In preparation for a few days in Venice (travelling down by train across the Swiss Alps) I’ve read much of Ruskin on Venice and gazed dreamily at Canaletto’s hallucinatory paintings. As often happens, in my unsystematic research for a trip, I discovered a once much-admired artist whose work is new to me: Giovanni Battista Lusieri.
Known to his admirers-which included Lord Byron who described him as ‘an Italian painter of the first eminence’-as ‘Don Tito’, his only recent show was at The Scottish National Gallery in 2012. His graceful watercolour of the Naples coastline is enchanting, a painting I could lose myself in for hours, as is his fastidiously detailed Herculaneum Gate at Pompei. The painting that I chose to hang on my blog today (would that I could hang it on my study wall) is his sharp, true depiction of an ancient vase hidden inside a marble urn.
A Bronze Vase within a Marble Urn (1804) – Giovanni Battista Lusieri
It was only after his death that I begun to read Christopher Hitchens. Unconsciously I had ignored his work, associating him with the fraternity of English bloviators that were his friends: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.
I’m reading his last book of essays Arguably and, though they are not without a familiar pomposity, quite enjoying them. As a proficient essayist Hitchens is able to interest me in subjects as diverse the early nineteenth century Barbary Wars (the first US ‘War on Terror’), Benjamin Franklin’s wit and the death penalty.
Though only a quarter of the way through this 788 page volume I am so far hooked, not only by the diversity of subjects, but the penetrating quality of his well-researched essays. His Nabokov and Newton essays are so far my favourites. Here’s a taster of the Nabokov, a review of Lolita, which succeeds in offering me new insight into a well-loved fiction.
Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne’s poem Dolores sees a young lady (‘Our Lady of Pain”) put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thin soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anna Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta.