“THE SWANS ARE TWICE THE SIZE OF THE BOATS”
(Nabokov and Marco Polo)
In the second chapter of The Gift (19371938), Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (Fedor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyncev) recalls his father’s study, where “among the old, tranquil, velvet-framed family photographs <...> there hung a copy of the picture: Marco Polo leaving Venice. She was rosy, this Venice, and the water of her lagoon was azure, with swans twice the size of the boats, into one of which tiny violet men were descending by way of a plank, in order to board a ship which was waiting a little way off with sails furled and I cannot tear myself away from this mysterious beauty, these ancient colours which swim before the eyes as if seeking new shapes, when I now imagine the outfitting of my father’s caravan in Przhevalsk”. A few pages later the motif of Marco Polo’s journey re-occurs: “In this desert are preserved traces of an ancient road along which Marco Polo passed six centuries before I did: its markers are piles of stones <...> during the sandstorms I also saw and heard the same as Marco Polo: ‘the whisper of spirits calling you aside’” (trans. by M. Scammel and V. Nabokov, 1963).
The commentator in the most recent edition of The Gift (1998) has established that the words about “the whisper of spirits” are inspired by a description of Marco Polo’s voyage published in St. Petersburg in 1902. However, nowhere is there any information about the picture from Godunov-Cherdyntsev Senior’s library.
The first volume of a History of Venetian Culture contains a colour illustration which fully corresponds to Nabokov’s description. The swans swimming on the azure waters of Venice, are disproportionally large in comparison with the boats. On the right, a “winged” figure is descending to a boat, and behind it, other figures wait their turn. In the middle, awaits a ship, facing eastwards, its sails furled. The colours coincide exactly with Nabokov’s description, from which one might assume that, even if the writer had not seen the original, then he had seen a colour reproduction of the picture.
No later than 1466 this work was located in England, and since 1605, at the very latest, it has been in Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS Bodley 264). This is one of the most remarkable miniatures of a fourteenth-century codex which includes a manuscript of Li romans di boin roi Alixandre (in the Picardian dialect), its summary in English, as well as Marco Polo’s work Li liures du graunt Caam. The illustrations in this manuscript book are not anonymous: two leaves bear a signature, iohannes me fecit, which is traditionally attributed to the Flemish painter, Jehann de Grise of Bruges. Some scholars do not regard all the miniatures as belonging to him; it is most likely that a group of miniaturists worked under his direction. The manuscript is dated 1344.
Before 1937 the miniature was reproduced in colour several times, and any of these editions could have become a source. Nabokov’s high fidelity of colour rendition and details make one think that he either based his description on childhood impressions which were deeply embedded in his memory, or had a reproduction in front of him when working on the second chapter of The Gift.
In any event, the fate of the medieval miniature is remarkable: a Flemish picture with a Venetian subject, preserved in an English library, was highly appraised in a novel by a Russian (and later American) writer which was composed in Berlin and published in Paris.