of brightly painted houses; and Torcello, about a thirty-minute boat ride a way.  It’s a rather forlorn, marshy place, and practically no one lives there any longer, but it was the place where the people of the Veneto first sought refuge from the Hun invaders.  It grew into a city, but poor resource management led to the silting of their lagoon, bringing mosquitos and malaria, and bad fishing.  They up and left for what became the city of Venice.  The citizens of the new city, practical to the core, looted Torcello for its stone, we would say recycled, so only a few buildings remain.

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Not quite the Grand Canal of Venice, but at the end of the walk, there is a nice surprise.

 

I am not talking about Cipriani’s, the tony restaurant outpost of the ‘famous’ Harry’s Bar that is right down the path from Santa Maria Assunta, but the mosaics inside that church, seen in the left of the photo below.  The structure on the right is the Fosca Basilica, and it is quite plain inside.

The counter-façade of Santa Maria, i.e. the wall inside of the main facade, is covered with a Byzantine-style mosaic of The Last Judgment that is incredible.  (The photos are not mine.)  The one below shows the final trumpet raising some of the dead, including a few that met their ends in the jaws of large fish.

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The dead do not have it easy in these scenes of judgment.

 

Better make sure that you are on the right side of the scale used to weigh souls!

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Most Serene

May 9, 2013

Sanmarco

It took a while, but I finally made it back to Venice, La Serenissima, my favorite city.  This picture of San Marco was taken before the place was truly mobbed in the afternoon.

The view from the living room window of our apartment is quite peaceful.   It’s in a 17th century palace, seeminly on another planet from the tourist hubs of the city.  Well, everyone wants to see the same things, and who can blame them?

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The stucco on the ceiling is amusing…
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The small plaza, or campo, outside the palace is adorned with this nose piece from a shell that lodged in the wall when the uprisings of 1848 were being put down.  At that time, before Italy was a unified and independent country, this territory was ruled by the Austrian Empire.  The inscription below the shell piece is a quotation from Gabrielle D’Annunzio, the proto-fascist adventurer-poet, denouncing the odious barbarians, the Austrians.  He later engaged in a famous venture to ‘liberate’ another small city from the barbarians after WWI, an inspiration to Mussolini for his March on Rome.

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Seaweed glistening in the sun, thick and green, a sign of health.  The canal waters seem cleaner than I remember from my last visit.

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Four Horses of the Cathedral

April 25, 2011

Over at His Futile Preoccupations, things are gearing up for a heavy dose of deep, dark, syrupy, sicko-noir, from Jim Thompson.  He wrote The Grifters and The Getaway, favorite films, as well as the screenplay for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory!  Before I dive into that, I felt the need for a bit of escape to one of my favorite historical time-place intersections, Venice and the Fourth Crusade.

I am reading Jonathan Phillip’s history, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, a nice read by an historian who is not as eager as some have been to take to task the Venetians for their diverting of the holy rollers from their destination in Palestine to overthrow the Byzantine Empire instead.  No, you have to see it in context… I really can see it from the crusader’s point of view, because I’ve been reading the chronicle of the events written by Robert of Clari, an ordinary knight who took part in the whole mess.  As he relates, the Venetians committed themselves to ferrying the army to Egypt (the strategy was to take Alexandria, make a base, then move up the coast to Jerusalem) and they through the entire resources of their city-state economy into the task of building an enormous fleet.  Then, the ‘army’ doesn’t show up!  Or only a very small part of it does.  All those boats, and nobody to sail in them!

The Venetians were out a lot of money and needed to be paid.  Then there was this heir to the eastern throne who was hanging around Germany who had some contacts with the crusaders since he was hiding out in Europe after his uncle murdered his father.  (Byzantine rulers ruled by a sort of ‘heavenly mandate.’  That is, if a slave murdered his way to the throne, he was assumed to have been divinely destined for it.)  One thing led to another, and the crusade made its fatal detour in history, and Venice got the four horses that used to reign over the Imperial Hippodrome…

Robert gives us quite a long digression to explain the dynastic politics of the Eastern Empire – much treachery, putting out of eyes, assorted bloodshed –  before resuming his chronicle of the crusade, and he includes this pungent episode involving a filthy camel:

And when the morrow came, early in the morning, the nobleman took Andronicus [the deposed traitor] and led him away to the royal palace into the presence of the Emperor Isaac [rightful and restored emperor]. When Isaac saw him he said to him, “Andronicus, wherefore hast thou in such fashion betrayed thy lord, the Emperor Manuel [Isaac's murdered father]; and wherefore didst thou murder his wife and his son; and wherefore hast thou been so fain to do evil to those who were displeased because thou went emperor; and wherefore didst thou seek to have me taken?”

And Andronicus answered him, “Hold thy peace!” (quoth he) “for I would not deign to answer thee!”

When the Emperor Isaac heard that he would not deign to answer him, he summoned many of the men of the city to come into his presence. And when they were in his presence, the emperor said to them, “Sirs, behold, here is Andronicus, who hath done so much evil both to you and to others. I myself could, me seemeth, in no wise do such justice to him as ye all would desire; but I release him to you, to do with him what ye will.”

Then were the men of the city right glad, and they took him; and some said that he should be burned; and others, that he should be boiled in a caldron that he might live longer and suffer more; and others, that he should be drawn and quartered; so that they could not agree amongst themselves by what death or what torture they might destroy him. But there was there a certain wise man, who said,  “Sirs, if ye would trust me, I would show you how we might avenge ourselves right well of him. I have at home a camel, which is the foulest beast and the most bedunged and ugliest in the world. Now we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.”

And all agreed to that which that man had told them. And they took Andronicus and bound him even as the man had devised. And as they were leading him adown the city, then came those that he had wronged; and they stabbed him and pricked him, some with knives, and others with daggers, and yet others with swords. And they cried, “Twas thou didst hang my father! ‘Twas thou didst ravish my wife!”

And the women whose daughters he had taken by force tare his beard and wrought such other indignities on him that when they were come to the other end of the city there was no flesh whatsoever left upon his body. Then took they his bones and cast them into a draught-house. In such wise did they avenge themselves of the traitor.


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