A crowd has assembled beneath the soaring portico of the Dogana da Mar. Children and dignified-looking adults in cloaks and pointed hats stand in clusters, shadows on their backs, gazing across the San Marco basin. What spectacle holds them rapt? There, in the air over the lagoon—it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a flying boat? A spherical sail of varnished silk, attached to a base shaped uncannily like the gondole that line the canal, is filled with gases that burn lighter than air. In this sheet, not quite 10 inches square, Francesco Guardi draws no ordinary vedute, or topographical view, but the first ascent of a hot-air balloon into the Venetian skies. Seen from the safe distance of this lofty arcade, awash in watery reflections, the balloon floats like a faint apparition through the proscenium of massive columns. Two Palladian domes, tiny on the horizon, seem to recede even further under the strange craft’s heavenward ascent. Science, theater, architecture, nature, and history: Guardi’s art draws these elements together as he draws the crowd together, with quivering line, light paper, and brown wash.
When I write about seeing art, I suppose I hope to convey how it might feel to look over my shoulder as I look upon a favorite drawing. To “translate” seeing into writing, I have to draw a picture, in words, of myself looking, entering into an artwork’s atmosphere and remaining there, aloft for a moment, as my vision coalesces into articulable thought. I could try to mimic Guardi’s luminous, fluid elegance in my prose. But translation entails more than a simulation of style, which is easily puffed up and quick to deflate. Being an art historian means eventually inviting my readers to follow me away from the picture in a hopeful search for the sort of evidence that brings my original viewing into sharper and more generous focus. A proper art historical essay might discuss Guardi as the chronicler of La Serenissima’s enduring enchantments through its years of fading political and commercial glory, with anecdotes about the historical craze for ballooning thrown in for sporting measure. (After successfully launching a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in their prototype craft, the Montgolfier brothers sent up the first manned balloon in the Saint-Antoine suburb of Paris on October 15, 1783. The first untethered or “free” flight followed just a few weeks later, on November 21, with the chemist Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François d’Arlandes aboard. Among the crowd in Paris that day was the U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin. Balloon-mania spread rapidly through the European skies, arriving in Venice when a lawyer called Francesco Pesaro commissioned the celebrated flyer Count Zambeccari to build and pilot the strange boat-balloon that Guardi saw sail over the canals in April 1784.)
Stepping up a nose-length away from the drawing (or with the aid of a digital zoom tool online), I can just make out a tiny silhouette on the elevated pontoon in the basin at center—a figure with an uplifted arm, letting go, I imagine, of an invisible guide rope. This miniscule detail of release encompasses the lure of writing about art, for me: the chance to measure the proximities and untethered distances between the verbal and visual realms, and between an artwork’s spatial, historical, spiritual universe and my own.
The Daedaluses of Enlightenment-era balloon aeronautics fired heat directly into their wings. The risks need no outlining (in 1812, the Icarus Zambeccari perished when his balloon caught fire in some high trees during an expedition from Bologna). Writing about art carries a different set of perils, the strains of language and temptations of rhetorical indulgence most common among them. An inscription on the verso of Guardi’s drawing, which has seeped through the paper, reads Appollonia Mandich da Bol è una bella Matta, e poi Buffona (“Appollonia Mandich da Bol is a fair idiot, and in addition a fool”). Ascents of imagination can open vistas of clarity, but even our best efforts at translation can be full of hot air. When it comes to flying, impractical heights and unpredictable driftings are the fear and the fun.
LEE HALLMAN is a curator and a Ph.D. Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center completing her dissertation on the London landscape paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. She is a regular contributor to the Burlington Magazine.