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29 July 2016


Meaningful presence
“WHAT is the Church for?” is a question that I have posed with a certain pompous rhetorical flourish in more than one sermon; and it was a question I was pondering when I first went to St George’s, Venice. There has been an English-speaking Christian presence in the Veneto for centuries: a memorial window commemorates Sir Henry Wotton, a friend of Donne and Milton, who spent part of his swaggering career as Elizabeth I’s ambasador to la Serenissima.

I read with interest in the splendid fund-raising St George’s cookery book that, in the early 19th century, the Anglican community gathered in the poet Robert Browning’s flat on the Grand Canal before decamping to the palazzo of the Revd John Davies Mereweather (who, perhaps uniquely among Anglican clergy, was a Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia).

In 1892, the present church, formerly a warehouse for a glass company, was dedicated, and it has been the focus for a dynamic and resourceful congregation ever since — not least in the 1960s, when, after the disastrous floods of 1966, the charity Venice in Peril was initiated around the energetic figure of Sir Ashley Clarke, whose widow, Lady Clarke, is still a member of the chaplaincy congregation.

This brings me back to my original question. At its height, Venice had a population of some 140,000 people: it now has about 55,000. The English-speaking community has dwindled, too: the resident congregation of St George’s numbers about ten. But I don’t think I have come across a better exemplar of Archbishop William Temple’s dictum “the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

St George’s gives community and care to its church family, but is primarily here to welcome a whole multiplicity of others — visitors who are around for a year, or a couple of months (like me), or just for one Sunday. Unfailingly warm, friendly, and welcoming, on the mornings I’ve been there (so far) the largest congregation was about 90 (mostly American Baptist teenagers), and the home team numbered four. It is hugely impressive, this ministry of welcome: to a Protean, shifting swath of people, St George’s gives a point of reference, stability, and rest. They are between Chaplains at the moment: if I hadn’t already accepted another job, I would be interested.


Garden with a past
ON THE wall, I noticed a memorial dedicated to a couple called Eden: “They wrought with God and nurture in the making of the Giardino Eden in this, the well loved home of their adoption. May they rest for ever beside the living waters.” I was intrigued: I liked the idea of a Giardino Eden, and found out more, thanks largely to an informative account written online by a Venice enthusiast, Jeff Cotton.

Frederick Eden was the uncle of the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (who himself, I know, created a Garden of Eden at the Villa Nova in Barbados, now sadly in ruins). Frederick Eden moved with his wife, Caroline (the elder sister of the famed horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll), to Venice in 1884, and turned a six-acre vegetable plot into an English paradise, with cypress trees, statues, terraces, and avenues. It became famous, attracting visits from, among others, Proust, Henry James, and Jean Cocteau.

Frederick died in 1916, and Caroline in 1928, and the garden passed to Sir James Horlick (the creator of the milk drink Horlicks), then later to ex-Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia, who lived there after the break-up of her marriage to ex-King Peter. Cotton gives a report of her from 1978: “A tall, elegant, lonely figure walking the calle [alley] near the Gritti with long dark hair, a shopping bag, and a slight limp”, who was “often to be seen sitting alone on the terrace of the Gritti around midday, waiting, it was said, for someone to buy her a drink. She was a hauntingly sad and romantic figure.”

In 1979, until his death in February 2000, the garden was in the care of an eccentric Austrian artist and architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who deliberately let it run to romantic ruin. In 2009, Radio 3 produced a programme about it, Requiem for a Garden of Eden.


Old Master devotee
AND SO it has remained, closed and forlorn, overgrown and inaccessible, with sad echoes of the other lost Barbadian garden in Villa Nova. Paradise lost, indeed.

But none of this is what I am here for on sabbatical, which is to study Titian. Ever since I was a boy, he is an artist I have hugely admired (I’m afraid I was that sort of child). I love his early works, with their brilliantly confident Renaissance colour and line; his middle works, with their melting shimmer of ochres, russets, and velvety reds; but, most of all, I am fascinated by his last haunting and haunted canvases — monumental, grey, and murky, the brush often abandoned and the paint smeared on with his fingers.

They are Impressionist works 300 years before the term was invented. His last painting is in the Accademia in Venice, and sits glowering among the glowing Tintorettos and Veroneses: it is a great bleak pietà, the Virgin in the centre holding the sprawling dead weight of her son; to one side, a grieving Mary Magdalene, and to the other, a kneeling Jerome, painted with the 90-year-old Titian’s own features, pleading for deliverance from the plague which was then ravaging the city.

In a corner, almost hidden, is a little painting within a painting, showing Titian kneeling with his son Orazio. I was intrigued to discover that there had once been a third figure, of Titian’s eldest son, Pomponio, a somewhat dissolute priest who seems to have been a disappointment to his over-achieving father. At some point, as Titian’s world unravelled, he had scratched him out; a little personal irritation in the midst of the growing apocalypse which I find both touching and tragic. Echoes of a personal paradise lost, perhaps?


The Revd John Wall is on sabbatical.

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