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26 July 2023updated 25 Jan 2024 3:15pm

Summer of Light: a tale of art and betrayal in 1920s Venice

A new short story by the prize-winning novelist Jonathan Coe.

By Jonathan Coe

It is not a small thing to fall into a Venetian canal. The consequences can be serious.

In the film Summertime, Katharine Hepburn falls into the canal which runs alongside the Campo San Barnaba. The director of the film, David Lean – a notorious perfectionist – made her perform the stunt multiple times, and as a result the actress developed an unpleasant eye infection which bedevilled her for the rest of her life. The canals in Venice are not clean. They contain a number of ingredients besides water, including human sewage.

Summertime was filmed in the summer of 1954. Neither Lean nor Hepburn knew it, but 30 years earlier, an Italian painter had fallen into the same canal, at the very same spot. Fortunately, in his case, the experience did not induce a lifelong ailment. However, it was undignified, and brought to a messy end an evening which ought to have consisted of pure triumph. The circumstances of his fall have remained unclear, until now.

The accident in question took place in 1924. Two years before that, Livia had learned that she would soon be leaving Onè di Fonte, the village which had been her home for the first 17 years of her life. Her father had decided that there was no future for himself or his family in this tiny backwater, and announced that they were moving to Bassano del Grappa where there was surely more work to be found.

Later, after they had moved to Bassano and she had made friends with Serafina, Livia would tell her about that last summer in the village, the summer of 1922, revisiting it again and again in her memory and always referring to it as the “summer of light”. The two girls would sit on the low wall which ran along the pathway above the river Brenta, and Livia would tell her friend the story of the painter who lived in the little house on the edge of the village, and how he had seen her sitting by the fountain one day and asked if he could paint her portrait, and everything that followed.

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Since Livia and her family had arrived in Bassano, she and Serafina had become firm, but unlikely, friends. Serafina was a classical northern beauty, with long dark hair, flawless tawny skin and an immaculate figure: already boys were swarming around her, but on the whole she did not take them seriously and made it her practice to flick them away like so many flies. She was a smart and quick-witted girl with a burgeoning contempt for the male sex.

Livia, on the other hand, was taciturn and inward-looking, with her granite face and habitual silence masking a dry sense of humour which was known only to those who were closest to her. For some reason she had reddish hair and she had no idea what to do with it. After years of failed experiments with buns, plaits and pigtails she had simply cut most of it off and now wore it in a mannish short-back-and-sides. She was aware that she was not pretty, and was beginning to understand – although the full truth of it had not broken on her yet – that this was going to disadvantage her for much of her life. But she did not resent Serafina for her beauty. She valued her, instead, for the friendship she had extended to her from the day they met.

“The sun showed no mercy that day,” Livia told her friend, as they looked down towards the foaming currents of the river. “I was sweating waterfalls. The whole summer had been the same but that day was especially bad. I was sitting in the shade by the fountain, resting on my way back from the shop, when the painter came by. We all knew him, by sight at least. He had a little house on the edge of the village and he’d been living there since the end of the war, with his wife and his son.

“You sometimes saw him sitting in the fields, painting a tree, or a horse and cart or some such. I must say there was something a little intriguing about him. They said that he’d spent some time studying abroad, in Germany I think, and in my eyes – perhaps foolishly – that made him a sort of romantic figure. Of course, I’d never spoken to him before and didn’t mean to speak to him now but I could hardly fail to notice that he had sat down on the bench opposite the fountain and was staring at me. Not just staring but looking at me in different ways.”

“Different ways?” said Serafina.

“Yes, he kept leaning this way and that, so that he could view me from different angles. He was making no secret of it.”

“But you have to get used to the way that men look at you,” Serafina said. “They do it all the time.”

“Not to me,” said Livia. “Only the night before there had been a party in the village. A couple had been celebrating their anniversary and everyone was there, dancing all night. There was a boy called Flavio – a beautiful boy, I had such a crush on him – and however much I tried I couldn’t get him to look at me once. It was as if I was invisible.” She stared across the river and repeated the word: “Yes, invisible…”

Serafina said nothing, but put her hand on Livia’s forearm and gave it a squeeze. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, but Livia did not acknowledge it. She continued:

“That was why I was so amazed when this man said that he wanted to paint me. Me! Out of all the girls in the village. He said that he wanted to start as soon as possible and asked me to come to his studio on Monday morning. He had a studio attached to his house.”

“Didn”t you ask him,” Serafina said, trying to find a way to phrase the question tactfully, “what… sort of painting it was going to be?”

“Oh, I know what these painters are like,” said Livia, who was not altogether unworldly. “They can’t wait for their models to take their clothes off. All those pious, religious paintings from centuries ago, all those ascensions and annunciations. It’s amazing how often the women in those paintings are falling out of their dresses and have their bottoms hanging out of their gowns. But my instinct was that he wasn’t interested in anything like that, and I was right. When I turned up on Monday morning I was wearing my ordinary clothes and he was perfectly happy about it.”

“And what was his studio like?” Serafina asked.

“It was so beautiful,” said Livia, sighing at the memory. “I think originally it was just an old barn, but Signor Rollo – a very clever builder, our next-door neighbour – had changed it for him. There were these three huge skylights in the ceiling and they let in all this wonderful light, this wonderful summer light, and everywhere you looked there were canvases and sketches in lovely bright colours and at once you could see that he was a very good painter. A serious painter. These were not the sort of paintings you see them selling to tourists on the Ponte Vecchio. And there was a smell in there, I don’t know what it was – oil paint or turpentine – one of those things that painters use. Such a lovely smell, I remember it all so perfectly. I was there the whole week… ”

“The whole week?” Serafina was incredulous.

“Yes, that’s how serious he was. Every inch of the canvas took him hours. And there were sketches, first, pencil on paper, before he even took out a brush.”

“What on earth did you talk about, all that time?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“He never said a word to me. Nor I to him. For the first few minutes, on the first morning, I tried to make some conversation, and talked to him about the weather, and asked about his family, but he didn’t reply. After that, there was nothing but silence between us. Every day. And yet it wasn’t awkward at all. He was absorbed in his work, and I was happy just to sit there, enjoying the stillness, enjoying the light. Enjoying the…” She was too embarrassed to say the word at first. “The attention. Nobody had ever looked at me like that before. Or since. Looked at me so intently.

“As I say, I don’t know why it was me that he chose, but I was so happy that he did. It was the best experience of my life.”

She stared ahead of her, lost in sightless reminiscence.

“And then,” Serafina asked, “what did you think of the painting, when you saw it?”

“It was very fine,” said Livia, coming back to earth and choosing her words carefully. “Very faithful. He caught me – almost to perfection, you might say. It wasn’t a flattering portrait, by any means, but it was… honest. I liked his honesty, very much.

“But, to tell you the truth, I only saw it very briefly, when it was finished. Soon afterwards we moved here to Bassano, and I never saw the painter again, and I don’t know what happened to the picture. Perhaps he sold it to a private collector, and it will be hanging in the dining room of some dingy villa for the next 50 years. Isn’t that what happens?” Livia sighed. “I would give anything to see it again, you know. Even a glimpse. Anything at all.”

A few months went by. Livia found work at a dressmaker’s in the Via Brocchi, while Serafina continued to wait tables at a restaurant, the Gallo d’Oro. Serafina began to attract the attentions of one customer in particular, a handsome youth called Andrea who had just returned from law school and was now assisting the local magistrate. He dined at the restaurant every evening and soon began taking her out and before long everyone was talking about them as if they were a couple.

Andrea had a friend, Riccardo, the son of a wealthy factory owner. He didn’t seem to work for a living, and kept telling people that he was going to join the army although there was little sign of it happening. Instead he just seemed to follow Andrea around everywhere, and was generally considered to be rather stupid and a bit of a pain. Livia in particular disliked him. But because he spent so much time with Andrea, and Andrea spent so much time with Serafina, she always seemed to end up in his company.

One day after work Livia went to the Gallo d’Oro and found, inevitably, that Andrea and Riccardo were already there, dining together. While they were waiting for their pasta to arrive, Andrea was reading the newspaper and Riccardo was cleaning his fingernails with his teeth. As usual he ignored Livia when she arrived: he did not consider her pretty enough to talk to, even though he was no great looker himself. Anyway, this evening Livia had something else to distract her. She gasped when she saw the photograph in Andrea’s newspaper, and snatched it off him.

“Look at this!” she said.

“What about it?” asked Serafina, coming over.

“Here – this is him! The painter from Onè di Fonte, my home town!”

Sure enough, there was a small article about the painter, under the headline “Local artist will be showing his work at the Venice Biennale this year.”

“This year?” said Serafina. “In Venice? That settles it. We’re going!”

On the opening night of that year’s Biennale, 31 March 1924, the Italian pavilion was, of course, crowded. Livia, Serafina, Andrea and Riccardo had arrived by train and vaporetto. Livia was wearing her very best clothes but even so she felt conspicuous and shabby beside the hordes of elegant women in their beaded evening dresses and long strings of pearls. There seemed to be hundreds of men in dark suits, standing around in groups of four or five, chatting, smoking – doing everything, in fact, apart from looking at the paintings on the walls, which in any case were difficult even to glimpse through the densely-packed throng of visitors.

An officious man in full dinner suit approached them and said “Can I help you?” in a menacing way. He had been watching them for some time and had decided that they either needed assistance or – more likely – had come to the wrong place and should be quietly escorted from the premises.

“We’re looking for a painting called…” Livia turned to Serafina with a helpless look and admitted: “I don’t know what it’s called.”

“Portrait of Livia, I expect,” said her friend. But at that moment Livia noticed someone a few metres away on the other side of the salon. It was the painter himself, standing at the centre of an adoring circle of admirers – five men and three women – and holding forth on some subject or other with great authority while his audience hung on every word. Remembering the week they had spent together during that long summer almost two years ago – the strange, silent intimacy they had forged in his light-filled studio – Livia felt an overwhelming urge to talk to him now. She caught his eye and he briefly returned her gaze but didn’t seem to recognise her, and so she was obliged to loiter on the edge of the circle for what seemed like aeons, unable to step forward, unwilling to step back.

[See also: Day and Age]

How much time passed in this excruciating manner she could not have said, but Livia remained fixed to the spot until she suddenly felt Serafina grab her by the arm and try to propel her away. She turned to ask her friend what she was doing and was astonished to see her face: livid with fury and contorted into the fiercest scowl.

“Come on,” Serafina said. “We’re leaving.”

“What about the portrait? Did you find it?”

“Forget it. Let’s go.”

But then, above the hum of conversation, Livia heard laughter. She heard the voices of Andrea and Riccardo as they cackled and guffawed together. Breaking free of Serafina, she pushed forward through the crowd and found them standing in front of her portrait.

On seeing the painting again, she stood back to contemplate it for a moment. It was just as she remembered. Livia’s eye was untrained but her instinct was good, and she could see that in its detail, in its brushwork, in its patterning of light and shade, this was a masterful composition.

“It’s a wonderful picture,” she said to them, annoyed. “What are you laughing at?”

“Oh, yes,” Andrea said. “Quite wonderful.” He turned to Riccardo and spluttered with mirth. “An exquisite study in the absence of beauty.”

“A paean to plainness,” Riccardo said, with a horrible chuckle. “A triumphant homage to the hideous.”

Livia did not know what they were talking about. Then she looked down to the bottom of the frame, at the little golden plate where the title of the painting was engraved, and her heart stopped beating.

He had called it The Ugly Girl.

Eventually Serafina found her friend sitting on a bench in the Giardini della Biennale. She had her head in her hands, her fingers hiding her face. It took half an hour to persuade her to say anything, and another half an hour to get her to move. Then for the next two hours they walked through the streets of Venice: past the Arsenale, through San Marco and across the Accademia Bridge until they reached the Dorsoduro.

Serafina did most of the talking. She railed against men and told Livia that they were all idiots and she was going to split up with Andrea because he was an idiot too. She did everything she could to make Livia laugh, and when they finally sat down to eat in a little osteria in the Campo San Barnaba, she told her that in her eyes she was beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the whole of Bassano del Grappa. By the time they had finished their second bottle of wine Livia was starting to feel better, and starting to believe her. Her eyes shone with tears but they were different tears now, tears of gratitude.

At eleven o’clock they realised it was time to go home. But as they left the little restaurant and hurried across the square towards the Ponte dei Pugni, they saw him again.

At a more expensive restaurant on the same square, the Quattro Venti – one of the best in Venice – the painter and his companions were coming to the end of an excellent meal. The guest of honour had been the Baron Dieudonné Sylvestre de Montmorency-Noailles, a famously wealthy and discerning art collector from Paris, who had been deeply impressed by the works he had seen on display in the Italian pavilion. Sales were promised. Further exhibitions were mooted. Everyone was in a thoroughly good mood. As the meal concluded with cigars and grappa (the best that Bassano had to offer), the air was thick not just with smoke but with the oaky scents of money, success and entitlement.

A few minutes later, the dinner party emerged from the restaurant and wandered over towards the canal, still chatting and laughing. The artist never moved far from the collector’s side. Together, they stood at the very edge of the water, which lay green and opaque in the lamplight, too thick and too dull to offer anything but the faintest reflection of the crescent moon. The two men conversed murmurously beneath the immensity of the Venetian sky. The collector proffered a witticism and the painter was heard to give an obsequious laugh.

At that moment, from the shadows within the doorway of the Chiesa di San Barnaba, two women ran towards them. One of them had long dark hair and the other had short reddish hair. The dark-haired woman ran directly up to the painter and looked him straight in the eye and said to him, with great emphasis:

“You stupid prick!”

Some say that she ran towards him so quickly that he stepped backwards in surprise and simply lost his balance. Others say that, on pronouncing the third word, the dark-haired woman reached out towards the painter’s chest and gave him a violent push. Whatever the truth of the matter, these things are certain: he fell, his body flipped back into a perfect 45 degree angle, his feet left the ground, he described a brief, graceful arc and two seconds later, following an almighty splash, he was thrashing and floundering in the filthy water and screaming for help.

Help came swiftly. The Baron himself did not intervene, but two of the other diners wasted no time in reaching their arms out towards the unfortunate artist and pulling him onto dry land where for the next few minutes he sat looking around him in a state of absolute stupefaction. The taste of brackish canal water was rancid in his throat, his wet clothes stuck to his body like an icy flannel, and his mouth kept opening and closing like the mouth of a goldfish.

The others looked on, having no idea what had just happened or what they should say about it. The square was otherwise empty, and a curious silence hung over the whole scene. It was a silence broken only by one, receding sound: in the distance could be heard the footsteps of two young women, running to catch the last train to Bassano del Grappa, their progress through the narrow streets impeded only by the fact that they were attempting to run arm-in-arm, and kept collapsing into fits of shrieking laughter.

Nino Springolo’s painting “Ragazza Brutta” (1922) currently hangs in the Ca’ Pesaro gallery in Venice . Jonathan Coe’s most recent novel is “Bournville” (Viking)

[See also: The White Man’s Liberation Front]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special

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