PEONIES AND THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

mwbs and peonies

The man with the blue sleeve being outdone by lush peonies. It could happen to any of us and also a nice quote from the Historical Novel Society about TITIAN’S BOATMAN:

“This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small – some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book.”

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

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WALKING WITH THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

wisteria and mwbs

An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …

handkerchief treeAnd here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).

If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.

THE 2017 BOAT RACE

mwbs putney

Gerolamo Barbarigo by Titian 1510

The Man with the Blue Sleeve (Titian 1510) at the start of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in Putney a few days ago. Is that sleeve light blue or dark blue he wondered?  Today he decided it was light blue when the women raced (they won) and dark blue when the men raced (they won). He is a winner after all. But he wants to make it clear that he wouldn’t be seen dead in anything other than a gondola. And that he doesn’t like to exert himself in any way whatsoever. Well, that’s all clear then. Oh, and he knows you would like to buy my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN in which he figures in a very gratifying way. Buy it and you will find out all about him. He knows you want to. Or at least go and visit him in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He is definitely worth it.

PIETRO ARETINO: POET, PORNOGRAPHER, PIMP …

Titian’s painting of Pietro Aretino 1545

How do you bring the past alive? This is the question that any writer of historical fiction has to ask themselves. In writing my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN I had the problem of evoking Renaissance Venice, so imagine my delight when I came across this quote when I was browsing through the introduction to a selection of Aretino’s letters by Thomas Caldecot Chubb:

“His letters are indeed a source book for his era. Whether I were an historical novelist, or a serious social historian, I would turn to his writings as a gold mine.”

And I have to say a gold mine is exactly right because Aretino wrote about everything you can think of art, food, sex, politics, war, friendship, tarot cards and rosaries. And his letters are written to dukes, doges, kings, princes and emperors as well as artists (including Titian), courtesans, and even his own gondolier. They range in style from the earthy to the arty  from the grandiose to the comic. They bring Renaissance Venice to life in an extraordinary way and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you’re at all interested in this period of history. It is like reading a mash-up of Nigel Slater, Brian Sewell, AA Gill and Clive James, with every now and again a bit of Claire Rayner thrown in. Oh, how he loves to give advice, especially about the affairs of the heart!

Here he is on a painting by Titian of St John carrying a lamb in his arms:

“The lamb he bears in his arms is so lifelike that it actually drew a bleat from a passing ewe.”

Part of the charm of his letters is that through them you meet the whole of Venetian society from the top to the bottom. He writes to Titian’s son telling him to come home and get back to his studies and he writes here in a rage to the acquaintance of someone who has crossed him

“Tell your ruffian friend that I have decided not to order his moustache cut off… The reason is that it would be cheating the executioner if he were not allowed to hang him uncarved up.”

He wasn’t above taking a pop at Titian if he didn’t think his painting was up to scratch. This is what he had to say about the above painting which he sent to the Duke of Florence:

“Truly it breaths, its pulses beat and it is animated with the same spirit with which I am in actual life, and if I had only counted out more crowns to him, the clothes I wore would likewise have been as shiny and soft yet firm to the touch as are actual satin, velvet and brocade.”

So who was this man whose volumes of letters contain (according to Chubb) approximately 4000 pages of begging, fawning and flattering and 4 or 500 pages  which are as readable now as if they’d been written yesterday,  who  was nicknamed the scourge of princes, who was Titian’s great friend and propagandist, who wrote poems and  pornography as well as these wonderful, infinitely quotable letters?

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Titian’s first portrait of Aretino

Aretino was born in Arezzo in 1492, the son of a cobbler. At the age of 14 he began as he meant to go on by being thrown out of school for composing a sacrilegious sonnet. He left home and went to Rome where he lost his job as a household servant for stealing a silver cup. He bummed around being at various times a hostler (certainly a hustler!), a pimp, a  mule skinner and a hangman’s assistant. He returned to Rome and came to the attention of Pope Leo when he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant that made witty and indecent jibes at  every important person in Italy including the Pope. Leo (the pope) was amused, summoned Aretino and gave him a position in his household, presumably on the basis  that it was better to have someone like him pissing out of rather than into his tent.

After various escapades, including backing the loser in the next papal election, an attempt on his life and the writing of 16 filthy sonnets to accompany a series of indecent paintings titled The Modes of Intercourse, Aretino wound up in Venice in 1527. It was in Venice, which was then at the height of its splendour, that he did most of his writing. If ever a man and a city were suited to each other it was Aretino and Venice. It was to be his home for the next thirty years until his death in 1556.

I hope this post will have whetted your appetite to explore more (and indeed read my book!) but finally for all you cheese lovers out there  this is how to respond on that day which will inevitably come when you receive the gift of an ENORMOUS cheese!

“I assure you that I do not believe that from the udders of all the herds of cattle and the flocks of sheep that Apollo ever looked upon, would have come, in their whole lifetime, enough milk to make a cheese as enormous as the one that you … made me a gift of… When I saw it, the admiration it aroused in me, went into conference with the appetite which its excellence and handsome appearance evoked …”

Dear God, how big was it? But you see what I mean? The perfect thank you letter and proof that he was a man incapable of writing a dull word even about a cheese!

The Chubb book: The Letters of Pietro Aretino published by Archon Books in 1967 is more difficult and expensive to come by but better in my opinion. There is also a selection of his letters published by Penguin Classics in 1976 which can be tracked down more easily and cheaply in the usual second hand book markets. Also available is The Ragionamenti (The Dialogues) which is said to have influenced Rabelais. It is a series of conversations between two elderly harlots about the lives of wives, nuns and courtesans. It is both filthy and funny, a deliberate mocking of the classical dialogues of Plato. Pornography certainly but also a scathing satire on society.

THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE #2

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Venice – Home for The Man with the Blue Sleeve

Many thanks to all those who sent me their reactions to the painting of The Man With The Blue Sleeve. It was fascinating. Here is a summing up of your responses:

  • cocky, flirtatious, silky to the touch
  • good looking, a bit flirty but in a nice way, on closer inspection disgusted, contemptuous or perhaps hurt, vane, his eyes are different colours
  • fanciable, slightly naughty
  • cheeky looking, looks like he is up to no good
  • supercilious, far too good looking for his own good
  • full of revelations which are as yet hidden but not to me (I’m not sure about that but thanks for the thought!)
  • one of you had a poster of him hanging on your wall when you were a student which shows a level of good taste and sophistication sadly lacking in myself at that age
  • one of you had a mother who had a poster of him hanging in the dining room and apparently he frightened people because they said his eyes followed them around the room and since he was a dead person he must have been a ghost!

So my man has got about a bit. The man is certainly a member of the patrician class in Venice because that sleeve is probably breaking all the sumptuary laws going but he has the money to pay the fine. Titian was only about twenty when he painted him, so he would have been looking for rich patrons to support him and maybe that explains the rather contemptuous look on the man’s face. The Man with the Blue Sleeve at this point in the painter’s life is the one with the power, with the patronage. I think he looks like he’s had a night on the tiles. That eye is very pitted. Interestingly his eyebrows look as if they’ve been plucked. Later on in his career of course it was Titian who had the power and he had princes, popes, doges, kings and emperors queuing up to be painted by him.

It is fascinating and almost impossible, in a time when any one of us can pick up a phone and create an image of ourselves, to think of the power that a portrait had in the 16th century. You had to go to a lot more trouble and have a great deal more money to produce an image of yourself.

What happens in my book is that an actor who is undergoing an emotional crisis goes to visit the portrait and then a conversation ensues …

But you don’t think I’m going to tell you what he says, do you? I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until January 26th to find out. All I can say is that when The Man with the Blue Sleeve speaks, it will be absolutely … No, I’m not even going to tell you that. But thank you all for taking part!

Do you have a favourite painting? One that you absolutely love. Tell me why.

Photo: courtesy of Letitia Blake 2016

THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE #1

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Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve

Ah, isn’t he lovely! This is Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve. A painting that has such a prominent place in my novel Titian’s Boatman that it is also its sub-title. The book is published at the end of January by Black and White publishing. This fine fellow was painted by Titian in 1510, when the painter was twenty years old and hangs in The National Gallery in London.

So this is the story of me and The Man with the Blue Sleeve and how he muscled his way into my novel.

I was between books. Never a good time. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for whatever reasons, I need to write and I need to be working on a story and if I’m not the effect isn’t good and the effect is physical. It’s like having the ague. A more modern version would be that it’s like the first few days before you know you’ve definitely got the flu. You don’t feel ill enough to go to bed but you know something is going on and it’s not good. In the meantime you irritate everyone you come in contact with. I hesitate to quote Boris Johnson but I was definitely in a state that might best be described as a  whinge-o-rama. My partner had had enough of me, pointed at the door and said, ‘Be gone.’ So out I went.

There was a 22 bus and I got on it. The bus went into town and I got off at Piccadilly Circus. I wandered. There was The National Gallery. I went in and my wander took me, as it often does when I’m in this condition, to the room with the Titians, currently Room 2.

And there was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and I stood in front of him and stared and I realised I had been here many times before. And then I felt it, the thing that makes a writer know that this is the trigger, (the poncy word is donné) the thing that sparks the beginning of a novel. The thing that is given to you. There he was. There I was. And I knew my next novel was spluttering into life.

“We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.”

GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

It was only once I was up and running with the book and was telling people about it that I realised how many other people loved the painting. You have to develop a shorthand description for works in progress because often the simple truth is you have no idea what you’re doing but it’s embarrassing to say that because you sound like a driveling idiot.  So I started saying, ‘It’s about Titian and The Man With The Blue Sleeve’. ‘Oh, yes, isn’t he lovely?’ was a fairly common response or, ‘Oh yes, I love him.’ I was mildly miffed at times. Something that I thought was a private obsession was, I quickly realised, shared with the world and her husband. I was not alone in my adoration of The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He was everyone else’s man as well. Of course he was, he was a masterpiece.

Why him? Well, partly I think it’s because I’ve always been rather better one to one than in groups. It’s not that I don’t play well with others but my instinct has always been to the tête à tête. Those huge paintings with large amounts of religious or mythological symbolism make me feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve walked into a room filled with strangers talking in tight groups and they are not going to move one inch to welcome me or let me in. It’s a sort of sensory overload. There’s too much to look at and I feel I need to read a great many books to work out the symbolism. I’m OK with the distorted skull in the front of The Ambassadors. Yes, yes, we’re all going to die. That’s not hard but some of the others …

There’s a simplicity to looking at a portrait that I like. There’s not so much I feel I need to know to enjoy it. The date: 1510. The painter: Titian. Titian’s age: 20. That’s enough and then you can just get on with looking at him. There’s not much to distract you. And what do you see? No, seriously what do you see? What sort of man do you think you are looking at? What do you think he’s like? Fill my comment box below lovely people! I’m really curious to know what you think. And then I will do another post on my lovely man which uses your lovely comments as my jumping off point.

P.S. The painting has had various titles over the years: The Man with the Blue Sleeve, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and finally Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, 1510. I eschew all those other than the one I’ve used above because that is what he was titled when I first encountered him and also I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than The Man with the Blue Sleeve. I like the mystery and anonymity of it and it allows projection aplenty, always useful for a novelist.