Venice today


Giovanni Bellini, Madonna in trono con Bambino e santi, detta pala di San Giobbe, ca. 1487, oil on panel

Things to remember:

Important dates

  • ca. 450 – first settlers, fleeing from the forces of Attila the Hun.
  • 829 – body of St Mark stolen from Alexandria and brought to Venice.
  • 1202-04 – Fourth Crusade, led by Doge Enrico Dandolo, sacks and loots Constantinople and acquires many Aegean territories.
  • 1453 – Turks take Constantinople and end many of Venice’s privileges in that part of the world.
  • 1508 – League of Cambrai defeats Venice at Agnadello; temporary loss of much of Venice’s mainland territories.
  • 1797 – last doge deposed by Napoleon.


  • Venice was an oligarchic republic for 1,000 years, priding itself on being a mixed state (stato misto of patricians, cittadini and the populace), safe from becoming an autocracy or tyranny. The doge was elected (normally for life) and, nominally, served Venice.
  • Venice asserted its independence from Rome and the popes. The greatest church was San Marco – the church of the doge, not of a bishop appointed by the pope.
  • Napoleon destroyed Venice as an independent republic. I want to know more: just how many empires did he put an end to?
  • Venice had many plagues in its history: losing a third of the population happened a number of times.


  • Architectural styles in Venice: Byzantine; Gothic with Byzantine touches (ogees, glittering mosaics); Renaissance; Baroque.
  • Byzantine – formulaic, stiff figures, elongated faces, lots of gold, colour, rich fabrics, ready-made composition. Religious paintings do not innovate or attempt to reflect human psychology; these are unchanging, other-worldly figures. Mosaics inside domes give a kind of disco glitterball effect. Pendentive domes permit light into the upper parts of churches.
  • 2F026F2C-17C9-4BD0-8533-23FF619BA6C2Gothic – contraposto figures, slightly more naturalistic, sword-edge draperies. “Gothic” coined by Petrarch as a term of abuse (cf. “barbarians”) for something dreadful coming from north of the Alps. Venice keeps Byzantine touches (e.g. ogive arches to the doge’s palace with eastern-style melotura crenellations as decoration):
  • Note that the doge’s palace – right by the canal – is open and unfortified – a symbol of a ruler acceptable to the people and a city that does not fear invasion.
  • Renaissance – more and more naturalistic figures with human expressions (not always admired at the time – even viewed as sacrilegious), innovations in composition (e.g. strong horizontals or diagonals rather than the usual verticals). Revival of classical styles.
  • 63AEDC5F-D103-428D-970A-E4CB9A927731Invariably (at least until Palladio re-educated them): colour. Whether Gothic or Renaissance, a building will find space for some Veronese pink and Istrian white marble stripes.


This was once a scuola grande; when Napoleon closed it down, he decreed that the building should be used to house some of the Venetian artworks that he didn’t have shipped to Paris so that they were accessible to ordinary people. Hence there are far more Madonnas and saints than you can really take in, but since I am now part of a study group I don’t have to even try. I just concentrate on a select few (phew!).

The first painting we looked at was a Byzantine tempera polyptych by Paolo Veneziano from the mid-14th century. So far, so Byzantine.


The second was the Bellini (above), one of the first Italian oil paintings (the Flemish had got there first). It’s much more influenced by the Renaissance style: naturalistic poses, interest in the real human body, suggestions of emotions in the faces, a bit of perspective, the architecture of the enclosing apse, and the Roman strapwork on the pilasters. There are lingering Byzantine traces in the inexpressive face of Mary and the Christ Child, and the gold mosaic dome/sky is pure Byzantine.

The astonishing possibilities of oil paint are exploited by Bellini. Looking closely at St Sebastian’s leg, you could glimpse the colours that went into making his leg flesh-coloured: there’s a bit of blue underneath, overpainted with other colours, that gave the impression of blood and veins beneath the surface. This layering of oil paints is called velatura – veiling, which is a good word for it.

Next came Titian, and a painting in the Androne, for which it was commissioned:


La presentazione della Vergine al tempio con i confratelli del Scuola Grande della Carità, Titian, 1534-38, oil on canvas (the left-hand door was knocked through at a later date)

Titian took the possibilities of oil paint even further: his colours really glow. He also brings something new to the composition: strong diagonals that lead your eye across the painting, from the confratelli in the bottom left-hand corner, up to the pointing finger, to the light-shrouded figure of the child, and up the steps (completely convincing) to the temple entrance.

But Titian was an artist: he don’t look back. He mastered oil paint that looked like the thing it represented, and then he mastered oil paint that looked like painted colour. He composed his paintings through colour: patches of red to form a triangle, for example. He made it obvious – palpable – that he was using paint. On one of the final canvasses he painted at the end of his long life, the typical golden mosaic dome seems to be formed by paint applied with his finger tips. This is in strong contrast to the Roman and Florentine way of smoothing the colours (Raphael, Ghirlandaio) so that you disguise the brushstrokes. Painterly vs. linear.

Then – oh, the day wasn’t yet over! – there was San Marco and the doge’s palace to visit.


The Chamber of the Council, doge’s palace, paintings by Paolo Veronese and others, 1575-78

The shape of San Marco and the ubiquitous gold and decoration are quite wonderful. Even the marble floor is a delight. The doge’s palace was simply overwhelming: it was designed to be impressive, but by this stage I was beginning to find it oppressive. So much opulence! The Sansovino staircase (inside rather than external in the courtyard, thereby ostentatiously using up space in a crowded city), paintings and gilt everywhere. It all changed on the other side of the door that led to the prison, of course.

0C7C8A8B-E2F3-44EC-B7D0-A4E43A87E78ESo, a wonderful day . . . but there was one little sight on the way back that made me long for a little bit of nature. The only birds I had seen were pigeons and gulls; I had heard some starlings the previous day and subsequently I have seen several cormorants. But how do Venetians live without green spaces? They may compensate by planting in pots as much as they can; I’ve seen lots of what look like hotel shower caps over geraniums to protest from the unseasonably cold weather. If I lived here, I could see myself adopting that little egret!


About aides mémoires

This is a chronological list of things I have seen, places I have visited, and thoughts that have wandered through the space between my ears. A reading group of one; an art appreciation society limited by my preferences and prejudices; opera criticism by one who knows nothing about the subject.
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