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Heard in Tintoretto.

Four Ekphrastic Poems



A Brief Foreword

A CELEBRATED DICTUM from the Ars Poetica of Horace, ‘ut pictura poesis’ (‘as is painting, so is poetry’), has guided writers for centuries. It has generally been interpreted to mean that they should offer the reader portrayals as detailed and lifelike as those of the visual arts. Long before the ancient Romans, Simonides of Ceos, the Greek lyric poet, had expressed a similar idea. ‘Painting is silent poetry,’ he declared, ‘and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.’ Still, Horace’s lapidary formula, so often cited, has proved more influential, especially in the Renaissance and Baroque, as part of a larger debate about mimesis, both in literature and in art. Yet it is not only nature or ‘reality’ that they imitate, but each other as well: literature can engender art—especially figurative art—and art can inspire literature. In a related device of rhetoric, ekphrasis, the author minutely describes an artwork, converting what the eye would normally see into words; the quintessential example is a passage in the Iliad, Book 18, where Homer ‘depicts’ the ornate images on the shield of Achilles, fashioned by Hephaestus of bronze, tin, silver, and gold.

In our English-language tradition, several authors have dedicated magistral poems to individual artworks: Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ or Grace Schulman’s series in The Paintings of Our Lives spring to mind. In the following set of impressions in verse, inspired by four of Tintoretto’s paintings, my purpose is somewhat different. Instead of shifting from the images to larger truths, I stay as close as possible to their surface details. By doing so, I hope to help the reader see these works in sharper focus, as variations on a theme: the Last Supper. Successively, the versions at San Marcuola, San Trovaso, San Polo, and San Giorgio Maggiore portray the artist’s quest to render the same scene in new terms. Looking at them intently, we can almost follow the movements of his mind, as though we were hearing him speak—while we remain the listening observers.




At San Marcuola
the table is static
as a refectory plank
on a fresco in Milan
its symmetry a throwback
with a cloth just unfolded
by Titian, flanked by caryatids
from Raphael, posed on a gray
shelf like Bellini’s balustrades
to shield beholders from saints
though here a violation starts
with the naked foot wedging
discreetly into the bar to underline
that this is a Venetian church-floor
and not some whimsical Jerusalem,
a checkerboard of russet and cream
squared atop a stone schooner sunk
in the salt lagoon with only its deck
still visible above the lackadaisical waves
and here alone could Jesus and the twelve
dine in such alignment, not even St. John
breaking the profile with his head bowed
on the beloved’s chest, since order reigns
around the central icon, encircled by rage
and fear in Sistine contortions, but himself
unfazed at the orbit’s crux as dire shadows
fall in perfect rows and the children
silently point while the women bear
the bread and wine to their ordained
destination, and even the skeptic cat
is hieratic, as motionless and upright
as the ewer, though the plain benches
already betray you, dyer’s boy, still
amassing robes of red ochre blue or
frosted brown in abstract whorls
for the euphoria of clotting light.




Off to one side
at San Trovaso
not an icon any longer
but a narrative of floor
divided from floor, chapters
linked by windows or stairs
around the table’s broken ellipse
tumbling to the left, apostles and
furniture askew with outrage and awe
as Van Gogh’s plebeian chair topples
to the pavement of tiles stained by work
and dirt, since this is no palatial fantasy
by Veronese, some town of ideal forms
but an ordinary room, although faraway
a memory of divine anticipation
shimmers before the sky-stuffed
arch on a veranda where the ghosts
of sacred interlocutors chat forever
as their prescience passes into light
and yet the foreground blocks their
joy, the surge of disciples with haloes
snuffed who beckon despair in floods
of muddied colors and threadbare clothes
around an earthbound Jesus, delivered up
by a Judas in red leggings, a malignant moon
that twists the tide to its climax, while above
on the highest steps who is she, servant
with a distaff or antique Fate scissoring
the thread, but who cares since the cat
keeps playing and a Renaissance page
stands in velvet of this year’s crop,
a burgundy coat at the centre offers
far into the future the salvific wine
and books strapped like a rucksack
in the corner brook no doubt
that the gospel of a homicide
will be proclaimed and a god
resurrected, verse after verse.





At San Polo the marble tiles
are diagonal black and white
a gameboard rushing off the edge of
the room towards a landscape under
skies as vast as all creation, its temples
as fanciful as Veronese’s—though here
they build not a setting but a beyond
where endless churches will transub-
stantiate the scene before our eyes, Christ
rising unexpectedly to hallow the cannibal
feast, dismembering his bones and flesh
into crumbs of bread, his blood recalled
only by the crimson that spills in a half-circle
to the right from sleeves to jackets to felt cap
to land on the sick man’s trousers as he takes
the crust from an apostolic hand, his face like
the child’s a bit swarthy, supposedly ‘Moorish’
as if they flowed from a Venetian’s pipedream
of conquest by conversion, and there he looms
above them also marked by red, a lordly donor
posing as the servant’s counterpart
at the other end, both of them aloof
from the turmoils of betrayal and death,
both foreseeing what will come as time
ripens the ears of wheat, and flour snows
from the waiter’s sash to the robe and on
across the table-cloth
and the helper’s back
to settle on the infant’s
dazzling, upraised arm.





No porticoes here, only walls
except for a window we open
by peering into this giant space
at San Giorgio, a tavern doubly
internal, as inmost as the shift
from static icon to this slanted
crossing-over, this illumined
night askew but symmetrical
between the celestial left
and the oblivious, fruited
right, the buoyant communion table
and the earth, Jesus blazing forth as
a sunburst at the crux, his aureola now
triumphant as the bread supplants wine
among the blank decanters, its crumbs
transmuted into bluish light that slicks
the cloth to metal, rising to Christ’s cloak
and ricocheting from sleeve to robe along
the room, tying the muted sky of Mary
and Martha serving beneath the angels
to the sturdy calves and azure shoulders
of the worldly knave still denying a gift
of salvation, but there is where the future
unfolds, on a pavement no longer simply
Venetian, a pied design of faded red
yellow black and also blue, for faith
in the sublunar realm can only lose
its strength, even if seraphim wheel
equally around the sacramental lamp
and the inn’s workaday rafters, watch
shady figures at the back no truth can touch
or Judas the blood-colored clown, but adore
the waiters who never presume
and the silent dog, not judging
the sly little tiger of a cat
just beneath the godhead
sniffing in the big basket
for a hidden mite of crust.

Hoyt Rogers is a writer, translator, scholar, and internationalist; born in North America, he has spent most of his life in Latin America and Europe. He was educated at Columbia, the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Oxford. He is the author of a book of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish; he has published many translations, including various books by Borges, Bonnefoy, and du Bouchet. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His latest translation, Bonnefoy’s Rome 1630, is forthcoming from Seagull Books. For further information, visit


index of this portfolio:
Tintoretto: after and before by Hoyt Rogers | Tintoretto is Venice by Michele Casagrande
Heard in Tintoretto by Hoyt Rogers

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Marvelous to read these poems when our minds are still haunted by the Nativity — inviting us to see the Last Supper as a Nativity of a higher order, cresting relentlessly and without end. Thank you, Hoyt Rogers, for giving us fresh eyes!

    Thursday, 12 March 2020 at 17:42 | Permalink

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  1. Anne Davenport on Sunday, January 5, 2020 at 10:08

    Marvelous to read these poems when our minds are still haunted by the Nativity — inviting us to see the Last Supper as a Nativity of a higher order, cresting relentlessly and without end. Thank you, Hoyt Rogers, for giving us fresh eyes!

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